A Travellerspoint blog

The chuckling mosque of Baledeh


Continuing our road journey back to Tehran via the winding North Iranian mountain roads brought us to the pretty little valley town of Baledeh (population 9000). Baledeh is the only village in the area apparently to have accommodation or shops. And it also has a proper river and a castle: bonus.

The accommodation turned out to be a blanket on a carpeted floor, with a cold shower (but very clean) but we had our rollmats and sleeping bags and at an eventual agreed 15 pounds a night we werent complaining too much. To the castle!

A hour's hard scramble to the top rewarded us with some of the prettiest and greenest sights i've seen so far. Lush green plantations spreading out from the nestled town and into the two valleys either side of the ridge on top of which we stood. I sat here for a good half hour imagining how it would be to manage my dream farm and live this simple life when my daydream was broken by the sound of singing from the mosque. Not too unusual this month; until the howling started. This month is one of mourning for one of the decendents of the prophet Muhammad and every day, several times a day, there is a half hour sung story broadcast over the local mosque's tannoy system - at first I thought this was over the top outpouring of grief until it becaume clear that the singer wasn't crying but laughing, and you could also make out the cheers and laughter of people in the background. The singer did his best to recover his composure and finish the song but for the next half hour he would regularly break down into giggles while his friends mocked and laughed along. Sitting on a rock at the top of this lonely beautiful ridge as the sun dipped behind the hills and laughing along has been a highlight of my trip so far :)

We picked our way down the rocky and wandered round the pastures, through herds of sheep and back into the town feeling like we could live in a place like this.

The next morning from our high window we watched a sombre march through the town with men in black beating themselves with little fly whips of "tinsel" while drummers slowly drummed and singers sang from speakers on the back of a truck. A slow motion Notting Hill Carnival if you like on what was not far after Bank Holiday Monday. This day was also the day on which the Koran was given to Muhammad - I think it's a shame that a people choose to put on a public marches in rememberence of the death of one of it's prophets rather than celebrate the birth of it's entire religion. Understand this and I think we might understand something of the psyche.

We wandered along the river through more lush irrigated mountain fringed farmland but eventually had to make a move on. We were desperate to hitch a ride on the back of a pick up truck after our failure to do so in Kordkuy and soon had a team of people bartering on our behalf with local trucks driving along the one road through the town. Unfortunately today was a holiday and most people were staying local and even the taxi's were asking a bit too much. In the end one of our haggling helpers agreed to drive us part of the way where we might be able to pick up a truck on the main road. By this time, and after many very similar conversations, my Farsi was rudimentary enough to hold a pretty decent although noun based conversation all the way there and this was one of the most pleasurable journeys we've had.

Unfortunately we didn't have a chance to find a truck after we were dropped off because we had stood weighing up our options for not 2 minutes when an english speaking mother and family stopped who were headed to our final destination and insisted we joined them. They had been spending the holiday picnicking by the sea with their two young boys and we made a few more picnic stops en route as is the tradition here :)

Late at night we made it to Tehran to meet up with Masoud and plan our three day hiking trip to the Alamut Valley in the Alborz mountains at the very northern edge of Iran where it is rainiest, coolest and supposed to be almost like the UK in spring. I can tell you I was looking forward to leaving the car behind for a while. All this bread eating and sitting around in cars is not giving me the beach body I was hoping to achieve before Lake of Stars

Posted by rachndave 03:16 Archived in Iran Tagged religion mountain driving Comments (0)

Towering sucesses

The guidebook describes a road of seemingly unending hairpins skirting the edge of steep edged valleys and forests. Nearby were the intriguing sounding sights of West Radken tower and the tower of Gonbad which might have been built by Nasa as prototype brick rocket ships. So we caught the overnight train to Gorgan and planned to travel back overland on the winding roads.

Gonbad tower really was a marvel (despite it's slightly inconguous placement by the main road through town). I was the only person there (Dave was taking it easy back in the hotel after having a brush with a gammy Tim/Paul-leg since being bitten by the flies at Lake Gaha) and had 20 minutes playing with the echos inside the tower before heading back on the hot crowded minibus but feeling very proud of myself for navigating my way there armed only with the phrasebook. I had wanted to visit the nearby pagan graveyard whose graves are marked by 2 foot hight penises carved from rock but it was a further 3 hour detour. I urge you to look for pictures on the internet - if you get caught using dodgy search terms you can blame me.

We headed to a small town to enquire about 4 wheel drives along the steep winding mountain roads to the tower at West Radken. Unfortunately des to Ramadan anyone travelling less than 3 hours should be back home by midday (I should verify this - it sound like a strange rule) and so we couldnt find anyone willing to take us on the back of their trucks. We were adopted by the local pharmasist and english teachers - Sobar and Razar - who found their friend - Ali the baker - to drive us there and back.

Neither the teachers or the baker had been to this tower so the teachers cancelled their classes and came with us. The tower sits in the middle of a beautiful valley with farmland in the base. We stayed here for a small picnic and then turned back along the road winding through the forests and past tiny "summer" migratory villages which are too snowy to spend winter and trying not to think about the drops to either side (fortunately Ali was the most obviously cautious driver i think we've had since we've been here)

Sobar's father was having a Ramazan fast breaking gathering at his with all the family and we were kindly invited to join them. But not before Sabar's wife also prepared us a full meal as well :) On the way to Sabor's fathers house we managed to squeeze in a trip to Ali's traditional bakery with a hand built enormous clay oven. *And* a quick visit to the Caspian seaside to watch the sunset. The water looked like mercury it was the perfect light.

We ate another full meal with 20 members of the family - i was privileged to be invited into the kitchen where the women could remove their hejab and chadors and lounged on the floor or played with the many children. We left with a feeling yet again that these bustling families are the heart of village life - and feeling extremely full!

Posted by rachndave 02:03 Archived in Iran Tagged driving family Comments (1)

Baggy Trousers

The west of Iran is the land of the Kurdish people who wear baggy trousers with a low crotch around the knees of which any hoxtonite would be proud. The Kurdish people in Iran have their own culture and language and even a unique landscape which we wanted to explore. We started out in pretty Paveh with its ferris wheel and hillside setting. The restaurants were all closed early for Ramadan apart from one who finally agreed to serve us something basic. We started out the only ones in the restaurant which suited us fine because after a long days travel we were extremely tired and were happy for a quick snack before an early night.... however... by the end of the meal we ended up surrounded by kitchen staff, posing for photos, our payment was refused and the manager insisted he drove us home via the local sites. Even by Iranian standards the Kurds are renowned for their friendliness. (except the hotel owners in Sanandaj for some reason most of whom seemed to want to know where we had been, where we intended to go and at what time. We decided not to stay with them - in fact the assistant of one hotel even advised we go elsewhere cos he hated his boss! :))

The next morning we had a comedy hour-long barter in the taxi office, with diagrams and rowdy passerby involvement as well as phone calls to friend of friends who also wanted to add their own suggestions. Noone seems to understand why tourist might want to go a scenic route!

Kurdistan is arrid and mountainous and as we passed near the Iraqi border the next day you can understand clearly why fighting in this region must be extremely difficult. We saw several burned patches of ground and during a taxi swap in a local town we spoke to a man who had lived in Sheffiend who told us that this was because the government were trying to flush out fighters in the area. I wanted to talk to him more about it but we had to dash off with our new driver to arrive in vibrant Sanandaj.

Sanandaj was heaving with people in the streets for the breaking of the Ramadan fast and people were pulling our bags and shouting out trying to talk to us or be the person to help us which was quite unnerving at the time. After we secured a hotel the streets were quieter but we were immediately met by a young man wanting to join us and practice his english. He left us at the restaurant only to track us down at our table later after he'd been home to eat! We spent a lovely evening with him though at the local tea/shisha place and he even left us a CD of our new favourite Iranian musician, Shayarian, at our hotel while we were out the next day.

In hindsight we should have left more time to visit the stunning Palangan that day: we had a 5 hour round trip to visit a village which climbed two steep sides of a green valley with a blue green river running through it and orchards beyond. We only had half an hour in the village before we had to head back to catch the bus to Tehran. We had to prise ourselves away, cursing our bad planning and hoping that the scenery north of Tehran would be worth leaving this idylic picnic setting.

PS. Dave would like to confess that he "doesnt really do the points thing" so I think I'm going to have to give up on this idea sadly. Besides I am finding that there are not as many opportunities for points as you'd think. Sorry Tim :(

Posted by rachndave 01:58 Archived in Iran Tagged mountains driving Comments (2)


Let me introduce you to Mahsa (which means moon-like and explains her nickname Moonie) and her friends: Mehran, Arman, Shayan, Ali and oo i forget one guy's name because he wasnt on the camping trip i'm about to tell you about. A bunch of 20 something Pink Floyd obsessives who would be more at home in Camden than Esfahan.

We took her up on her invite to walk around the armenian section. Moonie also has a habit of stopping tourists and asking for some conversation practice and to share cultures. We went with her to a cafe she knows that plays rock music and we hung out with her friends who are in a band together and asked us if we might join them for a bbq the following night so we agreed.

After a day of doing the main sights, bumping into some tourists we met in Shiraz, speaking french with an iranian lady for an hour and chatting with a really lovely carpet seller we rejoined Mahsa and her mates at Mehran's home.

Mahsa is a smart 21 year old girl with mostly male friends, which is very definitely not the norm here. She had many questions about how we women manage our male relationships at home and lots of other personal questions so i felt like a bit of a lonely planet for UK meets just 17 proplem page writer :)

After a lovely evening chilling out on their balcony with some contraband and chicken we made a plan to all go on a hike to a beautiful lake some hours drive away in the south of the Kurdish region of Iran. Mahsa's parents came to pick her up and we asked if she could come too but they very kindly and bashfully explained that the culture was different here and single girls cannot be allowed to go away with men overnight. So we sadly parted and promised to keep in touch.

The next day we were picked up and taken to the guy's music room which was in a unfinished flat in the same block as Shayan's parents and Dave played drums while the other played bass and keyboards. Some hours later Moonie turns up with a big grin and says that she spent the night maturely debating with her parents about outdated cultural traditions and the end they let her come!!!! This was a really big deal, it's hard to get across to you how big.

So we set off for the lake, singing along to Pink Floyd and rock as we drove along moonlit mountain roads, camped in the carpark (at last we used the tent!) and made a 6am start over the mountains. We hired a donkey to carry our stuff which made a swift getaway but we eventually got it back. i wasnt too happy about hiring the donkey and as feared I saw it being very badly treated by it's owners but the decision was put to a vote and the guys didnt have the right equipment to carry all they'd brought. Anyway we had several debates about the treatment of animals on the way at least. The scenery was awesome and the lake was a brilliant turquoise, a welcome sight after 5 hour walk.

We were just entering the site with all our equipment (Sid the donkey having been let free to go sit in the shade by the river) when we were called back by the police stationed at the lake for some unfathomable reason. Because we werent expecting to see anyone at all we had left the passports locked in the car and the police eventually agreed we could go if we reported to them in local town after we left as we were apparently supposed to have done before we arrived. We have been pulled over and stopped several times to have our visa checked by mostly bored traffic police but this is the first time we had encountered such suspicion.

In the end we spent the next day and a half swimming in the freeeeezing water, hunting firewood, building fires, failing to catch fish, swatting biting flies, dozing in the sun and generally larking about and swapping games and jokes. The gang have a made up word "Heldev" which is roughly equivalent to "hell yeah!" which was bandied about many many times and pretty much sums up the mood.

We finally packed up our things, hiked the 5 hours back, still bantering, talking about our cultures and laughing - our way lit by the full moon (i've never seen a moon shadow before!) reported to the police (plain sailing) and said our goodbyes sadly.

Thanks for a memorable weekend guys....Heldev!

PS. back in Tehran right now - going to northern caspian sea region tomorrow

Posted by rachndave 06:35 Archived in Iran Tagged foot Comments (0)

Camping fail - mountain win

The Lonely Planet guide suggests that catching a train or a direct bus between the two main towns of Shiraz and Esfahan would be a wasted opportunity since between the two cities lies the stunning Zagros mountains although LP cautions that this is definitely off the beaten track. Sounds ideal!

I dont think we have completed a journey yet without a super nice and helpful Irani scoffing/despairing at our plans and suggesting various alternatives, and this was no exception. We have been getting shared taxi's when we can to cut costs and our taxi -buddy suggested (read: insisted) an alternative final city destination and a visit to a waterfall in the city where we needed to change taxis. The waterfall sounded nice and easy so when the taxi-buddy left us we trusted in the young, dangerously fast-driving taxi driver to take us there. Except he took us to his house instead and insisted we join him for lunch. This has become the norm: benign kidnapping.

After a brief if a little awkward stopover for an admittedly delicious meal with his mother and brothers (who were fasting so we just sat in the middle of the room on the carpet, ate and tried to make conversation from my phrasebook) we stopped at the frankly rubbish "waterfall" (which eminated from a pipe) for ten minutes and returned to the car to find that my camera and the equivalent of two hundred dollars in cash had been taken from my bag, and we think dave's headtorch was missing from his. The taxi driver hadn't locked the car at his home, or at the 2 minute toilet stopover earlier :(

So I cant share my photos with you - i'm gutted because I had some crackers - and lots from my last few days in London. I'll have to get another camera in Damascus (cash economy here means we can't afford it in Iran). Fortunately dave and I have many duplicates but anyway, i had some i was very proud of. Sigh.

But anyway we made it to our intended destination of a much more impressive waterfall and set up camp at the base. In the nearby tea house we attracted a crowd and shared a shisha* but when it came for bed we said we were heading to our tent... the teahouse owner would have nothing of it and bundled us into the nearby prayer room cum greenhouse.

The next morning we woke early (you try sleeping in a greenhouse!) and climbed the steep hill by the side of the waterfall and summitted the peak to marvel at he valleys and mountains beyond. It was awesome. After making our way down, frollicking with some local kids in the waterfall and stopping to pose for a dozen pictures we were put in a cab by the teahouse owner (more photos) and made our way to the next town to pick up a shared cab.

Our taxi driver from here haggled hard and entertainingly - he was an english teacher making some extra money in the holidays (many people here have two jobs...25% inflation hits people like teachers hard) and we had a good chat on the way to Sar Khun - a little village in the middle of nowhere as it turned out, but it *was* on the map!

It was in this not-too-pituresque village where we were consulting the map and deciding whether to flag down a car/cab to move on and try and find somewhere prettier to set up a camp when a passing teacher stopped to see if we needed help. Trying to explain that we didn't need help but perhaps needed info about onward villages, turning down food and board and explaining this using only charades and drawings - attracted the attention of the local police in the process. Eventually we shed the police and were offered a lift to the next village. We stopped and were trying to convince the teacher using charades again that we'd be fine while he insisted on calling an english teacher friend of his who lived in this much prettier village only for the police to turn up again.

Eventually in order to make the police leave and keep the original guy happy we agreed to stay with the english teacher instead of camp. We spent a night there talking with his entire 30 strong family, including the adorable and super helpful 11 year old Daniel (i wasnt allowed to keep him :( ), and were given a gentle lecture about our unfortunate misdirection by the visiting 19 year old mullah and were finally allowed to go to sleep to be lullabyed by the braying donkeys and crowing cockerels. It was quite a night!

The next morning the english teacher's friend visited and we all went to a nearby dam which had been built over a village and a main road which you could still see disappearing into the water. We were even fortunate enough to ride on a boat right out to the dam itself - it was amazing - still, bright turquoise water surrounded by mountains all around.

Eventually we were allowed to leave (i wasnt sure we would be at some points) and we caught the mahmooly (travelling american diner style bus) to Esfahan.

Incidentally, before we left we were introduced to another friend of the family who is a english literature university student. He was telling us how universities here are actually very conservative places and he was made to cut off his long hair or be kicked out. A story we have heard several times since - living with your parents here is where you experience the most freedom. They seem quite amused when we say it's exactly the opposite situation here. Makes me think now it was a wasted opportunity not to die my hair green while at university when I had the chance.

  • Shisha in this country is something entirely different - it may be crystal meth, crack or it may be opium we cant quite work out what people are telling us because they use a slang word "ice" for the drug which might be different from the slang term we know here. in any case this has caused people some surprise on more than one occasion :)

Posted by rachndave 04:42 Archived in Iran Tagged lodging Comments (1)

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