Monday, April 18, 2011

View From the Top of the World

Mount Damavand, Iran
Photo by Arad Mojtahedi

My husband and I have a personal joke. Every time we plan a trip to Iran, I ask him, “so this time, we’ll go on a camel ride through the desert, right?”

He just rolls his eyes.

There is a story behind this joke. On my first trip to Iran, our plane landed in Tehran just after midnight, and the next morning I was eager to rush out and explore the city in the daylight. I stepped onto my in-laws’ balcony, expecting to see an exciting and unfamiliar urban world rushing through the streets below. But what caught my attention was a gorgeous mountain off to the left, its snow-capped peaks a mottled vision of blue-gray shadows and sparkling white flanks against a perfect blue sky. It was my first glimpse of Mount Damavand, the jewel of the Alborz Range.

I rushed inside and dragged my husband out. “Look!” I pointed at the mountain. “They have snow here!”

My husband, Tehran native that he is, was underwhelmed by my enthusiasm. “So you expected to see nomads riding camels among the sand dunes?”

Well, not exactly. I’d seen pictures of Iranian nomads, and they were mainly herding sheep and weaving carpets. Not a camel or sand dune in sight. But even my knowledge of the real Iran hadn’t prepared me for just how damp Tehran can be in March: rivulets tracking down the rocky cliffs at the north end of the city; water gushing through the joobs (gutters) lining the streets; and heavy fog hanging over the city as Damavand’s snow cap melts.

Since that first trip, I’ve visited many parts of Iran, and the country’s natural beauty and vast biodiversity never cease to amaze me. Mountains, rainforests, rivers and lakes, marshes and farmland—and yes, even a few deserts—this country has a bit of everything.

But as far as I’m concerned, Iran’s mountains are its best feature. The country boasts the tallest peak west of the Afghan/Pakistani Hindu Kush (Damavand, north of Tehran, at 18,600 feet) and diverse climates ranging from arid to semitropical. I’ve stood shivering in gusts of snowy wind on the slopes of Mount Tochal near Tehran and sweated in my own personal sauna beneath the obligatory Islamic scarf and tunic in the sweltering heat of a Caspian summer day.

On every visit to Tehran, I like to drive over the Alborz Range to the Caspian Sea, and my preferred route is along the Chalous Road. It’s a five-hour, hair-raising journey along a two-lane track of hairpin turns and dark tunnels carved through the mountain. Sections of the road pass below wooden avalanche barriers built as protection from falling snow. They look barely sturdy enough to withstand a stiff wind, let alone hold tons of snow, ice, and rock at bay.

But once I get over the heart-stopping fear of plunging over the edge of the road, the sheer beauty of the landscape takes my breath away. Pockets of snow cling to rocky crevices on the left, while the cliffs on the right plunge into nothingness except for the deep ravines the ancient rivers have cut into the stone. I can always tell when we’ve past the crest of the range because the sparse vegetation starts turning greener and lusher with each passing mile. And when you drive through that last long tunnel and pop out into the sunshine on the other side, the Caspian Sea stretches to the horizon, a deep Mediterranean blue meeting a pale sky.

At sea level, the Caspian coastal road clings to the southern shore of this landlocked salt sea, but the best views heading west are on the south side of the road, where tendrils of mist weave through the forested hills. Farther west, the landscape flattens into rice paddies, pastures of grazing cattle and horses, and knobby green fields of tea.

One of the most mystical experiences I can remember was a telecabine (chair lift) ride up the mountain from the town of Namak Abrud. At the top lies a labyrinth of paths beneath dripping trees, where other hikers appear as shadowy figures through dense fog. Kiosks stand at intersections, where you can warm your insides with a bowl of thick noodle soup or toast your chilled feet near the fire and inhale the scent of grilling kebabs.

I may tease my husband with images of nomads riding camels through sandy deserts. But the real images that Iran’s natural wonders conjure up for me are snow-capped mountains, rushing streams, and green fields stretching along a blue sea.


  1. What a great post, Heidi! It's funny how we have an image in our head (I like to call it our National Geographic image) and when we see the place with our own eyes, we're shocked by how different it is. That happened to me when I went to Idaho for the first time. I had no idea how mountainous parts of the state were. It wasn't all potato fields! Such a beautiful place, and I imagine Iran is breathtaking. Thanks for sharing!

  2. National Geographic image! I like that, Alli. It's true that new places are never quite what you expect, even if you think you are prepared.

  3. You had me at 'national geographic'. LOL Great post..
    @kdelley on twitter

  4. Thanks, KD. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  5. This was such a beautiful poetic post. It made me nostalgic too. As a child I've been to Caspian sea - a couple of times. Except I was on the other side of it - in Azerbaijan. I used to watch the mountains from the window of my aunt's apartment - it was directly facing the slopes. And yes, the tops were white, too. And beautiful.

  6. Lina, like the picture of you watching the sea from the other side. My in-laws have a house near the shore, close enough to see the water from the upstairs balcony.