Monday, January 7, 2013

The Caspian's Endless Blue

Caspian Sea near Ramsar (Mazandaran)

By Heidi Noroozy

The first time I saw the Caspian Sea, I thought I’d never seen water quite so blue. And since blue is my favorite color, I instantly fell in love. We’d passed other hues during the five-hour drive over the Chalous Road from Tehran—the gray of Iran’s smoggy capital, the red cliffs and white snowcaps of the Alborz Range, and the green forests clinging to the mountains’ northern slopes. But when we reached the sea, it displayed a vast expanse of cobalt that merged with the sky.

Although some call it a lake, the Caspian Sea, or Darya Mazandaran as it’s known in Persian, is actually an inland sea, formed 5 million years ago when shifts in the earth’s crust divided up the ancient Paratethys Sea (also creating the Aral Sea, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov). The Caspian is surrounded by five countries: Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. This land-locked sea covers 143,000 square miles and holds 18,800 cubic miles of water. Its salinity is one third that of the ocean, and it receives 80% of its fresh water from the Volga River, one of 130 rivers that feed the sea.

The best known inhabitant of these deep waters is probably the Beluga sturgeon, which produces those salty black eggs we call caviar. I don’t care much for this elegant treat nor for the sturgeon itself, which I’ve tasted in seaside restaurants in Iran. It has dense, meaty flesh and a strong flavor, and is often served in the form of kebabs. But two other species of fish that I much prefer also thrive here. One is the azad, which is sometimes called Iranian salmon because of its pink flesh and its habit of swimming upstream to spawn in freshwater lakes. The other is mahi sefid, or white fish, which is the traditional accompaniment to the herbed rice served on Persian New Year. It is riddled with fine, sharp bones, but the delicious flesh is well worth the trouble of picking them out.

Fish market in Tonekabon (Mazandaran)

Iran hugs the southern shore of the Caspian Sea with three maritime provinces: Golestan, Mazandaran, and Gilan (viewed from east to west). Iranians call this region Shomal (“the North”), and it is a popular vacation spot for the residents of overcrowded Tehran. Shah Reza Pahlavi built two palaces here, one in Ramsar, located in Mazandaran Province, and the other in Bandar Anzali, a bustling seaport in Gilan. Both palaces are open to the public as historic sites and museums. Before the Islamic Revolution, Ramsar even had a British-run casino where Reza Pahlavi’s son, Shah Mohamed Reza, entertained foreign dignitaries. The building is now a hotel, open only during the summer months, but I was once treated to a private off-season tour of the casino by the hotel’s elderly manager, who had been a young waiter in the shah’s day.

Moisture from the sea and a mild climate make Iran’s northern provinces an agricultural breadbasket that is perfect for growing rice, tea, citrus, and even silk worms. Garlic is another major crop, as I discovered last May upon spying entire truck beds filled with recently harvested bulbs, their pungent odor occasionally overpowering the ever-present perfume of orange blossoms.

New garlic crop in Chaboksar (Gilan)

The winter snows descend from the mountains to the seashore, but summer can feel like the tropics. I learned that too one August when I sweltered in what felt like a sauna under my long-sleeved tunic and scarf. I cooled off by wading in the Caspian’s shallows and wishing I could go for a swim. Iran’s beaches are gender-segregated, with women entering the water from behind a screen. During the week we spent in Gilan Province that summer, the beaches were closed after a storm blew in and created dangerously choppy waves. The men routinely ignored the closure, but the women’s screen had been removed. Unable to shed my Islamic covering, all I could do was wade up to my knees.

One of my favorite pastimes on trips to the seashore is to sit on a bench and watch the fisherman set out in their narrow wooden boats. But even those who lack a boat are undeterred. Enterprising anglers simply strap a couple of old truck tires together and hang their nets over the sides.

Fisherman in a boat made of tires (Gilan)

Calm as it was on the clear day I first saw the sea, the Caspian has its temperamental side. It can turn steely gray to match clouds that threaten rain. A strong undertow has sucked more than one hapless swimmer far from shore. And in a storm, it can roar like a lion.

The first time I heard that alarming sound, I asked my husband, half joking, “Do you have lions in Iran?”

“Of course,” he replied with a perfectly straight face. “Elephants and rhinos, too.”


Caspian coast on a cloudy day (Mazandaran)

Each of my visits to Iran has to include a trip to Shomal. After we pass the high point on the Chalous Road, and the red cliffs make way for green forests, I perk up in anticipation, eager for my first glimpse of the Caspian’s endless blue.


  1. What a lovely travel blog. The Caspian is beautiful - at least from your picture. I've never been there. I loved reading the other travel comments you had and the pictures, too. My youngest daughter's best friend is from Iran, too.

  2. Thanks, Gloria. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. The Caspian area is indeed beautiful. Where is your daughter's Iranian friend from?

  3. So exotic! I loved this post, Heidi.