TEXT BY: Darren Wan
Located between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran is situated at the crossroads of east and west. The geography of this vast nation includes spectacular coasts, unending deserts, deciduous forests, undulating hills, and snow-capped peaks, offering a huge range of stunning landscapes.
Iran is also home to one of the oldest civilisations in human history. It boasts cultural sites spanning the last three thousand years. Persepolis, the 5th century BC seat of Darius the Great’s Achaemenid Empire, continues to fuel contemporary imaginations of the ancient world, while the city of Isfahan, the erstwhile capital of Persia under the Safavids, houses what many Iranians believe is the most beautiful public square in the world.
Yet recent travellers have paid scant attention to this country, due to its seemingly erratic and unpredictable policies and practices.
Perhaps the most unspoilt landscapes that Iran has to offer are its mountains. The Alborz mountain range that snakes across northern and north-western Iran consists of some of the highest peaks in the Middle East, where some of the best-preserved historical sites are nestled.
THE ALAMUT VALLEY
On the western reaches of the Alborz range lies Alamut, a valley that separates the dry plains in the south from the fertile forested slopes facing the Caspian Sea, a popular spot for domestic tourism that Iranians refer to affectionately as Shomal (or ‘north’). The dramatic contrasts in landscapes within Alamut make it one of the best, most varied sites for hiking.
In the 12th century, the Alamut valley was the home of a group known in the West as the “Assassins”, a sect of Ismaili Shia Muslims that were at odds with the Sunni Seljuk Turks who ruled the region then. Having captured and fortified these remote mountain castles, the Assassins controlled the valley for about 150 years, until they valiantly held the last line of defence against the Mongols that by the mid-13th century had swept across the rest of Persia. The ruins of these fortresses – the two most popular of which are Lambsar Castle and Alamut Castle – not only reveal the ingenuities of medieval architecture, but also boast magnificent views of the mud-brick hamlets and lush rice terraces that line the valley floor.
The craggy curvatures of the mountains that encircle the Alamut valley are suitable for casual trekking day trips. Getting to Qazvin, the nearest major city to Alamut, takes a two-hour bus ride. Most taxi drivers in Qazvin offer full day trips to the valley, depending on duration of stay at the castles. Short 20 or 30-minute treks will take you from the end of the road to the ruined ramparts of Lambsar Castle and Alamut Castle situated atop narrow peaks. The scenic ride to Alamut from Qazvin offers stunning vistas over the agrarian lifestyle of villagers within the fertile valley, a sharp contrast to life on the barren plains of Qazvin and Tehran.
For more serious hikers, the most popular overnight routes across the Alborz range start from the village of Garmarud, situated on the lip of a picturesque canyon, and end across the rugged mountains in Yuj, two to three days’ hike away. At Yuj, you can hop on a minibus that leaves every morning for the Caspian coast at Tonekabon, a town 50km away with ample connections to major cities like Rasht and Tehran.
This short hike can easily be extended with climbs up some of Alamut’s highest summits, including Siyalan (4,190m), or even the sheer rock faces of the second highest peak in Iran, Alam Kooh (4,850m), a climb which requires technical mountaineering equipment and preparation. Since there is little climbing traffic in this region, guides are strongly recommended and can be arranged at agencies in Tehran or Qazvin.
UNESCO-listed Takht-e Soleyman (“Throne of Solomon”) is an archaeological site situated within the rolling hills of the mineral-rich northwestern province of West Azarbaijan. Its primary attraction is a 6th century Zoroastrian fire temple, erected by the Sasanian Empire and partially restored in the 13th century by the Mongols.
Designated a sacred site in ancient times for its artesian lake and volcano, this site is full of symbolic significance for embodying both water and fire. These natural elements underpin the key beliefs of Zoroastrianism, once the state religion of Sasanian Persia and still protected today under Iran’s constitution.
The easiest way to get to Takht-e Soleyman is hiring a taxi (US$30-50) from the town of Zanjan, itself a 4-hour bus ride from Tehran. The nearby Zendan-e Soleyman (“Prison of Solomon”), an ancient volcano with a 100m-deep crater, is also worth a scramble, with the remains of shrines dating from the first millennium BC situated on its summit.
Standing at 5,671m, Damavand is the highest mountain in the Middle East. Located just 66km northeast of Tehran, it provides an imposing backdrop resting on the gentle foothills of the Alborz.
It is the subject of much pre-Islamic Iranian folklore, narratives of which are still familiar to most Iranians today. Scaling the heights of Mt. Damavand is best done in late summer, and a guide can be arranged in Tehran. The trek to the summit, with its perennial snowcap and sulphurous fumaroles, takes four to five days.
If scrambling Damavand’s craggy slopes does not appeal, or if you find yourself in Tehran during the height of winter, you can visit the many ski resorts on slopes near Mt. Damavand.
Dizin, Shemshak, and Tochal are the most popular ski resorts located within an hour from Tehran, offering picturesque snowscapes that provide a welcome refuge from Iran’s bustling capital.
Located in western Iran in the Zagros mountains, Mt. Bisotun (2,794m) boasts craggy rock faces that make it a prime spot for avid rock climbers.
With over sixty different routes, Mt. Bisotun can accommodate many climbers, and comfortable huts located on the ledges at various points along the mountain allow for climbers to scale the summit over the course of a couple of days.
In fact, the biennial International Festival of Mountaineering and Climbing has been held in Bisotun since 2010. Apart from its value as a prime destination for climbing, it is also UNESCO-listed for the Bisotun Inscription, a bas-relief and trilingual cuneiform inscription of 1,200 lines located 100m up a limestone cliff on Mt. Bisotun’s southeastern face, which documents Darius the Great’s reign of the Achaemenid Empire.