Dan MacCarthy straps on his boots and goes hiking through the mountains of Iran.
THE wild rhubarb was simply delicious. High in the Alborz Mountains overlooking the Caspian Sea in Iran, our hiking guide Ali gathers armfuls of the knobbly stalks and peels them for us. This was for the starter which we would later consume.
This veteran of the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s, in which up to 5m people were killed, has a keen eye for flora and a forager’s eye for our evening meal. A bit later when we have crossed the last of the day’s glaciers we descend into a lush valley to the hamlet of Avatar.
A couple of small children playing cowboys and Indians rush out to greet us.
Their parents give us a huge welcome and straight away we are welcomed into their house and offered the sweetest tea imaginable. Squatting on his elaborate rug against a whitewashed interior, the grandfather of the family gives us a toothy grin as if to say “you crossed the mountains, welcome to my home”.
Meanwhile, Ali has taken from his rucksack, like a conjuror, a mouthwatering array of wild mushrooms.
He cleans, slices and skewers them and adds peppers and succulent tomatoes in seconds and roasts them over an open fire. Our party of five Irish trekkers agree that not only are they the best mushrooms we have ever tasted but among the best meals we have ever had.
This is not a food article masquerading as a travel article. A pity, because we had several other heavenly food adventures. Later, we settle down for the night, three to a room, on a heavily carpeted floor on mattresses. Many Iranians don’t used beds at all. It is considered healthier to rest on a thin mattress.
This is day two of a four-day trek in the Alborz organised by Farzin Malaki who is the owner of the mountain lodge Khoone Geli — our destination on the Caspian Sea.
To get to the mountains we had taken a two-hour train trip to the city of Qazvin from Tehran where a soldier examined our visas. Straightaway, our tour guide for a tour of Assassins Valley arrives.
Hosein Farhady is a trendy exemplar of modern Iran. Fluent in English and other languages, he talks easily about life in the country. We start driving into the mountains on excellent roads and immediately cleave through mountain passes and onto a towering canyon where eagles dare. We visit a meadow nestled under the mountains where a contented lizard surveys his kingdom of rose, poppy and vetch.
Hosein is a superb host and is effusive about the recently re-elected president Rouhani who is very popular with younger voters. The highlight of this tour is Alamut Castle in Assassins Valley which has a commanding view of the valley below and from where the eponymous assassins sallied forth to send Persian empire soldiers to meet their maker.
History sweeps on and the poor assassins themselves were later engulfed by the Mongol hordes. Then Hosein and his co-driver Sojrab, a national weightlifing champion, kindly drop us to the start of our trek: Garmaroud.
Having been deposited to the town of Garmaroud with its striking gold-looking mosque (it’s actually brass), we are welcomed straight away by a young girl who wants to know where we’re from. Once informed, she tells us “I love Ireland”.
OK, OK, everyone gets to hear that about their country, but it was still nice. We then meet our war veteran Ali, dressed immaculately in khaki, who leads us through winding streets to our home for the night. A delicious dinner of rice and stew follows, washed down with water and tea — no alcohol of course.
Next morning we set off on out trek which will take us to around 2,800m.
Last month the mountains still had a covering of snow on high ground and with several glaciers filling gullies it has the appearance of the Alps.
We cross a wooden footbridge over a small river and soon are climbing through lush foliage. Left and right are huge bushes of dill, while poplars tower overhead. Ali indicates a mush of green on the path — bear excrement. We move swiftly along.
Soon we arrive at a col where we break for lunch and the magnificence of the Alborz Mountains is spread before us in all its grandeur. Peter from Sligo is suitably impressed and delivers a Wordsworth verse: “Earth has not anything to show more fair/Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty”.
We move on silently. A snake is coiled in the arms of a juniper.
We cross a mighty river and onwards to the village of Dineh Roud where mainly elderly people live. We receive an enormous welcome with huge smiles and vigorous handshakes.
Next morning we press on to Avatar. The next day we descend into a beautiful valley and climb an old trading trail where we encounter several goatherders and people walking between the villages.
As we arrive in our next village of Pichebon a Kurdish family rush out to meet us and invite us to their picnic — tea and cake all round. We stay in the mayor’s house and have a very interesting evening learning about Iranian customs.
The next and last day of the trek is more beautiful than beautiful. The ancient caravanserai of Salaj Anbar at 3,300m was once the trading nexus between the Caspian Sea and the hinterland south of the Alborz. Now, its windows look out emptily on the past.
We descend to the village through a staggeringly pretty wildflower vista with multicoloured butterflies flitting about.
That evening we meet Farzin at his lodge at Khoone Geli, Tonekabon.
His home is festooned with artwork and rugs and the man himself greets us warmly.
A superb meal is served to us on his verandah in an orange grove.
Having flown south to explore some cities we embark on our final tour to the desert.
Having overnighted in the city of Yazd with its baking heat and delightful citizenry, we meet our guide Massoud Jaladat who loads us into his 4×4 and drives us into the desert.
Suddenly we are sliding and plunging on the sand dunes as Massoud wrenches the wheel to get us back on course.
We step on to the hot sand and trek for a few hours with not a puff of wind — just tiny indentations in the sand to indicate an earlier ripple of air. Soon the sun sets behind the Shir Kuh Mountains bathing the desert in a vermilion hue.
Massoud later makes a delicious stew before camp with the sky as a ceiling and we fall into a profound sleep.
Trekking in Iran:
Tourism in Iran is climbing fast. In the 1970s it was on the hippy trail to India and beyond.
Svelte skiiers slalomed down the slopes in the mountains north of Tehran. Nowadays, tourists throng the historic cities of Isfahan and Shiraz and trekking companies are more numerous than Donald Trump gaffes.