Sehaty Foreign Exchange

The pleasant reality

By Stephen Shaffer
January 1996
The Iranian

I could see the Alborz mountains every morning when I woke up with the sun beating down on me on the rooftop where I slept at nights in Tehran. During the summer months this is a great way to beat the heat. I only wished I could do this in New York.

The mountains, which serve as a natural border between Tehran and the Caspian Sea, do more than make for a scenic drive north of the capital. When reaching the summit and looking back in the direction of Tehran, one sees a cloudless sky and a landscape speckled with dots of green clinging to the earth.

When looking toward the Caspian coast, or Shomal as Iranians say, a blanket of green stretching to the sea is all the eye may see. And Iranians flock to the shores the way bees swarm to honey. Shomal, I had always been told, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful regions of the country -- a place where one can go to take refuge from harsh realities.

Friends of mine traveled there to escape the nightly air raids during the war with Iraq. Although the bombs have stopped falling, people still take every opportunity to visit. In many ways, the sight of Tehranis escaping to Shomal for the weekend is reminiscent of New Yorkers heading for the beaches to escape Manhattan's suffocating concrete jungle.

On my way to Shomal, I was a passenger in a Paykan (the Iranian version of a commoner's car) owned by a newly made friend, Hamid. Together with my host Mehdi and another friend, Farhad, we set out to drive to the Caspian. Our destination was Ramsar, a small resort town that rests along the shore. We traveled lightly, using more space to fit a cooler of Parsi Cola -- a life-saver in the summer heat and a respectablelocal alternative to Coke -- than our belongings.

As we left Tehran's city limits we soon found ourselves confined to the two-lane Chalous Road. Unless one flies over the mountains, it is the only way to reach Shomal from the west of Tehran. The road outside Tehran is tree-lined and borders a stream that originates higher in the mountains. As we climbed a bit higher into the mountains, the stream slowly disappeared below us and we were now well on our way to reaching the summit.

The road was carved out of the mountains some 70 years ago. Although there exists only enough room for cars, buses and trucks to travel single-file in either direction, Iranian drivers love to pass as many vehicles as possible, dodging oncoming traffic, even on hairpin turns which often have no guardrails to prevent a vertical plunge to a certain dismal fate.

Hamid, our pilot, was no exception. Hoping to shave minutes off our trip and becoming plain impatient with drivers of slower and older cars, he downshifted his way along the treacherous road. As I was both excited by the trip and the scenery, I did not mind his tactics so long as the skinny wheels of our Paykan continued to grip the road. I did my best not to peer over the edge and tried to distract myself by listening to my Gipsy Kings cassette.

Once we were over the top and descending toward the Caspian, I could feel a marked change in the air. It became thicker. But the humidity was bearable compared to what I experience in Manhattan.

We arrived in Ramsar in the late evening and after devouring some chelo-kebab at one of the local restaurants, we set out to find a place to sleep. Eventually we found ourselves driving around a square and asking a complete stranger where we could get a room. As it happened, the young man thought there might be room at his home.

The residents of Ramsar and all the towns dotting the coast have taken care of such problems as lack of adequate hotel rooms. You can easily find rooms at private homes for a small fee. And if one is really interested in meeting people, taking a room at someone's home is just the thing to do.

Hamid and Mehdi worked on our host-to-be to get the best possible rate for the night, all the while sighing, chuckling and feigning disgust at the quoted prices. Finally there was an agreement and we were on our way. We met the owner of the home who welcomed us and provided us with pillows and extra blankets.

An oscillating fan was our only means of staying cool and a rooster was our alarm clock. As we had arrived in Ramsar well after sunset, I could not see what it looked like or what it was that captivated so many Iranians. When I awoke the next morning and went to the back side of the house, I was confronted with only one color -- green.

Everything, everywhere was green. The low-lying land was covered with tall green rice stalks and the hills and mountains with trees. Outside the walled compound of the residence was a dusty airstrip which was almost completely hidden by the surrounding fields. I couldn't wait to get back on the road and do some more exploring.

Soon after saying our goodbyes to the owner of the house and taking a group photo, we set out to find breakfast. After 10 minutes on the main road, we stopped at an Azeri owned dokan which was furnished with only folding chairs, collapsible card tables and a small stove against the back wall. No matter. We were hungry and anxious to get back on the road. Farhad later bought a foot-tall stack of fresh nan from the bakery.

Driving into the hills above Ramsar, one finds that the higher one goes, the more the scenery looks like a postcard from Switzerland; snow-peaked mountains, cows grazing alongside a road that weaves its way into the mountains, and homes that resemble Swiss chalets dotting the steep landscape.

We eventually stopped on the side of the road and settled under a shady tree next to a rushing mountain river. And being true bachelors, we lunched on bread, cheese, watermelon and Parsi Cola, and snacked on pistachios and more cola. And of course, we snoozed afterward.

When we began our day, the sky was blue and cloudless. By mid-afternoon (while continuing to snooze) clouds had formed high above in the mountains and began creeping toward the bottom. By late afternoon much of the sky became overcast in appearance but it seemed to take on a violet tint which only added to the richness of the colorful landscape.

In Shomal, not only is one struck by the overwhelming depth of green that meets the eye, but also the vibrant colors worn by the locals in towns dotting the coast. The colors that I saw were much more pleasant than the flat black seen elsewhere in Iran which usually makes women resemble a flock of crows. Even the colors of the homes are brighter. The overall effect of the people, colors and landscape was a desire to return as soon as possible, and for a longer stay.

Shomal leaves any visitor with a collage of images and memories. They can be the obvious -- the fruit orchards and children selling corn by the roadside -- or the subtle -- the smell of jasmine wafting through the night air. Whatever the impression, it invariably plants an inviting seed and beckons the visitor's return at the earliest opportunity.

We headed back to Tehran the same night. The sun had already set and we joined thousands of others returning from a pilgrimage to Shomal. When we descended to the base of the mountains, we stopped for a tea break. Cars raced by and I looked up at the night sky. Scanning the night sky, I saw the aurora borealis, something I had never seen back home in the States.

Shaffer is a 25-year-old political science graduate from New York University, who traveled to Iran last August. This is his third article about the trip for The Iranian.

Related links

* Also by Stephen Shaffer:
- Passing Seasons -- Reflecting on Iranian hospitality and Iran-U.S. relations.
- An American in Iran -- Observations on post-revolutionary Iran.
- Mostaqim! -- On riding a taxi

* THE IRANIAN Travel section
* Cover stories
* Who's who


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