December 24, 2005
Louise Laylin Firouz: Caspian horse breeder
Steppe back in time
Few people venture into northern Iran but each year an American in her 70s leads small groups of riders through the remote and dramatic mountains
Saturday December 24, 2005
The Turkoman people who live in Golestan province - a hair-raising nine-hour drive north-east of Tehran - are famed for their horsemanship. Centuries ago, they raided as far south as Isfahan, plundering villages and earning a reputation for ferocity. However, as is often the case in Iran, reputation and reality differ, and the Turkomans we met could not have been more welcoming.
Horses still play a big role in Turkoman life, and this mountainous region is criss-crossed by tracks used for millennia by local horsemen. While we were riding, all efforts were concentrated on the sunflower harvest. The area is so high that the farmers only come up for the summer months, returning to the sheltered valleys before the first snows fall. Whole families were working through the night to get the flower heads in before the weather turned. After dark, their fires crept across hilly fields of stubble, filling the air with smoky haze.
There were five in our group, and over the week we crossed a staggering variety of totally unspoilt landscapes, from mountain tops covered in ancient shadow-filled forests to hot, wide sandy valleys dotted with villages built out of the local clay. Away from the valleys, we went for days across seemingly endless grassy green plateaux, prairie-like in scale.
Our ride was led by Louise Firouz, an independent-minded American who has lived in Iran for over 40 years. Now in her 70s, her eyes twinkled as she entertained us with a rich stock of anecdotes. A world expert on the evolution of central Asian horse breeds (surprisingly controversial), she runs a stud in a Turkoman village on the dusty steppe, and a few times a year takes groups of riders up into the remote mountains of the huge, dramatically beautiful, Golestan national park. We chose this ride because we wanted to go somewhere you could only see on horseback and our choice proved perfect: even Iranians rarely visit this massive, tarmac-free reserve >>> Full text
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