Sangak & Sour Cherries: Exploring Northern Iran

by kfo290

The night before entering Iran, I experiment with tying my headscarf and decide the best possible option is an elaborate turban with a (to my mind) sophisticated, even coquettish, tail. I look sort of fabulous, I decide, in a 60s deshabille sort of way. Sadly, I suspect the look falls into the category of “bad hijab,” and won’t pass muster with the Islamic Republic’s notorious morality police. I have no doubt been researching my trip a little too keenly, preparing myself for a desert frontier of mullahs and nuclear facilities, pomegranates and nose jobs, rosewater and VPNs. Iran is a country I’ve wanted to visit for many years, and now—wrapping material around my head in a budget hotel in Dogubeyazit—I’m about to do so: in the height of summer, during Ramazan, as a lone female traveller.

But as it happens, my anxieties are somewhat misplaced. I’m not even alone for long. The next morning, I wake early and attempt to check my email before being whisked off for tea and halva by a friendly neighbourhood barber. After I grab my bag, the barber’s teenage son cheerfully leads me to the border city’s main mosque—my rendezvous point with Julien, a Swiss traveller who was languishing in Trabzon in expectation of his Iranian visa at the same time I was. We immediately board a dolmus (shared taxi van) and speed towards the border, along a road populated by rickety horse-and-carts and massive trucks hurtling from Turkmenistan to Turkey. The border procedure is standard, even if the setting itself is a little ominous (plenty of razor wire), and we are swiftly jettisoned into Iran, where crowds of entrepreneurial moneychangers and taxi drivers are lurking to greet us.

Julien, thankfully, has been to Iran before—prior experience is a useful asset in a country where the value of the currency fluctuates insanely and prices are listed in rials (the official currency of Iran) but spoken about in tomans (a unit ostensibly ten times the value of a rial, but bandied about in such a loose way as to completely confuse the naïve traveller ie. a simple “fifty” might mean fifty thousand toman, thus five hundred thousand rial, the equivalent of 50 turkish lira, or around US$20). After dodging a ludicrous taxi fair, we speed towards Tabriz in a combination of shared taxis and buses. The day is hot, the journey long, and we’re both starving. It’s the beginning of Ramazan, though, and eating or drinking in public during the Muslim holy month is illegal in Iran. We glance wistfully at our leftover pide (Turkish flatbread), until we’re offered a tea by the driver and notice some nearby women munching on crackers. Travellers, we recall with relief, are exempt from fasting. We are soon gorging ourselves uninhibitedly as the semi-arid scrubland scrolls past.

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Tabriz is the capital of Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, and the majority of its inhabitants are Azaris (a Turkic people, whose native tongue is somewhat similar to Turkish—a boon for me, since I mistakenly believe I have a solid grasp on the latter language). Tucked into a plain between the hills, the city is a maze of dusty alleyways and tree-lined boulevards, and a common entry point for travelers arriving from Armenia or Turkey. Having leapt brazenly onto the male section of a metropolitan bus, I swiftly made my way to the women’s zone at the rear and found myself surrounded by new friends—one of whom was studiously reading a heavy tome entitled Imam Khomeini’s Political Thought. The rest were occupied with staring at the strange creature in baggy pants that had so ungracefully boarded their vehicle and was now sweating profusely under the weight of a yoga-mat-bearing backpack. Fair enough, I suppose.

One fellow passenger, a conservative-looking middle-aged woman in a sternly modest hijab, spoke decent English and translated my answers to the group. It was very hard to convince her, once we had disembarked in the center, to allow us to wander off unaided. Iranian hospitality, which I had been so passionately briefed on in advance by various travelers, is hard to exaggerate. But our would-be guide needn’t have worried. My Azari host, a fast-talking, surprisingly independent (by Iranian standards) student called Hossein, soon scooped me up and diligently provided me with a vegetarian “omelette” (more reminiscent of Turkey’s menemen) for dinner. Then Hossein, his roommate Habib and I settled down to sleep, Iranian-style, on the floor of the living room.

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Julien and I spent our time in Tabriz wandering the labyrinthine bazaar, poking around poets’ mausoleums, seeking out well-hidden churches, and being gifted with vast amounts of fruit. Iranians are not yet inured to the exotic charms of foreign travelers, and are on the whole overwhelmingly kind. Not only did the fruit-sellers at the bazaar load us down with sour cherry, apricot, apples, bananas, cherries, tomatoes and plums (which we furtively spirited away to nearby parks and ate sheepishly among napping Iranians), but countless men and women on the street halted us to offer assistance and words of welcome. Julien stayed a night at a cheap mosaferkhane (guest house), and the owners jovially invited us to join them for a meal of ab-doogh—a refreshing (and vegetarian!) meal made by mixing mast (yoghurt) with water, ice, salt, diced cucumber, garlic, mint and dill. The resulting chilled soup is ladled into bowls then sprinkled to taste with torn-up bread, which turns sodden and chewy in the liquid.

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Ab-doogh aside, I am wholly charmed by the food in Tabriz—similar but different to that of Turkey. I have never before tasted sour cherries: glossy globes of agrodolce flavour that are smaller, rounder and infinitely tarter than their ubiquitous counterparts. Called albaloo, they are the perfect accompaniment to soft white Tabrizi cheese, but are often turned into juice or jam. Melons—watermelons, honey melons, and longer, stripy yellow melons with a crunchy, pale green flesh—spill out of fruit stores, while most bakeries display gleaming bronzed rounds of special Ramazan bread (occasionally decorated with pistachios, coconut, and dates). Helva in Tabriz is like a cross between the Turkish tahini-based variant and Indian barfi; we discover a version rendered golden by the addition of saffron and studded with ginger, which Hossein instructs me to spread thickly on local bread, like a gluttonous dessert sandwich.

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One morning I set off, against Hossein’s better judgement, to forage for breakfast. A simple “bread where?” in Azari leads me to a concrete bunker with a basic painting of bread at the entrance. Inside, men are sweating as they load rounds of dough onto massive wooden spatulas, depositing the bread into a huge oven, where it cooks on a bed of small, hot pebbles. This bread, known as sangak, emerges with stones still clinging to its mottled surface. The customer must pluck them out himself, with scorching fingers, then fold the long, thin loaf many times over to bear it—rapidly—home.

At one stage, Julien and I venture outside of the city—to Kandovan, a village of cave-dwellings that cling to the sides of a steeply-angled valley. To reach the settlement, we caught a local bus to the nearest town then successfully experimented with hitch-hiking. Having waited for a ride for all of two minutes, we scramble into a black Peugot driven by a lunatic and containing his girlfriend, who are enjoying a romantic (and illicit) tryst. The lunatic speaks no English but drives like the maniac he is (he is also, apparently, a kick-boxing instructor). The girlfriend speaks enough halting English to ask whether my country is Sunni or Shia. I am taken aback by the question, and my answer elicits a confused response. “In Iran, everything is forbidden!” the slender-wristed, black-clad girl announces with a kind of viciously triumphant flourish, as she plants a kiss on the cheek of her man. They are in love, she explains, but her conservative family won’t allow them to see each other. “This is the last time we will meet!” she says, dramatically, as her beloved almost kills us around a blind corner.

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On our last evening in Tabriz, Julien is invited to stay with a young Azari called Masoud, who is currently fulfilling his obligatory military service. Masoud lives with his family—mother, father and younger brother—near the center of Tabriz. He first takes us for a tour through some of the hidden cultural nooks of the city (at one museum a special event is being held for Ramazan and we briefly become the center of attention; I am cajoled into producing a sound bite for Iranian TV, and we are plied with sweets, Ramazan specialties, and requests for contact details), before inviting us both for an evening meal at his home. Sitting outside in the courtyard under a broad-boughed fig tree, we are served watermelon, then cucumbers and tiny sweet green plums with salt, then small carrots and helva. Masoud goes out to fetch a salty-sweet Ramazan pide that renders white, flaky handfuls halfway between bread and pastry. The main event is a luxurious version of ab-doogh, loaded with mint and sprinkled aromatically with rose petals. Then come tomatoes with soft, salty Tabrizi cheese and a bowl of fresh mixed herbs, followed by small glasses of perfumed rose tea.

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The next day, I part ways with Julien, taking an overnight bus to Rasht, the capital of Gilan province just south of the Caspian Sea. This northern, coastal region is green and humid—very different to the deserts in the south and east, and even to the semi-arid plains around Tabriz. Gilan is the vegetable basket (if you will) of Iran, and the regional food is packed with local produce. The smell of garlic permeates the city, and large, pungent bundles of the stuff can be seen drying in garages, while shops stock buckets of various types of garlic, pickled in assorted ways. No sooner do I arrive in Rasht—painfully early in the morning, after being dropped on the side of the highway—than Amir, my Gilani host, picks me up.

We are soon speeding with another friend, Morteza, to see Masouleh—a historic stepped village perched in the lush mountains to the west of Rasht. Masouleh itself is charming, but the trip is made truly memorable by a brief stop in Fuman, a tiny village known primarily for the delicious biscuits churned out by small bakeries across the town. The biscuits comprise of a simple pastry casing sandwiching a walnut-sugar filling. I nibble on one, hot from the wood-fired oven, as we continue our journey.

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Amir and his friends adopt me as one of their own, and as well as seeing Masouleh, we go for a barbecue picnic by the Caspian Sea, and engage in late-night strolls through the city streets. The young people are all students (mostly of engineering) and many are eager to leave Iran for Europe. They pepper me with questions: do I believe in love? Where is the best place I have seen? What do I think about the death penalty? And how about divorce? And what does “Shirazi” wine taste like? Like many young Iranians I have met, they are quick and clever and restless, hungry for the world beyond. Their questions are more often than not philosophical, and the writers they love—Kafka, Camus—reflect this preoccupation. Do I believe in free will, they ask, or is destiny stronger? My answer in favour of the former has them shaking their heads. In Iran, they say, the future is to a certain extent prescribed. Besides, they add, things change so quickly in this country. And there is nothing we can do to stop it.

So welcoming is Amir’s circle, that they suggest accompanying me to my next destination: the valley of Alamut, birthplace of the sect of the Assassins. These plans fall through however (someone’s grandmother is ill), so I set off alone, eventually taking three ludicrously expensive savaris (shared taxis) to reach the remote Alamut village of Gazor Khan (it is a novelty of Iranian culture that everyone is so inordinately hospitable and so unwilling to make you pay for anything, yet taxi drivers are absolute bastards when it comes to charging foreigners). By the time I reach Gazor Khan (having been passed, like a very profitable parcel, from one taxi driver to his elderly father, who also happened to ply his trade up and down the valley), I am fuming and broke. But it is impossible to be pettily angry in Alamut for long; the breathtaking beauty of the valley and the charms of Gazor Khan quickly squeeze the bad humour out of me.

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Entering from Qazvin via the Chala Pass, the vast expanse of the higgledy-piggeldy Alamut valley quickly becomes apparent. Majestic mountain foothills cascade, like tawny lava flows, into a central depression, which is far deeper than seems possible from the heights of the pass. The landscape, which we sped through at unnecessary velocity, is immensely varied: all pink clay and green stubble, rippling orange rock, undulating golden hills, the occasional twisted olive tree and groves of juniper, walnut, mulberry and sycamore.

The valley is notable mainly, aside from its great beauty, for the ruins of Hasan Sabah’s fortress, the spiritual heartland of a heretical Ismaili sect that flourished in the medieval period. Sabah was the commander of the mercenary group that later became known as the Assassins (supposedly from the name Hashish-iyun, a reference to the rumor that Sabah’s men conducted their dastardly deeds while high on hashish). In the 1930s, female traveller, amateur tomb-raider, disastrous romantic, and all-round badass Freya Stark ventured into Alamut to map the surrounding area and see Sabah’s fortress for herself. Stark, of course, travelled painstakingly by horse at a time when no pass into the valley had yet been cut. Yet reading her Valley of the Assassins makes it easy to slip back in time, seeing the still-rustic valley as it may have appeared to the weary traveller then.

When I arrived in Gazor Khan—the small cherry-picking village that lies in the shadows of the fortress—my chosen guesthouse was full. A pleading expression and desperate request to sleep anywhere, even the floor, swiftly paid off, and I was led to a dorm room with three occupied beds (“All boys! German!” my kind hostess explained, wide-eyed. “If there is trouble…” When I promise there will not be, she shakes her head in consternation) and a slender strip of floor for me. I thank the khanum profusely, dump my bags, and make my way up to the crumbling remains of the Assassins’ lair.

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Perched on a remarkable acropolis overlooking the valley, the ruin is buttressed by scaffolding and not particularly well preserved, but the fortification’s setting makes up for any structural deficiency. The broad sweep of Alamut is visible from here, all the way to a snow-capped peak (the Throne of Solomon that Stark refers to, perhaps?) in the middle distance. Below, Gazor Khan is lush with cherry trees; the murmur of the village stream is just audible. As I descend, men perched high in the orchards are singing as they pluck fruit from spindly branches. Mules are tied, blinking patiently, to a communal tap, and a man in bee-keeping garb tends to his hives. He turns as I pass, and proudly holds up a frame of honeycomb for my approval. As I descend through the village, in the cool evening air, I am invited into a home and presented with a bag each of cherries and squishy green plums. I move on, and at regular intervals am laden down with more cherries: the sweetest and juiciest I’ve perhaps ever tasted.

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It is harvest season, and the villagers are working industriously to make the most of what looks, to me, like a bumper crop. Until late in the night, beaten-up blue farm trucks arrive in the village square (which my guesthouse overlooks), to be stocked with crates of cherries and carted out of the valley. Having eaten an excess of free fruit, I am offered a complimentary dinner by my kind host who, shocked by my eagerness to sleep on the floor, has concluded that I must be completely broke. I happily accept the offer, and feast on rice, richly spiced gravy, chicken and yoghurt along with the five other international guests. After dinner, I walk in the velvet dark halfway to the fortress, through a landscape bewitched by moonlight. It is not hard to imagine Hassan-e-Sabah sitting, like a spider, in his castle, high on the rock of Alamut, surveying his lands. I sleep soundly.

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The next day, determined to make my exit from the valley less expensive than my entry, I wake early. Shunning taxi offers, I set off down the winding road that leads, eventually to Alamut’s through-road. Before I’ve gone a kilometre, I manage to flag down a blue farm-truck loaded with male workers, who think I’m the most hilarious thing they’ve seen in their lives. My backpack is hauled into the trailer area with most of the men. I’d ideally like to follow it, but the two guys in the cabin hustle me in between them. I am then subjected to questions about sex and alcohol, groped mildly, and kissed on the cheek. My explanations of a husband (so handy to have a multitude of fake wedding rings at a time like this) do little to dissuade the unwanted attention, but a stern slap and a harsh rebuke—I pieced together all the Farsi I knew to express my shock, pointing out that they would never handle an Iranian woman in this manner—has the desired affect. My fellow passenger retracts his arm from over my shoulder, while the driver reverts to sulky silence. “Not sorry,” he says grumpily, like a spoilt child who has been denied a sweet.

When the truck deposits me at Moallem Kalayeh, the driver is still fuming. “Not sorry,” he says again, just so I know I’m in the wrong. His friend shakes my hand good-humouredly, and fetches my pack, and I’m immediately advised that there’s definitely, without a doubt, no bus to Qazvin. Taxi drivers circle like birds of prey. No sooner has an elderly shopkeeper again asserted the “no bus” theme, than an antique bus pulls up, bound for Qazvin. I leap in, and we chug—painfully slowly but for a gratifyingly negligible fee—through the valley and (miraculously) over the pass.

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