When I first heard about Iran Nomad Tours and their ultimate goal of saving the nomadic culture, honestly, I wasn’t that moved. “Why would any tourist want to come all this way to Iran to experience the seasonal migration with the nomads of Iran? They are probably out of their god-damned minds.” I thought to myself. As an Iranian with way more information about Iran, the prospect of doing the Kooch (Kuch, transhumance) with a family of Nomads seemed daunting. I couldn’t fathom why a tourist would choose this experience. However, what I experienced in the next week, managed to change my view about the nomadic culture and why foreign tourists and Iranians alike should try to experience their exceptional life. I realized how this experience can completely alter the way you view the world and yourself.
My alarm clock goes off at 4:30 in the morning. Cursing myself and why I agreed to this, I get up and try to get dressed and ready as fast as possible. I had taken a shower around midnight last night and my hair is pulled into a really tight braid, to try and keep it from getting frizzy and greasy too quickly. Remember the trip is going to be about 5 days without any access to any form of civilization so you just have to do everything to try and stay clean (or relatively clean) for as long as possible.
One of our guides, a middle-aged, reserved man with gray hair, picks me up in this massive off-road car. Together we drive to get Salina from her hostel in Tehran. When we get to the hostel, we meet our other tour guide, Hesam. I call Salina and she comes out of the hostel with two huge suitcases and a near-bursting backpack. I think it’s safe to say that all of us were caught off-guard by seeing the huge suitcases. She quickly explained to us that the suitcases are not going on Kooch and they are for the rest of her trip around Iran. Crisis averted.
We load everything in the car and hop on to start our long drive to Chahar Mahal and Bakhtiari province in the west of Iran.
We try to get to know each other and talk because it’s going to be a long drive and an even longer trip. Nobody wants to be stuck in awkward silence throughout it all so we try to make friends quickly. Hopefully, for us, Salina is a very energetic and chatty woman and she has done quite the research on Iran, which makes it very easy to talk to her.
Around lunch, we are near Isfahan City and Hesam offers to take us to his uncle’s restaurant nearby. After all his descriptions of how good their food is we agree, and let me tell you, we were not disappointed at all. We ordered different kinds of Kabab plus Doogh. We had already told Salina about Doogh-a dairy-based drink made from yoghurt- and we were really anticipating her reaction to all the Iranian foods. When our orders arrived on the table, we ate like maniacs because we all knew this is probably the last meal that we’re going to have before joining the nomads and we wanted to fill up on civilized restaurant goodness as much as possible. Salina took a tentative sip from Doogh and declared that it’s too salty for her, but she absolutely loved the Iranian Kabab. Who wouldn’t? We spent the whole lunch describing different kinds of ethnic foods that she should try in Iran and trying hopelessly to translate all the materials and cooking techniques in English. I think she got the gist of it. Ethnic Iranian food is awesome and you should definitely try it when you come to Iran.
Around sunset, we were off the paved roads and into the rocky, winding, mountain roads. The scenery around us changed from deserts to oak trees and Tabrizi trees and we moved from village to village to reach our destination: the nomad families.
Very tired, sleepy and sick from the car bumping against the rocks on the road, we finally reach our nomad host for the night. It is 2 am when we get to them, and they still kindly welcome us into their tent and give us a spot around the slow-burning fire. Immediately we are welcomed with steaming hot Chai tea. We sit together in the tent while the sound of occasional chiming bells comes from their herd of sheep and goats that are huddled around the tent. Some of the friendlier sheep actually come sit within petting distance from us 🙂 The name of the oldest man in this family is Tarazu which in Farsi means “scale”. He explains the origin of his name to us with a laugh. Looks like when he was a baby he was weak, so they put him on one side of a scale and they put some dirt and soil on the other side of the scale and then buried the dirt as a prayer that their son lives instead. Spoiler alert, he did live and so they named him after the scale 🙂 )
It’s very hard not to instantly feel warmed up towards this family. Mr Tarazu is a kind-faced man with a bushy gray moustache and warm hazel eyes. His face is covered inch by inch with deep wrinkles even though he is not that aged. He speaks the best Farsi among the other members of his family and slowly, we feel the courage to start asking him questions and make conversation with him. He takes in all our questions with a heart-warming smile and sometimes a laugh, and he listens intently when I translate all the answers to Salina. Salina is full of questions. “How many sheep and goats do you have? When are you going to begin the Kooch? Where are all the children? Do all the tribes have one leader? When do people get married in their culture? Do they choose their spouses themselves?” On and on we ask, and Tarazu keeps answering all of our questions. Sometimes the other members of the family chime in and answer as well.
Around 3 am, everybody starts finding a spot to sleep. Salina, me and Bibi jaan (the mother of the family) sleep in the tent, while the men sleep under the stars.
I nestle comfortably in my sleeping bag, desperate to get some sleep after more than 24 hours and my last night’s 3-hour sleep.
I wake up with the sound of people talking. I check out my watch. 6 am. Salina is already up too. I try to crawl back inside my sleeping bag but Hesam scolds me and says when the nomads are up, we should be up too.
Breakfast consists of flatbread that Bibi jaan made, chai, and some honey. I remember one of my friends asked me how nomadic people not get bored? Easy. There is no spare time to be bored. For example, women in nomadic families are never without work. They get up, make breakfast for the rest of the family, clean up the tent, bring water from the stream (which is usually harder than it sounds. As we discovered later that day), gather wood for the fire, make dough, bake bread, give people lunch, clean up again, milk the goats, make different dairy products,… the list goes on and on.
We had been told that by helping with the chores, we can bond with the nomads faster and get them to open up to us. So obviously when Bibi Jaan wanted to do something, we volunteered, although she kindly refused our help each time. The highlight of our second day was when she was going to get water from the stream. I volunteered to help her and she explained to me that there are many bee hives near the stream and if you get close to them, the bees will sting the strangers. I, being rational, understood that she is right and I better leave this part to her alone. BUT, then Hesam saw that Bibi jaan is going to get water by herself, and started telling me ”why are you standing here? Let’s go help her!” and well, we got a bit ashamed of ourselves and the three of us (Salina, Hesam and me) started following Bibi jaan to help her. When she got to the stream, I was about 300 meters away from her, and I could really hear all these bees whizzing around me. At the same time, Bibi jaan started yelling at me to go away because the bees will sting, and this time, there was no doubt in my mind that she was definitely right. The funny thing is, even though I was closest to the hives, I looked back and saw Hesam frivolously running away like a lunatic while swatting the bees away from his head.
After our failed attempt at helping, we realized the nomads are probably better off without us bothering them with our clumsiness 🙂 so instead, we went to explore our surroundings a little bit. We found these beautiful sturdy oak trees and decided to climb one of them.
For lunch, we had the most delicious chicken kabab made by Tarazu himself with the chicken that we brought. Which was surprising not marinated beforehand in anything. Just pure chicken and salt on the fire, and the results were mouthwatering. Even Salina declared that it was the most delicious chicken Kabab she had ever tasted. Our hosts were always checking whether we are eating or not, and Tarazu waited until everybody had eaten to eat some chicken himself.
Around 5 pm, we went to see our next host family. The ones that we were going to kooch with. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to Tarazu and his wife, even though we were with them for just a day, I was already used to his easy smile and hospitality and his wife’s shy loving motherly vibes.
When we go to meet our next host, about a 5-minute drive from Tarazu’s tent, they welcome us as warmly as our previous host. This family consists of Leyla, Bagher and Javad. One thing that we realized when we reached them was that unlike Tarazu, these people didn’t speak Farsi that much. Their dialect made it almost impossible for us to understand them sometimes, but thankfully friendly body language and bright, welcoming smiles are understandable in every language. They also brought us tea and asked us to sit with them as soon as we arrived.
We needed two donkeys to carry our backpacks during Kooch. Finding the donkeys proved to be the main obstacle in our timing. One thing to know about the nomads is that they never say “no” to you. When we asked them if they can find donkeys for us for tomorrow, they said yes, of course. But then, time isn’t of the same importance to nomads than it is to us. For us, Friday is very different from Sunday, but in the Bakhtiari tribes, when you’re far away from any civilization and in the middle of wide mountains, there is no difference between the weekdays. So as you can imagine, to our dismay, the donkeys weren’t available tomorrow.
When you are with the nomads, you align yourself to their lifestyle and their routines; which is going to sleep at 9pm and waking up at 5 am. That night we rolled out our sleeping bags on the ground and we began to sleep under the stars. Which, by the way, were absolutely mesmerizing. I can’t believe how deprived we are of seeing nature’s most beautiful sights when we are in the city. We could see constellations and shooting stars, all while a herd of 150 goats were huddled together close by and we could hear their bells chiming from time to time.
I wake up in the middle of the night from the sounds of a thousand bells and hooves beating on the ground. As I sit up in my sleeping bag, I see all the 150 goats running toward us in what seemed would be a realistic replica of Mufasa’s death in the Lion King by the stampeding wildebeests. I can just manage to shout “GET UP! GET UP! GET UP!” to alert the other 3 people sleeping next to me. They manage to sit up in their sleeping bags just as all the goats reached us and started parting in the middle to not run us over. I heard the nomadic men get up, curse, and start running after the spooked goats to get them back. In the morning, we realized that the goats were spooked maybe because of a wolf attack.
This rest of this day was the most uneventful day of our trip. We were waiting for the donkeys until lunch. After the donkeys were finally here, we loaded everything on them and started our short 20-minute walk with Leyla Jaan towards the start of the kooch.
We got to such a beautiful green pasture. There were other families still in their tents there. They even had chickens and baby chicks! Leyla would greet everybody that we saw on the way. And then they would happily start hugging and kissing on the cheeks while reciprocating news. I imagine how seeing the kissing might be weird to someone from Europe. Most families were very surprised to see two female strangers (consisting of one foreigner) with Leyla. We tried to explain to each family that people are interested to come here and live with the nomads and see their lifestyle.
During our short walk, Leyla’s blue plastic sandals were paradoxical with the huge gun strapped across her back. But the sight of her, so strong and nimble in the mountains was truly amazing. She looked fierce as a warrior and completely in her element in these vast pastures.
Finally! The day of the Kooch was upon us. We wake up at the crack of dawn (actually, before the crack of dawn). The pasture and the valley ahead of us look so serene and beautiful in the twilight. I try to force some breakfast on Salina and even myself. Our breakfast consisted of Chai, honey, sesame paste(tahini) and flatbread made by Leyla jaan. I know there’s a lot of hiking and mountaineering to do today, so we should be as fed and energized as humanly possible.
Next up, the donkeys are brought one after another to load the extra stuff on. This part is actually trickier than it sounds. The donkeys are free to roam at night to graze and rest as they wish, and sometimes they wander a bit too far away and in the morning the family has to go look for them. And then, one by one, they are brought back-rather reluctantly- and loaded for the trekking ahead.
One of the men leaves with the flock of sheep and goats, their bells chiming and leaving dust in their wake. Me and Salina are waiting for Leyla Jaan to come guide us through the valley.
Leyla and the other nomadic women are an absolute source of wonder and never-ending strength. She walks ahead of us in her torn plastic slippers and still manages to be at least 10 times faster than all of us while having the grace of a mountain goat. She keeps talking to us in her Lori dialect, reassuring us that she’ll take us from the easiest route.
The interesting thing about Leyla Jaan is that even though she knows that Salina can’t understand her, she still tries to talk to her. I even saw her go to Salina’s tent the other night and try to have a conversation with her. And the surprising thing is that somehow, it seems like they manage to communicate.
The routes of kooch are not easy for someone who is not accustomed to Iran’s mostly-dry terrain (of course there are simple, average and hard routes for kooch depending on the family we join). After almost 2 hours of hiking, we come across this snow glacier in the valley. Part of the glacier has melted from underneath and has formed an ice cave.
As I was telling Salina how lethal it is to step under the ice bridge, something collapses from the ceiling of the cave with a loud thud. There are massive rocks resting on top of the ice and at any moment their weight can cause a part of the bridge to fall down.
For this part of our journey, we have to walk on the glacier. But, no worries, because we were careful to walk from the edges of the glacier, where the snow and ice are probably 20-30 meters deep and there’s not a chance that it’ll cave underneath your steps. As we’re walking, a very loud sound of stones falling down the ice cave spooks the donkeys and even me, and I make myself pace faster to walk on solid ground again.
Around noon and after almost 5-6 hours of mountaineering, we get to our stop for the day. We are supposed to sleep here because the road ahead is too long to tackle today. For lunch, Leyla makes us pasta with the addition of a can of beans and mushrooms. After so much walking and going up and down steep hills, the pasta really hits the spot. It feels better than having fancy food at a restaurant.
The nomads have this big plastic container that they use for bringing water from streams. You might think that bringing water from a stream isn’t a big deal, but many of these streams are located in not so easily-reached places.
The thing about Iran nomads is that they are very observant, fast and quiet. They’ve lived their whole life in the mountains and so they’ve become one with the mountains and the rocks themselves. You might feel like you are completely alone in the middle of nowhere in the mountain, but in one second, a nomad might casually emerge from behind the rocks and surprise the hell out of you. While we were replenishing our water supplies, a young boy suddenly appeared right next to the stream and patiently waited for us to fill up our containers. I didn’t even hear him or see him coming.
There are several other families resting in different spots around us. All these families are related to each other in some way and whenever they come across each other, they greet loudly and happily. The women kiss each other several times on the cheeks while continuously reciprocating small talk such as: “how are you? How is your family? Everybody okay?”
Despite our fear that the nomads won’t like being photographed, we soon realized that some of them actually love it. After breaking the ice on the first day, when they started to be comfortable around us, Leyla started asking me to photograph everything and everyone.
In the evening when we had some time on our hands, Leyla called me and brought me to their “neighbours” that were nestled about 50 meters up the hill from where we were staying for the night. This family that Leyla was taking me to, consisted of 3 young women and 2 young men. The elders of the family were probably away, I’m not sure. So then after a very loud greeting and some questions from Leyla about the stranger with her (me!), I started doing a photoshoot and took several family pictures from them. The women were shyer and it took some encouraging to convince them to have a picture taken from just the three of them. After I took the pictures, Leyla had to leave to get back to her own place and prepare tea for the men, but I had to stay to transfer my photos to one of their phones. They kindly offered me tea and started having a conversation with me. Now, you should know that among the nomads, the norms of what’s okay to ask and what’s intrusive are very different from what you know in your city life. Here, small talk with a stranger means you ask them whether they are married or not. It wasn’t different from this family either. First, they asked my age, and then they asked me whether I’m married. So then they were really surprised because in their culture people marry at a young age. Afterwards, they started explaining to me how two of them are almost engaged but the family elders aren’t agreeing to their marriage. The girls even asked me what they should put on their skin to remove the dark spots left because of the extreme sun. Afterwards when I had transferred all the pictures and was walking down to Leyla and our group, one of the girls was coming with me. She told me that I have very nice looking eyebrows and asked me whether I can do her eyebrows the same way. I told her of course, why not? So she said when we’ll get to the destination of our Kooch, she’ll come to find me so I can do her eyebrows the same way. Too bad we never actually went to the last destination, I still wonder if she found someone to do her eyebrows or not.
We spend the day talking, resting besides a rock that offers some shade, and then having a small dinner consisting of Tiri bread, Dough, and leftover pasta from lunch. This night was the coldest night of our trip since we are on a higher altitude right now, but tomorrow we will start going down again.
I wake Salina around 4 to take advantage of people being asleep and go to the toilet (behind a rock) before everybody else wakes up and the sun comes up. We start to put our sleeping bag in their cases and tidy up as quickly as possible. Somehow, we manage to be ready at least 20 minutes before the rest of our group wakes up.
Today is our longest day of Kooch. Salina, me and Homayoun start the trek as the sun is coming up. Since many families are doing the Kooch today and they will go from the same route, it’s crucial for us to get a head start from the herds of sheep and goats.
The route today consists of many narrow paths and make-shift stone steps made by the nomads themselves. Soon there is a tidy line of sheep and goats right behind us and their shepherds, trying to find a path for their herds.
I don’t know what we would have done if we didn’t have Leyla with us. She has promised to take care of Salina and the rest of us and to take us from the easiest path that she knows. Whenever we are crossing a narrow path, she takes Salina’s hand and guides her through the steps, while repeatedly shouting “don’t worry, I got you!” in her dialect of Farsi. The nomads are used to talking very loudly to each other because of their lifestyle (no phones, in the mountains, you have to shout in order for other people to hear you). Because of this, even though Leyla is only saying words of encouragement to Salina, at some point Salina said that Leyla’s shouting is making her nervous. I explained to her that Leyla is only trying to encourage her and the shouting is what they’ve gotten used to. Leyla’s English vocabulary consists of one word: okay. But she puts her knowledge of this particular word into good use and every once in a while, Leyla would turn to Salina and ask “okay?” and Salina would smile and say “okay!” and they would continue on.
It was near noon when we saw one of the shepherds had stopped and we saw some blood on the ground, thinking that something bad must have happened to one of the sheep, but one moment later, the shepherd emerged, holding a wet, newborn lamb in his hands.
I was really excited to see the newborn lamb and hold it, and I did. The baby lamb was soft, thin and wet, with beautiful, long legs. This baby lamb should be carried by hand for at least a week because it is too weak to walk among all the grown sheep in the herd. The shepherd carried the newborn lamb by holding its two front legs and I was thinking the poor baby would suffer from a strained tendon or something, but nothing happened to the baby lamb. I guess the shepherds know what they’re doing. :))
After what seems like a long, long day of mountaineering, we get to the stop where we’re going to rest for a couple of hours before moving again. Our lunch basically consists of tea and Tiri bread and some Dough. Our feet and legs are so tired, and we just want to rest and restore some energy before starting our trek again.
I get to hold the newborn lamb again, this time he is a lot drier and is hopelessly searching for milk in my arms. I wonder where his mother is. The nomads look surprised to see how delighted I am by holding the baby lamb. For them, it’s strange that I had never seen a newborn lamb before.
We start on the trek again at about 2 pm. Our journey starts in a dry river bank. We have to hop on top of huge rocks and then as we get to a valley, we hear the sound of a river rushing nearby. At some point, we are practically walking through a gap in the ground, going deeper, tall walls of rock surrounding us on both sides. And then, we get to the river, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. This river is the definition of the phrase “crystal clear”. The herds are excited to get to the water, and they all start drinking right away. I sit down along the edge of the river, after days of not being able to take a shower, wondering how amazing and refreshing it would be if I could just go for a swim in the river.
After crossing the river, we came upon pomegranate orchards that belonged to the nomads and local families. We walked through the orchards, tasted a pomegranate that was not ripe yet and the sourness of it made your whole mouth wrinkle in protest. It was near sunset, and just as the sun began to go down, we reached our stop for the night.
Since this was our last night with the nomads, we had a nice dinner (rice with lentils and organic butter). When Leyla finished cooking and called everybody to sit down, we all gorged ourselves on food, which tasted amazing after one full day of mountain climbing and being hungry most of the time. What made the food even better was the fresh onions (which the nomads break apart by hitting it on the ground with their fist) and lots of Dough. The aroma of organic butter was in the air, the goats huddled close by while a nosy one came close (and almost trampled our food) looking for leftover bread to snack on. The men smoked and talked and Leyla kept a watchful eye over us and kept insisting that we should eat more.
This night was bittersweet, because even though we were relieved that the Kooch was over and tomorrow we had just a short way back to civilization, our days with the nomads had made us feel like we were part of the family and we truly had gotten to know them. Leyla hugged me and Salina tightly, saying she will miss us and that we should come back and visit her in her home one day. Salina promised her that she will come back and visit her again, and she did it. After a week, she came back to them again. But, when Leyla turned to me and said: “but I guess you won’t be coming back. Will you?”, at that moment, I really wished I could assure her and say yes, I will definitely come back and visit you again. After the poignant hugs and good nights, Leyla gave all of us a plastic bag full of the Kashk (whey) that she had made and we thanked her in turn. I knew my mom would love this souvenir from the nomads. Their Kashk tasted like the best combination of sweet and savoury and was like nothing you can buy at a supermarket.
Salina says goodbye to Leyla while they both shed tears and try to talk to each other even though neither of them understands the other one’s language. Still, tight hugs and tears don’t need to be translated into any language. While I’m watching this, I feel my own throat tightening as well and then it’s my turn to hug Leyla goodbye and it’s a real struggle to hold back tears.