x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

On the trail of saints, nomads and assassins

Into the wild Wild Frontiers, a London-based tour company, takes travellers to distant corners of Iran rarely seen by tourists.

I'm walking under starlit skies to a lake outside Zarabad, a village three hours north-west of Tehran. Nestling in the Alamut Valley, in the shadow of the Alborz Mountains - the craggy peaks which extend west from Iran's border with Armenia and east to Turkmenistan - Zarabad means 'built by the Gods' in Farsi. Maybe it's an overstatement, but there is a sweet stillness here that is welcome after the hustle and bustle of Tehran.

In the village the narrow paths end in intriguing hobbity doorways, and the onion-domed mosque seems to have leapt off the pages of a Persian fairy tale. An old man with a scythe, a granny in a colourful headscarf pulling on a reluctant donkey, and two giggling girls who alternately smile angelically and pull faces are the local colour. That I'm here at all is thanks to Wild Frontiers, the adventure travel company founded by writer Jonny Bealby and one of the few to venture into rural Iran. Bealby isn't one to shy away from a challenge: seven years ago, he rode horseback along the Silk Road on an extended blind date, a disastrous affair that nonetheless ended up as fodder for his book, Silk Dreams, Troubled Road.

But where is the lake? 'Only ten minutes away,' says Cyrus, the spry, elderly uncle of our guide, Mehrdad, at ten-minute intervals. We'd set off at dusk on what was meant to be a pre-dinner stroll to Lake Evan, after a day exploring the nearby Valley of the Assassins. To my eyes, the latter had appeared to be a perfectly innocent blend of meadows, streams and steep hills. In fact, the aptly named valley once hid the castle hideaways of a thirteenth-century sect of hashish-addicted fanatics devoted to murdering their political enemies. All that remains today are crumbling ruins.

To tell the truth, I much prefer our moonlight saunter to the lake (even if we never actually reach it). For beyond the village, the walnut trees rustle, water from a stream gurgles, owls hoot, cherry orchards and rice fields scent the air. A cemetery filled with local sons killed in the eight year Iran-Iraq war is a reminder that moments such as these are not to be taken for granted. We arrive back at the guesthouse famished. Our hostess, a stout widow, has prepared great platters of rice with barberries and chicken, a vegetable stew, flatbread, and sheep butter. Afterwards, we bed down dorm-style, women in one room, men in the other, and slumber to a chorus of snores.

Next morning I wake at dawn and watch the sun rise over the mountains. Our hostess is already up, sweeping the veranda, but she pauses to offer me a taste of her homemade sour cherry jam. The fruit is from her orchard, and after a much needed troop down to the public baths, we tuck into bowls of the stuff with more flatbread, sheep butter and hot tea for breakfast. Over 200km to the south, past the Dasht-e Kavir, a harsh, inhospitable salt desert that covers much of central and southeastern Iran, lies 5,000 year-old Abyaneh, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the slopes of Mount Karkas. Larger than Zarabad, it's one of Iran's oldest villages.

En route the skies darken, the rains thunder down and we roll through a canyon-like valley with eerie sandstone escarpments rising up on either side. I feel as though I am entering The Lost World. Abyaneh's young have fled to Tehran, so only the pensioners remain. In the narrow, crooked streets old women in floral scarves, skirts, and thick black tights waddle out of their distinctive red adobe houses to sell olu, sheets of dried plum. The men, in baggy black pantaloons, wander about slowly, with the air of wistful artefacts sprung to life.

There is a shrine in town, dedicated to a Shia saint, although until the 18th century, Zoroastrianism flourished here. The burial rites of the ancient religion are fascinating, and involve the laying of the deceased in open-air towers to be picked clean by vultures. Iran's largest community of Zoroastrians live in the desert town of Yazd, a labyrinth of sun-baked buildings, about an hour's drive south-east of Abyaneh. Beyond it lies Bazm, a pretty, peaceful hamlet in a dramatic valley flanked by the Zagros Mountains.

The area is the summer home of the Qashqai, members of the best known of Iran's nomadic tribes, who number around 300,000. Our guesthouse hosts Abbas and Afsar are ethnically Qashqai, but have eschewed the nomadic lifestyle. Their home, laden with red woollen rugs, designed with a distinctive tribal weave, is far cosier than any goatskin tent though, and their garden, is a scented tangle of grape vines and fruit trees.

Life, agreeably, proceeds at a snail's pace here: a shepherd tends to his flock, our hosts' daughters sweetly collect wildflowers in the meadows as offerings, and we work up an appetite walking in the dun-coloured hills. The evening meal - a feast - doesn't disappoint: there's Fesenjan, a traditional dish made with walnuts, pomegranate and chicken, rice with barberries and lamb, noodle soup, salad, and flatbread. No one wants to leave in the morning, but the chance to track down Qashqai nomads is too big a carrot, so back on the bus we scramble.

A few miles down the road we spot two tents on a rocky plain. Piling off, we walk the kilometre or so to the encampment. The landscape is glorious: a chain of peaks and semi-desert scrubland, all shifting hues of yellow, gold and green, against a cornflower blue sky. The urge to cut loose and go walkabout is almost overwhelming. The nomads welcome us, warmly yet shyly, into their tent with glasses of tea and slightly unripe almonds. We offer them sweets in return, and settle on cushions and woven rugs around the fire-pit.

A Qashqai nomad's life is a simple one, and days are spent tending to livestock. Still, it's the women who do the lion's share of the work. "We do the herding, we milk the goats and bake bread," says Shamsie, the family's matriarch, with a trace of indignation in her voice. Off-the-beaten track in rural Iran I may be, but it seems some things are the same the world over.

The Package Land of the Peacock Throne tour with Wild Frontiers (@email:www.wildfrontiers.co.uk; 0044207 736 3968) costs from US$2,900 (Dh10,652). Price includes ground transport, accommodation and meals.

The Flight Returns from Abu Dhabi to Tehran with Etihad Airways cost from $367 (Dh1,348) with tax (@email:www.etihadairways.com).