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Adventure Travel 2007:
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Iran: Travels Hostile Territory

On a month-long expedition, Kira Salak examines the ancient cities and remotest corners of this harsh land. Her reward: a rare glimpse into the heart of a nation on the brink.  Photograph by Bobby Model

Photo: Religious propaganda
SNAPSHOT OF TEHRAN: A furtive photo of religious propaganda taken from a moving car

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Iran Photo Gallery

After a few days in Tehran, Bobby and I travel by Land Cruiser through a landscape untouched and vast, following the old Silk Road in the western part of the country. We have been assigned a guide and official minder, Abbas Jafari, as we would never be allowed to negotiate this part of the country alone. He is a short, burly man in his mid-40s, a self-described climber and photojournalist, married to Farkhondeh Sadegh, 37, one of the first Muslim women to summit Mount Everest (in May 2005). Mysteriously, he often succumbs to dramatic spells of anxiety and moodiness, and we never know if we'll be traveling with Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.

How strange to be in far western Iran, in Lorestan Province, where the distant, thrumming city feels like a sinful dream. Nearly a hundred miles (161 kilometers) from the Iraq border, we greet a land where people still cut fields of wheat with scythes, reside in mud-brick homes, and travel largely by donkey. All around us, the Zagros Mountains erupt from grassy hills, twisted layers of limestone and shale shooting thousands of feet vertically. It would be a geologist's or rock climber's paradise, if only one didn't have to deal with the pesky secret police, those grim men with walkie-talkies who track our whereabouts by day and make sure our passports are collected at night. As a result, we're wedded to an official "Itinerary" that must be approved by and filed with the police each day.

We reach a barren hill overlooking the Simareh River, one of Lorestan's main waterways. The silence and emptiness is confounding. No one. Nothing. Just these windswept hills. In the 13th century the Mongols tore through this country, razing villages and massacring all living things, and the landscape still looks devoid of any human presence. A local man, whom we paid to guide us for the day, points guiltily to a hillside pockmarked with holes: the site of a looted Bronze Age grave site.

There are scores of them in this region, a place that was unmapped and unexplored well into the 20th century due to the ferocity of local tribes who had a reputation for killing any outsiders they encountered. Still, one unlikely Western explorer managed to gain special access: a diminutive British woman named Freya Stark. I have long admired her tenacity, and she is my inspiration to reach outside the cities into remotest Iran. Always traveling alone, wearing outrageous hats to hide a childhood disfigurement, Stark had an obsession with riding blithely into some of the country's most dangerous regions. "I may confess," she wrote, "that I had never thought of why I came [to Lorestan], far less of why I came alone. I traveled single-mindedly for fun." She was the first Westerner to map large regions of Iran, using her gender to trick officials: "The great and almost only comfort about being a woman," she mused, "is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised." She would go on to write about her travels in this region in the 1934 classic The Valleys of the Assassins, while her mapping and exploratory achievements would earn her an award from England's Royal Geographical Society and, later, a knighting by the Queen of England.

Stark risked her life to journey to this part of Lorestan, searching for a Bronze Age hidden treasure that was rumored to be stashed among these hills, but she never found it, leaving behind a lingering mystery. There was one canyon in particular that was difficult and dangerous for her to reach—the "Defile of the Unbelievers" or Infidel Canyon—which she thought might contain the treasure. As she didn't complete her search, I want to find the canyon and look for myself. Using 60-year-old Soviet military maps and Stark's book, I narrow down the location to a largely uninhabited region several miles (about 5 kilometers) long, between the Rua and Simareh Rivers.

After a long day of searching, after being thwarted by a lack of bridges, roads, and reliable information, we come upon a local man, Majik, who says he knows where the canyon is. Furthermore, he'll take us there. We drive off-road up a mountainside, past fields of mature wheat that gleam in the late afternoon light. Far below, the narrow Rua slices through sandy, desolate bottomlands before winding into a tiny cleft between gigantic cliffs. Infidel Canyon. Excited, we descend the other side of the mountain and park our vehicle. We follow Majik to the mouth of the canyon and before us is a kind of Eden: blooming pomegranate trees, pink-flowered eucalyptus, clear water gurgling over stones. To continue, we must remove our shoes and wade through the stream. I begin to roll up my pant legs like the others, only to see Majik staring at my bared shins. I haven't been wearing my hejab long enough to get used to the idea that only face and hands may be exposed to the outside world. I pull my pant legs down, put my socks back on, and follow the others fully clothed.

We stop about halfway up the canyon, ancient pottery shards lying like detritus in the water. Majik points to a ledge high above us where we can see visible ruins—and, perhaps, graves. We scan the cliff to figure out a way up, realizing that we'll have to do some serious rock climbing, without ropes. The men begin to climb carefully and slowly, with me following last so no one will have to look up my chador. But it's dangerous business being modest. The head scarf keeps falling in front of my eyes, blocking my view, and my legs can't reach out properly. I climb back down, unable to continue in such clothing. Instead, I tuck the ends of the chador into the top of my pants and replace the head scarf with a bandanna. Majik will just have to deal with it.

We reach the upper ledge, barely half a foot (less than half a meter) wide, that runs along the cliff face. That ancient men decided on such a precarious location for their fortification speaks to the high risk of attack. I search for handholds, sliding belly-to-stone along the ledge, until I reach the reward—a sizeable stone building overlooking the canyon. Inside is what appears to be a large burial chamber, already opened and looted.

Beyond the ruins, the ledge ends. I wonder if Stark's treasure is hidden elsewhere on this cliff face, in a nook or on a distant crag. It'd take another expedition, with adequate climbing equipment, to properly search the chasm's entire length. But that's not likely. Majik tells us that this canyon will be gone in a year's time. The government is nearing completion of a large dam on the Simareh River that will put most of these ancient cemeteries and ruins underwater forever. Stark was the first Westerner to explore Infidel Canyon, and, sadly, it looks as if Bobby and I could be the last.

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Iran Photo Gallery

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Our November 2006 issue features the best new adventure travel trips; an exclusive look inside Iran; a Greenland global warming report; backcountry spas; digital cameras; travel Web sites; weekend getaways; and more.

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