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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: The Lur family
EXPEDITION PERSIA: The Lur family in the Aagros Mountains

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Iran Photo Gallery

In the rugged lands around Infidel Canyon live the Lurs, a traditionally nomadic tribe scattered across the isolated valleys and high passes of the Zagros Mountains. To date, only a handful of Westerners have witnessed their culture; Stark had relied heavily on Lur guides to aid her travels in western Iran. I want to visit some, though I'm told this could be dangerous: They've started carrying transistor radios and are becoming negatively influenced by anti-American propaganda broadcast by Iranian mullahs.

"If we meet Lurs," Abbas suggests, "tell them you're Canadian." It seems a sorry state of affairs that I must go around lying to people at first meeting.

But Abbas finds us a group high in the mountains, who supposedly don't have radios. Who will be able to welcome us as friends. We arrive at the black goat-hair tents of a Lur family who come out to greet us. The matron is Shanoz, 45, who flashes a warm, artless smile. Here, at nearly 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), in all manner of extreme weather, she and her family must be self-sufficient, depending exclusively on their animals for sustenance. She wears a traditional Lur turban around her head, her hair and neck showing. It's perhaps the only place in Iran where I can shed the hejab, as the family has no qualms about my walking around outside—as their women do—in shirt and pants. In the high peaks of the Zagros Mountains, practicality wins out.

When she asks my nationality, I ignore Abbas's advice and reply honestly, in Persian, that I'm American. But she doesn't seem fazed.

"How long does it take you to drive your car to Lorestan from America?" she asks me. Her daughter, Zeba, 16, joins us. The customary marriage age among these Lurs is 15, so Zeba is already wedded. So is her older sister, Fatome, 20, whose husband, with his blue eyes, fair complexion, and light-brown hair, could be of Kurdish descent. He gazes at Bobby and me with a proud, fierce detachment. Though we've gotten permission to take photos, he still challenges Bobby's camera with a belligerent stare.

While Bobby and Abbas walk around shooting photos, Shanoz welcomes me into the tent where Fatome and her husband rest. They have a baby, whom Fatome rocks in a hammock in the corner. I ask if I can take over, and I swing the child back and forth, making funny faces. The baby fills the tent with her laughter, and I find myself intoxicated by the sound. In her smile, I discover, is something wholly beautiful and ineffable.

From the corner of the tent, I hear some Persian—fuzzy-sounding, full of static—and turn to see Fatome bringing out a radio and delivering it to her husband. He fumbles with it for a moment until he gets some kind of news broadcast and listens intently, occasionally readjusting the antenna. I wonder what they're being told. Why they listen so closely. The whole family leans toward the voice, and the baby looks soberly at me, for I've forgotten to swing her and make my silly faces.

After a time, Fatome's husband turns off the radio. He puts it back under a cover against the tent wall and glances at me with his fierce blue eyes, but I can't read his expression. His other daughter, a toddler, wobbles by. All at once he grabs her and gives her a sloppy kiss on the cheek. When he looks my way, he's smiling, his eyes dancing.

Long before al Qaeda or Hezbollah, there were the Assassins. The word comes from hashishiyyin, or "eater of hashish," the name given to a heretical Muslim sect known as the Ismailis that split from its Shiite brethren at the end of the 11th century and found a home in the dry, harsh valleys of the Elburz Mountains, in northern Iran. According to legend, their founder, Hasan-e-Sabbah, drugged naive young men and had them wake in his sumptuous palace gardens. Astounded, convinced that they had awoken in Paradise, the men quickly committed to Hasan's every whim. They participated in some of the earliest organized terrorism in recorded history, so thoroughly mastering the art of ambush and assassination that they terrified the surrounding countryside for nearly 200 years. Hasan established some 60 castles, choosing only the most inaccessible sites on top of buttes or cliffs. His best known was Alamut, "eagle's nest," resting on a treacherously high spit of rock. It was so impregnable it took the invading Mongols three years of sieges to breach its walls.

Stark visited Alamut in 1930. Even then, it was a burgeoning tourist attraction for Westerners, made all the more so by her important discovery of nearby Lamiasar Castle, another of the Assassins' strongholds. But then there is Nevisar Castle, which Stark found at an elevation of over 9,000 feet (2,438 meters) in a rough, uninhabited stretch of mountains to the east of Alamut Valley. Tourists don't go there. In fact, virtually no one does; there aren't roads or easy access. Stark described an arduous climbing adventure to get there—one I'd like to repeat.

Abbas is already having one of his bad days when I tell him that Bobby and I would like to climb to Nevisar Castle. This news leaves him tight-faced and piqued, as visiting the castle will require an unwelcome change to the Itinerary, with all its accompanying faxes and phone calls to the police. He tries hard to dissuade us by saying that the only trail to Nevisar was wiped out by a landslide, but we find a man who knows an alternate route. It's settled.

We leave first thing the next morning. Already the heat is oppressive, and white salt trails run down the front of my chador. At last we reach the top of a saddleback at 8,000-plus feet (2,438-plus meter), where Abbas says we're stopping.

"Where's the castle?" I ask.

He points across a valley to the mountains opposite us.

"So we're not there yet," I say.

Mr. Hyde appears. Abbas's expression hardens in inexplicable anger. He says that we've done our climbing for the day, that it's enough for us to gaze on the mountains that contain the ruins of Nevisar. Bobby and I glance at each other, perplexed. I begin to suspect that Abbas just isn't in the mood for any more exercise today.

Determined, I strip off my black chador and head scarf, as I'm not expecting to run into anyone in the desolation before us, and in forbidden pants and T-shirt, I head down the opposite side of the saddleback with Bobby, Abbas reluctantly following behind. We soon reach the valley, and I begin ascending the nearest ridge. The climbing is steep and exhausting, but at the top of the 9,300-foot-high (28,350-meter-high) ridgeline I am rewarded with a sight of the misty expanse of Alamut Valley. I hike along the narrow spine until it ends at a precipice. Ahead is a small butte covered in ruins: Nevisar Castle.

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Iran Photo Gallery

Cover: Adventure magazine

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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