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Adventure Travel 2007:
Iran
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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: Alamut Valley
EXPEDITION PERSIA:  Into the Alamut Valley

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Iran Photo Gallery

Obviously the Assassins had their work cut out for them just reaching this place—let alone building a fortification here. Bobby and I sit on the peak, looking through binoculars and discussing possible ascent routes to the castle. Abbas insists we can't get up without ropes, though Stark apparently made it unaided. To punctuate his displeasure, he starts making cell phone calls, loudly complaining about us in Persian. Bobby and I consider our options. The real problem is not the climbing, it's that the sun is already low, and we have no camping gear and very little water. There seems to be no choice. We'll have to give up here to return to the village by dark. When Abbas hears this news, he abandons us immediately, making his own way down the mountain. We watch him go, grateful for the silence.
 
Trading in the brown, dry mountains of Alamut Valley for the verdant peaks near the Caspian Sea, and swapping a truck for a mule train, we reach Salambar Pass at 10,400 feet (3,170 meters) shortly after our trip to Nevisar Castle. In this lusher part of the Elburz, our trail winds past roaring mountain streams and through meadows teeming with wildflowers. We've found a blithe country, flush with deciduous trees and rich grasses that tempt our mules to loiter, wild rosebushes sending up a fragrance that travels on the breeze. Stark followed these same trails at nearly the same time of year to our same destination, the hot springs of Ab-i-Garm.

Though remote, Ab-i-Garm is obviously a popular destination for Tehran's climbing clubs, and the area is overrun with tents. I stare longingly at the hot springs, a small pool resting in the cliff face, not knowing when I'll be able to go in. Men and women cannot swim together in Iran. If I decide to even stick my toes in the pool, guards must be posted 50 feet (15 meters) away to fend off any approaching men and protect my modesty. I decide on a plan with Bobby: Later, under the cover of darkness when most of the campers will be asleep, we'll sneak down to the hot springs and take a forbidden coed dip.

We don't have to wait long before most of the tent lights turn off; with no women or alcohol, there's little incentive for the all-male crowd to stay up late. As 10 p.m. approaches, Bobby and I leave our respective tents, slipping into the night like errant teenagers. We rush past one tent after the next until we reach the pool, housed in a recessed cave, and Bobby goes inside to see if anyone's there. He quickly returns.

"Three dudes in tighty-whities," he reports.

"Damn," I say.

We wait in the shadows of the mountain until the men finish up, then we dash in, having the hot springs to ourselves. The pool smells strongly of sulfur, and stalactites hang from the cave's ceiling. It's a bizarre, cozy little place, the water pleasantly warm. I can see why Stark hung out here for an entire day. We enjoy a long soak and then sneak back into the night. As we approach camp, a man pokes his head out of a lit tent.

"Salaam!" He waves. "Hello!"

I quickly cover my head with the hood of my chador, but it's more than evident that the two of us, wet and dripping, just came from the hot springs together. The man, named Kamrun, invites us inside. Bobby slips in first. It is, it turns out, a very small tent stuffed with seven middle-aged Iranian men. In the center is a lit propane tank, its giant flame threatening to incinerate everyone inside. I pause at the doorway, the men gaping at me in disbelief. When I wave to them, they forget, momentarily, to respond. Bobby takes a corner seat, and I squeeze in between him and Kamrun. It occurs to me that I must be committing my second sin of the evening: fraternizing after dark with strange men in a very small tent.

Kamrun is the youngest of the group, maybe in his late 30s and the owner of a pizza shop, and he showers us with pistachios and hard candies. We're fed like kings, and just when I think the hospitality can get no better, a grinning man named Mustafa pulls out his pièce de résistance: a large bottle of Armenian vodka.

"My, my, my," I say.

Mustafa extracts lemons and sugar from his bag and prepares what will cause my third sin of the evening. No wonder the inhabitants of this tent are up at an ungodly hour.

But our little tent is a microcosm of larger Iran, and so, of course, there are dissenters: a man in a red shirt, sitting across from me, and his bespectacled friend. Both take umbrage at the appearance of the illegal alcohol, and Red Shirt seizes the bottle and begins to pour out its contents over a tin of cinders. This creates a major fire hazard until Mustafa, unperturbed—as if he regularly must rescue his vodka from the hands of wrongdoers—seizes back the bottle and continues his mixing of the fixings.

Bobby receives the first glass. He takes a sip and offers it to me, the dissenters eyeing me disapprovingly. Drink from this glass, I see, and I will lose whatever remains of my feminine virtue.

"Oh, what the hell," I say.

I drink. It tastes like lemon-flavored turpentine or some vile moonshine. I give Mustafa back the glass. Bobby, not normally much of a drinker, sits back and assumes a cool, calm air, as if he has spent all his life smoking and drinking with Iranian men crowded into small tents.

"Dam-it garm!—May your breath be warm!" Mustafa declares, raising his glass. All the drinkers in the tent chime in and hit their glasses together. This becomes our phrase of solidarity. Whenever one of the dissenters begins to protest, we all raise our voices in one great cheer: "Dam-it garm!"

Several drinks later, the bottle of vodka is seriously depleted. Red Shirt has made two more attempts to dump its contents on the cinders, and the tension in the tent remains high. I figure it's about time we leave, and Bobby agrees. We put down our glasses, thank our hosts, and depart.

As we retreat into the darkness, Mustafa and Kamrun yell out their plea of "Dam-it garm!" to a universe erupting with stars.

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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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