Friday, July 7, 2017

If ever there is a holiday in Iran, there’s one place Tehranis flock to- shomâl. Shomâl means north, but it’s synonymous with other words like beach, vacation, and good weather. When my aunt was visiting the US, my parents decided to take her to the beach in Florida, south of where they live. She called up my cousin in Iran to give her an update and told her, “Yah, so this weekend, we are going to shomâl.

The neighboring northern provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran remained mostly isolated from central Iran until the early 20th century when narrow roads and tunnels were chiseled out of solid rock. This opened up a new weekend destination, particularly for Tehranis, who welcomed pleasant temperatures and a bit of R&R by the sea. The main roads leading to shomâl from Tehran are Haraz Road and Chalus RoadDecades after they've been constructed, these roads largely remain the same despite an exponential increase in both population and cars. 

As far as I know, my first time to shomâl was when I was 3 years old, and I hadn’t been back until 2015. It was my birthday, and some family friends invited me to their villa for the weekend. We took Chalus Road, and I finally got to see the spectacular scenery I had always heard about. 

We took the northeastern route out of the city and passed the well-known Shemshak and Darband Sar ski resorts on our way to the top of the mountain where we stopped for a break. They were selling âsh, and as I was having a bowl, I looked down the other side of the pass to see what awaited: hairpins all the way down the mountain. About two dozen hairpin bends and one queasy stomach later, we passed by the famous Dizin ski resort and went on to connect to Chalus Road.

Hairpins all the way down

Chalus is one of the most beautiful, scenic roads in all of Iran. It winds its way along the mountains, going through tight passes and tunnels. With the mountain on one side and steep gorges on the other, Chalus is the kind of beauty where you don’t want a camera between you and it because you know that even the most professional couldn’t possibly capture the stunning panoramic views you are witnessing.

Tunnels of Chalus Road

Having said that, Chalus is also notoriously dangerous. Why? The narrowness and rugged terrain, for one. Weather is another huge factor here because if it’s snowy or rainy, forget about it. But one of the main things is that it’s a two-way pass, and mixed with Iranians’ infamous driving habits, well, it’s a recipe for disaster. Luckily, it’s policed pretty well, especially around holidays, but nerves of steel and complete focus are solid prerequisites to navigate. It’s actually quite intimidating because on the one hand you really have to concentrate on the road and be wary of oncoming traffic, and on the other, you’re wondering if that stone that’s been quietly sitting atop the hill for centuries will suddenly decide to move that day.

Chalus Road

Chalus Road

Needless to say, my first experience on this road was an unforgettable one. I had leaned my head back and was peering through the sunroof at the cliffs (and thinking happy thoughts) while Kako Band’s Dance in Fire was playing. Something about the ruggedness of the beats matched the atmosphere to make it the perfect Chalus Road music. Along the way, there were places to stop and grab some lamb or liver and kidney kabobs or pick up some local produce and dairy. What I enjoyed the most was seeing vendors selling bottles of doogh mahali, local doogh, which were being kept cool in the natural spring water streaming down from the mountainside. I was almost a little disappointed (but relieved) when we arrived because for me, Chalus was just as exciting as finally seeing the Caspian Sea for the first time since I was 3!

My first Caspian sunset since I was 3!

I had always heard about Chalus and Haraz Roads becoming ghofl, locked. I would imagine R.E.M.'s Everybody Hurts video when I heard these stories, except instead of abandoning their cars at the end, Iranians apparently started picnicking or smoking hookah on the side of the street. And friends would tell me tales about how they drove to Chalus Road only to turn around two hours later and come back to Tehran because of the gridlock. Given Iranians’ penchant for exaggeration, I took it with a grain of salt. But just recently for the Eid holiday, I had plans to take a day trip to shomâl. I was going with a tour agency who surprised me at 4:30 am with the news that we were actually taking Haraz Road, not Firuzkuh as they had originally stated. What should have taken an hour max took 4.5 hours (and we weren’t even a quarter of the way there yet). Haraz was utterly gofl. After breakfast at Polur, the tour continued, but I decided I was out. I wasn’t spending my holiday trapped in that madness, so I hitched a ride back (but not before snapping some shots of Mount Damavand). Later, everyone told me that if Haraz was in that condition, then Chalus could have only been worse! 

Mt. Damavand and traffic

So a word to the wise: avoid shomâl at all costs during an Iranian holiday (unless you plan on going a couple of days in advance and either returning earlier or a couple of days later). I imagine shomâlis must dread holidays knowing that Tehranis are on their way. And I can’t help but think of how chaotic those small town roads must become once they’re flooded with half the population of the capital! But, when you go at any other time, absolutely take Chalus Road. You won’t regret it!

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  1. I have been a silent reader of most of your posts, and I must commend you for bringing back so many fond memories of my visit to Iran. Indeed, I have traveled on the Chalus Road (Tehran to Kelardasht), and also visited several Caspian Sea towns. I do remember the imposing (& sometimes fearsome) mountainous beauty of this road. Indeed, as my father used to say; northern Iran is one of the most beautiful undiscovered places on this planet; probably comparable to the French Riviera

    1. Thank you for your comment. I completely agree with your father. I feel like there is so much in the north yet to be discovered, some small village or remote area. It's not just beautiful scenery but also a beautiful culture. And Chalus is the perfect road leading up to it :)


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