The last time I spent the night in the desert was in the Atacama in Chile, and the rock formations, volcanos, and moon-like landscape made for an unforgettable experience. So when the opportunity to spend the night in the Iranian desert presented itself, I wasn’t going to miss the chance. But this wasn’t going to be just camping out in the desert. It was camping in the desert next to a piece of history, the Karshahi Fortress.
On the Road
Our group of 16 friends, old and new, meet at the Parkway intersection in Tehran at 8 am on Thursday (the start of the weekend), and by 8:30, we’re on the road headed south towards Esfahan. Along the way, we stop at the Maral rest area for a big breakfast buffet and our last glimpse of civilization for the next 36 hours. Once we pass Kashan, it isn’t long until Abyaneh where we take a detour in the direction of Matin Abad. We plow on through the village to get to our destination: Karshahi Fortress, where we plan to camp out under the stars.
About another hour from the village, the fortress begins to make an appearance in the distance: adobe ruins surrounded by barren emptiness. As we get closer, it’s just like a little oasis in the vast desert- a small pool of water next to century-old ruins, a pomegranate orchard (which sadly only has dried pomegranates since the season is over), and the magnificent Karshahi Fortress itself.
As soon as we set up our tents for the night, we set out to explore the fortress. Also known as the Thieves’ Castle, Karshahi Fortress used to be the operational center of a gang of robbers that spread horror and fear throughout the caravan roads at the end of the 19th century until the end of the Qajar dynasty. The super thick walls are made of mud and adobe. The fortress has 5 watchtowers and is surrounded by a moat. The front watchtower now has two holes in it, which once held cannons. Upon entering the fortress, there is a giant pit in the ground which used to be the hoz (small pool), very typical of Persian gardens and architectural style at the time. The tâghche (built-in shelves on the walls) are still there, some almost untouched. According to locals, there are three tunnels that run to the mountains behind, as well as a series of secret passageways under the fortress itself. It only takes a little imagination to picture what this place looked like and the hustle and bustle that went on here in its heyday about 130 years ago.
We climb up the slowly deteriorating walls to get on top of one of the watchtowers, where we take pictures and soak in an amazing view of the entire fortress. It also happens to be a great spot to take in the sunset.
In the distance, I see two motorcycles kicking up dirt as they approach the fortress. I briefly wonder if they are modern-day bandits and we’re on their turf. But just as quickly as the thought arises, I remember I’m in Iran, one of the safest countries, and my passing thought dissipates like the cloud of dirt from the motorcycles.
Once night falls, we start our campfire cooking- baked potatoes, grilled mushrooms, even grilled fish (but no S’mores). Later, there’s guitar-playing and singing. As for me, I lie down to stargaze. Those childhood trips to the planetarium come in handy because with no light pollution, I can make out Cassiopeia, dobe Akbar (the Big Dipper), and dobe Asghar (the Little Dipper) alongside a billion other stars. For the first time in my life, I even see a shooting star! It’s truly a breathtaking sight- one that is very reminiscent of the crystal clear skies of the Atacama.
After a freezing night in which neither my sleeping bag, coat, or tent are able to keep me remotely warm, I’m finally comforted by the morning sun and wake up to what is probably my favorite sound in the entire world: sheep bells. There’s something about the gentle chimes interspersed with the occasional “baa” that instill in me such serenity. I peek out of the tent and am greeted by a herd of goats who have come to sip water from the pool next to the pomegranate orchard by our campsite. Some are lined up along the water, others feed their curiosity by climbing on the crumbling mud walls like mischievous goats will do.
With caffeine now running through my veins, I head back into the fortress to see what it looks like in morning light. As I walk through what seems to be caravanserai rooms, I’m again lost in my thoughts, just as I am any time I come across anything ruined or abandoned. Who might have slept in there? What did it look like all those years ago? What did they decorate those tâghche with? I even search for some opening to the secret tunnels I heard about. What can I say- I’m an 80s kid and was always awestruck by adventures like Indiana Jones and The Goonies. Deep down, I secretly wish to have one of my own- maybe pop down one of those hidden tunnels and come across a Qajar-era One-Eyed Willy still guarding his booty. I find what looks like pathways to the underground, but they’re unfortunately caved in. Or maybe that’s just what I want them to be.
As I head back to the campsite, my travel mates start to make their appearances one by one: one comes back from an early morning jog up to the mountains, another is brewing tea, and still, others are just now poking their heads out of the tents squinting their eyes in the morning light.
The Camera-Killing Pomegranate Orchard
We spread out in front of the fortress and toss a frisbee back and forth. As the morning goes on, a couple of families appear, ready to spend their Friday outdoors. When the sun’s heat gets to be too much, I go to the somewhat shady pomegranate orchard and pick up some of the fruit lying on the ground. They are completely dried, feel almost as hard as rocks, and yet they are perfectly preserved. I collect the pomegranates that are in better condition while holding onto my camera until a freak accident sends my camera crashing to the ground. It absolutely devastates me as the lens now malfunctions and won’t open anymore. It’s not a professional camera or anything, but it’s been my loyal travel companion for 10 years. (And now every time I look at the copper bowl of dried pomegranates on my coffee table, I end up thinking that I sacrificed my camera for them.)
As the desert sun amps up its heat, I think how just a few hours earlier, I was shivering, wishing for it! Before it gets too unbearable, though, we pack up our things and head out back to my beloved concrete jungle.
Desert of a Billion Stars
It’s always great to get back into nature, but for me, there is something so spectacularly peaceful about the desert in particular. I would highly recommend a stop at this [unfortunately] abandoned site, which is now frequented by desert trekkers and campers. If you don’t want to live too primitively, you can stay at the eco-camp in Matin Abad (about an hour away), which already has tents pitched outside, showers, a teahouse, and camels. But if you are up for a nice getaway from civilization and don’t mind rudimentary toilet conditions, you can pitch your own tent right next to Karshahi Fortress, in the desert of a billion stars.
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