My last visit to Shiraz had been all about luxuriating in the fragrant air, mellow evenings and experiencing finer insights of an Iranian household. Tiam’s house had been a wonderful old building stuffed with ornate furniture, memory marked rooms and her mother’s hand woven carpets. Our every post lunch and before siesta ritual had been to group inside their pretty little garden, check out if the grapes and sour oranges were right for picking and watch her mother weave flowers into fuzzy carpets.

Shiraz effortlessly made people lethargic and the big Iranian lunches and doog were designed for siesta lovers. Thus it had been no wonder that in just few minutes, we would all be softly snoring on the half finished carpets as the splendid city outside, also snoozed away to glory. Thus had continued our gentle Shirazi pace and it had been very relaxing, even for a restless traveler in me. Only once during that stay, had I willingly budged out for a getaway and it had been a wonderful experience. On one weekend Tiam’s father had proposed an outing to his lazy bunch and had herded us out of the house, before we could even decide. He had driven us to the nearby Qalat village for an outing and being an avid mountaineer, even Tiam’s mother had looked forward to the trip.

Located around 30 kilometers away from Shiraz, the old village of Qalat had been a popular weekend getaway for Shirazis and nestled at the foot of a mountain, it had been surrounded by orchards and flowers. Geographically, Fars is a very pretty region and Shiraz and it’s surroundings are verdant. Shiraz is surrounded Allah Akbar and Mother Mountains, both of which form a part of the formidable Zagros Mountain range. Owing to it’s pregnant woman silhouette and excellent trekking trails, Mother Mountain had been a favourite among Shirazis and on every national holiday, the area had teemed with campers, trekkers and hikers. In fact, outdoor sports is a national passion of Iran and holidays see every inch of the country getting choked with brightly coloured tents. Iranians, irrespective of gender, age and status quo love nature and are forever ready to camp, picnic, trek and hike at the drop of a hat. Iran had been experiencing summer holiday at the time of my last visit and during my entire road trip, I had seen the incredible phenomenon of locals, including entire families camping in the open countryside, meadows and even city parks.

It had been a weekend and Qalat village had been filled to the gills. Cars had snaked the narrow hilly road and gregarious Shirazis had trudged uphill. The old dirt trail had resembled a river of colourful butterflies and plastered nose and beautiful smiles had flashed in dozens. Iranians are connoisseurs of beauty and like many countries in SE Asia, beauty enhancing plastic surgeries had been wildly popular there. Every other person in urban Iran, at some point of their life, had happily gone under the knife and the naturally beautiful people had emerged looking more perfect, most of the times. Checking out who had done “it” and “where” had been Tiam and my favourite cheeky pass time and Qalat weekend had provided us enough opportunities for catty remarks and silly giggles.

After, parking our car at a hard earned spot, we too had followed the colourful giggling trail and had climbed uphill in a file. Although the date of origin of Qalat had been unknown, it had been evident that the village had been there for quite some time. Possibly a fortified fortress had also existed somewhere in midst of the ruined, abandoned looking village and Qalat had shown the 1st signs of Arab invasions, which had raged through Iran during the Sassanid period (224-651 AD). Upholders of Zoroastrian religion, the Sassanid emperors had coined the title of “Shahenshah” and they had been quite powerful until constant warfare had weakened them from within. Thus it had been around 7th century, when the mighty zealous Arabs had attacked Iran and started a fierce propagation of Islam throughout the region. The attacks had been very methodical and they had forced the gentle art loving Persians to escape the big cities. Thus Iran is riddled with old fortified villages which are tucked into every nook and cranny of the country’s mountains, forests and valleys. During my road trip, I had experienced a few of Iran’s most famous historical villages and though, Qalat had not been the prettiest among them, it had made a nice day trip from Shiraz.

Qalat’s locale had been refreshingly beautiful and it had cozily nestled among the pomegranate forests of Mother Mountain. Famous for old mud houses, an ancient church and nomadic settlers, the village had been pretty atmospheric too and I had loved the way mud arched walkways had cast deep long shadows into narrow rustic alleys. Sadly, a lot of those houses had been in shambles and newly constructed buildings had started rearing their ugly heads among them. They had filled in the gaps, where the old houses had collapsed in pile of rubble and arrogant, new and shining, they had diluted Qalat’s rustic charm to quite some extent. Tiam and I both had severe aversion to destruction of heritage and so, we had wandered towards the broken, older parts of Qalat for a walk down the history lane. It had been a lovely walk, with old heavy wooden doors, winding dirt trails and blooming pomegranate forests which had scented the air wildly. The walk had zigzagged around corners, rustic eating houses and had lead us uphill towards Mother Mountain. Soon, the heavy wooden tables of Qalat restaurants and flower pots of inhabited homes had melted away and nature had resembled a Garden of Eden. Fig orchards, apple groves and flower filled meadows had lain on both side of our trail and grape heavy vines had possessively  clung to the fruit laden shrubs.

We had hiked all the way to the top and had relaxed by a gushing waterfall with our evening tea. Hardly any of Qalat’s visitors had been around and the mellow sunset atop Mother Mountain had belonged solely to us. With fragrant soft air, fresh peachy skies and refreshing kisses of the waterfall’s spray on our faces, time had seemed to have stopped there and we had seriously considered camping there for the night. However, with no equipment, it had seemed to be a difficult idea and Qalat had reputation of being quite cold at night. A few wild animals had also roamed the wilderness and with the setting in of a dim twilight, we had started our trek back to the village. With no electricity or paved road to the top, it had been a tricky walk down and we had followed Tiam’s mountaineering expert parents blindly.

The walk had taken longer than we had expected and by the time we had reached the village, a velvety dark purple dusk had made the village light bulbs blink weakly. It had been our cue to head back to Shiraz and we had just enough time to stop briefly at Qalat’s famous ancient church. The church had stood gloomily at a corner road and had been completely deserted when we had arrived. Not even the old nomadic beggars had been around and the usual noisy homecoming birds had been strangely silent. The church’s abandoned garden had been unkempt and overgrown and heavy tangle of overgrown fig and pomegranate bushes had scratched us to bits. Wild exotic fruit trees are quintessentially Iranian and throughout all my visits, the sight of masses of grapes, figs, olives and pomegranates growing in the open had never failed to mesmerize me.

It had been one of my personal Iranian highs and I had loved the way, I could just pluck a ripe pomegranate or grape bunch growing in the wild, to munch on the go. The church garden too had been filled with exotic fruits, but with a fast approaching dusk and urban legend of the mad woman of Qalat, lurking on my mind, I had been more than glad to leave that place. It is strange how, with an addition to a spooky tale (and being aware of it), a seemingly harmless looking place can suddenly turn ominous  and in the deserted shadows of the church garden, my imagination had played eerie games. According to local legends, a Qalat woman was once so grieved after her husband’s death that she had starved herself away into raving madness and finally to death. Though her spirit is said to be seen, still searching for her husband at Qalat, she had never reportedly harmed any mortal soul.

We had left Qalat soon and driven back to Shiraz in exhausted, contented silence. I had to get started for Esfahan the next evening and it had been my last evening with the wonderful Nickseresht family. I had missed them a lot during the rest of the trip and more than once, when Iranian travel woes had bogged me down, had wanted to run back to them for comfort. The road trip had been grand, exhaustive and an achievement in itself, but it had not been easy. There had been plenty of moments when shock, fatigue, frustration and loneliness had made me just want to go back home in India and it had taken just one phone call to Nickseresht family, to give me the strength to move on. That is why, regardless of it’s international image and politics, Iran, will always remain my favourite country in the world. For me it is not a destination, but a land of friends.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE

Some photos have been taken from the internet.

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Cocooned in Shiraz

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Among friends

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Had me very happy

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And I had felt

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To venture out

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Of the house

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Qalat had happened

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At my hosts’ insistence

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And the half abandoned village

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Had been a beautiful day trip

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Located in Fars province

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At the foothill of mountains

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Qalat had been

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Most charming

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Atmospheric

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Picturesque

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Surrounded by orchards

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Waterfalls

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And lovely hiking trails

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Qalat had been the

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Perfect combination of living

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Past and

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Lots of beauty