Gilan province in north of Iran is spectacularly beautiful. It is cool, hilly and very verdant. Proximity to Caspian Sea makes it a favorite destination for domestic tourists and every national holiday sees it getting filled to the gills. Accommodations are hard to find then and this makes tourists spill over to the nearby towns of the main city of Rasht. While, not quite pretty or comfortable, those places had mostly bordered along the Caspian Sea and the beaches had not been clean. My Gilan hotel too had been right on the beach and every morning I had woken up to loud happy shrieks of Iranian beach bums. Doting fathers of various ages, sizes and temperaments had frolicked in shorts with their children while the mothers had watched them from the shore. Resplendant in full make up and regular clothes, many women had fussed over her families breakfasts’ during that time, and only a handful sporty ones had braved the waves in their make up and full body swimsuit, which had been worn underneath regular clothes.

My lazy morning beach ritual had consisted of ogling at them from a distance and those had been some of my loneliest travel moments. While being on the road and chronicling new experiences is always adventurous, there are times when even the most carefree of nomads crave for a nest. The sight of the happy families had thus, always made me feel very nostalgic and to divert myself from caving into homesickness, I used to gawk at the holidaymakers’ uniqueness. While the made up bathing beauties had never ceased to amaze me, it had been their post swim touch ups which had forever made me their fan. Iranian women in general love make up and the naturally beautiful ladies often tend to go overboard with it. While the Persian passion for flawless beauty is expected and above reproach, Iran’s obsession for it had been fantastic to watch. Corrective plastic surgeries had been raging through Iran at that time and my favourite people watching activity had included counting the number of plastered noses in a crowded place. The numbers had always been phenomenal and Iran is a country of beautiful people.

Because of crowded roads and choked hills, on my last Gilan visit, people watching from my dump of a hotel room had featured high on my to do list and unfortunately much of the beautiful province had been left unexplored. But thankfully, my previous visits had made up for it and I had always come back to Rasht for more. One of the reasons of my Rasht love had been Mahdis Asgari and she had been the first person to introduce me to the lovely place. A trainee tourist guide and an exceptionally welcoming person, Mahdis had been recommended to me by Tiam and I have always struggled to maintain non partiality between the two. She had come my way on a very early Rasht morning, when her father had driven a very frantic Mahdis to the bus stop. I had arrived from Shiraz by the overnight bus and she had been very late in picking me up from the terminal. My first sight of her had been of a sweet faced tensed young girl,  who had been running around the deserted bus stop like a headless chicken. Her equally worried father had trailed behind her and their profuse heartfelt apologies had melted me on the spot.

The Asgaris’ relief upon finding me had been extremely touching and to make up for the fiasco, they had firmly planted me in their car and driven me straight to their house. Thus I had ended up being their house guest for more than a week and it had been my lucky second chance of experiencing the amazing Iranian hospitality. Asgaris had been exceptional hosts and they had included me into their lives in the most natural way. Mornings at Asgaris’home had started with helping Mahdis and her mom prepare breakfast, after which she had driven us to the market to assist her in shopping. Our days had passed with three of us exploring the surrounding areas and evenings had called for meeting with their friends and relatives. They had been very popular in their social circle and I had been proudly shown off. My Hind (India) connection had been flaunted freely and I had been serenaded by most popular Bollywood songs by their friends. Those had been some of my most memorable Iran moments and I had been lucky enough to have experienced a wedding during that stay.

The Asgaris had been on vacation on my last visit and without them, Gilan had seemed a bit colourless and less pretty to me. I had missed them, while staring listlessly from my room window and being cooped up in the terrible hotel had made me feel even more grateful to them for their hospitality.

TRAVEL TIP – It is nearly impossible to book hotels in Iran through regular online sites like TripAdvisor, Booking.com etc . However you can book them through Iranhotels.com or through established Iranian travel agencies. Another option is to contact a local guide before arriving who works out everything for you. The hotel standards in north of Iran are quite low so come mentally prepared. However provinces like Gilan and Sari are spectacularly beautiful and for nature lovers, they should not be missed.

I had explored a bit of Gilan with the Asgaris and they had taken me to various day trips around Rasht. The lotus filled Anzali lagoon and the misty hike to the Ghal-e-rudkhan castle had happened because of them and both of them have been very memorable trips. Gilan is a beautifully diverse province and those 2 trips had showed off its natural scenic differences very distinctly. While one had been a brackish bird filled lagoon on the Caspian Sea, the castle had been perched upon 2 high green hills and waterfall filled forests had tumbled down its sides. The drive to both the places had been pretty interesting too and strangely, the distance between the 2 had not been much. In fact, we had visited Anzali Lagoon and the castle in one day and the change of scenery from coastline to the mountains had been very photogenic. It had been an early Sunday morning when we had left Rasht to explore the Gilan hinterland and the province of silver rain had been struggling under sweltering humid clouds.

Thus our drive to Anzali Lagoon had been marked with coastal mugginess and damp green flats had bordered both sides of the road.  An important Iranian sea port, Bandar-e-Anzali on Caspian Sea had been choc a block full of huge seafaring vessels and the water had been a curious mix of clearly demarcated blue green. The lagoon, which had been famous for its dense lotus forests had been a bird watchers paradise and the polluted brackish water had been filled with sightseeing boats. It had been August when we had visited Anzali and the entire lagoon had been a sea of pink. Lotuses had bloomed profusely creating excitement among birds and photographers and boats had lined up in endless chaos. Beautiful migratory birds and local vendors, too had made full use of the lagoon and floating coffee shops had bobbed next to brilliant feathered creatures. We too had gone on a sightseeing boat trip but it had been a matter of minutes before we had returned back to the shore. Heat, chaos and crowd had made the experience pretty difficult to enjoy and we had preferred to relax at a local restaurant with huge platters of traditional Anzali dishes.

TRAVEL TIP – Gilan cuisine is famous for seafood, caviar and delectable cuisine. Mirza Ghasemi, one of its signature dishes is a smoked aubergine and egg stew and is unbelievably delicious.Try it as a side dish along with other accompaniments like whole pickled garlic, olives in pomegranate paste and smoked fish.There is also Fesenjan, the rich tangy duck stew and Kebab Torsh or sour kebab (another Gilani specialty) The walnut paste and pomegranate juice sauce, uniquely Gilani are used to marinade the kebabs thus rendering it a tangy flavor. There is also a delicious fish stew and smoked sturgeon.

We had left Anzali Lagoon after lunch and had slowly meandered our way up to Ghal-e-Rudkhan Castle. The drive had been refreshing and the beautiful countryside had been one huge garden. Flower heavy wild rose bushes had bordered the road like a fragrant wall and daffodil clusters had danced in the sun. The flat farm lands had been dissected by small streams and ducks had noisily waddled along the fresh green grass. Soon hillocks had started appearing in the distance and by the time pine forests had shown up like dark patches, the air had been misty cool. Mountains had taken over the landscape quickly and we had weaved along heavily forested winding roads. Ghal-e-rudkhan castle had been easy to reach and located high in the green mountains, it had looked like middle Earth. Built as a military outpost during the Seljuk dynasty, the complex had included a medieval brick and stone castle which had straddled 2 peaks. A long winding trail through dense forests had lead to its massive entrance and a few thousand steps had encompassed its towers.  The castle had provided us with a good hike and post our massive Gilan lunch, it had been rather required.

The hike had been a beautiful one too, with green, mist washed mountains and beautifully islolated forests. Streams had gurgled down mossy glens and here and there, small outdoor restaurants had made it look very atmospheric. Tea vendors had peddled hot bevearage and cookies from little shacks and samovars had steamed like genies. It had been a scene out of a very romantic Persian poetry and we had slowed our pace to take in the beauty. It had been a bit late, by the time we had reached the castle and immediately dark clouds had descended upon us. It had absolutely breathtaking at the top and we had breathed lungs full of cool air, as eagles had drifted in and out of the mists. Rain had fallen soon and it had been a drizzle befitting the province of silver rain. Fine, gauze like and blowing in the wind like silver curtains, the rain had submerged the desolate castle in a painting like mysterious beauty. The sudden downpour had cut short our Ghal-e-Rudkhan exploration, but being tired from the hike, neither me or Mahdis had minded it much. We had huddled, instead, in the mossy shadows of the old castle and stuck our tongues out like children, to catch the rain. Sweet, cold and needle like sharp, the rain drops had felt like pure nectar.

Persians are highly romantic people and their perchance for beauty is world famous. But to seek, find and excel in it at every point of space and time, is an art possessed by this ancient civilization itself. This trait had been passed on even when Persia had been reborn as Iran and when blessed with such simple, understated loveliness like Ghal-e-Rudkhan Castle, it is not difficult to practise this exquisite soul soothing habit. I too had felt and cultivated this habit during my time in Iran and on that Gilan day I had reveled in it among old bricks, soft moss and silver rain. The scene had reminded me of Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful quote, ” We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting. ” And to me that’s the essence of travel, the spirituality of exploration and the reason why tasting nectar sweet raindrops in the misty hills of Gilan had felt so divine.

TRAVEL TIP – It is better to do Ghal-e-Rudkhan Castle in the first half of the day as it is a good thousands of steps hike and some parts of the stony path are broken and slippery due to the constant rainfall the area receives. There is no electricity in the entire trail and in the evening hours it tends to get quite dim. Ponies are also available for those not willing to do the long walk.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE

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Historical Kermanshah

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Had seemed like

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A distant memory

When clouds of Gilan

When clouds of Gilan had descended upon us

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Flowers had grown out of thin air

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And Gilan’s famous natural beauty

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Had bombarded us

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At every step

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It had been a very pretty province

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Full of diversity

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And culture

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With warm local friends

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Making the experience even better

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Anzali had been a lot of fun

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But it had been

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The misty heights of Ghal-e-Rudkhan

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Which had literally taken my breath away