0936 GMT October 15, 2019
“Most of the foreign tourists in Iran come from Europe where there are lots of tall mountains, so I have a hard time convincing them to see the Zardkouh,” said Farshid Zandi of Zandi Tours. “I have only taken three groups of foreigners there so far, but each time they told me it was the highlight of their holiday in Iran.”
Half the world
I met Zandi in Isfahan, the resplendent former capital of Iran. I'd come to see the soaring mosques and palaces and the elegant squares and gardens that inspired the 17th-century proverb ‘Isfahan nesf-e jahan’ (Isfahan is half the world). So I was somewhat taken aback when Zandi suggested I take a day out of my compact schedule for a 500km return journey to the Zardkouh to see the Bakhtiari, a nomadic tribe who'd made camp near the glaciers.
Into the hills
We left at 8 a.m. the next day. The first half of the journey cut through the semi-arid desert encircling Isfahan. But soon colossal snow-capped promontories shot into the sky and patches of green — the first I'd seen in Iran outside of oases — riddled the landscape.
When we passed the city of Shahr-e Kord, the so-called ‘Roof of Iran at 2,070m above sea level, I saw a series of signposts bearing black-and-white portraits of men and boys. Zandi explained that they were martyrs who died in 1980-1988 Iraqi-imposed war.
The last resort
Most people don’t know that Iran has lots of snow and world-class pistes. Although the most popular places to ski are in the Alborz Mountains north of Tehran, the village of Chelgerd, the last population center before the glaciers, morphs into a low-key alpine resort from November through April.
The graffiti sprayed on this boulder on Chelgerd's outskirts reads “Baba Haje Restaurant. Kebab, chicken kebab, dizi [an Iranian casserole], milk, yogurt and hot water. We welcome you, dear tourists.”
Sheikh Khan Waterfall, nine kilometers after Chelgerd, is one of countless cascades found in the Zardkouh. Although we were no longer in the desert, the high-altitude plateau still bore great swaths of mustard-colored soil. When contrasted against the waterfall, the visual effect was surreal, as though a vertical spring had miraculously burst from a precipice in the desert. After filling our water bottles with crystal-clear water, we continued on our way.
A short distance from the waterfall, we passed a family of Bakhtiari nomads herding goats along the road. Historically, the Bakhtiari were both pastoralists and hunters who shot ibex, wolf, fox, jackal, hyena and leopard, all once found in considerable numbers in the Zardkouh. But as the Bakhtiari and others in western Iran gained access to modern weaponry, the wildlife population began to dwindle. In 1973, this part of the Zardkouh, known as Tang-e Sayyad or Hunters Valley, was proclaimed a protected zone and hunting was outlawed.
The Bakhtiari spend eight months a year in Khuzestan, a province in the southwestern Iran. They migrate to Zardkouh at the end of every April to escape summer temperatures that soar to 50°C, and remain here until mid-September, fattening up their livestock on fresh green grass.
This annual migration used to be a grueling week-long odyssey on foot through desert and snow. Today, however, the Bakhtiari travel by car and use trucks to transport their animals, though many of their other traditions still remain intact.
River of life
About 20km past the Sheikh Khan Waterfall, the bitumen ended and was replaced by a roughly-hewn dirt road. The air here was crisp and cool — an anomaly in the Iranian summer — while the vistas, like those in this photo of a Bakhtiari tent overlooking Hunters Valley, were astounding.
The 400-kilometer Zayandehround (Live River) that slices through the valley is one of the longest waterways in all of Iran. With the help of aquifers, it carries billions of cubic liters of melted snow to desert cities like Isfahan and Yazd, and as far south as the Bakhtiari's winter residence in Khuzestan.
After three and half hours on the road, we arrived at Chama Ice Cave, one of Zardkouh’s largest settlements that's home to some 100 Bakhtiari. The Bakhtiari have officially owned this land for generations, though they still enjoy the freedom of the nomadic way of life. They don't pay taxes, live by their own rules and are more-or-less self-sufficient. Yet according to tribesman Reza Abdollah, the nomadic lifestyle isn't always a bed of roses.
“I've never experienced life in the city though I think the people there have it better because we don't have good amenities here. But many of the people who come to visit us say they wish they could live like us,” he told me.
The best kebabs
Until a few years ago, Abdollah's income came from the sale of meat, milk and wool to local wholesalers. But recently, he and other Bakhtiari who spend their summers at Chama Ice Cave have been able to supplement their income by feeding the small groups of Iranian tourists – newly middle class due to the improving economy ¬– who drive up from Isfahan for picnics at the Zardkouh.
The kebab is Iran's national dish and kebab chenjeh, made with the meat of newly slaughtered sheep, is the most succulent and expensive. Grilled on a charcoal barbeque, the meat is so tender and flavorsome that it doesn't need any sauce. We ate it with Iranian flat bread, onion and salt.
Other nomads at Chama Ice Cave have found different ways to cash in on tourists, selling honey, herbs and yogurt as well as colorful handmade woolen rugs.
Nomadic dress up
One particularly entrepreneurial family at Chama Ice Cave has concocted a novel business idea: A makeshift studio where tourists can dress up in traditional Bakhtiari dress and pose for portraits. When I asked the family patriarch how often foreign tourists come here, he told me next to never, that I was the first to visit this year.
The last leg
After lunch, Ahmad took Zandi and I to see the glaciers. The closest one to the settlement lies at the base of a cavern with a raging white-water river running through it. The glacier was about the size of a bus and covered in so much dust and grime that it was only distinguishable as a solid block of ice up close.
Another, much larger glacier (pictured) sits deeper inside the cavern; its tail runs more than 100m up the mountain. Juxtaposed against the desert-like surroundings, the ice looks unreal, like it shouldn't really be there.
The ice wasn't hard as I'd imagined; it was soft to touch like well-packed snow. But it was still slippery to walk on, and Zandi and I progressed at a snail's pace while Ahmad scampered along. He led us to the edge of the glacier and onto a boulder in the middle of a freezing-cold stream where we could see a gap that was slowly forming between the base of the glacier and the flowing water. Ahmad explained that by August a tunnel large enough to walk into will form under the glacier. The settlement of Chama Ice Cave, which means ‘ice cave’ in the Bakhtiari dialect, was named after the phenomenon.