From Alamut to the sea

Nobody knows the road after Alamut. The guide books come only this far. They report only from hearsay about whatever lays beyond it. They do not even know whether there is a road, and if yes, what quality. Although the map shows a daunting series of serpentines from Garmarud upwards, it is not known whether it is only accessible by jeep, or not even that. The 2012 Lonely Planet goes so far as proposing the hire of a mule driver in Garmarud, “if we want to be one of just a handful of foreigners since Freya Stark (in the 1930s) to make such a trip”.

After the turnoff to Alamut, we cross a ravine. The narrower and narrower band of the Alamut river here had elbowed out for itself a spacious valley, showing how wide it swells in late spring, when snow starts melting up on Salambar Pass. The valley is now covered by a cobweb of rice fields, and it is filled with the humming of the threshing machines, like the chirping of cicadas. Then the road becomes increasingly steep, the mountains higher, the valley narrower, and the rice fields disappear. We arrive at the head of the valley, the last village, Garmarud.

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At the end of the village, a rock blocks the way, meaningfully towering from the river bed, as if indicating the end of the inhabited world. Before, whoever had any reason to go further could do so only via the riverbed. The shepherds had to wait until the end of spring flooding before they could drive their flocks to the summer pastures of Piche Bon. Only a couple of years ago they carved out a thin road in the rock face above the river, the vegetation has not yet grown back on the side of its embankment.

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The road rises with steep hairpin bends, from higher and higher up we look down upon the canyon. On the bare rock, dwarf pines, thistles, and some quick-growing flowers. A griffon vulture is circling above us.

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As soon as the serpentine comes up on the ridge, the asphalt suddenly ends. Only a dirt road goes further, who knows for how long. The great Alborz watershed is about forty kilometers away from here. If we manage to get there, from there we can descend to the sea. If we do not manage to do so before dusk, we can still turn back to Garmarud, to the Navizar guest house. A jeep comes from the other side. “What is the road like?” “Well, like this, er, viable. By evening you will get to Piche Bon”, he points to the tiny hamlet across the vast valley, “from there tomorrow morning you can go over to Maran.” Not very encouraging, we should travel thrice as much to reach the sea.

The golden hour reaches us on the plateau of Piche Bon. A flock is grazing on the plateau, the light tints with a golden contour the backbones of the animals and of the hills. On the same plateau, at the same afternoon hour, but eighty years before us, Freya Stark wrote this in her diary:

“Out in the sunset the homing flocks poured like honey down the hillside, with their shepherds behind them; beyond the cries and greetings, the barking and noises of the camp, lay the silence of uninhabited mountains, a high and lonely peace.”

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At the last ray of the sun we reach Salambar Pass. The small Safavid-era carvansaray built on the pass indicates that the road from Alamut to the sea was regularly used even in the times when the road was viable only on muleback indeed. The mountain landscape opens up around us, the snow of last year still lies between the rocks of Alam-Kuh that dominate the region. Here wrote Freya Stark:

“And then I took a last look over the landscape: the Assassins’ valley westward to its vaporous defile, Balarud on its ledge, like a toy far below, and, hiding the Rock of Alamut, Haudegan with a clean edge against the sky. Still three hours down our old route to Maran, along a narrow valley walled by the Salambar, green on its northern side. Steep fields appeared with cocks of hay made black by constant mists. The river rolled below us in a bed made by its own millenniums of effort; it dug itself a canyon, and wound like a worm in its earth hole.”

We also go downhnill towards Maran on the narrow dirt road, a steep serpentine, with a deep abyss to the right hand. I drive carefully, but I would like to reach the village before dark. From here there is no return to Garmarud. If the dusk surprises us before Maran, we must ask for accommodation in the 150-strong village. We do not even have time to get off to nearby Sahrestan, where I wanted to ask whether they remember the Hungarian engineer mentioned by Freya Stark. The engineer tried to sell gramophones in Tehran, but he failed, and then he moved here with his Greek wife, commissioned by Shah Reza Pahlavi to survey the estates confiscated by him from aristocrats who had been faithful to the Qajars.

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The dirt road is good, we manage to pass by Maran before dusk. The serpentine continues to descend, and at the sixty-strong village of Yuj we reach another river in the valley of Seh Hizar. This runs to the north, into the Caspian Sea. The landscape suddenly changes, as if we were walking in another country. The rocks are covered by thick green vegetation, we go ever lower through green forests. Leaving behind the last one, the dirt road changes back into an asphalted one. We reach a high plateau. Beneath us, the lights of a large city, and beyond them, on the horizon, a hazy gray stripe. Θάλαττα! θάλαττα! We made it.