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In May 2022, I guided a small group of travellers to visit a Qashqai nomadic family in the Zagros Mountains, about 2 hours from Shiraz, Iran. It was a memorable trip, a brief but exciting and intense encounter with a unique culture that is slowly fading away.
The family's son picked us up in Shiraz and drove us to the camp in his old Defender. The summer camp is located in a beautiful valley, a nature-protected area. We encountered a vehicle with government permits, which our guide said were there to control unauthorized access. We had a special permit that allowed us to visit the area and contribute to the nomads' livelihood.
It is estimated that around 1.5 million nomads live in Iran today, one of the most well-known being the Qashqai. These Turkic people from Central Asia have been roaming the deserts of southwestern Iran for centuries, having settled there in the 11th and 12th centuries.
When we arrived at the main tent, an older woman in traditional dress welcomed us with a smile. She invited us under the shelter and offered us tea made from herbs she had collected in the area. She told us the name of the herbs, but I could not remember it. When we asked if we could pick some up ourselves, she said they find them under the snow on the hill behind the tents, so it was not so easy.
The Qashqai are pastoral nomads who farm and raise livestock on a small scale. Their traditional dress includes ornate short tunics, loose trousers, and head scarves worn by the women.
Twice a year, they move their herds between summer pastures in the highlands north of Shiraz (some 480 km or 300 miles south) and winter pastures in the lower, warmer areas near the Persian Gulf, southwest of Shiraz. However, since the 1960s, many Qashqai have become partially or entirely sedentary due to pressure and encouragement from the government. Despite this, some Qashqai people refuse to give up their traditional way of life and continue to live as their ancestors have for centuries.
We were invited to witness the woman milking the goats, and then we attempted it ourselves, though with little success. It is not easy and requires training and practice, even though it may appear to be a game.
The woman offered us two types of cheese. Our guide explained in detail the cheese-making process and the various products obtained from the milk, which was quite impressive. I could not remember all the steps and products. The dried cheese we sampled was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted, absolutely fantastic. Of course, you cannot get that same flavor in the city or from a factory. The surrounding hills, pastures, herbs grazed by the animals, sunshine, and clean air all contribute significantly to the cheese production, not to mention the hard-working nomads.
The husband appeared briefly, looking tired. He said he had to get up at 4:00 a.m. to tend to the animals, mostly goats.
Despite the political and economic turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, many of the 400,000 Qashqai in southwestern Iran remain nomadic herders. The 1978-1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran spurred a revival of tribalism and a return to productive pastoralism.
We couldn't help but notice the fine carpets beneath us. The Qashqai are renowned for their pile carpets and other woollen products. These carpets are sometimes referred to as "Shiraz" after the city of Shiraz, the main market for them in the past. The wool produced in the mountains and valleys near Shiraz is incredibly soft and beautiful, with a deeper hue than wool from other parts of Iran.
Despite the issues the Qashqai are facing, it is evident that the Iranian government is invested in their wellbeing. For instance, they manage and regulate migration routes and livestock. Additionally, designating the area as a nature reserve is a positive move to protect not only the wildlife and rare flora, but also the nomads' traditional lifestyle.
We took a short walk to one of the nomads' wells, giving us an impression of the area. The valley was lovely and clean, with nomadic tents scattered around. Our hosts said around 15 families live there, all knowing and communicating with each other.
The family's household was poor; one tent served as storage, another for cooking, and the last as a bedroom, where our host took an afternoon nap.
The food was delicious - tender meat, fluffy rice, and perfectly cooked vegetables cooked over an open fire. I'm not much of a foodie, so I can't recall the names of the dishes, but they were simply amazing. We even had what they call "nomad ice cream", which is ice collected from the nearby hills that still had some snow from winter, mixed with a sweet, sorbet-like topping.
The Qashqai are one of Iran's largest nomadic tribes, alongside the Bakhtiari (known from the classic documentaries Grass and People of the Wind). They have been the subject of scholarly studies, popular novels like The Last Migration by Vincent Cronin (1957), and films such as Gabbeh by Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
We had a wonderful day with this lovely family. I began making plans for longer hikes in the Zagros Mountains. The local guide informed us that people usually hike from camp to camp through the mountains for three or four days, spending the night with the nomads to experience their way of life.
Travel to Iran
We usually have one or two small groups (max 7/8 participants) per year traveling to Iran. If you are interested in joining a group setting out from Europe, please drop me a line. We will provide more information, like dates, a program, and other details.