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In May 2022, along with a small group of travellers I was guiding through Iran, I visited a Qashqai nomadic family. We travelled to their summer camp at about 2,900 metres in the Zagros Mountains, about a 2-hour from Shiraz, Iran. It was a fantastic trip, a short but exciting and intense encounter with a fascinating but slowly disappearing culture. 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 picturesque valley high in the Zagros Mountains, a nature-protected area. We encountered a vehicle with government licences, which our guide said were there to control unauthorised access. We had a special permit that was recently introduced to allow tourists to visit the area and thus contribute to the nomads.
It is estimated that about 1.5 million nomads live in Iran today. One of the best-known nomadic groups is the Qashqai. Nomadic for generations, they belong to the Turkic peoples from Central Asia who settled in Iran in the 11th and 12th centuries and have been roaming the harsh deserts of southwestern Iran for hundreds of years. A smiling older woman in traditional dress welcomed us outside the main tent, which had been specially decorated and prepared for guests. 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. We asked if we could pick up some for ourselves, but she said they find them under the snow on the hill behind the tents, so it is not so fast and easy.
The Qashqai are pastoral nomads who farm and raise livestock on a small scale. Traditional dress includes ornate short tunics, loose trousers, and head scarves worn by the women. The traditional nomadic Qashqai move their herds twice a year between summer pastures in the highlands north of Shiraz, some 480 km or 300 miles south, and winter pastures in the lower (and warmer) areas near the Persian Gulf, southwest of Shiraz. Most of them, however, have now become partially or entirely sedentary. The trend toward sedentarisation has increased since the 1960s under pressure and encouragement from the government. However, many Qashqai people refuse to give up their traditional way of life and continue to live as their ancestors have lived for centuries.
We were invited to see how the woman milked the goats, and then we tried it ourselves, though without much success. It is not easy and requires training and practise, even if it looks like a game.
The woman offered us cheese, actually two kinds of cheese. Our guide explained in detail the process of cheese making and the products obtained from the milk, the variety and number of which were impressive. I could not remember all the steps and products. The dried cheese we tried was one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my mouth, absolutely fantastic. Of course, you can not get that taste in the city or the factory. The hills around, the pastures, the herbs grazed by the animals, the sunshine and clean air, not to mention the hard-working nomads, play a significant role in the cheese production.
The husband appeared for a while but was quite tired. He explained that he had to get up early at about 4:00 a.m. to graze the animals, primarily goats. Despite the crippling political and economic upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s, a large portion of the 400,000 Qashqai in southwestern Iran is still pastoral nomads. The 1978-1979 revolution and the establishment of the new Islamic Republic of Iran facilitated a rapid resurgence of tribalism and a resumption of highly productive pastoralism.
We could not have noticed the fine carpets on which we sat. The Qashqai are famous for their pile carpets and other woven wool products. They are sometimes referred to as "Shiraz" because Shiraz was the primary market for them in the past. The wool produced in the mountains and valleys near Shiraz is exceptionally soft and beautiful. It takes on a deeper colour than wool from other parts of Iran.
Regardless of the problems the Qashqai face today, it has become clear that the Iranian government cares about them and is making efforts. The authorities maintain and control the migration corridors for the Qashqai and the livestock for example. The announcement of the area as a nature reserve is also a positive step towards protecting not only the animals and rare plants but also the traditional way of life of the nomads.
We took a short walk to one of the wells used by the nomads, which gave us an impression of the area - the valley is lovely, clean, with nomadic tents dotted around. Our hosts said that about 15 families live there, all knowing each other and communicating constantly. The family's household was poor - one small tent served as storage, another for cooking, and another as a bedroom where our host took an afternoon nap.
The food though was delicious - meat with rice and some vegetables cooked on the fire. I am not much of a culinary person, which is why I can not remember the names of the dishes, but they were just fantastic. We even ate what they call "nomad ice cream", which is ice collected from the nearby hills that still had some snow on them from winter, combined with something sweet, similar to sorbet.
The Qashqai are one of Iran's largest nomadic tribes, along with the Bakhtiari (known from the classic documentaries Grass and People of the Wind). They have been the subject of several scholarly studies, popular novels such as The Last Migration by Vincent Cronin (1957), and films such as Gabbeh by Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
We spent a fantastic day with this beautiful family. I started making plans for longer hikes in the Zagros Mountains. The local guide told us that people usually hike from camp to camp through the mountains for 3 or 4 days, staying overnight with the nomads to enjoy the nomadic lifestyle. Our next adventure is already in my head, so stay tuned!
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We usually have one or two small groups (max 7/8 participants) per year travelling 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.