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15 November 2021

Iran’s Caspian Coast – Memories From a 1984 Journey

Mark Elliott remembers his first visit to the Caspian and ponders the apparent contradictions of seaside resorts where attractions include rain and the chance to swim fully dressed.

iran coast

In season, Iran’s Caspian beaches are packed with domestic tourists. Image: Zurijeta/Shutterstock 

In 1984 I was a clueless, penniless student. On something of a whim, I’d bought a one-way ticket from London to Karachi (via fabulous Damascus as that was the cheapest route). Any idea I might have had of taking my own short walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby style, had been restricted to Pakistan since the Soviet invasion that had removed Afghanistan from the old ‘hippy route.’ Instead, Hunza and the Kalash Valleys had offered a delightful alternative. But now I had to get home. So, lacking the funds to fly, I set off across the sun-baked Baluchi Desert. After a chilly night followed by a whole day sizzling on the roof of a local bus, I found myself in Iran.   

At the time, just five years after the revolution that had toppled the Shah, Iran was being portrayed as being fearsomely anti-Western. Apparently, when my parents told their friends that I was soon to be in Tehran, the reaction was akin to the announcement of terminal cancer. Of course, the reality couldn’t have been more different. I was blissfully unaware of ta’arof, the Persian form of politeness that means one should repeatedly turn down surreal levels of generosity from strangers. As a result, I shamelessly accepted invitations to eat with, stay with and even holiday with the kind, delightful Iranians I met. So it was that a fellow called Nasser, my long-suffering host in Tehran, announced that he could take me to the seaside. ‘Sure,’ I said when I should have been refusing the absurdly generous suggestion. We jumped into his nostalgic Paykan car and set off across the Alborz Mountains towards what I imagined would be sun-soaked paradise beaches.      

An orange car parked on the side of a road

Description automatically generated with medium confidence The classic Paykan – here shown in use as a taxi – was an Iranian-built take on the British Hillman Hunter designs of the 1960s and 70s. Image: Rico van Manen/ Shutterstock 

Happiness, they say, is life without expectations. The Iranian Caspian is fascinating, but a sun-soaked paradise it certainly isn’t. The first thing I discovered was that for people from the parched desert regions of Central Iran, one of its great attractions is the rain. A humid micro-climate makes the southwestern Caspian region unusually lush: there are even rice paddies in the hinterlands. The rain and the cooling billows of sea-mist were, for Nasser at least, a key draw. And clearly, he was not alone.   

A picture containing sky, water, outdoor, nature

Description automatically generated The Iranian Caspian west of Chalus. Image: Sara Aghvamy/Shutterstock 

The route west from Chalus, where the mountain road reached the sea, did not wind between the idyllic fishing villages and palm trees of my imagination. Instead, this was a traffic-choked series of main roads through town after busy town that almost merged into one gigantic low-rise sprawling suburb. “The seaside is popular, so everyone wants a holiday home here,” Nasser explained neutrally. Though of relatively modest means, Nasser’s family had their own little getaway on the edge of Ramsar. It was cozy and a fairly short drive from the ‘beach.’ Forget golden sands, the patch we found had a muddy consistency. The persistent drizzle didn’t encourage us to linger, though it was fascinating to watch a couple of ladies venturing into the shallow waters fully clad in black chador.