Ever fancied a trip combining walking, packrafting, cycling, ultrarunning and filmmaking...all in winter?
Probably not - it's kind of a silly idea. Even Tom and I couldn't have predicted that our journey in Iran could spawn this many variations. Yet it did, and it was probably the most fun trip I've ever been on. It wasn't easy to remain self-contained throughout all of that, but it was still well within the realms on possibility. At their heaviest (at the start) our packs weighed around 35kg. As the trip progressed, and we changed methods of transport, we would leave behind (or store) kit that we weren't going to use any more. The result was that by the end, when we ill-advisedly tried to run across a desert, we were down to 6kg packs.
The list below isn't meant to be perscriptive - I simply hope that it shows what's possible in this day in age with lightweight outdoor gear and ludicrously small camera kit. The things we have to carry to facilitate our journeys are increasingly less of a barrier to what's possible than ever before. That, above all, is exciting!
Big Agnes Storm King Sleeping Bag (0 deg F)
Compression sack for bag
Big Agnes Hinman Sleeping Pad (1.5")
Big Agnes Fly Creek Platinum 2-man tent (one to share)
Clothing and walking
Osprey Xenith 88 backpack
Small pack (bought additionally on trip for running)
Big Agnes Hole in the Wall down jacket
North Face Summit Series Rain Jacket
Railriders Explorer Short
BAM bamboo t-shirt
BAM bamboo long johns
Railriders VersaTac trousers
Smartwool Socks x2
Sleeveless Lightweight wetsuit
ECCO Hiking boots
Sunglasses ($2 from an Iranian market)
Black Diamond Hiking Poles
Canon XF100 video camera
5x32gb memory cards
2x16gb memory cards
3x7hr battery for XF100
Rode NTG-1 mic
Dead cat windshield
Canon battery charger
Zoom A1 Audio recorder
6x SD memory cards
3x 5hr battery for NEX-7
Small stills camera
Alpacka Denali Llama Packraft
Throwbag (one between us)
Puncture repair Kit
MSR Whisperlight International (one between us)
Waterproof smatphone case
Notes - this is per person, unless otherwise noted. It's also what I packed - the specifics of Tom's gear were sometimes slightly different.
Some brands are included where it's helpful to know what they are - others that are generic are not listed.
Some of this kit was provided to us free or charge or at cost price by the supplies; the rest was either bought for the trip, or we already owned it.
Our journey along the Karun was one of my favourite adventures to date. I tried to distill down the elements that made it so fun and here's what I came up with - my recipe for the perfect imperfect adventure:
'What's it really like in Iran?'
In order to try and answer that question properly, I went there myself. I travelled for five weeks, met hundreds of wonderful people, ended up in close to a dozen police stations and fell out of a boat in a fast-flowing river.
I've written about what I saw in Iran, and I've released a film about it too. What I haven't done though, is articulate exactly what it was that surprised, impressed or downright confused me when I was there. So here, in classic no-particular-order list form, are the main things I learned from travelling to Iran.
[Read more and see the film at www.karunfilm.com]
1. Iran has epic, snowy mountains
Iran is huge. I hadn't quite appreciated that. Just have another look at the map - it's almost 7 times larger than the UK; nearly as big as Alaska. Inevitably this means there is a lot more to it than the desert many might imagine. From the extreme north to south, and east to west, Iran's climate and geography changes dramatically. In the South-West, where we travelled, we began at 3,500 metres in -15C, knee-deep in snow with jagged peaks all around.
2. There is more to Iran than just Iranians
Iranians are great - more on that later. Until I visited, though, I had no idea that the people who made up the country were just as diverse as the landscape. Linguistically, culturally, religiously - it's a real hotchpotch. Just 53% of the population are native Farsi speakers (Farsi itself is not what most expect, being Indo-European in origin rather than Arabic.) There are seven other major ethnic minorities in the country, and it has the largest Jewish population in the region outside of Israel.
3. There is a tribe called the Bakhtiari, who still make an insane annual journey
The Bakhtiari are one of the largest nomadic tribes in Iran, and there are still some who practice an incredible migration twice a year, trekking on foot for days on end over 3000m passes with flocks and families to move from winter pastures to summer (and back again.) It's of this world. We met some Bakhtiari, but didn't see the migration. Check out People of the Wind and Grass for what it looks like...
4. Iranians only know three Irish people (and one of them I'd never heard of)
One, of course was a footballer. Roy Keane has made his mark in the pantheon of football history, and symbolises Ireland's sporting heritage. The second is a 'freedom fighter' (again, obvious!) There is even a Bobby Sands street in Tehran. The third was extremely odd. Regularly, when they found out where I was from, young Iranians would should 'Seamus, Seamus!' It wasn't until near the end of my journey that someone showed me a picture of 'Sheamus' - Ireland's latest offering to the world of professional wrestling entertainment, the WWE. Who knew...
5. Many Iranians still think fondly of the West (and feel hard done by that they might be labeled terrorists)
It's important to remember that I'm offering all these thoughts purely as personal experience. From my journey, and the people I met, I sensed very little (perhaps almost zero) animosity toward westerners. Some Iranians we met disagreed with British and American governments...but then we all do that. The overwhelming impression I got was a sense of injustice - people wondering why they had been labelled pariahs by the Western world when they'd done nothing wrong. More than once we were asked, 'Do people in your country think we're terrorists?' It struck me how important it is for all of us to distinguish between the government of a country and the people that live there - they are entirely different entities.
6. Rural areas are often much more conservative than the cities
In cities like Tehran and Esfahan, the cultural divide between Iran and much of the rest of the world doesn't feel all that great at times - there is a bustling, vibrant and liberal buzz to life there. In rural areas however, it felt much more conservative. We rarely met or interacted with any women, and there was an importance placed on the formality of the hospitality we received (important to note though that we were still exceeding well-received.) We were viewed suspiciously at times, and I'm not surprised - we were an odd sight. It was in these remote towns and villages that we were extra careful not to overstep any boundaries, and to be especially sensitive to cultural norms (for example, not taking pictures of people without their permission, or approaching women.)
7. It's important to have a good nose
Let's go back to the big cities for a moment. The big urban centres feel cosmopolitan and they positivly vibrate with energy. Suave men dash around in suits, and beautiful women march down the street at high speed between meetings. And, it seems, an improbably large percentage of these pretty women are in the process of recovering from nosejobs. I lost count of how many plasters I saw covering noses - it's huge business! Someone in Esfahan told me that Iran leads the world in production of three things - caviar, pistachios...and nosejobs. It represents, I suppose, wealth and social status - the post-op bandage is often kept on afterwards to flaunt this fact. It may even be a fake, to imply surgery was had...
8. There are young people everywhere
Over 50% of the population is under 30, apparently, and it's not hard to believe. The cities feel overwhelming youthful, with tea shops and cafes overflowing with groups of young men with impossibly quiffed hair. There will almost always be at least one student on every street corner who wants to chat and improve their English.
9. Education is hugely important
We made a friend in Tehran who was educated firstly in Iran, and subsequently in England. Something she said stuck with me - Iran has some of the highest rates in the world for female enrolement in university, and the literacy rate is better than anywhere else in the Middle East. Education right through to undergraduate degrees is provided free, I'm told. This is not a country full of ignorant people - that much is obvious.
10. Food is served on the floor
In fact, most social scenarios take place on the floor. I was expecting this, having travelled in the Middle East before, but I'd forgotten how enjoyable it is! So many times on this journey we were brought into a home where a large plastic table(floor)cloth was laid out, and an eye-wateringly delicious array of food spread before us. Iranians love to stuff their guests full of lovely food, which is perfect when on an adventure. Even with a prodigious appetite though, I soon learned to leave a little food on my plate when I was done to signal being full; otherwise it would be eternally replenished by a keen host. Overall, the dining experience is communal, inclusive and very, very tasty.
11. People will tell you stuff is free, but they don't mean it (except when they do)
This is the culture of taarof - Iran's unique and (at first) bewildering etiquette system. When you attempt to buy something, the vendor will generally tell you it's free - they will accept no money. They don't really mean it - your role as the buyer is to insist on paying. It may take two or three goes, but eventually your money is accepted. This, oddly, is the norm, and it's quite endearing. The complication comes when you travel independently in remote places, where quite often people really do want to give you things (food, drink, accommodation) for free. Your role then is to initially refuse, and to do so enough times until it feels right to accept. If it sounds weird, it is, a bit, but it's good fun too and important to understand.
12. Drivers are nuts
This doesn't need much explanation. Driving is a creative endeavour in Iran, as with much of the Middle East - lanes are often seen as guides rather than boundaries. The closest we came to any real danger on our journey was cycling along busy roads.
13. The history is mindblowing
Iran is unique in the Middle East in a lot of ways, but perhaps most strikingly through its Perisan history - one of the greatest Empires the world has ever seen. There are remnants and reminders everywhere - the architecture of Esfahan is out of this world. My favourite of all was the city of Shushtar, a rarely-heralded place we passed by on our way to the Gulf. The picture below is the hydraulic system over the Karun of the Sassanid period - it's even better in person.
14. A lot of money is generally not actually a lot of money
The official currency is the Rial, but most transactions are made in the defacto 'Toman.' That is roughly 10x the rate of the rial, making most things seem very expensive. It takes some getting used to.
15. People are awesome!
If I took one thing away from this trip, it is that hospitality and friendliness are an intrinsic part of Iranian culture. It is, perhaps, the friendliest country in the world, in my opinion.
16. Don’t believe everything you hear in the media
I made this journey to see Iran for myself, and to make up my own mind. I found a country vastly different from the general representations of the media (although, it must be said, anyone I've ever spoken to who has actually been to Iran has only the nicest things to say.) I would encourage anyone reading this to consider going for themselves - it's more than worth the visit. As a precursor, our film Karun can provide a good introduction to what lies in wait!
I couldn't be happier to say that Karun is finally ready to watch!
We had a wonderful World Premiere at the Royal Geographical Society on Saturday night, and the film seems to have been extremely well received (which was a relief.)
Now, I'd love for all of you to see it too. You can download and watch it here. Along with the link to the film you'll get a backstage pass to access deleted scenes, directors' commentary and more. We pulled out all the stops.
If you enjoy it- fantastic! If you enjoy it and you learn something new about Iran, even better. If you enjoy it and learn something new AND want to show it to others, then we have an idea for you. How about organising a screening in your local community?
We want the film to be seen as widely as possible to help show another side of a country that we enjoyed so much. A perfect way to do that is to have small, local screenings happening all over the country (and the world!) We'll help facilitate it for free by giving you a copy of the film and everything else you'll need. All you need to do is find a venue (this could be a pub, church, community hall, large living room, cafe...you get the idea!) Organise some people to come watch the movie and hey presto - you've hosted a screening!
We're serious about spreading the message that there's more to Iran than negative media reports. If you feel the same, then do consider hosting a screening - you can apply here
Thanks for all your support in helping us reach this point, and enjoy the film!