»This one I like. Where was it taken?«
The customs officer, unfortunately I forgot his name, browses the phone. »Kashan,« he says. »This desert is near Kashan.«
The trouble with going to a new destination like Iran was for us is that you honestly never know what to expect from it. Of course you do your research before you go – you talk to the travellers who have already been there, you check the internet way too much, you even read books, consult maps, lie awake in the bed and rehash all the data gathered and try to imagine what it would be like. And as soon as you meet some locals who might know something and are willing to share the info, the interrogation starts.
The conversation above took place in the Iranian customs office of the Serow border on our crossing from Turkey to Iran. The friendly customs officer who spoke very good English, a rare treat as we learned later, was filling our data into the computers and admired our vehicles.
»With vehicles like this you can go anywhere in Iran. Where do you want to go anyhow?«
Deserts. It is deserts we want and we like. So he took his phone and searched his Instagram friends photos for pictures of vehicles in the desert while he covertly interrogated me.
»What do you think of Iranian government? Should religion leaders rule the country? And do you know who the last king of Iran was?«
Of course I remembered Mohammad Reza Pahlavi… but I wasn’t so stupid to say that out loud. The talk of deserts and cars was less dangerous. We looked at the pictures and one near Kashan spiked my interest. Beautiful desert of Maranjab near the city of Kashan was already on our itinerary.
Our spirits weren’t exactly high after the fiasco episode with Muteh. A relatively cold night due to high altitude didn’t help much either, but after breakfast and coffee future seemed a bit brighter, so we packed the cars and set off towards Kashan. En route we decided to visit Gisoo waterfall, a landmark I noticed on satellite imagery. The waterfall was conveniently close to the route from Delijan to Kashan. The waterfalls in arid countries like central Iran is usually aren’t as grandiose as world-famous must-visit waterfalls around the world, but in my opinion the fact that they bring life to a piece of land that would otherwise be desert hugely adds to their value and charm. And Gisoo waterfall, humble but still very beautiful, made it possible for farmers of the Nareq village to water their fields.
Beautiful puppies welcomed us near the parking at the end of the road. From there on we had to walk. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the waterfall that hides at the end of a little gorge. The water is clean and needless to say we used the pools of the creek to take a quick bath. After so many days on the road, living in cars, not having an opportunity to shower, the sparkling fresh water jumping over the stones in the gorge was very welcoming. Even if a bit cold for the likes of some.
»Na gusht?« No meat? This is how our food ordering process in a restaurant began. No meat? But why? Who doesn’t like meat… Well OK, so be it… »Ab gusht!«
Kashan is a nice place, a city with a good vibe. Not too big for Iranian standards, a good quarter million inhabitants of the city proper, it is surrounded by mountains to the west and the deserts to the east. Perfect starting point to explore the region. The city offers sights of its own, from historical gardens to archaeological treasures. We restocked our supplies there and enjoyed some local Iranian food in the restaurants. Kebab mostly, not to be mistaken. And of course meatless dishes.
»The boss of what? The boss of Maranjab Desert?« Nothing helped. Thou shall not pass…
After a hefty lunch at Kashan we finally set of for our first desert adventure in Iran. Most travellers go to Iran for its hospitable people, for architectural and cultural heritage, and of course for natural beauties. For me the main attraction were the deserts. Sand deserts. Forget the mosques. Forget the ancient villages. Forget old rocks and ancient tales. Forget the food and forget the cheap diesel. Forget even the great people. Just give me the quiet of the desert.
Maranjab desert just west of Kashan was the first desert on our itinerary. The desert is supposedly one of the most beautiful Iranian deserts and I considered it tamed as much as a desert can be, close to civilisation, popular, part of the old Silk Road, a crescent-shaped area of dunes no more than 50 kilometres at length and 35 kilometres at width… a great place to enjoy the dunes, show what a desert is like to newbies, and to test ourselves and the most of all the vehicles before wandering to the vast expanses of Lut desert way further south. To add to the appeal of the sand desert, there is a great salt lake of Namak to the north, be it small for Iran, only covering about 1.800 square kilometres. This lake is also a part of ancient sea that has dried and left behind Lake Urmia and Kaspian Sea. Namak Lake’s greatest depth only reaches down to 1 meter, most of it is dry and covered in salty crust, but it even has an island of its own.
The Silk Road passed just between the dunes and the lake, and on the cities of Mashad, Bukhara and Samarkand. Some 500 soldiers were said to be stationed in the surrounding to prevent the attacks of Uzbeks and Afghans. At the top of the dunes and ancient caravanserai was built. Even to this day, more for the benefit of tourists than travel merchants, Maranjab Caravanserai is still a place to be visited.
Armed with maps and GPS data we set course towards Maranjab Caravanserai. The main route hugs the dunes from the west and was, as I could gather from the internet, though gravel, easily passable even without 4WD. I expected to pay a small amount (around 5€ per person) as an entry fee and I had a waypoint in my GPS where the entrance was. But things didn’t go as smoothly as I planned.
We left Kashan and after some about 12 kilometres on the road we approached the entrance to the desert. I still don’t know whether the decision was OK or not, but Uroš who was driving first stopped at the gate barrier. Nothing to grave if the main road didn’t have passed straight on… And thus the fight for the desert began.
Somehow tourists without guides aren’t welcome anymore in the Maranjab Desert. Allegedly because some Japanese tourists got lost on the Namak Lake. Now you need a guide and a guide can only be obtained somewhere in Kashan. Where, the guy who was in charge of the gate didn’t know. He didn’t know any English either. Luckily for us Iranians set up Emergency Medical First Response teams at places where larger amounts of tourists are expected. Obviously that went for Maranjab Desert as well, although I have no idea why – later on we only saw a French couple at the Caravanserai and that was it for desert tourism. However, the paramedic knew some English and served as an interpreter. Even that didn’t help. Nothing helped actually. I explained that we have a total of three GPS devices, not counting the smartphones, and that we were unlikely to get lost. I explained that we have many experience in deserts, in Middle East and in North Africa, from Jordan to Mauritania. I even showed the pictures of our cars in the dunes to no avail. We had good cars. We were more than one car. Nothing. Thou shall not pass.
Something happened I’m not quite proud of. I lost my nerves. I knew that the guy at the gate had no say in it, he was just a pawn. He tried calling his boss. He probably wished he knew what the pissed-off guy from faraway Europe was saying in English. I got a little bit mad and a little bit offensive. When I was explained that the boss doesn’t let us pass, I freaked out.
»Boss? What boss? The boss of what? The boss of Maranjab Desert?« Clearly I was born an anarchist and there is little that pisses me off more than a bunch of stupid rules. I knew the poor guard can’t let us pass or he would be in trouble. I also knew there was no way to going back to Kashan and getting a guide. It was out of question. It was even insulting. Luckily the English-speaking paramedic kept his senses.
»Just go around and find another way into the desert. Nobody will bother you there. Just go somewhere else, the road here is under camera surveillance.« I thanked him and we left. Over some road construction sites and some unpaved paths, cutting over a bit of the flat desert, we made a detour and reached the road to Maranjab Caravanserai about four kilometres after the almost fatal ckeckpoint. Maranjab Desert was all ours to discover and enjoy.
After airing down the tyres and setting the shocks on Nissan Patrol we almost flew northwards, on a well-maintained but heavily corrugated road just under the dunes. We could see the sand hills to the west, the tracks leading among them, and to the left the vast expanse of Namak salt lake was opening. The views were amazing. We were in the desert once more.
Almost too soon we reached the Maranjab Caravanserai. But the disappointment – it was not operational… The main attraction of the Caravanserai was the fact that you could spend the night there, in the manner of the ancient times of the caravans travelling the Silk Road… well no luck. For a fee you could visit and take a look at the enclosed yard and surrounding chambers, but that was it. Even the campsite right next to the Caravanserai that even had a swimming pool was closed. Not just that, it showed the air of neglect and was falling into ruins. Thus ended our idea of finally finding an official camp in Iran…
For all I cared that didn’t matter. There were dunes all around. And what better place for a bivouac than among the dunes? We drove some kilometres to the east, where the dunes got a bit higher, and finally… even now I’m lost for words. After two years my faithful Land Cruiser was roaming the dunes again. The roar of the engine, the softness of the ground under the tyres, the adrenaline pumping through my veins again… it’s an addiction, I know.
Some things must be experienced, they cannot be described. Until you sink your feet in the desert sand, there are no words to describe that feeling. And no words can describe a sunset in the desert either. You just have to be there to see it… and experience it… savour it, for it is one of the few precious gifts of life.
Unlike some evenings of this trip before the spirits were high as we set camp, took photos, even made frika for dinner. The desert charmed us all.
As small and tamed and civilised as Maranjab Desert appears to be, it’s still a desert. And deserts are never to be taken lightly. Even small ones can still be deadly and unforgiving. During the night the wind rose. There are few things as beautiful as sunsets in the desert and few things as unbearable as wind in the desert. There was sand everywhere. The tents were nearly submerged. Nothing remained of our plans of great breakfast on the sand. We didn’t even make coffee the next morning, we just packed everything and ran. At first we planned to stay in the dunes for the day, do some dune driving, and then make another bivouac, but with wind that strong that was out of the question.
Since the wind was blowing from the west, we didn’t return the way we came. One reason was that I didn’t want to pass the gate to the desert again, the other was that the dunes lay upwind from the road and the visibility was terrible. So I turned east at first, around the dunes, to get to their downwind side. We made it, on the tracks over the salt plains of Namak Lake to the valley east of the Maranjab Desert. The wind was still strong but it didn’t carry the desert sand anymore. We were driving on a flat plain and admiring how the strong gusts of wind created and transformed huge dunes just some hundred metres to the west. We even found a place where Lado made coffee for the whole team. We saw many sheep and goats and donkeys, the plain was obviously a pasture land for locals. We even saw a little farm dug into the side of a little hill, but nobody welcomed us. And at the end we found the graded track over the southern dunes of the Maranjab Desert and reached the asphalt again. Soon we were in Kashan, at least one day too early. But such are deserts. Capricious as all beautiful girls.
Thanks to iOverlander we found a place called Qanat to set our bivouac just some 10 kilometres away from Kashan. A qanāt in Farsi usually describes a gently sloping underground channel to transport water from an aquifer or water well to surface for irrigation and drinking. At the end of the valley there was a stream that provided water for some orchards, but the water levels were low. However, at the end of the driveable road (even with the means of 4×4) the place was secluded and level enough and even provided us with wood for campfire. What more can an overlander want.
Since we profited some time due to the stormy wind in the Maranjab desert, we have decided to add another place to our itinerary – the mountain village of Abyaneh. It is a small village housing about 300 souls, but it is one of the oldest villages in Iran. It attracts many visitors, Iranian and foreign alike, especially during traditional festivities. Not just the age, there are two other characteristics that attract tourists. One is the peculiar reddish hue of the building façades – whole village looks almost brick red. The second is the fact that Abyanaki women typically wear white long scarfs with colourful flowery patterns, in contrast to black scarves that Muslim women usually wear. To stroll the narrow streets of the village is quite a pleasant experience and a photographer might find plenty of motives.
So Abyaneh… It’s old rocks, but still worth a visit. Mostly due to the fact than you can reach the village from two directions. One is the normal one, asphalt one, from the village of Hanjan where most of the visitors arrive, pay the entrance fee, and enjoy the village. But not us. If you travel Iran with overland vehicles, there must be some bonus. So we came to the village directly over the mountains. We passed Qamsar and went through the village of Qohrud and there took the piste to the mountains. It was beautiful, travelling through mountain valleys, reaching the passes of nearly 3.000 m ASL, admiring views and at the end, descending to Abyaneh through the lush valley invigorated by a beautiful little river. I have seen so many great places to set up camp… but it was still early, we still had far to go and plenty to see.
The hidden oasis
Descending the road from Abyaneh to Natanz, our “overlanding” and self-reliant first part of the trip was slowly finishing. We just had one more bivouac to enjoy before returning to civilisation, going to Esfahan and finding a hotel. We didn’t want to camp too close to Natanz due to the Iranian uranium enrichment Natanz Nuclear Facility… we had enough trouble storming the gold mine of Muteh. I left the main road to explore a path leading to the hills, when we were stopped by two forest guards in a white Toyota pickup. With help of pantomime and drawing they quite quickly discovered what we need. Indicating to follow them, we drove some kilometres back the way we came and then headed towards the mountains. Above Natanz the mighty Kuh-e Karkas, The Mountain of Vultures rises to an elevation of 3.899 meters. This was the snow-capped mountain peak we saw over dunes of Maranjab. And in a valley under it there was a beautiful spring that gave life to a walnut grove. That little mountain oasis was where the forest guards took us and I must say it was one of the most beautiful bivouacs of the trip so far.
We chatted with the forest guards for some time, made them coffee, and they showed us video clips of many animals that lived in the protected mountains, from the bezoar ibex to lynxes and wolves. Then they left and we were alone, enjoying the last campfire, tea was boiling in the embers and the lights of the towns far down the plain slowly faded.
The parking for Gisoo Waterfall lies at coordinates N34° 01.442′ E50° 49.161′. The path through the gorge is clearly visible from there on. Do wear proper shoes. If you are in the area and have time, visit Chal-e-Nakhjir Cave at N34° 02.252′ E50° 45.930′. We unfortunately didn’t.
The gate to the Maranjab desert where they require a guide is at N34° 7.805′ E51° 29.011′. Avoid that place and enjoy the desert. The ancient toll post at N34° 15.827′ E51° 39.930′ is now deserted. The Maranjab Caravanserai lies at N34° 17.920′ E51° 48.756′. The entry fee was 100.000 IRR (1,62€) per person. Our bivouac at the dunes, near the place they take tourists to observe the sunset over dunes and Namak Lake, was at N34° 19.623′ E51° 53.002′. The southern entrance to the desert via the graded track is at N33° 55.355′ E51° 47.023′.
Our bivouac at Qanat, quite near Kashan, was at N33° 52.619′ E51° 20.300′.
Downtown parking in Abyaneh is at N33° 35.199′ E51° 35.398′. The gate where they collect entry fee is at N33° 35.218′ E51° 36.591′. We left the asphalt road after the village of Qohrud at N33° 38.344′ E51° 23.853′. The coordinates of the pass nearly 3.000 m ASL are N33° 37.347′ E51° 25.585′. And don’t forget that tea or coffee in Abyaneh can cost twice as much as a complete lunch in Kashan.
The superb bivouac at the hidden oasis under Kuh-e Karkas lies at the coordinates N33° 34.008′ E51° 49.919′.