high road to chalus

Ashura which falls on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram commemorates the killing of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad SAW in Karbala (in today’s Iraq) in the year 680. It is a day of deep religious significance for Shiite Muslims. In Iran it is a day of sadness and rememberance of the tragedy, suffering and martyrdom.

On my way to Chalus on the shores of the Caspian Sea driven in darkness across the Alborz Mountains from Tehran, I discovered two things I hadn’t known beforehand. Both events as they turned out were in equal degree unforgettable and adrenaline-inducing as I was prepared mentally for neither.

The first was that the mountain drive known as the Chalus Road or Road 59 is actually a true epic mountain crossing involving numerous tunnels and switchbacks taking us five hours (more if you include the stop for soup at the highest point ) to make the 200 km journey.

The second thing was I found out I would be arriving at a seaside holiday resort just in time for the climax of the public mourning of Muharram known as Ashura, the most important and solemn religious event in the Shi’a Calendar when everything shuts down, all manner of amusement and fun are forbidden and people dress themselves in funereal attire.

Pylons and rainclouds. The Caspian region gets a lot of rain throughout the year as compared to the rest of the country. Precipitation averages around 20 inches a year and double that amount in the western part.
The Alborz or Elburz Mountain Range stretches 900 km along northern Iran forming a climatic wall between the desert-like landscapes of the Iranian heartland and the humid temperate forests of the Caspian Coast


This stretch of the Caspian Sea Coast was during the reign of the Shah a popular summer resort for the wealthy and well-connected especially the city of Nowshahr which operated somewhat as the “summer capital” of Iran.


Evening fruit juice and ice-cream


The Caspian Sea is known in Persian as Darya-e Khazar a reference to an ancient Jewish people who between the 7th and 10th century had a large empire to the north. The Caspian  is also the world’s largest lake, equal in surface area to all of Malaysia with enough room remaining to also fit in Taiwan.


All words and photographs Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2016

a toast to tehran

Embracing the Diaspora. The Islamic Revolution and its aftermath sent tens of thousands Iranian away from their homeland to seek new lives abroad. Most went to the United States but also to Canada, Germany and France.

Tehran is an easy contender for the title of most misrepresented city in the world.

Partly as a result of decades long US sanctions, media sensationalism and the occasional name confusion with a war-ravaged neighbouring Arab country, the world’s image of Iran is sadly twisted, misinformed and plain wrong. Iran or, from the 1979 revolution onwards, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not what people imagine it to be.

Visitors to Iran’s huge and sprawling capital Tehran will be quickly amazed to discover a clean, beautiful and varied city that is friendly, modern and surprisingly very safe.


Despite Iran’s famous Islamic rules on dress codes, you will find on any given street or home in Tehran, a city of 15 million people, less chadors and more fashionable and looser headscarves than in Kuala Lumpur, less or no niqab and burka compared to London and even arguably less beards than in Berlin.

Set against the timeline of Iran’s 3,000 year long and mainly glorious history, Tehran is a relatively young capital city. In 1776 Agha Mohammad Khan, a king of the Qajar Dynasty chose it as his seat of power due to Tehran’s pivotal location near to the historic Persian homelands on the Iranian Plateau and close to the new Persian dominions in the Central Asian steppes  and the Mountains of the Caucasus.


Although Tehran is not far from the desert and has an arid climate don’t expect to find an oasis town of date palms and plodding camels. Instead it is a city of well-lit parks with statues of famous poets and broad pedestrian friendly boulevards lined with tall trees that turn lime green in spring, emerald when the days are warm, golden yellow in fall and leafless when the city is blanketed with winter snow.

Tehran is modern and appears for the most parts brown and frozen in time circa 1970s. However, amidst its mainly boxy low-rise buildings there are some fine surviving examples of fin de siecle French architecture and old houses of astonishing grace and beauty.

Tehran is a city that belongs nominally and geographically but not mentally in the Middle East. Despite deriving its religion, writing script and 40% of its vocabulary from the Arabs, Iranians are an Indo-European race whose language suffused with the poetries of Ferdowsi, Hafez, Omar Khayyam and Rumi is believed by many to be the most beautiful-sounding and elegant in the world.


Text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2016