“The Best things in Life are Freeeeee!”
* Our hiking location was in Ziarat, a region of the Alborz Mountains in Northern Iran. Ziarat is well known for its rivers, natural waterfalls, edible flowers (mostly used in teas), herbs and fruits. (The flowers and herbs come and go nearly year round.) Our mission was, of course, was to enjoy nature, family and gather what we could find, bringing it home before nightfall.
Picking and gathering for the best of the best usually come after the hardest climb. It can be much like this particular adventure I went on some time ago in search for wild saffron. No matter how tough the challenge ahead is, by the time you reach your destination, you’ll reap all the rewards that come with a good hike. If the destination you aim for is known for providing rich wild herbs, edible flowers, and fruits (like berries) then your rewards become long lasting not only in your spirit and psyche but in your pantry! Besides gaining the little available treasures you pluck and take home, there are the mental and physical rewards of hiking too. Hiking will always give you a good work out that is a fact. If you go on a hiking expedition with family and friends your reward is that quality time that brings you all closer together.
A memorable hiking experience with family in Ziarat
We began our hike, as usual, a clan of eight family members setting out early in the morning crammed into one vehicle. We were warned ahead of time that this hike would be a little strenuous and more than what my kids were used to. The hike was predicted to be about two hours. It turned in to four hours of trekking up and down foothills that led to the mountaintop (This was due to bad underdeveloped roads that hindered useless when not in a space shuttle.) However long, it seemed to go by quickly.
On our trek upwards we reveled in snow fights and laughter from the early falling autumn snow and captured breathtaking scenes to last and share forever. We saw sights we had never seen before in Ziarat and often held up the time to absorb various picturesque views from below our breath.
Every kilometer closer towards our destination tore into our emotions with each new glorious view. After a few miles of heavy breathing upwards, the hike quickly became surreal with stunning flowers in bloom pushing their way through patches of snow to bask in the sunlight. Fruits and berries grew wild on each side of our path, rays of sunlight shone through the trees to hint at the wildlife and fallen leaves at our feet. We reminded one another to gather the berries on our way back down, so no time would be wasted. As we walked engaged in laughter, song, and quality time through dreamlike trails we spotted our first blossoms of wild saffron.
Blooms of saffron, some born-again had just arrived; some teased us as they stood perfectly for a hopeless harvest just off the cliff’s edge dropping several feet below. Nearby we could hear Mother Nature playing the tune of a rushing stream from a waterfall that shaped the valley we stood high above. We marked our destination point, shortly preparing our chador(tent), collecting wood and water for smoked chai and kebab. Today our chai would be made with fresh saffron. To occupy their time while adults made the camp, our children hung in trees, explored under rocks and finally melted into cozy spots on autumn leaves- exhausted with much excitement still in their bones.
We chatted, teased and told jokes as we ate our delicious smoked kebab, seasoned with saffron and turmeric that my sister Hakimeh prepared. We topped off our lunch with saffron chai and were ready to head out and explore. The babes were left to relax by the warm fire with sunlight glistening through the branches in their sparkling eyes. Our spot was perfectly shaded by fruit trees and surrounded by blossoms of scattered saffron. I was stoked that we had arrived and met our hiking goals. Moreover, I was satisfied in that we actually did find an abundance of saffron to take home this time around.
Oh my God, it’s full of Saffron!
Flowers, fruits and other assortments of vegetables grow at different levels and times of the year in Ziarat. Edible golha (flowers, ones like primrose) grow in foothills and valleys closer to the streams, banks, and river. They also grow in lower areas where snow (turned water) moistens the cool earth from a departing winter. There are many early springtime edible flowers in this region like the violets and various colored assortments of primrose as well as some bulb like vegetation which take on the appearance of grass with a white flower, locals call it “Aly Zul”. Aly Zul looks like the imitation plant which Iranians call Gole Yakht, Gole Yakht is more common in Ziarat then Aly Zul.
During the early winter or late autumn, the environment is primed for saffron to set in. The saffron we learned likes to arrive here during particular months when the air is cool and the grounds are moist at higher elevations, Novemberish. Saffron is never found in the foothills, you always have to do a little hard work and a bit of climbing to gather saffron. Sometimes the wild saffron hanging off cliffs or on the steep mountainsides tempts us foragers into dangerous climbs. These little “cliffhangers” will definitely get your heart pounding and legs shaking if you go for it. It seems the higher you go the more there grows in Ziarat. There is also an assortment of wild toot, nuts or berries some are at higher elevations (walnuts) where it is colder and other berry brushes that do not seem to discriminate at any level. They are constantly there for a snack like a popular tart berry used for sauces, my husband’s family refer to it as kandoos. We picked several bags full of kandoos on this hike as well, which my family later made into a juice they claim to be very healthy.
Other things to be found in Ziarat are white persimmons (khormolu), zereshk (barberries) aloo and bahlik. After a few hikes in this region, you get s sharp sense of where and in what environment the edible resources grow in exactly. You also get a sharp tone in your legs and other places from an overall hike. So the cherished moments, saffron collecting and workout was a trifecta for me on this beautiful journey.
A little on the benefits of hiking and some activity charts
No doubt hiking can get tiring! Hiking and even simply walking uphill takes so much energy. Many times I felt my legs weak and shaking as if my legs would go out from under me! But like a runner in a marathon (a sport I used to do avidly as well) who can endure an excruciating 25 miles of running for the sake of seeing the finish line, hikers, too, gain that extra dose of adrenaline when excited needed to complete a trekking adventure. Hikers, like that runner, know there is something to celebrate in completing those final miles. There is a light at the end of it all, so to speak.
Although we reached our destination and made our way to the top (burning several hundred calories at that) we still had moments of scaling up and down mountainsides and trails to explore and gather the saffron and fruits we came for, not to mention collecting wood to keep our fire going. It is probably in these moments of exploration and gathering that I get the most from the physical aspect of hiking. Some of these spots that we must climb up to when aiming to retrieve some fruits, water or flowers can take the most arm and leg strength than simply hiking at a normal pace. My husband is usually breathing harder and sweating more in our times of foraging and exploration. Although hiking at a normal pace is said to burn nearly 400 calories per hour, little spurts of energy and muscle used to climb even for a short time will burn more calories in the same sense that weightlifting does. (See the Calorie Chart Below for Estimates) In other words, a few hours of using muscle to climb up and down difficult and dangerous places probably burns more calories than calories than our long hikes overall. It also builds more strength for more hiking adventures to come and of course knowledge of the terrain you hike in.
Teamwork is often a must, provided whether you are a weak or strong climber; you should never attempt to aim for a difficult climb alone. I advise people to bring rope but I am often without, depending on trees and other elements of nature to support my short amateur climbs. I try not to climb into places that are impossible for me to find a way back down. Often I am behind my husband, using his hands and shoulder as my security since he is far stronger, experienced and just better than me at climbing. He also knows more about the pokey things that get in my skin so he warns me about what is to come; yes, I have a very good guide. I am positive hiking does so much alone but the added work via climbing does not hurt. It has overall reshaped my body, mostly from the waist down, since I’ve begun hiking at least once a week for nearly two years now. Hiking is very good for the thighs and glutes and calves especially. And of course, if you want firm gluteus maximus, hike more!
We made our memories, we picked wonderful saffron, we strengthened our minds and bodies and soon it was time to go home. Getting home is always a rush in these mountains. When night falls a race between us and the bears or other wildlife hungry for meat and berries begins. (We left them plenty of berries and saffron too, the animals rely just as much on the vegetation as humans, so we are not greedy to leave some for the bears 🙂 Wild animals come down to escape the cold and we come down to escape the animals. We swiftly climbed down on achy legs in muddy grounds. In the end, we were a mess, but it was all worth it: we were satisfied. This hike was a success.
Enjoy a slideshow of images on this blog and more…(I will add more to Ziarat photos later, my internet is often slow to roll)
Tip: Please leave Ziarat by sunset, Bears are known to come down from the colder mountains to feast on berries and people if they get in the way