Masuleh

Departing Zarabad after breakfast we headed next for the village of Razmian, and the ‘Assassin’ castle of Lambesar. Although the castle remains are virtually non-existent today,you cannot take away the views and the scenery on the walk up was spectacular. This was the one castle that Chris reached , and she looked very pleased with herself for having done it, it was a steep climb up.

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Lambesar castle, one of the largest and the most fortified castles of the Ismailis (Assassins) in Iran, is about 5 km far from Razmian. The fortress is located in the central Alburz mountains, south of the Caspian Sea, about 120 km from Tehran. Very deep valleys surrounding the fortress make it impossible to access from the East and West sides. The North and South fronts are the only possible ways to get into the fortress. Although the slope of the mountain with a difference of 150m on both levels is stretched from north to south with a length of 480m, the castle is more than 190m in width. The huge two-layered parapets made up of very large 10m high stones, along with the main building in the north of the fortress with 1.2m wide cut stone walls, large water reservoirs and grain stores in the south and southeast of the castle, towers and a water supply system are among the features that Lambesar fortress possessed.

The Ismailis’ forts became the last line of defence against Mongol aggression in Persia. The Mongols had a hard time conquering Ismailian's forts. Hulaku Khan was disappointed with his commanders failures and therefore decided to do the job himself. He took over an army of 10000 soldiers and moved toward Alamut. In 1256 AD after a couple months the Meymoon-Dej fort surrendered to Hulaku’s army, and Imam Rukn-ud-Din Khurshah was captured. Hulaku Khan asked Rukn-ud-Din Khurshah to order his followers to surrender, but Lambesar fort, Gerdkuh fort and Alamut fort did not follow the order. Finally after a year of resisting, a cholera epidemic in 1257 AD took many lives in Lambesar and allowed the Mongols to capture it. Hulaku ordered the fort to be ruined and beheaded whoever had survived the disease. In 1275 AD and again in 1389 AD, small groups of Ismailis who had survived the Mongol invasions attempted to recapture Alamut, but their attempts were unsuccessful.

From Lambesar, we headed back to the main road, continuing further north, before driving up through the mountains to the village of Masuleh, situated in amongst the protected landscapes of the Gasht Rodkan Protected Area.

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Masuleh. At the 2006 census, its population was 554 individuals from 180 families. The place is well written up in guide books Famed for its traditional wooden buildings which lie clustered along the northern slopes of the valley, Masuleh exudes oriental character, with some of its buildings dating back three centuries. Approached by dramatic mountain passes and surrounded by forest, this preserved village retains much of its tradition and culture, with the production of local handicrafts still very much a part of life here. Clinging to the valley slopes, some 1050m above sea level, the historic houses are almost at one with the mountains that surround them, their interconnecting courtyards and roofs serving as pedestrian thoroughfares. A thousand years old, the village tumbles down the hillside, a living anthropological museum whose unique architecture provides a stunning backdrop against the cloud-shrouded valley. Interestingly, this is the only village in Iran which bans cars from entering and the predominance of yellow clay on the buildings is to aid visibility in the mists that often descend from the mountain peaks.

My own take was perhaps not so positive as the above. I concede that my feelings about Masuleh are coloured by the perfectly revolting hotel/guesthouse that we had the misfortune to be accommodated in. We got to Masuleh as darkness was falling, and at the same time low cloud descended on the village, so it was damp - I gather this is part of village life here. The bus parked at the bottom of the village, and we dragged our cases up many flights of stairs to reach the "Mehran Hotel", our home, God help us, for the next two nights. Our room not only stank of damp and mould, but had a floor and entrance carpet wet with damp that had seeped in from above. The toilet was smelly, and stained, and there was not a seat on the toilet. There were 6 beds packed into two own rooms, shared between the two of us and Maira. The beds were dirty, and there were no sheets. There were no curtains. I think the picture is emerging - but no photographs could do justice to the sheer degradation of the place.

The hotel staff were unwilling to provide dinner for the group, and Jake and Majid went off to the bazaar to get supplies. We sat outside in the dank evening and had our dinner.

The next morning on awaking, I did not feel any better about Masuleh and the Mehran Hotel. Breakfast was a similar hassle with the staff being reluctant to give us any food. Writing this 2 weeks later, I still do not feel any better about this doss house.

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Happily we were soon in the bus out of Masuleh and en route to another of the Hashshashin strongholds, this time at Roodkhan, just to the south-west of Fuman.

Roodkhan Castle:

Constructed during the Seljuk Dynasty (1037-1157), Roodkhan Castle impressively straddles two high peaks in the forests to the south-east of Fooman. Built of stone, brick and mortar and covering some 5 hectares, the castle follows the natural contours of the land and spans two crests that lie at 670 and 715 metres respectively. Built in two sections, the castle housed an administrative block and a military garrison and its only entrance lay to the north-east, protected by two high towers. Believed to have been a stronghold of the Shi’ite Ismaili sect, the castle is approached along a meandering path that leads up through a dense forest close to the upper section of the Roodkhan River. There are a shade over 3000 steps on the way up, so it is quite a climb. Its battlements stretch for over 1500 metres and are protected by 42 watchtowers, many of which are still intact.

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This site, unlike the other two Assassin Castles that we climbed on on previous days, was a major tourist attraction - for Iranian tourists that is, not many/any foreigners here. So there were lots of small souvenir stall and snack places offers drinks (non alcoholic, this being Iran) at various places on the way up.

Chris stopped about half way, and sat down on a bench opposite one of these tea stalls. She was well entertained while I carried on the climb - tea stall man donated her a glass of tea, and numerous Iranians, with varying degrees of English chatted to her

The castle itself was worth the climb, and amazingly whole families of Iranians with children of all ages, made it up there. Unlike the other two castles we had just seen, this one was a recognisable castle, with all the walls still standing, and one got a very good idea of what it would have been like in its heyday. The back down to rescue Chris and escort her down to the base of the climb

Returning down to the village of Roodkhan after our visit we had lunch in one of the tourist restaurants clustered round the car park. Pizza and kebabs, an eclectic mix, but it was very good. Jake organised a Hubble Bubble pipe for us all to try, then we returned to Masuleh to spend a second night in the Mehran Hotel (I don't know if I have mentioned it, but it was revolting). We spent a couple of hours walking round the village, but there was not a lot to see, and it was very "down market Iranian tourist" type of place. The shops were full of cheat tat, all selling the same stuff. There was little in the way of maintenance or re-painting going on, there were lots of cheap uninspiring restaurants - all sort of sad.

Dinner was at another restaurant in Masuleh, which was a better meal than the night before's, but is not likely to feature in my forthcoming book "My 100 best meals ever"

Having survived the night in the Mehran Hotel and breakfast the next day, we wiped the mould from our feet, the damp from our clothes and embussed for the Iranian border

I seldom mention guides or drivers - they usually do just their job, which is no more nor no less than they are paid for, and I usually prefer to wander round without the guide. However I thought that both Majid and Hossain went that little bit further than required in the call of duty. Hossain had very difficult mountain roads to drive, in a big bus which really did not have the power for them (we learnt that another driver had turned down the drive on account of its difficulty) - he was charming, even though he spoke no English, and jollied the thing along when we stopped. Majid spoke perfect English and was both entertaining, helpful and charming.

Public toilets were very good Chris with Majid and the boys Our very good driver Hossain We all say goodbye to Iran

Exiting Iran was slightly easier than entering, although it still to a couple of hours. So we then stepped out the other end of Customs and Immigration into Azerbaijan, and adventures new.

On to Lankaran

Silk Route Holiday 2013