The Great Iranian Road Trip

Think of it as the great American road trip -- in Iran.

The Islamic Republic may not make the shortlist for your next vacation, but should you end up in Tehran with a taste for something different you might consider a road trip to the northern province of Golestan.

The drive takes roughly eight hours each way, but leads you through some of the most beautiful scenery in Iran. In a country known mostly for its architectural gems like Perspepolis and Isfahan, Golestan is a natural wonderland home to wildlife, wheat fields and a fair part of the Caspian Sea coastline.

One of the first things you'll notice along the drive is the clean air -- in contrast to the smog of Tehran, the air in Golestan is a joy to breathe. What will take your breath away, though, is the scenery, starting at a view of the Alborz mountains and Damavand peak, Iran's tallest at more than 18,600 feet.

After a few hours on the road I stopped with my travel companions at a casual restaurant Akbar Joojeh (Akbar's Chicken), which serves rice and chicken with pomegranate sauce.

It's apparently a local specialty, as are other dishes featuring pomegranate, a favorite native fruit in the Near East. Appetizers included yogurt and pickled garlic. The local thinking is that this is a good place to eat garlic because the humid weather makes bad breath less likely to carry and offend your neighbor. The meal came to $18 for three people.

On the way north some of the roads suffer from Iran's chronic litter problem and buildings are plenty rundown. But once you're cruising in Golestan those all melt into majestic surroundings. That province, like much of Iran, is safe and welcoming to tourists, a mark of the famed Iranian hospitality.

The place has an untouched quality, a feeling as though you are the first foreigners to roll through. Driving through that panorama is relatively easy, as long as you map out in advance -- few people in the towns en route could give directions in English.

On the very bright side gasoline is subsidized by the state, so at least for now you can fill up for roughly 50 cents a gallon.

The route we took from Tehran, up Firoozkouh highway, is the same you'd take on a Caspian Sea holiday.

Our destination, however, was the Kalaleh-based horse ranch of Louise Firooz, 74, an American from Virginia who has spent 50 years living in Iran and breeding horses on her ranch.

Consider her the Jane Goodall of Iran -- what Goodall did for African chimpanzees Firooz did for the horse breeds of Northern Iran.

Years ago she identified an otherwise unknown species called the Caspian pony -- technically a horse with smaller proportions. On her farm horses, dogs and chickens mingle freely on the clean Golestan plains.

Her ranch normally takes in eco-tourists through a travel agency called In the Saddle. Visitors stay on her farm and ride horses over trails in the nearby Iranian National Park & Wildlife Preserve.

"It's the last of the great European forests here -- amazing forests, with the wild boar and the trees and the whole clean atmosphere. This is about as clean air as you can get," Firooz said of the northern Iranian countryside that has become her home.

Horse riding and racing are extremely popular in Iran, and Golestan is perfect horse country. The province offers racetracks with betting -- the sole public gambling officially permitted in the Islamic Republic, only legal because the Prophet Muhammad allowed it during his time.

Aside from horses, the province of Golestan, which literally means "flower garden," is home to Iran's Turkomen minority. They are a generally insular ethnic group distinct from the Pars or Fars who nominally define the Persian identity. Women in the region wear more colorful, patterned dress, in contrast to the mostly black "hejabs" (head scarves) and "chadors" (full-body robe) of Tehran.

There is plenty of local color along the road to and from Golestan: beautiful mosques, fresh fruit shops and fishmongers selling their catch in the middle of the highway.

There was one historical attraction called the Gombad Ghaboos, a 181-foot tower nearly 1,000 years old that claims to be the tallest brick structure tower in the world.

Aside from that tower nothing made by man in Golestan catches the eye. Rather, in a country known for historical wonders, Golestan's natural beauty makes it timeless.