From Glaciers to Nomads, an Epic Road Trip in the Zagros Mountains

Anthony Lau Photography
Jun 8 · 9 min read
A stunning view of the mountain ranges from the middle of a highway in Zagros Mountain.
A stunning view of the mountain ranges from the middle of a highway in Zagros Mountain.
A stunning view of the Zagros Mountains region, This photo was taken on the way from Isfahan into Chelgard.

Iran is a controversial travel destination. On the one hand, it is a place famous for its rich history, fantastic heritage, beautiful landscapes, and friendly people. Then on the other, it was perhaps one of the most under-appreciated travel destinations due to political issues, economic sanctions, and the impact from the outbreak of COVID19.

With the looming uncertainty of international travel ahead of us, the decision to select Iran as my career break destination was perhaps one of the best things I had ever done over the years. And it will probably remain so for many months ahead.

And the best part of the whole journey is the road trip in the Zagros Mountains.


Into the Zagros Mountains

The Zagros Mountains, located above the Zagros Fold and Thrust Belt (FTB), was the result of tectonic plates collision between the Eurasian Plate and the Arabian Plate. The tectonic process continued to the present, and as a result, the Zagros Mountains and the Iranian Plateau are getting higher and higher.

With a total length of 1,600 km, the Zagros Mountains spread across Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. This mountainous region sheltered a broad spectrum of ecosystems from forest steppes to glaciers, which supported many threatened or endangered organisms; a rich range of flora can also be found here, like the Crown Imperial (Fritillaria Imperialis) colonies as shown in the photos below.

A huge Crown Imperial colony bythe hillside, facing the driveway further into the Zagros Mountains.
A huge Crown Imperial colony bythe hillside, facing the driveway further into the Zagros Mountains.
There were huge colonies of Crown Imperial grown by the hillside of the highway into the Zagros Mountains.
A stunning snow top summit of the Zagros Mountains with a dreamy bokeh of Crown Imperial colony in the foreground.
A stunning snow top summit of the Zagros Mountains with a dreamy bokeh of Crown Imperial colony in the foreground.
Iranians travelled a long distance to the Zagros Mountains, to witness the annual blossom of the colourful Crown Imperial colonies.

Crown Imperial is one of the few species in the genus Fritillaria that can be grown into huge colonies. Since the flowering usually happens in late Spring, it was thus a pleasant surprise when my local guide, Hossein Ebadati Ziarati, received a radio call about the sighting.

Hossein is an experienced tour guide, a very seasoned driver and also a tourism lecturer in University. He would always greet me in the morning with a hot cup of coffee, and ask me a few questions like: “regained your stamina yet?” or “ready for more surprises?” or simply “want more of Iran?”

He didn’t exaggerate about how frequent it was for us coming across beautiful and impromptu encounters.

Later into the day, Hossein parked our car at a seemingly random location, and before I asked, he helps carried my videography gear outside and invited me for a quick dash up a nearby dirt slope.

And so I did — “what the…!” I exclaimed before I could catch my breath. Huge terraced rice field, vast open valley, a settlement built along the hill, roaming river, looming cloud and mountain far over the horizon. “

A vast valley of local settlement, terraced rice fields, roaming river, and looming sky.
A vast valley of local settlement, terraced rice fields, roaming river, and looming sky.
The Zagros Mountains range is full of surprises for photographers. And this time is a vast terraced rice valley.

Entirely hidden from sight, this peaceful village is a jewel that people would drive by many times without noticing it ever existed. I mean, who would park the car on the roadside and run towards a seemingly random hill?

I was so glad that we did.

This valley offered a very down-to-earth, everyday view of how Iranian lives their life in this region, absolutely not those artistic scenes of mountainous fields with golden water reflection. After a couple of wild-angle opening shots, I mounted my telephoto lens. And then I was in awe the whole time — local kids were playing a game of soccer in the middle of the fields!

A quiet Iranian settlement located besides a huge terraced rice field valley in the Zagros Mountains.
A quiet Iranian settlement located besides a huge terraced rice field valley in the Zagros Mountains.
Well-hidden among the twisting roads in the Zagros Mountains, this quiet settlement is one of the jewels that I had photographed in this journey.
A group of local kids were playing a game of soccer between in the middle of the fields.
A group of local kids were playing a game of soccer between in the middle of the fields.
A group of local kids were playing a game of soccer between in the middle of the fields.

Again and again, I wholeheartedly appreciated Hossein for his attention to my urge for exploration. I would have missed all these fantastic opportunities if without his knowledge. However, getting in and out of the transport with all my photography and videography equipment could be quite tiresome. At times I thought I could just shut down and take a nap, Hossein would gently wake me up and teased me: “don’t tell me you are tired already, you haven’t seen 1% of Iran yet!”

That’s very true. How about a view of the Glacier? In Iran?

Yes, Glacier. In Iran.

Indeed, there are several glaciers in this region based on a report dated back in 2009. Most of them originated from Kuhrang and Bazoft, branches of the Karun river branches. Although it is now a common knowledge that most glaciers are disappearing, like the one in Damavand. Fortunate for us, in the middle of May 2019, there was still a sizable glacier in this part of the Zagros Mountains.

The many layers of colours along the road in the Zagros Mountains — from the blue sky, snow top summit, to green pasture.
The many layers of colours along the road in the Zagros Mountains — from the blue sky, snow top summit, to green pasture.
Words cannot describe how I felt as we drove closer and closer to the glacier. Such rich layers of colours and textures! Before I could ask Hossine to stop here for photos, he advised me to press ahead for an even better view.

“No, not here!” For the first time, Hossein insisted on pressing ahead instead of spending time here. But he would slow down the vehicle, so, I can capture a couple of shots. It was such a long road for a short ride before we could see the entrance into the Glaciers.

“It would be too slippery to drive without snow gear from this point on,” explained Hossein, “mind a walk on the snow?”

“Not at all!” I replied with joy.

As I was capturing the amazing glacier, a man walked into my frame and continued his way home.
As I was capturing the amazing glacier, a man walked into my frame and continued his way home.
At the entrance into the depth of the mountain, I set up my gear to capture the fantastic landscape. A local man walked into my frame and continued his way home.

The Stars, the Sheep and the Nomads

Star trails taken in the hotel that I stayed in Chelgard.
Star trails taken in the hotel that I stayed in Chelgard.
Just when I thought I could have a good night of sleep in Chelgard — the sky cleared, it’s time for night sky timelapse!

After a long day (not to mention the deliberate delay on the road), we finally arrived Chelgrad, the city and capital of Kuhrang County, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, Iran. It was a small town and, from the 2006 census, its population was just around 2,700 with 530 families and, I would say it stayed pretty much the same over the years.

Hossein reminded me to rest early and prepare for the main event — finding the nomads. But then, that was the only night so far in the trip with a clear night sky — well, it’s time to capture the night sky of Persia!

Image for post
Image for post
The clear night sky didn’t last long enough for me to capture a timelapse for the Milky Way. This photo was one of the few I took before the cloudy sky took over.

Staying up all night for these fantastic photographic opportunities was fun, but packing all your stuff in a hurry was not so much.

So after an incredibly short nap and a quick bite, I crawled back into the transport and was greeted by Hossein, as usual, with a freshly made cup of coffee. “You looked so tired! But don’t worry, you will wake up in no time,” smiled Hossein, “they are just in front of us!”

And of course, he was talking about the nomads. And I believed I responded with the most prolonged yawn I ever made.

The one magical thing about photography is that a moment ago you could be like an utterly depleted battery. But as soon as something photogenic surfaced, you will be ready for another round again.

Precisely that’s what happened to me — my sleepiness disappeared as soon as the nomads could be seen from the nearby hill, and were shepherding the flock towards the mountainous Choghakhor Wetland. The Choghakhor Wetland, located in the Bakhtiari Province above sea level by 2100 meters, supported a wide variety of migratory birds and threatened species, and considered a reservoir for biodiversity.

Bakhtiari nomads shepherding a huge flock of sheep to the shore of Choghakhor Wetland.
Bakhtiari nomads shepherding a huge flock of sheep to the shore of Choghakhor Wetland.
Bakhtiari nomads were shepherding a massive flock of sheep to the shore of Choghakhor Wetland.

It is, therefore, the reason why Hossein would take us here. The abundance of greens and freshwater made it an ideal space for the travelling nomads. Speaking of the nomads, the most well-known tribes are the Bakhtiari and the Qashqai tribes.

The Bakhtiari is a southwestern Iranian tribe and a subgroup of the Lurs. Their Bakhtiari dialect also belongs to the Luri language. In contrast, the Qashqai consists of various tribes, but the majority of them are Turkic, and the rest includes Lurs, Kurds and Arabs.

The nomadic tribes in total had once amounted to 25% of all the Iranian. Still, according to the latest population survey, only 1.7% of the Iranians remained full-time travelling and living in the wild.

The way of the nomads is fading away.

As reported by National Geographic in 2018, several reasons attributed to the diminishing nomadic populations, including persistent drought, widespread urbanisation, and an urge for higher education. Being able to meet them in person is, therefore, a mixed feeling between the joy of experiencing a significant encounter, and the sadness of witnessing the beginning of an end of once a substantial part of Iranian culture.

My thought of the nomads was interrupted by the sound of the neck bell rang closer and closer. Not a minute later, I was surrounded by the flock and face-to-face with the nomads. Wondering what to do next, it was the sheep who broke the silence — a baby sheep bravely walked towards me and started to taste the tripod!

A baby sheep bravely walked towards me and started to taste the tripod!
A baby sheep bravely walked towards me and started to taste the tripod!
The ice-breaking moment between the nomads and myself, thanks to this baby sheep!

The nomads and I looked at each other and then burst into laughter! With such a joyful opening, I seized the moment to invite them for a portrait session. They smiled and started to pose for me in such a proud and natural way, with the stunning Zagros and Choghakhor in the background.


As we continued our journey southbound, we met another group of nomads. Judged by their clothing, we believed they belong to the Qashqai tribes. Since further down the road we would be off the travelling route of the nomads, Hossein suggested that we should try our luck and see if the nomads were in the mood of interacting with foreigners. After all, it was around noon, and the Qashqai nomads were travelling in speed, probably hurrying the flock towards a campsite with greens and water sources. We pulled over, and Hossein went ahead to greet them, making sure they are alright for some portraits.

A massive flock of sheep and their Qashqai shepherds passing through the mountain highway.
A massive flock of sheep and their Qashqai shepherds passing through the mountain highway.
A massive flock of sheep and their Qashqai shepherds passing through the mountain highway.

Fortunately, with Hossein’s introduction, the nomads slowed down a little bit, and greeted each other with a smile. I took a couple of low angle shots of the curious sheep before I walked towards the Qashqai nomads.

A massive flock of sheep crossing in the Zagros mountain highway, along with their Qashqai shepherds.
A massive flock of sheep crossing in the Zagros mountain highway, along with their Qashqai shepherds.
I knee-down in the middle of the flock, capturing photos of the curious sheep looking into my lens.

This group of Qashqai travelled on foot along with a massive number of sheep. The nomads at other ends may not be aware of the “pep-talk” done between Hossein and the Qashqai in the front. So to avoid any chance of confusion, I will hold my camera and wait for the Qashqai to nod before I press the shutter. This gesture is the one thing I will always do before attempting to take a portrait for a stranger.


Until Next Time

For millennia the nomads have been embarking on the same journey, seeking fresh pastures, traversing through the Zagros Mountains from south to north, and then there and back again. For once, they were an influential political force behind events of great significance in the history of Iran, like the Persian Constitutional Revolution.

The world is changing so does the way of nomads. Not only the nomads are relying more and more on mobile communications, but also the utilisation of big trucks to transport their livestock. Indeed, it was not uncommon during this journey seeing truck-load of sheep speeding through the highways.

It’s just a matter of time when mechanised transport completely replaced the traditional nomadic journey. But before that happened, I am sure I will revisit the nomads as soon as it is safe to travel.

An elder of the Qashqai waved at me as he continued his journey.
An elder of the Qashqai waved at me as he continued his journey.
An elder of the Qashqai waved at me as he continued his journey.

Please check out my works at my Homepage or my Instagram account.

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