Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Elburz mountains from Turkmenistan to Iran.

Pursuing dreams is something that keeps driving me in my work and life. Having climbed or trekked in almost every major mountain range in the world, when the opportunity came to work with the Iranian Red Crescent and International Red Cross and Red Crescent colleagues to develop a global disaster management degree curriculum, I gladly accepted. We started the three day workshop last Saturday 10 December 2011..
                                         Tehran and the Elburz mountain on the skyline.

With one free day before we started I managed to persuade my old friend and colleague from our days working in Afghanistan, Davood, to take us up to the Alburz mountains, some 20 km north of Teheran. From Teheran situated at 1000 metres, we drove up to Darband at approximately 2000 metres, and a small group of us walked up a mountain trail. An hour from Darband you reach the end of habitation with just a few summer terraces where people plant vegetables.

At the start of the track at Darband, shops of all variety flank each side. The shop in the foreground is selling all parts of chicken and lamb for kebabs.

Photo: Bob McKerrow

In 1997 I had seen the extreme eastern end of the Alburz mountains when I drove up into the Kopet Dagh mountain ranges in Turkmenistan and walked up the tree clad slopes .This region comprises  mountainous shrub-like Mediterranean xeric woodlands and includes riparian forests found in the river valleys. The Kopet Dag Woodlands are well-studied and high endemism is exhibited among many groups of organisms, up to 18% in flowering plants. Key endangered fauna include leopard, wild sheep, bezoar (bearded) goat, hyena, Indian porcupine, and a number of other rare species of mammals, birds, snakes, and lizards. It represents the center of origin and genetic diversity for wild relatives of cultivated plants such as grapes, pomegranates, figs, almonds, walnuts, wheat, barley and many others. These areas of woodland habitat continue to experience heavy logging and overgrazing. While these areas are currently under protection, enforcement is not always adequate to promote forest regeneration.
Trails we walked along in the Kopet Dag in Turkmenistan in 1998.

Having walked in the eastern end of the Elburz mountains in Turkmenistan, it was a real joy to be in the central Alburz mountains in Iran. Left: I walked above all the houses to about 3000 metres, where walls or is it terracing for planting show the last remnants of civilisation. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Over the years I have worked my from the eastern Himalayas, Karakorams, Hindu Kush, Pamirs and finally the Elbruz, all high and magnificent mountain ranges. Mountains are my Cathedrals and I am inspired at the foot of them.

The Alburz mountains are a major mountain range in northern Iran, 560 miles (900 km) long. The range, most broadly defined, extends in an arc eastward from the frontier with Turkmenistan southwest of the Caspian Sea to the Khorasan region of northeastern Iran, southeast of the Caspian Sea, where the range merges into the Aladagh, the more southerly of the two principal ranges there. More commonly, however, the westernmost part of the range is called the Talish (Talysh, Talesh, or Tavalesh) Range, or the Bogrov Dagh; the Elburz Range, in its strictest sense, forms part of the central stretch of the chain, which also includes Iran's two highest peaks, Mount Damavand and Mount Alam. The Elburz mountain system traverses virtually all of the northernmost portions of Iran from east to west.
The Elburz mountains showing Teheran at the bottom and how it rings the Caspian Sea at the top.

As I walked higher above the 3000 metre mark, I met an ‘old and wise man of the mountains’ resting at the side of the high alpine track. (photo right)  He was 75 years of age and has lived and walked in these mountains all his life. In his basic English he shared his experiences and joy for the Alburz mountains. He told of of the highest peak, Mt. Tocha and of a refuge near the summit he had spent many nights in.

The Elburz chain is not as truly alpine (i.e., resembling the European Alps) in its structure as is often suggested. On the one hand, continental conditions regarding sedimentation are reflected by thick Devonian sandstones (about 360 to 415 million years old) and by Jurassic shales containing coal seams (about 145 to 200 million years old). On the other hand, marine conditions are reflected by strata dating to the boundary of the Carboniferous and Permian periods (about 300 million years old) that are composed mainly of limestones, as well as by very thick beds of green volcanic tuffs and lavas. Orogenic (mountain-building) phases of importance date from the Miocene and Pliocene epochs (between about 23 and 2.6 million years ago). Over large areas they produced only a loose folding; but in the Central Elburz a number of folds were formed into blocks thrust mainly southward but in places northward, with cores made of Paleozoic rocks (more than 250 million years old). Structurally and topographically, the Elburz system is less clearly defined on the southern than on the Caspian (northern) side of the chain, since various off-branching elements interconnect it on the southern side with the adjoining Iranian Plateau.

Sunrise and Damavand from top of the Tochal Mount, Tehran, Iran, that the old mountain man spoke of. Photo: Ashkan Rezvani

The Western Elburz Range runs south-southeastward for 125 miles (200 km). Varying in width from 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 km), it consists of a single asymmetric ridge, the long slope facing the Caspian. Few of its peaks approach or exceed 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in height. There is a low pass west of Astara, near the Turkmenistan frontier, 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level. The Safid River, formed by the junction of the Qezel Owzan (Qisil Uzun) and Shahrud rivers, is the only river to cross the whole width of the chain: its gorge, giving access to the low pass of Qazvin, offers the best passage through the mountain chain, although by no means an easy one, between the Gilan region on the shores of the Caspian and the inland plateau to the south.
A small alpine refuge near the summit of Mt. Tocha, looking down on the city of Teheran with it 13 million inhabitants. This was the place the old man had told me about.

The Central Elburz is 250 miles (400 km) long. East of the longitude of Tehran, which lies to the south of the range, it reaches a width of 75 miles (120 km). Located among the longitudinal valleys and ridges of the range are some important centres of settlement, with the towns of Deylaman, Razan, Kojur, and Namar located on the Caspian side and Emamshahr (formerly Shahrud), Lar, Damavand, and Firuzkuh on the southern side. There are likewise many gorges, by which the rivers find their way down one or another of the slopes. Only two passes allow a relatively easy crossing in a single ascent—these are the Kandevan Pass, between the Karaj and the Chalus rivers, and the Gaduk Pass, between the Hableh and the Tala rivers. The main divide runs generally south of the highest crest, which—with the exception of the towering and isolated cone of the extinct volcano Mount Damavand (18,386 feet [5,604 m])—culminates in the glaciated massif of Takht-e Soleyman, which rises to more than 15,750 feet (4,800 m).

Josephine Shieldsrecass and I were the fittest on the trip and we went quite high  above Darband in the time available on Friday. Josephine is from Jamaica and works on the World Disasters Report in Geneva. Here she is having a cup of tea on a tapchan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Eastern, or Shahkuh, Elburz runs about 185 miles (300 km) in a northeasterly direction. Since two ranges branch off on its southern side and no compensatory elements appear on the northern side, its width dwindles to less than 30 miles (48 km). With the exception of the Shahkuh Range proper (which reaches an elevation of 12,359 feet [3,767 m]), the chain decreases in height toward the east. Longitudinal valleys are found less and less frequently east of the Shahkuh. There are several passes at low elevations.

The Caspian and the inland, or southern, slopes of the Elburz differ markedly from each other in climatic and vegetational aspects. The Caspian slope has a distinctly humid climate, thanks to northerly air movements, enriched with moisture from the sea, which collide with the steep faces of the mountains to cause precipitation. This precipitation amounts to more than 40 inches (1,000 mm) annually in the lowlands of the Gilan region and is even more plentiful at higher elevations. Although it decreases toward the east, it still suffices to nourish a humid forest for the whole length of the chain on the Caspian side, where the soils are mostly of the brown-forest type. The natural vegetation of this slope grows in distinct zones: the luxuriant Hyrcanian forest on the lowest levels; a beech forest in the middle zone; and a magnificent oak forest from the elevation of 5,500 feet (1,700 m) up to the levels where gaps in the divide allow the moist air to overflow into the inland basins. In some sheltered valleys there are extensive stands of wild cypress; sheltered valleys adjacent to the Safid River constitute the only olive-growing areas of note in Iran.

The southern slope of the Elburz, by direct contrast, shares the arid character of the Iranian Plateau. This is a photo I took walking up the trail 10 km from Darband. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Annual precipitation varies between 11 and 20 inches (280 and 500 mm) and is very irregular. The soils are mostly of the type associated with steppe (treeless, grassy, or shrubby) vegetation. The slope has become even more steppelike ever since the almost complete destruction of its original dry forest of junipers.

The Hyrcanian tigers for which the Caspian forests were famous are now very rare; but other wild cats, such as the leopard and the lynx, are still numerous in the Elburz. The bear, the wild boar, red and roe deer, the mouflon (wild mountain sheep), and the ibex are also present. Eagles and pheasants are notable among birds.

While large areas of the Elburz Mountains are almost uninhabited—some being occupied only by nomads and others having been depleted by Turkmen raids in the 19th century—there are still several well-settled districts, including Deylaman, Alamut, Talaqan, and Larijan (at the foot of Mount Damavand). The landscape of the Caspian slopes is characterized by forest clearings with shingle-roofed loghouse villages and by lush fields and pastures. The landscape of the inland slopes is of the oasis type. Extensive grain cultivation occurs on both slopes, and cattle raising occurs on the Caspian side. Alpine pastures, seasonally dotted with flocks of sheep, cover an extensive zone yet higher. The land-distribution pattern prevailing in the Elburz includes a high proportion of peasant ownership. The holdings often are much-fragmented.

Many of the traditional ways of livelihood of the mountaineers, including charcoal burning (now prohibited because of devastation of the forests), the transportation of goods (especially of rice and of charcoal for Tehran) by pack animals, and the working of hundreds of small coal mines, have been displaced by the 20th-century modernization of Iran.

Apart from the main line of the trans-Iranian railroad, which links Tehran with Bandar-e Torkeman via the Gaduk Pass, there are several asphalted roads across parts of the Elburz. From west to east, these run between Ardebil and Astara, between Qazvin and Rasht, between Tehran and Chalus, between Tehran and Amol (via Damavand); between Tehran and Babol (via Firuzkuh), and between Emamshahr and Gorgan (via Kotal-e Zardaneh Pass).

The wild (natural or original) forests of the Elburz Mountains cover more than 8,000,000 ac (3,000,000 ha), of which some 3,000,000 ac can be exploited commercially for timber and other wood. There are also a few modern coal mines, as well as some deposits of iron and other ores. But most important is the water of the rivers, which is used for irrigation, for generating hydroelectric energy, and for supplying the fast-growing Tehran. Spectacular dams have been built. These include the Safid Rud Dam, used for the irrigation of the Safid Rud Delta; the Karaj Dam and the Jajrud Dam, used mainly for supplying water to Tehran and partly for irrigation; and a series of dams on other rivers of the Mazandaran ostan (province) also used for irrigation.


Joe Lowry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Lowry said...

Lovely stuff Bob. Wonder is there any etymological link between Elbrus in the high Caucasus and Elbruz?

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Joe, I need to get a more detailed map, but I do think they are linked through smaller ranges, and a similar flora and fauna. Fascinating countries that surround these two great ranges.

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