Unexpected Iran: caves, cardamom and one or two camels...by Kirstin Lemon

Kirstin was travelling with fellow assessor
Mona Holte from Norway
As a member of the UNESCO Global Geopark evaluation team, each year I get sent to evaluate or revalidate an aspiring or existing UNESCO Global Geopark. Finding out where you're being sent is perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the process and something that all of the team very much looks forward to. This year, when I got the call I was asked 'How do you feel about going to Iran?'. To be honest, my initial reaction was one of fear; we've all seen the news footage and watched the dramatisations on TV, so I expect most of you will understand my reticence. But the scientist in me quickly decided that some proper research was required to see if my initial reaction was deserved, after all, I come from Northern Ireland and know how my home country is portrayed to the rest of the world on occasion. After a little digging, involving several blogs, Sky News reports and countless travel websites, I concluded that Iran was actually safer than some parts of Europe this summer, and that as long as I was sensible, then there was no reason to not go.

The preparations began

My initial fear was quickly replaced with excitement as the preparation got underway, with visa applications, vaccinations, insurance, a whole new wardrobe to satisfy the strict cultural requirements, as well as the actual work that I was being sent there to do. As a UNESCO Global Geopark evaluator, I was being asked to visit the Qeshm Island Geopark to see if it met the required standard to become a UNESCO Global Geopark. The application dossier gave me all the information that I needed to know as well as giving me a lot that I still needed to find out, after all that's why the evaluation mission was happening in the first place.

From Tehran to Qeshm Island

The journey to Qeshm Island was a long one as I had to first of all travel to Tehran before making my way south. But Tehran was not without its attractions and I was fortunate to be able to spend half a day exploring the sites with our colleagues from the Geological Survey of Iran who were to accompany us on our entire journey. I also had the chance to at least partially acclimatise to the intense heat that I was due to experience. I arrived in Qeshm Island, late at night and was instantly met with what can only be described as a wave of steam as I got off the plane. With a temperature of around 39oC at 11pm and a humidity of about 90%, it was likened to an outdoor sauna.

Visiting Chahkooh Gorge. 

Internationally important geology

Qeshm Island is located in the Persian Gulf, off the southern coast of Iran. It is part of the Zagros Mountain Range made up of rocks from the Late Precambrian to Cambrian periods. One of the common features within this range are salt domes that form as salt intrudes into overlying sediments causing them to deform and doming to occur. The Namakdan Salt Complex is one such dome in Qeshm Island and is home to the world's longest salt cave at a distance of 6500m. The majority of the other geological features are formed within much younger Oligo-Miocene sedimentary rocks, and are visible as impressive erosional landforms usually as river canyons such as the one at Chahkooh Gorge. I was taken to visit all of these important geosites and was able to assess not only the geological significance but also the visitor access, the interpretation and the conservation objectives for each one. All of which are an important element of a UNESCO Global Geopark. 

More than just geology

One of the many Women's Co-operatives on Qeshm Island. 
As well as assessing the impressive geological heritage of the island, I was also there to see how this was being used as a tool for sustainable development and due to support from the Iranian government they had been able to develop some pretty significant projects. A Geopark Hotel, a Geopark Square in the main city and countless visitor centres, museums and information points were just some of the examples. But perhaps more impressive was how the Geopark had worked with local communities to try and improve their lifestyles especially through the development of women's co-operatives, the aim of which was to provide local women with a viable means of supporting themselves economically.

A cultural eye-opener

Eating dinner on the floor! 
Whilst I was there we got to experience true Iranian culture, in some ways very different to my own, but in others very similar. The dress code for women is strict in that our heads must be covered at all time, and that our entire bodies must also be fully covered (so full length tops and trousers). This might not have been a problem at home, but when the temperature got to 45oC with a wind-chill of 51oC, this was really quite tough going. Most of my meals were eaten on the floor which I discovered required a great deal of skill, that I rather embarrassingly don't think I ever obtained. The type of food was very different to anything that I had ever experienced with lots of cardamom-flavoured dishes and even the local Qeshm coffee was full of cardamom, but it was all very delicious. Of course the landscape was very different, and instead of the usual cows and sheep that I see when I'm driving home, I encountered herds of roaming camels that more than once stopped us on our journey. One of the most memorable parts of the Iranian culture however, was the warm welcome that I received everywhere I went; I lost count of the number of people that invited us to their homes for tea and of the many invitations that were accepted everyone was only too willing to show me their home and treated me like part of the family. 
Camels by the side of the main road. 

Mission complete 

My trip to Iran, albeit very short was a real cultural eye-opener, and was completely unexpected, especially given my initial reaction. It just goes to show how much the media influences your opinion. As for a UNESCO Global Geopark on Qeshm Island, well the evaluation report has been submitted to UNESCO so we'll just have to wait and see!