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Iran’s geography is combination of big snow-covered mountains, green lands and deserts.

Austrian-Australian adventurer, Mark Kalch explains about his walking trip from Caspian Sea to Persian Gulf

As an Australian-Austrian explorer and adventurer, Mark Kalch entered Iran in late November, 2009 for a walking across the country from the north side somewhere beside Caspian Sea to its south where Iran’s border goes through the Persian Gulf. He tells about himself, his adventures and especially of his trip to Iran in an exclusive interview with Iran Mountain Zone (IMZ). Let’s read:

Mark Kalch IMZ: Please tell your biography in brief.

Mark Kaclch: I am a professional adventurer and explorer originally from Australia, but now I am living in London, UK. I undertake expeditions for living and basically anything I think about is interesting and difficult such as going on rivers, kayaking and rafting in the Amazon to walking across Iran and in forests of Africa. They are challenging both mentally and physically for me. Also I have been sponsored by several companies that look after me very well with equipments and anything I need for my expeditions. And finally that I make my living from speaking to schools, organization and companies who likes to hear such adventures.

IMZ: Why did you choose Iran as your adventure destination?

Mark Kalch: I thought of an adventurous trip in Iran two years ago, when I was on Amazon River. The river was so long and I had a lot of time to think. I wanted to do something in Middle East region, so I got a map which has more cities and started to look and search for an attracting place. Finally I made up my mind for Iran due to two reasons. The first one was to oversee the geography of the country which is very mountainous and in spite of what lots of people think in west, it is not just one big desert with lots of sands. Iran’s geography is combination of big snow-covered mountains, green lands and deserts.
But the principle reason pushed me to think of Iran was the ugly perception that people have of it in western countries. In Australia, UK, US and other western countries the only information and sort of view that we receive about Iran is through the news agencies like BBC, CNN, Fox News, etc and it is shocking. What they show is extraordinary event and not normal ones. Always sitting in London or in Australia people turn on the TV, they see demonstration, people in streets, and things about nuclear issues and if they put the TV aside and just hear to the news, they will suspect there is a battle. During last two years as I did more researches of Iran’s history and its culture, which beside my trip’s experiences proves that they are false representation of the country. Therefore I set off toward Iran to meet people and to experience their culture.

"Finally I made up my mind for Iran due to two reasons. The first one was to oversee the geography of the country which is very mountainous and in spite of what lots of people think in west, it is not just one big desert with lots of sands. Iran’s geography is combination of big snow-covered mountains, green lands and deserts."

IMZ: Please tell us about your trip. Where you started, where you passed and about the end point?

Mark Kalch: I arrived in Tehran from London on November, 20th (2009) and spent the first week in the city to meet the Alpine Club of Iran, who were my hosts. Besides, I had a meeting with Mohammad from Iran Mountain Zone, who really helped me with information about my route and matters that I would experience along the way.
Afterwards, I travelled by bus to Chaloos city, north of Iran in the coast of Caspian Sea. Walking eastward to Mahmoud-Abad, which is a coastal city too and then toward Amol, I started my trip in a green colored place full of trees, forest. Arriving in Amol, I took the way toward Tehran through the Alborz range, which was an interesting winter experience. I caught the sight of Mt. Damavand, which was great. I didn’t get to the summit this time, but I will be back in summer for it. From Tehran, I moved toward SE to Qom, then to Kashan, Natanz and Isfahan. This portion of my trip was going on the west side of Iran’s central plateau, which was a desert area. From Isfahan, I had planned originally toward Shiraz, but when I looked at maps, talking with Mohammad and using Google Earth software I saw that I want it more southern direction toward Yasouj, which is directly through Zagros Mountains, which was very wide range. From Yasouj, I continued SW toward Bushehr that was located approximately 100 km farther than end of Zagros range at the coast of Persian Gulf and I arrived in Bushehr on January 18, 2010.

IMZ: Why did you choose this route? You know, you could replace it with other options?

Mark Kalch: I chose this route after a very long time of research and planning. My first thought was travelling from the far NW corner of Iran at Turkey’s border to its very SE corner at Pakistan’s border. The second proposed route was started from Armenia’s border, which was more eastern than turkey’s border, but still on the NW of Iran and ended in Bandar-Abbas. These were two routes that I had been told a lot about.
I tried to think more and came up with third route or honestly saying, Mohammad helped me with third route, which was approximately central line of Iran from Chaloos to Bushehr.
Mark Kalch However, I should choose among them. The first route was the longest with 2000 kilometers through a mountainous and also isolated region of Iran and I was afraid to manage due to Visa time, which was one month with maximum extension of 90 days and would not be extendable. The second one was quite good option, but because I had come to Iran to meet people and then to experience geography and environment, it was not seemed to fulfill my first goal. Hence I chose the third one, which was achievable in terms of my maximum visa time and also as Mohammad told me, was a great way to meet a wide range of people in Iran; from the inhabitants of Caspian Sea coast coming to a metropolis like Tehran, then going to Qom, which is a very religious and holy city and after that passing through the central plateau toward another mountainous region that is a place with lots of different groups of people and especially nomadic tribes and at the end getting to people living at the coast of Persian Gulf.

IMZ: During your trekking, you have passed through two main mountainous ranges of Alborz and Zagros. How did you see them?

Mark Kalch: I had planned so much for these two ranges, which are seen on maps and also using Google Earth, but my arriving time in Iran (November 20, 2009) made me passed through these two massive mountains in winter.
The weather was so bad when I passed the road from Karaj to Chaloos by bus. The road was continually climbed up through that crazy mountain, everywhere was covered in snow and I was thinking "how I can walk back to here!?". However, the biggest obstacle for me through the Alborz was existence of several tunnels along the way that I supposed to get through, because my expedition took place partly on the road and partly off, when I could be away from the road. Some of the tunnels along the road from Amol to Tehran were so long without any ventilation system. Also mind the risk of strike with cars and trucks when there wasn’t enough room alongside of the road. But when I could leave the road, it was so nice to be in the quiet mountain and among the people, who were really looking after me. They would stop me and would give me tea (Chaay in Farsi), oranges and these things. Also Mt. Damavand, the highest mountain in Iran is located in Alborz Range.
"I will keep saying on my website and to everyone meet that the people made this expedition so good and unbelievable. I met people that 10 minutes before they haven’t even seen me, got offloaded onto them and they accommodated me, feed me and did everything for me. "
About Zagros; it is that much wide that took almost half of my journey. Zagros range is full of continually peaks, massive wide flat valleys and different villages all in line, which took me several days to pass. There are so many beauties such as farming areas that gives pleasure beside a lot of people to stay with and meet. I really enjoyed going through the Zagros Mountains.
To me, Alborz is composed of sharp and tall mountains with a lot of snow, whereas the Zagros is wider in range, has wider valleys and wider human ranges.

IMZ: before coming Iran, how did you think about this trip’s difficulties? Now, after passing through Iran, where did you come across the most serious difficulties?

MarK Kalch: I think I had underestimated the whole trip. I did very exciting planning, sorting out sponsorship, looking at the maps but actually carrying a duffle is another story. The most serious difficulty was the solitude even though I met so many nice people and every person I met looked after me. The people really cared about me, but I would leave. They are not the same as my family and friends that I had in many years back home.
The other problem was language. I didn’t know enough Farsi and those people I met along the way and especially in villages couldn’t speak English.
Mind that at the end of a day with approximately 30-35 km walking, when I was exhausted, I should have found somewhere to stay, pitched my tent, tried to stay warm and dry and made food. At the beginning it seems hard, but after two months they started to melt up.
However, difficulties were the combination of mental and the physical aspects that had been underestimated.

IMZ: Where have you travelled before coming to Iran, and leaving Iran where are you going to plan for?

Mark Kalch: Before coming to Iran, my biggest trip was in 2007. I spent 153 days with two friends to travel 6800 km, the full length of the Amazon River starting in Peru in the Andes at about 5200m altitude. We walked for one month till the river got big enough for rafting. We spent one month on one of the hardest white water rivers in the world called the Apurimac, which eventually drains into the Amazon, and rowing the rest of the Amazon to Atlantic Ocean up the coast of Brazil took us three months. Thus, we became the forth team ever to complete this journey and seventh and the eighth people in the history to do this, Due to the fact that just two of us finished it. It was my biggest trip.
Before the Amazon, I have done some trips in Africa, some very hard jungle trips in Ethiopia, which were quite tough physically. The jungle was so dense and hot in this area and lots of animals like lion, elephant, buffalo, and hyena were there and I also saw tribes that still fight amongst each other such that you don’t want to go after its complexity and fortunately it didn’t. And before getting on to these expeditions, my backbone was in river guiding for tourists.
For my next trip, beside my interest in humanism, I like to try a different expedition than what I did in Iran and on the Amazon River. Sometimes I would really like to do a big motorbike expedition, which could be looked so funny. May be I choose mountaineering, but I should firstly improve my technical abilities and then combine them with an expedition. If you ask where to climb, I can just say to go up somewhere not necessarily as first ascent but a peak that general public or community may have not heard of. For the last sentence, for me an expedition should be for adventure, for fun and also interesting.

Mark Kalch IMZ: Have you achieved all your expedition’s goals?

Mark Kalch: yes I think so. Not only was it an athletic activity that just walking from Chaloos to Bushehr, but also this trip helped me meeting different people in Iran and learning more about the country from cultural aspects. Therefore I am very happy to achieve both goals; athletic and cultural. Honestly talking, the most important goal of mine was the second one with the hopes of teaching people in the west, in UK, Australia and US as much as I can to open the eyes about Iran.
Having these two goals, I think made the expedition much more difficult. Some days I should keep walking and regularly say "No" to warm invitations of people and my friends in the way to push my body’s limit mentally and physically, while there were sometimes that I would rather meet people. So now when I look back, I see that I could have taken more photos, more videos and could have met more people, but in a battling to meet wide goals, I think I have done as well as possible.

IMZ: Please tell about the differences between your trip to Iran and other places you have been there?

Mark Kalch: Probably the biggest thing was learning about Iran. I had researched a lot about Iran, but when I first arrived in Tehran at the airport, even for me who had done a lot of research, I didn’t know what to do at the reception. You know, because it is Iran! So the biggest thing for me was learning to open my eyes and coming to Iran with an opened mind, which I did and because of this I got to learn so much more about Iran.
Always there are cultural differences but when I was being out to watch people, I saw people opening their shops, setting up fruit shops, driving the tractor on the farm, construction workers on building sites, people working in the bank, people driving in the car with their family, walking in the park with their children. They were exactly the same as people in UK, in Australia and in US. No different. So the biggest thing for me was how similar Iran is to so many other countries I’ve visited.
About the differences, the biggest was those things that unfortunately always are focused on the news; all women wear "Chador" or all men wear a jacket and have a beard and there are many religious clerics. Although seeing a woman wearing Chador or a cleric in the street, especially in a city like Qom, had a very big impact on someone like me, who has come from a different culture, but it was visually such a difference.
Therefore, if there is any difference between Iran and the west, it should be only the signs and the problems that normally exist between any two countries like disagreement about trades and economic things and the biggest thing that makes me upset is how these differences could result in a war and attacking to Iranian cities.

IMZ: If you are supposed to tell about the most useful gears, what is your opinion? The gears that you might leave at home, but took them and now you are happy with your decision.

Mark Kalch Mark Kalch: The most useful bit of gears I had was my down jacket. In comparison to other down jackets, it was so compact, light weight and so much warm. Putting up my down jacket was so pleasant when I had to drag myself out of my sleeping bag in mornings, when the inner side of my tent was completely frosted due to cold weather in Alborz and Zagros ranges.
The other useful gear was my trekking poles. I didn’t use to be a very big fan of trekking poles while some people use it even with light backpacks. But in this trip with the very heavy backpack I had, trekking poles took a few amount of pressure on my back and my legs and this helped me to keep balanced. I’m so happy to have them during this trip.
Thanks to my boot sponsor. I was allowed to choose and try three pairs for this trip and the final choice was the heaviest one but it was that much comfortable to make me forget about its weight. My sunglasses were useful too. I put them away only when I wanted to take photos and videos.
Probably the most useless gear of the kit that I had was a 70$ titanium made mug from MSR. I bought it especially for this expedition but never used it. Fortunately it was made of titanium and was quite light, but it just used space of my backpack.

"To me, Alborz is composed of sharp and tall mountains with a lot of snow, whereas the Zagros is wider in range, has wider valleys and wider human ranges."

IMZ: Have you been sponsored for this trip?

Mark Kalch: Yes. I have a few ongoing sponsors that look after me for all my equipment whether on expeditions or just for my own recreational use. I sponsored by Suunto, which is a Finnish Company and makes wrist-top computers. I used the Suunto-X10 on this trip whose built-in GPS is so proper for making way points and calibrating altimeters. My clothing sponsor is Rab, which is a UK company. It is not a big company but its products are such good and tough. I almost used every bit of gears that I had been given by this company. My boot’s sponsor is German brand of Meindle, which has approximately 300 years background. They look after me with different types of boot I need. Besides, The US Company of "Zeal Optics" is my sunglass sponsor.
For the first time on this trip I was also sponsored by Sony, who booked me with a digital photo camera and a great HD video camera.

IMZ: Thank you for the time you dedicated for this interview. The remaining time is for you. Do you have any necessary thing to tell?

Mark Kalch: Actually I’m so happy to be up to come here and meet people. I will keep saying on my website and to everyone I meet that the people made this expedition so good and unbelievable. I met people that 10 minutes before they haven’t even seen me, got offloaded onto them and they accommodated me, feed me and did everything for me. I didn’t see only one unkind or rude person along the whole way.
I can guarantee that if you try to do a similar walk across Australia although it is a nice country with great people but if you turn up at someone’s door in Australia at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock at night and knock on the door, while wearing a backpack and not been washed for one week, then expect them to bring you inside and let you wash yourself, feed you and make a bed for you, maybe someone would do but not likely. I have travelled to more than 40 countries over the world amongst which Iran has the friendliest, kindest and the most hospitable people.
Hopefully when I get back to UK, I will teach people, even if just formal people, to view Iran differently than had been viewed by the west for the last 30 years. This is the biggest injustice to the people of Iran to look at them from political viewpoints.

June, 2010

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