Located only 40 km from the centre of Shiraz is the unassuming village of Ghalat. Most of Shiraz is surrounded by semi-arid desert and dry rocky outcrops, but this little oasis is surprisingly green. You can even feel the temperature difference, one of the many reasons that this village has gained popularity amongst the Shirazi’s who come here to picnic and escape the heat.
There is another reason why local Shirazi’s and Iranians in general enjoy Ghalat, and that’s the counter-culture, alternative lifestyle feel. Small hippy towns and villages exist all over the world, but Iran is one of the last places you would expect to see murals of magic mushrooms, psychedelic trousers more commonly sold in South East Asia and marijuana being openly smoked.
Before the Shah was deposed during the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, this area was famous for its wine growing. When the Islamic revolution swept the country, all the vineyards were ripped out of the ground. With the ban on alcohol, the locals had to look to another cash crop to earn an income, thus the nickname the ‘Amsterdam of Iran’ came to be applied to Ghalat.
Ghalat has always been different to surrounding areas. Home to the ruins of an Armenian orthodox church and a historically larger than average non-Muslim population, the locals here shun headscarves, have dreadlocks and supplement their incomes with unique handicrafts and by operating hip cafes.
Ghalat became so famous for its alternative lifestyle that a few years ago the government cracked down and destroyed much of the industrial scale marijuana production. The locals told us that while the huge fields are no longer there, most locals still have a few plants at home, as well as maintaining a few small patches up in the mountains that are only accessible by hiking. It’s unlikely you won’t be offered some of their wares, with plenty of locals sitting around rolling joints Iranian style, using a hollowed-out cigarette.
Aside from this gorgeous town’s illegal pursuits, people from all of Iran come here just because it’s an enormously relaxing and beautiful place to be. The village is split by a cooling mountain stream and the immense tree canopy means even on the brightest of summer days you’re sheltered from the sun’s harsh rays. If you follow the stream past the various shops and cafes and pass the immeasurable number of Iranians picnicking and vegging out, after 20 minutes or so you’ll come to cascading waterwalls.
At the old Armenian church, we bumped into some locals who were getting high at a scenic vantage point, long-time residents of Ghalat, you could definitely tell they didn’t fit the normal depiction of an Iranian couple. She wore jeans and a t-shirt while he had a scruffy un-Islamic beard. They were generally happy with the situation of being left to their own devices, but it was always in the back of their minds that at any point the police could initiate a crackdown. After our conversation they got into their car with their pet goat to complete some afternoon errands.
There are also numerous cultural pursuits you can immerse yourself in in Ghalat, including joining in painting, jamming with local musicians, or you can just do what the majority do, and pack yourself a blanket, food and even a shisha and let the afternoon drift away.
It’s not that difficult to get to Ghalat if you want to see a side to Iran that few ever experience on the normal tourist trail. All you have to do is join our Iran Tour , or if you can’t make it, a taxi from the centre of Shiraz should cost around USD$6 and takes around 1 hour.