On this journey we take the roads less travelled to find an answer to the question: How do we want to live our life? Is a life closer to nature and to people something for us? A great reason to stay a little longer at places where people do so. In Iran we met a couple that made a big change: they had a successful typical big city life in the US, but decided to leave it all behind and come back to Iran to live closer to nature and to people. And they didn’t only change their own lives tremendously, but also made a big difference in saving nature and to the life of many villagers. Read their inspiring story!

Escaping the urban zoo

“About eight years ago we decided to leave Los Angeles,” Kamran says, “We realized the city made us like animals in a zoo: we lost our freedom and our contact with nature.” Kamran and Forough had a good life: Kamran was a successful designer and Forough just started her career as an architect. “We had a typical big city life, but we weren’t satisfied with it anymore”, he remembers. They started looking for a place in the US to live closer to nature, but at the same time Forough her father – who is an ecologist – asked for their help. One of the biggest national parks in their home country Iran was in danger: animals kept being killed by poachers and local people polluted the park – if nothing changed it would be a disaster for the ecology in the country. “At first I didn’t understand why my father was asking us for help: we don’t know much about ecology and saving nature”, Forough explains, “But in his opinion the only way to save the park was to place the Golestan National Park and its value on the map.”

A first try-out

“Since we were searching for new ways to live our life, we decided to give it a chance”, Kamran says. They left the city and made the long journey from the West Coast of the US to the Iranian capital Tehran. From there it is a one day drive to Turkmen Sahra, the closest village to the Golestan National Park in the Northeast of Iran. “We just went to the village and asked around to rent a room for a few months”, Forough explains. “A big change after the hectic city life we had, but we took our time to get a feeling for what was going on and if we would like to live here.” They started to get to know the people in the village by talking to them and inviting children to make a drawing together. “We learned a lot about their culture and the way they define nature and the national park”, Kamran explains. The villagers are ethnic Turkmen and nomadic by nature. Since only 150 years they are living in this village. “Their culture and history has a great impact on how they use nature in a non-sustainable way and we started to get ideas how to change their behavior and involve people to save the park.” Kamran and Forough decided to make the big change and exchange their city life in Los Angeles for a life closer to nature in the far Northeast of Iran.  

On a mission

But, Kamran and Forough didn’t move out of the city to just be in nature. “From the beginning we had a strong drive to save the park; that is our mission,” Kamran says. “We knew we couldn’t do it alone: the key was to involve the local people.” By their research in the community the first months, they found out that local people see the park as source of income. “The villagers hunt the animals to sell their meat and they cut the trees for the wood, but they don’t realize that those resources aren’t endless”, Kamran explains. “We want to show the people the value of the park: how to make money with the park, without destroying it.” The first step they needed to take was to build relations with the people in the village. “We had to show them that we have the right intentions, that they can trust us”, Kamran says. In every step they took, they involved the local people. “We started renting an abandoned traditional Turkmen house and together with the villagers we renovated it using old techniques. We looked for traditional handicrafts and furniture to show the beautiful Turkmen culture”, says Forough.

This house became the Turkmen Ecolodge: a Bed and Breakfast for nature lovers visiting the park. In other ways they also started to include the community. “We let the people do what they love and they are good at. The hunters are great in spotting wildlife, so they are guiding tourists now in the park,” Kamran mentions. “And we found out that there were a lot of forgotten skills in the community,” explains Forough. “For example: the young people in the village didn’t know how to weave anymore. We invited the old ladies to teach the young ones. And I helped them designing new products, made with old techniques and designs. They are now sold as souvenirs to the guests.” At the moment more than 50 people of the village are working with them. As a guide, as a manager of the lodge, or to make handcrafts. “Our idea is that they should earn a more than reasonable amount of money and take benefit of the preservation of nature. Only in that way it works and is sustainable”, Kamran states.

Happy in the middle of nowhere

In only seven years they seem to make a big difference: they changed the life of many people in the village and the Golestan National Park is one of the most well-known national parks in Iran. But their job is not done yet. “We are working on a cultural change. We know it will take a generation before those values are really part of them,” Kamran says. That is why they also started a Nature School to educate the children of the village about the value of nature. It seems like the whole project is still very much depending on Kamran and Forough: they are working more than a full time job to make all of this happen. Aren’t they still part of same rat race that made them leave the big city? “We feel stressed every now and then”, Kamran says. “But it is different. We live in the rhythm of nature, with the seasons. That makes us more connected to ourselves and to what is really important.” Their lives changed a lot. “We don’t have internet here, and no television. You become a bit of a loner when you live like this,” Kamran says. And to the question if they ever want to go back to city life they are both quite clear: “We are sure we don’t want to live in the city anymore. Sometimes we get a bit restless here and then we leave the village to go to Tehran for a few days: eat sushi, see our friends”, they smile, “But then we are happy to go back to the tranquillity of life here, in the middle of nowhere!”

Want to know more about the amazing work Kamran and Forough are doing? Or want to visit the Turkmen Ecolodge and the beautiful Golestan National Park? Please have a look at their website: www.turkmenecolodge.com