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DUBAI (Reuters) - For those who prefer to bundle up rather than strip down in summer, Iran's highland pastures offer something cooler than the usual coastal retreats.
Javaher Dasht, which translates as "jeweled plains," is 2,000 m (6,500 ft) above the Caspian Sea in Gilan province.
Tehran residents must drive several hours northwest, then climb into old Jeeps for a bumpy 90-minute journey on unpaved roads. Halfway up the mountain, travelers stop for a tea and hookah before reaching emerald meadows that sit above the clouds.
"It's one of the only places in the Middle East where you can find green pastures at such a high altitude," said Farhang, a tour guide with the Kalout tour company which has been running trips up the hills for 15 years.
Iran is not short of mountains, but most slopes are too steep to allow for such lush vegetation, he said.
Javaher Dasht, like most "yelaghs," is nearly deserted during winter and fall, but repopulates in the summer months.
Every year the Gilani village sees nearly 1,000 tourists, in addition to the 1,500 people who live there in summer. In winter, that number falls to 10 or so, one guide said.
"Yelagh" is a Turkic word which denotes the mobile pastoral homes of nomads in Central Asia. The converse term is "gheshlagh," areas to the south or at lower elevations where animal herders move for the winter.
Other Gilan highlands include Masouleh and areas in Masal.
The trip to Javaher Dasht is not for the luxury traveler but for eco-tourists looking for a rustic weekend break.
Tourists become fast friends during the long ride. They then spend two nights sleeping in rooms on nothing more than big pillows thrown on the floor.
Iranians warm the chilly evenings by sitting around the fire, engaged in poetry games, smoking hookah and playing cards.
Food is central to the tour. Traditional northern fare includes "mirza ghasemi," a smoked eggplant dish mixed with eggs, garlic and tomatoes. Tourists can buy raw honey, replete with honeycomb, from beekeepers minding hives atop the plains.
Kalout, which organizes a three-day, two-night tour for 4,550,000 rials ($171), employs local residents to house and feed visitors, providing an economic boost to the region. Other companies also do comparable tours.
These days, Javaher Dasht is in danger of falling victim to its own beauty.
"They want to asphalt the road up to the village and develop villas that are incongruous with the natural scene," said Farhang.
Companies like Kalout want to branch out to foreign visitors as well, hoping the more moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani will lure more people to Iran, especially those who no longer travel to destinations like Syria or Egypt due to war and instability.
For now, the vast majority of Javaher Dasht's visitors are Iranians, whose overseas vacation options are severely limited by a lack of visas and a devalued currency.
Editing by Ayla Jean Yackley