Moving with their flocks from the shores of the Persian Gulf in winter to the cooler mountains around Esfahan in summer, the Qashqai people are a nomadic group from Iran of Turkic origin who, mostly, still lead a traditional life, not very different from the way their ancestors used to.
When I was traveling in Iran, I had the chance to visit several nomadic camps and spend the night in one of them, in order to learn about the way they live.
This article contains an explanation of my experience with the nomads of Iran, as well as practical information to help you do the same.
Qashqai people: Meeting authentic nomads of Iran
Today, it’s believed that, still, around one million of the people living in Iran are full-time nomads, representing a 1.25% of the total population. This means that Iran has one of the biggest nomadic populations of any country, together with Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan or Mongolia.
Moreover, Iran is so culturally and ethnically diverse that even its nomadic population is classified into different groups and tribes, the Qashqai people being, perhaps, the largest one.
The Qashqai nomads, also known as Ghashghaei, are a nomadic tribe originally from Turkey, who keep moving across the Zagros Mountains, a mountain range located in western Iran, which kind of draws the border with Iraq.
The Ghashghaei tribe’s main language is a Turkish dialect but, except for some of the oldest people, all of them can speak Persian fluently, which is the official language in the country.
Like most Iranians, they are Shia Muslims.
The migration of the Iranian nomads
Iran is so geographically diverse that, in one single region, you can find all sorts of climates, in just a couple of hundred kilometers.
For example, on the one hand, the area in the Persian Gulf has a very similar climate to the Arab Gulf monarchies, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia or Qatar. In winter, these countries have one of the most pleasant winters that exist but, in summer, the heat becomes unbearable and the air extremely humid. On the other hand, in the Zagros Mountains, whose southern part begins pretty much in the Persian Gulf, the weather becomes more mountainous and much cooler, many sections having really tough and freezing winters and, at the highest point, the altitude is 4,409 meters above sea level.
All of it in a short 400-kilometer strip. Pretty impressive, huh?
This is the main reason why, for centuries, this land has been inhabited by different nomadic groups, who have kept moving across the 400-kilometer strip. In winter, they remain in the Persian Gulf and, when the weather becomes hot, they start moving north. In spring and autumn, you may find the nomads of Iran in the mountains around Shiraz and, in summer, around Esfahan.
The tough life of the Qashqai tribes
The life of the Qashqai people is pretty tough.
Just imagine yourself camping every day, for the rest of your life. That’s pretty much what their life is about.
Every time they move, they need to pack all their stuff, move with their flocks and set up their camps again. The same goes over and over.
The nomads always need to get water from the river, rely on solar energy and are highly dependent on their flocks. They are self-sufficient and their herds of sheep and goats are their main source of income. From these animals, they get meat, cheese, and milk and they also sell the newborns at the markets of the different cities.
Therefore, it’s not surprising at all that, for the last few decades, many Qashqai have left their traditional life and moved to different towns and cities.
A nomad: For many of us, life is very difficult here, you know?
Me: But do they like it? Why are not they moving to the cities?
According to my translator, many nomads would like to quit this life but they just can’t. The problem is that many of them are illiterate, so they could not find any good job. Raising flocks is what they are best at and, since they can’t move to the city with their animals, they need to remain with the nomad life.
Nevertheless, many Qashqai people are happy with this lifestyle because they are very proud of continuing a tradition which has been going for many generations.
The daily routine of the Iranian nomads is pretty much the same as that of the nomads I met while traveling in Kyrgyzstan and the rest of Central Asia. They wake up in the morning with the sunrise and men leave with their herds, while women stay at the camp, working on the daily household chores.
They raise goats, sheep and chickens and their diet is based on the products from these three animals. If you stay there, you are likely to have fresh milk, as well as home-made yogurt and cheese, of course. The rest of the food, including rice and vegetables, they buy in the markets from the surrounding cities.
However, culturally, one strong difference from the Central Asian nomads is that Qashqai tribes are much more conservative and paternalistic. Whereas, while I was trekking in Kyrgyzstan, I hung out and shared meals with many women nomads; with the Iranian nomads, there was a clear sex segregation, like in most traditional Muslim villages.
More information about meeting Qashqai people
When to visit the Iranian nomads
Like I said, the Iranian nomads keep moving across the Zagros Mountains, so you can visit them at any time of the year, depending on where you are. However, the camps around Shiraz are the most easily accessible, plus they are set up for a longer period of time, spring and autumn.
Should you visit them on a tour or not?
Well, that’s a very good question. While I am not a big fan of tours, the truth is that nomads don’t live in one fixed place but they just settle down in random places in the mountains, which means that you need to know where they are and, definitely, have a car.
Moreover, if you had a vehicle and knew where to go, you could have some random encounters, of course. Actually, the Qashqai nomads are very hospitable and, if you show up, you are most likely to be invited to have some tea.
However, the nomads don’t speak English at all and, if you want to have a full experience, meaning staying one or two days with them, someone should definitely arrange it for you in advance. Key2Persia arranged the trip for me and provided me with a tour guide who was a real Qashqai whose parents quit the nomadic life 15 years ago but he had many relatives who were still nomads. We stayed with his cousins and it was indeed a great experience.