Our weekly update covers two weeks this time. The reason for this is that Eugénie has been sick for a few days, so there was not that much to tell. But now that we’ve arrived in Iran we’ve got a lot to share so prepare for a long read about and many pictures of our first nine days in this amazing country.
Stuck in Aktau, Kazakhstan
But what was wrong with Eugénie? We still don’t know. She got ill during the 26 hour train ride that brought us from Nukus in Uzbekistan to Aktau in Kazakhstan where our flight to Iran would leave from. Things got worse after we’d arrived in Aktau. Everything she ate or drank came out as watery diarrhea 10-15 minutes later. The strange thing was that she wasn’t really feeling that sick (she had no fever for example) but could hold nothing down.
After cancelling our flight to Iran we asked for a doctor at our hotel, Zeruik. Although just a few of the staff members spoke a little English they went out of their way to help us. A medical swat team from a nearby hospital arrived and using Google translate and hand gestures we tried to explain what was ailing Eugénie. Some things were probably lost in translation but after the dezhumaya (floor attendant) and cleaning lady had thrown in their two pennies worth of advice Eugénie was prescribed some medication for her stomach problems.
The next two days not much changed, however, so we decided to contact SOS International to see an English speaking doctor. His diagnosis was gastroenteritis (which can mean anything) of an ‘unspecified origin’. But at least the medication he prescribed – including smecta, a clay-like substance that people in the former Soviet republics swear by – helped.
Welcome in Iran!
So after a four day delay we could finally make it to Iran. We’d booked plane tickets with Azerbaijan Airlines, but the flights from Aktau to Baku and Baku to Tehran were executed by their brand new low cost daughter Buta Airways that only started flying last month. Nothing wrong with that.
Immediately after arriving at Khomeini International Airport we got to experience the fabled friendliness of the people of Iran. I had just cleared immigration and Eugénie was still having her passport checked (which was a very speedy process by the way), when we heard our first ‘Welcome in Iran’. It was the first of many ‘Welcome in Iran’ salutations since. People sometimes just walking up to us or tapping us on the shoulder to say ‘Welcome in Iran’ before moving on again.
At the airport we were one of the few people who used the new metro stop at the airport that had just opened last month. Instead of paying US$ 25-30 dollar for a taxi we traveled for US$ 0,50 (for two) to the city center! It was one of the signs that foreign tourism in Iran has only started to develop recently.
Taking it easy in Tehran
Another sign is that new hostels and guesthouses are popping up all over Iran. In Tehran we stayed for two days at Bibi Hostel, that only three weeks earlier had opened its doors in the center of the city. Because Eugénie was still feeling a little weak we took it easy in Tehran. Mohammad, the owner of Bibi Hostel was kind enough to drive us around Tehran for a few hours looking for street art. There’s plenty around, but because the city is so huge, most street art is spread throughout the city and information is scarce, they’re sometimes hard to find. We still found some good ones though.
Because it was weekend in Iran (that’s Thursday and Friday here) most of the sights we wanted to visit were closed. Only the 19th-century Golestan Palace – which give us a taste of what we could expect in Iran – was open. We satisfied ourselves with walking around a bit, a short visit to the bazaar and going out to the Tabiat Bridge, a huge pedestrian bridge that connects two parks in northern Tehran. Maybe we come back at the end of our journey through Iran to visit some other sights in Tehran we missed out on now.
The stepped village of Masouleh
Since we’d lost four days on our visa because of Eugénie’s illness and still wanted to see all the places we’d planned for, we had to revise our plans a little bit to speed things up. With the help of Mohammad we drafted an itinerary that would allow us to see everything we wanted to see but at a faster pace, mostly in the first week.
From Tehran we first traveled by bus to the city of Rasht, where we took a taxi to the village of Masouleh in Gilan province in northwestern Iran. The village is located in the Alborz mountains and is over a thousand years old. It’s famous for its unique adobe architecture. The buildings have been built into the mountain and are interconnected, the roofs of the houses below serving as gardens and pedestrian streets for the houses above.
Because of the green surroundings and cooler climate Masouleh is a popular weekend getaway and holiday destination for people from Tehran and the rest of Iran. Some visitors find that Masouleh has become too touristy, but maybe it depends on when you are there. The main street dividing the upper and lower section is indeed full of tourist shops and restaurants but for the rest it’s still a real living village, some houses old and weathered, others completely renovated or newly rebuilt.
During our visit we saw hardly any other visitors. We arrived at the end of the day in a thick, chilly fog and could hardly see anything of the layout of the village, but it made for some atmospheric pics. The next morning it was all sunshine, but fierce wind gusts kicked up a lot of dust. While the tourist shops still had to open their doors, we walked around for a few hours. All the time we were mostly on our own, seeing some locals and just a handful of other tourists. Great experience.
Going to Tabriz
Returning to Rasht by taxi around noon we wanted to take a bus to Ardabil and possibly Tabriz – our next destination in the far northwest of Iran – the same day. We’d read that they would leave regularly but at the bus station were told that there would be only busses in the early evening. This meant a long wait and arriving in the middle of the night in Ardabil or taking a night bus to Tabriz. Either way it would cost us time and energy.
So we decided to shell out for a taxi that would take us in 6,5 hours to Tabriz the same day. Tabriz has not that many touristic sights but is home to a Unesco World Heritage listed bazaar, one of the most beautiful in Iran. The bazaar is over 1.000 years old but most of the current structure dates back to the fifteenth century.
For newcomers it’s difficult to find their way in the seven square kilometer maze of caravanserais, domed halls and alleyways, but getting lost for a few hours is part of the fun of visiting this bazaar. Anyway, there are countless helpful Tabrizis to point you in the right direction if you really don’t know where to go anymore.
Since it was hard to find appropriate clothing at home Eugénie had hoped to find a cheap nice shirt befitting the Iranian dress code here but she miserably failed: it was not her size, the fabric was too thick and coarse to wear comfortably in warm weather (Tabriz was preparing for winter) or the prints were to frivolous. She already had bought a colorful ensemble at a local market in Arslanbob in Kyrgyzstan, but since most women in Iran, especially outside the big cities like Tehran, wear dark uni-colored clothing she was sticking out like a sore thumb. Trying to fit in proved harder than expected…..
Daytrip to Kandovan and Aladaglar mountains
Another reason for us to head out all the way to Tabriz was to see the colorful Aladaglar mountains and the troglodyte village of Kandovan. We’d arranged for a taxi so we could visit both on the same day. The Aladaglar mountains half an hour east of Tabriz reminded us of the rainbow mountains at the Zhangye-Danxia Geopark we’d visited earlier on our one year trip in China. Regretfully our taxi driver only knew some stops along the main road, when we would have loved to venture a little deeper into the mountains.
While taking pics of the mountains we had an altercation with plainclothes policemen who happened to drive by. It was less exciting than the confrontation with local authorities we had a few weeks ago in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, but it was still a tense moment. Again we had to show our passports and pictures. Asking what was wrong we only got the answer that there was a problem. We never found out what it was though. Luckily we got our passports back after a while.
Kandovan, about 50 kilometers southwest of Tabriz, is worth seeing for its cave dwellings called ‘karan’ in the local dialect. They have been cut out of the volcanic rock over 700 hundred years ago. Because of the resemblance to its bigger counterpart in Turkey it’s sometimes referred to as a mini-Cappadocia. The big difference is that many of the cave homes in Kandovan are still inhabited. Some of them have been extended with several stories and satellite dishes are a common sight now.
Just below these cave homes is a newer, but still traditional looking, village. In recent years it has developed into a popular tourist destination for Iranians. This has led to the building of many new additions, and they’re building so many new ones now, that it’s starting to affect the original look of the place. At least that was our feeling. However, in the middle of the week on the last day of October, tourism seemed far away. Even when visiting in the middle of the day we only saw a handful of other tourists, thus experiencing village life in a more authentic way.
Night train to Kashan
At the end of the day our taxi driver took us to the train station for the night train back to Tehran. We’d booked first class tickets for about 11 euro each so we had to share a compartment with only two instead of four other people. We were joined by a mother and son who regretfully didn’t speak any English. We were offered to share the food they’d brought but since we’d had a big early dinner we sadly had to decline.
We both had the wider upper bunks but didn’t sleep much since it was incredibly hot in the compartment. Taking clothes off was out of the question though. After a sleepless 12,5 hour train ride we arrived in Tehran early next morning, took a taxi to the south bus station and got a bus that would take us in about three hours to Kashan, our first stop as we will be heading further south into Iran.
We spent 1,5 days in beautiful Kashan, a midsize provincial city halfway between Tehran and Isfahan. The city has a nice, not so touristy bazaar and some amazing renovated 19th-century traditional merchant houses that reflect the city’s importance as a Qajar-era (nineteenth century) commercial center. We visited four of them. What impressed us most, however, was the recently restored 500-year-old Sultan Mir Ahmad hammam (bathhouse) that is a museum now. The interior was a fiesta of richly colored tiles.
Red village of Abyaneh
From Kashan regular busses go to Isfahan, but we opted to share a taxi with a solo Japanese traveler to visit the ancient village of Abyaneh, 30 km off the highway linking both cities. The origin of this village is said to date back 2.500 years. What makes it special are its stepped alleys and multi-story buildings made out of red brick, clay and wooden beams. Abyaneh is still inhabited by a few hundred people, the women wearing long white scarfs with colorful patterns.
It was discovered as a tourist destination just a few years ago, but since then it has developed fast as a popular tourist destination in Iran. We arrived early to escape the weekend crowds (Thursday and Friday, remember), but after a first hour of relative solitude the village was swamped by huge numbers of Iranian tourists and some foreign tour groups as well. Luckily most of them stuck to the main street, so that we could still enjoy this fantastic place by exploring the many side streets. We found it well worth the detour.
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