Tabriz, Iran: Hejab & Sandcastles of Kandovan

Trip Start Jul 28, 2013
Trip End Feb 06, 2014

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Goodbye VISA prison, we're out of here. Laters Baku. Ok city, but not for 8 nights as there is only so much beer and McDonalds one can handle.

Cruising the morning peak hour traffic jammed streets was like a fly stuck in toffee. We thought we had left ample time but ended up bailing the cab and walking the final bit to ensure we didn't miss our bus and have to stay another night. As it turned out the bus left half an hour later than expected so we had nothing to worry about.

The journey itself was pleasant and was spent either staring out the window or dozing. Stopped off at a couple of roadside cafes along the way - kebabs grilled over coals, piles of pomegranates. A lady kept tutting at Sam's naked feet in flipflops and eventually came over and offered him a pair of socks which was very sweet as it was quite cold.

The border was simple enough. Everyone seemed fascinated with our passports so of course we were the last to get through. Britain please do something about the passport cover as it does look rather dodgy when all the gold embossed coat of arms rubs off. Saying goodbye to Azerbaijan we then traipsed the 50m to the Iranian border. Once again, very straightforward after the computer system recognised our passports (it took a while). Big hello's and welcomes. Yes open you're bag, just cause I know how to say that - don't actually want to look in, we just want to talk to you. Welcome welcome.

After passing through there it all got a little confusing as we had lost everyone from the bus so we wandered aimlessly up a road towards the exit (should have just stayed put and got on the shuttle bus), played charades with some of the locals and police carrying some very big batons to try and find out where our bus was but that was simply lost in translation. So here we were, in Iran with not a familiar face in sight or a bus. Bugger.

The border opens up to a muddy roundabout surrounded by market stalls so we strolled along there for a bit before the shuttle bus pulled up and a man we recognised from the bus climbed off. Thankfully he saw us and motioned us over to explain where we had to wait for the bus. Ahh thank goodness. We then spent the next 1 1/2 hours standing in the dirt watching a gaggle of geese play in muddy puddles and a rafter of turkeys scavenge through rubbish piles or peck at grapes thrown by an old lady whilst a light but continuous rain fell.

Once the bus cleared customs and we were all back on board the rest of the journey raced by and before we knew it we were pulling into the bustling city of Tabriz. What time we arrived I don't know due to the clocks changing but it was essentially a 12-13 hr journey including stops/clearing borders.

People crowded the bus when it arrived offering taxis and accommodation so in we hopped towards one mentioned in the LP, Morvarid Hotel, which turned out to be a nice place located on an intersection near a park and the bazaar. English speaking staff too which helped. As it was quite late when we arrived we ventured out for a quick bite to eat before calling it a night.

Next day we woke to glorious blue skies and crisp sunshine which suited me fine when having to wear jeans, long sleeve shirt, light trench jacket and headscarf. We visited our first mosque. The Blue Mosque (Kabud Mosque) which was once the jewel of the north and took 25 years to cover in blue tiles. Today, however, there is only a small section of blue remaining due to the majority of it being destroyed by earthquakes in 1727 and 1773. The former was Iran's worse earthquake and killed 77,000 people.

After that we spent the day getting lost in the bazaar which is a mind boggling labyrinth of twists and turns covering an astonishing 7 sq km! Huge sections are dedicated to different items - rows of jewellery, courtyards and caverns of carpets, a plethora of scarves, laneways of spices, halls of not very attractive clothes etc etc all coming together to create a spellbinding experience for the senses. Some of the brick work dates back to the 15th century and when a yell beckons you to jump out of the way of an oncoming donkey and fully laden cart, it's not hard to imagine being back there. Unesco have listed it as a World Heritage Site.

Jumping from one boiling pot and into another we ventured into the Tabriz version of the New York Stock Exchange where men in suits stood around with wads of cash trying to convince you to exchange your US$. XE Currency quotes US$1 : IRR 24,813. Great, that's going to make buying things easy. We were told anything over US$1 : IRR 30,000 was a good deal so were happy when we got over that. Still makes calculating prices a pain though.

As breakfast was included in the room rate we were treated to our first experience of carrot jam. Mmmm yummy, more so than you would think. Very sweet and tastes a bit like honey or caramel.

On one of the days the hotel arranged for a driver to take us out to Kandovan, a hillside of sandcastle houses, which was a definite highlight. It's a small town carved into or out of a rocky outcrop which in parts form cone type structures. I'm told it's similar to Cappadocia in Turkey if you've been there. We spent an hour exploring the narrow alleys before clambering up a hill at the end of the village for a panoramic view. The whole place is a photographers dream.

Shops are dotted along the main street selling woven bags, hats and the local speciality - honey. If you're allergic to bees or wasps probably best you steer clear as some of the shops are full of them. In the wetter months a tranquil river would run but for us it was bone dry so we had to make do with watching a couple of kids play with a fire on the sun cracked riverbed. There were a number of makeshift restaurants under the shade of what wasn't a coolabah tree but they were all closed by the time we finished exploring the village.

On the hour drive back to Tabriz it became clear that of course it was ok to have three lanes of traffic in two. There are two ways to describe Iranian drivers (1) crazy (2) supremely skilled fore not only do they need eyes in the back of their head but also on either side. Driving within inches of each other their reaction speed is second to none as is the spacial awareness of their vehicles. Only once did someone clip our side mirror and in all the chaos we witnessed not one accident, proof they must be doing something right.

Back in town we discovered a fabulous kebab house with freshly baked bread and above standard tasting meat which made for a pleasant surprise. Relaxed there for a bit before going back to the hotel to collect bags and head out to the train station for our overnight journey to Tehran. Let's hope it's a good one and we're not stuck in a full carriage.


Bus: Baku to Tabriz dep 09:30 arr 20:00 (local time). Price: AZN 25 : US$30 each.
Hotel: Morvarid Hotel US$23 pn twin room, private bathroom incl. breakfast (tea & bread).
Driver: Tabriz to Kandovan 4 hr round trip for IRR 500,000 : US$16
Train: Tabriz to Tehran dep 18:25 arr 07:00. Can't remember price, think it was about IRR 150,000 each for 6 bed cabin as first was sold out.

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