Friday, September 07, 2012

Tabriz, Kandovan and Jolfa

After a tolerable overnight bus ride, we arrived in Tabriz and met up with our hosts just as they were walking out the door to go to work. We were able to drop off our bags and hit the streets for some exploring. Tabriz is one of the larger and more famous Iranian cities and for most visitors the first one that they go to. I guess I just like doing everything backwards...
By now you should not be surprised at all when I tell you that Tabriz also briefly served as the capital of Iran, this time in the mid 1400's. Consequently a bunch of nice buildings and palaces exist in Tabriz though many have been damaged or destroyed by earthquakes over the centuries. The most recent Iranian earthquake was just outside of Tabriz only a couple weeks after I was there so it's quite easy to get a feel for things like their famous Blue Mosque which has been incompletely rebuilt and has only a portion of the original amount of blue tile work that made it famous centuries ago. There isn't much more of the old citadel remaining either.

Blue Mosque.

The most famous attraction in Tabriz is the huge and now Unesco-listed bazaar. By this point I was getting a little bazaared out as they tend to have a very repetitive nature. But there's no denying that this one, most of which dates back 5-600 years though started much earlier. It covers something like 7 square km and has over 20 caravanserais inside. The vaulted hallways were wider than many of the other bazaars and somehow it was still a hassle-free experience without touts chasing you around. Just business as usual for the local Iranians. I only saw a small portion of the bazaar before popping out to go to some of the other sites.

The Bazaar.

A caravansarai in the bazaar.

The Qajar museum was set in a Qajar-era (one of the Iranian dynasties) mansion. I think I liked the outside front of the house best. The style of the palaces in general are not as overwhelming as in some other countries, despite the long, rich history of Iran. If you still aren't convinced that they are completely obsessed with poetry here then maybe the poet's mausoleum, commemorating about 400 poets will help. I've never heard of any of them of course, but I had to visit just to believe how much honor their poets get in general. Of course with such a long history I guess they have a lot of poets to choose from also.

The Qajar museum.

The poet's mausoleum.

I also visited the Constitution House, which is a museum about an independence movement and the subsequent destruction and occupation of Tabriz in the early 1900's. Tabriz and the surrounding province is ethnically and linguistically predominantly Azeri/Turkish. Throughout history it's always had a bit of a rebellious streak and been a leader in various movements for independence or for regime change (as in the 1979 revolution). This fact has been taken advantage of several times in history as the Turks and Russians have come marching in to put their own stamps on the place too. Today, the other Iranians have told me that people in Tabriz love to not speak Farsi to them and be quite rude or in some ways a bit more argumentative than elsewhere. But as with all other Iranians thus far, the people were quite welcoming and friendly and with a translator present I was suddenly able to understand random comments on the street. For example I was walking to the next site and eating an ice cream as in so many other cities and 3 women approached to say hi and ask where I was from etc. It all had to be translated as they spoke no English and I know that such a conversation wouldn't've been possible otherwise, not only because of the language but also because they would've been too shy, as women, to approach a foreign male walking around alone.
The next morning we head out, our goal for the day to visit the nearby village of Kandovan. Shared-taxis within the city run between major landmarks/intersections along the busiest roads, so if a private vehicle wants to make a little extra money, there's no reason they can't do the same and pick up people lined up on the road waiting. We jumped in a private one and after a short conversation, managed to convince the young, male driver to take us to Kandovan for free and instead of paying him, he could hang out with us and be our friend for the day. He said he had wanted to go anyway someday but I guess it's not everyday you get that kind of motivation, so he drove us the 50km to Kandovan and explored it for his first time also with us. He didn't speak much English so I didn't talk to him but he seemed like a nice enough guy. Kandovan is a troglodyte village, like a small Capadoccia in Turkey where homes are dug into the side of some bizarre rock formations. The village is very popular with local tourists so was quite busy but it was still interesting to walk around and admire how they cram the homes into the rocks on different levels so that your neighbour would actually live in the same rock just below you... Somewhere near Kandovan has actually been claimed by many scholars to be the location of the original Garden of Eden. Interesting thought but not the first thing that came to mind as I gazed out the window as we were driving around.




Troglodyte home.

Not my dream residence.

Back in Tabriz we visited Elgoli park. It's a big park in the suburbs and has a small palace in the middle of a square, artificial lake. In the mornings lots of people jog laps around the lake. The palace looks pretty when lit up at night and there is also a small amusement park beside the park. After a stroll we all went for dinner before our new friend dropped us off back at our hosts' home. Our host was a little strange and I hadn't been getting along with him to the same extent as my other hosts in Iran up to that point. He had been recommended by another couchsurfer in Rasht and hadn't been personally selected by me (For a good couchsurfing experience it really is best to personally study and choose your own hosts) and the following day he left home to go hitching to Georgia via Turkey.
Despite his wife still being there and that we'd originally arranged to stay 4 nights and it had been only 2, we were unceremoniously dumped back in Elgoli park without a backup plan. Luckily I had the phone number of another guy that couldn't host me but was a couchsurfing member locally and while I thought he was supposed to be out of town that day, turned out to be around and in true Iranian hospitable fashion, made a few calls and met us an hour later with a handful of his friends and turned the day into another great one. This group was much more fun and not only did we get a host for the night but we ended up going as a group up the gondola to the top of the hills on the north side of the city for the view and a little hiking session.

The Elgoli palace.

A view over Tabriz.

My new hosts and friends.

It was something of an emergency couch so the next morning, with their help again we were sorted out and put on the bus up to Jolfa, my final stop in Iran. If Jolfa sounds familiar it's because it is the little town on the Azeri/Armenian border that was emptied out by the shah in Esfahan to get Armenian craftsmen to build Imam square 400 years ago, and the Armenian quarter of Esfahan is still called New Jolfa. The real Jolfa today is a tiny little border town with nothing to see in itself. It does, however, sit in one of the most beautiful areas of Iran in my opinion. The Aras river marks the border between Iran and Azerbaijan and Armenia and the river vally is very scenic and worth the drive along. There are many stops to make either east or west of Jolfa along this river road, but we didn't have time to get very far.
Jumping off the bus in Jolfa we hitched 20km west to the Unesco-listed St. Stepanos church, an old Armenian church in an isolated but beautiful location along the valley. A Christian church has sat on the site since 62AD apparently which just goes to show how fast Christianity spread in its early days. The current monastery only dates back 700 years in its oldest sections. The monastery is no longer functioning as such but it just a museum I think. When we were there it was very quiet with only a few visitors, probably because it was the first day of Ramadan and everyone was fasting and being lazy. We spent the night in Jolfa with the only CS host there and the following morning hitched the 60km east to the only border crossing into Armenia at Norduz (Iran and Armenia only share about 60km of border). The valley, once again was beautiful and dotted with the occassional fortress, still being used in this sensitive border area. I would've liked to have been able to take more photos but thought it best to keep my camera mostly in my pocket for the ride and crossing of the border.

St. Stepanos monastery.

On the road.

The Aras river valley.

Near Jolfa.

Overall, 6 weeks in Iran was a wonderful experience for me and I highly recommend it to anyone open-minded enough to understand the difference between great people and a bad government. I couchsurfed every single day of the 6 weeks and I will return someday to continue my exploration of the country as I know there are many more rewarding areas left to explore.


At 1:39 AM , Anonymous Brandon said...

What an adventure! I plan to go with Rhiis and move into the Troglodyte home!!


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