Nushabad, Badab-e-Surt, Alamut Valley, Kandovan, Tabriz and Astara
Leaving Kashan via the Underground village of Nushabad to Bab-e-Surt
The initial plan was to visit Tehran today, but due to the terrorist bombings two days ago on the shrine of Khomeini and the House of Parliament; we decided to drive past Tehran to see how the news would develop. Contact with our foreign affairs office learned that there was not too much news other than that the Iranian government would be at an even higher alert than they normally already are. It would be a long drive to the spring of Badab-e-Surt, but since it is straight through the dessert we expected it to be an easy drive.
Before entering the highway, we visit the village of Nushabad with its underground city. The underground city used to exist of seven kilometres of ‘streets’ on three levels; 6 metres, 12 metres and 18 metres deep that were connected. Today, the underground city has only two entrances. Entrance one with a underground passage of 100 metres and entrance two with a lengths of 300 metres. On Fridays, one can unfortunately only visit the underground city using entrance two. It was an interesting experience. Before entering the tunnel with the living quarters, we descended into the dried up water storage that concealed the entrance of the underground city. This underground city was ‘lost’ for many years until someone drilled a well in his garden and ‘found’ this city.
After the underground city we started the long drive a scenic route through the desert and some mountains to Badab-e-Surt spring, terraced hot springs. It unique in the world due to its distinctive orange hue, resulting from a concentration of iron oxide in the water. The road towards the springs is in terrible condition only 4WD’s can reach the parking of the spring. From the small village below many local tourist were brought there in the back of a pick up. When we arrived at the site also twenty other people arrived and even though the place is large enough to find your own way…they followed the same path as us…making it impossible to make nice pictures as everyone is posing for a picture.
As the colouring is nicest at sunrise we left the spring to find a nice bus camp higher on the mountain. The next morning we woke up at 05.15 and we were back at the spring 10 minutes before sunrise. The color of the terraced hot springs were beautiful in the early morning light and best of all we had the place all to ourselves.
After we left the springs we headed towards the Caspian Sea and the starting point of a scenic drive from Chalus towards Tehran. Many people from Tehran use this road to visit the mountains and the Caspian Sea to escape the summer heat in Tehran. Halfway we turned around as we had driven much nicer routes in Iran already; on every bend is a teahouse or picnic place, lots of garbage in the ditch. Not really scenic if you ask us…
Trying to find a nice bush camp in the mountains turned out to be somewhat of a challenge in this area as well. Small villages everywhere, not hidden from the road, etc. It wasn’t until it was almost dark that we found this nice place in the Alamut Valley at a height of 2800m overlooking the valley and the snow capped mountains. We set up camp for the night and Wilfred got the fire going to prepare dinner and a bit of extra warmth on a cold evening.
After a slow breakfast enjoying the views, we completed the last 100m to the top and succeedingly descended towards the castles of Alamut and Lamiasar. When we arrive at Alamut castle around noon, we notice that the castle is more a ruin and requires a steep climb. We decided against the climb by foot and instead moved higher on the neighbouring mountain by car to get a nicer view over the ruins from above.
Afterwards, we drove to the Lamisar castle further down the valley. When we arrived at the coordinates where the castle would be, it took a while before we actually found the castles ruins themselves. Again they were -not surprisingly- high up a mountain. These ruins looked even more deteriorated than Almut castle. Instead of climbing to the castle in the full sun, we chose to move ahead in the direction of Evan lake for a relaxed lunch in the shades.
After lunch, we left the Alamut valley and drove towards Masuleh and Rukhan castle, which we would visit the next morning. We had decided to set up camp near the castle in order to climb the thousand steps in the coolness of the morning. The valley leading towards the castle turned out to be one of the most utilized areas that we had come across in Iran. If there wasn’t a tea plantation or rice field, it was lived on by the local community or turned into a tacky, dirty picnic area with blinking lights… No wander there was no campsite mentioned in iOverlander. Although close to dark and almost nine a clock, we were determined to find a nicer spot and headed towards Masuleh in the next valley. Unfortunately, this valley had undergone the same make over and we ended up at a picnic ground none the less. Although much nicer than the once we had seen, it was not what we hoped for…
Rukhan castle and Masuleh
Although the campground was supposed to be free of charge (according to iOverlander), we found the gate locked in the morning. Since there were (clean) toilets, we had not truly expected a free of charge stay, but were unpleasantly surprised by the amount to be paid to get the gate opened. We made it very clear that we were not going to pay more than the amount we had paid in the city centre of Isfahan and interestingly, the guy accepted our counter offer immediately. Our conclusion… It was a shakedown; we were just unfortunate that we were the only once there. We quickly forgot the guy and headed back to Rukhan castle to start our climb and a climb it was! The first couple of kilometres were depressing. Instead of enjoying the old forest and steam next to the path, we only saw little shops (selling all the things you never wanted to have, sweet stands and ‘teahouses’. A sure nightmare for all the parents that surely had to promise their kids that they could pick something on the return…
After a while it got better and we started to enjoy the tough climb. About three quarters up, Judith decided it was not smart to climb further as her knee started to act up again and the way down usually made it worse. It turned out a very smart decision, as the last part was even steeper. It took Wilfred a full hour to climb up, visit the castle and join up again. The castle had a remarkable resemblance with the Moorish castle we had visited in Portugal. It covered three hilltops and even within the walls of the castle, one had to climb and descend to get from one part to the next.
Back at the car, we drove onward to the mountain village of Masuleh. A village that is build against a very steep hillside. In certain parts of the village, the footpaths run over the roofs of the houses below. Being a Unesco heritage and a main tourist destination in Iran, also this little village is overcrowded with restaurants, teahouses and tourist shops. Luckily for us, most were closed… After a small walk, we continued our drive up the mountain and literally into the clouds. The further we climbed, the less we could see. Close to the top, our sight was less than 10 metres. Shortly after we passed the top, it suddenly cleared up. The other side of the mountain as well as the valley beyond was completely clear and the temperature rose quickly from 15 degrees to over 30. Another overlander had written that the views along this road from Masuleh were spectacular and we finally had an idea on what he had meant.
Towards sunset, we started to look for a place to camp and drove up the mountain range again to find a cooler place for the night. We found a nice spot next to the road on top of a mountain. Although we were in full sight of two small villages, we saw or heard no one the entire evening and enjoyed the views and quietness.
The long drive brought us via a beautiful mountain pass and Zanjan to the Takht-e-Soleyman Fortress. When we arrived at the site, we were the only ones visiting and we had to ask them to open the museum. Next to the logical buildings like mosques and hammans, the fortress also houses a rather large crater lake in the centre of it. Unfortunately for the inhabitants, the lake did not provide drinking water.
The fortress is surrounded with several large hills. One of them, a crater, served as a prison at the time. In the museum, we had seen a nice picture of the whole site that was taken from one of the hilltops. We had seen a road going uphill at the parking and decided to see if it would lead us to the (same) top. Although it did go up, it unfortunately ended in a just ploughed field and Wilfred still ended up climbing the last 100 meters to the top.
Shortly after we left the site, we started looking for a place to stay the night. This was easier said than done as we drove through many small villages and small valleys with no possibilities to get off the main road. Around seven, we saw a road running up the hill that we could reach after a doable river crossing. When we followed the road, it unfortunately ended up (again) in a just ploughed field. Close to Kashavar and almost nine o’clock, we finally found a dirt road going higher up hill and we followed it to the top (and back). As there were no secluded spots along the track, we decided to drive down again and follow the unfinished new road. After some kilometres, we finally found a dry riverbed which we followed upstream to a flat area.
Before arriving in Tabriz, we decided to visit rock hewn city of Kandovan. Allegedly a small version of Cappadocia. As we had not been to Cappadocia yet, it made a good impression on us. Yes, of course it was touristy and many of the rock hewn houses had been turned into shops selling the same crap as usual. It was a really nice experience. As it was still low season, we decided to check the prices at the best hotel in town that had converted several of the rock houses into comfortable rooms. This time we were less lucky and the prices remained far above the price we thought this experience should cost. We did enjoy a rather good lunch at the hotel before we continued our drive to Tabriz.
In Tabriz we immediately drove to the camping close to the centre of town. We had expected a city camping, but were pleasantly surprised to find is rather green and filled with fruit trees. The ablutions were not bad at all (for a free of charge camping) and Wilfred even had a hot shower the first morning (he was however the only one…). At the campsite, we met with Berndt and Claudia, who had ‘just started’ their three year trip to India, China and the America’s three months ago. We had a nice evening together and exchanged many stories and tips over dinner (which was actually being prepared by an Iranian guy they had met the day before).
The next day we took it slow and after saying goodbye to Berndt and Claudia around lunch time we took a taxi towards the huge Bazaar. Maybe we did not find the nice parts of this hugh market or we had become spoiled after a month in Iran, but we did not like it at all. We did recognise several of the caravanserais, but none we saw were in a really nice state… After doing the groceries, we went back to the camping.
While we were updating the blog and reading a bit, a girl came to us and gave us some of the white berries (looking like large raspberries) from the trees in the park. When Judith brought back the plate, she was immediately asked to stay for some tea and about an hour later, we started dinner in their picnic area. It was a nice typical Iranian dish of course with dough (a sour tasting milk drink) on the site like the night before.
The next morning before we left Tabriz, we stayed in our car and finally were able to finish updating the blog. After saying goodbye to the family, we drove towards Babak Castle where we would also spend the night. Just outside of Tabriz on the highway, we recognize a familiar car dooming up in front of us. In stead of going south as we expected, Berndt and Claudia had decided to move into the mountain north of Tabriz. After a quick chat, we continued our drive.
Babak castle it located very high up in the mountains. With a 4x4, one can get rather close, but the final 3-4 kilometres will remain a serious up and downhill hike. Even though it was already to late to get to the castle, Wilfred decided to give it a shot to at least get it in sight. The castle looked very impressive even from a large distance and was certainly not easily conquered (or reached for that matter).
We spent the night rather close to the castle, high up in the mountains on top of one of the nearby hills with an amazing view. We woke up in the mist or rather in the clouds. Only after descending about a kilometre in height, we were able to see further ahead. The day turned out to be a rather dull one. We did not see the sun at all and when we arrived at Ardabil (our planned stop for the night), it even started raining. Hoping that the weather would be better at the coast, we continued towards the border town of Astara.
Unfortunately weather wise it made little difference. We did find a nice camping spot on a hill overlooking a lake and the sea, but for the first time on our trip, we had to cook inside the car.
The next morning, we filled up our tanks with the cheap Iranian diesel and bought a (rather expensive) chocolate cake for Judith her birthday from our last cash. The day before we had already noticed where the customs and border offices were approximately, but still had a hard time to find the right entrance. When we did find it, the first check went rather smoothly; we easily received our entry ticket for the area and the second stop was right across the road. Wilfred went into the office, expecting to clear the car. To his surprise, the officer asked him for the size of his diesel tank… Not really understanding the reason behind the question, Wilfred luckily said 70 litres (and not 200). It turned out that when exiting Iran, everyone is charged the difference between Iranian and Azeri fuel for his entire fuel capacity(!). He charged us $9, which we did not have anymore… as we had just spent all our Iranian cash on Judith her birthday cake.
As we were not always able to spent all our cash, Wilfred went back to the car and picked up an Omani 5 Rial note worth $13... It did confuse them a little, but they did not take it (even the money exchange guy that had been called in, did not want it). Wilfred kept telling them that this was all we had and eventually they told him they would make a call to the gate that is was ok…So we left the office without paying the fuel price difference.
Glad to have complete step 2 in the process, we searched for the office of step 3… after four persons had given directions and having crossed the border area three times, we finally arrived and got the car clear for exit. Step 4, clearing ourselves was luckily much more easy and was completed after handing them a copy of our passport (?!).
Border crossing, Bandar Abbas and Evaz
Border crossing into Iran
Shortly after breakfast, we arrived in Bandar Abbas and another interesting immigration process began. More precise… their import process for the car was far from straight forward. The security guy that had ‘held us safe and happy’ during the process of immigration, had fixed us up with a fixer for the car. However, we had also received the name of a fixer from the shipping company. We had decided to go with him and our new Indian friend had negotiated a very fair price for both of our cars…
About four hours later, when we had all papers, copies and stamps, it turned out the guy had ‘misunderstood’ the Roman 2 for an Arabic 9. In other words, a $70 difference in the agreed fee…he accepted his mistake (as he wrote $50 in Roman to start with...) and we left the port area.
By the time we arrived in the city centre, all shops and banks had closed for the midday break (from 13.00 to 17.00). We parted from our Indian friends (who wanted to get out of Iran as fast as possible to escape Ramadan and the hot weather. They would return for an extensive visit after their tour through Europe). We however decided to have a late lunch and waited for the shops to open again to get cash, sim-card and car insurance. Getting the cash and sim card went easy, finding the company that had sold other overlanders their car insurance was a different story… During our search we arrived at a mall, where we walked over to the coffee shop, as most times some speaks English there. We were directed to Ahmed, the owner and manager of the brand new local cinema. As he had lived his youth in U.A.E. and had studied in Hungry, he was about the only person in the mall that spoke fluent English. He brought us to the insurance shop and offered his help to get the insurance sorted out and we gladly accepted as Farsi is not a language we speak fluently… After about 45 minutes it turned out that we would not be able to leave with an insurance that early evening as all main offices had closed for the day.
When we explained Ahmed that we intended to stay at the beach just out side of Bandar, he offered us to stay with him… how could we not accept that! We had really nice evening with him and we learnt a lot about the Iranian customs and history and also took his advice to alter our route through Iran…as the weather (heat) in Bam and Kerman is unbearable at the moment.
After picking up our car insurance in the morning, we said goodbye to Ahmed and headed in the direction of Shiraz (in stead of Bam). He had offered that if we were to get to Evaz, his home town, to give him a call and he would arrange a stay with his parents in law. And so it happened…we were welcomed as close friends into their home, were shown the local museum of Anthropology, had a tour around the city and a nice outdoor dinner at the local boulevard surrounded with about fifty other families doing the same.
During the museum visit, to our big surprise, Ahmed’s wife and son (whom we thought were in Dubai) walked in as well. The museum was located in the old centre, in a hundred years old (luxurious) house. The next morning Amin offered to show us the (ancient) water system Ab-Anbar, that can be found through out town and in the surrounding valleys and mountains. During our drive he also showed the school of his wife and kids (the 29th of Iran), the cemetery (including the victims of the flight 655, that was -accidentally- taken down by the Americans 3 July 1988), the three (!) universities and his pride; his current building project of a luxury apartment block.
It was an incredible experience that ended with a traditional dish for lunch that would normally be served at weddings. If hospitality has not been invented in Iran, it has certainly been perfected here; what a great start of our tour through Iran.
Back in tourist mode; Shiraz
Although we had seen several ‘tourists’ in the malls of Dubai, it became more than clear that we had entered the more popular tourist destinations again… Shiraz is already a buzzing city from itself, but add the hundreds of tourists around the hotels and must sees (agreed, it was far from crowded, but still…), we could not ignore we had truly liked the quietness of the last couple of months.
We arrived in Shiraz just after sunset and headed for the Hotel where we wanted to stay for the coming 2 nights. After a bit of manoeuvring, we were able to get the car onto their car park (on the edge of the old town) and ready to check in.
In the morning we went to Vakil bazaar, Pars museum, Vakil Bath, Vakil Mosque and the citadel.
Vakil Bazaar is Shiraz’s main market place and home to hundreds of shops and stalls. Satisfyingly labyrinthine, the bazaar is the place for buying rugs, spices, jewellery, and household goods. Where we came across various courtyards and caravanserais. The bazaar is made of bricks, limestone and chalk. The foundation of the bazaar is made up of huge stones and solid rock. Few traditional bazaars in Iran have been built with such beauty and precision, on such a solid foundation. The roof of the bazaar is very high, and it is covered with beautiful tiles, ceramics and brick. The different parts of the bazaar have got their own special names, depending on the type of trade and the type of goods sold in that portion of the bazaar. For us the nicest place of the bazaar was Seray-e-Moshir, a beautiful caravanserai.
The citadel (or ‘Arg’ in Persian) was built in the 18th century by the founder of the Zand dynasty, Karim Khan. Having made Shiraz his capital, the citadel was one of Karim Khan’s many ambitious construction projects in the city. Lofty and rectangular, the fortress features four circular towers (which were historically used as prisons), and is more unusual on the inside than the outside. One of the towers has a noticeable lean, having subsided onto the bathhouse underneath. The bathhouse is the nicest part of the interior of the citadel.
On our way back to the hotel we visited Vakil Bath and Vakil Mosque. Vakil means regent, which was the title used by Karim Khan, the founder of Zand Dynasty. Vakil Bath is an old public bath in Shiraz and was a part of the royal district constructed during Karim Khan’s reign, which also included Arg of Karim Khan, Vakil Bazaar, Vakil Mosque and many more administrative buildings. During the time of its construction, 18th century, private baths in homes were rare and going to this bath was considered a royal treatment. It is now a small museum, so that one can get a feel for the bathing process. Vakil Mosque was built between 1751 and 1773, during the Zand period and it was restored in the 19th century. The mosque covers an area of more than eight thousand square meters. It has only two iwans instead of the usual four, on the northern and southern sides of a large open court. The iwans and court are decorated with typical Shirazi haft rangi tiles, a characteristic feature of the art and industry of Shiraz during the latter half of the 18th century.
The next morning we continued our tour of Shiraz with a visit to The Shah-e Cheragh (‘King of Light’) mausoleum is the picturesque resting place of two of the martyred brothers of Ali Reza, the 8th Shia Imam. Although killed in the 9th century, the present-day burial site has been considerably developed since the Qajar era. The central courtyard has a fountain at its centre, and the shrine features characteristically Iranian, intricate blue tile work and a dazzling mirrored interior, making it one of the prettiest mosques in Shiraz. Non-Moslims were not allowed to visit the inside of the mausoleum, so after a walk around the main square we left and headed to Eram garden.
Shiraz is famed for its cultivation of fine gardens, and Eram is arguably the model par excellence. Eram falls within Shiraz University’s botanical gardens, and is replete with cypress trees, trimmed hedges, and rosebushes. At its centre is a small pool and a splendid Qajar-era palace, but unfortunately it is closed to the public. After a nice cool walk in the shades of the large cypress trees we drove to Quran gate. The Gate was first built during the reign of Adud al-Dawla (936-983 AD). By the time of the Zand dynasty, it had sustained a lot of damage, so it was restored and a small room on top was added, in which hand-written Qurans were kept by Sultan Ibrahim Bin Shahrukh Gurekani. It is believed that travellers passing underneath the gates received the blessing of the Holy Book as they began their trip or journey from Shiraz. When we visited the Quran gate was also being restored, making the pictures less attractive.
Our last stop was the Hafez tomb in a well-kept garden in northeast of town.
Hafez is arguably the most loved and respected poet in the vast canon of Persian literature and he is considered the master of the ghazal (a short, amorous, rhyming poem). Iranians from all ages can quote his verses on demand.
After our visit of Hafez tomb we left Shiraz and arrived at the ancient site Persepolis end of the afternoon. Even though it was still very hot we decided to visit the site that afternoon. So we filled our water bottles, put sunscreen on and walked up the entrance stairway to reach the top terrace. The construction of this dual stairway, known as the Persepolitan stairway, was built in a symmetrical manner on the western side of the Great Hall. The 111 steps were 6,9 metres wide and rises of 10 centimetres. Originally the steps were believed to have been constructed this way to allow for nobles and royalty to ascend by horseback. New theories suggest that this was to allow visiting dignitaries to, in fact, walk up the stairs while keeping a regal appearance, permissible by the ease in which the stairs could be climbed due to the small distance between each step. Whenever important foreign delegations arrived, their presence was heralded by trumpeters at the top of the staircase.
Persepolis, literally meaning "city of Persians", was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE). Archaeological evidence shows that the earliest remains of Persepolis date back to 515 BC. It was Darius I who built the terrace and the great palaces and his work was continued by his son Xeres.
Persepolias was destroyed by Alexander the Great when he set it on the fire. Actually when Alexander the Great arrived at Persepolis it was the jewel of Persia and, when he left, it was a ruin whose spot would be known for generations only as "the palace of the forty columns" for the remaining palace columns left standing in the sand. It took him 3000 camels and donkeys to carry the gold and silver he robed from Persepolis.
On the top terrace we visited three main structures; Gate of all Nations, Apadana Palace, and Throne Hall.
Gate of all Nations
The Gate of All Nations (also the waiting Palace/The Xerxes's Palace) is one of the palaces in the Persepolis located directly after the entrance stairway. This gate was not on Darius the Great's initial plan for Persepolis but was added by his son and successor, Xerxes. The reason it was called the Nations Palace was that different people from different countries entered the hall and then moved on to the other places in Persepolis, and it was a sort of waiting room.
Darius I built the greatest palace at Persepolis on the western side. This palace was called the Apadana. The King of Kings used it for official audiences. The work began in 515 BC and his son Xerxes I completed it 30 years later. The palace had a grand hall in the shape of a square, each side 60 metres long with seventy-two columns, thirteen of which still stand on the enormous platform. Each column is 19 metres high with a square Taurus and plinth. The columns carried the weight of the vast and heavy ceiling.
Next to the Apadana, second largest building of the Terrace and the final edifices, is the Throne Hall, also called the "Hundred-Columns Palace". This 70x70 square meter hall was started by Xerxes and completed by his son Artaxerxes I by the end of the fifth century BC. In the beginning of Xerxes's reign, the Throne Hall was used mainly for receptions of military commanders and representatives of all the subject nations of the empire. Later the Throne Hall served as an imperial museum.
There are also two tombs carved into the mountain, just behind Persepolis. We visited one of those tombs and it belonged to Artaxerxes II.
After that we went back to the parking and it was still very hot…what to do… Next to Persepolis is the Adapana hotel, built by the last Shah of Iran in 1953 and after being closed for many, many years it finally reopened it’s doors again. So, we gave it a try and were able to negotiate a good rate for a double room with aircon.