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 (?!).