I started off the week travelling further North to a place called Jolfa. I had read that the scenery in this part of Iran was not to be missed. This place is really interesting as it boarders Azerbaijan. It rarely sees tourists and because of the boarder there is no public transport and I was warned about hitch hiking and taking photos as the area is known to be quite dangerous. I took a quick detour to visit a monastery up in the mountains. I spent longer than expected up here partly because it was seriously stunning but secondly because we found a wild mulberry tree so we stocked up on the most delicious fruit.
The drive from Jolfa to Kalybar passes through the Aras River and is a sight for sore eyes. Simply stunning. Myself and Hussain (my driver) immediately hit it off which was lucky as I spent 8 hours with him. We took regular pit stops during the day for ice cream, kebabs and some more mulberry picking.
The 6 hour drive featured insane scenery from start to finish. We eventually made our end destination to Kalybar a small little village perched in the mountains. I got collected by Babak my couch surfing host who lived in the most idyllic house on the side of a mountain. They too had walnut, mulberry, cherry and apricot trees. They made alcohol out of drying mulberries in the sun which is a v common custom over here. His family owned a bakery and ice cream shop so I questioned would I ever be able to leave this quaint little village. The main attraction in Kalybar is a trek to the top of the mountain to view the famous Babak Castle.
On my first evening I was invited for dinner with Babak’s family. I was instantly greeted with kisses and hugs and pure joy from his mother. Again despite the language barrier we immediately hit it off and I was treated to the most stunning array of Iranian food. That night I opted to sleep outside on the garden terrace in due to its perfect climate. Despite the frogs and ants it was idyllic.
After Kalybar, I wanted to check out the Caspian sea craving a swim. I ended up doing couch surfing with the intense Mohammad. As a rule I have only been couch surfing with girls or families but on this occasion his reviews were excellent so I gave him a chance. I arrived into steaming Ramsar in the middle of the night and Mohammad kindly collected me in a taxi
The next day we went swimming in the Caspian sea which is surrounded by the jungle a little bit similar to Tyrona in Colombia. It is such a shame it has such potential to be beautiful but in reality is was very dirty. It was a sad sight seeing all the men swimming in the sea and the women just watching from the shore. I inquired was I allowed to swim and was told yes but that I must go in all of my clothes. I didn’t even have to consider this and was in like a light bulb (this shocked Mohammad). After a while there was a guard screaming at me frantically I was worried as I had lost my hijab in the sea and was afraid there could be some problems. In fact he was warning us that swimming in this area is really dangerous due to water holes and that sadly three people died there only last week. We made a quick and lucky exit. It was only then I figured Mohammad was a funny fish (to be fair to Iran there haven’t been many compared to SA). He really wanted to brush my hair, massage my fingers and take my photo so I knew I wouldn’t be hanging out with his chap too long…..
I made an escape and decided to go camping in a cool village in the mountains called Javardeh. The weather up here was cool, cloudy and all in all pretty perfect. I instantly befriended a family who fed me with fresh chicken kebabs. It is a really authentic village experience with lots of families venturing up the mountain to escape the heat. But, there is absolutely nothing to do up here except eat and I was a little skeptical about camping as I would have been completely alone. I opted to hitch hike off the mountain with a kind couple and make my way to the big city of Qasvin.
Back in Ramsar I bonded with a few men over some Islamic beer and sesame seeds. We eventually shared a taxi to Qazvin. This city is generally used as a good base to go explore the Allamut Valley. At this stage I was looking disheveled, rough and dirty and my couchsurfing hosts happened to be living in a luxury apartment in Qazvin so I definitely was not their typical clientele.
I was greeted by the gorgeous couple Maryam and Peyman who treated me like a queen. The next day after an incredible breakie spread I went exploring and shopping with the glamorous Maryam. A large majority of the day was spent browsing for diamonds and teapots (anyone looking for real diamonds come to Iran they are ridiculously cheap!!!). We tasted the local sweet delicacy of baklava flavoured with pistachio and saffron a divine combination. This is excellent with a coffee.
In the afternoon we cooled down with some saffron ice cream, this is the best I’ve tasted so far which had frozen chunks of cream mixed through it. I even got to crash a movie at an Iranian cinema. Interestingly, in Iran they are only allowed to display Iranian movies in the cinema, Western ones are strictly forbidden. I was also treated to the famous dish of Qazvin; Gheymeh Nesar. It contains rice with meat, saffron, barberries, orange zest with almonds and pistachios. I forgot to take a picture it was that delish.
Next on the agenda was a 3 day trek to the Allamut Valley for my birthday with a French couple I met in Tabriz. Maryam equipped me with some home made saffron juice, and lots of delish snacks so I was good to go. As expected the Frenchies were an hour late but I’ve learned not to sweat the big stuff and I was just so delira to eventually find some travel buddies for the up coming adventure (generally speaking tourists have been non-existent here)
Next on the agenda was the glorious city of Shiraz. Another night bus was unfortunately on the cards, desperate to save on time. I am overwhelmed with Iran and what it has to offer. 1 month is simply not enough. My couchsuring in Shiraz lived near the ancient city of Persepolis so I was told to get off in a random town (I didn’t read the fine print when they said they lived 60 km outside of the city centre). Getting off early on a bus always causes extreme confusion and generally results in the entire bus getting involved. They love the drama.
Out of the blue I was thrown out on a motor way in the middle of the night so not great. There wasn’t a sinner in sight except one small Iranian man looking equally confused, but he had a car which was hopeful. I needed to travel a further 12 km to make it to the house and there wasn’t a sniff of a taxi. I managed to figure out that he was waiting on a bag of flour (?) and once it arrived he would happily bring me to my destination. We exchanged some stale food with one another and he seemed more than content with the gesture. Eventually the human sized bags of flour arrived and we were en route. To my dismay after only 5 minutes I found myself once again dumped on the side of the street. The pits….
Not a taxi in sight so I starting hitch hiking. I am really conscious that hitchhiking isn’t exactly the done thing over here. It is also further complicated when you put out your finger. The standard hitchhiking finger in Iran actually means ‘fuck off’ so not ideal (I only found this out afterwards, hindsight is a wonderful thing). Every day I am learning new rules in this country. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long until a lovely chap bundled me into his car and away we went. I paid him with fresh dates. Google maps dropped me off at a random house and after a few wrong knock on the doors and several invitations for chai I eventually found Najme and her family home. I collapsed onto the floor and the pair of us slept for 3 blissful hours.
I was treated to a divine breakfast spread of flat breads, cream, sesame seed puree (AMAZING), honey and cheese. Najme’s mother and father hadn’t a word of English but I instantly liked them, sometimes you can just tell. They couldn’t have done enough for me. Once again, I know I must sound like a broken record but the we could all learn a thing or two about Iranian hospitality. Difficult to describe the kindness of these people who are living in a county with extremely difficult circumstances. They happily welcome privileged foreign strangers into their homes.
Naijme explained that her family were extremely traditional and that their biggest hobby was eating so I was warned. This is a common theme in Iran. I am a massive foodie and can put away a serious amount of grub but even I cannot keep up with the Iranians. The minute breakie is finished lunch prep is in full swing and they are constantly worried you are hungry.
First on the itinerary was a trip to the historical place of Persepolis. The ruins are now a World Heritage Site. At one of the tombs we met a bunch of giddy Iranian men who were celebrating the first day of their holiday. They were extremely merry and I soon found out why. They were nursing a bottle of Arak. Arak is a horribly strong liquor made of aniseed and grape. It was almost at boiling point from the sun. Obviously intrigued by it and also the fact all alcohol is illegal in Iran I happily sampled the stuff. They informed me of how they sneak the drink in especially to historic sites they pretend it’s water easy! Lots of Iranians make their own alcohol it’s far cheaper than buying it on the black market.
After the trip we came back to Najme’s family home for more shut eye and one of my best Iranian feeds to date. Her mother is constantly cooking with some of the dishes taking up to 5 hours to make. We were treated to the sensational salad shiraz (typical to this area), Kalam Pollo (saffron infused chicken).
Preparations were in full swing for Mai hak’s 2nd birthday (Naijme’s adorable niece). The family invited myself and another Ukrainian couch surfer, Basil to the party which was in their holiday home near the mountains . Because bars, discos and clubs are all illegal in Iran there is a massive emphasis on family gatherings and celebrations in their homes it is one of their cultural practices that I love. This was no exception and they pulled out all of the stops.
A hilarious Iranian tradition is where before cutting the cake the family dance Persian with the knife and the knife is passed on for ages until eventually it is cut. This hilarious ritual could go on for ages before anyone gets a sniff of cake.
That night myself and most of the family decided to sleep outside. Their garden was also full of apricot, peach, walnut, apple, cherry and pomegranate trees.The following morning the Granny was in the height of preparing a breakfast spread on par with the dinner productions. She was adement we stay for lunch but not able to budge I declined the tempting offer and myself, Basil and Najme made our way back to Shiraz city to check it out.
The next day we camped out in Naijme’s mates house eating sugary confections and copious amounts of tea. During my time in Shiraz I visited the in famous Pink Mosque (Masjed-e-Nasir-al-Molk). It is one of Iran’s most iconic Mosques. It was constructed in a way that when the sun rises the entire room reflects pink through the stain glass. Unfortunately the light is at its strongest during Winter and Spring so I didn’t see it at its full potential. It was stunning nonetheless (until the hoards of Chinese erupted with their selfie sticks).
Next on the agenda was a much-needed cup of coffee. I be friended a Dutch tourist (generally speaking I haven’t seen any tourists). I was adopted by his couch surfer host who showed the pair of us around for the day. It’s a stunning city with an equally stunning bazaar.
I cooled off in the afternoon with some faloodeh shirazi. This is a much try dish while in Shiraz where it originates. I was v disappointed as it’s actually rotten but the Iranians are obsessed with it. Its noodles frozen in a sugar syrup served with lemon juice. I gave it to a homeless man.
That evening for sunset myself and Naijme went to visit lake Maharloo. This is a Pink Salt Lake. Strangely depending on when you visit it isn’t always pink but we were in luck. We practically had it to ourselves. The intensity of pink is strongest at sunrise and sunset (it’s not too dissimilar to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia except it’s pink and empty!!).
Naijme had enough time to get to know me and insisted on escorting me to the airport foreseeing some difficulties. She wasn’t wrong. I ended up loosing my boarding pass in the toilet. Luckily I was the only tourist in the airport so it was quickly retraced back to me. As a tourist it’s impossible to to buy things online in Iran so my amazing CS hosts from a flight to Tehran bought for me. I eventually negotiated my way onto the correct flight and I befriend a cute old woman on the plane. She held me hand for the entire journey it was v romantic.
I then took a night bus to Tabriz. I rocked up to Tabriz feeling relatively fresh considering the hellish journey. I instantly fell in love with the city and at last it wasn’t HOT (maybe that’s why I loved it so much). It is also famous for having some of the countries friendliest people and I instantly knew why.
I started my day off in one of its famous cafes for dairy. All this café serves is raw milk, cream, cheese and fresh honey comb served with barbary (a freshly baked Iranian flatbread). It was crammed with locals and I instantly loved it. Seriously good stuff (I went 3 days in a row). Tabriz is particularly renowned for its amazing food especially dairy products.
The Bazaar in Tabriz is one of the most famous in the world and is the oldest in the middle east and the largest covered bazaar in the world. It was declared a UNESCO Heritage site. It stretches for more than 7 km. I spent the day talking to randomers (one of my favourite hobbies). Randomer one of the day was Ali who like pretty much every business man in Iran sells carpets. We sipped on chai and talked nonsense for an hour and then of course this followed with a tour of the bizarre finishing in his carpet shop for more chai. They don’t get pissed off when you don’t buy it’s so refreshing. They are so pleasant, not pushy and generally just proud of what they do.
Once I said my good byes to Ali I met randomer number 2; Mohammad who invited for chai and chocolate. This was the gist of the day. I even lost my phone for a few hours I left it in a teapot shop! The kind Iranians ensured it was returned to me. V lucky.
That evening I took the metro to go visit Park Elgoli, just on the out skirts of the city. Whilst chilling having some rose water ice cream I was almost attacked by an excited group of Iranians. Turns out they were all doing a phd in Maths and were at a conference. After our photo shoot they kidnapped me and insisted on treating me for dinner and chai.
The next day was spent negotiating the price of Iran’s tea scene. I think the bazaar in Tabriz is like nothing I have ever seen. I could have easily spent a week here and the pictures don’t even justify this place. Later in the day I got picked up by an 18 year old eager to improve his English so we went for coffee together. He explained that his Grandfather is 80 years old and has been selling carpets all of his life and still hasn’t discovered all of the bazaar. There are over 5,500 stalls here with parts of the bizaar dedicated to certain products such as cigarettes, shisa, spices, tea the list goes on and on. It’s beautifully overwhelming. One man in the market even presented me with a rose and a typed up letter welcoming me to Iran and his contact information in case I needed any help. Way too ott but a ridiculously nice gesture all the same. The rest of the day was spent getting free food and drink samples from every corner of the market.
I took a day trip to Kandovan from Tabriz. It is the most enchanting place and often compared to Cappdoccia in Turkey. It is a tiny village with man made cliff dwellings in the shape of cones which are made out of volcanic material. This place looks like a movie set. The only difference is the inhabitants still live here and it is not touristy. There are still around 600 people living here. It is surrounded by gorgeous mountains. We explored and spoke to the locals living there. The conditions here in Winter are vicious.
I wish I had more time in Tabriz. An FYI there are direct flights from Hamburg to Tabriz and it only takes 5 hours. Don’t hesitate just book that flight to the dreamiest place in Iran.