Thursday, September 20, 2012

Karlsruhe and back to Alkmaar

I have more friends in Germany than anywhere else in Europe, but have a hard time getting around to visit them. This time, on our way back to Alkmaar to meet up with Savannah, Kees and the parents once again, Ena and I stopped in Karlsruhe to meet up with a pair of friends of mine that I'd also met in Brisbane. Will, one of the friends I'd met up with in Antwerp last year (with Jens, who lives in Antwerp) is doing his engineering undergrad in Karlsruhe and Chelsey, his British girlfriend is living with him there. I'd met and stayed with both of them in the same dorm for a couple months in Brisbane while I was working at Parmalat. It's a bit scary to think that my friends are Savannah's age (or younger) but somehow it works.
Will had no idea that we were coming. He was studying for his last final and I'd ended up talking to Chelsey first and we decided to surprise him and hopefully provide a little relief and distraction from the stress of non-stop study. The surprise worked quite well and he was happy to see us, but still had to study so for the most part Chelsey (who'd only been in Karlsruhe for a month or 2) ended being our guide for the 3 days we stayed.
Karlsruhe is probably a nice city but at the moment they are building an underground metro system to replace the current tram lines running thoughout the city so there is construction all over the place seriously detracting from the atmosphere. The German constitutional and appeals courts are located in Karlsruhe and were going to be a highlight for Ena but as it turned out the whole court building was completely covered in scaffolding as well and we could see nothing of it. However, the real purpose of my visit was not to sightsee but to visit with friends and so we spent quite a bit of time just hanging out on the lawn of the central palace playing cards, juggling or relaxing. The palace is pretty, especially when lit up at night and is the main central landmark of the town. All the old main streets in Karlsruhe then radiate outward from this central point and it's been suggested that this was the model used when later designing the layout of Washington D.C. I don't know anything about that but I guess there are enough similarities...


Playing cards on the lawn of the palace.

Karlsruhe Palace.

Chelsey also had a contact in the local zoo that could get the 4 of us in for free so we spent an afternoon hanging out there. It's unique in the sense that it's right in the middle of town and has a large “pond” that crosses the park with little boats running on a track from one end to the other. The boats were a gift from a sister city in England decades ago with the condition that they never be replaced so the original boats are still used, despite being outdated. There is a marker and line inside the zoo for the 49th parallel so for anyone that doesn't realize where in Europe a city like Vancouver lays, now you know. It's farther south than we usually think. I usually think of Vancouver as being at the same level as Paris, which is roughly correct, and speaking of France, Karlsruhe is only a few km from the border with France and although I was tempted to cross, in the end we didn't.

An oriental garden at the zoo.

The 49th parallel marker in the zoo.

I continued on to Holland the same way I arrived in Karlsruhe, by rideshare which remains the cheapest way to get around Germany and to neighbouring countries short of outright hitching. I only ended up staying in Holland for a week. Our friend Rhiis (think way back to Egypt and last year in Vegas) was on his own little holiday in Europe and stopped by for most of the week I was there. It was great to see him again and he and Kees being both musically inclined ended up getting us all to attempt to play Kees' drums (with very limited success) much to all our amusement. It was great to be able to spend time with him again, visiting the local sites again, though my knee kept me out of all the group bike rides. Alas, it was far too soon before I was the first to leave, so saying goodbye to Rhiis, Ena and my family I was once again back at Schipol airport, this time boarding a flight, homeward-bound via Iceland...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bavaria and Salzburg

Back in Munich once again I hung out trying to take things easy and finally rest a bit more. Being back in Munich again so soon (I was there most of April) with Ena really felt like coming home too. Munich is a pretty city but is also expensive by German standards which doesn't really appeal to me. I'd been there is fall and spring before but never at the height of summer so finally having warmth and sunshine was good and I ended spending about 3 weeks in Munich.
My friend Jetti, who I'd also seen the last time I was in town, was surprisingly there again on a holiday from Afghanistan (where she works) and we spent the afternoon after I arrived sailing with a friend of hers on the nearby lake Starnberg (Stamberger See). There was a storm threatening the whole time which made for some interesting lighting on the water. The next day Jetti flew back to Kabul so I was very lucky to get to spend some time with her again.

Olympic park, Munich.

Starnberg lake.

With Jetti on the lake.

Ena had just finished her thesis and was in the process of job hunting (which means in summer vacation mode) so we managed to get out of Munich a few times of some field trips. In Germany you can get a day pass (in groups up to 5 people) on the local trains for the whole state for much cheaper than the usual tickets so we took advantage of this a few times. Bavaria is by far the largest state in Germany so there is quite a bit to see and do. So it was perhaps a little ironic that our first destination wasn't even in Germany and we took the train just across the border to Salzburg, Austria.
I'd been to Salzburg once before for a day back in 2000 so I was due another visit. The day was perfect and Salzburg is a beautiful city. It's not too big and I still think has one of the most impressive castles overlooking an old town in Europe. We made a day trip out there and spent the afternoon strolling around town, along the river, up to the castle, etc. It being the height of summer, Salzburg was very busy with tour groups. It has a bit of an overtouristed feel to it with the Sound of Music tours and Mozart souvenirs but it's impossible to not enjoy it anyway.


Salzberg castle is always in the background.

A beautiful city.

View from the castle.

Our next trip out of Munich was to Regensburg. In searching for places to visit I'd looked up the Unesco world heritage list and found a handful of sites within Bavaria and decided to go for them. Regensburg is on the list because it has a well-preserved, old medieval town. The day we went it was actually raining so it wasn't quite as nice as I'm sure it could've been. Regensburg has been settled since the stone age apparently and it's strategic position at the northern bend of the Danube river had the Romans build a fort there. Since then it's been a regional power centre and today you can see a bit of the old Roman walls, the 900-year old bridge across the Danube, a very Gothic cathedral and a few other churches as well. We ran around for a couple hours and had lunch before heading to Nuremberg to meet some of Ena's friends and stay the night.

Regensburg town hall.

Regensburg Dom.

The Danube.

Inside the church of St. Emmeram.

The next morning we went to Bayreuth to see its nearby Unesco-listed opera house. It was a beautiful sunny day and Bayreuth is a cute little town to hang out for a couple hours in. The main attraction and purpose of our visit was the Margravial Opera House. At the time it was built in the 1740's it had one of the largest stages available. This attracted Richard Wagner, who later decided it wasn't good enough but stuck around anyway to build another opera house nearby. That opera house is the site of the Bayreuth festival honoring Wagner and Wagner is buried in Bayreuth also putting the little town on the map for many, but we had limited time and were purely interested in the Margravial Opera House. It was inscribed on the Unesco list just this year because it is one of the only baroque theatres from this period left in Europe. The interior is made entirely of wood other than the light fixtures. It already looked richly-decorated and well-restored to me but we were later to learn that we were very lucky to visit when we did because later this month it will be closing for a couple of years for more extensive restoration work.


The Margravial Opera House.

Inside the opera house.

Jumping back on the train we spent that afternoon in Bamberg, another Unesco-listed town in northern Bavaria. It's also a well-preserved medieval old town that dates back 1000 years. It was still a beautiful summer day and by far the busiest with tourists but pretty nonetheless. I really like the homes along the river and the town hall, which sits on it's own island on the river connected by old stone bridges. We did it all quickly and it would be a better idea to spend more than half a day to have time to soak up the atmosphere and visit all the sites. We had to leave however and caught the last train back home to Munich.

Bamberg town hall.

The outer wall of the town hall.

Along the river.

Bamberg center.

If you have lots of time, then these are really pretty towns. There are still many others left to see just in Bavaria alone. Anyone that thinks they've seen Europe after a summer backpacking trip they are nuts. I think it's amusing that I've seen more of Germany than most of my German friends now and even Ena thinks I'm more than a little nuts by now being so excited to track down the Germany Unesco list. Still it is the arguably the best way to figure out what to do if you are in a country and don't know what to see.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Georgia and Abkhazia

After 15 hours on the train from Yerevan, I jumped off the train at the coastal town of Kobuleti instead of finishing the ride to Batumi. It was 6am, the sun was just rising and I had no idea where I was really. The station was just a single platform and a small, closed building on the side of a coastal road with very little development, clearly I wasn't actually in the coastal resort town of the same name. It not being my destination it actually worked out better for me that I was already on the road and so I proceeded to stick my arm out and wait for a lift as I'd become accustomed to doing in Armenia.
It was slower going in Georgia but eventually I scored a few rides and made it north to Zugdidi by 9am and could actually get some money changed and eat breakfast.
Zugdidi is the last town before the “border” with Abkhazia so with a little more effort I actually got a lift to the border, despite the fact that nobody crosses there from Georgia because the Georgians are very bitter about Abkhazia. Like Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia is a de-facto independent country that broke away from Georgia but remains unrecognized by everyone except for Russia, who in this instance played the big brother that came in militarily to assist and maintain the breakaway status of Abkhazia. Abkhazia has a border with Russia and there are many Russian tourists in Abkhazia as it apparently has some of the nicest Black Sea coastline to build a resort on. Abkhazia has a lot of Russian influence instead of Georgian, for example they speak Russian, use the Russian rouble and, unfortunately have inherited Russia's mentality of touristic bureaucracy and foreign affairs. Because it's pro-Russian and anti-Georgian and Georgia is developing and continually closer working relationship with the west, Abkhazia is not inclined to do any sucking up to western tourists. Unlike NK where I could enter and purchase a visa on the spot, to get to Abkhazia first you must get a pre-clearance letter online from their ministry of foreign affairs. It's not too bad actually, it is free to do it and the form is not too complicated. The problem is they are notorious for not replying to people.
I'd gotten my letter quickly and easily the first time I applied. The problem is that it has set dates for validity and my dates had changed as I'd been travelling around. This meant that my letter was no longer valid. All future emails to the ministry were never acknowledged so I couldn't get it changed. Guess what the country dialing code is to a country that doesn't exist, or the phone number to a ministry of an unrecognized government. Exactly. I never could figure it out and all the numbers I did track down were wrong.

A fountain in Zugdidi.

The river border with Abkhazia.

I knew it was a long shot but I figured I had to try and just show up at the border and see if I could talk my way in or somehow get the dates changed on the spot up there. The border isn't as strict as I expected. There is a small military contingent on both sides of the bridge crossing the river that constitutes the border these days. But it seemed really lax. The bridge has very little traffic. It's quite long and full of potholes and only a handful of people were walking across it in either direction or taking the horse cart that was there to transport people back and forth. It was really quiet but the surrounding scenery still very pretty and surprisingly I was able to take photos despite it being such a sensitive area.
When I got to the other side of the bridge I quickly learned that the Abkhazian officials also inherited the rude, uncompromising and intolerant mentality of Russian officials. Upon seeing my wrong dates I was completely stonewalled and they wouldn't even acknowledge the possibility of the concept of calling the ministry or even trying to locate a number for me. I argued and made a scene as long as I could before being forcibly shoved on my way back across the bridge completely unamused by the situation. Equatorial Guinea refused me entry back in February as well so I am not batting 100% this year. Very frustrated and not overwhelmingly excited about being in Georgia again (recall that it was one of my least favourite countries when I went through in 2006) I started looking into the possibility of retracing my steps and taking a ferry to Ukraine since I was already so close to the coast.
Calling the port in Batumi they told me they had nothing (in a ruder way than I mention here) and unable to call Poti, the other port, I decided to hitch there and physically check it out. I knew there were a couple of boats scheduled to leave with in the next couple days but when I got into Poti they started giving me the run around as well. I don't know why but in 2006 it took me 5 days to track down a boat and the company had denied it's existence right up until I bought the ticket just before it was to leave, and I was getting the same vibes that they were going to be doing the same thing again this time as well. Already in a bad mood I ended up in an internet cafe brain storming alternate destinations and ended up buying a flight back to Germany for 2 days later. Believe it or not Germany was actually the cheapest destination to fly to anyway and it did make sense for me to just go because that's where I was ultimately headed.
In 2006 we'd left Georgia from Poti by ship so I did recognize a few things. It was late so I went by the hotel we'd stayed at back then but it was a complete dive (it was back then too) but now way overpriced and very seedy. Refusing such conditions I wandered around looking for an alternative until way after dark. It was getting to the point where I was just heading down the coastal highway once again, trying to get to the edge of town and some alternate sleeping option that would not see me eaten by stray dogs, when I walked into a corner store to ask if they knew of anything at all in the area.
The lady there called a friend and I ended paying for a private room in someones house. That was very fortunately because only a few minutes earlier I was seriously considering jumping a fence and sleeping in a cemetery.
The next morning I hitched to Batumi and hung out on the beach while it was nice or in the train station while it wasn't until catching the overnight train to Tbilisi. I don't really understand why people like Batumi so much. It is the beach town of Georgia on the Black Sea but the beach is rocky and both times I've been there the weather has been very humid while overcast or raining.

The beach at Makhinjauri, with Batumi in the distance.

I arrived in Tbilisi at about 6am again and had the whole day to kill before flying out that night. I was much more impressed with Tbilisi this time around. They've done a ton of construction and cleaning up of the city centre and the process still continues. They've opened up or developed more park area across the river where there was nothing before, put in a cable car system up the mountain to the fortress and generally made it a more pleasant experience. I had predicted in 2006 that it would need another 5 years or so to get Georgia ready for tourists. They aren't finished yet, but it is improving.



Freedom square and the city hall.

The old town with Narikala fortress above.

I walked around the city center until late afternoon before heading to the airport to “sleep” until my 4am flight back to Munich where I was reunited with Ena once again.

Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh

When I first flew into Iraq on this trip I had no ticket out and wasn't sure where the trip would end exactly. Time was the biggest factor on where I ended up and I had the choice of either heading to Eastern Turkey, which I'd still like to see, or to Armenia and Georgia. While I have to admit that Turkey probably interests me more, I realized as I went along that I didn't really want to deal with Ramadan in Turkey and I probably didn't have enough time to see all of what I wanted to see there anyway. I wasn't the biggest fan of Armenia or Georgia the first time through but there were still a few things on the list that I could find some interest in, namely southern Armenia (which we hadn't visited the first time) and the breakaway regions Nagorno-Karabakh (in Armenia) and Abkhazia (in Georgia).
So it was with these goals in mind that I crossed into southern Armenia with my new travel companion still in tow. We'd made plans to travel together as far as Yerevan before she would turn back and go home and I'd continue north. Beyond that we didn't have much of a strategy other than to hitchhike everywhere and we got lucky with that right off the bat. The border crossing was simple and as with Armenia the first time we visited, you can buy a visa at the border. In 2006 the visa was $30, now it's just over $7 so that's a step in the right direction in my mind. Across the border, while being harassed by taxis some guy in a very nice car stopped and randomly asked us if we wanted a lift. We accepted but only the few km to the first town as he seemed a little sketchy to me and I didn't want to deal with anyone that might be mafia related for too long. 4 more lifts and several hours later we finally made it all the way to Goris, the main town of southern Armenia.
It was a distance of little more than 150km and the problem wasn't getting picked up, it was simply that there isn't a whole lot of traffic in the first place and the road is a slow winding mountain road with an incredible number of hairpins with long ascents and descents. The scenery is fantastic and I didn't mind at all getting dumped out randomly along the road in the middle of nowhere because it just gave me more time to enjoy the views.
Compared to cities in Iran, Goris is so small it doesn't even count as a neighbourhood. I loved suddenly staying somewhere so quiet and with little traffic. There isn't much to see in Goris itself but it makes a good base for a day trip out to Tatev monastery. Tatev is one of the highlights of a visit to Armenia and sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking a deep canyon/valley. The fortified monastery itself is over 1000 years old and was a major center of learning and power in Armenia though it was destroyed several times throughout it's history by earthquakes, invading armies and peasant uprisings. The setting is spectacular and the world's longest reversible aerial tramway at almost 6km long travels over the hills and crosses the valley at heights of up to 1000ft, ending right beside the monastery. I have no desire to take it. Ever. Instead, we hitched from Goris. It started the surprisingly consistent trend of us needing 3 lifts to make it one-way to our destination pretty much every time throughout the country. On our way back from Tatev we actually got picked up initially by a Spanish tour group, but their tour bus broke on the way back and we bailed out and made it back to Goris ahead of them :)

Quiet little Goris.

A cemetary above Goris.

Tatev monastery.

Tatev monastery.


In one of the weirdest examples of how much the sanctions against Iran is affecting things I have a story to tell about trying to change money in Goris. I walked into the bank to change some Euros into local Dram. I had to give them my passport as is usual with these things. They got visibly nervous when they saw my Iranian visa while flipping through the pages. They asked if I was Iranian, I said no. They asked where the money came from, I said back home. The teller called the manager over and they had a quick pow-wow behind the counter before eventually reaching a decision. In the end they took my money saying that they would change it quickly but they couldn't put my name on the forms and then they rushed me out of there like I was toxic. Weird, especially the interpretation that a Canadian, changing Euros but with an Iranian visa was somehow a problem.
The following day we hitched out to the nearby, bizarrely-spelled village of Khndzoresk. The current village isn't anything special but the few visitors that make it out there go to see the rock formations and natural and artificial caves dug into them, below the village. It's a little like Kandovan, except nobody lives in the caves anymore though some are still used for storage or as livestock pens by the locals. Khndzoresk was just a quick stop as we head into Nagorno-Karabakh (NK).

The caves below Khndzoresk.

Hitching into Nagorno-Karabakh.

It wouldn't be surprising if you've never heard of Nagorno-Karabakh. It's a country that isn't a country but only a de-facto independent one. Like other unrecognized countries elsewhere, the story of Nagorno-Karabakh traces back to the typical story of a minority ethnic group declaring independence during a moment of upheaval in the ruling central government and finding help in a neighbouring country. War ensues, lives and cities are destroyed, the international community cries out in hollow and impotent outrage, a ceasefire is eventually reached under the conditions of later negotiations and nothing ever gets resolved. The area in dispute falls into an undefined status and backwater that somehow works, everyone looks the other way and there is a new destination to visit that nobody seems to have heard of. Or something like that.... Specifically in this case, during the early 1990's Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the area. NK is still technically considered part of Azerbaijan and Armenia is currently occupying it to save it from Azerbaijan, but not to incorporate it into its own territory. Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire back in 1994 but there have been skirmishes since, the borders between the 2 are closed and they definitely don't like each other. If you visit NK then you can't get a visa and visit Azerbaijan after until you get a new passport to get rid of the evidence of your visit.
When we'd visited Armenia in 2006 we'd hoped to be able to go to Nagorno-Karabakh but because of a full passport for Savannah, we didn't have enough space to get another visa. It has developed a little more than back then but there isn't that much tourism in the whole region in general and I wasn't sure exactly what I expected. As it turns out it was really beautiful and the “capital”, Stepanakert is really nice. It's quiet, there are only 150,000 people in the whole country, but it was relatively new and prosperous looking in it's centre. They had a public concert in the main square and some ethnic song and dance show in another area on a different night so it's not a place devoid of culture or entertainment and has some of that European feel about it after all.

A monument in NK.

The main square of Stepanakert.

After arriving in the capital it's necessary to go to the foreign ministry and buy a visa (also about $8) and register the list of places you intend to visit. They give you a visa and piece of paper with the names of your destinations but apart from turning the paper in at the checkpoint when we left the country 3 days later, nobody asked for it. Otherwise, it's sort of very Armenian as most of the population is ethnically Armenian, they use Armenia's currency and language, etc though the phone network, military and government are separate.
It's still not possible to visit along the border areas including some of the more famous destroyed and abandoned villages like Agdam because of potential problems of safety and security, but we hitched north to the most famous monastery of NK, Gandzasar. It was nice, again having a hilltop location overlooking the village of Vank and its beautiful valley. It was actually the only day trip we did outside of Stepanakert due to time issues and we left NK on a long day hitching all the way to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.


One of the weirdest hotels I've ever seen. The Eclectic Hotel of Vank.

I'd been to Yerevan before with the girls and immediately recognized it's main sites, the opera house, republic square, the cascade. I liked the city back then and I liked it again now though I still somehow preferred the quieter and smaller villages and towns I'd just recently in. I was a bit sick of cities from Iran's chaos though Yerevan is tiny and organized in comparison. It has changed a little in the last 6 years, but I didn't identify or remember enough to notice huge changes. I felt that I got to know the city a little better this time around though. Farnaz learned through her parents that some family friends had come to Yerevan for holiday and had rented out a big villa for their stay. We contacted them and got an invite to stay with them for the next 4 days, hanging out in the city and even attending an opera as a group before they all head back to Iran at the end of their holidays. Farnaz returned to Iran with them and the same day I took the overnight train to Batumi, Georgia.

The Cascade, Yerevan.

Who wants to play?

Modern, European Yerevan.


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.