For years we had wanted to visit Iran – but we also really really wanted to visit independently, to drive around by ourselves without a lot of prepared plans and to be able to camp out in nature. Over the internet we came in contact with a young Iranian couple who had a beautiful orange VW bus which we were able to rent.
We went to Iran in March 2018. It was during the Iranian new year celebrations, Noruz, and it seemed like all of Iran was out on the road with us.
We decided to drive up to the northwestern corner where Iran is bordered by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Iraq – and the Caspian Sea.
This is “our” car for the trip. Her Iranian name Norenghi means mandarin because she is so sweet and orange!
Our first stop was in Qazvin, 2-3 hours drive west of Teheran. We were able to buy an Iranian SIM card (which was unavailable at the airport in Teheran) and then we spent the rest of the afternoon at the free Noruz festival where you could sample food from all the ethnic groups of Iran, there was cardamom coffee in the Arab’s tent and even Kazakh baursak, but we went for a delicious Persian eggplant dish.
From Qazvin we drove further north and found a nice place to sleep by a small river. First night in Norenghi.
We continued up north through a long and very beautiful valley. We left the main road at the small town of Manjil and drove up north to Hashtijn and finally to the bigger city of Ardabil, all on small roads, around 50 km of gravel but in good condition and the rest asphalt.
In the beginning the valley was full of olive trees and we could buy the local olives in the villages along the way.
The road went through quite remote landscapes and we found a beautiful place to sleep in the rolling hills with a view to the nearby snowcapped peaks.
The next morning we visited the nearby village which had quite an impressive mosque.
Continuing up through the valley…more great views over the landscape with a few scattered villages here and there.
It was nice to hit the asphalt again and soon after we arrived to Hashtijn and the first petrol station since we left the main road – just in time. Hashtijn also had great shops selling a little bit of everything.
The beautiful landscapes continued all the way to Ardabil.
We stayed overnight on a hill high above the main road running through the valley, not too far from Ardabil now.
We woke up to a scenic morning mist.
Finally we arrived in Ardabil. We liked the round-about decorations and the mix of modern and tradition.
The main sight was the beautiful Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum. This was our first visit to a proper tourist attraction and some Iranian tourists got so upset that we had to pay a much higher entrance (for foreigners) so they smuggled us in at the local ticket cost. Just a first glimpse of the irresistible friendliness and hospitality of the Iranians.
We just love a good bazaar – here the bazaar in Ardabil, lots of haggling going on and beautiful displays of goods.
We decided to drive up and sleep in the foothills of the Mt Sabalan volcano. On the way we passed a lot of Noruz celebrations – which takes a lot of fresh meat for the barbeque. No doubt the meat was fresh even if the sheep did not seem very happy to watch their friends being butchered just next to them… Anyways, we decided to go for the vegetarian option that night.
Our lovely camp site at the foot of the mountain. You can just see Norenghi there as a small orange dot.
There were lots of sheep grazing the hills and Marco went to buy some cheese from the herders – and to drink lots of tea in their tent.
Uhm Iranian bread…always makes for a nice lunch or dinner.
From Ardabil we wanted to go north towards Azerbaijan and Armenia and visit the Aras River Valley – but the weather started getting really nasty with extremely strong winds and at some point a small rock was swept down from the hills and broke our wind shield. We were a little bit in the middle of nowhere, the storm was still raging, but Marco found some old sacks on the side of the road so we could remove the broken glass and attach the sacks to protect us from flying objects while driving back to the nearest town Ahar.
Meanwhile we had called Hashim the owner of the car and he had arranged for one of his friends to drive up from Tabriz to Ahar with a new windshield for us – the problem was that in the night it was forecast to rain aaaaaaa looooootttt so we needed something to cover the car. We met up with the friend in a round-about in Ahar and taped the new windshield to the car – next morning after a night of very heavy rain everything was dry inside. Thanks to the help of Hashim and his friend everything worked out!
We had the new windshield fitted properly in Ahar. Iran is full of brilliant car mechanics.
The weather was still very bad in the north, so we decided that next stop was Tabriz, famous for it’s grand bazaar. And we were ready for a hotel with shower by now. Here a nice street picture from Tabriz, a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
We visited an interesting exhibition of historical artifacts at the Tabriz municipality.
And a carpet exhibition.
And we made friends with first the kids and then all the members of a kurdish family, all dressed up for Noruz.
Outside you could buy souvenirs and local food – here a yogurt soup and in the yurt in the background some ladies where baking flat breads.
Then it was time to visit the famous Tabriz bazaar. Fantastic – both when it is open and bustling with people and when it is closed and almost empty and you can concentrate on the domed ceilings and the old doors.
From Tabriz we continued south through lush green valleys. We stayed overnight by a river and the next day the landscape was full of picnicking families – it was the day of nature at the end of Noruz when everyone had to get outside and spend the day in nature before returning to their normal lives after the Noruz holidays.
And then in the middle of this gorgeous landscape, just on the border to the Kurdistan province of Iran, we had a serious problem with one of the wheels of the car and had to stop. Hashim helped us again by calling a mechanic from the nearest village. The mechanic came to pick us up and served us lunch while we discussed what to do. The VW bus unfortunately needed some spare parts that were not so easy to get so Hashim was going to bring them up himself from Teheran. Meanwhile we would take a taxi to Zanjan and a bus to Esfahan to enjoy the last half of our holidays.
We ended up having a day in Zanjan while waiting for the bus for Esfahan. Zanjan is a nice small town. We went to see the archeological museum to see the “salt men” of Zanjan which are the mummified remains of miners killed in a collapse of a salt mine around 2000 years ago. Their bodies were preserved in the dry salty environment and were discovered recently during modern commercial salt mining operations in the same area. Very interesting exhibition.
Later we went to the bazaar and Marco even got a very healthy liver shashlyk for lunch.
Honey, olives, olive oil, cheese, eggs etc for sale.
In these big pots the wool is being dyed and then hung to dry. These were small enterprises in the side streets of the bazaar.
In the evening we caught the overnight bus to Esfahan. Our hotel in Esfahan was fantastic.
Sightseeing in Esfahan, we were glad we made it here!
So….go to Iran if you can! Is is a fantastic place to visit, beautiful, friendly, safe, full of tasty foods and….just really quite special!