Our journey north would see us leave Tabriz and cycle via Ahar and Kaleybar and then follow the Aras river border to Norduz where we would cross into Armenia. We planned for the journey to take up the last week of our time in Iran. We were really looking forward to doing a long stretch on the bike and seeing more rural parts of Iran. Some of it promised to be breathtaking.
North western Iran is dominated by large Azari (Azerbaijani-Iranian) communities who’s language is much closer to Turkish than Farsi. In fact, there are more Azerbaijanis living in Iran than there are in neighbouring Azerbaijan and the majority of them live in north western Iran.
The weather would be turning cooler as we headed north – a welcome change from the scorching summer temperatures we’ve had since Uzbekistan – and as September gives way to October we hope to see the harvesting in action as well as catch some of Iran’s nomadic population before they pack down their tents and drive their flocks southwards for winter.
Tabriz to Ahar
We had a leisurely morning in Tabriz enjoying a lie in and then an epic street breakfast of baked potatoes, boiled eggs and bread which we sat out in the sunny square to eat.
We had chosen a hotel very near the street that housed all the bike shops because we were in desperate need for more inner tubes. We bought three and then stocked up on food.
There are three routes to choose from connecting Tabriz and Ahar and we decided to choose the highest, most rural of the three. It ended up being a lovely cycle and we even hit an unpaved section; our first in Iran where the roads have been very good. It didn’t last long (thankfully) just 12km between two peaks.
The landscape was pretty brown, scorched by summers heat and all the fields had already been harvested but the views were still spectacular and there were some amazing changes in colour in the rock.
Further along we did hit some green valleys which were mainly populated with fruit trees. The green leaves are beginning to turn golden red.
We also cycled through a number of villages. Here is a cow being dismembered on the street.
On the second day we completed the major climb…
… and dropped into this flat bottomed valley which was host to a number of small villages. We hadn’t done huge amounts of miles but we’d completed the climb and it was so lovely here that we decided to pack up early and set up camp.
We watched the shepherds bringing in their sheep and got cooking dinner. At dusk a herder comes over with his flock and starts speaking to us for a long time in Farsi… Very little gestures accompanied his speech but we think in the end he was trying to tell us that it would be too cold to camp. We tried to explain that this was OK and we we had plenty of blankets and after a long time he moved on.
It was indeed cold that night and we woke to find A LOT of frost on the tent and our washing was stiff with frost but we’d slept well in our thermals and down sleeping bag. I can be a bit of a wuss when it comes to getting out the tent when it’s chilly so Paddy got up and made coffee. By the time I crawled out 30 minutes later the sun was up, thawing everything out nicely.
We had a leisurely breakfast while we waited for the tent to dry and spotted lots of birds of prey perched along the road side. We also found a cute little water vole hiding in one of our helinox chair bags. He’d obviously scuttled in their during the night and was very reluctant to leave his new hiding place. I really wanted to take him with us.
We got going and soon met paved road again. We stopped in Varzegan for lunch and more food stocks and managed to reach Ahar by 5pm completing a 85km day.
Ashura parades were in full flow but we were tired and so headed straight for the large park where we planned to pitch our tent. Iranians are very fond of all day picnics and overnight camping so lots of parks are set up with 24 hour toilets and dedicated washing areas.
We were just deciding where to pitch the tent when we’re approached by a local called Parviz who makes an offer for us to come and stay with him. We were both reluctant mainly because we were very tired and hungry but the draw of a shower after three days was too tempting.
Parviz and his lovely family looked after us well and they even insisted on us sleeping in their bedroom. We hope they didn’t mind us going to bed at 9:30 – positively early by Iranian standards! In the morning we had a lovely breakfast with them, showed them lots of photos of China (the country they seemed most interested in) and did a photoshoot before we left!
Ahar to Kalaybar and a visit to Babak Fortress
A steady climb towards Kalaybar ensured an average speed of 13km the next day. Kalaybar is a very cool town set at the bottom of a valley, towering mountains on all sides. Again, we headed to the town’s central park and set up camp.
It was a lovely little spot and everyone was at the top of town at the Ashura festivities so we were completely left to our own devices. As darkness fell the park lamps came on and each corner of our little green courtyard was suddenly bathed by soft light so we even enjoyed a quiet ‘candlelit dinner’ before watching a documentary about John Coltrane.
The next morning we spent time food shopping and then got ready to leave. The climb up from Kalaybar is very steep and the first section out of town would have been tough going on any bike but tandem’s rear chain had recently developed a tendency to slip and jump off the smallest cassette on stiff climbs… It made it impossible for us to cycle the first section which was about 11% gradient and we ended up pushing for a bit.
The problem is a bit worrying considering the amount of high mountain passes we have ahead of us both in northern Iran and Armenia but there is nothing we can do about it right now. After 12,000km the whole system has just worn out and it won’t go away until we replace the chain and all the cassette cogs. A costly replacement but inevitable at some point especially as the bike was second hand… It’ll have to be our Christmas present to one another!
We only had 10km to complete up to the entrance to Babak Castle but it took us a good 3 and a half hours a) because it was tough and b) because we kept stopping to admire the view which was spectacular.
We had left the brown rolling hills behind us. The whole area here is covered in a thick oak tree forest and catching this landscape in Autumn was a real feast for the eyes.
We arrived by lunchtime and by the time we’d eaten we decide it was too late to start the long hike up to the castle ruins so we set up camp among the oaks with a great view of the valley below and had a relaxing afternoon blogging) (me) and bike tinkering (Paddy) in the sun.
Babak castle is an extensive crag-top fortress (dating back to the 9th century) and was the home to the Azerbaijan hero Babak Khorramdin (yes we’re still in Iran).
We started early as it was a 70 minute hike up to the ruins.
Breathtaking views across the landscape, more golden oak forests tumbling into the valleys and lots of photogenic backdrops to set up a few timed shots.
The fort itself sits on an impressive cliff top and we were lucky enough to have the whole place to ourselves for a few hours. I was able to de-scarf and even roll up my trouser legs!
We sat and had lunch perched on one of the walls and by the time we had finished a couple from France and a Dutch guy had turned up, so we sat chatting for a while before all heading back down together.
We had a few more hours until sun down so we managed 25km down and over the next valley. The green hills and thick blanket of oaks continued. It was so nice to see some trees and cycle through some mountainous countryside. Tajikistan feels a long time ago now!