Crossing a border can be a long and stressful event. I started early in the morning so I would reach Tabriz before nightfall. It was cold, but after yesterday’s rain and snowstorms I was happy with the clear blue sky. Finally I saw Mount Ararat rising from the plains. Christians believe this dormant volcano was the resting place of the Arc of Noah.
Even tough it is geographically in Turkey it is the national symbol for Armenia that lies just behind it. Armenians consider Mount Ararat sacred and it is a reminder of the land that was once theirs before the Armenian genocide in 1915. Turkey still denies that their persecution of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman empire was genocide. For now the border between Turkey and Armenia is closed.
Crossing the border to Iran
The only open border in Eastern Turkey is with Iran. As we approached our final stop I got nervous. Would they question me? Will they go through my luggage to look for illegal items forbidden in the Islamic Republic of Iran? Are my clothes and headscarf sufficient? I
looked towards Iran and behind a big gate there were two large pictures of religious leaders Khomeini and Khamenei. My fellow female passengers took out their headscarfs and jackets, while I tried to fix my headscarf in a similar manner. Slowly, I made my way to the building of no return.
Surprisingly this was a very easy border crossing. Before I knew I had left Turkey and was now in the duty-free zone with just one single shop selling only alcohol. I was taken seperately and they asked me to sit and wait for a female officer.
Doom scenario’s played in my head of long interrogations, but nothing like that happened. Once they found out I was from the Netherlands they shared their regrets with me about Johan Cruyf who died a few days ago. The officers then encouraged me to visit nearby Maku and I was good to go.
Within 5 minutes I stood outside where I was approached by taxi drivers and money exchangers. I was still a bit in a culture shock. Everything was in farsi and I was trying to figure out the shared taxi system. I saw a full taxi speeding towards the border and as soon as people came out new people pushed themselves inside. Women and men were packed like sardines with at least 4 people in the back and preferably 2 people in the front seat next to the driver.
Somehow I managed to get myself in one of them. The driver was so excited to have a tourist that he asked if he could take my picture to show to his children.
A warm welcome to Tabriz
Another taxi ride and bus journey later I arrived in Tabriz. Initially my culture shock continued when I was given a grim room in the simple Mashad guesthouse. My bed was as long as the room itself and only allowed the door to open a few centimeters. In the corridor there were several sinks with a complicated system of pipes along the ceiling for the soap.
Outside it was still chilly with patches of snow from the past days. I was shivering despite wearing several layers of clothes. Once I walked through town I felt welcome immediately and my culture shock slowly dissipated.
Stories about Iran’s heartwarming hospitality and friendliness I heard before could not prepare me for the reality. And it did warm up my heart to this country with it’s incredible people.
At some point I could no longer count the times people stopped to simply greet me, asked if they could help me or shout “Welcome to Iran” from the other side of the road. In the morning one man stopped to share the fresh bread that he just bought with me. I couldn’t imagine a more warm welcome to Iran.
The best places to visit in Tabriz
1. The Tourism Information Office
Normally I never visit a tourism information office and I wouldn’t have tought of visiting it in Tabriz either, but I was literally dragged into the office by mister Nasser Khan. A cheery guy whose mission is to help every single tourist that visits Tabriz as much as he can, whether they like it or not.
He speaks no less than 8 languages. He gave me tea, chocolates and told me I could join a German couple on their tour to Kandovan the next day. Make this your first stop in Tabriz and you will not regret it.
2. The bazaar
Tabriz has the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the world. Spent at least a whole morning or afternoon exploring this maze of intricate alleys. Drink tea with some shopkeepers and watch the beautiful Iranian carpets.
3. The blue mosque
The blue mosque was once covered in blue tiles and intricate calligraphy before it collapsed in an earthquake in 1773. Reconstruction only started in 1951. You can still see a few remaining patches of the original tiles inside. The main entrance portal that survived the earthquake gives you a hint of the original blue exterior that must have been amazing.
4. Khaqani garden
Khaqani garden next to the blue mosque is a peaceful spot to relax and meet young students who want to practise their english.
5. Municipall hall
The municipal hall is a nice building worth a quick photostop on your way to the blue mosque.
6. Arg-e Tabriz and the new Mosallah mosque
A new big mosque is being built next to a remnant of Tabriz’s old 14th century citadel where criminals were executed by thrown from the top of the walls. Apparently one woman survived as she used her chador as a parachute.
7. Eating Dizi (Abgousht)
There are lots of local restaurants serving fast food and kebab. Try to find a local restaurant to have abgousht for lunch. A delicious broth with bread. Let the cook explain to you how to eat it.
One of the highlights of my visit in Tabriz was the small village of Kandovan. The homes carved out of the mountains are similar to Cappadocia in Turkey. It’s a popular spot for Iranian tourists going for a picnic. You can easily visit Kandovan as a day trip from Tabriz. As far as I know there is no public transport going here, but at the tourism information office in Tabriz it is easy to find other travellers to share the costs of a taxi.
Mashad Guesthouse (300,000 rials without bathroom, shower costs 60,000 rials)
Crossing the border to Iran (Gurbulak/Bazargan)
You can read my post how I went by train from Istanbul to Dogubayezit with The Dogu express.
From Dogubayezit it is easy to cross the border to Iran. Near the tourist office (border Agri Caddesi with Rifki Caya Caddesi) there are frequent minivans (7 TL) to the border in Gurbulak, especially in the morning. It is a 30 minute journey to the actual border from where you have to walk up to the buildings where you exit Turkey and enter Iran.
Once you go through all the procedures that are surprisingly easy (It took about 20 minutes for me and they did not even check my bags) you are now in Bazargan, Iran. Once you leave the building there are plenty of taxi drivers and money exchangers. The rates are not so good so my advice is to change as little as you need to get to Tabriz.
From here you can take private (Negotiate !!) or shared taxi’s (20,000 rials) to the actual town of Bazargan that you will see below you. From Bazargan there are shared taxi’s to Maku (20,000 rials) and from Maku there are frequent buses to Tabriz (110,000 rials 4 hours)/Tehran.
After Tabriz I travelled to Iran’s Kurdistan: Sanandaj & Palangan
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.