Espionage, Assassins and strangers on the street

With our remaining days in Iran dwindling, we caught a (surprisingly comfortable) night train from Esfahan directly to the bustling hub of Tehran. The train arrived earlier than scheduled, meaning we found ourselves in Tehran station at the unearthly hour of 5.45am. This would never have happened in India!

Two days in Tehran was far too short to see all the sights, so we didn’t try. Instead we focused on buying our train tickets to both Tabriz and Syria (a mission which took up a significant chunk of our Tehran-time) and just getting a feel for the city. We did manage to make it to the National Museum of Iran, and to the US “Den of Espionage”, the former US Embassy now used by a militant group dedicated to defending the Islamic Revolution. Its Berlin Wall-esque murals are rather infamous.

Andrew disagrees with the mural's sentiments.

From Tehran it’s a short bus ride to Qazvin and the Alamut Valley, home of the famed Castles of the Assassins. We had been really keen to make it to see at least one of the castles but had thought it might be a little unfeasible if there were too much snow in the valley. Having come so close, we decided to brave it and jumped in a savari to Gazor Khan, the village overlooked by Alamut (“Eagles’ Nest” in Persian) Castle, the first stronghold of Assassins founder Hassan-i Sabbah.

Hmmm, don't fancy our chances of successfully invading that castle...

Falling snow greeted our arrival in Gazor Khan, as did the friendly welcome of Ali Samie, proprietor of the tiny Kharasoon “Hotel” where we were to spend the night. With only a few daylight hours remaining it was now or never to see the castle, so we headed out into the snow for the steep trek up to the top of the cliff. Finally, the down jackets which we have lugged from New Zealand through Thailand, India and Pakistan, came into their own…. As we were walking up the access road a wave of mist rolled in in seconds, dropping visibility to a few metres. We battled on however, and were rewarded when skies cleared somewhat as we neared the top of the cliff.

Finally, we made it! Sadly, we could only imagine the phenomenal views our Lonely Planet assured us would be visible from the castle ramparts, but the views of the icy, snowswept ruins themselves were beautiful enough.

Fittingly, it was in Tabriz, our last stop in Iran, that we had the Iranian experience that will remain with us for longest. We arrived first thing in the morning (those early trains!) and headed off in search of our hotel. It being Sunday, we were also on the look-out for a church that, according to the LP, looked like it should be on the way. The church proved elusive. As we poured over the map at a crossroads, a local man stopped us and asked if he could help. The church was, he thought, actually a bit of a walk away, so before we knew it, he had invited us back to his dental supplies office to join him for tea and breakfast before we went on our way. Two cups of tea, copious amounts of delicious fresh bread and feta cheese and an hours worth of interesting conversation later, we were becoming fast friends with Habib, our new-found Azari acquaintance.

Over the next two days Habib took us on a tour through the bazaars, showed us the local mosque and museum, acquainted us with the yummy (if not terribly healthy…) abgusht at a local restaurant and generally made sure we saw the very best of his city.

A wonderful family dinner.

Best of all, he introduced us to his lovely family (wife Cobra, daughter Zahara and son Elia), with whom we enjoyed a fabulous dinner at a local fish restaurant, and an even more fabulous dinner at their home. Mmm, home-made kebabs cooked over a coal fire and served with mountains of fresh salad, grilled tomatoes, rice and kuku.  The baklava for dessert topped off a delicious meal to perfection, but even better than the food was the warmth and lively conversation of our wonderful hosts.

So thank you Habib, Cobra, Zahara and Elia for your amazing kindness, generosity and hospitality towards two strangers from the other side of the world. You epitomise the very best of Iran, and we will hold you in our hearts long after we have left your beautiful country.

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