After a couple of days in the Iranian capital of Tehran, we set out for the northwest part of the country, stopping in Hamadan and Kermanshah, both cities with important historical sites (which can be seen on the Ancient Persia page).
One of the main attractions in Hamadan is the Gonbad-e Alavián (Alavian Dome), a mausoleum and a fine example of the ornate brick and stucco work of the Seljuq period (12th century). As it happens, the tomb sits in a schoolyard and our guide's learned discourse about the building was soon upstaged when a couple of dozen schoolgirls in their early teens ran out to greet the tourists. They were excited to learn we were Americans and eager to practice their English. Several of the girls posed for photos while others offered food – in this case cheese doodles – to the visitors, a sign of Iranian friendliness and hospitality that would be repeated again and again throughout the country.
Northwestern Iran is home to one of the country's many distinctive ethnic groups: the Kurds. We stopped along the side of the road at one point and were warmly greeted by a group of Kurdish women (who had just finished the laundry in a nearby stream) and children who had to ham it up for the camera. The children put on an impromptu show of sliding down an embankment and continued until they were all sure their photos had been taken. Unlike the women in Tehran who wore black chadors or long dark coats, the Kurdish women were very colorfully dressed (while still maintaining conservative Islamic propriety).
At one point we came upon a strange, cone-shaped hill known as Solomon's prison because the inside of the cone is a hollow shaft that descends hundreds of feet and would make escape very difficult – if it had ever been used as a prison, which it probably wasn't. This hill, like the nearby Takht-e-Soleyman (Solomon's Throne), was named after the Islamic (and Christian) prophet Solomon, who in reality had nothing to do with either namesake. Nevertheless, climbing the steep hill gave us a chance to stretch our legs and peer down into the vertigo-inducing core.
We continued our journey northwest, visiting Maragheh, the unique mountain village of Kandovan, where the homes are carved out of the rock, and eventually arriving in Tabriz, Iran's second largest city. Photos from this part of the trip can be seen in the pop-up slide show listed below.
After crossing the Alborz mountains, we descended toward the Caspian Sea. We then traveled east along the southern coast of the Caspian. Further information and photographs about this area are in a pop-up slide show below.
From the Caspian Sea, we continued traveling east toward Mashhad and Northeastern Iran.
Northwestern Iran: Maragheh to Caspian: We traveled to Maragheh to see ancient tomb towers built during the Seljuq Turk era ( which can be seen on the Islamic Persia page), but were more captivated by the friendly people – especially students at a girls school that happened to be near some of towers. After Maragheh, we visited one of the most unique villages I have ever seen. The houses in the mountain village of Kandovan are literally carved out of solid rock. Steep and narrow pathways, accessible only by foot or donkey, twist and turn through the village as they have for centuries. After the quietude of Kandovan, we traveled on to modern Tabriz, one of the most populous cities in Iran, then on toward the Caspian Sea. (23 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
Along the Caspian Sea: As we crossed over the Alborz Mountains toward the Caspian Sea, a remarkable transformation took place. The sere brown deserts suddenly gave way to lush green forests and low hanging mists. One could feel the humidity rise in the air. I was surprised to learn that the Caspian area is a major rice growing region. We stopped first at a small market town of Astara, which sits on the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. Because of its location on the Sea and so near the border, Astara has a reputation as a smugglers' town and a local youth informed me that opium or Russian vodka could be easily had. The Caspian held other surprises as well. We visited a private compound for Armenian Christians, where they can enjoy the seaside, practice their religion in freedom and dispense with the Islamic dress code. We stayed one evening at a former Hyatt Regency hotel in Chalus, a luxury hotel prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that has fallen on hard times in an era of strict Islamic dress codes and forbidden alcohol. Suffice it to say that the international jet set has found other places to take their pleasures – presumably much to the satisfaction of Iran's religious rulers. We also took a quick detour into the mountains above the city of Rasht to visit the charming mountain village of Masouleh. (22 photos) [Preview This Slide Show]