The drive from Tabriz to Ardabil was surprisingly painless, aside from the slight cold I had been nursing for a few days making the journey more tiring than it should have been. The roads in Iran are generally excellent, and we covered a good distance through hot, dry semi-desert, arriving in Ardabil just as rush-hour took hold.
As it was a large city, we somewhat naively assumed there would be a decent supply of hotels. After a couple of loops around the centre, battling traffic in the city heat, we asked a shop keeper if he knew of anywhere to stay. He directed us down the road, and here we found a slightly grotty looking hotel, with the sign only in Persian. Luckily they spoke Turkish, and the price seemed good. We asked to see a room before we agreed, but it was pretty grim, with a heavily stained carpet and an ancient looking floor toilet in the bathroom. I decided we should look around for a little longer, just in case there was a bargain to be had. The search was pretty fruitless, as we found only one other hotel. It was twice the price, still with floor toilets but with unfriendly staff. We decided to save our pennies and go with the first place.
Ardabil itself came alive at night, with plenty of little shops and food establishments. Sadly for me, it was no bigger on veggie food than Tabriz. Feeling under the weather and desperately wanting some high energy food, I shamefacedly opted for pizza. At first, the guys running the shop tried to refuse any payment from us, saying that we were their guests. However, knowing how hard things are for some people due to the economic sanctions, we insisted and managed to pay for our meal. After we left, Oli got himself some lamb donner and we were both happy. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a bakery and picked up some pastries and some beautifully light pistachio cookies (almost like a hybrid of macaron and biscuit). We also spotted a few shops selling some sort of warm halva which seemed pretty popular, so bought a tub and sat on a bench in a pretty park, eating and chatting.
I had been feeling better through the evening, so was ready for a good night's sleep that would hopefully sort me out for the next day. My stupid body had other ideas though, and decided that the night would be better spent trying to cough its lungs out. The end result was that we barely slept, and I woke up the next day feeling rough. Oli went out in the morning to find us some breakfast and some cough sweets, and came up trumps with both. Sufficiently strengthened, we went for a short stroll in the morning sun. Ardabil has a beautiful mosque and some picturesque old buildings, so it was well worth going for a wander.
We returned to our hotel and started the process of packing our bags and getting ready to leave. Our room may have been grim, but we felt strangely almost attached to it. However, the final touch came by way of the receptionist calling us on the internal phone and asking us not to use the toilet, as every time it was flushed it was leaking into the hotel restaurant. This was truly a classy establishment.
Back on the road, our destination for the day was Bandar Anzali, a port town on the Caspian coast. As we approached the mountains from the arid countryside, the sudden change in climate was clearly visible. Almost as soon as we began to climb we were engulfed in a thick white fog. Visibility was only a few feet, which is fairly terrifying when most other road users see no need for switching their headlights on. Ghostly figures along the road side swam out of the mist, selling fruits and grilled corn. It was truly alarming how close we got to them before they became visible.
As we began to descend, the fog cleared slightly and we began to see numerous families picnicking on the side of the road. We had thought that Turkey loves a picnic, but they are put to shame by the Iranians, who seem to literally not mind where they are. People seemed to be having a good time despite the odd weather, but Oli and I couldn't help but be shocked by the volume of litter strewn everywhere. We have seen a lot of this problem in this area of Iran, and regularly saw people throwing rubbish out of car windows. It is an unfortunate blot on an otherwise beautiful area.
Once we were back on flat ground, we immediately noticed the steep rise in humidity and the change in landscape from arid hills to lush, green fields and woodland. Despite the heat whenever we passed through a town and got stuck in endless traffic, it was an easy ride. As is our style, we arrived in Banzar Anzali bang on rush hour.
The regular effort of trying to find a hotel ensued, and it appeared that much like Ardabil, there was not a varied selection. We found two next door to each other, and as the improvement in the pricier option was marginal, opted for the cheaper one. The chef from the downstairs restaurant was running the reception and took our payment, and we noticed that his uniform was no longer white and was adorned with many encrusted food stains. Although he was a nice guy, we swiftly resolved not to eat in the restaurant if he was likely to be preparing the food.
We went out to find nourishment, and I ended up eating pizza again (this has got to stop). Oli found some apparently delicious meat, and we were both satisfied indeed. We wandered down to the waterside and sat in a well maintained and busy park. People here seem to love the outdoors, and all the city parks we have seen so far have been beautifully looked after.
It was hard to believe that we could beat the low of the previous day's hotel so quickly, but I have to say this hotel managed it. We were not entirely convinced that we had new sheets on the bed, and Oli made friends with a cockroach in the bathroom (I say made friends, in reality he washed it down the toilet). Just before we went to bed, we heard somebody in the hallway hammering on doors. We were pretty sure they were friendly, but moved the heavy chair in front of our door just in case. Tired and ready to sleep, Oli came out of the bathroom and saw an enormous cockroach casually stroll out from behind the fridge and under the door to the corridor. We blocked the gap with a towel, and hoped he didn't have too many friends. Having said all this, the price was right and the room was incredibly cheap. You get what you pay for indeed.
Next door to the hotel, there was a tiny shop selling roasted seeds and nuts. It turned out the owner's wife was Azeri-Turkish from the north of Iran, so he and Oli were able to converse. He was wonderfully generous and insisted on giving us teas. By way of thank you, Oli and I tried to buy some produce from him in the morning. This was not entirely successful, as he flat out refused any payment from us despite our insistence. So many people are so kind in this part of the world, that it is making both Oli and I want to be better people.
We had decided to take a day trip in the morning to Masouleh, before staying in the larger city of Rasht for the night. Masouleh is set in the mountains, and the village sprawls up the hillside in terraces, with the roof of one place often serving as a garden for the house above. It is a popular destination for internal tourists, and was busy with families walking around and of course, picnicking. We spent a pleasant hour exploring and looking around. Oli spotted a man selling something that looked like it was made from sesame, and was keen to try it so purchased a small block. As the seller was weighing it, I noticed he had the filthiest nails which put me off. Not sure how we managed to pick the dirtiest possible place, when the other stalls all looked far more hygienic. The snack itself was very tasty, chewy, sweet and full of sesame flavour. So far, we've not felt ill, so all good.
The road back to Rasht passes through the small and pleasant town of Fouman, which is known for it's speciality cakes (koloocheh Fouman). Feeling it would be a shame to miss this delicacy, we pulled the bike up outside a shop and purchased a couple. They were delicious, hot and fresh. The outside is almost like a pastry but lighter, and it is filled with a sweet paste that we think is coconut based. Oli spent the rest of the afternoon lamenting that we should have bought more.
We arrived in Rasht and after minimal struggles, managed to find a hotel. We were both ready for a bit of a treat, and it was the most expensive place so far in Iran at $40. It was a decent, clean double room, with the bonus of a western toilet. It did have a few tiny ants running around, but after the previous evening's cockroach room mates, who's complaining? Wanting to make the most of it, we bought fruit, bread and cheese and had a feast in our room.
We didn't have much time to see the city itself, as we wanted to leave the next morning to get to Chalus, further down the Caspian coastline. The hotel put on an excellent breakfast. Oli and I are the kind of people that strike fear into the providers of a buffet arrangement, and we ate until we were good and full. After all, it is important to keep our energy up whilst on the road...
Being as Rasht is a big city, we thought it would be easiest to change some money here rather than Chalus. This was not as simple as we thought. Most people in Iran think you can exchange dollars for rials at the bank, but we can confirm after a few tries that this is most definitely not the case in this country, and you need to go to an exchange (sarrafi). After over an hour of fruitless wandering in the heat and humidity, and asking for countless directions, we had only found one exchange shop which of course was closed. We decided to give up and pack the bike, and try again on the way back out.
This time was a little more successful, and Oli managed to find an Azerbaijani-Iranian watch seller who spoke Turkish and called around. Eventually, he managed to find a jewellers in the main Bazaar who could help us, and directed Oli there clutching a piece of paper with the address written in Persian. Not daring to believe that we would be successful, Oli went inside whilst I stayed with the bike on the street. Thankfully, this time we had struck gold, and could continue on our way.
The weather stayed sunny, humid and hot for our drive along the coast to Chalus. This is a popular destination for Iranian tourists, perhaps due to its proximity to Tehran, and we were keen to see it for ourselves. The road there was choked with traffic, and passed through several other resort towns. One worth noting was Ramsar, which seemed very pleasant, and (at a glance at least) nicer than Chalus. We fought our way along the coast, panicking at one point as all the Latin signage disappeared for about 30 km. We did the usual dance of arriving at rush hour and scouting for a hotel, and eventually found a decent, cheap place with minimal ants in the room. It was here we realised that our faces were streaked with black smudges from the heavy pollution along the road. We must have looked like tramps to the hotel staff.
As most Iranians come to Chalus for the seaside, we decided to go and see the coast in the morning before setting off to Tehran. Personally we couldn't really see the appeal of a beach holiday where swimming in the sea is made so difficult by the dress code, but thought we would check out the beach and see what people get up to. As soon as we arrived, we were approached by some young Iraqi guys on holiday, and had a nice chat and some photos.
People on the beach were mostly sat on the sand, but there was a group of young lads splashing around shirtless in the sea, and a couple of women paddling. I was therefore wondering if the dress code violation is broadly tolerated on the beach to allow for swimming. However, the religious police were patrolling the shore on foot, and blew their whistle at the boys (we later found out that apparently normal swimwear is fine for men, so we are not quite sure what the problem was). They then went over to a young woman's father and had a word with him, after which she rolled her trousers back down and stopped paddling. Good to see they are on guard to prevent the moral collapse of society and make sure nobody has too much fun on their holidays...
Our beach trip complete, we bid goodbye to our new friends, hopped on the bike, and were on our way to the capital.