The Amazing Aras River Valley & Babak Castle

Talk about saving the best for last… we had a real treat in our last two days in Iran. 🙂 Things didn’t go too smoothly when we arrived in Jolfa but once we got on the road exploring the Aras River Valley – first west then east of Jolfa-  we were blown away with how beautiful it was! The last destination before we left for Armenia was Babak Castle and it was incredible… our last hours in Iran were quite possibly the best!!

We decided to take the train to Jolfa from Tabriz. It was pretty slow and left really early in the morning, but hey we prefered the novelty of the train and the relaxed pace compared to a car or bus. We arrived around 11am. Our couchsurfing host had let us know that he wouldn’t be there until 2pm but we thought that would be fine as we could hang out at the train station and wait.

Waiting. Tabriz Train Station

Waiting. Tabriz Train Station

The station was clean and warm enough, no-one around except security guards and with plenty of seating we settled in for a couple hours of writing postcards, reading and doing some work. 2 o’clock came and went with no sign of our host and no replies to my earlier text messages. Around 3 we finally heard from him that he would ‘maybe’ be back in Tabriz by 6pm. Eek… awkward situation. I asked if he knew of a driver so we could perhaps take a trip along the nearby valley while we waited for him. Thankfully he arranged someone to swing by the station and soon we were off exploring the valley to the west.

The drive was beautiful! Across the Aras River was Azerbaijan. There were the odd military posts and other things to look at, along with the red rocks, stunning cliffs and general valley scenery.

Azerbaijan on the other side of the river.

Azerbaijan on the other side of the river.

Jolfa River Valley.

Aras River Valley.

Our first point of interest was St Stephanos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I have written all about this place (and other Christian and Jewish sites in Iran) here. It was in a beautiful spot and was fascinating to see.

St. Stephanos Monastery, Iran.

St. Stephanos Monastery, Iran.

Seeing as it was such a gorgeous late afternoon and the drive had been beautiful we asked our driver to keep going until the Aras Dam. We had an icecream here and enjoyed the stillness of the water and the views of the towns and mountains across the lake. Looking toward the snowy mountains (top picture below) you can see Nakhchivan city in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. Looking in the other direction across the lake you can see Mt Ararat in Turkey, but it doesn’t show up in the photos- it was a bit hazy. We could just make it out with the naked eye – somewhere around the left of Antony’s head in the bottom pic below.

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Aras Dam

On our way back we stopped at another little church. You couldn’t go inside but could peer through the gate to the simple building. I think it is called a Shepherd’s chapel.

Church

Shepherd’s chapel, Aras River Valley

It was back to Jolfa itself after this, a town of around 14,000 people with snowy mountains surrounding it.

Jolfa

Jolfa

Our host was thankfully home from his holiday in Tehran and ready to welcome us to his house. Together with his brother he runs some kind of dried fruit factory. Having been away from the factory for a holiday for Noruz, he was keen to visit and see how things were. The factory was closed when we visited, because of Noruz  they were running less shifts, but it was interesting to see what they do here. They treat and package dried fruit and export it. Jolfa is a big hub for customs, imports and exports out of Iran. We spent an hour or so in a little container office/home of one of the workers on site. The guys caught up, smoked a lot, ate seeds and watched news on the small tv. We waited, ate some sunflower seeds too and I hoped we would soon leave to get some dinner as I was ravenous! Eventually we were on our way to the shop so I could buy some vegetables. Back at the apartment I cooked some rice and made some eggplant, tomato mix to go with it.

Fruit factory, Jolfa.

Fruit factory, Jolfa.

After an ok sleep we were all set to meet our driver again to explore to the east of Jolfa then head to the border town with Armenia, where we would say goodbye to Iran. We had a little passport crisis before departing. This was the first day on our whole trip Antony realised he didn’t have his passport on him like he normally did… and of course it happened to be the day we were leaving the country and really needed it! Oh dear!! It was great he noticed before we left Jolfa and soon a search was mounted. It turned out it had slipped out of his pocket when he was lying back/ sitting in the container office/home the night before. We drove to the factory to retrieve it and then were on our way!

Our first stop was to the Asiyab Khurabe Spring and Picnic area. It was all quiet and our driver led us down the steps to see the spring and then along the little carved out valley where water trickled down all the mossy rocks. Nice stop and the views on the drive back to the main road were awesome.

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Asiyab Khurabe Spring

In the top photo below you can see a rocky peak on the left, jutting out of the landscape. It is in Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan) and is called Ilan Dag or Snake Mountain. Noah’s Ark supposedly crashed here en route to Ararat.

The pictures below of a farmer with his sheep were taken on the way back to the main road after visiting the spring. We saw farmers with their animals all over Iran. Unlike New Zealand where animals are in fenced off fields, we rarely saw fences so animals always seemed to have a person nearby keeping an eye on them or moving them from one place to another.

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Rural Iran.

Next up we came across the mudtopped stone walls of what was once the huge Abbas Mirza fortress (Kordasht Castle). According to one source the fort dates back to the first century after Islam but I can’t find much about it’s origins. It had huge military importance during the reign of Abbas Mirza Fath Ali Shah Qajar (that was a mouthful!) in the beginning of the 1800s as it was one of the headquarters during the wars between Iran and Russia. The castle was large so there was room for a lot of soldiers to camp there to fight the invading Russian troops. In 1814 the Russians were successful in invading Jolfa and took over the castle. By the time they left, the main part of the castle was in ruins. These days you can see parts of the wall going up the hill and ruins of the six guard towers used as lookouts for guarding the castle.

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Walls & Guard Towers of the Kordasht Castle.

We enjoyed the rest of our drive along the Aras River before we cut inland to Kaleybar. From there we headed to the highlight of the day – and probably the highlight of our whole 2 months in Iran – Babak Castle. Our driver drove as far as he could on a disintegrating dirt road taking us up the hill, then he parked and waited for us while we walked the rest of the way (less than an hour to the top). We soon hit snow and enjoyed absolutely magnificent views of mountains and the valley below. We saw not a soul so had this beautiful place all to ourselves.

On the way up to Babak Castle.

On the way up to Babak Castle.

At one point we thought we could see the top but had to navigate a portion of the track that couldn’t be seen under all the snow and it was across a sloping face of the hill so a little dangerous. Antony with his experience in the mountains was very cautious and decided it wasn’t worth proceeding. We weren’t well equipped for this – no poles or gloves or hiking boots or crampons. But I was so determined to give it a go because I thought I could see the top, above the icy zigzag track… we just had to cross one dicey section of 20 metres or so.

I left Antony and edged my way slowly across the snowy sloping section with no problem, then up the zigzags to the top- which was not the top at all but just the beginning of the good part!! I convinced Antony he had to join me so he followed. First (and surely last) time I lead the way in the outdoors!

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Find Antony!

At the top of the zigzags this is what we could see – the castle above us on the rock and little paths hugging the slope heading up and down, also stone walls and absolutely stunning views of snowy mountains. GLORIOUS. And still not a soul.

Babak Castle on the top of the rocky peak

Babak Castle on the top of the rocky peak

After soaking up the incredible views and exploring some of the ruins we headed up the narrow paths toward what remains of the castle or fort today. This place was the stronghold of Babak Khorramdin (b. 798- d. 838) who is known as one of the main Persian revolutionary leaders who fought against the Muslim Arab conquest. He fought for the preservation of Persian language and culture and has become something of a rediscovered national hero (something not all Shia clerics are happy about though).

Climbing up – Babak Castle

The castle or fort dates back to the Parthian dynasty (3rd century BCE) and was modified during the Sassanid dynasty (224-651 CE). It rests 2300-2600m above sea level so the views are spectacular. The gorges have drops of 400-600 metres.

Looking down

Looking down

Kaleybar Village in the valley way below.

Kaleybar Village in the valley way below.

I cannot explain how cool it was to be up here. Although I have included a lot of photos here to give you a sense of how it was, you really have to be there to experience it, to see the views, to feel the mountain air and the solitude, to yell out into the nothingness and have your voice call back, to climb up snowy tracks and over ancient ruins, to breathe deep and imagine who built these walls, who kept watch over a thousand years ago…

There was no one to be seen today, we had the whole place to ourselves and were on a real natural high up there. We had one of those moments where we said to each other that when we are old and grey we will surely remember this day and this incredible feeling… no doubt we will talk about it for many years to come.

Antony on the ruins, Babak Castle

Antony on the ruins, Babak Castle

And on this high we left the country!

We made our way down the hill without any problem, back to our waiting driver who then drove us to the Armenian border. I was so sad to walk across the river and into Armenia. From a major high to a little low…

Leaving Iran by foot- walking across the border to Armenia.

Crossing the Iranian border into Armenia.

Our Iranian adventures were over… but we’ll be back I’m sure!

8 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I live in the US but am from the area in Iran you visited. I have been to all of those spots and as you said the Aras river and the cliffs surrounding it are magnificent and the castle is breathtaking in terms of views and more importantly the history. Thanks again for making me to relive the memories.

    1. You are very welcome Majid. I like re-living the memories of my trips by writing about them on this blog 🙂 Pleased it also brought back good memories for you too!

  2. Hey, some mates and I are heading to Tabriz in late October this year and were planning to hike to babak castle. Just wanted to get an idea what time of year you did it (November?) and was it really cold or just wear warm clothes for the hike? Any insights would be greatly appreciated

    1. Hi, we walked up on April 5th last year. It wasn’t that cold but we certainly needed our windbreakers and hats for part of it. It was quite a warm day for April… most important are good boots/ shoes for the icy/ snowy parts. Have fun- hope you get a good day for it.

  3. Thank you so much for your post! We don’t have time for both Babak castle and Alamut valley. So we have to choose one of them. Which one should we choose? Please advice us!

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