Sanandaj to Tabriz, Iran

The words “Kurdistan” and “Azerbaijan” typically don’t bring Iran to mind. Kurds are often associated with separatist movements in the countries they live in: Turkey (where the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, engage in acts of terrorism), Syria, and Iraq (where there’s already the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region). Azerbaijan… well, they already have a country to the north of Iran.

To my pleasant surprise, both of these minority groups seem generally happy as part of Iran. (There is still a Kurdish movement for autonomy/independence and incidents of violence, but much smaller than those of neighbouring countries.) Locals are as nice as always as in the rest of Iran, if not nicer, and as much as I heard “welcome to Kurdistan” and “welcome to Azerbaijan,” from my experience, they’d happily add “welcome to Iran!” in the same breath.

Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan province, is a small city with a big city feel. Despite there not being much beyond a bazaar and a park, crowds flood the streets in midday to do their shopping. Teahouses are filled with men sitting on a bench in a line, staring up the TV, sipping on tea and occasionally eating dizi (a pan-Iranian meat-and-veg soup; broth separated and eaten with soaked flatbread, then meat and veg smashed and eaten with bread). And unlike other Kurdish regions out there, here, even in the big city, most of these men are wearing their traditional clothes, a kind of jumpsuit-like thing with a belt, and parachute pants like the Bakhtiaris. Some of these, and their regional variations, were on showcase at the local museum as well, housed in a Kurdish mansion — which doesn’t look too far off from Persian ones.

Other than the clothing, I honestly can’t tell people apart and say that they’re Persian or Kurdish. Indeed, both groups have a lot of similarities; while different, the languages aren’t really that far off, nor are physical features. It’s no wonder that they largely fit into Iranian society. Still, they do share more with their fellow Kurds in neighbouring countries; I met one man (with a cousin in Vancouver!) at a restaurant who could speak Kurdish, Arabic after working in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), Turkish since his business expands to Turkey, Persian, German, and English. Whew!

I took a daytrip over to Palangan, taking two very slow but scenic minibus rides to get there, my mere presence on each a great source of amusement for locals. While Palangan’s a popular domestic tourism site in the summer, it’s pretty dead in the winter, and so I was likely the only foreigner around for some time. Dropped off the side of the highway, I traipsed my way down the hill, unintentionally crossing a few dozen properties. Oh well, no one seemed to mind!

After rounding a bend, I was finally treated to a view of the whole village: houses stacked in a manner not unlike Sar Aqa Sayyed, but a fair bit more developed and with a river and a road running through the middle, dividing the village into three very steep banks. Already being late in the day and with limited sunlight, I spent just an hour and a half walking around, yet very quickly felt the welcome of the locals: I was beckoned over to join some men and women chatting on a rooftop (and one man wanted to try my glasses for some reason, guy on the left in the first picture below), and asked by some younger people to take photos of them.

After a rather exhausting climb up some steep stairs on the other bank, I found some of the village elders (dressed in traditional vests adorned with some curiously odd shoulder horns) huddled around a fire, and I joined them for awhile, as the weather began to get frigid as the sun began to go down. While we had no language in common to communicate in, they seemed to enjoy my silent company, and at least twice I was invited to have food and tea. Famished and with no places to buy food or drink in the village at this time of year, I tried to accept, but to my stomach’s disappointment, I was sort of hilariously misinterpreted to have declined every time. Oh well.

In the same vein, to my relief, gratefulness, and sheer horror, I later hitched a ride with a vegetable seller who offered to take me back to the city, enthusiastically taking his hands off the wheel and eyes off the road to prepare tea for me while driving. At least I’m alive to tell the tale! The hospitality continued in a safer fashion on my last day in the city: people went well out of their way for me, helping me buy bus tickets, find people off the street who could speak English for me whenever I needed clarity, and I was even treated to a wonderful meal at a popular restaurant I stumbled upon on a side road when the owner saw me.

An overnight bus took me over to Tabriz, capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and very much a large city. Confusingly for me, Persian Iranians refer to Azeris as “Turks”, since the Azeri language is virtually a dialect of Turkish. They’re no less Iranian though, very much integrated into Iran: even current leader ayatollah Ali Khamanei is an Azeri, and they’re by far the second-largest ethnic group in the country after Persians. People on the street greeted and welcomed me as if Tabriz was my introduction to and first stop in Iran. I spent my short stay wandering the famously large bazaar, with far more carpet sections than I could possibly keep track of (and even carpets framed like paintings!), and an artificial lake-park popular with locals to the south of the city.

The bulk of my time went to visiting Kandovan, an Azeri village (and again domestic tourism destination) known as Iran’s little version of Turkey’s Cappadocia. It’s easy to see the comparison: the village isn’t made up of houses so much as cave dwellings set in some gorgeously bizarre upside-down ice-cream cone-like formations. Again with the significant incline and plentiful stairs, I have to marvel at how even the seniors have to stay fit just to get around.

Like Palangan, it’s pretty dead at this time of year, but that didn’t seem to stop a local family from inviting me in and…using me as a foreigner selfie prop for about half an hour in exchange for some tea. Not exactly the most fun experience, but okay. Otherwise, given the cold weather, few locals (and no tourists) were around, save for some children playing cavalierly on the dangerously-thin ice covering the river. With no one to chat with and no food available, I opted to return back to Tabriz.

I hung around for one final day in Iran — yet another religious holiday where everything was closed. Iran’s given me plenty of ups and downs, as I bounced between appreciative of the massive hospitality to irritated by constant attention (often with racial stereotypes involved, especially in Tabriz), and between being wowed by religious sites to chafing under state-mandated religion, control, and gender inequality. I’ve still had a wonderful time and learned a lot in the month that I spent in the country, but I was more than ready to move on.

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