Journey to Iran: A Trip to Lake Urmia
Saturday, November 14, 2015. We leave the house early in the morning and walk our way to the Mohaghgheghi street. The city is waking up to its everyday life. People are rushing to their jobs, students and pupils to their schools, shop owners open their stores and get ready for a new day. The weather is sunny, the air is fresh. Today we are heading to Lake Urmia, or better say what’s left of Lake Urmia. We decide to take a bus instead of hitchhiking. It’s our last day in Tabriz, so we want to explore the city in the afternoon, too. The bus departs from the terminal at 9:30 AM. In the bus, we get acquainted with two guys who speak a little English. They are “bus friends” as one of them, whose name is Sahlar, says. They travel together from Tabriz to Urmia and back by bus, and talk and discuss different topics on the way.
On the road to Lake Urmia, Iran | © 2015 Arty Om, teawithstrangers.org
The “bus friends” get very surprised when we tell them that instead of visiting the city of Urmia we want to actually see the lake. “There is no lake, just a little water under the bridge, and salt. Nothing else is left. It’s not interesting. The city has very good museums, it’s better visit the city. You will see the lake when we on the bridge,” says Sahlar who does most of the talking. I’ve seen the lake on the map during geography classes at my school for a such a long time that visiting the lake was something of a pilgrimage now. Sahlar insists we are wasting our time. He points at the dry and salty lands we pass by: “You see, the lake is gone. No water.” In ancient times, Urmia was one of the three lakes of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia together with lakes Van (now in Turkey) and Sevan (in Armenia). Two of the historical provinces of Armenia – Nor Shirakan and Vaspurakan were washed by the waters of the lake, called Kaputan Tsov (Blue Sea) in Armenian.
Lake Urmia, Iran | © 2015 Arty Om, teawithstrangers.org
We get off the bus just before the bridge over the lake, and after saying goodbye to Sahlar and his bus friend, we walk down to the shores of Urmia. Once the largest of the three lakes of the Armenian Highland, Urmia is at the brink of disappearance today. Some blame the climate change, others the growing demand for irrigation water for people to grow crops, some others blame the causeway that divided the lake into two parts resulting in the ecological catastrophe. In a way, I could understand why Sahlar was confused when we said we want to see the lake. There is almost nothing left of it. Salt, mud, dead birds, garbage, truck tires, rusty boats… a devastating scene, yet so beautiful and tranquil.
Truck tire covered with salt on the shore of Lake Urmia, Iran | © 2015 Arty Om, teawithstrangers.org
We wander around for about an hour, then walk back to the toll gate hoping to hitch a ride to Tabriz. Instead, we face our first encounter with Iranian police. A 45-50 y.o. policeman comes to us with his younger assistant who holds a rifle in his hands and starts questioning us about what we are doing here and why are we taking photographs. I explain that we were walking around the lake and are now trying to get back to Tabriz. He asks what are we photographing here and I say the lake, to which he responds: “The lake? Where is the lake? There’s nothing to photograph.”
So we end up in the nearby police station. Our passports are photocopied, then we are asked to sign some papers which we do although we have no idea what’s written in there. “It’s dangerous here, if people see you with your cameras, they may think you have a lot of money and they will rob you. It’s better if you take a bus,” says the officer. He then writes down his name and phone number on a piece of paper and gives it to us saying, “Call me if you have any problems, we’ll come to help you.” When the procedure is over, they offer as tea and food, but we kindly refuse and walk back to the road. A few minutes later we get on a bus to Tabriz and return back to the city.
Abandoned rusty boat on the shore of Lake Urmia, Iran | © 2015 Arty Om, teawithstrangers.org
In Tabriz, while looking for a bus stop to get to the city center, we ask a man for directions. He tries to explain us where the bus stop is, but then invites us into his car saying he’s going the same direction so he’ll take us to the city center. Once again we are impressed by the kindness of the locals, although this time for a short moment only. As we reach the Tarbiat street, we thank him for his help. Looking somewhat confused, he asks us to pay for the ride. Taarof is such a pain in the ass sometimes.
Walking on the streets around the city center, we come across the Korean and Chinese travelers we met on the border when we entered Iran. We join them and their Couchsurfing host and visit a traditional restaurant which was a public bath in the past. Here we enjoy a delicious ash reshteh – a thick soup with noodles and beans. We then walk around the city, visit the Great Bazaar for a short time and come to a conclusion that we need to return to Tabriz on our way back to explore the city more.
At home, we have a delicious dinner together with our new family and spend several hours talking to Mahdi’s parents and neighbors who are by now our friends, too. It’s hard to say goodbye to these people who did their best to make us feel at home. We promise to return again, but for now, our adventures in Tabriz are over and tomorrow we are heading to the city of Rasht, where a good old friend is waiting for us.