Trans Eurasia travel

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The town of Culfa is the only legal crossing point between Iran and Nakhchivan and today's heavy truck traffic follows much the same route as the Mongols took when they stormed through from Tabriz in 1235. By the 16th century Culfa was thriving again, a predominantly Christian craft town whose globetrotting merchants were known in Rome as Chiolfalino.

In 1603 Culfa's mayor, one Xawjay Xalchil, must have made some pretty bad after-dinner conversation while hosting Persian Emperor Shah Abbas - the next year Abbas was back and not as a guest. He had the whole town demolished and deported its skilled craftsmen to beautify his new capital, Isfahan. That Iranian city still has a suburb called 'New Julfa' where, even today, the community maintains their distinctive lifestyle, churches and the Vank Cathedral whose gruesome murals depict the tortures suffered in maintaining their Christian faith. All that's left of the original Culfa is a large, decapitated turbe and remnants of the former Gulistan graveyard (aka Cuga), once one of the largest medieval Christian cemeteries in the Middle East. Strangely, although pictures of the turbe are featured prominently by the tourist ministry, the site is out of bounds to casual visitors unless specially invited. Visa permitting, it's much easier and less stressful to observe it from across the over on the Iranian side. Modern Culfa, a couple of kilometres further east, has no real attractions and entertainment is limited to multiple police interrogations. On the Iran side, very close to the 24hr border post is a range of accommodation, an (unmarked) internet club, a market, many freelance money changers and day-time share taxis to Marand (whence minibuses continue to Tabriz).

Culfa to Ordubad

At the village of Aza, where the main road crosses the Gilanchay river, it's a mere kilometre's detour downstream to visit the attractive early 19th-century red-stone bridge. At the same junction the way north leads up an increasingly rough road to Tivi (three buses a week) from which a jeep track continues to Nasirvaz. From this isolated village it's a tough hike to find the rock carvings of Gamigaya - a guide is necessary to find them and to insulate you from suspicions of spying.