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.
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 (or better say what’s left of 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. And you can see the lake when we’ll pass over the bridge,” says Sahlar who does most of the talking. But how could I explain what visiting the Urmia lake means to an Armenian person? Sahlar insists that we are just wasting our time. He points at the dry and salty lands we pass by: “You see, the lake is gone. No water.”
In the ancient times, Urmia was one of the three lakes of the 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. And this is the reason why we want to see the lake and in a sense, travel back in time.
We get off the bus just before the bridge over the lake, and after saying goodbye to Sahlar and his friend, we walk down to the shores of Urmia. Then there’s just sadness. And silence. What we see is salt, mud, dead birds, garbage, truck tires, corroded boats…
Some blame the climate change, others the growing demand for water in order for people to grow crops, some others blame the causeway that divided the lake into two parts resulting in the ecological catastrophe. But whatever the reason is, in reality, the lake’s fate is no different from Aral lake’s. From what we’ve learned, Armenia joined Iran in its efforts to revive Urmia by redirecting some of its water sources into the lake, but what we see leaves us hopeless. I think in the first place the remaining waters should be preserved so that the lake doesn’t dry out completely, and then only think of the ways of reviving it.
We wander around for about an hour, then walk back to the toll gate hoping to hitch a ride to Tabriz. But instead, we face our first encounter with police. A 45-50 years old policeman comes to us with his younger assistant who holds a rifle and starts questioning us on 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? Is there a lake left? 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 and it probably was a stupid decision since we had no idea of what’s written there. “It’s dangerous here, if people see you with your cameras, they may think you have a lot of money and so they will rob you. It’s better 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 catch a bus to Tabriz and return back to the city.
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, but only for a short time. As we arrive to Tarbiat street, we thank him for his help, and he, looking somewhat confused, asks to pay for the ride.
Walking on the streets around the center, we come across the Korean and Chinese travelers we met on the border when we entered Iran. Together with their couchsurfing host we visit a traditional restaurant which was a public bath in the past. Here we enjoy a delicious ash reshteh – thick winter soup with noodles, kashk (a whey-like dairy product), herbs, chickpeas, black eye beans, lentils, onions, flour, dried mint, garlic, oil, salt and pepper. 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 were 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.