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A better environment, A better World.
April 10, 2009

Iran: Checking in to a hobbit’s des res

Posted by : admin
Filed under : General Green
In a cave hotel in northern Iran, Nigel Richardson finds Premier League football on the TV and a receptionist quoting ‘Kubla Khan’.

The shrubs in the gardens of the hotel were swaddled in plastic and sacking against the cold. Freezing fog swirled like ectoplasm as my boots crumped up steep, snowbound steps. There was a valley below and a hillside above, but because of the fog I could only imagine what they looked like. Then, by a door in a rock, the bellboy put down my bag and produced a key. He opened the door and, kicking off our snowy boots, we walked into the hollowed-out middle of the rock. We were standing in a place that came pretty close to Tolkien’s description of a hobbity des res at the opening of The Hobbit – “a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel… going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill” – although, admittedly, the front door was neither circular nor green.

Under our stockinged feet the heated tile floor was warm as pitta bread fresh from the oven and there was a flat-screen television in the corner. When I clicked the remote it bloomed to noisy, vivid life: Aston Villa versus Newcastle, live from Villa Park.

This probably isn’t the strangest hotel in the world. To claim as much would no doubt be to invite a barrage of readers’ letters detailing ocean-floor auberges or pensiones run by penguins. But the Laleh Kandovan International Rocky Hotel, in the province of East Azerbaijan in north-western Iran, is unusual in itself (not least because the receptionist quoted chunks of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan at me as I checked out), and fascinating in terms of its location.

The hotel, which opened in 2007, is on the edge of the mountain village of Kandovan, 27 miles south of the city of Tabriz. The village is known for its cave houses – a population of about 700 live in hollowed-out rocks the shape of witches’ hats, like the famous “fairy chimney” formations of Cappadocia in Turkey. Until the hotel opened, it was possible only to pay a day visit to Kandovan, where the inhabitants speak a Turkish dialect and are known for the frosty reception they give to outsiders.

Incorporated into caves that climb across the hillside, the hotel has 10 rooms so far, with another 30 planned, and a large restaurant. All the rooms have under-floor heating and some have whirlpool baths. There are Persian rugs on the floor and the walls have recessed lighting. The decor is stylishly minimalist, using plenty of tiles and letting the rough rock sides do the talking.

The opportunity to stay overnight – to try to get to know the village a little better than a day trip would allow – had been too good to pass up. Still, it was the dead of winter, a perverse time to come. Temperatures were well below zero and when we arrived, on a Saturday afternoon, the freezing, swirling fog blanked everything out.

Tempting as it was to stay in and watch the football, I set off for the village with my guide, Mr Sassan from Tehran. It was a five-minute trudge through a snowscape in which crows cawed among leafless walnut trees. “In September you see the men up these trees, calling in the walnuts,” said Mr Sassan, “and the ladies below, catching them with the corners of their chadors.” Somewhere over to our right, beneath a blanket of snow, lay the frozen river that is locally famous for its health-giving waters. Fruit and nut trees grow in profusion along its banks and their produce is exported around Iran. “The apples here are like the cheeks of young girls,” Mr Sassan said wistfully.

Above the invisible river and the trees, Kandovan’s extraordinary snaggle-teeth houses came into view, dotted across the gummy hillside. Their windows looked sketchy and random, as if they had been prodded through Plasticine with the end of a crayon.

Kandovan means “Land of the Unknown Carvers”. No one knows how long people have lived here, nor who first had the idea of carving the soft rock, known as tuff, into houses. Some say the houses date from the 12th century, others that they pre-date Islam (7th century). There is even a theory that the surrounding region is the biblical land of Nod, where Cain was condemned to wander after murdering his brother Abel.

It remains a conservative and closed community. On the main street we passed a group of men – all bearded and wearing thin anoraks and baggy trousers – who watched us expressionlessly. Mr Sassan pointed out a sign in Farsi: “Dear Tourists. Please do not enter the people’s houses. It is strictly forbidden. Your behaviour is the sign of your character.”

A young bearded man wearing an astrakhan hat approached us. “Hello, goodbye,” he said in English, adding in Turkish: “This is all the English I know.” He introduced himself as Musa Kiani, said he was 22, and gestured us towards his open-fronted shop where nylon sacks and cardboard boxes were brimming with almonds, walnuts, dried fruit and medicinal herbs.

Musa extolled the properties of various herbs and Mr Sassan leered. “This is for if you want to have a good night with the wife,” he translated, pointing at some dried green stuff. Almost everything, it turned out, was for if you want to have a good night with the wife.

Mr Sassan negotiated a price with Musa for a bag of walnuts. The next day, in Tabriz, Mr Sassan would compare the quality and price of walnuts and realise he had been diddled, but for now everyone was happy and we pulled off a coup – Musa agreed to show us his family cave house. As we climbed the muddy cobbled path of Haji Alley he hailed a man bottle-feeding a goat on his front doorstep and explained that people brought their animals indoors for winter.

Musa unlocked a green-and-white door (more promisingly hobbity, this) and invited us into a warm, whitewashed chamber. The floor was covered with rugs. A fridge, telephone and television were hidden beneath squares of embroidered material, as if modernity was faintly indecent. A sink had been hewn from the rock. The kerosene heater was hardly required, Musa said: once the house heated up, it stayed warm until spring.

It’s true, this rock made of compressed volcanic ash is superbly impervious to the cold. It reached minus 4F (minus 20C) that night, but back in my burrow-like hotel room, with the lights turned low and the snow falling outside, I felt as snug and smug as a fictional creature in a popular fable.

The Laleh Kandovan International Rocky Hotel (0098 412 323 0191) has double rooms from about £150 a night, including breakfast. Magic Carpet Travel (01344 622832;, which specialises in trips to Iran, can book the hotel, as well as organising visas, flights and tailor-made and group tours of the country.

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