Jolfa to Kaleybar

Travelling east from Jolfa, the horizon is a tableau of eroded red cliffs backed by snow-streaked Armenian peaks. In the middle distance is the rocky cleft of Nakhchivan’s abrupt Ilan Dağ (Snake Mountain), through which Noah’s Ark supposedly crashed en route to Ararat. Just beyond attractive Marazad, the sinuous mud wall of Javer Castle rises on a craggy shoulder. Four kilometres further, take a short detour to the picturesque stacked village of Ahmadabad, on a rise overlooking the Aras. Another 2.5km along the main road, a turning east leads steeply up to the popular Asiyab Khurabe spring and picnic area. The side trip is justified mainly by the valley views as you drive back down.

Siyah Rud's farmers produce the raw silk for Tabriz's weaving villages of Khanemu and Osku. Locals are usually happy to show you the cocoon-extraction process if you’re passing through during May or June. Further east, the road passes through canyons with glimpses of spiky, crested ridges leading up to Kuh-e Kamtal (Chamtal Dagh, Tiger Mountain).

Sixty kilometres from Jolfa, the canyon widens slightly at Norduz, the modern Iranian–Armenian border post.

Four kilometres east of Norduz, picturesque Duzal village rises on a hillock dominated by a distinctive octagonal tomb tower and imamzadeh-ye (shrine or mausoleum to a descendant of an imam). Behind the next rocky bluff the road passes through the gate towers and sturdy mud-topped stone walls of the once huge Abbas Mirza Castel. When viewed from the east, the walls frame an impressive spire of eroded rock on the Armenian side. One kilometre further east is a large, lovingly renovated historic hammam with newly marbled floors and attractive ceiling patterns. Two kilometres further, at the end of Kordasht village, look west for a particularly inspiring view of saw-toothed craggy ridges.

After another 25km, a side road rises steeply to the south beside a police post. This leads to Ushtebin (Oshtabin, Oshtobeyin) village (entry IR30,000) after 5km. This photogenic stacked huddle of mud and stone homes, in a 'secret valley' known for its white pomegranates, has been touted as a ‘new Masuleh’, yet it remains virtually unvisited.

The main road continues via the photogenically stepped village of Qarachilar (7km from Ushtebin junction) to a road junction at Junanlu (88km). The right turn climbs steeply away from the Aras, following a narrow gorge up through orchards and nomad summer pastures to Kaleybar. Instead of turning, if you continue straight past the fork for another 10km you will see a crumbling Khodaafarin Bridge crossing the Aras to a bombed-out village. Photography is forbidden.

The drive between Jolfa and Kaleybar takes around 3½ hours with minimum stops – six to eight hours with side trips and lunch – and costs around US$40 for a private taxi. Expect to pay US$80 for a full-day excursion. The trip is equally stunning in either direction.

West of Jolfa

On the Azerbaijani riverbank 7km west of Jolfa, a truncated tomb stub and broken bridge are all that mark the original site of ancient Jolfa (view it across the Aras from near a police ‘fort’; leave the camera in the taxi). About 1km further west, just before the police checkpoint where the dual highway ends, is the restored Caravanserai Khaje Nazar, which overlooks the Aras beautifully. Just after the checkpoint, as you enter a spectacular red-rock canyon, you'll see the tiny Chupan Chapel above you on the left. Ten kilometres further on you'll come to the turnoff for St Stephanos church.