Distance Traveled so far: 12,228 kms
Iran for me was going to be a highlight. I have a keen interest in Middle Eastern politics and the culture in general. When I mentioned Iran as part of my itinerary to family and friends, their reaction was negative. In the west Iran conjures up negative connotations of religious extremism, nuclear armament and a strict police state. While some of it was justified, traveling in Iran and Iranian hospitality isgetting some really positive coverage.
Unfortunately Iran was one country that, due to poor planning and some misfortune, ended up being a little rushed. Since we traveled through Georgia and Armenia we knew that our time in Iran would be curtailed. It was further exacerbated by two unfortunate incidents that ended up being two very good war stories. I’ll focus on one of them in this blog.
We arrived at the Armenian / Iranian border late (no shocker there). Since the drive from Yerevan to Goris, where I was picking up the Jay and Shannon, took longer than expected, we proceeded to take the road less traveled to the border. It was so less traveled, It probably hadn’t seen a car in a decade. Deplorable road quality coupled with continuous switchbacks that swung left, right, up and down meant that the 40kms to the border took us about three hours.
The inspection at the border leaving Armenia was gearing up to be much more comprehensive that we had entering. The border guards looked like they were really up for it. However their enthusiasm diminished once they opened the rear door and saw the ‘Tank’ packed full of gear. On reflection they assured us that since we had such a good time in Armenia they would expedite the process of leaving the country. Without even a hint that there was too much work involved taking out all the gear and inspecting it. One guard inspected the front of the jeep and we were good to go. In fairness it was late and they looked tired.
Entering Iran was the same but different. Upon seeing the jeep and insisting they see ‘all’ the gear in the back, I kicked up a bit of a strop. I reminded them there was lots of gear in the jeep and inspecting it and putting it through the scanners (and doing their job properly) was an inconvenient to us….. indignant that they wanted to do their job properly. Common sense (laziness) prevailed and once they saw us carrying all the bags, camping gear, etc. Inspection of the bags were enough for them.
Once we got on our way, we were in a bit of a bind. It was well after 12 midnight. We had arranged to stay at Hossain’s Guesthouse in Urmia City, just east of Lake Urmia. We could find a place just over the border in some non-descript border town, but this may be a hassle to find a decent place so late and where the jeep would be secure. Instead we decided to drive the 300kms all the way to Urmia. We phoned Hossein and told him we would be there very early the morning and we requested a very early check.
After a few wrong turns we arrived in Urmia about 6 am. Hossien met us at the edge of town and with him leading the way on his motorbike, we followed him to the guesthouse, checked in and went to bed. Over the next two days
Posing with Hossein and his family after out arrival
Hossein, as our host showed us around the city and gave us insight in Iranian and Azeri life. His friends were quite eccentric and very entertaining, especially the night we went smoking some shish. Hossein and his family were very hospitable and they made us feel very much at home. Although the accommodation at the guesthouse was a little on the expensive side ($20 USD pp per night) Hossein as a guide made it worthwhile.
Not long after we arrived in Urmia, we realised that we didn’t have enough money for the duration of our stay. Due to the financial embargo placed on Iran by the international community for continuing their nuclear programme, it was impossible to get money from ATM’s with foreign bank cards. This had happened to Hossein’s guest before, so there was solution.
All we had to do was make a trip over the Turkish / Iranian border, take enough money out of the ATM with our bank cards for the duration of our stay in Iran and come back the same route. Since I enjoy a little excitement and some adventure, I was glad to volunteer for the jaunt over the border.
The exact plan was to drive 40 km to the border of Iranian/Turkish border, park the ‘Tank’ a few miles away from the border at secure parking. Once the jeep was parked I was to get a taxi to the border and go through Iranian and Turkish security. On the Turkish side of the border, i wouuld take a mini bus for 10 Turkish Lira (€3.22) for one way to the border town of Yuksekova. I would ask the taxi driver to wait while I got three lots of money out for Jay, Shannon and I. Once i was back on board, he would then pick up more people going back to the border. All I would have to do it pass through the border and make my way back to Urmia. Easy!
Feeling a little smug, I even had enough to post a photo on Facebook about ‘an unexpected Journey’ back to Turkey. It was a little adventure and everything was going fine, until I tried to re-enter Iran……
I handed over my passport and expected to be waived through. The guard went off with my passport and said he’d be back in a few minutes. In my mind everything was fine. I had
Great to be back in Turkey!
been told by the Iranian border guard when passing into Armenia that I was ok to stay in Iran for up to a month and free to leave and re-enter once over the next 30 days. I mean a border guard told me that and he should know… right?? Wrong…… it transpires that since my visa had expired I was not allowed to re-enter Iran. After 5 long hours of trying to convince the guards, they were having none of it. I was told in no uncertain terms that ‘You will not be entering Iran today.’ They explained that my only option was to get a new visa in the nearest Iranian consulate in Erzurum, north eastern Turkey. A reflection of the way my luck was going, it was the eve of Eid ul-Agha, a large Muslim holiday so there would be lots of people traveling and limited public transport. Just lovely
Since I was only to be gone for a few hours my only possessions was a small shoulder bag and a bottle of water, although I did have money (and lots of it). Another issue was that my phone had died and I had no way of contacting the guys in the guesthouse to tell them I hadn’t been kidnapped.
With clarity of the situation setting in, I realised I was in a bit of a pickle. With no hope of entering Iran I made my way back to re-enter Turkey for the second time that day. I won’t lie, while trying to remain positive, I had a face like a slapped arse walking back into Turkey. Throw in a few sighs and some tutting (this will be familiar to my friends), I had the aura of someone just pissed off. In a funny turn of events, the Turkish border guard asked me to come into his office and tell him my problems, which I thought was hilarious for a Turkish border guard. With some Chi and a cigarette we talked it out. He was a fairly cool guy. He was even organising one of the border guards to drop me into Yuksekova for only 50 Turkish lira. It was late at night and the taxi rates if I was traveling solo at night is 150TL.
While we were chatting in his booth, he was still stamping passports as people passed through, although at this hour of nightit was much more sporadic. One guy passing though must have heard me chatting. In perfect English, he asked if I had an issue at the Iranian border. I told him my story and he offered to help. I told him that is was a futile, but he insisted and I gave in.
He explained to me that he is an Iranian Kurd who was visiting Turkey playing at various music festivals and he was returning home. In essence he was a traveling musician hippy with no fixed abode. There was something about him though that was immediately engaging. He seemed very kind and sincere and the kind of person that made you feel like the most important person in the room and meant it.
What happened next was slightly bizarre. The Iranian border guards, (who spoke Persian and Azeri) and I had communicated in English, however I struggled to get my point across so my new friend said he would do the talking. As he couldn’t speak Azeri or Persian fluently, he translated to the guy in front of him who could understood Kurdish and spoke Azeri. So for the next couple of minutes my story passed through two people before reaching the border guard. Under different circumstances this game of chinese whispers would have been hilarious –just not right at that moment
It was obvious very soon that this wasn’t working. There was a four day round trip ahead of me. Since I would struggle to get a charger for my iPhone 5, I might not be contactable for a few days by which time my friends would have feared the worse. Also factored in that I didn’t have a stitch to wear, it wasn’t ideal. I did have a charger in my jeep and I had asked the border guards could I go back to the jeep, even under escort to retrieve it……not a chance.
So we weighed up my options. I plough on towards Erzurum and hopefully I get a charge over the next two or three days or I get the charger from my jeep. I made a decision that in many
Making new friends in Yuksekova, Turkey
ways could have gone horribly wrong. I asked my Kurdish friend that if I gave him the keys for the Jeep, would he retrieve the charger? He agreed. The worst that could happen is that he steals the jeep and everything in it.
I know it sounds insane, I had no doubt he would come back with the keys and charger with everything left where it should be. Even when he took longer to find the car, I never doubted him for a second. He arrived back 45 minutes later with charger in hand. I tried incredibly hard to give him the money for the taxi to to the parking lot and he refused to accept it. He said that I was a visitor in his country. An amazing guy and an act of kindness I will never forget.
Once the phone was charged, I managed to call the guesthouse. Hossein and the guys came to the border. They tried one last time to get me through and when that failed, they had a bag of clothes to get me through the next few days.
The next few days were a feat of human endurance. I took umpteen taxis and buses and in the course of one 48 hours, I spent 32 hours of that on buses going between Yukusukova,Van, Diyarbakir (all Kurdish parts of Turkey), Erzurum and back. In one of those weird ways
My new visa minus the photo
it was a really rewarding experience. I had people helping me on the way. The Kurdish guy and his family that dropped me to Yuksekova from the border late at night for a very fair price.The bus conductor in Van that let me sit on the steps when the all the seats were sold out. My Iraqi Kurd and Facebook friend, Mohammed King, who hung out all night in Diyarbakir and talked. The taxi drivers who let me stay in their place when I arrived in Van. There was a even more that I met and we had great chats. I have a love for Kurdish people.
And just when i was cursing all things Iranian, particularly Iranian bureaucracy (whilst also alleviating me from any blame ha ha), it was the guy at the Iranian Consulate that did me the biggest favour. To get the visa the same day, all I had to do was arrive about 10am to allow time for processing, at least one passport photograph and cost of the visa in Euro or dollars. Of course I rocked up ten minutes before close, no photographs and only Turkish Lira. In defense i was on buses non stop for for a day and a half.
Whether it was my charm or he wanted rid of one smelly scruffy traveler, i don’t know? Either way 30 minutes later after accepting Turkish Lira and with no passport photograph, I had an Iranian Visa…… My hero!!
After being picked up at the border by Jay and Hossein, we returned to the guesthouse where i caught up and some much needed sleep.
What I learned? Don’t listen to Iranian border guards, they talk through their ass / People in general are awesome
Where Next? Driving through Iran to Pakistan