Thursday, September 25, 2014

Entering Turkmenistan, a typical border crossing (07.09.2014)

On the Turkmen side the "border-crossing" fun started once more. As always entering with our own car was what caused the most work/trouble/annoyance.

Here how it worked:

  1. Enter the border post, get your passport details copied into some big book at hut A
  2. Deliver passport at counter B, wait
  3. Pay 11$ per person at counter C
  4. Deliver the receipt at counter B, wait
  5. Collect passport and head through security check as passenger or start the car procedure...
  6. Enter office D (wake the guy sleeping on three chairs by doing so), deliver passport and car documents. He fills out an important looking sheet of paper with two copies in a handwriting of a five year old, writing my name wrong o_O He stamps sheet.
  7. Head to office E with sheet to get something copied into a big book, guy stamps sheet
  8. Return to office D to get told your at the wrong place and you have to go to "bak" 
  9. Some confusion later (nobody speaks English) you realize they mean bank (office F) but the guy has its lunch break
  10. Office G, in charge of sanitation, is willing to do his work and stamps the sheet without having seen the car
  11. Wait till the guy from the bank has its lunch finished
  12. Having a genius idea and enter the other building to head to office C (which also handled payments) to pay, doesn't work
  13. Have an army dude question you what your doing here, try to explain your waiting for the bank dude. He signals one of its friends standing around, its the bank guy!
  14. Pay 111$ total for the car: 1$ vehicle disinfection (never happened), 30$ entry & passage, 40$ fuel compensation, 35$ insurance, 5$ processing fee and 2$ bank fee on top
  15. Take receipt to office H, more copying into other books, more stamps on sheet
  16. Head to customs, guy copies passport details into his big book, stamps sheet
  17. Some bored military dude lazily search the car till they find our water pipe. They explain to me I have to destroy it there on the spot o_O Do as I get told, a shame but we haven't planned to bring it back home anyway. Other military dude smells on our felt markers, wtf?! Nobody looks into our cooler!!! Never ever in all the border crossings!
  18. Drive away, a couple of kilometers, stop at hut I, they copy your passport details into another big book
  19. That's it! ;)

We had an official looking paper, with our route, five! stamps and many many signatures. Turned out to be quite handy for the many police controls to come...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Yazd and crossing the desert to Mashhad (02.09.2014 - 07.09.2014)

Next was Yazd, city at the edge of the desert. Much of the old town is unchanged as the inhabitants just moved to the outskirts into new(er) buildings. Quite distinctive are the many wind catchers used to ventilate and cool the buildings. A visit to the water museum was great to get to know more about the extensive network of qanat of the old days. You can still see the mole-like hills in a line but nowadays the water gets to the cities by means of water pumps.
Lastly we visited a former sky burial grounds, called Dakhma. In Zoroastrianism it was believed that dead bodies are polluted and to avoid contamination of the earth they where put a top so called towers of silence and offered to the sun and birds.

To reach the the Turkmen border and get our visa we had to cross the desert to Mashhad. To split up the more than 700km journey we camped next to one of these abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere.
The next day we reached Mashhad and were in for a surprise. Our lousy preparations had us not ready for this city at all. As it turns out it is one of the most holy place for Shia Islam and of course one of the holiest persons, Imam Reza which is buried here, had its anniversary during our stay. So the city was super crowded and traffic next to impossible. We finally found (an expensive) place to stay after driving around for quite a while and just crashed exhausted on our beds.

An early start had us at the Turkmen embassy where we got our transit visa, yeah! No more guessing how to reach Uzbekistan (Afgahnistan? ^^) or how to drive home (Russia?).
After this was done we switched accommodation and stayed at Wali's guest house. The place was rather shabby and dirty but way cheaper and there where some fellow travelers to chit chat.
Mission of the day was to find a car wash. As absurd it may sound: you get a 25$ fine if you enter Ashgabat with a dirty car...

To reach the border in time we were up again early the next day and headed north into the mountains. Traffic diminished more and more until there was nobody else on the street.
At Bagjiran, the Iranian border, we got our passport stamped, paid some dude 30$ (bribe, fine or toll? Still cheaper than the expected 100$ for the car, we didn't complain) and the locked gate was opened for us. Not many cars seem to come through here...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Going south, Isfahan & Shiraz (28.08.2014 - 01.09.2014)

Leaving Tehran we stopped at the Imam Khomeini shrine/mausoleum/mosque/center. What a waste of time. The inside doesn't live up to the lavish exterior. An industrial hall with some shabby carpets...

On our way south we discovered some abandoned fortress and village all built out of mud (bricks). All over the country you can find these (partly) uninhabited cities/towns which now only serve as shelter for goats and sheep. Also many caravansary's are still intact. We had the chance to spot them from the street and enter a couple of them on our way through former Persia.

When night fell we finally reached Isfahan and found a solution for our tire problem. More or less since Georgia we were looking around to buy two new tires. But in the former soviet countries they had only the Lada sizes and in Iran only the ones for Iran Kohdro or Saipa (built under Peugeot respectively Kia license). The mechanic spoke English and had two second hand tires for us which were only a bit too wide ;) He as well painstakingly balanced all our wheels. As the tires weren't new he insisted we should drive slower than 100km/h ^^

In Isfahan we visited the different bridges crossing the river Zayandeh Rud. Sadly the famous Si-o-se Pol and Khaju are spanning a river which has been dry the last three years, as locals told us. The many pedal boats lying on the dry river bed looked quite sad...
On the big Imam/Naqsh-e Jahan Square the old Persians used to play Polo, up to the last Shah. Which is by the way a Persian invention!

Before heading on we stopped at the Armenian church to snap some pictures of the frescoes, books and other items on display. There is still an Armenian minority living in Iran. We've seen a couple of churches, especially in Tehran.
Almost reaching our destination we visited Pasargade, the former residence of the Achaemenid kings. There wasn't much to see from this first Persian empire, a bit disappointing.

Wandering around Shiraz aimlessly the following day we bumped into three Swiss travelers and decided to let them board our mighty car the next day to visit Persepolis. First time there were five people in our little Corsa ;)

Persepolis lived up to its fame and was quite interesting. The many arches, pillars and especially the big stone reliefs depicting the different tribes and nations presenting gifts to the kings were impressive. 
Afterwards we stopped at the old burial grounds of the kings, Naqsh-e Rostam. Declining the hefty fee to enter we snapped some pics and headed home.

In the evening we met up with the Swiss and some locals. After a couple of teas and rounds of Backgammon at the local cafe we visited them at home. They even organized some moonshine out of pet bottles for us ;) Later into the night they drove us in their Saipa cars (with squealing tires) to the internet cafe they worked for a round of Counter-Strike ^^ The Swiss got totally pummeled by the Iranians, having team members which had never played before and Genti shooting me in the back didn't help ;)   


Friday, September 19, 2014

Tehran (26.08.2014 - 28.08.2014)

In Tehran our big mission was to apply for the Turkmenistan transit visa. By the time we showed up the first morning the embassy was closed. On the second morning we got up earlier and could deliver our application form, letter of intent and pictures. Pick up will be in Mashhad, if they grant it...

We also had to find a laundry (everything written in Farsi doesn't help) and exchange money. Because of the sanctions Iran is cut off from the international banking system. So we had to bring all the money in cash, credit or debit cards don't work here!

After the official business was done we visited Darband in the north of Tehran. Heaps of restaurant line a little river/ravine up the hill. There is also a chairlift up the mountain, sadly it closed 30 minutes prior to our arrival.

At the bazar Genti bought 2 meters of Abercrombie & Fitch labels. Actually it was a gift, the shop owner insisted on it. Not the first time people refused our money. Being a foreign tourist has its perks here :D

Next was the former Shah residence, the Golestan Palace. One of the halls was covered entirely in mirrors and you could gaze (no photo!) at the many gifts he received.

In the evening we managed to meet with a local couple over Couchsurfing. We swapped stories and got a bit of an insight into the everyday life. Under the new president the Moral Police had been reduced and a lot of the once strict rules are ignored more and more. Women started not wearing their head scar in the car anymore, wear (excessive) make-up and just barely cover the bun at the back of the head. You can also see scarfs in all kind of colors. I don't think the Iman had bright pink scarfs in mind ;)

Murals at the Golestan Palace

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The north of Iran (21.08.2014 - 24.08.2014)

Our first night in Iran we spent in Ardebil. The next morning we wanted to visit the Sheikh Safi mausoleum, which was closed. Instead we could witnessed the procession for the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war ending. There where cars with coffins parading, a marching band, military in formal attire and all was filmed by a camera crew (and a guy with a GoPro on a giant stick, lol). Also there were people handing out free drinks on the street, which resulted in a huge traffic jam.

Next city was Tabriz, 200km to the east. A stroll through the bazaar and mandatory visit to the carpet dealer later (without buying anything) we headed further east.

The lake of Oroomiye is shrinking more and more due to the water loss because of the surrounding agriculture. This results in a salinity of 38%, more than the dead sea! Also there are huge flat surfaces around, which we had to race on :D Some giant donuts, spinning wheels and almost overheating motor later everything in our car was covered in dust ;)

Because of the receding coastline a newly built resort now lies far away from the water. When we tried to drive down the "beach" we promptly got stuck and had to shove our little blue bird out of the sand ;)

After crossing the dam/bridge we turned south and stayed for the night in Mahabad. This close to the Turkish border we saw a Turkish truck and one week later a German expedition team. These were the only foreign cars on the street in over two weeks! Hence the stir we cause when we turn up in our car ;) On the motorway they pull up next to us and want to know where we are from. Or shake hands at 90km/h ;) Also often they overtake us just to have a look at us, hehe.

On the way to Zanjan we stopped at the fire temple Takhte Soleiman, Salamons throne. The main attraction is the giant pool/pond in the middle of the ruin which is fed by underground springs. Weird to see water emerging from nowhere in this dry and arid area. Sadly your not allowed to go swimming in it :(

More to come!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Entering Iran without Carnet de Passage

To enter the Islamic Republic of Iran you need a Carnet de Passage. This document, issued by your national car association, cost you quite a lot of money and is some form of bond that you will return your car to your home country. 

As our trip is only one way this was out of the question for us. ;) 
Searching for a solution online we soon found out about Hussein from Overland to Iran. We got in contact and explained him our travel plans. He wanted 600€ for this service and told us we were only allowed to stay seven days in Iran with our car when entering from Azerbaijan. This was way too much and especially not long enough for our stay in Iran. Also he told us this when we were already in Baku, meaning a giant detour to enter through Armenia.

Not knowing what else to do we decided to visit the Iranian ambassador in Baku! We got invited for tea and he made some phone calls in our behalf. In the end he assured us that it would be no problem and we could acquire all the needed documents at the border. He also organized that Muhammad Safari (09141526002) would await us at the border in Bilehsavar and handle all the paper work. 

Leaving Azerbaijan took less than an hour but then the problems started. This had nothing to do with our car, the problem were the two walkie-talkies we had with us. Apparently your not allowed to bring in radios... To stay in touch when we get separated (especially at border crossings were they only allow the driver to remain in the car) we use these. More and more people were involved until finally some high ranking dude showed up with his driver. We had some tea with him and could finally clear the issue and keep our walkie-talkies. He got us to the front of the line and we got our passports stamped and were officially inside Iran. This took us about two hours, but our car still wasn't registered.

After this little "detour" we could start getting our paperwork for the car settled. Worth mentioning is that the car is registered on Genti but I was driving into the border post. So everything was under my name. I tried to tell them this but they didn't care and told me it was fine this way ;).
First I had to sign some document in a little hut, where they translated my name to Farsi, lol. They copied this into a big book and I had to visit the shack next door, where the copied this into another big book. Then our fixer, Mr Muhammad Safari showed up and we told him where we'd like to exit Iran to Turkmenistan. He didn't speak any English but with some help and hand signs we were able to communicate. He disappeared with our car documents and the papers we got on the Azeri border for half an hour to return later asking for money. He wanted 400$, I offered 300$ which he immediately accepted, damn should have gone lower... Anyway still way cheaper than Hussein.
With our money he vanished into the building with all the chaotic counters for about an hour. I checked on him twice and saw him stand in line on different counters. Maybe if you spoke Farsi and had a lot of time on your hand you could do this by yourself...
So he emerged with a our car license, an insurance all in Farsi, and a staple of papers, on them where multiple stamps and even a hologram sticker ;) 
It seemed they had used our Azeri papers as reference, as they had added an AZ in front our license plate number.
Next was another shack where they copied my name again, this time into a computer. Then the form had to get stamped on another desk and half of this we had to hand out to the guy manning the exit. And that's it! 

All in all it took us about three hours and 300$ to get the car across. We now have official papers and are allowed to stay for the whole time of our Iranian visa.

We snapped some pictures with Mohammad and drove on!

Edit from the future: To leave Iran to Turkmenistan on the Bagjiran border we payed a dude 30$ to unlock the gate for us. No idea if this was for him or an official payment. The ambassador had told us we would need to pay around 10$ for every day over six days we stayed in Iran... Anyway, the gate was open and we continued!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Status Update (September 10, 2014 at 01:03PM)

Just crossed the last border, made it to Uzbekistan! Got stopped 12 times by random police checkpoints between Ashgabat & Turkmenabat ;) @ 39.306898,63.764261