“Welcome to Iran” smiled the border guard as we left Armenia for our thirteenth country. Already the tone had changed from the stern Armenian border guards to a smiley Iranian. Whilst the day started excited, the mood swiftly turned to frustration and annoyance as the day dragged on and temperature continued to rise. The process of crossing the border started at 8AM and we were all ready to drive to Tabriz except for the small caveat of getting the car into the country. This involved handing over our V5C and passport then twiddling our thumbs for as long as it took. Continually being told that it would be no more than an hour did not help nor the man demanding that the game of Monopoly Deal cease. To add to the pain, I was still unwell and enjoying the pleasure of the squatters as every possible fluid left my body. Feeling weak in the sun, we napped and chatted and waited. This whole process kept us waiting until gone 6PM when Hossein appeared holding papers. Everybody sprung up from their seats anticipating their exit of no-man’s land but it was not our turn yet. Hossein returned again with more papers and again, it was not our time. Finally, on his third appearance, Hossein delivered our papers and left us 400 dollars lighter. Not the best start after raving to everyone about how nice Iran is. Our tour finally began though and we convoyed onward with twenty cars and one motorbike.
Due to our late departure, Tabriz became a mere stopping point en route to Tehran. We arrived, slept and left. On our drives through Iran, the whole convoy caused a stir to other drivers. The friendliness of the people was quickly apparent as we received honks and flashes of hello. Some people were pulled over by the police just to say hi (others for breaking the speed limit). The generosity of the people was also demonstrated as we careered 120km/h down the motorway and a man passes a cucumber out of the window to us followed by another man passing a pack of doughnuts to us. Everyone in Iran wants to be your friend.
As we arrived in Tehran, the traffic hit us. Chaos is the only description which can be applied as cars fight for space on the roads and people cutting each other up to get to their destination. Caroline managed to avoid the delights of this driving but she was quite scared enough just being the passenger in this all. In Tehran traffic, we were pushed off the road by a big orange bus, we witnessed Yurt Lush’s wing mirror pushed in by a blue pick up truck and just casually drove the wrong way around a roundabout following the car in front. Throughout all of this though, we didn’t hit another car. One might say that it was all down to an excellent driver.
At the hotel, we quickly dropped our gear at the hotel and headed for the metro. The first stop was the museum of war which shows off a myriad missiles and tanks outside. Through the park, there is the Tabiat (Nature) Bridge. A nice pizza restaurant overlooking the peaceful bridge and foliage below served us some well earnt grub and gave us a moment to chill out after a stressful day driving. Well, that is after we managed to order which was a mission in itself through the language barrier. By now, I had started to feel better and managed to eat for the first time in days. We called it a night and decided to explore Tehran in the morning.
We woke up early and with a big group of us headed of to the metro, this time going south. After a short metro ride and walk, we arrived at Golestan Palace. Nestled away behind a bank, it shows some classic Iranian architecture and was like a peaceful oasis in a bustling city. After a quick wander around the Grand Bazaar, we found it was a short walk home and headed that way to hit the road for Damghan.
Here there was a option of the hostel or the hotel depending on when you got there. Luckily for us, we arrived in time for the hotel and avoided what was described to us as absolute hell. In Damghan, we got some fast food but unfortunately despite our selfies with the owner, didn’t get us a discount then headed over to something resembling a gathering to inquire what was going on. Very little English was spoken but we managed to see inside a couple of tombs of two imams (we think, again the language barrier meant a lot of assumptions were made). Caroline made some friends with girls who invited her back to theirs for parties and people invited us all to stay at theirs and get food with them. It’s a shame that we were on a tour and not allowed the freedoms to do this. An older lady was very enthusiastic to see Caroline and blessed her with many children too.
From Damghan, Golestan National Park was next on our itinerary. After a lot of motorway driving, we joined the mountain roads once more and climbed up to some much needed cool air. We kept on going towards the greenery of the park away from the arid landscape which was had been traversing. After a short break in the park and seeing a wild boar, we moved onward to our final hotel. In Shirvan, Yurt Lush were greeted with a somewhat inappropriate room which can only be described with photos so while this was cleaned, we went out for some Iranian food which came with a somewhat inappropriate bill. After some bartering down, aka refusing to be ripped off, we paid still somewhat over the odds and finally got back to the hotel for sleep.
On our last day, it was a short drive to the border to start the process to leave. This was difficult. After arriving, the passengers and drivers split up as drivers dealt with the car import shenanigans and passengers simply needed stamping out. At least 4 hours passed while customs typed some information into a computer. All the while, the passengers not knowing what was going on. When customs finally reappeared with paperwork, they decided that we now have to pay to leave the country which was definitely a first for all of us! Everyone queuing at the border categorically refused to bribe our way out of the country not only on principal but also because $20 dollars is a lot for nothing. This left us in a predicament as the Turkmenistan side of border was due to shut and no one wanted to be left in no man’s land. We had our paperwork in order, there was simply refusal from the customs officers to open the gate and allow us passage. Both sides grew frustrated and the customs officers left to hide away in an office somewhere to come up with a new excuse for the payment. Apparently it was a holiday in Iran so they were not getting paid and therefore a tax must be paid but it’s interesting that said tax was open to negotiation. They also tried to claim that the border was opened for us as they knew we were coming. Again, this cannot be true as many people were passing through the border. All the teams orchestrated a mass horn honking in an attempt to encourage some co-operation from the man with they key. As one might expect, this didn’t work but did provoke the interest of a rather unhappy looking man from the Iranian army. Half way through the commotion, the drivers realised they needed to be stamped out too. The architects for border posts don’t design buildings to guide you through process in place for entering or exiting countries. With this done and time working against us, $7 per team was handed over to leave. As soon as the gate opened we ran to the car, hit the accelerator and got out as fast as we could before they changed their minds. I doubt that many of us will consider returning to Iran with our own vehicles again given our debacles and delays. It can’t be described as our favourite experience but at least we were out and the Turkmenistan process could begin.
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