Iran out of Puns

Last week, Yugyeong and I crossed the Caspian Sea, and spent a few days putting our feet up in the Azeri capital, Baku. This week, we head South, to a country famed for its tea, hospitality, and the difficulty of obtaining its visa: Iran.

Day 64 – Baku, Azerbaijan to Alat, Azerbaijan

After four days residing in a busy Baku hostel, we’ve had enough of city-life and all its ‘comforts’. Including the ferry crossing, and all the hotels we had to stay at in Uzbekistan, we haven’t camped in Toby for more than a few days in quite a long time – we hope the route South and through Iran (if they let us in) will be more car-camping friendly e.g. the police don’t interfere.

So, we had one last visit to an Azeri restaurant, ate pretty unpleasant fajitas and pad tai, stocked up on supplies, and hit the road. We were meant to pass one of the largest national flag’s in the world (yes another) on our way out of the city, but it had done a grand vanishing act. The large square and platform where it should have been standing existed, but no sign of a pole or a flag – I was disconsolate. We returned to the town of Alat (where our ferry crossing the Caspian Sea landed almost a week ago), and set up camp on the slopes of a simmering mud volcano. The smell was truly unbearable, so we set up camp next to the motorway instead. We will wade through the mire in the morn.

Day 65 – Alat, Azerbaijan to Astara, Azerbaijan

Our waders were not required (not that we had any), as visiting the mud volcano wasn’t quite as intrepid as we originally thought. It isn’t actually one volcano, rather a collection of small cones, each with a bubbling pool of sludge at its peak. We would occasionally recoil as a loud squelch or gurgle emanated from under our feet, hoping for one of them to spurt mud fifty feet in the air like an Icelandic geyser. Apparently, that’s just not what they do!

So, whilst we appreciate that there’s a lot going on under the surface of Azerbaijan (oil, gas, fire and alike), it’s a shame that there isn’t as much stimulation above ground. The drive South to the border was implausibly dull and flat; that is until we got within fifty kilometres of Iran. Misty hills appeared on the horizon, dense green foliage began to surround us, and the Caspian Sea resurfaced from nowhere: we had entered the border region of Astara.

We had dinner in a restaurant hidden from the main road that was prepared so well, that I feel I should give the elderly couple responsible a mention. There was no menu, and no other customers (perhaps not for several days), but that did not stop them starting a barbeque and putting on a fine spread for us. Shashlik, lamb soup, salads, a selection of breads and traditional Azeri tea – they made sure we were both so full we had stomach cramps, before waving us on our way. We are now recovering about a mile from the border on the shores of the sea, preparing for the most important crossing left on our journey…

Day 66 – Astara, Azerbaijan to Karaj, Iran

We arose early, and slowly trundled to the border – we weren’t feeling too confident. Our confidence (or lack of) wasn’t buffered by being forced by Azeri passport control to watch a ten-minute YouTube video on a massacre committed by Armenian soldiers in a small Azeri town about thirty years ago – the two sides still don’t get on (to put it mildly). There were two major hurdles to our entry in Iran. One: despite attempting for six months, we have been unable to acquire a ‘Carnet de Passage’ (an archaic form of a vehicle passport that’s only compulsory nowadays in a handful of countries worldwide, including Iran), and two: we were lacking a guide, a recent requirement for all British, Canadian and American citizens (as our inability to transit Turkmenistan ruined our originally scheduled guide).

Another challenge that we have become accustomed to at international borders is attempting to work out which of the many payments are obligatory and genuine, and which are scams. Today, however, was incredibly difficult. Without the required documents (and not one word of Arabic between us), we didn’t have a leg to stand on – and the two men who couldn’t wait to translate and help us through the process saw dollar signs in their eyes. We spent an hour haggling down from a quite incredible figure, to a slightly less incredible figure (for tax, insurance, and turning a blind eye), before receiving our paperwork. We got to the final security barrier, just waiting to be asked about the whereabouts of our guide, but we weren’t. Passport stamped. Barrier raised. Headscarf on. Once out of sight, cue joyous celebrations.

Six months of apprehension turned instantly into relief as we made our way into the Iranian hills. With only a five-day visa allowance, we couldn’t afford to linger in Astara. We started for Tehran, and were extremely surprised by the good quality of the road and the modern amenities that spread the length of our journey: wide motorways with English signage and brightly-lit rest areas that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Vegas strip. Without any local currency (not easy to exchange U.S Dollars given relations between the two nations), we were given a complimentary pass at three separate toll booths – Iranian hospitality at its finest! We’re currently camped alongside a gridlocked motorway about fifty kilometres west of Tehran, looking forward to reconnoitring the capital in the morn.

Day 67 – Karaj, Iran to Polour, Iran

We started to look forward to it less and less as the traffic became denser, and more agitated. As we got closer to the capital, bikes and scooters began to appear, zig-zagging around us and clipping the wing-mirrors with regularity – we suddenly felt very cumbersome. After an age, we reached what we thought was the centre of the city, and found somewhere to abandon our vehicle.

We had a good lunch and wandered around a good-sized park, but struggled to find much else worth doing – we’re not sure that an agreeable city-centre with trees, and walkways, and fountains actually exists – how dare they. Finding WIFI also appeared impossible, leaving us with no help in finding a spot in the city that wasn’t manically busy or stressful. With it being too late to enter Golestan Palace (the one tourist attraction we fancied – we decided to return tomorrow), we beat an unscheduled retreat to Lar National Park, and camped in the frosty shadow of the mountains – peace at last.

Day 68 – Polour, Iran to sixty kilometres south-west of Zanjan, Iran

We hadn’t camped in the shadow of any old mountains, oh no, we were situated below Mount Damavand, the tallest mountain in Iran (and, indeed, the Middle East). A dormant volcano of over five-and-a-half-thousand metres, that we were somewhat lacking in time, and will, to climb (driving the scenic highway alongside it would suffice). Iran is far more mountainous than I had envisaged, and sections of the road linking Tehran to its nearest National Park were magnificent – and we thanked our lucky stars that we vacated the frenzied city to see it.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t avoid the chaos of Tehran to visit Golestan Palace (as it is situated right at its heart), and it took us almost three hours to enter the city and find a parking space – it had better be worth it. The palace was built in the seventeenth century, and housed Iranian royalty until as recently as fifty years ago. The rooms and halls are decorated in vibrant tiles, extravagant chandeliers, and thousands of minuscule mirrors – whilst they are filled from floor to ceiling with priceless gifts from erstwhile foreign monarchs. Queen Victoria was a particularly generous donor by all accounts. Despite it taking us another couple of traumatic hours to leave the clutches of the city, it was worth the return.

We re-joined the dusk-lit motorway heading north-west, the road lined with countless families on large, circular rugs drinking gallon-upon-gallon of Iranian tea (for any journey of more than ten minutes must include tea breaks). Aware of our limited time in the country, and with a perfect highway in front of us, we drove well into the night – before adjourning at a rest-stop somewhere in the Iranian desert.

Day 69 – Sixty kilometres south-west of Zanjan, Iran to forty kilometres east of Marand, Iran

We took the impressively-made road about four hundred kilometres north-west to Kandovan, a tourist town famed for its unusual homes that are carved into a volcanically-formed coned mountainside. After meandering in-and-out of people’s caved living rooms and kitchens for an hour or two, we noticed that Yugyeong was being followed. A group of teenage Iranian girls were on her tail, and were simply giddy at the sight of her – Korean TV shows are very popular in Iran and we think they may have mistaken her for a celebrity actor. After plucking up the courage to ask her for her social media details, just falling short of asking for an autograph, they ran off in glee down the street.

Upon leaving Kandovan, we passed a notable and welcomed sign: ‘Europe – 1,800km’ ahead.  The fact that we were not going straight ahead, and that Iraq was also on the same signpost as only 300km away, meant that we’re still several weeks away from listening to classical music and drinking wine in grand and romantic European squares. Listening to Persian pop and drinking non-alcoholic beer in the Iranian desert will have to suffice tonight instead.

Day 70 – Forty kilometres east of Marand, Iran to Meghri, Armenia

Despite our short time in the country, we have been able to conclude that Iran is far more liberal than most would imagine. Whilst all women do wear headscarves, they won’t chop your hand off if you forget to do so, more likely laugh at your blunder and offer you a cup of tea. Beer is also available in Iran, as our other spirits, and bars are starting to appear along the streets of Tehran for the first time. It is a country attempting to balance modernity and religion, as are many in the Middle East, and are doing a pretty good job of it.

We forgo the longer paved highway to the Armenian border, and took the shorter scenic route through the Iranian mountains instead. We almost regretted our decision as the road quickly disappeared and we joined a dirt track straight from the Mongolian steppe, but it was not for long. The border, on the other hand, was excruciatingly slow. Our Carnet document underwent extreme scrutiny, as did our Iranian visas, but mercifully still no mention of where our ‘guide’ had disappeared too.  After four hours, our longest delay yet, we were finally stamped back onto old Soviet soil. With Putin smiling down on us as he proudly hung on the wall at passport control, we entered Armenia…

Distance Travelled: 17,666km

J

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