The other side

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Flag of Iran  , East Azarbaijan,
Monday, October 31, 2011

I'm so tired! How tired am I? So...very...tired....

We woke up in the dingy little hotel we stayed on the Turkish side of the border crossing. I slept approximately no time at all thanks to the noise of praying, crapping, farting and clearing of throats, presumably with a toilet brush from the sounds of it. We thought we’d managed to arrange some breakfast and against all the odds, we had. The downstairs lobby was filled with old guys, all chatting and drinking this weak Turkish tea that everyone seems to love here. I guess it grows on you but I’m not a huge fan of tea in any case. Coffee is a distant memory now...

There was no space for us but we were invited to join a couple of guys by the door. Then we got some tea, eggs, olives, bread and cheese. All very simple but I got the impression they had gone to a lot of trouble and were quite proud of themselves for it. There was broken English and i was told the old man who ran the hotel was very important. Another guy joined us later on, a Kurd and the other was a Turk. They joked about one another being trouble but it was all very friendly, these men were grown up and were old enough to see the wisdom of getting along. Not everybody was and there was some real trouble the night before. We heard and saw some of it but they didn’t seem to like talking about it. Something happened outside, there was shouting and the old man went out. I followed him with a camera and saw nothing but a market stand setting up and maybe that was all there was to it. A small kid did something so the old man threw him to the ground with notable ferocity and the kid spat back at him. This morning we didn’t invite the children to chat and play on the bikes, we just packed and left. I settled the bill and gave the old man a tip, barely 3 to us but a big deal to the people living there. He seemed embarrassed, probably because we had already paid three times what the room was worth but we knew that. In the end we’re very lucky to come from a rich country and all we had to thank him with was a little cash. They offered us a friendly welcome and were keen to do anything they could to help and nobody minds them making a living while they do it. He took the tip and we made sure they knew how much we appreciated their hospitality. Istanbul might be a beautiful city but it’s a town with its hand out, grasping for some of your wealth. The further you go there’s a big change. The Turks are warmer, more welcoming and friendlier. There are parts with real poverty, places with hardships it’s tough to describe, even after seeing it. Only someone living that life could really explain. In the end it seemed it was the European influence that had caused Istanbul to be what it was. The burning need to make you spend your money, the glowing lights, the flashy facade. It was all just too much lipstick on a pretty girl. When you move further into Turkey these are a more simple people who don’t adapt well to the furious European pace of rampant consumerism. Simple they may be but they’re approachable, welcoming and warm. Ankara has the big city mentality and was disappointing after the display of Istanbul but the smaller little towns had something you can’t put a price to. We were told on the road that the upcoming town was a toilet. It was. It was a ramshackle, crumbling excuse for a town but the people more than made up for it. A town isn’t made out of bricks but the complex interpersonal relations of the people living in it. There was strong, proud family connections and a history, a wealth of culture the people were proud of. It was a pleasure and a privilege to visit the place and we left feeling it was a great part of our trip.

The GPS took us on a slightly different road out of town along a military complex. A van full of young soldiers blocked the lane, we went round them and they laughed, not bothered at all. The camp or base or whatever it was looked pretty unpleasant. It looked more like a concentration camp but was armed to the teeth. This shed a little light on the troubles. The road led us out to the main road where we joined a long, straight path to the Iran border. It was bleak, a place where nothing but the odd wanderer resided and a few flocks of future kebabs, blissfully unaware of their fate to wind up slowly rotating on a sharp pole while a slightly fat man with a huge moustache charges tourists too much to eat bits of them. We met up with a row of lorries around the same time as a sign that said it was 10km to the border. They were stationary and the driver’s doors were open which implied they had been for some time. We skipped onto a supply lane like bikers do and just rode up it. We were stopped briefly at a military checkpoint but just waved through on our way, they seemed to be wondering why we stopped. Finally we got to the border control where, like the military base, no pictures were allowed. Passing out of Turkey was very straightforward. We picked up a pair of helpers though who set about making everything far more difficult than it actually was and really screwed things up for us. They pretended to be officials but clearly weren’t. They offered to swap money for us but we told them we didn’t have any. They offered us all sorts of stories about there being no cash-points in Iran and we’d read enough to know they were trying it on so we ignored them and headed up to the Iran gate. Passport control took a few moments and then we were invited in to have our books stamped. That was also pretty straightforward. There was a big queue but they opened another booth, just for us and we went right to the front. After that we took our bikes through amidst a sea of people offering to swap money for us and shouting in a very loud and hostile way that we were their new best friends. Everyone in Iran seemed to want to shake our hands today, so much so that I’m slightly concerned about early onset of arthritis. Carnets were similarly straightforward. Photocopies of our details were made and we breezed through customs control with the minimum of fuss. The only slight issue was checking VIN numbers on the bike, mine was up by the headstock but Marcin’s was a bit tricky to find but it turned out to be under the seat. When they found it they didn’t check it against the paperwork, they just said it was ok.We tried to ask about what else we needed and were told 20 euros each bike. We didn’t have any but negotiated it down to the 25 UK pounds we did have. They gave us sheets with green stamps and figured we had sorted out our insurance. We moved on down the hill to another office where a guy asked us to pull in. We were taken to yet another office where papers were stamped and the locals took pictures of themselves on our bikes. All seemed well. We cleared customs and the gate opened to let us into Iran. My god, what a shithole. It always amazes me that these border towns are so run down, to my mind they’re the principal trade routes and I’d expect them to be better maintained but the truth seems quite the opposite. It was like a modern retelling of a wild west frontier town. Dead dogs lied on the streets, open sewers ran along the pavement, people crashed cars into one another, building were crumbling. By no modern standard was this a good face to show the world of what Iran has to offer. People were far from friendly and those that were were motivated by self-interest. It was a beak start.

So the customs official, we now found out told us we needed insurance. I argued that we’d paid it. This went on for some time so in the end I went back into the enclosure and found the missing pieces of stamped paper we had got at the border. They turned out to be customs papers. I said we’d paid and the official just laughed. It’s a strange country where the officials on the border are the first on the take. Iran might want to look into that because it really is a case of a few bad apples ruining a very nice bowl of fruit.

So we bartered and got the insurance down to 50 Euros which we didn’t have. We tried getting money out at all the local ATMs and began to get alarmed that maybe the lying touts were actually telling the truth about that one. It seemed that indeed they were. So now we were in need of legal documents, fuel, food and hotels and we had no cash or access to any. We only have single-entry visas so if we left, we weren’t allowed back in. Marcin wanted to leave without insurance, I knew we needed it. They wouldn’t accept my card so I took the documents, passports and carnet and went outside to sort something out. The officials loved to take our documents and wander off with them so this time I did the same, grabbed it and worried about the costs later. I went outside and Marcin was in possession of a $100 bill. I asked him where he got it, he said someone had given it to him. I’ve dealt with foreign exchange professionally so had a quick look. It was a fake, a very obvious one, printed on paper. I told him it wasn’t real and had to remind him that people don’t just come up and give you money unless your breasts are a whole lot nicer than his are. The official came out saying he wanted 50 euros and caught sight of the dollar bill. He worked out a deal so the money covered the insurance even though the bill would have been worth far more than he offered. He grabbed the bill greedily and just handed us back the change before I could explain. I thought, you know what, keep the bloody thing. He shouted over me while I was trying to explain it wasn’t real so I let him find out in his own way. We rode off with enough money to fill our tanks and then break down somewhere in the desert. We stopped to formulate a plan. Several people offered to take our cards over the border, withdraw cash and come back and give it to us. No offence but I wouldn’t do that anywhere, let alone in a foreign country where I don’t know the people or customs. We had to decline. Marcin just wanted to ride on and see what happened, I wanted to organise something. There was a lake where we knew an English couple on bikes were staying and we could make it. Better yet a German couple were following in a day or so and it took us very close to a border crossing. It was a big tourist town so we thought it was worth a try. We followed the main road and then things got worse...As usual

The main road dissolved into a town. The town dissolved into mud and the mud dissolved into an enduro track. Marcin powered on angrily like the terrain was his enemy and I barely kept up even though my bike was weighing only half as much. We stopped and reconsidered. There was another, bigger town along the main road, Tabriz where there was a good chance of getting some cash. I preferred the other choice. We had enough fuel to cross back in Turkey if necessary and apply for new Visas, not a big job but would hold us up for a few days. In the end the missing road only gave us one option. We carried on reluctantly. My fuel system has not been reliable, maybe due to the temperature so my fingers were crossed. There was a slight pinking noise but we plodded at only 50mph to wrong the best out of the big KTM Marcin was riding and we dragged our sorry arses into Tabriz. The roads darkened quickly, as expected and even through the road conditions were poor we kept up the pace as best we could. As it got darker it got worse. The main roads are a truly terrible place to be at night. Cars don’t have any respect for bikes, they try to nudge you out of the way. They constantly flash you, maybe because we should have been in a different lane, they honk, they drive straight at you. It was not fun. When the stretch of road suddenly had lights it was as big a relief but it didn’t last long, these things never do. I watched my fuel gauge carefully as miles ticked by. All I could do was hope the secondary tank was working and that the careful speed was helping us to maximise our range. We made it to the brow of a hill and I worked out roughly a distance of 20 miles. We could see an ocean of orange lights and it was a welcome sight indeed as out tanks were draining and night had crashed in all around us. We made into the outskirts of town. Marcin wanted to try the banks, hoping that big city banks might work. They didn’t.

We were approached every time we stopped. We were advised to go to the biggest central bank, they should be able to help. We were completely out of money now and our petrol was waning. We followed a lead to a street with some cheap hotels on it and found it thanks to the navigational skills of Marcin. Mine are virtually non-existent by comparison.

I tried the first. An old man eyed me suspiciously and said, "no. We closed." I tried another. An old man said, “there is no shower.” I said it was no problem. He kept shaking his head and then told me to leave. Ok, I left and tried another. I was told to leave again. By this time I was getting a bit worried. We were in a strange town and it was too late to do anything much except sleep and we didn’t have the money to do that.

We rode around looking for a hotel that was showing on the GPS. We found it but it was long gone. I suggested we had two choices at this point. We could either head out of town and find somewhere to camp or try the airport as they would have free internet, local hotels and some advice. We were cold but by now we were hungry and thirsty, not having eaten anything all day. We decided to give the airport a try and if that failed, we would camp somewhere out of town. The road to the airport was a minor adventure. Dogs were wandering around the motorway and cars with no lights suddenly drove backwards up towards us. Three young men met us as we parked up finally, unscathed but more wary of the driving here. They said they could get us into the airport. To enter the lounge we had to go through a metal detector. We were in full bike gear, mine contained a Leatherman multi-tool, pockets full of spares and other metal stuff. We put our bags on the conveyer and walked through setting off the alarms. The young security guard just smiled and said it was no problem. There was free internet but we couldn’t get it to work. I switched on Mozilla where Google is my home page and got an error message. We found a guy working on an advice stand for an upmarket hotel but we talked him into booking us a reservation at a cheaper place. With directions we headed miles back the way we came and again, Marcin found it with no difficulty. They confiscated our passports but at least we had a room. The man in charge was quite unpleasant, he just kept laughing and making snide comments his staff sniggered at, knowing we couldn’t understand. What we did understand was the beds, the shower, the heater and the fridge with cold water in it. We struggled on a bit with Google and got nowhere. It eventually dawned on us that Facebook, Google, Ebay, Hotmail and even my blog site were censored by the government. It seemed that all attempts to communicate were being blocked. So eventually we formed a plan. Early start, early breakfast and then try to get some money from the central bank as we were told we could. Failing that, a trip back to the border to see what we could arrange. We slept like logs. Stupid, unprepared and stressed out logs...
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