For those of you who may be getting a little bored with our ramblings, we thought we'd spice things up a bit for you. Like having three attempts at exiting Iran before being successful…
But before we get to the exciting bits, we last left you we were heading for Tehran. We thought that as we moved closer to the capital, the novelty for locals of tourists would wear off. We were wrong. Cars still hooted, shouting 'welcome' out their windows as we drove by. Photos and video footage was prolific.
We planned to skirt the city, because who needs that type of traffic, right? Wrong. As they say about the best laid plans, we decided as we approached to give it a go. Why not…
It was horrendous. Worst traffic I've ever been in. Even Peter agrees, and he's been to India! But I have, dear friends, in a few short weeks and almost 10,000km, become a demon on the roads. I'm not sure Australia will be safe upon my return, and my current record of zero demerit points lost, is in dire jeopardy.
We were so exhausted just getting in to Tehran, we found a shady spot, and had a snooze, on the grass in the middle of an intersection. Mr Sneaky Selfie is laughing now, but he wasn't far behind me in the snoring zone! After our nap we refreshed ourselves with ice cream and a drink (the shop keeper initially refusing to accept payment, and eventually at Peter's insistent accepting about $1), and we were ready to continue.
We decided to visit Golestan Palace, which is dead centre in the City. But do you think we could find it? The road we were being told to take by Google Maps was shut off. Peter was allowed to go through, but not me (the gate keeper chased me off like a fly!).
Eventually we found a place to park and took a walk. The palace was beautiful and very interesting.
After I was tired of being Queen For A Day, we returned to our bikes ready to face the outgoing traffic and head for our next stop, Semnan.
One of the things that intrigued us about Iran, was the amount of ancient ancient ruins just lying about. No fences, no entrance fees, just waiting patiently by the side of the road for the desert to reclaim them.
We stopped at two ruins of caravanserais, which are shelters used by passing traders to rest themselves and their beasts as they travelled the Silk Road. Peter took some really great pics so be sure to check out our Instagram! Spot the man in the pic below.. he'll do anything (including giving me heart failure by scurrying over crumbling ruins) to get the perfect shot!
Our next target was Gorgan, and after another night of being embarrassingly doted over by locals, we set off. Gorgan was on the way to both the Golestan National Park, and Bandar Torkaman, both on our list of things to see.
When we stopped to buy a watermelon, this lovely lady jumped out of her truck, hugged and kissed me, and asked for a photo – by now I'm a pro!
I'm quite certain my earlier comment has not gone unnoticed, and you are mulling over in your mind why Bandar Torkaman? Well, my answer is quite simple.
When One is in Iran, at the Caspian Sea, which is home to the mighty Sturgeon, One simply must indulge in some Beluga caviar. I have been reading Danielle Steele for long enough to know that Beluga is posh, and have lived in hope that some day I would be able to afford to savor this delicacy! If ever there was a chance, this was it!
So we spoke to one of the women at our hotel who appeared to be in charge, and explained (as best we could) that we wanted a taste of the good life. She made some calls, and we were directed to make contact with 'Abdool' at the 'market fish' in Bandar Torkaman. Off we set, with Peter setting the map to where he assumed the 'market fish' would be located. After several dirt roads, railway tracks and skirting locked gates, we discovered we were wrong.
There was no market fish at the Harbour. Back to asking locals and we eventually found it! Some of the other vendors called Abdool on their phone for us, and then he arrived, with the black gold!
We bought 50g for US$70, and we felt like we'd struck oil! Abdool also threw in his little cooler bag and some ice, as we still had the National Park to visit before the day was done!
We headed through the park which was spectacular. As is not unusual in Iran, there were families picnicking along the side of the road. When we stopped to check the map, we were invited (as usual) by a family sitting nearby to have some chai and a smoke. We accepted and enjoyed our first hubbly bubbly!
After politely declining their offer of dinner and a place to stay, we headed off. We reached Ashkeneh and could find nowhere to stay. A young boy told us to follow him, and he ran up the road, down the road, and around the corner to a house. They had a spare room for rent – and in keeping with our Big Fat Greek Wedding, it turned out to be a hovel of a honeymoon suite!
It was good enough for us! We walked up the road and bought some bread, cheese, eggs and honey, and were all set for dinner.
But first… the piece de resistance…
The Beluga was sumptuous and everything I'd imagined, as was the rest of our dinner. Delicious!
The next morning we woke early to plan our next steps (yes, we tend to do this on a daily basis, with a typical Aquarian 'wing it' attitude). We decided that it was time to bid Iran farewell, and head for Turkmenistan. There is a finish line we need to reach, after all.
We emailed our fixer and asked whether it would be possible to exit that day. We're supposed to give him a days' notice, but sent the email and Whizzed off, hoping for the best. We told Hossein we would make the border by 2pm.
When we reached the town of Shirvan (this is significant, keep it in mind), we stopped to check our email for a response. We were in! As usual, the stars were aligned for the Whizzers. Or so we thought. We punched Bajgaran (the border town) into Google Maps, and off we set. We would just make the 2pm rendezvous.
We headed out of Shirvan and turned right, as instructed by Google. The road wound its way up the mountains towards Turkmenistan and slowly turned to fine, then course gravel. We marveled that a border road would be gravel, but this was Iran after all. On and on we went, and the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. The roads were empty, the air was crisp and the sky a primary blue. Enormous mountain ranges closed in around us as we ascended up, up and away.
Eventually, a few hours later and no border in sight, we realized we were lost. We had no mobile reception and hadn't seen a soul for miles. But – again in true Aquarian style – we pushed on, confident that a road, or the border, would materialize around the next corner. Or the next. Or the next. When we reached a wall which was obviously the border (but not the border post), we stopped. Peter wanted to turn around, I wanted to follow the wall until we found the crossing (surely it must be close?). Off to the distance we saw some heavy machinery and headed towards it in the hope of finding help. And we did.
Three men, two bulldozers and two large lorries were excavating a large hole (for who knows what) in the side of the mountain. They spoke no English but we managed to communicate that we were looking for the border and were lost. After declining their kind offer of Chai, they drew us a map of how to find our way. All we could understand was '20km' and my heart sank at the thought of having to backtrack along those difficult 'roads'. When it was clear we didn't understand the map, or the directions, one guy generously offered to escort us and hopped into one of the trucks (but not before the obligatory round of selfies).
It was now almost 2pm, there was no way we'd make it in time to meet our fixer, and without mobile reception there was no way to let him know.
We pulled in behind the truck deflated, and began to idle along behind it as it moved steadily along the 'road' at about 5km/hour.
After about only 500m, the truck stopped, another blocking its path, and before we knew what was happening, a man in army uniform and a rifle jumped out from behind the truck pointing his gun at us and shouting in Persian. We didn't understand a word but slowly turned off the bikes and got off. He snatched the phone from Peter's front pouch (where it had been resting with the useless map), and pocketed it, pointing with his gun at a spot between the bikes and the truck. The two truck drivers were looking on in horror, which didn't provide us with much comfort.
We walked slowly to the spot he was pointing at as he continued to yell. We were being instructed to kneel but didn't understand, but one swift kick to back of Peter's knees, Rambo style, and the language barrier was quickly crossed.
We kneeled on the ground, the sharp stones grinding into my wound on my left knee. The soldier was shouting into his radio, obviously calling for backup.
The truck drivers explained to him that we were lost tourists, and that seemed to calm the situation. We think that having them there to confirm our 'story' was a life saver.
Sensing my discomfort, the soldier told me (using the barrel of his rifle) to move and sit on the side of the road, which I did to my immense relief. Shortly afterwards, Peter was allowed to join me. At this point the truck drivers brought us a cushion from their truck to sit on, and a bottle of water.
The soldier started inspecting, then searching our bikes. He kept going back to the GoPro camera attached to my bike, which thankfully was turned off at the time (although it would have captured some interesting shots). All the time the rifle was pointed at us, waving back and forth.
The truck drivers were told to leave, and we were left (with no witnesses, we were thinking), to wait. The soldier continued to walk up and down in front of us, cycling his rifle, popping unspent shells out onto the ground and reloading them. (Peter has since researched that the rifles used are called AK-103 Kalashnikovs – very scary!)
I was thinking: we need to contact the Australian consulate – is there even a consulate in Iran? How do I explain this to the law society?
Peter however was thinking: if they're going to shoot me, they'd better look me in the eye! I'm not kneeling with my back to them! I have my pocket knife, when is a good moment to mount an attack?
The worst part was that shock has set in, and all we both wanted to do was burst out laughing at our predicament. It took all of our muster to keep a straight face.
After about an hour backup arrived. Again (just before his boss arrived) the soldier forced us to our knees. But I couldn't. By now my knee had opened up and was bleeding again. He let us go back to our cushion as a car arrived with two more soldiers.
This is when I began to panic. One of the soldiers had a scarf wrapped around his head. I was thinking this is the man who will either be our torturer, or appear on the YouTube hostage video with us.
None of them could speak English so after some more sitting while the banter continued, we were bundled into the back of the car, while the two remaining soldiers mounted our steeds.
Off they went, our poor girls bucking beneath them in protest from the abuse. My heart sank, after carefully negotiating and picking our way up the gravel path, our bikes were bouncing along back up the path, and I couldn't watch, and we eventually lost sight as they whizzed into the distance.
But, we were hopeful. Perhaps they were going to escort us to the border, and that would be that.
Alas, it was not to be. We eventually arrived back at some type of military base. Peter's bike was parked outside, but mine was missing. All I could think of was the GoPro, and the suspicion that would arouse.
We were left in the car under guard for about another hour, not knowing what was going on.
Eventually my bike was wheeled out. Again we were hopeful, until another official arrived and started taking down all the bikes' details, as well as our passport details (which had been taken off us, with the bike keys). It also didn't help that the two main guys were now carrying handcuffs!
Again we waited.
A military bike was wheeled out, and they started siphoning fuel from the car we were in. We knew our bikes were almost out of fuel, so Peter told the one soldier 'we have benzine'.
He was allowed out of the car to fill our bikes with our spare petrol.
This was looking hopeful, but with no English we still didn't know what was going to happen.
Eventually it was communicated to us that we were to follow the boss soldier on his bike. To where we didn't know. Peter was thinking the border, I was thinking a prison. They still had our passports and phone, so we had no choice but to comply. Before setting off, Peter tried to take some covert photos. This wasn't necessary as the obligatory round of selfies ensued. Our initial captor kissed Peter on both cheeks. Was this a good sign, or the kiss of death?
Down a gravelly path we went, the soldier riding really slow so we could keep up. As we were going down a hill, he came to a sudden stop, I tried my best to stop in time, but ended up rear ending Peter as my bike slid to a halt. Having recovered, we thought this is it, this is where they dispose of our bodies.
Instead, the soldier smiled and said 'selfie?'.
We took the photo and were off again. Peter was now confident we were free and clear.
Until we arrived at another military base. Again, explanations ensued and an official man with lots of stripes on his shoulders arrived in a civilian car. He was not friendly. He made more copious notes about the bikes and our passport details.
Eventually we were told we could go, and given pointed directions on our map as to how to find the border the next day.
Before we could leave, the soldier who had escorted us on his bike asked us for our Instagram and he is now following us!
In retrospect we surmise that we had wandered into some type of restricted area, (we could, after all, almost touch the border) and while the tactics were strong arm, the soldier was no doubt following protocol and he wasn't to know who we were. But at the time it was hellishly scary, especially because we couldn't communicate. We have decided that we will leave the James Bond and Lara Croft activities to those more suited for that type of work, although if MI6 want any tips on covert operations and how to infiltrate Iranian military operations under the guise of being lost Mongol Ralliers, we're open to talks.
Shocked, bewildered and bedraggled we limped back to Shirvan. We booked into a hotel and thanked our lucky stars – we were alive!
But the adventure doesn't end there.
We sent an apologetic email to our fixer explaining in very broad terms that we'd missed the rendezvous having got lost, and arranged to meet the fixer st 12 noon the following day. 300km and we were back in Shirvan, where we'd started.
The next day, we were determined! Turkmenistan! We set off early for the border along the route recommended by the soldiers. It was a lovely drive, tarred roads all the way. We arrived with an hour to spare.
Peter went to retrieve our small rainforest of paperwork and to our horror we realized the hotel in Shirvan (150km away) had forgotten to return our passports when we checked out that morning (and we'd equally forgotten to retrieve them). Because the border closed at 4pm, and it was a four hour return trip, we were frantic. We tried to arrange for a taxi in Shirvan to bring the passports to us, but the hotel would not release them.
Again, our attempt to enter Turkmenistan was foiled. Peter and the fixer's agent (who by chance is also a taxi driver) drove back to Shirvan to collect the passports and I waited in Bajgaran with the bikes. Peter returned at about 8pm and we set up camp in the municipal camp site.
Yesterday, we did it. We met the fixer (third time's the charm) at the border at 8am. It took about three hours to process the paperwork for the bikes, but then we were free! Another couple of hours at the Turkmenistan border and we were whizzing towards Ashgabat.
But I will leave my Turkmen ramblings for the next blog!
Despite our rocky exit, we still marvel at the amazing experience we had in Iran. I would go back in a heartbeat and will have lasting memories of the people we met there (including the soldiers!). It was simply unforgettable. It is probably #1 on my list of places I'd recommend you visit (just stay clear of restricted military zones).
Things I won't miss about Iran:
Imagine a law, which derives from a religious doctrine, (a religion that a significant proportion of the population don't practice), that significantly impacts the human rights and dignity of a person, and only applies to a certain portion of the population, purely based on the attribute of their gender.
Sounds awful, doesn't it?
To be clear, I was actually referring to gay marriage, not headscarves and Sharia Law, but the arguments are the same, aren't they?
So I'd urge all politicians and people to have a little think about that, given what is happening in Australia right now.
But back to headscarves. I hated it. It was hot. It was a pain in the ass. And if you're going to be riding a bike, don't buy one with tassels or they'll be dreadlocks within hours. The women we had the chance to speak with hated them too. But it is the law, and if seen without it, you will get fined by police.
I don't know enough to cast judgement, I can only speak for myself. But I am interested to know why women who live in the West still wear them. I'll ponder that.
Or 'traditional toilet' as they're know here.
Let's just say I wouldn't invite me to join your darts tournament team in a hurry. My aim is shocking and even after 10 days I could not get that hose thing to operate without soaking myself and the entire bathroom.
Bring back my porcelain throne and toilet roll please!