Iran and the Stans

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Rene heads out of Pakistan, into Iran with the hope of getting to the ‘Stans to the north. Only thing is, his carnet says otherwise.

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Words and pictures: Rene Cormier. Editing: Adam Hay and Rob Harris

In Karachi I was scheduled to stay with a rather well known ex-CMGer, Mr. Seck (thanks Editor ‘arris for the contact!) but, sadly, he was away. I was still shown incredible Pakistani hospitality courtesy of his roommate Taimur. Staying with friends adds so much to the quality of a trip and gets you a quick ‘in’ into the local scene.

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During his unexpected week, Rene gets the local truck artists of Karachi to spruce up the GS.

On Monday I visited the docks to clear the bike so that I could get on with my trip. By the time I talked to the heads of port and customs, it became apparent that I wouldn’t actually collect the GS till 5 p.m. the following Saturday — a week longer than I’d hoped.

Oh well, that gives me some time to discover Karachi.

IRAN OR BUST

With the GS finally released I was a week behind schedule and eager to head north to Quetta in one long day, staying the night with a friend’s grandfather. Quetta is an important border city with southern Afghanistan and its markets are filled with camels, Afghan refugees, and traders doing a brisk business across the borders.

The ride from Quetta to Iran is through the Baluchistan Desert and more than a little dodgy. The Baluchistan and Southern Afghanistan regions fill the news with reports of violence, and there’d been recent tourist kidnappings along this route. The terrain doesn’t cure loneliness either, with wide-open dusty plains that sneak into ominous far off hills.

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Every cloud has a silver lining …

I left the city early, and on the outskirts waited till I could fall in with a convoy of Land Cruisers – safety in numbers. I was suitably on edge for the first few hours en route, but having filled up with as much fuel as possible before I left, I wouldn’t need to stop and risk losing my convoy.

The road was tarmac and better than expected. Our little convoy made good time until reaching the first police checkpoints. The local Land Cruisers were waved through but I was stopped, having to go into a little mud hut police office to sign in with the usual details.

There were ultimately a dozen or so of these checkpoints along the way, but riding solo, I was glad to see them. It broke up the journey and allowed me to relax a little. The police were also quite hospitable, and tea always seemed to appear just as I removed my helmet.

Twelve hours after my day had started I pulled into the border town of Taftan taking a room at a stinky sauna of a hotel in the town’s centre. My unexpected Pakistan detour was now done.

GETTING INTO IRAN WITH THE HELP OF CRAZY GLUE


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The long way round (carnet allowing).

I didn’t expect getting out of Pakistan to present a problem. Apart from waiting an hour for the office to open it was quite straightforward. It was down the street at the Iranian border complex that had me worried.

I was well within the time limits for my Iranian visa, and expected no problems from it. My worry was for the motorcycle’s entry. On the back of my carnet (a book-type visa for admitting the bike as temporary import) it explicitly stated that Iran wasn’t covered. No carnet? No entry.

Not getting the bike into Iran would have put me back to square one when it came to getting to Pamir, although the bigger immediate issue would be what to do with Pakistan, as I did not have another visa to return there. Failure wasn’t an option.

I figured what the customs officials didn’t see wouldn’t hurt them, so I placed a small drop of crazy glue on the carnet’s back cover and glue it to the front, leaving the book exposed to the pages that the customs guys needed to fill out, and obscuring the pages they didn’t need to see …


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Murals to ‘martyrs’ are common place in Tehran.

Two policemen checked my documents inside the border gate and my details were recorded in a large paper ledger. I kept the conversation light to distract them from my little glue trick and to try and hide my nerves. So far, so good

Inside the main customs building, my passport and carnet disappeared into a large office with glass walls. It landed on the head guy’s desk; he scrutinized my documentation, flipping through previous entries and noting stamps from Yemen, Oman, U.A.E., and those of Africa.

Then his mobile rang. While laughing and talking he opened the last two pages, not enough to rip the glue spot, but enough to be able to see Islamic Republic of Iran crossed off in big black marker.

I was surely cooked! I couldn’t believe I’d tried to get away with such a stupid stunt. Now with the traveling back, I’d lost even more time and the trip to the Pamir Highway would now be out of reach. I’d spent hundreds of dollars on visas to countries that I wouldn’t use. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

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Just in case you were wondering.

Then the customs official threw the carnet onto the neighboring desk and continued chatting on the phone. Either he didn’t care or it didn’t register that I was illegally importing a motorcycle into Iran. On it went down the chain, stamp, stamp, stamp!

When they insisted I travel with a policeman for 100 km, I was only too happy to do it.

Having solved the complex problem of entering Iran, the new focus was getting a visa for Uzbekistan. This meant a detour via Tehran, but I also had to be in and out of Turkmenistan within the week in order to keep the next sequence of visa valid.

SPRINTING THROUGH IRAN

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Good girls wear the veil – it’s also the law!

Despite my initial joy, I was off to a miserable start with the escort. We’d almost done the 100 km and then the military insisted I have an
escort all the way to Bam, one day away.

To top it off, they possessed zero organizational skills with the concept of escorts. With lots of talk on the radios, I’d wait in the sun for 30  minutes while they decided where to lead me next, then we’d reach another military post three km further, wait for a truck to take us to yet another stop, and wait again. A complete balls up.

From Bam I was relieved to be on my own again and put in a long ride to arrive late in the day at the ancient city of Yazd. Unable to find any budget hotels, I followed a few kids on bicycles who led me through streets and alleys to a very nice hotel in the old quarter (air conditioning and toilet seats – luxury).

At $30 it blew the budget, but I needed some luxury if I was going to maintain my hectic schedule. Sadly this also meant that I was missing Iran’s mass of historical sites in favour of staring at deserts all day.

The next day, exhausted from the heat and my set pace, I reached the tree-filled city of Esfahan — one of Iran’s most beautiful — where I rested and formulated a new plan.

Twelve-hour days and a bad diet were taking their toll – over-optimism can be a terrible handicap when travelling alone. The bike was running fine, but I wasn’t and I would need to ride all day every day for the next two weeks if I was to get back on schedule. It was time to formulate a plan.

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Iranian hospitality was lavish.

If I reapplied for the Turkmenistan visa in Tehran (and hope it’d be issued quickly enough not to infringe on my other visas), it would give me some much needed additional time.

I was playing a dangerous, expensive game of Visa Roulette, where re-applying for a missed visa took so long that others expired. After Iran followed Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, all within a short period of time. But then what choice did I have?

Bypassing the historical sights was unfortunate but I was lucky to experience Iran’s best selling feature: the Iranian people. Gracious, very hospitable, very giving, help and advice abounded.

Many of the everyday people I talked to — the post office lady or the parking attendant guy — were curious about the west’s impression of Iranians. The lady in the post office wanted to know if we thought Iranians were terrorists.

Tehran went well, and with my Uzbekistan visa firmly stuck in my passport, I was ready to leave Iran.

THE STANS

 

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Turkmenistan girls.

Turkmenistan immigration was a slap in the face with a hot wet Soviet bureaucratic towel. At the counter a seated man took my passport and checked the details. I then turned around and paid a $13 entry fee to a man behind me. Then I turned back around and handed the receipt to a man standing left of the seated man. He wrote down the receipt number and gave it back to the seated man, who also recorded it and stamped my passport.

Next, I went to a large counter where the contents of my bags were perused by three officers. Then to another station where I got a piece of paper listing how much foreign currency and luxury items I was bringing before eventually being allowed to go and get my motorcycle!

The customs offices are byproducts of the communist  era, where everybody deserved a job.  This ancient thinking is now dragging any prosperity out of Turkmenistan’s future.

Turkmenistan is an odd place. Its recently deceased “president for life,” Saparmurat Niyazov, was a nutter, building Utopian (but empty) neighbourhoods, even changing the name of one of the months of the official calendar to his mother’s. Golden statues of him appeared everywhere, my favourite being the one in the capital city which actually rotated with the sun so his face was always bathed in light.

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Niyazov knew a thing or two about self promotion …

Nutball.

While the history in the area is tremendous — this was Silk Road country — my constant visa issues effectively barred me from traveling the tourist road, not that there were many tourists here.

It was starting to feel more like a quest to get in and out of countries rather than to actually visit them – quite a change from South America, where much time was spent exploring, not stuck in capital cities just waiting around.

I had a five-day transit visa for Turkmenistan. I was through in three.

In Uzbekistan I secured the visas for the next two countries and everything was going to plan once again. Before long I was in Tajikistan and the Pamir highway was now only a few days away … and one tunnel.

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The light at the start of the tunnel! Looking back and wondering if this is a smart  idea.

Eighty kilometres from Dushanbe I was told of a shortcut – a tunnel through some mountainous terrain. As I approached what appeared to be the tunnel entrance, it looked more like a cross between a mine site and a Star Wars set. Huge machines and Kamaz trucks rumbling about had me wondering if I had taken the wrong road.

To add to my stress, the trucks and cars coming out had wet wheels and doors. This meant there was water of course, but how much? I asked a worker how much water there was, but he assured me that it was only at the entrance.

After the initial pool of water at the entrance, the water didn’t stop, ranging from a few inches to several feet. Pathetic lighting was provided by a single bulb every hundred metres and the tunnel was full of thick diesel smoke.

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Is this what Dante experienced?

I passed one minivan trying to fix a flat tire in the absolute darkness while abandoned construction equipment, dump trucks, generators, compressors and miscellaneous crap was everywhere.

A blast from an air horn drove me to the side as a large Kamaz truck with no lights rumbled by dragging hundreds of metres of air compressor hoses behind it and creating the most awful noise. I felt at this point that I was in a place I really didn’t belong.

It was a sinister place. When I finally reached the other end I had to get off the bike and regain my composure. It was the worst five km I’d ever done.

Not only that, I was soon to discover there were problems for others on the road beyond the tunnel. The dynamics of my trip were about to change again.

TWO’S COMPANY

 

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Erwan’s trip was over.

Dushanbe is Tajikistan’s pleasant, if hot, capital city where I hooked up with Guillaume and Erwan, two Frenchmen on Africa Twins. They had originally planned to do a similar route as mine but Erwan had crashed while trying to pass a truck on the road after the tunnel and broke his leg.

His trip was over.

Guillaume wasn’t interested in traveling alone so I invited him to join me. While they figured out how to get Erwan and his motorcycle back to France, I collected the necessary permits, which at times seemed to be a process that never ended. We were going into border areas with Afghanistan and even the locals needed the correct paperwork to enter.

I didn’t mind waiting a few days, but my visas — as always — were expiring. I pushed Guillaume to leave quickly and with an afternoon goodbye to Erwan, we sped off for the Pamir and all its glory.

 

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