End of Escort
Police escort is mandatory until Bam which puts you clear of Balochistan, the territory that overlaps Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. From Bam you ride free. The 400km leg from Dalbandin (Pakistan) to Zahedan (Iran) turned into a 14 hour day… not to mention we were already on the back end of a big week. The 340km leg to Bam on airstrip highway the next day took 9 hours. The reception on the Iranian side was full spectrum… high fives and tea at the initial military point… to cold and rude from customs and immigration. The officer in charge of the first escort wouldn’t shake our hands… then later demanded a pen and wouldn’t give it back. Once we hit Zahedan the reception went back to WELCOME! We later discovered that a minority of Iranians regard Australians as friends of America… and therefore dislike us… but we rarely encountered this mentality.
Things to know before you enter Iran:
- You cannot access funds from a bank account outside Iran. Bring what you need.
- Many internet sites are banned. Install a VPN program on your devices.
Crossing from Pakistan to Iran is like stepping 40 years into the future. Trees were growing and birds were singing. We’re pretty sure they scattered bird seed around the water tower. Highways were perfect blacktop. Police escorts were equipped with the latest Toyotas and the police conducted themselves professionally.
The topics of Iran that dominate western news – nuclear enrichment, OPEC oil price fixing, religion – aren’t topics on the lips of the majority of Iranians. They’re friendly people who will go out their way to help you. Iranians were excited for the future. The sanctions applied by America and the EU were to be lifted in January 2016. A quick history helps explain how it got to this point.
Iran has a lot of oil. It has 10% of the world’s proven reserves of crude oil as well as 15% of the world’s proven reserves of natural gas. The British have been extracting this oil since 1908. Reza Shah, the first democratically elected Iranian Monarch, was using this oil money to modernise the country. Using a heavy hand, he was striving for a country with westernized women active outside the home, a modern infrastructure network, investment banks and freedom from religion. He was a modernist and a despot.
Reza Shah was deposed in WW2 and replaced by his son Mohammad Reza, also a secular muslim. Under public pressure for not earning enough from oil sales, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalised the oil industry. A US and UK backed coup deposed Mosaddegh and brought back foreign oil firms. The new shah lost favour with the clergy and was exhiled. When he visited the US for medical treatment in 1978, students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took hostages. The Islamic Revolution began, and the oil industry was nationalised again.
America responded with crippling sanctions. Fast forward to modern times, the US would lift its sanctions in January 2016 in exchange for the abolition of nuclear enrichment facilities. This was expected to boost Iran’s GDP by a third. A lot of improvements can be made to a country with that sort of money. Stay tuned.
The upside of riding in a country with the fifth largest oil reserves in the world is petrol is cheap! AU35c/L cheap.
Bam is the first city you get to ride freely without a police escort. Akbar’s guest house is the ideal place to base yourself. Many overlanders pass through here, and it’s where we met Matjaz, Renata, Jernej and Beat. They were completing a loop from Slovenia in a beast of a 60 series landcruiser. Bam is famous for the Arg-e-Bam, the largest adobe building in the world. Adobe, or mud-brick, is an ideal construction method for hot and dry climates with minimal seismic activity. In 2003 an earthquake destroyed most of the citadel. I can understand preserving existing cultural heritage. I can’t understand Japan, France, Italy and the World Bank spending millions of dollars to rebuild an outdated design. Anyway, the lucky blokes on this refurbishment should have a job for life.
Iran is perfect for over-landing. It’s a big country where most of the population is concentrated in the north, and the people that are there are friendly. However, it’s still worth being respectful of the culture. In Shiraz I had a washing day and my one pair of jeans were due for a wash. The lady at the front counter informed me that Shiraz was a very liberal city and it would be ok to wear shorts. I didn’t last 5 minutes on the streets before being approached by a gentleman who was being as polite as possible in telling me that the police may deport me for for my lack of covering up.
Iran is the name for Persia encouraged for popular use by the Shah Reza in a move to modernize the empire. It’s a bit like moving away from Van Diemen’s Land to Australia. The capital of the first Persian empire back in 500 BC was Persepolis – literally meaning City of Persia. It was sacked and burnt by Alexander the Great in revenge for Xerxes doing the same to Athens 150 years previously.
It was worthwhile to get a guide for the walk around the ruins. The ruins won’t mean anything otherwise. The guide was a lovely lady with good English and good head for history. However, she still wasn’t allowed to shake our hand, unless one us married her first.
Zoroastrianism was the main religion across the Iranian plateau from 6th century BC until the Arab conquest in the 9th century AD. Its concepts of one God, judgment, heaven and hell would likely of influenced the major Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Followers believed that the earth should not be contaminated by the decaying flesh of a dead person. The corpse was carried to a tower where scavenger birds would pick the corpse clean. The bones were left to dry in the sun then placed in a central pit with lime for the final stage of decomposition. These burials have been banned since the Islamic Revolution. Zoroastrians now bury their dead in the nearby cemetery.
Out in the desert from Mesr to Kashan, we were spoilt with more open country and good camping. The open source maps we installed on the GPS weren’t comprehensive when it came to offroading in Iran, so we were happy when we got a mud map from a local.
We rode into Kashan late and met a lovely lady from Algeria who insisted we meet the manager of Manouchehri Traditional House <www.manouchehrihouse.com>. WOW! The feel of this place was incredible. People stop by here for tea on their way between Isfahan and Tehran… and then don’t leave. The manager insisted that we stay free of charge… Iranian hospitality does not stop. The manager is a passionate woman with a mission to revive fading Persian arts… and she is helping put Kashan on the map. Thank you so much!
The lovely staff made us feel at home. We hadn’t been this comfortable in a long time. There were three different coloured bottles of stuff in the bathroom, big soft towels provided, comfiest beds ever!… all the perks! Only problem with this place is that you don’t want to leave.
We rode to Tehran via the Kavir National Park. On the way into the park we pulled up for camping supplies for the night. The shop owner insisted on paying. Top bloke! We setup camp between the dunes and the lake and watched the camel trains amble past. Sitting around the fire that night Dyl actually said “Bro, we’re flying too high… stuff has to go pear shaped soon… we’re defying the laws of RTW overlanding.” Who says something like that?!?
The next morning, the EPA found us within 10 minutes of breaking camp. They were stoked that we were out there on bikes but made it very clear that we were not permitted to be there. We had an EPIC day planned through the park on a track we found with satellite imagery… but now had to backtrack to a 300km loop on batsh^t boring highway. Nonetheless, we were grateful that we got as far as we did and that our EPA buddies let us go.
Khojir National Park was the next destination before hitting Tehran… we had been wary of military areas but had zero appreciation for the scale of this one. Into military custody we go… and all devices confiscated: phones, laptops, GoPros and cameras. UHF and satcomms on the bikes wasn’t a good look either. Fortunately the military personnel quickly realised that they were dealing with Dumb and Dumber. Next minute we had a heap of new buddies from the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They even said that we are their brothers…
“You bet we are! Does that mean we can go?”
“No. You must stay.”
Our gear had to be screened somewhere else… and no doubt some pretty extensive background checks were underway… so wait we did with our new brothers. Later in the evening some older plain clothed blokes arrived and said, “Just go. You go to Tehran now and you don’t stop.” So what we did next was go to Tehran and we didn’t stop. Ever tried entering Tehran without a plan? What a sh^t show!
No way we were going to ride into the heart of the place so skirted around it. Somehow we ended up in front of a posh real estate business… and this bloke along with neighbouring business owners insisted we get comfortable. We were fed and got chatting away with our new friends. Thankfully they diverted us to a reasonably priced hotel… they don’t really exist in Tehran.
En route to the Turkish border we stopped in a little village in a valley called Masuleh. It’s such a peaceful place after the hustle of Tehran we stayed a few nights. Here we planned our crossing of Turkey. There are three border crossings connecting Iran and Turkey. All of them go over the Armenian Plateau. The weather reports for all 3 routes indicated snow and sub-zero temperatures. The southern most route would get us down to the warm weather of the Mediterranean the fastest. We rode to Urmia. After a big ride day through the Alborz mountains, and 2km from the hotel, I crashed the bike. and couldn’t weight my leg. We parked up for 48 hours to mend.
Crossing to Turkey
During this rest period in Urmia we got more up to date information about the southern crossing – the roads had ice on them, they don’t get salted, there’s a good chance of crashing, and Daesh bandits come down the mountain from Iraq in the evening. We rode north to Khoy oblivious to the truly rubbish day ahead. It’s been DUMPING snow… it’s FREEZING cold… anyone with a clue would realise that given the weather conditions there will be ICE. Unfortunately we don’t have a clue. We’ve got the blinkers on… completely transfixed on that beer on the Mediterranean and not what’s in front of us.
It was down to minus double digits over the first pass… fingers could not cope. Lucky we found a little road-stop. The only drawback of Dyl and I riding as a pair as that we push each other along. If we see that our other half is still on the bike, they must be ok, so we keep going. We were pretty much delirious by the time we pulled over… physically could not remove helmets. Ma and Pa in the road-stop let us warm up in their hut. The warmth returning to the fingers and toes is a very painful experience.
Riding ICE is way outta our league. We were cruising along steady in 4th pondering the early stages of frostbite in our fingers, then with no warning our bikes are horizontal down the highway. Good thing about both crashes is that most of the force was translated to the horizontal, so not even a bruise to be had. It was almost fun.
We did get better at distinguishing ice… riding 2nd gear… looking for the little ice ruts. Then the inevitable happened. Dyl was adjusting his visor and ended up twisted up under the bike as it went down. Dyl bounces back better than anyone, so when he was laid out across the road, unable to stand, this wasn’t a crash to ride away from. A couple of friendly locals escorted Dyl to the hospital, while the police organised a truck to get his bike to a police outpost.
We knew nothing was broken… just needed somewhere to RICE… but Iranian hospitality insisted. The Chief at the little town’s hospital introduced himself and said to not worry about a thing. Even had an x-ray! They gave Dyl a raisin muffin and a juice box. This didn’t help the feeling of any solidarity with the other patients… most of them in much worse condition, especially the guy screaming the whole time. Dyl still enjoyed his muffin. The hospital was full so Dyl was discharged the same day. We rode into Khoy to mend for a few days. At least when it’s snowing, ice for wounds is never away.
We started watching weather reports with new interest. We saw our weather window, went for the crossing at Razi, and managed to notch up another rubbish day. COLD with a little ICE still about… but we went super steady and made it there… we were very pleased with ourselves. Just the border crossing hurdle to go.
WHAT A CIRCUS! One of the border official looking blokes (difficult to tell who was who) was ZAPPING people with his electrified cattle prod. At first we thought, “Gee, that’s a bit harsh.” After an hour we wished that guy had a firearm. Imagine 6 year olds with unlimited red cordial RUNNING A MUCK… except those 6 year olds are grown Kurdish men. Our gear was not safe. As travellers we almost always adopt the “soft eyes and sweet smile” approach… not this time.
Then the rejection… the Turkey border officials claimed we need green card insurance. They claimed we needed to buy vehicle insurance for their country, from another country. Madness. All our information was that you get the insurance at the border… but they would not budge. After too many bumsteers the officials said our only option was to turn back to Iran. Just needed to void the Turkey entry and Iran exit, a process of much, much more bumsteering. A Kurdish rascal ended up with our passports and carnets at one point… from an official!!! Are we supposed to be tackling people at a border crossing? Seriously, TURKEY and IRAN… square away the Kapikoy-Razi border crossing… you’re not 3rd world… that place is a sh^tshow and a disgrace to your respective countries. Maybe start with a uniform for the border officials so you know who is who… and give the guy with the electric cattle prod an automatic weapon.
We still had some twilight by the time we had the crossing reversal complete… but knew we were about to mix night with ice. Dyl couldn’t see out of his wrecked visor and my bulb blew not too long ago. We call our night riding strategy the “blind leading the invisible”.
We only had the Bazargan crossing left to get into Turkey. It would put us onto the coldest route, but we were out of options. Being the main border crossing, they had things squared away. On the Turkish side they issued us green card insurance.
We breathed a sign of relief as we rode away from Turkish customs to find ourselves a beer.