Thursday, 28 June 2012


By Sanne

While getting out of Pakistan was pretty easy, getting into Iran took a bit longer. Could it be that Iran was even less organised than Pakistan?! Yes, so it seemed. The floor in the immigration building was scattered with luggage and full of truck drivers going from Pakistan to Iran with their goods. Thankfully an official helped us through but it still took over 3 hours to clear the border. We knew from other travelers that we would be given an escort to Zahedan, a town 100 kms from the border. What we didn't know was that the police escort was going to be another one of those damn pillion riders. We tried our best to explain that we didn't want to have a police man on the back of any of us but they gave us no choice, well that's not entirely true, they did give us the option of putting the police man (who really was a young soldier) in a taxi which we would foot the bill for! Well, we definitely weren't doing that, so eventually Frank decided to take one for the team and take him on his bike. I have no idea if this soldier who couldn't have been older than 20, possessed any martial arts skills with which he could protect us because he didn't carry any weapons on him. I suppose his mere appearance was meant to scare away any prospective terrorists? The 100 kms to Zahedan took at least a few hours because of the constant check points and at each one of them our escort disappeared inside the police station with our passports - the Iranians have figured out that if they hold on to the foreigner's passport he can't just take off, so we couldn't just leave him on the side of the road like we did in Pakistan. So we were basically held hostage with our passports in police custody. No one bothered explaining to us what we were waiting for (not that any of them could speak English anyway) and we were left standing outside in the baking hot sun just waiting and waiting...

When we finally arrived in Zahedan we were taken to a police station which appeared to be occupied by hormonal teenage boys dressed as soldiers. Again our passports disappeared to somewhere and we were made to wait outside. We were then asked to pay for our escort to take a taxi back to his station which we unanimously declined! The young guys then started acting like complete jerks, clearly making fun of us in Farsi. This one guy wanted to show off and started singing some Iranian song; he clearly mistook our laughs as a sign of our appreciation and started singing even louder. In reality we were laughing at the fact that he was wearing what looked like women's stockings. The more we laughed, the louder and more ear-piercing he sang. It sounded terrible but he clearly thought he was 'the man'. They eventually tired of their little game and took us to a hotel. It was there we realised that we would also be escorted the next day for 300km to the town of Bam. Awesome.

The next morning the posties left at 5am as their bikes go a lot slower than ours and so it takes them a lot longer for them to get to their destination. Mark, Frank and I had arranged for our escort to arrive at 7.30am so naturally they arrived at 8.30. Off to a good start. They then took us straight to another police station. Like the station from the previous day this one was also inhabited by giddy young soldiers who seemed to pass their time in the army playing ping-pong and just hanging around with AK-47s slung over their shoulder. Again no one spoke a word of English so our attempts to figure out what the hell was going on were completely useless. They were just taking their own sweet little time making us wait just because they could and they couldn't care less about us and the fact that we only had 8 days to cross this massive country so were kind of in a hurry to get going. Mark spat it once at them but they just found that hilarious, there was just nothing we could do or say to make them hurry up. After about 1 hour they decided we had waited sufficient time and we were off.

The next couple of hours consisted of escort changeovers every 30 kms or so. There was no apparent system nor organisation, we would just pull up in the middle of nowhere and then just there and wait for the next escort to come and take over. No one would tell us anything which made it even the more frustrating. It was like they were playing mind games with us as well. At one point they give Frank his passport back, but not us. I walk over and demand that we get our passports too, to which they refuse. They then walk over and take Frank's passport away from him again!
One officer walks over to me and wants to shake my hand. As he holds out his hand I just look at him with disgust and say: "I'm a woman - you don't shake my hand". If they can't give us just a tiny amount of respect, why should we? The next escort took us to a small town to a police station and who do we meet there - Rob and Greg! They had left at 5am but had only made it this far as the police had decided to wait for us to catch up so they could escort us all together. So they had been waiting here for a couple of hours. What a theater this was turning into!

We then all set off together with the posties really struggling to keep up, us riding at their speed and the police getting annoyed with the lack of speed we were all traveling at. This was around the time they all started treating us like animals. They would drive up the side of us and yell: "Go Go Go!"and wave their arms like mad. Well, the three of us on bigger bikes could have gone faster but the little posties were already traveling with their throttle fully open and struggling but the police didn't care about that. At one point we picked up a particularly nasty individual armed to the hilt who couldn't stop playing with his gun in front of us and clearly thought of himself as some kind of Rambo. We had stopped at a little roadside shop to get a feed of our by now stable diet of chips and cookies. We had sat there for maybe 5 mins max when Rambo roared with all his might: "GO GO GO!" He didn't like that we ignored him and kept eating and him and his colleague kept hassling us even at one point pulling on Mark's arm. Mark at this point has had enough and says: "Oh will you just shut up!" This seems to be part of Rambo's small English vocabulary and he looks absolutely shocked that Mark has said that. He turns to Mark, shakes his head and finger and goes: "No shut up".

They were still holding on to our passports and in order to escort us now was to flag down a random passing truck and ride with that behind us. Some organisation. At one police station my passport was being passed around the guys like it was some kind of porn magazine ("oh my god, it's a girl!"). At one of the stops I just lost it. Our escort had once again inexplicably pulled over for maybe the third time in 10 kms without telling us what was going on. We just weren't going anywhere. I rode up and stopped in front of their car and just held my horn on, then threw my arms up and yelled: "What is going on!?" I then started to abuse them, we all did, maybe except Rob who kept surprisingly calm all this time. They just started talking Farsi to us which infuriated me even more. I don't usually go off like this but this was ridiculous!
Rob managed to deplode this tense situation a little when he said he was going to the toilet. The soliders were like: "What...? We go now". Rob tried again to explain to them that he really needed to go to the toilet before we set off again. In the end, frustrated over the moronic soldiers he goes: "I need to shit out of my arsehole!" while lifting up his leg and pointing at his bum! This made us and the soldiers crack up so hard! We needed a laugh badly, thanks Rob for providing that!
We arrived in Bam by late afternoon where we held our passports in our hands for the first time in two days. It felt like a treasure! Bam used to be quite the tourist attraction because of the old city but this was destroyed in 2003 by a massive earthquake. Sadly the guesthouse we were staying in was completely destroyed and three people died ther. In total 40,000 people lost their lives.

Mark and I parted ways with the guys the next morning. We only had 7 days left to reach the Turkish border so we really had to push on. After a 600 km ride we made it to Yazd. It was Mark's birthday but dare I say it wasn't the most interesting of birthdays. I hadn't been able to arrange anything for him and because of Iran's stupid internet laws he wasn't able to see messages from family and friends which I think made him a bit sad. We tried to find a restaurant but there was just nothing there so we ended up having a felafel sandwich in a cafe. I promise Mark, I will make it up to you in Turkey! We both just wanted to go to bed and forget about the day but on the way back to our room I was pulled aside by the man in reception. He was like, "So you're from Denmark, we used to know Denmark for their pastries and then the government goes and offends us". Oh dear, I knew where this was going. "Oh, you mean the drawings of Muhammed?" He nodded. "Well, they didn't mean any harm by it and actually it was just a bit of fun...". He seemed shocked that I had said that: "It is just unbelievable that they could do such a thing" he kept muttering. I just wanted to say: "Dude, get over it, they're just drawings!". Instead I said "Well, different cultures, what are you gonna do?" and went up to my room. I had had this same conversation so many times by now, back in Pakistan it was very frequently brought up, and I was really fed up hearing it. I couldn't believe an incident that happened 5 years ago was still so fresh in people's minds. And the fact that they held such a grudge about it too. From what I had pieced together from my time in Pakistan  most people hadn't actually seen the drawings, they just knew that their beloved prophet had been depicted and that was the big crime. For me it is a good example of two countries that has their focus on the past as opposed to the future. Maybe if they took some of that passion and focused it on things that really mattered, their countries would be in a better state than it is now.

After Yazd we went to Esfahan, supposedly the most progressive city in Iran and it really seemed that way. What a lovely city. The streets were all lines with trees and there were actually women in the streets - lots of women! So yes, they were covered up in the hijab but many of them clearly managed to add their own little personal touch to the way they dressed. First of all, whereas the older women mostly wore the black, cloak-like chador, most younger women wore a kind of trench coat and some of them definitely showed off their body shape. Under this they would wear jeans, trainers, heels, just like any other European girl. Then of course there was the headscarf but even this was open to interpretation. I was surprised at how far back on their head it was. Some wore it halfway back and had their fringe showing. Many had an Amy Winehouse fro going on with a big beehive peeking out. Then there was the makeup! The girls here would wear more makeup than I have ever seen any Australian or European girl wear. Surely the Ayatollah doesn't approve of this... I was told by a local girl that sometimes the religious police will stop you and tell you if you're out of line but it doesn't seem to stop them doing it. I loved it. I found it liberating to see women on the street after seeing hardly any in Pakistan and to see them laugh. I even saw a young couple walking down the street hand in hand. People clearly have their own little rebellion going on against the regime. Good on them I say!

We met so many nice people in Esfahan. People here actually spoke English and would come and talk to us and invite us to their homes, their hospitality was amazing. We spent one whole afternoon in a carpet shop chatting to some guys there. One of them was Hugh who was born in Iran but moved to the US in the 70s and now lives in San Fransisco with his American wife. He was here on holiday and we had some really interesting conversations with him and it was an eye-opener to hear about the regime and the state of Iran from a "local's" point of view. According to him 80% of Iran's population wants to get rid of the regime. With such a high percentage it seems strange why they can still be in power, but apparently people are too tired to start a revolution. I hope (and think) it will happen one day, it's just a matter of time.
Imam Square is the second-largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square and it is very beautiful with the mosque at one end and the palace and bazzars around it. We got lost trying to find our way out of a bazzar, it is a maze of little alleyways.
After spending two days in Esfahan we had to head towards the border as our visa was running out. The closer we got to the border the landscape started to change and was slowly looking more European, more green, less dessert. Even people started looking different, many looking like they came from Armenia which borders it. That is one of the highlights of travelling overland, to see how people's faces change ever so slowly from region to region. The border crossing to Turkey was a shambles on the Iranian side but once on the Turkish side it was a different world, all organised and polite. It was like we had already reached Europe!

Apart from the police and army, Iranians left a really great impression on us and we would have loved to stay longer to really experience the country and culture. If it wasn't for the fact that our bikes had started to play up we might have tried to extend our visa. But for the bikes' sake we really needed to get to Europe and some decent mechanics quickly. Final verdict on Iran: Regime bad - People good.

Waiting for our escort on the Iranian side of the border

Getting petrol was the scene of much drama!

Waiting for a changeover of escorts...oh so much waiting

What's happening here? That's right - more waiting!

In Iran I had to wear a headscarf at all times - even under my helmet!

The Posties

Frank and his stripped down bike that was playing up

Storm brewing outside Esfahan

Imam Square, Esfahan

Some of the many friendly Iranians we ran into

Mark in the carpet shop

Hugh from San Fransisco

Imam Square

Feeling like Casper The Friendly Ghost - at James Mosque

The Men's side

And the Women's

The choices are endless...

A German overlander cyclist we met on the way to the Turkish border, he was riding to India

The Iran-Turkey border

1 comment:

  1. The people in Iran are some of the warmest and most hospitable I've ever met. They go out of their way to offer you the best they have; it's part of their culture and religion to be like that to visitors. It's a shame the authorities don't behave in the same way, but the difference is probably not unique to Iran (but maybe the gap between the two is?) You also have to remember that the authorities are absolutely obsessed with potential spies infiltrating the country and that with strict media and border controls, foreigners, particularly females, are a novelty.

    Did you see the bare breasted woman in one of the wall paintings inside one of the historic buildings lining Imam square? I was SO surprised it was still there when I visited in 2003.