Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Into Iran

The day I arrived at the Turkey-Iran border was the day after the UK expelled the Iranian diplomats from their London embassy, and a couple of days after the UK's embassy in Tehran was torn apart by marauding Iranians (acting entirely independently and without any official sanction at all). They even threw a picture of the Queen (gawbless'er) off the balcony. All British diplomats left Iran, so there would be no consular support in the country, I had e-mails from home warning that there would be an ugly, anti-British mood in the country, and the Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to Iran.

Fuck it. I came anyway.

I gave brief thought to turning back and seeing how the situation developed, but you have to be pretty single-minded and stubborn to dump everything and ride across the world on a bike, and I hadn't come so far just to turn back when I was so nearly there. I was a bit nervous when I approached the border, but I can recommend the Kapikóy-Razi border crossing for all your Iran/Turkey needs. It went a long way towards allaying my fears - sitting in a warm office with a bunch of soldiers, being fed satsumas and taught Farsi, while assault rifles lean unattended beneath the desk, can have that effect.

The Turkish side of the border is barren and bleak and has a real end-of-the-world feel about it. It's a high crossing and a big climb to get up to it - I stopped for a rest above Saray, looked around and noticed the silence. No other traffic, no birds or animals. It was even too cold for the ice in the stream to start cracking.

The descent was a joy, too. I whooshed down to the border post, pleased to have chance to collect myself so that I wouldn't be arriving all sweaty and zoned out from the effort.

All the cars and vans that had overtaken me today were still queuing at the border when I arrived. I looked for a way past, and had my encounter with the "passport inspector". He was dressed as a standard Turkish bloke - black trousers, leather jacket - so when he asked for my passport I gave him my best old-fashioned look and asked if he worked there. He said he did, but when I asked for ID he rather lost interest. He did, however, suggest that I could take my bike around the other side of the cars, so it turned out to be a fairly helpful encounter.

I was waved through every check and past every queue, the only exception being when the Iranians were stamping my passport. Part of the issue seemed to be establishing my nationality, as they looked at my passport and asked me if I was Irish. They'd heard of Ireland, and they know about England, but Britain was a new one for them. It did give the Grinning Black Market Money Man chance to insinuate himself next to me, take away my lira and make me a near-millionaire with 930,000 rials. That's about 80 quid, at a guess.

It still took ages to get through the border: I took tea with the Turks, and everyone wanted to chat or say hello. It was wonderful, and I was flying with delight when I left and carried on descending. I had meant to pick up some food, but exhilaration gave me energy. The road is an unfinished dirt road for the first 10 or 15 miles from the border, but that hardly slowed me at all. I had to hold myself back from overtaking the slow wagons as they carefully negotiated the potholes.

camping in Iran near Razi

Immediately, the world felt different. There was a marked change from Turkey. The first thing I noticed was the trees, which Turkey didn't have. The roads and field margins are lined with tall cypresses, which still have leaves on despite the lateness of the year. Iranian buildings around here are the squat, square mud and brick affairs I associate with the Middle East, and the landscape is crags, rocks, scrub grass. I took advantage of this to camp up a narrow gully, though I had entertained thoughts of carrying on to Khoy.

the road into Iran

In the morning I was pleased I hadn't, as the descent through that rocky gorge was a marvel. Epic views around every bend, and the first sight of the huge arch railway bridge across the gorge may have caused me to utter a swearword in awe.

[photograph deleted by Iranian police, sadly]

Welcome to Iran.

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