Crossing the Border into Iran
Today was the day many of us were looking forward to since a long time. We are crossing the border into Iran and are very curious what will actually expect us and how it will differ from the picture we have about the country so far. When talking to family and friends most of us experienced warnings to travel to Iran because it’s considered a dangerous country. When most of us think about Iran we think about the conflicts with Israel, Iraq and the US. We also think about the country’s nuclear program or the recent closure of the British embassy in Tehran. On the other side Iran, also known as Persia, has one of the world’s oldest civilizations which makes it very interesting to visit from a historical point of view. My fellow traveler Andrew has actually studied Persian history and is therefore very keen on visiting the major sites of the country. Actually most people visiting Iran are experienced travelers and a bit older than the people travelling for instance to South America. Central Asia isn’t the location people pick for their first ever overland trip. They have either seen major parts of the world and now come here to see this one or they have a special interest in the region as Andrew has.
Compared to other Muslim countries Iran is also special because of its Islamic government. While most countries keep their politics and religion separate it isn’t the case in Iran. This is also expressed by the countries full name which is “Islamic Republic of Iran”. The Islamic government has a significant impact on the daily life in Iran since the laws of the country do also contain religious aspects. One of laws demands all women over the age of nine to wear a headscarf and long loose-fitting clothes in public. It’s also not allowed to come too close to somebody of the other gender such as holding hands or kissing in public. The compliance with these rules is actually monitored by the police who is not only following up on crimes or traffic as it is the case back home but also on religious matters.
To comply with the law we needed to adjust our usual appearance to what we know is demanded in Iran. For the boys it meant dressing up in long sleeve shirts and trousers. We girls needed to cover up to a larger extend meaning wearing long loose-fitting clothes and a headscarf. I dressed up in the outfit I bought in Istanbul consisting of a manteaux (a kind of trench coat) and a two layered headscarf. Underneath I was wearing a t-shirt, leggings and socks so except for my face and my hands no other part of my body was visible. I guess with this outfit I will be on the save side and a bit more integrated to what the local people are wearing. I have heard some travelers got actually refused entry into the country because the immigration officer didn’t consider their outfit as appropriate. I hope none of our outfits will cause trouble.
On the way from Doğubeyazıt to the border we passed Mount Ararat the highest mountain in Turkey. While yesterday the mountains peak was covered in clouds we were luckier today and could actually see the peak. Shortly before the boarder we tried to visit the second largest meteor crater in the world but the street leading to it was guarded by the police. They requested from our leader Jason to leave his passport behind with them in order to go and visit the site. For understandable reasons Jason didn’t wanted to leave his passport behind so we skipped the visit and continued towards the border.
First we needed to stamp out of Turkey and didn’t expect any problems on this side of the border since usually immigrations and customs only care about you when entering the country but not when exiting it. At this border it was different. The immigration officer stamping us out was checking if each of us had a valid visa for entering Iran before he actually put the Turkish exit stamp in our passport.
There was also a check by customs which required our truck to drive through a massive x-ray machine. I wasn’t sure what they are looking for. Probably there were checking if we carry any halal goods such as alcohol or pork meat. But why they check for these items here at the Turkish side of the border but not the Iranian one? While everybody was still busy with immigrations I went with Jason, Sam and a local guy who popped out of nowhere in order to help us to get the truck x-rayed. The customs officer required us to remove our entire luggage from the truck before it drives through the x-ray machine. He also asked Jason how many there are of us and he answered: “There are three of us HERE” which was correct but probably the officer wanted to know the total number of people which is nine. However, the officer didn’t question Jason’s answer and so we only unloaded some of the daypacks and Jason’s sleeping gear which seemed to be sufficient luggage for three people. I also remembered a leftover pork sausage in our fridge and quickly removed it. In return to the support of the local guy, who showed us around at customs, Sam was changing a few US dollars with him into Iranian Rials.
The whole procedure at the Turkish side took approx. one hour and we expected it will take much longer to pass the Iranian immigration and customs. Surprisingly the immigration at the Iranian side was very efficient. We didn’t even need to fill-out an arrival form as it is the case with all other countries I have visited so far. Instead the immigration officer took our passenger list and scanned the bar code of our Iranian visa which seemed to provide all required information to him. Another interesting fact about the Iranian visa is that it’s advisable to women to submit a passport photo with a headscarf together with the visa application. I took mine in a photo booth in Germany to avoid any strange views when going to a professional photographer. With the visa application you also need to submit a reference number which your local tourist agency in Iran applies for you and a statement you will insure yourself with a local Iranian insurance company upon entry of the country.
We passed immigrations like nothing. At the Iranian border there was also our local guide waiting for us. When I understand it correctly all tourist groups are required to have a local Iranian guide while being in the country so we had no other choice. The name of our guide is Mehdi and he will be with us during our entire stay in Iran. He actually looks quite okay which doesn’t make it too difficult to win Jason’s bet (see Apr 23) if you want to do so. Mehdi was only wearing a t-shirt and from now on all boys in our group stopped wearing long sleeves at the top and changed to more comfortable t-shirts. Regarding customs there was no check as we would have expected them to search us for halal goods.
The more difficult part was getting the truck paperwork done. As every person carries a passport the truck has a Carnet de Passage and need to pass customs. Here they required from our driver Sam to pay an amount of around 800 to 900 USD to insure the truck while being in Iran. Paying this amount of money took maybe three hours since the counter, where we were supposed to pay, was closed for lunch and Sam was send around from one guy to the other all secretly trying to get a bribe for helping the truck crossing the border.
The whole process of crossing the border on the Iranian side took approx. four hours. I killed most of the time by listen to music and talking to some of my fellow travelers. It was also interesting to experience the toilets at the border since you weren’t allowed to enter them in your own shoes. They literally made you taking off your shoes and put on some filthy plastic sandals in order to enter a toilet which was completely under water. We also changed the time at the border but instead of setting it ahead by full hours we needed to set it 1.5 hour ahead.
As soon as we crossed the border we stopped at a petrol station to fill-up the tank of our truck since petrol in Iran is incredible cheap compared to Turkey. One liter of diesel only cost 3,500 Rials (0.21 USD). We also change some money in a town close to the border. It was no proper exchange bureau but more a dark backstreet office which our local guide pointed out to us. Then we continued our journey to Kandovan where we arrived around 9pm because we lost quite some time with border crossing procedures.
Before we were checking-in to our hotel we went for a group dinner to a small restaurant. It actually featured no tables and chairs but raised podiums where you sit on without your shoes so you better have no smelly socks. The food and drinks are put directly in front of you and you need to watch out to not touch them with your feet. The only available dishes on the menu were chicken and lamb kebab. I had chicken since I don’t really like lamb unless the meat is really good. Whenever I’m not sure about the qualities of the meat I go for the save option which is chicken. This choice was a bit difficult for our vegetarian Alistair who ended up having plain rice for dinner. There was also some strange bread which is popular in Iran and which is served with nearly every meal. It has no real taste and looks like a bathmat with knops. We finished our dinner with a cup of tea which is a popular drink for the Iranians as well as for my fellow travelers from Britain.
The hotel for the night was an accommodation in a cave. There was one for us girls, one for the boys and one for our crew members and the local guide. The cave actually offered some kind of privacy provided by a curtain covering the entrance. Our girls cave featured two beds which Emilie and Patricia used while Isabella and I prepared our bed on the ground.