August 3rd, 2016 — Welcome to Azerbaijan!
When crossing the Iranian border we’re still a bit surprised that they gave up. That they were more tired of us than we were of them. We see some insurance companies when riding through the town of Bazargan itself, but we think they’re too close to the action to be trusted. We’ll get our insurance somewhere else in the next village or the one after that. And probably not today but tomorrow. After the intense hours at the border we can really use a shower, a meal and a bed now.
I’m glad I didn’t forget to put the Open Street Maps (OSM) onto my navigation system. Apart from being fully routable, they also help us orientating when riding through a town to find a place to stay. The map does not show the text in Farsi but sort of a transcription of Farsi with some vowels missing. I find this actually more useful than the full Farsi version because I can now find cities like Tbrz and Znjn instead of تبریز and زنجان.
The roads are quite alright, with few potholes but some serious speed bumps. We need a roundabout or two to figure out that entering traffic seems to have the right-of-way. Riding through the town of Maku, we find no hotel or guest house. When we stop, a young man appears so quickly it seems like he came out of nowhere. After firm handshakes, he asks us what we need. He points us to a hotel on the main street, a few kilometers away. Very kind — already much better than our border experience. Just before we want to leave, a driver stops and yells “Welcome to Iran! Welcome to Azerbaijan!”. More handshakes. We are confused until we find out that we are actually in Iran’s province of West-Azerbaijan.
We find a simple hotel in a quiet side street. The personnel is a lot less cordial than the people we’ve just met on the street. The first room we
see smell has a very stinky drain, which we find out only after we’ve used it. We get another room, which is also closer to the WiFi-router in the lobby. This doesn’t help very much because the speed of the connection is terrifically slow. Slow as in 1994-slow, except that, 22 years later, we’ve got more complex websites so it takes forever to load one.
The food in the restaurant is OK. We make it a quick dinner and walk around the block for a bit. We’re getting many looks from the locals because we’re the only western tourists here. We can’t find an exchange office. Or maybe it’s all written in Farsi and we just miss it? We call it an early night, or actually it’s not that early at all: we’ve lost 1.5 hours at the border because we’re now in the Iranian time zone (UTC+3.5). It’s actually worse than that: we’ve lost about 621 years! Today’s date on the Iranian calendar is 13 Mordad 1395.
Mordad 14th, 1395
There are ATMs in Iran and they do work, but only with cards issued by Iranian banks. We don’t have any of those. Credit cards are not accepted either. Not only in ATMs but nowhere in Iran. That means we’re relying on our cash reserves, like in 1395.
After a simple breakfast we find a bank, but an employee tells us that they don’t change money. Perhaps an Iranian bank needs a special license to change money, who knows? He is a friendly guy, though, and points us to the nearest Bank Melli that does change money. We know we’re not getting the best rates at a bank but we need some Iranian Rials and don’t want to waste more time looking for exchange offices where we would get a better rate.
We decide to change 400 euros (US$ 440) and get more than 13 million Rials for that. It is paid out mostly in bills of 100.000 Rials (US$2.80 or €2,50 at the best rates). That’s a big stack of paper and it takes a long time to count too. And it doesn’t fit in your wallet. The bank teller is happy to inform us that this amount is definitely enough for our stay in Iran. That is interesting because he doesn’t know where we’re going, how long we’ll stay and what our expenses are.
We also find an insurance company in town, only because its name is written in Latin characters. We’ve taken our motorcycle registration papers and the carnets with us, so we expect to leave this office in an hour or so with two insurances for a month. Not so. We have no languages in common with the insurance employee, so all communication goes through an English-speaking colleague on the phone. After he’s taken all relevant vehicle data, he says that it is not possible to get the insurance today because it’s the start of the weekend and the central office in Tehran has closed meanwhile. The weekend in Iran is on Thursday afternoon and Friday. Crap. He tells us to come back on Saturday or suggests we get insurance at the border. Muhahahahaha!
We buy some groceries and combine these with some left-overs from yesterday. WRONG! We should have been much more critical than that. We’ve been standing in the sun for a few hours at the border yesterday and food goes off rapidly with increasing ambient temperature. Yes, that’s theory again.
The corresponding biology experiment starts at 5:30pm for Petra. I join in the fun about one hour later. Because you might be having a meal yourself right now, let me describe this as follows: over the course of several hours we have many purging sessions in the bathroom of our hotel. It’s bidirectional, but fortunately not simultaneously. We do have some parallel sessions and therefore use all available resources. If you don’t get that: we were very sick from food poisoning.
Eventually things quiet down for me at 11pm and for Petra at 3am. We’re still debating who has won this experiment because I was done sooner but the score is approximately 15-7 ‘in favor’ of Petra. We’re both exhausted and it’s time to break out the oral rehydration salts (ORS) for Petra. You might want to bring those on your trip. I guess we’re staying another day or two.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, aaaargh, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!
August 5th, 2016 — Sunday
Today we’re as slow as our internet connection and as weak as the WiFi signal. We can’t even log onto our bank’s website to make an urgent payment to our Chinese tour operator. Crap. Petra stays in the hotel room to recover some more as I arrange some breakfast for her and search for an internet café on the main street. No luck there either. It’s very quiet and most shops are closed because Friday is Sunday, sort of.
August 6th, 2016
Almonds and Air-Kisses
Petra is still a bit low on energy and has stomach pains. But we don’t want to stay yet another day in our not-so-great-hotel and we need to get going in the direction of Tehran. The advantage of losing two days due to illness is that the insurance bureau is open again today. We expect to resume where we stopped on Thursday, but somehow he needs our papers again and there is a lot of talking with the translator lady on the phone.
Annoyingly, it appears that insurances for motorcycles bought in Iran really cannot be shorter than 12 months. This does not hold for cars and that’s not logical at all. We try to convince the translator lady and she understands, but this appears to be the way it is. Other motorcycle riders have reported similar experiences. The fact that these are consistent doesn’t mean it’s true — we could still all be victims of the same rip-off. The good news is that it’s quite a bit cheaper than the two times 100 euros (US$ 110) that we could have paid the scum at the border. And this insurance is actually worth something(*). If we’d do this again we would certainly check the option of extending our European green cards for Iran before entering the country. We’ve been told by two reliable sources that green card coverage for Iran is possible but haven’t put enough research into it.
(*) We have our insurance policies verified by a friend in Tehran later, who confirms that it is genuine and that we’re covered.
The insurance guy needs about two hours. We use these to go to the supermarket and have lunch. Half of the supermarket is filled with sweets, chocolates, nougat and other stuff with lots of sugar. The Iranians sure seem to have a sweet tooth — or sweet dentures. With a shopping cart full of helmets, gloves, tank bags — and a few groceries — we appear at the cash register. The cashier recognizes us from last time. We gladly comply with her wish to take selfies with us. Strangely, we only need to pay 150.000 Rials of the 169.000 on the receipt. Petra gets admiring looks and an air-kiss from her as we leave. Has that ever happened to you? At the cash register?
When we return, the insurance guy has finished. We get our insurance policies and pay 5 million Rials with 100.000-Rial notes. That’s probably too much because we also get chocolates, no less than four (Iranian) calendars and a box of local candy called Noghl (sugar-coated almonds). All this stuff barely fits in our luggage, but leaving it on the street is probably not socially acceptable. More photos with the insurance guy and the bikes. We need to get going now because its 4pm meanwhile. Reaching Tabriz before dark is out of the question, but Marand should still be possible. We’re finally leaving Maku.
Cheaper Than Water
We fill up for €0,30 per liter (US$ 1.25/gallon). That’s cheaper than mineral water, but doesn’t taste as good. Eventually Petra pays €5 (US$ 5.60) and I pay €6 (US$ 6.70) for full tanks that will last for more than 500km (300mi). Diesel appears to be even three times cheaper than petrol.
We start noticing it’s actually very hot here as we’re scorched by the winds that blow over the plains. Traffic is quite hectic. Drivers overtake more dangerously than the Albanians and that’s not a compliment. We encounter a lot of waving and honking drivers, though. When Petra spots a car with friendly occupants, she waves back and tells me over the intercom. Then I start waving at them before they reach me. The result is frantic uninhibited waving by all passengers. Big smiles from under headscarfs.
We reach Marand before sunset. There is a simple hotel of the same chain as in Maku. The reception by a hotel employee is quite distant again, not helped by the fact that he speaks almost no English. What isn’t helping either is that, so far, all Iranian hotel employees insist that they keep your passport until check-out. We don’t like that at all. If one of our passports goes missing, our trip is over, or at least thoroughly messed up. We’ve heard stories of people being handed out the wrong passports of fellow countrymen and finding out too late.
We first try to convince them by telling them that we need to be able to identify ourselves when we’re out on the street. Then we’re usually given a business card of the hotel and we’re told that we can show this to the police so they can call the hotel. If we claim that we’ll break the Dutch law if we don’t have our passports in our possession, they remain firm. They don’t care — we’re not in the Netherlands after all. If we say that they can make copies and keep those, they suddenly don’t have a copier and remain hesitant when we provide our own copies.
When asking why the passports need to be in the reception — often unsecured and in plain view — they say that the passports need to be there “in case the police comes to check”. We then tell them that they can call our room at any time, should the police really show up. No response. As a last resort, we offer to pay the room in advance. Stalemate resolved. We get our passports back immediately.
There is a big wedding party at this hotel which means that the kitchen is very busy entertaining wedding guests. There is no normal dinner service today. We’re far away from the next restaurant and don’t want to ride in the dark. We manage to get some tea and naan (bread) so we don’t have to go to bed hungry.
August 7th, 2016 — Traffic in Tabreeze
Breakfast is almost as skimpy as last night’s ‘dinner’. The unfriendly employee of last night is no longer there and replaced by his friendlier colleague. He speaks better English and knows the WiFi password. The connection is slow but fast enough for our electronic banking website not to time out. We finally manage to pay an advance to our Chinese tour operator for the transit in September. This takes quite a bit of time so we don’t leave before noon.
We’ll ride to Tabriz today and stay in a hotel close to the main road to Tehran. We’ve lost a few days recovering from our biology experiment and we want to get our visa for Turkmenistan and China. If we manage to get those, we can finally stop running to embassies. Our way to Pakistan would then be paved with the proper visa.
When entering Tabriz we take a wrong turn. Instead of being lead around the city on the western bypass, we’re now on a much busier road that still leads us roughly in the right direction. Cars are passing us at close distance. Drivers make sudden lane changes without looking or indicating. Trucks belch out big clouds of soot.
There are three lanes but drivers seem to agree unanimously that five rows of cars will fit just fine. Taking it easy in the rightmost lane is no solution because it is frequently blocked by parked cars and trucks. We’re trying to stick together and to the middle of our lane in an offset configuration. This way our bikes form a large virtual vehicle that takes maximum space so other drivers are less inclined to push us off the road, hopefully. Staying in the middle of a lane is important because otherwise we’d soon have a driver next to us in that same lane, restricting our way out of trouble. This traffic is probably a good preparation for what awaits us in Tehran.
We have never used our horns more. Every time another driver even thinks about doing something dangerous, we’re on our horn buttons. I’m really glad I took the time to mount the louder horns because they make us sound bigger than we are. They’re not looking so how would they know we’re not a big truck? This way, we seem to get just enough space. Sometimes, when we are separated by more than a few cars, I can only hear Petra’s horn over the intercom, occasionally followed by some swearing.
When unloading our luggage, I manage to keep a blind grandpa from hitting Petra’s bike with his car, only because he isn’t deaf also. The hotel has a good WiFi connection which is essential for sending some more documents to China. There is more hassle to get our passports back after check-in. They want a deposit to cover the price of the room plus some more to cover our expected restaurant expenses. They’ve just seen us carrying our luggage through the lobby. Do they really think we’re going to sneak out without paying? We find this distrust very unprofessional and insulting. We wonder how they see this themselves.
We’re too tired to be bothered with sightseeing in town, which is a shame, according to our travel guide. The wind is blowing strongly around the hotel. We fall asleep quickly.
Random observations from the saddle: We find that Iranian women are dressed much more elegantly than those women that wear headscarfs in Eastern Turkey. They’re also not covering their heads completely. Often their scarfs are worn very far on the back of their heads or large strands of hair peek out from underneath. They make abiding by the law look fashionable. Nor are they shy: A friendly “Salam” is always returned and eye contact (even with me) never a problem.
August 8th, 2016 — Rasta Mon
At least breakfast is better than the miserable bits we had yesterday. There is even a jolly grandpa making omelets and he actually cares.
Petra is in a bad mood from the heat, the combination of headscarf and wind and the fact that she lost a helmet liner and seems to need to do everything two times this morning.
We reach the main road to Tehran quickly. The man at the toll gate says “No”. He doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to pass, but that we don’t need to pay. We’re waved through all other toll gates as well. Did you read that, France and Italy?
There is a lot of wind again. So far, this has been our hottest day in Iran so we put our drinking bladders to good use. Traffic is not so hectic on this main road but that is no reason to let our guards down.
We have lunch at a typical Iranian roadside rest area. There are large square plateaus, each covered with a Persian rug and made more comfortable with some pillows. They have a roof too, so we don’t need to eat in the scorching sunshine. We have lunch with bread, fruit juice and tea as our dirty motorcycle boots dangle over the plateau’s edge.
Meanwhile, excited Iranians take photos of our motorcycles. They hardly see any ‘big’ bikes here. The maximum engine displacement for bikes registered in Iran is 250cc, officially. So it’s quite obvious that the bikes belong to the only foreigners here. After the photo session, one of them comes to our lunch spot and gives us plums and apples. Great! Thank you!
On the move again, we see that our surroundings become more beautiful. We’re riding north of a protected natural area. Apart from plain gray, the craggy mountains come in pastel hues of red, yellow and green. When we stop to take photos, every second driver honks at us. There are many friendly people around today, on and off the road. Besides waving they also use their smartphones to take photos and make movies, some even while hanging out of the window. This country is never boring.
A few kilometers before Zanjan we need to stop. My brows have saturated with sweat on this hot afternoon. It is now dribbling over the inside of my protective glasses which means that I see gradually less. We happen to stop near a big family that is having tea in the shade of a fuel station. The first inquisitive family member is an 8-year-old girl that asks us, in very good English, whether we come from the UK.
Soon, the whole family surrounds us and starts asking many questions, which we answer patiently and happily. “Is that your husband? How big are the engines? Can we take photos?” (Sure) “Where are you going? Where are you going in Iran? Would you like some tea?” (Sure) “Do you like it here? Is riding a motorcycle difficult? Which languages do you speak? How do you like the weather here? What kind of weather is it in the Netherlands?” Then they squeeze themselves into three small cars and drive off waving. Another lovely example of Petra’s Rule.
Petra’s Rule:If you stop somewhere along the road in Iran, you’ll have a good time.
Our hotel in Zanjan is quite nice. What is really getting on our nerves again is the passport discussion. We can’t pay a deposit because we don’t have enough money. We hop onto the Black Camel together to find an exchange office in hectic traffic. A nice guy at the phone shop walks us there all the way. We’re getting a better rate here than in Maku and with big piles of paper in our pockets we try to find a restaurant. We take a wrong turn into what appears to be the ‘shoe street’. There are only shoe shops here but no restaurants. Eventually we find the Iranian version of Subway and have a satisfying meal for €2,50 (US$ 2.80).
August 9th, 2016 — Smelly Finger
We’re staying another day in Zanjan. This will allow us to rest and have more time to buy an Iranian SIM card and plan our route through this large country. We want to avoid having to hurry at the end of our visa duration. We’ve meanwhile received the invitation from Turkmenistan that is required for our visa application. After checking on which days and times the Chinese and Turkmen embassies are open, we can estimate how many days we’ll stay in Tehran. Six or seven, if we’re realistic.
After lunch we go to town to buy a prepaid SIM card with data subscription from MTN Irancell. This will give us more freedom because the internet connections in affordable hotels are often less than mediocre. Using the phone with the SIM card as a mobile hotspot, we can both use the data subscription at the same time.
When asking who speaks English in this mobile phone shop, the four ladies behind the counter shake their heads unanimously. Then they all walk away and will undoubtedly decide behind the scenes who will be sacrificed for this special case. They pick the one with the best knowledge of English and it’s really not bad. The data subscription and SIM card appear to be good value for money: we’re paying €10 (US$ 11) for 5Gb of data, 30 call minutes and the card itself. That should definitely do before we leave the country.
They need a signature and a finger print from Petra. I refrain from saying that their government already has all our 20 finger prints. To clean the ink off her finger, Petra is offered the employee’s personal Versace imitation perfume which is another source of laughter. So an additional advantage of buying a subscription is that your finger will smell nice all day. The lady configures the dual-SIM phone in a jiffy and the first messages start coming in before we even get the chance to ask whether it’s working. We’re impressed.
The driver of our taxi back to the hotel does not speak much English, so our conversation is limited to “Farsi? No Farsi. Iran good bad? Iran good!”
August 10th, 2016 — Crowded Capital
We’ve parked the bikes in the shade close to the hotel entrance to load them. Before we’re done, we’ve already received an invitation to a wedding and to lunch. We absolutely hate having to turn down their generous offers but we need to go to Tehran now. It’s Wednesday and we want to visit at least one embassy before the Iranian weekend. We apologize profusely and explain why we really have to go. How cool would it have been to experience an Iranian wedding? We’re pleasantly surprised about the openness, warmth and hospitality of these people to strangers. We’ve really forgotten all about this in large parts of the Western world.
When we ride into the chaotic traffic of Zanjan we are the object of waving, honking, thumbs-up and many photos. Cars full of men, women and children are glad we’re visiting their country, or maybe they just like seeing big bikes. And it continues on the motorway: we’ve stopped counting after the 50th time.
As we get closer to Tehran, we notice that people wear more expensive clothing and have more luxurious cars. It’s also a lot more crowded. We stop at a fuel station, mainly to fill up ourselves with much needed drinks. Twenty minutes later we’ve been given three telephone numbers of people who want to meet us in Tehran. Has that ever happened to you on M4 just outside of London?
Before we meet these people again, we need to get our application going at the Chinese embassy tomorrow. Tehran is huge. It has more than 8 million inhabitants; 14 million if you also count the metropolitan urban area surrounding it. Most embassies are in the north of the city and that’s why we’ve chosen to find a hotel in the north. This saves us long trips through the city for embassy visits and I figured that embassy areas generally are richer and therefore less crowded. Unfortunately, the latter does not hold.
We enter the city well before sunset but get stuck in very slow traffic for almost two hours. The road is literally filled with cars everywhere. We’d have a hard time pulling over because there’s simply no more space. At some point we’re stuck in a tunnel with hundreds of cars that all comply with the Euro-0 emissions standards. This is very unhealthy so we squeeze through wherever we can, also to give our engines some much needed cooling. I see how the Camel’s oil temperature reaches 110°C (230°F), which is very unusual. Stiff Spring boasts with a cooling water temperature warning too.
The OSM maps are not as good as we’re used to. There are some annoying errors: places where flyovers cross lower lying roads are interpreted as intersections. Surprise one-way signs and dead-end streets do their part to make it difficult to find our hotel. We finally arrive at 9pm. Prices for hotels in Tehran are higher than we expected, even without the tax and the service charges. It’s dark and we’re tired and we don’t want to waste more time in dense traffic to find another expensive hotel. These are bad circumstances for negotiation. We don’t manage to get a lower rate, only a late checkout tomorrow. We’re pissed off about this but don’t have a choice. They do accept credit cards through some company in Dubai so we’re not also wasting our cash reserves on this.
We hope we can arrange the visa quickly. It’s probably not fair to Tehran, but we feel like leaving this city already.
August 11th, 2016 — Chinese Treadmill
The day starts well with a good breakfast. We reach the Chinese embassy 10 minutes before they’re supposed to open. No phones allowed. An X-ray check for our bags. It looks like they’ve started early today because there are a lot of people inside already. There are four counters separated by a big glass wall. There are plenty of chairs for waiting people and no apparent system to organize whose turn it is. There are wildly gesturing men with stacks of 40 passports each. They run from counter to counter and don’t hesitate to break into other people’s business.
If we take a seat here, we’re going to wait forever, or at least until they kick us out around noon. We don’t know how long all of the paperwork is going to take so we just join in the fun at the counters. Soon enough we have our slot and explain our case. We need to download application forms, fill them out, have them printed and hand them in with passport photos. We’re pointed to an attorney’s office in a shopping center nearby. Thankfully we’ve brought a laptop, a USB cable to use my phone as a USB stick and Petra’s phone with the data subscription. This way we can download the form, fill it out, transfer it to the attorney’s computer and have it printed. They’re asking €1,25 (US$ 1.40) for this and it includes tea.
We apply for tourist visa with 3 months validity (until entry) and 30 days duration. That should do for a 5-day transit at the end of September. Back at the embassy, the employee tells us the bad news that we will only get a validity of 30 days instead of 3 months. We don’t think that “we’re already doing you a favor by allowing you to apply in a third country” is a good reason. It wouldn’t cost them anything extra to give us 3 months! We try to convince him but he is adamant that these are the new rules.
We withdraw our application and take all papers back to our hotel. Our mood is below zero. Another wasted morning, and at least two more days. The Chinese embassy is open on Thursday, Sunday and Tuesday. And we’ve missed attending an Iranian wedding because of this!
What annoys me most, though, is that we’d hoped to stop running, spend more time in nice places and with people we like. But if we don’t get more than 30 days validity there are multiple problems: we need to rush through Uzbekistan to try to apply for Chinese visa there or we’d need to return to Tehran after August 27th to obtain visa that would still be valid by September 26th. However, there is a processing time of 2 to 4 days and our Iranian visa will expire on September 1st. Even if we’d get visa in Tehran, it would impact our route through Iran because we’d need to return to this overfilled city. On top of that we’d need to rush through North-East Iran and the Stan countries to make it to China on September 26th. All of this for a 5-day transit?? Really? This sucks!
I’m really very depressed and sad about this. I want to stop running after our visa! I’m sick of staying in crowded and overpriced capitals and visiting embassies. I keep playing all kinds of scenarios through my mind but they all have big disadvantages. One of the most appealing solutions in my current state of mind is to go to Armenia and Georgia and return to Europe. At least we’d be free! Is this the point on our trip where my Motto#2 fails?