Iran (So Far Away)


MARAND, IRAN — Goris is allegedly a beautiful Armenian city to visit, but to be honest I couldn’t tell you if it was. I got a very early start around sunrise, wanting to have some leeway in case things at the border with Iran didn’t go very smoothly, and rode as fast as I could. My Iranian tourist visa would expire the next day, and in the event of breakdown or early border closure, I wanted to be as close to the frontier as possible.

The ride south was fantastic, with the road descending deeper into the valley and then climbing a thousand metres via a dizzying series of erratic switchbacks. And then it was all the way down again, and up again once more. According to my GPS, at one point the road popped over about a kilometre into de jure Azeri territory that is currently being held by Armenian troops. Eventually the altitude of the road more or less stay put as it leveled out into a broad mountain valley and meandered towards the town of Kajaran. There, I had to negotiate my way through some back alleys to find the road leading to the Meghri Pass. Forty-five minutes later I was at the top. There was very little traffic up there, and about the only living souls I saw were a pair of bored-looking army conscripts and their dog. They sat on a pile of rusty pipes at the apex of the pass, and were happy to take my picture.

At the Meghri pass, 2535 metres

I asked if I could take their picture, but they made it clear that if I did, they, not I, could get in some deep trouble. I thanked them for their time, and gave my brakes a workout on the 40-kilometre descent to Meghri. After Meghri I took mental notes as I passed items of interest — beer for sale, a woman with her hair exposed — and resolved not to think about such things once I’d crossed into Iran.

The road then followed the Iranian border along a dried-up riverbed, with a large iron fence and concertina wire running along it for decoration. As I approached the border post at Agarak, evidence from the recent limited war with Azerbaijan appeared here and there: the fortified train tunnel carved into a sheer rock face showed blast damage, and the twisted remains of a railway flatcar, hit by a bomb or artillery or a very large mortar, had been left to rust in a disused portion of a switchyard. What was off to my left appeared much more forbidding: Iran’s natural border with Armenia is row after row of near-identical sawtooth mountains, utterly devoid of vegetation and looking every bit like the establishment shots of North Korea in Team America.

The Armenians were a bit fussy about my departure: I had to unload everything from my bike and run it through an X-ray machine. Along the way, I got to talking to a group of Iranian guys in their twenties. They were all smiles and handshakes and “Heymanwhereyoufrom?” and they insisted I drink some of their water. There were then two passport checks, the second of which was conducted with extreme thoroughness by a frowning apparatchik with Cyrillic shoulder badges and a portrait of Dmitry Medvedev on his wall. Oddly, the Armenians have Russians guarding their southern border. Who knew.

I was then directed to a bridge across the bone-dry riverbed, upon which crouched a miserable-looking Iranian soldier clutching a very beat-up Kalashnikov. He waved me towards a large booth at the other end of the bridge. I duly drove towards it, and waved at a lone figure in its window. He in turn pointed towards a building set even further back, which looked every bit like a Canadian public library from the 1970s. There was nobody around, so I walked inside and eventually found somebody to stamp my passport. The guy in the kiosk instantly found my visa, stamped it, and handed it back to me.

“What about my motorbike?” I asked. “I have a carnet.” As far as I knew, this would be the first time I needed to use my hard-won Carnet de Passages en Douane, a sort of bond on the Hamburglar that I had bought back in Serbia and needed to get in to countries like Iran and India. The immigration guy clearly had no idea, so he talked to a colleague and pointed me towards yet another building. I hopped on the bike, rode it over there, parked in the shade, and poked around the nearly deserted building looking for somebody to process my bike. Eventually a smiling guy in civilian clothes came out to meet me. He saw I was carrying a motorcycle helmet. “Do you have a carnet?” he asked. He trailed the last syllable of “carnet” off in this weird plaintive tone.

“Yes sir, I do!” I said, and produced my sheaf of documents. He took them and returned five minutes later with them processed and good to go. He pointed at my bike and smiled. “You rode that from Serbia?” he asked, and I replied in the affirmative. “Welcome to Iran,” he said, shook my hand, and pointed at the manned gate at the other end of the parking lot. I drove off towards it to find yet another guy in civvies and socks and sandals. He looked at my documents, shrugged, said “Welcome to Iran”, and lifted the gate. I then realized that I had no Iranian rial on me, and there had been an exchange office back in the first building. Fearing some sort of churlish response, I politely asked if I might go back and exchange some cash.

“Yes, yes, yes, no problem, I’ll be here,” he said, making a sort of downward hand gesture that I took to mean “no hurry.” I sped off back to the first building and went to the exchange office. Again fearing the worst, I asked if they’d accept the two hundred bucks’ worth of Armenian dram I’d been unable to exchange for dollars in the last few Armenian towns.

“Yes, yes, no problem,” the money exchange guy said, and moments later I had a fat brick of Iranian cash in my hands. This was far too easy. I rode back to the gate, and didn’t even have to stop or slow down — Mr. Socks-And-Sandals lifted the gate as I approached, and gave me a friendly wave. I gave him a few toots of my horn, entered Iran, Islamic Republic of, and peeled off westwards on the road towards the town of Jolfa.

I had to stop for a minute to get my bearings. That had been a very pleasant experience. I’d ridden my Vespa into one of the world’s most notorious pariah-states, but at the very least, the folks manning its border were decent and courteous and efficient. Moreover, here I was in the Iranian boonies, and this little twisty two-lane road was perfect: smooth as silk, banked in the corners, and generally engineered to Western European standard. There was only the occasional car, too, so I took the chance to open the throttle and enjoy the tight curves as the road hugged the base of that mountain range that looked so forbidding back on the Armenian side. It was just me, the Hamburglar, and miles and miles of blue-ribbon asphalt, the best I’d ridden on in so far in the trip.

I stopped at a Jolfa convenience store to get some cherry juice and an energy drink, and saw with some surprise a fridge stocked with beer. On closer inspection, though, it was only a mirage: it was 0% Baltika beer. Dang. Things were going so well. Next stop was an Irancell shop to get an Iranian SIM card for my phone, which was a quick and painless process. I got back on the bike and rode to the town of Marand, where I decided to sleep for the night. The rural driving style in Iran seemed fairly civilized, but once I entered Marand, things changed. A lot. It was the same lawless free-for-all I’d experienced earlier in the year when I was in Saigon on vacation, except there were more cars than bikes here in Iran. But there were some motorbikes here, unlike in the CIS countries: their presence meant that Iranian four-wheeled motorists were at the very least aware of the existence of motorcycles, and could see them, and understood to some extent that they had to share the road with them. That’s my theory, anyway.

The only bed in town turned out to be in a state-run motel on the southern outskirts, on the old road to Tabriz. They had plenty of cheap rooms available, I gladly took one, and fell alseep almost instantly.


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