Local women in traditional black chador – they must be airconditioned!
The days were starting to slip away from me in Mashhad. I had been travelling in 35-40° heat almost everyday for 6 weeks now and I was finding it very difficult to muster the energy or the enthusiasm to go out sightseeing during the heat of the day. In any case, many places in Mashhad were shut from about 1pm until 4 or 5pm to escape the heat also.
The one place in Mashhad that I really wanted to see was the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. The shrine was only a 20min walk from Vali’s. But the problem was we were still in the holy month of Ramadan and the usual daily crowds of thousands of people had become daily crowds of TENS of thousands. The only solution seemed to be to visit the shrine late at night.
And so it was that late one night Simon, the Farsi-speaking Ulsterman, and I walked up to the shrine and managed to join a crowd of Shia pilgrims and make it all the way in to the inner sanctum where the gold lattice cage covers the holy tomb of Imam Reza.
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
How would I spend my first day in Iran?
The question sounded ridiculously common-place.
I wandered aimlessly around the streets of central Mashhad for a few hours just to get a feel for the city and its people. Despite the picture painted by the Western media, Iran didn’t appear to be full of terrorists or religious fanatics. The streets of Mashhad were populated by ordinary people going about their ordinary everyday lives.
My first day in Iran? It should have seemed a bit more exotic – but, disappointlingly, it wasn’t. Apart from the giant posters and murals of Ayatollah Khomeini (and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei) and the greater number of women wearing the chador I could have been in any big city in Asia.
It was another scorching hot day. I arrived at the Iranian border post at Sarakhs (not to be confused with Sarahs on the other side of the border) about 1pm and it was a great relief to finally leave the twilight zone of Turkmenistan and to be entering Iran.
But with all the bad press Iran receives in the Western media I wasn’t sure what sort of reception I would receive at the border post. I needn’t have worried. The Immigration officers were very professional and one was particularly interested in my travels through Central Asia. Also I had to dig out my carnet again which I hadn’t needed since I left Pakistan. Again I needn’t have worried. The Customs officer was a woman and she was the first person I had met that actually knew how to process the carnet without help. The entire border crossing was conducted in a very logical and efficient manner – completely different to the nightmare in Farap when I entered Turkmenistan. All up, it only took about an hour in total and, suddenly, I was in Iran.
The rocky ridges of the Koppe Dag range made a pleasant change.
Something else that was completely different was the terrain. Shortly after leaving Sarakhs the countryside changed from low dunes to barren rocky ridges. I had not seen anything other than flat semi-desert plains since entering Uzbekistan from Tajikistan several weeks ago. It certainly made for a pleasant change of scenery.
My goal for the day was Mashhad – still almost 200km away. Depending on the road I reasoned I should make it before sunset.
From Mary to the border post at Sarahs was about 270km if I stuck to the main bitumen road. There was a shortcut past the Hanhowuz Reservoir which was much shorter but I had been told the dirt road was in pretty bad condition. I had seen enough bad dirt roads in my travels and this one travelled through a particularly remote corner of Turkmenistan. With the prospect of another 40 degree day I reasoned that the bitumen may be longer in distance but probably not that much longer in time. And I didn’t fancy the idea of turning up at the Iran border completely knackered from riding 2-3 hours across the desert.
More of the same – low sand dunes and saltbush scrub.
I said a fond farewell to friendly folk at the Yrsgal Hotel and set off to ride the 70km to the little town of Hanhowuz where I would have to make my final decision about my route. The landscape along the way was a continuation of yesterday’s desert dunes.
On the outskirts of Hanhowuz I stopped beside a police car and asked them about the shortcut. They told me it was closed and not to go that way. No problem. I didn’t really want to go that way anyway but I thought I should at least make a token effort and ask. Now I knew for certain I only had about 2-3 hours of riding to the border at Sarahs.
From one side of the country to the other – the first road sign in 400km of highway!
And I was glad I chose the easy option because after about 70 km, at the turn-off just outside Tejen, I would have missed a rare sight – the first roadsign since the border crossing at Farap on the other side of the country! From the turn-off it was about 130km to dusty little border town of Sarahs. In less than 2hrs I would be at the Iran border and my travels and travails in Turkmenistan would be over.
Exiting Turkmenistan proved to be much simpler than entering Turkmenistan. There was the usual administrivia but I was amused when the immigration officer pointed to the exit date on my visa and then to today’s date on his desk calendar, recognising that I was leaving on the fourth day – a day early. He gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up!
That just about summed up my impression of the Turkmenistan officialdom. They just don’t want you in their country. Which is quite sad really because that is not the real Turkmenistan. The real Turkmenistan is the ordinary people of Turkmenistan who were some of the friendliest people I had met in my travels so far.
But today was not just about escaping the parallel universe where Turkmenistan is normal. Far more importantly it was about entering Iran. No other country in my travels had provoked such mixed responses from people as Iran. Everything from “paradise on earth” (hardly) to “full of terrorists” (unlikely). The truth, of course, is somewhere between the two extremes.
And I was about to find out for myself.
I made a relatively early getaway from Sayat as I had to ride the 50km back to Turkmenabad and refuel. And I was determined to cover as much distance in the cool of the morning before the mercury headed for 40 degrees again. Back in Turkmenabad, for the third time in two days, I refilled the tank at a different petrol station this time, not wanting a repeat of yesterday’s calamity. I was greeted by a young girl dressed in a smart company uniform.
As she filled the tank she asked me, in very broken English, the usual questions: where I was from, where I had been and where I was going. In situations like this the map of the world on my pannier was worth its weight in gold. I could point to Australia, wherever I was at the time and my finishing point. However, I usually said London, not Dublin as most people had never heard of Dublin.
The young girl was able to hold a conversation and fill the tank at the same time without spilling a drop – both of which were well outside “the skill set” of yesterday’s dropkick. For the same reason, I suppose, why adolescent boys shouldn’t work on the checkout at Coles or Woolies!
After my pleasant little interlude with the pleasant young girl, I steeled myself for what lay ahead of me – 250km of nothing!
As I rode back down the road I had just ridden up not more than 30min ago, I began to wonder just what the consequences of my split-second decision would really be. If nothing else it would answer my question about what were the ordinary people of Turkmenistan like.
To be honest, the little town of Sayat could only be described as “nondescript”. It was a small market town for the surrounding area with no outstanding physical attractions. But, as in all such places around the world, the generosity of spirit of its people more than make up for any perceived lack of beauty.
At Bahar’s home I was welcomed like a long-lost relative. The family home was full as there was to be a wedding in two days’ time. Initially I was unsure about intruding on such an important family occasion but everyone assured me that “the more, the merrier” was the case and I was immediately made to feel at ease. Shortly after arriving the endless lunch began and every family member went out of their way to make sure I was fed, watered and comfortable. This was a family that did not know me one hour ago! Continue reading
The Hotel Jeyhun in Turkmenabad – another palatial, but empty, mausoleum. This one designed to extract as many US dollars as possible from the handful of Western tourists staying there.
Next morning my fellow motorcyclists and I had a frank discussion with the hotel clerk about the bill and the exchange rate. He couldn’t have cared less.
So after repacking the bike I bade farewell to the Spanish couple, Jose and Pilar, and a young English woman, Fern as they continued their long journey east to the Chinese border. I headed off in the opposite direction. Our time at the Hotel Jeyhun, we all agreed, had been decidely odd.
According to my map, there was only one major road leaving Turkmenabad on the southern side – the highway to Mary (where I was heading) with a minor road coming off that to the left that eventually lead to a remote border crossing to Afghanistan several hundred kilometres away.
As I reached the large roundabout on the southern outskirts of town, the “main” road continued straight ahead with minor roads coming off left and right. Even in the absence of any road signs everything seemed so straightforward (no pun intended) that I didn’t bother to stop to check with the locals as I normally would.
You would think I would have learnt my lesson after my navigational faux pas with the Pamir Highway back in Kyrgyzstan. Just because a road looks like a highway, it doesn’t mean it is a highway. And just because a road looks like a goat track doesn’t mean it’s not a highway.
So off I trundled down the “main road” enjoying the surprising good bitumen and lack of traffic.