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.
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.
The border crossing at Sarahs/Sarakhs is rarely used by tourists and according to my map the road to Mashhad was a minor road. But it was a huge improvement on any of the so-called highways I had been riding on for the last 3 months. No potholes, no corrugations, no roadworks – perfect for covering long distances quickly. What I didn’t appreciate was that the cars and trucks and buses were all going much faster as well. Previously, the bad roads ensured that the lunatic drivers were restricted to about 100km/h. But with good roads the lunatic drivers were free to drive as fast as they liked. Even though the speed limit was 110km/h I was probably the only vehicle doing anything close to that. The high speed itself was not the problem. The main problem was the road was only a single-lane carriageway which meant some of the overtaking manoeuvres were breathtaking to say the least. The idea of slowing down and waiting until the road is clear before overtaking doesn’t seem to have caught on in Iran. Everyone just pulls out and hopes the oncoming traffic makes room for them. Fortunately, they usually do.
I arrived on the outskirts of Mashhad just in time for the 5pm peak hour rush. Several of my fellow travellers had recommended Vali’s Guesthouse as the best place to stay. The only problem was finding it. Mashhad does have streetsigns. But they were all in Farsi and Farsi uses the Arabic alphabet. In most of Central Asia they used either the Cyrillic alphabet or a modified Latin alphabet, so I had some chance of reading street signs. Here I didn’t have a hope!
Based on the mudmap I was given, I knew I was in the right general area but I simply couldn’t find it in the mayhem of the traffic. I finally gave up and asked a couple of likely lads on a scooter if they knew the address. After a few quick phone calls they asked me to follow them and in a few minutes I was at Vali’s – at the end of a dead-end alleyway. I would never have found it.
As much as I cursed the traffic while I was in it, it was when I was safely ensconced in Vali’s that it occurred to me that it was the lack of traffic in the large cities of Turkmenistan (Turkmenabad and Mary) that contributed greatly to the strangely surreal feeling of the country.
As hard as it may be for some people to believe, after Turkmenistan, Iran was just like a normal country.