It took me three days to sort out my legitimacy in Iran. A letter was needed from the Australian Embassy, a visit to the Department of Foreign Affairs for authorisation and finally a return to the Immigration Police who could issue my exit stamp. All of this would have been helpful to know in advance as opposed to when you are turning up to finalise, but in these situations, three days seems like a breeze.
Perhaps the most fascinating element was the visit to the Foreign Affairs Department. It began with instructions to go to room 211. There a polite gentleman told me to go to 225 and get my passport copied. 225 had other ideas. They said go to 218 to get a copy and then go back to 211. I thought this can’t be right. But with a copy in hand I proceeded back to 211. The gentleman apologised. He had made a mistake. I think upon seeing my embassy letter he assumed I was a diplomat. Nope, I’m just a pleb. And so he did his bit and sent me to 228. This office seemed quite important. Something else was done here and then finally I went to 235. I now had authorisation and was one step away from an exit stamp.
Returning to the Immigration Police, I felt like an old hand at this game and cruised in and around like one of the staff. Got reminded again of the Socceroos vs Iran in 1997 (Yeah, they still talk about it) and after some form filling my passport was taken from me and I was left sitting there like I had no friends. The Afghani guy who had been with me came back to collect me. He took me down to the waiting area and there we sat for an hour. As the clock ticked by, I started to get nervous. People coming and going, arguing with authorities and slowly the trickle of staff out the door as 1:30pm neared (closing time that is). Given it was Wednesday, the next two days would be holidays, so I prayed to God I wasn’t going to get stuffed around even further. And so, like all the other hopeless and helpless individuals I decided to lean on the counter where the clerk was stamping madly and abusing people even more so.
Eventually some guy walked over with a pile of passports. He called out names one by one and finally he picked up one that looked like mine, opened it and slowly read aloud “SHAN MAL-ON-EE”. I was literally standing in front of this guy “Ahh… that’s me”. I think it surprised him. He handed it over and it was done! Two extra weeks given and I was now finally free to continue my journey!
Of course, with the weekend looming the invitation for riding at Shemshak was issued by Ali and yet again, I did what any normal person would do and said yes! Things got a little bit adventurous when some of the slopes chosen were less than suitable for my heavy bike, but I came away injury and bike damage free, so I sure wasn’t complaining. The second day on Shemshak after a massive sleep in and a bit of a drive around the area was a tyre changing tutorial for Ali. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, but we got most of the way there. Getting the new tyre on provded to be a mission and so we eventually gave up and decided a tyre shop could do it. We’d run out of time to ride anyway. Nevertheless, the whole experience only served to reinforce my fear of tyre changes!
Back in Tehran it was time to get ready to finally go. After almost seven weeks in Iran it felt strange to be leaving. I’d met so many people and had become attached to the chaos of Tehran. Ali’s place was becoming my home away from home and Ali himself was a great mate to have a laugh with and always offering to be of service. I had one more social occasion before leaving. Essi, whom I’d met when riding with Ali, had invited me to his home. There we shared a great meal with a couple of his friends and his two daughters (his wife was away at the time). Originally from Kordestan (Kurdestan region of Iran), Essi is an amazing musician. Playing both the Setar (traditional Iranian lute) and the Tanbur (Kurdish version of the same) it was mesmerising. His daughter joined in on the Tonbak (a drum that has an egg cup shape so that it rests neatly in between the legs of the musician) and she was equally talented. I could have listened for hours. I told Essi that I had discovered Sonati (Iranian traditional music) several years ago and loved it and he was amazed.
Interestingly, one of his guests was a major figure in Iranian conservation. The gentleman (who’s name I failed to catch) played the major role in ensuring the Lut Desert was added as a UNESCO World Heritage site. (I’ve since found out that the exuberant claims of those in Yazd – being the first UNESCO site in Iran – isn’t quite right… they have many!) Essi and I were talking about conservation and he was describing the ecological diversity in Iran which of course I’ve come to appreciate. I asked if he’d heard of the Turkmen Ecolodge and straight away Essi says “Kamran! Yes! I was the first tourist to visit the EcoLodge ever!” I couldn’t believe it! What a small world. We both have KTM bikes, I have loved Sonati for years and here he was putting on a spectacular private show for me and we’d both been to the Turkmen Ecolodge! Essi said that no meeting is by accident and I hope our next encounter is on dirt bikes in Australia. Essi says it is his dream to ride in Australia. I’m sure he’ll get there and I hope to provide the same hospitality I was able to enjoy. Essi also enlightened me to two famous Iranian adventurers I’d never heard of – the Omidvar Brothers! 60 years ago, two Iranian brothers set off on motorbikes and went around the world for seven years with no money! They then were given a Citroen car and continued their journey for another three years! They are the most remarkable adventurers I’ve ever heard of. Essi told me about their museum and a couple of days later I went and saw it. The photos were incredible. These guys travelled everywhere: South Pole, Alaska, outback Australia with the Aborigines, Pygmy tribes, Amazon Indians, Navajo Inidians the list goes on and on. It is remarkable. I think they covered 99 locations/countries. All by road and sea. I can’t wait to read their book and see their films.
And so, the day to leave had finally come. I set off from Tehran on Tuesday with a long ride ahead to Astara just before the border to Azerbaijan. It was sad to leave and sad to say goodbye to Ali. But the feeling of being on the move again was a good one. I retraced most of the route to Masuleh (including the notorious wind tunnel) and then headed north to Astara. It was a long ride with smaller and slower roads. The drivers were even more crazy and I was conscious of this the whole way. At one point I rode to the very far right beyond the white line so I was safely away from oncoming traffic to my left. I leant forward to punch some keys on my gps (something I’d done a thousand times before) and seemingly a second later I had a car going the opposite way past me within a metre! It had literally overtaken cars and was completely in my lane going the opposite way whilst I was almost not on the road. What scared me most was I hadn’t seen it and cold have easily (and rightly) drifted back into my lane. I was used to people doing this all the time, but it still scared the shit out of me. Sometimes I can be in the middle of my lane and cars coming the other way will overtake as they “know” I can just move off the road. It is beyond mental. It really freaked me out and I promised myself I wouldn’t put myself in that position again. From now on, you just have to assume every single car will do something beyond insane…. literally because they do it all the time. It’s one thing to check a gps on a three lane highway separated by barricades from the three lanes going the other way, but when it’s a double carriage road you really cannot take a single chance.
The coastal road brought cooler temperatures, but it was definitely more humid. I arrived at the hotel at the end of the day and was thankful I could now rest before the next big ride tomorrow. The border lay 8kms away and I was hoping it would be a straight forward procedure to get into Azerbaijan. The hotel sat right next a lovely lake. The afternoon was relaxing and I enjoyed a nice final dinner in Iran. Reflecting on everywhere I’d been and everyone I’d met I couldn’t help but feel I would be back. Tehran, Kashan, Esfahan, Abyaneh, Persepolis, Yazd (and the great revelation of a lost passport!), Shemshak (my favourite riding place), Chalus, Gorgan, Totli Tamak, Qazvin, Masuleh, Zanjan and now Astara. Over 5,000kms and many, many wonderful experiences. To think I was now heading to Azerbaijan when I should have just been completing the “5 Stans”. Incidentally, I never did find out if my Turkmen visa was approved. Every time I rang the Embassy they never answered the phone. I guess I’ll never know!
The next morning I was off. I did a currency exchange and got screwed in the process and then crossed into the border area. It was hot and humid and I was sweating like crazy. Everyone was friendly and I managed to get my paperwork for the bike stamped accordingly. When it came to inspection time, I was asked to open some of my luggage. Upon seeing my effort to undo everything, they quickly said don’t worry about it and before long I was ready to get my passport stamped. The usual explanation of the lost passport ensued and after a bit of a wait in the shade, some guy walked out and handed my my passport and said all good! And that was it. I jumped on my bike and rode along the bridge separating the two countries. My very first border crossing via motorbike* was now 50% done. I wondered what it would be like on the other side. I thought to myself “Farewell Iran! What an amazing experience you’ve been for me! Thank you!”
* Not entirely true. I did do a border crossing on a KTM690 from Chile to Argentina with Klaus back in 2015 and that was a massive drama! But that’s a story for another day.