Riding through IRAN: update enclosed
Dear Fellow Bikers, This is essentially an update of info I had read on useful threads posted a couple of years ago, I having just ridden from Van in W.Turkey to Turkmenistan (Zagros mountains to Esfahan, Yazd, desert to Sharud and NE hills). No major changes to report from those threads, but I thought a summary would be useful.
SEROU BORDER + INSURANCE
The crossing from Turkey into Iran at Serou (SE of Van), as opposed to the beaten track at Baazargaan between Dogubayazit and Maku is indeed a good crossing. Nice ride on a slightly tired road from Van. Through both check-posts within half an hour. I have a carnet, so they stamped it. They let me off checking through my luggage on noting my dejected face at the prospect of unpacking. I crossed on a Friday, however, and so the insurance office at the border was closed. I thus bought it the next day from Bime Iran (Iran Insurance – the main company in Iran) in Orumiyeh, half an hour into Iran from the border. Somewhat surprisingly this cost less that $5 for one month of 3rd party insurance (don’t expect full comp east of Istanbul) as opposed to the c$20 (IR 215,400) I had expected to pay at the border. The sales lady assured me that all was in order and so off I rode – buttocks clenched and praying to the saints. At least for the first 5 minutes before promptly forgetting about it all, which is probably for the best . . . think positive etc.
Note 1: given the chance, I’d still have bought it at the border at the higher rate. No point in taking the risk on losing your freedom for the sake of a few dollars.
Note 2: an earlier thread I had read warned of rip-off helpers at the more popular Baazargaan border post to the north, who might try and get you to pay significantly more than the official c$20 rate of insurance, so if you crossing that border, you might want to read it. So far, no such nonsense at Serou.
FUEL + CURRENCY
The fuel ration is still in force, but as previously suggested you don’t need the credit-card type card that all Iranians have and you shouldn’t be asked to buy one. It only allows a motorcycle rider 1 litre a day at the old super-subsidised rate anyhow. Simply ride into a station and ask momken benzin arzardi? which is the rate free of the ration and the attendant will insert his own card into the pump. Locals pay IR 4,000 (c$0.40) per litre at this rate while a foreigner pays 7,000 (c$0.70). This rate is fixed across the country and is known by everyone, so don’t expect to be ripped-off. The display on the fuel pump will either show 70:00, or 40:00, though you’ll pay the former.
Note – the currency is easy to work out. Think in USD. The common IR 10,000 green note is worth just over a $1.00. Locals rarely talk in terms of Iran Rials (the actual number printed on each note), however, but tomams. IR 10,000 is 1,000 tomam, sometimes abbreviated in speech to just one tomam when talking larger numbers. When buying fuel, the cost of IR 7,000 per litre in Farsi is haft-sad tomam, 700. So, if you buy 20 litres of fuel, expect to pay IR 140,000 (chahar-dah tomam, 14). 14 tomam = c14 USD. Easy.
When changing money, the most useful denominations are IR 100,000, 50,000 (hotels and fuel) and a few IR 20,000 (nibbles etc). Or, $10, $5, $2. This helps keep the wad of notes down to a reasonable size.
Finally on fuel, don’t cut it too fine. I have a rather manly 30 litre tank: when I had 10 litre left, I started to look for a pomp-e benzin (petrol station). Once in a village in the relative wilds I was refused, so this gives you a very comfortable buffer to get to a town where you should always be able to get fuel. If you ran out, however, I’m sure assistance would be quick in the coming.
I had high hopes of staying mainly in a mosafar-khune (traveller house: a guest house used mainly by Iranians). This I did when I was last here before and often stayed in a respectable room for $5 or so. I tried a couple in Orumiyer, the first town I arrived in, but the managers claimed it was full, when it clearly wasn’t. This generally means that in that town foreigners are not allowed to stay in them and must go to a hotel instead (e.g. Hotel Reza in Orumiyeh). A rather frosty welcome to an otherwise exceptionally warm-natured country. Some mosafar-khunes you will be allowed to stay in, some you won’t (Esfahan), but frankly it makes little difference, since they often look broadly the same and in my recent experience they still charge you $20-25, which you might haggle down to $15 (probably a stricter implementation of dual pricing for foreigners, even if you speak farsi). Cheaper is probably possible, but you know how it is after a long day’s ride. I’ve become a softy!
Some hotels have it, others will let you heave your machine into the lobby/restaurant, a friendly neighbour might let you use his garage, though if not, most towns have private parking lot, which though open air is off the street and behind high walls with a 24 hr guard. As is generally the case, theft is less the concern than youngsters leaping all over you bike and hanging off indicators. It’s probably harmless, but still, one likes to relax over one’s post-ride tea and cake. This parking costs around $1-2 a night.
If in smaller places you have to park in public then don’t underestimate the cloaking powers of a dull-coloured bike cover, even if parked outside your hotel under a bright street light, which is generally advisable. I have a dull green light weight 3*3 metre tarp which doubles up as a tent ground sheet. It’s obvious there’s something strange underneath it, but they’re excellent things and really do make the bike virtually invisible to all but the most inquisitive: what can’t be properly seen, can’t tempt, especially all those splendid buttons and taps and things. Mine has the added benefit of having had every tomcat east of Calais pee over it, which doubles its protective power. Only I can get within a metre of it without passing out.
Iran is famous for its wild driving, but if you get off the beaten track, which one really ought to if the owner of a motorcycle (the secondary roads in Iran as in most places are glorious), you only really encounter it in towns. Esfahan I actually found somewhat subdued against my expectations, while Mashad was a shocker: almost as bad as Beirut, which is home to the worst driving I have yet to witness; the only thing predictable about it is that it’s thoroughly unpredictable. Far worse, in my humble opinion, than even India, where at least there is an awareness of motorcyclists.
I didn’t feel any heightened tension: no more than when I was here for a while in 2007, which was generally very subtle. I’ve always felt safe in these so-called shockingly evil places, where the people are so welcoming. Besides, though I have no desire to get caught in a riot, it’s the unpredictability of such things – the chance of swinging from one extreme to the other – that gives travel its edge and that wonderful sense of being alive.
No problem. Stopped one or twice with a smile. Just want to check out your bike and visa and send you on your way with a khoda hafez. Only a very provincial and grumpy one might take longer to click that were it the case that tourists were forbidden to bring in bikes with engine sizes larger than the 250cc limit applicable to residents, then you probably wouldn’t have been allowed over the border.
Being one of those untrustworthy British devils, my visa was only 3 weeks. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have even that and there is always the option to extend it for a week or two when in Iran. This time that was not possible for me, given I had to be on the Turkmen border at a specified date.
If you can, however, try and stay in Iran for around 6 weeks or so, or even longer (I’m not sure how long they allow technically illegal motorbikes + owner to stay, though it will probably very with nationality). This slows everything down and will make your experience all the richer, as with any place though especially Iran. To get across the country by largely secondary/mountain roads rather than a relatively dull direct route took around two weeks of riding, leaving just one week for days off. It was, of course, marvellous. However, when so much on the move it’s tiring: the inevitable little crowd of teenagers as you pack up and unpack your bike with questions that become somewhat monotonous: how much is your bike? how fast? how big your tank? where from? where to? etc. All perfectly reasonable questions and from generally very pleasant fellas, but for the interviewee it becomes an increasing challenge to answer them as warmly as you would like.
If, however, you get away from your bike for spells, then you start to get deeper under the skin of the country, rather than it getting under yours, meet different people and having different sorts of conversations. The slower the better, that's my motto.
I expect most sensible people by the time they get to this beautifully-located border post between Iran and Turkmenistan would already have collected their transit visa from a Turkman consulate en route. If, however, you plan to collect it at the border itself, which is an option, then make sure you have with you a copy of your letter of invitation from the consulate, otherwise you will find it very difficult to leave Iran, let alone enter Turkmenistan. I was assured by the Turkmen embassy in London that I needed no such thing: I had permission and all I need do was trot up and present my passport and approx. $50. Ignoring my instincts and in somewhat of a rush at the time, I foolishly believed him. I got through by the skin of my teeth, spending virtually the entire day at the border, technology doing its utmost to confound my efforts. Good days, challenging days – all part of the journey and nothing like learning the hard way!
Right, that’s quite enough from me. Have fun. Iran is marvellous. Quite impossible to summarise. Alive with contradiction – or what feel like contradictions – it must simply be experienced.