At 11pm, the guys were awoken by lights illuminating their tents and voices repeating “Mister, Mister”. Ed’s first thoughts at seeing the lights were to wonder if the friendly villagers had returned with some sort of fire to entertain or cook with. Arriving closest to Ed’s tent, he hurriedly put some clothes on to get out of his tent and emerged to see a new group of people, one of whom was using an enormous torch to provide illumination. They explained in broken English and lots of Farsi that they were in fact immigration police, and demanded to see Ed’s passport.
Sensing the tenseness of the situation Ed hurriedly obeyed although at the back of his mind he was also aware that they could well not be who they said they were. The confusion continued, Ed thinking long and hard about what crime they could have unwittingly committed by camping in the hills and they by asking nonsensical questions about what he’d been doing in Iran since “March”. None of which Ed could fathom in his half-asleep state. Besides, it was the 29th of May and they’d only been in Iran nine days. Only a few days later did it click that “March” was when the visa was valid from, not the date of entry. You’d think immigration police would know their way round their own visas. At any rate, their tactics worked as planned as the guys put up little resistance and Ed found himself on the phone to the men’s boss, who spoke reasonable English but still offered no explanation as to what they had done wrong to deserve to be woken up in the middle of the night. The key requirement was that guys needed to move to a hotel. To be safe.
By this stage, Dan was awake too and wondered what on Earth was going on. Joining the fray, Dan suggested that the officials phoned Narmin and ask her to translate and explain what the officials wanted and why. Narmin duly received a late night phone call, and helpfully translated the reason given by the men: that there were wild animals nearby and that the pair should move to a hotel for their own safety. In fairness, Dan had seen a beetle and two ants earlier that evening and they had looked like they were up to no good. Narmin went on to explain that the men were legitimate, that the guys had to go with them to a hotel tonight, and that if they didn’t it would “become an official problem”. It was impossible for Narmin or the guys to get through to the officials that the main objection they had to moving that night was the danger associated with negotiating the goat track down the hill in pitch darkness – something that at the time seemed to present a challenge which was far more likely to cause them physical harm than the wild animals in question.
There was nothing for it. Dan put his lenses back in, and the guys started packing up their belongings, getting changed into riding gear and taking down and packing away their tents. With the bikes loaded back up, two genuinely apprehensive riders proceeded back towards the steep technical track by the light of headlights alone. It soon became apparent that the four men who’d arrived on foot by torchlight were less well equipped to deal with the tricky terrain than the guys. By the light of Dan’s HID the guys watched with some amusement as the stumbling Gollums walked, jogged, slid and fell down the track in front of them. After negotiating the steepest part of the slope, the bikes arrived at the mud hole. Both riders learned from their earlier experiences and took a different line, getting through without drama. Next came the traverse of the hillside, which if anything was slightly easier at night as the headlamp beams didn’t spread far enough to show the full consequences of getting it wrong.
Next up was the steep muddy track through the centre of the tiny village, and the guys waited for their captors to catch up before threading their way down between the houses. It was in the village that the guys saw a local taking a great deal of interest – probably the one who had informed the authorities about them in the first place. The officials made their way towards an Iran Khrodro Samand, parked to the side of the track. What happened next provided a little more light relief for the harrassed travellers. Reversing the car out of it’s parking spot onto the track proved a little tricky. Realising it was impossible for Dan to reverse his laden bike up the muddy hill, the officer had no option but to take a different line out of the parking space to that he’d taken to get in. The front left wheel dropped into a ditch and the rear right had wheel lifted a couple of feet off the ground. Undeterred, the officer tried to carry on regardless, but the front wheel could not climb out of the ditch. After a few minutes of watching, the other officers started to push down on the corner of the boot lid to lift the front wheel up as their colleague tried once again to reverse onto the track. Eventually, they made it, the other three got in and the cavalcade made its way back down towards the tarmac.
Once back on blacktop, the guys had a little mental capacity spare to wonder what was actually about to happen. Were they going to be led first to some police station to be interrogated first? What had they done wrong in the first place? It came almost as a surprise to Dan that they did eventually pull up outside an actual hotel. Here, the proprietor was friendly and requested that the bikes be pushed up a plank to get them into the hotel lobby, rather than be left outside. The travellers were still half-asleep so didn’t notice that the price for the night (400,000 Rials) was more than they had paid in Tehran including breakfast and WiFi internet access. It was 2am by the time the guys were finally able to settle to sleep again, their night’s sleep properly compromised.
By morning light, it was obvious that the view had also been ruined, and on the way to breakfast, that the immigration officers were still at the hotel. They had not come for the continental breakfast but instead wished to continue their follow-up investigation of the night before. Each of the guys was handed a handwritten sheet with basic questions on it – job, address, purpose of visit to Iran, who invited them to Iran and whether they had friends in Iran. Each was led off to a separate table to be individually questioned, and while Dan lucked out with the junior officer who settled for just the answers on the sheet Ed ended up with the senior officer who felt the need to practice his questioning technique over and over again. Eventually the officers declared the inquisition was over but not before they had made Ed call Alireza at work at the bank (which was not answered) and had another chat with Narmin about the whos and the whys of the whole situation.
The final insult was that during the night, some curious little fingers had unscrewed the oil filler cap of Dan’s bike, and then cross threaded it when they put it back.
With the continued scrutiny from the authorities, it was 11am before the travellers were able to pack up and wheel the bikes down the hotel steps, the easy-going, tourist vibe having been completely ruined by the previous night’s experiences. Now it was just a case of making progress towards the border to get out of Iran. This consisted of monotonous road riding albeit with pleasant mountain scenery and Iranian driving to keep the guys awake.
Iranians are trained to drive by playing the old-school Nokia phone game “Snake”, which is what enables them to move in any direction at any time to avoid a collision. In fact, whilst the roads in Iran are chaotic, you could argue that the drivers are in fact more alert and more skillful than their UK counterparts.
Eventually Quchan appeared in the distance. The plan had been to stay in a hotel within sight of the border, get themselves organised and be ready for whatever an Iranian-Turkmenistani border crossing could throw at the guys. The GPS units helpfully provided a suitable hotel as a candidate but failed to take into account that Quchan’s flagship hotel is currently undergoing extensive renovations so another option would be needed. How lucky the guys were that Hotel Khayyam should step up to the plate as just that option. Located on the upstairs floor of a long but nondescript block of flats and shop units in the commercial district it’s central corridor still echoed with the sound of its Soviet past. The administrator was both rude, helpful and over exuberant all at the same time but Dan negotiated a price and the bikes were unloaded. For a small premium the bikes could be parked in a commercial yard behind the buildings opposite and when locals encourage the use of secure parking the guys are never ones to ignore the advice. The evening was spent with a quick wander of the streets, a visit to the local internet cafe and then bed.
There is much controversy in the West about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. What can be confirmed by Western reporters is that a hotel proprieter in Quchan, Eastern Iran is developing biological weapons. The fearsome stench emanating from the toilet could not be explained by natural means, and the presence of a toilet and shower in this room was clearly just a front for something much more sinister.
Some days begin with confusion and the conundrum to grapple with on Tuesday 31 May was regarding a room with breakfast that somehow didn’t include breakfast. In fact it was more of a BYO breakfast arrangement as the administrator had even helpfully agreed a time the night before that breakfast could be enjoyed whilst now pointing out onto the street when the guys enquired when breakfast would be ready. So the guys duly headed out and reappeared with bread and chocolate spread to eat in the room. The bikes were collected from the storage area although Ed was again treated to an interesting disassembly of Dan’s Suzuki: Dan had left his fuel on again and while the guys slept, the engine’s cylinder had been filling with fuel. Tank off, spark plug out, turn over the engine and douse the surroundings with fuel. Reassembled, she fired up on the button. Mental note – need to check that the fuel tap is turned-off.
The Iranian side of the border was easy and efficient due to a seemingly uniformed helper – though once the convoluted process was complete the helper demanded payment. He was asking for dollars, but the guys were not about to give any of those up, and courtesy of the unexpected hotel stay in Gogo, Dan hadn’t even enough Rial to fill up with fuel and was now running on fumes. Ed offered the remaining 59000 Rial in his wallet but this was scoffed at until it became clear that was all that was on offer. Looking angry, hurt and disappointed with his $5 or so, the helper eventually opened the gate to allow the bikes through to begin the entry process in Turkmenistan.