Iran, may 10 - jun 10, 2008
20 June 2008
by mos, 2008
translation by Elena Volkova
What did I know about Iran before my trip? Terrorists, weapons, danger, US intervention, oil, the talibs… Those were all the associations I had. I never considered going there – it was too dangerous and too far away.
Everything changed in the autumn of 2007 when I read a report by two guys from St.Petersburg who went to Iran in their VAZ32108… and returned! Alive! Judging by their story and photos, Iran was much friendlier than the television insisted and there was much more to it than the hollow desert landscapes typical for neighboring Arab countries. It also turned out that the trip wasn’t really so long, that there’s a ferry from Astrakhan across the Caspian Sea. That settled it! I decided to start off in spring!
Six months flew by very fast and it would soon be time to start. One month before the trip – I was planning to set off in the beginning of May – I submitted my visa application (it takes around 20 days to make one), took my car to a service center and began to map my route and search for companions. This stage turned out to be too long and full of uncertainties.
To start with, my visa application was declined, because I wrote that I was a “photographer” in the “profession” field. The Iranians decided that I was a reporter and suggested that I should first get accreditation from the Iranian Ministry of Culture and then apply for a visa. I phoned the embassy, but all they could recommend was to try and apply for a visa through another travel agency. I did not have much time left, so I applied again – this time through the recommended agency.
While my visa was being processed, I encountered another problem: all my potential companions disappeared. My friend Slavik, with whom we had an amazing journey to Lake Baikal last year, could not come, and publication of an ad on a travel site brought no results: candidates lacked enthusiasm, and I felt reluctant to take such a long trip with a stranger in the sense that if we did not get along, the trip would be ruined. It seemed like I would be going alone.
The third problem was the car – some minor defects remained unfixed. It ran well but didn’t look so good. I do not mind the looks of a car much, so I decided to leave it as it was – a bit of rust here and there, some loose wires, some bumps, some tears… Well, it was moving, and that was the important thing!
Basically, the whole of April was very slow. The thing that bothered me most was that my visa application would be rejected again. I was promised a visa before May 9, so I planned my departure for May 10, a Saturday. I was slowly packing my stuff, maps, equipment… but since I still had no passport with a visa in it, the option of not going anywhere was still valid. Meanwhile, my inner self was showing signs of a struggle between the thirst for the new and the fear of the unknown… Specifically, since I was going alone. However, when on May 8 I got a call and heard “All is set!” there was no turning back. Persia was waiting!
Since I wanted to combine travel by sea and travel by land, I found the company responsible for the Caspian link to Iran and phoned them regularly to inquire about the ferry. Its schedule was no good. It follows the route of Olia (Russia) - Anzali (Iran) - Aktau (Kazakhstan) – Olia. The voyage takes 7 to 15 days, depending on many factors: loading/unloading time, weather and so on. When I phoned the ferry company on the last day before my departure, they told me that the ferry was departing from Aktau and would be in Olia in two days, where it would unload then load, and that in about 6 days it would depart from Olia and in 8 days would be in Anzali. “Why don’t you just come to the port – they encouraged me – You can live here for 4-5 days then board the ferry and everything will be alright!”
Wonderful idea! Just what I always wanted – to go to Iran in the summer, when it is hottest! After all, what can be better than to ride around in hot weather in a car with no air conditioner… And to live 5 days in a car in a port is pure bliss!
So I had to adjust my route and go to Iran by land. My resulting route was from Moscow through Volgograd to Astrakhan, then to Makhachkala and to Iran through Azerbaijan, then through Tehran to Qom to meet with Ali Reza and then along the eastern highway through the main cities to the Persian Gulf and then back along another highway, more to the west, through the mountains up north and to the Anzali port from which the ferry would take me to Olia. And from there back to Moscow. By the way, the ferry was supposed to arrive in Anzali by the same time that I was. Well, plus-minus 1-2 days. So it was working out pretty well. There was a lot I did not know then about the navigation and the accuracy of naval schedules …
I suspect that my reference to Ali Reza may have confused you. Who is that? - you may ask.
Ali is a Russian bloke, who used to go by the name of Anton in Russia. He lives in Iran with his wife and studies at a local university. He has a lot of experience hitchhiking across Russia and Iran. We made acquaintance through correspondence – when I was planning my route I used his website dedicated to Iran a lot. I am very grateful to Ali for his stories about Iran and for introducing me to its everyday life. It’s a good thing I met him before starting to plan my route – through my correspondence with Ali I learned a lot of details and peculiarities about life in Iran which helped my in my contacts with the locals and in my travels around the country.
Moscow – Dagestan
May 10 arrived! The parade on Red Square on the previous day was fascinating! I deliberately stayed for May 9 to see this spectacle with armored vehicles, missiles and fighter jets. I could see the jets from my window at home! It is very unusual to see huge bombers and fighters in the sky of Moscow. Beautiful!
I packed my things, said goodbye to my family and started off. The car was ready; half of the stuff was already packed in. A week-long supply of food and water, loads of instruments, and some spare parts remaining from the trip to Lake Baikal a year ago still in the trunk… So, the motor was running, the music was on, I made my first log entry: “May 10, 10:51, kilometers traveled 304665, off we go!”
The roads were empty; Russia was still sobering up… relaxing, I mean, after May 9. Soon I was on the highway to Volgograd. I fueled up to the rim at the first petrol station and casually rattled on. I wanted to make as few stops as possible, going from one petrol station to another, to make it to the border as soon as I could, but it was hard to stick to this mode with my Maverick – I was frequently stopped at traffic inspection posts for document checks and the usual “what on earth is this thing?” inquiries.
I reached Volgograd at around 23:00 and phoned Max from the Nissan conference. We met, had dinner at the central McDonald’s, had a chat and I moved out towards Astrakhan. I chose the left bank of the Volga, even though the road was 50 km longer, cause there were fewer traffic inspection posts and settlements there. It turned out there was no difference in which way to chose – both were the same. I wanted to get to Astrakhan fast and spend the night near the city to stick to my itinerary. Iran was calling! I wondered if they would let me in in such a car …
The left bank road was empty so I cruised all the way at 90 kph as if on autopilot, and reached Astrakhan by morning. The only thing I remember from that bit of my journey is the rain that would not stop hammering on the windshield all the way from the Voronezh Region to the Caspian Sea. I was terribly sleepy, and was just beginning to wonder whether I would be able to stop for rest near the upcoming traffic inspection post, when an inspector waved his baton at me, motioning me to stop. He did not allow me to spend the night next to the post, however, and wove me away, saying: “Drive a bit further and sleep as long as you like there, but don’t crowd up the post”. I drove for 200 meters, stopped under a tree and fell asleep. Cars were beginning to drive by and people walking by – everyone was rushing to work. But no one cared about me so I quickly faded into the world of dreams.
At 8-46 I woke up because I was freezing. I cannot say that I slept properly at all – I could not keep my feet warm, as I was extremely stupid as usual to leave my sleeping bag at home. I didn’t want to start the engine so as not to draw attention to myself, so my sleeping was interrupted by grumbling and wrapping myself into more warm coats. However, I did get some rest from driving, my mood improved and I was hungry. I decided to go to the center of Astrakhan, find a café and have breakfast, but I did not get far because a traffic inspector stopped me and fined me for not wearing my seatbelt. Nice start of the day…
After settling things with the inspector, I continued my search for a place to eat, but could not find anything suitable. So I got to the highway to Makhachkala and on the exit from the city was again stopped by traffic police and fined for 100 rubles for not having any mud-flaps. Two fines on an empty stomach were too much! But my adventures were only beginning and the day promised to be very intense – I had Dagestan and its border to look forward to!
I drove past the turn to the Olia port through which I was planning to return, reached a junction with a sign saying “Makhachkala – straight, Yandyki – right” and saw the bad section of the road, which I had read about in many reports and about which Lyosha Mochalov said that it was VERY bad and that I should not go there. I chose not to trust their warnings and went ahead.
At first, there was gravel. A nice gravel road. It continued for about 10 kilometers. Then the gravel was replaced by a dirt road, a nice dry one. I was wondering why everyone was so fussy about this regular dirt road, when it gradually began to transform into a muddy one with deep ruts. In the middle was a wide streak torn up by KAMAZes and other heavy vehicles, and on the sides, apparently, were ruts from passenger vehicles.
I drove on, got all covered in mud (alas, no mud-flaps!), skid, crawled around the road this way and that, but still got stuck in a puddle. Not too deep, but the car would not go any further. I got out – beautiful landscape, absolutely quiet, a gentle wind blowing, sun shining. AND NOT A SINGLE SOUL AROUND! I was like a lone warrior in the middle of a battlefield. I pondered a bit whether it was worth going any further, or whether if would better to go back to the proper road and drive through Kalmykia. But I quickly pulled myself together: giving up is not our way! Then an ingenious idea hit me – AWD! The thing that makes all owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles happy! The wheels of the Maverick started moving and I slowly began to move ahead. Wheee!
I do not remember the rest of the way too well, but I do know for certain now that the road there is extremely bad! I was driving at an average of 20 kph for 3 hours and was beginning to think that there would be no end to it. All I could see around were sand, bushes and occasional wild birds. And, of course, tumbleweed crossing my path every now and then. But everything comes to an end sooner or later! I could not believe my eyes when after three hours I noticed a small car flying across the steppe at great speed. Asphalt?!
I hurried to the junction and almost ran over some Dagestani guy who was running to intercept me. Nearby was an old Lada (a “kopeck”) with two other guys in it.
- Help!, - he said. – Tow us to the nearest settlement, we need to get some spares; we are coming from Makhachkala, broke the rear axle on that road (he pointed in the direction I was heading), spent two days there until a KAMAZ pulled us out here.
- How much longer is the bad road? - I asked. – I have already covered around 100 kilometers...
- Not much, about 50 km, maybe…
Well, that was certainly promising … Anyway, I had to help these people, so I hooked their kopeck to the wire and dragged it all the way to Lagan settlement, 20 km in the direction of the Caspian Sea. I figured that I would fuel up as well – they promised there would be a good petrol station in the settlement – there was no knowing how much time I would spend jumping over ruts, and the previous 100 km burnt up almost all my diesel...
As I was driving to the settlement and looking in my rearview mirror, I remembered how Slavik and I towed a Pajero from the Off-Road Festival – 600 km of mountain roads. Just a random memory… It don’t often tow cars…
The auto parts store was closed for lunch so I unhooked the car with the Dagestanis, leaving them to wait for its opening, went on to the petrol station, fueled up and returned to the crossing where I had met them. I still had the second portion of the Astrakhan-Makhachkala “short cut” to look forward to. I turned on the AWD, cleared the clay off my windows and started.
That segment was more popular. KAMAZ trucks and passenger cars occasionally drove by. The latter traveled in groups – probably to pull each other out if one of them got stuck. KAMAZs were driving in the middle with no fear. In many places the road was really limp, with branches and planks thrown into puddles and fresh traces of skidding vehicles. I regularly encountered “Speed Limit” and “Give Way” signs. Perverted road worker humor...Soon clay and sand gave way to sand and stones. Ruts started crossing. In one place I took a wrong turn, but – thank god for GPS – managed to adjust my route and return over the steppe to the proper ditch. Had I not been so fortunate, I would roam around the steppe until my fuel ran out and spend the rest of my life a hermit feeding on roots and bugs…
My watch was showing almost 8 in the evening when I finally reached a motorway near the Artezian settlement. Words cannot describe my relief! I washed my car in the nearest puddle to make it look more presentable, made a log entry, had a snack and continued my journey. Makhachkala was 100 km away and the border – 250 km away. I was planning to get to Azerbaijan by nightfall. I was hoping there would be no queue at the border post…
The weather was wonderful, the sun was beginning to set, and the sky was clear. Just as I was beginning to enjoy the drive, I was stopped at yet another traffic inspection post. An inspector informed me that I had violated the speed limit, we got up to the second floor of the post and then the racket began:
- You exceeded the speed limit in Kambulak. There is a 30 sign there, and you were doing 97. A camera in our patrol car filmed you. An excess of 67 kph means license confiscation. What shall we do?
- That just can’t be true, - I said. – I drive slowly, I follow the signs, how can this be possible?
- You don’t believe me? – the inspector got out his phone, turned on the speaker and called someone. – Hello, Mikhalych? What’s the deal with the jeep?…
- Flew by without dropping speed, white with signs on the sides, registration number ХХХХХ (my number), got him on camera…
I was trying to remember where that settlement was and how I could miss a 30 sign. There was, it seemed, a Kambulak. And there was, it seemed, a sign somewhere, and I remembered thinking that a 30 sign was quite unusual for such a place, dropping speed… maybe …
- Anyway, let’s decide, Evgeny, whether we’re going to formalize the confiscation of your license… Alternatively, you can leave us 2500 rubles for the fine and for petrol and leave...
- Nooooo, - I said – 2500 is just inhuman. – as I was saying that I was thinking that maybe I had exceeded the limit and that then my trip would be ruined, because I wouldn’t even be able to get into Azerbaijan without a license. – 1500!
We bargained for about 5 minutes more and settled for 2000. I was so mad! Mad because I could not do anything in the situation. I quickly got into the car and was just about to leave when another inspector stopped me and asked:
- Did you settle it? How much did you give him?
- Two thousand!
I was about to drive off when the first inspector came up again:
- What did he ask? How much you gave me? What did you tell him?
- The truth!! Can I go now??
The retards! I was swindled. Only later when I began to compare facts - that while I was upstairs the inspector could call his partner who was downstairs and could describe my car because he was standing next to it; and I could not see what was going on outside. Truckers in Astara told me later on that in Dagestan traffic inspectors swindle money out of everyone. They couldn’t possible let me pass, in my unusual car with a Moscow license plate. Well, screw them, let them wank on in their silly outposts for the rest of their lives, I was determined to continue my trip …
Where are you, oh beliash meat pies! The only thing that could improve my mood at that moment were them, the juicy yummy beliashes! There were many tempting adverts along the motorway, but no beliashes available. As one old woman in a kiosk told me – “not season yet for baliashes, come back in a month and a half or so”. Thanks a lot, granny, but I am still hungry as hell! Luckily, I spotted a roadside bakery a few meters on and bought a fresh lavash – hot and delicious! Long live healthy food!
At 9 in the evening I was in Makhachkala and was stopped by a traffic inspector on one of the big crossings. I prepared for more racketeering and didn’t have to wait long for it:
- Why did you go from the right row to the left before the post? There is a solid line there! Come on, we have to register the violation and confiscate your license. You can go to the courthouse in Makhachkala tomorrow – they will set a fine for you…
Naturally, this scenario did not suit me at all so we began to bargain. The inspector started with 1500, then went down to 1000. Each time I refused, he continued to fill out the protocol form. As a result, I gave him 600 rubles, took my documents and got out of there fast.
There’s Dagestani hospitality for you! The normal people are just wonderful! But the traffic inspectors are all shit-heads. I began to experience this as soon as I passed Astrakhan. Before there were no conflicts, and inspectors merely wished me a safe trip and a successful journey. But in Kalmykia and Dagestan it was tough … My unconventional car and Moscow plates were playing against me. But my destination was near! So I just hit the gas and sped to the border.
Russia – Azerbaijan. The Border
Around midnight I found myself at the end of the queue to the Russian border point. There were 7 cars and 2 busses ahead of me. In 15 minutes, having analyzed the situation and calculated the time it would take to get through, I decided to use the services of the locals – to queue jump. The locals wouldn’t take less than 1000 rubles, no matter how hard I tried to convince them. And I knew that soon I would be sleepy – sleeping in a queue is not exactly comme il faut. I gave them a grand and in 10 minutes was completing the customs declaration. Everything seemed fine, but then the extortion started again:
- Where’s the technical passport for the car? – the customs inspector asked – Can’t let you though without it.
- What nonsense! You don’t need the technical passport, a certificate is enough.
- Yes I do… I need to fill in the numbers in this form, see? – carried on the inspector. – You can stand here and wait while we clear other vehicles and have more time for you… Or you can give us 500 rubles, and I will do everything without the passport…
It didn’t take me long to decide to pay him the 500 rubles just to get through the formalities and get out of there as soon as possible. The inspector filled in the documents and I went on to get my car searched. Some guy in camouflage came up to the car with me, opened the rear door, saw my excessive stuff and uttered: - Why don’t you just give me a 100 and go? It is hardly worth getting this all out….
…Anyhow, in 10 minutes I was standing in front of the gate of the Azerbaijan border. Angry, hungry and striving to get as far away from that nest of vipers as possible. There were no cars waiting to enter – all cars and busses were parked at the edge of the road for the night, so I rushed to the customs. The Azerbaijanis hurried out of their booths to ooh and aah at my car. They circled round making pictures, and I went in to fill in the forms.
On my way to the customs desk, I remembered that I forgot my passport and returned to the car, which was by that time surrounded by some military hotshots. The highest-ranking guy – a bold one in a service cap, with numerous stars – asked: - Hey, can I take her for a ride? Just round the circle here …
He went for a ride – everyone was waving at him, making photos. It was like a traveling circus. When it was over, I went on to get through the formalities. Naturally, this required additional investments, which I was beginning to get used to. The inspector working with my documents, an old man very reminiscent of Comrade Saakhov from Prisoner of the Caucasus, started singing the familiar song:
- Such a nice car, how will you be riding around in that here? Tut-tut… You need insurance, you need a visa, you need many documents, you need to pay taxes… 2500 please.
Such a lovely song. I sang my verse from the same song in return:
- Are you kidding? I called the Azerbaijan embassy; they told me all I have to pay is 500 rubles, so let’s get those documents in order!
Saakhov raised his eyebrows and retorted:
- 500 is for people coming from Dagestan – they can’t go farther than 30 km from the border. And you’re coming from Moscow and planning to drive through the entire country. So let’s count again. I will make this as cheep as possible, without unnecessary documents. Duty. Insurance. Customs fee… let’s count … See? 1000 rubles. That is as cheep as it gets.
The whole conversation dragged along incredibly slowly… There were no cars after me, so the guy wasn’t really in a hurry to get rid of me. I decided that it would be best to put an end to this, agreed to pay 1000 rubles and went on to put an entry stamp in my passport. The booth routine was clear and straightforward:
- Your passport, please. The fee for entry to Azerbaijan is 300 rubles.
“Whatever, just do it”, I thought to myself, hoping that this guy would be the last I’d have to communicate with there. But he was not. When I drove up to the exit gate two teens, around 18 each, in military uniform came up to me saying:
- Exiting? How ‘bout a 50 for opening that gate?
That was the last drop….:
- WHY DON’T YOU JUST FUCK OFF! I HAVEN’T GOT ANY MONEY!
They opened the gate in silence and I shot from the customs in the direction of Baku. It was 2:56 at night…
Baku was 250 km away, so I figured I would be in town at around 6 in the morning. But I was getting sleepy, so I decided to drive a bit from the border and spend the night in the first available grove. This did not work out because the landscape was mountainous, and everywhere I looked were either mountains or houses. So I moved on slowly, searching for a apot to rest until I found a traffic inspector waving his hand at me. Here we go again, I thought… But it was not what I thought, the inspector was going to work to Baku and asked me to give him a lift. “Get in, let’s go!” – I said.
We drove in total silence. I was beginning to doze off; it was getting light. Some 10 km from Baku I realized that I could not go on and stopped at a truck parking lot. I apologized to my passenger for not taking him where I had promised. In a few seconds, I conked out, despite the purring of the diesels of the surrounding trucks.
I woke up because it got very hot in the car. The sun was beaming through the windshield and I could not breathe. I raised my head and saw several people around, but not a single truck, of which there were at least 20 here at night. I was like on a stage! Alone in the middle of a large lot, with the locals circling the car, making photos, examining the suspension and body, peaking in and smiling at the sight of me and my dirty heels glimmering through the toned windows of the rear doors. After completely waking up, I went to the nearest shop, bought some mineral water and continued my journey. The city was not far.
…I did not go through the center of Baku, taking the ring road instead. I found it hard to navigate the crossings because, unexpectedly, there were no signs in Russian or English. However, my GPS saved the day once again and helped me find the right way. After getting out of Baku, I stopped at a café and had breakfast. The waitress did not speak Russian, so I had to point at the plates standing in front of the worker at the next table. She quickly figured out what I needed and in 10 minutes I was munching on fried potatoes and a delicious green salad. My first civilized meal in two days cost me around 4 manats, or 100 rubles. At the nearest hydrant, I washed my face, hair and body. I felt a lot better and even forgot all the negative emotions and fatigue after the customs adventure! The sun was shining brightly, palm leaves were rustling, and the sea was splashing just a few meters from the road. “Life goes on! - thought. – I can feel Iran is somewhere close!”
At around 16:00 I got to Astara. The road was good and I tore along at high speed. On several occasions I was stopped by local traffic inspectors who tried to accuse me of bogus violations, but every time it ended with an examination of my car and inquiries as to “where are you from” and “what sort of a car is this”. A waste of time. Generally, I would like to note that Azerbaijan can be divided into two different parts with Baku in the middle: north Azerbaijan is full of road works, burdensome traffic inspectors hooking on to every fault in documents or the car, not very friendly people; and south Azerbaijan with nice roads, lots of greenery, old buildings painted different colors and lazy traffic inspectors that stop cars more out of curiosity that a desire to worm out cash. The southern part of Azerbaijan is cleaner and looks more like a foreign country than the northern part where the soviet atmosphere still prevails with all consequences.
I drove into Astara and got lost in its streets, but the locals helped me find the way and half an hour later I was heading for the border. The Azerbaijan-Iran border is something remarkable. It begins with a shitty road. The last 300 meters before the customs point have no asphalt at all – a simple gravel road full of potholes and tramps wandering around asking for money. The tramps are replaced by official beggars: at the entrance I was charged a 4 manat “entry fee”. I paid it, drove in. I was prepared to pay more, but a miracle happened! Quick passport registration, stamping, brief car examination. Again, a group of customs people surrounded me, staring at the car, making photos. I went into the booth to get my documents and was expecting to pay yet another customs bribe, but the inspector said:
- We wanted to take some money from you, $20. But you’re a nice guy, so just go …
I found it hard to take in the “just go” bit. Nothing to pay?... At all?... I can leave and go to the Iranian side?….
There is something human in Azerbaijani officials after all …
I jumped into the car, honked goodbye to everyone and shot out of the gate… Just then I got the first wave of adrenaline – here it is, Iran! The crucial moment came – something that was bothering me more than war, the terrorists, global warming and the US financial crisis was about to be resolved. I was about to find out whether or not my car would be let into Iran. Accordingly, whether my journey would continue or I would have to go through all the same pain again and my trip would turn out to be a total flop.
I carefully crossed the bridge across the river navigating around merchants sorting their goods in the neutral zone and found myself in a different world. The first thing that hit me was the signs in Farsi. I started to realize that I DO NOT UNDERSTAND ANYTHING! Even in Azerbaijan, I could make out symbols and titles, but here - nothing. To hell with my good spoken and written English – no one speaks it here, just as I do not speak Farsi or Azerbaijani…
A smiling soldier ran up to me saying something – as I understood from his gestures, he was inviting me to the booth, which turned out to be the passport control. They put an entry stamp in my passport and said something else, but I could not understand. Then the soldier ran off and returned with another guy who turned out to be an Azerbaijani trucker. He spoke Russian and said: “Drive on, the customs office is closed for the day, you can register your car tomorrow morning and then continue your trip. But you can walk into town, eat there and find a hotel”. It was 17:30, the whole evening ahead, I could not imagine what to do… I parked in front of the customs building, right under its chief’s window, shut down the engine, got out, and looked around. My dream was beginning to come true after all!
While I was making log entries and examining the car for breakdowns, many Iranians came up to me, smiling, saying hi. Truckers also came up, many could speak Russian. One of them offered to take me for a tour around town to brighten up the forced delay.
I changed my dollars to local rials, and we went to a café where we had some tea and dinner. Pasha, that was the name of the trucker, told me about his job, how they deliver cargo from Iran. They live at the border for several days until theirs trucks are loaded and documents arranged, then spend a couple of days delivering goods and then return to the customs again waiting for new shipments. Many people in Astara know Azerbaijani, some know Russian. Almost all Azerbaijani truckers speak Russian. By the way, there are even some signs in Russian in Astara – I’ve seen them myself: “Customs Point”, “Hospital” and “Hotel”. Apparently, they date back to the times of SovAvtoTrans, when many soviet trucks were going to and from Iran. The traffic on the border is still pretty busy. Trucks arrive to Iran empty and load up with Arab cars, fruit, Chinese bicycles and other junk.
We strolled through the streets of Astara. Pasha had many friends there, and as he was chatting with shop owners, I was examining local traffic. My first impression was – total chaos. There were loads of motorcyclists who did not give a shit about rules. They rode as they wanted and managed to worm their way among the cars without scratching them or falling. There were 2-3 riders per motorcycle. Traffic lights operated in blinking yellow mode. Pedestrians crossed the road wherever they felt like it. They ran across right in front of cars. In other words, if you looked at it from above, you would see Brownian motion. At the same time, everyone gave way to everyone else and there was absolutely no hostility in drivers! They smiled, waved their hands and greeted total strangers as best friends. I was hoping I would not run anyone over on the following day… I got used to forcing my way through traffic in Moscow – there is no other way to get anywhere…
It was getting late and I went to my car to sleep. The weather was wonderful – around +25, clear sky. The night was also warm, but I could not get proper sleep, because every now and then Iranians or truckers would come up to marvel at the car, speaking loudly, discussing something, rocking it to test the suspension. So I was rocked like a baby in a crib all night. It is a good thing I do not suffer from motion sickness…
In the morning, Pasha and I went to the chief of customs to inquire about registering the car. I had a choice: either to enter Iran for 15 days and then leave through Astara, or arrange a transit entry and leave from Anzali, as I had planned, but then I would only have 3 days. Neither option suited me, because I wanted to stay in Iran for 15 days and depart by ferry from Anzali. We had a very long discussion with the customs official, but then he said “okay, we’ll do it the way you need” and paperwork began.
There are many “helpers” on the border – people to whom you give your documents (passport, license, vehicle certificate) and who for a certain fee run around getting things done. At first, I could not understand what there was to do, but after 5 hours of waiting, I realized that it was a real pain in the butt. My helper was constantly running from one building to the next, collecting signatures, stamps, making copies of documents and undertaking many other movements that remained unclear to me. As a result, for $150 I received 13 different papers, which turned out to be transit documents for the car. These included copies, certificates, charts and other stuff – everything in Farsi, so I could not make anything out. At the exit from the customs zone, inspectors asked to open the hood. I opened it and pointed to the place where the number of the body was engraved, but they did not even look there. I guess they just wanted to see what was under the hood of my car, what kind of engine. After satisfying their curiosity, they put the final stamps on my documents, opened the gate and I found myself in Iran.
Me, on the Maverick, in Iran! Could I have imagined this only half a year earlier?! My dream was reality! Oh yeah, yeah!!!
Astara – Tehran - Qom
At that point, I must admit, I became a bit frightened. There was a completely unknown country ahead of me, with an unfamiliar language and traditions. Driving through the streets of Astara I was taking in the spirit of Iran that revealed itself on every corner, in every shop, in every person and in every thing that was happening around me. Naturally, I could not avoid getting lost in this unfamiliar town – I took a wrong turn and drove into some suburb, when what I needed was the highway to Tehran. But vivid gestures and inarticulate sounds helped me find the right road and a motorcyclist that was passing by kindly escorted me to the highway. I drove a bit from the town and made my first stop. It was lunchtime so I decided to have a snack and send a bunch of SMSs back home. I also phoned Ali Reza in Qom and told him about my successful border crossing. He was expecting me.
At the first petrol station, I realized that I definitely would not spend much money in Iran. For a full tank they took 30000 rials, or around $3 (75 rubles). The guy at the station asked for a tip, so I gave him another 10000. My delight was limitless! Where in Russia would I be able to get a tank of diesel for 75 rubles? Nowhere! Later on, I realized that I had been swindled yet again, that a full tank cost 10000 rials ($1), and that the price of fuel was the same throughout Iran. Oh well. It was still almost free!
The road was excellent, the weather was amazing, and by evening I reached Tehran. I needed to find an exit to the ring road and from it to Qom, but I missed it and drove into the city. Ali had warned me about traffic jams, so initially I had not planned to visit Tehran, but still had to take a drive through its tangled streets. After running a red light, driving in the wrong direction over a bus lane and finding myself in the middle of a pedestrian street, I decided to find a cop and ask for directions to Qom, because even though my navigator contained a detailed map of Iran, its precision was no good. Iranian cops took some time to stare at my car, smiling, asking where I was from, where I was going, and how I got there. Finally, they switched on their alarm lights and escorted me through the streets to the highway I needed. People in the streets were turning heads in surprise, smiling at me and waving hands, as if I was some superstar in a limo!
The motorway from Tehran to Qom was almost fully lit and had three lanes in each direction. The speed limit was 130 kph. I accelerated to a cosmic 100 kph and rolled ahead to conquer the Iranian land! It got dark and I could not make anything out around me, but that did not prevent me from enjoying the road and the warm air rich with aromas from flowers planted along the highway. It would have been perfect, but my carefree monotonous cruising was interrupted by two speed ramps a few kilometers from Tehran.
The first appeared unexpectedly before a crossing. A really wide and high one! Thank you, Maverick, for your amazing suspension! When at 100 kph I noticed the asphalt trap there was nothing I could do but drive over it at full speed. The thrill of weightlessness! The flight above the road and landing on four tires will stay in my memory forever! “I should be more careful”, I said to myself, but relaxed again a few kilometers later … The second ramp seemed to be waiting for me to speed up. I did manage to notice it and hit the breaks. A bit… First, I saw the black sky with stars, and then – the asphalt with lane markings. Then came a bang!… It was a cheetah jump – light and elegant. The Maverick forgave me for this mistake, but everything I had on the dashboard scattered all over the floor …
After these somersaults, I stayed alert. There are many of these ramps around Iran - most are painted with luminescent paint, but some do not have any marking, so you should drive very carefully, especially at night.
It was completely dark, so, as I already wrote, I could not enjoy any breathtaking scenery. According to the GPS, there were no mountains around – just plains. But the altitude was already 1500-1800. This continued throughout the trip – the entire country is located on a huge elevation, and altitude drops to zero only on the shores of the Persian Bay and the Caspian Sea. Maybe that is why it is not too hot here, the humidity is close to zero, and at +30С it was very dry and comfortable.
Qom and Ali Reza
Am I any good with maps and orientation? I think so, yeah. But only if maps are accurate and their scale reflects the reality. But it is absolutely impossible to navigate with a map scanned from a tourist guide of Iran which I got when applying for a visa. After I passed a couple of crossings in Qom, it became clear that nothing were clear, and that I needed to apply – again – to the locals for help. Yes! I forgot to mention that an unexpected thing happened – my cell phone lost the network, so I had no means of communication and could not phone Ali to clarify directions. Oh well, I would just ask the locals – there were quite a lot of them around at 10 in the evening.
As soon as I stopped at the curb, a bunch of teens on motorbikes surrounded me, riding around the car, taking photos, trying to peep inside through the toned windows to see if there was anyone there. I called one guy up, pointed to the scrap of paper I had and asked: “Kodja?”. The address was written in English and the guy seemed to have difficulty with that language. Having read the name by letter, he phoned someone, but whomever he was calling, apparently, had no idea where that was. So I asked for his phone and called Ali, then returned the phone to the guy so they could straighten things out between them. It is peculiar to be somewhat detached from society, when you do not know the language the people around you are speaking. You just stand there and try to understand from gestures and facial expressions what is going on. My personal impression is that in such situations communications occur on a primal, animal level, where only basic instincts and movements make sense. It is impossible, for example, to talk with gestures and sounds about politics. But you can easily understand people when they call you, offer something, demonstrate joy or surprise and so on. It was an unusual experience for me, because in other countries at least some people could speak English, and here – no one.
After finishing his conversation with Ali, the guy motioned “let’s go”. He wanted to take me somewhere. To the road I needed or maybe to the house itself. Great, off we go then! The roar of the motorbike of the young Iranian mixed with the growling of my turbo-diesel filled the streets of Qom. We were flying though streets and alleys overtaking each other and honking with excitement! The Need for Speed style night race through an Iranian town was very cool! In a few minutes, we were in front of a student campus surrounded by a high fence. The guards had been warned of my arrival and we were let it and escorted to Ali’s house. It was around 23:00 when I parked and shut the engine down. I thanked the guy on the motorbike and gave him a copy of the 4x4 magazine in gratitude – he was extremely happy! In return, he got several fresh cucumbers he got out of his bike’s bag. “Friend! I mean.…. Doost!” I said and we parted.
Half an hour later Ali, his wife Masha and I were drinking tea and making plans for the following day. Ali suggested that we should go to the suburbs of Luristan, about 200 km from Qom, drive around the mountains and visit nomads. I had planned to spend the day driving to Yazd, but decided not to turn down Ali’s invitation. After all, nomads, exotics… Not something you read about in tourist brochures. So we decided to sleep late in the morning and start out after launch. Meanwhile, a shower – hot! Feels soooo goooood … My 4-day non-stop marathon was over, and I had my first proper night rest. Pure bliss!
The Mountains of Luristan
In the morning, I gave the Maverick a checkup. The car was in such a good condition that it was boring. While I was working on my car, a group of kids gathered round me screaming joyfully and running around. In a distance was a group of elderly Iranians in long garments, probably teachers, since this was a student campus where students from all over the world lived while studying at the university.
After lunch we started out, heading south-west from Qom to the mountains. I began to feel what real heat was like. It was around +35C and impossible to stay in open sunlight, but nice and cool in the shade. Landscapes changed, the road was smooth, looping around the hills.
This was the first time that I drove in Iran in daylight (not counting the drive to Tehran, but there the scenery was more like in our Caucasus), so I was taking note of the differences in the surroundings. Naturally, the first thing I paid attention to was the road. It was perfectly smooth, despite being one of the secondary ones, and not a highway. I was also surprised by the separation of opposing traffic lanes. There was about 200-300 meters between them. At first, I could not understand why there was no oncoming traffic on a two-lane road, and why other cars were overtaking me without any fear to run into an oncoming car. But later on I noticed that the oncoming cars where far to the side! And the two lanes were all ours.
I noticed a lot of trash along the road. I thought there might be a dump nearby, but it turned out that the Iranians do not burden themselves with bringing their wrappers and bottles to a trash bin. They just throw stuff out of the window, and that is considered normal. I have not seen any road workers cleaning the stuff up though. On the other hand, all the towns and cities I had been to were very clean. Cleaners got the streets in order overnight.
The mountainous area was followed by plains, with small mountains occasionally protruding right in the middle of a steppe, as if they were deliberately put there for variety. The road continued to wind around them and each new turn revealed a new view of the steppes and small mountains-hills. I could make out the Zagros mountain ridge ahead, in a short while the road would get more fun.
After covering 300 km we decided to find a place to spend the night and start out early the following morning along mountain roads. Ali had already expressed his astonishment with my car and its appearance, but after we crossed a gutter, climbed a ditch and drove up to some trees away from the road through a ploughed field, he, I think, was in complete shock over the ample capabilities of my Maverick. We stopped, got our stuff out, made some instant noodles, had some tea, chatted a bit about travels and went to sleep. Ali and Masha – in their tent, and me, as usual, in the car.
We were planning to rise at 5 in the morning. Ali had to do his morning namaz, and it was better to start earlier on while the sun was not yet in its vertex. We had a quick breakfast, made some photos of the waking nature and started towards the mountains. Steppes and hills gave way to mountainous knolls. Straight sections of the road were becoming less frequent, in a couple of hours the asphalt ended, and we came on to a gravel road. In another half-hour we saw the roller that was tightening the gravel and in another 20 minutes – the first nomad tents. We could see them from the far: the smoothness of the green hills was interrupted by black squares of their tents. “Just what we need!” Ali said and we drove up to one of them.
Frankly speaking, at first I felt a bit uncomfortable. In my understanding nomads were people with a reclusive lifestyle, who did not welcome any newcomers or guests. Take our gypsies, for example. Do you think they’d be happy to see you if you came to their camp? But this was completely different. In Iran the guest is a holy cow. To meet, treat and protect from mishaps. In our case, as soon as we approached the tent, a young man appeared – not very talkative, though – and invited us to sit down. We were offered tea. Ali tried to start a conversation with our host, but it didn’t seem to go well. “This guy’s really not very sociable”, Ali admitted. I finished my tea and walked around the tent making photos of the peculiar hand-made gadgets next to it and of a woman who was just beginning to make something out of milk. She was pouring milk onto a sheep hide tied to poles and shaking it. Cheese, maybe?…
Suddenly, as we were watching the milk shaking procedure, the alarm in my car went off. I turned and saw a boy, about eight, running away from it. The guy from the tent jumped on a motorbike, I got on behind him, and we drove to the car. It was open. Apparently, the locks did not close when I was leaving. The boy was running towards a group of grown-ups, around 5 of them, who were tending to a flock of sheep not far away. I examined the car – all equipment was on the seat where I had left it. What could the kid have pinched? I looked at him. He made it to the shepherds but found no sympathy there – one of the men gave him a proper clip on the back of the head, after which the boy turned around, withdrew a pack of potato chips from his bosom and stretched his hand out in my direction – “take it”. “It’s okay”, I waved, and the boy began to devour his loot. By that time Ali and Masha also made it to the car, we said goodbye to the nomads and drove on.
Ali told me that the nomads we met were not the best kind. I guess he noticed that I was not very impressed, or, maybe, I missed something in our conversations about “nomad hospitality”. “We will go farther into Luristan, there will be more there, better ones”, Ali assured me. Getting ahead of myself I would like to stress that the incident with the potato chips was the only criminal incident during my entire trip through Iran!
Moving along a well-set gravel road, we often stopped to photograph the mountains and landscapes. There weren’t many trees there, almost none at all. And I could see very far, because the air was crisp and clear. That place was extremely beautiful – I cannot describe it beautifully with words. It is something you have to feel and experience.
According to the navigator, the altitude was increasing, and soon we were riding at a level of 2200-2400 meters. After some time we saw more black tents. There were several nomad families in one spot, and we drove up to them. There was some sort of an old cemetery nearby, as indicated by crumbled square and phallic gravestones.
We came up to the two tents closest to us. There were about eight elderly Iranians sitting on rugs in it, drinking tea and discussing something. This was a tent for men, so only Ali and I entered. Masha went to the next tent – for women. The nomad men and women live separately, but have a mutual household economy. Women cannot go into the men’s tent, and men – into the women’s tent. But we – foreign guests – are holy cows, so we were allowed to do anything.
The Iranians saw us and invited us to sit down. Ali spoke with them while I sat smiling like a fool. I did find something to occupy myself with pretty fast, however – I got my camera and made some photos of the people and the surroundings. We were brought tea. Ali told the Iranians about my solitary trip through Iran and then they discussed politics, people, customs (Ali briefed me in on the subjects so I would not get bored). Thus, we spent time with the elders, socializing, getting to know each other. I spoke with them through Ali, and got the nicest impression about the bahtiars – that is what people living in Luristan are called.
Afterwards we strolled around the cemetery. The dates on tombstones indicated that it was not that old after all – the oldest dated back to 1850. What surprised me most were the dildos at the heads of graves. I have not fully understood their meaning, but I guess they mean that some respected person lies there. Or something like that.
After the cemetery, we peeked into the women’s tent. According to their tradition, an Iranian family member had to go in first and stay inside throughout our visit. The women gathered around a stove, were very shy and reluctant to be photographed. The tent itself was made from sheep or goat wool, black in color. You could see through it from inside, but it did not let the rain in. Amazingly, it was not hot under it, although the sun was really broiling. There were some rugs on the floor, and under them – some sort of a stone foundation. In other words, Spartan conditions, but with hints of comfort.
We went outside, walked around a bit, made photos of the children and said goodbye to the nomads. They insisted that we stay some more, have lunch and get some rest. By the way, this is one of characteristic features of the Iranians – not to hurry anywhere and use every opportunity to rest. But we were persistent and shamelessly rejected their hospitality. We got into the car, which by that time had reached the temperature of a sauna, and drove on.
Mountains, mountains, more mountains… No sense writing about them – they are something to see! The landscapes were fascinating. Cliffs, rivers, canyons, steeps, serpentines. I could drive around them forever. Each new turn revealed a new panorama – different from the previous one. There were even more nomad tents scattered around. They put them up in the most inconvenient spots, as far away from the road as possible, somewhere in a ravine, by the river or among the trees in a valley. We did visit one on the flank of a hill – by the time I got up there I was out of breath. There were not any men in the tent, only three women. Two were making cheese, shaping little rounds with their hands and laying them out to dry in the sun, and the third greeted us and gave us tea. Ali could not talk with the woman – he said her dialect was too difficult for him to understand, and that she had a strong accent. That is why we did not stay long and left soon. The kind woman gave us a bottle with a sour tasting drink that everyone calls Airan (Iran?) or Tan and drinks, primarily, to sober up.
I am not going to go into details about the rest of the trip – there were no more nomad visits and we stopped only occasionally for landscape photos. A peculiar thing I would like to note is one of the crossings on an altitude of 3000 meters, where there was snow on the road even though it was hot outside and the sun was high up. The wind was very chilly though. I felt the altitude through slight dizziness. We saw many fish farms on our way (at least I think that is what they were) – a series of interconnected concrete pools next to some river. We also passed a town built right in the mountains. An amazing sight! What struck me most was the difference between the scale of nature and people – the latter are so insignificant in comparison with the surrounding world! And all these constructions that looked like fortresses up close from the far appeared to be matchboxes on the background of majestic mountains. The owner of one of the shops in a mountain settlement was so impressed to hear that we were travelers from Russia that he gave use some food and juice free. A bit farther we discovered a huge poppy field, half trampled by a crowd of gapers. In the middle of the field was an old man yelling at everyone not to trample his poppies. We drove on to the main highway and headed straight for Qom, home. The “base” was about 250 km away. It was a great ride!
We returned late at night, had some tea and looked at the photos we made during the day. I brought Ali my car documents so he could tell me what they were, and Ali cheerfully declared: “Did you know you have to depart to Afghanistan, not Russia? See here – departure through border post Dugaru, Afghanistan”…
Fuck… That was certainly unexpected….
I pondered a bit about the situation and decided not to panic and continue my trip as planned. No one ever checked documents anyway, and if they did so at the border – I would put on a shocked expression and try to resolve everything peacefully. In the worst case, I would abandon the car, get on a plane and fly home...
Hm, thoughts about “abandoning the car” had already crossed me at some point… Oh yeah, on my trip to Lake Baikal! I was prepared to leave it there, but it successfully brought me home, so I figured that the same would happen this time as well. With that thought I went to sleep – I was planning to go to Yazd on the following day, to gape at the ancient air conditioners – badgirs.
I got up at 8 in the morning, gathered my stuff. At the exit from the campus, Ali helped me buy some food, we said goodbye, and I drove into town looking for the highway to Yazd. From that moment my solitary journey through Iran started, I had no more meetings planned – only unfamiliar roads and towns ahead of me, and complete improvisation. That made my desire to move ahead even stronger!
The Tehran-Qom-Yazd route goes along the border of the Deshte-Kevir desert. An amazing six-lane autobahn with a 120 kph speed limit. Traffic is minimal, making it perfect for cars equipped with cruise control. Just set it at 120 and cruise all the way to your final destination. There is not much to see: on the left is the desert, which is more like a dried out Kalmykian steppe, and on the right – rocky mountains. Greenery was gradually disappearing; I was getting closer to central Iran, where the climate is hotter and drier. The sun was slowly rising to its highest point, the weather was good, the road was straight, there was music playing on the stereo – in other words, I was driving in total delight!
Since before Yazd I was planning to visit a place called Chuk-Chuk, which used to be some sort of an ancient Zoroastrian sanctum, I asked Ali to write out the names of the nearest settlements on Farsi, so I would be able to show them to the locals when asking for directions. Ali also wrote out the names of the rest of the settlements along my route. That turned out to be very useful!
I reached Meybod, which is 40 km from Yazd, and started looking for a turn to Chuk-Chuk. I approached the first trucker on the parking lot and asked: “Kodja?” In response I heard a long speech – as I understood from his tone, he was explaining how to get there. But I couldn’t make out which way to turn and where – I couldn’t understand anything at all. I think he realized that from my vacant expression. He smiled, asked for a new peace of paper and drew a quick map for me with directions.
…After a bit of driving around in circles along adjacent roads I got off the asphalt onto a dirt road heading into the desert and noticed that I had only a quarter tank of diesel left. It would have been wise to fuel up before the turn, but petrol stations are very scarce in Iran. Distances between them are 50-70 km. The nearest, according to my estimates, would be somewhere near Yazd. I did not want to drive back and forth, so I decided to go into the desert as I was, making the most of the fuel I had left… I was not going crazy or anything, since I still had almost 20 liters in a canister that gave me some confidence.
Driving on a dirt road in a desert would have been very enjoyable. It was well leveled, without any humps. If it had not been for a sharp turn in one of the places, where I managed to break and avoided flying over a breastwork into a ditch only by miracle. The desert had some mountainous elements in that place and the road was curving around them. With each new turn I thought: “This is it, Chuk-Chuk!”, but then I’d see another 10 km of road, and then 5, and then 15 more…
When the fuel meter started getting close to the red zone, I decided to turn back. According to the GPS, I was 50 km away from civilization, so if I ran out of fuel, I would have a very, very long way to walk. There were no cars there at all. Not one. And no people. After yet another curve, I turned around. The only consolation prize I got was a snapshot of an abandoned dwelling in the middle of the desert – a crumbled building, two wells, a pen and some feeding racks. And total silence all around. Like on the Moon. Amazing!
The first thing I did when I got to the asphalt was search for a petrol station. I drove towards Yazd and saw one with a long queue of trucks. I drove up to the first in line and he let me get in ahead, but as I was just about to start filling my tank, I noticed that the meter was not on. An attendant told me that there was no fuel and that it would come in the evening. Sweet… I drove on, fuel meter in the red zone.
There were no more petrol stations on my way to Yazd, so I rolled into town on vapor. It was around 18:00. I followed the main road into the center and parked near the main mosque of Masjed-e Kabir. There was a large square next to it where a bunch of kids was playing football, families were strolling and teenagers were hanging out. As soon as I got out of the car I became a superstar again. People were saying hi, staring at the car. While they were gaping, I noticed people on the roof of the mosque and decided that it would be nice to get up there. It turned out to be possible even without being a holy cow – next to the entrance was a small booth that sold tickets to everyone. 20000 rials (around $2 or 50 rubles) got me in and I went up.
What a view! I could see the road I had taken, all the attractions, and – most importantly – the badgirs that I wanted to see. Although it is an ancient invention, they are still used. In essence, a badgir is a rectangular construction on the roof of a house in the form of a wide chimney with air inlets along the sides that capture the wind and direct it inside the house making in cooler. In other words, an air conditioner. I do not know how popular these are today, given the new technologies, but I saw some new houses with these devices in the center of town… Just in case?
From the mosque I went to the old town with half-wrecked worn houses and streets so narrow that passers by had to brush shoulders. I walked along one of them and got so carried away taking photos that I did not notice two old women – they were staring at me, speaking angrily and pointing to the gate I came through. Perhaps I wondered onto somebody’s property… I did not want to upset them, so I left.
After driving around town a bit more I went to a bazaar on its outskirts, bought some tangerines and extremely delicious bananas, gave a ride up and down the street to some Iranians that were screaming with joy during the ride and then couldn’t thank me enough for the pleasure, headed on to a highway to Kerman and cruised with tractor speed all the way to my next destination point.
I had no fuel left, of which a glowing yellow light on the dashboard reminded me. The vapors in the tank that had kept me going were also running out. Finally, I saw a much needed petrol station – and without any queue of trucks. I filled the tank for $1 and continued my journey. It was getting cooler, the sun was setting. The air was very fresh and filled with the smell of flowers, which, like along the Tehran highway, blossomed in abundance on the separator strip.
I drove without any stops for 200 km from Yazd and began to feel sleepy. I parked at the side of the road and started settling in. It gets dark very fast in Iran – it is already night at 23:00, so I quickly dozed off paying no attention to the sounds and lights of passing trucks and other vehicles.
A small asphalt plant in the rays of the morning sun was the first thing I saw when I woke up early in the morning. Kerman was 150 km away. I covered the distance very fast – the road was still empty and sleepy. It was quiet in Kerman as I made my way to the center of town – people were still asleep. It took me many wrong turns to figure out the city plan. Several squares and mosques distracted me – I could not figure out which were the main ones, and the map of the town from a guidebook did not help. So I applied to a lonely policeman who was regulating the movement of the awakening drivers on one of the crossings. He took some time to figure out the names of the streets in distorted English transcriptions, but then cleared up the directions for me.
It was around 6 in the morning and people were just beginning to gather on bus stops to go to work. Everything in proper order – boys on one side, girls on the other. Boys in the front of the bus, girls in the back. There were a lot of students and schoolchildren in the streets. Taxis were darting about. I could smell freshly baked lavashes and rolls. The town was waking up.
I visited only one mosque in Kerman – the biggest and brightest, and spent the rest of the time wandering the streets and making photos. I walked along the ancient trade passages in the center of town, which were the concentration of the Oriental spirit, with small craft shops, oriental arches, bakeries with smoke coming from them, and a certain spirit pleasant untidiness. Incidentally, there was a lot of greenery in this town, unlike Yazd, for example. Even though Kerman is more to the south and should be like a desert. Anyway, I liked it there a lot. A cozy little town. It would be nice to spend more time here, walking through its many streets and parks… Someday. The next destination I had to get to that day was the cave village Maymand about 200 km from Kerman…
I could not remember the route to Maymand, even though Ali described it in detail, so I found a passer by as I was exiting town and pointed my finger at the word Maymand and the nearby town of Shahr-e Babak. A brief instruction on a new sheet of paper – turn here, go there, make a u-turn and turn – and two hours later I was driving along bold rocky mountains and serpentines. The scenery was cheerless – rocks, rocks, and more rocks. There was no greenery – just a few rare bushes and trees near mountain brooks. The engine temperature increased significantly as I climbed up. I seemed to be 30-32C outside. The engine would heat up and lose power. On especially steep slopes I got into first gear, leaving large clouds of black diesel smoke behind me.
In one of the villages I saw a guy hitchhiking and offered to give him a ride. Again, we used sign language to communicate. I asked him where Maymand was. He said he would show me. So we drove and drove. We drove quite a long way and I constantly asked him whether we had missed the village. But he would shake his head pointing to one mountain and then another, indicating that it was there somewhere. Finally, on one of the crossings he asked me to let him out and pointed to a huge boulder with yellow letters spelling “MAYMAND” and an arrow showing the direction. Thanks, brother! Although we could not understand a single word the other was saying, we still had fun!
Maymand, the Cave-Village
At the entrance to the village was a sign with historic data. It was a typical tourist point, as indicated by numerous plaques and signs in English, although there was no one at all in the street. There is just one, I drove along it to the “center” and parked in the shade of a branchy tree. It was around noon already and the sun was blazing.
To the left and right of the road were little hillocks with cave dwellings. It was amazing – I had never seen anything like them before. As soon as I got my camera out and started on a stroll, I noticed a man walking in my direction – he was drinking tea on one of the hillocks just a while ago. He turned out to be a representative of the Maymand village MUSEUM (!). I tensed up a bit, cause I don’t really like excursions and prefer to examine sights myself, but the guy wasn’t obtrusive. He addressed me in Anglo-Persian and invited to come into one of the dwellings, showed me the rooms, ancient household junk and other attributes of life of cave-dwelling Iranians. What surprised me most was that people still live in some of these caves. They dress differently of course, have TVs and everything, but the mere idea of living in a cave…
The caves themselves were man-made, i.e. not created by nature. Rock in that place is very brittle and easy to shape, so the ancient Iranians used these qualities to carve out multiple-room apartments for themselves. Whenever a baby was be born and it got crowed, they’d just carve out more rooms. They had stoves inside, where they made fire, and the smoke would come out through vertical outlets, which were also carved out. In some places – probably, where the ceiling had fallen in – I could see roofs made of logs and sticks, which you would not notice from outside, because they were covered with earth.
In one of the rooms, I saw another foreigner with a guide. Judging by his looks, he was German, around 50. We exchanged glances – he also seemed surprised to see a foreigner, but did not get a chance to chat, with each following his own guide. My guide invited me to his “office”, which was located in one of the caves. It was funny to see modern equipment and computers amidst stone walls. The floor was covered with carpets; there were many books around. The Iranian gestured me to sit down on one of the pillows, got out several albums describing the village, placed them in front of me and then got out a digital camera, set its timer, sat next to me on a pillow and made a photo. Tee-hee… I did not know if he expected me to pay him for showing me the books and the “excursion”, but he gave no hints, so I did not insist, said goodbye and went on to examine the rest of the dwellings on my own.
As I went outside, I got a panoramic view of the whole village. In the middle was a mountain river, completely desiccated. Behind it, on the flank of another mountain I could see more “entrances” – as the Iranian explained to me, it was a hotel. So, if you want to come here for a proper tour, you can stay overnight and experience the benefits of cave living. Next to the hotel were “modern” stone constructions, several trees next to them – most likely planted.
I walked around for another 15 minutes, made a few shots and went to the car. It was very hot, I wanted to get into shade, and it was time to go as I was planning to reach the Persian Gulf and spend the night in Bender-Abbas. The heat and two days on the road made my entire body itch and I desperately wanted to get into a bath or at least a shower. I gave the village one last look and drove off giving way to several cars with Iranian families – apparently tourists as well.
I drove a few kilometers from the village, turned into a field and stopped under a tree. I had to look at the map, as I was driving along secondary roads, which were abundant, and I wanted to plan my route to the Bender-Abbas highway without using the same road I came by. It turned out to be a big detour. While my notebook was loading, I ate a couple of tangerines and was just beginning to munch on a tasty delicate banana when stinky blue smoke erupted from somewhere underneath! Just what I needed …
I switched off the notebook, figuring that it had caused this. But smoke was still coming accompanied by the crackling of a short-circuit! What the fuck?! I pulled out the notebook adapter from the lighter socket – it was burning hot. I pulled the master switch for all electrical appliances, but it would not budge – it had melted. A got under the dashboard and tore out the cable feeding the lighters. Phew… That seemed to work …
I reviewed the damage and discovered melted cables from the additional T-lighter. The notebook adapter was plugged into it and short-circuited, causing the wires to melt and resulting in another short-circuit that glued the plus and minus firmly together. Why on earth do they make such shitty adapters?! I specifically chose the best one, and what did I get? A fire in Iranian mountain, 4000 km away from home...
I carefully cut the burnt cables, wrapped everything in insulating tape. I had only one lighter now. That was catastrophic, because I needed lighters to feed my GPS, pocket PC and phone. I would have to get a new T. But the reality was against me: none of the auto-part stores in two large cities seemed to have such adapters. Almost all salespeople referred me to repair shops of their friends and relatives to get the burnt and melted adapter fixed. I could fix it myself, I had lots of wires… but I wanted a new one …
Driving encourages deep thought, have you noticed? You drive along and thoughts flow through your head one after another. It was the same this time – I was driving to the Persian Gulf, pondering over something. It took me some time to notice changes in the surroundings.
The serpentines were getting really steep, like in the Caucasus. Roads were looping around rocky cliffs, diving into tunnels, coming out again. There was more traffic; I had to pass many trucks, slowly crawling uphill. Luckily, Iranian traffic inspectors are not too strict about using the oncoming lane, so I successfully passed all heavy haulers by impudently crossing the double line.
After one of the rises, the road jumped into yet another tunnel, and when I got out of it, a wave of hot air hit me. I was getting close to the sea. It was getting more humid, I could no longer see as far, and the air was getting hotter. As I descended along the serpentine, the road led me into another tunnel. At the exit, I received another blow of heat in the face. I was beginning to get frightened! Frightened that this was only the beginning! The altitude was only to 1000 m, so what would it be like near the water? Another pass and another temperature jump cleared things up – it would be hotter than I had ever experienced.
Making my way towards Bender-Abbas I paid no attention to the palm trees and the landscapes that were becoming more vivid and green. I did not care that the road now had four lanes and that I no longer had to use the oncoming lane for maneuvers. I didn’t care what places of interest lay ahead of me. The only thing I cared about was the absence of an air conditioner in the Maverick. I was so hot that I did not know what was better – to drive with open windows and tolerate the rushes of hot incoming air, or keep the windows closed and boil in the car without fresh air. My T-shirt and pants had become wet and sweat was dripping from my forehead. A proper sauna!
When I drove into town, it was around 8 in the evening. The first thing I did was to search for a hotel. There were lots of people in the streets, turning their heads to look at me, waving. Passing cars greeted me by honking and motorcyclists rode up to the open window yelling “Hello, Mister!” I stopped at one of the crossings with a policeman and asked directions to a hotel. There was an instant quorum of people around me, discussing something, examining my car and me, pointing in different directions. The cop told me that there was a hotel two crossings further, and five minutes later, I was parking in front of the Hormoz Hotel, scaring the receptionist and foreign businessmen who were checking into the same place.
As I came in I experienced bliss – it was cool! The hotel was very impressive, like five-star hotels in Europe. I was guessing how much they would ask for a room… I walked up to the reception, called a manager and asked about room rates.
- $74 for a double, we are out of singles, unfortunately – said the young lady in perfect English
- I can’t pay $74 now. Could you suggest another hotel with rooms at $30-50?
- Just a minute… - she went up to another manager – apparently, a boss – and returned shortly. – We will give you a discount of $20, and give you the room for $54. Breakfast is included, and you can use the swimming pool, it is open until 23:00.
- AH! I TAKE IT!
A room with an air conditioner, a television with 300 satellite channels, a large balcony with a view over the Persian Gulf, a mini-bar and other attributes of civilization was exactly what I needed at that moment! I filled the bath with water, got a bottle of mineral water from the fridge and just lay soaking after my dust-filled journey. After the bath, I fell onto a huge white bed and fell asleep.
Early in the morning, I checked out, after heaving a substantial breakfast of healthy food as opposed to tinned beef and crackers I usually eat in the car. I was planning to go to the island of Keshm, drive around it and return to Bender-Abbas. On the following day I was planning to start out for Shiraz. Keshm was the extreme point of my voyage, the rest of which could be considered coming home.
I asked the hotel manager about the location of the port and the ferry and quickly got where I needed to go, but things were not as I thought. The ferry that starts from the port near Bender-Abbass does not transport cars. The car ferry departs from another port, 70 km from town. Well, what is 70 km for me after all I had been through? An hour at the most.
As I was driving along the coast towards the second port, I noted that there were no beaches. Where did people swim? At first, there were some buildings, then the road headed away from the coast, then back again, but the coast was swampy and impassable. I really wanted to take a swim! I was hoping that maybe on Keshm there would be a beautiful beach with white sand and clear water …
While I was daydreaming, I approached the port of Shahid-Bahonar. I immediately got into the queue for the ferry but was sent to the building nearby to process some documents. There was an Iranian guy next to me who also needed to go to that building - he invited me to go with him, so he could show me the way as well. He spoke English pretty well, so we did not have any problems with communicating. Problems appeared in “that building”, which turned out to be the customs office.
It turned out that in order to get to Keshm I had to pass customs. Keshm is some sort of a special zone, even though it is part of Iran. My request was declined, because I had transit documents with departure to Afghanistan. The guy accompanying me translated what the customs officers were saying. We went to the head of the customs office, asking him to “somehow” resolve the issue, but found no understanding. It was the first time that I discovered what “impossible” means in Iran. If something is “impossible”, it really is impossible, no alternatives. I also discovered another peculiar thing – my transit documents were expiring on the same day and from the following day any cop to stop me for a document check would be able to arrest my car, as it would be illegal for it to be in the country. Nice… But improvisation is what we live for! I changed my plan. I was going to drive back to Bender-Abbas, find a place to swim there and then move on to my next destination - Shiraz.
A swim in Bender-Abbas? That certainly was optimistic… My first attempt failed. I got off the road, squeezed my way through some houses, drove up to the Persian Gulf, but the coast was so trashy, I did not even want to get out of the car – not to mention swim there. I drove up and down the coast and got to the road again. My second attempt was more successful – I discovered two municipal beaches – for men and for women – absolutely deserted. I drove up to a passage among some rocks, undressed, looked around and got into the water.
It was delightful! The water temperature was 26-27C, the skin didn’t even feel it! It was like swimming in warm milk, very pleasant; I did not want to get out. Cars were driving by, but I could not see them behind the rocks. I was worried that cops would come and arrest me for swimming in improper attire, since Iranians swim in their clothes. But nothing happened. The swimming and understanding that I had reached my extreme point and could now proceed made me very happy …
Making my way to the main highway through Bender-Abbas I examined the town more carefully. A lot of greenery, many shops and restaurants. Lots of hotels. It was not surprising since Bender-Abbas is a major Iranian port. The people were also very different: Africans, Indians, Arabs, Persians. If it had not been for the heat, I would have stayed to walk around photographing them – such variety. Many people were dressed in national clothes, making the crowd brighter and more colorful.
After some time I got out of the town – I could not avoid getting lost again, because it is very hard for a simple Russian tourist to decipher writings in Persian. I stopped to check my map for directions and drove on. There was no direct road to Shiraz on the map, so I planned my route using secondary roads, knowing that they were all asphalt and that I would be able to get through in any case.
Who would have suspected that maps could lie… I realized that when I came to a fork a couple of hours later: I had to choose between a dirt road going straight through the steppe into the mountains, and the main asphalt road going left. The map was indicating that I had to go straight. Common sense told me to forget about the map and take the asphalt road, but, as it turned out, asphalt does not always take you where you need to go. Sometimes it can take you into a village with three houses and a crooked den and then disappear or turn into a hardly visible earth road. Exactly that happened to me. When I found myself in a total shit hole, I went into a stupor. What was I to do? Go back to Bender-Abbas and start again using another road?
My doubts were cleared by a guy in a truck with a concrete mixer, who came from the same direction I did. He gestured to follow him and took me through the field to a huge elevation of gravel filling of an autobahn under construction, and showed me the direction to follow in order to get to the highway to Shiraz. Thank you, kind man!
I could drive over the gravel filling even without asphalt, but in a couple of kilometers, someone put a pile of sand across the entire road. Was the road closed or what? Another truck came by and showed my what to do: without stopping in front of the sand pile, with extreme side rolls he turned from the filling into the field and then, skidding on the gravel climbed up on the other side of the pile and continued driving. “Got it”, I thought, and performed the same trick. After half an hours of shaking over the gravel, I came to the highway. I got onto it and drove on in confidence – the road matched the one on the map.
I was going deeper into the mountains. Plateau after plateau I was gaining altitude. It was no longer as hot – maybe because it was getting dark, and maybe because I was driving away from the sea. At one point, I noticed something large and black in a mountain across a field. It was a cave! I drove off the road at the nearest crossing to a dirt road and drove into it. The cave was not deep, with several narrow passages leading inside the mountain. Judging by the traces, someone had been there already. I did not risk it and satisfied myself with a few photos of the cave lit up with a flashlight. I was walking over crackling hay and poop-balls – apparently, this place was popular with shepherds. There were remains of a bonfire nearby that made the entrance to the cave ash-black. I also noticed the lack of any “Vasya was here” type signs. The walls were naturally clean!
Evening was coming and I my fuel tank was getting empty. Town after town, village after village, no petrol stations. Where are they all? The arrow was mercilessly moving into the red zone, when I saw one! It was closed, because everyone had gone to sleep… I dropped speed to 60 kph and went into the super fuel saving mode. I still had about 100 km to Shiraz when the low fuel indicator lit up. Again, I was driving on vapor, it was getting dark, there were no more villages and fewer and fewer cars. It was time to panic and bite my nails, as I had a good chance of finding myself in the middle of the highway without fuel. With the lamp glowing, I drove on for another 50 km, and finally found a petrol station. After pumping diesel into the pipes of the Maverick, I had a snack and a bit of rest after a long drive.
It was already dark and I had to find a place for an overnight. The map indicated that there were some lakes just before Shiraz. I thought it would be nice to spend the night near one of them. One hour later, I was on the bank of a stinky dried out salt lake, surrounded by torn tires, old shoes and bottles. Screw romanticism! I decided to spend the night in town, hoping to find a hotel there in the middle of the night. Where’s that tourist map…
Moving towards the center of town, I noticed a large number of under construction sections. There very numerous detours to the parallel side road and back. Roundabouts were actively reconstructed – everything was fenced off. They were either building new junctions or new squares and parks.
When I got into the center, I applied for help to a passer by again. A crowd of locals gathered around me instantly, each trying to figure out what I wanted. One of them offered to take me to a hotel, jumped into the car and two crossings later, we stopped in front of ANAHITA HOTEL. The guy at the reception suggested that I park in the back lot, but I was unsuccessful – the gate was too low. So on that night the citizens of Shiraz could enjoy the sight of my technical marvel parked in the town’s main square.
$20 for the room, $2 to the guy for taking me to the hotel. I handed in my passport, put the keys in my pocket, took my bag to the room, took a shower, watched some TV and fell asleep. That is a comprehensive description of my evening. The room I got was not a luxury suite, but it had everything I needed: a bed, a shower and a socket for charging my equipment. After a long drive, a traveler certainly does not need much!
I woke up at around 6, quickly packed my stuff, woke the clerk (who was sleeping on the floor) to let me out, and went for a tour of Shiraz. Judging by the descriptions in the Internet and the tourist map, there were supposed to be many old buildings and interesting mosques around, but in reality, the center of Shiraz was full of construction sites, and the mosques were not so interesting or beautiful. So, after riding around the center a bit, taking some photos of a desiccated river and some monuments, and buying some rolls in one of the just opened bakeries I headed towards the stinky lakes that I spotted the night before.
So they stink, but they’re still pretty impressive. A huge area of pure white “snow”, which pulls you in when you try to stand on it. And not a drop of water! I have encountered such traps several times more during my travels around Iran, when I wanted to get to a lake. All of them were dried out, only Urmia had some water, but its banks were so swampy it was impossible to get to it.
It was 8 in the morning, so I could do some repairs! It had been a long time since I twisted any bolts and screws on my car, but it was still on the move. Now I finally had an excuse- the tail of the rear axle began to vibrate horribly at large speed. It was not a new problem for my car, I regularly have to tighten it, which was exactly what I did after hoisting my Maverick up between tow hillocks to the amazement of passing cars.
The next destination on my route was Persepolis. Internet sources claimed that it had a veeeery cool palace. Turned out to be not so cool. To start with, it is a purely tourist location with a paid parking lot (although if you drive in from the back it is free), souvenir kiosks, a mini-museum, paid tickets and civilized signs everywhere in two languages – Farsi and English. I do not like such places, and there were too much people there by that time – both locals and foreigners. So, after strolling through a small part of the complex, drinking two cans of juice and going crazy from the heat coming from the rising sun, I left the wonderful palace… or what was left of it.
Lovers of antiquity and history may find that place interesting – it certainly is vast. It took me an hour and a half to cover an insignificant part of it at the foot of the mountain. And there were paths leading up to a huge gate. If it had not been for the heat, I would have gone up there, maybe… but fate was against it. I could not resist the temptation of finding myself in a cool shade, so I got into the car and drove on.
At one of the petrol stations, while I was filling up my car, a guy came up to me and invited me to visit his café next to the station. He gave me some tea, we sat and talked using the already familiar Iranian gesture language. While we were there, his friend ran in with a deflated tire and asked for a pump. By that time, I had already finished my third cup of tea, and since I could not turn down another one without upsetting the café owner, I took the arrival of the guy with the tire as a signal for action and went out to help him. They were very surprised when I got an electric pump out – everyone in Iran uses manual ones. And that’s how they showed me a “pump” – by moving their hands up and down and making the “pffff-pffff” noise.
I reached Esfahan at about 19:00, that is in the evening, as most of the towns I had visited. A good time to look for accommodation, have dinner at a restaurant and stroll through town.
Esfahan is a City. With a capital С. Like Moscow, only in a different way. Multi-level junctions, heavy traffic, good wide roads. People are dress in more fashionable clothes than in Qom, for example. Young girls wear coats instead of long cloaks, colorful kerchiefs instead of gloomy hijabs, and I even saw girls in some sort of leather suits, although still in knee-long coats and with kerchiefs on their heads – that was invariable. There were a lot of people resting in parks, sitting on the grass, drinking tea. There were especially many of them along the river separating the city in two. There were many bridges across it – both pedestrian and auto bridges. Near one of them, the most famous one named “The Bridge of 33 Arches”, I found the SUITE HOTEL.
For $56 a day I got a room with a view of the bridge and the central street. It had a prehistoric air-conditioner, a 60s stand-alone radio set, a TV and A KITCHENETTE! I had never seen a kitchenette in a hotel room – with a washstand, cooker and a fridge. It was decorated with white tile and separated from the rest of the room by a small wall. “But there’s more!”, as they say in TV-shops trying to con you into buying some useless cheap gadget. It had WiFi!
I decided to spend the next three days resting from the trip, not going anywhere. Within the city the most. I felt so lazy that I phoned the restaurant and ordered food in. Luckily, they didn’t reject my offer, even though it was pretty late, and 20 minutes later I was devouring a chicken kebab with a huge plate of rice, washing them down with a Coca-Cola. My notebook was quietly rustling nearby, loading my favorite Nissan-4x4.ru website through which I was going to send a message home. After dinner and a shower, I plopped onto the bed and flew into the nocturnal cosmos for a journey through space and time... In other words, I fell asleep.
In the morning, at about one in the afternoon, I had my lunch for breakfast at the hotel restaurant and went out for a walking tour of the surrounding areas of the city. There was a lot of greenery, trees and flowers, crowds of people walking about. There were foreigners, too, quite a lot of them. I strolled along the river – very refreshing. No wonder so many people were scattered around the lawns, resting. Iranians love to rest, even during business hours, “the soldier sleeps, but the service goes on”!
I did not last long. Walking was definitely not for me, and I broke the promise I had given myself earlier not to get behind the wheel for at least a day. It is like a drug. I returned to the hotel, the parking lot and drove out in the direction of Esfahan’s central square Naskh Jakhan, which means “map of the world”. It is the second largest square in the world, but to me it seemed like our Red Square. Only it had a lot of fountains, lawns and trees. The lawns were occupied by Iranian families, resting, playing ball, drinking tea. Along the square were shopping stalls selling all sorts of junk – from very ancient rugs, produced by the recently built very ancient factory, to copper plates signed by the shah himself with the help of out of town workers in the neighboring cellar. Many traders were real polyglots. “Hello, privet, gutten morgen!” came from all around as they waved at me, invited me for tea, hoping that I would buy a heap of their junk in gratitude. Pop world. I left it to drive around town.
I did return, however, at night to make some night shots. The lighting is very beautiful here, fountains everywhere. And even more people that in daytime. They have a common problem with us, by the way – lack of parking space. But I got lucky. While I was circling around a small lot looking for a spot, a military policeman waved to me and let me leave the car right in front of his booth. In the distance I could see a cop writing out fines to those who left their cars under the “no parking” sign. Laws are observed strictly in Iran.
After a night stroll around the square, I returned to the car to discover an old guy next to it examining something between the wheels of my Maverick. He turned out to be a Frenchman, traveling to… India… by motorcycle… We had a chat, comparing impressions, discussed the routes, the cops, the fuel and other stuff. It is much more comfortable – and faster – to travel by car than by motorcycle. He covers a maximum of 300 km a day, and that is heroism. I do not know if it is enjoyable, though … Take the rain and the dirt from the road that ends up on the face, for instance… I doubt that I will ever feel the urge to travel by motorcycle. To start with, I cannot even ride one, so that is stopping me. The only plus in his choice of motorcycle for Iran specifically was that he was taken for a local – there are as many motorcyclists here as midges in Karelia in July.
I returned to the hotel late at night after riding around the streets of Esfahan a bit more to the amusement of wandering youngsters. A late supper in my room, an internet session, a shower, and off to bed. A week and a half on the road, different people, different cities. Esfahan, despite its outward beauty, turned out to be just one of the usual tourist cities. It lacked that special Iranian appeal I had seen, for example, in nomad camps, in villages and other towns. People were more business-like, less hospitable, seeing a tourist in you, a source of money. On the other hand, there were lots of modern services. A nice place to live with all the benefits of civilization. Other cities were simpler, and life there was more “oriental”.
The benefits of civilization cost me $126, which I paid at checkout at 9 on the following morning. This included two-night accommodation, meals and the Internet. I had breakfast in a restaurant next to the hotel and got into the car to head North-West, through the now familiar Luristan to Kurdistan. I wanted to see Takht-e Soleyman, Kandovan and Tabriz – an ancient fortress, a cave village and just a very pretty town.
I would like to note, that during the previous part of my journey I was rarely stopped by the police. On my way from Esfahan, however, I was stopped twice within a few hours, and inspected for visa validity, and after that I was often stopped all the way to Anzali. I still have not figured out why. After all, when I was heading towards the Persian Gulf, I was only stopped a few times. Luckily, though, in all the cases except the first one, when I presented the car documents and my license as I do in Russia, the cops did not ask for anything else except for my passport with a visa.
Hamadan and beyond
The journey was long and difficult. I drove 600-700 km from Esfahan to my first intermediary destination point – the city of Hamadan – in one run. I drove into Hamadan at around 7 in the evening and stopped in one of the boulevards to examine the map. A moment later I was attacked by youngsters desirous of being photographed with me and my car in the background who started helping me make sense of the maps with great enthusiasm and explaining how to get to where I was going. One group would not have been that bad, but cars were stopping, people getting out and greeting me as if I were their old friend, asking where I was from and where I was going, whether I needed any help and so on. An absolutely different breed of people than in Esfahan! So open and kind, they made my soul lighten! From that moment on and later during my travels around Kurdistan, I noted that the Kurds were the most openhearted and sociable people in Iran.
After making enough photos with a Russian tourist in them, the Iranians dispersed and I, finally, got a chance to have a snack and plan my further route. I realized that I would not make it to Takht Soleyman on that day, so I decided not to rush, to spend the night somewhere near the fortress, and in the meantime to have a look around Hamadan. One of the locals promoted the city with great enthusiasm, saying that it had thousands of years of history, plenty antiquities and places of interest.
I slowly drove around town and came to a fenced off mountain. Up on the mountain, which more resembled a high hill, I saw the remains of ancient houses, dug right in the slopes. The closest entrance to the territory was closed. So I had to photograph the houses through the fence, standing on the hood. Only later, when I drove around the hill, I found the main entrance on the opposite site with several school buses and several private cars parked nearby.
It was the town museum, and the hill behind it was the digging site of an ancient underground town. All houses were in the mountain. All that was left of them were stone and grass. Judging by the eroded tops of the walls, the roofs used to be made of straw and clay and were washed away by rain over time. The territory was not very big; I walked around for about an hour, looking into each dwelling. And what I DISliked most of all was that there was trash everywhere. The place was not tended to properly as a historic monument should be. Bottles and bags were everywhere.
After visiting the underground city, I spent some more time riding around the modern part of Hamadan. Almost every pedestrian and driver stopped at the sight of me, pedestrians lined up in the middle of the road to photograph my car with cell phones. Drivers waved hands. I was the center of attention again, like a white crow or an elephant in a china shop. It was beginning to get tired of it, especially since the road that day had been very difficult, so I hurried away in the direction of Sanandaj, where I could get on a paid highway and get to the turn to Takht Soleyman.
When it got dark the road turned from a more or less straight one into a serpentine, and the mountains were getting higher and higher. After one of the tunnels, I drove out to a huge serpentine lit up with spotlights. A shame I was driving at night! I am sure I would have been able to see for many kilometers around. I stopped at the side of the road to enjoy the night view. The lit road curved underneath and ended in a huge lake of lights – the town of Sanandaj. I did not check the navigator for the altitude, but my inner feeling told me I was pretty high up.
I got lost in Sanandaj. I got into some alley, which took me to a deserted street, then to a traffic light and a road heading in the opposite direction. Luckily, a kind passer by saw me with my emergency lights on the curb, offered help and showed me the correct way. I got out of the town, drove, and drove until I started dozing off. I turned into a field, aiming for its middle, so that I would be as far from the road as possible not to attract the attention of passing cars, and fell asleep. I left the engine on – it was windy and cold outside.
“6 am!” – the phone rang. It was dawn. I looked around. My car was in the middle of a freshly sown field – I could see little sprouts of wheat or corn or something under the wheels. In other words, I parked over someone’s property, even though I could not see any houses around. But even in this secluded place I could not avoid company: while I was enjoying a breakfast of tea and delicious white cheese and packing things to continue my journey, a guy materialized right next to my car. With a look of extreme astonishment he made a helpless gesture, and I could easily read the phrase “what the hell are you doing here???” on his face. I gestured to show that I was leaving. Perhaps, this was the owner of the field. In that case, I understand his feelings. He stood there for half a minute longer staring at me then turned and walked towards the road.
I made my way over a small hill to the asphalt. The man was waiting for me in his car. He watched me drive away with a meaningful expression. In a while, I saw him drive off in his own direction through the rearview mirror. I guess he wanted to make sure I left. A good thing he did not call the police. Or maybe they were on their way?… Well, they will not find anyone when they arrive …
After 50 km I turned off the highway in the direction of the Takob village. I did not know the road to the old fortress beyond Takob, so I had to apply to the locals for help again. Despite the fact that I had been driving around Iran for two weeks by then, each contact with the locals was a mystery. Each would start predictably with my question of “how to get there”, but each would have an unpredictable ending. I was either asked for a cup of tea, or somewhere else, to see some landmark, or would be pulled into a conversation about my car and voyage, or people would call their friends to gape at a foreigner. My search for the road to the remains of the Takht-e Soleyman fortress was a vivid example of the openness and good nature of the Iranian people.
When I drove past Takob and saw a huge billboard with the name Takht-e Soleyman on it, I turned to a secondary road to head in its direction. The road twisted around the mountains. The landscapes were amazing, so I stopped several times to take photos. There are many hydro sulfuric springs in those parts, so it stinks pretty much. Some springs were coming out through the hills making them glitter brightly in the sun. I drove for quite a long while and was beginning to wonder if I had missed the fortress. After yet another village, I saw a fence – a tourist base or summer cottage maybe. I stopped to ask the way.
I walked inside through the gates that revealed a huge territory. There were dozens of little pavilions lined up, several connected swimming pools with purling water. Behind them – some sort of residence or cottage. Just as I entered, I saw a guy and asked him about Takht-e Soleyman. Maybe my accent was too heavy, or maybe he simply did not know where that was, but he shook his head. There were some workers nearby who also could not tell me anything sensible. When I turned to leave another guy came through the gate, in a white shirt and trousers. The manager type. I asked him about the fortress, he nodded and pointed. And then started gesticulating actively pointing at himself and the car. I realized he wanted to show me the way.
The man was very sociable, even though he new absolutely no English or Russian. We introduced ourselves. “Man Jenia – man Kurban”. I told him about my trip, he was very happy and surprised. Happy that Iran is interesting to travelers and surprised that I had gone so far and seen so much.
By the way, you are probably curios to know what this “dialogue” looked like. Perhaps, you think that I am fluent in Farsi and understand everything my aids tell me as soon as they open their mouth. As if! All our communications were at a primeval level. Had you seen us, you would probably think that we were two retards waving hands in different directions, gesturing, making noises that barely resemble words. Still, we understood each other well and could discuss different subjects. We had to confirm what we understood, however, to avoid ambiguous interpretation of gestures.
Time and kilometers flew by fast over conversation and we found ourselves on a small lot in front of the fortress. This was not an abandoned place. There were people around, but no tourists. Maybe it was too early at 9 in the morning? … There were, however, many workers repairing something. Kurban offered to show me around the ruins. It appeared that he had been there often and new the place well. I bought a ticket, for $1, I think, and we went in.
The zest of Takht-e Soleyman is the lake located inside the fortress. It is truly amazing. It does not freeze in the winter, and the water in it is green. Unfortunately, Kurban could not explain the qualities of the water. Maybe it was very salty or like our windscreen washing liquid – with some chemical components. But it was truly beautiful! The buildings around it were almost fully wrecked. The wall of the perimeter, on the other hand, had been restored and its amazing newness was clashing with the rest of the ruins. The fortress was on a mountain that revealed an amazing panorama of the surrounding area. On a hill a bit farther I could see the remains of another construction. According to the stand in the fortress museum, there used to be a prison tower there. By the way, I could walk around everywhere, climb the walls, get into all rooms – there were no limitations. Do visit it, if you are ever in the neighborhood!
After a thorough examination of Takht-e Soleyman, we left the fortress and headed back. My next destination was the Kandovan village. A cave village, like Maymand, but with a different relief and constructions. However, when I brought Kurban back to the place where I picked him up, he invited me to take a look at the premises. I agreed.
The cottage complex turned out to be a sort of health resort. The main building was a sauna with a mineral water swimming pool (water was coming from a spring in the mountain). The building had two entrances and two separate pools: one for men and one for women. Next to the house was a small worn booth with glass walls and a hydro sulfuric spring. The stink was awful! In the middle of the territory were several decorative pools with water flowing from one into another. Near the exit were rows of pavilions, where Iranians could unroll their carpets and drink tea after mineral and hydro sulfuric baths. The whole complex had just been built and was on the stage of decoration, not yet operational. Judging by what I saw, it promised to be very impressive.
It did not end with a tour of the facilities. Just as I was about to get into the car and drive on, Kurban got in and gestured “forward!” He put his hands together to form a house, and I figured he wanted me to give him a ride home, since it was on the way. However, in about 5 minutes he started making movements like a dancing girl and signing something. I was confused – was he offering me a prostitute? … I tried to reject his proposal by pointing to Kandovan on the map and my watch, but Kurban was persistent and continued pointing to a turn to some village where his home was and imitating a dancer and singer. Well, ok, I though I would go with him and see whatever he wanted to show me! I thought it was unlikely that it would be prostitute, cause in Iran they are very strict about such things. But what else could it be?…
I was absolutely shocked when after dodging around the village – its self-built houses, piles of manure and chickens running under our feet – we came to the roof of a house and when in a yard below I saw DANCING! Genuine Kurdish dancing! There was a man standing under an umbrella with a synthesizer, playing, and another nearby singing, and in the center of the yard, women and girls dressed in national clothing were dancing in a circle. People gathered around them, chatting, listening to the music and making dancing movements. So the dancing girl portrayed by Kurban and his insistent invitations to go with him were intended to show me, a guest, real Iranian dancing!
About ten people gathered around me, greeting me, smiling. They did not expect to see a foreigner. Others were afraid to come up and stood watching me from a distance, whispering, at first, but twenty minutes later, I was in the middle of a large crowd of people. Unfortunately, when I attempted to photograph the dancing, they asked me not to do it so as not to disturb the women. So I didn’t. Even though the spectacle was so emotional and unusual for me that I really wanted to capture it with my camera. Most people in the village were dressed in national clothes, and their faces were so friendly and cheerful that it was hard to turn down invitations to tea or the little presents they offered me after the dancing ended. It was lunchtime by then, and I was planning to have a look at Kandovan and Tabris before nightfall. So I had to say goodbye to Kurban and his friends in the village and move on.
My spirits were high. It was sunny and warm. Life was good! I drove about 40 kilometers from Kurban’s village (I decided to take a mountain route to Kandovan so as not to get back to the highway), when a group of men with machine guns and police officers stopped me – about 5-6 of them. I drove up to them slowly, stopped, a cop came up and I gave him my passport. He asked something in Farsi, but I just shook my head – “I don’t understand”. Then the cop told me to wait, went off and returned in half a minute with a guy who was carrying a tray of CANDY! He held out the tray, I took a couple of sweets, the cop returned my passport and waved me off, smiling! EVERYONE who took that road got candy!!! I realized this when I saw candy wrappers flying out of windows of passing cars. Iran is a total mystery!
In one of the settlements, I stopped at a petrol station. While I was fueling up, a guy in a jacket and trousers came out. He examined my car for a while, then gestured to me. He turned out to be the director of the petrol station. He offered me some tea, I agreed, we sat down, had a chat. There were more men in his office in jackets, trousers, white shirts and ties – typical merchants, so our conversation was very versatile and dimensional. After finishing my tea, showing them my photos and telling about my further plans, I thanked my hosts for hospitality, said goodbye and drove off.
It was time to phone the ferry company to find out how the vessel and its schedule were. After a phone call to Moscow and then to Astrakhan I was informed that the ferry was still at Olia, would be loading for three more days and then in two more days would be in Iran. So, in 5 days I would be able to board it and steam away to Russia. It was May 22, so I was to depart on May 27, a Tuesday. That is my wife Tatiana’s birthday as well. If we were to celebrate her birthday on the weekend, I would not miss the party. Everything was going well, I would have just enough time to get to Moscow. Even though I had been planning to return before her birthday, a little delay was not bad. However, the “little” delay was just the tip of the iceberg... I’ll elaborate on that later, and now … Kandovan!
To find the way to Kandovan I had to apply to several locals of which only one taxi driver understood what I wanted. After dodging through the narrow village streets and mountain serpentines, I got to my destination. There was a booth at the entrance to the village, and I had to pay some money to get in. Kandovan turned out to be another civilized tourist village, with signs in two languages, a paved street and numerous paths between the houses carved in the mountain. I left the car and continued on foot. On my way I met two groups of female students – about 50 of them. They probably came over from Kandovan for an excursion. There was not a single man among them – only young women.
Due to an influx of tourists, the village seemed to lose the spirit of antiquity that makes it worth coming to places like this. The houses carved in the fanciful hillocks on the slope of the mountain looked very unusual, but the impression was undermined by double-glazed windows and satellite dishes on their roofs. Overall, for some reason Kandovan reminded me of Karlovy Vary in Bohemia. There was a river in the middle of the village with a street along it, a multitude of little shops on the first floors of houses selling nuts, fruit and souvenirs, and behind them rows of residential “houses”. There was not much to see and nowhere to go apart from that one street. I decided not to come down to the river, and it was pretty crowded, so, not seeing any point in staying longer, I hurried in the direction of Tabriz.
Tabriz and beyond
It was dark when I got to the city. It instantly felt like a large one – just as I drove in I got into a traffic jam. Iran’s cities are very beautiful at night, the authorities are lavish when it comes to spotlighting everything that can be spot lit. Tabriz was also very bright and colorful in its night-lights. Despite the late hour, there were plenty of cars and people in the streets. Life was in full swing. I bought some food in one of the shops for the following days and started looking for a way out of the city, as my hopes of having a casual ride around and taking some photos melted away with every minute I spent in traffic jams and lines of cars. The GPS was not very helpful; I had to circle around many streets to find the highway to Tehran. In an hour I was driving in complete darkness on a serpentine without any clue of whether I got to the right highway – the GPS marker kept spinning because of my looping, and its accuracy in this area had a discrepancy of a couple of kilometers. But the general direction seemed right …
After a couple of hours of driving, the fuel meter light started blinking. I passed two petrol stations – both were closed. During my journey I learned to start looking for petrol in advance, but what was I supposed to do when everything was closed? It was very late, time to stop for the night. There were only mountains around me and no quiet spots to get some sleep in peace. So I continued to drive slowly, encountering fewer and fewer cars as I went, and at a certain point I realized that I was all alone, no one in front of me and no one behind me. Only the moon and the road. Like outer space.
After yet another closed petrol station with a long line of trucks, I decided to stop for the night somewhere nearby, so as to come there first thing in the morning. I found an exit into some field, drove as far from the highway as I could and settled for the night. Outside the wind was strong and cold, so I had to leave the engine on not to freeze at night. Even if the engine died at night I still had some fuel in the canister – just enough to get to the station.
Surprisingly, the engine was still working in the morning. Hail to diesel and low consumption! I had a little snack and drove to the station. It was still closed. While I stood there, waiting, an Iranian came up to me and addressed me in pure Russian. It was so unexpected I was shocked! It turned out that this man lived and worked in Moscow for a long time, then his business partners swindled him and he returned to Iran. I felt so ashamed for our country! We chatted for a while, then said goodbyes, the station opened, I fueled up with pure diesel for $1 and continued my journey.
In fact, my journey was coming to its end. My destination for the day was the Anzali port, where I planned to find a hotel and spend the last 3-4 days waiting for the ferry. That would give me a chance to take in my past journey and the things that I had seen. I would also look through the photos, correlate them with my memories and the log and buy some gifts for my friends at home so as not to come back empty-handed.
The rest of the way was pretty monotonous. After Tabriz I got to Gazvin, then headed south for Rasht, and took the same road I did when I first came to the country to get to the Caspian Sea. The road ran along the sea and I was not losing hope to find some exit to the beach, so that I could live there. But nothing came up, so I entered Anzali, got to its “center” represented by a small flowerbed and a roundabout around it, and, taking the advice of a local cop, checked into a hotel located on the same square and entitled Ancient Golsang. For a three-night stay they wanted 50 thousand tumans or about $50.
The hotel was located in an old Russian-style building with a double-pitch roof, carved balconies and high ceilings. Anzali was not like other Iranian cities. There were many European type buildings around. And the people looked more relaxed, with women using a lot of make-up and wearing light kerchiefs pushed to the back of the head. Cops in central Iran would be infuriated by such appearance, but here no one seemed to mind. Men wore bright clothes and styled their hair in the explosion at a macaroni factory style. Sometimes fashion took absurd twists – you could see 5-6 people with identical hair. “Clones!” – Shtirliz would think.
I got a key to an ordinary room without an air conditioner but with a huge ceiling fan like the ones remaining in our village department stores from soviet times. There was a balcony with a view of the “center”, and I parked my car right under it so I could watch over it. A hotel employee told me that the place was not as safe as the rest of Iran because of the port and many visitors from neighboring countries. There was no refrigerator or TV in the room - I did not care, because I did not need them.
It was getting late and I was getting hungry. So I went to the nearest restaurant and had a dinner of kebabs and rice. The food was the same throughout Iran. I got very lucky with the guy at the reception – he knew some English, so I could communicate with him fruitfully, ask him about the city, the people and the rest of it. After dinner, I walked up and down the street a bit then returned to the hotel and went to bed.
I could not fall asleep right away though – there where cars and buses going by, it was noisy and people were talking loudly in the street. My room was on the second floor so everything was very audible. I tried closing the balcony door, but it got very hot. So I just lay there until it got very late and the street became quiet. With soft ambient music coming from the speakers of my notebook I started to doze off when another menace came …
In total silence and in a state of complete relaxation I felt something scratching my leg. “A fly”, I thought and whisked it off. But the thing returned and continued scratching. Then I killed it and whisked it off again. In less than two minutes, I felt two more tiny bugs crawling up my leg and arm. I should note that it was completely dark and I could not see what they were. After all, what else could be crawling in the middle of the night? Mosquitoes and flies from the street, nothing else. What I could not understand was why they were so persistent. Ants maybe?… I got up, turned on the light and froze – FUCK! THE BED WAS FULL OF BEDBUGS!
I stormed out of the room into the car, grabbed the anti-mite spray I bought in Moscow, and returned to spray the bed thoroughly. Phew, it looked like they abandoned it. I was really exhausted by then, so I did not wait for 15 minutes as the instructions said, fell on the bed and instantly fell asleep. I do not know if anyone else crawled over me… Anyway, I did manage to get enough sleep and in the morning nothing reminded me of the incident – the battlefield was clear.
THE COMMON LIFE OF IRAN
I gave this section a separate name and called in Common Life because that was what I experienced. In the first part of my journey I traveled through the country, saw many interesting places. I met people of different nationalities, saw many aspects of Iranian life. But that was tourism, a superficial experience. All my acquaintances were fleeting and never lasted more than a day or even a couple of hours or minutes. But in Anzali I stayed in one place, and I began to penetrate deeper into the city’s way of life, its schedule, the leisure of its residents, their preferences in entertainment and relaxation. Considering this, I should, probably, thank the ferry for being so slow.
Incidentally, just as I got into the city I called the ferry company’s representative in Iran Dmitry Petrov, and we agreed to meet on the following day and have some tea. While he was working, I drove around the town, visited some shops and bought souvenirs for my relatives in Moscow. I also found a road to the beach not far from the city, had a ride along the coastline, nearly sank in one of the sand pits, investigated spots where I could park for an overnight and then returned to the city. The meeting with Dima went well, he promised to help me with my messed up documents, which, in case you do not remember, assumed I would be departing to Afghanistan, and then we went for a walk on the embankment, talking.
The following night went by without importunate bedbugs or residents. The first, I guess, got an overdose of anti-mite and fled to another room, and the second probably chose not to roam all night and went to bed early, for the next day was Monday – a hard day. On that Monday I was supposed to be checking out of the hotel to spend my last night in Iran on the beach and then board the ferry on Tuesday. Thus, the first day of the week was absolutely free for me and I had to think of something to occupy myself with. But loneliness failed to grab hold of me, for continuous extemporization is what we live for!
On one of the streets not far from the center I met a man named Mahmud, owner of a “copy-photo” shop. Mahmud spoke some English and some Russian. He used to live in Dnepropetrovsk working or something and because of that knew Russian. After an invitation for tea and other hospitality procedures, we became friends and he invited me to go into the mountains with him on Monday since I had a free day. We agreed on that and after checking out from the hotel in the morning I went to his shop and we set off to look at the “fog” – some sort of a natural phenomenon in an especially picturesque spot near Anzali.
We failed to reach the spot due to road repairs, and instead went on a tour around his friends’ houses, and he did have lots of friends. Virtually with every step we had to stop and greet different people to whom he introduced me and told about my journey. The people were very different – from shop salespeople to owners of hotels and the mayor of Anzali. Mahmud was a very sociable and nice guy and I owe a lot to him for introducing me to Iran’s everyday life.
We drove along the coast for several hours and after lunch retuned to the city. On my return, I got a call from Dima who had some good news – I had to go to Astara to correct my documents because it was impossible to do it on the spot. Blimey! It was 14-00, the customs office was open until 17-00, and Astara was 150 km away. Would I make it in time? With my spaceship – of course! Without wasting any time, I rushed off to Astara, hoping to return before dark with fixed documents.
I did not know how slow and awkward the bureaucratic machine in Iran was. When I arrived in Astara, I phoned the helper that got my documents done last time and had to annoy him for a long time to force him to go and get them corrected. I was offered the following options: to get my documents fixed free and depart through Astara, or to pay a fine for being in the country longer than the 5 days indicated in the documents and correct the exit point for Anzali. The fine was $200. Neither option suited me, specifically since at entry I was promised that my documents would be made the way I wanted them. So I took the papers and went to the customs boss.
Such a familiar face! A broad smile on it and he even spoke English! I was very very angry, and I think the entire customs office heard me yelling at the boss and the helper who had shamelessly swindled me getting my documents done the wrong way. The boss was trying to calm me down saying “no problem”. He then consulted with the helper about something and the latter offered me to pay a $120 “fine” for departing from Anzali – “the cheapest possible”. The freaks! Further negotiations brought no results. There was no way I was going to return through Astara – the memories of Azerbaijani and Dagestan customs were still fresh, so I gave them the go ahead to fix the documents with a fine and went off to drink tea with truckers.
Time went by, but my helper was nowhere to be seen. I chatted with each of the truckers in the nearest café, but still no helper. I went through all of the photos I made and 5 cups of tea, but the helper did not come. When my watch showed 18-00 and the phone stopped answering, the truckers comforted me by saying that all helpers and bosses had gone home and would be back tomorrow. That was just great! To spend the night under the customs office fence – how romantic! But I had no options.
At 19-00 I was completely relaxed. I went to have dinner at a small restaurant with my new friends – an Azerbaijani trucker Bahtiar and Iranian student Habib; we walked around Astara, had some ice cream on the coast of the Caspian Sea, and then parted to go to sleep. The day sure ended unexpectedly, near the entrance to the customs office, in my car, 150 km away from the ferry. And happiness was so close!…
I woke up at 9. The helper turned up almost the same moment, took the documents and went off. Miraculously, he disappeared again. It was 10, 11, 12… No sign of him. When he ran out of the customs gate waving the papers, I figured they were done! No such luck! I had to drive into the territory of the customs as I did the first time, wait for some stamp and then go through the entire procedure of my car’s inspection, and only after all of that and obtaining the last signature on the papers I was free to go and $120 poorer.
It was Tuesday, May 27. The day of two events – my wife’s birthday and the arrival of the ferry! I could feel happiness getting closer and I really wanted to get home! I sent my congratulations to Tatiana, promising to be home very very soon, said goodbye to Bahtiar, Habib and the rest of the truckers and rushed off to Anzali so as to fly onboard the ferry without stopping and to steam away to Russia. For the first time I REALLY wanted to be home. But fate, it seems, decided to taunt me a bit longer and give me a chance to get to know Iran a bit better by spending more time there.
When I returned to Anzali, I immediately phoned Dima, told him that I had gotten the documents fixed and asked where to go in order to board the ferry. “It’s not here yet”, said Dima. It was to arrive the following day, because it was delayed in Astrakhan. Another flop … “An overnight on the Caspian Sea is not so bad”, I thought.
I made a stop at Mahmud’s and told him about the situation with the ferry. Mahmud was happy! It appeared he did not want to let me go yet because he had not shown me everything. And since I had some more time he would find something for me to do. He closed his shop, virtually took be by the arm and led me out for a walk. We were joined by a guy named Reza, the son of Mahmud’s good friend who was the same age as me. We went to a lighthouse at the mouth of the port. Then had dinner at a restaurant, talked about our countries and the common side of life that was getting control of the second part of my journey. When I was preparing to leave and spend the night on the beach, I was resolutely told: “No! We will not let you spend the night at some dump! You are going to sleep at Reza’s house in normal conditions!” Another unexpected turn of events…
I did not turn down their invitation even though I was afraid that I would inconvenience Reza’s family – after all, they were not just inviting me for tea. But things turned out fine: Reza’s parents were on a vacation, and he was alone in a large European style flat with a TV and 3000 satellite channels, his own parking space on the first floor of a five-storey building and other advantages of civilized life. The contrast with central Iran was obvious. Life in port cities, where there is a connection with the outside world, is quite different – in the center of the country such luxuries are a rarity. I was allocated a separate sofa on which I fell asleep after a hot shower.
I should describe my following days in Anzali one by one, so you can get a clear picture of the situation I found myself in, and understand, why my stay in Iran stretched from the planned two weeks into a month. I already wrote in the beginning of my narration that things were not so simple with the ferry. Despite all my planning the ferry turned out to be the slowest and least flexible link in the journey.
So, on May 28, Wednesday, I woke up in Reza’s apartment. We had breakfast and went to Mahmud’s shop. At about lunchtime I called Dima and asked about the ferry. Good news! The ferry approached the Iranian shores! But it was not allowed to enter port until the following day… I desperately wanted to spend the night by the sea, so I said goodbye to Mahmud and Reza who gave me lots of farewell presents, and headed for the place on the beach I had spotted earlier to listen to the sound of the breaking waves all night and leave for home in the morning.
May 29, Thursday. The night was cold and windy, I woke up at 8. A phone call to Dima. Can I go board? Why NOT??? … The ferry was still not in port – no free spaces. I met with Dima and gave him my documents. Another free day. By that time, I was tired of passive relaxation and of the spot on the beach – too much garbage around and people walking by all the time. So I got on the highway and drove east along the sea to find a more or less decent wild beach. Do you think I found one?… The entire 300 kilometers after the turn to Rasht and further in the direction of Meshhad were covered with cottages and hotels. There was not a single meter of wild beach! Have you seen the situation around Sochi-Lazarevskoye-Lo? It was the same here. An Iranian resort zone. After driving for 300 km east and then 300 in the opposite direction, I stopped for the night on the same spot on the beach near Anzali.
May 30, Friday. Do you know what Friday is in Iran? A WEEKEND. Do you know what that means? That means that the ferry entered port but nothing else happened because the customs office WAS CLOSED. What did I do? Same as usual – I chilled … Not one kilometer driven all day. I walked along the beach photographing ducks, waves, and rocks on the beach. It was beginning to rain and the wind was getting stronger. I remembered central Iran. I wanted to go to the mountains, I wanted some sun. But even more so I wanted to go home. By that time, I knew the salesmen in local shops pretty well, and the police officers posted on the squares of Anzali, and the taxi drivers who greeted me as they drove by. I really wanted to go home …
May 31, Saturday. After several impromptu days void of logic I stopped planning my future. I had only one goal left in life – to get on the ferry. My brain switched to vegetable mode. No thoughts. That state was interrupted by Dima’s phone call: “Come to the customs, get your car registered”. Oh!
Things started to move. But the speed of their movement was that of a snail in slow motion. I spent 2 hours waiting for the local helper at the entrance to the customs. A good thing I found something to occupy myself with – there were old trucks coming in and out of the port all the time, I took photos of all of them, and got acquainted with lots of truckers waiting their turn to enter the port. When the helper finally arrived, we drove 100 meters into the port and he ran off. I spent another half-hour waiting for him. He came back with my papers and new stamps on them, we drove to the weighing machine where my weight was registered, then I had to wait for another half-hour for the man to appear “out of nowhere” as he tended to. He appeared. I had to drive on the weighing machine again – they made a mistake in some calculations. I did. Everything was okay. We drove to the parking lot where I parked my car near a hundred of transit Arab cars. And then another unexpected thing happened – they took my keys and… that was it… “And where do I board the ferry?” I asked. “You can board the ferry tomorrow, we will not be loading today. You can go to the city and spend the night there”. Have I already used the words? Yes, I have. WHAT THE FUCK?! My whole life was in that car, all my things and equipment. I had nowhere to live without the car, and they wouldn’t allow me to stay in the port. What was I to do? I had to pack my bag, put my camera and some food there and walk out of the port. But where? I already said goodbye to everyone, I checked out of the hotel. Besides, in was closed for renovation. There was another hotel though, and I decided to go there. If only I would get there… It was windy and raining. I felt like a tramp.
Luckily, Dmitry helped me out. His friend gave me a lift to the center, I went to the nearest hotel and got a room for $30. It was better than in Golsang, with a TV and a refrigerator, but still no air conditioner. It did have a view of the port, however, in the corner of which I saw my ferry – the Aquarama.
After settling in, I went to Mahmud’s shop, where I spent the rest of the day to the enjoyment of Mahmud and his friends. In the evening they took me to a diner, where we had some local shish kebab. Then we walked through the entire town back to the shop talking about all sorts of things, promising to keep in touch, and then we parted.
Boarding the Ferry
June 1, Sunday. By 9 I was at the port, waiting for the helper by the car. After two hours there still was no sign of him, so I went to search for my car keys. For this I recruited the help of all Iranians that surrounded me – the port’s workers. It turned out to be a harder job than expected. The guard would not give me the keys without some stamps and signatures, so I had to take him by the hand and escort him to the car so that he would open it and I could take some stuff. Naturally, being the shrewd Russian I am I got the second set of keys from the bag so that I could open the car without the guard’s assistance if I needed to. One of the port workers told me that I could go to the ferry and check in while the cars were loaded, and that was what I did.
The first Russian words I heard near the ferry were “Shit, what the fuck is that for?”, spoken by one sailor to another. “Russia’s close…”, I smiled to myself. I got on board and felt a weight lift from my soul. I was on Russian territory and I was not going to get off. Although after I settled in my cabin, as I was watching the port’s machines work and the city in the distance I felt a little sad. I spent three weeks among positive people who were prepared to give me everything I needed. Who were willing to show me the entire country. Who loved their motherland and respected each other … I was thinking that I would have to come there again by all means, to bring my friends and show them the amazing country!
I was pondering over this in a 4-person cabin of the “Outpatient Clinic” allocated to me by chief mate Yevgeny. I was given accommodation away from the Iranian car drivers, and was told that they make a rumpus at night, that they drink too much and make a lot of noise. Afterwards I was offered an amazing lunch at the ferry’s diner! After three weeks of kebabs, rice, beans and tea, I got some buckwheat with sauce, soup and compote – incredibly delicious! After spending a couple of hours after lunch on deck in a coma-like state I went off to nap.
I was awakened late in the evening by Dima who came to the ferry. He was very surprised that I got on without going through the passport control, scanning and other border procedures. Odd. I was walking around under the noses of guards, and none of them said anything. Pretty lax security! Dima and I went to some border official, talked to him, laughed a bit, and I handed in my passport to be stamped for “Departure”.
It was getting dark when the loading began. I was one of the first to get in, my car was lifted to the upper deck, so as not to be disturbed until we came to Russia, and then the transit cars began to drive in. About 150 of them. Toyotas, Nissans, pickups. All going to Kazakhstan – not one to Russia. There were some pretty fresh ones there! I spent some time drooling over each off-road.
There was a cargo ship moored next to us – Durseau from Makhachkala. Its team – several guys from Dagestan – were wandering around. They noticed me long before my car was loaded on to the ferry and came up to get acquainted, asked me about the trip and how I managed it alone. Then they gave me a tour of their ship, the captain’s deck and the engine room, showed me the cabins and the rest of it. The naval life was a novelty to me. Even though my grandfather and uncle were seamen, my personal naval experience was limited to a few rides on Moscow’s river taxi and a trip on a ferry from Finland to Sweden, but there the ferry was more like a hotel, than a ship. And now I got an inside look at all the machinery. It was incredibly interesting!
The loading continued until morning, so I made a few routine photos and went off to bed. When I woke up there were only heavy trucks left on the dock that were supposed to get in last. It was already June 2, i.e. a week of my life in Anzali. My desire to leave for Russia as fast as I could was waning, replaced by calm and submissive waiting for the departure. After all, it would happen at some point, wouldn’t it?! The captain assumed that we would be able to depart late at night, but predictions turned out for the better. At around 16, the passport control boarded the Aquarama – a commission of 10 people who thoroughly checked the documents of everyone on board. When they left, the captain ordered the crew to cast off and the motor ship slowly departed from the shore. My journey came to the point of no return and only the sea was ahead of me …
Anzali – Aktau - Olia
When you are driving – it is interesting. On a long trip, you can drive on and on, looking around, holding the wheel, always alert and aware of the things going on around you. Being a passenger is another thing. You sit in the passenger seat not knowing how to occupy yourself. You consider whether you should read a book, look out the window or sleep. Your brain relaxes and you get bored. Have you ever experienced that? Now imagine what I, a fanatic driver, felt like on a ferry, where everywhere I went all I encountered was the sea. There was no entertainment on board – I did not take any books with me, there was no Internet, no mobile connection, and the TV was not working. All I could do was lie in my cabin and listen to the music, then go outside, make some photos, eat at the diner and go back to the cabin to sleep.
On the second day of our voyage, we were to approach Baku and pass it, but there was a storm warning in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, so we cast our anchor behind the Apsheron Peninsula, hiding. And what does being anchored mean? Complete idleness for the passengers and the team. Luckily, the television began to catch Azerbaijani channels and we could watch some movies. I could see numerous oil derricks out in the sea, some of which were connected with bridges into a large hub. If was like a city. While we were anchored, I got to know the ship pretty well, I made acquaintance with all crew members, took photos of all technical gadgets, visited the bridge, where I was invited by the captain. I showed photos of my journey to the crew, told them about the places I had visited. As evening came, there were no changes in the weather, so we spent the night dangling on the anchor.
The following day was just as hollow as the previous one. Now that you have read this sentence, try to extend the reading to 24 hours – 1-2 symbols per hour. That was how time dragged by. I am absolutely not used to not be doing anything. I was on the verge of climbing up a wall and howling at the moon … But a breakthrough came – in the morning the naval radio announced an improvement in weather conditions, and we moved on to Aktau. At least now I could watch the crew at work for a change.
According to the schedule, the ferry was to get from Anzali to Aktau in 2 days. In reality in took 4. We arrived at the port on the night of June 5-6, but there were no free spots. So we spent the day drifting a couple of kilometers away from the shore. Through binoculars I could see new houses and red roofed cottages belonging to rich Kazakhs. The city stretched for several kilometers with many-many houses and dwellings scattered along the coast. In the evening, the sailors set up a brazier and made some shish kebab. The old sea wolves sure knew how to kill time and entertain themselves at sea!
In the evening of the following day, we were allowed to enter port. Mooring was followed by a long boring procedure of unloading. All 150 transit cars were to be unloaded in Aktau. I was getting prepared to move my car to the hold, but the unloading took longer than I anticipated and my turn came only at 3 in the morning. Naturally, I managed to get lots of sleep by then, so, after waking up I could not fall asleep for a long time, so I loitered about the deck making photos of secret port objects and ships just to piss off the border officers serving duty at the side of our ship.
Two more days were spent in Aktau. Somewhere on the horizon the ghost of Russia was lingering. It was somewhere close, but my desires were by then reduced to an even more primitive level – I no longer wanted to go home, I just wanted to get into the car and drive! Just to steer by myself, not be a vegetable, to shake over hummocks and not sway on the sea. I wanted to see trees and birds, not this green water and shitty seagulls! Someone up there must have heard my wishes, for in a while a Kazakh commission came on board, checked our documents and we departed for the Astrakhan port of Olia. Another day of my journey was coming to its end, June 7 …
I was at sea again, on a long slow voyage. I cannot remember anything from the Aktau – Olia segment. Maybe because nothing happened, and maybe because I slept through most of the day after two bottles of cognac which the captain and I shared in his cabin. In the evening, we entered the channel leading to Olia. The depth of surrounding waters was no more than 2-3 meters, so a special fairwater was made for ships. It is very unusual to see rush growing 10 meters from a moving ship. There were lots of creatures like ducks, swans, cormorants and their like roaming in the rush.
The Russian Customs
Compared with Iranian port Anzali and Kazakh port Aktau, Olia is a large trashy warehouse. A badly lit dock, overloaded with containers and iron constructions was all I could see around midnight, when the ferry entered port and began to moor. It took a while before we were allowed to go to shore. A commission came and the process of document inspection started again.
While border officers were preparing documents, a bold guy in a cheap jacket came into my cabin – a worker, I figured. He asked me where I had been in Iran, what sites I had visited, the price of food, water and weed …I told him everything accept the weed part, because I don’t smoke and have never taken any drugs. The man awed at my story, interrupting me every step of the way, asking “Don’t they sell weed there? Why didn’t you buy any?” I was telling him about the marvels of a unique oriental country, and all he wanted to know was whether I had smoked or bought weed. I got the impression that he wanted to buy some off me, the miserable junkie.
Later all became clear. I drove out after the first truck, through some high tech car scanner worth millions of euros used to detect hidden compartments in cars or explosives or something and went to the customs point. There I met the bold guy again – he was examining my car. It turned out that he was simply worming out information from me, trying to find out if I was bringing any drugs from Iran, and afterwards he continued to look at me suspiciously, even after a thorough inspection of the car and my things.
By the way, our customs and border officials did not try to extort any money from me. Although I was prepared for it after my experiences in Dagestan and Azerbaijan, here everything went so smoothly I could not believe it. The customs officers were polite and accurate. The bold guy was the only one inspecting my car. He looked through all my medications, shook each box of noodles, examined all the rest of the food and bags. I expected him to shove a pack of heroin or something in my bag to blackmail me, but nothing like that happened. My only costs were port dues in the amount of 2000 rubles. They gave me a pay form for that which I had to pay through a booth in the farthest end of a warehouse. A sleepy woman accepted my money, gave me a receipt in return and went off to sleep again, and I almost got lost among the containers and rusty equipment piled all around the port.
Olia – Volgograd – Moscow
I left the port at about 4 in the morning. Getting through customs left me with positive impressions – even though everyone was half-asleep, they were performing their functions perfectly. The documents were stamped and I was driving along a Russian road! I was almost home!
When dawn began to break, the first thing I noticed was that the road was a total wreck. After three weeks of Iranian roads, I forgot what Russian roads were like. Perhaps is was due to the good roads in Iran that I covered the entire route without a single breakdown. And now, after entering the highway to Astrakhan, I was afraid that I would break down on the last segment of my journey.
I hardly got away from the port, when in one of the villages I was stopped for exceeding the speed limit by 20 kph. The cop let me go without a fine after I told him where I had been and were I was going. Thank you, kind inspector! If all inspectors where like you, I would have reached Moscow much sooner! But not everyone is perfect, and after a thorough search for drugs on the border, I was stopped and searched three times at traffic inspection posts for illegal fish and caviar. The inspectors looked at me cunningly, asking where I was coming from, and trying to trace the salty fish smell with their noses. All in vain, I was pure as a baby’s morning piss!
At 8 in the morning, after I passed Astrakhan, I began to feel sleepy. I could not go any further, so I turned into the nearest bush and tried to sleep. Who could have known that this was the peak of midge activity?! The tiny insects penetrated every crack and half-open window, not letting me get any rest. Not to mention, that it was impossible to get out of the car and take a leak – they were prepared to bite my dick off to the balls and eat me! Anyway, I locked myself in the car, going mad from the heat inside and the constant buzzing outside, and managed to doze off for a couple of hours.
Judging by my speed, I was planning to get to Moscow at around 2 at night. I decided not to rest too long, so I woke up at 10 and continued my journey. As I drove into the Volgograd Region, I began to run out of the Iranian diesel I fueled up with in Anzali and had to look for a petrol station. Fortunately, in our country they are omnipresent! Unfortunately, I had to pay around 1300 rubles for a tank, or about $55. Where’s justice, I ask you? I spent $20 on fuel in Iran for my entire journey! I DROVE ALL OVER IRAN!
I drove into Volgograd, found a telegraph office and phoned my wife. Why didn’t I use the cell phone? Because I lost my sim-card in Anzali, when kind Dima gave me an Iranian one to save on local calls. So, all the time in Anzali, I was deprived of international communications, and no one knew where I was and what was happening to me. I could occasionally receive calls from Moscow, but most of the time communications were limited to Iran. And when I was leaving, I returned the sim-card to Dima and remained without any communications at all.
After Volgograd, I drove virtually non-stop. I did have to stop a couple of times at traffic inspection posts for document checks and at filling stations. At around 2 at night I began to feel sleepy again, and someone was constantly growling in my stomach, demanding food. I turned into the nearest thicket, finished the food still remaining from Iran, made some strong tea. It was just about 150 kilometers to Moscow, and I had to cover them as fast as possible, because at 4 I just switch off. After tea, I got an energetic surge and flew off towards Moscow at a cosmic speed of 100 kph along an empty road.
After two hours, I could see the ring road lingering in the distance. I saw it, but could not drive to it. So I stopped on the curb and fell asleep. After just 20 minutes, my body was functional again. It was already 5 in the morning, the start of a business day and of Moscow’s inevitable traffic jams. I gathered all the strength I had left and drove into the city, flew over to Kutuzovsky Avenue and slowly rolled up to my house. It was around 6 in the morning on June 10, and I made the last entry in my log indicating the end of my journey. Home, sweet home! Exactly one month earlier I left it for a two week adventure, and I was finally back. It was done!
What do I know about Iran now? I know that it is an amazing country, lacking the other countries falsity, malice and “obsession with law”. Iranians are not robotized, and communicate on a human level. They love their country and welcome guests regardless of nationality. When I spoke with one of the locals who knew a bit of English, I asked him what his attitude to Israelis was. His answer was simple – the same as to all people. If an Israeli were to appear in Iran, all would remain calm.
Iranians and Russian have some things in common, and one big difference – Iranians do not drink. You can come up to any man in the street, and he will be adequate in his actions and will be happy to help you if you need anything. I cannot say the same about our people, as my trip to Lake Baikal proved that half of the people in Russian villages are drunkard cattle, prepared to blow your head off for a cell phone.
I would gladly be the first to stand up to defend Iran against the attacks of frenzied countries that are trying to get a hold of Persian oil. How? I have no idea. Maybe my story will help overturn the misperception of Iran as a “country of terrorism”, and maybe people will begin to objectively assess the loads of shit pouring into their brains from the television. If the majority of people stop submitting to media influence, maybe the fabricated term “terrorist” will no longer cause so much mass hysteria and remarkable countries as Iran will become our good friends.
It has already become my friend, and I will gladly go there again.
trip dates: may 10 - jun 10, 2008
route: Moscow - Volgograd - Astrakhan - Makhachkala - Russia-Azerbaijan toll - Baku - Azerbaijan-Iran toll - Astara - Tehran - Qom - Yazd - Kerman - Bendar-Abbas - Shiraz - Esfahan - Hamadan - Tabriz - Anzaly - ferry from Iran to Russia over Caspian sea - Astrakhan - Volgograd - Moscow
team: I am alone
car: Ford Maverick, 1995, TD27, 33x12.5 Cooper ST
http://www.farhang.al-shia.ru/ - Iranian travel handbook
http://tours.babaev.net/ir/iran.html - feedbacks with fotos
http://www.snowpro.ru/slopes/iran.html - mountains and sky in Iran
http://www.zharov.com/kuda/iran.html - feedback
http://www.zharov.com/liza/index.html - another feedback, more positive -))
Logistic company - www.caspianferry.ru
irozi.rar - map for oziexplorer, not much roads
iranmap.rar - for ozi, more roads, but all in farsi
gmapsupp.zip - map for garmin gps device
039 LAG - N33 20.948 E49 44.575 - night before Louristan mountains
039 CHAK - N32 18.732 E54 24.940 - point of return on the way to Chuk-Chuk
040 POVRT - N30 09.345 E55 21.997 - Maymond turn
040 MAYMD - N30 13.749 E55 22.545 - Maymond cave village
041 HORMOZ - N27 10.971 E56 17.405 - Hormoz Hotelon Bender-Abbass
040 PLAJ1 - N27 10.842 E56 17.583 - Persian gulf beach1
041 PLAJ2 - N27 10.889 E56 18.369 - Persian gulf, beach2
042 PESHR - N28 02.884 E54 08.078 - Cave on the way from Bender-Abbass to Shiraz
043 ANAHIT - N29 36.511 E52 33.563 - Anahita Hotel in Shiraz
044 PERS - N29 56.118 E52 53.027 - Perspolis
045 SUITE - N32 38.545 E51 40.072 - Suite Hotel in Esfahan
042 P - N32 39.368 E51 40.552 - found free parking area near main Esfahan square
044 GORA - N34 49.227 E48 31.212 - old ground buildings in Hamadan
TAKOB - N36 24.524 E47 06.015 - Takab village
045 TAKHTS - N36 36.127 E47 14.207 - Takht-e Soleiman castle
046 KANDVN - N37 47.820 E46 14.552 - Kandovan village
046 GLSNG - N37 28.354 E49 27.615 - Golsang Ancient Hotel in Anzali, hotel with bedbugs
046 PLAJ - N37 27.785 E49 33.187 - Caspian beach
054 PLAJ2 - N37 27.680 E49 34.087 - one more beach
054 TAMOJ - N38 26.206 E48 52.519 - Astara customs
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28 May 2017
Невероятно красочная история,
интересная и содержательная.
Много полезной информации,которая
наверняка мне тоже пригодится в
моём путешествии. Планирую путешествие
Брюссель - Москва - Баку - Тегеран - Бендер-Аббас - Дубай
14 June 2016
- Alf (живу тут)
На все 100% согласен. Иран удивительная страна! Наших водителей сюда на стажировку надо, а то ездить не умеют, людей не уважают! Самое интересное Вам сегодня побывать в Иране. Спасибо за статью.
31 January 2014
Большое спасибо за рассказ! Очень хороший и содержательный, и удивительно поднимает настроение.
Жаль, ссылка на рассказ+фото не работает, а фото отдельно не подписаны( Если возможно,имправьте, пожалуйста, очень уж интересно где что.
Ещё раз спасибо!
11 August 2013
Присоединяюсь к Monroku. Сам из Дагестана, подтверждаю ситуации с гаишниками, хотя меня за время маршрута Москва-Махачкала-Грозный-Москва, остановили только 5 раз(все на постах) и не единого штрафа, номера московские.
Благодарю за рассказ
1 Jule 2013
- Marat Monrok
Спасибо огромное за рассказ! У вас талант!
1 Jule 2013
Отчет убедительный. Больше будем ездить и рассказывать об этом, так и проблем будет меньше между странами. Молодец
26 November 2011
Супер!!! Позитивное чтиво. Очень редко подобное встречается в сети. Автору респект за стиль, объективность и познавательность написанного. Удачи вам!
30 March 2011
отчет класс!!! фотки класс!!! жалко только что проехал рядом с такими замечательными местами а туда не заглянул. с другом в свое время там хорошо покатались на автобусах.
если у кого то есть задумка туда ехать тщательнее рассматривайте фин сторону поездки. сейчас там жизнь подорожала. еда стоит почти столько же сколько и у нас. топливо тоже значительно подоражало.
всем удачных поездок, ни гвоздя ни деньгососа.
если вдруг нужна помощь словом, пишите email@example.com
15 February 2011
- Владимир Шариков
Женя, привет, Это Владимир Шариков. Вот оставили в комментах тебе очередное спасибо за рассказ. Пересылаю:
Несколько вечеров, с огромным интересом, и с каким то азартом читал этот материал. Низкий поклон и огромное человеческая благодарность, за ту правдивость.Вы получили удовольствие и от поездки и от страны, а мы читатели получили удовольствие от прочитанного. Хочу добавить, у Вас писательский талант. Не зарывайте ТАЛАНТ. Развивайте ЕГО.Спасибо.
13 January 2011
thnask about your idea in 'Outro…'
26 November 2010
Очень интересно! Мы тоже хотим поехать а следующем году. Можете треками поделиться?
23 Jule 2010
Евгений привет. Скинь мне свой e-mail
Очень понравилась твоя поездка в Иран. Загорелись.Есть вопросы. Хотелось бы обсудить их с тобой.Андрей
29 March 2010
- Алексей, Таллин
Случайно зашёл на эту страницу. Лучший отчёт, который я встречал. Уверен, написано честно и без прикрас. Браво! С выводом согласен. Довелось общаться с двумя иранцами в аэропорту в Брюсселе: время коротали. Один вообще не знал никаких языков, кроме фарси. Удивило, что второй переводил первому (судя по интонациям) буквально всё. Никогда не забуду, как под конец разговора они попросили объяснить, почему, на мой взгляд, в Европе их считают террористами.... Мне глаза некуда было деть от стыда.
24 March 2010
Смело это не удивительно мы же РУССКИЕ.Я из Екатеринбурга и сейчас в инэте поеду в Иран.До этого нашёл путешествия в Иран и в их описании много совпадает с тем что ты видел в Иране
21 March 2010
Молодец! И самое главное все написал честно. Много я ездил по описанному маршруту, (правда до Астары, ) также встречался с нашими Гаишниками, таможенниками и тд. Мне стыдно за них потому ,что я родом из Дагестана.И всеравно спасибо за подробный рассказ. Я тоже собираюсь ехать скоро на своей машине в Иран. Но мне не понятны подробности получения визы, необходимость иметь Карнет де пасаж, страховка и тд. С благодарностью жду ваши консультации.
9 February 2010
я так увлекся чтением что забыл и поужинать. супер.нет слов. уважаю.
21 December 2009
Преклоняюсь перед смелостью и отчаянностью! а так же завидую белой завистью. ;) Путешествие супер! Молодец!
7 December 2009
В сентябре колесил по Дагестану, просто так покататься решил, посмотреть что к чему. Был в не меньшем удивлении от разницы телевизор-реальность. После прочтения решил готовиться весной/летом ехать в Иран. Мне несколько проще, я из Ростова, тут вообще рядом))))!
З.ы. Только один вопрос, как там дела с бензином 92/95?
Заранее спасибо, и огроменное спасибо за описание!
20 November 2009
Молодчинка! Мы с мужем тоже были в Иране. Прочитала твой рассказ и буд-то снова там побывала. Спасибо!
15 October 2009
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