overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

To boldly go......

Written by Maz Towns. Uploaded 13 January 2006.

Iran, Country 13, Diary entry 1st- 6th Nov 2005, Total distance in Iran: 4696 KM

As we drove up to the last check point of Turkey, I quickly slipped on a dress on top of my trousers and donned my hejab (head scarf) to look the perfect Iranian lady :o) On passing through the two big menacing gates, closed until you are allowed entry by a customs guard, we drove onto Iranian soil. Greeted by a ‘Welcome to Iran’ sign we were directed to the customs office.

We found a very helpful man who took the passports and both the carnets and began his mission of processing them in the fastest time possible. Fantastic! Sitting in the customs area waiting for the carnets to return, I was fidgeting with my headscarf; wearing it was a bit of a novelty and every time I moved my head from side to side, all I saw was the inside of the scarf, it felt like I was wearing blinkers!! I needed a local to show me how to wear it properly. However, I was given a boost by one of the customs officers who complemented me on how nice I looked in it. I guess any westerner wearing a hejab and shalwar kameez is a novelty to them as it is to us wearing them!

We were soon reunited with our paperwork but informed that we had to organise our Iranian car number plates from Tabriz (or any other large city) within 10 days of entering the country to make the cars legal. This was news to us but we were given a certificate to produce at the car license department, being told the procedure would take ‘only’ about 4 hours and would cost around $25. Being told we were free to go, we returned to our cars which had to be hosed down with some special chemical as the bird flu epidemic was in full force around the world. There were two guys administering the process, but what struck us as wrong was the man covered from head to foot in full chemical warfare gear was the man supervising with the clipboard, while the man in the neatly pressed suit hosed down the cars! Maz looking the perfect Iranian lady in the Shalwar Kameez

We headed to the final gate only to be told ‘problem’. I thought we were getting better at customs formalities but obviously not! Alex and I didn’t have the necessary insurance document, so back to one of the buildings we’d already passed to buy third party insurance. Bargain! We then headed on our way into the unknown.

With all the news we’d read before entering Iran and the recent protests in Tehran outside the British Embassy, we became ‘Kiwi’s driving home from the UK’ to avoid any unnecessary unwanted attention. It was mainly to detract from political conversations that may have arisen as a) its boring and b) none of us knew that much about politics anyway to have a decent conversation!

None of us really knew what to expect and it was amazing just how different Iran was from the other side of the border a few kilometres away. Ordered, well kept shops, many with widescreen TVs, good dual lane carriageways to drive on and well-organized farm land it was much more Western than we had imagined.

With diesel being so cheap in Iran we made sure we crossed over with near empty tanks. However, on reaching the other side, it was more difficult to find than we expected. The first petrol station wanted to charge us about 86 pence a litre - may not sound unreasonable to you guys - however our research had told to us expect to pay approximately 1 to 2 US cent a litre! Now these were December 2003 prices and we knew to expect a rise but not 850%! So we declined their kind offer of daylight robbery and drove to the next station who told us they didn’t have any. This was a déjà vu from Syria! Beginning to think we were being given the run-around we tried a 3rd garage. This time the garage had a line of about 15 trucks outside it and being the naive tourists that we are, we drove straight to the front of the queue to enquire if they had diesel. With the answer being ‘yes’, we then had to decipher the actual process of buying it; you pay first for the amount you want and then fill up, we were only allowed to put in 60 litres. It was a start and cost the grand total of 60 pence. Now that’s more like it!

Packing up first camp in Iran - could be worse views! We reached the first town from the border by evening and looked for a somewhere to eat. We were hoping for a quick doner kebab, but there was not a single one on show. We passed a man eating bread so asked him to point us in the direction of the bakery so we could placate our hunger pangs which he did so, but no before making sure I’d tested his first! The bread was tasty with more salt (called Barbari) and very different to what we had had in Turkey, it was thicker and more cake like with sesame seeds on top. He then walked me to the bakery so I took the opportunity to ask where a good restaurant was, to which he then jumped in the car with his friend to take us to one personally!

Not having any Farsi between us and the chef not knowing much English, we managed to point to chicken and skewers to demonstrate we would like kebabs. We sat with our first obligatory soft drink and waited for our food. Surprisingly we were first presented with a soup consisting of barley, carrot and hint of orange. Martin and Alex were non-plused but I liked it. Then came our chicken kebabs which were a light yellow colour with a side order of rice – after tasting it we decided it had been cooked in saffron. Unfortunately it was none descript, but filled the space.

Camp was hard to find as much of the land was farmed, but eventually we found a barren bit of ground between some rocks which we made home. With it now dark and just being me and the boys, I relished in taking off my headscarf. What a floozy I am showing my hair to Martin! Dessert was Baklava which we had bought in Turkey and the one lone beer that had inexcusably made its way across the border in our passenger foot well by mistake - oops! Tasted all the better knowing what trouble we could have been in if found drinking it! With the altitude lower the night was much warmer and a welcome from the cold night we had previously had. We woke to find we had a rather splendid view of Mount Ararat the next morning.

The next day we drove to Tabriz and were surprised to see how ornately decorated the minarets of the mosques were. Much more colourful and patterned than those we had seen in previous countries. Thinking I was going to be a passenger for the duration of Iran after being told that females weren’t allowed to drive here, I was pleasantly surprised to see women driving around the city, the most amusing site was the lady having a driving lesson by a female instructor! I’m glad my sources were wrong.

Coming from such a diverse society with the freedom to dress how we please, it was interesting to come to a society where legally you have to cover your head and to see the majority of the women wearing the ‘chador’ – a piece of black sheet-like material covering the ladies from head to foot, so you can’t see anything under it apart from their face (sometimes) and feet! To begin with, all you tend to see are the same black outlines, but on closer inspection, the materials used for each piece of black fabric are extremely varied. Different patterns, laced edges and sequins running through the material, all gave a slight variation on the look. However, made me feel extremely self conscious in my cream, orange and brown outfit! I had a few stares!!!

Our first stop in Tabriz was to find the vehicle licensing office to get the number plates. Not the easiest place to find and after a couple of failed attempts at directions we managed to pick up two police officers who would show us where we needed to go. By the time we found them the office was closed, but we’d know for the next day. One jumped in the car with Martin and we managed to make a space in the back of our car for me to squeeze in to so our guy could direct. During the short trip we had, they quite freely offered their anti-government views, which surprised us all. We found the office, although the boys weren’t 100% sure it was the place we wanted and thanked the gentlemen for directing us. We needed to find camp and food and before we knew it, it was dark before we had either!

We bought some bread and eventually found camp. It was beginning to get really cold and we went to bed a 9.30pm to try and get warm. Alex went to bed in his fleece, hat and gloves until I told him it was a bit excessive, so he removed his gloves! We’d decided to try and shift our day by going to bed earlier and rising earlier to make use of the daylight hours as sun was setting around 5pm, however on waking early to ‘flippin’ chilly temperatures, we didn’t make it out of bed until after 9am! Hmm, there’s a floor in our well thought out plan! The special perfumes on offer - do the names look familiar?

We drove back to the vehicle licensing office only to find it had shut 30 minutes previously! Typical. With it being Friday the next day and Eid, end of Ramadam (and therefore also closed Saturday for celebrations) we were a little stuffed as we weren’t hanging around that long. Alex and Martin by this point decided that it was taking too long to organise and therefore would not bother and just pay the cost upon arriving at the border. I was a little dubious, as we had been told that we could get fined if we were stopped and checked, but it fell on deaf ears. Fingers crossed we wouldn’t see too many police officers through the country as our past records weren’t looking too good up to now!

Into town to see what there was to do, we stumbled past the tourist office. We managed to eventually park on a side street, to be greeted with a few passers by and some men who owned the shops to welcome us to their country and to let us know our cars would be safe for the day. Popping in for a quick browse at the tourist info we ended up staying for a few hours! The gentleman that runs the place, Mr. Nasser Khan, was extremely friendly, but with lunchtime looming we were getting hungry. He told us of a shop to get honey, yoghurt and bread – I know, doesn’t sound great but a truly delicious lunch if you haven’t had the pleasure of it. Put some honey in the yoghurt and then dip the bread into the mix….. filled the gap and Mr. Khan didn’t mind us eating in front of him during daylight hours. Having planned our travels through Iran on a loose timescale, we ventured to the bazaar.

A nice old man adopted us for a couple of hours and became our tour guide, showing us perfume, date, spice stalls to name a few or explaining the history of sites and pointing out the small mosque hidden between the stalls where you entered from only a small door. We created a lot of interest in the bazaar being the only westerners around, but amazingly the women were as friendly as the men. I’d expected them to be like in Syria where they wouldn’t even look at us, but they were happy to say hello and smile as we walked by.

Anyone for a trotter? We wandered through the streets where Alex tried on an array of lovely hats which he intended to buy to try and keep him warm in the evenings. Having such a big head and being a man who takes a lifetime to make a decision, he didn’t find one ‘quite right’ and with comments from me and Martin that he looked more like Elvis in some of them, we left it for another day. With it being Eid (end of Ramadan), we’d managed to time the trip to the bazaar just right, with people packing up their stalls early to go home and celebrate (I’m sure Alex times it just right to try and stop me spending money at the markets). However, it didn’t deter the man selling trotters from his wheel barrow, who just pushed it round the alleys for those who wished to buy. Not a pleasant sight.

We had been told of a nice little restaurant round the corner from the internet café we were at, so after updating the website and reconciling email, we headed for a feed. We opted for Dizi (considered the poor man’s food by Iranians) which is a soup-stew combination that involves an age old eating process. Presented with an empty bowl, a boiling hot dish of stew containing mutton, potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes, onions and a large chunk of fat, a huge piece of cooked bread with lots of little dimples on the bottom of it (called Sangak) and an apparatus that looks just like a toilet plunger we weren’t sure what we had let ourselves in for! Firstly you pour some the liquid from the stew into the dish and soak it up with the bread. The bread was delicious and the dimples on the bottom were from the small bed of stones it’s cooked on. They kindly left one on the bread for me as a souvenir! Then, you pour the main ingredients into the bowl and take the plunger and pound it to a paste before mopping it up with the rest of the bread. Doesn’t sound the most appetising does it? But it tastes really good!

We returned to our cars after dark to be greeted by a very concerned man who only hours before waved goodbye to us with a smile on his face. He had expected us to return during daylight hours as the place was not so safe once the shops had shut for the day. He had called the police to inform them of our cars and that we should have returned by now. We turned up just as the police did, so after huge apologises for not realising we should have returned earlier, we jumped back in the cars and drove off! We managed to find camp on the edge of the city in a park where you had to pay a fee to enter. Breakfast - freshly baked Barbari bread The guys behind the booth, so intrigued with our cars, would not accept payment so we drove through and managed to find a bit of land off the main car park to set up camp. No sooner had we stopped the engines, the police turned up!! So much for trying to avoid them. We explained we were there just to sleep and we’d be on our way in the morning. However, English wasn’t really part of their vocabulary, so after a few smiles and pointing to the tent and making the motion of sleep, they left us to it. I think they were just interested in having a look at the cars. Again, thumbs up for them not noticing we didn’t have Iranian number plates!!

With Ramadan ending that evening, the next morning we managed to buy bread in daylight hours. It was a strange feeling and felt a little naughty eating in public in daylight. Next stop was Kandovan, a small town south of Tabriz which looks like a mini Cappadocia. Fairy chimney style houses, carved out of the soft eroded rock. With the locals still occupying the houses, it had a lived in look and smell to the place. Unfortunately there was quite a lot of rubbish and animal ‘litter’ around, giving the village that rural smell which you’d prefer to be left back in the fields. However, it was nice to scramble round the houses and rocks for an hour or so to take in the views. Alex outside a fairy chimney house in Kandovan

We then set off to begin the long drive to our next destination, taking us through the mountains. Iran is a HUGE place, so distances between each site take a day or more to get to. The drive was tough going with the roads winding their way round the mountain sides, but the brown, yellow and red shades of leaves falling from the trees gave a real autumnal feeling to the area and made it look really pretty. Martin heard strange noises from his car so pulled over for closer inspection. Not being able to see anything obvious, Alex suggested greasing all the bits on the car that they could, hoping it might help!

With the sun sinking, we stopped at a village to stock up on veggies and bread before heading out the other side to try and find camp. While Alex went to get bread I was mobbed by all the locals wanting to know what we were up to. They were all extremely friendly and with the one nominated English speaker pushed to the front of the crowd, I explained what we were up to and how we were still a long way from home (New Zealand). They were all extremely interested in our plans, even though they had no idea where New Zealand was! We pulled over for a photo stop and before we knew it had a policeman by our side! They had followed us out of the village and wanted to know what we were doing and where we were going. Having checked our passports they seemed satisfied everything was in order (not even noticing we didn’t have Iranian number plates!) and let us on our way.

Zendan_e Soleiman looming in the distance We found camp just as the last light was dwindling but within minutes of us parking up we heard voices. We couldn’t see anyone, but they were hanging around in the background somewhere so we decided we should move on. Unfortunately, it took us another hour to find camp. Neatly tucked away by a river bed we managed to hide ourselves among the trees. Thankfully it ended up being as nice a camp as the previous one we’d found and we managed to have a fire. Why is it that when it’s 16 degrees Celsius there is enough wood to make a bonfire, but when it 3 degrees there’s not a twig in sight!

The next day we woke to rain so stayed in bed until it petered out. We began to put the tent down, but as soon as we were out of it, it began bucketing it down again! We headed to Takht-e Soleiman, nothing to do with Old Testment King Solomon but a spiritual centre for Zoroastrianism in the 3rd century AD, which has a beautiful crater lake in the centre of the site. Before reaching the site, we passed Zendan-e Soleiman (Soloman’s prison). Described in our guide book as ‘the very obvious conical peak which dominates the valley landscape’ it was hard to miss as we drove by, so decided to have a scramble up the side and take a look. Maz & Martin about to climb Zendan-e Soleiman

An old volcano now just a crater, it is extremely steep to climb and showed us just how unfit we are. As you get closer to the edge at the top, you can smell the pungent acrid stench of sulphur. It was very windy, so we lay on the floor to look over the side for the fear of being blown over. Martin walked round to the other side and seeing him as a pinprick in comparison to the crater bore out just how immense it was. Then the heavens opened. I began descending with a hop, skip and a slip down the muddy crater side to try and get to the car before getting too wet, but I was soaked to the skin by the time I was half way down. I stripped off before getting into the car and luckily had a spare set of clothes on the back seat. By the time the boys got back down to the car they too were drenched and it was a tricky process of trying get dry clothes from the back of the car to the front without getting them wet, then getting out of the wet clothes, before trying to get in the car to put on the dry clothes and keeping the car as clean and dry as possible.

By now we were a little disheartened but drove to Takht-e Soleiman to see if the rain was going to surrender. We parked in the carpark in front of the ‘no vehicles past this point’ sign and stayed in the cars for a while debating whether we should drive up to the site, even though the sign said we shouldn’t. Martin hadn’t put dry clothes on so decided he was going to have a walk up and take a look. Just before getting out of the car, another man walked past and told us we could drive up, so without further a do my foot was on the pedal and we were half way up the drive! Spot Martin! Not knowing where we were going, we drove through the gate and straight past the attendant and onto the site. With Martin behind us, the attendant was ready and waiting and managed to stop him before getting too far, while another man was racing across the ground trying to stop us! Explaining we weren’t allowed to drive on site, while we in turn were explaining we’d just been told to drive up, we managed to take a quick picture and short video (OK, we didn’t rush that much!) of the lake before being guided back down. With no negotiation on parking up top to take a stroll around the site (the rain had indeed slowed to a trickle), we decided we weren’t going to hang around.

We carried on down the mountain valley. The rolling hills with shades of red, yellow, brown and a little green intermingled within, were amazing to drive through. The scenery really is breathtaking. The clouds then descended and it wasn’t long before the rain turned to sleet, which in turn changed to hail! We were not ready for this!!!! With the temperature inside the car at 30+ to try and dry out all the wet clothes making everything feel damp and the rumble of thunder in the distance, camping was going to be miserable. As the night drew on, the mountain side showed no alcove for a camp, but it was the lightening that struck with an extremely loud bang 30 metres from the car that sealed the fate for the night…. A hotel it was! We drove for the next hour in the dark through the rain and the thunder storm to Zanjan. At least we managed to get a picture of the lake before being thrown off site!

We found a nice hotel, with a nice manager, who we negotiated a nice price with, before setting off for the caravanserai recommended. Hoping the menu would offer more choice than kebab as so far we’d been quite disappointed at the lack of choice Iranian food gave, I was pleased that I could opt for a special kofta - although most of the menu was a mixture of kebabs! It looked like a ball swimming in a sauce and tasted very much like haggis but a very colourful dish – mainly shades of orange! The boys stayed with the safe bet of lamb and chicken kebab! We weren't expecting such cold temperatures

The next day we headed for Soltaniyeh, a purpose built Mongol town constructed in the 14th century AD. The only remnants left from this time are 3 monuments, the main attraction being the Oljeitu Mausoleum which dominates the entire horizon for miles around. 48metres high and about 25 metres diameter its the worlds tallest brick dome. From the outside it doesn’t look like much and unfortunately the inside was mainly obstructed by scaffolding which took away the majesty of the place. I think I may have had just a little too much site seeing in a short amount of time, as I wasn’t too fussed about any of it! We’d bought some more yoghurt to have more of the yoghurt, honey and bread dips for lunch but on opening it, it tasted a bit strange and we realised the yoghurt had chopped onions it in! D’oh – not as nice I can tell you. Oljeitu Mausoleum at Soltaniyeh

By now we were heading north again towards the Caspian Sea and had another mountain range to pass. We only managed 150km the rest of the day as it was such slow driving on the windy roads. Again the scenery was spectacular, passing mountains with a horizontal green and brown/red tinge to them – reminded me of a sweet I used to eat when I was younger! Iran really is a special place and much more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

We stopped in a village called Gilvan to buy some bread for tea. Martin and I got out of the car to explore and the whole village pretty much stopped so they could have a gawp at us and the cars. We hadn’t helped the situation with the fact we’d driven up and down the main street twice looking at what shops there were before stopping to get out and look on foot! Martin always goes down a storm with the locals as they like his blond hair which they don’t often see.

The scaffolding inside the dome We’d stopped a man to ask where we could buy some bread and before we knew it he’d bought some for us. It was different again from the types of bread we’d already tasted in Iran. This time it was very flat like it had been rolled through a mangle and with a life expectancy of about 5 minutes when exposed to the air before going ridged (called Lavash), in my book the worst so far out of all we had tried. We tried to pay him but he wasn’t having any of it, so we thanked him and continued on our way to the next shop. We managed to buy some veggies and yoghurt (without onion this time!) and by the time I got back to the car, Alex had been mobbed. There were about 20 people around the car and more turned up after I had returned. Again the nominated English speaker had been pushed to the front to translate for the masses. It’s hard to comprehend what they must be thinking, as they can’t see westerners that often in such a remote place. It’s always nice when people take an interest in what we’re up to and this time was no different. Within minutes we had been invited into the homes of two locals for chay, the national drink. We politely declined as we were keen to find camp before dark and the area we were in was quite populated.

We found camp easily and quite stress free just outside the village, which made a pleasant change from the previous few nights. Still close to the main road but hidden behind trees, there was enough wood for a fire during the night. We cooked tea and had a really pleasant night round the camp fire.

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Comment from Tall Eric
Nice Blog.
13 Jan 2006 @ 18:18:06

Comment from Tall Eric again.
I just noticed that you are showing your ankles in one of the pictures. I'd better go and take a cold shower to try and keep control of myself.

I suppose that next to the guy with the wheelbarrow of hooves (?) was another guy with a bucket of eyeballs...
13 Jan 2006 @ 18:31:06

Comment from Taimur
Hi, so I notice you're in Mumbai, any more scratches on the tinfish? We were out for a three day trip to the Hingol National Park, serious off roading low range most of the way, rock climbing, mud, quick sand, nearly 40 degree climbs and making our own way through uncharted country it was just amazing, not to forget the good food organised by Khalid, missed you guys. :-)

Have fun and keep us posted,

The Karachi Offroaders.
17 Jan 2006 @ 16:55:33