Iran, enter Meghri - Norduz, exit Bajgiran - Ashgabat (formalities)
First off: we didn't enter with a Carnet de Passage, but with the help of Hossein Sheykhlou from Urmia (http://www.overlandtoiran.com/), which basically means the car is “properly” imported (?) and exported again (or so it seemed to us). Very mixed feelings about Hossein!
His service cost 560 Euro and entailed importing and exporting the car. He did the import himself, exit at Turkmen border was done by his agent (who only spoke Farsi).
- He screwed up big time with our customs papers (but, luckily, was able to fix the problem after a couple of hours in a super high-stress situation for us). In detail: our import papers were incorrect in at least two points, one of them highly critical. First and foremost, our exit country was documented (in Farsi) to be Armenia, while we were standing at the Turkmen border. Also, our car was not grey but black. We got the impression that Hossein didn't double-check our documents (which was his main job). The tremendously lazy and incompetent customs officials in Bajgiran told us that a fix could take “1, 2, 3 hours or maybe next day”. As a tourist visa holder for Turkmenistan, we were highly dependent on getting over that border in time.
- Hossein and his agent did some phone calls, the customs boss at our entry border had to write a special letter and fax it asap to our border, the customs officials then proceeded working as slowly as humanly imaginable, and after almost 5 hours we were good to go. Just in time for the Turkmen border (see below). All in all the process felt highly out of control, with our agent disappearing for over an hour at one point and Hossein not reachable by phone when the trouble started boiling.
- Hossein has a number of excuses for the entire situation, all of them putting the blame on someone else but him.
- We were also very disappointed by Hossein's guest house and would advise against staying there, except you're in need of special repairs or other solutions to very unusual problems, in which case Hossein seems to be an excellent guide. The guest house was his old (kids-)room with a bunk bed, blankets and mattress without any sheets/covers. A fellow traveler had to sleep on the couch in their kitchen. Per person, Hossein charges an outrageous 25 USD for something that is barely couch surfing appropriate.
- Hossein sold us a SIM card and helped us put money on it, which we appreciated. Dealing with mobile phone operators is much more easy in Iran than in Turkey, so I think most people could manage that on their own.
- All in all, we had the impression that Hossein's newly acquired riches start impacting the quality of his (formerly?) good work. He was good in flashing the newest Apple gear, but at times lacked in giving clear instructions or simply checking our documents for any errors.
- leave Armenia (one Armenian border official is checking car half-thoroughly, i.e. up to looking under the seats. Most of our stuff could remain in the car during the search.)
- Drive over the river, stop car and walk to the immigration counters. First counter stamps something, second counter asks various questions (father’s name, big city close to your birth place, travel route etc.). As a person, you've successfully immigrated after that.
- Car is driven another 100 meter, encounter with Hossein. 5 minutes with friendly border guards, looking in awe at the first Tesla in their country. No thorough search, just looking at our boxes and trunk from outside. Car is then moved to parking spot.
- Hossein does his business (importing the car), we wait for a painstaking 3h.
- We follow Hossein out of the border, from that point on we're free to drive anywhere in Iran.
- At no point any special exit or entry fees.
- Drive to Bajgiran border. Police station left of the first official gate gives you some special paper (we didn't now what for) when you ask for it, which you have to do according to customs station (that is weighing the trucks entering).
- Then drive up 800m to the official border building. Our agent took over from that point and directed us to all relevant stations, most of which we didn't understand fully. Be patient with the officials, they are the slowest you'll have ever seen. After over 4h on Iranian side, we could leave for Turkmenistan.
- Entering Turkmenistan is detailed here, see [LINK].
Iran General Remarks (roads, sights, people etc.)
We have mixed feelings of the country as a whole, having stayed there for 4 weeks. Compared to all other countries in Central Asia, we liked it the least.
- Granted, Iranians are extremely friendly in encounters on the streets or when reaching out to you via instagram or email. As a tourist, you're welcomed very warmly, as is common travelers’ lore.
- However, the tourism industry treats you poorly, and Islamic law makes some things extremely hard. A couple of examples:
- Tourists pay way too high an entrance fee to official tourist sites (200’000 IRR or 5-6 USD, locals 30’000 IRR). This price differentiation is at every semi-decent sight, no matter how small, or crappy the guiding explanations. Isfahan alone can easily offset you 60+ USD as a couple if you want to see the main sites. We didn't experience that kind of differentiation in any other country (or if we did, like in Samarkand, the entrance fee for two was 5 USD in total, which seemed much more adequate).
- Hotel staff is almost universally unfriendly. As we were always dependent on access to electricity (which we always offered to pay for, of course), we experienced all of them out of their standard guest behavior/protocol. Women clerks in particular were ignorant, arrogant or seemed trained to avoid all empathy. The more “government owned”, the worse the experience. The positively outstanding exceptions deserve a special mention: Gileboom in Rasht, Khane Irani in Kashan (!), Olympic hotel in Qom, Naharkhoran Tourist Hotel in Gorgan. Out of frustration we camped in the car when possible.
- Finding a washing machine is close to impossible. Official laundry places charge a fortune (almost 100 USD for what we could have done in 3 normal machine charges). Only with the help of a very good friend were we able to have our laundry washed at a laundry for 15 USD. They threw out all dirty underwear though (cultural/religious taboo). Buying female underwear is close to impossible again (it's basically forbidden to display it), and then it's highly overpriced. How Iranians do their underwear shopping remains a mystery to us, we didn't dare asking anyone. Buying condoms is much easier, really!
- Sometimes, the help we received was very kind, but highly incompetent (only complicating the situation), even after my objections that we better proceed differently. Again, this stemmed from our need for electricity and is probably very unlikely to be encountered by the everyday tourist on the standard route.
- To balance perspectives: oftentimes, locals went out of their way to organize electricity for us. The worse the experience with “tourism officials” (hotels etc.), the better the locals cured us from our frustrations again.
- All roads at least in decent conditions. Even remote mountain roads are ok. Pleasant change compared to Armenia or Turkmenistan.
- The driving is insane. Nothing new to add here. Just get used to it (and to your head shaking in disbelief over and over again).
- All police very friendly, EXCEPT for one checkpoint en route from Tehran to Gorgan that brought us the worst police checkpoint experience in all of Central Asia: both soldiers and police stopped us without apparent reason. After bringing the car to a stop, their cars are moved and parked in such a way that we're locked in. Around 15 people (soldiers and police) moving around the car. Special task force checking our documents. One guy translating. While I frantically run around to keep up with their demands and questions about route, purpose etc, other soldiers sit down in the car next to my girlfriend. Every button or lever is pushed. My girlfriend is ridiculed for asking them to stop pushing buttons. The amount of arrogance and machine guns was way too high. We could continue journey after 10 minutes.
This post is part of a series of postings in this forum. Main overview here: http://caravanistan.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=3647