Iran: Make Love not War - Part 2 - Getting across the border

August 13, 2019
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IT’S about twenty or thirty kilometres from the mountain town of Doğubeyazıt, where I was based for my Mount Ararat adventures, to the border. Here’s a map, which shows the route I took and also relation of the area to the Caspian Sea as well as Lake Urmia — the one that has nearly dried up.

The first stage of my journey into Iran

Like most people in this part of Turkey, my mountain guide, who’d helped me on Ararat, was Kurdish. The nearest bit of Iran was mostly inhabited by Kurds too.

I thought it might help if my guide in Turkey could hook me up with a driver from among his relations on the other side. This person could take me through to Tabriz, my first stop in Iran, and maybe further on if necessary.

Since I’d never been to Iran and had no idea what to expect, I thought that hiring a trustworthy driver would be a really good idea, especially if they could also serve as a local guide. It would cost a lot more than catching buses. But I figured it would be money well spent if it helped save me from getting lost in a bad part of town. My Turkish/Kurdish guide said he did know a few kinsfolk on the other side. So that’s what we decided to do.

A friend gave us both a ride to the Turkish customs. I was to change money there and meet my driver on the other side.

I’d heard that I would have to dress appropriately, it being Iran and all that. So, I was wearing a green caftan that I’d bought from Coptic Christians in Egypt, and a black-and-white West Bank Palestinian keffiyeh, the kind Yasser Arafat wore, for a headscarf. This mix of styles probably made me look very international!

The West Bank is the sort of place where the temperature varies between burning hot and biting cold. My keffiyeh was made of wool, for the cold. But this was September and my head was boiling. I seriously thought about taking it off as soon as the coast was clear, whether I was in Iran or not.

Eventually I made it to the head of the line and spoke to a woman dressed very somberly in a black chador — the Persian word for strict Islamic female attire, and also for ‘tent’ — and she said it was very safe for women to go to Iran without a guide and that I should have just caught the bus after all. (It was very safe, as things turned out!)

At this point I haven’t yet set foot in Iran, beyond the point of talking to a black-clad female border guard. So I should recap on the trouble I had in trying to get to Iran, actually.

I was going to enter Iran on my British passport because I use my New Zealand passport most of the time. I always travel with my NZ passport and I was going to be going to several of the countries that are offside with Iran on my NZ passport. I thought it would be prudent to use my British passport for Iran, and the NZ passport for the other countries.

It turned out that I’d got things the wrong way round. New Zealand has no particular quarrel with Iran. But Britain is one of the countries that is always offside. The Brits have just arrested an Iranian freighter at Gibraltar, after all. And if there were to be a war between Iran and the Americans, the British would probably join in on the American side.

It turns out that at at the time, if I went as a British tourist, I would have had to take a formal guided tour in a group of at least two, plus guide. There’s a useful and up-to-date blog on these sorts of travel details, here.

But before all that fully dawned on me, I paid some money upfront to a travel agent in London. This was a waste because it locked me, as a solo traveller, into a busload-of-Brits package-tour thing; which I became less and less keen on the more I researched it online. I looked at all the guided tours for British people, and found that I would have had to shell out a lot of money to get to all the places I wanted to go to. Plus, not having the freedom to wander off and do my own thing.

Plus, it was hard to even get a visa on a British passport! I’d applied in January, and after ringing this guy in London about forty times by the time July rolled round, I still didn’t have a visa yet!

I was getting really, really anxious because by July I was in the Middle East already, and facing the prospect of using up my travel time and having to go home without ever having got a visa for Iran. I felt that my Middle East trip would be incomplete if I couldn’t get into Iran. That magical, mysterious, and, as it now seemed, quite inaccessible land of mystery!

Eventually he said to me, “look, just use your Kiwi passport and it won’t be a problem.” Hallelujah! I wish I’d known that six months before.

And so I applied for a visa on my New Zealand passport in Istanbul. This took only three or four days to go through. The Iranians interviewed me, and didn’t seem put out by the fact that my New Zealand passport was full of American and Israeli stamps. In fact I could have got a visa from the Iranian embassy in Wellington before I left! The Iranians give you a stamp on a piece of paper that you can use to get into Iran. Because it’s on a separate piece of paper you don’t have to show the Americans or anyone else who might bar you from entering their country because you’ve been to Iran.

It’s worth keeping abreast of all these blacklists, especially in the age of President Trump, who some time back issued (tweeted?) a whole list of allegedly terrorist-filled countries that you wouldn’t be able get into the USA from, anymore. The list included Iran, and Lebanon too.

So, the British visa thing was a six-month nightmare that I could have completely avoided.

On the other hand, you could physically do Iran by yourself. I met women who were travelling alone in Iran: it’s a very safe place,. If a woman is attacked or raped, the perpetrator, especially if it’s a foreign woman, runs the risk of being hanged. So, I suppose, thinking that you could be hanged would put a lot of people off raping foreign women. That’s sort of the rule.

Anyhow, my Turkish/Kurdish guide and I went through customs, and the Turkish official asked if I was a diplomat. And I thought “that’s really interesting.” Maybe the international nature of my kaftan and keffiyeh wasn’t just a wardrobe muddle! Maybe it really did make me look like some kind of seasoned international traveller.

Outside the customs post, where they asked if I was a diplomat

There wasn’t an issue going through the Turkish customs; and then on the Iranian side there wasn’t an issue either. Because I was being handed from a Turkish guide to an Iranian driver nobody was worried about what I was doing there by myself, as they might have been otherwise; and I also had sufficient funds to change.

Now, the Iranian money, that was another story. The official unit of currency is called the Rial. Individually, the Rial is almost worthless: I changed a thousand US dollars into 40 million Rials, which gives you an idea of how much one Rial is worth. Or not.

Perhaps for that reason, Iranians like to reckon the price in Tomans, an old currency unit that was worth ten Rials when last officially issued in 1965. The Toman’s not been an official currency unit for years, and officially the signs are all supposed to give the price in Rials. Yet the shopkeeper may still quote you the price, verbally, in Tomans. It’s not 90% off — just Tomans!

It’s good to have both American and local money, really, and you need to keep an eye on your currency. Later on when I went to Tehran I discovered a debit card called a MahCard that you could put money on. When you left Iran they would refund your money and the administration fees were not high at all.

To be continued . . . If you want the whole story more quickly, check out my short book Iran: Make Love not War, now on sale with 281 pictures and maps. Click on this image for a link to where you can get a copy. I also have my first book as a free download on my website if you sign up for the newsletter.


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