What can I say… Just ignore all the panicky previous posts!
Crossing the border was a piece of cake (10 minutes on the Iranian side, a bit more on Kurdish side). And cycling to Rowanduz was even easier – it went down down down for pretty much all of the remaining 65km.
Besides, Iraqi Kurdistan is peaceful and friendly.
I’m couchsurfing with Mahdi, which is amazing.
Got word from the KRG’s German representation today. They sent me that accompanying letter for the Iranian authorities I mentioned yesterday. They say that there is no threat to life or physical condition. Only the tense political situation in the region can lead to delays or potential problems with the Iranian authorities when leaving Iran through that border. That takes the edge off that crossing, doesn’t it?
And to me that sounds like ‘you’re good to go’. :)
So I’ll try and enter Iraqi Kurdistan tomorrow.
All the nerviness is gone.
It was a drawn-out and exhausting ride today, mostly due to hilly terrain and a head wind.
I’m now in Piranshahr, ‘city of the Pirani’, a Kurdish tribe. It is located in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, which form the border between Iran and Iraq. The border to Iraqi Kurdistan is less than 10km to the west.
More men wear traditional Kurdish attire. Some Kurdish women wear colorful dresses instead of the black chador.
What’s my plan from here? I want to cross into Iraqi Kurdistan in the next days. I’m in contact with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) representation in Germany regarding visa and security situation. They say it’s not a good idea to go down that route, mostly due to ongoing clashes between Iranian security forces and PJAK, the Iranian sibling of PKK.
I’m waiting for more info from the KRG. Also, I need a Letter of Introduction from them for the Iranian border officials. The letter states that a visa is waiting for me on the Iraqi border checkpoint since Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t issue visas in advance. This letter is usually used for airlines, but KRG say “better is better”.
KRG also say they don’t know if Iran is willing to let me travel this way in the first place.
To be honest, I’m a wee bit nervous. :) I don’t know exactly what I’m nervous about, though. Being kidnapped by PJAK? They target Iranian security forces and government officials. Also, on August 8, 2011, after massive shelling of Kurdish villages in Iraq by Iranian forces and clashes between PJAK members and Iranian forces in Iranian Kurdish villages, PJAK leader Haji Ahmadi said that the conflict needs to be resolved by “peaceful means” and that PJAK may be willing to put down its arms. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Now, PKK said they withdrew all PJAK members from the Iranian border region and replaced them – with PKK fighters. Awesome. Rational behind this move, according to PKK: Iran is at war with PJAK, not PKK. So there is no reason for Iran to continue the attacks on PJAK/PKK posts and/or Kurdish villages in Iraq.
Hm?! Sounds like someone is trying to save their butt there. Well, how about all four parties involved stop this bloody mess entirely?!
Anyway, I have also been nervous about something else. My Iranian visa states: “Valid until: 15 Aug 2011”. Today being August 22, one might be inclined to think that I’m overstaying my visa, right? And so do all the hotel staff who get so see my passport. However, various sources on the Internet state that the date on the visa is the last day I can enter Iran. And I can then stay for the full amount of days my visa permits (20 in my case).
As I said, I was getting nervous and asked my visa agency for a definite answer. The first thing I did when checking into the hotel here in Piranshahr today was to connect to their wireless. And just when the manager started barking at me about my ‘expired’ visa, I received the reply from the agency: All is fine, I can stay beyond the ‘valid until’ date.
Orumiyeh has a notable Kurdish population. Every now and then one can see Kurdish men wearing the traditional kawa pantol, an overall-like dress with baggy pants and a wide scarf used as a belt (called biben).
Didn’t do much today, mostly hanging out in an Internet café, checking the news and contacting potential CouchSurfing hosts in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Will head to the Iranian border town of Piranshahr tomorrow. It’s located 10km east of the border crossing – exactly the distance the UK government advises it’s citizens to keep from the border. ;)
Took me a while to pack my stuff this morning, so I left only at 11am.
Just outside Tabriz I met Bhrooz on his road bike. The winds were good and I managed to keep up with him for the next 40 kilometers. Or rather, he had pitty with me.
After exactly 50km he stopped to turn around and return to Tabriz. We exchanged phone numbers and he bluetooth’ed me a photo to my phone. It shows him on a pro racing bike, and he said that it was taken in Japan. I didn’t find out more due to the language barrier.
He wished me “good luck” and was gone. When I wanted to go on I noticed that my rear tyre was flat. The first puncture in a looong time (and the first on this trip). Fortunately I’m carrying a spare inner tube.
Later I came to Lake Orumiyeh, a huge salt lake. It is so salty that it is possible to float on it like on the Dead Sea. It is roughly shaped like an 8 figure. At it’s narrowest point it is still about 15 kilometers wide. Two causeways and a half-finished bridge connect the two sides.
From Lake Orumiyeh to the city of Orumiyeh the road is heavily policed. Both the Turkish and Iraqi border are not far (40 and 55km, respectively). I’m still in the West Azerbaijan province, but the Kordestan province and the Kurdish homelands are not far either. Both the PKK and the PJAK operate in the border areas, respectively attacking Turkish and Iranian military and governmental officials/infrastructure.
Managed to find wireless Internet in Orumiyeh. Apparently Turkey is fighting the PKK again – in northern Iraq. I had planned to go to Turkey through Iraq. Also in older news, Iran is shelling Kurdish (I’m not sure if it’s due to PKK or what) villages in the Iranian/Iraqi border region around the border crossing I plan to use.
Wrong time, wrong place, once again, it seems.
I spent half a fortune on taxi rides this morning. To the Azerbaijani consulate to apply for a visa for Nakhchivan; to their bank to pay the visa fees, only to learn that the fee quoted applies to Iranians only; back to the consulate to learn that I need a Letter of Invitation (which Iranians don’t need) and that there is no way to get one in Iran from e.g. a travel agency. This is probably not true, but at that point I was too tired of their bureaucracy that I decided to ditch my visit to Nakhchivan. It’d also be a costly one, as the visa fee is EUR 60 – quite a lot for a few days’ visit to the tiny exclave.
In the afternoon I walked over to the bazaar. 7 square kilometers(!) of covered shops and stalls where you can buy virtually anything and everything. From fresh fruit to fridges, from carpets to jewellery. I even found a new battery for my bike computer.
I also got lured into buying a hand-made silk carpet for which Tabriz is famous for…
I was too tired and too hungry to do any further sightseeing today. The Blue Mosque, churches and museums will have to wait until another visit.
While it is still easily possible to buy food during the day, street-side fast-food and juice stalls don’t exist during Ramadan.
As friendly as Iranians may be, somehow I feel like I’m being ripped off every now and then when doing business with them, be it when shopping for groceries or at an Internet café. At least here in Tabriz. Unfortunately, almost nothing is price-tagged and some dealers take a conspiciously long time to add up the items and present the final amount.
Speaking of Internet, it is not easy to access the Internet in Iran. There are very few Internet cafés, open wifi spots don’t seem to exist either, except for up-market hotels. I became victim of the Iranian government’s Internet censorship when I tried to access a (travel) blog hosted on wordpress.com – it’s completely blocked.
I was prepared to stay a few days to wait for the Azerbaijani visa. However, I’m now changing plans again completely. I will skip the visit to Armenia, too. Instead I’m heading further to the southwest tomorrow, towards Lake Orumiyeh.
Today was an almost easy day. The first 20km or so were still a bit hilly, but after a last long climb and a 10km downhill section I found myself on a wide plain. That plain was slightly tilted and the winds were favourable, and so I rolled towards Tabriz.
The landscape changed every couple of kilometers from arable land to funnily shaped and colored hills to salt desert.
Tabriz itself is not the western-looking city I had somehow expected to see, at least down-town Tabriz. It’s just as middle-eastern as Ahar or Kaleybar or Astara. Lots of small shops on the main street, lots of traffic, many people on the street, no western tourists.
The hotel I’m in is a definite low. The one Internet café I found closed at half past 7pm (this may be due to Ramadan, though).
Tomorrow I’ll try and find the Azerbaijani consulate to see whether a second Azerbaijani visa (for Nakhchivan) is affordable. Rumor has it that prices have somewhat steeply increased. I’ll also try to find a detailed road map of Iran. A different hotel might be a good idea, too.
Left Kaleybar quite late (almost noon) and cycled southward. The ride was unspectacular, maybe except for the apple that was thrown at me.
Found the Iranian Red Crescent Station I was looking for two days ago – approx. 18km out of town.
Along the road (and probably further inland) there are many nomad tents pitched, and shepherds drive flocks of sheep across the hills.
The last 15km or so to Ahar where a relaxing downhill section. Ahar feels like a real city, the first real Iranian city I see (even though Astara, Germi, and Kaleybar come close as well).
Managed to change some money at a travel agency. The rate wasn’t very good, though.
There are many women on the street here (compared to e.g. Baku). All wear long-sleeved clothes. This, and covering the hair, is required by law. Most wear black chadors. Only hands and face are visible. Some even cover their mouth and chin, others wear gloves.
The people living in this northwestern region of Iran are called Azaris and are related to the people of Azerbaijan. Even though Farsi is the official language of all Iran, their mother tongue is Azari, a Turkic language closely related to Turkish and the Azeri of Azerbaijan. To add to the confusion, the Iranian provinces up here are called Eastern and Western Azerbaijan, respectively.
The reason for fighting my way up and down the hills here in northern Iran is simple. It’s the hunt for first-time degree confluence visits. 39°N, 48°E from two days ago was easy. 39°N, 47°E today would require a little more effort.
39°N, 47°E is located approx. 15km north of the town of Kaleybar, as the crow flies, and approx. 3km east of the river Kaleybar, which also flows through the town of the same name. The area is pretty much uninhabited and not very inviting. My research has shown that there is a track along the river that I could probably use up to a little tributary which I would then follow for a while before heading into the wilderness to the degree confluence.
There is actually a road being built along the river and the first 10km are already finished. Somewhere along the way a massive rock and lots of debris had fallen from a cliff above the road and was barring it, but people were already cleaning up. I cycled another 10km to the little tributary. It was dry and I cycled a few hundred meters in its bed. Then I left the bike behind and began hiking the final 3km to the confluence.
The landscape is very hilly, with many little (now dried-up) streams having cut valleys in between the hills. I tried to follow those valleys as much as possible at first, but eventually had to climb. Vegetation consists mostly of dry grass, thistles, and little thorny shrubs, with the odd little tree thrown in. 39°N, 47°E is located on the northern slope of one of the higher hills, almost at the top. The views are just grand.
The return to the bike was easy. A peculiarly shaped hilltop served as a guide and from up there near the confluence I had a great overview and could devise the best way so that I could avoid climbing into the valleys.
After cycling back to Kaleybar I celebrated the successful confluence visit with a hearty dinner.
Why do I visit these confluences in the first place? Fame, of course! :) And also, I get to see regions I wouldn’t see otherwise. Without DCP I would have gone on a more direct route from Astara to Tabriz, missing out on all the rural loveliness.
Not everything here in Iran is good, of course. I don’t like how women are treated. Back at Araf’s in Razi, I got to see his wife only for a minute when she had to program the washing machine. The rest of my stay she was tucked away in the bedroom or at friends’ or I-dunno-where.
The other annoying thing is the dresscode for men. Having to wear long pants all the time is just crap.
And also, people here seem to have a complete misinformed view on Hitler. I’ve been told a number of times by Iranians (including one police officer) that he was “a good man”. (Disclaimer: I don’t share this view.) I can only guess where that kind of ‘education’ comes from…
Oh, and then there is the annoying habit of using the world as a big trash bin – but that’s not in any way exclusive to Iran.
Before they let me go, the guys at the Red Crescent station insisted on cooking breakfast for me, gave me some canned supplies, and then showed me to the junction where I had to leave the main road (some 5km down the road).
From there it was 35km to Abash Ahmed, and 100km to Kaleybar, today’s destination.
A couple of kilometers before Abash Ahmed an older gentleman pulled me up a couple of steep hills with his car and got me some cold water in a small village at a friend’s place.
Later, when I arrived in Abash Ahmed, a guy was waiting for me at the edge of the town and escorted me on his motorcycle to the shop of the man who’d pulled me up those hills earlier. He’s a jewellery dealer, and he and a few friends fed me with cold drinks, bread, fries, salad, kebap, and – mayonnaise! How awesome was that?! (The mayonnaise, I mean.) They also offered me a place to stay but I wanted to make it to Kaleybar today.
35km from Kaleybar I had used up all my energy for the day – the road zigzagged its way up and down so many hills… – and I hitched a ride on an old truck. We arrived in Kaleybar after nightfall.
The Red Crescent people in Qarah Aghej had told me to head to the Red Crescent station in Kaleybar for a place to sleep. So I asked around for directions. Information varied and the whole thing snowballed so that I was brought to various places and people, including the police, an IT shop, and a tourist guide/translator/taxi driver who spoke excellent English but didn’t even know what the Red Crescent was – to no avail.
Back in Baku, Heather, Stuart, Michael and me had talked about trip themes.
By going to the Caspian Sea, Michael had finished his quest to visit the lowest points on each continent. Stuart is fly-fishing in every country they come through (and of course has to catch a fish, too).
What’s the theme of my trip? Does it have a theme? Does it need one?
Maybe collecting ESC stars’ autographs, but with just one success story that’s hardly a theme, eh? Confluence points? Only failures so far. Oh, wait, there is 39°N, 48°E waiting to be visited! At least that would be a (late) start.
39°N, 48°E is located approx. 40km north of Razi, just 300m off the road connecting Ardabil and Germi, which also goes through Razi. The countryside up there is still very hilly. It all looks very dry, but on a second look one sees that much of the area is used for agriculture. It probably rains much more during the spring. Now, however, all the crops have been harvested and in the villages the straw piles reach high.
Anyway, back to 39°N, 48°E. Getting there wasn’t as spectacular as getting to 42°N, 46°E back in Georgia. I left the bike at the roadside and hasted down a slope across a harvested field – still 200m to go, then across another, steeper field – still 100m to go, then across steep, semi-desert, with cliffs falling down into a gorge below at the not-so-far end. Luckily, the confluence didn’t make me climb down those cliffs. I hit the spot somewhere on that deserty land. I snapped a number of photos as required by confluence.org and climbed up that hill back to my bike. And on I went to Germi. Pretty unspectacular, really.
Germi looks like a buzzing town, situated on a hill-side, with two pretty mosques with golden roofs and minarets. I stopped at an open restaurant and met a guy there who spoke decent English. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask for his name. He gave me all kinds of good advice. He asked about my plans for the night and even offered me a place to sleep – unfortunately in Ardabil. He then suggest I camp near a station of the Iranian Red Crescent, for safety reasons, he said, so we went to their local branch and he asked them to phone the station in Qarah Aghej, some 50km to the west on my route. They gave their ok.
I arrived there at quarter to 8pm and was welcomed with a shower, dinner, and a place to sleep. Iran rocks.
Hm, visiting 39°N, 48°E was planned for today, right? Well, maybe tomorrow (I’ll stop announcing stuff now).
So I left Namin at maybe half past 11am, after being invited to breakfast (refused) and tea (accepted) by the guy running the hotel. 39°N, 48°E is very close to a road leading to the town of Germi, approx. 100 kilometers to the north. The main road turns south first, towards Ardabil. Clever as I am, I found a shortcut on my maps. So I cycled along on quiet and hilly backroads, to the north, parallel to the Azerbaijani border. Or so I thought.
After maybe 25 kilometers I was stopped by a border guard, off-duty, and his friends. No English was spoken but what I understood was that I was on the wrong road, going towards Azerbaijan. I thought myself cleverer than the locals, of course, and insisted on going on, expecting the road to turn northwards later on. Eventually we’d built up enough misunderstandings that they let me go.
At kilometer 30 I had a look at the GPS and noticed that I was indeed way off of my intended direction and wasn’t very far from the border anymore. A local on his motorcycle offered to escort me back to a road that would get me further north. He led me through a village or two before saying good bye. I’d just have to follow the track to the main road, he said.
Not long thereafter I was stopped by two border guards on a motorcycle, this time on duty and armed. Hrmpf. I hadn’t done anything wrong and they were friendly and all, but it still took an hour and a look into my bags, numerous phone calls to their superiors, thorough passport checks, and a number of apologies from them before they escorted me to the next shop in a village a few kilometers down the road. There the chief ordered a sheet of paper for himself and a snack for me, and wrote down a page-long report, that I had so sign. Then they sent me off with directions on how to get to Germi.
It was late in the afternoon and still 70km to Germi, so I stopped in Razi at a barber’s shop and asked about possibilities for sleeping. There were no official ones, but one of the guys hanging out there invited me to his place.
We had chicken shashlik bbq after nightfall with him and two of his friends, one of which teaches English at a local highschool. Great, friendly guys.
Tomorrow will be another exciting day. I’ll try my luck on visiting another unvisited degree confluence, 39°N, 48°E.
The longer I stay in a place, the more difficult it becomes to leave. Budapest, Pančevo, Batumi, Tbilisi, Baku, and now Lənkəran – without a little outside incentive I’d probably still be there.
Today’s incentive was the wish to finally make it to Iran! And a bit of boredom. Anyway, Iran, Persia!
Before leaving Azerbaijan there was a tiny bit of sightseeing to do, and a bit of cycling, of course. It’s about 40km from Lənkəran to the border town of Astara. Just outside Astara, in a village called Ərçivan, one can find Yanar Bulag, the Burning Spring. Rumor has it that the water from that spring is both drinkable and flammable! And I crap you not when I say that the rumor is true! I held a lighter to the water and it burned! There is no magic involved here, unfortunately. The water simply contains methane, somehow.
On to the border. In my head I went through my checklist again:
Passport and visa – check
Cash! There are no ATMs in Iran that I can use with my cards due to the American trade embargo – semi-check. I’d withdrawn half of my somewhat exaggerated budget in Lənkəran yesterday, and then had forgotten to get the other half today. Found an ATM in Astara – check
No alcohol in my bags. Import is forbidden. All the cool folks in the hostel in Baku had helped me finish that bottle of Georgian brandy I was carrying since Akhalsopeli – check
No pork products in my bags. Import is forbidden. Holy crap, no check. Hadn’t I just bought half a kilogram of sausages containing pork? No thinkie-thinkie, eh?!
Thumbs taped to the palms of my hands – no check, need them for cycling. Rumor, again, has it that the thumbs-up gesture which I so fluently use is in fact Iran’s equivalent to the ‘western’ middle finger gesture we all know so well.
To my slight disappointment, this crossing was as straight forward as all the other crossings before. “Welcome to Iran”, the smiling border guard said, and there I was, in Astara. Yeah, same name, different town (even though I bet it was the same one once), different country.
Went to a money changer and became millionaire by handing him a US$100 bill. I was now walking around with 58 Iranian banknotes of 20000 Rials each. That’s 1.16 million Rials.
Grocery shops were open. Looks like I’ll have no problems buying food during the day if necessary, despite Ramadan.
I left Astara to the west, and cycled into the Talysh mountains. And mountains they were. The road climbed pretty much all the time – from Caspian Sea level (approx. -27m) to a pass/tunnel at about 1600m. Hard work, I can tell you. When I left the tunnel the sun had set.
I’m in Namin now. Two guys from a shop next door watched my bike while I checked out the hotel for the night. When I came back they’d attached a flower to the handlebar. “Welcome to Iran”, they said.
Tomorrow will be another exciting day. I’ll try my luck on visiting another unvisited degree confluence, 39°N, 48°E.