Day Fifteen – The Checkpoint Charlie of Balochistan

I’m back in the UK now so hope to update you with the remaining blogs over the next few days.

10th November 2010 – 266 miles

The not-so-good hotel that we stayed at the previous night arranged a police escort on our behalf to the border with Pakistan at Taftan, the only recognised border between the two countries for foreigners.

At the outset, we were quite grateful by this prospect but were then left waiting around Mirjaveh for the next 4 1/2 hours to register with the police and to complete security checks. 

Finally, we were taken to the first check point where we then waited for a military escort to take us to the border.

After yet more waiting (in high sun), a young army rookie (with no gun) accompanied us for the ride, where we stopped off at countless checkpoints on a 2.5 hour journey that would otherwise have taken an hour!

At the border, we were fast-tracked by Iranian officials to process immigration and customs formalities and treated like VIPs once we entered Pakistan, as Islamic Relief had informed them of our arrival.

We had tea and drinks with the Pakistan border chief and allocated a armed security guard to accompany us to Dalbandin.

Then on to Customs to get our Carnet stamped where we met their Bengali cooks and treated to Dhoodh Patti (traditional milky tea).  Bodrul Alam, formerly from Chittagong, has worked as head chef there for the past 30 years and visits his family back in Bangladesh every 18 months or so.

On the way to Dalbandin we stopped at Kashan Hotel, a truck stop, where we had a traditional meal comprising gosht curry, rice and roti.  With the colourful trucks parked outside and the great food, it felt like we’d arrived in Bangladesh.

Like Iran earlier in the day, we had to register at each and every checkpoint along the way and finally reached Dalbandin, where we were greeted by Anwar Adil, the District Co-Ordinator of Islamic Relief, who had organised overnight accommodation for us at a very nice government guest house.

Dalbandin’s atmosphere is borne by its geographic isolation and so the government provides subsidised generators that provide electricity from 9am – 4pm and 8pm – 11pm.  In the abscence of electricity, we went straight to bed for a well deserved rest.

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Day Fourteen – Frontier Territory

9th November 2010 – 343 miles

You meet fascinating people whilst travelling.  A fellow guest at the Akhavan Hotel struck up a conversation with us over breakfast.  He studied maths at Liverpool over 40 years ago and thought that he forgot how to speak English as he has no interaction with English speakers, living in Tehran and owning a smallholding farm on the outskirts of Kerman.

By coincidence, the hotel happened to be situated next door to a Landrover specialist, so whilst Johur and Nasir took a taxi into town to see the hammam museum, I thought I’d get the brakes checked out and get a replacement fuel filler cap.  Unfortunately they were unable to assist on both fronts due to parts availability but they were very good company.

And the staff at the hotel were brilliant.  The hotel has been passed through three generations of the Akhavan family and is very popular amongst overlanders.

Driving on to Zayedan, we could not find a filling station selling diesel so we used one of our Jerry Can reserves and had a slight detour to Bam.

You may recall that Bam was hit by a devastating eartquake back in 2003.  A few years later, the rebuilding of the ancient mud city is ongoing.  Bam was a staging post on the trade routes between India and Pakistan at one end and the Persian Gulf and Europe at the other, so it only felt right that we should pay the 2000 year old city a visit!

Later that evening we rocked up at the Esteghlal Grand Hotel, supposedly the best hotel in Zahedan.  Firstly they insisted that we pay an advance ” deposit” (in other words the full hotel fare) and secondly served me a meal that I had not ordered (but did not have the decency to inform me that they had ran out of what I ordered and probably hoped that I would not notice).  Nothing comes between me and my food, and following a slight altercation with the hotel’s management, I ate for free (albeit the meal I had not ordered).  We were all far from impressed.

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Day Thirteen – Yazd

8th November 2010 – 219 miles

Following an Iranian style fry-up for breakfast, we headed out to the Old City of Yazd.

With its winding lanes, windtowers and mud-brick buildings, Yazd is an enchanting place.

Upon returning to the hotel, we noticed that the Bangladesh flag was put out on the reception desk to acknowledge our stay there.  We felt like the Queen in residence!

Following some R&R in the jacuzzi, swimming pool and sauna, the friendly staff of Dad Hotel bid us farewell.  This hotel was by far the best hotel that we’ve stayed at by way of facilities and service.

Driving on, we checked in to Kerman’s Akhavan Hotel, where we met a 26-strong Australian coach party who were on a 21 day tour of Iran.  To think, in that time we will have travelled 7,500 miles!

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Day Twelve – “Half the World”

7th November 2010 – 201 miles

We spent most of today at Esfahan, which according to Lonely Planet, and we concur, is “Iran’s masterpiece, the jewel of ancient Persia and one of the finest cities in the Islamic world“. 

Here we spent time getting lost in the bazaar, sampled traditional Esfahani cuisine and drank tea and chatted with the locals in marvellous teahouses.

Esfahan is the hub of Persian culture and most sights are found in and around Imam Square, the second largest square on earth after Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.  Here spectacular mosques and palaces can be found.

We were assisted by our guide, Mohamed, who we stumbled across when asking for directions.  He took us to places that tourists would not normally see including a spice mill, textile dye factory and carpet repair workshop.

Mohamed is a chemical engineer by trade but previously a german-speaking tour guide.  Since 9/11 and more recent political tensions, tourism in Iran has dwindled which is a real shame as Iran has so much to offer.

As a consequence, and in true Persian style, we were treated like celebrities wherever we went.

We met an Imam, Asgar Aghaei, outside Esfahan’s Madraseh who informed us that over 30 of his students had come from the Indian sub-continent to study Islam; some teenagers at Imam Square; students of architecture at Jameh Mosque; and Mohsin at a restaurant who completed his PhD at Leeds!

For lunch, we ate beryani, an Esfahani speciality – which bore no resemblance to biryanis that we’re used to back at home – but nonetheless tasted great!

Johur and Nasir are now sporting Gucci and Armani watches respectively after a shopping spree at the Bazaar.  I’m not convinced they’re the real deal though.

Before setting off for Yazd, we watched the sunset (thinking about our wives back home) whilst chilling out at at an atmospheric tea house beneath Si-o-Seh Bridge, one of several fairy-tale bridges that cross the Zayandeh River.

At Yazd we stayed at Dad Hotel, a spectacular hotel in the old city, where we were made most welcome by Hasan and his staff.

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Day Eleven – The Road to Esfahan

6th November 2010 – 586 miles

Today we drove from Tabriz to Esfahan, the longest distance travelled in a day by far on our itinerary. 

We have chosen to bypass Tehran, largely due to time constraints but also as it has a reputation for being big, loud and chaotic.

We did not purchase a card to enable us to buy diesel conventionally at petrol stations, so we piggy backed on to a trucker’s fill up and paid the pump attendant directly.

Diesel prices are fixed and not subject to rationing, and although diesel stations can be hard to find, it is dirt cheap!  Today, we paid 40,000 rials for approximately 100 litres of fuel (we filled up two twenty litre jerry cans too).  This equates to equivalent of 2.8p per litre in UK and that was paying over the odds as a foreigner buying diesel (1.1p usually) on the black market!

Up until Erzurum, Turkey (Day 9), we had consumed 140 gallons over 3,187 miles (that’s 22.8mpg, way short of the 30mpg we predicted) at a cost of approx £769.  Hopefully, the cheap price of diesel for our onward journey (still over 3,000 miles to go!) will bring us back on to budget.

Oh and did I mention that I (Shihab) had lost the petrol cap today.  We had to reposition the car closer to the lorry to fill up and in the meantime someone must have made off with it!  We have created an interim solution using a Sprite can but so far I have lost my sunglasses, camera and now this!

However, I’m not going to admit to losing the keys in Paris though!

A common pastime enjoyed by Iranians is having picnics anytime and anywhere.   Now that we’re out of noodles and have not eaten properly in a couple of days, Nasir rustled up a fabulous curry (an eclectic hybrid between a dopiaza and a bhuna) using tinned sardines.  It may sound odd but tasted great!

Later that evening we met some truckers at the service station on our second fill up.  Here our new found Iranian friends treated their “Englandstani” pals to hamburgers and home-grown non-alcoholic beer!

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Day Ten – Heading for Iran

5th November 2010 – 413 miles

We’re sorry that we’ve not been in touch lately.  We could not login to our blog whilst in Iran and this is the first time in which we’ve had access to the Internet in Pakistan.  The post below kicks off from where we left it in Turkey on the way to the border of Iran so here goes:

On the way, we met Raphael and Linda, a couple of Swiss overlanders in a Toyota campervan who are driving to and around India and back.  If your German is up to scratch, check out their blog www.ontheroad4real.com.

We expected the Turkish Iran border control to be particularly officious but the immigration officials were very friendly, courteous and efficient (and fast-tracked us through the whole process).

The problems arose after the passports were stamped and our fingerprints were taken.  We were let loose on a sea of touts, preying on naïve and vulnerable foreigners like ourselves.

We still had to get our Carnet stamped, Green Card (Insurance), exit papers and exchange some currency. 

Initially we tried to initiate the above ourselves but eventually conceded and (reluctantly) paid €10 to a fixer who ensured our safe passage through the “formalities” by some “under the table dealing”.

That morning we rang Hossein Ravaniyar, a guide-fixer recommended by Lonely Planet as “experienced at sorting out motorists’ border formality problems“.  The price for his services were $80 + a bottle of whiskey + €400 for diesel tax (more about this later).  We politely declined his offer to help us.

Now that we know the process, and if there is a next time …, we’ll do all of this ourselves.

Although the guide book does not mention this, and according to the touts, apparently a tax is payable for petrol or diesel usage dependent on your destination of travel.  This was quoted at just over €1,000 in our case (allegedly)!

Hearing rumours of this, we wisely filled up before the border (although petrol / diesel in Turkey is quite expensive).

Now most foreigners would pay a tout some money to bribe an official to reduce this duty (still payable).  As we felt aggrieved at paying this duty (if in existence), we paid the tout €50 to make sure that this issue disappears!

With all the paperwork now in order (given the nod by the gatekeeper despite not having all the necessary stamps), we drove on to Tabriz.

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Day Nine – Head in the Clouds

4th November 2010 – 412 miles

Words (or pictures) cannot describe the scenic route through the mountains we had taken today.

Thankfully, the weather held up and whilst it felt chilly, the roads were not icy.

I’ve posted some photos of our trusty steed today as I’m sure you’re sick of seeing the three of us enjoying ourselves!

The car has presented no problems whatsoever.  Shihab has owned this vehicle for the past 18 months or so and it has never let him down.  The Landy underwent a major overhaul prior to our overland and we are carrying most serviceable parts just in case. 

The only issue is that the rear brakes are squeeling despite them working perfectly.  The car has just had replacement pads, calipers and front discs so the only thing it can be are the rear discs (although the garage did not deem it necessary to change them!).  We’re hoping that it will sort itself out once the brakes are bed in.

I regret to inform you that we have been scammed yet again:

SCAM ALERT – in Turkey petrol is not self service.  You tell the attendant what / how much you want and you pay them.  In theory, you would think that this is quite a straightforward transaction.  However, the attendants, given half a chance, will use the premium grade equivalents of what you asked for – hence you end up paying more for less! We’ll be more vigilant from this point forward.

On the bright side, we have not received any parking / speeding tickets nor have we had to pay any bribes nor worse still we have not got arrested (yet)!

We’re going out now in search of some Euros as Iran do not accept credit cards and it’s impossible to withdraw money from a bank / ATM out there.  The Dollar is out of favour as the defacto hard currency in Iran so the Euro is King!

Whilst out, we’ll get a quick bite to eat.  On this subject, we’ve ran out of Pot Noodle, Ko Noodles and Shin Cup.  I’m not sure what we’re now going to eat for our rest breaks …

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Day Eight – We’d Been Had!

3rd November 2010 – 450 miles

I can’t believe we’re now into the second week of our expedition!

We seem to have developed a routine whereby we leave straight after breakfast and take turns to drive for 2 hour stints each with breaks / fuel stops in between.  Going forward, our intinerary has been set such that we only drive, where possible, in hours of daylight.  In fact this is working so well that today a Turkish family stopped their vehicle beside ours to ask us for directions!

Today we just drove, initially on another toll road motorway from Istanbul to Ankara and then local (A & B) roads up to Yozgat.  Whilst the roads became narrower, the scenery got progressively better.

On the subject of tolls, it transpires that the so-called pre-paid toll card that we bought the other day (see ‘Day 6 – The Big Hustle’ post) for $50 was actually a phone card (probably with no credits)!  The actual toll card should look like this.

And when we arrived at Yozgat in search of hotels, we were flagged down by the local pharmacist, who it transpires also owns a Landrover.  Thanks Ahmet for helping us find a hotel.

Finally, a bit of bad news.  A friend of ours from Birmingham, Asad Uddin, was due to accompany us from Istanbul.  His visas were not processed in time for our departure so he travelled through Eastern Europe in the hope of catching us up.  Unfortunately, he did make it past the Turkish border and was turned back for not having the correct paperwork for his vehicle.

We hope that we don’t encounter such problems at subsequent border controls.

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Day Seven – Where East Meets West

2nd November 2010 – At Leisure

Today was a chill out day to recharge our batteries.

Istanbul is a spectacular city for sightseeing and is definitely worthy of its European Capital of Culture 2010 status.  We did not have sufficient time to go to the European part around Taksim Square and instead focused upon Sultanahmet, the old part of town.

Our first stop was Sultan Ahmed Mosque.  Built between 1609 and 1616, it is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior.  

We then visited Aya Sofia, formerly a cathedral, later a mosque and now a museum.

For lunch, we stopped off at a cafe for a real kebab, much tastier than the ones at home.

And then on to the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world.  With over 1,200 shops, the bazaar is reknown for selling jewellery, pottery, spices and carpets.  Now, none of us are particularly big on shopping but it was good to share some banter with the local shop traders.

It was great to have a day off from driving.  Our next day of leisure is in another 5 days time in Esfahan (Iran) and there’s a lot more driving to be done between now and then.

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Day Six – The Big Hustle

1st November 2010 – 394 miles

It’s a bit surreal waking up in a car at dawn with two other guys, in a place that you don’t know!

With very limited sleep we drove on to the nearest service station to freshen up, where we met up with some Brits – the first since we arrived on the Continent.  They run a courier company, carrying goods on behalf of clients from UK to Turkey.

Onwards to Turkey Border Control, we had to obtain our visas and insurance documents, which was easier than we thought it would be.

SCAM ALERT – for Brits, a Turkish visa can be obtained in various currencies and is priced at 15€ or £10.  We insisted on paying them in pounds to benefit from the favourable exchange rate and yet they would only accept Euros.  Save any further delay we paid them in Euros.

Once we passed in to Turkey, we experienced our first halal Burger King.  We vowed that this would be our last visit to a chain restaurant and that we’d sample more local authentic cuisine.

We then jumped on to the motorway heading on to Istanbul.

SCAM ALERT – we were flagged down  at the toll gate by a guy who spoke no English and presented a piece of paper stating that if we did not purchase a pre-paid card (for 50€ or $50) then we would get fined.  We took the bait, paid the money and are still uncertain as to what we have paid for!

Having felt somewhat jaded, we nursed our way on to the hotel (a place that Shihab has stayed before) in the old town of Sultanahmet.

Since we’d been on the road for practically two days non-stop, we had a shave, haircut, Turkish bath (hamam), meal and sheesha and then off to bed.

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