Iran, rubber ducks, friendly locals, desert driving and a breakdown

Hossein looks about 72. He’s 5 feet tall and is wearing an outfit not dissimilar to the eccentric British man who opened the rally. White cotton dress pants, a white vest, and a fly fishing hat, flies attached for good measure. This is all the more amusing as we seem at least 1000km away from anything that would allow fishing. The overall look is completed by a grey pencil come handlebar moustache. We have got in contact with Hossein because we need a carnet du passage to get our car into Iran. Carnets are an internationally recognised document that allows you to temporarily import your car. Essentially, you pay a bond that you would lose if your car is not removed from the country. Unfortunately, the bond cost in any of the Europeans countries that issue them has to be equal to the value of your car, with the minimum amount being 3000 Euros. Our car isn’t worth even close to that, and we didn’t have that kind of cash lying around to be held up for what could be months, hence our meeting with Hossein.


Of course, there was a big question mark hanging over Hossein. There are two main people who operate an Iranian carnet service, both of whom are named Hossein. One of them is known as ‘Good Hossein’ and the other one is known as ‘Bad Hossein’. From what we can work out, Good Hossein has been doing it for years. Bad Hossein, capitalising on the name Good Hossein has made for himself, uses the same name to attract business. To make matters more confusing, one of the websites is overlandtoiran.com and the other is overlandiniran.com. (Are you confused yet? It’s about to get more confusing.) We were pretty confident we had picked Good Hossein, but couldn’t be completely sure. We were, therefore, a little bit nervous showing up to the Turkey-Iran border at 5am. We arrived at the same time as two other teams, the arbitrary quacks and yak-noyak (Australian and Spanish respectively), both of whom had arranged to meet the same Hossein. We took comfort in the fact that if had got it wrong we were all wrong together (ignorance loves company).


We positioned ourselves with the other two teams right at the front of the cue directly in front of the gates, bypassing the hundreds of trucks waiting to cross the border; had we come across this two weeks earlier we would have politely waited in cue behind them, but we know better now. Unfortunately, being at the front of the cue has it’s own problems. There is not a soul to be found anywhere and it’s unclear what we should be doing. After waiting for about 20 minutes, a man appears on the Iranian side of the border claiming to know Hossein. He gestures in the direction of an otherwise non-descript building 50m behind us and indicates we should head there. We enter said building to find cattle gates directing people through to border control, I’m the first in line (by this point we have had another 2 teams join us so we make up about 14 people). My passport is quickly stamped, but I am then told I have to go back to the car, leaving Josh to walk through the border. The only way for me to get back to the car is to push back down the cattle gates. After pushing back through and returning to the car I have to find the customs official. We (the Spanish team and I) find him sleeping at his desk. We clear our voices loudly and wake him up. Through heavily bagged and bloodshot eyes the Turkish official glares at me as he looks at our car document. After about 5 minutes he hands back our registration document and grunts at me. I guess that means I can leave Turkey. Sure enough, as I get back into the car the Turkish border gate rolls open. The Iranian gate stays firmly shut. Eventually, the man claiming to know Hossein arrives with actual Hossein, dressed in the aforementioned attire. He warmly greets us and asks if everything has been done on the Turkish side; it has, so he get’s his colleague to tell the Iranians to open the gate.


We enter Iran, and this is where the fun really begins; really this experience should be shown using a flow diagram. Hossein tells us his colleague will sort everything out and that we should give him our passports and car documents. Hossein then disappears. Once he does, his colleague, let’s call him fixer number 2, asks for a further 10 euros each for “expenses”, we don’t question it and hand the money over. Fixer 2 then disappears inside, he emerges 30 minutes later with our passports and our e-visas stamped, but he hasn’t started on the carnets. Enter fixer number 3. Fixer number 3 seems to be fixer number 2s brother or cousin. Fixer 3 explains fixer 2 will now go get our carnets and that we need to give him all of our documents again. Fixer 2 disappears again. While we wait, an Iranian border guard becomes interested in all of our cars. He orders some of us to open the cars up. After about 5 minutes of this it looks as though he his beginning to get bored. Fixer 3 has an exchange of words with him and then explains to us that we need to give the guard a t-shirt. None of us are exactly flush with spare tops (wanting to hold onto every clean one we have been given) so we are all fairly reluctant to hand one over. With no t-shirts forthcoming, the guard begins to demand we open up more vehicles. Ali, from team arbitrary ducks, says he might have a t-shirt and goes to look. In the meantime, the French team’s car gets a thorough look through. Ali doesn’t find a t-shirt, but he does find his large supply of rubber ducks. Ali brings two back to the guard, extends his arms fully in front of the guard, and then squeezes both ducks, both of which make a squeaking noise. The guard looks unhappy for a moment, then bemused, he takes the ducks off Ali and gives them a squeeze, a grin appears on his face. Ali keeps saying, “for your kids”. The guard, happy with the ducks, walks away; there is no more searching.


While all of the above is unfolding outside, Josh is having his own difficulty inside. He has printed off the wrong visa document, the one that is unconfirmed and without a visa number. With the help of Hossein’s people, and something extra, Josh manages to get it stamped and makes his way into Iran.


Back outside, we wait another 40 minutes before fixer 2 re-emerges. This time he has a very flustered looking Iranian man in tow, fixer 4. Fixer 4 is dressed in black dress pants with a crisp white shirt and carries a leather briefcase. Fixer 4, whilst getting increasingly flustered, goes to each of our vehicles in turn and tries to translate the registration document and required information into Farsi. This takes another 30 minutes. He then runs back inside. We wait another 30 minutes. Eventually fixer 4 re-emerges with a senior looking bureaucrat in tow. On the way out one of the rubbish attendants accidentally brushes a rubbish bag against him. The senior official then repeatedly tries to kick the man until some other people intervene and separate them. The senior official, looking slightly less dignified, then comes and signs all of the papers which fixer 4 has provided. Things seem to be looking good. 10 minutes later we are told we are allowed to drive to the next compound.


At this compound we meet up with our co-drivers again, Josh emerges and gets into the car. Hossein re-appears and tells us there is still more paperwork to complete and that we must follow fixer 4 who will get into a taxi to get to the next office. Fixer 4 immediately jumps into a taxi and drives at speed into the chaotic Iranian traffic. Josh and I are quickest off the block, just keeping the taxi in sight about 5 cars ahead, as it weaves in and out of traffic. The other two teams can’t see the taxi, but just manage to keep us in sight. After 5km the taxi pulls up beside an abandoned looking office. Fixer 4 immediately jumps out and runs inside. Finally, 15 minutes later, we have our carnets. We think we are done, but then Hossein tells us we still need to get insurance. Fixer 2 makes a reappearance and collects all of our passports again. While fixer 2 does that, Hossein tells us we must follow him down the road. Again, as if he was trying to lose us, he races into the traffic in his old van, dodging cars. It takes all of our video game race car experience to keep up with him. Eventually he stops at a petrol station and he trades some money for us. 1 euro to 120,000 Riel. 5 minutes later we have thick wads of cash and no real understanding of what it will buy us here. We decide we should get a sim card, but we can’t get a sim card until our passports are returned to us, which are still being used to get our insurance. When we finally get our passports and go in to get the sim cards we find we also have to have our fingerprints taken. However, in what we discover is the common attitude towards foreigners in Iran, the man behind the desk is so embarrassed that we have to do this he uses his own fingerprints on each of the three documents.


Hossein’s fee for all of this service was 350 euro plus some oil. There was some slight confusion on the part of the Spanish team as to what oil he was referring to. We thought it was motor oil, Hossein telling us that motor oil in Iran is terrible. Jordi, of the Spanish team, thought he was referring to olive oil and gave him a large bottle of good quality Spanish olive oil (retail cost 30 euros). The look of sadness on the Spanish team’s faces as they gave away their only food oil to someone who asked what he could do with it and whether it was okay to fry things in was very amusing.


By the time we have completed all of the above it’s 1130am and our plans of driving all the way to Isfahan, a 13 hour drive, are looking increasingly unlikely. We decide to make for Tabriz instead. We find that in Iran it is free to camp in public parks and there is a well known free camp site in Tabriz with running water and showers, if you are a foreigner all you have to provide is a photocopy of your passport. The park is relatively clean and filled with Iranian families who are also camping there. We are confused when we are told we are not allowed to camp on the grass, but must use a number of concrete platforms scattered around the park, or, the parking asphalt. Beggars can’t be choosers, and we spend the night there with the Australian and the Spanish teams.


We go out for dinner together, choosing the only restaurant that has a large number of google reviews. We assume this means that westerners go there so there will be an English menu; we are mistaken. Josh befriends a man on the street outside the restaurant and he comes down, translates everything for us, and then orders for us. He periodically comes back down to talk to us and insist that we follow him on Instagram asking for a photo of us all, which he then shares on Instagram.


Back at the free campsite, Josh and the Spanish team are forcibly dragged by the younger members of a 20 strong Iranian family back to their rugs on the other side of the park for tea. The insistence that Josh goes immediately and quickly to join them is amusing as the rush is simply to go and sit on a rug and talk. The attitude of hurrying to do nothing seems prevalent across Iran; we had lots of further occasions where we were rushed out the door for something that involved just sitting or waiting somewhere. As we sit on the rugs in Tabriz only one of the family members speaks any kind of English, so there is lots of backwards and forwards as we try to answer their questions. There is lots of laughter though and we have a great night with this friendly family, who again turnout to be representative of the people we meet across Iran.

family at tabriz free campsite


In Iran we had very long driving days, upwards of 900kms a day. We spend our second day in Iran driving from Tabriz to Isfahan. There are a number of toll gates on the way, but at everyone bar one the toll is refused; guests to Iran should be looked after we are told.


The car was still smoking occasionally with the smell of burnt oil. We were still attributing this to the oil I had spilt earlier trying to top up in Istanbul. That was until we began breaking at low speed causing the oil light to flash briefly. Josh was convinced this was related to malfunction due to the heat (it was 43 degrees), it didn’t make sense to him that we would be short of oil as the car had not seemed to be burning any on the journey so far. We kept on talking about it and we did decide to stop and put some oil in just in case. This stopped the light flashing; we thought perhaps the car burnt more oil than we thought, but on getting to Isfahan we realised we actually had a significant oil leak. No oil was showing on the dipstick, so we spent the next morning with the mechanic. There is something incredibly stressful about trying to communicate a problem about a car to what you think is a mechanic when they don’t speak English, and wouldn’t normally work on any car other than a hillman hunter or peugot. The first person we go to seems to be struggling, so he goes next door and brings another mechanic over, another 10 minutes and we have 4 mechanics working on the car. We are offered tea as we wait. Eventually, after about an hour and a half, the first mechanic comes to us with a big smile on his face, they have found the problem, a broken screw or connector, which allowed all of the oil to pour out. HE sees the giant smile on my face and he begins singing and dancing and laughing at us and how relieved we are that it’s been fixed. I use microsoft translate to tell him “thanks for saving our trip, and ask how much we owe him” he speaks into the phone which comes up with the translation “when I fall in love with the world, the colour is different to me”. I use the app to tell him “that’s very poetic, but I’m not sure what that means”. I’m still not sure what he meant, but eventually he accepts 30USD as payment, not an insubstantial bit of money, but one we are relieved to pay for having the car working well again

This update is already too long, so briefly, other things we got up to in Iran:


After getting the car fixed in Isfahan we had time to look around the city. It’s an incredibly beautiful city with a stunning mosque and city square. They have shut off a large portion of the CBD to traffic, and in the evening, when the temperature drops back below 40 degrees, the area becomes full with the hustle and bustle of shoppers and Iranian families meeting one another. Underneath the dome of the main mosque the acoustics are so perfect that someone standing in the middle and whispering causes their voice to echo around the whole area.


We drive from Isfahan to Shiraz, another 500km through the desert. We stop at Persepolis, the capital of the Persian empire in the 3rd century BC. I’m not sure if it’s the heat (42 degrees) or we have just seen enough ruins, but I have to admit the ‘rubble’ wasn’t nearly as exciting as the prospect of the air conditioned hotel in Shiraz.


We had one night in Shiraz, enjoying the luxury of air conditioning after our long days in the desert. We have time to visit one mosque in the morning before we have to turn North and drive towards the Turkmenistan border, The mosque is known for its stained glass windows and it is beautiful as the morning sun shines in.


We spend the next 2 days driving through the Iranian desert. If the temperature drops to 37 degrees we are relieved. Mostly, it sits between 41 and 44, though of course it is hotter in the car itself. It has been so hot and the sun so bright we have had to start wearing our back flap caps inside the car to hide from the sun… Unfortunately, due to both the heat and cultural sensitivity, the penguin suits have had to be hidden away for most of Iran, didn’t stop us wearing them in the desert, but otherwise we have had to dress quite conservatively. We are not even allowed to wear shorts. (check out photos here https://www.instagram.com/p/B097Z1Vg_Zp/ )


Big shoutout to earthseaskyequipment for providing us with made in New Zealand clothing (including the stylish caps) to get us through. 5 days straight of wearing the ESS travel shirt and we’re both convinced we don’t smell half bad. penguins aren’t renowned for their sense of smell though…

Our last night in Iran is spent camping a short distance away from the Turkmenistan border. We meet the Spanish team there, who we have become fast friends with. The border is in the mountains and the temperature drops over night to a cold 15 degrees; it’s a relief. Our campsite is beside a river, it could be central otago, but for the Iranian families throwing their plastic rubbish everywhere. Later in the evening, two female Shepherds bring their flock of goats past our tents. They pick up the rubbish left by Iranian families on their day out. Initially we think this is great, then we see them tie up the two plastic bags in which they have gathered the rubbish and throw it into the middle of the river. There is certainly a long way to go here on understanding the effects of plastic…

Last comments on Iran;

The driving is truly terrible, each country we have been to we have not believed it would be possible for the quality of driving to deteriorate further. We believe we have finally reached that threshold in Iran. On roundabouts, if you are already in the roundabout, you don’t necessarily have the right of way, any other car which believes you might stop for it cuts in front of you if you don’t have the courage to keep going. When there are lines painted on the road they are ignored. A 3 lane road has enough space for 5 to 6 lines of cars. You should never use your indicator in Iran, in-fact, the only useful part of the car is the horn. If you break down on the highway don’t bother with an accident triangle, just lay out a line of rocks of between 3 and 7 metres in length; it is very important that when you do this the rocks go from largest to smallest (the largest rock being closest to your vehicle). Don’t put your lights on during the daytime to make yourself more visible, this will only cause other drivers to flash their lights at you in concern that you have forgotten you have your lights on.

if you think it is safer to walk think again. motorcycles drive at great speeds down the footpath.

Driving in Iran is much like driving around a video game of the early 2000s. Early versions of games like Grand Theft Auto sometimes struggled to mimic the real world with their limited computing power so if you stood in the same place on the map the same car would drive past you repeatedly. Due to the sanctions on Iran everyone here drives the same car, so you often think you are being passed by the same car multiple times.

Petrol is super cheap here, it costs around 4.50NZD to fill up a 40litre tank. Even if sanctions were not in place, there certainly is not an incentive to buy an efficent vehicle

Josh and I have now covered over 11000kms and are currently in Uzbekistan, having crossed Turkmenistan within 24 hours. I will endeavour to get something up about Turkmenistan during the next few days – what a crazy country. Until then, Penguin express out

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