Iran-Turkmenistan border crossing part I: Fleeing the fatherland

Flying the coop

Flying the coop

Escape was imminent.

We’d made it to Mashhad, where we managed to pick up our Turkmenistan visas in record time. At 9:15am we stood in front of the Turkmeni consulate, victorious, with shiny new five-day transit visas stuck inside that began that very day. The choice was now to either stay in Mashhad one extra day and relax between marathon driving sessions, or trade this Islamic republic for a Central Asian dictatorship that has beer and no rule about hijabs. It was an easy decision.

Back at our hostel (Vali’s Non-smoking Homestay, pretty much the place for foreigners in Mashhad coming from or going to Turkmenistan), we said our goodbyes and threw our pre-packed bags into the car. By this time it was 10:30am, and we’d scheduled a 1pm date at the border with our customs agent to export Jagger and hopefully make it into the Turkmenistan immigration bureaucracy factory before the border closed at 5pm.

Traffic in Mashhad wasn’t on our side, but we made it out of the city only slightly behind schedule, and sped into the desert towards the Howdan-Bajiran border. As we went further into the mountains the landscape took on the eerie stillness of border regions that we’ve really come to relish. No cities, no traffic, and no life except for the birds soaring above us and the occasional TIR trucks rumbling slowly towards their next destination.

At around 1:30pm, we arrived at Bajgiran, the tiny border town on the Iranian side. Along the road were a row of shops, in front of which sat groups of women in long dresses covered in outrageous prints, with poofy, colourful head wraps instead of hijab. They looked like a tribe of Asian ladies who’d tried their best to mimic the colourful costumes warn by Afro-Carribeans. It almost felt like South London. These were Turkmen traders, women who spend their days crossing back and forth over the border, importing cheap Iranian carpets, textiles, accessories and other goods into Turkmenistan. We’d heard that this was a time-consuming crossing simply because of the number of these pushy women and the sheer volume of crap they transport through the border.

We passed through the first border gate and up a steep hill to the customs and immigration hall. We found our customs contact and he began the paperwork while we went inside to get our exit stamps. The hall here was pretty dank compared to the one at the Nordooz border, but it was also much more crowded. A flock of Turkmen ladies and a few of their male relatives pushed and shoved towards a security checkpoint where two Iranian security guards would check through their handbangs, stuffed to the brim, for contraband. Documents in hand, Mook and I joined in, and when the guards saw us they just waved us through.

On the other side, the immigration counters were also flooded, with the Turkmen handing stacks of passports in through each window. I made eye contact with the immigration dude, and he took our passports with a kind smile. Then it began again.

Man Farsi nemifahman…

“Ahh, you can’t speak Farsi, huh? Really? Okay, well you have to go to that bank counter over there and pay 25,000 toman (about $7.80). Get a receipt and bring it back here.”

I had forgotten that Iranians have to pay money to leave the country. After buying Turkmen manat from a backpacker and then paying for our hostel, Mook and I had spent our last Iranian rials on juice while we waited for our visa to be processed that morning. We didn’t even have enough money for two glasses, and had to share one cup of pomegranate juice. It was the only thing we had eaten all day.

The bank counter was inside a small office near immigration. I went inside and the immigration officer shouted from his booth at the bank guy, telling him and half of the immigration hall that I couldn’t speak Farsi but I need to pay this exit fee, have her bring the receipt back here with her passport. The bank guy seemed a bit uneasy that I didn’t speak Farsi. I was nervous as always, but thankful that no one had asked any interrogating questions yet.

The man filled out a form on my behalf, his pen leaving marks on the page that had no meaning for me. He wrote in Roman numerals “250,000” and pointed to it. Rial-less, I asked if I could pay in US dollars. I only had a ten-dollar bill, but they could just keep the change…. He shook his head no. Iranian money only.

We had to change dollars into rial again. Outside of the immigration hall was a black market money exchange guy. He pulled a thick wad of various different currencies from inside his brown leather bomber jacket, and quickly flicked out 320,000 rials. “Only $10? Change more?” He asked, hopeful. But no more Iranian Monopoly money for us.

I paid the dude at the bank and brought my receipt back to the nice guy at the immigration window. He checked everything and returned all of our documents, then pointed to another window around the corner. At this window, crowds of Turkmen stood waiting for their name to be called and stacks of passports to be returned. We handed ours in. While we waited, not once, not twice, but three times the immigration officers called for people named Borat. Mook was ecstatic.

The visa for our ongoing travel, to Turkmenistan, was in my American passport. Since before we came to Iran, I was worried that they were going to be difficult in letting me, a young “Iranian” woman travelling with a foreign man, leave the country. The fact that I didn’t have a visa would make things even more difficult.

After a few agonising minutes, we were called up to the window. Inside were two relatively young guys who were not in uniform. One typed away on an old desktop computer while the other flipped through my passport. The window was just high enough that I had to stand on my toes and lean in to have a proper conversation.

One last time I presented my case: Yes, I am Iranian. No, I cannot speak Farsi. The two guys discussed this with each other. The one with the passport picked up a pen and paper and, in his best English, asked all his important questions.

Where were you born? Where do you live? Where was your father born? Where does he live? Who is this man? Where are you going? Why? Do you have family in Iran? Please give me their information.

He memoed down my family’s address and phone number in Tehran. And then he handed our passports back, already stamped. We were clear to leave the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mook completed the paperwork, then a group of guys came down to give the car one final check, sign and stamp the paperwork. It was the job for two, but there was a crowd of about five or six who had come to check out the car. They don’t get many VWs around these parts.

Finally we were finished, and the guards opened a gate that led to the bizarre fantasy world of TURKMENISTAN, just five meters away. We said farewell to Iran and drove through.

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