I had finally scored my visas. There was nothing keeping me in Iran. Well, nothing I’d write about just now anyway, and the time was drawing nigh to depart. Visas are date specific, so I needed to enter Turkmenistan on the 27th of November and cross is within 5 days. So at the time of leaving Tehran at 6 am on the 26th, I assumed I’d planned it all perfectly…
A word about that departure. My wonderful couchsurf host Honey had put me up and put up with me for about a month on and off. She let me stay in her place while she worked, and took me on various excursions around Iran. It was safe to say she was one of the best hosts I’ve had in my still fairly limited surfing experience, but we’d not always seen eye to eye.
I was attempting to slip away with little fuss so’s not to wake her, but I’d failed, and she came sleepily out to say goodbye. Let’s just say as far as goodbyes go it was interesting. And by interesting I mean passionate. And by passionate I mean I shouldn’t have left. We’d been dancing around each other having arguments more often than not, but maybe this was the reason why. Nonetheless, the taxi was waiting, the meter running, and sure – there’d be other dames…
I’d made a contact with a super friendly taxi driver about a month back who gave me his number in case I ever needed a lift in the city. It just so happened that I did, as getting to where I needed to be in a city like Tehran would have been a logistical nightmare. With such a long way to go, I opted to pay him to take me to the city limits, and hopefully out of range of do-gooders trying to force me to take the autobus.
Except it didn’t cost me a penny. Regardless of driving for nearly an hour through traffic and across Tehran, Shapoor doesn’t charge me a bean, inspite of my protestations. I was on the highway with the sun just testing the sky around 7 am. An electric kiss and a free ride? The day had started well.
And my luck was to continue. I spy a speed bump and strategically position myself to pester the slowing traffic, but before I even manage to produce my sign, I’m being bundled into the back of a car by a couple of students, the driver speaking perfect English. They can only take me 20K, but as ever with hitching long distance, getting out of the city is vital. They marvel at my “smartphone google map” – which is a bit of a paper with a line drawn on it, and after an impromptu roadside selfie session (honestly I’d love to see all these pictures from my years of hitching), I’m in a great spot basking in warm winter sun and walking on air.
And it continues, albeit somewhat confusingly. An old, classic Mercedes-Benz pulls next to me and its driver tries his best to understand what I need, but the conversation is going nowhere. Many people simply don’t understand that you want to be hitchhiking. That you don’t want the autobus or a train. That you’re clearly out of your mind but it’s ok because you’re a foreigner. I didn’t make this really nice sign for the good of my health or because I’m incapable of finding a bus station. After twenty minutes he’s still on the phone to someone and parked right in my designated space to allow truckers to pull in. It’s getting annoying. I just want him to give up and move on.
But persisting, he beckons me over and puts the phone to my ear. A voice on the end of the line ascertains what I’m trying to do, and I hand the device back over. A little reluctantly I find myself in the passenger seat but on the move again, apparently with a firm understanding of the situation. For all the back and forth, he can’t actually take me very far are all, but every little helps. About ten minutes into the short drive in very broken English he insists I come and meet his 20 day old daughter.
Alas my attempts to explain I have a long way to go and little time to do it fall on deaf ears. Not to mention my baby phobia. Clearly a very proud new father and peddler of kindness, before long I’m sitting in his cosy home being fed by a grinning Iranian family. Even during my flight from the country they’re still killing me with kindness. But true to his word and appreciative of the distance I have to travel, it’s short and sweet, and thankfully they don’t make me hold the child. In leaving they thrust a days supply of food into my hands (which one could easily ration for two, and would force my pack to be included as check on luggage) and heartily wave me on my merry way. Iranian hospitality at its best.
And my kind host doesn’t stop there as he takes me to a taxi lane somewhere outside his town. By now he’s clued up on my task, and is taking great delight in conversing with his peers standing and smoking by car doors.
It is with this repeated conversation that he scores me a free taxi ride to Semnan – the first significant way point. Fed, watered, and hands shaken, I’m finally on my way.
I’m deposited at a police check point and truck stop. Easy peasy pickings, but the day isn’t getting any younger and I really need a long distance hitch. It’s not long before I strike gold, and a young guy pulls in to take me as far as Sabzevar. That’s some 450 KM and in a fast car. I’m cooking on gas.
But the sheer vastness of this country begins to take its toll and although I’ve had a near perfect start, I’m still a fair distance off my destination as night is falling. Mile after mile of the same, dry, shrubby landscape zips past the lowered window and I realise there’s no option but to push on into the night. Winter is not the friend of the hitchhiker.
It’s dark by the time he’s pulling away to his home. He offered my a place to stay for the night, but with the border still some leagues away, it’s for the best that I at least make an attempt to get close to it. It all comes down to this damn Turkmenistan visa. With only 5 days allowed, I need to be crossing early tomorrow to get the most out of my quota. But if I didn’t have to do that I would have an extra ten days in Iran, and THAT could have been interesting.
The light has taken the heat, and see my breath on the air for the first time this year. My previous driver has been another angel in driving me through the built up areas to deposit me on the highway out of town. Negotiating areas of population can be a tough task for free-loaders. I do like getting picked up by young guys. They just get me. Y’know…?
Fending off the predominately good-humoured attentions of a bunch of mechanics at the road side and I’m saved by a shared taxi. My only blight with an otherwise perfect day of hitching was the rather aggressive way in which one man was attempting to tell me I’d never in a million years get a ride for free and that in exchange for my guitar he would take me to my destination. Trying to explain the logic to someone that you’ve managed to hitch through 28 countries without payment is useless. In the circumstances, I don’t mind parting with the tiny sum of money to get me over the finish line for tonight, and as I still don’t have a place to sleep, $3 isn’t a bad price to get me to a roof over my head and lock on my door.
And I feel I need it too. It’s comfortable enough, but the toilet reeks of nutty poo, it appears I’m the only person staying here, and the proprietor is that sort of limping, one-eyed, man-servant to the human centipede doctor. It’s ten bucks for the room and I welcomingly pass out from exhaustion and the heat from the broken boiler. Or maybe the gas they were pumping into the room.
I wake with light trying to get round a filthy curtain. There’s no shower that I can see (and if there was one it would be freezing cold – so I’m happy to have the excuse), and I’m out the door as soon as I’ve shivered into my clothes. There’s not a sinner on the streets, and I stutter a question and answer from a couple of old boys hanging on a corner.
“Turkmenistan? Turkmenistan? Ashgabat? Ashgabat?!” I make big pointy gestures in the direction I think I need to be going.
This kind of thing is never simple. Instead of a straightforward yes or no, there’s always an inquest. And nobody every really seems to know anything about the place they actually live in. Between the two of them I hear a life story, before finally deciding that I am indeed going the right way. Thanking them, I set off to march in the direction of what I hope is the edge of the city on the northern side, fending off a significant amount of taxis in the process.
Surprisingly enough, I’m exactly where I need to be, and at that moment of time, a car swings in seeing my ‘TM’ sign. Lo and behold, he is a customs officer on the Iranian side, and can take me all the way to the border. For $5. I consider this for a moment, and realise I’m already eating into my first of five days in Turkmenistan. As there is nobody else on the road (and I’m unlikely to catch another border official) I allow myself the cheat. To be honest, the free hitchhike goes out the window until I’m through Turkmenistan. The transit visa is not the hitchers friend.
My driver speaks little English, but when he does it becomes a time-passing game to figure out what he’s actually on about. He pauses between words for the length of a bible while I presume he’s trying to find the translation, or he’s forgotten what he’s trying to say. A sample sentence can be found below. Most of the time I just nodded and said ‘yes!’
“You… … … tourist… … … … … tourist… … … …they… …river… … … …fifteen dollar… …river… … …go… …fifteen dollar… …and go.”
I think he was trying to tell me I owed him $15 instead of $5, and my suspicions are confirmed when indeed at the border he demands the higher sum. Credit to him though he backs down and smiles when I stick to my guns and pay him a fiver, and we both laugh off the fact that he was blatantly at it. My luck holds again when a taxi going the rest of the way to customs offers me a free ride. According to my crap phone, it’s approaching midday.
Then it just becomes a nightmare. The shit hits the fan. Either I’m really unlucky with my timing, or it’s like this everyday, but I seem to be attempting to cross at the exact moment a host of Turkmens are returning from an Iranian shopping spree. Now you would have thought that the sensible thing to do would be to let the solo traveler – who sticks out like a sore thumb – quickly cross before rifling through everything everyone has bought. Everything. EVERYTHING. But no. That would be far too sensible. And not only that, but aside from the extortionate $85 I’ve paid for a visa for five days, they have the audacity to ask for another $12 to cross the border! The sheer cheek of it! This had better be one fucking outstanding country!
And so I become invisible. I’m sitting waiting at the “bank” door to be robbed of my twelve bucks, while slowly but surely large women drag their stuff through customs. I’m waiting two hours. Two hours! And not only that, but by the time I finally cross, I’ve realised it’s actually two o’clock in the afternoon! I’ve crossed a time zone! And not only that – I’ve somehow lost another hour from somewhere as well! I’m in a black hole of time! And it didn’t help matters when the ever suspicious Turkmen border guards remove everything from all my packs to search for guns and drugs.
So it’s mid-afternoon when I’m in a new country, and with no confirmed place to stay tonight (my confirmed couch-surf host has been strangely silent) I take the shuttle bus to the edge of town. For some reason all the long distance trucks have disappeared, and I’m wedged in to a tatty rust-bucket with a bus load of Turkmen shoppers.
There’s nobody and nothing here. Deposited on the city outskirts and I can’t find an internet cafe, or a money exchange place, and I’ve not actually seen a real life person for that matter. I stumble into the first open place I see, and a young lady with a family takes pity on my predicament, feeds me back at her apartment, before arranging for her outlandishly rich friend to take me to a hotel in his brand new land cruiser. But this is where the hospitality ends.
The hotel, one of the cheapest at $35 a night, is actually full. I’m left to wander the streets as night falls, trying to figure out where I’m sleeping. I contemplate one of the empty fountains, and I’m on the cusp of preparing myself for a night on the streets when I stumble upon the offices of a tour company still. Ducking inside, thankfully they speak English, and the very kind receptionist calls round a few hotels to find me a cheap deal. The standard $35 is the only option, and after they change me some money and put me in a cab, I’m standing in what can only be described as the worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. It’s more like a squatters crack den, but at least it’s better than sleeping on the streets. Just.
So after 2 days, 8 rides and 961 KM and I’ve somehow made it to Ashgabat. I could get a little teary eyed at departing Iran, but I don’t want the cockroaches to see weakness. Now there’s only four full days left to explore as much of this country as I can, and then get out. It’s about to get super, super weird.