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Trouble in Iran--The Overland 1978

Mashhad Mosque, 1978

We had bought a van in Kathmandu and drove it through Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. [See previous posts] We’d been on the road for some time and woke to our last day in Herat, Afghanistan. We drove to the Afghan/Iran border, almost out of gas. We pulled in behind an Austrian couple in an old Land Rover with trunks on top. They were the only people in front of us. We waited for an hour or more for the Afghans to finish searching the Land Rover that was positioned over a pit so the searchers could also investigate the bottom of the vehicle.

The Austrian guy was hassling them so they were taking their time which is the way of things in the East. Pushing and bullying will get one nowhere. The young Austrian couple, Tino and Helga, owned an antique shop in Vienna and would take road trips to the East every year or so to buy things for their shop such as rugs and brass lamps and things. I was surprised he didn’t treat the Afghan border people more courteously because of his experience with border crossings.

Finally, it was our turn, so we pulled Goldie (what we called our VW bus) over the pit and took everything out of her, laying it all out on a long table. The Afghan in charge gave us a cursory check, hardly looking at all of our stuff on the table. We were surprised when he said “finished,” and walked away. We loaded all our stuff back into Goldie, had our passports stamped at the police checkpoint, and drove out of Afghanistan into Iran. The Iran border post was new and modern, quite a contrast to the old shambling building that comprised Afghanistan’s frontier. We parked and went into the customs building, filled out our entrance forms and moved to the desk for people with vehicles. That was when the trouble started.

The Iranian who gave us the forms looked at us when we told him we didn’t have a proper carnet (for Iran); and when we asked for a transit carnet, he yelled at us: “Go back to Afghanistan!” He moved over to help someone else and we stood there with our mouths open. Basmo (Steve) went to talk with a man at the tourist counter, and I tried to speak again to the man behind the counter. I told him the Iranian consulate in Kabul told us we could get a transit carnet at the border.

He turned ugly and said, “You go back to Kabul and tell the consulate to come here and fill out the forms . . . GO BACK TO KABUL!” He yelled the last bit. I couldn’t fucking believe the guy. He spoke in Farsi to a man standing next to me. The man turned to me and said, “no carnet, you must go back to Afghanistan.”

Well, we couldn’t go back—we had no visa—so we hung around and finally the tourist man helped us. He took us to the customs chief who told us we could get a transit carnet for ten days. We went back but no one would do anything because it wasn’t in writing. We had to write a letter to the customs man, explaining our situation and he had to sign it. We also were having trouble because the registration and bill of sale were not properly witnessed when we paid for the van at the India/Pakistan border. The Iranians reckoned that it wasn’t a legal transaction so it was quite a hassle.

When we finally got the transit carnet, we went out to the inspection shed where Goldie was parked. Once again, we moved everything out of the van and lay it out on a long table. Two men came over, one in overalls who held some different sized rods and wires. He wandered around Goldie, poking into various places and then sniffing the end of the rod. It was almost comical. The better dressed border man asked me what we had in the van. I didn’t know how to respond because we had it all laid out on the table. I stuttered and then said, “Only our personal belongings and souvenirs.” He asked me to open my guitar case but never looked inside. After a few moments he said, “Okay, finished.”

We were surprised they had spent so little time on us. The thing that bothered us was when the guy in overalls poked a long solid metal rod down into Goldie’s gas tank and jammed and banged it around. We were terrified he’d knock a hole in the tank, or tear it loose. But it was okay and he seemed satisfied. We knew they were looking for drugs, but we were smart and never carried anything in the van that could get us in trouble. The idea of spending time in a prison in Asia was not appealing.

We said goodbye to the Austrian couple who had been talking to us and were being further detained for some obscure reason. We drove off, afraid we wouldn’t make the twenty kilometers to the gas station. We did make it and filled the tank. We felt pretty good as we motored down the road surrounded by the flat Iranian countryside with mountains in the distance. The country reminded me a little of the high plains of eastern Colorado but with no structures.

Country between Afghan border and Mashhad--1978

I was driving and we were traveling at 90 kilometers an hour when suddenly we lost power and heard a horrible clanking noise. I immediately shut the engine off—it had died as I put the clutch in, and we rolled to a stop, feeling sick to our stomachs. We went around to the back and looked at the engine. It felt very hot, but the oil level was okay. I tried to start the engine but it wouldn’t turn over at all. It just clicked.

“Frozen,” I thought. We felt terrible and didn’t say much. We had no idea what was wrong, but felt it was serious and that it would be expensive—more money. We found the tow rope and hitched it up to the front of the van, hoping the Austrians could help us when they came along. They were our only hope.

About an hour later we saw them in the distance and they stopped. Tino and Helga were happy to give us a pull into Mashhad, so after we hooked Goldie up and she was properly secured we took off. Not far from where we had broken down, we were flagged to a halt at a police-check point and truck weigh station. The officials took Steve’s license and though they couldn’t speak English they made it clear that we had to pay a fine of 500 rials for improper towing. We explained to them we were in trouble and had no money, but they wouldn’t give in. They said they’d keep Steve’s license for 15 days and we could come back to claim it with the money. If we didn’t come back in the 15 days the fine would go up. We told them we’d come back, but Steve’s International license had only cost $2.50, and he could easily get a new one in Europe; we figured it was worth it to leave it.

Tino and Helga towing us in their Land Rover

We motored on into Mashhad after some 120 kilometers of being towed at speeds of over 100 kms an hour at times, and a few hair-raising pass situations. We came very close to being killed one time. Tino was a crazy driver. We did arrive safely and set ourselves up at the government tourist campsite on the edge of Mashaad. It was nicely laid out and even had a swimming pool. We went into the city and ate at a sandwich shop after being put off with the prices for food at a couple of restaurants we checked. We found the food in Iran to be expensive compared to the other countries we traveled through.

Tino and Helga were nice, but Steve and I thought they were tactless in their approach to asking about prices and then their response at finding the price higher than they felt it should be. We survived with them, but uncomfortably. We owed them for helping us with the towing and then driving us around.

The next day we all got in the Land Rover and went out looking for a garage that could fix Goldie. But it was Friday—Iran’s Sunday—and the shops and businesses were closed. One Iranian man, Mohammed Ali, took us around to some shops he knew, but they were all closed as well. Mohammed told us of a shop he knew that could help us and said to meet him there the next day. We went back to the camp and spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool. I really needed that because I the dysentery was acting up. I had diarrhea and was nauseous most of the time. The next day, Saturday, June 17, we got up early and left the campground at 7:30, towed by Tino and Helga to the garage to meet Mohammed Ali. When we got there a nice-looking young man came to us saying, “Mohammed Ali . . . Mohammed Ali.” Obviously, he was the friend who was waiting for us. Basmo and I were undecided because shop looked marginal and we weren’t sure of the mechanics’ competence. Finally, we pushed the van inside and turned the engine over. It made a clanking noise, but the fact that it turned over at all was heartening. Something was broken but it hadn’t seized up as we feared.

We were trying to decide if we would have them work on Goldie when a young Iranian guy named Majid, who lived across the road, came to our rescue. We hadn’t found anyone who could speak more than a few words of English before this. He was a university student in the United States so his English was excellent. He took us to his home and called his brother who said he could perhaps help us. Majid’s brother came over and took us to the shop he knew—next door to the first shop. That man’s estimate of the cost for repair was lower than the first shop, so we decided to let them work on Goldie. They told us to return at 6:30 to see what the problem was.

Basmo and I walked down to the Post Office and then took in a terrible movie starring Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates, dubbed in Farsi. At 6:30 we went back to the shop. At a drug store I’d bought some Flagyl to treat my dysentery. In New Delhi when I got my cholera booster, I spoke with the British nurses at the clinic. I had described my symptoms to them, and they told me to get Flagyl when I got to Iran. They told me to wait until then because otherwise I’d probably get it again if I didn’t. That was one of the good things about Asia then . . . you could get almost any drug over the counter. At the shop the engine was out and partly disassembled. Turns out a valve had broken and bounced around breaking a piston. It was bad, but not nearly as bad as we’d feared. We left them with some money so they could begin fixing it.

In the morning we talked to them and then walked around Mashhad. That afternoon we went back to the shop, and they told us Goldie should be ready the next day. So, the next evening we picked up Goldie, had dinner at a sandwich shop and went to the campground. We left Mashhad early in the morning.

In my next post I will write about traveling through Iran and Turkey and on to Greece.

Below are several more photos of Mashhad.

Mashhad Mosque 1978

View of Mashhad 1978

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Simon Lee
Simon Lee

Good write-up. Adventure of a life-time. The interaction and journey through different lands and cultures make the experiences even more valuable then the tourist sights. Thanks for sharing.

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