Day 47 - Thr 01 May 08
It's been an interesting old day! Up at 08:00 skipped the hotel breakfast in favour of the one I brought at the supermarket yesterday. My guide collected me from the hotel reception at 09:45 and handed me over to her driver. The border with Iran is quite close to the city so we where there in a few minutes. Interestingly we parked up and walked over to a little hut. There was no one else crossing, so our papers where examined quickly . Then we swapped into a VW mini van driven by someone else. Then it became apparent that this wasn't the border, just a check point, and only authorised vehicles are allow beyond it.
The van was driven like a rally car up the mountain road, apexing each corner. Luckily there wasn't much coming the over way. The only thing we had to avoid where the numerous tortoises crossing the road (no joke). We soon arrived at the top of the hill and started the process of getting out of Turkmenistan. First customs, then passport control, and finally the soldier (with AK47) at the gate. He was very interested in the Madrid stamp in my passport for some reason. Eventually the gate was opened and I walked into Iran.
Iranian passport control was far easier. They collect all passports in one go and do them in batches, while the owners of the document just hang around in a waiting room. The passports come back and they just shout people's names to come and collect them. Customs is just as 'different' a bloke shouts down from a balcony and says 'Iranian?' a bloke says 'yes' (I assume) and we all get waved through. No searches nothing. It's not as if I even look Iranian!
Now it gets interesting, the bloke I've been chatting to while waiting for passports and customs asks if I want to share a taxi. I say 'yes', and the next think I know I'm in a yellow cab heading down the other side of the mountain. Before we get in my new friend says "don't say anything in the cab".
After a few minutes we dropped off in a tiny little village drinking tea in a cafe (with my new friend swapping some contraband), soon another taxi appears, and it seems my friend knows new driver. In a jiffy we're off again. The driver is a demon throwing the car around sharp more hairpins and going up and down hill. I am amazed as we overtake a Tesco articulated truck complete with Iranian tags. What is that doing here? I guess I'll never know!
After an hour or so the taxi drops us at Quchan, and we're picked up by my new friends brother in a brand new huge Citroen. He drives us off so I can change some money at a road side shop (the banks are shut)! I hand over US$100 and get a wad of cash back. I have no idea if it's a good exchange rate or not! It appears that his bother is in 'business' has two wives, seven children and 300 sheep. Business is booming by the looks of it!
Then I get persuaded to sit down and have some lunch with the guys. So we head off to a restaurant, bread, yoghurt, chicken and rice. Very nice. After that I'm walked up to the shared taxi stand, where a taxi is located and I'm loaded into it. My new friend even hands over the cash to the driver for the fare. I try to give him some cash to pay for the meal, the tea, the three taxis but he will have none of it!
It's 135km to Mashhad. I ask how long it will take to get there, I'm told an hour, but I'm skeptical. The taxi takes off and starts to cruise at 120km. I realise that an hour might be possible. We pass the Tesco truck again. It's rather like an arcade game. It's dual carriage way all the way, but the slip roads all merge into the left lane (the fast lane).
My taxi driver drops me off in the centre of town and take some more cash off of me for this service. I try a number of hotels but they are all full. Mashhad is a pilgrim town. I just wonder if all the hotels are full. Eventually I find one that's got a room they started at 200,000R and I got them down to 150,000. The room is small but it does have a little kitchenette, so I can cook for myself!
I take a street taxi up to the railway station. My information says that the train I want departs tomorrow so I should have no issues getting a ticket. In the station I find the information desk, and the lady behind the counter speaks a little English. The train times have changed, the trains now go every night, and there's one tonight at 22:00. I ask where I can purchase a ticket, and it appears that you can't buy them at the station! However she rang her friend in the travel agents across the road and pointed me in the right direction. 190,000 gets you a first class sleeper.
I head back to my hotel and re-negotiate my room price down to 75,000. The out to see the Shrine of Imam Reza around the corner. The complex is vast and it has a subterranean traffic roundabout directly underneath. Most of the shrine is closed to non-muslins, so I wander the courtyards outside. A lot of the shrine appears to be being built, it's all very impressive in a 'new money' kind of way. There are plenty of pilgrim here. There are a number of 'guards' dotted around and they all hold multi-coloured feather dusters so they can be identified!
After that I headed into a huge covered market, the LP says that it's 800m long, I walked the length of it, and I'd say it was longer. Trouble is there's not much to buy, selling tourist rubbish.
I was looking for an inter net cafe and I found one by sensing it! There wasn't a sign but I just followed my nose up two flights of steps and there it was. Back to the hotel room to get something to eat, and then caught a street taxi up to the station. The train was waiting on the platform so I got on and found my allocated seat.
The train is rather plush with free bottles of water, cups of tea, fruit juice and even cake. I decided to see if I could find a buffet car, but I got beaten to it, with a little airline style trolley coming up the corridor. Chicken and rice and all included in the price of ticket.