4. Turkey 2
Trabzon to the Iranian boarder
Justine- The illustrious Yali hotel overlooked the run way at Trabzon airport and Petra and Hector excitedly watched for Sally and Mike’s (Justine’s parents) plane to land. It was not long before there was a tap at the door and in entered the beatniks. As mentioned in the last blog post, Sally and Mike drove through Iran in the 1960’s on their meandering way via Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to South Africa . The headline in the Lebanese press when they arrived and camped on the beach was “ Beatniks Hit Beirut” They insist they were NOT Hippies!
As the beatniks unpacked their vast amount of luggage, Tom’s eyes started spinning like a fruit machine. Tea bags, burkhas, guide-books, blow-up matresses, camp chairs, even a kitchen sink (foldable) were clocking through Tom’s mind as he tried to mentally cram it all into Kabylie, estimating that we were going to be about twice as heavy as we should be. One of the golden rules of overlanding ‘don’t overload your vehicle’ would soon be out the window.
The next day after a vast breakfast of every olive, cheese, vegetable, jam and halva under the sun, we decided that to make the Iranian border in time to meet our guide Mr Hossein we would have to set off immediately. We spent a fair time squashing everything into the car and just when it was all in, bulging against the doors, the hotel bought out our laundry.
With all six of us aboard we pulled out of Trabzon. With her new load, Kabylie inched her way up the ever increasing slopes and Hector kept leaning out of the window to tell us that the tyres looked very squashed. As the snowline got nearer, we pulled into a roadside café. It turned out to be a good moment as for the first time on the trip steam had just begun to ominously boil from the radiator.View our tracker
When the engine had cooled, we set off into a huge tunnel through the mountain. We entered the tunnel in sunshine and exited under dark forbidding clouds. The weather began to deteriorate rapidly as we passed our first heavily armed checkpoint. A sobering reminder that the security situation in this part of Turkey was not great. We stopped to fill up with petrol as lightning flashed and hail stones bounced off Kabylie. We set off again with all of us squashed in under the darkening sky, and Tom, commenting that Kabylie did not feel right and was loosing power. By now we had reached the snowline and poor Kabylie was crawling like a snail in first gear as rain lashed her sides. Although Tom had replaced every door seal, these early Land Rovers are as draffy as an English church so everything we could lay our hands on was stuffed around the doors to keep the weather out. We were warm on the slow assents as the engine laboured and the wind-chill lessened and freezing on the fast dissents with the drum brakes steaming.
The scenery was very dramatic, barren, treeless hills with just the zig-zag snake of the newly tarmaced road descending down, down, down below. At about 2500m we slowed to take a photo. An error. The engine stalled. Here we were on a barren mountainside, with storm clouds all around us and in hostile territory about 30km from Bayburt, where we planned to sleep. Much praying and clenching of buttocks and eventually poor Kabylie spluttered to life. We limped up the last few kilometres of yet another huge 2500m pass now in low ratio with Hector yelling he could smell burning and Tom yelling back that he knew, but he had no choice but to keep going or he would never get her started again. He could not even risk stopping to let us all out to walk. With much relief Kabylie summited and begun to role down the other side with Tom desperately coxing the last life out of the engine. The gods were with us for as she finally gave up and her engine died we rolled the last 20 meters into a newly built and quite rare in these parts, roadside hotel.
Tom is fantastic in an emergency and though all day he had known Kabylie was in a bad way, he calmly kept her moving, showing no sign of the hidden danger. It’s never good to be stranded with your family and in-laws on a deserted mountain-side in a snow storm but particularly not in Eastern Turkey!
Tom did not even set foot in the hotel lobby. He did his super-man change into his boiler suit and was at work, his sous mechanic Mike holding the torch and giving encouragement. Finally the conclusion was the head gasket had blown. The head gasket is what seals the joint between the top and bottom parts of the engine. The jam in the engine sandwich. The only real way to be sure this was the problem was to to take the entire top off the engine. This could have been a big mistake if Tom had not guessed correctly. Thus by torch-light and mugs of tea, Tom stripped the engine, discovered that it was indeed the head gasket (luckily we were carrying a spare) replaced it and rebuilt the top of the engine. To Tom’s huge relief and enormous satisfaction it started first time and appeared to work! Exhaustedly the mechanic and sous-mechanic fell into bed.
Next morning, Tom was up early, checking that Kabylie was indeed alive and that she would actually start again. Amazingly she did first time, but it was no respite for Tom’s worry as after a new head gasket, you should really take it easy and tighten (re-taque) the head bolts that squash the sandwich together but we knew we had to press on, again overloaded, if we were going to get to the Iranian border on time.
We stopped at Bayburt castle , an impressive perimeter wall of a fort over 1000 year old, which had been an important staging post along the Silk Road. As Tom got 15 minutes sleep in the car, the rest of us ran up to the fort. No sooner had we stepped inside the great gate, then a gale whipped up from nowhere. So strong was the wind that we could hardly get down the steps and back to the car. It certainly felt like some hostile force did not want us to be there.
The castle guard assured us that there were no hills between Bayburt and Iran, as we set off out of town. It was not long however, before Tom started moving down the gears and we began to climb yet again. Every time we stopped to fill up, Tom was under the bonnet with a spanner in his hand. The only vehicles we passed were heavily armed and had soldiers and weapons hanging off them.
Kabylie struggled on. Another range of passes taking us up to 2429 meters and above the snow line. We considered two or three of us taking a bus to the border if we could find one but it did not feel right splitting the retro-road trip team.
After one more night in a hotel near the border, excitement and trepidation was in the air for our crossing into Iran. Would our papers be in order, would our carnet de passage (passport for the car) be correct, would our guide Mr Hossein be there to meet us? Only British, American and Canadian’s have to have a guide and it is a painful process and was due to this that we had been so late in getting our visas for Iran.
That morning, Sally had whipped out two floor length black dresses which she had been assured would be the correct thing to wear in Iran. Mum had duly bought us both one and though I said dressing like the locals actually makes one stand out even more, mum was determined to wear her voluminous cover-all. We stopped for a photo in our new garb as we passed the vast and fabulous Mount Ararat. Totally covered in snow, it was much bigger than anything around it, and had a huge and perfectly flat shelf near its summit, which was clearly where Noah had landed his ark.
When we started seeing lorries lining the road, we knew we had reached the border. There were a few cars offloading people with vast bags and boxes, but we seemed to be the only car driving through and were beckoned to the front. We were informed that only Tom and the car could drive through, so the rest of us walked into the ‘salon’ ready to show our passports to exit Turkey. A quick loo stop confirmed that you would not like to be ill in this place and have to visit the facilities more than once (in a lifetime.)
The ‘salon’ was crowded with traders who had all bought sack-loads of Haribo jelly sweets, chocolates and other products you obviously could not get in Iran. We stood in the queue for two hours, swelteringly hot and being bustled by bulging haribo bags. I must praise the kids for being incredibly good as it was boring and hot and with nowhere to sit.
With our passports being meticulously inspected we were eventually waved through the Turkish side. The girls donned their black scarves and we walked through the railed corridor into Iran. Out of the melle, a small white bearded man emerged with a huge smile ‘Arrrh Justine, you have arrived’ What are you wearing! No-one wears this long black thing here and oh dear why no colour?’ It was Mr Hossein, our guide.
Getting through immigration, we were immediately pleased we had a guide as Mr Hossein seemed to know everyone and did a lot of laughing in the right places with the police and officials. Being British, we had to have every finger and knuckle print taken.
We emptied poor Kabylie of her extra load, namely my parents and their weighty bags which we have just discovered include a small library of hard-backed books on Iran and set off in convoy with Mr Hossein either firing off at high speed and leaving us cursing , miles behind in his wake or driving like an erratic tortoise. We followed him in this fashion down the most magnificent red canyon along the Azerbijan, Iran border with strict instructions that taking photos was not allowed.
We had all read that May is the best time to travel in Iran as the wild flowers bloom everywhere and we had all imagined wild camping in fields of luminous colour. Thus we were somewhat disappointed when with the light fading, Hossein drove us into a rather kitsch ornamental park with families promenading and sitting on benches. The large ‘do not walk on the grass’ sign was promptly ignored by Hossein who instead advised us to erected Sal and Mikes tent on it. Catastrophe! It now transpired that the blow up matrasses that Sally and Mike had bought were far too big to fit in the tent we had got them in France. With much shoving and cursing and inflation and de-inflation, they were crammed in, but it meant that the roof of the tent was inches from their faces, bulging at the sides and had clothing stuffed in to the hole where the mosquito net would not close. Hats off to these stalwart travellers. There are not many 73 and 75
year olds who would hoot with laughter and embrace this discomfort. Respect to the beatnik generation!
As we finished making camp, a steady stream of people approached us in amazement and delight, at us and our extraordinary car and roof tent. We had though the Turks were friendly, but Iranians are something else. At least fourty people came to say hello over the next few hours. Never all at once but family-by-family, impeccably polite and never intrusive. They all wanted to chat, welcome us to their country, to have their photos taken with us or invite us to their homes. So much for mum in her muller outfit, everyone we met was colourful and chic! Only the fundamentalists’ wear black, everyone else is in tight trousers or leggings and colourful thigh length coats and headscarves. Lots of make-up and lots of hair showing. Poor Hossein kept telling us to change into something better….alas we had nothing better!
The next day we headed to Kandovan, Iran’s version of the Cappadocian cave houses in Turkey. Stopping for kebabs at a roadside café, a strong London accent welcomed us and asked if we had tried the omelette. Ally had spent 14 years living in London and had now returned to Iran and he and his wife were on a weekend break. After insisting that we eat half his delicious Iranian omelette he amazed us by discretely paying for our lunch! As he left the café, he implored us to come for supper at his house in Tabriz. As you can imagine the rest of our meal was spent discussing the extraordinary friendliness and generosity of the Persians.
We and Kabylie were given a contestant welcome and attention wherever we went. Horns pooped, people waved and came up to us to say hello. That night, when we camped near to Kandovan, it was a public holiday. Iranians had taken to the countryside en-mass and pic-nicers occupied every green space. So much so that we could not find a place to camp and had to make do with an abandoned football pitch, only occupied by a lonely shepherd and his flock. As the pic-nicers headed home, they passed us on the road. Two seconds later however, there would be a screech of breaks and they would reverse back towards us and then all pile out of the car to come and say hello. There was genuine delight that some ‘Englizistan’ people were visiting their country. Our vast rooftop tent is not discrete and soon the tourists had become the biggest attraction in town.
We went to bed happily reflecting on all the delightful people we had met only to be rudely awakened by bright lights and aggressive voices in the early hours. The religious police had also come to see the new tourist attraction. Thankfully a sleepy Hossein, our guide, managed to deploy his disarming laugh and convinced them it was not a good moment to wake the kids and we were allowed to go back to sleep………though unsurprisingly, none of us did!
We are now in the North of Iran and our journey will take us south towards Isfahan and Shiraz. We are still waiting for our Turkmenistan visas and are beginning to be concerned that we may not be granted them. Transit visas to Turkmenistan are regularly refused and it’s beginning to look like we may not be given them. If this is the case we may well have to head back into Turkey after Iran and weigh up our options but we will keep you posted in the next instalment……….
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