Today is a really, really big day for us. We are about to drive our car into Iran. We are a couple of Americans on their own, in their own car, wanting to drive across Iran as tourists. It’s really difficult to describe how this feels. My emotions are so contradictory that I can’t put them into words (feeble attempts: doubting confidence that we’ll be fine; I want to come home and say "I told you Iranians treat people kindly even if they disagree with what their government does"; I really desire to visit this incredibly significant and interesting country). But I am here and I want to go forward: visiting Iran is central to our trip, both geographically, and what we want to see and experience. It is an essential part of what this trip is about.
Did I work really hard to prepare myself for visiting Iran? Yes. Am I reassured by having Iranian friends that are wonderful people, knowing that Iranian hospitality is legendary, having friends of friends that visited Iran (although not Americans) that had a wonderful experience, knowing what is said about visiting Iran by our Lonely Planet Guide book, by Rick Steves’ documentary, and other sources, and knowing that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has approved our itinerary and guide? Yes, these things are reassuring and give me confidence.
But am I also worried? Yes. The voices of some of my closest family members and friends, warning and pleading for me not to go for various reasons are crystal clear in my mind. The story of the three American hikers that appear to have mistakenly crossed into Iran from Iraq about 9 months ago and have been held by Iran ever since rests heavily on my mind. Plus the newest round of U.N. sanctions (backed by the U.S.) against Iran over Iran’s nuclear program went into effect just a couple of weeks ago! What are we doing?
Our day begins in Dogubayazit, Turkey, in sight to Mt. Ararat, the mountain that Noah’s Ark is said to have landed on. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep because we didn’t realize (and weren’t told) that our camping spot was also a popular evening picnicking place for the town and the site of a concert tonight! Yes, at about 9:00 p.m. our tent was surrounded by singing people for most of the rest of the night. Eventually the people went home but then crows took over at 4:30 a.m., who were nearly as loud as the band was. We get up at 5:00, are on the road at 6:45, and arrive on the Turkish side of the border at 7:30 (9:00 Iranian time).
Mt. Ararat, very near the Turkey/Iran border
Things go smoothly on the Turkish side of the border except for the roving “helper” that cons us into giving him our passports, car documents, my speeding ticket and money to pay for it. We soon figure out he is not a border official at all, just some guy “helping” us that is surely going to demand some large payment for his service. About half way through the process we tell him we don’t want his help and that we thought he was an official. He complains but we hold our ground and are able to get our documents and money back. After finishing all of the formalities ourselves, Kirstin puts on her headscarf and we get into the car to drive across the border. A Turkish policeman opens the gate on the Turkish side for us and as we roll past him, just a few yards from Iran, he leans towards me and says in a low voice, “Good luck in Iran. You will need it.”
A large Iranian soldier in fatigues opens the gate on the Iranian side of the border. He professionally welcomes us to Iran, shows us where to park our car and tells us that he will take us to be fingerprinted. He says it is the same for Iranians coming to the US. We say no problem and that we understand. He takes us to an office and a man dressed in dark and light blue welcomes us to Iran and gives us a candy. He asks us about our plans – things like how long we will stay, where we will exit, and if we have Carnet de Passage for our vehicle. When we tell him that we need to buy insurance to take the place of a Carnet de Passage he seems to indicate this isn’t a problem. We think he is a police officer but later he tells us that he is the tourist office. He asks us if we have a guide and we tell him our guide is on the way. At this point we call our guide, Darius, who tells us he is on a train, on his way to the border.
Then a policeman (dressed in more of a green and yellow uniform) asks us to come with him for fingerprinting. It is explained to us again that the fingerprinting is the same for Iranians that come to the US. We reply no problem and that we understand. In the policeman’s office our passports and visas are copied, we fill out a short form, wait 5-10 minutes, are fingerprinted and shown where we can wash our hands. The policeman is nice and asks what I do for a living. He doesn’t understand but later he comes back with the tourist office guy who translates for him. Back outside, I ask the soldier if I may take a photo of the Welcome to Iran sign at the border. I am surprised that he says yes because normally border areas may not be photographed. All this takes maybe 20 minutes. Now all we need is Carnet de Passage insurance for our car and for our guide to arrive. Unfortunately both of these take a much longer time.
At the border.
What is Carnet de Passage insurance?
In the past many countries required vehicles that were temporarily brought into the country to have a Carnet de Passage. This is a document that promises that the owner of the vehicle will take the vehicle back out of the country with them. The owner puts down a deposit that covers all importation fees, which the owner only get back after the vehicle is removed from the country. Today very few countries still require this, but Iran is one of these countries.
It is not possible to obtain a Carnet de Passage in the US (I guess not many Americans bring their cars to Iran, Pakistan, India, or the handful of other countries requiring a Carnet de Passage), but the Canadian Automobile Association will sell it to Americans. For our 2002 Toyota 4Runner they charge a non-refundable $550 processing fee and then Iran requires that a $31,300 deposit be made to a Canadian bank that is sent to Iran if the car does not leave Iran for any reason, even if it is stolen or breaks down and cannot be repaired. Since we could not afford this I did some more research and heard rumors that one may be able to buy insurance at the border to take the place of a Carnet de Passage. The insurance company covers the risk of the car not coming out of the country and charges a premium for this. I asked IranianVisa, our visa service and guide company, about this and they told me it costs $200 so we may be able to visit Iran after all. It all sounded a bit sketchy (who is this insurance company? why can’t I contact them?) but I couldn’t find a better alternative.
Waiting for our guide
I told IranianVisa that we would be at the border at 9:00 and they said our guide would help us with border formalities, but our guide didn’t arrive until 12:30. Almost from the time we cross the border we are hounded by “Boris and the Muscle Man” – more on them later. To try to get away from them we go inside to the waiting salon and meet some Iranians waiting to go to Turkey. It is a group of women with adorable little girls. All of them are really sweet. Kirstin gives the girls some stickers from home and shows them her travel album with pictures of our wedding, our house, our hobbies, etc. It makes communicating without the benefits of a common language possible.
When our guide Darius (pronounced “Dariush”) arrives at 12:30, I tell him we’ve been waiting for 3 ½ hours and he politely explains that he is innocent, that the agency didn’t contact him until 2 days ago and put him on the late train that he was on. (Back at home IranianVisa told me that I had to pay the full amount early because our guide had to be contracted 2 months ago). Darius turns out to be a wonderful guide and a great person and I recommend him to anyone (Darius Ghasemi, firstname.lastname@example.org, 098-912-370-4516, lives in Tehran). Despite having to wait for so long, we are very happy to have him here with us to help us with our Carnet de Passage insurance and dealing with Boris and the Muscle Man.
Boris and the Muscle Man
Almost as soon as we crossed the border we keep getting approached by this man we nicknamed “Boris”. Little do we know we would be dealing with him for the next 6 ½ hours! Boris is a middle-aged, Russian-looking character carrying a locked briefcase with him where ever he goes. He is wearing pointed leather shoes, shiny silver slacks and light colored dress shirt. He keeps asking us about our car, where we are going and for how long, and saying we must buy insurance from him.
Boris has an associate that we name “Muscle Man”. He is wearing black jeans and a tight t-shirt with very short sleeves. He has a darker complexion than Boris, but also doesn’t look or sound Iranian either. As his nickname implies, he has lots of upper-body muscles. Boris and Muscle Man make quite the team – first Boris whispers something to us about this being our last chance to get insurance, then Muscle Man barks at us to come inside, move our car, or that their “office” is about to close. Hanging around with these two are a couple of other guys, one young fellow dressed in super-slick, mafia-style clothes, complete with a shinny reddish shirt that is half-way unbuttoned and another man, who is the quite one (maybe he’s the apprentice).
We hold our ground and refuse to talk to this suspicious group, even when Muscle Man tells us that their “office” is about to close. It’s the grown up version of “mommy tells me not to talk to strangers”, which in our case is “I won’t talk to suspicious looking, mafia-fashion wearing, briefcase-carrying, no-office insurance salesmen asking for large amounts of cash on the Iranian border that I can’t communicate with.”
When Darius arrives we are so relieved and Boris, Muscle Man and the other two are on him in a second. Turns out they speak a dialect of Turkish and Darius cannot understand what they say to each other either. Unfortunately IranianVisa hasn’t told Darius anything about Carnet de Passage insurance (even though I have been stressing this for months), but at least Darius can communicate with them in Farsi and hopefully knows how to best deal with them. Poor Darius is probably more tired than us, having been on a night train and then another train all morning.
So what’s the scoop on our Carnet de Passage insurance? Darius tells us that there is no insurance office and these are the guys we must deal with. They sell Carnet de Passage insurance and it is somehow underwritten by an insurance company in Tehran. The insurance company does not sell insurance directly to individuals so all we can do is deal with this bunch. I realize our options are to pay them whatever they ask for or turn around and head back into Turkey. Boris tells Darius that rates have gone up (even though IranianVisa said they confirmed the insurance a week ago) and the cost is now 600 Euros ($800), not $200 as IranianVisa told me (for 13 days!). I speak to Hamid at IranianVisa and he tells me there is nothing he can do, insurance isn’t his business. I ask if he can cover part of the rate increase and he promises he will check his margin and try to help (he never called me back or return my calls). This is way more than we budgeted and what we can afford. Yes, we have the money now but will we run out of funds in Siberia?
After a lot of waiting, thinking and asking Boris and Co. if they can reduce the price, Muscle Man tells me in his deep Russian-accented voice, “This is not my problem”. He speaks just a tiny bit of English but knows this phrase. After a while they do give a small break and the price is reduced from 600 Euros to $600 (or 480 Euros). I hand over the cash.
Can we go now?
After I pay the fee the forms begin. It takes roughly 90 minutes for the insurance team, now joined by an impersonal woman behind a desk to fill out all of the forms, about 2 seconds for the customs official to look them, and another 30 minutes of driving around with Muscle Man collecting seals and stamps from various offices just past the border. The insurance packet grows to several dozen pieces of paper, each with many stamps and signatures. Finally we are let go and at 3:30 Kirstin, Darius and I begin our drive into Iran!