Week 3: Tiblisi to Tehran

"The Mysterious Land"

Week 3 saw us leave Georgia and travel the entire north-south length of Armenia. We entered the often misunderstood, misrepresented, and seemingly mysterious land of Iran. The week also featured some of the most stressful parts of the rally, namely trying to organise and direct a large number of adventurous ralliers, who by definition don't like to be organised and directed. We also started to truly experience the hospitality of strangers.

Day 15: Tiblisi to Yerevan

We set out from Tbilisi, driving south towards Armenia. Geographically we weren't travelling far, but with only single carriageway roads of varying quality, we knew this would take a long time. Not that this bothered us too much, as the further out of the city we went the more interesting the scenery became.

Looking out across a valley.

The roads started to get much smaller and a lot worse. At times our speed dropped to below 10 mph, although we still managed to overtake a couple of large expensive 4x4, the owners clearly nursing their vehicles over the rubbish road surface. After some time we became worried that maybe we had gone the wrong way, after all this was suposedly an international road. Luckily, after what felt like an eternity of potholes, we came across the unassuming border. We were quickly processed out of Georgia, driving around the various border buildings that were under construction. The Armenian side of the border featured a small portacabin style building, with a few shady looking men (and a dog) gathered around. The guards at the border spoke very little no English. I tried a bit of Russian, and luckily it helped. Even better still there was a minibus of men crossing at the same time, with one of them who spoke good English. They were part of a Russian football team on tour and were also crossing the border at the same time. With the help of the striker we got our Armenia road tax sorted, and various forms filled in. We were quite fortunate with this help as it helped us get cheaper road tax than other teams (with teams passing after us being charged varying amounts).

The Armenian border.

After being processed we proceeded onwards into Armenia, the roads were still of reasonably poor condition, but after only a couple of miles we turned onto tarmacked road. We continued along the road and arrived into the capital of Armenia, Yerevan. We had prebooked a very cheap 'motel' not too far from the centre. We arrived at Motel Acapulco and wondered what delights it would have in store for us. The managed was very friendly and attentive offering us a coffee and directing us downstairs, underground, to the main part of the motel. This was a sauna/massage/beauty/motel venue. A very strange mix. Seemingly we were the only guests, and it felt like this was the sort of place you would rent by the hour. But at least it was quiet, empty, and cheap. We unpacked and went for a walk in search of food, with both of us feeling utterly famished.

Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan.

As we wandered we took in the sights of the city. We passed the large cathedral and neared closer to the main square. We found a quiet restaurant on the north east corner of the sqaure, and had a traditional Armenian meal of pizza... After our meal we went back to the main square and as it got darker the buildings were illuminated. We enjoyed watching people come and go, and then at 9 pm the sight we had been waiting for began.

Dancing musical fountains in Republic Square, Yerevan.

The fountains in the main square danced and glowed to the music being played. There were plenty of people watching and enjoying the show. After almost an hour of being transfixed by it we decided it was time to go back to our dodgy motel. We weren't in the mood to walk so instead attempted to hail a taxi. This then required my best Russian negotiating skills to get us back for a reasonable price. 'Skolko dram na Kajaznuni ulitsa' I enquired. 'Eto teesitcha dram' responded the drive. I had successfully negotiated our journey back for a grand total of 1000 drams. Sure I was being ripped off, the taxi driver clearly thinking he had scored big, but for the equivalent of 1 pound and 40 pence I felt like I was ripping the guy off (the advantages of visiting less wealthy countries beginning to pay off). We got back to our motel and settled into our basement dungeon room for the night.

Day 16-17: Yervan to Agarak

The aim of this part of the rally was to congregate as many teams as possible on our Iran convoy. Part of the convoy conditions was that we had to cross together as a group, otherwise teams that didn't would most likely be denied entry to Iran. We set Lake Sevan as our meeting point. This is a large lake not too far from Yerevan. We went with the assumption that it would be a decent place to camp up, and relax for a bit. Communication with other teams was sketchy, but we had got in touch with Team Give Us a Push (Nissan Sunny) and they sent us coordinates for where they were. They had just arrived at a campsite on the banks of the lake, and had found another team already there, Stanpede Ralliers (Suzuki WagonR+). Stanpede Ralliers had been at the lake since the early morning, and had been enjoying the local hospitality. They had been given free food and drink (alcoholic) and were already feeling very merry. We all set up our camp in an open patch of grass, forming a circle with the cars. We even set up a tarpaulin between the vehicles, especially important as it started raining very heavily.

Our hastily assembled shelter.

The locals then came over, clearly intrigued by our funny little circle of cars. We were given melon and some beer. We were eventually invited over to their table and given food and vodka. There was a variety of toasts to various things and some interesting music being played. After some time Mischief and Mayhem arrived and joined in with the drinking. At one point Sarah and Tiff (Stanpede Ralliers) were invited up onto the roof of one our Armenian host's car, dancing on their new podium. This lasted for the best part of half a song, as there was a loud crash and Sarah fell through the sun roof. She had cut her foot, but luckily amongst all the cars present there was enough first aid equipment to bandage her up. The dancing, food, and merriment carried on late into the night, with it only stopping once the Armenians went home.

Meeting some Armenians.

The next morning we got up and heard that another two teams were on their way. We cooked some food, packed the cars and waited for them to arrive. Finally team Here Come the Hotsteppers (Suzuki WagonR) and Yakin' Around (K11 Nissan Micra) arrived, they were also joined by an unofficial French Team (Subaru Impreza LX Hatchback). We all embarked on the long drive to the border in our growing convoy of seven cars.

Our growing convoy.

Our journey tooks us along the length of Armenia. For most of the journey the roads were of excellent condition, with some incredibly fun winding sections.

Stopping for petrol.

At one point on the drive we heard a very large bang from the car. We immediately pulled over and looked around the car. We couldn't find anything wrong, but it concerned us a little (it later transpired, when we were in St Petersburg, that this was most likely the front drivers side spring snapping at the top).

A quick photo stop.

Late into the evening we arrived in the town of Meghri and tried to find somewhere to stay. It turned out that the only hotel option was closed, so we modified our plan and drove to the border town of Agarak. Arriving in Agarak we found a hotel open that had space for our very large group. Blake negotiated a price for us to have the entire top floor of the hotel, and we all split off into various rooms. As the next day was the border crossing we negotiated to get up early and make sure we were ready to go, hoping that the four other teams we needed for the convoy were on their way.

Day 18: Agarak to Tabriz

Cue one of the longest days of the rally so far. Whilst geographically we did not travel far, politically and culturally we had gone a long way. We were still waiting for contact with other teams who were part of our convoy, heading to Iran we all needed to be together, if a team did not cross with us then they would struggle to get into Iran and catch up with us. We were still waiting on Mind Matter (K11 Nissan Micra) and we had had no contact with Mong Direction (K11 Nissan Micra). Our last communication with Strange Fellows and 40% Nuts was a text to say they were very near to the border. Communication was further hampered by being near to the Iranian border, with mobile phones not connecting to any network. Eventually Mind Matter arrived, but we were still stuck with what to do about the others. After further waiting we decided to push on, maybe they would show up behind us whilst we were being processed out of Armenia. We drove the short distance to the border and began the procedures for leaving Armenia. This mainly involved going to a variety of different numbered desks and having various bits of paperwork stamped, signed, and stamped again. We even had to pay 20 dollars for the pleasure of leaving the country.

Our exit ticket for Armenia.

Then came the car search. The guard slowly and methodically started to check the side pockets of the door, the glove box, and looked in the boot. He came round and searched our deck of cards, removing a few and smelling them. We weren't exactly sure he knew what he was doing, with it seeming a bit like a put on show. We were then cleared to cross the bridge to Iran. This was the moment of uncertainty, what would it be like? Would they be heavy handed with searches? We tentatively drove across the bridge and arrived at the first hut.

"...'Welcome to Iran!..."

I got out of the car and walked up to the counter, and said in a very English accent 'Hello'. The guard responded with 'Welcome to Iran!' with a big smile across his face. Immediately I felt at ease. We were directed to park over near a customs area, and as we drove there we saw a cluster of three rally cars parked up. We walked over to the border building and inside we saw Strange Fellows, 40% Nuts, and Mong Direction. They had crossed earlier in the day and had been waiting for us to arrive. They had had a very long drive the night before having navigated along an unpaved road to get to the border. We met with our guide Ali, with British nationals needing to have a tour guide and booked hotels. He welcomed us and helped us sort out some paperwork.

Iranian border carnet, an expensive, but important piece of paper.

At this stage everybody was tired, hungry, and frustrated. We still had to organise border carnets for some cars, and the money for the guide needed to be collected. Whilst we were sorting out paperwork Blake (Stanpede Ralliers) volunteered to get some money changed for me. I handed him a single one hundred dollar bill, and a few minutes later he came back with some Iranian Rials, a mind boggling 3.3 million of them!

We became instant millionaires in Iran.

After what felt like several hours of forms being filled in and collecting money from ralliers we were ready to drive into Iran, towards Tabriz. Our convoy featured eight cars, by rally standards one of the larger convoys. If there's one thing I learnt was that large convoys do not work. In principle they should be fine, but in reality you end up with cars of varying top speeds and acceleration, travellers with varying expectations and budgets, and personalities that don't always get along well. However, our feeling of frustration soon vanished and turned into a feeling of excitement, happiness, and amazement.

Our convoy entering Iran.

We drove through stunning scenery, featuring large mountains, valleys, and open expanses of land. Every body we drove past was waving and smiling. As we were close to the border there was a heavy military presence. Several of the soldiers were waving, and we even managed to hi-five one as we drove past. We instantly felt welcome in this country we knew so little about. Several of the teams needed fuel, so we pulled into a small town petrol station, with all of our rally cars filling up the forecourt. We took advantage of the very cheap petrol (3 pence per litre), and chatted with some locals who wanted their photo taken with us.

Our first fuel stop in Iran.

We developed a problem with the car whilst driving through an Iranian town. The passenger side wing mirror, without any prompting, fell off and was dangling by the wire connection. We quickly pulled over and flagged down Mischief and Mayhem, knowing full well they had easily accessible duct tape. With the help of Jokubas we securely reattached the mirror, which led to a new issue of not being able to wind the window up due to the amount of tape used!

The quick wing mirror fix.

The light levels were dropping and we were still some distance from our destination, but we carried on irregardless.

Getting a bit later.

Finally we arrived on the outskirts of the city. It was at this moment that the large convoy became a hindrance. Through various roundabouts and traffic lights the group got split up. We lost the lead car, but luckily Reinhold had saved some maps to his phone. We used his navigation and arrived at the hotel. We checked in and Kate organised the rooms for everyone. The rooming situation was complicated as we had gained two extra cars and nine extra people. Eventually it got sorted out, and Kate and I went with Ali (the guide) to find some food. After an incredibly long and frustrating day we went to bed and hoped that we wouldn't have to deal with any more problems on the convoy.

Day 19: Tabriz to Esfahan

The next morning we woke up early and grabbed some breakfast which consisted of bread, eggs, jam and juices. We all gathered at the multistory car park near the hotel and ensured that all teams had the hotel address, navigation, or were going to convoy with someone who had both. Since we had organised the Iran convoy we volunteered to take Ali (the guide) in our car. This was beneficial to us, as not only did we have a local Persian speaker, we also got to enjoy hearing about all things Iran. We were one of the last teams out of the car park, with Strange Fellows behind us, and immediately got lost. After communicating with a taxi driver we arranged to follow him out of the city.

Our convoy partners for the day, team Strange Fellows.

Iran features several toll roads. Every so often we would stop at a toll station to pay the fee. However, the moment the toll collector saw that we were visitors, they would smile and say 'welcome to Iran, for you no fee!'. This happened quite often and we enjoyed the hospitality we were offered. Periodically we came across various rally teams, seeing Stanpede Ralliers, Here Come the Hotsteppers and Yakin' Around. There was little choice in routes, with there being just one main road to Esfahan.

Coming across Yakin' Around somewhere in Iran.

We saw lots of Iran, with there being a variety of landscapes. We saw strange rock formations, desert features, and mountains. At various points on the road there were people selling melons and other local produce.

Some of the scenery.

That day we ended up convoying with Strange Fellows for the full 910 km. We arrived late into Esfahan and there was only a couple of teams that had arrived at the hotel before us. We waited for others to arrive as Kate and I had a sense of responsibility for them. It was also important as we were all travelling on one tourism police document, meaning we really should have been travelling as one group together. Eventually it neared to 2 am and we decided that the teams still yet to arrive would have to sort themselves out. We left instructions at the reception for them to collect their room keys and where to park.

Day 20: Esfahan

The route for the Iran convoy was dreamt up several months before the rally and was discussed amongst the teams. One of the reasons for visiting Esfahan was the culture and architecture. Therefore we arranged for a rest day, a day of no driving, so that we could explore and see some of the city. Our guide had arranged a day of visiting, and we wandered out following him through the city.

The main square in Esfahan, Naghsh-i Jahan Square.

We walked into the mosque, in awe of the stunning architecture and culture it exuded.

The Shah Mosque.

Later in the evening we walked out towards another famous landmark of Esfahan. The Si-o-seh Pol bridge is a long pedestrian bridge featuring stone arches. It crosses over the river, which whilst we were there had been diverted and drained.

Si-o-seh Pol bridge.

As it became darker we went to get some food, visiting an Iranian fast food place. Several people got falafel, or local pizza style breads.

Late night falafel stop.

Back at the hotel Kate wrote out a series of instructions to help teams get to the hotel in Tehran the next day. We ensured that there were plenty photocopied and distributed.

Day 21: Esfahan to Tehran

Another long drive, although much shorter than the epic Tabriz to Esfahan journey. Whilst packing the cars up outside the hotel we drew a crowd. One gentlemen was showing me the daily newspaper and explained how great it was that the nuclear talks were successful. This was an exciting time for Iranians, with many having liberal opinions that they would not speak about with non-westerners. We set out from Esfahan, again in convoy formation. However, we quickly lost teams around us, city driving not being suited to convoying.

The cars, always a crowd drawer.

We spent all of this journey travelling solo. Every so often we came across other teams. We would check with various hand signals to see if they were OK, then pull away at our own pace.

Bumping into another rallier.

There was a brief moment when we got marginally lost. Our guide asked a local lorry driver for directions and it turned out that they were going in the same direction and that we should follow them. We struggled to keep up with the lorry, especially as it had a very spirited driving style.

Getting papped as we drive along.

Our journey took us through the city Arak, one of the most polluted cities in Iran due to heavy industries. This is also the location of one of the factories associated with Iran's nuclear industry, defintely a moment to keep the cameras away!

Fairly impressive scenery.

We arrived at fairly reasonable hour in Tehran, the traffic being very calm. Upon arriving at the hotel we found Mischief and Mayhem already there (this being a common theme as they had the quickest driving style). The rest of the day was spent relaxing, getting the cars sorted, listening to the parrot in the lobby, and eating amazing falafel that Ali went and got for us.