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My Silk Road The Piglet stumbles across the continent

49 - Bad hair days are a-comin

IRAN | Friday, 9 November 2012 | Views [324]

Iran - Mashhad - buying saffron at the bazaar

Iran - Mashhad - buying saffron at the bazaar

Left Turkmenistan and crossed into Iran by road via Sarakhs, which is about 3 hours away from Mary.  The border office is a small tin-roofed hut crowded with travelers, most of whom seemed to be women from Turkmenistan who tried to stop me from entering the passport check area with my luggage; I guess they usually left their goods outside in the trucks outside which were driven across the border.   I am not sure how anyone not speaking the local language (Russian or Turkmen) could navigate the process at Sarakhs. The officials at the border office were certainly not used to dealing with anyone with a foreign passport let alone a HKSAR one.  Bad memories of the border crossing at the Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan surface.   Not surprisingly, there were lots of skeptical looks and questions from the officer on “what kind of tourism” was I doing?  Hmm.  I think they cannot believe anyone in their right minds would be interested in these rural parts but repeated assurances that I liked Turkmenistan a lot seemed to help!

Then, it was goodbye to the guide (and of course a tip to him) and I board the bus that drives across “no man’s land” to the Iranian border office.   The last word was from the Turkmen border guard who reminded me to put on my headscarf.  I have my dark purple pashmina shawl handy – this is the beginning of 10 days of flattened hair.  I am already dressed in “Iran-friendly” clothes – a shalwar kameez top that I got in Pakistan that falls almost to my knees and loose black trousers.  

The bus ride is short and costs US$2 with one further passport check in the middle.  The walk to the Iranian Sarakhs border office is short enough but even with wheeled luggage, it is difficult to drag it up the few stairs into the office building.   In fact, as I recall it, none of the hotels in Turkmenistan had ramps for rolling luggage into the hotel lobby, not even the “5-star” hotel in Ashgabat.

There were two counters in the Iranian Sarakhs border office – a more modern concrete construction than the one on the Turkmenistan side, but more forbidding and “official” looking, and with a huge “beware of AIDS” sign at the entrance.  Some Turkmen ladies kindly point me to the correct counter and the officer there takes my passport.  By the way, it was very simple to get the Iranian visa – my travel agent got me the “approval number” in a few weeks and then it just took 3 days at the Iranian consulate in Hong Kong on paying HK$1200 (or it takes two weeks and HK$400).   In fact it took far longer to get the Turkmen “letter of invitation” which is a pre-requisite for the landing visa.  These days, I am very thankful for my HKSAR passport which gets me visa-free into over 140 countries and is otherwise very visa-friendly.  

My passport then gets passed to the second counter and just when I thought it was my turn to pick it up, a rather young and officious guard in army gear pointed me to a small room on the side which turns out to be an office for medical checks.  I have been trying to bone up on my Farsi and say “salaam” to the officer who immediately smiled and tore away in a stream of Farsi.  I had to tell him that I only spoke very little and then we managed to get on with broken English about the state of my health.  I thought that was the end of the process but little did I know.  As I sat outside the room to wait to be called again, my female guide turns up and tells me that she has to now “make arrangements” for me.  These arrangements involved her scurrying to another set of enclosed offices at the back.   I started to get a bit nervous as at one point, I lost sight of her and wondered if I needed to call the local agent in Tehran.  I then saw her again and she explained that the Sarakhs office has to inform other offices in Iran of my presence.   Almost an hour later, after various mysterious machinations in the back office, I was “released” and progress to Customs.  I had the luck to encounter a friendly English-speaking female customs officer who just asked a couple of questions about my cameras and phones.  It was midday by then and the driver Askar was praying but he comes soon enough and we went on our way to Mashhad!

Enroute to Mashhad, a 3 hour ride from the border, is the relatively well-preserved 12th C Seljuk Robat Sharaf caravanserai which was used during the old Silk Road days for travelers from Merv.  It looks like a fortress on the outside with two main courtyards laid out in the usual caravanserai setting, with altars and praying areas along the hallway leading into the first courtyard, stables and luggage storage areas on the sides of the first courtyard and resting rooms on the sides of the second inner courtyard which also has a large water pool.   The stabling and luggage rooms are particularly interesting – there is a platform in the middle of the room where the luggage (goods) are placed and surrounding the platform is a U-shaped trough containing water and feed and to which the animals were tethered, and then in the corners of the room on each side of the U is a small raised divan where guards used to sit to watch over the animals and luggage.  The caravanserai has a very well thought-out layout with goods and animals kept outside near the entrance/exit and people staying inside.  Many of the domed chambers still retain amazing brick patterns and the arches of the porticos leading to each courtyard are intricate carved plaster.   As in the sights in Merv, I was the only visitor until I was joined by a group of girls studying in the university at Sarakhs along with their tutor. The caravanserai has been designated by the Iranian heritage organization for restoration and is in a relatively good shape compared to others I’ve visited.  It is a wonderful stop enroute to Mashhad, an otherwise uneventful ride through sandy countryside and stone dwellings inhabited by farmers with herds of sheep. 

We stop again at a small town for a late lunch break.  The small café serves only grilled chicken and rice but seems to have decent foot traffic including plenty of take-away orders.  The proprietor has decorated his café in an intriguing manner with porcelain teapots and other plastic paraphernalia alongside pictures of Ali and Khomeini.  And outside his café is a sign saying “the food is ready!” in Farsi decorated by pictures of Hardy with a turban (as in Laurel and Hardy)… Go figure.  The lunch was delicious – grilled chicken, steamed saffron scented rice and a bowl of yogurt with sliced cucumber, washed down by a bottle of coke (yes, the Great Satan’s drink is popular – it's not even the copycat Zamzam cola, though I suspect it was fake Coke). 

We arrived in Mashhad around 4pm and the sun was just starting to set.   The road signs everywhere points to the Holy Shrine – the shrine of the Imam Reza, which was my main reason for visiting Mashhad.   My first stop was however the bazaar near the Holy Shrine for buying saffron (the best kind is grown in Iran and Mashhad is the most famous town in Iran for it) and a hijab.  I am tired of using my shawl to cover my head; it had been incredibly hot and stifling and requires constant adjusting.  The hijab is thinner and far more simple to don and fix in a relatively stable shape.  For less than US$1, I bought two hijabs, one navy and one black.   I will be wearing them everywhere in the next 10 days and will be able to forget about how my hair looks – it is actually a bit of a relief, though I’m sure my hairdresser won’t be happy to hear this!  More about the chador later…


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