Hitchhiking in Iran & Turkmenistan: road stories #12 – from Mashhad to Ashgabat
Staying in Mashhad: celebrating Nowruz and visiting one of Iran’s holiest place with a very untypical Iranian
Mashhad is Iran’s second biggest city and is famed for its conservative, religious outlook on life. Fortunately, our couchsurfing host went against the grain. Reza was in many ways the antithesis of what you would expect an Iranian to be, he liked to party, he rejected religion with a reckless abandonment and he viewed family as a burden rather than an integral responsibility.
Together we saw in Iranian New Year (Nowruz) in the most European of manners, drinking long into the night and talking rubbish. Like most young Iranians, he knew where to procure the wet stuff and we took full advantage.
Aside from our New Year’s festivities we also took in Mashhad’s premier attraction, the tomb of Imam Reza, the 8th Shia Imam. The complex is massive, apparently the largest mosque in the world by dimension, and is absolutely packed with people. Our personal guide, Reza, told us that over 8 million people come here every year and the day we visited it was especially busy because it was good luck to see in the New Year sitting in the mosque’s courtyards. The most stunning things about the whole place was the tomb of Imam Reza itself. Or more correctly, the reaction it caused in the pilgrims desperately trying to get close to it. Something akin to a football match in the days of terraces, you are literally swept along with the crowds, feet barely touching the floor. Children are thrown overhead so that they may touch this holy object. I saw an old man of about 80 hoisted onto the shoulders of what I assume was his son, grimacing with pain but still desperately seeking out the shrine with stretched fingertips. I sneaked a look into the woman’s section, men and women are kept seperate in the tomb building, and there things looked even worse. A sea of headscarved women, pulling, screaming, scratching and fighting just to touch the silver casing. Madness.
The city of Mashhad is huge, relatively pretty but perhaps a touch conservative for our tastes. The hordes of police, both moral and normal, made it feel a little intimating and the women who kept correcting Ania‘s hair (because God forbid a single hair might be showing) a little tiring. Definitely worth seeing, however, if only to get a sense for what the most religious parts of the country look like.
One experience that didn’t sit so well with us was our attempts to go ice skating. Upon our arrival at the out of town shopping centre we were disappointed to learn that although skating was free of charge for us men, the idea of Ania having a go was deemed too risky by the authorities. What if she fell over and flashed some leg? The scandal. The outrage. So rather than leave Ania watching us elegantly piroutting, it was decided to abandon the whole idea. Another annoying example of religious conservatism gone mad but there you go.
On a happier note, we successfully picked up our Turkmenistan visas, which was a great weight of our shoulders. Ever since we had applied in Tehran we were waiting for things to go wrong. Most surprisingly, it all went swimmingly and within 20 minutes of arriving at the consulate we were the proud owners of a transit visa which gave us 5 days in the country.
Hitchhiking to Turkmenistan: the strangest journey, being surrounded by drones and when camping goes wrong
We decided to leave Mashhad a day before we were due to cross into Turkmenistan so we could get close to the border and make the most of the limited time we would have in the country.
The decision was not one of our best.
The hitchhike was easy enough, an old man drove us from the edge of Mashhad to the turning and then a truck took us along the road to the border. Well, first we had a little bit of fun as the truck driver was packing alcohol and he insisted that we get drunk first before he dropped us off. I say insisted but well, you know, when opportunity knocks.
So, after getting merry we tried to set up our tent on a windy hillside 50km from the border with darkness setting. With the aid of a head torch we finally got it up and happily, the driver had demanded that we take some of his moonshine with us so we spent a lovely evening looking up at the stars, getting a little piddled.
Then things started to go wrong.
Firstly, a small craft hovered overhead, skirting over the road and the valley below us. A drone! Or at least we thought it was a drone and it scared us enough to turn off the music and our light. The idea of the military scouting us out didn’t fill us with joy and the prospect of being awoken from our slumbers by men with guns was never far from our mind.
Then the wind picked up and the rain started. Now, our tent is good, but not that good and water started seeping through our tent walls. The only thing to do was sleep, and pray that by morning everything would be alright.
When morning came we were pleasently suprised, the rain had stopped, we were relatively dry and we were ready to get going.
It was as we were packing up the tent the heavens opened. Hail, rain, the works. With nowhere to hide, we vailently fought through it, but by the time we had got our bags on we were soaked. Dripping, cold and depressed.
We stood at the side of the road, shaking from cold, waiting for cars to take us to the border. We must have looked a disgrace.
Eventually a young man took pity on us, drove us further down the road to a mosque where we learnt that we had chosen the wrong border crossing (it is specified on the visa) as no cars go there. Instead, all traffic goes to a crossing 50km east. Without a hope in hell of getting there ourselves, we paid a man to drive us, safe in the knowledge that once we crossed we would have to pay someone else at the other end to take us to Ashgabat. The morning was not going well.
Crossing the Turkmenistan border
The crossing itself was surprisingly problem free. Once we had changed out of our wet clothes in the border crossing toilet, we only had to wait for the Turkmenistan border guards to finish their lunch and we were allowed across. No searches, no questioning, no nothing.
Once at the other side, we clambered into a bus, which dropped us off some 30km from Ashgabat. From there, a taxi ride, which left us at the main train station where we contacted out next couchsurfing host. Ashgabat seemed like one strange city but that is a story for another time …
written by: Jon