18th June 2017
I was woken at 7am by the sunlight, and the commotion of my cabinmates getting up to leave at the station before mine. They packed their bags, folded their sheets and blankets, then stepped off at 7:30am. I spent another while dozing, before doing likewise at 8:30am.
A dozen or so of us had stayed on the train the whole way to Astara, the border town half-located in Azerbaijan, half in Iran. As we stepped out into the grey, drizzle, a hoard of taxi drivers met us on the platform. Identifying me as a foreigner, they all tried calling to me in their best English: ‘my friend’, ‘taxi’, ‘Iran border’. Some gently grabbed my shoulder or wrist as I walked through them, towards the station exit. I shrugged them off, and kept repeating ‘no, thank you’; not because I didn’t want a taxi necessarily, but because I wanted to stand back, and asses the situation first.
I stood in the muddy carpark beside the station, looking at the maps on my phone, judging the distance between here and the Iranian border, as the hoard looked at me, waiting for me to realise that I would, in fact, need to take a taxi. I let the first man to approach me take me in his car, after agreeing a price, of course. The convoy of taxis moved out, along the bumpy, muddy road, from the train station to Azerbaijani Astara. I paid two manat for the ride, as agreed (approx €1). I saw the three locals sharing my ride each paying one. Ten minutes later, we had passed through the dull, grey town, which seemed to exist mainly as a pitstop for trucks, and were at the border. My driver tried to point me towards his friend’s shop, with the promise of ‘good English’. I politely declined, and walked towards the crossing.
I first passed through a thick, steel gate, which was unlocked for me by a soldier. This particular part of the infrastructure reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of newly landed Syrian refugees being kept in cages by the police in some countries. I walked one hundred metres, on a walkway partially sheltered from the rain, towards the main Azerbaijani customs building. Here, I queued for my bag to be fed through a scanner, then took everything out of my pockets, and walked through a metal detector. I collected my bag and belongings, and queued for passport inspection. There were two lines: one for Azerbaijani citizens, one for foreigners. Since nobody was inside the booth at the top of the foreigner’s line, I joined the Azerbaijani.
When it was my turn, I handed my passport to the policeman in the booth, along with the digital copy of my visa on my phone. He was noticeably thrown off guard after realising he was dealing with a foreigner, and carefully read every single page in my passport. He looked from my face, to the passport, and back again several times.
“Do you have second passport?” he asked.
It was my turn to be thrown off guard.
“No,” I said. “Wait . . .yes.” I handed him my EU ID card.
He carefully looked from one, to the other, to my face, and back again. It was clear what was happening: he wasn’t convinced that the photos matched my face. My passport photo was taken seven years ago, when I was eighteen. My ID photo was taken only one year ago, but I was clean-shaven in it, and today had a few weeks worth of a beard. The policeman made a quick phone call, and asked me to stand aside.
One or two Azerbaijanis were efficiently served before the man’s colleague arrived. The new, presumably more senior, policeman asked me to look him in the eye, as he glanced from my passport, to my face, to my ID card, to my face. The situation would have been comical, were it not for how serious the consequences would be if they decided I was travelling with fake documents. Finally, after several minutes of analysing my facial features, the senior man gave the ‘ok’, and my passport was stamped, and handed back.
I walked out of the Azerbaijani customs building, and another hundred metres, over a bridge, alongside the road trucks were using, towards the Iranian customs building. The process here was similar: queue up, present my passport for inspection, and have my bag scanned. The policeman carefully entered every detail on my visa into his computer, as the queue behind me grew and grew. He made a few phonecalls, listing my passport and visa numbers to someone, then, presumably been given the ‘ok’ by his senior, let me pass. I followed the floor markings out of the building, and was in Iran.
Immediately after taking my first steps into Iranian territory, I realised how unprepared I was. I’d spent the past two days in my hostel in Baku, working on my laptop, but had been completely distracted by updating this blog, and installing a VPN, and doing factory resets. Now that I was here, I didn’t know the layout of Iranian Astara, I didn’t have any hotels or guesthouses in mind, I didn’t have any Rial on me, and I didn’t even know roughly what the exchange rate should be. Not only is the Farsi alphabet different to the one I know, their number system is different too; and I hadn’t taken the time to study either. I passed through the tall gates, out of the border passing complex, and was mobbed by men shouting about taxis, and exchanging money. They tried to take me by the shoulder, or walk beside me, holding an umbrella to protect me from the persistent drizzle. I said ‘no, thank you’ a dozen times, and kept walking along the street leading from the border, until the last of them had left me alone.
Since I had no idea where I was going, or how I should get there, I just walked. Iranian Astara seemed to me like a much bigger version of Azerbaijani Astara: just a border town; a place for truckers to stop, and travellers to sort out the basics before heading further into the country; a town designed for practicality, not leisure or luxury. The streets were lined with small, cheap shops, selling fruit, and clothes, and consumer electronics. The buildings were dirty, and the footpaths often in disrepair, or non-existent. I walked, and walked, for almost an hour, hoping to find somewhere to stay, and really wishing I’d learned the Farsi for ‘hotel’, or ‘guesthouse’.
In what might be called the most picturesque part of town, I spotted a large flashing screen, which displayed the word ‘HOTEL’. I entered the door beside the sign, and approached the reception desk.
“Hello,” I said to the elderly man behind it. “English?”
He held up one finger, telling me to briefly wait, until a younger man came to the desk. This man, who spoke some English but not much, told me the room price was 500,000 Rial per night. I had to ask him for the Euro equivalent to have any concept of how much this was.
I agreed to the price, which the man estimated to be around €13, then dropped my bag in the small, twin bed ensuite room I was shown to, and went back to reception to ask about a money exchange place. The younger man asked the older man to drive me in his car to one. Ten minutes later, we were back near the border crossing I’d just come from, standing inside one of the exchanges I’d seen on my walk, but hadn’t gone into, since I’d wanted to drop my bag and research the exchange rates on the hotel WiFi first.
Nearly one month ago, when I’d crossed into Georgia from Turkey, I made the mistake of handing cash into a currency exchange shop without first calculating what I should be getting in return. The man behind the desk had very brazenly tried to scam me. That mistake would not be repeated today, especially since I was now exchanging thousands of Euros worth of cash, not tens.
I read the rates displayed on the LCD screen behind the counter as I entered. 22,000 Iranian Rial to the Azerbaijani Manat; a better rate than the official one I’d found online. I used the calculator on my phone to multiply this by the number of Manat in my bag, then took out the wad of cash, and began laying it out on the desk, counting out loud as I went. I started with the hundreds
“One hundred, two hundred, three hundred.”
I then moved onto the fifties, placing them down in sets of two
“Four hundred, five hundred, six hundred.”
Each time I reached a nice, round number, like one thousand or five hundred, the teller behind the desk would pick up my cash, and began counting it out loud himself, in English.
“One, two three, four . . .”
Once I had all my Azerbaijani Manat counted and handed over, the teller used a large calculator to make the same multiplication I’d made on my phone. I nodded, to let him know I agreed to the deal, and he began counting out Iranian Rial. He used the electronic counter behind his desk to dish out several dozen 500,000 Rial notes, then counted some 100,000, 50,000 and 20,000 notes out by hand. I examined a few of the notes, carefully reading the denominations, then used his calculator to ensure the sums all added up to our agreed amount, tucked my small fortune into the inside pocket of my backpack, thanked the teller, and left.
I realised that, despite my caution and carefulness, if the teller had wanted to rob me, he could have. The electronic counter, for example, was a weak point in my security. It had fed him out a set number of 500,000 Rial notes underneath his desk, with the number of notes being served displayed on an LCD screen facing me. I had no way to be certain, however, that the stack of notes the machine had counted was definitely the same stack he had placed in front of me. The stack was too big for me to realistically double-check manually at that moment. One quick sleight of hand, and the teller could have stolen the equivalent of hundreds of Euros from me. As soon as I got back to the hotel, after handing the younger man behind reception a single 500,000 Rial note as agreed, I went up to my room to carefully count out my cash by hand. It was all there. So far so good.
Later on in the day I went out looking for a phone shop to buy a Sim card in. I walked into a small, cramped store along one of the city’s less-than-beautiful side streets, where the owner spoke no English, but knew his way around my Android device, and was able to set up an IranCell Sim for me, and apply 3Gb of mobile data. Once my phone was good to go, and it was time to pay, the price he’d written down on a piece of paper had multiplied by a factor of ten. After a brief moment of shock, I realised that he hadn’t actually been trying to cheat or mislead me. It’s complicated.
The Iranian monetary unit is the Rial. Banknotes have Rial markings on them, and official prices are written in Rial. However, most Iranians more commonly talk in terms of Tamans, where one Taman is worth ten Rial. So when the man in the phone shop wrote 60,000 down on paper before removing the Sim card from the package, he had meant 60,000 Taman. To make matters more confusing, Iranians often drop the ‘thousand’, as that part can just be assumed. So, if someone is trying to sell you something for 100,000 Rial, they might quote the price as 100,000 (Rial), as 10,000 (Taman), as 100 (Rial without the thousand), or as 10 (Taman without the thousand). It’s a system that makes intuitive sense to Iranians, but will definitely take me awhile to get familiar with.
With my hotel, cash, and phone all sorted out, I took an early night. There was little else to do in this dreary border town. Before bed I went back out to the same street I’d bought the Sim on, looking for a quick meal. I went to a takeaway pizza joint; not the most traditional Iranian place, but good enough for tonight. The staff and customers all gathered around me, interested to meet a foreigner. One of them spoke decent English, while the rest had the usual few words
“No, Irlande” (I’ve found using the French pronunciation of my country’s name always works better abroad)
“Ah, Irlande! Robbie Keane! Conor McGregor!”