Crossing Iran

28 May 2011

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On Saturday morning, Aurel, along with a convoy of three HELP vehicles, started off at 7:30 am on the three-hour journey.
The bus made it only about 10 minutes before a strong smell of burning rubber indicated that the mechanics had tightened the brakes just wee bit too much. A little tinkering under the bus on the outskirts of Herat to loosen the brakes and they were off again.

About an hour later it was clear that the bus had an oil leak. The smell of burning oil was wafting every once in a while from the back of the bus (where the engine is) to the driver’s seat. Again the convoy stopped while Aurel fiddled with the mechanics. It seemed that the seals inside the engine needed changing, something impossible without just the right replacement parts, available only from specialty VW parts store.

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There was no way to make any kind of quick fix, so as not to risk running the engine without the proper lubrication, Aurel and his HELP entourage had to stop every 20 minutes or so along the road to check and refill the oil reserve. It was a long trip!

The scenery between Herat and the Iranian border is stark and austere. Long stretches of sandy desert scenes are interrupted only by small towns of make shift shacks. It is a rather bleak moonscape—waterless and barren.

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The convoy arrived at the border at noon. As they approached the border crossing, they were informed that it was closed for lunch and told to return after post lunch prayers. Two hours later, after showing his many, many hard earned documents, and making it successfully out of Afghanistan (there are always two “borders” at any given country line), Aurel was told it was too late in the day to cross into Iran. He returned to the Afghan side and stayed the night at the HELP office a few kilometers from the border.
The following morning he made it both out of Afghanistan and into Iran, but he was told that in order for the bus to enter the country, he would have to have Iranian insurance, which could not be purchased at that time of day (any time after 11am). The bus could wait happily between Afghanistan and Iran, while Aurel, along with a HELP employee who lives and works on the Iranian side, had to stay in a dingy, badly lit hotel a few miles from the border over night. The insurance was finally available early the following morning.

Worn out, fed up, and totally exhausted, Aurel finally crossed successfully with the bus into Iran (!), but he was facing the drive across the country alone. Landry, our fourth trip member waited almost 30 days in Iran in the hope of meeting Aurel as soon as he made it into the country so he could join him in the trip across. It was just a few days ago that Landry’s Iranian visa expired and he headed home to Bangkok. Diego, you may remember was denied a visa and Molly, being American was not even considered.
Due to the oil leak, the bus was not in good shape to travel the 1000 miles across Iran, and due to the events of the last month, neither was Aurel. On top of all that, our time crunch was becoming more and more serious. It became clear after the 3 day marathon of border crossing and the four weeks of perilous preparation that the best option was to find a Turkish truck which after traveling across Iran and into Afghanistan, had emptied its load in Herat and was returning without cargo to Turkey. The bus would have to chug along at 50 km/hour and Aurel on his own would need 7 days to make it across. In a cargo truck, Aurel and the bus could cross in less than 3 days.

In the end Aurel found an Iranian truck willing to take him across.

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The bus was loaded onto the flat bed of the back of the truck and Aurel road shotgun next to the two truckers who took turns at the wheel. They drove in shifts, sleeping less than 4 hours per night.

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There were a number of moments when Aurel reached over to grab the wheel as he watched the driver’s eye lids slide gracefully down over his eyes in a long, slow, sleepy movement, bumping the driver hard with an elbow or a knee “by accident” in order to stop the truck from sliding not so gracefully into a ditch on the side of the road.

Safety precautions not withstanding, the drivers kept their promise and delivered the bus and Aurel at the Turkish Iranian border of Bazargan in less than 48 hours. The fact that they arrived at 2am didn’t seem to phase them, nor did unloading the bus in an abandoned junk yard a few kilometers from the border at 2:30. And they really seemed easy going about the fact that there was no ramp to use to drive the bus off the flat bed.

Unfortunately, Aurel, imagining the bus bouncing off the truck, somersaulting a few times across the junkyard and landing in a pile of scrap metal, was not feeling easy going. Maybe it was just that time of night, or the 5 days without a shower, or perhaps the 60 cumulative hours of travel?
But at 2 am, with their job successfully completed, the drivers were not interested in waiting the 4 hours until the border opened and a proper ramp would become available. Piling cinder blocks and scraps of anything they could get their hands on in the dark, they built a ridiculously precarious off-loading dock and sent the bus rolling down.

Surprisingly enough there were no casualties. The bus and Aurel made it out without a mental or physical break down. With 1000 miles of Iran behind them, Aurel settled in for 4 hours of sleep in the back of the bus, perched atop a pile of rubble in the middle of a junkyard, a few kilometers from the Turkish border.

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