22 hours after arriving at the Iranian border and smiles began to accompany stamps and opening padlocks. When traveling by car into Iran you not only need your visa, but also something called a carnet. It’s a £5,000 deposit plus £250 fee at home, or a cheeky backdoor $400 blag at the border. We opted for the latter – but it wasn’t a quick process.

Three Micras, a handful of Fiats, a wagon disguised as a Volkswagen and a clatter of Japanese cars shot out of the border gates, straight into the narrow base of an eerie valley. Our surrounds towered over 2,000 ft above. The road weaved parallel to the river separating Iran from Armenia, guiding us to the right turn which would take us south towards Tabriz.


With most borders the landscape rolls across the armed lines and checkpoints unnoticed. Here, Iran started, and so did an entirely refreshed panorama. We were in the desert. It was dry, hot, and tornados like flutes of wind whipped up the loose sand into the air creating constant movement within the view ahead.

The following day we drove 600km to bustling Tehran. Traffic rules were non existent except for one way roads, which were one-way for as long as you were on the correct course – after which there’d be a degree of flexibility.

The city itself delivered the manicness expected, but shopping in Tehran was…bazar. Shops were organised and clustered by what they sold. Walking back from Tehran’s main palace, a mosaiced collection of historic buildings framed by dilapidated high-rise office blocks, we were on the hunt for new flip flops for me.


The problem was we were strolling through the tool district. Hundreds of hardware shops lined the streets, each commercing a different variety of appliances, machinery and equipment. We took the next right, and were instantly surrounded by car radios, air fresheners, tyre pumps and gangster trims.

A little further and an entire five-story shopping centre offered phones and phone accessories, but nothing more. The city’s stalls, markets and outlets were divided up by what they sold. Logical, but as a tourist, finding the shoe street was almost impossible.

Iran evolved from sandy deserts into lush pastures as we deviated north through the national park – which, for the record, isn’t worth a visit. Apparently there are leopards and bears, but the likelihood of spotting one is nil. Drive through though and experience a greener, more fruitful area of the country.

Our time in the first stan on our adventure was limited. Four days gave us nothing but a taste of this warm and welcoming country. Without fail, every car that overtook Judith slowed to match our rambling pace to welcome us to Iran, smile a golden grin (literally – in the east everyone has full or half sets of gold teeth), and ask us where we were from. That friendliness and welcome we’ll take away with us, but we’ll need to return to see the country’s full diversity in the future.

We crossed the Iranian – Turkmenistan border in a smidge under six hours. Our paperwork was on point, but a $20 fee was needed, because it was a Friday – the Iranian weekend. 30 cars lined up behind a rusty gate secured with a single small padlock. For ten minutes we held down our horns in disagreement. After an hour, the fee was reduced to $6 (the actual official fee) and we victoriously swung out through the gates to the Turkmenistan border – where another five hour process awaited.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, was the epitome of a dictators playground. White marble clad, yet over a third of the city entirely hollow, buildings rising-high stood empty, unwired and unpeopled. The city was dead, and yet continuously cleaned, polished and loved. The skyline oozed the smell of wealth and grandeur, and yet there was no character, no atmosphere, and no life – this was a city purely built for show.


We drove the empty streets until finally we passed a local. Driving in convoy, we followed him to somewhere to get beer, which turned out to be a disco – leaping into life as 11 dirty and thirsty foreigners slumbered through the door.

Chicken with rice was served, illuminated only by green lasers and an entangled mess of club lights which danced in time to the nondescript music. It was weird. Too weird. Yet, six beers later and a couple of vodka-type shots, it became familiar and strangely enjoyable.

A few hours later, perhaps longer, we headed to our cars and make-shift campsite – a sandy play park surrounded by residential flats, hidden out of view in the suburbs of Ashgabat. A dark skinned man approached us, visible only by his full set of gold teeth. Limited conversation followed, and 10 minutes later we were sat on his living floor drinking chai, downing 12% beer and eating chocolate.

We awoke the next day with a full charge, having ditched our tents for Anara’s floor. He was a carpenter, and his neighbour, who also came to see ‘the foreigners’, worked for the government – if you’d like to call it that. We knew little about him, though swapping emails we began to wonder. Swissbank……@hotmail.com – an odd choice, we thought.

Anara split open a water melon and dished cubes around, before hurriedly becoming us down stairs. I dipped my head under the cracking beam of a small doorway and followed the crumbled concrete steps to the dark and cobweb reaches of the block’s cellars. A wall of musty shit rushed up our nostrils as we left the outside, and tools, wire and odd safe-keeps wrapped around our flip flops.

He had 12 doves. All but one in prize wining condition. He opened the small wire mesh to the outside and they tripped out for a bath and fresh air. A low whistle, delivered from the very base of his neck, signalled their time of freedom was over, and they shunned back into their housing.

A weird night turned into an even weirder morning, but of week 3 on the Mongol Rally, a memorable and extremely warming one to experience.


It was in the first few stans that we really began to feel the heat. Temperatures in excess of 40 degrees made opening windows ineffective at cooling the car down, and limited Judith to 60. It was at the Darwaza Gas Crater that we really felt the heat though, a five hour, pothole riddled strip of Tarmac sunk between two sides of duned desert.

A gas shaft back in the 80’s had collapsed within weeks of being drilled, ending the entire project with quite embarrassing failure. The crater was leaking gas – a serious health threat to the surrounding villages. The scientists solution – to set it alight, a plan that they thought would see the crater burn out within a few weeks. 40 years on and we camped beside this simmering cavity of light and warmed our hands on a glow that could be felt over 100 metres away. It was our main reason for visiting Turkmenistan, and didn’t disappoint.



The morning broke with gentle wafts of burnt-warm air. We shuttled our way down the sandy tracks that protect the crater from the masses, and continued our journey north.

Next stop, Uzbekistan.