The Afghan-Iran border is a busy but very strict border, both on Afghan and Iranian side. The border is about 120 km away from Herat, can be reached by bus, Falancoach, or Volvo. I was in rush to go to Iran right after getting the Iranian visa, and I took the luxurious Volvo to go to Islam Qala, the border.
The Afghans had to queue very long outside the immigration office. There were hundreds of people crossing the border, but they still had to pass many checks before being able to go to the ‘outside world’. I also queued. The people grumbled about how hot the weather was. Suddenly a soldier grabbed me from the queue, and put me directly to the gate. “Khareji! (foreigner!)” he said to his colleagues.
In fact foreigners didnt need to queue together with the Afghan nationals outside the immigration hall. They were queuing for a slip for luggage search. I was not given the slip and was asked to go directly to the passport stamp window.
“Get to line! Get to line!” screamed the Afghan border crossers when I went directly to the gate to get my passport stamped. They didnt know that the line for luggage check was not necessary for me, and there was a different window for non Afghan nationals.
Being foreigner was a benefit in crossing the Afghan side, as there was no check at all, but passport check. Non Afghans were also exempted from all of the lines. The check for the Afghan nationals was very thorough, as there was worry about drug smuggling.
“Iranians are the worst people,” said a young Afghan from Herat. He dressed like an Iranian, even with the shaving style of the narrow beard under the lips, Iranian style. I thought he was Iranian. “They thought they were the best people, and they looked down on us,” continued him. He was not the first Afghan to say that Iranians are no good people. There are many people like him, especially those who spent some years in Iran as refugees or for business.
I was treated like the Afghans in Iranian side of the border. The immigration hall gate was closed, and the border crossers had to wait outside the hall until all of the people inside passed the passport check and the hall gate to be opened. The customs of queuing was not part of Afghan culture. The people were fighting to get as close as possible to the gate without obvious line. And when the gate was opened, the crowd turned to be a tsunami. Some old men with enormous number of luggage fell down and being stepped by the others. Luckily it was just a gate, not a long tunnel like that in Saudi Arabia which was notorious in taking victims due to hysterical crowds.
Even in front of the passport checking counters, people tried to cut the queue and caused quarrel among the people. It was not easy. The Iranian passport officer even sometimes refused to stamp the passports until the border crosser stop fighting and back to the queue.
After 2 hours busy in border formalities, I arrived in Iran. Average time for Afghan border crossers to pass this border was about 5 hours. Hamidullah, a young Afghan who already ‘Iranized’, went with me in a shared taxi to Mashhad. It’s 4 hours away from Islam Qala.
Hamidullah lived in Esfahan, the tourist city of Iran, as his family owned a bag factory there. Despite of being almost a complete Iranian, he also disliked the Iranians of looking down the Afghans too much. “They are very proud of themselves,” said him in English.
But Iran might be proud beyond their poor neighbor. Crossing the border to Iran, I suddenly felt being thrown to my normal world again. Smooth asphalt road, busy shops, rows of powerlines, busy traffic with buses and cars, everything was here but donkeys and horses on the street. The Iranians dressed in modern Western dress, while I was the only one wearing the Afghan shalwar qameez with vaist, shawl, and turban. It seemed even those Afghan border crossers changed their dress as they passed the immigration office. But I didnt have time and now rushed my way to Mashhad.
I arrived in Mashhad at 6. It was almost dark already. The bus terminal of Mashhad is a modern one, and the cleanliness impressed me so much. Mashhad is the second city of Iran. The bus terminal of Mashhad should not be compared with that of Surabaya, the second of city of Indonesia, which once boasted to own the biggest and most modern bus terminal in Southeast Asia. The bus terminal, Bungurasih, was now a dangerous place to linger around with their beggars and pickpockets, was a poluted place where dozens of buses ‘flarted’ with the poisonous gases, was a difficult place to walk as the road was sticky due to oil from the knalpots. The bus terminal of Mashhad is a clean, smooth, and safe.
But I should be careful with the last word, ‘safe’. Even that here all people seemed to have money, there are always cheaters and scammers around the places like bus terminal. I was foolish enough to accepted an offer of a young man, who claimed himself as driver, for a dinner in restaurant. And at the end I had to pay for everything including his meal.
The bus from Mashhad to Tehran cost 55,000 Real (the exchange rate of Real was almost the same as Indonesian Rupiah, where 1 US$ = 9,100 Real at the moment). Like the Indonesians who had small currency, the people in Iran also had the custom to make the number smaller. In Indonesia people usually said the prize in the unit of thousands, in Iran they used the unit of tens, which is called as Toman. Thus when they said the price of 55,000 Real, they said 5,500 Tomans, but the word Tomans was usually omitted, giving impression to those who are not used to (like me in this my first day in Iran) that everything was cheap. But in fact, it was 10 times more expensive.
I was dirty and stinky. I had not washed my dress for a month, and I didnt have any shower in a weak. And I was still very confident to go my way to Tehran, the capital. Nobody was willing to talk with me but the friendly Afghans, and I felt as they were my countrymen already. The bus was a modern one. With that price, we traveled 1000 km distance for 14 hours in full AC bus (that we called as ‘Patas’ in Indonesia) with comfortable sofa and even cold water machine.
The bus was stopped many times by the police for checks. It was usually the Afghans who were checked. Now I realized why the Afghans didnt like Iranians. The Iranians were afraid and suspicious of them. Once our bus was stopped for a half an hour check, where all people with luggage were asked to line outside the bus with their luggage, and those who are suspected had to pass a more thorough check.
“Kojai asti? Irani? (Where are you from? Iranian?)” asked a police to a young man with three bags.
The man was suddenly taken away from the line to an invisible room. The Afghans are always suspected to smuggle opium from their country, and thus checking like this was normal.
I arrived in Tehran the next day (August 17), noon. I really lost all my confidence here. I looked like a creature from Planet Mars, with my dirty Afghan dress and the turban, while on weekend like this (Thursdays and Fridays are weekends in Iran), young people dressed beautifully for these. Not only once the passers-by stopped, looked at me, and laughed. And not only once I was stopped by the policemen who asked where I was going.
When I took the subway train (not imaginable when I was in Afghanistan), I even didnt dare to catch anybody’s sight. I felt really outplaced with my appearance.
I was in rush to go to my embassy for the national day. I knew I missed already the flag ceremony, but who knows there would be other parties with Indonesian food. But I didnt know exactly where the Indonesian embassy located. I asked a policeman near the Behesti subway station, and he directed me to somewhere, and later I realized it was Afghanistan embassy. Hey…., I am not Afghan……!!!
After asking again and again, at last I arrived in the Indonesian embassy. Nobody was there. There was only an Iranian guard, who even at first didnt believe that I was Indonesian. All other Indonesians were busy in the ambassador’s residential for a party.
I just washed my face a little bit until a friendly Indonesian man agreed to take me to the ambassador’s house for the party. But I didnt expected, it was not party for Indonesians. It was party for the excellency foreign diplomat guests. And I was in my dirty clothes.
The party was at night, a standing party with Indonesian food and angklung show. I didnt dare to talk with too many people as I felt really, really outplaced. But there was a friendly army from the Chinese embassy who was happy to talk with me in Chinese.
The party ended at midnight. And later I found myself sleeping soundlessly in a corner of the Indonesian embassy office.