The plan: three friends, four camels and a 7,000 kilometer trek from Iran to Mongolia. But soon after starting their journey from Augsburg to Iran, Benni, Henning and Ravi ran into their first problems. After one hundred hours of train travel, the three Hesse natives are stuck at the Iranian border. Did they manage to get through?
“We’re pushed to our limits on a regular basis,” joked Benni, Henning and Ravi as we met them for the first time. Plans for their experiment – the Silk Road Camel Cross – were well underway. The three friends, all from the Bergstrasse district in Hesse, talked about the 40°C temperatures on the steppes of Kazakhstan, the -40°C temperatures in the Mongolian desert, and the 7,000 kilometer trip with their ships of the desert along central Asia’s former trade route.
That was one year ago. Now, it’s for real. The first challenge: 122 hours in trains and buses from Augsburg to Bandar Abbas, in southern Iran. Eight hours to Budapest, a short overnight couch surf, then another 17 hours towards Bucharest. From there, a bus to Istanbul, since the summer timetable has no train connections between the two cities.
Setting off into the unknown
A 5 am arrival to a cold, rainy city on the Bosphorus. In his notes, Benjamin wrote: “We’ve got to find some way to the pass the time until 10 pm. The central station is just a tiny train stop. We wanted to chill at the university, but it’s not nearly as accessible in Turkey as it is at home. Security is everywhere. We tried pretending to be interested in the Erasmus program, but no one bought it. We’ll be happy to finally be on the train to Ankara in the evening.”
Once again, the three friends traveled overnight, this time for nine hours. Once again, the train is noisy and the lights are bright. In Ankara, they topped off their provisions and were glad to finally be moving in the direction of Iran. Then came the bad news.
Somewhere along the way, they overheard that the USA had killed an Iranian general on Iraqi soil, and that Iran had responded with a retaliatory strike on a US base in Iraq. The German Foreign Office was warning against traveling to Iran. The situation was unclear. “We have to make a decision,” scribbled Benni. This wasn’t the first time that Benni, Henning and Ravi had undertaken an extreme trip together, but this situation is difficult to gauge.
If it deteriorates any further, they have to assume they won’t be allowed to enter anyway. “So, we boarded,” wrote Benni. The ride to Tehran took 54 hours. There was some chatter online about needing to board a ferry. However, the trio didn’t know where or when – and couldn’t ask, because nobody on the train spoke English.
The view from the window provided some comfort, with gorgeous, slowly changing landscapes of blue lakes, rocky cliffs and snow-capped peaks.
Problems at the border
It was actually in eastern Turkey, in the city of Tatvan, where they needed to board the ferry. The train headed for the Iranian border awaits them on the other side of the lake. At 4 am Benni wrote: “Entirely unmotivated, we have to pack up all our stuff once again to walk to the border with all our baggage. Once all the Iranians passed inspection, the border agents moved on to the tourists. We’re the only ones, except for one German couple. After a while, they get their visas stamped. Then Ravi and I get ours. But what’s up with Henning? It was taking forever. More and more agents gathered behind the computer. At first we joked about it. Luckily, one of the Iranians at the border spoke English and was able to translate. Henning’s visa wasn’t in the system, and he can’t enter without it. We deliberated in vain, we called the embassy, but it was the middle of the night in Germany.”
What could they do? The train needed to leave. Stress levels were rising. The border agents suggested that their friend sleep in the prayer room and call the embassy in the morning. “We can only hope that the issue gets settled quickly,” said Benni. He and Ravi continued their journey in hopes of procuring some camels and in the knowledge that Henning can cope with the situation on his own.
To be continued…