Or at least I think that’s what the Turkish police guard said, only without the ‘please’. I’m on the outskirts of a shit-hole town called Yuksekova and really close to the Essendere-Sero border, where my Iranian ‘fixer’ is waiting for me on the other side. He has told me several times that I have to get to the border by 4pm or I won’t get through, it’s now 3pm and I’ve been held here for an hour already.
We’ve driven through at least six checkpoints already on this dangerous route through the south-east of the country, where the police are understandably nervous after some of their own have been targeted by separatist groups. The three guys who have stopped us don’t look, or act like the policemen I know back home, but then I’m a long way from home. They are dressed in jeans, trainers and are most definitely packing. One of them is making an obvious display of parading his assault rifle around menacingly, but I pretend not to notice.
They want to know why an English guy is riding in a Turkish truck with an expensive motorcycle carrying German plates tied down on the back. The driver Ersin, who I’ve paid 600 Turkish Lira to get me to the border, is trying to explain but it doesn’t seem to be working. I show my www.themarathonride.com stickers I’ve had printed, mime enthusiastically about being a runner and a round-the-world rider, but they don’t get it — and why should they? Their world consists of sitting in a shabby hut, stopping suspicious looking vehicles and people, and checking if the IDs match with the stories. It’s not the most demanding job in the world, and yet they hold all the power over me.
The ‘main man’ is using a toothpick to extract whatever he had for his lunch, and it’s not a pretty sight. Everyone smokes constantly too, and I hope it doesn’t damage my chances of a quick getaway when I refuse their offer of a cigarette. My passport is examined in minute detail, I’m photographed by the roadside and asked for my mobile phone number. Traffic at the checkpoint is backing up considerably but it doesn’t bother the police in the slightest. The occupants of the cars that they are letting through scowl at me for holding them up.
The boss puts my passport in his back pocket and walks away up the line of traffic to check the identity cards of the entire occupants of an old, fume-belching coach. Then he disappears completely. “Five minutes, no problem”, says his understudy, ‘Rifle-boy’, smiling. A couple of solders join the policeman at the checkpoint and one of them introduces himself to me and says he is from Afghanistan. I can’t decide if this is a joke, a test or the truth, so I pass no comment and simply shake his hand, looking him in the eyes.
Thirty minutes later and I’m still there, trying to look innocent, which I am of course. I want to raise my voice and demand in that uniquely British fashion to be allowed to continue on my journey, but keeping my mouth shut is definitely the best option here, especially as my passport has gone AWOL with Mr Big. All the while the clock is ticking and I can hear my Iranian fixer Hossen’s words ringing in my ears — “Get to the border before 4pm, or you won’t get through”. I wait outside the truck kicking the tyres for what seems like an eternity, chatting to the other guards and feigning interest in their domestic football teams and limited knowledge of the Premier League. It’s cold outside in the snow, but I want to keep the conversation alive and the ball rolling, so to speak, and sitting in the truck won’t help this.
Finally, the Main Man returns, hands full of another coach-load of identification documents and disappears into the hut. Rifle-boy adjusts the strap on his gun, throws his cigarette down in the slush beside me and follows his superior into the tin shelter. He comes out five minutes later, cocks me a glance and says “five minutes, no problem”, again. My Turkish friend shrugs his shoulders in a resigned fashion and I realise that this probably happens to him all the time. Then, just as I’m working out where I will sleep that night, the boss comes out of the hut, gives me my passport and walks off, without a word. Ersin and I drive off, also in silence, on the one road that leads to this isolated border, in faint hope of making it on time in the beat-up Transit.