This post was kindly contributed by Robert Ryan.
I lived in Dubai from 2012 to the end of 2018, working as an airline pilot for Emirates Airlines. Dubai, mostly all desert but with mountains two or three hours’ drive to the north, and east into Oman, is a haven for off road enthusiasts with a large community of 4×4, Moto-X, enduro, and Adventure bike riders.
I rode with a group of 40-50 somethings, mostly on BMW R 1200 GSAs. Riding abilities varied, but after three or four years of trips into the mountains of Oman, with ever increasing difficulty levels, almost everyone had achieved a respectable level on fully-loaded GSs off road, with some of the guys qualifying for the Middle Eastern GS Trophy Trials.
Oman has some of the best off road trails you could wish for with free camping allowed everywhere, but it’s very remote, and a lot of the time without a phone signal. Breakdowns or injuries can get serious quickly.
Most trips were two or three days starting early morning from Dubai, with a 400km drive east, crossing the border into Oman and leading up into the network of rugged, remote trails around Jebel Shams Mountain range.
Temperatures were high during the day but could get seriously cold at night in the mountains, so the right clothing and equipment were really important. After a few trips and constantly fine tuning our gear, we got good at knowing what was needed for three days of hard core riding and camping, and what was just extra, unnecessary dead weight. With a bit of pre-ride coordination, equipment and tools were divided up between people, again to keep the all-important weight down.
This consisted mainly of a good set of 80/20tyres, most importantly for puncture prevention. There were surprisingly few of these, considering the hammering the tyres received on a loaded GS in the mountains. Shinko 804/805 tyres were popular and available locally at a very reasonable $140 per pair, proving very good on and off road.
Then the usual Touratech accessories, most importantly a heavy duty sump guard from which we would hear frequent loud clanging as the front wheel fired rocks at it. Add a TouraTech tool roll, with everything needed to take apart an R 1200 GS, a puncture repair kit and mini compressor, and that was it.
After six years in Dubai, it was time to head home to the real world.
Flying from Dubai, the standard routing for an Emirates flight to a European destination used to be north, across the Gulf, crossing the southern Iranian coastline, and then north-west along the middle of Iran, crossing into Turkey at Van, onwards into Bulgaria, and then the rest of Europe.
That’s almost identical to the overland route, and after six years of looking down on this route from the air with its beautiful mountain ranges, hidden villages and salt lakes, I swore that when it came time to go home, I’d ride home on my bike.
Planning for the trip consisted mainly of securing a visa for Iran. While I needed to allow plenty of time in advance, this was pretty straightforward. I used Overlandtoiran.com, run by Hossein, who issues an “invitation” which goes into the Iranian immigration system. This then allows you to submit your passport for a tourist visa. Hossein also takes care of Green Card Insurance for Iran and Turkey.
Next was the Carnet de Passage, also very straight forward, from the local FIA office in Dubai. A “Tourism Certificate” from the vehicle licence authority was required to allow the bike out of the U.A.E, and also to allow purchase of a ferry ticket from Sharjah, U.A.E, to Bandar Abbas, Iran.
For the trip itself, after a quick internet search, it became evident that accommodation could be booked online for almost everywhere along the route, and I decided not to bring any camping gear. That saved a whole load of space and weight.
Navigation was provided by my iPhone, mounted on the handlebar with a quick release “Quad Lock” attachment (highly recommended). Even in the rain the phone stayed reasonably dry behind the screen. I used an offline maps app, “Maps.me”, and would download the current region for the next day’s trip whenever wifi was available.
Bike preparation consisted of an oil change, a packet of “octane booster” tablets to help with Iran’s low octane (85’) petrol, and fitting a set of road tyres since the trip would be 99% road. I bought an “Airhawk” seat cushion for my saddle, which I can safely say adds another 300km a day to what your backside could normally endure.
I already had a set of aluminium panniers, and used my BMW topbox for ease of access and security for passport, cameras and so on during the day when stopped. At night, I’d just put my valuables and fresh clothes in a small backpack, and everything else stayed on the bike for the night. Minimizing the hassle of packing/unpacking each day is really important when you are doing it for two weeks.
I had two weeks before I had to be back in Europe to start a new job, so I was working on 12 days of riding, with a day either side to get ready for work and so on. So a daily distance of 670km was required to cover the 8,000km back home to Dublin.
Plan B, in case something went wrong and I got stuck somewhere and lost a few days, as long as the bike was still going, was to get to “Motocamp”, in Sevlievo, Bulgaria (150km east of Sofia), where they will store your bike, repair your bike, offer hostel and camping accommodation and so on, and then fly home and pick up the bike and continue at a later stage.
Finally the day arrived, and I headed off to the ferry terminal in Sharjah, with wads of paperwork, permits to enter the port, customs forms, export documents, and a ferry ticket.
I was waiting at every stage to be told I was missing some vital piece of paperwork and couldn’t go, and I would only be able to relax once I was through customs on the Iranian side the next day.
The ferry was a 10 hour trip through the night, with just a seat for comfort, and about 50 other passengers. To say I was the odd one out is an understatement. The evening meal consisted of some bread and … “Carrot Jam”… with an unlimited supply of tea, served with what tasted like at least 10 spoons of sugar per small cup.
Arriving in Bandar Abbas the next morning, I met with a customs clearance agency, and after about three hours of waiting and going between various offices, I was cleared by customs and Immigration, and finally free to start my trip! Riding out of the port and into town, it was a huge relief to be finished with the multitude of red tape, and able to go my own way. I changed some money and got out of town, as there was nothing to see there, and the area in general being just empty desert.
Route planning was simple since I was taking the most direct route possible. I rode for one or two hour stints, or for as long as I felt good, and when there was something to see, I stopped. I always had a rough idea of where I would look to spend the night by lunchtime of each day, and would try to get there an hour before sunset. As long as I was on the road by 8.30am, 670km each day was not a problem.
Hotels are very cheap, with 15-20 euros getting you a basic room with breakfast in most small towns.
Food also costs next to nothing, and readily available. Most of the hotels had a decent breakfast. A friendly truck driver in a petrol station gave me a huge bag of dates. At first he produced an enormous bucketful, but when I politely demonstrated that I physically couldn’t carry them all, he reduced it to a shopping bagful. They were enough to keep me going until I reached whatever town I was going to spend the night in, where I’d find a kebab or something similar.
Fuel at about 7 cents/litre was readily available all along the route, with only one or two of the longer sections requiring some forward planning. As my GS is the non-Adventure spec. with the relatively small tank, I brought along a spare 5 litre container of fuel but never had to use it. I added an “octane booster” tablet to each tankful of fuel, and never had any “pinking” issues.
Shiraz, Isfahan, and Qom
Shiraz, Isfahan, and Qom are wonderful cities to visit, and while you could spend weeks looking around each of them, with the time I had available I visited only the main attractions, although I did spend a full day in Isfahan.
I rode on then to Urmia to meet Hossein who had my Green Card Insurance for Turkey ready for collection, and provided a B&B for the night.
The next morning, I was up early and headed to the Iran-Turkey border crossing at Serow. This is the southern border crossing as opposed to the more frequently used, and probably easier, border crossing at Bazargan to the North.
The mood here was a little darker. Yuksekova, on the other side of the border crossing, was officially a conflict zone until 2016, between the Turkish military and the PKK.
I had a hard time finding anyone to talk to about where to start the exit process and get the important exit stamp on my Carnet. As far as I could see I was the only foreigner crossing over that morning. I eventually found a guy who seemed to know the procedure and pointed me in the right direction.
Basically everything revolved around one man, obviously in charge and very important, in front of whom you just… waited. He mainly drank tea, talked on the phone, and when there was a gap, and someone had the courage to address him directly, would suspiciously look over, and then sign the various forms being presented to him. After 45 minutes of my being invisible, he beckoned me over, checked my paperwork, asked questions, and finally signed my papers and stamped the Carnet.
The big gates were opened, and I was let out into Turkey. The Turkish entry procedure was a lot more straightforward, and I was on the road again by lunchtime.
Yuksekova and onwards for the remainder of the day was not a happy zone with the Turkish army all over the place, checkpoints every 10km or so, and very tense looking soldiers. By the end of the day the army was less visible, and I could start to enjoy the surroundings a bit more.
Turkey has an amazing variety of scenery, and the roads, mostly empty, were really good. Again, it is somewhere you could spend months exploring, with good food, cheap fuel, and the friendly people.
Crossing Istanbul, east to west, at peak rush hour in the dark was horrible. Hours of crawling along, with very little space to filter and aggressive drivers who didn’t care too much for bikes.
Crossing into Bulgaria was much faster, and I was glad to be riding a bike and not driving a truck, as there was a line of trucks 6km long, waiting to cross the border.
At this point I was very much aware that I was back in Europe. Prices creeping up, expensive fuel, and thanks to my tight schedule, mainly boring motorway from this point on.
I started to increase my daily mileage, and on some days, with good roads and decent weather, was doing 900km days. It was starting to get colder, it was mid November, and what had been an adventure up to that point felt like it was coming to an end.
I pushed on through Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, France etc, and at that point just wanted to get home.
After 11 days on the road and 8,000km, I arrived home. Happy to have made it without any issues, and feeling much love for my trusty 2007 R 1200 GS, which despite the previous four years of off road abuse in Oman, had performed perfectly.
Overall the trip was a lot easier than I envisaged during the planning stages.
Once you have the correct paperwork organised, all you need is time, a smartphone, a half decent bike but nothing special, and not a whole lot of money.
Enough time is always the hardest part, and I have no doubt I rode past many incredible places which, with more time, I would have loved to explore.
Finishing a big trip just makes you want to start the next one, and there is no better way to explore the world than on a motorcycle.
(Photos Rob Ryan and friends)