Crossing the Azerbaijan-Iran Border at Astara
Crossing the Azerbaijan-Iran Border at Astara was originally published in November 2022
I’ve crossed a number of borders at this point in time, several of which into and out of Iran– so this most recent trip brought me back to Iran, though a cheap(er) ticket lured me to Baku (and also my weird obsession with Former Soviet Union metros but that’s another story).
So naturally, I took a couple of days to explore Baku before making the long haul (not kidding it’s nearly 1,700 km) to Shiraz, Iran. As per usual with me, my route was poorly planned and everything was sorted on the fly.
I began my research from a cigarette stenched room in Baku that my Bolt driver dropped me off at (I never was able to locate that original hostel I had booked) at 4 am while I the sounds of sex permeated through the paper thin wall as of the hotel. I quickly noted that there were three main border crossings between Azerbaijan and Iran and the only info I could find through google gave instructions for getting from Iran to Baku and not the other way around. In fact, it wasn’t even clear that the border would be open to foreigners as the last news was that the (re)opening date was pushed back to September 1, 2022 and no crossing reports since.
So I decided to wing it- what’s the worst that could happen? I’d have to backtrack three hours back to Baku to hash out new plans (fly in from Baku) or overland via Georgia and Armenia. Annoying, but I’ve been in bigger predicaments and quite honestly a part of me hoped the border would be closed so that I could pop into Georgia for a resupply of adjika, utsho suneli, and a glass of kvanchkara (ok, maybe I have a problem).
But alas the border was open and pretty straightforward aside from two hours of questioning by the Iranians (to be fair, entering the country right now probably raises some eyebrows, especially with all the many visas I have to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen).
So enough with my life story above (is this post starting to feel like a recipe blog post or what?) and on to the useful bits…
How to Cross the Azerbaijan-Iran Border at Astara
Get a Shared Taxi from Baku to Astara
Finding out where the shared taxis to Astara departed from took the help of the hotel staff (a new one, much more pleasant than the one mentioned above) at the Old Yard Hotel as there was no information to be found after scouring the internet.
On a stormy Sunday morning we ordered a Bolt to the intersection of Rovshen Ceferov and Asif Maharrakov. I wandered around a little confused as I was more expecting a typical shared taxi stand I’ve experienced in Central Asia where you get out of the car and people start screaming place names at you before you find your guy and start negotiating a price.
I finally walked into a parking lot of a little fast food shack on the intersection with a few cars parked out from and asked where the taxis to Astara left. One man came over, grabbed my bag and motioned me to follow him. A few minutes later he had found a driver going southbound for me and loaded my bag into the trunk (I didn’t mention earlier but I found Azeris to be some of the kindest, welcoming, and helpful people in all my travels).
So in case you’re wondering where on the intersection to find the Astara shared taxis- it’s literally out front of the H Petrol on Rovshen Ceferov.
If you have a car load of people going to the border, expect to pay 25 AZN per seat (4 persons) but with a little haggling you might be able to get it down to 20 AZN (I really didn’t feel like fighting to save the equivalent of $3 USD on a cold and wet Sunday).
In all the drive went pretty quickly spending it chatting with Dima and the other passengers in my broken Russian as well as my understanding of some Azeri words that cross over with Tajik/Farsi and other Turkic languages (Uzbek/Kyrgyz/Kazakh). We covered all kinds of things from the war in Ukraine (and therefore Putin khuylo), price hikes, family, the protests in Iran, and even the war over Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh (this has been my longtime reservation about visiting Azerbaijan).
The Ride Down to Astara
After only about 15 minutes we had filled the car and were on our way to Astara. Dima, the driver assured me the border was open after making sure I had a full on visa to Iran.
The drive follows the coast of the Caspian Sea quite a way before bending inland a for a while. The last hour of the drive the landscapes get more hilly and mountainous and more interesting.
In all the drive from Baku to the Astara border takes roughly three hours along smooth and well signposted roads.
Once in Astara you’ll drive into and through a bazaar where you’ll find a green door with an emblem of the Azerbaijan government. Dima actually drove me right up to the door and talked to the guard on duty who checked my papers and made a quick phone call and then let us pass through the corridor to the immigration terminal. All in all really easy.
I said my goodbyes to Dima at the terminal where he gave me his WhatsApp number in case I had any problems and then went inside. Inside my documents were checked (also that I did have a visa to Iran, again) and I was stamped out of Azerbaijan before continuing on to a quick customs check with a couple of friendly Azeri border guards. They also double checked that the tiny glass bottles in my bag weren’t alcohol (they were my face lotion and hair oil) and that the big bottle I was carrying was in fact just water to avoid me getting in trouble with the Iranians.
After the customs check I went outside and into a corridor that led to a locked door at the end. Here a guard hanging out by the river spotted me, checked my passport and Iranian visa and then unlocked the door. After, I continued across the bridge over the Astarachay River, flopping on my headscarf en route, and onto the Iranian side.
On the Iranian side I was directed to a small shack on the left hand side where two women checked my papers before motioning me to go inside a building to the right. In here I entered a room on the left side where another women verified that I had a Covid vaccination card (Iran requires a minimum of two doses or one full round) and took my temperature before I continued onto the next room.
In the next room a man came out and grabbed my passport and visa and told me to sit and wait for a few minutes while he took it to another room. While I waited I used the bathroom upstairs and by the time I can back down the man was already back and asked me to follow him to another room.
This is where the couple-hour long round of questioning began. This was largely because I have multiple visas to Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq in my passport. They also were a bit perplexed as to why I didn’t fly directly into Tehran and instead flew to Baku and crossed the border to Astara, and also why on earth I was completely alone.
After several laughs, glasses of chai, demands to know which three countries I thought were most beautiful, and apologies for the questioning and delays I was clear to continue onto get my passport stamped.
I was escorted to a desk where a man stamped both my visa paper and my passport (this wasn’t a huge concern for me as I am a dual US and Italian citizen and won’t cause problems with onwards travel for me but if you only have one passport you may want to interject before they take your documents and tell them to only stamp the visa paper).
Following the stamps, I was brought over to scan my bags through an X-ray and was sent on my way.
After that I finally was (back) in Iran and exited the immigration and customs terminal.
In all honesty, I don’t think they’d have held me there as long as they did if it wasn’t for the other visas in my passport and due to the fact that the border was dead. There was absolutely no one else there crossing, so a foreigner entering Iran is probably the most action the Iranians on the Astara side of the border had seen in a long while. I had read that Astara (in normal times) is a busy border crossing.
Get a Shared Taxi from Astara to Tehran, Rasht, or Ardabil
I had been warned by my dudes who did all the questioning at the border that I wouldn’t find any buses going to Tehran or other passengers to share a taxi with. And given the fact that I did not see a single other crosser in the two hours I spent there, I wholeheartedly believed them. They also warned me to not exchange my money with the guys waiting just outside the terminal as they give shit rates and to go into a bank or one of the exchange offices in town (despite the hassle of their questioning they were quite helpful).
I got outside and immediately was met by a few men offering to exchange money at 310,000 IRR to $1 USD (the going rate that day I had seen on Bonbast was 360,000) and a young man offering to drive to Tehran. I politely declined the exchange offer but negotiated down to about $40 USD (I’m not bothering with quoting prices in Iranian Rial anymore because their currency fluctuates at a head-spinning rate) for the entire car for the 7-8 hour ride down to Tehran.
If I wanted to be cheap(er), I could have gotten a ride over to Ardabil or Rasht which are both much nearer and then grabbed a bus down to Shiraz from there or opted to stay the night in Astara and try to get others to share with the following morning. Alas, I was lazy and opted to pay a little extra to sprawl out in the backseat of a Peugeot all the way to Tehran.
We left Astara just after 4 pm and arrived in Tehran’s main West Bus Terminal at 11:30 pm, including a 45 minute stop for dinner en route. Once there I grabbed a bus down to Esfahan (no more buses directly to Shiraz were leaving until 2 am) where I switched for another to Shiraz.
And that guys, is how you cross the Astara Border from Azerbaijan to Iran.
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