I have found that border towns are all much the same, whether it be Nuevo Laredo or La Jonquera. Some borders have practically vanished. One hardly even slows down going from France to Spain or to Italy or to Germany. Elsewhere, things remain more traditional. And I don't think you have really crossed a border unless you come back with a story to tell. I have a few. Crossing from Bulgaria into Macedonia by foot is not as neat as it sounds. When you disembark from your train at 2:30 A.M. for a visa at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, it is helpful to remember which train to re-board. And Israeli border guards make reaching Palestinian desert monasteries from the Jordanian side a near losing proposition. Even my business partner was detained for 2 hours trying to cross from Montana into Alberta. I have always told him he looked suspicious. With these thoughts in mind, I particularly enjoyed reading this article from The Atlantic Monthly.
Astara sits on a border few of us will every cross, on the Azeri side of the Azerbaijan-Iran border. As one would expect, few Azeris are pouring into Iran, but there is a brisk traffic in Iranians passing through to the north. Peter Savodnik recently visited the town, described as the "gateway to pork products, alcohol, and easy sex" where "no one cares what you do."
This makes the mullahs in Tehran very nervous. Books, DVDs, fashions, and—most important—ideas that are inaccessible in Iran are ubiquitous in Azerbaijan. Iranians line up daily to cross the Astara River to buy and sell jeans, chickens, bras, laptops—and often sex and schnapps and heroin. This commerce, combined with cultural curiosity and shared Azeri bloodlines, has transformed Astara into the Tijuana of the Caspian.
Iranians find the Azerbaijanis’ mildly ironic attitude toward Islam a welcome relief from the stern theocracy of the ayatollahs. During Ramadan many Azerbaijanis do not fast, and the cafés in Astara do a bustling lunch business, serving lamb shashlik, or barbecue, to visiting Iranians.
This reminds me of an anecdote I heard years ago in Izmir, the gateway to the Turkish Aegean beach resorts. I was walking through the airport terminal with a Turkish friend. He told me that wealthy Saudis (is there any other kind?) would fly into Izmir for their holidays. The Saudi woman were often observed to discard their headscarves in the nearest trash receptacles as they rushed through the terminal on their way to the beach.
The last sentence in Savodnik's article is absolutely priceless, but I won't spoil it. Read it for yourselves.