The Visa Black Hole

Chalus Road - Iran

On our return to Tehran we were beset by visa trouble. With a list of unattractive options we set about doing all that we could to prevent getting a bus or worse still a plane.

We were eager to catch up with our friends (Maryam and the gang), trade stories and explore the Mountains to the north of the city on a two day hike that was being arranged. There was a warm welcome for our friend Sina who came to see us from Zanjan wrapped up in a thick jumper & coat telling us it was -15 degrees C when he left.

We spent a full day on the Chalus road in the mountains filming for the TV report I am sure you have now all seen*. This road links Tehran to the Caspian sea, carving a path through the Alborz Mountain range. It is one of the most picturesque roads in Iran offering stunning snow capped mountain backdrops on sweeping roads. Although it is condensed down to 6 minutes we did hours of cycling around and re-takes. It is not all glamour I can assure you!

Andy and I had been debating a route through Afghanistan for a while. This may sound like madness to you but if we took too much notice of media reports we would not have entered Iran – the stand out country of the trip so far. All I can say is that it is very difficult to weigh up the real danger. The media often overstate things to make a story and accurate info can be hard to obtain. Afghanistan is a country of stunning natural beauty and was part of the hippy trail to India in the 60’s and 70’s. Since the former USSR invaded in 1979 though it has been a country destroyed by three decades of war and an entire generation of people have grown up in this hostile environment. I still believe the majority of people there would have been very welcoming but on a loaded touring bike it is hard to remain inconspicuous so ultimately we decided it was not worth the risk (even though apparently Taliban/insurgent activity lapses in the cold winter months!). What I am really sad about is that we were unable to visit a War Child project in the country, an experience that certainly would have stayed with us forever and provided sharp context around any perceived challenges we might face.

On Sat 7th Jan we went to collect our passports with a second Iranian visa extension. When we arrived we were told the request had been declined. Andy and I were shell shocked. Our visas expired on 17th Jan and in those eleven remaining days we needed to cycle 700 miles to the Turkmen border and obtain Uzbek and Turkmen visas which take 12 days combined. We sat for a few minutes in the office stunned.

We set about exploring our options. As far as I could see we had three. Return to Turkey and go north into Russia across to China. Get the visas and get a bus to the Turkmen border. Get the visas and cycle to the border knowing we would over stay.

This problem stemmed from some incorrect info we were given by a tour agency that we would not need a LOI (letter of invitation – Central Asian visas are a pain) for Uzbekistan. The Uzbek embassy in Tehran assured us it was a prerequisite and this piece of paper took over a week to obtain (that was the expensive speedy service).

A bold and latteral plan was hatched by Sina and Maryam. They believed if we took a different tack and appealed to Muslim sensibilities we may get an Iran visa extension. The same afternoon that we were declined an extension we went to meet a Mullah in the local mosque. Our Iranian friends explained that we were traveling to learn about the world and our time in Iran was being cut short when we would like to learn more about Islam. This was not a lie, the trip for me is very much a chance to learn about the countries we visit. Showing off all the Farsi we had learnt the Mullah generously agreed to argue our case.

This was good but we still had to act as though we would not get the extension so very early the next morning we went to the Uzbek embassy armed with our LOI and a Maryam. Our guardian angel came to the rescue once again and instead of waiting one week for the visas they gave them to us on the spot. This was a game changer, now there was a glimmer of hope we could maintain our unbroken cycling line to Australia. Elated that once again things were back in our hands we spent an exhausting day completing our long to do lists so we could leave the next morning.

The following day we rose in the dark and had to leave our extremely generous friends in Tehran. I was very sad to say goodbye to Maryam who had done so much for us and she gave us eacha fierce hug. We plan to meet up in Oz and I am going to hold her to it.

Over the next 6 days we had to cycle 600 miles to Mashhad in the west of Iran where we hoped Vali would be acquiring our Turkmen visas as we pedaled. We would have two days in Mashhad to get this visa (one of which the Turkmen embassy was closed) and then on the last day of our Iranian visa we would have to cycle 200km to the border and cross into Turkmenistan. We would then need to cross Turkmen in five days. With absolutely no contingency but euphoric that it was down to us we cycled out of Tehran still positive that we could just about pull this off…

* Just in case you were on the moon and missed it here it is. Note the particularly poignant moment (4 mins 36 secs) where the commentary explains were are leaving good friends behind and pans to a picture of the two Ayatollahs! The Cycle Diaries on Iranian TV!

Leave a Reply