Escaping From Iran

Riding through the desert

I lay down on the mildly comfortable (although a foot too short) bed and let out a deep sigh as I melted into the firm mattress. Everything aches. My thighs, back, bum, feet, shoulders and my head throbs with a thousand thoughts. In seconds though, I am asleep. We have spent the entire week working towards this one moment with only one waking thought: get to Mashhad by Saturday night. We cycled almost 100 miles each day through desolate desert and on the last day a surprise snow storm lay in wait for us. Although I enjoy the satisfaction of achieving our goal and the fact that I don’t have to explain to Iranian border guards why we overstayed, within a second it is gone. Sleep takes me.

We arrived in Mashhad on Saturday 15th Jan with two days left on our Iran visas and yet to acquire our Turkmenistan visas. On Sundays the Turkmenistan consulate in Mashhad is closed* meaning we would need to get our visa on Monday morning and then cycle 200km to the border to get into Turkmenistan that day. We therefore spent Sunday dutifully getting everything necessary done so we could leave the following day.

On Monday morning we went to the Turkmen consulate first thing. We were informed that due to holidays our visa would be delayed three days despite the fact that we had applied a week ago through Vali, a local, who for a small fee will hand in your paperwork to save some time. We argued that our Iran visas would expire but it was not negotiable.

We went directly to the relevant office to try again to get our Iran visas extended (we had been turned down in Tehran already). We spent the next three hours delicately jumping through hoops. We visited fourteen different windows/people and eventually by lunchtime we had all the appropriate paperwork. We handed them in at the assigned window and waited. We were casually informed that we should come back five day later on Sat to collect them. This would mean losing almost two weeks on our precious Uzbek visa where you must specify the dates. Again we argued our case but they were not budging. Saturday.

Frustrated and gutted we went back to Vali’s home stay and stuffed our faces with as much food as we could. We now were not only losing time on our Uzbek visas we did not know what dates we needed for the Turkmen visa (dates have to be specified and you only get five days). Plus we were not guaranteed to get the Iran extension meaning our overstay would be even greater than had we not tried to extend. Vali had a good idea though. He told us to go back on Wednesday and urge the Iranians to return ¬†our passports to us with the extension. We did exactly that and although we had to employ guerrilla tactics we pressed our case home and after a couple of hours, to our surprise and delight we got the extension in our passport. Game on.

The next morning we happily collected our Turkmen visas and left straight away for the border. In the end it worked out well, it was a bit frustrating and concerning along the way but I guess that is the very essence of adventure though. We were now able to cycle the 200km to the border over two days making it a comfortable ride. In contrast to our ride to Mashhad I enjoyed the slower pace and the lack of overbearing pressure to get to our destination.

On our final day in Iran we woke on a blustery hill top overlooking a small village and not much else. We knew this would be a cold place to camp but had hoped for clear blue skies and sunshine as we had the previous day. Instead, leaving our tents we were greeted by frost and thick fog. We broke camp slowly and Andy made porridge to fuel us. We cycled onwards, upwards where the mist and snow became ever thicker. Finally we came to the crest of a hill and began our descent. It felt like a dream, I was alone in a white world and could not see where I had come from or where I was going. Cocooned inside my waterproofs I felt removed, as if I was watching the scene play out from somewhere else. I remember the ground falling away on one side of the road but through the fog I could not see how far. I came around a couple of sweeping corners and then as if a curtain had been drawn back, in a single moment the mist was gone. Ahead I could see a curved mountain draped in warm sunlight. I pedaled harder to reach the reviving rays, cold from the fog and downhill run. We pedaled on through flat desert and ate lunch amongst some ruins. Just before the border town of Sarakhs we passed through Gonbadli and I reflected on how special our time in Iran had been.

Leaving a country is always a strange time, you are usually sad for who and what you are leaving behind mixed with an intrigue of what you will find in the next country. Over the course of the time you spend anywhere you begin to learn its ebb and flow, its routines. The language, people, food, traffic, cost of goods etc. Stepping into a new country things can be quite different and given the Soviet occupation and crazy dictators we knew the ‘Stans’ would be. We arrived in Iran with great expectations and despite this it is definitely our favorite country so far but it was now time for Turkmenistan.

* The sign beside the tiny window reads: The consulate is closed on Fridays, Sundays and public holidays. On Mondays and Thursdays we only deal with transportation companies. Office hours are 8.30 till 12.00.

The caveat to all this is that on days ending in ‘y’ they will only open if they feel like it.

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