I arrived in Tehran with only one thing on my mind – Turkmenistan visa! Essentially the missing piece of this jigsaw that would connect two sides of the world for me. There was only one feasible road to Central Asia and everything depended on it…
But first I needed to find somewhere to stay. I ended up crashing in this crazy place that a Couchsurfing tycoon had named Khayyam House (after the great Iranian poet) and let people stay there. Unfortunately it was a dark and humid basement that was swarming with mosquitoes, so I had to sleep in my tent if I wanted to have any blood left in the morning.
I was very nervous about the Turkmenistan visa. Why? Because word on the ‘grapevine’ was that loads of people had been getting rejected recently. I’d been aware of this for a couple of weeks (thanks to the wonderful resource that is Caravanistan) but all I could do was pray. The worst part is that people have been able to apply, but only finding out that they’ve been rejected a week later when they go to collect. It seems the applications get sent off to Ashgabat (the Turkmenistan capital), and then they flip a coin to see who they’ll reject this time. Who knows why they’re being so funny at the moment – international relations, financial issues, Taliban having too much fun around the borders… God knows.
I arrived at the consulate to find a gaggle of people waiting around. I asked what was going on and it seemed the place was closed (for no good reason) and wouldn’t be opening today. Everyone looked pretty pissed off – apparently they’d been closed yesterday as well without saying why. I’d heard recently they’d also just closed for a week (with no warning) as they fancied a holiday!
I loitered around for a short while and a guy who worked inside came out. I asked him if he knew when/if they’d open tomorrow and he said ‘no idea’. He told me that I could come at 6.30am and maybe catch the officials as they arrive and quickly get my application in then. So, I set my alarm for a very early start…
That evening I met up with Bert, the Belgian I’d been cycling with in Armenia and another Finish cyclist he was with. They’d heard so many accounts of people applying for their Turkmenistan visa and cycling all the to Mashhad only to find they’d been rejected, that they didn’t think it was even worth taking the risk. They were heading back to Azerbaijan to respectively fly/take a boat across the Caspian Sea to Central Asia. That filled me with confidence!
So I left at dawn and got to the consulate at 6.30am. Nothing happened for three hours and then finally the tiny latch (within a massive door) opened and the guy inside started taking applications. You can’t get a tourist visa for Turkmenistan unless you have a guided tour for the duration of your stay (which costs a fortune) so the only option for me was a transit visa. These are normally 5 days but I’d heard of someone getting 7 recently, so despite the sign clearly saying that transit visas are for 5 days I thought I’d try my luck.
I handed him my documents and asked if I could get my visa on my Danish passport. I’m in Iran as a Danish person (Brits can’t come) but my Uzbekistan visa is on my UK passport (long story from Istanbul/Ankara explained in this post). I really didn’t think it would go down well having to show my UK passport at the Iranian border but he would only put it in the same passport as my onward visa. He then told me that it had to be for 5 days. ‘But my friend got 7 days last week!’ A complete lie… ‘OK – you can apply, but maybe they will only give you 5 days’. Fine by me mate – worth a try. Then he had worse news for me: ‘you might not receive the visa in Mashhad’. Shit – you know you’re in trouble when the actual staff warn you you might get rejected! ‘Any reason why they’ve been rejected people?’ I asked. ‘No’. ‘But some people have still been successful?’ ‘Yes’. He went to close the latch but I put my fingers over the edge so he couldn’t. ‘Right… is there anyway I can find out before I cycle all the way to Mashhad?’ ‘You can call us in 7 days.’ ‘But by then I’ll almost be there! Any sooner maybe?’ ‘OK – call in 3 days’. I lifted my fingers away and he slammed the latch closed. I left unsure whether I should consider this a success or failure…
I didn’t really like Tehran to be honest. It was how I imagine it – big, busy and crazy polluted. I only stayed for a few days because I had lots of stuff to sort out – like getting my camera fixed. There was of course places to see in the capital – like Golestan Palace, which was really stunning. Completely over the top. Unfortunately my camera was in the repair shop, so no photos of that one I’m afraid…
I met a young Iranian couple one evening and ended up hanging out with them for a while. The guy invited me to picnic with his family – a tradition they held every Thursday. Friday is weekend day in the Muslim world, and Thursday usually a half day. The streets come alive super late. Everyone is out gathering around ice cream shops, juice vendors or restaurants into the night. I told one Iranian guy that it’s a good thing that they don’t have bars or clubs here – they’d never sleep otherwise!
One thing I find amusing in Iran is their obsession with alcohol-free beer. It’s drunk like a soft drink (but it tastes foul). I’ll be in a restaurant and there’ll be a 10 year old kid drinking a flavoured beer with their dinner like it’s a coke. So bizarre. Imagine you were in England and you saw a little kid drinking an alcohol free beer? You’d be worried what kind of family they have, and certain that the kid would be on the Frosty Jack’s within a couple of years!
Anyway, this family were lovely and the picnic delicious. In Iran the burnt bits of rice at the bottom of the pan are everyone’s favourite bit. When my dad used to cook a roast chicken, me and my sister would always fight over the bit with the crispiest skin. It’s a bit like that. As the guest I’m always given a good ‘chunk’. The same stuff I’d never dare serve back home if I burnt the bottom of the rice…
For pudding we got chocolate cake, served with a few cheese puff crisps. That was the only part that made me feel uncomfortable!
One thing I found intriguing in Tehran were the nose jobs! I’d been warned that Tehran’s upper class were into their facial plastic surgery big time. But I hadn’t expected to see so many women walking around with artificial noses and those tell-tale plasters on! It seemed so strange to me when they’re made to cover up the rest of their bodies. I even saw half a dozen guys with plasters on their noses… crazy!
Of course, most of these were spotted in north Tehran. There’s a pretty easy divide in the capital. Essentially the north of the city is further up the hill with better air quality. Here lives the fancy Iranians – expensive flats, designer shops, less religious people (you can tell ‘cos the head scarfs are so far back on the women’s heads they might as well not be there), flashy cars (always white – why is that?) and down south people are less rich, more conservative and religious (more chador cloaks) etc. It makes it fairly easy to cut the town in half.
I also loved taking the metro in Tehran. Partly because it’s super cheap but also because of the stream of people inside the carriages trying to sell you stuff inside. They’re never trying to flog stuff you’d consider logical things – like water, newspapers or books, but rather completely nonsensical items like sandals, bubble machines and plastic light bulbs that stick on walls. The strangest part is that people actually by them!
It was also odd for me to find that the train carriages are separated by gender. Women are allowed in the men’s carriages but they have women only ones at the end of the train where only women are allowed in.
I cycled on from Tehran – deciding to go for the desert road south of the mountains. All I could think about was this Turkmenistan visa and I wanted to get to Mashhad as soon as possible to work out where I’d be going next.
As I cycled I started to think seriously about the alternatives in the case of rejection. Afghanistan/Pakistan probably not a good idea. I could take a police escort through a part of the latter but that seemed silly. My other alternatives were to cycle back across the top of Iran to Baku in Azerbaijan and take the boat to Kazakhstan – but by then I’d be too late for my Uzbek visa to be much use. I could fly over the country from Tehran, but that would be expensive. I even considered sacking off Central Asia completely – I really hate all this bureaucracy. So my last idea was to extend my Iranian visa, cycle all the way south, take a boat to Oman, head over to Dubai, fly to Mumbai and continue east south of China. I hated not knowing what would happen next…
They really hate Israel here. There seems to be frequent anti-Israel propaganda and watching the news here is a continuous torrent of ‘how evil Israel is’. Everything I saw about the nuclear agreements was focusing on how Israel was the only country who had a problem with the results. I was also around when the Palestinian baby died in a house-fire and that triggered a wave stories on the evil that exists in that country. If you have any sign of an Israel stamp in your passport you’re not allowed into the country.
I often get asked what I think of Israel – not something that gets brought up that often back home. I say I’d rather spend my money in Iran than on a holiday in Israel. I don’t think ‘my’ money gets spent on all good things in Iran, but I feel more comfortable than I would in Israel.
I don’t quite get the beef with Saudi Arabia (which I think is the other guy in the above photo). I think it’s over the fighting going on in Yemen – where Saudi Arabia and Iran are supporting different groups (Sunni/Shia).
I stopped for a night in a village near Garmsar and then continued back towards the main road. I didn’t get very far before a guy pulled over and asked me to stop. He said he was a policeman, but he didn’t look like one to me in his plain clothes and rusty car. He flashed his badge and asked me to wait a couple minutes, so I did. In less time than that two other police cars turned up out of nowhere and the men (armed and in uniform) jumped out and greeted the first guy with a very official salute.
They asked me some questions and then told me they needed to escort me for a short while back to the main road. Am I a threat to the villagers here? ‘Cos they’re definitely not one to me…
They were pretty insistent, despite me trying to refuse and so I agreed to follow them. After a short section they turned left and motioned for me to follow, despite the main road being straight ahead. Uh oh… An officer got out the car, told me to turn off my GPS and follow him – up ahead was a big police station. You didn’t say anything about this 20 minutes ago mate!
Inside I was taken to a room where all the stupid questions began. The usual ones (many of which I’d lied about in my application but I remembered what I’d written), and then ridiculous ones like ‘are you a diplomat?’ What!? Is this what you think a Danish diplomat looks like?
They asked for my camera and started looking through all my pictures, asking me who the people were in my photos. I was deliberately unhelpful but completely honest when I couldn’t tell them anyone’s family name. Then they asked for my passport. I’d forgotten to separate my two passports after I’d been to the Turkmenistan consulate so fumbled very awkwardly in my money belt trying to withdraw the Danish one without showing the other. He’d already been completely confused by the fact I said I studied in the UK and I didn’t want this to be anymore complicated.
Eventually I began to think they were just bored and they weren’t getting the hint when I kept looking at my watch. Finally I told them that I really had to go if I wanted to make it to the next town before dark and they apologised for taking so long. Of course they were just being nosey – my thoughts confirmed when they wanted a photo of me and my bike inside the station before I left. At least they gave me a big bag of biscuits as a peace offering for wasting so much of my time!
I left with a certain song stuck in my head…
I stopped for the night in Semnan with a lovely family and was up too late once again. It’s hard to balance a social life with people here whilst trying to cycle more than 100km a day. I can’t waste anytime if I want to get out the country before my visa expires. The Iranians just stay up so late and I need to be leaving early to beat the heat!
None of the kids seem to have a bedtime… One mother told me that her kids just ran around until they passed out, and that sometimes she and her husband would go to bed before their little girls. My childhood was definitely not like that!
In the morning my host took me to her pottery workshop and I tried my hand at clay molding. I was clearly not meant to be a pottery maker – but surrealist sculptor? Maybe I can blag that.
I left too late again. Everyone here is so desperate to show me their town, it can be a little exhausting. Sometimes the most exciting thing seems to be a park. A park – really? Other times its a crumbly mosque. I haven’t seen any of those before…
Every town seems to have the oldest or first mosque in Iran – funny that. People in England just aren’t that patriotic about their area. If someone visited me in Morden I wouldn’t show them the Civic Centre – I’d tell them to get the tube into town and take some photos of Big Ben!
The next day was a disaster. A total disaster.
I’ve been trying not to mention the wind too much but I want your sympathy on this. Everyday since Tabriz the wind had been blowing in my face. I’d been so excited about cycling on flat land after the mountainous Caucuses but that had been completely spoiled but the constant headwind reducing me to some pathetic speeds at times. The day from Semnam was one of the worst of those days. I’d left too late and I had a big hill to climb that would take at least a couple of hours to pass, the wind made that even longer.
Near the top I started to feel really shit suddenly and I realised something wasn’t right – every 5 minutes I was starting to feel more ill. My stomach was cramping badly and I feared I’d finally got food poisoning for the first time of the trip – that’s definitely what it felt like. By the time I reached the top of the hill the wind had reduced me to walking pace for at least the last hour. It was boiling and I’d used up my last energy screaming into the wind in disbelieving frustration.
My warm water was disagreeing with my stomach. As well as growing tried of the desert wind I’ve also grown tired of drinking hot water. There’s nothing I can do to keep my water bottles from going warm and I struggle to force myself to drink enough. If I buy a frozen bottle, empty it of excess liquid, wrap it in a wet tea towel and gradually mix it with my warm water I can maybe have cold drinking water for a couple of hours. That’s if I can find frozen water. If, like today, I couldn’t – then it’s horrible water that tastes the same temperature as a cup of tea you’ve forgotten about for 10 minutes. Even though I buy cold water every time I pass a shop, there are some long stretches between civilisation these days and so I just have to ‘be a man’ and deal with it.
Just past the hill I hit 10,000km. Woo… I’d been so excited about hitting this milestone and I couldn’t have imagined a greater anti-climax. I was exhausted in the headwind, it was clear that I wouldn’t make it to the next town by dark and worst of all – I was getting more sick by the minute.
But my day was about to get much worse! This next story is very embarrassing, but I suppose it’s a little funny in hindsight – so I’ll tell it anyway:
I was starting to feel really awful. One minute I’d be painfully aware of my headache and sweating as usual, and the next minute I’d be shivering with cold. Something definitely not right. My stomach was cramping horribly and I was sure that I would puke or shit myself at any moment. Unfortunately (and without warning), the latter happened. An absolute nightmare… What a way to hit the 10k mark!
The desert road is just that – a road running in a straight line with desert either side. No privacy or hiding places anywhere. So, I had no choice but to peddle on until I found a tunnel under the road that I could nip down to and change out of sight. But it gets worse… I stripped half naked and squatted down by this tunnel, trying to empty myself of whatever this poison was, clutching my stomach in pain. Suddenly I heard barking. Lots of barking. I looked up and saw a pack of about 5 wild dogs circling in on me…
Oh Jesus. What on earth are they doing here? In the middle of the desert! They didn’t like the look of me one bit. They kept barking aggressively, coming closer and closer. I was caught with my pants down, quite literally, unable to move while these dogs slowly came nearer. All I could do was avoid eye contact and hope they would eventually tire and go away. After what felt like an eternity they did, thankfully, and I could sort myself out and get back on my bike.
I felt so ill I just wanted to stop, but I didn’t want to camp feeling like this – so I pushed on. I was pedaling about 5-10km/h in the wind and dark slowly caught up with me with at least 2 hours of cycling to go. The guy who’d invited me to stay with him in the next town drove out to help me. I was ready to ‘cheat’ for the first time and stick my bike in the car, but to my dismay there wasn’t enough room for it – all I could do was off load my luggage and push on to meet him in town 20km away.
I carried on in the dark. The wind turned slightly so when ever a truck came past I had to cling on for dear life as the wind blew me from side to side. My back wheel started making a clanging noise. I thought at first my disk brakes had slipped out of position but the sound was too ‘wrong’ for me to ignore. I stopped to look and saw one of my spokes had broken. Can anything else go wrong today!? All my tools were in the car that had gone ahead… Luckily I remembered I had one extra cable tie in my handlebar bag, so I could tie it up and continue into town.
The next day I was not ready to cycle at all. Still feeling very ill indeed. My host was desperate to show me around town though, so I banged up some ‘stopper’ pills and went for my tour. We visited his wife’s aunt’s craft shop, some old mosques, some ruined baths nearby and his grandparents village out of town.
They were growing all kinds of fruit in their garden. Iran is fruit heaven – I’ve never eaten so healthily in my life. All the expensive fruit we import and is super cheap here and growing everywhere. In their garden they had melons, figs, pomegranates, grapes and much more. I barely have to bother buying fruit because I get given so much every day ‘on the road’, but when I do stop and by a big bag it never costs me more than about £1.
I had to leave the following morning. I didn’t feel 100% but I didn’t have any more days available to give. My Iranian visa expired on the same day that my Turkmenistan visa (might) start, so timing was imperative. I’d prayed the wind would be nice to me, but guess what? Of course – it was hell, just like every day.
I made a quick stop and one farmer stopped to drag me (quit literally) into his pistachio farm. I don’t think it’s quite harvest season but he found some that looked ready and gave me a huge pile to throw in my handlebar bag. I’ve never seen pistachio nuts like this – with their skin still on outside the hard shell. I was actually a little disappointed to discover they didn’t taste like the roasted ones from the supermarket…
I’m sorry – I really will try to stop whinging about the wind. But this day was something else. I chose a nice ‘easy’ recovery day of only 65km to the next town. It took about 7 hours. I could barely stand up with my bicycle in the wind out on the open road.
I made it to Sharhood later than planned, but at least I made it. Again I found a lovely family that put me up for the night. We sat up after dinner and I was questioned like I have been so many times. I love these sessions with the Iranians – I believe you can tell so much about a people from the questions they consider important, both small talk and the ‘deeper’ ones.
Before I arrived in Turkey I’d never been asked if I’m married. No one has ever asked me if I’m married in England! But since then I’ve been asked that question almost everyday. I often get asked how many children I have… What kind of husband/father would I be if I’d just pissed off to ride my bike round the world? And more importantly – I’m 23… why would I be married with kids? Give me a minute…
I also get asked what my parents do for a living. Always my dad, sometimes my mum (I guess a women’s job is less important). They’re always well impressed when I tell them he’s a graphic designer, and when I say that I studied musician they say ‘what an arty family’. I’m always asked what I ‘majored’ in. It’s funny that people assume I went to university. I did – but I don’t think people assume that in the same way in the UK. Many of my friends didn’t study beyond 18. But in Iran they have a really high level of young people in university. It seems to me that everyone goes on to do a masters or PHD as well which surprised me. One guy told me that it’s because there are no jobs, so people just hide away ‘studying’, but I suspect it’s also because they want to delay their military service as long as possible.
But the topic of questioning I find most interesting with Iranians is about religion. It comes up all the time and to be honest I’m a little exhausted by all this God talk. It is, after all, the Islamic Republic of Iran – so I suppose it’s not surprising that faith is very important to people here. One guy told me that I shouldn’t admit to being an atheist to people here – but that’s not something I would compromise (nor do I think it would matter).
Often I get asked if I’m Catholic or Protestant. I always get annoyed when people assume I’m a Christian. I’m most definitely not. The Iranians can be a little ignorant sometimes about foreign religion. I tell them what I always say – that I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God. That usually raises eyebrows. There are plenty of non-Muslims in Iran, but I don’t think there are that many atheists. They’ll point to something and say ‘but who created that? Isn’t there a reason that that’s here?’ or another remark I’ve no doubt heard a million times before.
But actually, faith simply isn’t that important to me and I’ll try and change conversation slightly by telling them that. I would rather spend my time dealing with the tangible – like cycling my bicycle. I explore the world and spread a positive exchange between different cultures. I learn about myself and the world through experiences. I could spend my life time studying God but I wouldn’t come to any certain conculusons about his existance. I’ll just concentrate on conducting myself in a good manner around the world and hope he forgives me for that. And if I wake up the day I die in the fiery pits of hell, then I guess I’ll have to apologise for spending my life more interested in Football than god. Did I get my capitals wrong there?
But to people in England, religion simply isn’t that important. I was asked whether or not my siblings are religious and I though ‘blimey – I actually haven’t got a clue what they would say’. Nor my parents, or most of my friends. The Iranians found that suprising, and I suppose I did as well. Mainly suprised at how unimportant faith is in my society. I also realised that I was describing myself as an atheist out of convenience. I’ve had to talk about God so much recently that it’s occurred to me I’m not really worthy of the title ‘atheist’ at all. I’m no more certain that there isn’t a God than if there was one so I’d better sit back on the fence as an agnostic. My bum already hurts from all this cycling and it’s about to get worse!
Woah – I went a bit deep there didn’t I. Sorry, it’s just I’ve never been anywhere where religion is so important to every aspect of society. The Iranians have made me question my faith seriously for the first time in many years. But my views haven’t changed. I ‘thanked God’ that day because it seemed England were about to win the Ashes – but I guess that doesn’t count does it?
Let me finish on some more good news (as well as England’s imminent victory in the cricket). I’d been trying to call the Turkmenistan embassy everyday, but no-one had been answering the phone (unsurprisingly). I gave it one last try on this day and suddenly the call went through! I asked if I’d been successful in my application and he told me I had! I was ecstatic, what a weight of my shoulders. If I’ve learnt one thing on this trip, it’s not to count my chickens before they’ve hatched – but it looked like my Mashhad gamble would turn out to be the correct move.