So, you’ve done the paperwork, gotten a visa and arrived in Iran. Congratulations! Now that you’re in the country, relaxing over a non-alcoholic beer, your dreams of travelling overland via Central Asia or Pakistan form the second visa hurdle.
The countries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan can certainly give the Iranians a run for their money when it comes to bureaucracy and confusing guidelines, with the added fun of phone numbers that change frequently, are randomly hooked up to fax machines or connect you to someone who speaks no English.
Take heart from the fact that most travellers do succeed in getting their visas in the end. You should allow at least two weeks and ideally three weeks to sort these two visas out. Here’s the step-by-step procedure for Central Asia:
1. Call the Uzbekistan consulate for the latest regulations. Ask if you need agency support or a letter of invitation from your home embassy. In theory, citizens of Austria, Great Britain and others do not need the help of an agency but the consulate in Tehran sometimes sets its own guidelines. Phone: (021) 222 91519 (connected to a fax until 11am)
2. If you need to use an agency, submit your application including a letter from your employer and wait 10-14 days for approval. These agencies provide visa support without booking a tour. Try: STANTours or Dolores Travel
3. Get a letter from your embassy, if needed. Normally available the same-day. You may have to make an appointment in advance.
4. Take your papers plus passport photos and money for the fees ($75 U.S. dollars for a one month visa plus 40,000 Rials for photocopies) to the Uzbek consulate in Tehran at Pasderan Street, Aqdasiye Street, Park St. 4, Number 15. Open Sunday-Thursday from 9am-12:30pm for filing and 9am-11am for collection and payment.
Getting public transport here is nearly impossible although you could do part of the journey north by metro (go to Mirdamad Station) and then hop in a taxi for the last section.
5. Wait anything from 5 minutes to one week for processing, depending on your nationality and if you have used an agency.
6. Go to the Turkmen embassy with your Uzbekistan visa, a copy of your passport photo page and a copy of your Uzbek visa. Submit this for consideration along with two passport photos and collect an application form at the same time.
The Turkmenistan embassy is located at Barati Alley 5, Vatanpoor Street, Farmanieh (about a five minute taxi ride away from the Uzbek consulate and near the Azerbajani embassy). The phone number is (021) 222 06731 or (021) 222 06306 and the fax is (021) 222 06732. It’s open Sunday from 9:30-11am and Monday to Thursday from 9-11am. It’s also possible to apply for your Turkmen visa in Mashhad, call (0511) 854 7066.
If you want to get to the Turkmen embassy in Tehran by public transport, it’s time consuming but possible. Go to Mirdamad metro station, then get the bus going up Shariati Street. At the top of Shariati, where the bus ends, turn right and walk for 10-15 minutes to Vatanpoor Street.
7. Mention that you are cycling. You can try for a 7-day transit visa instead of the standard 5 days but this must be written on the photocopies you submit for initial consideration. Getting a 7-day visa used to be easy for cyclists in Tehran but now they seem to have clamped down and are only handing out 5-day permits. Brace yourself for this. Tourist visas for Turkmenistan are not available without employing a guide.
8. Call the Turkmen embassy back in 5-10 days to see if they will let you in. If the answer is positive, return with your completed application form and pay from $31 U.S. dollars upwards (depending on your nationality – $31 for most European nationals, $46 for British citizens) to collect your visa. The visa may be ready in the afternoon or, if they are busy, the next day. We saw change being given to some people but other cyclists report that no change is given if you can’t make the exact amount. Perhaps it depends on if they have the change on hand or not. Best to come with the exact amount. Bills must be perfectly clean without wrinkles or other marks.
9. Rejoice! With all your visas in your passport, head for the border!
If you’re itching to travel south through Pakistan and then north via the Karakorum Highway into China or onward to India you should think very carefully. Drug smugglers ferrying their illegal goods between Afghanistan and Pakistan have retaliated to police crackdowns by kidnapping foreigners. In 2007 a Belgian couple and a Japanese man were taken hostage.
Security is very tight as a result – in the frontier town of Zahedan you can’t even leave your hotel after dark without an escort – and you may be asked to join a military convoy, be accompanied by the police or asked to take the bus instead of cycling the whole way.
Travelling in this region is likely to invalidate your insurance and getting a visa for Pakistan can be problematic. Your embassy may want proof you are not planning to travel overland before they issue a letter of invitation for your application or they may simply refuse to issue a letter for Pakistan at all.
That’s not to say it’s impossible. Many travellers still go this way but it does take an exceptionally adventurous spirit and perhaps as many bureaucratic challenges as the Central Asian path.