Before starting to write about my experience in Iran, I decided to write a quick note on how difficult the visa process was for me – an Indian wanting to cycle over land from Central Asia to Europe.
My first rejection was from Kyrgyzstan. I reapplied for the e-visa and got rejected again. Later I heard (though never confirmed of course) that at that point in time, they were rejecting all Indian applications without explanation. I thus struck one country off my list before I even started cycling. With the advantage of hindsight, I can say that if I was to do this cycling trip now, I would probably try walking into the Kyrgyz embassy somewhere and apply directly.
Surprisingly, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan gave me visas without too much fuss. My plan after Uzbekistan was to cycle through Turkmenistan into Iran, but I was rejected by the Turkmen embassy. I was blaming it –as usual– on my Indianness, but I then heard many other stories: people who were rejected and then got it on reapplication, couples among whom only one was accepted, and so on. There was no apparent logic to the rejections, and –I have to say– it felt a little comforting that for once, I was not worse off than the rest of the cycling world at the visa process!
The Iran visa was much easier. The lady in the embassy had attended college in Delhi, and was thrilled to meet an Indian. She went out of her way to make the process easier for me, including letting me exchange US dollars in the embassy (usually they only accept Euros), making sure all (and only!) the correct details were filled in my form, and in radiating a positive energy by laughing a lot.
I could have flown from Uzbekistan to Iran, but if I wanted to get to Europe after Turkey, I had to go back to India at some point. The Schengen countries aren’t known not known for flexibility in their rules; there was no way they would give me a visa if I applied in Iran or even Turkey. So I decided to fly back to India and get my Schengen Visa before I cycled through Iran.
This, of course, irreversibly broke the whole ambition of an unbroken cycle trip after only my second country. But when up against the wall of visa regulations, there’s little one can do. A few months later, I would meet another Indian cyclist who was much more enterprising than me and had diplomatic connections that he reached out to for help with Schengen visa application in Turkey, but to no avail. He also had to fly back to India for his visa.
A problem with applying for the Schengen visa before I cycled through Iran was that after the time of application, I had three months to enter Europe. This meant that I would have a total of three months in Iran and Turkey, whereas my original plan was to spend thee months just in Iran.
The submission of documents for a Schengen visa (for most. But not all Schengen countries) is handled by an outsourcing agency. When I walked in with my application, the guy at the counter refused to take my application because I didn’t have hotel reservations or a flight into Europe. “I’m going by cycle, that’s why I don’t have a flight ticket,” I told him. “How can you expect me to know where I’ll stay every night?”
Because I kept insisting, he informed me that he can take my application (even though it’s “only going to get rejected”), but only if I wrote a letter saying that I’m submitting my application even though I knew that my documents were incomplete and insufficient. I guess it was just a way of covering his ass, but it was still pretty annoying!
The Schengen visa arrived (yay!) a few days later. I had asked them for a six month period (so that I could spend three months in the non Schengen EU countries and three months in the Schengen ones). I had included a detailed itinerary with the application, but they decided based on no apparent logic to give me a visa for four months. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be complaining about this – at least I would get to Europe!
In between Iran and Europe lies Turkey for which a month-long e-visa is easily available if you have a valid Schengen visa. But the validity starts (and ends) with the dates on your Schengen visa. So you can enter Turkey only after the entry date on your Schengen visa, and only before the exit date.
When I was close to the Iran border, my second application for a visa extension in Iran was rejected. So I had to leave Iran that same very stressful day, but the only way out by land was through Turkey, where my visa wasn’t valid yet because my Schengen visa started after ten days.
So I decided to just risk it. It was a land border, so I was hoping that they weren’t too familiar with the rules. In the worst case, I would have to stay on no man’s land for ten days which would make for an interesting story at least!
Not only did they not know what to do with my visa, they didn’t know what to do with my passport. I doubt they had ever seen any Indians at this border. They made me sit on a bench for five hours. No one spoke to me, or offered me water or was even remotely friendly or kind. The only communication I had after they took my passport was to a gesture to let me know that I couldn’t rest my right leg on top of my left knee and both feet had to be on the ground.
That evening, just before the embassy closed, an officer handed me my passport and signalled that I could go into Turkey. At the final security station, they made me take off the cycle seat and shone a light into the frame tube – maybe to see if I had drugs. They made me take off all the luggage and pass it through their X-ray machine, and pointed out to me while laughing that I should probably take a shower.
In normal circumstances, I would have found all this quite amusing, but after five hours of sitting around being treated like shit, I felt like shit and just wanted to leave. A few days later, I would be stopped and humiliated by the Turkish police again, but that’s a story for a different day. Suffice to say that I now have a deep sympathy for refugees crossing these parts of the world to escape to what they feel is a place that will treat them better.
I recently saw (on Instagram) a white cyclist from Spain mentioning that how much harder it would be for someone from Bangladesh to do what she’s doing (cycle from Spain to Bangladesh, I guess). I am here to report that cycling from Spain to Bangladesh without flying back to Bangladesh at some point would not just be difficult, but impossible. There is a really cool Danish Guy who’s been traveling the world for five years without taking a single flight and without going back home. He wants to visit every country traveling only by land. I can’t imagine that this would be possible for an Indian.
So there you have it: a few of my visa stories. Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting that other cyclists have it easy. China’s visa policies are quite weird, and apparently India’s too. But on the whole I think for a cyclist from Europe the cycling is the hard part. For them, there is usually a way out, and they continue their journey by land. For an Indian (or a country with a passport that is on the same level or worse than us), the visas are a wall that will break your head multiple times and force you to compromise on your otherwise best laid plans.
As usual though, it’s always worth it in the end.