Today was dedicated to passing first the Iranian and then the Turkmen border posts. Afterwards it was planned that some friends of a friend will pick us up and take us in a 4-hour bus ride to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s surreal capital.
Since my arrival in Shiraz on March 24 I spent in total 25 days in Iran. It was a very positive experience, I met hundreds of wonderful people, saw many different climate zones, and heard around 10’000 times an Iranian driver honking when passing us. I am quite sure it was not the last time I visited Iran.
We reached the Iranian border post at 9:00 in the morning to be sure to be done with both border posts before lunch-time, because I knew that on the Turkmen side, they will have a lunch break where they stop everything. So far everything went smooth, we could easily pass all the trucks lining up with our bikes and reached the customs building. There the waiting began. We were directed to the baggage inspection, but nobody was there. We waited at least 20 minutes until someone showed up to look at my luggage and especially at the pictures on my camera. But we passed everything, so there was only the passport control left. We did not wait for long and someone showed up to take our passports and then disappeared with them. Then we waited at least 45 minutes, when someone else came back with the passports and the exit stamp in it. In total we spend at least 1.5 hours, but then we were officially out of Iran.
As soon as we crossed the bridge at the border, we were welcomed by friendly Turkmen soldiers, and because the customs building was 1 km away, we followed the road where there was a soldier every 100 m to make sure we find the way.
Once at the customs building, we first had to stand in front of an infrared camera to make sure we’re healthy – and we passed. Then we were directed to a desk where, after paying an entrance fee of $14, we got the entry stamp and were explained in very clear words that we are on a TRANSIT VISA and hence are not allowed to go anywhere else in the country than the direct route from Sarahs to Farap. More on that later. So what was left was the baggage inspection. But unfortunately it was already 11:50 and the border guards felt hungry, so everything was shut down for an hour and we had to wait with about 20 other truck drivers.
After lunch break everything went quick and we were finally officially in Turkmenistan where we were picked up by our friends from Ashgabat.
About the Transit Visa
Turkmenistan is very restrictive with letting foreigners into the country. In order to receive a tourist visa, one must book a tour through an accredited agency and is under constant surveillance of a guide. This is not really compatible with cycle tourists.
The only alternative is applying for a Transit Visa, which, as the name says, means you only want to cross Turkmenistan from one country to another. With such a visa you can travel on your own. But the restrictions are, that you must not deviate from the route that was approved in the visa, and that you only have 5 days for the 500 km across the country.
Lucie and I both got a transit visa. It is by the way by far not guaranteed that the transit visa request is approved. I heard of several cyclists this year where the request was denied.
To Mary instead of Ashgabat
Our initial plan was to have a fun evening with our friends in the capital Ashgabat, but after the very clear instructions at the border, Lucie and I did not want to risk getting into trouble by being caught in Ashgabat, around 250 km off the transit route. Therefore we drove with at least one of the friends to Mary, a city that is on our transit route where we will go sightseeing tomorrow.
It is very unfortunate not to be able to meet all friends in Ashgabat however and I hope that at some point the government (or more like the President) will realize that tourism is not such a bad thing.