Akbar, Jonas and I on our way out of Marand, Iran.

Akbar, Jonas and I on our way out of Marand, Iran.

Another great week, buckets of Iranian hospitality, meeting stacks of cyclist plus a huge weight of stress lifted off of my shoulders regarding my various visas. I can now continue to roll across Iran at a far more leisurely pace.

If you’ve found this post looking for info. on extending an Iran visa in Tehran, as well as getting Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan visas scroll down to the red text.

After the snow that sealed me into Marand had thawed away Akbar, the legendary cycling host of Marand, escorted me and Jonas, the French cyclist from my last past, out of Marand onto the road towards Western Iran’s largest city, Tabriz.

The route for the day is a decent climb for 15km out of Marand followed by a long gentle descent for 50km or so into Tabriz. We had some great views on this ride, albeit with some chilly winds…

Snow covered mountains on the climb out of Marand, Iran.

Snow covered mountains on the climb out of Marand, Iran.

More scenic views on  the way into Sofian, Iran.

More scenic views on the way into Sofian, Iran.

We decide to stop halfway in the town of Sofian to get some lunch supplies. We’d been by the side of the road for no more than 10 seconds before a big family disembarked from three cars and came to chat with us, one of them speaking fluent French with Jonas. After a few group photos we were given about a kilogram of dried apricots each… looks like we know what’s for lunch!

We rode on into the town centre and stopped at a grocery store selling tea and coffee. As we drank away we nosed around the shop trying to figure out what to buy. A customer approached us (the lady you can just make out in the photo below) and in fluent English asked us if we needed any help. After explaining we were looking for cheese and some tomatoes the shop keeper pulled some cheese out from behind the counter but she explained they had no vegetables.

Grocery store and Coffee seller in Sofian, Iran.

Grocery store and Coffee seller in Sofian, Iran.

She went to explain where the vegetable store was but halfway through explaining darted off to her parked car and came back with a handful of cucumbers and apples for us. The generosity to guests here really is astounding.

After a make shift salad by the roadside we headed on into Tabriz and no sooner than we had reached the outskirts we ran into Mohammed, a local pro-cyclist who offered to show us into the city and to come for a cup of tea at his home, lovely!

Mohammad escorting us into Tabriz, Iran.

Mohammed escorting us into Tabriz, Iran.

Whilst having tea I explained I needed to have my rear wheel trued (made perfectly round again) after my temporary spoke repair back in Armenia. Mohammad knew just the place and off we road to what I later found out is quite a famous bike store,..

Saeed Mohammadi's Bike shop, free service for tourists in Tabriz!

Saeed Mohammadi’s Bike shop, free service for tourists in Tabriz!

A man called Saeed runs a bike shop in Tabriz where bike service is completely free for bicycle tourists! I’d heard about this place but had assumed a repair like a wheel truing would still cost, but nope, he wouldn’t accept a penny!

We then went on a bike tour of Tabriz with Mohammad before he mentioned that he’d spoken with his father and that if we like we could spend the night. We accepted gratefully and cycled back to his house before tucking into a huge dinner off saffron chicken and rice.

The next day would be a day off for both Jonas and I so we could see the sights of Tabriz. Mohammad had to go off on a training ride so we headed into the city and found ourselves a cheap guesthouse for that night (a whopping £2.50 each for a twin room). Many of the cheap hotels in Iran charge extra to use a communal shower… I won’t go into detail about my improvised shower using the hose in the squat toilets.

Our super-tourist day off plans quickly fell apart when realised we were now on the main day of the end of Iran’s new years celebrations. The city was a ghost town as everyone had cleared out to go on picnics with their families and when I say ghost town I really mean it. It was a big struggle to even find food and water, eventually some locals walked us to the only place in town that was open where we stuffed ourselves with crisps and soft drinks.

We then spent the day seeing the sights that would still be visitable, first up was the blue mosque which was devastated by an earthquake some years ago…

Blue Mosque, Tabriz, Iran.

Blue Mosque, Tabriz, Iran.

As we sat on a bench, where I took the above photo, a man said hello to us and quickly darted off returning a minute later with a packet of Orange cream wafers for us as a gift. Even more incredible hospitality here!

We found free Wifi in a corner of the park next to the mosque and Jonas sat down to paint a watercolour. I used to love drawing when I was younger, I can’t believe it never occurred to me to bring supplies on this trip. I will have to pick some up.

Another sight Tabriz is famous for is having the largest covered bazaar on Earth. The one in Istanbul is more famous but I was really looking forward to seeing the one in Tabriz as it has not devolved into a collection of tourist shops like the one in Istanbul.

Unfortunately it was also a ghost town but it did prove great fun getting lost in the labyrinth. The tunnels like the one below sprawl for miles and as you end up going around in circles, when you inevitably become lost, the place feels huge.

The worlds largest covered bazaar, Tabriz, Iran.

The worlds largest covered bazaar, Tabriz, Iran.

Jameh (Friday) mosque, Tabriz, Iran.

Jameh (Friday) mosque, Tabriz, Iran.

The next morning we spent an eternity navigating our way out of Tabriz over undulating hills struggling to find a quiet road. We finally made it over the last hill and got a lovely view over a lake..

Views west of Bostanabad, Iran.

Views west of Bostanabad, Iran.

Soon after we stopped to get some supplies for camping that night when this beast of a van appeared…

They pile the blue trucks high in Bostanabad!

They pile the blue trucks high in Bostanabad!

These blue pickups are ubiquitous in Iran, they are everywhere and it seems to be the only colour available. Either that or Iranians really like blue.

We setup camp in some trees just before the town of Bostanabad and set about making a dinner that Jonas dubbed “Iranian Ratatouille”. A hodge-podge of the vegetables we had plus random spices. We noticed a dog eagerly looking on whilst we ate but thankfully he didn’t come for a rummage through our stuff.

The next day me and Jonas were to go on our separate ways as he was off to the coast and I was off to Tehran to get my visa extended ASAP. We caused much confusion when we rode to where the road split in Bostanbad, confirmed each road was the correct one with a group of locals, said our goodbyes and proceeded to ride off in differant directions, one of them asking if we’d had a fight!

After a few kilometres I stopped for lunch and tucked into my new favourite food that I found in the food bazaar in Tabriz. Pistachio Tahini Cream…

My new love, Pistachio Tahin Cream.

My new love, Pistachio Tahin Cream.

This is basically pistachios and sesame seeds blended into an absolutely divine paste that when smeared on bread makes some great calorie rich energy food.

Akbar, the cycling host form Marand, had furnished me with a massive list of phone numbers of his cycling friends all over Iran and I decided to send a text to the contact in that days destination of Miyaneh, a man called Hossain. I got a quick text back saying to give a call once I entered the city.

Adobe houses west of Miyaneh, Iran.

Adobe houses west of Miyaneh, Iran.

I spent the next few hours flying downhill through a canyon ducking out of a short rain storm in a truckers cafe fuelling up on saffron chicken and rice, this is going to become a staple I know it.

I reached the city and sat down in the park to wring the rain water out of my socks, much to the disapproving looks of a couple of elderly veiled women, and then gave Hossain a call. He said to wait right there and some of his friends would meet me. Sure enough within a few minutes two guys popped up who spoke perfect English saying they’d show me to a cheap guest-house and then Hossain would take me out for dinner later. Good stuff!

They dropped me off in one of their friends photography shop opposite the guest-house where I quickly became a bit of a novelty for the people working the shops in the area posing for several photos. After this one of the guys invited me into his grocery store and insisted I could take anything I wanted for free… INSANE!

I had to tread a fine line to not take too little or too much, as either would be rude, and settled on some bread, a small bit of cheese plus a sachet of instant coffee. As I walked out more sachets of coffee and some more bread was put in my hands. We headed over to the guest-house so I could grab a shower and I opted for a slightly more expensive room with a private bathroom so I could do laundry (£8 instead of £6).

As I got my wallet out my hosts forced it away and insisted they would pay for me. This was too much, I tired to explain I could afford it but they insisted… I felt so guilty for upgrading from a basic room!

After washing up Hossain appeared with more food based gifts and said we would head out for dinner in two hours. When the time came me, Hossain, the guy who paid for my room and also the son of the grocery store owner hopped into Hossain’s car and started driving out to a restaurant. On the way Hossain started telling me about the bicycle tours he had been on and then dropped the bombshell that he had been arrested in U.A.E. whilst cycling and tortured for several months as they claimed he was a spy. Apparently stuff like this happens a lot due to poor Arab-Iranian relations. You can see the news coverage here…

After being treated to a huge dinner of kebabs and rice we headed back to town where Hossain suggested we checkout a “Hubbly-Bubbly” bar (or ShiSha/Hookah as it’s known in the UK).

Now I don’t know if Hookah (Flavoured tobacco/molasses pipes) is illegal in Iran but this place sure made it feel like it was. We phoned a guy who let us into a locked cafe where we went through the back, down a fire escape and into a temporary shelter which had been decorated very well with sitting areas of Persian carpets and cushions. We sat down to our water pipe with the other patrons getting a kick out of a foreigner being in this place!

After half an hour I was shattered after the days ride and evenings activities and headed back to the hotel to find that the pannier bag that contains my food had turned into an ants nest. Bugger. I spent about an hour washing out the bag and seeing what could be salvaged before collapsing into bed.

The next day would be a long 140km to Zanjan where Hossain had thoughtfully set me up with another host, Behman. After 30km or so I went past this old persian bridge which was apparently bombed out by the Russians, I’ve not found to much info on it online..

Persian bridge east of Miyaneh, bombed out during the Russian-Iran War.

Persian bridge east of Miyaneh, bombed out during the Russian-Iran War.

Another 10km down the road and I saw a very odd looking bicycle coming the other way and was confused to see three arms waving at me. As I got closer I was shocked to see it was a tandem!

Gaetan and Nathalie, French cyclists touring on a tandem!

Gaetan and Nathalie, French cyclists touring on a tandem!

Gaetan and Nathalie have ridden from France to India on their tandem bike, with trailer, and are now on their way home! You can read about their adventures here…

After a chat I was keen to ride on as I had another 100km to ride that day to Zanjan and now that I’d come out of the mountains things were starting to get hot!

Iran starting to look more like you think it would, the road to Zanjan, Iran.

Iran starting to look more like you think it would, the road to Zanjan, Iran.

I sat out the worst of the day in the shade of my bike lent against a road sign and made a decision that I need to start carrying more water after running out for a 30km section. When I hit the 25km marker I let Behman know I was on my way into town and he said he would come and find me on his bike.

Sure enough about 7km from the centre I spotted him coming the other way, he hopped the central divider on the dual carriageway and, seeing the state I was in, offered to take some of my luggage for the climb into town.

We chatted about bike touring as we rode together into town during which time two idiots on a motorbike decide to deliberately buzz us (pass extremely closely whilst screaming at us) which led to Behman apologising on behalf of his countrymen.

We took a little break in a park outside a mosque and enjoyed a non-alcoholic apple beer in the sun before heading to Behman’s place. I’d been worried about making it to Tehran in time to extend my visa and decided that, as I had somewhere safe to leave my bike in Zanjan, that I would catch a bus to Tehran to get my Uzbekistan visa and then another bus to Esfahan, a tourist city where the Foreign Aliens office are very helpful with foreigners needing to extend visas, before returning to my bike in Zanjan. A major benefit of this plan would mean that I could then avoid Tehran on my bicycle as it’s regularly referred to as having some of the most dangerous driving on earth.

I hopped on the first bus to Tehran the next day only to find myself on a “VIP” bus. This is how all coaches should be. Massive leather seats arranged 2+1 across the bus so very wide as well as a ridiculous amount of leg room. Throw in free food and drinks and the 5 hour journey flew by, definitely worth the £3 compared to the normal busses £2!

During this trip I had another group to add to my growing list of people who choose to play music out loud on their phones on public transport…

  • British kids and Drum&Bass/EDM on busses
  • North Korean soldiers on trains playing and singing along with revolutionary Communist songs.
  • Elderly Iranian women listening to their favourite prayers on a long distance coach journey

The bus reached the towns western bus station and dropped me off right infront of the cities iconic Azadi tower…

Azadi (Freedom) tower, Tehran, Iran.

Azadi (Freedom) tower, Tehran, Iran.

A huge number of things in Iran are named Azadi, which means Freedom, such as streets, metro stations, hospitals and universities etc. And I thought the word was used a lot in the U.S.!

A checked into the top rated budget hotel in town and setup about researching how to get my Uzbek visa. Whilst in the lobby I spotted a cyclist at the reception and it turned out to be a Romanian cyclist, Radu, who I’ve been in contact with for about a month!

He is currently cycling from his home in Romania al the way to a 7,000m high mountain in Kyrgyzstan which he will then climb and cycle back home. His trip is inspired by Goran Kropp who’s 1996 expedition to cycle from his home in Stockholm, Sweden, all the way to Everest, towing his climbing gear (100kg) all the way, climb the mountain unsupported and without supplementary oxygen and then cycle home has become the stuff of legend.

When Radu realised who I was he was confused as to how the hell I’d managed to get here so fast as he was a solid 4 days ahead of me. During our catchup he informed me that an Italian cyclist he was riding with had managed to extend his Iranian visa here in Tehran in a matter of hours. Most guide books advise to not extend in Tehran due to the office being flooded with Afghan refugees trying to resolve visa issues. Well I decided it was worth a shot.

It was too late to apply for anything that day so I went to checkout a very unique sight, the former US embassy to Iran. This building has officially been renamed the “US Den of Espionage” and has been decorated with many murals. I apologise for the poor photo of the Skull/Statue of liberty but people have been arrested in the past for photographing this and the chap in the guard tower you can just make out in the photo didn’t look too happy with me…

Murals on the US Den of Espionage, Tehran, Iran.

Murals on the US Den of Espionage, Tehran, Iran.

Tehran is a nice city albeit very stressful due to the crazy traffic. Crossing the road is literally like playing the vintage video game frogger. To add to the difficulty it seems motorbikes do not abide by traffic lights or one way systems. Crossing a 5 lane one way street with no traffic lights is tough enough without a random motorbike screaming past in the wrong direction.

Another great thing to see in Tehran is the young trendy woman doing their absolute utmost to push the limits of the countries strict islamic dress code. Skin tight jeans under tightly belted, brightly coloured trench coats and head veils perched so far back on their heads it’s a miracle they stay on at all.

One more curiosity is the Metro. The Metro itself is extremely modern, on a par with Beijing which is the best Metro I’ve ever seen, but each train has two women only carriages at one end. The rest of the train is mixed gender and this is particularly frustrating when, during rush hour, the mixed carriage is jam packed with men and less conservative women whilst there are a few chadour (the full body and face black veil) clad woman relaxing in a spacious half empty air conditioned carriage.

Up the next morning for bureaucracy day and I headed straight to the Foreign Aliens Office.

Iran visa extension in Tehran/Uzbek visa/Turkmen visa starts here, scroll down to next red text if not interested!

Map of locations to help you

For this next bit to make sense I need to explain the rules regarding extending Iranian visas. The general rule is;

A visa can be extended by it’s original length up to 2 times and can only be extended during the last 3 days of it’s validity. The extension also takes affect from the day of the extension and not the end of the original visa.

This meant I could extend my 14 day visa by another 14 days but that since I was 5 days from the end of my visa they may decline me and that I’d also in effect only get an extra 9 days due to the overlap.

People say to avoid the office in Tehran due to it being very busy with various central asians sorting residency permits, this was indeed true but was totally mangeable, although holding my place in queues was tough.

First you head to an office at the back and are given two copies of the extension request form, you need to fill these out and take them back to the guy who gave them to you. He skims over your answers and signs it as well as giving a little tick or cross next to the number of days you asked for. My request for 30 days got a tick and this guy seemed to be the most senior guy here, looking good for a “rule breaking” extension.

Next you go to the information counter and are handed a folder, which costs 5,000 rial, and a bank receipt which you take to the nearest branch of Bank Melli which is two minutes walk away. The staff there handed me a form but when I said I couldn’t understand Farsi they reluctantly filled it in for me and I paid the 300,000 rials (£6) into the account.

Next up is some photocopying, the Tehran office does not provide this service like I’ve read the ones in other cities do. There is a man running a photography shop across the road from the office who does copying, although he seems quite annoyed that due to his location his chosen career has devolved into photocopy operator.

Back into the office with;

  • My two application forms
  • Two passport photos
  • Photocopy of Iran visa and entry stamp
  • Photocopy of passport info page
  • Receipt from bank deposit
  • Passport itself

This was all checked and I handed it into the man at the Visa Extension window who told me come back in 3 days. Bugger, however, all I had to do was say “Please can you do it today?” and he told me to go to the back office to sort my “problem”. The man there quickly took a look at my documents and said he could do it in 3 hours, result!

He headed off behind the glass to fetch me a receipt, took a look at the messy receipt desk and turn around to a woman robotically processing a stack of passports. He slipped mine onto the “In” pile, she processed it in a few seconds and he slipped it out of the “Off” pile seemingly without her noticing what he’d done. He walked back to me, gave it another signature and stamp and I was on my way out smiling and shaking the hand of every official in the building who had helped me. It was also at this point that I noticed the extension started from the end of my current visa, not from that day, giving me something like 36 days until I needed to leave the country. All of that in under an hour!

Clicking my heels I headed to the Uzbekistan consulate visa section with;

  • A letter of invitation from Stantours.com, this costs about 50 euros and takes two weeks to process.
  • Two filled out copies of Uzbekistan online visa application form
  • Two passport photos
  • $75 cash

I was in and out in five minutes and they also allowed me to alter the dates on my invitation, pushing back the 30 day window I could be in Uzbekistan as I would now spend more time in Iran due to my lovely long visa!

You can get a Uzbekistan visa in Tehran without the Letter of Invitation but this takes a week and critically requires you to provide a Letter of Introduction from your countries embassy in Tehran. For British people this makes it a no go as there is no British embassy in Tehran.

Next I headed off to find somewhere to get colour photocopies of my passport, as this is something the Turkmenistan embassy requires, and spent over an hour finding one. I reached the embassy too late but managed to get a copy of the required application form to bring back tomorrow.

The next morning I returned to the Turkmenistan embassy in Tehran to apply for my transit visa with the following;

  • Filled in application form with passport photo glued on
  • Colour photocopy of Passport ID page
  • Colour photocopy of the visa of the country you are transiting Turkmenistan to reach, in my case Uzbekistan
  • A hand written letter addressed to “The visa section of the Turkmenistan embassies in Tehran” detailing my name, the dates I will enter and exit Turkmenistan (max. 5 day window) as well as the border points I will cross (Sarakhs-Farop in my case).

This visa take 7 days to process but can be picked up at any Turkmenistan consulate. I will collect mine in the city of Mashad which is near the border post I will cross. The visa is $85 pay on collection.

Boring visa info. stops here!

The Turkmenistan embassy was fairly busy with professional Iranian visa agents and, as the embassy only accepts visas from 9:30am – 11am I advise getting there early. The Iranian agents actually turned out to be a godsend as they helped me check all my forms and once the embassy closed they all sat down for lunch on the lawn of the embassy and invited me to join them for tea.

Keen to get away from the stresses of Tehran I headed back to the Western bus station to catch a bus back to my bike in Zanjan. After finding the right bus, although this time not a VIP one, we headed off down the highway and I pulled out my laptop to start writing this blog.

After a peaceful 30 minutes the brakes slammed on and there was a massive smash, I looked out my window to see a white hatchback now travelling sideways down the motorway in front of us as the coach smashed into it a full speed grinding it into the central divider as the bus struggled to stop.

A group of women sitting by the windows where the car had come to a rest were screaming in tears and I rushed off the bus hoping that the worst had not happend. There was already a large, very quiet crowd, around the car which I took to be either a really bad or really good thing.

As I approached the completely wrecked car I noticed no one was in it. The family were all standing next to it, extremely shaken up, and with a few not too serious looking cuts and bruises. Still heart breaking to see a 3 year old girl with a black eye but it could’ve been far worse.

A wave of relief washed over me and I’d like to say at this point that the entire team who worked on the Peugeot 206 clearly did a fantastic job, it took a 100km impact from a coach full of people and everyone walked away.

Within 15 minutes the police and red crescent were on the scene and us passengers begun to be loaded on other coaches as they went passed. The occupants of the new coach went a long way to ensure that everyone was alright handing out their own food and drinks and before I knew it I was safely in Zanjan keen to get back on my bike!

In a sadder a note news going through Iran’s cycling community is that a long term Korean bicycle tourist has died in the south of the country. By chance if any cyclists have run into him on his travels his family are asking if people can send any photos of him they may have, an email is here… RIP Chang-Sub Kim.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this then checkout my site 121degrees for more info and subscribe to this blog for more entries along the way!

I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.

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