Formalities connected with visa application can seem very complicated at first but in reality everything goes smoothly. The best source of information and step by step instructions is www.caravanistan.com and here’s the account of my experience.
LOI – I used the services of key2persia (33€). Good communication and no problems. I received my LOI after 7 working days. After getting LOI you have a month to collect your visa in a consulate indicated beforehand. Caravanistan suggests you shouldn’t admit that you’re planning to cycle in Iran while filling the form.
Consulate in Erzurum (Turkey) – You need two copies of your passport, two photos (without hijab for women), payment receipt of 75€ in a nearby bank, a form filled on the spot (you’ll need the address of a hotel – I didn’t book anything, just wrote down the address). I got the visa the same morning after 10 minutes of waiting. All the procedure took about 1 hour (January 2017).
Yazd – You need two copies of your passport plus two copies of the Iranian visa and the entry stamp, two photos (without hijab), two copies of a form filled on the spot, payment of 345 000 rials in a nearby bank plus 5000 rials paid at the immigration office. All the procedure took about 1,5 hour, tourists don’t have to queue. They considered my request of getting a 60 day extension but it was refused. They told me I can get to Mashhad by bike before the first extension expires and extend there again.
Mashhad – You need two copies of your passport plus two copies of the Iranian visa and the entry stamp, two photos in hijab, two copies of a form filled on the spot, payment of 345 000 rials in a nearby bank. The passport office is huge, full of people and with endless piles of Afghan passports. Nobody speaks English and nobody is bothered about anyone. I had to queue a lot and come back three times. I only got my extension after lying a lot the last time. Not recommended.
Turkey – Iran: (Gurbulak – Bazargan) Getting the entry stamp and answering a couple of questions (job, destination in Iran) went very smoothly and fast. Actually it was way faster then when entering Turkey. Nobody paid any attention to my bicycle.
Iran – Turkmenistan: (Sarakhs) Leaving Iran, you need to unpack and show your luggage (superficially). Customs officer wasn’t there when I arrived and I had to wait for him for almost an hour. Getting the stamp in your passport is just a formality.
Contrary to some information coming the country, THERE ARE NO OBSTACLES FOR WOMEN TO CYCLE IN IRAN, EVEN SOLO. It’s not popular among Iranian women and one told me her husband doesn’t let her, but in big cities girls cycle. I NEVER had any problems. Cycling Iran as a single girl was also always accepted by the police without a word of protest.
My contacts with the police in Iran were quite common but let me reassure you that every policeman I met here was impeccably kind and nice with me.
It happened that I was stopped on the road by police patrols passing me by (they asked for my passport, wrote down my data, asked where from and where to I was cycling). It also happened that in small towns the locals, before leading me to a caravansarai, a guesthouse or a room for guests by the mosque, told me to register at the police station (which means copying the passport and telling where from and where to you’re going). Twice the police found a place for the night for me when there was no hotel. Once it happened that the police forced me to change my plans to stay with the locals for the night and I was ‘kindly forced’ to take a taxi to a nearby town with a hotel (30km) and sleep there (they made me stay there for free that night because I complained a lot). Once they followed me with the car for 50 km to make sure I will arrive to the city with a hotel. I was never stopped at police road checkpoints outside of towns.
Officially you’re not supposed to sleep anywhere else then in hotels or other places that can receive travellers, so if you’re hosted by Iranians at homes, you should never admit it to the police.
Staying at homes of the Iranian people is much more fun though and guaranteed wherever there are people’s homes because Iranians are very hospitable. I was never refused a place for the night and my request was always seen as something natural. Once a woman prepared a place to sleep for me in an empty room because at first she thought I just want to lie down and rest. And it was also treated very naturally.
The roads in Iran are of good quality and I don’t recall any bumpy roads anywhere. I often cycled on a wide, asphalted hard shoulder and if it was not available, there was a gravel wayside where I could pull over for a moment. The opposite lane is often divided by some 20-metre-wide empty space. Village roads are usually without tarmac which means sandy here.
Road signs indicate the cities and the distances both in Iranian alphabet and in English.
The traffic that attacked me after almost a month without cycling at first seemed completely crazy to me, then I got used to it. You need to be careful, listen to warning honking of the drivers, and, in the cities, maneuver looking in the mirror, in front of you and around at the same time. People in parked cars open their doors without looking if anybody’s coming from behind. Traditional rules of road code are treated very freely. The rule of who’s bigger and faster comes in use a lot too. While cycling, you need to be predictable to other drivers or let them pass first. And remember that other drivers are completely unpredictable. Road maneuvers like turning right from the inner lane of a roundabout is something very natural here.
Shop prices (groceries, I don’t mean souvenir stands here), restaurants, bus stations are fixed. If you get on a bus without a ticket and need to pay to the driver or get a taxi, you should get informed before what the prices are because they will try to give you a higher price. In hotels you can bargain.
Iran is huge and the part that I cycled was a desert. Distances between the towns can be significant and you need to consider it while planning. Here you won’t get a coffee or a tea every 10km and you won’t buy a snack wherever you feel like.
Let me also remind you something that everybody knows: Muslims perform obligatory ablutions before praying. Ergo, there’s always a toilet by a mosque.
On the streets, bazaars, bus stations, by the mosques there are often drinking water taps. Look around for a metal box of over a metre height.
Shops are supplied with basic products among which – for cyclists – all canned goodies (including tuna) can be found along with Chinese soups or even, if you search well, Nutella made in Poland. In terms of snacks they have awful packed muffins. It’s much better idea to buy local sweets. Grocery shops by the road often sell hot tea. You’ll recognize it by a big pot with a tap standing outside where the water is boiling.
Women must be well covered here. In my case it wasn’t a big problem. I wore long trousers and a jacket anyway because of the weather. The only additional elements were a loose, summer dress I wore over my trousers and a buff (much more comfortable for cycling then a scarf).
Money and Internet
The fact that you need to carry all the cash you need is well known to everybody. ATMs, despite the sanctions being lifted, are still unavailable for the Western bank cards. Or so they say. I didn’t test it. Dollars and Euros can be easily changed in exchange offices or banks.
The Internet in bigger cities is available in all places for tourists (coffee shops, restaurants etc.). In smaller towns sometimes it’s available (restaurants, shops), sometimes not. At people’s homes it’s the same. Depends on who you stay with. If you’re in need, you can try offices.
Women in Iran pose for the photos with pleasure, unwillingly or not at all so it’s good to show some sensitivity about it.
First of all, no woman will allow you to take her photo without her wearing a proper outfit. Even when you’re at someone’s home, where women wear what they like, when you ask for a photo, it will take some time because all the females will head for their hijabs and appropriate length clothes first.
On the street, women who by chance entered my photo frame, seeing me with the camera by the eye, sometimes covered their faces with chadors or turned away from the camera lenses. It’s for sure more elegant to give them a minute to react before snapping a picture.
Sometimes it happened that they refused completely when I asked my female hosts for a memory photo.
There are almost no dogs in Iran. Rarely can you meet some street dogs rambling around villages or some shepherd or guard dogs. All of them have very Iranian attitude – friendly approach to visitors.
You can meet wild camels in the desert but it takes some effort to find them.
A woman in Iran
Iranians are very kind-hearted, hospitable and helpful. They offer their guest whatever they can and if you turn to them with some specific request, they will do everything to make your life easier.
However, being a single girl here, I also encountered some less nice situations. It happened to me that men asked me to spend the night with them, which, I guess, should be treated as a specific, Iranian-style romantic character. A firm ‘no’ was always understood and respected. It also happened that I was shown, in the international body language, that it would be nice if we stopped here together for a quarter of an hour. Icy indifference turned out to be more efficient that loud cursing in Polish. All in all, those situations were not harmful but certainly irritating.
Entering Iran, you come a land of incomprehensible hieroglyphs which means that, apart from big cities where English signs exist for tourists, you won’t even be able to tell which one is ‘woman’s toilet’. It’s good to learn numbers though which, contrary to their alphabet, are written from left to right.
Salam – Hello
Mersi/Mamnoon – Thank you
Hoda hafez – Goodbye
Are – Yes
Na – No
Hoob – Good
Hane/Manzel – House
Chadyr – Tent
Docharhe – Bicycle
Codja – Where?
Chand – How much?/How many?
Bozorg – Big
Coochick – Small
Heili – Many
Kam – Little/Few
Nafar – Person/People
Ab – Water
Tohmemorg – Egg
Morg – Chicken
Garm – Warm
Sard – Cold
Mostarim – Straight
Nemifahmam – I don’t understand
Nemidunam – I don’t know
Mihoram – I want
Hastam – I am
Dorim – I have
Dusteram – I like
Rooz – Day
Shab – Night
Arzan – Cheap
Geran – Expensive
Door – Far
Nazdik – Near
Ziba – Beautiful
Esm – Name
Sol – Year