From mountain tops to under the sea* – Tehran to Azerbaijan
*The surface level of Caspian Sea at the moment is around -27 m below mean sea level.
(If you are interested about practicalities of getting some visas in Tehran and extending Iranian visa – see the end of this article)
We got our visas for Azerbaijan really fast – the same day we applied for them. So, on the same evening of 4th May we also decided to hit the road again. Our departure had already been postponed before so now it was time to leave this concrete jungle behind without further delays. We said our goodbyes to Park Abshar and had the last supper with Simin (“You got to eat a lot because you will need a lot of strength cycling! It is goood for youu!”).
When we actually started cycling, it was almost midnight. Better sooner than later – if we’d stay another night, we’d probably have woken up late the next morning, then have had another picnic and in the end started to cycle in the afternoon anyway. Also, the traffic should be less intense at night, right? Turned out that the streets and the crazy drivers of Tehran never sleep. Of course, it was just the matter of escaping the city lights when the road belonged only to us and just a few wandering drivers. At this moment we did not yet know that on this road it does not matter – day or night-time there will be less and less cars as we progress.
Essentially, the thing which had slipped our attention while planning the escape from Tehran was that the route we had chosen – road through Fasham and Dizin is often closed because of landslides. The road is mostly used by the inhabitants of the towns and villages on it but no one would usually use it for all its length – to get to Chalus road and eventually – to the Caspian Sea.
The 70km drive to the Dizin Pass is just an hour away if you are in a car (and if the road is not closed) but it took us three days to get there (also counting the starting night-ride as a day). The thing we knew before – the ascent won’t be a walk in the park – from Tehran’s 1500m asl. we will have to get our asses and all the stuff in-between them and the road (our loaded bicycles, duh!) up to 3260m asl. So, when we had done 60 out of these 70 kilometers and the road appeared to be bulldozered shut, the thought of just turning back didn’t even cross our minds. Where 4WDs cannot pass, where motorcycles think twice whether to try to pass, we can always do it – does not matter, maybe we will need to push our bikes, maybe to carry them, but we will get through.
Indeed, some sections of the road were not in a drivable state. From “there are a few rocks on the road” to “is there a road beneath these rocks?” And from a little snow obstacle to almost a real glacier. And the worst part is getting all that not only on uphill but also when going down. But overcoming these obstructions was worth it. Not only the overwhelming satisfaction that we made it, and the breathtaking landscapes that unveiled before us, but also the feeling that the road you are on belongs only to you was very – I don’t know – liberating? When you get tired of struggling with the ascent, you can just lie down in the middle of the road and watch the snowcapped mountains try to pierce the clouds to get to the blue skies.
And when you stop at the roadside you are not surrounded by agog Iranians pointing their smartphone lenses toward you. Choosing this particular road and not knowing exactly how it will turn out was a proper adventure and it will remain as one of the most memorable events in Iran (all along with the Shaking Minarets, of course).
3260m asl. is the highest point we’ve cycled up to and before us was also the longest and highest descent so far – as we were on our way to the sea, the next 110 kilometers would bring us down to the sea level. Which, in the case of the Caspian Sea, is under the mean sea level – about minus 27 meters. The beginning of downhill was not so thrilling because we had to cling on our brakes constantly, sometimes even just to push our bicycles because of the snow and rocks.
But when we got to the town of Dizin, the road was open again and we could let go of the brakes and roll down the hill at 60km/h, well, at least until we reached the famous Chalus Road. It is known as one of the most beautiful roads to cycle but also notorious for being dangerous. A lot of cars, Iranian drivers and narrow and winding road with turns that have a very limited view all make a terrifying mixture. If you are cycling, you got to take into account that there is very little space and you just have to be brave and show the cars that you are a full-fledged participant of the road traffic. As if all this wasn’t enough, Chalus road greeted us with a grim-looking sky and eventually a rainfall.
Yes, the road is also beautiful and provides you with great views, and views not really typical for Iran but bad weather and hundreds of cars spoiled this experience for us a bit. Especially after we had cycled on the picturesque and serene Dizin road which had raised the bar on road awesomeness quite high. Oh, and then there is the 2km long Kandovan tunnel, filled with a thick shroud of dust and exhaust fumes…
We got to the sea in one piece after all. Well, three pieces, more likely, because we are three persons. The only injuries we suffered were a pair of punctured tubes. While trying to fix one in Chalus, we also got an invitation to spend a night in a cottage by the sea. The inviting party was a bohemian-looking couple – Arash and Roya – who also mentioned that they have homemade wine. We accepted, of course – it’s always a good thing if you don’t have to pitch the tent in a pouring rain and someone gives you wine.
Chalus to Azerbaijan was a little less than mere 400km. Although the Caspian Sea cost is considered by many the most beautiful region in Iran, cycling through it gradually became more and more mundane. Surrounded by endless rice fields, the road is mostly flat and straight. It’s not that these days were boring in general but just that some cycling parts were. But during these days I managed to separate from my comrades for more than 24 hours (never before had we been apart for that long on this trip). I went on a detour to hunt for some geocaches. I didn’t find any of them but the detour was one of the nicest I’ve had. As soon as I went off the main Road 22, I was riding up and down on beautiful and lush green hills, observing the peaceful life of Iranian countryside.
Until the reunion with Dainis and Laura, I also ate lunch in a simple countryside home, got to know the Lahijan cyclists community, ate dinner in an office, got my bottom bracket changed on the bicycle, managed to hold on to a truck for the first time on this journey, didn’t spend a single rial for food and got stopped by the police and escorted to the center of city where I didn’t even plan to go, so they could only make a copy of my passport. Meanwhile, Dainis and Laura also met some good people and also the colorful chicks of Iran.
In one of the small towns on our way, while scouting for food, we got discovered by a local barber. He was a deaf-mute but I’d never imagined that we will be able to communicate with him better that with most Iranians who can speak. Sometimes the language is a larger barrier than the language barrier. What? Never mind. The barber made sure that we are sitting at his hairdressing saloon and not going anywhere, then rushed away to grab some food for us and there were we – chewing away Iranian hamburgers (baguettes with some meat, salad and sauce) and watching the jolly barber cutting random townsfolks’ hair off. Some cups of tea in the hospital across the road and we were ready to continue our ride!
We had also one planned stop on our way – Mr.Nader a.k.a. “The Manager” had said that we should notify him when we are closer to the town of Pareh Sar – he has a friend there who would like to accommodate us. The message was sent an our last night in Iran was spent in a house, surrounded by rice fields while we were being surrounded by the Iranian hospitality for the last time for now.
A week had passed by since we left Tehran and we were in Astara – the border town with Azerbaijan. It was a bit strange that the journey which should take us more away from our home, had started to bring us (distance-wise) closer to Latvia again. Spent almost two months in Iran, we left the country only 230km away from our entry point, where we crossed from Armenia. And the direction of our cycling at that point was pointed away from Pitt Island, not towards it. Road to Azerbaijan was not yet even close to our plans a month before entering it. The plans changed because of our misfortunes with acquiring visas in Tehran.
(Mostly failing at) our visa-marathon and Iranian visa extension
When we arrived in Tehran, our first priority was not resting, not sightseeing, but arranging the visas for our further travels. Our route was meant to go through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and eventually China. Only one from these countries doesn’t require a visa. Starts with the letter “K”. Little did we know that in the end, instead of holding the visas for these countries, when leaving Tehran, we will have visas for Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan instead.
Visas take time, also this is Iran with all the hectic and unpredictable bureaucracy – better to start sooner than later. Although, that was also our first problem. It is better to start sooner, but you got to do your homework before going out in the field. We thought that we had prepared but actually we hadn’t. The first thing we failed miserably in the beginning was the visa extension. So, we know now (all this information was actual in April/May 2015, we are not responsible if something has changed after 🙂 –
Visa extensions: You can extend your visa in every capital of Iran’s provinces. Just find the Police office that deals with passports and alien affairs. It seems that there is more than one of those in Tehran. Go extend when the time of your visa is almost up (last three days of it) if you don’t want to be sent away. As for the best place to get the extension – one can only speculate which places are the easiest but in reality it all comes down to the people working in the office and their mood on each particular day.
You will need – 2 copies of passport; 2 copies of Iranian visa; 2 passport-sized pictures, 345000IRR to be paid at Bank Melli, 5000IRR to be paid for forms which you get in the office and fill out.
Police office we went to is on Parvin Blvd [GPS: 35.7283, 51.5320], 300m south from 2nd lines’ station TehranPars, the office opens 7:30am (Persian working days).
Closest Bank Melli [GPS: 35.7258, 51.5246], 750m southwest from the police dept., First Square Tehran Pars, open from 7:30am.
In Isfahan, the police department is located on Rudaki St [GPS: 32.6300, 51.6327].
Extension is usually given for 30 days either from the day of extension or, if lucky, from the end date of your visa.
Uzbekistan visa: Consulate (not to be confused with the embassy) is on a small dead end street on Aghdasiyeh Rd [GPS: 35.8043, 51.4758], not far from the embassy of China.
Hours: Sun-Thu 8:30-12:30.
You will need – Letter of no objections from your embassy or Letter of invitation from an agency (depends on your country of origin, for us, for example, LOI was the only way, as we discovered); 2 digitally filled forms from http://evisa.mfa.uz/; a copy of passport; 2 passport-sized pictures; 75$ cash to be payed at recieving the visa. The 30-day tourist visa is supposed to be ready in 8 days.
But, as LOI means spending more money than we’d planned and more wasted time, we decided to show the finger to Uzbekistan and go through Kazakhstan instead.
Kazakhstan visa: Embassy located on the corner of Hedayat St/Masjed [GPS: 35.7779, 51.4515].
Hours: Sun 14:00-16:00 (16-18:00), Tue 10:00-12:00 (14-16:00), Wed 14:00-16:00 (16-18:00) – hours in brackets are meant for receiving the documents.
You will need – to fill the form, given in the embassy; a copy of passport; 2 passport-sized pictures; 40$ cash to be paid in a bank, but we managed to arrange that we will pay in the embassy when receiving the visa. Just bring the exact amount, they don’t have change.
Our 30-day tourist visa was ready after 4 working days.
China visa: Consular section located on Aghdasiyeh Rd [GPS: 35.8042, 51.4774].
Hours: Sun, Tue, Thu 8:45-12:15 & 14:30-16:30, but Thursday afternoon is only for receiving.
Things you will need are here – http://ir.chineseembassy.org/eng/lsfw/ .
Turkmenistan (transit) visa: Embassy on Barati, near Vatanpoor [GPS: 35.8049, 51.4525].
Hours: Sun 9:30-11:00, Mon-Thu 9:00-11:00. As we’ve noticed, the opening hours may vary based on lunar phases.
You will need – to fill the form, given in the embassy; a copy of passport; a copy of your Uzbek/Kazakh visa; 2pcs 40x60mm sized photos; a written request to the visa section of Turkmen embassy (stating your name, the dates and purpose of your visit, entry and exit points); 55$ cash when receiving the visa. They have change.
5-day transit visa should be ready in one week (better to count in some additional days) to be picked up right there or in Mashad. You need to specify exact dates for entry and exiting. Our visa request got refused, for reasons they did not disclose. So, we decided to show the finger to Turkmenistan and activated the plan-B – to try to get to Kazakhstan through Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan visa: Consular section (the new one!) in Niavaran, on 14th Street [GPS: 35.8183, 51.4758], http://www.azembassy.ir/ .
You will need – a copy of passport; 2 passport-sized pictures; to fill the form, given in the consulate; hotel booking for the duration of your stay (booking.com will do) or letter from your embassy; 60€ cash (depends on your country of origin) to be paid at the consulate.
We applied for visas in the morning and got them in the same day, in evening.
A note for the “Letter of no objections” or “letter from your embassy” – if you happen to be from EU country that does not have an embassy in Tehran (e.g. Latvia) you can get this letter from any other EU member states’ embassy. Just look for the ones which don’t ask to pay anything (e.g. Embassy of Denmark)
P.S. As I am an active user of OpenStreetMap, I decided to give back to the community and I have also added all these places to the OSM.