Remember that part in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy arrives in Emerald City? She knocks on the door, giddy with excitement, and asks to be let inside. Remember what the mustached guard says?
“Ain’t no way, ain’t no how!”
Applying for visas in central Asia is a lot like that.
Take my Turkmenistan stamp, for example. I arrived at the embassy in Tehran only to find that the address had changed. When I went to the new building, the staff refused to see me. I telephoned from the street and the director told me, in English, that he didn’t speak English.
It took me a full week to receive service, though I’d hardly call it customer care. My passport was thrown back at me and I was instructed to pick up my visa in Mashhad.
It might be there, I was told. Then again, it might not. It all depended on the whims of the powers that be in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital.
So I cycled nearly 900 km through the desert not knowing if my visa would be waiting on the other side. I had no choice.
Without a Turkmenistan stamp I would be forced to fly to Uzbekistan. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough cash for a plane ticket.
Because of sanctions, there are no foreign banks in Iran. It is most definitely not the land of Western Union. Tourists have no option but to enter the country with a wad of bills and make it last until they leave.
I planned well. I had plenty of money, more than enough to see me across the Turkmenistan border – just not enough to fly me over it.
Everything was riding on that stupid little stamp. With it, I’d be on my way across central Asia. Miss it, and I’d be stuck in Iran with no way out. There was nothing to do but bike and pray.
The road to Mashhad was long, full of camel crossings, dust storms and a wind so fierce I had to walk my bike across huge tracts of desert.
In the mornings my nose bled. My skin turned red, my lips cracked. It was exactly what I needed.
All I want from this journey is sensation, feeling, knowing that I’m alive.
Turkey was an overload and I could only cope by shutting down. Eastern Iran brought me back. The desert was an eight-day dogfight and I loved it.
I had no energy to waste thinking about a stamp in my passport. Truth be told, by the time I arrived in Mashhad, I didn’t even care. It was the ride that mattered, and never on this trip have I been more proud of the miles behind me.
One would think it impossible, but the inane bureaucracy at the Turkmenistan consulate in Mashhad was even worse than that in Tehran.
The clerk demanded I speak Farsi, so I spoke Farsi. He insisted I attach new passport copies to my application, so I attached new copies. He refused to accept my money because it was too wrinkled. I gave him new notes.
I told him to give me a transit visa. And he did.
Now, with reams of red tape behind me, I point my bike east not knowing what tomorrow will bring. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.