We knew that as we headed out of Europe and into the Middle East and Central Asia, we’d be cutting through as much red tape as we would snow and ice. So maybe it was a good idea that we’d expected it, as international bureaucracy is becoming a bigger pain in the proverbial than a brand new leather saddle!
Weeks ago, in Turkey, we applied for our visas for Iran, after spending countless hours looking at other people’s experiences with getting their papers in order for a cycling expedition across this part of the world. A few days ago, in Tbilisi, we finally received these priceless stickers in our passports, after trekking to and from the Iranian Embassy with passport photos, documents, and cash (no less than a hundred euros each). Cue much celebrating and leaping about in the snow, to the wonder of bemused pedestrians and security guards.
But the process itself bore no resemblance to the romantic idea of a sit down with the Ambassador in a luxurious office, having a chat over a cup of chai about the ins and outs of a visit to the Islamic Republic. Nor did it bear any resemblance to the stories we’d read of overwhelming Persian hospitality. No — we were relegated to the patch of pavement outside a small window next to some extremely forbidding-looking security gates, arguing with a bored old man about our ‘letters of invitation’ (which we never saw), supposedly faxed ahead to the embassy, and getting cold and snowed-on.
Finally, after 3 days, we returned to collect our passports, which were handed to us by an anonymous arm that emerged furtively from around the semi-opened mirrored window, which was then wordlessly closed and locked. It felt as though we’d received some kind of classified eyes-only document that would soon self-destruct in a dramatic but harmless ball of flame. (Thankfully, this did not happen.)
At the Armenian border, a day’s ride from Tbilisi, we received visas quickly, but not without an unexpectedly hefty charge of 15,000 drams each (around 50 dollars). This left us with the equivalent of about 20p each in cash for the journey to Yerevan. Luckily, we were fed and housed every night between the two cities, by astonishingly friendly (and often slightly drunk) locals. The elevation began to increase and our route through the sparsely-inhabited area near to the Azeri border was barren and rugged, but beautiful — and eerily silent.
We decided to cycle seperately for a few days to have some of our own space and to experiment with solo travelling by bicycle. I had made it through incredibly picturesque, quiet and snow-filled valleys as far as a quaint town called Dilijan in the north-east of Armenia when I received some unexpected news by email. It was from my dear mother, who has been to the ends of the earth to try and get some proper winter sleeping bags out to us. The intended recipient of the parcel in Yerevan had received an unexpected customs bill for the goods to be released. It was for 700 dollars.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s about 6 months’ worth of living costs for me as I cycle and camp every day in this part of the world, so I was undertandably taken aback, albeit in true English style, with plenty of muttering and frowning and as little a display of emotion as possible. I resolved to lock my bike in the back room of a cafe in the town, and hitch-hike to Yerevan with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, my wallet, passport, and camera.
This I succeeded in doing, and I met up again with Andy. We are now embroiled in a silent battle of diplomatic muscle — the outgoing British Ambassador heard our story and intervened with the help of the Armenian Foreign Ministry. We are now waiting in limbo (again) to hear of the outcome from our new friends at the British Embassy, who are attempting to get the parcel released free of charge.
Incidentally, I met some young Americans who were working here in Armenia with the Peace Corps, which I learnt is an American organization to place young Americans in (mainly) third-world communities as social workers, teachers and the like. Two of these people had just been put on a plane home to the U.S. after they overstayed their vacation allowance by a whole 3 days. That’s another example of petty bureaucracy. We’ve heard that the Armenian customs department is notoriously heavy-handed, and this has been backed up by numerous anecdotes from people I’ve met in the last few days.
So the winter riding is not the only challenge I’m facing. Let’s hope that I get a smoother ride for the next few weeks. Mind you, seeing as the road ascends to above 2,500m elevation and continues through mountainous terrain for several hundred kilometers on the Iranian side of the border, I’m not expecting it to be easy.