Visa status as of today, Monday July 20th 2015
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman: YES
Saudi Arabia: Maybe....
After a required very long hiatus which we have had to take for multiple administrative reasons, since we last stopped our route in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, on August 28th 2015, almost 11 months ago, we are finally getting close to resume our Nexus expedition!
It has not been easy to secure all of the visas needed for the countries we are hoping to cycle through over the next few months, taking as well into account the combination of Gulnara's Russian passport and my French one!
Indeed, since our current immediate goal is to reach, by human power, South Africa, to start the rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, we hope we will be able to travel via the eastern coast of Africa.
But to be able to reach Eastern Africa the most directly, we first and foremost need to cross the Arabian Peninsula, while skipping obviously any country which are currently facing domestic wars and/or facing the threat of potential ISIS, al-Qaeda, or else, related kidnapping and/or murdering, especially in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.
We spent the last two months in our respective native countries of France and Russia, where we have been already able to secure our visas for Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman.
These are not some of the easiest countries to travel through as globetrotter Gunnar Garfors recently wrote in his blog: "The World's 15 hardest countries to visit": #4 Saudi Arabia, #9 Turkmenistan, #11 Uzbekistan.
(Keep in mind though that this list might somewhat vary according to your own citizenship. For example, it can be quite difficult to get a visa for Europe/USA/Japan/etc.. when you come from a developing nation..)
We also have secured visas for Kazakhstan and Russia, if for one reason or another, we are no longer allowed to cycle entirely across Iran, and therefore need to go around the northern side of the Caspian sea, via Kazakhstan, Russia and Georgia.
We expect as well to be able to get while "on the road", the "easier" visas for the countries of United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt.
In order to obtain our visas, we have had to provide to either the Saudi, Iranian, Omani and/or Kazakh consulates, a multitude of documents and received an approval from each country Ministry of Interior.
For example, the Saudis asked us to submit a notarized and certified letter by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs justifying the legitimacy of our Nexus Expedition, as well as medical reports, copies of our wedding certificate, birth certificates and filled out applications where we were asked to share a large amount of personal information such as our religious affiliation.
The Iranians asked us to disclose the complete list of all the countries we have ever visited, a proof of international insurance and a registration number provided by a travel company in Tehran.
They also explained very clearly to each one of us, (at the Iranian consulate in Paris, France for myself and at the Iranian consulate in Kazan, Russia for Gulnara) that in no shape nor form we should hold the Iranian government accountable for any harm which could be done to us physically, materially or financially while crossing their country.
This request can be quite intimidating but this was not the first time for us and probably not the last...
Indeed, in the past, I have had to sign similar waivers with local authorities in order to be able to secure visas/permits to cross by foot remote parts of Russia (Chukotka) and the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, which in the end, we had to skip because of Tajik administrative reasons.
Now, the remaining main obstacle to secure our entire route to Egypt, is whether or not we are going to be allowed to cross Saudi Arabia by bicycle.
Indeed, over the last two months in Paris, Gulnara and I have met with three subsequent Saudi consuls in Paris, whom thankfully, were all very supportive of our expedition.
While in Paris, we were able to stay with my cousin Babeth Rouzeau who very kindly welcomed us in her apartment for such an extensive period of time.
Being told to be extremely patient, we have, nevertheless, checked once or twice a week with the Saudi consulate in Paris for any further development, submitting additional documents when requested.
The closures of the Saudi consulate during the month of Ramadan, as well as the large amount of pilgrims applying for visas for their Hajj to Mecca, probably did not help as well the expediency of our case.
We have been told repeatedly that this was the first time they ever had, at this consulate in France, a request to cycle across the entire Saudi Arabia, and this is probably why it is taking so long to obtain an answer.
Although, apparently, the legacy of Nexus Expedition with its 17,814 kilometers trekked, skied, cycled and swam since Anchorage, Alaska, has helped gain some legitimacy in the eyes of this consulate.
Spending countless hours in the Saudi consulate in Paris over the last few weeks, we have seen a large amount of applicants been swiftly rejected because they did not properly "dot their i's and cross their t's" in their business visa applications or for their Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
So, the fact that after two months, we have not been rejected yet, allow us to remain hopeful for a positive outcome.
So far, we have heard of only four non Saudi individuals who have been able to recently cross Saudi Arabia by human power:
- In 2015, the Turk long distance cyclist Gürkan Genç.
- In 2013, The American journalist Pulitzer prize winner Paul Salopek with his "Out of Eden" 7 years walk, sponsored by the National Geographic.
Paul Salopek recently shared with me:
"It took eight months of personally lobbying the royal family with the considerable leverage of National Geographic behind me. The only basis on which the Saudis agreed was that it was a cultural and scientific undertaking.
I suggest writing to the Saudi embassy in your home country, and playing up the cultural value of your journey. Be persistent. It is a long process. "
- In 2006, the German long distance cyclist Peter Smolka was allowed to pedal across Saudi Arabia from Egypt to Yemen on a 15 days Transit visa.
At the time, apparently, the Saudi officials were extremely accommodating, they even provided to him a motorcade which escorted him the whole way and allowed him to cycle the entire distance.
- Date unknown: Extract from travel forum Tour.TK: " We have met a Japanese cyclist who cycled through Saudi Arabia on a transit visa. He entered from Yemen and exited in Jordan. Transit visas are only issued if you can prove that there is no other way to get to where you want to go, than by traveling through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
Note: Soon enough, we will either hopefully receive a positive answer from the Saudi consulate or go on with an alternate route through Iran which instead of taking us southbound towards the strait of Hormuz, will take us straight west towards Turkey, southern Europe, etc...
At that point, we will revise our route and maps, and shared it on this site.
But for the time being, here is the plan which we are excited to share with you!
We are scheduled to return in Bukhrara, where we last stopped on July 31st 2015.
There, we plan to spend a few days regrouping our gear and tuning our bicycles which we were kindly allowed to store in the Nazira and Azizbek guesthouse over the last 11 months.
If time allows, prior to resuming the expedition, we would like to take the opportunity to venture out west in order to visit the ancient city of Khiva, the Karapalkastan region and the Uzbek side of the quickly vanishing Aral Sea.
From there, back in Bukhara, we will cycle 105 kms southwest and cross the Uzbek-Turkmen border between Alat (Uzbekistan) and Farap (Turkmenistan).
Turkmenistan is one of the most reclusive countries in the world, let alone in central asia.
Therefore it can be quite complicated to secure a visa to cross this country freely.
In addition, we were told that Gulnara, as a Russian citizen may even have a more difficult time to secure a tourist visa to be able to cross this ex-Soviet state, which is keen on showing its independence from its ex colonial Slavic ruler.
Nevertheless, we thought that we might still go for one of the two following options:
- A 5 days transit visa to quickly cycle the shorter distance across the country of 455 kms of windy desert roads with our laden expedition cycles, in high 30's Celsius temperatures.
- A 10-15 days tourist visas, where we can somewhat cycle freely but are requested to hire an escorting "guide" with whom we need to be in contact on a nightly basis.
Having heard of a few rare cases, where cyclists were given an exceptional transit visa of 7-10 days, we decided to get in touch with the Turkmen consul in Paris, with whom we met twice.
Nope, he was definitely not willing to give us anything more than 5 days, and actually stated, as could be expected from a diplomat / bureaucrat:
"7 days, ludicrous! you are lucky to get 5! I could cycle the whole thing myself in 2 days!"
We recalled then that we heard from french contacts we met on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, last summer, that they had a great experience cycling through Turkmenistan while being required to meet on a nightly basis with their guide Artem Gubaev and his company Travel Notoria.
We contacted Mr Gubaev and this is how we have decided to secure our tourist visas, allowing us to not only cycle through this country (via the towns of Turkmenabat, Mary, Saraghs) but also to take the time to visit intriguing sites such as the capital Ashgabat and the Crater of Darvaza, also known as "The Door to Hell".
This is not going to be the cheapest solution to cross Turkmenistan but at least it will give us ample time along our way to see what seems to be such a fascinating country.
After that, we plan to leave the country through the Turkmen-Iranian border crossing of Saraghs (Turkmenistan) – Sarakhs (Iran).
We have found recently that it is not allowed to enter Turkmenistan with a Satellite Phone.
If the customs officers find it, they will either confiscate it or not allow you into the country
To secure our Iranian visa, we worked with the company Iranianvisa.com.
In Iran, we plan to cycle approximately 1600 kms, south through the towns of Sarakhs, Mashhad, Torbat-e-Heydariyeh, Gonabad, Ferdows, Deyhuk, Nayband, Ravat, Kerman, Bardsir, Sirjan, Gahkom and Bandar Abbas.
This route has been marked in Green on the map, attached below.
In Bandar Abbas, we plan to row in a rowing boat or paddle in a kayak across the Strait of Hormuz to reach Kumzar in Oman.
Note on alternate route:
If we are not able to secure Saudi visas, we will then have to find an alternate route to continue our expedition and that is the 1900 kms alternate route marked in orange on our map.
Through the cities of Sarakhs, Mashhad, Sabzevar, Shahrud, Semnan, Tehran, Qazvin, Zanjan, Mianeh, Tabriz, Marand, Khvoy, Maku and finally cross the Iranian Turkish border in Gurbulak.
We plan to enter Oman by water after having either kayaked or rowed across the strait of Hormuz, coming from Bandar Abbas in Iran.
We plan to land near either the towns of Bukha or Kahsab in the Musandam peninsula and cycled afterwards 45 kms through the Musandam peninsula to the Oman-UAE border crossing towards the Saudi town of Ras al Khaimah.
United Arab Emirates:
We plan to enter the United Arab Emirates through the Oman-UAE border crossing of Bukha/Musadam (Oman) - Ras Al Khaimah (United Arab Emirates).
While in the United Arab Emirates, we plan to cycle 600 kms through the towns of Ajman, Sharjah, Dubai, Jebel Ali, Abu Dhabi and Tarif.
We plan to leave United Arab Emirates through the border crossing of Al Ghuwaifat (United Arab Emirates) – Al Bat’ha (Saudi Arabia).
We plan to enter Saudia Arabia through the UAE-Saudi Arabia border crossing between Al Ghewfiat (UAE) and Al Bat’ha (Saudi Arabia).
From Al Bat’ha, we have two options to consider:
A. Cycle approximately 1870 kms through the Central route.
Through the towns of Al Kharj – Riyadh – Al Majmaah – Buraydah – Abu Ajram and Al-Qurayat where we will pass the Umari Border Crossing to enter the country of Jordan.
B. Cycle approximately 1820 kms through the Northern route.
Through the towns of Al Hofuf, Nairyah, Hafar al’Batin, Rafha, Arar, Turaif and Al Qurayyat where we will pass the Umari Border Crossing to enter the country of Jordan.
Additional notes for anyone planning to apply for a Saudi visa:
"My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out."
King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, c. 1930
It has been difficult to get into Saudi Arabia for many years, as a "westerner" unless you are:
- an engineer or equivalent, invited by a company to come and work in the oil/gas/construction/manufacturing industry.
- a teacher/ professor invited by a university/school.
- a Muslim going to either Mecca and/or Medina on your Hajj / Pilgrimage.
The Hajj visa also usually limits your visit to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, (which only Muslims can visit). It does not allow anyone to freely cycle across the entire country.
- an overland traveler, crossing the country in his car, and for which he might be able to receive a 3-4 days transit visa. It is very difficult to obtain a transit visa for a longer period of time.
One needs to follow a proper dress code to be allowed to cross the country by bicycle.
Men can wear bicycling shorts while riding but need to put on pants when they stop.
Women need to wear an abaya and probably need to cover their hair.
Saudi regulations are currently changing and more women are now allowed to cycle, as long as they are in company of a man.
If anyone ever plan to enter the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is also highly recommended to show that he/she have no affiliation whatsoever with the state of Israel.
Finally, the current situation in neighboring Yemen, turmoil in Bahrain and recent arrests in Saudi Arabia does not help anyone, by any means, getting a tourist visa for Saudi Arabia.
We plan to enter Jordan through the Saudi Arabia - Jordan border crossing between Al Hadithah (Saudi Arabia) and Al Ghadaf (Jordan).
In Jordan, we plan to cycle approximatively 400 kms, south through the towns of Al Umari, Al Jafr, Maan, Ras An Naqb and Aqaba.
In Aqaba, we plan to row in a rowing boat or paddle in a kayak across the Red Sea to reach Nuweiba in Egypt.
We plan to enter Egypt after having either kayaked or rowed through the Red Sea, coming from Aqaba in Jordan.
We plan to land in the town of Nuweiba and afterwards cycle 1280 kms through Egypt to the border crossing South of Aswan on Lake Nasser.
We plan to cross the towns of Nuweiba, Taba, Suez, Cairo, Al Jizah, Al Minya, Asyut, Suhaj, Qina and Aswan.
In Aswan, we plan to row in a rowing boat or paddle in a kayak across the Lake Nasser to reach Wadi Alfa in Sudan.
Links & Additional Information:
Detailed version of 2015 Nexus Expedition proposed route
2015 Hot Spots in Northern Africa and the Middle East
Source: French Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Turkmen guide Artem Gubaev and his company Travel Notoria.
Iranian company which helped us secure our Iranian visa.
More detailed version of this blog post
Nexus Expedition Future sections