GL003: The Asian Visa Puzzle

June 29th, 2016

An intermezzo from the pointy end of this trip. We’ve been in Athens, Greece, for a week now and will stay for at least a week longer. We’re healthy and so are the bikes, although they don’t look it because they are the target of dozens of Athenian pigeons and smelly stray cats.

I’ll report about the ride to Athens but I didn’t want to keep this from you. One reason for the slow updates on this blog is that we’re working behind the scenes to make the trip itself work. As I’ve mentioned we do have a lot of time but it’s not unlimited. That makes riding eastward from Europe a challenge. If you think our trip is just a really long vacation where we can simply keep on riding and relax whenever we want, you’d be wrong. This isn’t South America. When you leave Europe for the southern route through Asia things start to become complicated as in ‘more complex than necessary’. Let me explain. And if you intend to be on time for work, leave now and read it later.

Our desired route is:

  • Switzerland to Greece Tzatzikistan
  • Turkey
  • Georgia and Armenia
  • Iran*
  • Turkmenistan*
  • Uzbekistan*
  • Kyrgyzstan*
  • Tajikistan
  • China*
  • Nepal
  • India*
  • Burma/Myanmar*
  • the rest of South-East Asia

The starred countries are those for which visa must be obtained through an embassy or consulate (this applies to travelers with Dutch citizenship). So up to Turkey everything looks rosy, right? Not entirely, because you need to plan ahead. A lot, and far ahead.

Here’s a coarse route:

Let me sum up the facts, requirements, challenges, uncertainties and decisions. I recommend getting a cup of coffee first.

Some common things first:

  • Not all countries have embassies in all other countries.
  • All embassies seem to have slightly different rules for obtaining a visa, for example, which documents you need, how to apply, whether you leave your passport at the embassy or not, whether you need a proof of funds, proof of insurance, library card…
  • Many embassies only issue a visa if you can present a Letter Of Invitation (LOI) which can often only be obtained through a certified travel organization in that country.
  • It is possible to obtain visa without LOIs, depending on your nationality, but the processing at the embassy is usually longer and the duration of the visa could be shorter. In other words, LOIs give you more planning flexibility but also cost you more.
  • The visa validity means how much time you have to start using the visa. After that date it expires and you normally won’t be admitted to the country.
  • The visa duration is the time that you are allowed to stay in the country.

Some more specific things:

  • Our tourist visa for Iran happen to have a 30 day validity and a 30 day duration. That means that we have 30 days to get to Iran once the visa has been issued. We used an LOI from StanTours for this one to pick up the visa in Athens. From a scheduling point of view we’d have liked to pick up the Iranian visa in Ankara, Turkey, but it seemed safer to get the visa in Athens, because large Turkish cities are the stage of extremist violence these days (see Shia/Sunni conflicts).
  • Not booking a tour in Turkmenistan with an expensive guide/minder on our backs means that we can only obtain transit visa. This is a permission to cross the country, usually in about 5 days. Once issued, the transit visa dates cannot be changed anymore.
  • The transit visa procedure for Turkmenistan takes 10-14 days from the moment you apply. That means you’re stationary or at least must return to the embassy after that time to pick up your visa.
  • Turkmenistan has an embassy in Switzerland, but because we didn’t know upon departure when exactly we’d transit this country, we decided to obtain the transit visa en route.
  • The Turkmenistan transit visa requirement states that one must already be in the possession of the Iranian and Uzbek visa (for our route).
  • Turkmenistan has no embassies on our route from Switzerland until we reach Ankara.
  • Therefore we decided to apply for LOIs for Uzbekistan and Iran while still in Croatia so they’d be ready by the time we reached Athens and we’d be able to pick up both visa there. The Turkmenistan visa would then be handled in Ankara.
  • We picked up the Uzbekistan visa on June 27th (check!)
  • Because our Iranian visa validity is one month from issue, we basically have one month to cross Turkey. Otherwise the Iranian visa would expire. However, we should factor in the 10-14 days processing time for the Turkmenistan visa in Ankara. This would leave us two weeks to cross Turkey (at least 1900km/1200mi).
  • We shouldn’t enter Iran too soon because our Iranian visa still need to be valid when we start out transit of Turkmenistan.
  • In order to lose less time in Ankara, we’re pursuing the option to obtain a visa authorization letter from the embassy of Turkmenistan in Geneva that would allow us to obtain the visa at the Iranian/Turkmen border.
  • More coffee? Sure.

And it goes on:

  • The safety situation in eastern Iran, Afghanistan and most of western Pakistan is such that we will avoid this area altogether. Call us chicken but there will be enough adventure without it.
  • Therefore, in order to reach Nepal and later South-East Asia, a route through the Stans is as unavoidable as it is interesting and wonderful.
  • If we want to do this route entirely over land we will at some point need to cross China. It’s big and kind of ‘in the way’.
  • The borders between India and China have been closed since a conflict in 1962.
  • Nepal was the stage of a violent earthquake in the spring of 2015.
  • There is one border crossing between China and Nepal at Zhangmu/Kodari and it has been closed ever since the earthquake. There have been predictions of it opening again in March 2016, April, May and June… There is no single touring organization or government official who can accurately predict the opening of this border.
  • There are rumors that there is an open alternative border crossing at Gyrirong, west of Kodari.
  • “The border is open” can mean several things in Bureaurocratspeak: 1) local traffic may cross. 2) The border is open for international tourism and trade and 3) The border is open for foreigners with their own vehicle. The latter is what we need and it is not certain at the point of writing whether we can use the alternative crossing at Gyrirong this year because bureaucracy would need to be implemented for this new situation.
  • Driving/riding your own vehicle in China is not so simple. Depending on how many provinces are involved it takes longer to arrange the Chinese driver’s license, the Chinese vehicle registration, the permits to travel along a fixed route and potentially a separate permit for the Tibet Autonomous Region (T.A.R.). On top of that there will be a mandatory guide/minder following you wherever you go along that fixed route. All this makes a China transit very expensive. There are high fixed costs per person and vehicle and variable costs such as the guide. The latter may cost you between $100 and $200 per day. You pay for his accommodation and his food too. I have to look up McDonald’s in Chinese.
  • We wish to avoid winter in the Himalayas (we forgot our snowboards) and therefore should aim to cross it no later than October. Earlier is better as getting stuck in the snow with your guide and getting rescued can be a serious problem for your bank account.
  • Because it’s such a bureaucratic hassle, specialized touring organizations need approx. 70 days to arrange everything with the authorities. That means that if we start a 3-week China transit through their westernmost province of Xinjiang and Tibet at the end of September, the decision needs to be made by the middle of July. We’ll be in Ankara then.
  • Because the Nepalese border is not ‘open’ (see above for flavors), it is unsure whether we can obtain a permit to transit China from Kyrgyzstan to Nepal, but we need to decide soon.
  • Going to Laos from Kyrgyzstan is another option but even more expensive.
  • It is common to share the costs of a transit with a group but this means that a fixed group of people with a fixed number of registered vehicles must travel along a fixed route and exit the country together. If the group (people and vehicles) is not complete, the permission to enter is not valid and the transit cannot take place officially.
  • Although traveling in a group would be a lot cheaper and more fun than entertaining your minder alone, there is a large risk. The group members will probably all have a long journey from Europe to China and the probability that something goes wrong (breakdowns, accidents and illnesses) is large. So, with a heavy heart, we’ve decided to form our own group of two. That will make us independent of others and vice versa.
  • Aw, you ran out of coffee again. It’s good you’ve made a big pot.

What I forgot to mention:

  • With the early rumors of the Chinese/Nepalese border opening this year, we’ve disqualified our original plan of transiting China from Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan. Tibet is safer, probably as beautiful as the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan (is it?) and the visa for China is much easier to obtain.
  • However, with the current Nepalese border situation and the deadline for the transit to Nepal, we’ve started a parallel plan to pursue a China-transit to Pakistan. That way we can reach Nepal through India.

Here’s a coarse route:

  • Visa for Pakistan are difficult to get: extensive visa application forms, LOIs, possibly long processing times for tourist visa and most importantly: you must apply in your country of residence. The latter seems to be an unbreakable rule among all Pakistani embassies.
  • That would mean that we’d need to apply for Pakistan visa in Switzerland. But we’re in Athens. And it could take a long time in Switzerland. And would they have our passports for all that time? And even if we went there to get the visa, every day of delay is a day less in Turkey where we don’t have ample time anyway because of the Iran visa validity and the potential 2-week wait for a Turkmenistan transit visa. And the Pakistan visa is a contingency plan to begin with that might dissolve if the border between China and Nepal would open officially and on time for foreigners with their own vehicle. When will that happen and will we have enough time to decide which route to take in China? And where do we pick up the visa for China and India? The caffeine overdose isn’t helping now, is it?

So we happened to pick the most difficult visa puzzle in the world for our overland trip. This whole challenge tastes of engineering. In fact, I think it’s easier to synchronize a dozen internal clocks domains in an FPGA without uncertainties (really).

And what’s with Kyrgyzstan in this story? The Kyrgyzstan visa policy is great (for citizens of the EU including the British): 60 days visa-free! Their tourism board came up with the slogan “so much to discover”. I’ve heard they’ll soon come with a license plate slogan “Central Asia’s most comfortable waiting room”.

Could we have dealt with all this at home? Yes, but it would have failed miserably. I don’t think it’s clever to plan your visa so long ahead of time on an overland trip, regardless of restrictive visa validities. By the time your schedule starts shifting, for whatever reason in the real world, you’d be stressed because your carefully set up house of visa cards will fall apart. It still might anyway.

After this whole story, you’ll probably think that this route is nearly impossible to ride. However, we see light at the end of the tunnel. This is engineering after all.

More about that later.