Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Day 87 – Kazakhstan or Tibet?
So far our journey has really been very relaxing and holiday-like, with nothing more than a couple of dodgy police checks to worry about. Since finding out that Tibet was closed just over a week ago though, we’ve had to switch our brains back on and start working on devising contingency plans. Originally it looked hopeful that Tibet would re-open in time for us to get there, but we explored the options of entering India, Pakistan or Kazakhstan anyway in the event that Tibet remained closed. In my post of Day 75 I outlined some of the pros and cons (mainly cons to be honest) of each option, but basically we had come to the realisation that the only feasible contingency plan for going around Tibet was going North through China, skirting the Easter border of Tibet, and entering Kazakhstan directly.
In our months of research before leaving Melbourne, we had devised a very specific plan of where and when to get all our paperwork and visas for the countries between Iran and Kazakhstan. Each country has very particular requirements in terms of time lines and Letters of Invitation etc, and which Embassies we can apply at. The best place for us to organise all these visas though was India, the problem of course now being that if we can’t go through Tibet to get to Nepal and India, then where can we get our Kazakh visas? There is no such thing as visas on arrival, at all, ever, in this part of the world. Unfortunately by the time we found out about the situation we were already in Laos, which is hardly a hub of worldwide activity, and even finding internet was impossible anywhere outside the capital. The only country between here and Kazakhstan, if Tibet doesn’t re-open, is China, and we’re not going anywhere near the capital. As our entry date to China (June 29th) was drawing ever closer, we started to get a bit concerned and decided we really had to put the Kazakhstan plan into place.
Unfortunately we realised all of this on Friday afternoon in Vientiane. We decided that our two options were to stay in Vientiane until Monday morning and visit the Russian Embassy (there’s no Kazakh Embassy in Laos, and being CIS countries they have agreements with each other to offer consular services), or keep driving North and hope that the Kazakh passport office in Urumqi, near the China/Kazakh border, would be able to issue us with visas. Frustratingly, we couldn’t find anything out from anyone (Kazakh Embassies in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and China, Russian and Australian Embassies in Laos or our Chinese Tour Company) over the weekend.
So we made the decision to stay in Vientiane over the weekend and visit the Russian Embassy on Monday morning, hoping that they’d be able to at least give us some advice or help with correspondence. We filled in our application forms, printed off a travel itinerary and set off. When we rounded the corner and the building came into view, we knew immediately that we’d found the right Embassy – it was a large, gray, Soviet style building, surrounded by mouldy and rusty spiked fences. The gates on each side of the complex were closed, locked, handless and lacking of any human presence other than security cameras on each corner. It certainly wasn’t the most inviting building, and considering none of the security booths seemed to be manned and there was no conceivable visitors’ entrance, we wondered whether it was even still in use. We did eventually manage to find a security guard, who we asked to help us in accessing the building. Bizarrely, he asked a nearby gardener who pointed towards one of the very locked looking gates.
We were greeted by a nice Russian lady, who asked us to take a seat in the extremely retro, Soviet style waiting room, while she got someone to come and help us. First we were met by the Vice Consul, who was very nice but quite confused by our request. So we waited a while longer, until the Consul came and greeted us. He wasn’t overly impressed by our request, explaining to us that Kazakhstan is an independent country. Very patronisingly he asked whether we would visit the Russian Embassy if we wanted an Argentinean visa, or a Sudanese visa. We tried to tell him that we understand that Kazakhstan and Russia aren’t the same country, but we’re aware that they have agreements (like EU countries, or like Australia and New Zealand have) to represent each other in countries where only one of them has an Embassy. Still adamant that he could do nothing for us, we were sent on our way.
Somewhat disheartened, we decided to visit the Australian Embassy. We didn’t expect much, but as it was only a couple of blocks away, it seemed we didn’t have anything to lose. Sure enough, we were told that this Embassy doesn’t even issue Australian visas and they don’t really know much about anything. So back we went to our hotel. By now it was 11am and we were getting quite anxious. We were well aware that all these embassies close at midday, and we still had to decide whether we were staying in Vientiane another night or not, before midday checkout.
We were now considering our options to be flying one or two of us (the cost of last minute flying being an issue) to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to visit a Kazakh Embassy in person. We jumped on the internet straight away, trying to find the cheapest and most feasible options for flights that day, but it was looking as if about $200 pp one way was the best we could do. And then we discovered that the website of the Embassy in Bangkok which seemed to be the best option, gave their opening times as Monday, Wednesday and Friday 10am – 12pm, which considering it was now after 11am on Monday, meant we wouldn’t be able to be seen until Wednesday. Their website also stated that applicants must visit the Embassy in person. In this case, maybe it would be better for us to drive? And we still didn’t know whether we’d be able to apply in Urumqi or not. Things were starting to get a bit confusing, and we really didn’t have time to be mucking about.
So Denner and I left Tunkles and Ben to continue checking flights and Embassy websites while we set off to find an overseas call centre. We couldn’t get onto the Embassies in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur or NAVO (our Tour Company in China), but we eventually got an answer from Singapore. The man on the other end of the line spoke good enough English, but he had a hefty accent and was a bit vague in general. Mainly what I wanted to know was just whether all four of us had to be at the Embassy in order for us all to get visas. After 15 frustrating and expensive minutes during which he tried to explain something to me about Korea, and I described the location of Laos and Vientiane to him as he’d never heard of either, I gathered that we could send our passports and application forms to the Embassy by registered post with a return paid envelope, but it would take 5-7 working days, plus postage time, with no option whatsoever of an express service. This was 11 days before our China entry date. 11 days was only 9 working days, so this really didn’t leave much time for us getting our passports back before getting to China. By now it was 11:45, and things were getting pretty intense. We stood and stared at each other for five minutes, each of us contemplating the possibility of us sending our passports off in this postage system that we were hesitant to trust with postcards. We were just about to try phoning NAVO again, when we realised we would be able to send it from China where we have three weeks instead of one. This meant we could continue on our way in Laos, and have our guide help us with registered post once we crossed the border. The only problem with this plan is that we’d be travelling in China with no passports for at least a week or so, but this seemed like the only really feasible option. A weight was lifted off our shoulders – not completely, but a good chunk of it; enough that we could stand up straight again – and off we went back to the hotel, feeling pretty chuffed with ourselves.
Tom and Ben were sitting in the foyer and when we arrived back we were greeted with a tense, “where have you guys been? It’s 11:55, what’s the story?” We explained briefly, “it’s ok, we can mail our stuff from China, and in the meantime we can check out of here and leave Vientiane”, to which they responded, “well that’s good, but we’ve got a better plan”. A better plan? Surely not – our’s was pretty good. “Tibet’s open!”
The rest of that weight was lifted off our shoulders and we all skipped around for a bit. We checked out of the hotel and on we went to Vang Vieng. We absolultely couldn't believe that Tibet had opened right then. If it had happened a day earlier, even twelve hours earlier, even four hours earlier, all of this stress and hassle would have been avoided. Had it happened a couple of hours later, we had been extremely close to either sending one or two of us off on very expensive flights with all of our passports, or driving all the way back to Bangkok, or most scarily mailing our passports in the Laotian mail.
Then yesterday (the day after all of this happened), I got an email from Tracy, our NAVO correspondent, saying that our applications for Tibet permits have been denied. She is re-applying for us, and we are hoping to hear today that they have reviewed our case and will allow us to go through.
Of course we are still reviewing contingency plans. Basically it seems we could mail our applications from China to either the Kazakh Embassy in Singapore or Beijing (although we’d have to contact Beijing to confirm), but travelling around in China with no passports is not a safe move. Or we could get Kyrgyzstan visas in Urumqi but it would cost us about $300 each. We're not able to get Kazakh visas in Urumqi.
Fingers crossed Tibet lets us through!