Friday, 20 July 2012

Day 117 - The incompetency of NAVO: Part 1 - Kazakhstan visa troubles (Kazakh visas in China)

Many weeks ago now, we realised that if we could not drive through Tibet as had been originally planned, we would have to go straight through China to Kazakhstan. As a result our original intentions of obtaining visas for all the Stans in New Delhi or Tehran had to be thrown out the window and re-thought. We should be able to get visas for all the other Stans once we get to Kazakhstan, but in the mean time where would we get our Kazakh visas from? At this point we were in Laos and we tried to sort it out there (Blog Day 87 - Kazakhstan or Tibet?), but we couldn’t. So we used what we assumed at this point to be our best resource: the services of NAVO (Nature Adventure Voyage Off-road). When I emailed our NAVO correspondent of the past year, Tracy, to ask if there was anything she could do, I wasn’t sure whether this would be within the realms of her expertise or not. But perhaps she could offer some sort of advice or information, and I was very happy when I received a positive response. Of course she, on behalf of NAVO, would be able to assist us. I was aware of the fact that there is a Visa Office in Urumqi, the city close to the border between China and Kazakhstan that we’d be crossing. I wasn’t sure though how varied their services would be, and sure enough Tracy informed me that she had done some research and found that usually they only deal with Chinese and Kazakh Nationals, mainly for the purpose of issuing Business visas. Fortunately NAVO had a contact at the Visa Office though and Tracy was able to make arrangements for them to issue us Tourist visas in one working day (which would be Friday – Monday). We would be paying an extortionate amount for this privilege, but considering we were asking for services they don’t usually perform, and were guaranteed a speedy service in advance, it seemed somewhat acceptable. It was going to cost us $100 each for the visa, even though we knew the visa itself is not usually that much, and $140 for a Letter of Invitation. This part we weren’t convinced about considering we knew that Australians don’t need LOI’s for Kazakhstan, but when Tracy told me this it was only a day or two before we entered China and I only had one day to confirm in order for it to be issued on time. I tried to get in touch with some people myself to find out about this, but with very limited resources at the time I unfortunately didn’t manage. The way Tracy explained it to me was that she herself doesn’t know much about the process and is just going by what her friend at the Office says, which is that because of the exceptional situation of us being issued with Tourist visas at this place, it is best that we have all possible supporting documents with us to ensure our applications. This seemed reasonable, and having no reason to mistrust NAVO at this point, we agreed to the extortionate amount of money, relieved at least that we had a plan for obtaining our Kazakh visas.

Our whole trip in China has been ruined by NAVO (Nature Adventure Voyage Off-road) since Day 1. At first it was just little bits and pieces like the fact that our guide can’t read maps and won’t/can’t translate parking restriction signs for us. Then we discovered that NAVO had failed to give our incompetent guide our itinerary and it was left in our own hands to contact Tracy and get our itinerary. For several days we followed my hand written scribble of directions while we waited for NAVO to get their act together. And then we realised they weren’t getting their act together and we have continued the entire way through China with our own notes. We spoke to Tracy on the phone several times to try and resolve these issues, but each time we became increasingly frustrated with her lack of interest, her insistence that these things were our own fault, and her refusal to find solutions to anything. But all of these things - the fact that our guide doesn’t know when the Great Wall of China was built, or how much the toll roads cost really pale in insignificance when we discovered what the real situation is with the “assistance” NAVO offered us in being issued Kazakh visas in Urumqi.

On Thursday (Day  109, 12/7) we were in the car driving through the Gobi Desert with the intention of spending the night in Shan Shan before arriving in Urumqi on Friday to go to our appointment that was supposedly set up for us at the Visa Office in the afternoon. Apparently the Office wasn’t even open on Fridays so we really were getting looked after, thanks to NAVO. With a remaining 800 or so kilometres still between us and Urumqi, our guide Lui received a phone call to tell us that we must get there at 9am in order to get our visas by Monday now. This wasn’t exactly brilliant, and we weren’t sure what had suddenly changed, but the thing that caught our attention was that Lui had inadvertently used the word “agent” to describe who he had been on the phone to. Our ears pricked up at this and we realised that Tracy had not actually contacted the Visa Office as she had told me she had, but had simply employed an agent on our behalf. Suddenly all the extra money made sense and we were infuriated that she’d just taken the easy route and lied to us about it. I tried to think back to my email correspondence with her about the matter, but I was fairly certain (and have since checked to make sure) that she had never thrown in the word agent. What she’d told me was that she had spoken to her “friend at the Visa Office in Urumqi”. And the fact that we needed a Letter of Invitation even though we didn’t, now made a bit more sense too. So we did some quick research on the internet and by phoning the Office in Urumqi and found that they actually issue visas to foreigners just like any other Consulate would, and offer 1-2 day turn around, and sure enough Australians don’t need LOI’s and lo and behold, they’re even open on Fridays.

So we got straight on the phone to Tracy at NAVO. Unfortunately we were of course treated with the same disdain, ignorance and disbelief that every other conversation with her ensued, but after an hour and a half of knocking our heads against a brick wall, we did at least discover that she had never bothered to contact the Consulate, that she hadn’t asked her “friend” about the Letter of Invitation even though I had pleaded with her to query this on our behalf, and that actually she knew nothing of the process at all and had lied about everything she had told us. We decided at this point that it was best if we relieve her and her “friend” from the task and continue with our visa applications ourselves. Much to our shock though, this statement was met by a threat. Tracy told me over the phone that if we refused to pay these fees and were to continue with the process ourselves, that there is no guarantee that we will be issued with visas at all. In fact it is likely that we will be rejected, and any extra costs caused by a delay in leaving China will be charged by NAVO at full price. Basically what Tracy was saying is that NAVO works hand in hand with this “agent” and if we weren’t to willingly line all of their pockets, they would see to it that our visa applications were rejected.

We realised at this point that essentially we were being held to ransom by NAVO, the internationally renowned tourist service that we paid a total of $8,000 to for the privilege of having an incompetent guide taking up space in our car. There are plenty of companies that we could have gone with that offer the same services as NAVO says they provide, for a much lower price. We’ve even discovered from Lui that the same guides freelance between several of the companies, and NAVO offers no training to them at all. All of these things we could deal with though, but now we were trapped by NAVO, our hands tied tightly behind our backs.

As such we decided that much to our displeasure, and against everything that any of have ever stood for, we had no choice but to give into the bad guy. We couldn’t risk the chance that NAVO and their “friends” would follow through on their threats and stand in the way of us obtaining our Kazakh visas at all, charging us more and more for “guide fees”, “road permits” and whatever else they might come up with. And who knows what power or connections they really do have? Is it even possible that they could make things difficult for us at the border, or with the police, or anything else, if we didn’t play to their corruption? And unfortunately until we leave China, NAVO has us bugged, followed and essentially cornered.

We always knew things like this would happen and we’d be required to pay unofficial fees. We just didn’t expect that it would be NAVO causing the problems and holding us hostage for money.

We did plead with Tracy to find out from her “friend” if we could do it without paying for the Letter of Invitation that we know we don’t need (and had just had confirmed by the Consulate itself), but apparently this “friend” wasn’t willing to budge as this is how she feeds her children. We also discovered that the “friend” wasn’t even the “agent” that we were actually using, she was just another middle man, and Tracy had never even spoken to the “agent” before. It just kept getting more and more distressing.

After being told that any time in the afternoon was fine to rock up at the Consulate, Lui then kept getting phone calls all morning nagging for us to hurry up. We were sort of in the middle of driving through the Gobi though, and there wasn’t much we could do to hurry. So we just kept going until we got to the outskirts of the city, where Lui got us lost. Just for something a bit different. So we took over navigation ourselves, the problems being that 1.) that damage was already done and it ended up taking us an hour and a half to do what should have been a 20-30 minutes drive, and 2.) all the street signs are only in Chinese and Arabic, and it’s a bit tricky to try and match up the Chinese characters with those on the map as we’re driving past. And of course Lui wouldn’t just answer our questions of “is this road on the map the one we’re driving past now?”, so we just had to guess. It was still more reliable than allowing Lui to navigate, and sure enough we managed to find it thanks to ourselves.

So off we rushed with our carefully filled in application forms, passports, and copies of our passports. The arrangement had been that we would go to the bank, find out the exchange rate for US$/CNY and get out the appropriate amount of CNY before meeting the “agent”, but because of the unexpected hurry they’d told us just to go straight to the Consulate and arrange payment afterwards. As we approached the Consulate building we recognised what it was from the jostling crowd at the front. The main doors of the building are up a few steps, and around them is a 3m high railing fence. As we arrived at the gate, a man who had presumably pushed his way through the gates, was now being pushed back down the steps by the guards. So we waited for this kafuffle to resolve and then the guards ushered us inside. Two people – a man in a suit and a woman with so much make up on that I couldn’t tell where her cheeks ended and her ears started – were waiting outside for us when we arrived. Presumably these were our “agent” and Tracy’s “friend” or something, as they handed us a bunch of paperwork to take in with us. A quick flick through this paperwork had us pretty annoyed, as all it was, was an application form for each of us, crudely filled in with an illegible scrawl, using a biro nearing the end of its life, and a very unclear photocopy of each of our passports. In we went to the Consulate, Lui and these two new characters waiting outside for us as they weren’t allowed inside.

The two windows that were open were already in use so we used the time to try and hastily decide what to do. Do we hand in the documents that the powerful and all-knowing “agent” has filled in for us? Or do we hand in the forms and documents that we have carefully prepared and double and triple checked? Well if this guy knows everyone at the Consulate, and does this for a living, surely it’s best that we hand in their forms. So against our instincts, this is what we decided to do. When it was our turn to approach the window we were asked to go one by one. One by one he dismissed us, and as we stood there confused and concerned, he came around to our side and explained that we had the wrong forms and none of the correct supporting documents. We were told to bring photocopies of our passports, Chinese visas and entry stamps, write a letter of introduction and attach an itinerary. On the way out the guard handed us a business card of something we couldn’t decipher and told us to come back at 3pm.

We were pretty upset at this point. In our language an agent is employed to do all the work for their client so that things run smoothly and hassles are minimised. We would have preferred not to pay someone else to do the work for us, but as things were, we had. But now we had not only been embarrassed in front of the Consulate Officials by having the wrong forms, we also had to go and organise our paperwork ourselves anyway.

We hastily left the Office, asking Lui to help us find a photocopy shop and decipher what the business card was for. The suited man and made up lady ran after us, harassing Lui in Chinese, and when I turned around to explain to them that we had to go and organise a bunch of documents, the suited man cut me off and very aggressively told me “don’t speak to me, this is none of your business”. Right. This is none of my business. Ok. So we continued on our way and stopped at the first photocopy shop that we passed. The suited man stood outside for a bit while we made the necessary photocopies (at our own expense needless to say) and used the computer there to type up and print a letter of intention. And then he disappeared.

Lui looked at the business card and told us it was for some business that we were probably sent to for photocopying, and unfortunately we took his word for it and returned to the Consulate even though it was still well before 3pm. As it turns out we were told to return at 3pm because that’s the end of their lunch break, so we just sat it out with the other bunch of sad sods waiting to be granted entry by the officials.

3pm came, the doors were opened, and they started allowing people in the queue to enter the building. We decided it was best for us not to queue up with everyone else, but to stand right in front of the doors where the guards could easily see us, and would hopefully remember that we’d already been in and had been told to come back at 3pm. We had noticed one white guy in the queue, and while we were waiting there he approached us wondering if we knew what the system was. We explained what our situation was, and as he hadn’t made any contact yet, he decided it best for him to wait it out in the queue.

We weren’t quite sure why we weren’t being allowed inside, especially as we supposedly had an “agent” making phone calls and arrangements on our behalf. The guards told us to wait another 30 minutes as the Officials were in a meeting. Then an hour later we were told it wouldn’t be long now. Where was our “agent”? Lui kept trying to make phone calls to find out, but he was nowhere to be seen, and we wondered whether he was actually now making phone calls to hinder our progress. At about 5pm we found out that they stay open until 7pm (unexpected, but certainly a relief), and then the guard came out and said that the computer system is down, they won’t be processing any more today and we should come back Monday morning. We asked if he would at least check our forms to ensure we had everything, which he agreed to. Apparently we didn’t have everything right though (lucky we checked) and he gave us the same business card as we’d been given earlier. Where was this stupid “agent” of ours? Tracy from NAVO refused to offer any help and wouldn’t contact her “friend” for us at all. Finally Lui managed to get the “agent” on the phone and we were told that if we went and got the money to pay him ($240 each, $960 total), went to the office on the business card and then our accommodation, he would collect our forms and passports from us that evening and we should still get our visas on Monday, possibly Tuesday now.

Whilst waiting at the locked gates of the Consulate, Grady wasn’t the only person that we’d started speaking to. Tunkles had actually struck up quite a friendship with a man of Kazakh ethnicity, who lives in China very close to the borders with Mongolia and Russia. Whatever his business at the Consulate was mustn’t have been urgent, as he was willing to give up for the day and insisted on helping us out if he could. There wasn’t much he could do, but his car was parked a lot closer than ours and a lift to the bank wouldn’t go amiss.

We got the money, gave it to Lui, and thought that maybe now that we’d paid him our “agent” would do his job. Even though it was their fault they hadn’t been paid first up anyway. We said goodbye and thankyou to Norman, the Kazakh man, and exchanged details with Grady, the English man, and hurried off to whatever the place was on the business card we kept being given.

As it turns out, this place was a sort of agency itself, but one that cost 20 Yuan each and actually completed the job. There were four ladies seated behind desks with computers on them, and one at a time we were asked to sit down and answer questions about ourselves. At the end of it we were given an application form – exactly the same one as we’d originally filled in ourselves – completed in print by these ladies, and a cover letter with their stamp on it. Apparently this is the real way they charge a “service fee”, and this is all the Consulate Officials had been looking for. If our “agent” had known anything he would have already done this, or at the very least would have known to send us there first thing. This is when we really realised that not only was this whole system a con and a rip-off, but the “agent” and “friend” that NAVO had so forcefully set us up with didn’t even know the first thing about applying for Kazakh visas.

It was about 6.30pm at this point and we wanted to just go straight back to the Consulate with our new forms. But apparently we had to find our accommodation and the “agent” would collect all of our paperwork and passports that evening.

We decided it was best for us not to say a word, or even see this con man when he rocked up, so poor Lui was left to play middle man yet again. For some reason Tracy and her “friends” never want to speak to us themselves, they always want to text message or speak to Lui and have him pass on their messages.

After speaking to the “agent” and handing over all our documents, Lui greeted us with a few bits of information. Apparently cake face lady had been so upset by our antics in the afternoon (!!!) that she’d gone and got herself into a car accident so she couldn’t do the work for us anymore. NAVO, the compassionate angels that they are, had begged and pleaded on our behalf for the suited man to take over our case and help us with our visas, and very kindly he had agreed. Oh these people and their good hearts. But because we’d caused so many problems in the afternoon (!!!), and now the computer system was down, it would be very difficult for them to get our visas by Monday, but they should be ready by Tuesday. Apparently we were also very lucky to have such a good and kind agent on our side as well, because the Officials inside the Consulate had been very offended by us and didn’t want to issue us with visas at all now because of the ruckus we had supposedly caused. Well this was the most blatant and childish scare tactic we’d come across yet. The only “ruckus” anyone had caused was when we’d pointed out that the forms the “agent” handed to us when we arrived were wrong. The Officials didn’t even see this interaction, and nothing was said inside the Consulate other than to answer their questions.

We were told to attend an appointment at the Consulate on Monday morning at 10am.

We used our opportunity over the weekend to sleep, relax, and wander around a city calmly and in our own time - a very welcome change from the rest of our time in China. It was also a welcome break from 24/7 with Lui, and we solidified our new friendship with Grady.

Not wanting to risk anything we left plenty of time to get ourselves to the Consulate on Monday morning, and ended up arriving before 9am. Grady stood up pretty close to the fence, but we sat down a couple of metres away knowing that we had to wait for our “agent” anyway. A few minutes before 9am we watched all the Officials and Guards arrive in their plain clothes, pushing their way past the hordes and slipping through the gates that they unlocked for themselves. Then the same guards as we knew from Friday came out and started letting people in. One of them waved to us and Grady immediately, grinning at us as if he’d been waiting all weekend just to see us again. A little while later – maybe around 9.30am – Grady was ushered in, and the guard waved at us to follow. But we had none of our own paperwork! So we had to just stand out there like idiots – again – and wait for the guy we were paying all the money to. He pulled up in his black Lexus, tinted windows and all, a while later and parked 100m away without getting out of his car. Lui ran over to him and took ages to come back with our forms and passports, exactly how we had given them to him on Friday evening. So he hadn’t done anything with them, he just collected them from us to sit on them all weekend and prevent us from doing anything (we can’t drive without our passports and we need them to check into any accommodation).

Thankfully the guard hadn’t changed his mind after all this palaver and we were still allowed to cross the threshold and enter the building. We were asked to sit down and approach the window one at a time where we were questioned about our applications – verifying name, address, place of work, purpose of visit etc.

When the Officer was satisfied with our application he gave us each an appointment slip and told us to return on 18/6 at 3pm. We kept our cool, thanked the men at the windows and left the building. That’s Wednesday! We met Grady outside and this was exactly the same time as he’d been given after paying his 140 Yuan ($23) straight to the Consulate and not involving NAVO or their “friends” in anything.

Outside Lui was waiting for us and we told him the two problems. He got on the phone to Tracy or the “agent” or the “friend” or whoever it was, spent ages on the phone during which time we kept asking us to please tell us what’s going on. He’s very bad at that. Eventually he got off the phone and bearing in mind this was a 20 or so minute conversation, informed us that the “agent” was “working on it”. Well actually this wasn’t really good enough and if everyone was going to refuse so profusely to speak directly to the people paying them all the money, then Lui was going to have to do a better job at playing middle man. Eventually we got to the solution of we’d be refunded the extra 280 Yuan we’d paid for the double entry, as if this was a great and kind thing they were doing for us! We still weren’t getting the double entry visas which obviously we wanted more than that money anyway. And the “agent” would continue “to do his best” to at least get them by Tuesday (the following day) for us, or at the latest Wednesday (the day the Consulate was giving them to us anyway). Not satisfied at all we had no choice but to return to our hostel and try and continue with our day.

This really just wasn’t sitting well though. We actually weren’t getting anything quicker, easier or more definitely than all those other people rocking up and dealing directly with the Consulate. We’d gone from being honestly frightened and intimidated by Tracy from NAVO threatening both our passage to Kazakhstan and our finances, to anger, irritation, dismay and what can only be described as amused bafflement. Everyone involved in this was so unbelievably corrupt and unfortunately we had put our trust in NAVO and allowed them to play us for fools.

When we spoke to Tracy on Thursday, the day before we arrived in Urumqi when we started to realise the situation she’d got us into, she had agreed that if the “agent” didn’t deliver our visas on the Monday as promised, NAVO would pay all the “agent” fees. Well it was now Monday afternoon and it didn’t look like we were getting our visas that day, and by now we were also pretty sure we wouldn’t get them by Tuesday either. By now we highly doubted that the any of these people – Tracy, her “friend” or the “agent” – knew anything about or anyone involved in anything to do with this system. Why didn’t Tracy just tell me in the first place that she couldn’t help?

So I got on the phone to Tracy to remind her of the agreement. Of course she wanted to tell me how I don’t understand the system, and she was only trying to help out of the goodness of her heart in the first place, and make excuse after excuse for everything, including all the previous problems we’d had with NAVO which I really wasn’t interested in talking about at this point. The main thing that she kept going on about though was how it was our fault because of “what happened on Friday” and her “friend” had told her this and that about how we’d refused to pay and had been exceptionally rude etc etc. Apparently we’d agreed at some point that it would be ok if we got our visas on Tuesday, although I’m not sure when this would have happened seeing we hadn’t spoken to her since before we arrived in Urumqi. It’s very hard to rebut blatant childish lies with reasonable and structured arguments, but I continued to knock my head against the brick wall that I have come to know as NAVO.

We were sure by this point that we wouldn’t get be getting our visas any time before our allocated appointment of 3pm on Wednesday, and sure enough Lui came to us on Tuesday afternoon and told us that the “agent” was unable to get us our visas before Wednesday and after a whole lot of pushing, it seemed that NAVO saw no choice but to refund the “agent fees”, obviously deducting the 140 Yuan actual visa cost. But of course they wouldn’t give us the money until we had the visas physically in our hands.

We’d been enjoying the fact that not having to drive 800km every day meant that we could actually sleep until whenever we wanted in the morning, and then even once we’d woken up, we were free to lie in bed for as long as we liked. Well on Wednesday morning we were awoken at 10:30am by Lui whispering to Tunkles that the “agent” could help us get our visas that morning if we wanted. What?! This was possibly the most ridiculous thing out of everything! Obviously he’d just rung up the Consulate and asked whether they were ready yet. It’s not like he was even going to collect them for us (not being any sort of accredited agent he wasn’t even allowed inside the Consulate building), so he was really just scraping of the bottom of the barrel here, hoping that we’d for some reason be happy to pay him probably his full original price, to go and collect our visas ourselves maybe 3 hours earlier than we were already planning to. Obviously we dismissed this immediately. Our feelings were now turning into pity for these people.

We left plenty of time to get to the Consulate, and arrived 45 minutes early. So we joined the eager, anxious, frustrated and impatient throng outside the front gates, waiting for what hopefully would be a relatively painless collection of newly visa-ed passports. We met a Japanese guy there this time. He’d also applied on Monday and had been given 3pm Wednesday collection time. No third, fourth or fifth parties involved.

The doors opened and the guards came out to start letting people inside. At first he ignored us – the same guy as all the other times – and then he looked at our appointment slips that I was reaching as far through the fence as I could manage, and shook his head.

“What?” I tried to ask him. Of course Lui was nowhere to be found, so we did our best to communicate with him anyway. I reckon he spoke more English than he could be bothered letting on, but he eventually came up with,


“What? Why?”

Another shake of the head and what I think was a smug grin, but I’m willing to pretend was an apologetic smile, and “Tomorrow”.

In the mean time we were all running around looking for Lui – we actually needed a translator now. If you’re going to manage your job once, please make it now. By the time we found him wandering across the road to buy himself a drink though, we’d already managed to somehow manage to get ourselves waved in. We pushed through the crowd, most of whom tried to sneak in with us, pushing us out the way as they did, and found ourselves inside the building.

I had honestly expected it to take a couple of hours to get the visas in our hands. I really thought that we’d rock up at the gates, be told to “wait a minute” for an hour or so, be asked to go inside where we’d have to sit down for a while, to be told to come back tomorrow or pay more money, before eventually being given our passports. As it happened though, we walked in the main door where we were met by a man in a black t-shirt who told us to wait there as he picked up our passports from the desk right in front of where we were standing. He checked the pictures as he handed them back and out we waltzed, armed with Kazakh visas.

It was a battle to get our money back, even after NAVO had agreed to it, but we did manage. They have offered us no apology, no acknowledgement of the trouble they put us though not only with this fiasco, but throughout the entire trip, and no compensation monetary wise or other. It has been extremely disappointing to be treated like this by what we thought to be the most reputable, experienced and reliable company offering tours of this sort. We opted for the more expensive, yet safer option by choosing NAVO over any of their competitors. We would have really struggled to believe that there would be this much corruption and incompetence in a company of NAVO’s supposed standard.

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