Thursday, 2 August 2012

Day 124 – Visas for the Stans: Part 1 – It’s not all bad. (Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkmen and Iranian visas in Almaty, Kazakhstan)

After our hold up on Monday with having the car broken into and needing to prioritise fixing that before working on visas as planned, we got down to business on Tuesday. We spent the whole morning stuffing around trying to get all our documents printed and copied and filled in. The form for Uzbekistan has to be filled in online and then printed out, and all the other ones had to be photocopied or printed. As it turns out it’s not that easy to just find somewhere that has internet, printing and photocopying, so we had to do it in bits and pieces. On top of that the Uzbekistan form on the internet was a total pain, hence ending up spending the whole morning just getting the papers sorted out. By the time we had them all ready to go, grabbed a quick bite at KFC (it was in the same centre as the internet cafe so we didn’t really have a choice) and filled in the forms for Kyrgyzstan which will be our next country and therefore the first visa we would apply for, it was early afternoon. Given our experience of Embassies in the past, it seemed likely that they’d all be closed for the next couple of hours, but we made our way to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan anyway.
It’s usually pretty easy to find Embassies – they’re generally the monstrosities surrounded by seemingly unnecessarily large fences topped with barbed wire or similar, and a disproportionate amount of cameras on every corner; a buzzer next to an uninviting and very locked gate the only hint of humanity. We’re becoming used to recognising them though as the little house with a pretty big fence and a flag of the respective country. This is exactly what the Kyrgyz Embassy in Almaty looked like. A guard unlocked the gate for us and we followed the hand written arrow on an A4 piece of paper around the side of the house and down the steps to the basement.
Outside we’d met seven friendly French cyclists with questionable hygiene, cycling from France to France via the rest of the world, who offered us some very useless advice about how time consuming and bureaucratic the Kyrgyz visa process would be. Apparently we’d have to wait in a huge queue and then be charged hundreds of dollars and told to come back in a week for our visas. What happened to us though is that we waited in the tiny waiting room with a couple of ladies and three fat Korean men, one of whom continuously stank out the small room with his farts. After about ten minutes the Officer (it seems odd to refer to him as such considering the informality of the affair, but I’m not quite sure what else to call him) emerged from the door (he’d been talking to the stinky Koreans through the usual window) and on seeing our Australian passports, greeted us quite warmly. He looked through our forms and photocopies, nodding approvingly and arranging our passports on the counter. He outlined the various options ie. express/regular service, two/four week visas and the various prices. Considering the express service should be three days, but “maybe we can do it today”, we thought that seemed like a pretty good option. He ushered us into the room he’d emerged from and asked us for our entry and exit dates. We handed over four crisp one hundred US dollar notes and were told to come back at 5pm (currently 2pm) to get our visas and $20 change (the visas were $95 each).
It seemed a little too good to be true, especially considering the hassles the French cyclists seemed to have had, but sure enough we went back to the Embassy/guy’s basement just before 5pm and were handed four passports fitted out with Kyrgyz visas for the 10th - 24th of August, a $20 note poking out from the bundle.
We found out this evening (Friday) that Kyrgyzstan decided yesterday to become visa free. We have wasted $95 each and a couple of hours, but at least we’re not those poor French people waiting a whole week for visas they now don’t need.
Considering our success on Tuesday, we had pretty high hopes for Wednesday. We started off by making our way to the Turkmen Embassy. It’s not that easy getting addresses for these places – unfortunately there’s no up to date, reliable Embassies of the World address book, and it usually takes  several sources in order to find an address and a map with the address on it. Just to add to the challenge, over the various sources we’ll usually come across a couple of different addresses. Turkmenistan seemed to have only one reasonable looking address though, so we found it on a map and made our way there. When we were on the right street, we parked the car to look on foot. I don’t know how he managed to notice or decipher it, but Ben found the front door of the dilapidated building that used to be the Turkmen Embassy, and on it was a manky piece of A4 paper that we suppose read in Russian “the Turkmen Embassy has moved locations” and listed an address. Fortunately this address was on a road that was marked on one of the maps we had and we found it easily enough.
The front gate was open, but neither of the doors at the front of the building showed any signs of life. Spotting the Turkmen coat of arms on a wall plaque, we decided we were definitely in the right place, so made our way around the side of the building to a car park and toilet block. As it turns out, this was the correct entrance for the Turkmen Embassy. A few people were waiting around an open door, so we went in there where we found a security guard who took down one of our passport numbers and gestured for us to wait outside.
We were ready to be waiting there all afternoon, but after about half an hour all the waiting people starting jostling inside the door. The queue dispersed quite quickly and we were met by a very helpful and suitably friendly Turkmen Official who told us to go and get our Iranian visas, then come back and apply for a transit visa.
There are two options to get visas for Turkmenistan: 1.) Show the visa of the next country after Turkmenistan (it has to be a country that cannot be gotten to directly from the country you’re applying in), and get a 5-7 day transit visa. 2.) Organise a tour and a tour guide through a travel agency, and get a tourist visa. Originally we had thought we’d go down the tour guide option so that we weren’t limited so much in time, but cost was a big factor, not to mention our previous experience with having a compulsory tour guide in the car with us. So we’d decided to go to the Embassy and see what they said. It does seem to be that no matter how much researching and reading you’ve done on this matter, once you get to the Embassy the story can be completely different. Unfortunately in this case it wasn’t, but his insistence that bothering with a tour guide is a waste of time and money did swing us more towards the transit visa notion.
Next stop: Iranian Consulate. The address we had was on the same street as the Kyrgyz Embassy, so we found it easily. The only problem was that when we found it and pressed the buzzer next to the gate to ask for the Iranian Consulate, we were greeted with a very angry sounding Russian man who informed us that “No, this is Chinese oil company”. Of course he refused to assist in any way, and kept repeating “Chinese oil company”. We couldn’t find any other gate, buzzer or entrance that could conceivably be anything to do with the Iranian Consulate, so we went to get some free wi fi and find a new address. They really don’t want people finding their Consulate in Almaty as it turns out. We found some addresses that just didn’t make any sense on a map, and some that were only parts of addresses. Eventually we found two addresses that we could sort of find on a map, so took down both and made our way to the one we decided was most likely.
As we drove up the street approaching the address we were looking for, we were happy to find a large, free standing building, surrounded with a high thick brick wall, completed with a menacing looking gate and a century post. As we got closer though, we realised that the century post was out of use, the paint on the high thick brick wall was peeling, and the menacing looking gates were rusted and lying open. Still hopeful we pulled up outside and tentatively entered the grounds through the dilapidated fence. It became clear pretty quickly that the building wasn’t in use, and probably hadn’t been for a very long time. We walked around the outside anyway, poking our heads in the dingy doorways, and peering through shattered windows, looking for some sort of sign that might point us in the direction of the current Iranian Consulate. After a short while of this we gave up and made our way back to the car, a bit disheartened and very frustrated. On the way out Tunkles poked his head into one last entranceway, and as he turned away a man called out to him from a window on the upper level. Establishing that yes, this was in fact the Iranian Consulate, we made our way up a haphazard staircase which led to a room that fitted the nature of the outside of the building. A lone desk sparsely covered in sheets of paper took up one corner and a pile of rubble another. After establishing that we were Australians looking for Iranian tourist visas, the man who had greeted Tunkles from the window asked for our passports and took them through an empty doorway to another room. In the mean time this man was replaced with another man who spent a long time explaining that basically it was going to take three weeks if we applied with them now. Astana (the capital) would probably be the same story, but he didn’t know. We could use an internet agent which might speed up the process, but he couldn’t really tell us anything definitive about that either. Disheartened we got our passports back from a disturbingly long stint in a different room and went on our way.
Before visiting Kyrgyzstan the day before, we had stopped at the Uzbek Embassy, but had been turned away by the guard and (we think) told to come back at 2pm the following day (Wednesday). So after our visit to the Iranian Consulate, it was just about time to return to Uzbekistan. This one fits the same category as Kyrgyzstan in appearance, except for the wooden shelter built quite interestingly around a tree that takes up the entire pavement and is used as a waiting area. On arrival we entered the little room where the security guards hang out, gave them a passport to take down the number, and sat patiently in the waiting hut. While we were sitting there, preparing ourselves for who knows how long a wait, we spotted two Western looking dudes with bicycles sitting in the gutter (they’re very nice gutters), holding passports and papers. Noticing that one of the passports was Australian we decided to put on our sociable caps and go and say hi. Ben from Brisbane and Brendon from Chicago are in the process of cycling from Shanghai where they spent the last two years, to Dublin to raise awareness for haemochromotosis. We’ve been going through some pretty tough terrain on our trip – mountains, unmade roads, desert, etc. and it’s enough to make us exhausted in the car sometimes. I can’t even imagine doing that journey on bikes. Find their blog at .
We spent the next couple of hours chatting with them about roads and embassies and border crossings, and then a guard seemed to be letting some people through the locked gate. So we all jumped up and sprinted over, and the guard held up one finger at us, indicating that one of us could go in. We didn’t have a hope competing with cyclists obviously, and Ben (Shanghai to Dublin Ben) was quick off the mark and managed to snatch the spot, the gate being firmly and quickly locked behind him. We tried to talk the guard into letting one of us in as well, but he wasn’t having a bar of it.
When Ben (not our one) returned we found out that he’d been turned away because he doesn’t have a Letter of Invitation. We know that Uzbekistan requires Australians to have LOI’s, but so does Kyrgyzstan supposedly and it didn’t seem to matter then, so we had been just trying our luck anyway. As I said before, you can research and read and know all you like, but when you rock up at the gates you play by the rules that the security guard sets, and when you get inside you play by the rules of whoever’s standing on the other side of the window. We thought we may as well wait until we got let in, and hear it for ourselves. Who knows, maybe we could make a “special payment” directly to the Embassy and not have to bother with the LOI.
Eventually the guard opened up the gate again and a swarm of people jostled and shoved each other to get in. Ben (our Ben) was holding all our forms and passports so that if only one of us could gain entry he could do it, but three fingers were held up to us. Ben, Tunkles and I pushed our way in front of the rest of the crowd and made our way down the pathway on the other side of the gate. We got to the door of a one room building and discovered that Denner had managed to sneak past the rigorous security and followed us in. Entering the building we realised why they were only letting a handful of people in at once, and were suddenly quite grateful for it – the room was luxuriously furnished with a brown velour couch, a stained wooden dining table and half a dozen fading plastic chairs, leaving very little floor space. Squeezing between the table and the wall, we approached one of the windows where a man flicked through our forms before taking them and our passports off into another room. This was a good sign – he hadn’t just handed it back straight off. But alas, he returned a few minutes later with the expected news that we’d need a Letter of Invitation. Ben tried very tactfully to suggest a “direct payment” to the Embassy, or a “special fee” straight to the guy we were dealing with, but yet again this was met with no sign of understanding and a repeating of the process that we needed to go through. Frustrated but not surprised we went back out the front, compared stories with Ben and Brendan and set off on our way.
Research and pre preparation might not be the be all and end all when it comes to this stuff, but it can certainly help. Months ago I’d lined up all the possible LOI’s that we might need when we got to this part of the world, so all I needed to do was shoot an email to David at Stantours and tell him we need to get the ball rolling with the Uzbek LOI now.
The plan for Thursday was that we’d call the Iranian Embassy in Astana to see what they’d say on the matter. Unfortunately phone numbers in Kazakhstan seem to be pretty confused and we quite literally spent several hours trying combinations of every phone number we could find anywhere with absolutely no luck. Considering they didn’t have power when we visited them we knew it was a long shot, but we even tried calling the Consulate in Almaty. No luck there either.
David from Stantours replied to my email and we met with him this evening to hand over the cash so he could get the process started. After a bit of a chat with him we decided to use Stantours as our agent for Iran aswell and we’ve sussed out our plan of attack for the rest of our visas until Azerbaijan.
We’ll go and do Astana and the rest of Kazakhstan, then come back to Almaty on the 9th or 10th by which time our Uzbek LOI will be ready and we should be able to get visas on the spot in Almaty. On we’ll go to Kyrgyzstan where our Iranian visas should be ready for us to collect in Bishkek, at which point we will be able to apply for Turkmen transit visas. We’ll continue on our way to Uzbekistan where we’ll collect our Turkmen transit visas in Tashkent. We will try all Azerbaijani Embassies along the way, hoping that one of them will just give us a visa, but most likely we will need to get a Letter of Invitation and apply in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. If we need to do that we’ll get onto Stantours again.