Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Turkmen visas - a riddle wrapped in an enigma

You will never get a transit visa if you specify exiting via the Caspian Sea - ferry is too unreliable.

Turkmenistan is closed for all of October.

Konye Urgench is a restricted area, you can't enter Turkmenistan there.

These were just some of the things we were told in the months leading up to applying for our Turkmen visa. There were so many myths and contradictions about the visa process that we didn't know what to believe, and by the time we were stood outside the Turkmen embassy, with our passport photos at the ready, we had pretty much written off our overland dream.

However, the reality is that many travellers require a Turkmen visa, as it is a key crossing point on a overland trip, due to other alternative itineraries having to include crossing Afghanistan. We therefore knew it was possible. This post is about how we did it, to try to dispell a further myths. Having said that, it certainly isn't an exact science and, as always, is subject to constant change.

To begin with there were a few things that all Centrel Asian overlanders agreed upon. Firstly, that there were two sorts of Turkmen visa, a transit visa (usually 5 days) and a tourist visa (longer than 5 days). The requirment for a tourist visa is that you are on an organised tour with a Turkmen accredited guide - read minder. The consequence of this is that it is expensive. Most people travel on a transit visa and although this only allows a short amount of time in the country, there isn't the expense or restrictions of a tour and, as we found out, there's not much to see in Turkmenistan anyway, so 5 days is plenty! Secondly, everyone also agrees that you require the visa of the country you are exiting to, for most people this is Iran but for us is was Azerbaijan, before you can obtain a Turkmen visa.

Now this is my advice for getting a Turkmen visa once in Central Asia -
  1. If you are in Dushanbe, Tajikistan apply for a Turkmen visa here as they are very helpful. There was only a small queue outside the embassy at 9 am when we got there (no need to go earlier).
  2. AVOID the Turkmen embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan at all costs.  
  3. You require 1 x passport photo, 1 x photocopy of your passport, 1 x photocopy of your exit country visa. You also need to know the exact dates you wish to travel in Turkmenistan and the border crossings where you will be entering and exiting Turkmenistan. 
  4. You can apply for a Turkmen visa in Dushanbe and pick it up in Tashkent, this is what we did.
  5. We applied for an express visa service in Dushanbe which meant that the visa would be ready for collection in 7 days time.
Our application for a Turkmen visa in Dushanbe was possible due to discovering that there was infact a Azerbaijani Embassy in the city, despite it not being mentioned in any guidebooks. We managed to get this visa on the spot, although the embassy official ignored the dates that we requested and we had to get him to change them (tipex was his solution). In Dushanbe we applied for the 7 day express visa service in the Turkmen Embassy. Once we had got to Tashkent we found out that the embassy there was only allowing a 21 day standard visa service, another reason to AVOID Turkmen related visa stuff in Tashkent. Back in Dushanbe the first official told us that we would not be able to cross into Turkmenistan via the Konye Urgench border crossing but we asked again and the second official allowed it - so always worth asking twice. They didn't bat an eyelid at our request to exit Turkmenistan via Turkmenbashi (i.e. by ferry across the Caspian Sea), disproving the idea that they would be concerned about the ferry being delayed. You only pay for the visa on collection and I believe that it is also possible to change the visa start date when submitting your passport after visa approval but you might want to double check this.

The procedure for applying or picking up your visa at the Turkmen Embassy in Tashkent.
  1. Get to the embassy by at least 6 am and put your name on the list (a piece of paper at the security gate). We got there at 6 am and were 17th & 18th on the list.
  2. DO NOT leave the embassy gate because at an undetermined time (it was around 9 am for us) some embassy staff will read out the names on the list and you will be asked to show that you are present with your passport (a French woman managed to just show photocopies of hers and a friends as the friend was at the Iranian Embassy trying to get visas there). From this a second list is made. If you do not get on the second list you do not get into the embassy.
  3. It was at around 10.30 am when we were called into the embassy to find out if we had been approved for a visa.
  4. For those PICKING UP visas your passport is taken off you in the morning (so make sure you have a photocopy in case the police check you during the day) and then you have to return to the embassy to collect your passport and, hopefully, visa at around 4.30 pm.
What actually happened when we gave in our passports that mornıng was that the embassy officials were not aware of our application. In Russian we explained that we had applied in Dushanbe. After they had made a few phone calls it got sorted out, however we needed to refill out all the forms, including more passport photos which we didn't have with us. The embassy staff allowed us to bring photos when we returned to pick up the visa. A Danish motorcyclist, Morten, who was with us was refused a visa - no reason given. Apart from poor Morten's visa outcome, we actually found the Turkmen embassies to be a lot more flexible than we imagined. A french couple we met outside the Embassy in Tashkent had applied for their Turkmen visas (3 weeks earlier) without their ongoing visa as they were having difficulty obtaining their Iranian visa. The Turkmen embassy had allowed them to apply on the understanding that they would have to show the Iranian visa on collection of their Turkmen visa. Again proving that it is always worth asking. Once we found out that we had been approved we left our passports at the Embassy and returned at 4 pm where we waited an hour before being called into the embassy to collect our passport with visa. Then a couple of beers to celebrate!!!

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