Friday, 3 February 2012

The Silk Road overland East to West - Visa strategy

When travelling on the Silk Road in Central Asia is is never long before the conversation between travellers turns to visas. For a successful overland trip a visa strategy has to devised before departure. It is not a region which can be travelled through on a whim. With a little planning visas can, however, be picked up along the way. In this post I will describe how we did it, which we managed without requiring the services of a visa support agency. There are obviously thousands of permutations of how to cobble together all the visas needed for such a trip, but I thought I'd simply write about how we did it - as I think the post is long enough as it is!!

First of all here are some general tips on Central Asian visa planning and execution.

  • Plan exactly when and where you will get each visa.
    • Know how long the visa process takes and then add on more time in case of unexpected embassy closures, like those for public holidays which an embassy will take both for the country the embassy is in and those for the embassy's national holidays.
    • Have plenty of passport photos and photocopies of your passport to hand.
    • Have a good idea of the dates you will be entering and exiting the country, how long you will need a visa for and an address of where you will be staying (any address is fine).
    • Speak the language, take a person who does or, at the very least, take a phrasebook, if applying in person at an embassy.
    • Know how much it is meant to cost. Question any price rises.
  • Overlap your visas by a couple of days. This means that you are not relying on crossing a border on one particular day. Borders are sometimes closed at weekends or on public holidays.
  • Always enquire about an Express Visa Service. Sometimes this doesn't cost any extra.
  • Consider getting multiple entry visas for flexibility.
  • Use forums, such as the Lonely Planet Thorntree, for up to date info and tips, but beware of tips from people who haven't actually done it!!
  • Use Caravanistan's Central Asia visa guide, an up-to-date resource on visas as well as border crossings in the region.
  • Finally, apply flattery liberally, even when you are clearly being obstructed.

Here is a summary of how we got all the visas needed to travel overland from Kathmandu to London. We were travelling on British passports from Nepal westwards through, Tibet, China, Central Asia, across the Caspian Sea to the Southern Caucasus, before entering Turkey and the final stretch through Europe to the UK. All the visas we obtained were single entry tourist visas and obtained in person at an embassy unless otherwise stated. DISCLAIMER: This information may already be out of date!!

How long for? Number of entries? When does the visa time start?
Obtained where?
Length of visa process
3 month
Multiple entry as standard
On arrival at Kathmandu airport
On the spot

Remember to have a passport photo hand in your hand luggage.
14 day
Kathmandu agent as part of Tibet tour
On the spot

Travelled in mainland China on Tibet Permit. See above.
1 month
(visa starts on specified entry date)
London by post
1 week

Applying for a visa through the Kyrgyz embassy in London was a very simple process. Fill out the online form here and then send your passport and relevant documents to the embassy.
Kyrgyzstan extension
1065 Som
1 month
Multiple entry
(visa starts when previous runs out)
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
1 day (submit in morning collect in afternoon of same day)

At the OVIR office we were required to copy by hand a Letter of Invitation, in Russian, which we submitted with an application form and passport photo.
Travelled on our Kyrgyz tourist visas. Note you must has a double or multiple entry Kyrgyz visa to be able to re-enter Kyrgyzstan. For more information see A couchsurfing minibreak in Almaty.
(+£50 for GBAO permit)
2 months
Double entry with GBAO permit
(visa starts on specified entry date)
London by post
1 week

We followed the instructions on the Embassy website here. Together with an application form, our passports, photocopy and photo a travel itinerary was required. We simply wrote a letter with where we planned to be when and this appeared adequate.
Tajikistan Visa registration
135 Somani
Visa registration for a double entry 2 month visa
Khorog, Tajikistan
On the spot

We read that if you have anything more than a 1 month single entry tourist visa you are required to register. We went to the OVIR office and were directed to the neighbouring bank to pay. Returning to the OVIR
1 month
(visa starts on entry which can be any time within the stated 6 month period)
London in person
5 days

The details for applying at the London embassy can be found here. Along with the usual documents the website states that utility bills are required to verify your current address in the UK. When we presented these the embassy said that they now no longer require them instead we needed a letter from our place of study or employer. After a day of frantic phones calls we got the letters and then the application went very smoothly. Hindsight I would have got a visa in Khorog, Tajikistan which takes 1 day.
1 month
(visa starts on specified entry date)
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
7 days

To get a visa you must phone (in Russian) the embassy the day beforehand and get your name put on a list. Fill out and print off an application form here. The following day take the form, a photo and a copy of your passport to the embassy at 10 am and join the queue. A week later you need to get your name put a list the day before again. Return at 10 am with your passport and the visa is put in your visa then and there. We had a slight problem in that the official wasn't keen to give us a visa more than 3 months before our entry date (it was 3 months and 6 days before our planned entry). Luckily we managed to talk him into doing it for us. Note that a tourist visa (denoted as T on the visa) only allows for the holder to stay in hotels registered to take foreigners. For each stay you are given a registration slips which needs to be retained. We only got asked to show them once, on the Tashkent metro, when we were staying with friends and didn't have any, but we managed to get around this problem, and continue staying with our friends.
5 day
(visa has specified dates and entry point)
Applied for in Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Collected in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

7 days Express service

See Turkmen Visas – a riddle wrapped in an enigma for the long version of this.
(I think we might of got scammed on this)
5 day
(visa specified a months period for travel)
Dushanbe, Tajikistan
On the spot
No Visa
3 months

1 month (specified
Online application.
Pick up in Sukhumi, Abkhazia

$10 or 3000AMD
21 days
Georgia/Armenia border crossing by rail

Note that at the current exchange rates it is cheaper to pay in AMD (have the correct change if paying in $)
Nagorno Karabakh
14 days
Yerevan, Armenia
On the spot

For more information see How to obtain a Nagorno Karabakh visa. Remember to register the visa on entry and exit of Nagorno Karabakh.
90 days Multiple entry (standard visa)
Sarpi border crossing between Georgia and Turkey
On the spot

Can pay in US dollars, Euros or UK pounds but not Turkish Lira.
Total Cost

Although we didn't need to use a visa support agency this is an option to consider. If you need a visa in a hurry or are not near the required embassy a visa support agency can help. It could be cheaper to pay for some else to organise your visa, than paying for food and accommodation in a place you don't want to be whilst waiting for a visa to be processed, and it will almost certainly be less hassle. I heard excellent reports from travellers who used Stantours and did contact them myself at one point to make some enquires when I was weighing up our options. They responded to my email very quickly and seemed very knowledgeable.

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