Monday, June 9, 2008

Visa Roulette

Beijing. Quite the big city - capital of China, 'the new superpower'. Home to maybe 20 embassies as far as the Lonely Planet is willing to research ('in depth' is not something they seem to specialize in), and embassies from just about every nation in the world in reality. So, since I'm here, it's a good time to try and get a visa or two for the many 'stans we'll be passing through this summer.

Option 1 - Kazakhstan. Want: double-entry tourist visa. Lonely Planet even knew about this one, and perhaps more amazingly placed it correctly on its map(!), so I had not trouble finding it when I went on a bit of reconaissance mission on Saturday. Found out the hours, got a copy of the application form, was told to come back Monday at 9AM, came back... and was told that the consular section is closed in observance of a Chinese National holiday. Unfortunately, the guy telling me this didn't actually know what the holiday was. Later found out it was Dragon Boat Racing day on Sunday, and the country gets Monday off too... the Kazakh embassy loves it some dragon boat racing! Ok, next play...

Option 2 - Uzbekistan. Want: single entry tourist visa. The Lonely Planet denies any knowledge of the existence of this embassy, the internet, however, knows everything, including the address of the Uzbek embassy in Beijing, so having done some research the night before, I was ready to proceed. Conveniently enough, all the embassies in Beijing are concentrated in two distinct areas (unlike, say, Bangkok, where they are spread out sporadically over the entire city), so while I didn't have a map, I figure it had to be close. Plus, the Chinese have posted a guard outside each embassy... sadly none of them speak English, of course. However, undaunted, I spent the next 30 minutes 'conversing' with these guys by saying Uzbekistan and Sunlitum Beixia (the street name where the embassy was) - this generally led to either a blank stare, a torrent of Chinese, or vague gesticulations. At 9:30, I arrived at the Uzbek embassy! And was greeted by a new guard, who had an English vocabulary of maybe 10-12 words - this seemed encouraging... His grasp of English didn't quite extend to 'I'd like to speak to the consular section about getting a visa to Uzbekistan,' but we did eventually arrive at an intercom, which let me talk to somebody at the embassy, who told me to come back at 10. I spent the next 30 minutes trying to find the Kyrgyz embassy - you know, just in case. By 10, I was back in Uzbek-land. Third in line. The two people before me get their visas right there on the spot - considering how much I loathed my time in Uzbekistan last time, I'm starting to like the embassy in Beijing! And then I come up, the guy examines my application, putzes away on his computer for a bit... and comes back saying that I need a letter of invitation. I point out that I got a visa two years ago without one - he shrugs and says that maybe you don't need one in New York, but certainly need one here. The internet would later tell me that Uzbekistan has 'recently' re-introduced the requirement for letters of invitation (side note: why!? do you not like the money you get from tourists?) - I wonder if 'recently' means in the past two years. Oh well, moving on... Kyrgyzstan

Option 3 - Kyrgyzstan. Want: single-entry tourist visa, falls under nice-to-have-but-don't-quite-need-it category. Kyrgyzstan is a small country, so they don't have a full-fledged embassy of their own, instead they occupy half a floor in a building with a bunch of other small-ish embassies, including Fiji, the Bahamas, Bolivia, and 6-7 others. So, at least they're in good company. And makes finding them a little easier. When I arrive on the 7th floor around 11:30, where Kyrgyzstan resides, I find it to be absolutely barren. There are signs saying the consular section is open from 15:00-18:00, and not a live person in sight. Undeterred, I knock and bug long enough to actually speak to a person, who gives me an application form, confirms that the consular section will be open at 3, and tells me that the Turkmen embassy (my next destination) is at King's Garden Villa, 10 minutes away... by car. Sensing that a taxi driver will have no idea what a King's Garden is, I ask for a Chinese spelling, and get a chuckle from the guy, who apparently doesn't speak a word of Chinese. Outcome here TBD at 3, in the mean time, moving on: Turkmenistan.

Option 4 - Turkmenistan. Want: single-entry tourist visa, but a transit would do, since I remember hearing last time that Turkmen embassies can be a little reluctant with tourist visas. Not so surprisingly, the taxi driver I speak to has no idea what a King's Garden is... or a villa... neither do any of the other drivers there. Eventually, a phone call to the embassy (the internet taught me all kinds of things) in a mixture of English/Russian/Chinese gets us on the way. King's Garden Villas are simply a gated community, but with a bit more security since some of the residents are the IOC and a handful of embassies, including Turkmenistan. This embassy doesn't seem to have a consular section, or hours... It just has a guy, who opens the front door after a while, directs me to the side door and explains in half-way decent English (I'm still refusing to speak Russian to any officials) that I will need a letter of invitation. But he's a nice enough guy (and quite frankly doesn't seem particularly busy), so he gives me the name and phone number of an agency that can arrange for an invitation and also explains that yes, I could get a transit visas, but in order for me to be 'transiting,' I'd need visas for the neigbouring countries first. (The Uzbeks had made the exact same point but a few hours earlier). In conculsion: no luck.

In summary:
- Kazakhstan: unclear, since I haven't spoken to anyone yet, but I may need an invitation for a double entry visa. Nelly, the former-Soviet-republic visa maven from San Diego is on the case (or at least, I've emailed her asking for help).
- Uzbekistan: need a letter of invitation, once I have that, looks like the process should be quick (assuming the Moscow embassy is like the Beijing one). Nelly's on it as well.
- Turkmenistan: letter of invitation once more... A bit unclear what happens once I have that - I've seen reports online that say some Turkmen embassies simply refuse to issue a visa, others do it same-day. We'll see, I suppose, hopefully Nelly's getting this invitation too.
- Kyrgyzstan: I came back at 3 and four hours and a little over $100 I had a visa to Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, at this point, I'd have to come back to China in order to be able to enter as I don't have visas for any of the other countries Kyrgyzstan borders. More unfortunately, Kyrgyzstan is a nice-to-see detour effectively, not a requirement, but hey, I was glad to get a visa out of this whole day!
- Tajikistan: looks like they require a letter of invitation also. And it isn't a requirement either, so I'm putting off worrying about this one for a while, haven't even bothered trying to find the embassy so far.
- Iran: in a more ideal world, I'd like to go through Iran too. In this world, the odds of me getting a visa to Iran before August 1st bring up the images of a snowball... in hell, so I'm not holding my breath. Would be nice to have an additional escape destination from Baku though!

Sightseeing? Well, I didn't get to do a whole lot of sight-seeing today, unless you count comparing and contrasting the drab interiors of the various consular sections of the former Soviet republics. But I did get to see this:

I'm not really sure what 'this' is, but judging by all the Olympics-related signs all around the fence at the construction site, I gather it's got somthing to do with the Olympics. What exactly? Beats the hell out of me!

And Lott, you should start working on your visas! ASAP...

1 comment:

b mathew said...

Great post! Never imagined you needed a 'letter of invitation' to any of those countries. Weird..