Attached are a couple of klimagrams from my brother. As with all other such submissions, these are best read after midnight when sobriety is not such an important issue.
Hi kids, the message below consistitues two klimagrams X3 & X4. Everything here is cool - hope likewise. We are off to Kashmir for full moon #9. Hope you enjoyed my story about the gasoline tankers in #8. Large contingent of Zaire Klimagrams forthcoming. Email service here in Dsala is cost prohibitive (1.50 per page) so uploading must wait until we get to Delhi. Tell the girls I have not forgotten about the green pepper jello!
"Good morning, JimBo. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to gather the visas necessary to complete your central Asian itinerary. Only a fool would attempt such a route independently - you should have joined a tour group!"
"You will need permission from the following governments to enter and exit their countries: Pakistan, Uzbekistan and China. For God's sake, don't tell any of them you are an amateur journalist. Make damn sure both you and the Spousal Unit wear wedding rings even if she does get a rash from it."
"Should you or the Unit get into serious trouble during this endeavor, your medical insurance and credit card companies will disavow any knowledge of your existence. Likewise the U.S. government won't give a rat's ass either."
"Good luck JimBo - you will need it. As usual this tape will create a mess on your lap in two seconds.:
Get comfortable - this tale is lengthy, but worth telling. Those of you who travel in herds, paying others to handle the legalities, will certainly feel vindicated. Those of you, admittedly perhaps a very small minority, who envy my trip, can sit back and sigh with relief that you are not with me. Those of you who have been through what the Unit and I have, need not worry - the drama will be long past by the time you read this. Either that or I have found an email connection in the gulag. All in all, perhaps this portion of our journey, more than any other, embodies Lonely Planet's basic travel philosophy: "Don't worry about whether your trip will work out. Just go!"
For the naive let me first say that obtaining the necessary visas before the trip started was not possible because most tourist visas must be exercised within 90 days. The Unit and I were trucking through Africa for five months so advance procurement was not an option.
Thus we were forced to get visas on the fly. This is generally not a problem, assuming the country you are in has a consulate for the country you want to enter. This is generally the case even when the border between the countries is in dispute, for example, India and Pakistan. All it takes is one set of decent "embassy visitation" clothes, the ability to correctly fill out application forms in a foreign language, a stack of passport-sized personal photographs and the willingness to jump through burning hoops with a gratuitous smile.
The crux of our problems centered around getting into Uzbekistan - a country known to dislike independent budget travelers. In fact all the former Soviet Republics in the Confederation of Independent States (CIS) are still leaning their way. The Lonely Plant Guide to Central Asia summarizes the situation: "Visas can be the single biggest headache associated with travel in Central Asia, especially in the former Soviet republics where regulations are still mutating. Up-to-date information is hard to find, and prices for help vary wildly. For every rule there's a loophole, and with scores of shifty officials exploiting it."
Before leaving the USA, I tried to contact the Uzbek embassy in Washington D.C. but they refused to acknowledge my existence. Visa assistance companies told me: Uzbek tourism [the government tourism authority left over from the Communist regime] still runs the show and demands that you prebook everything - tours, transport, meals and lodging - at ridiculously expensive, state-run facilities. Showing up uninvited (i.e. without paperwork) won't work because hotel, train station and bus terminal people won't do business with you. Personnel at the myriad of police checkpoints will be most intrigued. And the loathsome, mandatory registration policy which allows local officials to keep tabs on where you spend each night will make it tough to hide.
But I was not to be deterred. IF MARCO POLO COULD DO IT, SO CAN I! After exhaustively searching the internet, I found a Seattle company, MIR Corporation, that arranges custom tours in the former USSR which include visa assistance. They had connections in Tashkent who could act as my sponsor, providing an all-important letter of invitation.
We made a deal: in exchange for pre-booking half of a two week visit in private accommodations (i.e. home-stays), they would have a visa waiting when I arrived in Tashkent. I sent MIR a check and they promised to fax me payment vouchers when I reached Nairobi.
Sound simple? Well, the scheme did reach fruition but not without a few obstacles and plenty of worries. Read on and note how my just-in-time arrangements prolonged anxiety and avoided disaster. For example, the tour with MIR was concluded just 24 hours before I left the country.
July 3. The first step upon arrival in Nairobi six months later was to book air travel to Tashkent. Pakistani International Airlines (PIA) had the cheapest fare but could not confirm the final leg from Islamabad to Tashkent on Saturday, August 17th. We had to arrive on that day - our visa application was set in stone.
July 4. The Unit and I trooped off to the Pakistani embassy to apply for a visa. "We cannot issue a visa without proof of onward travel." "We are going to leave Pakistan overland to India." "Then you must obtain an Indian visa first."
July 5. At the Indian embassy we were again asked for proof of onward travel to show that we did not want to spend the rest of our lives learning Hindi. I told the woman we planned to go to Nepal by bus. Buying tickets in advance was impossible. She relented "Come back in four working days."
July 8. Back at PIA nothing was happening. The agent told us to be patient - we were seventh on the waitlist. "How can we be on a waiting list six weeks ahead of time?" I faxed MIR in Seattle to let them know we were alive. I decided to check PIA's competition but found all of them quite expensive since their routes were less direct. Then I remembered that Aeroflot was known for low cost, one way airfares. At their office I met a man who resembled a railroad boxcar with arms and legs instead of wheels. "Don't buy from us direct. Go to this travel agent," he said, handing me a scrap of paper. I found the agent several flights up in a dusty office building and explained my dilemma. "Well, I could route you through Moscow but from here to there is $450 alone." I eyed the giant world map on her wall noting the Aeroflot connections from Islamabad to Kabul to Tashkent. The agent followed my eyes and reminded me that Kabul was presently under attack from either government forces or rebels depending on who was occupying the city that day. "I promise to stay on the plane." "NO."
By chance there was another woman, Saint Ina from Oddesey Travel, sitting in the office. I lamented my situation. "What I need is a heavyweight to rattle PIA's cage." "Hmm," said Ina. "I book a lot of business with PIA. Would you like me to see what I can do?"
July 10. Returning to the Indian embassy, the Unit and I each forked over forth dollars. "Come back at 4PM and your visa will be ready." No word yet from MIR.
July 11. This time the Pakistani embassy gobbled up our passports, applications and another forty dollars each. "Come back this afternoon."
We walked over to Ina's suburban office to get an update on our PIA reservation. (It was easier to jam aboard public transportation and visit her office than to call. 95% of the public telephones in central Nairobi do not work, a fact that makes deciphering their operation vastly more difficult). "No news yet. I will call the PIA manager again."
Back at the Pakistani embassy the Unit and I retrieved our passports but the bums only gave us a single entry visa, not the double entry we would need to go to Uzbekistan and return via the Karakoram highway from China. This presented a quandary. If I told them we needed the double entry because we were going to Uzbekistan, they would want to see the airline ticket to Tashkent which PIA couldn't even confirm let alone issue. If I told them I was coming back from China, they would want to see a Chinese visa. I wanted to defer that chore until I got to Pakistan because the Chinese embassy in Nairobi wanted to keep my passport for a week while they processed my application. That would prevent the Unit and I from leaving Kenya to visit Zanzibar. Oh what a tangled web we weave when we try to deceive!
The woman behind the mouse hole turned to stone despite our pleading. I became hostile and stormed the lobby of the embassy, shouting and complaining. A fancy suit emerged: "You are fortunate we give you visa at all. Get a re-entry permit in Islamabad." "Is that difficult?" "No, it is easy - no problem." [Hah!]
July 12. Having received no return fax from MIR. I tried contacting them by email.
July 15. There was still no word from MIR so I emailed friends in Seattle and asked them to investigate.
July 16. Finally I got a fax from MIR and established email contact - somehow earlier messages from them got lost in the ether. I told them we were having difficulty getting a flight to Tashkent on the 17th of August. They replied that we would be dead meat on any other date. Our visa application had been approved for August 17-30 only.
Two weeks had now elapsed since the Unit and I arrived in Kenya but we were still in Nairobi. We had planned to get a visa for Malawi and take a bus there. However, since there was no Tanzanian embassy in Malawi, we couldn't return by the same route. This fact was not lost on Air Malawi who charged an arm and a leg to overfly Tanzania. The only other option was continuing south to Zimbabwe (another damn visa!) to pick up a Tanzanian visa and then backtracking. (It may have been possible to get a transit visa at the Tanzanian border but unfortunately I exhausted all available goodwill at their embassy prior to raising the question). These considerations on top of the India-Pakistan-Uzbekistan-China visa chase proved to be one bloody, convoluted quagmire which put more than one big bottle of Tuskers beer on my writing table at night!
July 17. Saint Ina called to say that PIA finally confirmed the flight to Tashkent but raised the fare another fifty bucks. Lacking the Uzbek vouchers from MIR, I was nervous about committing megabucks to PIA and decided to procrastinate on purchasing the tickets. I emailed the good news to MIR that night. The Unit and I left for Zanzibar the next morning.
July 21. On the island of Zanzibar I discovered a Chinese consulate. To sustain the diplomatic aggravation, I visited it every day trying to finagle a visa. On the third day I got an audience with the big cheese. "You must go to Dar Es Salaam [the capital of Tanzania]."
July 26. Hustling back to Nairobi on a night bus, I re-confirmed the PIA reservation and searched the telegraph office in vain for vouchers from MIR. With our time in Africa drawing to a close, the Unit and I booked a four day, budget safari with Sevuka Tours of Nairobi and left town.
July 31. It was the Wednesday before a four day holiday in Kenya - all businesses would be closed from Thursday through Sunday. It was do-or-die time for PIA.
We went to the bank to get a cash advance for the airline tickets. Somehow I made a math error in my currency conversion and transferred an extra $364.00 into Kenyan shillings - just what I needed three days before leaving a country where I was spending only $10 a day!
The bus ride out to Ina's office carrying a bag filled with thousands of shillings was routine. [It was later that evening that my wallet was nicked under similar circumstances]
We arrived at noon. "PIA closes for the holiday at 1PM! I'll drive you back downtown." "Oh no, we are stuck in traffic!" "Run for the PIA office. Don't let them lock the door." We got the tickets.
August 2. The vouchers and visa instructions for our stay in Uzbekistan arrived by fax.
August 4/5. The Unit and I flew to Pakistan but the game was not over. Remember that butthead at the Pakistani embassy who said getting a re-entry permit in Islamabad would be a breeze? Here we go again.
This Klimagram took forever to write because, for once, I tried to get my facts straight. The file was uploaded from the grounds of the Tibetan Government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India.
One day after ariving in Pakistan the Unit and I resumed the visa chase. Doing business in Islamabad was a pain because it was 15KM (1 1/2 hours by local bus - 7 1/2 cents) from Rawalpindi where the cheap hotels were. Plus, Islamabad is a planned city with no central nucleus which meant embassies and government offices were hidden far apart in outlaying areas. This gave us the option of long, hot walks in the stifling humidity or investing in cabs at $1.50 a pop.
Our first stop was the Chinese embassy where we were handed a form in Chinese and Urdu script. A Pakistani man translated for us and we shoved the completed forms back through the mouse-hole-sized opening in the window to a smiling man in a Gucci t-shirt. "Come back in four days."
Next we hunted down the Visa Section office of the Directorate of Immigration and Passports to get help obtaining a re-entry permit for Pakistan. Au contraire - "we only deal with Pakistani people. You go to Ministry of Interior." The man outlined how the process worked but his accent was so unintelligible we left as ignorant as we came.
The Chinese embassy returned our passports, neglecting to collect the $40 'computer check fee'. That made their visa at $8.97 the cheapest of the entire trip.
Next we went to the Interior Ministry to obtain a letter approving our re-entry request. It was a golden opportunity to observe the un-computerized Pakistani bureaucracy at work. Once there we pigeon holed anyone who spoke some English to get their version of the application process. Only by averaging everyone's opinions together could we get a fair approximation of what to expect.
We found the proper office at the barred, unmarked window on an outside wall of the ground floor of Building R - the disgruntled mob milling outside tipped us off. Of course we needed passport photos (which we had) and photocopies of pertinent pages in our passports (which we didn't have). A copying machine was set up outdoors nearby but it only produced smeared images. Despite this and the usual problem misinterpreting Pakistani accents, we submitted the application by noon. "Come back tomorrow."
It was another day of insufferable heat and humidity. Arriving at the appointed time, we discovered that the Interior Ministry had lost our papers. I launched into one of my famous tirades which went nowhere against Mohammed's mandate of always keeping one's emotions in check. Luckily a Pakistani man from Philadelphia intervened (his application was lost as well). "Come back at 2PM" we were told.
That afternoon we were escorted into the Ministry of Interior
building. The three of us sat in an office deviod of any modern
equipment save a lone typewriter. There was not even a stapler -
straight pins were used to attach papers together. Piles of
documents bound with string were stacked to the ceiling. Several
men sat around smoking. Finally one of them wrote the letter we
needed but informed us that the next stop on the bureaucratic
merry-go-round, the Regional Passport Center, was closed for the
day. Another day down the tubes - we were peeved because we wanted
to get out of Islamabad and visit Peshawar on the Afgan border.
Bright and early we taxied to the Regional Passport Center. When it opened, we were given a form and directed across town to the Visa Section of the Directorate of Immigration above the National Bank (remember them from August 6th?) to pay a fee. I protested but off we went. Grrr
A long line waited a the Directorate of Immigration. Patience exhausted, I vaulted to the front of the queue and barged into a room of officials. After a lively discussion they convinced me to return to the Regional Passport Center. Grrrr.
Back at the Regional Passport Center hot words were exchanged ending with: "no receipt, no visa." Suddenly I realized they wanted me to go to the bank underneath the Directorate of Immigration - the passport people were not allowed to handle money. Grrr.
By now the Unit and I were engaging taxis at round trip rates. At the bank I deposited 620 rupees for each of our re-entry visas and filled out more forms in triplicate. Grrrr.
Back at the Regional Passport Center, the man at the counter finally accepted our passports, our re-entry permit applications, the letter from the Interior Ministry, our bank recepts and photocopies of the front pages of our passports. "Where are the photocopies of your current visa?" Ha! I was ready and whipped out the necessary copies - we carry such nonsense in case a passport gets lost, pilfered or laundered.
"Come back at 4:30." My head hit the countertop with a thud. "We want to leave town today (grrr) - you have no idea how hard we have been working to get this visa (grrr). Can it be done sooner?" Grrrr.
The man looked at me carefully and dumped my paperwork on a desk laden with other applications. "Wait one hour." The Unit and I sat down right there and alternated glaring at the officials and a large wall clock. 45 minutes later the passports were ready. One hour later we wre on a bus to Peshawar. Grrreat!
Yes, the day finally came when we boarded an Air Uzbekistan flight to Tashkent on a Russian TU-154. The seating was the tightest I have ever seen on a commercial airliner. Then again I was the tallest man getting on board. The floppy seat backs make you think you could take one with you as a souvenir. The seats fold down forwards as well as backwards - a fact I learned with much embarrassment when I fell over and toppled a string of seats in four consecutive rows like dominos. And, by the way, the goddamn plane was only 2/3 full!
The Tashkent airport is not reputed to be a warm and fuzzy place. To quote Lonely Planet again:
"Arrival procedures, even without visa hassles, commonly take three or four hours - passport check, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) visa check, foreign exchange, baggage collection, customs...and OVIR visa check."
"The main problem is incompetence and bad organization, but it's greedy bloody-minded or unscrupulous Uzbek officials that have made Tashkent airport infamous. Some are power-tripping, but most are just looking for a few easy dollars, and new arrivals to Central Asia - disoriented, sleep-deprived and jet lagged - are easy pickings."
"One woman arrived with an Uzbek visa but was hassled because she had no hotel booking. One man was told to drop his trousers and open his extra money belt so customs could confirm the sum he had declared. There are plenty of outright cons too - 10 sum [the local currency] for a customs form before you've even found the bank, or a weighing of bags on arrival and demands for excess-baggage charges, for example."
"If you have arranged to collect a visa on arrival, they may take a very long time to find you in their Big Book. Be prepared to wait them out..."
"Then, at the end of it all, you're released into a sea of grasping taxi drivers. Stay away from the drivers who loiter just outside (or sometimes inside) the arrivals hall; these are the greediest and most unscrupulous. Local people say some are in league with customs officials, who tip them off about passengers carrying lots of cash."
"All these problems are of course worse if you arrive in the middle of the night, when everybody's irritable, and transport is scarce and even more predatory."
Well, we didn't arrive at night and, thanks to MIR, our names were in the Big Book. A crisp fifty dollar bill from each of us garnered an unbelievably generous, one year, multiple entry, completely unrestricted visa. I was later told this was a special deal recently worked out for Americans.
We breezed through customs and immigration and searched for a cabbie who could read the English address of our home-stay family in Tashkent. Then it was a simple matter to persuade him to drop his price from $25 to $10.
After months of psyching ourselves for mental abuse and verbal confrontation, we were rather let down. The only problem we encountered was locating toilets. In fact, leaving the airport in Islamabad was considerably harder - everyone wanted to know why we didn't have a visa for Uzbekistan. Our vouchers from MIR saved the day.
There you have it - a detailed look at the joys of independent travel. The only task left is to whip it into a clever screenplay and sell it to Tom Cruise.
P.S. While in Uzbekistan, I met two different travellers who had been issued legitimate visas at the Uzbek embassy in New Delhi. No sponsors or letters of invitation were necessary.
Here's the poop on MIR. They helped us and maybe can do the same for you.
85 S. Washington St.
Seattle, WA 98104
phone: (206) 624-7289
toll-free: (800) 424-7289
fax: (206) 624-7360
Ina, I wish I could provide similar information for Oddessy Travel in Nairobi, but your business card was in the wallet I donated to the Greater Youth League of Nairobbery.
Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City Jimbo. All rights reserved.