From the earliest days of research for this trip it was evident that visas would be an issue both in terms of arranging the timing so that consecutive countries matched up on entry and exit dates and in terms of the process. A complicating factor was that we would have to get many of the visas while in transit as it was not possible because of timing issues to get all visas in advance of starting the journey.
Russia plays a key role in our planned journey. Not only was it the starting point, but it also turned out to be one of the longest legs on our journey. Further it was also the only country that we had planned to enter twice (the second time between Mongolia and Kazakstan)
Finally it was also our escape route. In the event that we could not get a visa for Iran (or Turkmenistan) our pan was to re-enter Russia from Kazakstan, travel north of the Caspian and catch a ferry from Russia‘s black sea coast to Turkey. Thus getting a useful Russian visa seemed of crucial importance; our goal was a 1 year multiple entry visa.
After some looking around we decided to use an agency called gotorussia.com
The process proved to be uncomplicated just expensive.
Mongolia represented the first of a long list of countries for which we had to get visas for while enroute.
Fortunately, it turned out that this one was pretty simple. It also turned out that we could probably have obtained Mongolian visas before departing had we been a little more organized.
We decided to obtain a 30 day tourist visa in Irkutsk and then extend it for another 30 days once in Ulaanbaatar. This option did not require a Letter Of Invitation.
The other options, of seeking a 90 day tourist visa, seemed to require a LOI (though we never confirmed this). Once on the road we did not think this was a feasible option.
I should point out that US Citizens can get a 90 day tourist visa at the border.
As described in our post for May 23rd the Mongolian Embassy is an easy walk from Gargaran Boulevard and the Intourist Hotel, that parking is pretty relatively easy on Gargaran even for large vehicles, and that the Intourist Hotel allowed us and other overlanders to park overnight behind their building for a small charge.
The Embassy is in Lapina St which is off Karla Marksa (one of the main streets in downtown Irkutsk). Lapina is a small street and the Embassy is easy to find in that street. The GPS coordinates of the Embassy are N52 16 48.0 E104 17 06.0.
We paid for a one day service (apply today, pickup tomorrow), the whole process was easy and at least one of the officers spoke Engish.
If you plan on staying in Mongolia more that 30 days you must register your visa.
Some of the information we read made the registration process and subsequent extension sound complicated with registration at one office and extension at another. However we found the process straightforward.
Maybe the only complexity about the visa extension process was getting to the INFC office which is near the airport. In the end we got a picture of the building from a travel website and armed with that caught a taxi to the airport. It worked.
Enter the INFC Building and from the entrance hall take the door to the right. Look around for a window labeled Visa Extensions or ask the Information desk.
The registration and extension process are now combined. Bought a visa registration form from one of the windows (1000 T each) and filled it out. Got a photo copy of our passports facing page and Mongolian visa page from the desk in the buildings entrance hall and paid for the visa extension at the bank office in the same building. With all those in hand we returned to the "visa extension" window (in our case window 4) and wait 5-10 minutes while the office did the processing and put two additional stamps in our passports (one to record registration and one to record the extension).
A word or warning, these stamps where checked very carefully at the exit border. Make sure you get them (if necessary) and that the dates on the stamps are correct.
Kazakstan was our second visa while enroute and we decided to get it in Ulaanbataar. Our biggest difficulties with this visa were finding the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Ulaanbaatar, and having our watches set to the correct Ulaanbaatar time. Because of this latter mistake we spent 4 hours wandering around town waiting for the Embassy to open again so we could submit our applications.
We had trouble finding good directions to the Embassy either online or at the Oasis Guesthouse. In the end we got there by a piece of luck. We happend to find a taxi driver that spoke English and knew where the Embassy was located.
As it happens a number of the city maps of UB actually show the location of the Kazak Embassy but we only found those after our luck with the taxi driver.
So where is it?
Approximately N47.89261 E106.90740
Find your way to the Bog Khan's Winter Palace on the Zaisan Rd north of the Zaisan Bridge. Walk south on Zaisan Road until (on the right) you see a multi-story building with a green wall facing you and the name Green House on the wall (approximately N47.89269 E106.90905). Turn right at street immediately before the Green House. About 100m along on the right is the Kazakhstan Embassy.
Update: There is construction taking place that may eventually obscure the green wall and the sign for the Green House.
We chose to apply for a 30 day single entry tourist visa. The application was straightfoward and the young lady clerk spoke good English. In addition to passports, passport sized photos, a copy of the face page of our passport we needed a copy of the Mongolian Visa page of our passport.
There is a visa processing fee of US$30 each which is paid at a nearby bank. the receipt for that payment is to be included with the other documents when submitting the visa application.
The application took 5 business days and as promised the young lady called us when the visas were ready.
An issue to be aware of. Our application indicated July 13th to Aug 13th but when we got our passports back we quickly noticed that the visas were valid from 17th July to 17th August. We could not work out why the dates were changed but small change could easily have played havoc with our downstream timing and plans.
For Australians (like us and a long list of other nationals) Kyrgyzstan now has a visa-free that provides for a 30 day tourist visa to be issued at the border. We read this in a number of publications, and heard it from a number of sources but we were still relieved to find that it was the case.
We decided to get all of our remaining visas (for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This decision was based partly on reading/hearing that the various embassies in Bishkek were easy to deal with and convenience as we had a good place to stay in Bishkek.
Tajik visas and GBAO permits were obtained in a couple of hours at the Tajikistan Embassy in Bishkek.
The visa fee was paid in US dollars ($150 for 2) and the notes had to be in pristine condition.
Contrary to published information our applications were processed on the spot. Officially applications are only accepted in the morning and completed visas issued in the afternoon.
A GBAO permit is required to travel the Pamir region of Tajikistan and it must state all the places to be visited in the Pamir region.
Uzbekistan was one of the more complicated countries to make arrangements for.
A Letter of Invitation (LOI) from a Uzbek tour agency is required to support ones application for a Uzbek tourist visa. The LOI must show ones planned itinerary. We obtained ours through stantours.com.
Visa application forms must be filled in/completed online. The website where these forms can be found will be given to you with the LOI, or if you are lucky the agency may fill in the application form for you and send you a copy with the LOI.
With LOI in hand and online application completed we had a person from the Celestial Mountains Tour Agency who spoke Russian call the Uzbek embassy in Bishkek and make an appointment for us to go to the embassy and get our visa. Note the appointmen must be made in Russian.
When we got to the Embassy for our 9:00am appointment we found that the embassy had made appointments with 30 other people for the same time. We all milled around outside the Embassies locked gate waiting for something to happen.
Eventually a young women came out and read out the names of people she believed had made appointments. Over half the people in the crowd, including Nina and I, were told no appointment. We later deduced that this was a common problem.
We eventually had to contact Celestial Mountains Tour, have them call the Embassy to confirm our appointment, and also have Celestial Mountains provide a Russian speaking interpreter to accompany us back to the Uzbek Embassy.
The officers in the Embassy were not helpful and we would not have managed to get our Uzbek visas without the help of a Russian speaking interpreter. We can recommend Celestial Mountains to help with this process. they also have a hotel called The Silk Road Lodge that has space to park overlander vehices.
The Uzbek complexities however were not over with the obtaining of our visas.
Uzbekistan requires all foreign tourists to register frequently once traveling in Uzbekistan. Registration can only be done either at a hotel or a police station. For all practical purposes registration is only done at a hotel.
The rule seems to be one must register every 3rd night, though we heard many stories that suggest the effective rule is that tourists must register as frequently as demanded by the police officer currently reading your registration cards.
Hence we arranged through stantours.com to make hotel bookings for us in each of the cities we proposed to visit (Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Nukus) and to provide some form of registration paper work for the few nights we planned to camp in our truck between these cities.
As it turned out we saw no sign that any of the police officers we talked to had an interest in our registration cards. Our conclusion is that registration is primarily an issue if one travels into Tashkent.
We had planned from early in our research to travel across Turkmenistan from Bukhara, UZ (via Turkmenabat in Turkmenistan) to Ashgabat and to do this on a transit visa.
But once into conversation with stantours regarding our Uzbek arrangements we decided to change our route so that we entered Turkmenistan at Konye-Urgench and travel to Ashgabat via the burning crater and to do this on a tourist visa.
Our motivation was two fold, we had heard that the Turkmen authorities were unrealiable about transit visas and we wanted to actualy see something in Turkmenistan rather than just drive across the country.
Turkmenistan requires an LOI for tourist visas which we obtained again through stantours and they also arranged the guide that is required to accompany all tourists traveling in Turkmenistan on tourist visas.
One of the advantages of a tourist visa is that the visa can be obtained at the border (with LOI in hand) unlike a transit visa that must be obtained at an embassy before getting to the border.
Our first efforts to start (or maybe explore) the visa process for Iran got nowhere as we emailed a couple of European based agencies advertising expertise in obtaining Iranian visas but got no reply.
Eventually we got a reference to Iran Traveling Center and they not only responded to our email but also took us through the process successfully.
The process is a bit different than most countries.
We provided Iran Traveling Center (ITC) with all the necessary details for our application (including specifying the Iranian embassy at which we would like to collect the actual visa) and they submitted it to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Once approved the MFA notified the selected Embassy of the approval and sent them and us an approval number.
We then had 1 month to call at the specified embassy (in our case Bishkek, Kyrg) and complete the process.
As it turned out there was a timing mixup and we missed the one month window, but ITC was able to have the approval number re-transmitted.
At the Bishkek Embassy we completed our application forms, provided two passport sized photos each, and paid the processing fee (EU220 for 1 day processing) at a nearby branch of the National Bank of Pakistan and in two days (not one day thanks to an Iranian holiday) we had our visas.
Note that in the passport sized photos of Nina she had to be dressed appropriately. Long sleeved blouse, and covered head.
We had been told that the visa photo would be taken at the embassy by embassy staff. This proved to not be true and we had to provide the photos.
ITC charged US$100 for their services.