Ugh! I have been getting ready for my trip to “Everywhere Else” as I call it. The name of the game is visa, visa, visa. When you go to more out of the way places things get more complicated. You need to have a plan to get everything in order.
Here are the countries I plan to go to in 2015, in order: Hungary-Austria-Czech Republic These countries are all part of the Schengen zone, and don’t require a visa for US citizens to travel there for up to 90 days.
New Caledonia- visa-free for 90 days
Vanuatu- visa-free for 30 days, need passport valid for 4 more months, and onward ticket
Fiji- visa-free for 4 months
Japan- visa-free for 90 days
*****Edit, March 25 2015*****
I have since decided to abandon going to Russia for the time being, which really sucks. Siberia sounds so awesome, but I haven’t been able to connect with my hoped-to-be contacts there, and I realized how 1. close to the wire I’d be cutting it even getting passport back 2. The visa itself is a lot of money 3. All of the transport there is a lot. The ferry from Japan is over $200 and then you have train travel in peak season. I realized that spending 10% of my total budget on just visa and transport for one country isn’t what I wanted to do. I still have left this info here however.
Aaaaand then, the great unknown. Russia visas are so confusing. There are many types of visas available. Currently there is a more recent option for tourists, the 3-year multiple entry one. Most visa types cost the same, and that number is pretty high for US citizens. There’s a lengthy application as well. I guess that’s in retaliation for the hoops that the US government makes some people visiting here go through. I don’t blame them. From what I understand US citizens must apply for the visa while in the US, and not while travelling, though I’m not 100% sure on this. I do understand that the embassies are at least efficient/reliable on the time it takes to process the visa for the most part. If you can get the visa application directly to ILS (Invisa Logistic Services, offices in San Fran, Washington, Houston, and NYC) it’s only $160 for 10-day processing, plus $33 processing fee. If you want to do it via mail (I am still not clear if this is if you drop off and then they mail it to you, or if this is by mailing everything to them and they mail it back) it is an extra $103 vs the $33. This is by far much cheaper than going through other services like VisaHQ or TraVisa. I have a voucher on United Airlines to use up so I will likely apply in person in San Francisco. Anyway, fairly straightforward so far. However, Russia has a concept called “restricted areas” and even “closed cities”. I won’t be going to any “closed cities” (these are generally areas with a specific scientific aim, ie a nuclear site etc) but I will be going to some “restricted areas”. In fact, my place of entry is right at one of these, Sakhalin. This website has the clearest explanation I’ve been able to find so far, and some useful contacts for help in each of these places: http://realrussia.co.uk/Visas/Russian/Registration#q5 I’ve read that you need to get permits to be able to travel in these places, but haven’t gotten any hard info yet on how to get these. I tried through a couple websites that claim to offer help for this in their visa application process, but they, in addition to the official service ILS, told me they don’t know about how to do this and to contact the embassy in Washington directly. So fingers crossed…. All of this is compounded by the fact that you can’t apply for a Russian visa until 3 months before you plan to arrive. So this will give me 2 and a half weeks for this! Yiiiiikes. Hopefully everything will go smoothly…..
Luckily things get SLIGHTLY, and I do mean SLIGHTLY easier
after Russia instead of Russia. An alternate route I’ve chosen to get to Mongolia involves me going through China instead. This makes my life exponentially easier because 1. I definitely know more useful Chinese than Russian, even if I’m more comfortable reading Cyrillic vs characters. 2. This also solves both the problem of getting from Mongolia to Kazakhstan (via Urumqi, which I totally want to visit anyway) as well as from ‘stans to Nepal/India (either via Pakistan, or through Tibet, both of which would be crazy but awesome adventures) 3. My friend from Chinese medical school just invited me to visit for the Harbin ice festival next winter which I sooooo want to go to 4. It’s hella cheaper ($140) and hella easier to get. Am I the only one who actually enjoys getting a Chinese visa in LA? It’s pretty painless, takes 3 days, and gives you two excuses to go to spas in Ktown. Add on a couple bucks for your bus fare, $20-30 for 2 spa visits, and a little extra if you want some sort of tasty Ktown snack, and you’ve got yourself 2 parties and multiple entries to China for 10 years. Anyway, back to your regularly-scheduled visa.
Mongolia- visa-free for 90 days. Certain areas require a permit, but from what I understand you can usually get a permit at the park entrance- ex, Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.
Now it’s time for the ‘stans. The single most useful resource for travel here is this website, Caravanistan. Kazakhstan- currently they are having a trial program of visa-free access for 15 days, which includes US citizens. This offer expires 15 July 2015. I, of course, plan to get there just after that. I also will need to hang in Almaty for a bit to arrange other visas, so I’m really not sure how long I will be there. So fingers crossed they will extend this program. Otherwise the current visa fee JUST went up to $160!!! Cripes. Toes crossed now too. The only bright spot in that is that you can use that same $160 to have a 5-yr multiple entry visa. If I have to get this visa I will apply in Ulan Baator, in Mongolia. I am lucky in that I have quite a few contacts in Almaty at least, which is a decent place to hang out, and a place with good day trips nearby. One of those contacts is the guy who runs Caravanistan so hopefully I have someone who can offer advice if needed.
A problem with travelling is that a lot of countries don’t like to let you apply too far in advance for a visa. I’ve tried getting information to see if I can do this early from both the Uzbek and Turkmen embassies so far, but no one has replied. I have been really busy at work and school so haven’t gotten a chance to call yet. The next country I will travel to is Turkmenistan, notoriously difficult to get a visa for. Tourist visas require that you are on a tour with a government approved agency, and these aren’t cheap at $100+/day (most are more like $200+/day). You also need a LOI (letter of invitation) which runs you another $50 or so (if you are down to spring that much money, another $50 probably won’t be that big of a deal to you). You can, however, get a transit visa for 3-5 days (rarely 7-10, the government decides which you get) In order to get that visa, I will have to get the visa for the country I plan to travel to next, which is Uzbekistan, before applying for the Turkmen visa.
The Uzbek visa is $60 for 7 days, $70 for 15 days, $80 for 30 days, and $100 for 3 months. US citizens do not need a LOI to get a visa for Uzbekistan. You need to know your entry and exit points and date of arrival. As of now I will likely get this in Almaty, if you have a LOI, apparently you can get same-day service. If you don’t, apparently it can take days, weeks, etc. I have read reports that for applications in Tokyo (another city reachable on my route, with a Uzbek embassy) it costs 16000 Yen, which is about $135. So I’m guessing that covers “LOI” fee. According to Stantours (another helpful tour operator) US citizens only don’t need the LOI IF applying from home. So I will be calling Uzbek embassy for sure to see what can be done. It would be really awesome to start out my trip with that already taken care of in the states, and for cheaper.
Back to Turkmenistan. Assuming my Uzbek visa goes through with no problems, I will then submit the transit visa. I’ll be entering via Kazakhstan, at a formerly rarely-used entry point that just got a brand-spanking-new train. I am hoping that it will be running via summer time. It will go through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and onto Iran (sad face, I’ll see ya next time, Persia). If that’s running, it will be awesome because 1. I heart trains and public transit 2. It’s brand new and will be nice and a total adventure 3. It will probably be cheaper than getting share-taxis and marshrutkas, and a heck of a lot more comfortable. Not to mention quicker. Turkmenistan’s transit visa doesn’t require a LOI, and is nicely priced at $35. Apparently you can submit documents at one embassy while on the road, and then pick up your visa at another. Sweet! Otherwise, I read on Caravanistan that the Tajik embassy has the “quickest turnaround” at one week. That’s sorta long….They do have one in Vienna and Tokyo which could be of use if I manage to get the Uzbek visa squared away, and also ones in Almaty and Astana in Kyrgyzstan (no such luck for UIan Bataar, however). At any rate there definitely will be a good chunk of time spent in Almaty in my future…
I haven’t decided whether to go first to Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan after passing through Uzbekistan. A further complication is the situation along parts of the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan so I really will have to play it by ear. My first thought was to do Tajikistan then Kyrgyzstan, but apparently my contact in Uzbekistan will be able to help with transport to Kyrgyzstan? Really will have to play this by ear. Kyrgyzstan- visa free for 60 days! Woot! Tajikistan- tourist visa is $25. Awesome. GBAO permit, which is necessary for travel in areas you likely want to go to (Pamirs) is another $50. Not as awesome, but not awful either.
There is apparently a cheapo way to do it yourself in Dushanbe, perhaps I will try: Getting GBAO Permit in Dushanbe. If this works out, it’s only a few dollars! Entry and exit date for Tajik visa are fixed. You have to register with an organization called OVIR and this costs more money, but not too much. I read on that lonely planet link you don’t need to register if staying under 30 days? Lots and lots of info at Caravanistan.
From here my current plan is to go via China to some other awesome place. It looks as though I will have to go through Kyrgyzstan to do it, at least Kyrgyzstan is visa-free in case I need to double-entry it. You can go overland through the Torugart or Irkeshtam Passes in the Tien Shan range. Weather is very important to check in this region before attempting transit. There is another pass called the Qolma Pass between Tajikistan and China, but non-Chinese/Tajiks can only go from East to West (ie China to Tajikistan). Technically you could pass through Afghanistan to get out of Central Asia; I’m going to pass on this one this time around. Yikes. Passing from Kyrgyzstan to China, you will end up in Kashgar, which is a cool place I’d like to visit anyway. From here you have two options: 1. Pass through China to Tibet (apparently this is not entirely legal, at least without the right permits which it’s impossible to get beforehand. If you are interested in this, you can spend hours on this website drooling: Crazy Guy On A Bike: Occupied Territories.) Requires a bike most likely. You can visit Mt. Kailash on the way which is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. 2. Travel the Karakoram Highway, the highest one in the world. An epic journey.
This route goes through the Hunza Valley which I’ve been fascinated with for years. However, transport costs could be more expensive here, and it would also require Pakistan visa ($120). I think this will be too expensive for me so I will likely skip this route. So bad-ass though!!!
After this it’s pretty smooth sailing. Nepal- visa upon entry, $25/40/100 for 15/30/90 days.
India- couple of options here. They’ve instituted a new E-visa for US citizens, $60 for 30 days. I think I want to stay more like 40-60 days though so I will probably do the $63/6 months multiple-entry visa. There is a newish 5 or 10 year visa (per their discretion) but you’d have to go at least 3 times to make it worth it, and apparently it’s difficult if not impossible to get outside the US.
After India I’ll head to Thailand, perhaps via a 3rd country depending on cheapest airfares. Thailand is visa-free for 30 days if you are a US citizen.
I’ll add more as my plans change or grow! This should keep me occupied for the rest of 2015 at least! Summary: 18 countries, $373 in visa fees. Average= $20/country, or about $1.30/day. I can live with that.