Mongolia and back overland – Visas
Oh boy, this is a tricky one. To give you an upfront spoiler, while documenting and making arrangements for all the required visas I’ve said to myself that, if I can pull it through, this will be my most complex logistics project ever. Well, I did pulled it through – and I was not that far from the truth at all, it really was complicated.
Disclaimer – all the information provided here about the required visas for an overland travel to Mongolia and through the Stans was valid during the first half of 2018, for a Romanian passport owner, starting from and returning to Romania. Your mileage may vary – an old saying that applies very well for this post, as you will see in the end.
While still trying to put together some sort of route plans, I was also documenting the visa requirements for the different countries that I was going to travel across. In short, here you have the starting list, including all the countries that I was planning to visit. I have skipped the countries that were initially on my plans but had to be excluded due to time restraints: Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Iran (for which I am still so sorry that I have missed it 🙁 ).
– countries that do not require visa – or provide a visa on arrival, at the border, for international travellers: Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan
– countries that provide an electronic (e-visa) program, so you can apply online for a visa that is valid without having to be stamped in your passport: Azerbaijan, Tajikistan
– countries that require a visa and have an embassy / consulate in
Romania: Russian Federation, Mongolia, Turkmenistan
– countries that require a visa but do NOT have an embassy / consulate in
Romania: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan
Now, speaking about visas – and overall planning an overland route through Central Asia, the best piece of advice is to get really familiar with these two sites, both of which provide HUGE loads of information, most of it really up-to-date and confirmed by recent travellers:
In short, it goes like this: if you need some sort on information, it’s already there – or you can ask for it. David from Stan Tours has helped me A LOT with plenty of good advices – and the Russian Federation Letter of Invitation – LOI.
And now the fun begins: to apply for the Turkmenistan transit visa, which had an expected waiting time of four weeks – at least – you need to already have the entry and, more importantly, the exit visas in your passport. Thus I needed the azeri and the uzbek visas before applying for Turkmenistan. It was already March, so not that much time available… And the Turkmenistan visa was important, depending on that I would be able to finally decide the route. So the first visa to get was the one for Uzbekistan.
Initially I was under the impression that I needed a Letter of Invitation for this, but as I already mention David from Stan Tours proved to be a very good resource: he explained that it was not required anymore. But I still had one significant problem: there is no Uzbekistan embassy or consulate in Romania. Again searching the Caravanistan site proved helpful and indicated that I had the most chances to get the visa simply by sending my passport via courier to the embassy in Vienna. Great, send a bunch of e-mails for confirmation, no replay, and non-delivery reports a few days later. E-mail was a no-go. Called on the phone, bad English speaker confirmed that yes, it is possible to send the papers this way (although their website was clearly stating that you need to go there in person). YES :D.
Now this is important: if you ever need to send your papers via a courier company, please make sure that:
1 – you make sure it is a reliable company for international shipping
2 – you make sure that you clearly state the content of your packet / envelope, meaning original papers – the curies supposedly treat this type of expeditions more carefully.
I didn’t, so it only took ten days for my papers to arrive at the Uzbekistan Embassy in Vienna (yeah, I’m looking at you, Fan Courier…). And to add insult to injury, it took yet another week (after the visa was released) to finally get the papers shipped back to me. No courier was willing to simply go and pick up the package from the Embassy and, as already mentioned, their e-mail was not working. So eventually I had to find a friend of a friend of a friend who was in Vienna at the time and was able to go, pick up my papers and have them shipped back to me. The magic of social media saved the day. Literally.
While waiting for the whole Uzbekistan Embassy situation to came to a closure I did made my research for the next ones: for the Russian Federation I had decided to apply for the business visa, which allows for a total of 90 days, so a Letter of Invitation (LOI) was required. This was quickly and painlessly solved with the big help of Dave, from Stan Tours. As soon as I got my passport back I’ve sent it to the Russian Federation Visa Service in Bucharest, via a friend (and the required Power of Attorney). Smooth as butter, one week later I had my Russian business visa in my passport :D.
Turkmenistan was a whole different story and not a happy one. They’ve told me over the phone that I can apply for the visa via courier and I can send copies of the documents, the original passport would be required only if the visa was granted. So I did sent my papers, waited for a couple of weeks, than called every week, than every other day, went personally to the Turkmenistan Embassy in Bucharest, everything. Even though they had been very polite and friendly everytime, I only got the same answer: “There is no reply yet from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”. So there goes my plan of visiting Ashgabat and, more importantly for me, Darvaza Gas Crater. Oh well, there is always hope for the next time :).
Important note: if you apply for the Turkmenistan transit visa, do yourselves a favor and DO NOT mention going to Darvaza, even if you plan to. Just make sure the overall planned route follows naturally between the entry and exit borders.
The Mongolia visa was the easiest one, I went in person to visit the Honorific Consul of Mongolia in Bucharest, had a very lovely chat about travelling in general and, of course, Mongolia in special, and I got the visa the same day, just a few hours later.
Kyrgyzstan was funny in the end. Again there is no embassy in Romania, so I had to look for options to sent my passport away. At the same time, their electronic, online visa was already available, but valid only for a specific border entry, which was outside of my planned route. Eventually I’ve sent the passport with a couple of friends that went to Berlin to get their visa as well. Only to end up having to have a full blown online interview over Skype with someone from the Kyrgyzstan Embassy in Berlin. Yes, it was funny afterwards, but initially they were refusing to give the visa if I was not there in person…
So, in total I think I have easily spent over 1.000 Euros for getting all the visas, and more hours and neurons than I’d like to know. But I got them (almost) all :D.
Funny ending: out of all the visas mentioned above, now, just 6 months later, for the same trip, a traveller would only need three actual, passport stamped, visas: Russian Federation, Mongolia, Turkmenistan. All the rest of them are either electronic, online, easy and very cheap to get, or visa on-arrival.
So here you have it, the ordeal of getting your papers ready for Central Asia. It took some time but I’m still pretty convinced that it is better to get all the visas that you can in advance, before leaving home, than to wait at embassies somewhere on the road. Saves travelling time, stress, and some money in the long run.