You don’t just go to the Stans, no, you need major advance preparation to collect all the necessary visas and permits; but, we managed!
First the good news: for Dutch citizens, as for most citizens from OECD countries, Kirgizstan is since a couple of years visa-free. And, equally important if you are travelling overland, apparently the border guards know this, too. Another bit of good news: the Kazakh government is currently experimenting with visa-free travel for 10 countries, amongst which The Netherlands, a trial from 15 July 2014 to 15 July 2015: we’ll make that well in time should we opt for the Almaty excursion.
For the other two countries, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, we will need visas.
Uzbekistan, despite its dazzling tourist sites Samarkand and Bukhara, is the more difficult of the two. It demands that you have a Letter of Invitation (LOI) before you apply for a visa. But I don’t know anybody in Uzbekistan? Ah, try a travel agency, they can help you. If you also book a tour through them, of course, why else would they help you? In fact, I did find an agency (www.stantours.com) willing to arrange our LOIs, for the humble sum of $70,- each, upfront payment and no guarantee (to be fair, the travel agency will have to apply, on your behalf, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I don’t know what else they need to do, so there is some work involved, as well as a certain amount of goodwill from the Ministry). What happens next, is entirely up to the embassy, and seems to be fairly random, from reports on the internet. Some embassies issue a visa on the spot, as long as you have your LOI. Others take 2-5 days, and charge a seemingly arbitrary amount of money, everywhere between $65 and $180. Without LOI, things take much longer.
The biggest limitation, however, is that an Uzbek visa is issued for a maximum of 30 days. And we fly back from Tashkent six weeks after arrival. Now there are transit visas, but what is needed for those is completely unclear. Some say a ticket is enough, others claim that one needs another LOI; some say you get your transit visa in a day, others have been waiting a week.
So I called the Consulate in Brussels, in Belgium. Press one for English, two for French and three for Russian. So I pressed one. “Bonjour?” Ah, do you speak English, after all, I pressed one, right?. “Non, seulement Francais”. And Russian, of course, but that is even more difficult for me. Yet, in the end we managed to communicate well, and I was offered a multiple entry visa instead. But what about the maximum 30 days? No problem, just come to the Consulate. And so I did, and so I got my visa for two months, double entry. “Ah, vous n’avez pas d’argent? Just pay the fees into our bank account when you get home”. Where in the world? This bodes well for Uzbekistan, very well, indeed, if all the Uzbeks are like the consul.
A Tajikistan visa is relatively straight-forward, or so it seems. They have done away with the idea that visitors need an LOI, and visas are issued by embassies and consulates around the world. Well, wherever there is an embassy or consulate, of course, and the nearest one for us in Brussels, too. Once again, reports on costs and processing time vary, but everybody on internet agrees that the visa is date-specific, ie issued with a specific start and end date. Except the Tajik Embassy in Brussels, who keeps telling me that the visa is valid from the date of issuing: so if I am too early requesting it, my visa will have expired by the time I arrive in Tajikistan! With the visa, or so it seems, the embassy can also issue a GBAO permit, which allows us to travel in the Autonomous Region of Gorno-Badakshan, the area bordering Afghanistan, which is also the area traversed by the Pamir Highway. Why you need a special permit? Beats me. In the end, they do issue the visa, no hassle, and the permit, no hassle, and it is date-specific, ie valid by the time we arrive there. Very friendly people, again, full of suggestions for our trip, and a road map and a set of postcards thrown in as a present. Once again, where in the world?
Oh, and by the time we have all we need in terms of permits and visas, we will have spent well over $300 per person on paperwork alone.
But, we are set to go! What can possibly go wrong, now we have our paperwork in order, and our return ticket with Ukrainian Airways?