The Delhi visa chase

Our reason for spending a few days in Delhi's heat was to obtain visas to several of the Central Asia countries we plan to visit in the fall.

The 'Stans don't make it easy for Americans to visit. In some cases, rules dating back to the Cold War require Americans to get a Letter of Invitation (LOI) before a visa will be granted. Even when that is not required, normal processing takes several weeks for each country and rush fees are very high. And with five little countries each with their own rules, it is complicated and expensive.

Since we will only be in the US for about 10 days and Canada another 4 weeks this summer, we decided to get as many visas as possible while we traveled. While we were in Kunming, I made a lot of calls and mapped out a strategy to get this done as cleanly as possible.

I may have already mentioned that we sent our passports to New York during our trek in Nepal. This was to obtain the two most bureaucratic of the visas: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Those are best issued in the US, since those embassies just require time and not the separate LOI that would be needed elsewhere. I found a great company in New York called Cinderella Travel that has a good relationship with both of these consulates, and I made arrangements to ship our passports back and forth in the four weeks we'd be on the trail when our trekking permits would prove our identity.

It was a good thing that this agency was experienced, because they were able to call in some favors and get the visas issued quickly when the Nepali general strike delayed our outgoing shipment by more than a week. We had a few nervous moments but received our passports and visas back three days early.

Kazahkstan and Kyrgyzstan are relatively easy, the latter even issuing visas on arrival at the airport. But to maximize flexibility and to avoid late surprises, we wanted also to get those stamps in advance. Although it's possible to get these in the US, those embassies are slow and expensive. But I discovered that their embassies in Delhi would issue visas to Americans in one business day. So we scheduled ourselves to be in Delhi on a Friday and the following Monday, with a weekend of fun in Jaipur in between.

We hired a car and driver to do all our running around in air-conditioned safety. First we had to go to the Royal Bank of Scotland to deposit the visa fees, since the embassies don't take cash or credit cards. Then we ran to one embassy after another, fortunately all in the same part of town. Kazahkstan made us wait in the heat on the street for almost two hours because they were having “a meeting with the bank.” It was a hassle and not something I would do again, but in the end we got our visas.

That leaves Turkmenistan. The North Korea of Central Asia, Turkmenistan has rules that would have made the Soviet Union proud. Tourist visas require an organized tour where you pay for a plainclothes policeman to spy on you. Itineraries are fixed and unchangeable.

Their only exception is a 3-5 day transit visa, but they grant those only if you arrive from one country and leave from another. I had figured out a way to do this by entering from a relatively safe part of Afghanistan and leaving through Uzbekistan, and I had spoken with a helpful woman at their Delhi embassy who assured me this would work if we gave them enough processing time. But on a final call to confirm their address and paperwork requirements, the ill-tempered consul told me he would not help me because I should be applying in either Washington or Kabul. I already knew the Washington embassy would refuse and I am not traveling to Kabul right now.

So if we go to Turkmenistan it will be on a tourist visa, and we will have to pay for our own private spy. But at least we won't have to go to Afghanistan, which is probably a good thing.

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