Visas and other woes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2012, 12:00am


Over the past month, my expedition partner, Leon McCarron, and I have made fast progress south along the Yellow River, and then crossed from the province of Shanxi into Shaanxi, and out of the mountains and onto flat, fertile plains that will lead us to Xian, the capital of Shaanxi and the ancient capital of China. We are now very nearly halfway through our 5,000-kilometre walk home to Hong Kong from Mongolia.

However, our progress suddenly came to a temporary halt due to that rather modern traveller's woe - a visa headache. We had watched the days left on our Chinese visa tick down for the past few months, and when it had almost run out, we faced the option of either attempting to renew it within China (time consuming, expensive, small chance of success), or stop walking (marking our exact spot) and jumping on a plane for a 'turn-around-flight'. We'd fly to another country, get off the plane, and then (more or less) get back on the plane and fly back again to get a new stamp on our multiple-entry visas.

We opted to do just this from Xian's airport, but decided against flying to Hong Kong. Instead, we flew north and back to the border with Mongolia, which we re-entered by land. Then, two days later, we turned around and re-entered China. It seems the operation has been a success, though it does seem rather absurd.

This is not the first time I have had visa headaches to deal with. On my three-year Cycling Home From Siberia expedition, visa renewal was not the problem, but rather sorting out new visas, as I was travelling through a lot more countries.

I have a British passport, which is a pretty good one for visas on the whole - at many places (such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Europe) I could just get it stamped when I arrived at the border. Other places (such as China, Nepal, India and Pakistan) were reasonably straightforward: I just had to apply for the visa at the embassy in the country where I was previously (for example, I got my Indian visa in Nepal).

There was also a third tier of places, however, where things got considerably more complicated - especially in countries that had been part of the Soviet Union.

For example, as my friend Al Humphreys and I prepared to cycle across Siberia in the winter, we needed, at minimum, a three-month visa. A tourist visa was only for one month, so we had to get a business visa. We were told we simply needed to write a letter to the Russian embassy explaining why our business needed to take us into Russia.

So we invented a business called the 'English Wildman Wafflings'. Al created a letterhead, which declared him the president and me the vice-president. In the letter we explained that we needed to go to Russia to further EWW's business relations with the motherland. A few weeks later, we received our three-month visas.

Another complicated place for visas was in Central Asia, where, after a lot of research and planning, I ended up getting my visa for Pakistan and Iran, and a Turkmenistan letter of invitation in Delhi. I then cycled to Islamabad, where I got my visa for Uzbekistan; onwards to Peshawar for my Afghan visa; then in Kabul I used my Delhi letter of invitation to get my visa for Turkmenistan. Somehow I made it through and across all these crazy borders - through no small amount of luck, the plan worked.

From my experience, my top tips for sorting out visas for your journey would be: first, visit the website of the country's embassy. (A good one will tell you what you need to do - and hopefully it's a straightforward process.) Second, cross-reference the embassy website information with an up-to-date guidebook.

And finally, have a look on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree website - which is basically a chat room where travellers all over the world exchange up-to-date information.

As a final resort, there are also dozens of visa agents around. They will charge you (perhaps US$50 or US$100) to sort out a visa, but they save you a lot of headaches, and may be able to get you a visa you could never get on your own. This is what I had to do for Iran.

With the new stamp in our passports, we are good to go for another few months of serious walking. And three months should be, I hope, almost enough time to reach home.

Rob Lilwall's previous expedition, Cycling Home From Siberia, became the subject of an acclaimed motivational talk, a book, and a National Geographic TV series. Every week in Health Post, he will write about the progress of his new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which is in support of the children's charity Viva.