Our planning now is for a flight to Xian, the ancient western capital of China (now in Central China), landing in Jul 23. We will spend 4 days there, seeing the city and getting rid of the jet lag. Thence westward, via Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Hami (where we will see the eclipse at the edge), Turpan, Urumqi, then to Kashgar, and across the mountain pass into Kyrgyzstan.
We will need 4 visas, the first being China, then in no particular order Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The Chinese visa, we are told, is at best a 90 day tourist visa, good for one 30 day visit. If it is granted on April 25, the visit can start any time up until July 24, and last for 30 days after the initial intake into China. China requires you to go to your nearest consulate. We live in Georgia and the nearest consulate is in Houston, so I am planning to drive to Houston on Sunday, May 2, and be at the consulate early on Monday, May 3, to apply.
About April 18, my wife goes to AAA to get her free visa photos. The woman at AAA goes off to the computer and comes back with the announcement that we cannot do the trip that we planned. She takes her pictures and comes home with this news. So we get on the internet and sign on to the Lonely Planet travel blog, called Thorntree. This is a wonderful blog. Even if you are never going to travel, it is a fascinating place to visit - with arcane inquiries like: "I am stuck in Bishkek for a dismal winter. Any ideas on what to do?" or "I had heard that the road from A to B was in bad shape. Any information on its current condition." Also, really useful stuff, like how does one get a Chinese visa.
The story starts on March 10, when China adopts restrictions on its visas: Must apply from your home country; no extensions of current visas, etc. On April 14, the next shoe drops: Tourist visas to China only to those who have tickets to fly in and out (we were going to take the bus out to the west) and have confirmed hotel reservations for each night (we had none). There is a special blog entry on Thorntree which quickly has 500 + posts.
This clearly is not going to work for us - our alternative is to buy a ticket to Xian, and a cheap, refundable ticket from Hong Kong to somewhere, get some reservations in Xian, and lie about what we were doing in China. We seriously considered doing only the Stans part of the trip. We also started looking on the internet for solar eclipse tours.
Of the various tours, one, TropicalSails, has a pretty good tour. It tracks the trip we were going to take almost exactly, except that it starts in Beijing, flies to Lanzhou (no Xian), thence to Urumqi, fly back to Beijing, and depart. The price isn't too bad, compared to other tours. $2388 per person, or $4776 for the two of us. We had been budgeting $100 per day for the two of us.
I e-mailed the director of the tour: (1) would he allow us to leave the tour in Urumqi, (2) would he give us a discount for the flight we weren't taking, and (3) would he make it contingent on our getting the Chinese visa. The answer to 1 and 3 was yes, and the answer to 2 was a discount of $366, and he recommended using MyChinaVisa.com in Houston. They would discount their usual $39 fee to $30. I called Mike at MyChinaVisa, who said "no problem." So we decided to take the tour, buy the airplane tickets to Beijing, and send off the visa applications, along with the application fee of $130 per person. We sent our itineraries: (1) take the tour, leave the tour in Urumqi on Aug 4, make our way to Kashgar, and cross over into Kyrgyzstan by bus/taxi on Aug 11. The package got to Houston on April 25, and we got the visa on May 1. It was a 1 year, multiple entry visa! (We now have a tour for $2,022 per person, or $4,044, instead of maybe $1,000, but we will be staying in 3 and 4 star hotels instead of 0 and 1 star hotels, we will actually see the eclipse at the center line instead of the edge, and we got the Chinese visas.)
Several weeks passed (serious mistake). Was trying to find an company to do the applications for the rest of the visas. Finally, we decided to do it ourself, so we prepared the Uzbekistan application. Their fee is $131 per, $197 per rush. Ordinary service is 3 weeks, rush is 1 week. So we send the passports and visa applications off rush, by USPS Express Mail, with a tracking number. They arrive in Washington, DC, at the Uzbek Embassy on Thursday, May 29.
Friday, Jun 6, comes and goes with no passports or visas, so on Monday, Jun 9, I start calling. There is a visa phone number which is never answered and has no voice mail ("Voice Mail not Activated"). There is an embassy number which is almost never answered, but which if it is answered, they forward you to the visa number. Finally, on Wednesday, Jun 11, a woman answers. The gentleman who processes the visas is on vacation, but will return on Monday, Jun 16, and will process them then. No passports on Tues, so on Wednesday, Jun 18, I call and get through to Nadir, who does the visas. He will do them today (18) or tomorrow (19). No visa on Friday, so I talk to Nadir, who says the visas have been issued, but not yet mailed. He will make sure they are mailed today (Fri the 20th). By this time, my wife seriously thinks that they have lost the passports and are refusing to admit it. I am seriously ready to drive to Washington, and show up on Monday AM to pick up the passports and hand carry them to the next embassy. No evidence of mailing by Saturday evening, so I drive up and stay with an old friend in Fairfax that night. The visa office opens Monday at 10:06 AM, and I am the first one in line. Nadir recognizes my face, and tells me that he mailed the passports on Saturday. I call my wife, who confirms that the return tracking number still hasn't been activated. So I wander around Washington a little, have a lunch, and start driving back to Atlanta. The next day they are delivered in Atlanta, having first shown up at the Dulles postal facility on Monday at 4 PM.
Next in line is Kyrgyzstan. I had talked to Bolot at the Embassy, and we had worked out a multiple entry 3 month visa for $110 for my wife ($50 for me because I am a senior citizen). We doubled it for rush (3 business days instead of 10 business days), and sent it off. It was received on Wednesday, June 25. Monday, June 30, is supposed to be the third business day, and no passports on July 1 or 2, so on Thursday, July 3, I call and talk to Bolot. He expresses surprise that I paid the rush fee, so he promises to issue them on that day. They actually are in the mail on Thursday. The post office tries unsuccessfully to deliver the passports and visas to my office on Saturday, July 5, and they are finally delivered on Monday, July 7.
We have added Kazakhstan to our trip when we bought airplane tickets back from Almaty rather than Tashkent (to be discussed in a later post), so we need two more visas, and we have 10 business days left. We had friends who received their passports and visas to visit Iran on a tour by UPS at 7 AM on the day they were leaving, and we were determined not to come close to doing that, so for this reason and several others (also to be discussed in a later post), we cut Tajikistan from our trip, and decided to try to get the Kazakh visas on the road (Urumqi, Tashkent, or Bishkek).
Total costs so far for visas, including the FedEx packages and USPS Express Mail packages, approximatly $1200. We still will have to pay for the Kazakh visas, when we get them.
At this point, we need to discuss reciprocity. After all, you may have been wondering, why are the China and Uzbek visas so costly ($130 and $131, respectively). The answer is "reciprocity." What country A does to (or for) country B, country B does to (or for) country A. Tit for tat.
This sometimes works in our favor. We got 1 year, multiple entry visas to China, why? Because the US is granting 1 year, multiple entry visas to the Chinese, and certainly within a day or two after April 14, there was a high level conversation between the US and the Chinese diplomats which used the word reciprocity several times. So US citizens get 1 year, multiple entry visas. The Brits, Aussies, French, etc., get 90 day, 30 day single entry visits.
On the other hand, Brazil and Chile are now charging Americans $100 for a tourist visa. Why? Because we are charging the Brazilians and the Chileans $100 to visit the US.
My guess is the Uzbeks are charging $131, because the US is charging the Uzbeks $100, and Chinese and others are charging Americans $130.