Рето в Берн (Reto in Berne)

Рето в Берн (Reto in Berne)

Obtaining the necessary visas for the first few countries of the trip is a logistical challenge, especially when having to accomodate trips to the various embassies in between the regular day job.

14 March 2008

This was visa week. Whew - lots of traveling and queueing. But I got all the necessary documents for the start of my trip. My passport currently contains the visa for Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. I still need to decide where to get the Chinese one (Zurich, Almaty or Ulanbataar).

Most notably, the Mongolian visa will be done while staying in Irkutsk, since the Embassy here in Switzerland is just too far away (sic!).

Under normal circumstances, I might try to send the Mongolian application by mail - but Easter holiday is taking away valuable processing time at the Embassy. Moreover, since I'll be moving out from my current flat the week after, there is an obvious and serious risk of not receiving my passport back in time before leaving.

Surprisingly, getting all the visas for the European and Central Asian countries was a smooth process. Although sequencing them in the correct order was complex when I started planning the journey through the silk road, every puzzle piece drops into its proper place now. These were the three rules, I observed in applying for a visa - maybe they will be useful to some other fellow travelers:

  • Be early at the Embassies. Aim to be the first in the queue in the morning. This rule is best explained by taking the example from the Russian Embassy in Bern. My train was late, and I arrived at there at 9:10h (visa hours are from 9h - 12h). Which resulted in me being about number 10 in the queue. Which further led to a wait time (outside the building) for roughly one hour. Since I had paid the express surcharge in advance, I could directly pick up the "business" visa after waiting for one more hour. When I got out of the building with my visa at 11 am, I was amazed to see people still arriving in the queue. There must have been at least 100 people waiting at that moment.

  • Make sure that you have all documents. Double check before you leave home. There is plenty of documentation on the Embassy websites and in travel forums about what documentation is needed to process a visa application. There is even a visa information hotline at most Embassies for the Internet-challenged. However, while waiting for my passport processing, other people went up to the counter and it was absolutely stunning to witness how unprepared some of these tourists are.

    On top of not being prepared, we met one lady who was furious, because the helpful guy at the counter "only" spoke Russian, English and French. She only spoke Swiss German.

    In the case of the Russian Embassy, there is some confusing/conflicting information about which documents to present. This is especially a problem when you doublecheck the requirements both in English and in German. While the English version of the site asks to submit two application forms and two photographs signed on the back, the German version asks for one form with the picture glued to the application. So I went with two forms, two pictures signed on the back - and a glue stick.

    Now - before you start to giggle because I might be "overprepared": The Chinese Embassy in Hanoi will refuse to process your application if the pictures are stapled instead of being glued to the form.

    In the end, it was one form, one picture - glued (plus the other documents, such as health insurance policy, HIV certificate and last - but not least: The business invitation letter from Russia). Therefore, even conflicting information, such as it was the case here, doesn't provide room for excuses in showing up unprepared. I actually wasn't the only one bringing a glue stick to the Embassy. At second thought, this might be a practical joke the Embassy staff is playing with us.

    Well, I have to admit that there was also a portion of luck (or a guardian angel? "Schutzengel", hence the pic) contributing to this week's success story: Since the representations often don't update their holiday closures on their websites, it was by sheer luck that the Kazakh visa went so smooth. Next week, their representation in Bern will be closed until after Easter holiday. This being communicated through a door notice - not their website. If that happens to you: It's just bad luck or a guardian angel with bad karma. I won't blame you on not being prepared...

  • Don't forget to take an umbrella to the Embassy. Well, it can rain outside the various Embassies - where the queues usually happen. Since I got my umbrella, this was a perfect opportunity to share it with a young lady and have a chat. Queueing was therefore quite entertaining.

Oh yes - there's an optional, fourth point I'd like to mention: For each Embassy, I learned some basic words in their mother tongue beforehand. Call me a nerd - but it serves me as an exercise before the trip. Sure, my pronunciation was bad at best, but trying to state a firm "Hello", "Good Morning" or "Thank You" in Russian or in Kazakh - together with my free smile - seems to have worked throughout the week. It broke the ice.

This was especially true for the Belarus representation, where I showed up outside the regular visa office hours. Stating a "Dobraha ranku" (Belorussian Good Morning) surely didn't get into the way - I got the their visa within 15 Minutes. Absolutely fantastic and in record time!

Sure I'll be encountering blockheads at Embassies during my journey. It will be another experience to see how I'll be dealing with such situations then.

Oh - before I forget: Found a new potential career path while waiting for the Russian visa: Amongst other professionals, like travel agents, I met two guys working for different large multinational companies. They were depositing passports in batch for visa processing. It seems that they make a decent living by queuing for their company expats.

Anyhow, my current experience of the "first contact" with the people of the respective nations was pleasant. Consequently, I am super stoked: I can't wait to leave here and go visit their countries.

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