11 February 2008
Parts of my upcoming journey will cross Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia within six weeks before arriving in China. That gives a total of seven tourist/transit visa to obtain. Most of the travel guidebooks and online blogs from other travelers rightly talk about the "visa hell" when visiting Central Asia (or: the "Stans").
Visa paperwork Being based in Switzerland requires some extra planning for this already complex multi cross-boundary itinerary: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan visa can only be obtained abroad (in my case I did choose Vienna for this). But even for embassies here, the complexity of sequencing these application forms in a proper order becomes a small project. For example, Belarus will only approve a transit visa if there is a visa for the destination country (in my case: Russia). But the Russian visa itself can only be obtained earliest 45 days prior to the first entry into the country. On the other end of this six-week leg, the Chinese will easily grant a 90-day visa - but since it is valid from the date of issue, there is little use in getting this too early in advance. This will be definitely the last visa to pick up - I might even want to pay the express surcharge.
Oh - and let's not forget the most important visas for the "Stans": Turkmenistan requires the dreaded LOI (Letter of Invitation). Without this invitation, they won't establish a visa. Getting the LOI from local agencies in Turkmenistan might actually be very easy. But shopping around for the cheapest "official" government approved travel agency is yet another annoying paperwork task.
Getting a grip on the prices Now, this is where comparing prices for hostels comes to the list of things to check out. The average buying power also differs heavily between the "Stans". This means that similar services, such as accommodation, transport or food, can fluctuate substantially in cost - even after currency conversion. To get at least some level of control, I ended up in whiteboarding a list of currencies. This doesn't really take care of the buying power - but it helps to avoid having to switch back and forth between currency tables in the planning process.
This is what the board currently looks like:
|Country||Currency / Factor||US Dollars||Swiss Francs||Curency name|
|Russia||RUB 100||$ 4.10||CHF 4.50||Rubel|
|Kazachstan||KZT 100||$ 0.85||CHF 0.95||Tenge|
|Uzbekistan||UZS 1'000||$ 0.80||CHF 0.90||Sum|
|Turkmenistan||TMM 10'000||$ 1.95||CHF 2.15||Manat|
|Mongolia||MNT 1'000||$ 0.85||CHF 0.95||Tugrik|
|China||CNY 100||$ 13.90||CHF 15.30||Yuan|
|Nepal||NPR 100||$ 1.60||CHF 1.75||Nep. Rupee|
|Vietnam||VND 10'000||$ 0.65||CHF 0.70||Dong|
|Cambodia||KHR 10'000||$ 2.55||CHF 2.80||Riel|
In fact, there are some extra columns showing the options where I might pick up a particular visa for that country along the way. Whew! :-)
SIM cards for all these countries As if this wasn't enough, I felt like wanting to add a bit of complexity, because I like technology so much: Connectivity using my mobile phone. Luckily there is a pretty good site out there, comparing the essential different global "Roaming Free" SIM card offers. Another useful information on that site is an overview of prepaid national SIM cards, with details about providers and prepaid price plans.
Based on the length of the stay within a country, I might opt for a national SIM card - simply because they offer data plans (which global gards don't offer) and they are cheaper for local phone calls within a particular country (notably hostel reservations). This makes especially sense for countries where I'll intend to stay a little longer. China and New Zealand come to my mind here.
On the other hand, being globally reachable - mostly without roaming charges on the receiving end and through the (almost local) Liechtenstein prefix (+423), is somewhat tempting. Not that I feel the urge to keep in touch with everyone back home. In contrary: I probably will purposely forget to charge/switch on my phone anyway.
Sure, there are still the traditional calling cards around. These can be bought at news stands in most countries for the use from any public phone there. But this is what we used eleven years ago while backpacking through Australia. Now, we live in times of ubiquitous connectivity - and hey, I'll be using my mobile phone for convenience anyway. So why should I bother using calling cards and public phones?
Having said that, you see that I have plenty of excuses to get one of these fancy global "Roaming Free" SIM cards - or national cards wherever these make sense. Because I always wanted a Liechtenstein, a Chinese or a New Zealand phone number. :-)
So the exploration of visa, money and mobile phone options keep me quite busy these days. By the way: I should also be working (and earning some extra cash), do some exams at school and be selling my household in the next couple of weeks. Sounds like I really will need a long vacation after all...