Me-go: Around-the-World

Passport Shuffle


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Two days after getting my passport back from the Chinese Consulate in Chicago I sent it off to the Uzbek Consulate in NYC. Over a week has passed now and I am crossing my fingers that it will not only return with a 30-day Uzbek visa, but that it will return in time for my flight to South Korea. I didn’t planned for the extra six days my passport was held at the Chinese Consulate because of the May Day holiday (the U.S. doesn’t really celebrate May Day) so I’m cutting it a bit short.

Most of you have no idea how much research went into visas for Central Asia alone. With the help of David at Stan Tours I decided to try my luck at an Uzbek visa in the U.S. Apparently, I can get the visa in Bishkek, Kyrgzstan, but it might take a week and require a LOI (letter of invitation). LOI’s are a holdover from the days when Uzbekistan was part of the USSR. When it became it’s own country Uzbekistan (and it’s ‘stan neighbors) kept the bureaucracy and red tape that Russia is know for to this day. The silly thing about this particular piece of red tape is that a LOI can be easily issued to anyone who wants one—through a regional travel agent for $25-40. So, like usual, it’s all about money. Considering the Uzbek visa already starts at $100 (less for non-Americans), a budget backpacker can spend a lot before even entering a country in Central Asia.

The entrance cost, red tape and inflated lodging costs are why backpackers are still less likely to be seen in the ‘stans than oil executives. I’m sure this will gradually change (Kyrgzstan now offers visas on arrival at the airport), but it won’t be a Thailand any time soon. Turkmenistan still requires a fully guided tour to get more than a seven day transit visa and my entrance to Tajikistan will require a visa, LOI, GBAO travel permit and police registration.

Even with all of the research I did on Central Asian visas online and in books, I was never certain I had the correct information. My doubts we confirmed when I realized that every visa issuing office has different policies. The Uzbek consulate in NYC has different rules than the embassy in DC, and even different rules than the embassy in Kyrgzstan. In addition, the rules are different for every nationality and seemingly change depending on the whim of the issuing agent. After a week of phone calls to the Washington Embassy I got a hold of a man who confirmed that I didn’t need a LOI. His answer to my question about visa lengths was met with a series of questions about why I was going, what cities I wanted to see and if I was an independent tourist. The answer was an uncertain “I suppose that would be alright.” So I suppose all I can do is sit back and wait to see if it’s still alright the day my application comes up for consideration.

11 responses to “Passport Shuffle”

  1. kimberley Avatar

    I still can’t believe that I am going to be going to one of the same countries as the Great Megan! I feel so uber cool – you have no idea! 😀

  2. Han Avatar

    What’s a GBAO travel permit?

  3. Megan Avatar

    Well, Kyrgzstan is a pretty strange country to go to for your first ever trip outside the US! I’m very proud of you, it will really be good for you.

  4. Megan Avatar

    The GBAO is a permit to travel into certain areas of Tajikistan—namely the mountains. Travel Tajikistan says:

    “Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast starts at Kalaikhum and ends at the Kirgyz border at Kizyl-Art Pass. This region of Tajikistan is a special border zone and an additional permit is required to travel there. This is a great pity, as it is a bureaucratic obstacle to visiting one of the most stunningly beautiful, remote and fascinating parts of the world.”

  5. Wendy Avatar

    How exciting for you Megan! I will look forward to reading all about your trip.

  6. David in Urumqi Avatar
    David in Urumqi

    Sounds like you’ll be getting your visa by flying into Kyrgyzstan, but if you are passing through Xinjiang anyway, you may as well get one while in Urumqi. I don’t believe it’s been listed in any of the current travel guides, but there is indeed a Kyrgyzstan consulate in Urumqi.

    It’s in a small apartment block right down the street from the Kazakhstan consulate. I got a visa there in July of 2005, no hassles. From there it’s easy to go by train to Kashgar. To get from Kashgar to Kyrgyzstan there are buses twice a week to both Osh and Bishkek for $50 U.S.. (It’s a real hassle to try to buy a ticket to Bishkek as a foreigner, but the Osh bus is no problem.)

    Good luck with your trip.


  7. Megan Avatar


    Thanks for the info. I do plan on getting my Kyrgyz visa in Urumqi. No one “official” will confirm the embassy—the US Kyrgz embassy said that there probably is a consulate there, but doesn’t know about it’s visa capeabilites. I emailed with a few other travelers passing through the area and they confirmed that it is there, but the hours are a bit sporatic.

    So, I guess I’ll take the bus from Turpan to Urumqi and then the train to Kashgar… then a bus to Osh. It might end up taking longer than I like, waiting for visas and the bus. I would like to see the Sunday market in Kashgar, but I should be swinging back through Kashgar from Tajikistan via Osh if things go to plan (and I get all the visas and permits I need along the way)!

    Are you in Urumqi now and if so, for how long? I don’t plan to be there until the end of July.

  8. David in Urumqi Avatar
    David in Urumqi

    Yes, I live in Urumqi–I’ve been here for some years now. I’m not planning on moving elsewhere anytime soon. Contrary to word on the street, Urumqi is a great place.

    Do drop a note if you indeed pass through town, though we may just miss each other: I plan to be on the road myself this summer. Also, send me e-mail or skim my website if you’re interested in concrete info about the places you’ll be travelling. Over the past couple years I’ve visited many of the places you’re setting off to: Kyrgyzstan, Tibet, various points around Xinjiang, and other locations nearby.

    You might be able to give me some tips yourself. I’m planning on making a big circuit from here to Mongolia and back this summer. It sounds like you’ll just be coming out of that country about the time I’m setting off.

    Bon voyage,

  9. Megan Avatar

    I looked at your site, David, and will send you some questions.

  10. Megan Avatar


    If you have any advice on getting from the Mongolian border or Hohhot to Urumqi I would appreciate it. Right now I’m thinking about catching a train that bypasses Lanzhou and goes from Hohhot to Dunhang. And the on to Turpan before Urumqi. I do worry about money, as I would prefer to get it from an ATM somewhere in China but I’m not sure any of those towns will work out.

    Any advice in places to stay that are budget but not too grungy and insect infected would be nice. I assume you know a good place in Urumqi and Kashgar at least…

    How long did it take you to get a Kyrgz visa in Urumqi?

    Did you take the bus from Kashgar to Osh?

    Do you know how much it costs to fly from Urumqi to Bishkek? I’m planning on going overland through Osh, but I’ll be coming back through Tajikistan, Osh and Kashgar anyway so I wouldn’t be missing anything by flying if it’s not too much more than extra days plus the bus to Osh and Bishkek. I think if I fly I can get a visa on arrival. Is it possible to get a flight last minute?

    If there’s anything else you can think of…

    I will definitely send you an email when I’m in the area. It’s always good to meet up with someone who knows where to eat and what things should cost!

  11. David in Urumqi Avatar
    David in Urumqi

    It’s funny… I’m going off in the opposite direction (Urumqi to Hohot) at the end of the month, so just yesterday took a look at the railway routes and timetables.

    There is no direct line between Urumqi and Hohot by either rail or plane. You are right that if you bypass Lanzhou you will save some distance. There is a small city further west in Gansu province named “Wuwei” (??). That is where the railway line forks, so theoretically you could save some hours by taking the train directly there, then continuing on westward to Dunhuang.

    I believe there is only one train which goes directly between those two points: the K43B. The schedule for that run is available at this site:

    Hohot is stop no. 10, Wuwei is no. 22.

    That said, I’m sure you’ll find much more traffic going in and out of Lanzhou. Given that there is only one line per day from Hohot directly to Wuwei, and that many trains stop at the Wuwei southern station, I’d look into the routes going through Lanzhou as well.

    I’ve found that all branches of Bank of China across the country will take my foreign-issued ATM card, except for those across Xinjiang. (Even the branches in cities around Tibet will dispense cash.) Fortunately, you’ll find that the branches of China Merchants Bank around Urumqi work fine with foreign ATM cards.

    That said, I’ve never been to Inner Mongolia, so can’t promise you that your card will work in Hohot. My presumption would be that it will.

    A friend of mine just took the flight between Urumqi and Bishkek last week. He bought the ticket one day in advance, so a last-minute booking is certainly possible. (I don’t know if it would be more difficult in the summer.) I can’t remember exactly how much he paid, but recall it being a bit cheaper than I expected. I recall it being still more than I would have wanted to pay, though. I’m going to guess it was about $200 U.S..

    There are offices for Kyrgyzstan Airlines around Urumqi, a few travel agents will know about cheap international fares, as well.

    By the way, it is sometimes cheaper to take a domestic flight within China than to go by rail. A good website to buy discounted tickets, or even just scope out fares is:

    I went to the bus station in Kashgar and found that:

    * The fare to either Osh or Bishkek is $50 U.S.
    * People with passports that are issued neither by the P.R.C. nor Kyrgyzstan cannot buy tickets for the Bishkek bus, Osh is no problem
    * There is a lot of competition for tickets so you may want to make buying your ticket the first thing you do upon arrival in Kashgar

    I wound up negotiating a fair-enough price to the border with a Kashgar street taxi, then again in a Russian-made jeep once across. Details of that trip are here:

    Do definitely drop a note as you make it this way. It’s a shame that we’ll likely miss each other out in my home base of Xinjiang, though who knows? Perhaps a rendezvous in Hohot or Ulaan Baatar might work out. It would be great to hear the details of travel around Mongolia.