On Monday I went to Germbusters, my friendly neighborhood clinic for travel vaccinations and infectious diseases. I really just wanted my Typhoid shot because it had been two years since my last one. Of course, I was prepared for the Typhoid shot, plus the consultation and injection fees—which should have been around $100. However, I was persuaded to get the meningitis and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccinations as well. There was recently an outbreak of mumps in the Midwest United States and it was soon clear that those of us that only got one shot as children required a booster. I was required to have a meningitis vaccination before starting college, but that was over ten years ago! I was due.
Interestingly, the one shot I went in for turned out not to be a shot at all. Typhoid can still be administered as a shot, but it is also now available in a series of four pills to be taken at home. I opted for the pills, because they are the same price as the shot, but without the additional injection fee. At the end of my appointment I walked out $260 poorer with two sore arms, a fistful of prescriptions and a cooled live typhoid vaccine in my bag.
If you are looking to vaccinate yourself for an upcoming trip be sure to shop around at a few clinics, as prices can vary greatly. Here’s the breakdown:
$56 Typhoid, oral
$35 Office visit
$25 Injection fee (2 shots)
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.
The other day someone reminded me that I am leaving for this trip in one month. One month! Sometimes I forget, and it’s scary because I haven’t been able to find either of the two ‘to-do’ lists I’ve made. But I have made a lot of appointments this week—for immunizations, a haircut and the USO tour to the South/North Korea DMZ. Yesterday I drove into Chicago to pick up my Chinese visa. Unlike when I dropped it off, I got there right after the office opened. Surprisingly, there was already almost 50 people in line to drop off applications and only 3 to pick up visas. The lovely people at the consulate granted me a double entry visa with 60 days per entry. And I can enter as late as November 4th! Evidently finger math does work.
This goes to show you that it can’t hurt to ask for what you want when it comes to applying for visas, especially at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago. This is the second time I have been given more than the standard issue 30-day visa, which can be hard to get depending on who you are and where you’re applying. Still, it never hurts to smile and say “thank you” in Mandarin. Now that I have my passport back I’m going to FedEx it to the Uzbek Consulate in New York and cross my fingers.
Generally speaking, I am always in a state of pre-planning. As soon as I knew I was coming home from Bangkok I made of list of things I should buy there. It included things like jeans, t-shirts and a backpack cover for my next trip. When I got home, I subconsciously analyzed every purchase I made to determine how it would fit into my upcoming trip. I can’t tell you how many pairs of shoes I passed on, knowing that I would just have to pack them up when I leave. I even passed up shoes that were on sale! I bought a hat and a pair of pants for my trip sometime last summer. I was scouring the sales flyers for a few months before finding the coat I will take with me for half price. I’ve stepped up my search for shoes and shirts in the past two months and am still on my quest for the perfect day bag. I’m on the edge of the realization that I will have to settle for the closest thing and then customize it myself. I would say there are three contenders still in the running.
You may wonder why I’m buying new things when I had everything I needed for phase 1. My clothes held up admirably, after being worn every day, not being washed for weeks and then being washed against rocks in the Mekong river in Laos. Unlike some ‘backpackers’ I feel very strongly that you should start out with good fitting, well made clothes and I want to start fresh. I also learned a few new things—like even though nylon pants pack small and dry in minutes, they still give me heat rashes. I also learned that, despite my na?ve optimism, adding velcro to button down shirts isn’t enough to keep my chest corralled. I now know to add reinforced snaps in-between the buttons instead. I also found that my day bag was a bit small at times—hence my current search for the perfect day bag.
My current commitments are winding down—my textile design/wearable art class finishes up next week as well as my weekly babysitting commitment. This will give me the extra time I need to insure myself and my property, buy a new camera, construct the perfect day bag, add zippers to my all of my pockets, dye my hair brown, pack up all of my worldly belongings—you know, the usual stuff.
Although I toyed with switching gallery management software to either Zen Photo, Pixel Post, Gallery or Simple Viewer, I ended up finding exactly what I needed in an updated version of what I was using before—Photostack.
Photostack now supports nested galleries, so the gallery is now organized by country and then by city. The move has highlighted some navigation issues, which I hope to fix as soon as I get the descriptions up! If you are a veteran reader you will notice that there is no new content in the gallery—you’ll have to wait until I get to South Korea for your next fix.
So much time and effort has gone into my visa planning, particularly for Central Asia, that I’m surprised it’s finally time to start applying for them. Thankfully, the first two countries I am visiting—South Korea and Mongolia—give US citizens free visas on arrival. China isn’t quite so easy, and because I will pass through it on my way from Mongolia to Kyrgzstan and then again from Kyrgzstan to Tibet I need either a double entry visa or two single entry visas. Most countries issue 30-day single entry visas and anything else requires more money and information. I could certainly get a single entry visa here, at the Chinese consulate in Chicago, and then another visa somewhere in Central Asia. Technically, I could get my first Chinese visa in Mongolia, but all of these scenarios are risky. There’s the risk that the embassy won’t be open, the risk that I will have trouble applying (or even be denied) if I don’t speak enough Chinese or Russian and the risk that I won’t have enough US cash to pay. Ultimately, if I can get all of my Chinese visa needs met before I leave I will be better off.
I drove down to the consulate last Thursday to drop off my application. Because I am stubborn when it comes to parking, I drove around the River North area for 15 minutes looking for a meter. Somewhere in there I ended up back on the expressway through a combination of being in the wrong lane and one way street restrictions. After doubling back into the city I decided to bite the bullet and pay for the garage. The confusion was not over, as I wandered around Erie Street trying to find the embassy. I knew the office had moved a long time ago, and I thought that the last time I was there in 2004 I was at the new building. For 10 minutes I was walking back and forth on Erie looking for a two story building on the North side of the street when the actual office was in a high rise on the South side.
Finally, I arrived on the 5th floor and began my long wait behind 30 other applicants. The consulate is only open from 9-12 & 1-2:30 during the week. I arrived about 1:10 and made friends with the two Chinese born Americans behind me in line. They both had postage paid return envelopes for their passports, which I didn’t know was allowed. In my experience, visa application processes in most countries are vague at best. The questions on the applications aren’t always clear and the instructions on websites are purposely vague. The Chinese consulate’s website main visa information does not mention the mail back option and even goes as far as to say that I am not eligible for a double entry tourist visa:
To apply for a Multiple Entry (L) Visa, the applicant shall meet the following requirements:
(1) The applicant is the husband/wife, or son/daughter, or parent of a Chinese citizen, who shall submit proof of relationship, e.g. the original and the photocopy of a marriage certificate, a notary certificate of kinship etc., or an invitation letter from his/her family in China; or,
(2) The applicant owns real estate in China, who shall submit the original and a photocopy of the property ownership certificate.
With my departure date (June 8th) coming fast, I have started getting nervous about getting things in order. I have a two page list of things to do before I leave, but one thing I need to schedule is a vaccination appointment. Many of you may know that I’ve traveled extensively before phase 1 of my around-the-world trip. In 2001 I spent three weeks in Peru hiking to Inca Trail, exploring Lake Titticaca, flying over the Nazca Lines and rummaging through the Amazon Rainforest. As you can imagine, I needed a lot of vaccinations for the trip, including the rare Yellow Fever vaccination.
Because I got the major shots taken care of back then I usually don’t need much more than a prescription for anti-malarials and a few courses of Cipro. However, the Typhoid vaccine is only good for two years and I’m past due for what will be my third round of Typhoid vaccinations. Internists don’t carry the vaccinations commonly needed for travel, so I go to a special travel vaccination clinic appropriately named “Germbusters.” I chose Germbusters over the hospital’s clinic only partly because it reminds me of the Ghostbusters franchise. More important than the name is the price–which is the cheapest around.
Before I left for Phase 1 I went in for a consultation in which a nurse sits down with you and a packet of information generated about the countries you’re traveling to. In my case, the stack was about two inches high and the nurse needed a lot of time to figure out just what malaria was resistant to what drugs in each country. Because I was consuled in 2004 on all of the places I will be going (aside from Central Asia) I don’t feel another consultation is necessary. All I want is my Typhoid shot! Germbusters told me that I still need to come in for the hour consultation ($35) to be told what I already know from my previous visit. They get their information from the same source as I do–The CDC.
Being the comparison shopper that I am I called around and discovered that not only will no one give me the Typhoid shot without a consultation, but most other centers charge $10-20 more for the same vaccination. Now I have to swallow my pride, pay the extra consultation fee, the injection fee and the vaccination fee and stop my complaining. Time is running out.
In preperation for my trip I am overhauling this entire web site. Because I am in the middle of switching servers and publishing platforms (from Movable Type to Word Press) there will be a little downtime on the site. More than anything it may look a little strange as I work on getting the new files working correctly. I usually check Windows platform and Internet Explorer absolutely last, as I design on a Mac using Safari and Firfox browsers. So any fixes to IE will be last to come. Generally speaking, if you are an Internet Explorer user I suggest switching to Firefox, a free browser with much better security and far fewer flaws than IE. You can download Firefox here.
Please be patient–I think the new site design and content will be better than ever!
After much deliberation on dates, routes, visas, festival crowds and more I have booked my second flight–this one from Seoul to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia. I will spend six days in Seoul, which is a bit more than I initially wanted. However, one extra day isn’t such a big deal and I can wander around town and explore the subway. There are also plenty of museums to entertain me. One of the only things I plan to prearrange for Seoul is a tour to the DMZ zone with North Korea run by the USO.
My ticket to UB was bought through a travel agency in Denver, called Air Bridge. They were recommended to me by the Mongolian branch of MIAT (Mongolian Airlines) since no non-specialized U.S. travel agent was completely sure they could issue me a ticket on MIAT. It was a steep $409 including tax one-way, which was cheaper than any other agent in the U.S. quoted me. Flying to Mongolia from Beijing is cheaper, but I’ve gone over my reasons for not doing that. Buying the ticket in South Korea would be cheaper still, but I’m not going to risk booking a few days in advance in the height of tourist season leading up to a monumental festival.
I have been working out a rough estimate of my route and how long I will stay in each country. This has helped me plan for my initial flights and for reserving a hostel bed in Mongolia. One of the hostels I contacted was already full during July so I felt it prudent to book as soon as possible. I have a reservation for when I arrive and Naadam. In-between I should be out exploring the country on a camel, horse or beaten up Russian Jeep.
One issue I have been struggling with is visas–mainly for Central Asia. Those countries can be expensive to enter and require up to a week to issue a visa. But I can’t get all of those visas in advance because I am required to specify the dates my visa will be valid. I can enter any time after the date I specify, but I can not stay longer than 30 days after the originally specified date. Because of this, if my schedule is thrown off I could miss out on half of my visa dates. Most people, including the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan) embassy in Washington, suggest I get my visa in Beijing. The problem is I’m not going to Beijing! If all goes to plan I will take some form of transport from the Mongolian border to Hohhot, China (Inner Mongolia). From there I can catch a 24+ hour train West to the Xinjiang province. Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, has a number of embassies and I’ve heard inconsistent reports of the possibility of obtaining a Kyrgyz visa there. At the moment I have three different people keeping an eye out for me in Urumqi to see if it’s possible, how long it will take, and what days of the week I can apply.
On the other hand, I would rather not spend 7 days in Urumqi (which is not known for being a pleasant place to spend your time) waiting for the visa to be issued. Now that I have a plan I am reconsidering applying for the Kyrgyz visa in Washington. However, I need to be mindful to get it after already receiving my Chinese visa or else they will know I am going to the Xinjiang Province, which could cause problems.
If you’re curious, I am posting my rough route below. It’s nicely color-coded since I’m a very visual person. After India I would like to go to Africa, but I haven’t worked out how I can go there at the time I want and avoid the torrential rains.
As you know, I’ve been planning my air travel and routing for a while now. Through all of my years of experience doing this sort of thing I’ve realized that the most logical route might not be the best. As I discussed in this post, I narrowed my options for getting to Mongolia to transit through China or South Korea. After some deliberation I decided that it would be best to travel through Seoul and fly to Mongolia on Korean Airlines–a dependable airline. With this option I could book both of my flights through STA–my usual travel agent. All together I talked to at least four different agents at STA and they all had different suggestions for me. Some suggested that it would be okay to fly through Beijing and that I shouldn’t worry about the connections to MIAT (Mongolian Airlines). Another said that it was to iffy to try to connect to MIAT and I should wait the night in China for a morning flight to Ulaan Baatar (UB) on Korean. One told me to look into booking the ticket to UB myself through MIAT directly.
Ultimately I decided to book through STA and take Korean Airlines through Seoul to UB. The cost was about $250 more than flying through Beijing, but with the security that I would have a confirmation number and the added benefit of seeing Seoul for a few days. So last Friday I called STA to book the ticket , having resigned myself to the extra cost. In my research I saw that Korean has a noon flight to UB which no one has told me about. You see, one of my reservations about flying Korean was arriving around midnight. This time I got a hostile agent who told me I couldn’t book the morning flight because it was a code share with MIAT. I was back to square one! She insisted that she could not book that ticket no matter what, even though two other agents had told me they could. And now that it was a code share with Korean I was sure they could issue me a ticket for that flight. At this point I was a little upset (I don’t like making snap decisions) and asked about Beijing. Well, Beijing is sold out! It hasn’t been too long since I last inquired, but all of the $650 student fares are now sold out and a one way ticket to Beijing was now up to $1,400–even though we’re still more than three months out.
The hostile agent told me she could still sell me a one way ticket to Seoul which had plenty of openings at the $650 price. Not sure what to do I hung up to start over again. The last time I contacted the MIAT agent in NYC was to inquire about tickets from Beijing. So, I called the agent back and asked for a quote from Seoul. I was shocked to hear $409, but with the cheap Seoul fare from STA it would be hundreds of dollars less than flying to UB on Korean. Sometimes it’s funny how things work out. It’s hard to know when the best time to buy a ticket because the prices change every day.
With that quote I decided to call on Monday to book my tickets. Even though that was only a few days ago I’m not sure why I waited until Monday, probably to let it sink in a bit. Yesterday I called STA and told the agent to book me one way from Chicago to Seoul. Done. I think it was the same hostile agent from last week, but she was in a much better mood this time. Don’t take my talk of the hostile agent the wrong way, I love STA Travel. I’ve booked flights from or to Copenhagen, London, Istanbul, Athens, Lima, Cusco, Seattle, Tokyo and Beijing with them in the past. If you have student status they are always the cheapest agent to book with for international flights from the U.S. Every trip I take I get quotes from at least three companies. This time I talked to STA, Air Treks, Air Brokers, the MIAT representative in NYC and a few Korean and Chinese agencies I found in the paper. I like to cover all my bases.
In only five minutes I was booked on a June 8th flight from O’Hare to Seoul with a change of planes in Tokyo. We had a long discussion about window vs aisle (I like the window, but on a long flight it’s best to have the aisle) and the fact that it’s a 777 and has a 2-5-2 seat configuration. I am not a vegetarian and don’t have any dietary restrictions but I did request that I not be served Japanese food! She assured me that, because it is a United Airlines flight to Tokyo, I should be fine. My flight to Tokyo last year was on All Nippon, which is a gorgeous airline, but I’m not a fan of Japanese food in it’s airline form or otherwise. Once I leave Chicago it will take me 18 hours to arrive in Seoul, with about 16 hours of that actually in-flight. If you want to do math involving time zones in the future I recommend Timeanddate.com.
You’re curious about costs, aren’t you? That’s okay, everyone is. Here’s how it breaks down (keep in mind this is a student fare):
- Fare: $562.50
- Tax: 21.50
- STA service fee: $6
- ISIC student card: $22
- Total: $612
I am waiting to hear back on some details about Mongolia before I decide which day to book my flight to Ulaan Baatar. There are pressing issues at stake like “What does National Costume Day entail exactly?” and do I need to arrange my schedule so I’m in town for it? After a serious meltdown when I heard that guesthouses were already filling up for June and July I rashly emailed just about every guesthouse in UB and am reassured that if I book soon I will have a place to sleep that is not a tent. In any case, I should be booking the flight to UB and accommodation soon!
It’s getting to the point where I need to book my flight. I would like to have it booked by the end of February. One friend I talked to, who has been to South Korea to visit family, said it’s not so great. I asked if Seoul was worth stopping for a few days on my old friend, the Lonely Planet Forum, and someone told me there was plenty to see in a few days. It comes down to if I want to spend $259 to visit Seoul and have the peace of mind that my flight to Mongolia is confirmed.
Aside from the way I get to Mongolia, I’m undecided on when I’m going there. Mongolia’s largest holiday and festival, Naadam, takes place in mid-July. It is a celebration of the founding of the Mongolian State and unification of the Mongol tribes by Chinggis Khaan, otherwise known as Ghenghis Khan, in 1206. Obviously, historians are not counting the 200 or so years in which Mongolia was ruled by the Chinese–nowadays who hasn’t been ruled by the Chinese in one way or another? Originally I had decided that I was going to visit Mongolia in June, just before the festival, to avoid the raised prices and overbooked tours and accommodations. Lately I’ve been reading more about the planned events and getting a little envious. This year marks Mongolia’s 800th anniversary and Naadam should be the biggest event ever. I really did enjoy my time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during it’s Water Festival. The whole town changed for those three days and allowed me to get a glimpse of normal Cambodians interacting and celebrating. I suspect that seeing the 800th anniversary Naadam is a once in a lifetime opportunity I would be a fool to miss. Although the actual sporting events–wrestling, archery and horse racing—look interesting, I am more tempted to reschedule to see the opening ceremony. There should be a large amount of traditional costumes around, which is my favorite thing to see when I am traveling.
On the other hand, the reasons I originally wanted to avoid Naadam are still there. The quote below sums it up:
- February 9, 2006
Because of planned celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Mongolian State, the hotel situation in Mongolia will be critical in summer 2006. Embassy Ulaanbaatar is already experiencing difficulty booking large blocks of rooms for this summer. We anticipate that late bookings for individuals will be increasingly difficult in the spring months of April, May and June, and extremely hard to virtually impossible to secure during the high tourist season in July, August and September. Post advises those considering travel to Ulaanbaatar to consider this and make travel plans as far in advance as possible.
Mongolia has a limited yet growing tourism infrastructure. During summer months it has been common for all the tourist class hotels to be near or at capacity. Many anniversary events are planned throughout the coming year, with a preponderance of the events occurring during the peak tourist season of June through September. The Government of Mongolia along with district and city governments has taken the opportunity to invite public servants and commercial contacts from other countries to witness and participate in events, sometimes block booking entire hotels.
Most of the events will center in Ulaanbaatar, as the only major city in the country. We anticipate that the increase in tourism combined with limited increase in hotel rooms in the city will result in a critical shortage for all room types, as well as availability of seats on flights to and from Ulaanbaatar.
At this moment I’m leaning toward going for Naadam. I would be in Mongolia a few weeks before and could confirm everything and secure tickets. Hopefully, I could book accommodation in March. I am certain there will be plenty of people looking to share tour and driver expenses around the country–it will only bed a matter of finding them once I get there.