Monday, April 13, 2015

Visas, Carnets and Embassies for Asia

Just a tiny part of the paperwork required for Asia, and there'll be heaps more when we are already underway as most visas can't be applied for more than 3 months in advance 
With the relationship break-up more or less behind us, we had a mountain of paperwork to look 'forward' to. Quite why anyone can think planning is all part of the fun is beyond me. There is nothing funny about it. It's a pain in the proverbial. Yet the Central and Far East Asia part of our trip simply had to be planned as we can't just ride up to the border and say 'Hello, here we are! Can we travel through your beautiful country please?' Virtually all of Asia requires visas which have to be applied for at embassies. That's bad enough already, but if you want to ride through Asia on your own bike then a whole new can of worms opens up. Some of the paperwork requirements drove us mad at times. And if that wasn't enough, we also had to find a way through for minimal outlay as our finances are running low.

Our passports are full of stamps already!
Let me start by saying that we've had a few e-mails asking us if we would come to Africa and South America too. To be honest we would love to! Originally we wanted to ship from Europe to South America, ride from Colombia to Argentina and then ship to South Africa for a trip to Kenya, but unfortunately our finances just won't stretch that far. Riding back to Australia, to the point where we started from in 2012, has to be our first priority now as that is mandatory to make the ride a proper circumnavigation. If there is any money left then we might consider adding South America or even Africa to our world tour, but quite frankly that depends on donations.

The volume of paperwork for Central and Far East Asia is staggering. It's expensive too and for us the costs are of course double. Most countries require a visa, some also need a letter of invitation. Others want you to show a visa for the next country you're going to as well. So you'll have to get all that before you can even apply. They also want you to get the necessary visa in your home country, while at the same time not allowing you to apply for it any further ahead than 3 months... which is often impossible. That means we had to find out where we can and can't get our visas along the way. 

There are lots of differences in requirements for the various visas... which go as far as needing 4 different kinds of passport photos. Different in size and colour. Some visa forms are pretty straight forward, others are incomprehensible and seem to be translated into English by Googledigoob. The internet is perhaps a big help but at the same time contains so much conflicting information that we were wondering at times what the truth was. We learned quickly that the first thing to look for was where the info came from and if there was a date on it. If not then it was often better to just skip it. We tried to limit ourselves to info from the embassies, but at times even they contradict themselves on what is required.

The Pakistan embassy was the best to deal with
and the easiest to get a Visa from

Embassies deserve, we feel, a special mention here. Some have been, to put it mildly, just plain rude and lazy. Considering their function is to promote their country, help people that want to visit it and provide information, quite a few are not real good at their job. It's also quite strange that embassy requirements for a particular country can be totally different from one country to the next. We found an embassy in The Hague totally uncooperative, while the embassy for the same country, but situated in another European country, was very helpful. At the same time we had been told by lots of people that getting a visa for Pakistan would be a huge problem, so we applied there first. After all if we couldn't get through Pakistan then we would need to ride via Vladivostok. We contacted them and where asked to come in for a chat... Good start, I thought! But it became even better as we simply received the best reception we could have hoped for. They gave us a wealth of information on Pakistan and in the meantime our visas were processed on the spot. If only all embassies were like that! 

Visa prices vary from country to country, but also depend on where you are from. For us the first visa is for Turkey, which can be done electronically. From Turkey we had two route options: Through Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was the first option. However all three are difficult for visas, require expensive letters of invitation (140 dollars each!) and have rather bizarre visa costs too. I don't know about you, but reading it all it didn't make me feel very welcome anymore... I felt more like a cow being milked. Instead we opted to go through Georgia, Russia and Kazakhstan before heading into Kyrgyzstan, China and Northern Pakistan. Georgia is visa free (well done Georgia! If you want tourism then abolish the visa requirement!), Kazakhstan is visa free for transits up to 15 days and not expensive or complicated to get a visa for if we want to stay longer. Kyrgyzstan is visa free for us, as well. Things were looking up!

The dreaded Carnet de Passage turned out to be a major hassle...
Until we found Evelyne at TCS in Switzerland. Having an old bike
saves a bundle here (see text)
There was more than just visas to sort out though. Doing the trip on our own bikes created much bigger problems. Quite a few countries require the use of a Carnet de Passage for our bikes. There is quite a bit of talk on the net about the dreaded Carnet de Passage. Dreaded because of the amount of money involved. In theory it is just a document which ensures the country you enter with your bike that you also leave again with the bike. In return, again in theory, it should give us less border hassles. There is however also a downside... a big down side! For a Carnet de Passage you have to put up a bond which equals the value of your bike... Yes, you read that right: the total value of your bike! So, if you just bought a brand new adventure bike of 30 grand, then the bond will be another 30 grand...! That's 60,000 dollars gone before you have even started...! In theory you will get the bond back after the trip, but you have to make sure that all the required stamps are placed in the carnets in order to do so. If not, the implications can be quite serious. The Carnet de Passage is not to be confused with an ATA carnet, which is for goods importation only. 

There is one more thing that I want to mention here as there is quite a bit of confusion about it. Apart from the required bond, each country has their own financial requirements for the Carnet de Passage. Pakistan for instance requires a security of 450% of the value of the motorcycle. That doesn't mean the required bond is 450% of the value, but it does mean you are liable for 450% of the value of your bike if your carnet is not properly discharged and the bike remains in Pakistan. Take the 30 grand adventure bike again and you will be liable for another 135,000 dollars... ouch! Getting the mandatory in- and out- stamps is thus of vital importance. It's no wonder that quite a few people are looking into obtaining a fake carnet... That is a dangerous route to take. For starters customs officials at the border see carnets every day, they can more than likely pick a fake carnet. If they don't trust it than they only need one phonecall to check the carnet number...

For us, and I suspect many others, there was an added complication. Normally a Carnet de Passage is issued in the country where the bike is registered. As our bikes weren't going back to the country they were registered in, we couldn't get a Carnet de Passage. We struggled with this for a while until we found that both the German ADAC and the Swiss TCS supply a Carnet de Passage for foreigners on foreign bikes. In our case the TCS worked out a little bit cheaper but both the German ADAC and TCS were quite helpful and come highly recommended. All we needed was a letter of no objection from the AA of the country where the bikes are registered, which we asked for but didn't get of course... Evelyne from the TCS came to the rescue with a personal e-mail addresses of the person to contact, which resulted in the required letter.

Our passports are getting pretty full and there are
quite a few more stamps to come
All this was going on while I was going through a relationship break-up and Mike saw his mum leave him. With a head full of emotions we were scanning the web for info, contacted dozens of embassies and visa agencies and were looking for shipping options and costs. We ran into countless problems in trying to get the required documents and spend many times wondering how to solve issues and get this to work somehow. To combat the high costs of a trip through China we looked for other travellers and it was one of them who alerted us to the only piece of paper we didn't have yet: the International Drivers License or IDP. (Thank you Stuart, without you we wouldn't have been able to enter China!)

Normally an IDP is the least of your worries. Quite frankly my experience with them is that you never need it. But despite the IDP not being valid in China, the Chinese authorities require it to translate our drivers license into a temporary Chinese drivers license. By all accounts Indonesia checks on them too. Normally they're easy to get and cheap. Simply apply to your local Automobile Club, pay the fee and all is good. But not this time. For unknown reasons Mike couldn't get an IDP. Well, there was a reason given but that didn't make any sense, even our contact in the Automobile Club didn't understand what the problem was. When I asked them to explain I never heard again. We were stumped! Suddenly we found ourselves, after months of hard and frustrating work and just one week before our planned departure, in a situation where a basically unimportant piece of paper was now jeopardising the whole trip. Without it we couldn't go through China and without China we couldn't go at all. Period!

After all the problems we had been through the last months, the uncertainty if we could continue at all, the frustrations, emotions and the struggle to get all the required paperwork sorted... I didn't want some bureaucrat stop us over a piece of paper which is in effect nothing more than a lousy translation of a drivers license. We worked on this for a week, non-stop, tried all the options we could find around the problem and... succeeded. In the end we did get it from our local automobile club, but it took a phone call to the embassy to get it...!

Having all the paperwork in place, we can finally go. If we can make it to Australia remains to be seen. We will definitely have to rely on the kindness of the people we meet and will be free camping as much as possible. We will also need 100% reliability from our already high mileage motorcycles, while taking roads which are even described by the locals as very bad... but we are going for it, it's now all or nothing!