The Central Asian Visa and air fares Web (As in cobweb!)
Words of advice on a few initial layers of the visa web for Central Asia, as it stands today. But with policies that shift like quicksand, nothing seems set to last...
Keen to encourage tourism, 1 month visas are the easiest to acquire for CIS countries. At the Delhi embassy, it takes just 3 days, no letter of introduction needed, with a charge of $30 US for all nationalities. Issued on the spot (3 o'clock) in Almaty for $30 US; again no letter. Arrival date must be stated. Available also in Islamabad via the unhelpful Kazak Embassy, through a tourist agent's letter of introduction.
It is crucial to register within 3 calendar days of arrival - $1 US charge at OVIR in Bishkek, or $6 US through Khygyz Concept, a travel agency which will do all the legwork in an afternoon.
There has been talk of abolishing visas altogether, but this notion has been quietly swept under the carpet. In the meantime, expats say police checks on foreigners have eased up considerably in the last two years, as the country looks to tourism as its only reliable source of income.
Theoretically, it takes 1 week to procure a Kazak visa in Islamabad, with a letter of introduction from a travel agent. Unfortunately, the embassy had taken an impromptu holiday when we were there! Despite claims to the contrary, it is possible to be issued tourist visas at China's Urumqi consulate, though it proved an expensive option. A letter of intro can be faxed in advance by a travel agent in Almaty ($25 to $35 US); dates must be stated. Consulate only open Monday to Thursday. Unlike in other Kazac embassies, we were surprised by also having to provide a medical record stating we had been tested for AIDS and had an up to date cholera jab - which they no longer give in Europe. Coincidentally, these are available at a travel clinic nearby, whose address can be provided by the embassy; for a further $20 US. The actual fee for a 3 week visa was $70 US and took a week to process. Double that fee to cut the time down to three working days. Add a further 85 Yuan ($10 US) for undisclosed extras... and a final 10 Yuan ($1.25 US) just to get into the embassy!!! At least $130 US in total. A three day transit visa costs $30 US and no letter of introduction is needed.
Again, it is crucial to register in Kazakhstan within 3 calendar days, whatever anyone else might say, or face a mighty fine. This time factor makes cycling from Khorgas to Almaty, some 360 km, a tricky task; these three days include the time taken with border formalities and arriving in Almaty within office hours. We tried to register with OVIR in Zharkent, but were told politely to contact the company who supplied our letter of invitation in Almaty. Looking slightly Chaplin-esque in their pancake style peaked caps, the officers assured us that it was four and not three days in which we had to register - supposedly a ploy to generate fines somewhere along the line... In Almaty, we registered with the agency who supplied our letter, at a cost of a further $20 US! But this criteria is worth checking - it might well be possible to go directly to OVIR, but we were pushed for time.
Currently tightening their visa policies, the Uzbecs now even demand visas from their Khyrgyz neighbours. We were told by travel agency CAT in Bishkek that they could no longer organise tourist visas without a detailed hotel inventory, as of August 2000. However, Khyrgyz Concept next door thought they could. There, it takes 1 week for the letter of introduction ($25 US), a few days at the embassy ($20 US handling charge) for a 3 week visa ($60 US). Total: $85 to $105 US, depending on who does the legwork at the embassy. But this policy could well change.
We went through Central Asia Tourism (CAT), with offices both in Almaty and Bishkek. Though not quoting the cheapest services, they were the speediest to reply to an email concerning our visa conundrum in Rawalpindi. The Austrian owner, an abrupt but efficient character by the name of Faulke von Knobloch, also allowed us to pay the fee for the letter of introduction on arrival in Almaty. With a respected history to their name, they are certainly a good place to visit for advice.
Many agencies offer conflicting information. Two agencies announced a change in rules that meant it was no longer possible to obtain a Kazac visa in Urumqi, yet we did. Each agency has different strings it can pull, so it is worth shopping around.
Shuffling around the various agencies in Bishkek this August 2000, I came up with the following prices.
Bishkek to Istanbul - single $235 US with Itech, a new subsidiary of Khrygyz Airlines. Only $2 US per kilo for excess luggage - great for bikes. Bishkek to London - cheapest single fare seemed to be $450 US with Uzbec airlines via Tashkent, or Aeroflot via Moscow. Khyrgyz no longer fly to Birmingham. BA and KLM charge $650 US!
Almaty to Baku - just $150 US. Azerbaijan visa available at airport, $40 US for a month. I was interested in getting to Georgia, but the only other way seemed to fly with Aeroflot via Moscow, for around $450 US. Georgia visa, available in airport on arrival, $80 US for a month.
By busing to Almaty with a $30 US transit visa, other options become available. Sifting the internet could also offer an improvement - one Spaniard hit the jackpot and got to Frankfurt from Almaty for just $250 US!
NB These are as fares stand on August 8th, 2000.