The Turkmenistan and China visas are often a big gamble as of who gets rejected or not. For the Chinese visa you need to have a complete fake travel itinerary with booked flights in and out and hotels booked for your entire stay in the country. You’re bound to be rejected if you mention in your application that you’re going to Xinjiang or crossing into China on a bicycle by a land border so you need to put other destinations in your itinerary.
We probably spent around five hours organising all the paperwork and writing our itinerary for China. We’d book 7 different hotels (with free cancellations and no credit card required) in different cities, fake flights in and out of China, and wrote a basic itinerary of when and how we were travelling between large obvious tourist cities. The entry date also has to match when youre actually going to be at the border of Kyrgysztan and China because the visa validity only lasts for 90 days. So from Iran you essentially have 90 days to cross the Chinese border before your visa is rendered invalid.
Luckily we had already done all of this when we had some spare time in Erzurum. Finding a printing shop that would print color copies would prove more difficult. After an hour of being directed in different directions we finally found one that helped us print color copies – for free!
In our case we applied for 60 days and we’ve heard the embassy sometimes asks questions about your plans. We’d studied our 60 day itinerary ahead of our application, only to be disappointed that they asked us absolutely no questions. Having a passport photo with a beige shirt on a white background however.. ‘‘NO GOOD!’’.
With long queues and 45 minutes remaining until the embassies 3 hour long lunch break we hastily grabbed a taxi to the nearest copy shop to get some new photos for Thea. We made it back with 15 minutes to spare before they closed and handed in all the documents needed, in correct order. The ‘‘lady with glasses’’ (she had been given this name by other applicants) flipped through the papers with a big smile on her face and said collect on Monday. She didn’t even read any of the documents!
A traveler who was in queue before us was sent away because her hotel bookings weren’t sorted by date, and we’d also hear about a girl who had to take a new visa photo because she was wearing earrings. A French couple had run out of money and couldn’t collect their passports until they paid for their visas, and they needed their passports in order to somehow get money (remember, ATMs don’t work with foreign cards in Iran). The embassy keeps your passport for your entire application period so we made sure to get our Turkmenistan application sorted before we came here.
The Turkmenistans infamous 50% rejection rate is the most stressful part of traveling east via land. The application however was quite straightforward. A mysterious tiny square in the wall of the embassy building (usually) opens every time somebody knocks on it during their working hours. You give them the paperwork, which has to be printed in color, and fresh dollar bills, get told to come back in 7 days and then they shut the window. The only thing that is actually in color on the application form is the Turkmen embassy logotype.
You then have the option waiting for seven uncertain days in Tehran, or you can continue travelling towards Mashhad, the last major city before the Turkmenistan border, to collect your visa at the Turkmen embassy there. The downside is that if you get rejected you have to either go back and fly from Tehran or back to Azerbaijan and take the ferry to Kazakhstan – something which takes a few weeks of your time.
We were kind of surprised when we after five days collected our Chinese 60 day visa. We didn’t believe it was that easy until we actually had the passports in our hands. Either we were too well-read up on how to do the application or we were lucky. Perhaps we looked too much like dumb Europeans who in no way could be travelling by bicycle, wanting to ride into forbidden territories like Xinjiang. What is hillarious is that pretty much everybody uses the same identical travel itinerary template posted on caravanistan.com and just modify the dates.
We decided to visit the Turkmen embassy after having collected our passports from the Chinese embassy, as they lie only 500 meters from each other. It turned out our visas were approved two days ahead of the planned date! We were so happy that we didn’t have to go back or take a flight, and we’d get to experience the desert dash through the mysterious country that is Turkmenistan!
Once you have the approved authentication code you can chose to collect the visa in Mashhad, or you can pick it up directly in Tehran. The entry date is fixed so you have to decide before your visa collection what date you want to enter the country. You cannot miss this date. Once inside the country you only have five days to cross 470 km of desert and must exit on or before the last day on your visa.
We had about 14 days left of our Iranian visa as we stood outside the embassy, contemplating what to do. We concluded to stick with our original time plan, reaching the Pamir mountains before the winter, therefor we wouldn’t extend our Iranian visa and instead gun it to the Turkmenistan border. So we set our entry date of Turkmenistan to our second to last day of our Iranian visa and collected our shiny visa on spot.
The road from Tehran to the Sarakhs border was 1100 km and we would now have 11 days to reach it, if we were to have some rest before Turkmenistan. We figured it would be a good warm up for the desert dash. The following next 3 weeks would be one of the most physically challenging parts of our trip. But more on the in the next post!