Sex and the Central Asian Visa

I just want to go home. I’m tired of all this visa stuff.

— A distressed traveler at the Kazakh embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

So what does sex have to do with Central Asian visas? Simple, really. Thinking about, planning around, and procuring visas for Central Asian countries begins to dominate one’s time and mindspace — almost to the point of obsession. We’ll leave it to you to do the rest of the comparison.

Visas and Bureaucracy War Stories

There’s something universal about bureaucracy. Each of us has a war story or two to tell, from home and abroad. When all is said and done, however, a special place in the Bureaucracy Hall of Fame will be reserved for the former Soviet Union.

Soviet Murals at History Museum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Breaking free of Central Asian visa bureaucracy.

For those of you who plan to travel to Central Asia, the practical details are for you. For others interested in what life is like for citizens of these countries, consider that what we endured likely represents the tip of a formidable iceberg of lingering Soviet-style rules and regulations.

When you DIY (Do it Yourself) bureaucracy manage, you’ll receive the full thrust of the process and begin to appreciate the ability of these governments to make tourists – and often their own citizens – feel like unworthy insects.

As you read and plan, keep in mind that what may apply in one embassy may not apply at the same country’s embassy in another country. Consistency is unknown and embassy employees themselves are often unsure of the regulations.

With all warnings and caveats, you are now ready to throw logic out the window and put your best bureaucratic foot forward into Central Asia.

Central Asian Presidents - Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Central Asian leaders = Central Asian Visa Regime

Central Asian countries and their visa and letter of invitation regimes:

Note: All prices throughout this series are for American citizens. We learned, to our dismay, that most countries seem to charge American citizens the most. We’re not certain if that’s a reflection of foreign policy and diplomatic relations or if it’s due to the lingering impression that all Americans are loaded to the tune of guys like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. EU citizens and others normally enjoy a 20-50% discount.

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Comments

  1. Brian says

    ahh this reminds me of the days spent at the foriegn police at Olsanska in Prague… However that was probably much more civilized that what you dealt with.

  2. says

    Brian: Ugh, the dreaded Olsanska. I shudder at the name. Same inhumanity and bureaucracy, if memory serves. I’ve tried to suppress those memories. The Czech Republic has had ample time to detangle the spaghetti processes and dismantle the corruption factory that is the Foreigners’ Police. It is in the European Union after all, isn’t it?

    What made the Central Asian countries difficult is that we decided to arrange all of our paperwork ourselves (except Turkmenistan). It also seemed like we had to arrange another country every couple of weeks. Think “Groundhog Day” meets Soviet-style bureaucracy.

  3. Zhanibek says

    Sorry about that guys. Kazakhstan (and post Soviet Union) bureaucracy is like a science you cannot comprehend it in a short time. :) Most probably that council at Kazakh embassy wanted money from you. It sounds ridiculous but I cannot find any other explanation of that. Although you could have saved your time by offering some (and that what everyone does in our states) it’s good you didn’t.
    btw, I am a student at Rochester Institute of Technology, originally from Kazakhstan. Days ago I interviewed Eric Limeberg for one of my classes, who is partner of Adam Grossman and this is how I came across you website. I like the concept of your traveling! Way to go!!! Good luck.

  4. says

    You are so right about post Soviet Union bureaucracy! We realize that what we experienced with visas, OVIR and various registrations is nothing compared with what local people have to deal with all the time when they need a new ID card, etc.

    I kind of thought the Kazakh Counsel was hoping for some money to speed things along with our visas, but I have a lot of patience so he just got tired of me. A few days after this experience, we had an another encounter with post Soviet bureaucracy and corruption when we walked across the border from Tashkent to Shymkent. We didn’t pay any bribes then, either, but don’t know what we’d do next time…it was pretty awful.
    Good luck with your studies and say hi to Adam if you see him!

  5. Otto Mahlanen says

    ” We learned, to our dismay, that most countries seem to charge American citizens the most. We’re not certain if that’s a reflection of foreign policy and diplomatic relations or if it’s due to the lingering impression that all Americans are loaded to the tune of guys like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. ”

    Citizens of any country usually have to pay same amount of money for visas as their own country charges. So, in a way it’s a reflection of American foreign policy.

  6. says

    Otto: Whether or not a visa is required is often a function of reciprocal foreign policy. Beyond that, we disagree that the amount of the visa fee is a matter of reciprocity.

    For example, although citizens of most EU countries may pay less (than Americans) to visit countries in Central Asia, we’re not under the impression that it’s equally inexpensive for citizens of Central Asian countries to obtain visas to most EU member countries.

    Additionally, it has been our experience that the variation in visa rules and fees that exists from embassy to embassy (e.g, Tajik embassy in Tashkent vs Tajik embassy in Bishkek) is wide. Although foreign policy may somehow be at work in these cases, the behavior seems more a a function of relationship between the embassy and host country, not the embassy and the visa applicant.

    All this would suggest that there’s more at work than just equivalent foreign-policy tit-for-tat.

  7. says

    I’m afraid we don’t help with visa support and tours. If the country you live in does not have an Embassy of Kyrgyzstan, then I would suggest contacting Stantours (www.stantours.com) as they can assist with visa and arranging tours of Kyrgyzstan. Good luck! It’s a beautiful country!

  8. Anna says

    Does anybody know the current situation about picking up a Kyrgyzstan visa in Urumqi, China. I have heard you can get them from the Kazakh embassy, has anyone done this recently and will I need a LOI?
    Thanks

  9. says

    Anna: While we were in Urumqi, we don’t have any first hand experience about picking up a Kyrgyz visa in Urumqi since we went the other way around (Kyrgyzstan to China). Maybe try posting a question to the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum or contact a hostel in Urumqi. Good luck!

  10. Anna says

    Thanks, Yeah I will give Thorntree a try. The response so far seems to be ‘yeah i am pretty sure you can get one in Urumqi’. But if we can’t its a long detour to Beijing! Hence me trying to find reassurance!
    Thanks
    p.s I am loving your website!

  11. says

    When we stayed at Silver Birches hostel in Urumqi there were signs up about visas, but I don’t remember whether it was only Kazakhstan or also Kyrgyzstan. You could try emailing or calling. Another option (less ideal) is to fly from Urumqi to Bishkek and get the visa at the airport. Glad you’re enjoying the website and good luck with the visa planning!

  12. Imelda says

    Hai Audrey and Dan! It has been long time and spring has come in Czech Republic:-)! It is nice to catch up with you virtually now and then. Hope your concluding trip in Asia will bring pleasant memories. I have been inspired by your coverage most of the time.
    I am still catching up with your older stories.. soon to cover the China pages:-).

    Btw, are you sure that US bureaucracy is not comparable with the CIS ones :-)? Arranging visa to USA is also “painful” and is sort of mission impossible for third-class citizen like me:-).

  13. says

    Imelda, great to hear from you! Prague in the spring was always my favorite time of year there! We haven’t written much on China (or Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Nepal) yet, but stay turned for this summer when we will have some time in one place with an internet connection.

    You are right, America’s bureaucracy for getting a visa is nightmarish. We’ve heard some horror stories from people from “developing” countries trying to apply for legitimate reasons. It only seems to become more and more difficult.

    Bureaucracy is universal – we’ve learned that the more papers with stamps on them, the better. It doesn’t matter the country.

  14. Aisha says

    I love you guys for putting this information up. Reading this, I think I started way too late on the Visa issue. I wanted to travel to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan…it seemed simple enough. It’s turn into something of a full time job trying to collect everything together to go. I am sorely tempted to chuck all this and head to somewhere where I don’t need to deal with the headache…like Kansas maybe.

  15. says

    Aisha: Glad to hear this post was useful, but hope it didn’t scare you too much off of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan! Several times during our time in Central Asia we wanted to shake the visa officials and say: “We want to visit your beautiful countries. We will inevitably spend money there and help businesses. You don’t have to worry about us staying and working illegally. Why won’t you let us in?!” Hope you figure out your plans…Turkmenistan or Kansas : )

  16. says

    Hello ,i am trying to find the quickest way to bring my girlfriend to the USA and under which visa. We have been corresponding alittle over a year now and i went to visit her for 7 days just this last october of 2008.She resides in Urumqi,China and i in Rochester,Indiana.We have some similiar medical issues She had hepatitis B however she no longer has the virus but is living with the after effects and that is liver fibrosis stage 3 which is serious and stage 4 being chirrosis the worst which can lead to an early death unless a person has a liver transplant.I would like to bring her to the usa in hopes of getting help for her condition.I have hepatitis C in early stage 1 of liver fibrosis and am being treated in hopes of ridding my body of this virus.We have discussed marriage in the near future perhaps in China but for now are focused on treating her liver fibrosis.Can anyone offer us some advice.As you already probably are aware its easier to go to China than it is to bring someone from China to the USA. I hope someone can help me to help her because she has so much love and despite being poor materially she is happy on the inside and loves her 12 year old son very much.

  17. says

    Tim: American visas certainly are a tricky one, especially for people coming from non-European countries. My suggestion is to call the State Department or US Embassy in Beijing to find out your visa options and the restrictions under each type of visa. I imagine there are forums and groups on the internet with other people who have gone through the same process – they may be the best place to get first-hand information. Good luck!

  18. says

    Audrey and Dan,

    I love your site! Some of your pages have helpful and inspiring for my own trip next year. I am planning on visiting Kyrgyzstan myself. The tentative plan is to fly into Kazakhstan (cheaper flight) and pick up a 5-day tourist visa on arrival, then take a taxi or something to Bishkek. After Bishkek I need to somehow get myself to Kashgar, China. I plan on having both the China and Kyrgyzstan visas in hand before arriving in Almaty. I will arrive in Almaty at the very beginning of October, and hope to arrive in Kashgar by the beginning of November. Any advice for arranging transportation and dealing with beuracracy at these two borders? Do you happen to know if the pass to Kashgar closes down often due to weather? I would hate to get trapped there in the winter.

    Also, on a total side note, I am starting a blog similar to yours, and I am wondering how you made the “Articles by Country” block on the left.

    Thanks!
    -Jon
    chunkymilkrtw.blogspot.com

  19. says

    @Jon: Glad our site has helped with your travel plans! There are marshrutkas (shared minivans) leaving all the time from Almaty’s bus station for Bishkek. It’s pretty inexpensive and the border crossing is relatively painless and quick.

    From Bishkek to Kashgar you have two options. The more inexpensive option is to cross into China at the Irkeshtam Pass. Take a shared taxi or bus from Bishkek to Osh (about 12 hours) and then you can catch a public bus (or another shared taxi) to Kashgar. We thought that the scenery from Osh towards the border was spectacular (we went part of that way when we went to Tajikistan).

    The other border crossing – Torugart Pass – is a bit trickier (and expensive) since the Chinese consider it “sensitive” so there’s more paperwork required for foreigners. We used Novi Nomad in Bishkek to arrange the pick up and paperwork on the Chinese side and transport from Naryn to the border. We went over this border in late October and even though there was snow on the ground the border was open. You should be fine in November.

    To get the Articles by Country block on the sidebar, we used a php code that included only the country categories (i.e., excluded the other categories). We use WordPress, so I’m not sure how this would work on blogspot. Then we just gave it the title “Articles by Category.”

    Good luck with your trip!

  20. Patty says

    If you want high prices, try a Turkish visa for Canadians. It’s US$60 while Americans and most other nationalities pay only about $20. I tell my friends that it’s probably because we’re way too nice and polite to negotiate a better visa price, haha.

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog and I love it. My friends and I are planning to visit Uzbekistan later this year and so all your posts are very welcome.

    Thanks for a great blog :-)

  21. says

    @Patty: Although we (as Americans) complain about the price of visas, it’s certainly just as expensive (if not more) for other people to get a visa to the United States. Not quite sure why the Turks singled out the Canadians for the high visa price :)

    Glad you’re enjoying our blog and hope your friends find the information useful for their trip to Uzbekistan!

  22. says

    Hi,

    can I ask on Turkmenistan? Where you obtain the invitation letter? Was it complicated? Do you have idea, how long take the processing Turkmen visa in Tehran?

    Regards
    Hugo

  23. says

    @Hugo: We used Stantours for the letter of letter of invitation. It was a straightforward process – fill out a series of questions (profession, address, itinerary, passport details, etc.) and wait several weeks for Stantours to send you the LOI as a scanned email attachment.

    We got our Turkmen visa in Yerevan, Armenia in three days (you could pay extra for 24-hour service). I have no idea how long it would take in Tehran. Perhaps try asking this on Lonely Planet’s forum.

    Good luck and enjoy your trip!

  24. says

    @Audrey
    Ok, thanks for prompt answer. – we want to go on silk road, with old russian car. Because of present situation in Pakistan, girlfriend began to think over second variant – travel through Middle Asia.

    So, If I understand well, this printed scann was all, what was necessary for that visa.
    I afraid, that Turkmen offices will be much worse, than Olsanska. – For complete – I live approximately 400m from that dreaded office :-D. But luckily, it looks, that this shame of czech finished. Now the number of waiting persons is much less than it was year before.

    Good luck to next trips.

  25. says

    @Hugo: If you’re going to have a car with you, you’ll need a bit more paperwork for Turkmenistan. Stantours will be able to advise you on exactly what you need – they took care of a couple of road trips/rally cars when we were there.

    I hope you’re right about the foreigner’s police in Prague becoming less bureaucratic – we have to return next summer (2010) to renew our Czech visas.

    Enjoy your journey!

  26. says

    @Audrey
    Oh …. – that mean, bit more, or bit moooooore? I afraid – may be unwarrantly. In Russia, is all possible, when you are patient. I dont know, If this will be same case.
    Do you think is dummy idea to minimize the amount of papers, stay less in Turkmenistan (<5days), and better travel around Uzbekistan?

    Thans for relevant info !

    What I know, you dont need visa, than you stay less than 90days. But I understand, that every 90day trip to for example Ukraine is not as pleasant :-D.
    It was written lot, about this problem. Politics do not solve it, because the foreign clients do not vote ….. – But luckily EU are making pressure to politics to solve this problem. May be, it only looks, but I think its getting better.

    To be true, officers are not pleasant mostly at all places. In my case, the US officer was worse than russian :-D. Only invitation from Los Alamos Laboratory, made, officer let me go :)

    Enjoy next trips and Czech as well !

  27. says

    @Hugo: Even if you stay in Turkmenistan for less than 5 days (transit visa), you’ll still need special paperwork (and possibly a guide) because you’re traveling with a car. At least, that was the situation when we went in 2007. Ask Stantours for all the details since they deal with this all the time.

    Visas and bureaucracy are no fun anywhere, that’s for sure. We lived in Prague for five years (2001-2006) prior to this journey and still keep our sro alive. So, we have to return every two years to renew our residence permit – we have lots of experience with the Czech foreigner’s police :)

  28. says

    @Audrey
    I began to cooperate with Stantours. It seems optimistic. (TM can be solved as transit – no guide and LOI necessary :-). Other states are OK.
    Now the completement of paper began.
    Thaks for info. I am very grateful. In Prague, you have beer at me :-).

    Enjoy next trips and Czech as well !

  29. Nathan Yu says

    Love your site. You guys are great. I’m planning a trip to Tashkent to visit a girlfriend.

    Securing a visa here in Washington does not (according to the consular officer at the Uzbek embassy) appear to be a problem — as opposed to having her prepare a LOI.

    Now, what about having her visit me here in the US? I suspect, it’s going to be like trying to run against 100 mph headwinds. Any advice?

    And….. where to stay in Tashkent w/o going broke. She has a daughter and I’m not sure it makes sense for me to intrude. Thanks

  30. says

    @Nathan: As much as we complained about the bureaucracy and expense of getting tourist visas to Central Asian countries, the process is nothing compared with Central Asians trying to get tourist visas to the United States. The statistics show that a lot of people stay for good once they get to the States (we had many people asking us for help to do just that), so the US Embassies make it extremely difficult and require tons of paperwork. My advice is to put together a tight case in paperwork proving her employment, that she has to return to take care of her daughter, that she has other family to take care of, etc. Essentially, that she has family and work obligations that prevent her from staying in the States.

    We stayed at Hotel Orzu in Tashkent (Ivleva Street #14 – Tel: 120 80 77/120 88 22) and it was a nice hotel in a good location. A couple of years ago it was $33 for a double room, but I believe it has gone up in price since then.

    Enjoy your trip!

  31. Nurzhan says

    Great website! I am from Shymkent region originally and I am sorry to hear about what you had to go through especially at the border and the bureacratic hurdles in Central Asia.

    I would like to share my observations about my experience in the US with visa and bureaucracy.

    About visa thing, I can share my insights/perspectives based on my own experience. I was a student at the college in the US and grad school. In additon, I worked for several years upon getting my master’s degree.

    Yes, Central Asian countries have problematic bureaucracies, but in the US I lived in Virginia, Maryland and DC, I had to wait 5-6 hours to be rejected a local state-issued ID by rude, unprofessional staff who would insult me for being non-white and foreign. Whenever I went to Motor Vehicle Administration I would have long lines and then incompetent staff in the US.

    In addition, getting a visa to the States, unlike Americans I had to show my bank account balance, property, family ties as far as how color underwear I have :) Also a visa costs at least 100$ for Kazakhstan citizens to go to the States, and then we have to go through interviews, and get an appointment 2-3 weeks in advance. Then embassy gives me a visa for one-year although I am a student for 4 years in college, so every year I had to renew my visa if I would go back to Kazakhstan to visit my family. Some of my friends were rejected visa after a year in the US, although they didn’t break any rules. Basically visa decisions are made by a consul and everything depends on his or her mood.
    About statistics you mentioned, I wouldn’t include Kazakhstan there.
    I personally met former US ambassador to Kazakhstan, Mr. John Ordway in Washington DC, he mentioned that 97% of Kazakhstan citizens didn’t overstay their visas and 99,9% returned, making Kazakhstan one of the top countries that don’t break the immigration rules in the US. Therefore I don’t see any reason why Kazakhstan citizens have to go through these visa headache either.
    About the border, flying in to the States, as a foreigner I have to do fingerprints and wait 2-4 hours in some airports particularly the JFK, and Dulles International and once in Chicago O’Hare, I was called f-cking Kazakh for not understanding their fast English when I first visited the US.
    I have never tried the land border to the US so I can’t share my experiences. However I have traveled by plane quite a bit both in developing and developing countries and I can say that the US Customs and Immigration has a long way to catch up with many countries’ including Kazakhstan, Turkey and let alone the EU countries, Canada, Norway, Finland etc.

  32. says

    @Nurzhan: Thanks for your long comment and sharing your experiences about getting a visa and going through paperwork in the United States. I definitely do not hold the United States up as an example of efficient and respectful visa and immigration processing. We’ve met many people with very valid reasons for a visa to the United States who have been rejected and then we’ve met people who have gotten visas who have the intention to stay and work. I don’t believe the process is inherently corrupt, but the bureaucracy is more subjective and less respectful than it should be.

    I – as a US citizen – also get nervous going through my own immigration services when we arrive in the States since my passport is full of stamps from “strange” countries. Fortunately, we have yet to have any problems but I always prepare myself in case I get questioned. And yes, you unfortunately experienced the worst of American customers service – the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles).

    I hope your experiences in the United States in future are more positive.

  33. Nurzhan says

    Dear Audrey,

    Thank you for your wishes and response.

    I am no longer in the US. I am in Helsinki and enjoying border-free Schengen area :)

    I don’t think that Kazakhstan’s consular services are inherently corrupt.

    However, I am sure that other bureucracies in Kazakhstan can be corrupt. I have experienced that personally growing up in Kazakhstan. However, things are improving and changing for the better the more I visit and see positive changes on the ground.

    My point in my earlier observations was that US (arguably one of the most developed countries in the world, famous for rule of law, democracy etc, a country with over 233 years of existence an independent state) still has flaws in terms of visa issuance, bureaucracy etc. Therefore I think it is unfortunately quite natural for newly independent states of Central Asia to have these problems. It takes time to build institutions, governance, rule of law as is the case with many developing countries.

    I am glad that people like you visit my country and the region and write about it.

    I personally wish that all Central Asian states had a similar common Schengen style visa, so a visitor can go to say Uzbekistan, then Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan without having to apply to separate visas. In addition, I want for foreigners from richer countries be able to get their visas at the airport on arrival or remove visas altogether for 90 days or so. I think that will happen when my generation becomes policymakers in the region’s countries. It is a matter of time.

    All the best,

  34. says

    @Nurzhan: You bring up a good point regarding the United States and the perception vs. reality. It is seen as one of the most developed countries in the world known for its democracy and strong economy. And although it is a country I love and it has many strengths, it does have its faults. When people would ask us for help in getting a visa to the US to work, we’d tell them that the streets are not paved in gold (as some still believed) and that life is not always easy. Especially post 9-11, immigration (and student visas) can be a nightmare and I believe discrimination has increased in some areas. One of the most interesting things in traveling around the world is seeing how other countries do things and how America compares.

    It is true that it takes time for systems to change. We lived in the Czech Republic for five years, from 2001 to 2006 and are very familiar with its foreigner’s police (we still have residency there). It is still not perfect and I still see discrimination of Asian & people from former Soviet Union, it is getting better.

    Enjoy your time in Helsinki and the rest of the EU!

  35. Tom Boulton says

    Hi, thanks for all the helpful advice. Im planning on visiting many of these place but would like to know how much space in the passport is required for each visa? I dont have much space and if they give you those full-page visa stamps then i will need a new one before I go.

  36. says

    @Tom: Plan for full-page sticker visas for all: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And if you are headed to the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan, you’ll probably need another page for the GBAO permit. Particularly in that part of the world, you are better with another set of passport pages.

  37. says

    Daniel or Audrey,
    Can you comment on the tour through Turkmenistan, specifically did you get to experience any of the Akhal Teke horse (breed)?

    I’m wanting to take a Turkmenistan tour mainly because of my interest in the Akhal Tele horses.

  38. says

    @Paul: No, we didn’t see any Akhal Teke horses during our tour of Turkmenistan. But, you can probably request to have this included into your tour – Stantours (or whichever tour company you choose) can make a customized tour for you. We did see many photos and posters of this breed of horse in book shops and stores in Ashgabat. The Turkmens are proud of it.

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