The Visa Problem

Whenever people hear about my bike trip, they always seem to ask the same questions:

“Wow, are you going to … like … die?”  (Hopefully not)

“What sort of bike are you taking?  Does it have 26 inch or 700c wheels?  Titanium/Alu/Steel frames … Marathon tyres … yadda yadda yadda ?”  (Bike geeks are easy to spot)

“Oh right, so you’re going the wrong way around the world?”  Well, err, yes.  If you look at my route page I’ll admit, I’m not going the way you’d think of if you suddenly decided to up sticks from Britain and cycle a very long way.  There’s rather a lot of water on my route for starters.

So why am I going the way I am?  Why am I taking those expensive (not to mention environmentally damaging) flights, when I could just go the other way round and cycle the whole way?

This trip started as an excuse to visit Andrew and Laura, who live in Southwest China.  Here they are on the left, last time they visited Britain.  But … but … my route is a rather indirect way of getting to China isn’t it?  Surely I could just go straight there, across Eurasia?

That was my initial thought too, until I looked into it and found that it’s really rather hard.

There’s almost a ‘standard’ route to ride around the world: down Europe, through the Balkans, along the length of Turkey and through the Caucasus countries (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) to the Caspian sea.  I’d seriously love to visit Turkey and the Caucasus but there’s a problem: all the routes either lead to Iran or Turkmenistan. Both countries are a bit …. err …. problematic.

Iran: if you’re British or American you can pretty much forget it.  The visa application process is basically “Pay us lots of money, fill in lots of forms, wait three months and then we say no.”  If you’re very lucky and get a visa, you’ll still get followed by a government spy – who you have to pay for.  If you’re from another country you’ll find it much easier, but though I dearly wish I could visit Iran’s fascinating Zoroastrian ruins and crusader castles, it ain’t going to happen this year.

Turkmenistan: Has been described as North Korea without nukes.  If you get a visa at all (a chance of perhaps 50%) it’ll be a 5 day transit visa, locked to specific dates.  If you were entering from  Iran, that would be fine: it’s a 500 km ride.  Iran’s off the list though, so you have to sail across the Caspian Sea – but the boat is often so late that your visa has already expired by the time you land!  If you do get there in time, you’ve probably got a day left to ride the 1200km across the desert, into the prevailing wind.  Good luck with that; you’ll just have to hope that you get to the opposite border without being stopped (in a police state) and they’re nice enough to expel you out the other side into Uzbekistan, where you were hoping to go anyway.

If you want to avoid Turkmenistan to the south, you could do that, except the next country south is a funky little place called Afghanistan.  Nuff said there (and you’d have to ride through Iran anyway).  If you did somehow get an your Pakistani visa while you’re still in England though: my friend Dean got caught out a few years ago because they wouldn’t issue him one anywhere else.

Once you’re in India, you can go to … India..  The way out the other side goes through Burma, but visa-wise, Burma is another ‘problem state’: they’ll only let you out the same gate as you entered.  North of there, you hit the Himalayas.  You might be able to get through to China, providing the crossing through Nepal is open, but you’d better pack some low gears and make sure you do it at height of summer.  Oh, and you’ll need a special Tibet permit to get to China that way, and apparently they’re like hen’s teeth.

Cycilng through Eurasia isn't so simple: wars, governments, and mountains get in your way

It’s all a bit complex, huh?  The other option is to take the northern route: either catch the other boat from Azerbaijan, that goes to Northwest Uzbekistan, or else ride there direct through Russia and bypass the Caspian altogether.  If you do the latter though, make sure you stay well north when you’re going through the Ukraine, or you’ll pass through the Russian bit and get taken for a British spy.  Whichever way you go, you’re consigning yourself to thousands of miles of Siberian steppes with a side helping of thousands more of the Uzbek and Kazakh desert – or even more Russia if you take a really northern route.   Mark Beaumont took a route like this on his recent 80 day record ride and if you watch his videos, you’ll know his opinion on that.  Great if you want to break a record without crossing lots of borders, not so great if you want a fun holiday.  Personally I’ll take the Trans-Siberian railway next time I want to cross 7000 miles of empty country.

Eurasia can be doable with a bit of determination, a fair amount of planning and a lot of waiting around in embassies, plus preferably a passport that isn’t British or American.  I like to think of myself as an adventurous type – after all, my last three holidays have been to satellite states, former Yugoslavia and three of the former soviet republics.  A Eurasia-worth of bureaucratic hassles was more than I could cope with though – and I’d like a break from that sort of thing.  So it is, I’ve decided to go the other way, the ‘wrong’ way.  Here’s how my travel documentation stacks up:

  • Europe: Visa-free
  • USA: No problem (I’m on a B2 visa rather than an ESTA, so I have an easylicious six months if I need it).
  • Canada: Visa-free
  • Japan: Visa-free
  • South Korea: Visa-free
  • China: Ah yes, well I’ll need a visa for China.  I can’t apply for one until 3 months before I enter the country, so will have to do it abroad – either in San Francisco or else in Japan.
  • South East Asian states: Most will issue you a visa at the border.

Perfect!  I’m sure I’ll have more tales to tell once I’ve tried to get a Chinese visa, but until then I’ve got ten thousand miles of visa-free, stress-free cruising through friendly states – including Japan, the US and Canada, none of which I’ve visited before and all of which I’m simply aching to see.  I’m very much looking forward to not having to worry about paperwork, so I can keep my mind on the important things on tour: things like “Where’s my next meal coming from”, “What’s that awful noise my bike is making” and “Is that a bear chasing me through Alaska”.