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Thursday, November 21. 2013
When I crossed the border to Kazakhstan I was told that I had to register my visa within 5 days. I read about that before, but I thought I had read somewhere that this wasn't necessary for EU citizens, so I was a bit surprised. But it turned out registration wasn't that difficult.
I did the registration on Monday in Astana. Registration needs to be done at the Migration Police office, which is located in the улица Сакена Сейфулина 29. I was there at 11:00 and the place was quite crowded and busy, so I already feared this might take some time. But it only took a couple of minutes, I gave them my passport, my migration card and a business card of my hotel (they wanted to know the adress). Then I was told to come back at 15:00. I was also told that they could only do a registration for a maximum of ten days. This wasn't a problem for me, because I don't intend to stay longer in Kazakhstan and my Visa validity ends there anyway. But for travellers wanting to stay longer in Kazakhstan this might be a cause of trouble.
After all, it wasn't that troublesome, but you should be aware of the registration when travelling to Kazakhstan. I don't know what to do if you're not passing a big city and thus have no way to visit the office of the migration police.
Friday, November 15. 2013
When you go to Russia, you'll always have to fill this little form. The so-called migration card. It's just a tiny piece of paper, not really a "card".
Russian migration card
The migration card is a double-form where you have to fill in some of your basic data. It's then stamped by the border guards and split in half. They keep one half, you get the other and keep it until you leave the country again. From what I've heard, one of the more troublesome things you can encounter is losing your migration card while in Russia.
There are some tricky things to know about the migration card. First: If you enter Russia through Belarus, you'll get only one migration card for both countries. That bothered me a lot on my last trip, because I only entered the data for Belarus, that means a stay of one day. Turned out this wasn't a big issue. When leaving Russia the border guards had a more closer look on the documents and obviously noticed the misinformation, but they didn't seem to care that much.
There seem to be similar issues with other countries. I even once got a migration card at the Ukrainian border, where I didn't want to enter Russia at all. It just happened that I was sitting in a train that was going to Russia after crossing the Ukraine. So if you ever happen to enter Russia through another country, although you don't necessarily get the migration card at the Russian border, you should enter the data for your stay in Russia.
Another thing I learned this time: There is a field for the Visa number. Now I obviously had two Visa - one for Belarus and one for Russia. I filed the number of the Russian one, because after all, I wanted to go to Russia and only cross Belarus on a train. Turned out I was wrong and the Belarus border guards complained. Admittedly, it can be a bit frightening if a border guard tells you something is wrong, especially if you don't understand their language. But after all, he just filled in the correct Visa number himself and everything was okay.
Kazakhstan also has a migration card, but it is not split in half and no similar pitfalls seem to occur there.
Sunday, July 17. 2011
I have promised to write something about the route we had planned to take for the way back from China to Europe. We had several variants in mind, I'll list them all. All of them, however, have in common that they start in Ürümqi (乌鲁木齐, ئۈرۈمچی) - and as I already wrote, the train line to Ürümqi seems to be a bottleneck - it was booked out for an unknown amount of time.
Ürümqi is a town in the Uyghur province of China in the north-west. It is north of the Taklamakan desert. China's population is not evenly spread through the country. Most of the population lives in the eastern part. The west is sparsely populated and Ürümqi is one of the very few big cities in the west.
From Ürümqi, there are several options to go to Kazakhstan - there exist trains and busses both to Astana (Астана, أستانا), the current capital of Kazakhstan, and Almaty (Алматы, الماتى), the former capital.
Variant a: Twice through russia (our preferred option).
From Astana, there is a train directly to Kiev (Київ) in Ukraine. The train goes twice through russia. Once it scratches it before Oral / Uralsk (Орал). I think it doesn't even stop there. The other time it goes through the Caucasus region.
It should've been possible to buy the train ticket in Astana and then get a transit express visa in the russian consulate. I read some reports suggesting that EU people were able to do this. However, I was not entirely sure about that: Usually, a russian transit visa only allows to pass the country a single time. I don't know if crossing the country twice would've posed any problems.
Astana to Kiev is quite long - stopping was a problem, because you can only get the transit visa once you have the ticket for the whole journey. So our plan was to take the train just to Kharkiv (Харків) in the east of Ukraine. This would've limited the train trip to a bit more than two days. Still a lot, but acceptable for me.
Variant b: Once through russia.
Oral/Uralsk (Орал) in western Kazakhstan has its own russian embassy. As stated above, the train from Astana to Oral already crosses russia, but there's a way round: One can first take the train to Atyrau (Атырау) and then to Oral. This way, you don't leave Kazakhstan. The advantage: Lots of options to make stops, no overly long train trips.
The problem with this variant was that I had almost no information about the consulate in Oral: I haven't read a single report online that any EU citizen tried or successfully applied for a transit visa there. I only found some people asking that question, but without answers. So it was quite unsure if this would work.
Variant c: Avoiding russia altogether (option we originally intended to take).
It is also possible to avoid passing russia altogether. One can go by train to Atyrau (like in variant b), but then take a train on to Aktau (Ақтау) at the caspian see. From Aktau, there is a ferry service to Baku in Azerbaijan.
Now, this "ferry" has its own problems: It has no regular schedule. In fact, from what I read its no real ferry at all, but a cargo ship. It starts when there's enough cargo. So you have to get there and ask every day if there will be a ship today. Waiting times rank between some days and two weeks. I had liked to take that option, because I like travelling by ship and I thought that sounded like an interesting experience.
From Azerbaijan, one could take a train to Tbilis in Georgia and continue by bus to Istanbul in Turkey. From there, there is a train to Austria (the orient express sadly doesn't exist any more).
We had our visas ready for Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Georgia and Turkey are visa free for EU citizens.
If you look at a map, you may notice that there's another option: Going from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan and Iran. However, that would've imposed getting two more visa plus the feeling that travelling through Iran might be a risk. So I haven't really investigated that option very much.
Friday, July 15. 2011
For our trip, we needed a couple of visa. I haven't applied myself for a visa any time before, so this was quite new to me. This was the most troublesome part of our travel preparations.
What I learned about getting visa:
- Every country has different rules for visa.
- You cannot apply for several visa at once - they take your passport. That means you have to add all the waiting times and cannot apply for more than one at once (this may seem trivial if you know the procedure, but I didn't).
- The information on the consulates webpages is often incomplete or inaccurate. (For example, if you have a 30 day visa: Does that mean 30 days starting from your entry to the country? Or 30 days starting from a fixed date you have to know in advance? Pretty relevant if you plan your trip.)
- If you phone a consulate, they won't answer. If you email a consulate, they won't answer.
- You cannot expect that anyone in the consulate is able to speak to you in a language you understand.
- You cannot expect that information you got from people in the consulate is correct.
- Usually, the best way to get information is searching the internet for people who have done the same thing before. There are specialized companies that arrange your visa, but the information you get from them is also often inaccurate.
In the end, we applied for 6 different visa (Russia, Mongolia, Belarus, China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan), although we didn't use them all in the end (see previous blog entry).
The most difficult part was the russian one. That was, in the end, the reason we couldn't make the trip the way we wanted to (taking the transsiberian train for both directions with stops). They have a kind of bizzare regulation regarding invitations: You need an invitation to apply for a russian tourist visa. This has evolved a market for agencies that arrange invitations. That means you pay them that they do a fake booking in a hotel you will never see in reality and get an invitation from them.
Another anecdote: When asking for the "two-way"-problem in the embassy, they gave us a contact to a travel agency that will help us. This travel agency suggested we could get two passports and thus apply for two visa - that would've been illegal according to russian law. I had no intention in seeing a russian jail from inside, so I refused to choose that option.
You see, it's a pretty complex issue. But there's one thing one should mention, too: It's not the russian (or other countries) authorities that are to blame here. Russia is very willing to relax its visa rules. They even suggested several times to abbadon the visa requirement for EU citizens at all. They just have one requirement: The regulation should be relaxed for their citizens, too. Everything I've heared suggests that russians trying to get a visa for Germany and other EU countries face more difficulties than the other way round. It's the EU that is blocking here.
If you want visa regulations to be relaxed, you'd better not only blame other countries regulations. You should also ask how regulation is the other way round. Looking at the current political debate in the EU, I don't have much hope that the situation will improve soon.
(the pictures are from Wikimedia Commons here (Russia) and here (Belarus) and are public domain)
Tuesday, July 12. 2011
I haven't stepped into an airplane for about 12 years. I travelled a lot through Europe with ferries, trains, busses and hitchhiking. It was my plan to stick to that on this big trip.
It's a simple fact that there is no viable option to use airplanes on a regular basis in a responsible way. There is no thinkable way that all humans on this planet can have access to planes. It only works because it's a privilege of a rich minority. And there's no thinkable way of combating climate change with the current growth rate of the aviation industry - not to mention the dangers of Peak Oil and unconventional oil extraction.
Some environmentalists who like flying found a very creative way to circumwent this: Compensating emissions. You pay an amount of money that's invested in some climate project for every flight you do. If I had to name the three most ridiculous actions people invented in combating climate change, compensating flight emissions would certainly rank amongst them (for the other two I'd vote carrot mobs and lights off actions). As above, this only works for a very small minority of rich people.
Ok, so back to our trip. It was my plan to avoid flying. I wanted to proove myself and others that it's possible. I failed. I took a plane from Beijing back to Germany. For a relatively trivial reason: Our plan was to take a train to Urumqi, then go to Kazakhstan and then we had two options, one with a train through russia to Ukraine and one through the caspian see to Azerbaijan (I will describe those in detail in a later blog entry). All of them requried getting to Urumqi first. There's no alternative route with public transport. And here's the problem: All tickets to Urumqi were sold out - for the whole time they can be booked in advance. So we wouldn't get tickets for an unknown amount of time.
I the end, after checking all alternative options I could think of, I decided to take a plane back to Germany and shorten my trip. I wasn't that unhappy about it after all, because I experienced our trip much more exhausting than imagined.
There would've been one other option: Taking the transsiberian train back. But that imposes another difficulty that has to do with russias visa regulation. A russian tourist visa is valid for 30 days. So ours is expired. It is not possible to get two visa at the same time, so it was not possible to arrange this in advance (it was our original plan to go back through Russia). And it is not possible to get a russian tourist visa anywhere else than in your home country. It used to be possible in Hong Kong in the past, but recently russia has tightened its visa regulations and according to several online sources this is no longer the case. The only option is getting a Russian transit visa. But that means you have to do the whole trip in a row and have all the tickets to Moscow and further to another country ready beforehand. This means several days in a train without much possibility to pause. I decided that I'm not up for that. I already found the many long train trips we did very difficult, partly because I'm slightly claustrophobic. My girlfriend will do the train trip - I won't. If you are ever in the same situation and need a travel agency, I can suggest Monkey Shrine - they are quite expensive, but their service was excellent. They were able to arrange all tickets including ones from Moscow to Kiev or Tallin and offered a lot of different options for all parts of the trip.
Now I don't think that my single flight will change much. It was a symbolic thing. But I think that opening options for flightless travelling is essential and gets far too less attention. If people talk about environmental or sustainable tourism, the issue of aviation is rarely spoken about. Often enough the problem is just that it is never considered. Take the visa regulation: If you enter and leave a country with an airplane, you usually don't need any visa - even if you change the plane within the country. There's no comparable rule for trains. You even need a visa if you enter and leave a country in a train without a stop. If you're looking for organized transsiberian railway trips, almost all the time it's taking the train for one direction and the plane for the other. Different public transport options often don't fit very well together. I always illustrate this with an experience I had last year when I switched from the train in Zeebrugge in Belgium to the ferry to Edinburgh - there was not any proper footpath from the train to the ferry, although they were only some dozent meters apart. You had to either illegally cross the railway lines or walk on a big street without a footway. I think many missing links for travel options could be closed if there would be more people doing it (e. g. there is no ferry from Singapoure or other Asian countries to Australia and none between Russia and Alaska, although the way isn't that far).
These are just some unfinished thoughts, but I could imagine there is a need for a lobby for flightless travelling. There's much more one could write about it. Flightless travelling means slower travelling - which brings up a discussion about our relation to working time.
If you're interested in flightless travelling, the best online ressource I found is the great webpage seat61.
My trip ends here, but some more blog entries will follow with stuff I didn't find the time yet to write down.
Friday, July 8. 2011
After staying on Hainan island, we went on to Hong Kong (香港). The main reason for that was a visa issue. A chinese tourist visa usually allows a stay for 30 days and we were nearing that 30 day periode. However, we had a double-entry visa which is valid for two entries with 30 days each. It would have been possible to request an extension of the stay for more than 30 days, but that would've taken several days we had to stay at the same place. So it was easier to just leave the country and come back at some point.
Although Hong Kong is officially part of China, it has its own migration and border system, its own currency (the Hong Kong Dollar) and going to Hong Kong from China is like going to another country. Hong Kong itself requires no visa for EU citizens for up to 90 days.
It was terribly difficult to get any accomodation. All Hotels we found were far beyond what we were willing to pay. In the end, for the first night we payed 350 HK$ (around 30 €) for a room without a window in a small hostel. The hostel was located in a big building called Mirador Mansion near Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙咀) station which was full of mini-hostels, most of them only with a couple of rooms. However, most of them were booked out. Luckily, for the next day we found a room in the same building for 300 HK$ which was much better and had a window (where we could see the swimming pool on top of the next building, part of the Holiday Inn hotel, which was one of those we found far too expensive).
In general I can say that although Hong Kong is somehow part of China, many things there are completely different. It feels much more like a western city. It has a lot of foreigners, many of them from India - which was good for us, because we could easily get vegetarian food in Indian restaurants. Also noteworthy is that English is the official second language in Hong Kong, so communication was much easier.
Hong Kong pictures (as always, not uploaded yet)
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