A week in embassy studded Delhi was just the sort of restart we needed after the two week hiatus in India. We had given ourselves this week to bag as many Central Asian visas as we could in order to save ourselves waiting time in the onward cities. The one we had to have was that for Uzbekistan as Tashkent was our point of resumption on a flight from New Delhi. But our larger plan was to resume our RTW trip in mountainous Tajikistan to take full advantage of the short window of good weather in September before October snow hit the high altitude slopes. Once we get past the Pamirs and then in an anti-clockwise circuit covering Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, we planned to re-enter Uzbekistan to tour the famed Silk Road sites of Samarkhand, Bukhara etc. and then on to Turkmenistan and areas further west. This obviously demanded a double entry Uzbek visa. That and a single entry Tajik visa in Delhi would be par for the course. Anything above that (like a Kyrgyz or Kazakh visa) would have been a luxury.
Why all this talk about boring details like visas? Well, the Central Asian 'Stans are notorious for being difficult countries to visit due to lingering Soviet-era bureaucracy. Most discussions on travel forums on this region is all about visa collecting at the various capitals (and Almaty).
The Chanakyapuri district in New Delhi is home to several embassies and consulates. Our rickshaw driver from a nearby Metro station claimed complete knowledge of all the consulates in Delhi and responded to our request with "Pakistan? No problem! I will take you". We had to correct him a couple of times before he got the message. But he had not heard of any of the 'Stan countries that we were interested in and consequently had no idea where their embassies were. The forums had prepared us for this situation and we were able to navigate using nearby landmarks. Some of the embassies were outside the Chanakyapuri Diplomatic area and required a lot of assistance from the residents of the posh neighborhood to locate them.
The one visa that we were expecting a a lot of trouble with was unexpectedly delivered to us on the same day. On the other hand, the visa that was expected to be a cakewalk took the whole week and involved a lot of drama. When we arrived at the consulate gate on Tuesday morning, we were greeted by the Consul himself who happened to be outside talking on the phone. He came outside and examined our LOI (Letter of Invitation which we had paid to procure from a Central Asian tour agency). His response was unexpected. "Why are you showing me this? This is just a request sent to the ministry. Show me the approval letter!". Our attempts to deflect this challenge by claiming (correctly) that we could not understand the language in the document were dismissed with contempt. "If you do not understand, you have to get it translated". After a while, his attitude softened and he agreed to "check with Dushanbe" and accepted our application. But he insisted on a covering letter and refused our offer to write one by hand. We had to get to an Internet cafe and type one out. When we came back, he expressed surprise that the covering letter was not on a letterhead but on plain white paper. Our feeble explanation that we were not a company but private individuals did not impress him too much. He then looked at the photocopies of our passport which we had obtained the previous day from a defective copier machine and wondered loudly if our photographs were also of similar poor quality. After a final salvo in complaining that we had not stuck our photos to the application forms with glue and he had to do it himself, he asked us to call him back in a couple of days to check on status. We ended up calling him several times over the next few days. It proved to be very difficult to establish a context for each call. After a few minutes of introduction and reminding him of our application - which he would interrupt several times with "what is the problem?" - he would simply ask us to call back in a couple of hours.
We had almost given up by Friday. But we made one final call on Friday morning and were surprised when he asked us to show up at the consulate with a specified amount of US dollars. But he said that we may have to wait outside for a while as he was busy. We showed up at 5 pm (!) as requested and waited outside till 6:30 pm. The watchman at the gate narrated horror stories of the unfortunate few who had visited the consulate that week and how some of them had waited from morning till midnight. Fortunately, a parcel delivery drew the Consul outside and he waved us inside and gave us glass of water. We sat in the office for an hour before he resumed our conversation. We watched with interest the inner workings of a consulate with intimate details of the spellings of misspelt words that the consul dictated to his staff. At around 7:30 pm, he started looking for our application forms. After 15 minutes of searching (interrupted frequently by urgent diplomatic business phone calls), we offered to fill them out again. We had saved the covering letter on a USB drive and that too was printed quickly. When we submitted our payment in US dollars, he demanded Indian Rupees, claiming that he had only specified the dollar equivalent in the call and that he thought we would pay the equivalent in rupees. We scraped our wallets and purses (setting aside money for return transport) and managed to gather up the required amount. He then proceeded to affix the visa stamp on our passports and enter the few details by hand. This was frequently interrupted by phone calls and protests by his staff on being asked to work overtime too often. Some of his staff reassured us that the clock may strike twelve but our work will be done today (or in the wee hours of the next morning at least). We proved to be extremely lucky as he managed to fill out the visa by hand and gave them to us just before 9 pm. He expressed his regrets in taking a long time. He also added that the normal practice was to have us pay the fees through a bank but due to current circumstances involving high level visits from the ministry, they were short on cash and so had applicants submit their fees in cash. We sympathized with his predicament and got out of there. Our score was 2 but we felt like we had just got permission to visit any country on the planet.
While we did not add a third visa to our collection, we learnt that Kyrgyzstan had recently published a list of countries whose citizens did not require a visa and we were from one of them..
We also received an unexpected setback in our travel plans. We had to work overtime to reschedule our Delhi-Tashkent flight after we learnt that ours had been cancelled. Strangely enough, we could not get through to any of the airline's offices in Delhi through the phone. We got a taste of what was to come when we got through to the airline's Tashkent office and could not make ourselves understood. As a last resort, we barged into the airline's office in central Delhi (hoping that we would surprise them before they could hide under their seats) and got our booking rescheduled the day after original departure date.
We managed to get a day's sightseeing in hot, muggy Delhi. We were surprised to see Tajikistani flags flying alongside the Indian flags on both sides of Raj Path outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. We had learnt from the consulate that some activities were planned around the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries but this bit of coincidence tickled us quite a bit. We did not get to see the full grandeur of Raj Path due to poor visibility on that day. But we got a few air-conditioned hours at the National Museum nearby and reacquainted ourselves with India's ancient history.
Spare a thought for Indian citizens, who have to routinely undergo such nonsense for visas for every country on the planet. Even as a business traveler, with truckload of documents, I have had the same experience with a number of embassies.
The pox on all visas ! From , on Sep 11, 2012 at 03:37AM
Looks like a real Satyagraha at the embassy gate. Did the Consul-General offer any fruit juice before calling off the Dharna! Sad to know one has to endure this kind of ordeal just to obtain a visa for a third world country. Better luck in your next efforts. From, on Sep 11, 2012 at 04:20AM