Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Approach to Khorgas

August 2nd, 2010

"China Customs. Nyet" explained the Kazakh border guard, making a cross with his arms. Familiar words. I’d reached the edge of the Granitsa, the strip of land a few kilometres wide bordering neighbouring China, barbed wire and frequent watchtowers along its edges. Closed to all but local residents.

I smiled. I’d half expected this. But this time I’d plenty of time remaining on my Kazakh visa, and months before my Chinese one would expire. I could afford to be patient, to wait. "Tomorrow. Seven am" the guard explained. Progress I thought, turning around to find somewhere to stop for the night.

Parting company with New Zealand long-distance cyclists Mike and Joe the previous day, I’d eventually found a cheap hotel for the night. As the afternoon had worn on I’d felt increasingly nauseous, the saddle ever more uncomfortable, the pace ebbing away. But, relieved to be off the road at last, I’d mustered the enthusiasm to negotiate the rate down to a little under ten pounds. Fair. Settling up the next morning, the owner had sought his original offer, almost double what we’d agreed. "Nyet" I said firmly. Deal’s a deal I explained. He nodded reluctantly.

The final hundred miles or so to the Granitsa had been hard work, despite an early start in the relative cool of the morning. By ten am it was in the thirties, the flat, mostly arid plain offering precious little to distract from the heat. Koktal, Zharkent, towns I’d passed through on my previous foray to the border, drifted past, inconsequential now. I was bound for China, the frontier town of Khorgas.


Drawing to a close

July 14th, 2010

China visa2

Ninety days. I smiled. A fresh visa, sufficient to cross China in its entirety. Last piece of the jigsaw. I thanked Yan for her help, not least for pointing out I’d be able to apply for three months rather than the sixty days I’d imagined. Leaving the agency’s small, stuffy first floor office, I made my way down the steep stairs and back into the busy street.

Small cafe across the way. Chance to reflect on the merits of Plan B. Success I thought, by any measure. I’d the visas I needed, more generous terms than I’d expected. I’d even acquired a second passport, enabling visas to be obtained on my behalf whilst I continued to travel. Insurance. I’d no desire to repeat this diversion. Ready now to leave this Nation of Convenience and return to Almaty. Hong Kong bound.

[Author’s note: If you’ve familiar with Mandarin characters take a close look at the picture above – bit of a clue as to where this Nation of Convenience is.. I did say I’d be bold and decisive!]


In the bag

July 13th, 2010

In the bag from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes his delight at obtaining a ninety day visa for China


Fruitful but footsore

July 11th, 2010

Her name was Yan – pronounced Yen she explained. And there was good news. Chances are she’d be able to secure me a fresh Chinese visa for ninety days, sufficient to reach Hong Kong without having to seek a further extension on the way. I’d quite enjoyed visiting the Kazakhstan Consulate, queuing mostly amongst couriers, observing the camaraderie, listening to the banter, the stories. Just the odd individual applicant. Adding to the richness of this venture. But I’d already visited two Chinese Consulates and really didn’t find the thought of a third that appealing. So I’d decided to use an agent.

Earlier in the day I’d retrieved my passport, complete with a fresh visa, from the Kazakhstan Consulate. A brief coffee to revive myself, still struggling with the time difference, and I’d headed off to an appointment at a non-descript Government office across the city. I’d a plan to sort out some travel papers whilst I’d some time on my hands, but success would depend largely on my ability to plead my case. Hadn’t exactly worked at the Chinese Consulate.

I’d found the building without too much difficulty, picking my way towards the entrance through people milling around outside, presumably waiting for their turn to enter. Inside, a lengthy queue, bag search, another line to join, a ticket, more waiting, then eventually my turn to make my request.

It started badly and seemed to get worse. None of my paperwork was in order, the letter of support I had wasn’t acceptable, passport photographs the wrong background. But I was quite convinced my case had genuine merit, so I stuck at it. Then a glimmer of hope. The official would at least discuss the matter with her supervisor, see if anything could be done. A lengthy wait, which I took to be a good thing. The woman – her name was Krishna – returned. Yes, there were exceptional circumstances, yours was a charitable venture. Others would have to consider your request further, no guarantees, but there was a good chance it would be accepted.

I left the office feeling content, a sense of progress being made, even if it had been a little tortuous, the outcome not entirely certain. And even if my request was eventually denied, I’d at least gleaned enough to know how to couch a further go in more favourable terms. I’d then headed off to visit a Chinese visa agent.

So, with my passport entrusted to Yan at the agency for a few days, I was off to meet an old friend with extensive experience of living under oppressive regimes, revolution, frequently travelling to countries devastated by conflict. Wanted to know what she made of this place.

[Author’s note: Using an agent to obtain visas incurs a fee, but saves time and hassle, especially if you have quite a few to obtain. But if you can afford the time, or your funds preclude you doing otherwise, going along to the various Consulates in person is quite a fascinating experience. Sometimes a little frustrating, but an enriching one nevertheless]


Into the city

July 8th, 2010

“You have to move inside” he said. Italian. Possibly. “Why?” I asked, abruptly. “Because the sign on the wall says you must” he replied. I laughed loudly. I’d been sat quietly, catching up on a few e-mails, in the courtyard of a hostel I’d found in the capital. By now dark, just the glow of my netbook screen to reveal my presence. Didn’t think that was disturbing anything. No more than the opera in a large marquee nearby. Wearily, and slowly, I gathered my belongings together and wandered off.

Hostel front

Despite the unwarranted interruption, the hostel was pleasant enough. Reminded me of the small workers hotels in Kazakhstan normally run by ethnic Russian women. Basic but always clean. No cockroaches. But where they differed is cost. Mine wasn’t cheap, just the least expensive option I could find. And simple things you’d often find included, towels or even wireless internet, would increase the cost by almost half. Not the most expensive city I’d visited, certainly not Baku in Azerbaijan with its eye watering prices, but still tough on the budget.

Hostel grounds

I’d travelled into the city a few hours earlier, a little jaded by the journey from Almaty, but not sufficiently tired to sleep. The train almost empty, the streets, the metro system quieter than I’d expected. Flags draped from windows, mostly as we’d passed through the suburbs. Nationalistic celebration? Perhaps. But a subdued atmosphere, as if in defeat.

A third country where I hoped to be able to secure fresh visas sufficient to cross uninterrupted across China, and return to Kazakhstan. And a few other things besides. With little realistic prospect of securing a workable Chinese visa before my Kazakhstan one expired, I’d had to travel further afield. Nevertheless, elements of the Stans I thought. Plentiful parks and green spaces reminded me of Bishkek a few weeks earlier. And the man’s insistence last night on rigid adherence to rules, without proper explanation? Shades of the old Soviet Union?


Tour du Monde

July 5th, 2010

They were a rarity in Central Asia in two senses. Long distance cyclists. And French. We’d met whilst queuing for visas at the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan. And their situation made my present tussles attempting to enter China appear to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

Their Kazakhstan visas would expire in two days, and, contrary to the advice they’d been given, could not, as they’d now discovered, be extended. And they’d no visa for any of the neighbouring countries. All their hopes lay on securing entry to China, and in just a couple of days.

To be fair, seemed they’d been mis-advised by the Consulate when they’d been given their Kazakhstan visa. I’d not been surprised by this, as I’d found contradictory information about Kazakh immigration and visa rules on official websites. An understandable mistake.

Like most languages, other than English and a smattering of Welsh, my French was never great and hasn’t improved. But found I could make some sense of their website – – appeared they too were on an around-the-world trip, albeit skipping Australia and Africa. Assuming they don’t get detained or deported in Kazakhstan first.


Plan B

July 4th, 2010

Plan B from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken explains the need for Plan B, a bold, decisive scheme to secure a fresh Chinese visa.


Not yes

July 3rd, 2010

The lady in front smiled at me. A young man had approached the Policeman keeping order at the front of the queue, asking, in English, where foreigners waited to enter Almaty’s Chinese Consulate. I’d intervened, explaining you queued with everyone else. Just as I was doing. He wandered off, looking frustrated.

After a lengthy wait I was eventually allowed into the Embassy compound, to be greeted by a rather helpful man. Took me a few moments to ascertain he wasn’t a Chinese official but an agency tout, of no use to me. More waiting, then eventually allowed to approach a glass screen.

“Do you possibly speak English?” I asked. “No” said the official, without expression. I explained my circumstances, my just expired sixty day visa, showed him my application form, the supporting paperwork. Seemed I’d also need a letter of introduction, then perhaps thirty days might be possible. I’d explained I’d not needed this for my previous visa, a return flight confirmation being sufficient. But he wasn’t budging. It wasn’t a simple no, rather a not yes – a polite no.

I’d wandered back out into the compound, found the tout I’d spoken to earlier and enquired about a letter of introduction. Around a hundred US dollars, would take a week or so. Bit of mental arithmetic – week for a letter, allow a week for visa processing – with no assurance of success, and I’d get perilously close to the expiry of my current Kazakhstan visa. Which would mean, in practice, a last minute flight out to obtain a fresh one. More expense.

So what to do? I’d get nowhere today at the Consulate, so decided to contemplate my next move over a cup of tea. Objectively. Seemed I could spend a good deal of money, time and effort attempting to secure a fresh visa in Almaty, but with no guarantee of success. Far from it. And even if I did manage to obtain a thirty day visa, I’d struggle to work with that for crossing China in its entirety. Time for Plan B.


On the case

July 1st, 2010

“Stoic” a friend had said. Realistic I thought. The next day I’d set out early for the Chinese Consulate, arriving shortly after nine. Already a lengthy queue, seemed quite disorderly, despite the barriers meant to avoid too much tussling. And there’d be no chance of admittance today.

So instead I went in search of a suitable visa agent. They supposedly hung around the Consulate, but the idea of handing over cash and my passport to a stranger on the street, purporting to be an agent, seemed inconceivable. Decided to go and look for a suitable travel agency in the city centre.

After much searching I eventually found Nurila. She spoke good English and understood my problem. Quick call to the Consulate. Unfortunately, she explained, without a residency permit they would not issue me with a visa. Where there any agents in the city who specialised in visits to China, I enquired? I’d heard a rumour they might be able to circumvent the residency requirement.

Took me over an hour to locate a specialist agency, tucked away in a small office inside a hotel on the far side of the city. Diana was very understanding, spoke excellent English, but no, without a residency permit, there’d only be a flat refusal. My only hope, she explained, was to go in person and plead my case. And get there early, around seven, to have any hope of admittance when the gates open at nine, she advised. But she could help me with the application form, especially as it was in Russian, an offer I gladly accepted.

Emerging back on the street, the lingering humidity had been replaced by gentle rain, soon descending into a downpour. A cheap umbrella – a few pounds – from a nearby bazaar and then the long trek back across the city, contemplating my next move.

Diana had explained that the Chinese Consulate only ever issued visas for thirty days, to Kazakhs certainly. Indeed, the application form gave no other options, unlike the one in Malta I’d completed. Would that really be enough to cross China, assuming I was able to secure a thirty day extension once I’d entered? Five thousand or more kilometres in a little over fifty days, terrain and roads a largely unknown quantity. Difficult. On the boundary between the art of the possible, and hopeless optimism.


Never to yield

June 28th, 2010

I’d seen China. Now half way across Asia, I knew I really could do this, reach Hong Kong and complete another continent. Then onwards, Australia, the Americas, Africa, and home. Not that I ever seriously doubted this, just the sudden realisation that if I kept going as I’d done so far, success must surely follow. I’d felt both tested and strengthened by Kazakhstan, the fearsome heat of the Steppe, the mountain passes and open plains in the east.

But first I needed a fresh Chinese visa, and soon, before my Kazakhstan one expired in less than three weeks. And that needed a plan. The first part would be simple enough. I’d need to return to Almaty, the former Capital and still home to a Chinese Consulate. Whether they’d be prepared to issue me a new visa was unclear. I wasn’t a resident, a requirement, officially at least. But perhaps the Consul could be persuaded of the unusual circumstances of my situation, and might be able to apply a little discretion.

If a fresh Chinese visa wasn’t possible in Almaty, I, or my passport at least, would have to go elsewhere, to another country with a greater prospect of success. And, ideally, I wanted a visa for sixty days duration, rather than the usual thirty days. It’s a big country. An added complication was that my Kazakhstan visa would expire in less than three weeks, and overstaying was out of the question. And I’d insufficient grounds for an extension to my existing visa.

Tot up time spent sending my passport by courier to and from a reputable visa agent abroad, processing of your application, returning to the border, an allowance for the unexpected and you quickly get close to the end of my Kazakhstan visa, little margin for error. Lots to think about. Quickly.

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