Sunday, 20 June 2010

Visas, visas and more visas

Approximately six weeks before our estimated day of departure we realised it was high time we started thinking seriously about the visas we needed. We’d glanced at the embassy websites before, but now we really had to fill in those forms. At a quick glance we thought we needed visas for Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and China. We were pretty sure we’d left enough time.

In trying to sort out our freighter travel from Asia to North America we unfortunately discovered there weren’t any direct ships to Canada, the last having stopped running in April. There also weren’t any freighters we could board in China, since we’re not planning on doing business there. This meant we’d have to add the additional country of South Korea to our itinerary. Thankfully the South Koreans are a generous bunch and no visa is required (as far as we can work out!). Freighters run from South Korea to Mexico or the US.

What really set us worrying though was an email we received from a freighter agent in Germany stating that we needed a B2 tourist visa for the US, instead of the normal visa waiver since freighters are unauthorised carriers. We then attempted to disprove this by looking into the list of authorised carriers on the US government website. With great triumph we discovered ‘NSB Niederelbe Schiffahrt Gesellschraft MBH & Co.’ on the list. Presumably this was the freighter company we were planning on going with, despite the spelling mistake. Our excitement was short-lived as Outi from NSB told us that the visa waiver does apply to freighter passengers, but only those arriving on the East Coast. Clearly we’d planned this trip the wrong way round.

We did briefly consider going across the Atlantic instead, but we’d really set our hearts on the Trans-Siberian and we couldn’t bail out now. Arriving in Mexico was another option and Ensenada did look like a pretty nice place. If we arrived into Mexico we could just toodle across the border on the visa waiver. Sadly, that shipping service finishes on the 30th of June. Flying to South Korea to catch that freighter clearly wasn’t an option. So it looked like we’d just have to face this head on and get the visa.

The US visa would involve a trip to London and an additional week without our passports. We put together a spreadsheet to see how we could squeeze all the visa applications in. Transiting on the night train through Belarus was not going to happen, the visa wouldn’t get here in time. Instead we decided we’d amble leisurely through the Baltics, going up through the visa-less nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Now we needed to get four visas, but even then that was pushing it a bit. Getting the Chinese visa was like a dream, sent off and came back in five working days as planned. Next up was the US visa, but that deserves a post of its own... When our passports come back tomorrow we’ll send off the Russian application and the Mongolian one will have to wait till we get to Berlin, or somewhere else along the tracks. And if the worst comes to the worst we’ll just have to go to Vladivostok instead.

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