We had been waiting all morning outside the Chinese embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Morgan glanced at his watch nervously. It was only 30 minutes before the embassy closed for lunch, and there were still three more people in front of us. Being a Friday, everyone was trying to get their visa applications in before the weekend – including a group of 20 annoying high school students applying for a study abroad program in Beijing. It also didn’t help that the fat Tajik guard running the door decided he didn’t like us – the only two foreigners there. He kept motioning in other Tajik applicants before us, even though they were further back in line.
“Just keep calm, man.” Morgan said, noticing me grit my teeth when the guard passed over us again. “We’ll get in.”
We arrived at window number 1 with minutes to spare, slipping our stuffed packet of documents under the spectacles of a bored-looking attendant. We’d heard that Dushanbe was a difficult embassy, so we’d prepared an air-tight visa application – faked round trip flight tickets, a phony hotel booking, an invitation letter from Morgan’s friend in Beijing, even a copy of our latest bank statement. There was nothing else we could imagine they’d ask for.
But the attendant didn’t even glance at the documents.
“What country are you from?” she sighed.
“The United States.”
“We don’t issue visas to foreigners here – only Tajik residents”
“… you need to go to Bishkek.”
ACT I: The Email
Bishkek had long been the go-to spot to obtain Chinese visas in Central Asia – all you needed was a passport and four days. For us, the Kyrgyz capital would be a detour, but we shrugged off the inconvenience with the confidence we’d obtain our visa there without a problem before continuing overland into Kashgar in Western China. Besides, there were bigger things to worry about. We had cycle over the 15,000 foot Pamir Highway first.
All of that would change in Khorog.
Morgan and I had just arrived into the city, which was midway through the Pamirs, when the news reached us. Just two days earlier, all Chinese embassies across Central Asia, including the one in Bishkek, announced that they were no longer issuing visas to foreign tourists. The reports had been confirmed by a couple of cyclists at our guesthouse who received emails from Bishkek travel agents.
Every traveler with plans to enter China was stunned. Suddenly, we all found ourselves stuck in Central Asia with no way to cross overland into China. It meant we would have to fly out of Kyrgyzstan.
There was a mad rush among backpackers at the guesthouse. Computers out! Airline websites open. Flight options compared.
Then, looks of despair.
There was simply no cheap way to go about it. Hong Kong, Hanoi, and Bangkok emerged as the most popular options being discussed, but the tickets were expensive. Carefully planned cycling itineraries were being scuttled. It was a major financial and emotional blow.
For me, it was enough to consider going home, a feeling that Morgan would later concede as well. Flights to LA weren’t that much more expensive, and suddenly I found myself longing for friends and family I’d left behind 18 months ago. Man, we’ve been gone so friggin’ long…I thought. But the feeling was short-lived. We knew we would never forgive ourselves for stopping short of Shanghai. Besides, we realized that this was an opportunity to fly back to one of our favorite cities of the entire trip.
We settled on Hanoi.
ACT II: “That would be $1200 dollars, sir.”
After getting over the initial sticker shock, we decided Hanoi was going to be great. Cycling through sickness and extreme altitudes in the Pamir Plateau made us increasingly excited at the idea of returning to the Vietnamese capital. Sure it would be expensive, but after so many months cycling in Central Asia, we looked forward to returning to a place we knew. It would even be therapeutic — a chance to rest, to have delicious food, to make some friends, and most importantly – return to journalism. Morgan and I spent nights on the Plateau pitching each other story ideas, like covering Hanoi’s smuggled gold trade from tribal areas of Laos, or how Vietnamese fishing fleets try to evade China’s claims to regional fisheries.
(Plus, we’d still get to ride to Shanghai, after obtaining a visa in Hanoi and entering China from the South)
The excitement continued to build up to the day before our flight, which was spent scouring Bishkek’s Osh Bazaar for cardboard boxes and plastic wrap to pack up our bikes for the plane. After hours of searching, we finally had all we needed. The last errand of the afternoon would be a quick stop in the China Southern airline offices, just to let them know we were bringing bicycles on the plane the next morning.
It was a disaster.
“No no no – but that can’t be right! Your website says bicycles are included in the free baggage allowance!”
“Sir, this is company policy…and it’s what our manager says.”
We were dumbstruck. China Southern Airlines was going to charge us $1,500 to carry two bicycles to Hanoi. The reason, they said, was that our baggage couldn’t be checked in all the way though with our itinerary, since our flights were broken down into an international, then domestic, then international flight. Because we had to switch between international and domestic terminals, they would charge us $500 at each airport.
As hesitant was I was to change our plans AGAIN, I knew that $1500 in bike fees was too much for our budget. I felt an almost comic dose of apathy as Morgan called our airline booking company to verify we could get refunded and cancelled our flight. The other travelers at Nomad’s Home listened to the call and laughed uneasily with us. At the time, we were so tired of the situation that we’d almost stopped caring.
“Well, guess we’re stuck here with the rest of you!” Morgan said.
At this point, we only had one hope for a Chinese Visa, but it was a risk. We were mailing our passports home.
The Finale: A Risky Gambit
Since the Chinese embassy crisis erupted, an alternative to flying from Central Asia had emerged among backpackers trying to reach China. A couple weeks after Khorog, we started hearing of travelers who’d Fed Ex’ed their passports from Kyrgyzstan to friends or family back home who could obtain Chinese visas for them. It just depended on whether the local Chinese embassy allowed third parties to submit the application…and if your passports didn’t get lost or held up in customs somewhere.
It seemed like a terrible idea at first – there were innumerable nightmare scenarios we envisioned befalling travelers without their passports in Kyrgyzstan. What if they had to get out of the country for some reason? What if the police asked for them? What if the passports were lost?
We decided to go for it anyway. Enough other travelers at the Nomad’s Home seemed to be doing it, and the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles was among those that accepted third party submissions. With a lot of arm-twisting, we were able to convince our families in LA to go along with the plan. We revised our fake flight tickets and hotel bookings, and watched a Fed Ex agent in Bishkek seal our passports into an envelope. I felt naked.
Long story short: it worked. 12 days later, we returned from a trek around Song-Kul Lake, where we’d gone to pass the time and distract ourselves among the peaks and yurts of central Kyrgyzstan. With a message from Morgan’s mother saying the package should’ve arrived, we raced to the Fed Ex office and tore open the waiting package.
My visa was on page 24. “Type L – Tourist. 1 Year visa. Multiple Entry.”
“YEAHHHHHHH!” we whooped. At last, the visa was secured. The saga was over. We would even be able to cycle across the land border into Western China as originally planned.
I turned to Morgan.
“Hey – so you know the whole ‘sending the passports home thing’ — let’s never do that again.”
Morgan and Chris enter China, the final country of their journey, on September 25th