The Bureaucracy Diaires: Crossing the Caspian Sea

The Mongol Rally starts at Goodwood Motor Circuit in the U.K, passes through Mongolia, and ends in Ulan Ude in Russia. There are optional meet-ups and parties in the Czech Republic and Romania, but otherwise there is no set route.

While most teams tend to take the Northern route (through Northern Europe and Russia), or Southern route (through Turkey and the ‘Stans), previous teams have taken detours through China, the Arctic Circle and even Africa. Shane and I still have visions of taking the Trans-Siberian railway right across Russia one day, so decided to take the Southern route to see the highlights of Central Asia.

The only problem with the Southern route is that there is no obvious or easy way to cross from the Balcony of Europe into Central Asia. The options are:

  1. Drive from Georgia to Russia to Kazakhstan. This is, in fact, not a viable option since it would require a triple entry visa for Russia which are incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to get hold of, particularly if you are not on a business trip (and this is not a business trip).
  2. Drive through Iran to Turkmenistan. A significant number of teams have chosen this option, but it isn’t without its challenges. Visas for Iran are expensive and complex. To take a car into the country makes things even worse. You have to buy a $500 special passport for the car (a ‘carnet’), and British nationals also need to be accompanied by a guide (which requires even more money and paperwork). Shane and I have been to Iran before (and as a female traveller, I didn’t have a particularly positive experience), so we were keen to avoid the expense and the admin, and take a different route to Central Asia.
  3. Take a reliably unreliable ferry over the Caspian Sea. It is possible to take a cargo ship from Baku in Azerbaijan over the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. The downside is that reports from previous Mongol Rally teams suggest this is anything but straightforward. From finding the port to buying a ticket, nothing is clear or simple. Everything costs a lot of money and takes a long time.
  4. Take an even more unreliable ferry from Baku to Aktou in Kazakhstan. As above, but even less clear, less frequent and more expensive.

The reliably unreliable ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi seemed like the obvious, if not ideal, choice.


On arriving in Baku, our first problem to solve was that neither Shane nor I had a visa for Turkmenistan. To apply for a five day transit visa (longer tourist visas are significantly harder to come by and require you to be accompanied by a guide through the country), you need a letter of invitation from the government of Turkmenistan. Despite applying for these letters in March, they arrived in July, just one day before the launch of the Mongol Rally, so we didn’t have time to apply for the visas before we left the U.K. Our options were to apply in Baku, or to get on the ferry without a visa and get it on arrival in Turkmenbashi.

In many ways, applying for the visa in Baku was a much riskier option. Our visa would only be valid for five days, and the unreliablility of the ferry meant that if we picked a date that was too soon, the visa could be used up before arriving in Turkmenistan, and that would be a big problem. However, we were repeatedly told that we would not be allowed to board the ferry to Turkmenistan without a valid visa (we wouldn’t be allowed to leave Azerbaijan without proof that we were authorized to enter Turkmenistan), so we set off for the Turkmenistan Embassy in Baku.

The opening hours of the Embassy were limited to Mondays and Fridays (9.30-12.00). Those are the only opening times. We arrived in Baku on a Wednesday night, so after a day of sight seeing on Thursday we were at the Embassy bright and early on Friday morning. After a long wait and some frustrating queue jumping (we saw some locals bribing the guard at the Embassy to reach the front of the line), we were told that the Embassy had no electricity, so could not process any visa applications. We would need to get the visa on arrival in Turkmenbashi or come back on Monday.

As Monday was three days away, we thought we might as well try to board the ferry without the visa. If it didn’t work, we could return to the Embassy and try again. There was a boat in the port, which was apparently sailing to Turkmenbashi that day, so we made our way over there to try and buy a ticket. We met Viktorya at the ticket office. She seemed to be in charge, and she (somewhat aggressively) directed us to sit in a waiting room. She would let us know when she had some information about whether we could buy a ticket.

When she returned, it was with bad news. She didn’t have enough cargo to justify the sailing. The boat was too empty. She said we should come back tomorrow and try again.


Along with several other Mongol Rally teams, we arrived at the port around 9am the next day. Viktorya hadn’t arrived yet, but we found the waiting room full of other people who were also eager to get on a boat. When she arrived, Charlie (from team Genghis Kart) went to speak to her and there was more bad news: the ferry was now too full. There wasn’t enough space for everyone who wanted a ticket. We were told to wait to see whether there would be space for us.

So we waited. And waited. And waited a bit more. Eventually something seemed to change, and we noticed local people queuing up at the ticket office and handing over money. It seemed that it was possible to buy tickets now after all. We joined the queue. It was a long process (more local queue jumping occurred) but eventually the first Mongol Rally team in the queue managed to buy tickets, and all was looking well.

But then there was a sudden change in fortune. Having been told there would be enough space for all the Mongol rally teams, there were now only four more spaces for passengers on the ferry. Charlie from Genghis Kart was next in the queue and had been waiting since Thursday night (it was now Saturday), so it made sense for his team of three to go with Jamie (who was a team of one).

Except then Viktorya had another idea. There was apparently plenty of space for cars, just not for passengers. She suggested that four car drivers board the ferry with their vehicles, and that the remaining passengers take a speedy passenger ferry, which would leave the next day, and should bring us all to Turkmenbashi at the same time. There were four drivers from four teams in the queue: Charlie (from team Genghis Cart) Lucas (from team Silicon Rally) Roland (from team The Flying Dutchmen) and me, and all agreed that this seemed to make sense, as it would get the maximum number of people to Turkmenistan as soon as possible. Each of the drivers bought their tickets, visited a separate office to pay the extra $12 fee for using the ramp on to the boat (yes, really), and started to sort out the cars to make sure passengers had what they needed for the day and for the ferry crossing.

While my rational brain agreed with Viktorya’s plan, the idea of getting on the ferry and going all the way to Turkmenistan without Shane wasn’t appealing. I would miss him, and I started to worry about what could go wrong. Where and when exactly would the passenger ferry go? Where would we meet in Turkmenbashi? What if one of us got stuck on one side or the other? Out of all the parts of the trip where we could be split up, this seemed like the worst part to separate. It suddenly felt like a terrible idea, and I felt quite panicked.

All of a sudden, Viktorya realized she had one extra space for a passenger on the ferry. After establishing it was just for a passenger (now there seemed to be a space for a passenger but no more space for cars…), the other teams suggested Shane buy the ticket, as we were the only team of two. It was our lucky day. Little did I know at this point just how lucky.

After a few hours of hanging around waiting for the ferry to load and passing through customs and passport control, we were welcomed on board the boat. We were led to a room that turned out to be the main social / dining spot, where cabins were being distributed. Lots of angry shouting from other passengers revealed there was another problem – there were not enough rooms for everyone on board.

The Mongol Rally teams were the last to be given cabins, and they were quite obviously the worst ones on the boat, and perhaps weren’t meant to be used at all. They were a floor below every other room (next to the engine) and consisted of two rooms with six bunk beds and one toilet for 12 of us. But, at least there were bunk beds. And an all-important toilet. It could have been worse.

The boat journey was hot and not always comfortable, but it was an experience. We made friends with the locals (and were invited to share their dubious cheese, tomatoes, soft drinks and vodka), watched a lot of Russian films, got invited to explore the bridge and relaxed watching the sunset over the Caspian sea.

Waving goodbye to Baku and setting sail on the Caspian Sea

All was going well, and we reached Turkmenbashi in around 18 hours as promised. However, we couldn’t get off the boat yet. The port was congested, so we had to wait on the boat a little way out in the water. For another 22 hours. This meant our 18-hour boat crossing took 40 hours. We were happy enough on the boat (and had three free meals a day for the whole time on board), but had we been in a rush to get somewhere, this might have been a bit annoying.

Shane getting to work

Friendly little boat in Baku helping us out of the port

View of the Caspian Sea from our “cabin”

Martha enjoying her time on the boat with other rally cars

Passing the time on the 40 hour crossing

Sunset on board as we approached Turkmenbashi

Chilling out on the boat

When we finally docked in Turkmenbashi, we needed to give our passports to the officials on board. I sent Shane to get our letters of invitation to prove we were authorized to enter Turkmenistan (as we were yet to get hold of the visa) and followed the official into an office in a part of the boat we hadn’t yet visited. Then another man told me to follow him, and led me through some windy corridors around the ship. I started to feel a little anxious. I wasn’t sure where he was leading me or what this was all about. I was on my own, and no one (including Shane) knew where I was. The man opened a door and told me to follow him into a room.

A wave of cool air washed over me. This room was air conditioned (unlike the rest of the boat), and there were plates of cherries, sunflower seeds and cold drinks on the table. “I am the captain”, the man said, and invited me to sit down and enjoy a cold drink, a bite to eat and some Russian films. We had been communicating and watching Russian films together for a while, when I could hear Shane outside calling for me, so I shouted back and he joined us for some more cherries and a Russian soap opera.

After two or three hours with the captain, it was time to leave our air conditioned oasis and get off the boat. As we reached land and our phones picked up a signal, we had some bad news. The promised ‘passenger ferry’ hadn’t materialized. The passengers from the three teams with us were still in Baku. They weren’t getting on a boat that day, and couldn’t be certain they would get on one the next day. Despite our delayed ferry crossing, they wouldn’t be able to catch up. We only had a five-day visa to get across Turkmenistan, and the passengers were at least two days behind.

The problem became even clearer as we started the process of entering Turkmenistan. There was no option for the teams to stay the other side of the border and delay their visas starting. There was no flexibility on the visa dates. In fact, there was no flexibility on anything, and we wouldn’t even be allowed to stay in Turkmenbashi for a day or two to give them the chance to catch up. Shane and I were the only ones lucky enough to be together, and we planned to stick with the drivers from the three split teams for as long as we could.

Entering Turkmenistan was bureaucracy on a whole new level. I have never experienced anything like it, and I don’t know whether anyone reading this will even believe it, but this is the condensed version of exactly what happened:

Step 1: Apply for visa. We had to give in our passports, and a detailed itinerary of where we would be on which dates. Except that it turned out we had no choice in this. We had to follow a set itinerary that the Turkmenistan government had already been decided for us. (Luckily this fit with our planned itinerary). We could not stay in Turkmenbashi. We had to go straight to Ashgabat THAT DAY (even though it was an eight hour drive away and we would probably get there in the middle of the night, given the length of time the immigration process took). And so on.

Step 2: Pay for visa. This had to be done at the bank, rather than at the passport office. For UK citizens, this was $85, plus a $14 “entrance fee” and a $2 “extra charge”. For Irish citizens, this was a bit cheaper ($55, plus $14, plus $2). This could only be paid in US dollars.

Step 3: Back to passport control. Have fingerprints taken, photos taken, reconfirm all details in the passport and all car details.

Step 4: Visit an office on the other side of the building (this involved first going through an X-ray machine) to complete some paperwork for the car. All details about me, the car, the route we were taking and various other bits and pieces were written into a big notebook. Then a form was filled in with a bill on it, and given to me. I was told I needed to take it to two additional offices, and then to the bank to pay the bill.

Step 5: Take the same paperwork to a man in the office next door. He filled out all the information into another big notebook, and gave me some kind of stamp.

Step 6: As above, but in another office two doors down.

Step 7: Try to pay the money I owed for the car at the bank (about $170 for insurance, fuel compensation, tax and extras). Unfortunately the lady at the bank told me there were some extra steps involved. I had to first go and get a ticket, then go to the ticket office, and then come back to the bank.

Step 8: Visit an office behind the ticket office (this involved leaving the area, so I had to show my passport).

Step 9: Collect a ticket from the office behind the ticket office.

Step 10: Take the ticket to the ticket office (all the details were copied out into another notebook and another piece of paper was given to me).

Step 11: Back to the bank where I was finally able to pay (in US dollars only), get a receipt and some more bits of paper.

Step 12: Back to the ticket office where I had to pay for something else (in the local currency, Turkmenistan Manat, only – challenging when you can’t get any outside of Turkmenistan and there is no ATM or money changer at the border), get a receipt and more bits of paper.

Step 13: Back to the original car office with the receipts to collect some more paperwork.

Step 14: Go to the customs office, fill in a customs declaration form, and watch as my details are written down in another notebook, and another form is filled out and more paperwork provided.

Step 15: Get my new bit of paperwork (the customs form) stamped. This involved yet another note taking exercise and questions about me and the car.

Step 16: Get another stamp for the customs form.

Step 17: Take the stamped form back to the customs office. Finally given the all clear to go.

Step 18: It turned out we were not quite clear to go – it was now time for a thorough car search. I had to find and identify every sort of medicine we had, and they went through various bags. They even read my books. We got off lightly compared to the other Mongol Rally cars though.

Finally, after at least six hours of moving from office to office, handing over wads of cash and seeing my name and details written in more notebooks than I could ever imagine, we were free to go. Well, as free as you can be when you have been clearly told that you must drive eight hours to Ashgabat, and it’s already 6.30pm.

Crossing the Caspian Sea was expensive and difficult, but it was an experience, and it was worth it to see Turkmenistan and to make it into Central Asia.

Map of the process to enter Turkmenistan

Some of the paperwork and stamps collected


Crossing the Caspian Sea:

Total time: Five days (4 hours attempting to get a visa, 3 hours waiting for the ferry on day one, 12 hours waiting for the ferry on day two, 40 hours on the ferry, 3 hours unloading time, 6 hours entering Turkmenistan).

Total cost: $634 ($340 for ferry tickets for Georgia, Shane and Martha, $12 fee for using the ramp to board the ferry, $140 for Turkmenistan visas, $28 for entrance fee to Turkmenistan, $4 for extras, $30 for Martha’s entry and transit passage, $74 for fuel consumption – fuel is ridiculously cheap here, so tourists have to pay an extra charge for every mile they drive – $5 for processing the documents, 4 Turkmenistan Manat (about $1) for something which remains unclear).

Pieces of paper and stamps collected: Too many to count.

The balcony of Europe

The Romanian beach party was chaos. Of course, I was in bed by midnight (and despite drinking 12 free beers and some free shots of the local liquor, Shane wasn’t that far behind). But for other teams it was a messy all-nighter, culminating in the loss of important belongings (phones, wallets, passports, inflatable couches…)

Things that got lost at the Romanian beach party

The next day we were soon on the road to Bulgaria and to Turkey. Shane was probably still too drunk to drive, so I drove the long stretch on a windy, bumpy, one-car-at-a-time-only road through Bulgaria. Many, many hours later, we reached the Bulgaria-Turkey border crossing. This was fairly straightforward – I bought some expensive car insurance (our policy was only valid in Europe, so this is going to be a common occurrence from now on), we managed to skip the baggage check (a border guard took one look at our car full of stuff and obviously couldn’t be bothered unpacking it all and checking it, so waved us straight through), and another border guard stopped us right at the last minute…. to ask if he could sign Martha.

As we carried on down the road towards Istanbul, things took a downward turn. By this point, I’d been driving for around nine hours. We had only stopped to get petrol for Martha and to cross the border. I’d had nothing to eat, and very little sleep due to the noise from the crazy beach party the previous night. I needed a break. I asked Shane if he could take over the driving, and he gently pointed out that we had a little problem. I had managed to buy car insurance for myself (and for Martha) but not for Shane. I would have to drive the rest of the way, and all day the next day, and all day the following day, until we made it out of Turkey.

Then, things got a little worse. Having left the EU, we could no longer roam the internet for free, so were relying on a free app with the maps we needed downloaded onto it as our only navigation tool. This did not work very well, and we quickly found ourselves going on a big toll road in the wrong direction. We had no idea how to pay the toll, and there was no way off the road for the next 20 or 30 kilometers. We stopped at a petrol station to see if we could find out how to pay the toll (answer unclear, we ended up buying a special sticker for the car which acted as a kind of smart-toll-ticket… we loaded some money on to it but never really found out how it worked or if we paid enough). We also asked a nice man who spoke English whether the insurance I’d bought covered Shane to drive. He offered some conflicting information (no, the insurance didn’t cover Shane, but it did cover nine other drivers??), but reassured us that: “This is Turkey, so… of course you can drive. The Police can’t even read this.” Lovely. The man obviously felt sorry for us, as he also tried to pay our toll, which was incredibly generous. But of course we could not let him pay for our mistakes, so we thanked him and were on our way.

But on our way to where, exactly? We had found a potential campsite on the outskirts of Istanbul, but when we finally made it there (late at night), it didn’t seem like a safe or good camping spot at all. We attempted to navigate towards an alternative campsite (using our rubbish app), but ended up on a terrible pot-hole filled road, driving at snail speed, and worrying that the campsite would be full and / or closed by the time we arrived. We pulled into a restaurant to ask for some advice, ended up staying for a delicious meal, and becoming the star attraction as we made several new friends who wanted to sign Martha and hear about our journey.

A selfie with our new friends


Signing Martha

They also told us that there was nowhere safe to camp in the area, and suggested we head on another 30kms to the beach. Of course, we got lost, so they sent someone after us who made sure we followed him to the main road that led to the beach. Well, we still managed not to get to the beach, and instead pulled into a truck stop not far away from the centre of Istanbul and attempted to sleep in the car.

This turned out to be a mistake. We have a lot of stuff in the car: camping gear, food, bags, and general stuff. There is no room to sleep. We managed to clear the back seat but it was still very squashy and uncomfortable. It was also boiling hot – like being in a sauna. So, I opened the back window a tiny bit. This also turned out to be a mistake. After a sleepless night trying to get comfortable, panicking about local axe murderers and generally having a terrible time, I woke up to find I had been bitten around 30 times by mosquitoes in the night. I also woke Shane up at around 5am screaming because I thought someone was trying to get in through the open rear window. That was a serious Georgia-meltdown.

But, hoping that things could only get better from here, and vowing to find a proper campsite for the next night, we drove away from Istanbul at about 5.15am and so made it all the way to Samsun, around 800kms away, by the afternoon. We did find a proper campsite, and had a lovely evening drinking tea with some local residents and swapping stories (mostly about mechanical engineering).

Another drive day to Batumi in Georgia followed. The border crossing was a bit chaotic and took around two and a half hours, but we made it through without complications (although also without  car insurance, which is apparently not compulsory in Georgia) and stayed for two nights in a hostel to have a break from driving and a good night’s sleep in a real bed. We had a lovely day in Batumi going up the alphabetic tower, exploring the beach and chilling out in the old town.

Alphabetic tower, Batumi

Sunset looking over the Black Sea, Batumi

The following day we drove to Tbilisi, and had a very pleasant afternoon wandering around the old streets. Both Shane and I have enjoyed Georgia more than anywhere else so far (and not just because everything has my name on it).

It is like a hidden treasure, tucked away by the Black Sea, not quite in Europe, and not quite out of it – on the “balcony of Europe”, so to speak, with a unique identity and culture. Tbilisi seemed like a lovely destination for a weekend away. The only downside is that driving around is a nightmare. Cars do not have to have insurance, be road worthy in any way, and apparently do not have to follow normal road rules. That includes speed limits, traffic lights, stopping at junctions, giving way at roundabouts… just, you know, everything (Shane has written more about driving in Georgia here).

Tbilisi, Georgia

After another day of driving and another border crossing, we have now arrived in Baku in Azerbaijan. Rising out of the desert landscape, Baku is a strange mix of old and new, Asian and European. We spent the day walking the streets of the old city, visiting the Palace of the Shirvanshah’s, admiring the Flame Towers and attempting to visit the museum of miniature books (which is sadly closed on a Thursday).

Magic carpets, Baku, Azerbaijan


Sand artwork, Baku, Azerbaijan

We’ve driven around 5,000 kilometers now, and while we are still in Eurovision territory, the landscape is changing fast. Azerbaijan is flat and immense, and the heat is intense. We’ve also caught our first glimpse of the Caspian Sea. We’re hanging out on the balcony of Europe, about to (hopefully, ferry permitting) step off into the great unknown that is Central Asia.






The Bureaucracy Diaries: Visa Wars

Over the last few weeks we’ve been buried under a mountain of paperwork as we apply for the visas we need for our trip. Some countries make it easy for you to come and visit. Some countries do not. This is a run-down of some of the interesting processes we’ve had to follow and information we’ve had to provide so far, with ratings of our best and worst visa experiences.


As the U.K. and Ireland are both members of the European Union (for now), we are free to travel throughout the rest of the EU for as long as we like, no visas required. If we want to stop and get a job somewhere along the way and set-up home, we can. In parts of Europe there aren’t even any borders or passport checks between countries. We can roam free across the continent.
Of course, this might come to an end for U.K. citizens in post-Brexit Britain. Let’s hope the EU doesn’t decide to take Turkmenistan’s approach to allowing visitors in.

Time spent applying for visa: 0 mins
Cost per person: £0
Overall visa experience: 10/10

Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan

No visas required for these countries. EU citizens can enter Georgia for up 90 days, Kyrgyzstan for up to 60 days and Kazakhstan for up to 30 days.

Time spent applying for visa: 0 mins
Cost per person: £0
Overall visa experience: 9.5/10


Getting a visa for Turkey was fairly straightforward and inexpensive. There were options to apply and pay online or to get the visa when we arrive at the border. We chose to apply for the visa online to save ourselves some time and hassle when we reach the Bulgaria-Turkey border, and all it involved was filling in a simple form.

Time spent applying for visa: 15 mins
Cost per person: £20
Overall visa experience: 8/10


Getting an Azeri visa was also fairly painless. We applied online, submitted scans of our passports and passport photos, and handed over some money. A few hours later our e-visas were emailed to us. Unlike the Turkish visa we did need to do this at least one month in advance and specify dates, so there was less flexibility. It was also more expensive.

Time spent applying for visa: 20 mins
Cost per person: £42 (£18 visa fee and £24 application service fee).
Overall visa experience: 7/10


Similarly, we had to apply for the Tajikistan visa online and in advance, but it wasn’t a difficult process. We had to remember to tick the box for a GBOA permit to allow us to drive along the Pamir Highway from Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, which cost extra.

Time spent applying for visa: 20 mins
Cost per person: £55 (£40 visa fee and £15 GBAO permit).
Overall visa experience: 7/10


Things took a turn for the bureaucratic when it was time to apply for our Mongolian visas. We had got off lightly until this point. To get a visa for Mongolia we had to apply at the Mongolian embassy in person, with various documents (passport, passport photos, completed visa form, an itinerary of our plans and a copy of our hotel reservation). Some of this was tricky, as we don’t know exactly when we’ll be entering Mongolia, when we’ll be leaving, or where we’ll be staying… it all depends on how far and fast we drive, and how many times / how badly Martha breaks down. We made a best guess and booked somewhere refundable for the itinerary.
As we don’t live in London, we also wrote a letter to the embassy authorising my Dad to apply for our visas on our behalf. Living locally doesn’t necessarily help though, as the embassy has very limited opening days and hours, and apparently doesn’t always stick to them. You also can’t pay for the visa by cash, credit or debit card. You have to make a bank transfer and submit proof that you’ve done it.

Time spent applying for visa: 6 hours (filling in forms, writing letters of authorisation, booking hotels, writing out an itinerary, travelling to embassy, applying for visa in person, collecting documents)
Cost per person: £40
Overall visa experience: 5/10


For a British citizen, applying for the Uzbekistan visa was similar to the process above, but for the Irish, it was worse. There was an extra step – Shane had to apply for a “letter of invitation” from someone (a travel agency, a hotel… anyone, really) in Uzbekistan writing a letter in support of his visa application. Obviously we had to pay for it. And it took several weeks to arrive. We also had to provide a photocopy of every page of our passports. Including blank. As someone who has just got a new passport (and got one with extra pages to make sure there are enough for all of our adventures) this seemed particularly painful and pointless.

Time spent applying for visa: 8 hours (applying for letter of invitation, filling in forms, photocopying all blank pages of passports, travelling to embassy, applying for visa in person, collecting documents)
Cost per person: £125 (£50 for visa, £75 for LOI – Shane only)
Overall visa experience: 3.5/10


There were several stages to getting the Russian visa:

Stage 1 – we had to apply for a letter of invitation (both of us this time)

Stage 2 – we had to fill in the visa application form. I could write a whole blog post about this form alone. Particular highlights included having to give the name, address, phone number and Chief Executive of every previous employer I’ve ever had, having to list every country I’ve been to in the last 10 years and when I was there (luckily the form only allowed space for 30 countries so I only got as far as ‘P’ in the alphabet), we had to provide a detailed itinerary of everywhere we were going, with hotel bookings and a flight out of Russia, and had to give the ‘reference number’ and ‘confirmation number’ from the letters of invitation… which didn’t seem to actually exist. Thanks to the internet I worked out that ‘reference number’ actually meant ‘registration number’, and ‘confirmation number’ actually meant ‘voucher number’. It also didn’t help that the letter was, obviously, all in Russian so without google to translate we would have been a little stuck.

Stage 3 – we took the visa application form (with all other supporting documents, of which there were many) to the visa application centre in London. We had to go in person as we had to have our fingerprints recorded. When we arrived at 8.30am and found the place a) open and b) not busy, we thought “this is too good to be true!”

It was.

The lady at the Russian visa centre quickly identified that the dates on our letter of invitation didn’t match the dates on the visa application form. They were very similar, so I had thought that as they fell within the range specified in the letter, they would be OK. It was not OK. We were sent away to get the dates to match up, either by getting a new letter of invitation, or by changing the dates on the visa application form. We were helpfully told that we could use the computer in the Russian visa application centre. For a fee of £5, plus 50p per printed page. Judging by the queues to use the computers, we weren’t the only ones who had made an error on their visa forms. In fact, we didn’t see anyone successfully apply for a visa without needing some computer time for something.

Stage 4 – we left the visa application centre to find an Internet café where we could sort things out. I investigated whether we could get new letters of invitation, and whether we could get them instantly (we could, for a fee), and Shane investigated whether we could change our flight out of Russia (booked through Russian airline Aeroflot). As we applied for a new letter, which did indeed arrive instantly, Shane realised that he’d inadvertently cancelled our flights just by investigating how much it would cost to change them. And there was no refund. After several exasperating phone calls to Aeroflot (also referred to online as ‘Aeroflop’ by other disappointed customers), he managed to get them to re-instate one ticket, but they were demanding we pay a fee for the other flight. “Why? We haven’t cancelled the flight! We just checked how much it would cost to change! You cancelled the flight!” We tried to argue. The response from Aeroflot: “We didn’t cancel the flight. The system cancelled the flight.” Computer says no.

Stage 5 – after printing our new letters and updated visa forms we went back to the Russian visa application centre and had more success. Once we’d submitted our documents and scanned our finger prints, the lady at the application centre (the same lady we had met in the morning) asked whether we would like to collect our visas the next day or next week. Next day seemed like a no brainer, so I asked whether it would cost more to do that. “Of course”, she replied. Of course. We didn’t bother to find out how much extra that would be. The Russian visa had already cost us a small fortune, so we agreed that my Dad would come back the following week to collect our passports. We were told exactly when that would be (date and time). We now understood that this probably wasn’t flexible.

Stage 6 – collection. Back at the visa centre. At the prescribed time on the stated date.

Time spent applying for visa: 16 hours (applying for letter of invitation, filling in extensive, detailed, never ending forms, booking flights, getting documents together, travelling to visa centre, trying (and failing) to apply for visa, visiting internet café, applying for new letters, changing the form, being on the phone to Aeroflot, going back to the visa centre…..)
Cost per person: £243 (£113 for double entry visa, £40 service charge, £20 first letter of invitation, £20 second letter of invitation, £50 flight non-change fee)
Overall visa experience: 2/10


It’s difficult to accurately rate the Turkmenistan visa experience, as we still don’t have our visas yet. However, it’s pretty clear that it isn’t going to be easy, and even when (if) we finally get a visa, it will only give us five days to ‘transit’ across the country. In order to apply for a tourist visa the process is even more complicated, expensive and time consuming.
So far we have applied for a letter of invitation. We applied for this at the beginning of April with everyone else who is travelling to Turkmenistan as part of the Mongol Rally. Unlike the Russian and Uzbek letters, we couldn’t get this from a random hotel or company. We are yet to receive the letters, and have been told they probably won’t arrive until after we’ve left the UK.
This means we’ll need to apply for our actual visas in Baku, Azerbaijan. As we’ll only have five days’ worth of visa, it’s quite important that we manage to get on a ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi before the visa starts. But not too soon before the visa starts, or we won’t be allowed on the boat. This might be a challenge for several reasons:

  • There is conflicting information about whether the embassy in Baku is actually issuing visas for Turkmenistan
  • We have no idea how long it takes to actually get the visa
  • The embassy only opens on Mondays and Fridays. And only in the morning. Some of the time.
  • The ferry is reliably unreliable. We might get the visa, but then be waiting for the ferry for days. Or weeks. And then our visas will probably run out, and we’ll be stuck in Azerbaijan with no way to get to Mongolia.

Hopefully it works out. If not, we’ll have to rate Turkmenistan 0/10 for the visa experience.

Time spent applying for visa: ??? So far we have spent an hour applying for the letter of invitation, and maybe another 2-3 hours researching how to get the actual visas
Cost per person: ??? We don’t really know
Overall visa experience: 1/10, assuming we actually get a visa eventually


Total time spent applying for visas: 43 hours, so far
Total cost per person: £525, so far
Overall visa experience: While most countries have been simple, straightforward, or even visa-free, Uzbekistan and Russia have been particularly tricky with the need to get an extra ‘letter of invitation’, and Turkmenistan is in a whole other category of complicated. Things could have been worse though – reading reports from our fellow ralliers about needing authorisation codes, guides, and expensive permission to temporarily import vehicles (Iran) or thousands of dollars to even start thinking about getting into a country (China), suggests that we have probably taken a fairly simple and inexpensive route visa-wise.

There’s more to do though – we still need a visa for Turkmenistan, and there is plenty of time for things to go wrong, as they have for many ralliers before us. See the Adventurists website for more dramatic stories of deportation and days spent in no man’s land. We haven’t even started yet.