A Little Time in Japan and Little Time in China

Kumamoto-Jo Castle
Kumamoto-Jo Castle in Kyushu – Japan
Mt. Aso - Kyushu
Mt. Aso – Kyushu

Japan will always be on the top of my travel list. June was spent traveling around the southern parts of Japan. Previous visits were short, but we now had the ability to spend as much time as we liked or could afford on the weak USD. We started in Osaka since a couple of friends were getting married in May on Lake Biwako near Kyoto. After that, we grabbed a Peach Airlines Flight to southern island of Kyushu and spent a couple of weeks hopping around the volcanic island. We ended up just skirting the usually wet rainy season they experienced just a few days after we flew to Tokyo.

We ended the Japan trip in Tokyo. We decided to rent out a service apartment in the Shinjuku. Here, we planned out our upcoming Fall trip and sorted out most of our visas to the “Stans” of Central Asia, spent our days hanging out with friends, enjoying the city, local food and the luxury of having access to real high-speed internet.

Narita Airport - Tokyo
Departing Gate at the Narita Airport – Tokyo
Beijing International Airport
Arrival Gate at the Beijing Airport

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Bumpy ride to Beijing!

It’s been a few years since I have experienced one of those flights that makes you swear you will never fly again. We landed after the pilot decided to head straight through a storm that was heading towards Beijing. When we landed, most passengers were flushed and blurry eyed as we streamed into to arrivals terminal at Beijing International. Some fellow passengers were stained by the flying sodas, juice etc. that flew through the air as our plane made an unexpected drop during dinner service. I managed to escape unscathed. I was just so happy to be on solid ground once again. The pilot did manage to get the plane down ahead of the storm, but the dark clouds caught up streamed in and opened up just as we arrived into the city.

The downpour started just as we got off the metro. We got trapped at the metro station without umbrellas or a small boat to get us through the flooded streets to our hostel. We ended up spending about 1 hour waiting for an opportunity to make a run for it. The journey from metro to hostel required some puddle and sidewalk sink holes dodging but we finally made it.

We managed to drag ourselves and our stuff safely to the Hutong west of the Forbidden City that first stormy night in Beijing. We got soaked but our stuff wasn’t. I’m not sure how we pulled that one-off, but we did thankfully.

Inside the Forbidden City on a Smoggy Day

Waiting on a Visa…

We had just one night at the Hutong Hostel and later moved to an apartment on the other side of Beijing until we headed west towards Central Asia in a couple of weeks. Hostels are great but having a washer, kitchen and quiet work area were necessary this time.

We were here to get our Turkmenistan Visa and see more of post-Olympics Beijing. It was a lot of work for all the back and forth, waiting, some more waiting all for a 10 day required tour. Beijing is a large city so there’s much to see and do while we wait.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square
Military Museum - Beijing
Military Museum – Beijing

The National Museum, the Olympic Park and the Military Museum were the top three on our must see list this time. We got our Turkmenistan visa, saw the top three, and managed to see both the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square again.

Our time in Beijing soon came to an end. With our visas in hand and better idea of what direction we will be going in the next few months, we boarded an Air China flight to Urumqi. In Beijing, we managed to survive both the elevated AQI levels and a couple of storms that pummeled the city during our two-week visit. I’m sure Beijing will all be a totally different the next time we stop by for a visit or maybe not?

Acquiring Central Asian Visas in Tokyo

It’s been a long time (a few years actually) since I’ve written anything substantial in a blog post, so please forgive me as I get my ‘blog legs’ back in order. Oddly enough, this will start off with a case of deja vu from early 2008. Back then we were traveling around Laos and Vietnam and were trying to do some forward planing for the next few months. Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, and China were on our wayward list, but what about after that? How about Central Asia or “the ‘stans” as they are colloquially known? Thoughts of Mongol hordes, glorious Persian architecture, and towering mountains filled my head and invoked some serious wanderlust. We could travel by land across China and fly out from somewhere in the region (Tashkent perhaps?). A great way to spend late Spring/early Summer. Easy, right?

A few days of detailed Internet searching put that notion of ease quickly to rest. Central Asia is definitely not high on the tourist/backpacker roadshow and gathering information on a general route through the region was few and far between. Tales of “Letters of Invite”, mandated tours, and Soviet style bureaucracy left a distinctly dry feeling in ones mouth. We would either have to get visas as we went (less than ideal given visa constraints) or would have to get them all at once in Beijing (the only place in East Asia with all five consulates). Given that we were coming into China on a 30 day non-extendable visa, logistics among the embassies would be tight. This was right before the Olympic games and the Chinese authorities were starting to clamp down on giving out/renewing visas. Ultimately, however, our hopes were dashed when we arrived in Beijing in early April. The March 2008 events in Tibet resulted in the closing off of western China to foreigners (i.e. anything past Chengdu). We decided at that point to move on to North Africa and would revisit the plan for Central Asia at a later date. The one upside was that we started following the Uncornered Market folks, as they were one of the few blogs out there with information about the region.

Fast forward to 2012 and we’re in East Asia again. After spending three months last year dealing with visa/tour fun for our September trip to Iran, acquiring visas for Central Asia is easy by comparison. It took us a total of 10 calendar days (i.e. Monday to the following Wednesday) to get four visas for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakstan in Tokyo. This can be done a few days earlier (say 7 or 8) if you’re prepared and quick enough on the metro.

Series:

Turkmenistan Visa in Beijing

Beijing is the only place in East Asia with a Turkmenistan consulate. The next closest one is in New Delhi or in the other ‘stans.

For a tourist visa, a LOI from an approved Turkmenistan travel agency is needed. We used Ayan Travel who were able to arrange a LOI in 9 business days (they applied on a Monday and it was sent to us from them the following Thursday evening). NOTE: The Beijing consulate does NOT require the original LOI (i.e. a faxed/emailed copy is OK), unlike Moscow, etc.

Cost for Americans: 10 day single entry is $35 for normal service (one week) or $55 for express (3 day/weekend) service in USD only. They will keep your passport the entire time (so have a copy  for yourself as that is against Chinese law). There is a Bank of China down the road on Tian Ze Lu that can exchange RMB for USD. Keep in mind the consulate is closed on Wednesdays (and at 12:00 (at least on the door), not 13:00 as listed on the website). We went with the express option and dropped ours off Friday morning at 11:30am and it was ready Monday at 15:00.

Website: Turkmenistan Visa in Beijing

Map: Turkmenistan Embassy, Beijing

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Tajikistan Visa in Tokyo with GBAO

The GBAO permit (to see the eastern half of the country and Pamirs) cost is included in the base visa cost, but you MUST ask for it separately (in person and in your processing cover letter). If you don’t have a cover letter they will give you one to copy for the request at the consulate. Make sure you come with TWO copies of your visa paperwork (and associated photos). When picking up the visa they will make you sign that the visa is correct. NOTE: the actual dates, etc are handwritten so be sure to triple check!

Cost for Americans: ¥9000 JPY (8000 for the visa + 1000 processing fee) for a 30 day single entry visa. This is paid via wire transfer (ATM) with receipt DUE AT APPLICATION TIME.

Website:  Embassy of Tajikistan in Tokyo

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Kyrgyzstan Visa in Tokyo

A Kyrgyzstan visa is very straight forward and simple to get in Tokyo.

Cost for Americans: ¥8000 JPY for a 30 day single entry tourist visa, payable by wire transfer (ATM) with receipt due at pickup time. NOTE: The consul will tell you that you don’t need a Kyrgyz visa if you have a multi-entry Kazak visa. Getting a M-E Kazak visa is a bit of a pain and as this is a new policy as of July 2012 (which means that border enforcement might be iffy), we just got a straight visa from Kyrgyzstan (costs more, but potentially less hassle).

Website: Kyrgyz Embassy of Tokyo

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Uzbekistan Visa in Tokyo

The Uzbek consulate in Tokyo unfortunately does not have a usable website (in Japanese, let alone English). You have to fill out your information at the website below, print it out, and give it to the consulate. Make sure that you mark Tokyo as the place of visa issuance. Under Occupation ‘Representatives of business groups and persons, engaging in individual enterprise’ is what most folks put (I’m an engineer damn it!)

Cost for Americans: ¥16000 JPY for a 30 day tourist visa (maximum) is super pricey, so make every day count. You can ask for as many entries as you wish without a LOI (but be specific (i.e. 2, 4, 7, etc); putting ‘multiple’ will mean a LOI will be required). Note that this is paid in cash at the time of visa pickup!

Website: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Hours: 10:30-13:00 for drop off, 16:00-17:30 for pickup.

Contact number: +81 3-3760-5625

Map: The Uzbek Consulate is located a few blocks from Fudomae station (past Meguro on the Namboku line).

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Kazakstan Visa in Tokyo

The consulate will keep the original passport for entire length of time (drop off Monday and pick up the following Monday afternoon at 15:00).

Cost for Americans: $30 USD for 1 month single entry, $60 for 2 month double entry (30 days per entry max). Payable at time of pickup via wire transfer (ATM) receipt in JPY (get them to write down what they expect the cost to be at drop off time, their conversion rate might be lower than the days rate).

Website: Embassy of Kazakstan in Tokyo

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Short list of WHO WHAT WHERE and HOW for Iran Travel

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Here’s my list of online sites which inspired and kept the dream alive while waiting to see if Iran wanted me to come or not.  I hope they are useful to others looking to go:

US Travel Warnings

British Foreign Office Travel Advisory

WHAT

Destination Iran Tour Site

Traveler Nico from Scotland’s Flickr Stream

Soorm’s Flickr Photos of Iran

WHERE/WEAR

Rick Steves Journal – Iran

WikiTravel – Iran

Wikipedia – Iran

Journeywomen’s Blog

WHY

Uncornered Market Trip to Iran Nov 2011

Why we travel by Paul Theroux

AND HOW?

Iran Railway Infomation

Pars Tour Agency

Magic Carpet Tourist Information

Americans in Iran 2011: Planning, applying and waiting…

It’s May 2011 and our next trip will be to Iran. Ignoring the propaganda and the fact that it could take months to get a visa we begin the visa application process and the trip research. It was now or never and we’re going for it. The trip will be at least 14 days which isn’t a whole lot but enough to get a feel for the country.  The itinerary will need shortening and compose a realistic travel budget and itinerary.   Some amazing things will unfortunately be put back on the wish list. This fairly quick trip will be more a best of Iran opposed to a full tour with no limits and a loose vicarious plan which is usually how we roll.  The classic central Iran itinerary that takes us from Shiraz to Tehran is perfect for 14 days by land.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Morning in the center of Esfahan

Traveling with a U.S. passport to Iran requires a guided tour.  Americans have a history in the area so it’s understandable that the government wants to keep tabs on us and we have to do it.  Finding a knowledgable local guide who will not make us feel as if we were on a short leash and hopefully compatible in personality is first on the to do list.   Reading other travelers blog posts, checking out Thorntree posts and Google searches lead me to finding Pars Tourist Agency which is a small but well-known tour agency based in Shiraz.  Zehra is very organized, patient and good at getting back to me despite the time change and how the weekends start on Thursday and end on Saturday.   They ended up putting together a customized tour which included all the attractions we wanted to see and within our budget.

The Somewhat Short List of why we decided to go to Iran:

1. UNESCO sites Iran full of them and we’ll be able to see a good chunk of them in two weeks – plus the flight isn’t that long – just 13 hours.

2. Politics aside The middle east has always a political hotbed so stayed informed, avoid any political discussion and enjoy the scenery

3. Low hustler level It’s not like Egypt, Turkey or Morocco where many rely on baksheesh to supplement their low wages (which is actually a Persian word) .

4. The US Dollar Woes For Americans, the dollar is still going down and the required tour and it’s prices just always go up and never down

5. Angry Israel It has been pretty trigger-happy recently and who knows when they will put their threats to action and each day there is something new like today (Nov 2) on Al-Jazeera

Travelling to Iran was always in our thoughts especially when we went to other areas of Asia and the Middle East.  Ancient history, architecture and modern culture is usually the draw to the places my husband and I visit.  The most influential were visits to the Persian designed Taj Mahal, Xian, Jordan and Syria. They are all connected to the former Silk Road and Iran has links to them all. We wanted to see and experience a different side of the region and dig deeper into how the traders along the Silk Road influenced and  shaped the lands they once journeyed through. I wanted to see where were the great battles were fought, learn more about the area’s history and see in person what in terms of physical structures (caravanserai, forts, and ancient cities to name a few) and various forms of art still remain today.   Additionally, I like to find answers to questions like did the travelers and warriors of those periods still have a place in present Iranian society?  How did the past influence today’s society?

If Rick Steves did it then why can’t we? He said himself that he regretted not travelling to neighboring Iraq when he had the chance. I personally want to see what goes on  in Iran – politics aside? How do people live and how will the receive me even after they find out where I’m from.   There are many questions that I hope to find answers to and some will have to remain unanswered until I return in the future.