Right at the beginning of the planning process I had identified the Chinese visa and permit to be the most time consuming. Hence, I started discussion with Navo, the tour agency recommended by Tushar Aggarwal (he and his wife had done London to Delhi by road), in 2013. That is when I realised that it is necessary, as per government regulations, to engage an approved tour operator and choose from among the itineraries provided by them to drive in Tibet/China. Google maps gave me an approximate driving distance of 3700 kilometers through Tibet/China. Though this distance could have been covered in about 7 days I had to choose between a 14 day and 18 day itinerary. The fascinating parts of the route would be visits to Mt Everest base camp, Lake Mansarovar and Mt Kailash. It is also a government stipulation that a guide accompanies the group in the car and virtually lives with you during the entire duration of the trio through Tibet/China. Navo was completely upfront with the fee and the anticipated expenses for various activities. It took my breath away when I realised that it would cost between Rs. 4 to 4.5 lakhs per person for the 14 day expedition through Tiber/China. Moreover, the Navo fee would be for a minimum of two persons in one car. Thus, by having two others with me the overheads would get split. The guide would have to be provided accommodation, food and a daily tip. Navo undertook to take care of the entire process for visas and permit efficiently and without any hidden costs. They suggested that the process be started in January 2014, after the Chinese New Year, for entry into Tibet/China in late May 2014.
Entry into Nepal can be obtained by Indian citizens by producing any identity stipulated by the government. A driving license will do. The difficult thing regarding Nepal is the requirement of Carnet the only country along the route that needed it. Once the route was decided in late 2013 the Visas to be obtained were identified as those for Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Schengen, UK and Ireland besides China. Most of the Central Asian countries have their visa processing centres in Delhi. I considered that it would be a logistical nightmare to handle visa and permits from Cochin. I started talking to Udaan, an established tour operator in Delhi. Though they gave me the confidence that they could do it I found responses from them extremely difficult to obtain. Therefore, I sought advice and suggestions from Akbar Travels and Air Travel Enterprises. The latter put me on to Mirus Lifestyle Events (P) Ltd. After a brief interaction I decided to hire them as our visa partner. Together we set a timeframe and fee structure. It involved many rounds of discussion. But little went as per plan!
Mirus laid before me a well structured visa application documentation process. First, I sent in the required documents for the Chinese visa. Mirus decided to partner Navo, since I passed on information and details I had obtained from them earlier. There was no application form to be filled in. Photographs of the car from four different angles, scanned passport details, scanned driving license, etc were transferred to Navo and the process for obtaining visas began in right earnest. Second, I painstakingly compiled all supporting documents for the three of us to put in the visa applications for Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Schengen – Ukraine was dropped from the route in January 2014 and the route was modified to enter Estonia, a Schengen State from Russia. Visa applications for UK and Ireland were to be filled on line. Mirus held discussion with all the visa processing centres in Delhi. What emerged was that none of the countries had handled a driving expedition from India – the process and time had to evolve through this experience. The timeframe and conditions they set started alarm bells in me. UK, for instance, insisted that the visa application could be inserted only 3 months prior to the entry date; without the destination visa Schengen was reluctant to issue visa. Kazakhstan wanted both the Kyrgyzstan and Russian visas in place before they acted on the application. The saving grace was that Mirus always looked positive about getting all visas and permits in place in time; they worked hard on them and it showed.
In the meanwhile Baiju found out that the VFS centre in Cochin accepts UK visa applications. Mirus organised online filing and scheduled appointments. At the time of the appointment for ascertaining documents we discovered that we could fast track the process through a special fee. Everything went better than planned and the stamped passports were received within four days. David at the VFS Germany centre in Cochin suggested meticulous documentation. I thought he was going overboard with his suggestion. In retrospect, however, it was his suggestions that were responsible for the quick disposal of our application by the Bangalore German Visa Processing Centre. Two visas in the bag in two weeks and another four to go; we had just three weeks. In the meanwhile, letters of invitation had been obtained for visits to Russia and Kyrgyzstan through agents that insisted on making hotel bookings and organizing guides. We paid more than double the rates available on the net for room bookings through the agents – beggars cannot be choosers, can they? However, the visas happened in quick succession. Then we hit a road block with Kazakhstan. They said that the ‘normal’ processing time would be a week, by which we would not be able to get our passports back in Cochin. The Consul gave two alternatives to ‘speed up’ the process; either get someone influential in the MEA to speak to them or pay $200 extra per passport without receipt to get the passport back in three days. I opted for the latter, even though we were heavily out of pocket. The passports were delivered as promised, stamped and ready to go. Then came the next blow. The Chinese entry may be delayed, I was told, due to certain unforeseen delays in the Tibetan permissions. The delay in entry into China would have a cascading effect on the Kazakhstan visa, which was issued for a tight 5 day window. Mirus applied for date change, which was refused. The embassy wanted the entire process to be gone over all over again. Delay, and more delay. In order to ensure that the passports are not delayed in transit MIrus has arranged to deliver them by hand in Gorakhpur.
The Chinese visas and permission to enter still remained. However, it has been confirmed that the formalities would be completed in a day by Navo representatives in Kathmandu, Nepal. The flip side is that we would have to prolong our stay in Nepal by a few days. Therefore, instead of travelling from the border directly to Kathmandu we have decided to visit Lumbini and Pokhara before travelling to Kathmandu. Once we get the visas and know the exact schedule through Tibet/China we will further tweak the itinerary and make confirmed arrangements down the route.