It feels like cheating to simply fly in to Kyrgyzstan from Europe and hop over to China. I would love to do the full overland slog through Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, curling up through Central Asia, but recent events and my American passport are working against me. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in a huge radius that is easy for me to visit. Otherwise, the visas are simply too expensive and too much hassle as I mentioned in my last blog post.
The Chinese embassy won’t issue visas to regular travelers. I believe they only do so if you are a resident here or have an invitation from someone in China. Otherwise, they send people to agents like Miss Liu. I learned this on both the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, which is a little too much like finding a needle in a haystack, and caravanistan.com, where I learned that Miss Liu at Avia Travel, 142 Chuy Street, the main street in Bishkek, has become the defacto Chinese visa office. Now everyone in the know knows Miss Liu.
Some people on the forums were down on their experience with her. I was expecting someone gruff and all-business, but Miss Liu couldn’t have been more helpful. I spent so much time in the office asking questions and consulting her map that I learned all I needed to know and I started answering questions on the phone from travelers calling in as she was tired of repeating herself.
The upside of going through Miss Liu is you don’t have to mess with letters of introduction from your embassy (which the US embassy doesn’t issue) or onward plane tickets or hotel reservations. Not only is it easy to get your Chinese visa here, Miss Liu claims that Bishkek is the only place in the entire region where you can get it. Not Kazakhstan nor Uzbekistan nor Tajikistan, which I find hard to believe, as well as her assertion that I can cross from Tajikistan into China, where all other sources say it is impossible. Imagine if you went through the hell of getting to the Tajik/Chinese border and couldn’t cross?
There are niggling details involved with the visa:
—The passport entry stamp for Kyrgyzstan has to be legible. This can be a real problem because they sometimes aren’t, and I was told that applicants have been asked to leave the country and come back again with a good stamp!
—Wait until you get to the office to fill out the application. A lot of it is unnecessary and some detail isn’t needed, such as the dates of every country you have visited in the last 12 months. (Despite recent unrest, in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, it’s OK to write that it’s one of your destinations.)
—It’s not cheap. It will cost about $100 more than if you were in the ideal place to get the Chinese visa, Hong Kong. Someone is making good money. Most nationalities pay about $140 but Americans pay $230. Only US dollars are accepted and the banknotes must be unblemished (All money changers in Bishkek freak out at pen marks or .00001 millimeter tears.)
—It takes a week, but if you get it to Miss Liu early Monday it can be acquired that Friday. You have to enter China within 30 days of when you applied for the visa, not when you received it, and for all this, you can only stay in the Middle Kingdom for 30 days and it’s single entry. Kashgar alone must be worth a week. It’s ridiculous.
—Two photos are required. It’s not worth trying to make the passport photos yourself as they will likely be rejected as they have to be extremely precise in their measurements and proportions. There’s a place down the street by Ala Too Square that will make four photos for 100 som ($2).
A hostel has opened upstairs from Avia Travel. The entrance is around the back. Go upstairs, first door on the right. No sign. It’s new, but it already feels ancient and rundown somehow. I can’t remember the price. It’s probably 400-500 som ($8-10), I think, for a dorm bed. The phone number is 0772-139-070. I can’t remember the name either, but it was something hastily improvised, like “Bishkek Inn”.
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