The first step in any extended overland trip in Central Asia is visa planning. There are five “stans” that were part of the former Soviet Union, all requiring visas for U.S. citizens, and entering and exiting the region overland requires further visas (Russia, Iran and/or China, most likely). Worst of all, each visa process has slight quirks that require careful attention, especially in planning your itinerary. We are not going to Kazakhstan, and so this discussion covers the four other “stans”–Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. [For Iran visas, cf. my post of 4.11. We received multiple entry China visas while in Hong Kong (as residents of Hong Kong, this was possible), but Chinese visa policy has since changed (in connection with the Olympics) and we have heard that overlanders are now having some difficulty securing visas for China.] In order of difficulty:
Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan’s is by far the trickiest Central Asian visa. The notoriously eccentric republic does not favor tourist visits, and the only way to get a tourist visa is by booking a fully escorted tour, which costs somewhere around $100/day per person. From what I understand, the tour does not allow any independent wandering, except within the city of Ashgabat. Most overlanders, not wanting the expense or the strings, opt instead for a transit visa, which allows independent travel along a specified route through Turkmenistan for a period of usually five days (with the exact dates specified on the visa). We planned on applying for our transit visa based on our Iran and Uzbekistan visas, the overland route between the two countries requiring transit through Turkmenistan. We first inquired with the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, which told us that we could only apply for transit visas in countries bordering Turkmenistan. We’re pretty sure this isn’t true, but securing a transit visa in Iran ended up being quite straightforward. When we arrived in Iran, we had our tour company deliver to the Turkmen Embassy in Tehran a copy of our passport photo page and Uzbek visa, which the embassy sent to Ashgabat for approval. After ten or so days, we called to confirm that approval for the transit visa had been granted by Ashgabat, and we were told that we could complete the application for and pick up our visas when we were in Tehran. Our first day in Tehran, we went to the Turkmen Embassy with more passport copies, color photographs and U.S. dollars in hand, and were able to pick up our five-day transit visas later the very same day. The only unpleasant surprise was that the Turkmen Embassy in Tehran only gives transit visas with entry at Sarakhs and exit at Farap–fine if you are traveling between Mashhad and Bukhara, with a stop at Mary/Merv, but not permitting travel to Ashgabat, Nisa or Konye-Urgench. We did meet some tourists on the same transit visas who were allowed to detour to Ashgabat by telling the border officials that they needed to go to a bank in the capital.
Tajikistan. Tajikistan used to offer visas on arrival for U.S. citizens at Dushanbe airport, but no longer does. We applied for our Tajik visas and GBAO permits (for travel to the Pamir region) with the Tajik Embassy in Washington, by mail. Service was very prompt and the officer who answered the phone was very helpful and responsive. Despite some reports to the contrary, no letter of invitation was required and paperwork generally was minimal. The unfortunate part, however, was that the visa granted to us is only good for a two-week window (we have to enter and exit Tajikistan within that period), which has required careful planning and put serious constraints on our overall Central Asian route-planning flexibility.
Uzbekistan. Uzbek visas used to be somewhat easier for American citizens when the U.S. and Uzbekistan had better relations (before the Andijon incident). Still, however, we were able to get a tourist visa for Uzbekistan without any letter of invitation. The process was considerably more difficult than the Tajik visa, however, mainly because of the slow speed and lack of responsiveness of the Uzbek New York consulate. The visas ended up taking almost five weeks to process, it was extremely difficult to get someone on the phone, and in the end they required additional payment because the fee went up (to $131, matching U.S. visa fees) after we had applied (but before the visas were issued). Nonetheless, they did grant us a dual-entry, 30-day visa. If you are arriving in Tashkent by air, it’s also possible to arrange a visa on arrival with an invitation. STANtours (website, email), is a reliable travel agency with which to arrange any of your Central Asian visa or travel needs.
Kyrgyzstan. We were unable to secure our Kyrgyz visa in the U.S., because the Uzbek process ran out our clock, but we wanted it in hand before arriving in Central Asia, and so applied while we were in Dubai. The officer at the Kyrgyz Consulate in Dubai was incredibly helpful, answering emails promptly and even processing our visa outside of regular hours. Same day service was fairly steep at around $150, but paperwork was minimal, with no invitation requirement and visa validity of a full month.