Red tape in Ulaanbaatar.

Getting back to UB was a rude awakening.  Suddenly the frenzy, traffic chaos and heaving pollution enclosed on us.  I already felt restless and knew I’d left part of my heart in the Gobi.  There was a lot of admin to do in order to plan my next trip to Bayan Olgii and onto Kazakstan.  Having a lousy South African p!ssport meant I had to get an extension on my already measly 30-day Mongolian visa.  This was a nightmare.  (Well, compared to South African Home Affairs it was a less hellish process I suppose in retrospect).  You’ve got to trek out to the Office for Immigration, Naturalisation and Foreign Citizens which is a bus trip in the direction of the Airport.  It’s easy enough to find.  It was described to me as being “near a building that looks like a UFO.”

mongolian immigration office ulaanbaatar

Rain, a crammed bus, being held up for a good hour by the roads being closed thanks to some foreign minister and “the wait”.  “The wait” is something I’m used to, travelling and living in the third world is what you can only ever expect when it comes to paper work.  I waited that afternoon.  It took something like 4 hours to register and process this extension.  Being pushed from pillar to post, I added to the already confused motley crew of foreigners for the excruciating wait.  But the expensive little stamp with extended dates penciled in, proved very much important and necessary.  A big accomplishment for the day, it’s great when you travel and something like extending your tourist visa is your biggest stress.

Checklist for visa extension at Office for Immigration, Naturalisation and Foreign Citizens:

  • -FIRST YOU HAVE TO REGISTER WITH IMMIGRATION!!!
  • -passport
  • -passport photos
  • -hundreds of copies of your passport and visa (or they can do them there for a small fee)
  • -money (they have a bank there for payment and exchange)
  • -I needed a letter of invitation for my hostel owner

This site offers some excellent help and advice.  http://www.mongolia-travel-advice.com/mongolia-immigration-office-visa-extension.html
That nightmare done and dusted, there was the rumoured Kazakh visa to obtain as well as plan my trip to Olgii.  Planning the next leg of the trip was difficult.  I planned on flying from UB-Oglii.  See the Altai mountains.  Fly from Olgii to Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Getting a Kazakh visa was shrouded in as much mystery as the country itself.  This all depended on if and how I could get to Kazakhstan.

There is the common misconception that these two countries border each other. They don’t.  Russia divides them by a slither.  There are no roads that can take you overland from Mongolia into Kazakhstan without crossing into Russia.  Getting a Russian visa wasn’t even a thought that crossed my mind.  So a flight was the only way in.  I read blogs and forums of tried and failed attempts, not much from guide books either.  The main problem is trying to find out whether there are flights available from Olgii to either Öskemen (aka Ust-Kamenogorsk) or Almaty in Kazakhstan.  This is a grey area, if there ever was one.  None of the main airline offices in UB sell tickets from Olgii to Kazakhstan.  There are rumblings that a UB-Kazakh flight will one day emerge, but who knows.  It’s best to get a local to phone and find out for you, I got my dear hostel host to help me on this one.  She had relations in Olgii who were going to find out if there were flights running.  A few days later they phoned back saying there were infrequent flights.  If there are flights, as I’ve stated there’s NOWHERE you can buy them in Ulaanbaatar.  They also said there was no flight schedule and that flights were booked up for the next 2 weeks.  They stressed that tickets sell quickly because of the infrequent nature of the flight schedule.  There was no guarantee that I’d be able to get a ticket there or if there would be any flights scheduled in Olgii.  It was a huge risk I decided to take, banking on buying a ticket last minute in Olgii.

The visa extension was a must in case I needed to wait a few weeks for a flight in Olgii.  There’s NOWHERE in Olgii you can extend your visa, for that to get done you gotta send it back to UB.  Time would tell if I’d get this blasted ticket or not and if my extension would run out…

Visa time.  Trying to find the Kazakh Embassy was a mission.  After hours of trying to find this elusive place on foot, I gave up.  The city maps I had were inaccurate as they showed the former premises of the embassy.  Again my dear hostel host helped me out on this one.  After some phoning around she got the address, tried and failed to explain to me how to get to it and which bus to take.  So I just ended up going by taxi to find it.  Any car in UB serves as a makeshift taxi.  Just stand on the side of the road and flag a random driver down…yup that’s how you call a cab in UB.  Try get a nice decent looking car, one that’s not a lada or a rattletrap.  There’s a catch to that though, the newer the car the more expensive the ride.  Aim midrange, mid-age.  The first taxi dude didn’t know where the embassy was so after 30 meters down the road he kicked me out, at least he didn’t make me pay.  The second driver pretended he knew where it was,  phoned his friend several times to find out, but we ended up getting horribly lost.  Eish, finally we got there after stopping and asking every second person on the sidewalk for directions.  One thing I hate about UB is how the taxi drivers rip you the *(&K off.  Try negotiate BEFORE you head off.  Even so, this dude still try his luck and wanted to charge extra for getting lost!?

Moving on…The best thing about UB for me was the Kazakh Embassy, the ambassador and his family.  The most accurate details I found online are from http://www.kazembassy.org.uk/diplomatic_missions_of_kazakhstan_abroad.html

Mongolia – Embassy (Ulan-Bator)
Ambassador Orman K. NURBAYEV
Zaisan street – 31/6, 1 khoroo, Khan-Uul district, “Twin” tawn, Ulaanbaatar
code +976 tel.11- 34-54-08, 11-34-10-76, 77-34-17-07
fax 1-34-17-07
e-mail: info@kazembassy.mn

The ordeal of trying to obtain the visa lasted just over a week.  But what a pleasure! This was the first of many pleasant encounters I’d have with the friendly Kazakhs.  The staff went out of their way to help me out and listen to my sob story about flights and tickets from Olgii etc.  No one could confirm the flight schedule for me, but they seemed pretty sure that flights were leaving from Olgii weekly.  They seemed totally bemused and interested that I was headed to Olgii-the wild west-alone.  I told them of my plans to traverse Central Asia solo and they assured me Kazakhstan would welcome me and wished me safe travels.  I really appreciated their help and concern, in fact I wrote them an e-mail thanking them and telling them how fantastic they are.

Down to business:

The embassy has very specific opening and closing hours as well as very short visa processing hours.  From what I recall, they are also closed on a Wednesday, weekends as well as for all national Mongolian and Kazakh public holidays.  There was a holiday looming about which I somehow managed to work my way around.  Even during the week, they have very specific hours when you can enquire about visas.  That being said, they opened up during non office hours, after hours and on a Wednesday to help me get my visa sorted. They even arranged for me to pick up my visa on a Saturday morning.  Bless them! The ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Kazakhstan to Mongolia Mr. Orman K.Nurbayev, is one of my most favourite people in the world, simply due to his lovely kind eyes and understanding nature.

To get the visa you need:

  • Time.  Spare a week at least for the visa process.  Get to the embassy as early as possible.  They open at 10.30 am, get there at 10 as the line already begins to form at 9 am.  I had to make 3 trips:

one– to simply inquire about flights  and the likelihood of actually getting from Mongolia to Kazakhstan, state my case and get the forms

two- to hand in the forms with passport,copies and LOI

three -to pay, get the bank receipt and collect.

  • A LETTER OF INVITATION

This is what puts most people off from going to Kazakhstan.  You need to obtain this from a travel agency based in Kazakhstan.  I used Stantours, http://www.stantours.com/ they are THE BEST.  Hell they went out of their way to help me get my LOI in no time at all.  It usually takes at least 10 days to get this done, I got mine in 3 days and over a weekend.  Don’t ask me how.  This LOI is all important and the only way you get your visa is with one.  You’ve also got to stipulate your EXACT entry and exit dates. Make hundreds of copies, some for you and some for the embassy. Ask to get your LOI copies stamped at the Embassy as you’ll have to show them at immigration on entry and exit in Kazakhstan.

  • -passport-they want 2 pages
  • -copy of passport and Mongolian visa
  • -hundreds of passport photos
  • -be prepared to fill out a few forms ( some regarding the LOI and some for the tourist visa)
  • -money (you have to pay at the golomt bank down the road.  Ask for a receipt. Don’t do what I did and forget to bring the receipt back to the embassy.  Also be prepared to queue in the bank for hours.  So again get their early).

N.B. If you have a Mongolian tourist visa and need to register or extend, DO THIS BEFORE YOU APPLY FOR A KAZAKH VISA.  They do check.  It is vitally important that should you need a tourist visa for Mongolia, you have ample time left on it to get to Kazakhstan.  The embassy cross questioned me thrice about whether I thought my Mongolian visa extension allowed enough time for me to get to Kazakhstan before expiring.

  • -Smiles and a positive attitude.  Be sure of your travel itinerary through Kazakhstan and after.  They will probably question where you plan to go, where you plan to stay and what you plan to do on paper and in person.  I said I’d be staying in Almaty at the hotel stated in my LOI. Wait there untill I get my Kyrgyz visa in Almaty and head off to Kyrgyzstan.

Also remember you’ll only get a 30 day tourist visa for Kazakhstan starting from your date of entry.  Thus if you enter the country 10 days after the date of entry stated on your visa you only get 20 days.  The chances of getting the tourist visa extended in Kazakhstan are almost zero.  You will also have to worry about whether you have to register with immigration once you enter Kazakhstan.  If you enter by plane, this can be done at the airport on arrival. If  overland…make plans.

Le sigh…

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