Once again we had a total change of plans during our trip; we were supposed to cycle like crazy in China during 6 weeks in order to reach the orphanage in Nepal where we were going endow some bicycles, but the universe wanted to teach us a huge lesson that we’ll never forget.
After having lied to get our Chinese Visa like there was no tomorrow, a few weeks before arriving to its border with Tajikistan, we discovered that the situation in Eastern Tibet had worsened a lot and that it was about as possible to cycle through there as it is to balance an egg on the blade of a knife.
We spent restless days looking for alternatives (flights from Central Asia to either Nepal or India for example) but every time we found a likely solution it turned out being either impossible for some weird reason or dead expensive.
So, there we were, on The Pamir, at 4000 metres of altitude and with only a miraculously bad Internet connection when, one sunny morning, we discovered something that would change our lives, trip, route and destiny; Pakistan had began giving E-Visas!
That may sound trivial but please know that up until that 15th of April, you only had a chance of getting one if you applied in the Pakistani Embassy in your country of residence. Even then it was a long and expensive process and not 100% guaranteed.
It immediately became clear that it was our only good option.
It must have taken us a whole day to fill in the online application form; using a very slow WiFi connection, we had to look for a lot of required information online. We then spent hours on a WhatsApp call with our friend Marie-Rose, who was filling in all the required fields on her laptop in Barcelona because we couldn’t do it on a phone or tablet; the process was still so new that only the version for PCs was online!
Paid for and submitted, now all we had to do was wait 5-7 working days for the outcome. Perfect, we were exactly 10 days away from the Pakistani border!
A week became two. Then three. Our Tajik Visa was running out so we decided to enter China through the famous Kulma Pass (4363 metres above sea level) and couldn’t go back. The whole entering-China-through-a-land-border story deserves a blog entry of its own but a good summary goes something like; full body scan, full bags and Bike scan, total check of our electronic devices and an argument, which we won, over some oregano, a tin of Bonduelle peas and 4 boiled eggs!
As soon as we could, we started sending hourly emails without ever getting a single answer. We wrote to everyone and anyone whose address we could find, a friend in Islamabad continuously called the helpline but he couldn’t get through, we even Twittered the president of Pakistan and the Foreign Affairs Office!
Nothing, nada, zilch.
Desperation doesn’t even come close. Our Chinese Visa was running out and we were faced with two choices; enter Tibet illegally, at night, and wander into almost 3000 kilometres of literal nothingness (not true, lots of military bases) or go to Kazakhstan and catch 3 flights to get to Nepal and so break the promise we made to ourselves to cycle every single kilometre of the way to Singapore.
I think Aurelie was a lot less thrilled at the prospect of strolling around illegally in Tibet and so we had surrendered to the idea of heading North towards Almaty when, one night, while going to grab a bite to eat, we bumped into Oliver.
You might remember him from our entry about Uzbekistan; we met him on the road and had a crazy night together which ended in a Karaoke bar called Tumor. Last time I saw him he was nailing “Bicycle Song” by Queen.
Oliver is a joyous and optimist fellow with an acquired Cambridge accent (he will kill me for this joke). His politeness and kindness are out of this world and, ever since we met him, we always think of him in difficult situations and it really helps to keep our cool. Everyone should know someone like Oliver.
His precise words are forever lost now but, after having heard the whole story about our odyssey, he said something which must have been very encouraging because we went back to the hotel, packed everything and were riding with him towards the China-Pakistan border while sh*tting our pants.
Why? Well, for the first time in our lives we were going to a border without Visa. And it’s not an easy border, I mean China AND Pakistan, come on!
Fun fact about this particular border; it’s the highest landborder in the world at 4693 metres!
Before getting to the Pakistani side, and just in case you’re not familiar with this part of China and what is going on there… let’s just say that we didn’t cycle the last 130 kms of the way. At one point the authorities force you on a bus, that you have to pay dearly for, of course, which is might as well since the road is fenced all the way! Even if you managed to cycle it somehow, there wouldn’t even be space to camp because said fence is just a couple of metres off the road!
Upon arrival at the Pakistani border then (finally), we opted for not coming clean about not having a Visa. Instead, when asked our Visa number, we gave our application number and that’s when things got interesting…
OK, short break from the story. If you don’t know us personally, you must be thinking that we’re really bad people by now; lying to the Chinese Embassy in Teheran? Smuggling illegal foodstuff into the country? Trying to fool Pakistani officials?
Well, this is basically the whole point of this post. This is why we are so against hard land borders, Visas and the lot. In the vast majority of the cases it’s just a waste of time and money and, what’s worse, if our stories prove anything, is that they can be circumvented very easily.
And although security can be brought up into this argument at any time, it must be said that Visas and bureaucratic formalities are by far the most expensive, time taking and annoying part of any long-haul trip.
You have no idea how many times we talked about the wonderful liberty we enjoy in the E.U. Apart from Russia, the first 4 months (7 if we consider the preferential treatment we have for going to Turkey) of our trip were like a walk in the park… when talking about Visas anyway…
The KKH (Karakoram Highway) is simply breathtaking!
Back to the story. The Pakistani officials initially flipped out at the fact that we didn’t have a Visa but we managed to explain the situation little by little (it was an extremely complicated one) and between three customs officials and their boss, the IT guy in Islamabad, the Deputy Ambassador in Bishkek (loooong story), Oliver, and ourselves, we managed to discover why we were left waiting endlessly for our E-Visa; an IT problem!
All there was left to do now was to find someone who had the authority to grant permission for our Visa and we were good to go… but nothing is that simple in this story, right? It was Ramadan and the sun had set by now so apart from the utterly amazing guys who were there with us at Sost, no-one was answering the phone anymore.
The custom officials actually left us to roam freely around Sost to get something to eat; they had held on to our passports and they knew we couldn’t get far anyway! Finally, after many hours of waiting, at around 7 o’clock that evening, we got it!!!
Ever heard a stamp hitting a passport and sounding like trumpets?