Tuesday, 19 June 2012

It's Not All Yak Burgers and Mountains, You Know

Or, the admin. The paperwork. The tedious side of cycle touring. Kicking around in cities, lurking around heavily-guarded embassies and shabby government offices, applying for visas while aching to get on the road again, negotiating with recalcitrant officials and curmudgeonly security staff, not to mention the waiting. The cycling is a simple freedom, but when I do fly free, it's upon wings pasted together with paperwork and application forms.

I'm hardly new to the myriad ways of foreign governments and the administrative puzzles they offer. In Erzurum, where I collected my Iranian visa, the internet offered three different addresses for the Iranian Consulate, not one of which was accurate, and when I called them to ask where they were, they ignored my question and asked me to provide information which I would only have when I had received my visa, from the embassy which I couldn't find. In Istanbul, my parcel of bits from home was impounded by customs; however, they didn't tell me that it had been impounded, not by letter, e-mail, telephone, carrier pigeon or telepathy. But in the same way that there are no hills worse than gratuitous hills, there's no admin worse than self-inflicted admin. This time, it was my own fault.

I'd already endured a week in Kathmandu to arrange my second Indian visa, which involved three trips to the embassy and two encounters with the Indian Embassy Official. I've met some miserable government employees in my time, but this guy takes the grumpy biscuit. Somewhere, there's a Finishing School for Obstructionist Government Staff, and he not only graduated with full honours, he was awarded the Surly Certificate for Outstanding Jobsworthiness, in triplicate. All I wanted was to get a second Indian visa*, and I did get it, and he was willing to listen to reason and wasn't entirely impervious to charm, but his ability to transform a simple request into an official appeal was peerless.

While on the Annapurna trek, I'd noticed that my passport was damaged. The ink on my ID photo had ran and the pages were crinkled with damp. This must have happened during my very wet run into Pokhara, and the waterproof case in which I kept my passport had proven to be only semi-waterproof: not so good at keeping water out, very useful for keeping water in. Thijs expressed surprise that the page itself wasn't waterproof, but you can't expect the Passport Agency to anticipate every idiotic eventuality. I shrugged with my usual fatalism and caught the bus to Kathmandu, hoping that the embassy could issue me a letter confirming that it was still a valid passport, and stamp the thing a few times.

The bus wasn't much fun. It was five hours to Besishahar, another three hours waiting for my bike to be sent down the valley by the hotel in Chamje**, two more hours back to Dumre, then another five hours and a massive fleecing from Dumre to Kathmandu. I should have seen the guy coming in Dumre. He probably overcharged me to start with, as we agreed a price of 1000 rupees for the minibus to Kathmandu, including the bike. I was too free with telling him about my passport woes, and he fed me a line about another strike being due, which would close the Briish Embassy in a couple of days, and another line about the local buses having finished. Still, I was keen to get to Kathmandu that night, as I'd already had an extra day off in Pokhara. Then he came and told me that only three other people were taking the minibus to Kathmandu, so I'd have to pay 2000 rupees to make it worth the driver's while. Naturally enough, when it arrived, the thing was chock-a. They were already strapping my bike to the roof, but I told them to bring it down as I was not paying 2000 rupees to be squeezed into the worst seat on a cramped minibus. He told me that these people were just going down the road, not all the way to Kathmandu, and in hindsight I should have asked the other passengers where they were all going, but the price soon came down to 1500, then 1200, when I weakened and agreed to pay, but I had a cunning plan. I only had 1000 rupees in my wallet, so I waited until I was seated and told him he'd have to take that. The bugger noticed my Indian rupees which I was trying to hide, and I did have to pay the extra 200. Public transport is one administrative burden I usually manage to avoid, but that does mean I haven't a clue about how much it's supposed to cost. And can you guess how many of my fellow passengers got off before Kathmandu?

I did get to Kathmandu that day, though, and I was at the British embassy before they opened the next morning.

Sadly, the state of my passport meant that it wouldn't be accepted. I would either have to get a replacement (and wait five to six weeks), or get an emergency passport, which would take about a week. The emergency passport, however, would tie me into a fixed itinerary with little room for manoeuvre.

The wait for a passport would be expensive, although I could go on the Everest Base Camp trek (twice!), but I'd miss the window for cycling through Ladakh and the Indian Himalayas. The emergency passport denied the possibility of changing my plans, but it does fit in with the plan I already had, which is to return to Europe when my Indian visa expires on the seventh of August, ride across the Alps and France, and return to the UK at the White Cliffs of Dover, which is the correct way to go back to England. I already had this as a plan, with only the dim possibility of being able to transit Burma as the last hope of continuing by land, rather than air. Even Tibet has become even more impossible, as the authorities now only issue visas to groups of no less than four, all of whom have to be from the same country. I did meet a couple of Scots in Kathmandu who offered to get bikes and help me shanghai another Brit...

I set out to cycle, not to take buses or trains, and certainly not to fly except where bodies of water left no alternative. This does put me at odds with the modern world, and I've had interesting times explaining this to other travellers who take flying for granted, but each time honesty compels me to tell people I had to fly into India, I know I'm already defeated, and to carry on to Australia, which would probably require another two flights, would just compound it.

So, although the embassy staff tried to discourage me, as it is very limiting, the same price as a new passport, and can create problems when crossing borders, I decided to get an emergency passport.

That was only the beginning of the paperwork. I had to check with the Indian and Nepali authorities that they would be able to transfer my visas to an emergency travel document. This was an exercise in patience, grit and determination in the face of practised opposition.

The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu is over the road from the British Embassy, so that bit was easy. Getting a straight answer to a simple question - "will I be able to transfer my visa to an emergency passport?" - was less so. The counter staff refused to say yay or nay, and referred me up to the Embassy Official.

He really is a classic. Short and wiry and bristling with outrage at being sent to this backwater post when he should be brushing shoulders with the diplomatic corps in Washington or Beijing, he takes his revenge by using what little authority he has to make everyone's lives a little more difficult. A bully. Asked any question, he'll grab the papers, peer at them over the top of his glasses, chew the corner of his salt-and-pepper moustache, and give the same answer: "No." He plays by the rules, and Rule One is to say "No" to everything.

A student from Mauritius was asking him a question when I was there, but since "No" didn't deflate the lad and he started to argue his case, the official was forced to engage Rule Two: Brook No Argument. He waved his hand at the student and said "there is no must, you will not tell me must" (this is a sub-clause of Rule Two, always throw the person's words back a them). The Mauritian student went off in tears, another supplicant was refused, then it was my turn.

I dodged Rules One and Two by continuing to talk while he examined the paperwork, and overriding his objections. This provoked him to enact Rule Three: Find A Different Problem. It turned out, nobody had countersigned my visa when I'd been given it at that embassy. I hurdled this obstacle and left with the vague impression that they might, possibly, consider transferring my visa, but that was the most I was going to get, and it had taken three hours. I planned to finagle that vague assurance into a guarantee when I returned.

I took a taxi to the Nepali Immigration Office, asked the same question of a chap at the counter, who immediately said that they would be happy to transfer my visa - I'd just need to go to the third floor admin section when I had my emergency passport. With the time spent pissing about at the Indian embassy, the British embassy had closed for the day when I returned with my forms and documents. I had to go back in the morning.

A week and a half later I was called back to the British Embassy to collect my emergency passport. A week and a half was about a week longer than I'd expected it to take, but the time had bridged a weekend and two public holidays, and all the embassy staff were busy with a missing persons case after a young lad had gone missing while on the Everest Base Camp trek. I understood the delay, and the British embassy staff were pretty good about laying out my options, telling me what to expect, and what documents they needed from me. I think an emergency passport is quite an interesting document to have, and I'd love to keep it as a souvenir, but as well as informing me that I may have some problems with border crossings where they don't meet that kind of thing, the embassy staff told me that it would be taken from me as soon as I return to the sceptr'd isle.

I dashed over the road to the Indian embassy. The same fucking arguments again. I did lose my temper this time, but some testiness was called for when the primary obstruction seemed to be that my visa hadn't been countersigned. As I was at pains to point out, this was their mistake, which I expected them to resolve. Perhaps it's just as well that I did ruin my passport, even if it cost £95 to replace - as well as the travel and accommodation costs and the 900 rupees the Indians had the gall to charge as a transfer fee, and the cost of yet more photos as the paperwork from my original Indian visa application was stored elsewhere, and I had to fill all the forms in again - as the thought of being turned back at the Indian border, 600 miles away from Kathmandu, doesn't bear considering.

The transfer took a full day, which left no time to transfer my Nepali visa. The next day, they only dealt with extensions, and I was instructed to return on the Sunday. Yet another day of waiting in Kathmandu, where I'd picked up my second grotty cold on consecutive visits to the place, and spent my days doing nothing except shopping, lying on my bed watching cricket highlights, and forgetting to eat.

Most people at the Nepali Immigration Office were friendly and helpful, except for another example of the type officialus grumpus. I went first to room 307, explained my predicament, filled out the forms, and was told to go down to room 206 for a 10-rupee stamp. There he was, marking the time until the next official tiffin break. I waited until he'd finished with a Chinese girl in front of me, and asked him for a ten-rupee stamp. He grabbed my passport and forms from me and starting pawing through them, while answering another call on his mobile. I'm not a violent person, but the raw frustration this official created was enough to have my hands clenching into fists. He didn't listen, though I must have told him ten times that I only needed a ten-rupee stamp. He told me to go to room 203 and complete the form which he already had in his hands.  He spent an age looking at my Iranian visa, which did make me raise my voice and ask if he spoke Farsi. He didn't once acknowledge my question about the stamp. The only thing that stopped me grabbing my paperwork back was the worry that I'd damage it.

Thankfully, the helpful folk at the admin section sent a henchman back down with me, a towering giant of a figure who grabbed the man in room 206 by the throat and lifted him off his feet, rattling his teeth until he apologised and agreed to become a better, more helpful person. Well, maybe not. But my companion was a tall lad, and he somehow acquired a ten-rupee stamp. With great ceremony this was affixed to my form.

Next, room 204 (immigration), room 104 (Cashier), room 105 (the Director), back to room 307, room 204 again and then the fifth trip up to room 307, where it was complete. I was free!

All of which means that I now have a timetable and an itinerary, which I've done quite well at avoiding so far. I have tickets booked from Delhi to Milan on the fifth of August, and I have to be back in the UK between the twenty-first of August and the fourth of September.

It would be easy to carry on, hop a plane to Bangkok and keep riding south, but as well as wanting this to be a cycling journey, I fear that I would start to take flying for granted. And I can do without the hassle of searching for cheap flights and wading through the various airlines' policies on carrying bikes. Riding my bike is simple. If I have changed in any way on this journey, it's that I don't think of this trip as a one-ff any more. I can come back, avoid cul-de-sacs such as India and Nepal, and just ride my bike. 

* Tedious detail #1: you have to have at least 60 days between your Indian visas. However, I'd only been gone from India a month, and the visa is valid from the date of issue, so technically they were entitled to deny me. However, I wasn't intending to return to India until the 60 days had elapsed, I simply wanted to get my visa while I was in Kathmandu to save me a return trip and to give me time to get into the mountains before the monsoons hit.

**Tedious detail #2: I couldn't simply go and collect the bike myself, as I had left the Annapurna Conservation Area, and I would have had to stump up another 2000 rupees (fifteen quid) for another permit, as well as paying the jeep fare twice.

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