Saturday #35: Meeting ‘The Fixer’

As I sit down to write my account of Saturday #35, it’s already the morning of Saturday #36. You might assume that I have been extremely busy with all sorts of fun activities and simply didn’t find time to write. That’s not the case. I took a four hour train from Sydney to Canberra on Monday and stayed until Friday afternoon. Canberra is one of those mid-sized cities in which sitting down to write might actually be considered an adrenalin sport.

I don’t want to be too hard on Australia’s capital city, but let’s just say that it’s no Nepean. It’s reasonably lively during the day when you see a lot of civil servant types walking around in Moore’s suits and crepe soled shoes, using 9-year-old Blackberrys and eating bagged lunches on park benches. The bars and patios do a decent business from 3:30 to 5:30, but by 6:30 everyone is home in suburbia, doing the dishes and settling in for the tape-delayed broadcast of Question Period.

On Thursday afternoon I walked into a used record shop and asked the heavily tattooed “goth” girl who was working there if she knew of any interesting events going on that night. I figured that she’d know if anyone would. She thought for a few seconds and replied, “There’s a night fair going on tonight. Goes from 4pm till LATE.” “How late is late?” I asked. She glanced at the ceiling and said, “Oh, probably nine.”

To be fair I didn’t travel to Canberra for the party. I made the trip for one reason: a Tuesday morning meeting with my “fixer.” And before you conjure up a vision of me and Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad meeting in his ’88 Chrysler New Yorker, let me say that my fixer’s name was Phillipa and she was very, very professional. The reason I chose to use the services of a “fixer” was because I spent every waking hour of Saturday #35 struggling to complete the reams of paperwork necessary for my onward travel.

I have signed up for an overland trip that departs Ulan Bator (capital of Mongolia) on May 28 and arrives in Istanbul, Turkey on September 24. I’ll save you the math – that’s 120 days. On a truck. We’ll spend between one and seven weeks in each of Mongolia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. If you’re up on your geography you might be wondering how one travels overland between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. You don’t. We cross the Caspian Sea on a ferry, effectively by-passing Iran. Mike, I mean Philippa, assures me that it’s reasonably safe.

I won’t know how I’ll handle a 120-day overland trip until I’m on it, but I did use the same company (UK-based Dragoman Overland) for a 30-day trip between Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro and I loved every minute of that experience.

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Dragoman looks after the logistics (how to get from A to B, what border crossings to use, where to sleep, where to eat, etc.) but passengers are largely free to do whatever they like at each of the stops. Passengers must also ensure they have the proper tourist visas and Letters of Invitation before embarking on the trip.

I won’t get into specifics but the consular websites for some of these countries were obviously designed by six-year-olds with a tenuous grasp of the English language. There are a number of reasons that any one of them could deny a visa but one common theme across all of the sites was that the failure to provide full, complete and truthful answers to EVERY question will result in your passport being returned without further explanation. Some of these countries want to know things such as the name of your employer (don’t have one), names and addresses of both parents (both deceased), spouse’s name (don’t have one), level of post secondary education (forgot to get one), bank account balance (which account?), etc.

Even if I did manage to provide an acceptable answer to every single question on every single form, it would take a miracle to get through this process before May 28. Some countries require a visa whereas others require that a “Letter of Invitation” be obtained first and submitted with the visa application. In all cases one must submit the paperwork along with your passport and wait 7-32 days for its return (a few days quicker with the “rush” service).

You’re probably saying, “Silly boy! You should have thought about this earlier.” I did. China, for example, will only issue a tourist visa 90 days before the date of entry. I will be crossing from Mongolia to China on June 20, so the earliest I could even apply for that visa would be March 20. I would then have to remain in one country until my passport is returned. But which country can I even get to in the first place? See what I’m going through?

I’m happy to report that a solution was found. Dragoman recommends that overland travellers use the services of another UK company, ‘The Visa Machine.’ They have people on the ground in many foreign capitals (London, Canberra, Beijing) and these people will physically move your passport from one embassy or consulate to the next, thus eliminating the need to courier the passport back to me between each application.

I met Phillipa on Tuesday morning in a busy café and handed over my passport and a stack of passport photos. As we were double-checking and signing the forms, Phillipa mentioned that her maiden name was Hamilton and that her father was William but he went by his second name. “Same here, I said.” I told her that my grandfather was Phil. “Same here,” she said. “I should be able to complete your forms in my sleep.”

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Since Thailand requires proof of an onward ticket, I have now purchased my flights from Perth to Bangkok, and from Bangkok to Ulan Bator. My schedule for the next seven months is pretty much nailed down.

March 2 – 5: Canberra
March 6 – 8: Sydney
March 9 – 12: Melbourne
March 13 – 15: overland to Adelaide
March 16 – 21: Adelaide
March 22: overland to Alice Springs
March 23 – 28: Alice Springs
March 29 – April 11: overland to Perth
April 12: fly Perth to Bangkok
April 13 – May 8: explore Thailand
May 9: fly Bangkok to Ulan Bator
May 10 – 27: Mongolia (on own)
May 28 – Sept 24: overland to Istanbul
Sept 25 – Oct 23: explore Turkey
Oct 24: fly Istanbul to Delhi

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