Islamabad and Chinese Visas.

A real camp site! With defined pitches, electrical outlets, toilet blocks, showers, a family room, clean water and an armed guard. Admittedly the electricity does not actually work, and the plumbing leaves a lot to be desired, and the warden seems to live in the family room but we do have shade and security in the centre of a Pakistani city. We are at the Tourist Campsite next to the "Rose and Jasmine Garden" (if you need directions ask for "Yasmin Gardens"). (33.704945°N 73.088552°E) Cost 100 Rupees ($2.00USA) per van per night. Recommended.

Apart from exploring Islamabad (and nearby Rawalpindi) the main reason we are here is to get our Chinese visas. Because of the limited "shelf life" of Chinese visas we could not get them in the UK before we set off. Taking your own vehicle into China is complex and we have the appropriate "Letters of Invitation" from the Chinese, but getting a Chinese visa here in Islamabad is more difficult than it should be.

Firstly the Chinese (usually) require you to get a "Letter of Introduction" from your own (UK/USA) Embassy that says you do indeed have a (UK/USA) passport. The USA issues these letters free of charge (but the letter itself says that the USA does not approve of such letters and that they have no value). The UK High Commission charges £35.00 per letter, but will include multiple people in one letter, if you ask nicely. A notice in the UK High Commission says that the UK does not approve of such letters and that they have no value. The process of getting these valueless letters takes all morning. Naturally the Chinese embassy is closed by then.

To make things more interesting, because all the embassies are well spread out in the enormous diplomatic enclave and because taxis are not permitted in this part of town you have to go to the "Getting Visa Car Park" where you are relieved of your hand baggage and camera and allocated to special busses that are permitted to wind their way passed the zigzag concrete road blocks, the steel barriers and the razor wire to the embassy of your choice. Whilst you can approach the main entrance of the UK, USA and Chinese embassies you are eventually directed round the back (about 500 metre walk in the case of the USA embassy) to the trademan's's entrance, where you are again searched and relieved of your cell phone.

Armed with our passports, photos, Letters of Invitation and Letters of Introduction we started queuing outside the Chinese embassy at about 08:00 behind 30 others, all men. At 08:45 we are asked if we are "families". At first we deny the charge. But eventually we concede that we are indeed a "family". In deference to our new "family" status we are ushered to the front of the queue. We are into the air conditioned inner sanctum by 09:00. Our passports, photos, Letters of Invitation and Letters of Introduction are examined slowly and carefully (perhaps he is interested to see if the USA position on useless Letters of Introduction has changed in the last 24 hours?). No problem, so we are given visa application forms to complete. We are then told we must submit copies of our passports, as well the real thing. Some of us do not have copies with us. Behind the counter is a new working photocopier (don't even think they might make the copy themselves!) This means we must return to Islamabad via the security checks, get copies of our passports and by then the embassy will be closed so we must return the next day. Drat!

Whilst discussing the position outside the embassy we explain to the persistent young lad selling warm drinks that he would do better business with a photocopier. Overhearing this a bystander summons another bystander who calls a third bystander over, who has a car with a security clearance, and who will, for $3.00 USA, take two of us and our passports to a photocopy shop in Islamabad (5km away) and bring us back in 30 minutes, without the tedious necessity of passing thru all the security checks. We agree. He does. We have our copies. We join the back of the now much longer queue. We shamelessly try to play our "family" card again, and again we jump the entire queue (including at least one remarkably patient Canadian there before us for the second day because he did not find the "diplomatic copying service" the day before. Sorry Brian. Our forms are accepted. All we have to do is come back in four days, with about $35.00 each to collect our visas!

So if you are ever trying to get a Chinese visa in Islamabad you need your passport, a copy of your passport, a photo, money, a Letter of Invitation and a Letter of Introduction, but most importantly you need a "family" (and that means at least one woman, who incidentally does not actually need to get a visa).

Peter changes a wheel on Imp in the sun.We are using our remaining time in Islamabad to repair and service our vehicles. Most of the vans are being serviced at an official Mercedes garage. Mog has has had full service including an oil change in the camp site without the warden even raising an eyebrow. So far the group has one puncture (Imp), one broken shock absorber bracket (K-Nine) and one dying shock absorber (Imp) as well as the usual electrical problems (Imp).

The days here in Islamabad have been our first days of freedom in Pakistan. Although everybody has been very friendly we have been under continual police "protection" since we arrived. Each police district has made it very clear that we should move on as soon as possible for our "security". We have been told that we can not camp "here", but it will be OK in 20km. In 15km our escort waves us good-bye and new escort tells us we can not camp here but...

The source of the threat to our security has been given as "simple bandits, not political" by one police man and as a direct and recent result of US action in Iraq by another. We have been told that foreigners pass along our route every day and that only two or three foreign vehicles a year come this way. Our protection has varied from a couple of constables to two full SWAT teams complete with pickup mounted machine gun, dark glasses and black t-shirts with "No Fear" on the back. We have been told that the Area around Dera Ghazi Khan is closed to all foreigners to the extent that they can not stay there overnight. This has been confirmed by other travelers who were moved on after being told that all the hotels were full when they clearly were not.

Although we have been "over protected" by the police they have in general been very friendly. One police chief even took all of us to a local beauty spot (with armed guard) and then treated us all to dinner in his police station (a Chinese take-away from a town 25km away). Thank you.

Stephen Stewart.

Home - This page last changed on 2004-05-11.