Our replacement tyres almost within our reach!

Read this only if you are really bored!

We consider ourselves fortunate to be able to travel with our bikes which allows for one of the most rewarding forms of introspection. Yes, it is an adventure. But adventure is also hardship aesthetically considered. There are some hardships however that are not welcomed and actually could be transformed with a bit of human compassion.            

And one of these, that saps one of all civility, is bureaucracy- the rule of no one. It has become the modern form of despotism. 

To begin to understand bureaucracies one needs to “accept” that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing. And these ex Soviet states have crafted the perfect bureaucrat, one who manages to make no decisions and escapes all responsibility. Often we encounter officials who say absolutely nothing and mean it. Regardless of the language barrier. Body gestures are more than adequate for these empty vessels. They have managed to finely hone a balanced art form -keep the truth confined and resist any change. They do after all have a vested interest in the chaos in which they thrive. 

Here is a small snippet of the joys of travelling with bureaucracy.  


As citizens of the African continent traveling on motorcycles we are met with derision at every turn. And it starts with the visa process. We must be aliens of sorts coming from this dark continent. Why and for what reason would we want to visit them in the first place? There surely must be some sinister underlying intention which is met with an equally sinister application process. 

To enter these countries you need a letter of invitation (LOI). If you hail from South Africa anyway. No simple invitation letter but one that requires verification and stamping by organs of the state of that country. This takes weeks. Who in heavens name do we know in these countries? Absolutely no one. No LOI? Do not even bother applying.  

Thankfully there are entities that will invite you, a complete stranger, for a fee. And facilitate your stamping in with the relevant government  agencies. With our new found friends we now fill out the visa application forms. Strangely absolutely no bank statements etc are required as to your ability to support yourself in the host country. A perfect place to leach off the state? That’s what we Africans are supposed to do, isn’t it?

Next step is to send the application forms off to the relevant embassies. Unfortunately the bulk of the 10 visas required have no embassies in South Africa. Through Google we find that some have consulates in Germany and others in the UK.

So we try and email only to receive no response or a “message undelivered” response. So we try to phone. Most consular numbers are incorrect. Where we do finally reach a bureaucrat, they simply put the phone down. We quickly figure out that the best way to deal with bureaucrats is with stealth and sudden verbal rhetoric, over the phone anyway.

Finally we get the correct contact details only to find that for example the UK embassy will only deal with applicants from the UK, Ireland and Denmark. To cut a long story short we spend a small fortune on courier fees to embassies around the world. Our passports are now more traveled than we are. 

We leave SA with only the Russian and Turkmenistan visas required.

We need to be in Russia and Siberia for a period greater than 30 days due to the distance that has to be covered. A Russian tourist visa is only granted for 30 days. Anything longer and you can only visit on a business visa- which comes complete with its own quagmire of red tape and doubled costs.  We leave our second passport in SA and start the whole Russian application process, elevating ourselves to the status of business people.

Turkmenistan it would appear do not care much for tourists, regardless of country of origin. Here you, if fortunate, are granted a 5 day transit visa. It starts from the day requested and not the day of arrival making it very difficult to plan in advance. We decide to apply for this visa in Turkey.  

At the Turkmenistan consulate in Istanbul they wish to see our Uzbekistan (UZ) visa to ensure we will exit their country. The UZ visa however is in the passport still in SA.  

We are told to come the next day as they do not deal with applicants 30 mins before closing time at 12.30 pm (they open at 10 am). An effective window of “opportunity” of 2 hours every day. We arrive the next day with hope that they will reconsider the UZ visa issue only to be met with glee by the same official who tells us they are closed on Fridays. Come back Monday. After an hour in the Istanbul traffic just to get there we opt for trying at the embassy in Ankara.

Ditto for Turkmen embassy in Ankara – they also insist on original UZ visa. All applications are processed in Ashgabat, across the Caspian sea. As it is month end they are “busy” and our application will take at least 14 working days. We do not have the luxury of 14 days in Istanbul if we are to make it through Siberia before the winter.

Hope springs eternal however and we hatch a cunning plan.

We crawl to the door of the Uzbek embassy in Ankara, groveling and smiling until it hurts. We achieve the impossible a NEW visa (at another 170 USD) in 1 day. Now we have the UZ visa in the correct passport which will hopefully allow us to apply for a Turkmenistan visa in Azerbaijan. Or so we think.

At least our faith in officialdom is partially restored by our encounter with the UZ embassy. There are humans with compassion out there.  We leave buoyed and upbeat to collect our new K60 tyres which have been airfreight from Germany (a big thank Heidenau and SW Motech/Bags Connection).

We phone DHL to arrange to fetch our tyres. There is however a small problem of a bureaucratic nature, of course.

As foreigners we are only allowed to receive items of a personal nature that do not exceed 30kg in weight. Our tyres weigh 31.5kg. 

1.5kg is going to be our undoing. 

But there is a solution!. We can send the tyres back to Germany, split the package and resend as two separate consignments, one to Linda and one to myself. This process we are told should only take +- 18 days. Naturally we are “ecstatic” at the thought, particularly as one cannot obtain tyres of this caliber in Turkey. A catch 22.

Surely one should be allowed to obtain ones own property and re-export it? These tyres would leave the country on our bikes ….. 

Another cunning plan. I will translate everything I need to say using Goolge translate and then phone the relevant parties via Skype and simply press the speak option in Google translate.  This will solve everything and faith in technology  will be bolstered.  To hell with technology . It did not work.

After a solid day of phoning there does seem to be an alternative to getting our tyres. And this is the simple procedure:

I need to go to the local tax office where I am “staying” to register as a tax payer. I am not allowed to go to any other tax office unless I check in to another hotel in the area that tax office serves. Lord only knows where and which tax office this is.  

Once I have registered as a tax payer I need to find a lawyer and pay for an affidavit  of sorts, officially stamped of course.  

With affidavit I am allowed to go to an independent customs broker agent who can clear the goods on my behalf, at a cost of Euro 260 (DHL cannot do this for me as it is over 30kg) Where are we to find such a specimen of  entrepreneurship in a city of 18 million? 

Add to the cost of the above agent are:

  • Terminal fees of 75 Euro
  • Warehouse fees for the first 2 days of Euro 25  and 15 Euros per day thereafter
  • Tax of 18% on the deemed value of the tyres and all related services.

The tyres cost less than this. Forget it.

Again I think there must be a better way and hatch another cunning plan. 

As a result of our elevated business status (who would have thought the Russian visa would assisted in such a manner) I will call on my business contacts.

Heidenau kindly offer the largest Turkish tyre manufactures MD’s contact details. Surely they could assist in untangling this. Shamelessly I phone and am met with absolute kindness and will to help. And this for a complete stranger from someone who could most certainly use his time more productively. 

Another cunning plan: There must be other fellow bikers in Turkey who would rally to assist. We find another 2 such folk who also do their utmost to assist. And we have only met in cyberspace. 

My faith is starting to be restored in technology. More so, in the spirit of people. 

Less in what feels like a bi-polar disorder. One moment buoyed, the next kicked in the crotch, which is now manifesting itself in a bow legged gait.  

Crotch abuse is never good, regardless of the circumstances. 

My new found friends unfortunately also draw a blank. 

We request DHL to return the tyres to Germany and decide to airfreight the same from SA to Baku in Azerbaijan.

At least in Azerbaijan all they require is a declaration from the manufacture that no insect lava is present in the tyres. To be safe we have the tyres fumigated in SA as an additional measure. Needless to say the chances of any form of life present in the tyres is zero as they are baked in ovens for 45 mins during the production and vulcanizing process. Unless there are insects that like rubber that I am unaware of….  

But I digress. Back to borders and visas.

The Georgian border brought some comic relief. The customs officer was a young lady with the longest false eye lashes within a 100km radius.  I could just imagine them fluttering in the cool breeze coming off the Black sea.

Somewhere in her training she must have been instructed to scrutinize SA passports like no other. Never have I experienced such a through examination of my passport. Every page was held up to the light, the covers were turned and twisted to see if we have lifted the foil covering our ID photos. This process took +- 10 mins for each passport and at the end even she started to squint as her eyelashes  became entangled and blurred her focus. And we tried our best to remain poker faced. She in turn was exceptionally pleasant, warmly welcoming us once she could re focus.

Leaving Georgia for Azerbaijan brought our first taste of possible bribes. We decided to take the back roads of Georgia and arrived at one of 2 border posts, the other larger entry point being via the highway. This was a small border post waiting to pounce on unsuspecting travelers. We arrive and are immediately swarmed upon by soldiers and customs officers. None seem to speak English however there appears to be another on of those red tape problems, judging by their body language.   

We have a 30 day tourist visa but our bikes will only be “allowed” a 3 day transit visa (even though in our visa application we clearly stated mode of transport and length of time). After 3 days we are no longer allowed to use our bikes and must ‘park’ our bikes at the port in Baku.  

Of course there is a solution. If we pay a “refundable” deposit of USD 3200 per bike they will waiver the 3 days transit visa. We tell them we do not carry so much money. 

Miraculously one of the officials is blessed with the gift of tongues and can suddenly speak English and asks how much we can afford. I become suspicious and mention we draw money at ATM machines as required, not knowing that Azerbaijan is very much a cash economy and there is a USD dollar dispensing ATM at the border. He then wants to know how much we can draw at a time .I too develop  tongues and start speaking in Afrikaans. It would have been a real stalemate if he was also able to… 

Linda and I decide not to budge and call their bluff. We will take the 3 day option and see what we can do in Baku, the capital, to extend this. Once they understood we were not open to negotiation they suddenly went into go slow mode, which was to be expected. No gain, some pain. 

During their hiatus a German rider arrives on a brand new GS 1200. He is asked for a USD 600 deposit. Fortunately I have some choice words in German, mainly 4 letter and universal in their meaning. He quickly gets the gist also refusing to pay (given his bike is worth more than both of our bikes combined). He joins the ranks of the pained.

We arrive later in Baku to meet travelers from the other bigger border entry point. They did not have to pay any form of deposit for their vehicle and suffered none of the 3 day transit visa crap. They could use the vehicle for as long as they wished. 

One is left with the distinct feeling that more harm is done on a daily basis by faceless bureaucrats than some of their dictator predecessors. One can only shudder to think how some of the locals are treated as at times we feel (as tourists), we are afforded preferential treatment.

 In Baku we decide to go to H/O customs to inquire about a possible extension. This is no mean feat as finding anything here is a major challenge. Road names change rapidly as does the landscape of this oil boom city. People navigate via landmarks which is pretty useless if you do not know what these are. Coupled with very little English spoken finding something 1km away can take one literally hours in a labyrinth of alleys. 

We finally find what we think is customs HQ after paying a taxi driver to escort us there .Yes it is possible they say to get an extension… go to the local customs department a mere 2km away, which in turn  takes another 3 hours to find. 

On the second floor of the local customs office we make a serious blunder. We are referred to their highest ranking officer, a well groomed young man more interested in his local GQ magazine than his job. He snubs us when we tell him we were sent by his helpful colleages at customs HQ. “We are customs HQ and not them” he tells us and then promptly wants nothing more to do with us. His elder, lower ranked minnows dissolve into their offices. We are left hot ,sweaty and underwhelmed. One wonders how such a young officer reaches such a rank, with so much arrogance to boot. Or perhaps it is this very arrogance that propelled him there?  Or well placed connections… 

We go to a 3rd customs dept, this time at the port (and a mere 1 hour away in the traffic) to try and explain our situation. Port customs misunderstands us, impounds our bikes and we have to beg to have the bikes released so we can at least fetch our new tyres that have arrived in Baku. We also need the bikes to get to the various embassies for our visas. Port customs explain no extensions are allowed, but there is a solution- pay  a penalty.

Thank you port customs.

A strange duality system. One entry point,, no restrictions, no deposits and no penalties. Another border point 3 days use and penalties beyond that. Or is the duality a function of the discretion of some border official?

Back to nice customs at H/O. We like these guys better so in our minds they are the HQ. More calls, yes an extension is not possible (contrary to what they told us yesterday).  

A penalty seems now the route to go. This needs to be paid at the arrogant officers branch, the one we were at yesterday. Why Mr. Arrogance could not tell us yesterday defies logic. We were right there when he decided not to talk to us any further. We go back to his office to do all the paper work . No money changes hands. We have to find one specific branch of a bank, pay in USD and then return to stand in a queue for a second time with our bank deposit receipt. In return we receive a wad of official papers absolving us. 

Great. We can use our bikes. The cost of the penalty is a lot better than using taxis. Baku is an expensive city fuelled by an oil boom. 

The focus turns back to our visas. This is our last chance to apply for a Turkmenistan visa.  The Turkmen Embassy in Baku is open only on Monday & Friday. This took us a morning of going from pillar to post to find out.

We call on Wednesday to make sure we can come on Friday. 

They insist on an LOI (which the other embassies in Germany and Turkey did not require as it is transit). LOI takes 10 days and visa 10 day, a 20 day delay in total (ironically it would have quicker in Turkey). We decide to plea our case on Friday.  We arrive on Friday only to find they are closed even though they told us to come. The security guard feels sorry for us and calls the consul hiding on the inside. The consul  advises we return on Monday. 

We consider our other options (and changing our route along the longer ferry and non existent road option through Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan). We have no option. 

We visit the Kazakhstan Embassy and ask for a 5 day transit visa without a LOI. This appeal is received with careful optimism and they accept our applications and tell us to call on Monday. On Monday we get it!

Our faith is partially restored in officials. We remain confused however as to the about turns regarding LOI’s.

All is good as we should be able to leave in a days time, or so we thought.

But it does not end there and I have laboured enough on this.  Hopefully Linda will do a posting on the ferry debacle. I do not have the headspace for it and will rather resort to some cheap beer. 

 We are suckers for punishment!  

To quote Mark Twain “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” 

In this bitch session I sometimes beg to differ. Only sometimes as in the main he is spot on. 

There is a caveat however to all this crap endured.  

And it lies firmly planted in the overwhelming friendliness of the people we meet which far outweighs a few of their wayward country men. 

We continue to be blown away by the generosity and spirit of all these folk we have met and will continue to meet. They have endured and will continue to, regardless.


Are those our passports with Russian Visas in them?!?