Only forty more countries to go!! But as you can no doubt see, I wasn’t joking when I said that the leaps were going to get harder! This time last year I had been to a whopping 89 countries. So far this year I’ve been to just 27… and there is no sign that things are going to speed up any time soon.
With the impenetrable African fortress of Eritrea still to visit, not to mention The Seychelles, Maldives, Bhutan, North Korea (if it still exists by the time I get there) and – heaven forefend – the dozen nations of Oceania, I still got a looooooong way to go before I’m safe and warm back in the arms of the woman I love.
But that’s no reason to get despondent. It took Odysseus ten years to get back to Penelope and it took the current Guinness World Record™ holder, Mr. Kashi Samaddar, six and half years to do what I’m doing. I’ve only got 28 more countries to visit before I hit Australia and if you add up everywhere I’ve been in my life (on and off The Odyssey) I’ve been to 175 countries… in other words, there are only 25 nations in the world on whose soil I haven’t stood.
If I can get this done before the end of 2010, I’ll be over the moon. Once I get Eritrea out of the way, things should speed up – SE Asia is my old stomping ground and shouldn’t present too many problems. But then again, I’m not counting any chickens before they’re hatched – I thought Africa would take no longer than three months(!).
If you want to help me on my way, please talk to the marketing department of your company (or any company for that matter) and see if they fancy sponsoring the rest of my travels. Seriously – I won’t give up because of African jails, shipping forecasts or visa difficulties, but if I have to sack this all off because I’ve ran out of readies I would have just wasted the last two years of mine and Mandy’s lives on a FAIL of epic proportions.
Today started with a bit of a disaster when I awoke to find that my new laptop, Sony Jim, that I had cunningly placed between me and the wall the night before, was a lot more delicate than my old laptop, Dell Boy. The screen had cracked in the night (I must have rolled over against it). This was not a good start to the day and I was determined to not let it overshadow the rest of today’s shenanigans. I had two – maybe three – countries to reach before the end of the day and a cracked laptop screen was the least of my worries – I had no visa for any of the countries I wished to visit.
The train pulled into New Jalpaguri station in Northern West Bengal at 8am. After throwing my bag into the station cloakroom and a bit of negotiation, I managed to score a taxi to the Bangladeshi border at Chengrabandha. It’s not that far away – perhaps thirty-five miles – but This Is India, so the trip took over SIX HOURS. No, really.
The road to Bangladesh was the worst I’ve experienced in India so far, and was so chock-a-block full of gaily painted trucks there was no chance of escape. And by ‘gaily’ I mean it in all senses of the word – happy, homosexual, a bit naff. Come to think of it, India has to be the gayest country this side of Saudi Arabia (which is by far the gayest country in the world). Funnily enough, being gay was illegal here until very recently, but let’s look at the evidence:
1) You often see men holding hands but never men and women holding hands.
2) Have you watched a Bollywood film? They’re all musicals! With song and dance routines! The only people who like musicals are a) middle-aged women b) gay men. There have been over 64,000 Bollywood films made since the thirties. And all but three of them have been musicals.
3) The brightly coloured floral designs adorning each and every truck and look like something from a Gay Pride parade.
4) LOTS of men have moustaches. Which are gay.
5) Everyone is gay or NOTHING MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL.
A-hem. So, er… yeah, Bangladesh. Eventually my driver took me on the back road to the border and after a quick natter with the Indian border guards they let me go and have a chat with the Bangladeshi border guard who was literally three metres away – no big fence, gates, barbed wire etc. here – in fact the only thing that gave away that I was now in another country was the flag and the large ‘welcome to Bangladesh’ sign.
So I got to cross the border, touch Bangladesh soil and ask if I could take a photo (my request was denied). Ack! But the GPS showed I had crossed the border so at this point (and over 600 days on the road) I’m beyond caring. After a good five minutes of jumping up and down going ‘whoop whoop whoop’ I came back to India and got back in the taxi.
“Back to NJP (New Jalpaguri) sir?”
“Nope. Let’s go to Bhutan.”
“We won’t make it before dark. The roads are very bad”
“It took us six hours to get here. Whatever happens, it will be quicker to go to Bhutan.”
After a bit of haggling, my driver relented and off I jolly well popped. Again, the border was around 30 miles away, but it still took us three hours to get there. The roads were indeed, very bad.
But the Indian countryside was magnificent. So so green and yes there were ladies in saris picking leaves from tea bushes; paddy fields and cotton plantations: the rural idyll Indian-style. Farms and farmers, villages and villagers, I guess what hacks would call the ‘real’ India. Luckily for you, I’m not a hack so I won’t go down that road, but let’s just say that although the rural poor are the poorest of the poor, there was a measure of contentment that I found lacking in the big cities round these parts. Isn’t that always the way?
Oh, I almost forgot – Bhutan – yeah, file it under the same heading as Sao Tome, Comoros, Djibouti and Kiribati – under “countries you didn’t even know existed.” It’s a tiny, secretive kingdom in the Himalayas that has (successfully) shunned modernity for a long, long time. I think they only got televisions a few weeks ago. Lucky them – imagine wondering all your life what it would be like to own a television set, you finally get one and the only thing to watch is ‘India’s Got Talent’. Urk. Unlike Bangladesh, I would quite like to visit Bhutan, go for a tour, that kind of thing. However, in this trip it’s just going to be a border hop I’m afraid, but for a very different reason than my Bangladesh innie/outie – like St. Petersburg, Samarkand and San Francisco, there are places that I don’t want to ‘do’ just yet and I certainly don’t want to ‘do’ them alone.
I need someone to nudge and say “wow – look at that!” Yeah – sad but true.
So it was getting dark as I hit the Bhutanese border. There was no Indian ‘side’, just a big Chinese-like gate announcing ‘Welcome to Bhutan!’ Fantastic! I walked up to the gate, chatted with the border guard (a kid dressed in jeans and a t-shirt), showed him the article about me from The Hindu and he smiled, nodded and let me through!
Unbelievable! It was so so easy!
So I found the first sign I could find that said ‘Bhutan’ and filmed as much as I could on the other side, ensured my GPS was getting a good signal and after about five minutes headed back.
Then I got into trouble.
The guard on the way back was wearing a uniform and he wasn’t happy about my little bit of international subterfuge. I tried to explain, but he didn’t speak much English. Luckily, at that very moment the kid in jeans came through to the Bhutanese side of the gate.
“He told me I could!” I said, much in the manner of a schoolkid ratting on his mate. The kid in jeans smiled, explained something in Bhutanese to the uniformed chap, and then it was all smiles and handshakes and don’t do it agains.
But by then it didn’t matter. I had done it. Two nations knocked off the list in one day; 165 down, only 35 more countries to go – and I’d be hitting nation 166 tomorrow morning. I walked triumphant back into India.
The taxi ride back to NJP was just as terrifying as the night before with Sonu, but with the added terror of the monsoon rains belting down so hard I’m amazed we weren’t washed away. It was around ten o’clock by the time we got back. I paid my long-suffering (and, hell with it, long complaining) driver, checked into a hotel and crashed out for the night.
For the first time in a long time I felt as if I was moving again.
One of the things that holds back many people from travelling is the prospect of wasting time and effort attempting to get into countries that would quite prefer it if you didn’t bother. However, it is a false presumption. In more than 150 countries worldwide you can turn up without shelling out $$$ for an invitation first.
So here’s a comprehensive list of the visa requirements for British Passport Holders for every country in the world, although it may come in useful for other nationalities as well.
I’ve split the world into four main categories: No Visa Required, Visa On Arrival, Prior Visa Required and Letter of Invitation (LOI) Required.
No Visa Required: You beauties!! Note the (very) high prevalence of prosperous, confident and democratic countries in this list.
Visa on Arrival: Not quite as good as no visa at all, but much, much less hassle than:
Prior Visa/LOI required: Crikey. What a bitch. Don’t turn up without a visa to any of the countries on this (mercifully short) list of grubby and inhospitable nations. They will fly you straight back home again at your expense because you didn’t ask their f—ing permission first. So go queue outside their ostentatious embassies in the pouring rain for hours, pay them a bundle of fivers and then wait and wait and wait for the privilege of visiting their stupid godforsaken country.
I find the whole process quite demeaning – it’s like having to write to someone to ask if you can attend their wedding – take the hint man, take the hint – these countries are obviously not much interested in you, or tourism in general.
Many of these countries hilariously require an onward ticket, some want you to write a begging letter to come in, others want a letter off your employer or even copies of your bank statements… remember this is not to LIVE THERE, this is just to VISIT FOR A FEW DAYS.
The worst of the worst require a Letter of Invitation (LOI) – I’ve cast these down into the very lowest rungs of hell. Not only do you have to pay extortionate amounts of money to Ambassador Ratbag for the stamp, you also have to pay someone in the country to ‘vouch’ for you.
I would actually like a list of all of the illegal refugees and economic migrants pouring out of our rich democratic nations and claiming asylum in… Nigeria? Papua New Guinea? TURKMENISTAN?? Seriously? WHAT?
I hold Australia in particular contempt for this policy – it is the ONLY rich westernised power on an otherwise quite hellish list of paranoid basketcases.
Oh, and by the way, Aussie tourists are granted a SIX MONTH stay in the UK, upon arrival, for free. So, Australia, when you ask me in your rasping nasal tones where the bloody hell am I – I guess I’m in a country that welcomes me with open arms rather than a punch in the face and a bill of sale.
But look on the bright side, there are 150 (other, better) countries which don’t make you beg for permission to pop in for a visit…
Here’s your at-a-glance VISA MAP OF THE WORLD:
NO VISA REQUIRED (WOO!)
Antigua & Barbuda
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Vincent and The Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago
USA (but you do need a prior visa if you arrive on private boat or plane)
Bosnia & Herzegovina
THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Iraq (Kurdistan only, entered from Turkey)
Jordan (if you enter on the ferry from Egypt)
VISA ON ARRIVAL
Cuba (well, I got a visa on arrival, but I came on a yacht…)
THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA Jordan
SE ASIA/OCEANIA Burma (but only valid for border regions)
East Timor (though no longer available on land border with Indonesia)
Indonesia (though not available on land borders with East Timor and PNG)
That’s over 150 countries where you can get in without asking prior permission. Now here’s the naughty list:
PRIOR VISA REQUIRED
Suriname (letting the side down there somewhat)
Cuba (but I doubt they’d turn you back)
EUROPE Belarus (no surprise there – they still have the KGB)
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of Congo
Eritrea (best obtained in Jeddah – next day delivery)
Ethiopia (best obtained in Nairobi – same day delivery)
Madagascar (but it’s free, so can’t complain)
Sao Tome & Principe
Sudan (best obtained in Cairo – same day delivery)
Burma (for travel into interior)
India (AND now requires you to leave for 60 days between visits!)
Iraq (for travel beyond Kurdistan)
Papua New Guinea
*visa obtainable on arrival at airport with prior permission over internet
LETTER OF INVITATION (+ PRIOR VISA) REQUIRED
Azerbaijan (no LOI required if visa bought in Georgia)
Libya (AND you must pay for a ‘guide’)
THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
*To make matters worse, these visas can only be obtained in your country of origin (although it is possible to get a Nigerian visa from Ghana and an Algerian visa from Mali if you’re lucky).
Right. That’s it. If there are any mistakes/updates/excuses you’d like to make (this is pretty much all off the top of my head), please comment below.