I am now the very proud owner of a Mongolian visa. On Wednesday I went down to the embassy with my application form and a bit of paper from the bank to prove I’d transferred money in their account. The set up was familiar to me from the Uzbekistan Embassy – a basement room underneath a large smart house in Kensington with a bored unsmiling fellow ensconced behind a glass partition. It’s nicer than the Uzbek place though, as it’s furnished with deep leather sofas to sit on while you wait.
The embassy’s tucked away among a little gaggle of them – I passed Gambia and Azerbaijan before I found it. I was a little early, and got talking to the man ahead of me in the queue while we waited for them to open. He was a pilot, due to fly out to Mongolia today to teach pilots out there how to fly some kind of new plane.
In the basement, we carried on chatting as we waited our turn – a young man ahead of us was getting his knickers in a twist over a visa invitation from the Mongolian Ministry of Education. The pilot moaned about the fact that he hardly spent any time as home, constantly whizzing off for a month here and there. I held back from saying that if he didn’t like travelling he might want to reconsider his choice of career. We were cracking jokes about visas and getting in and out of countries, and it emerged that he had been in Libya during the uprising, ferrying people out of the country. He’d taken them all to Egypt, although looking back on it he agreed that this wasn’t the safest place for them either. “And the planes we were flying weren’t very reliable,” he said. “Anyway, when someone put a gun to my head I decided it was time to leave the country.”
He nodded. It was all very cavalier. “They came into hotel room and-” he mimed a gun pointed at his temples.
“Who were they?”
The pilot shrugged. “I didn’t wait to find out. Someone who didn’t want us there. I got straight in a taxi and – whoomf – to the airport.” It was total chaos, and the pilot was completely freaked out by the heavy hint he’d received. “I thought if I can’t get out I’m just going to steal a plane.”
I struggled to find a reply to this other than “that is so fucking cool,” which wouldn’t have gone with the whole flippant-worldly-traveller tone of the conversation. Also, the man was clearly showing off.
“But then I found a friend of mine, and got a lift with him.” It was the pilot’s turn to get his visa and he jumped up off the sofa, leaving me still rather speechless.
It was my turn next. I handed in my application and passport to the unsmiling visa man, vaguely answered some questions about when I was going and how long I’d be there, and then was told to come back on Friday (today). As a receipt I was given a pink standard-issue raffle ticket. Its twin was paper-clipped to the front of my passport, which then joined a small pile.
Back outside the embassy the pilot was fiddling with his mobile phone. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I can fly a plane but I can’t work out how to use this thing.”
Today I went back to exchange the raffle ticket for my passport, now freshly adorned with a Mongolian visa. The next step is the Chinese visa, where I’ve hit another snag. You have to book an appointment to apply for a visa, and I can’t get one until next Thursday. This means I won’t be able to pick up my be-visa-ed passport from them until two days before I leave at the earliest, which is cutting it a little close. But it can’t be helped – my fingers will just have to stay crossed for now.