Twenty-nine years ago this week, on a frosty Berlin morning, a warm and friendly East German passport official rescued my travel plans.
I had ventured into a gloomy office just off Alexanderplatz in the centre of East Berlin to supercharge my one-day visa for the East German capital. In January 1989, you could slip through a gap in the Iron Curtain by buying a day pass for a few West German marks. Once in East Berlin, a further DM25 (about £8) upgraded it to a permit to access all areas across the German Democratic Republic, except those that the Stasi had no intention of letting you see.
But as a bitter Baltic breeze swept down from the north to infiltrate every cranny of the communist state, it became clear my papers were not quite in order. The bureaucrat leafed through my sturdy, hardback passport (which I now know to be a British icon). And frowned. It had no blank page for the elaborate imprint that opened up Leipzig, Dresden and all stations to Eisenhuttenstadt (formerly Stalinstadt, and twinned with my home town of Crawley).
He could have sent me back to the West Berlin checkpoint feeling a right Charlie. Instead, he smiled, bent the rules and decorated a non-virgin page with the state’s official endorsement of Wanderlust.
We wished each other a happy New Year. I went off to explore the frozen wonders of East Germany, starting with the glorious Sanssouci Palace on Potsdam – preserved Narnia-like as it waited for the Cold War to thaw. Before the end of 1989, the good socialist Samaritan would be out of a job due to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but I trust that things worked out well for him in a unified Germany.
In January 2018, officialdom has proved far less kind to some. Ian contacted me after his New Year family plans were wrecked. His nine-year-old son was refused boarding on a flight to Hurghada in Egypt because only five months remained on his passport. They were despatched by an airline official on a wild goose chase through atrocious weather to Peterborough passport office to renew his passport – only to learn that children cannot get same-day renewals. The process takes a week, by which time the Red Sea holiday would be over.
“Our family is going through hell over this,” said Ian. “I really think this needs bringing out into the general public as it is not an isolated event.” Egypt needs all the tourists it can get. But in common with some other countries, the government in Cairo stipulates that British visitors have six months’ validity remaining on their passports. And airlines are obliged to enforce it.
In contrast, in the past and present communist world, smiles are back on bureaucratic faces – so long as you don’t want to stay too long.
This is the first full year in which Belarus invites travellers to stay for five days or fewer without going through the back-to-the-USSR business of applying for a visa. Terms and conditions apply: you must fly in and out of Minsk airport from somewhere other than Russia; carry travel insurance; and demonstrate that you will not become a burden on the Belarus government, by revealing assets of €25 for each day of your stay. (A credit card will do.) The photo that accompanied the Minsk memorandum showed a cheery border guard, but be warned that tourists are not allowed to take pictures of uniformed officials. Or jaywalk. Doing both at the same time could land you in really serious trouble.
While a visa for China is equally expensive and complicated, the options for visiting the People’s Republic without one are blossoming. Both Beijing and Shanghai now offer a “144-hour visa-free transit” permit, which allows you to squeeze in almost a week, so long as you arrive from one foreign country (Hong Kong counts as one) and depart direct by air or sea to a different nation.
And if Kazakhstan features in your travel plans, 2018 is an excellent time to visit this vast former Soviet republic. Until New Year’s Eve, you can stay up to 30 days without a visa. Be warned that your passport will need at least six months’ validity, and one empty page.
So please fulfil a quick and easy New Year’s resolution: check the expiry date – and capacity – of your passport now. Then chase your dreams.