By 9am I was back outside the Kyrgyzstan embassy. I put my name down on the list and headed over to the DHL office to see if my replacement camcorder had arrived. It was still being held in customs. Frustratingly, this meant I would be without a decent video camera for my trip around Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Couldn’t be helped, back to the Kyrgyz embassy. I waited my turn to go inside, and when I did I all but begged to get the visa there and then. If I had to wait until the afternoon to pick it up I could scratch another day – there’s no way I could make it to the Kyrgyz border before it closed at 7pm.
To my utter disbelief, the guy in the embassy said okay and furnished me with a visa there and then. I couldn’t believe it. Still in shock, I charged back to Tristan’s flat, picked up my bags, said goodbye to Tristan’s house mum and headed off to the bus station. By noon I was on my way to the bordertown ‘Osh’ in a shared taxi. I was assured that I’d be at the border for 5pm. Well, yeah, they might well say that…
At this point I had bigger preoccupations. First up I needed to alter my registration slip that I got back in Nukus to say I had been staying at the hotel all this time. As I may have already mentioned, CouchSurfing is kinda illegal here. It was pretty straight forward to change the ‘24’ into a passable ‘28’, but with my customs declaration I had bigger issues. I had filled it out in black ink, and I had gone and lost my black biro. The only ones I had were blue, and I needed to knock off one (now missing) camcorder off my declared list of stuff. I guess you don’t need to be told that Uzbekistan is ultra strict about stuff like this, and a discrepancy like that is the kind that they would probably wet their pants over. They would think I sold the camera and pocketed the cash woohahahaha because I’m made of capitalism and evil. My mind flashed back to Africa and all the hassle I was given there even when my papers were in order.
I got the driver to stop at various shops along the way, all of which sold biros, BUT ONLY BLUE ONES. After the twenty-fifth shop I was beginning to think they didn’t actually sell black pens in Uzbekistan. I started to panic – I was stuck in a Terry Gilliam inspired nightmare in which my freedom hinged on finding the right colour pen. But by 6pm I began to think that it didn’t matter anyway – I wasn’t going to make it to the border before it shut. We were still plenty of kilometres away and it was getting dark. When at 6.30pm my driver was idly driving around the streets of Andjian (home of the infamous massacre) and I was convinced I didn’t stand a chance of getting there in time. Tristen had made it quite clear that given the Uzbeks love of paperwork and soviet-era bureaucracy it takes two hours to cross the border. He had told me in no uncertain terms that unless I left at 9am from the capital Tashkent I stood no chance of getting to Kyrgyzstan today.
Oh ye of little faith.
At 6:35pm my driver had got out and been replaced by his dad, who assured me that he’d get me to the border on time. I have to say I wasn’t convinced, but I had to at least try. As we approached the border I kept my eye on the clock as the minutes eked away… 6:56pm, 6:57pm… It was now dark and it was three minutes past seven when we got to a passport check at the side of the road. My driver convinced the guard to wave me through and then, half a kilometre further on, I was at the border.
There were a few people hanging around outside the gates, but my driver pushed me to the front and said something to the military guy on the gate about me being English. The guy thought about it for a second and then opened the gate. I couldn’t believe it. I was in.
But then on the walk to the customs post, my legs went funny. THE CUSTOMS FORM! I hadn’t doctored it. To further complicate matters I was the ONLY person there and I guessed (correctly) that they would go through my stuff with a fine-toothed comb. I went into the customs office. There were eight people there all ready to put me under the microscope.
Okay, I had two ninja moves I could pull at this point. One would be the Derren Brown, but given the language difficulties I doubted that my cunning linguistics would work. The other was the Boris Johnson. I went for the Boris. I bumbled, dropped stuff, got the giggles, opened up stuff they weren’t interested in, rushed about, zipped and unzipped my bags, pulled out the most random assortment of stuff I could think of, banged on about Liverpool (Steven Gerrard, I owe you one) and generally did my best to bamboozle and bemuse with my buffoonery. And it worked. They didn’t even ask about the missing camcorder, I think they lost track of what I did and didn’t have.
I smiled, shook everybody’s hands and departed, almost wetting myself with relief.
Now my big worry was that the Kyrgyzstan border post would be closed and I’d be stuck in No Man’s Land for the night. But again, no worries. I couldn’t believe my luck. Not only were the Kyrgyz guards incredibly friendly, they also gave me a lift into town from whence I could take an overnight shared taxi to the capital Bishkek. With a little luck I could get my application for my Tajikistan visa before the weekend and be back in Tashkent before next Monday.
But more importantly, I am now in COUNTRY NUMBER 150!!
I have now stayed with or drank with or danced with or shared tea with or struck up a conversation with somebody from over 175 countries around the world. Today Planet Earth seems a terrifically small one.
Wasn’t too happy when the guy from Vladivostok whom I was sharing the taxi with (and someone I thought was a friend) whipped out my passport and claimed I had dropped it in the night and he had ‘found’ it for me. I would have been happy if a) I believed him or b) he hadn’t demanded $100 for ‘finding’ it. A very awkward conversation later, I got away with giving him about $10. It was a nasty trick to play and hasn’t lifted my (I have to admit) rather negative view of Russians, but that’s all by-the-by.
We had got to Bishkek for 9:30am and I got to the Tajik embassy in good time to submit my application and what’s even better, is that instead of the four days waiting time suggested by my Lonely Planet, I only had to hang on until Thursday morning. I could be back in Tashkent for Friday!
I took the trolley bus (a bus with powered by overhead tram wires) to the city centre and got off when it felt right to do so – which happened to be slap bang in the middle of the city. Like Tashkent, Bishkek is a rather charmless place, all concrete and concrete and buildings pretending not to be made of concrete by the enterprising use of shiny tiling which would not fool the even the dullest of minds. But again like Tashkent, the warmth and hospitality of the people makes the place completely awesome, despite the rotten government and even rottener edifices. Strangers will strike up conversations with you in the street, not because they want to screw money out of you, but because they are genuinely interested in why you have come to visit them – and because they also wish to feed you.
You’ll probably be invited for tea and will no doubt end up staying the night if the matriarch of the family gets her way. These guys take hospitality VERY seriously and by jingo it’s refreshing for one who comes from a country in which people are terrified to make eye contact on the train lest your co-commuters regard you as a sex pest or serial killer in waiting.
So I had a brisk and invigorating walking tour of the city centre. I decided that I really like the Kyrgyz flag (red with a yellow sun in the centre) and that the chicken-and-cheese samosas rocked my world. On my ramble I got rambling at a girl called Aima who is studying English at uni and wanted to practice her English on me. So Aima joined my impromptu tour of the city, she got to point out the okay-but-a-little-sterile state buildings and explain what a yurt was.
A yurt is like a tent made of wool and sheepskin that the nomadic shepherds of the Pamir ranges have used for centuries as mobile homes. Modern Kyrgyzstanis still like to get in touch with their shared past by heading up to the mountains in the summer and breaking out their family yurt. I intend to do a bit of yurting in the future, and I’m seriously considering taking one to Glasto next year.
Anyways, Aima had stuff to be getting on with and we arranged to meet up the next day for tea and biscuits. I then sought out my couchsurf contact for the night, a delightful girl named Nazik who lived with her mum on the eastern side of town. I met up with her after she finished work and before I knew it I was sitting down for dinner, stuffing myself with surprisingly yummy Kyrgyz food.
I left in the morning with Nazik and did a bit of blah before meeting up with Aima again. I needed to buy a present for my girlfriend’s birthday, and I wanted to get something exceptionally cool and Kyrgyz-Rhymes-With-Burgers. Aima helped me out, and in typically boy-buying-things style I had found the perfect gift within minutes. We headed over to the post office to send it on it’s way to Oz Land, only to discover that it would cost more to send that the damn thing cost to buy in the first place – and that it would take a month to get there, making me look like the worst boyfriend ever. Oh well, at least I tried.
After that we had a mooch around Osh Bazaar, the big-assed market on the western side of the city and I got to see Bishkek in action. I managed to get myself a few bits and bobs that would keep The Odyssey on the straight and narrow. It seemed like a exceptionally sedate, calm and – dare I say it – somewhat lifeless city, which made what happened just a few days later even more unexpected.
Nazik’s mum was taken ill (get well soon!), so not wanting to be a nuisance I grabbed my bags from her flat and set out to find somewhere else to stay. Luckily for me, Aima offered to let me stay at uni gaff with her lady chums and so I spent an exceptionally pleasant evening in the company of a bunch of girls from Kyrgyzstan. I don’t think there’s too many other ginger scousers who can say that. Huzzah!
Sorry about the lack of blog updates this month – I’ve been hammering the website to make it all fabby and groovy for when the telly show starts in July and people pop in for a visit!
So, where I was I? Oh yeah, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan!! So I was up and at ’em at the crack and to the Tajikistan embassy. Visa in hand, I raced over to the bus station to pick up a shared taxi back to Osh. My taxi driver, Rustlan, was a wonderfully friendly guy and the little old ladies in the back didn’t complain too much that I wanted to stop every ten minutes to take a photo of the INCREDIBLE scenery.
It was a long drive through the mountains to Osh, but the hours seemed to fly by and, once again, I got the feeling that this wouldn’t be the last I’ll see of Kyrgyzstan. This feeling grew when Rustlan the driver offered to have me round for dinner with his wife, his young son and his mum. I can’t overstate this enough: this part of the world is the most hospitable you will ever visit. As well as feeding me some slap-up scran, Rustlan also organised for me to take an overnight taxi through to the border with Tajikistan.
Sounds easy? Ah, but there’s a problem. If you zoom into a map (you can use the Google map to the right if you like) and look at the wacko messed-up gerrymandered borders of the Fergana Valley area, you’ll see there is a small enclave of Uzbekistan called Sohk that’s complete surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. And guess which way the main road to the Tajikistan border goes? Yup…! Right through Sohk!! And do they allow free transit through this tiny spot of bother? Like buggery they do. So if I was to enter Sohk I would lose my second entry on my (incredibly expensive) visa for Uzbekistan… and then I’d have to get a brand new visa to get back into Uzbekistan proper. Madness, they call it Madness.
So I had to slip my taxi driver a few extra Kyrgyz sum to take the dirt track that goes around the enclave. ATTENTION ALL NORTHERN STANS! Listen: I have an idea – why don’t you make it so you have to get one visa for all five of you? Your borders were meant to be regional, not international and up until 1992 you were all one country anyway! Nutters.
By 5am I had made it around that pesky enclave of Sohk and had arrived at the border of Tajikistan. Chances are you know Afghanistan and Pakistan rather well, and Kazakhstan too thanks to a certain Mr. Sagdiyev, maybe you’ve noticed Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan while glancing over an atlas, and maybe once you pulled 10 letters out of a Scrabble bag and they spelt out KYRGYZSTAN by sheer luck, but I’m guessing you know nothing about Tajikistan. Well, don’t feel bad, neither do I. For instance, I knew nothing of the brutal civil war that raged here during the 90s and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. I didn’t know that until 1991 Tajikistan was completely closed to foreigners for over 100 years.
In fact, the amount I don’t know about Tajikistan is only equalled by the amount I don’t know about the history of the world tiddlywinks championships. And, I’m sorry to say that my knowledge was not exactly increased by visiting the place. Okay, so it wasn’t a quick hop-over-the-border-and-back as I did in Zimbabwe or Chad, but still I’m left bereft of anything interesting, amusing or philosophical to say about the place. All I can tell you is that it exists, it has a seat in the UN and it used to be a region of the USSR. It offers some excellent hiking opportunities and, well, er… that’s it. Even the photos in the Central Asia Lonely Planet are just of people walking in the mountains with backpacks on.
I’ll be the first to admit that I raced across Tajikistan. In my mind what was critical was that I got back to Tashkent in Uzbekistan today, picked up my visa for Turkmenistan and then I could be in Iran by Tuesday. So a quick peek at the northern Tajik city of Kungrad was all I really got. But, you know, I have every intention of visiting Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan again, and maybe if the visa situation has become a little more relaxed I might be tempted to get under the skin of the place.
However, after waiting TWO HOURS (thanks a bunch Uzbekistan) to get across the border out of Tajikistan and hurtling back to Tashkent like a man possessed I arrived to find the Turkmenistan embassy closed for the day. Come back on Monday you silly ginger tramp. I need not have rushed – I could have stayed the weekend. Sorry Tajikistan.
But on a plus note, I did manage to pick up my replacement camcorder (naughty Javier, that temperamental wee beastie) and my second passport so I need no longer worry about running out of pages. I also had time to see my friends at the Afghan embassy and sort things out so I could pick up a new visa (they mucked up my first one) on Monday.
Monday, then. Ahh. My second wasted weekend in Tashkent. Well then, let’s get wasted! It cracks me up that these Central Asian states purport to be Islamic – they are about as Muslim as an atheistic Eskimo. When you walk into (one of the many) shops that only sells booze, pork sausages and –ahem- gentleman’s periodicals, it’s hard not to do a double-take. Taliban territory this is not.
I met up with Younne and Cloe – a couple of CouchSurfers from France who, like me, had arranged to stay with Rafael, the king of the Tashkent CSers. Rafa works late so we cooked him dinner (well, to be fair, the Frenchies cooked him dinner, I just watched) and before long we were enjoying beers and DVDs and looking forward to a groovy weekend in my new-found favourite bit of the world.