The train arrived at the town of Beyneu at about ten minutes to five in the morning, enjoyed a cup of tea in the little station cafe and after about an hour, I clambered on board the train for a place called Kungrad in Uzbekistan. We got to the border about midday, and the border process was quite alarmingly swift and painless. The stamp guys got on the train, grabbed everyone’s passports and after half an hour, gave them all back – I didn’t even need to get up from my seat.
Which means…. I’M IN UZBEKISTAN! Wooooo! 149! 149! 149!
Soon enough, I found myself snoozing as the pitiful remnants of the Aral Sea sped by far to the east. The Aral Sea disaster. I have to admit, before I read about it in the Lonely Planet I had never even heard of the Aral Sea, I guess compared with global climate change it’s not a top priority, but it’s one hell of depressing tale about the consequences of humans toying with nature.
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union in all its wisdom (and, let’s face it wisdom in those days was in short supply) decided to exploit the dry arid near-deserts of North-Western Uzbekistan and South West Kazakhstan to grow cotton. People always need clothes to wear eh? Now to do this, they needed to divert a considerable amount of water – water from the mountains that was destined for the Aral Sea. In fact, it would divert so much water that the sea would dry up. Yes you read that right – the SEA would dry up. They knew this would happen, but justified it on the grounds that the Aral Sea was ‘nature’s mistake’. Now I can see nature making mistakes… the Elephant Man, I suppose… Sarah Jessica Parker’s face, Michael Jackson being born black and Pete Doherty being born at all. But a SEA?
I mean, once you take the sea away, what can you do with what’s left over? You know, the muddy salty mess which is prone to flooding? Not great real estate, I have to say. There are beached ships scattered about the landscape (apparently, I was too far away to see) because the poor old Aral Sea is (was) not connected with any other body of water – no place to escape…
Sad isn’t it? But that’s what you get when you have lunatics in charge, and they didn’t come much more loony than the Communist Party of the USSR – with the possible exception of David Ike and every African government ever.
Anyway, the train is the BEST way to enter forbidden Uzbekistan – easy as pie. I got to the town of Kungrad at about 7pm, but because the borders around here as mad as Rasputin trying to eat his own head, everybody has to take road transport to the next town, Nukus – the railway line passes in and out of Turkmenistan and the Turkmen have a nasty habit of boarding the train and fining anyone without a visa.
Nukus is the capital of this region of Uzbekistan, which I’ve just been informed is not only a region, but a nation-within-a-nation called Karakalpakstan. Honestly, I not making this up! Maybe Durka-Durkastan really exists after all. Karakalpakstan has it’s own regional government and language, but is internationally recognised as a part of Uzbekistan. That’s probably for the best – this region has suffered massively from the loss of the Aral Sea, and I doubt that it could survive on it’s own.
Talking of survival, it’s my sad duty to inform you that Al, my plucky little camcorder that’s stuck with me through thick and thin, has joined my Amstrad PCW8256 in Silicon Heaven.
I’ll miss you, little pal.
Javier, his twin brother, is being Fed-Exed over to me as be speak. However, like Karr and Lore, Javier is the cranky older model that only works when he feels like it and has machinations for taking the world. He keeps going on about himself being the prototype and all others being cheap production models. But as long as I keep him from hooking up with the Crystalline Entity or Sebastian from Blade Runner, I’ll should be fine.
I got to Nukus around 9pm, checked into the Nukus hotel and crashed out for the night in a dorm that I was sharing with two Uzbek guys.
I woke to find the two guys that I was sharing a room with sitting on their beds staring at me like I had just dropped from space and got their grandmother pregnant. This was disconcerting to say the least. I got up, gathered up my gear and exited as quickly as I could. When I left the hotel, I was given a tiny square of paper – my “registration” slip. This is so the government here can keep tabs on you as you tour around their country – I can’t leave without it.
To say the Uzbek government is paranoid would be a massive understatement – in fact, I’m not going to post this blog entry until I’m out of the region, just in case. Not content with being the third hardest country in the world to get a visa for, you have to declare every single penny in every currency you have on entry, and declare it again when you leave, leaving no room for discrepancies. If you change money in a bank you have to give them proof of how you got the money, so if you changed money on the street (as a MUCH better rate), you can’t change it back.
You have to register every night in a hotel, making CouchSurfing technically illegal – you have to get a permit from the government to have people stay at your gaff. It’s like Cuba in this respect. I hate it when governments stick their nosy little faces in people’s private lives, it’s oppressive, unpleasant and damnit, it makes YOU paranoid. I mean, the Uzbek government is known to bug hotel rooms for heavens sake.
But that’s not even the most infuriating thing about Uzbekistan. That would be the money. The biggest note they print (1000 ‘sum’) is worth about 30 pence. Seriously. Which means you have to wonder around with thick wads of 30 pence notes and paying for anything takes a good ten minutes of counting and recounting. Madness.
It’s like the entire country is designed specially to make things awkward for you, which means that it might come as a bit of a surprise when I say that I really, really like Uzbekistan – or to be more precise, I really, really like the Uzbek people – they are honestly the friendliest people I’ve met on The Odyssey so far.
After leaving the hotel, I clambered on board the bus to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. There I plan to battle the fearsome visa demons of Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. The bus was pretty grotty, but the welcome I received more than made up for it. I had the good fortune to be sitting across the aisle from a lady I can best describe as a Scouse Mum… she used the little English she knew to feed me as much food as I could just about stuff in my face – bread, fruit, nuts… I was blown away by just how jolly everybody was – after starting the year visiting a bunch of countries in which women are not to be seen or heard, it was great to be mothered for a change.
The day passed fairly quick smart, sadly I couldn’t see Jack from my seat (in either timeline) so I contented myself writing my blog and reading up (again) on the visa sections of the Central Asia Lonely Planet. If you’re wondering why I didn’t get the visas when I was in the UK, it’s because (as I found with my Algeria and Azerbaijan visas) they would run out before I got here, so I’ve got to get them all on the road.
In the evening, we pulled into a large eatery near legendary Samarkand and I tucked into some tasty ‘Laghman’ – spicy noodles – with the ladies off the bus, who I found out were all from Karakalpakstan and all spoke Karakalpakstanese (I guess that’s what you call it). They made me try everything, and to my relief, it was all marvellously tasty. No boiled sheep head then, phew.
Now what I didn’t understand was this: we got to Samarkand at 10pm. It’s only five hours to the capital, Tashkent, but the bus was scheduled to get in at 9am. What gives…?
And then I found out. In Uzbekistan it seems you do not sleep on the coach while the coach is moving. It parks up for the night, everybody sleeps and at the crack of dawn it resumes its journey.
My opinion? Madness. Not that I like sleeping on a moving coach nor did I wish to get to Tashkent at some ungodly hour of the night, but the coach left Nukus at midday. A quick mental calculation reveals that if the coach left at 7am then it would get into Tashkent for 10pm, negating the need for the overnighting in the damn coach. I’m jus’ sayin’ is all…
The plan today was simple. Well, I thought it was. First up, visit the Kyrgyzstan Embassy and hand over my passport, while that visa is processing put my application in to the Turkmenistan Embassy, then scope out the Afghan embassy (which my book tells me issues visas ‘on the spot’) and back to the Kyrgyzstan embassy get passport, rush back to the Afghan embassy, and maybe head on to Kyrgyzstan with my shiny new visa before the day is done. I plan to return here next week after visiting Tajikistan (a visa best got in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan) to pick up my you-have-to-wait-ten-days-for-it Turkmenistan visa. But ha! No.
The bus got in nice and early at 8.30am. Great. I grabbed a cab and headed into the city centre, picking a Metro station at random to be dropped off at while I texted my CouchSurf contact, Fred, to let her know I had arrived. En route, she called me back and told the taxi driver where to go – funnily enough, it was right by the metro station I has picked at random (I seem to have a sixth sense about these things). I dropped my bags and after a quick coffee, set out with Fred to do business in great waters. Of bureaucracy.
I fell at the first hurdle. The Kyrgyzstan embassy was closed for the day. Oh well, onto the Afghan embassy – only to find them closed for brunch. Rolling my eyes, we headed on to the Turkmenistan embassy, where we found out you had to arrive before 9am and put your name on a list and wait for three hours outside the gate to be even entertained with an application form (a process you had to repeat the next day to hand in).
Another thing to bear in mind is that embassies are a little like the staircases in Harry Potter – they move without rhyme nor reason. Why this is so, I have no idea, but that’s the way it is – from Liberia to Tashkent via Istanbul and Baku, not a single embassy has been where my Lonely Planet has said it was. This meant Fred and I spent most of the day in taxis trying to find the damn things.
One bit of silver lining on the horizon (loving the mixed metaphor) is that outside the Turkmenistan embassy I met with a guy called Atabeck, the most helpful guy IN THE WORLD. He was there getting visas for his family and used his turn to grab me an application form. I wouldn’t be able to hand it in until tomorrow, but it was a start. The idea that I wouldn’t get my Turkmenistan visa until April 9th at the earliest irked somewhat, but I guess it’s all part of the Great Visa Game.
Application form in hand, I headed back to the Afghan embassy. The guys there were incredibly helpful but they said I needed a letter off my embassy in order to get a visa. A letter saying I take full responsibility for my actions in visiting Afghanistan and any resultant nastiness that may transpire as a result. WAY TO FREAK ME OUT, GUYS!
I’m only planning to be in Afghanistan for a few hours, so although the $30 visa charge was fairly reasonable, the $93 my own embassy charged me was simply not. And to add insult to injury they took over an hour doing it, so that when I arrived at the bank to pay in the visa fee, it had closed three minutes before. I went back to the Afghan embassy with my puppy-dog eyes and asked if I could – you know – just pay the $30 direct to them (as I had done at the Uzbek embassy in Baku), but they couldn’t do it, and anyway I’d have to wait until tomorrow now for the visa anyway. I slunk away: a 100% unsuccessful day, I thought – but actually it wasn’t. Serendipity had come along and allowed me to make contact with Atabeck and we will learn more about his wisdom later.
In any other city, today’s vast number of taxi rides would have cost a small fortune, but this is Tashkent, and pretty much every car is a potential taxi, you just flag them down and climb inside – it’s less than a dollar to go anywhere around town. Happy days.
I had real trouble dragging myself out of bed this morning. I asked Fred to wake me up, which she did, but what I should have asked is for Fred to wake me up by throwing a bucket of cold water over my head. I got to the bank to pay in the money for the Afghan visa at 9.30am, meeting Atabeck there and (stupidly) thinking that paying $30 into a bank would be an easy process. Ha! No. It took the best part of an hour. Seriously. I had to go to three different desks (on different floors no less!) and fill out paperwork at all three of them. It’s quicker to book a seven-stop Round The World ticket at STA Travel. I know, I’ve done it.
We now had our backs against the wall – if I wanted to get off to Kyrgyzstan this evening, I needed to get to the Kyrgyzstan embassy before 11:30 and it was 11am before I left the Afghan embassy, having finally paid for the visa. The last thing I needed was to be involved in a traffic accident – but what happened was off-the-charts bizarre.
We were stopped at traffic lights in Atabeck’s car when the car in front of us REVERSED into our front bumper. The collision, such that it was, was at about 1mph so the damage was minimal (if not non-existent), but the passenger of the car in front jumped out and started kicking off that it was Atabeck’s fault. Yeah, that’s -right you jumped-up jackass – your silly wife reverses into a STATIONARY car and it’s the other car’s fault for being there. Right…
If I had been Atabeck, I would have just told them to get lost and gone on my way, but if they reported the incident to the police, we would have spent the whole day at the police station filling out (I can only imagine!) mountains of paperwork. So we pulled over and they argued the toss. I was looking at my watch – 11:23am. We weren’t going to make it. The guy (who, it may be noted, carried a passing resemblance to a certain George W Bush) wanted compensation for his dozy wife’s inability to tell the difference between first and reverse.
At this point, I was seriously contemplating doing a John Goodman on his stupid wife’s stupid car, but Atabeck, understanding the misery that getting the police involved would cause, gave the stupid thieving creep $5 and sent him on his way.
The consequence of all this was that we didn’t get to the Kyrgyzstan embassy in time for the morning session. We could try again this afternoon, but it was tremendously unlikely to yield any results.
The dominos started to fall. There is a cruise ship that leaves from southern India for the Maldives on April 21st. If I can get my Turkmenistan visa in double-quick time (somehow) I could be out of Tashkent next Friday with both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan under my belt. From there I can hit Tehran, grab visas for India and Pakistan and then head south like my rear is on fire and maybe, maybe arrive in Cochin, India at 3am on the morning of the 21st. It would be tighter than a mouse’s ear but I could have done it. Thanks to George W Bush and his hysterical wife, a 10-1 outsider has taken a tumble and turned into to a 100-1 miracle.
I would have to get my Kyrgyzstan visa on Monday. It looks like I’ve got myself a weekend in Tashkent. Bummer. Oh well, I’m sure there is lots to do in the most charmless capital city this side of Canberra. Tashkent was destroyed in a devastating earthquake in the 1960s and so every single building here is made of – you guessed it – reinforced concrete. Lovely. By lovely I mean horrible. The apartment blocks that are dotted around the city are the worst form of brutalist functionalism (right down to the concrete staircases which have no lights and are open to the elements), the big hotels are Las-Vegas-in-the-1970s tack and the state buildings are those concrete-innards-rendered-in-shiny-tiles that looked crap when first conceived and still look crap today. The roads are massive concrete boulevards (so the Soviets could roll their tanks down them, presumably) and the metro is a carbon copy of the Baku metro, right down to the 1970s carriages, impossible-to-spot signage and the heavy police presence.
But all that was to come – Atabeck and I still had work to do. After grabbing a bowl of Plov (the Uzbek national dish and my nominated collective noun for Uzbeks) for lunch, we headed over to the Turkmenistan embassy to hand my application form in. It took HOURS, but eventually Atabeck succeeded in getting it in. In the meantime I had picked up my Afghan visa only to discover that they had incorrectly set my date of entry as TODAY and the visa expired next Friday. Aside from the fact that there was NO WAY I would make it to Afghanistan before next Friday (I have to go through Turkmenistan), they had wasted one of the last three free pages of my passport with a useless visa. They offered to amend it, but it would take – arrrrrrrgh! – another day.
Frustrated but keeping calm, I met up again with Atabeck and we headed back to the Kyrgyzstan embassy for another crack at the whip. Again I had to pay in my hard-earned cash (all $112 of it –eek-) to a bank and this time I managed to pay it in before the bank closed, but the guy at the embassy was not having any of it – I’d have to come back first thing Monday morning. I had just lost two good travelling days that I wouldn’t be getting back. What a pain.
So one last thing to do and that was to pick up Al’s replacement from DHL. Guaranteed in three days? Ha! Not in Uzbekistan. It was being held up in customs, come back on Monday. The fates had conspired to keep me here for the weekend and who am I to argue with fate?
Atabeck gave me a lift back to Fred’s gaff and after thanking him profusely I managed to grab forty winks before heading out to meet Fred and her mates at a restaurant on the other side of town. There I met Tristan from France, Baha from Tashkent and Nurbek and Shamshod from the Fergana Valley.
Great company, good food and awesomely cheap booze meant that I ate and drank far too much and ended up with Baha in a club called Salvador Dali’s arguing with another French guy about African politics. Awesome.
Woke up at Baha’s flat wondering if anybody got the number of the truck that hit me before stumbling back to Fred’s. Her mate in Samakand (down south) had just split up from her better half and so Fred planned to head down there to give her some moral support. This meant that I had to find a new place to stay. Luckily, Tristan, the French guy I met last night agreed to take me under his wing. Even more luckily, he lived in the flat directly above Fred’s so it’s not like I had to walk very far.
These flats are so typically soviet it’s almost hilarious – the exact same flats that I experienced in Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. To give them a veil of individuality some are covered in big blocky geometric shapes – no wonder it was a Russian who came up with Tetris. You know what, though? I’d rather live in a mud hut. That’s just me I guess, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about the lift not working.
So I settled in and Tristan pretty much left me to my own devices, allowing me to write up a ton of blog and make a big dent in my increasingly hilarious backlog of videos. The only problem is that despite my Herculean efforts to get a bunch of new vids edited, the internet here is comedically slow and to upload just one of them would take longer than it took Deep Thought to discover the answer to Life, The Universe and – you know – Everything.
Maybe now is a good time to discuss why you’ve never heard of all these countries I am now trying to visit. I mean Kyrgyzstan? Turkmenistan? Tajikistan? Where the hell ARE they? And why do they exist? It would be a bloody tricky pub quiz that asked you to name the capitals of all the Stans (I don’t actually know and I’ve been here!). Well to put you out of your misery, it’s no wonder you haven’t heard of them – before 1991 they didn’t exist. There were only two Stans, Pakistan and Afghanistan and above that was the jolly old USSR. Then after the break up of the USSR, the Stalin-engineered ‘autonomous regions’ (read: puppet regimes) of Central Asia suddenly became independent states, much to the surprise of those in charge who, without the retraining influence of the Russians, all went a little mad. And they don’t come much madder than Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan. Anyone who renames the month of April after his mum and commissions a 20 foot gold statue of himself to stand on top of an arch and revolve with the sun must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
The borders of these countries were all drawn up by Stalin in one of his (many) less lucid moments and quite frankly make no sense whatsoever. A ton of ethnic Tajiks live in Uzbekistan, there are more Uzbeks in Osh than Kyrgyzs, even though Osh is in Kyrgyzstan and there are Uzbeks all over the Stan show. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Fergana valley were the borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan overlap, underlap, disintegrate, have a nervous breakdown, change their names to Dorothy, flees society, strips naked and hides in a cave.
Unfortunately for all concerned (not least me) the borders such as they were in 1991 have stuck. It’s a bit like all the counties of England becoming separate countries all needing border posts, customs and visas. No wonder nobody’s ever heard of these places – even Brits would be hard pushed to point out Northamptonshire or Worcestershire on a map of the UK.
At least Kazakhstan had Borat to put them on the map, but did you know that Tajikistan suffered a extremely violent civil war in the 90s? No? Neither did I. I guess the western press doesn’t just ignore conflicts in Africa, it ignores conflicts in any part of the world that us geographically-challenged mooks haven’t heard of.
Anyway, Tristan lives with a Uzbek family and the mum of the clan really looked after me, making sure I was well fed (with plov) and watered (with tea). Sunday passed by in pretty much the same fashion, only the latter half of the day was preoccupied with drawing up battle plans for tomorrow’s bout of The Great Visa Game.
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.
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.
So where to next? The plan is on Monday to head off towards Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Three of the hardest countries in the world to visit and visit safely and I’m planning to step in all three in just one day. Impossible? Nah. Just takes a bit of planning, that’s all. So the bulk of today was spent using the treacle-slow free wi-fi in the Blinoff café sussing out my next few moves, checking on the security situations and pulling anything I could off the usual suspects – bulletin boards, thorntree, all that kind of jazz.
Later on I was joined by Rafael’s mate Oybek and his rather fetching ladyfriend Alla, along with Younne and Cloe from last night. After stuffing our faces full of cheap but yummy food, we set off into the night to go to the ‘Can You Imagine?’ night at the VM Bar – a live Uzbek band doing British Rock n’ Roll from the 50s to now. Absolutely awesome. Although they didn’t know Day Tripper. Bah.
There was the ubiquitous over-friendly Russians (what is it with Russians – cold as hell when sober, annoying as hell when drunk!), the Uzbeks were dancing on the tables and the beers were marvellously cheap. Rafael came along after a wedding he’d been attending, (already having had one too many) and the night sort of took its own direction after that. I remember dancing and waking up with a headache. All in all, a pretty neat little Saturday night.
I may have mentioned this before, but for some stupid reason you have to register three days after you arrive in Uzbekistan. The problem is you cannot register that you’re staying with a private citizen without a ton of hassle and paperwork. As a consequence, CouchSurfing is technically illegal.
What most people do is check into a hotel for the night and then doctor the docket that they’re given (as I did last week) so the dates imply you stayed in the hotel longer than you really did. However our sweet French couple, Younne and Cloe neglected to register within their three day period of grace. You see the Uzbek government is a little stuck in it’s ways and thinks that every westerner who would like to visit their country is James Bond come to blow up their secret volcano fortresses.
It’s when you hear about the government bugging hotel rooms that your eyes involuntarily roll upwards. Seriously, Uzbekistan, get a grip – we really couldn’t give a monkey’s what you’re doing – you’re a landlocked country in the middle of nowhere that 9 people out of 10 have never heard of. MI6 AND THE CIA DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU, THEY NEVER HAVE AND THEY NEVER WILL. There, I’ve said it. I love Uzbekistan but in the silliness awards, the government is rubbing shoulders with the brainless mooks that run Africa.
Anyway, Younne and Cloe tottered off to the railway station to ‘check in’ at the hotel there. They asked for a room for the night and explained they had lost their dockets for the past couple of days – damnit, it was only a couple of days, eh? Anyway, the bee-atch at the hotel smiled, took their passports as if to copy down the numbers, explained that she’d be right back and then promptly returned with a police officer in tow.
What a cow. What an utter cow.
Rafa, our CouchSurfing host had to head down to the police station and help them out. Luckily (and happily) Uzbekistan is NOT Africa, and therefore throwing tourists in jail is not a national sport, so after a few hours they were set free; although not before they were told that they faced DEPORTATION for their misdemeanour.
Crikey – at first we thought they’d be flown back home (I shudder to think what I’d have to do if that happens to me!) but then the police said they would give them until Wednesday to get a visa for Kyrgyzstan and then they’ll be escorted to the border. The cop who booked them said that he had personally deported about fifty tourists since the beginning of the year.
Oh look – somebody from a rich country coming to take money from a rich country and spend it in our poor country… let’s deport them! Smart move, guys… you must be really good at chess.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – any conspiracy theory that hinges on politicians of the world having a higher IQ than an eggplant is doomed from the start – if you put all the politicians and bureaucrats in the world in a room, you wouldn’t have enough of a spark to ignite a stick of dynamite from the Black Rock.
Not wanting another run-in with the fuzz, I set out with Rafa to check into a hotel myself – not the railway one (for obvious reasons) but the one near the circus (a monstrous eyesore that looks like a big concrete hamburger). For $7 my stay here was safe. With any luck, I’ll have my Turkmenistan visa tomorrow and then I’ll be outta here.
I really, really like the Uzbek people. If the government here would just chill out a little, many more people would like them too.