This must be the most incredibly naff ship I’ve been on so far; all dirty floors, peeling fake wood wallpaper, murky corridors, broken lights, stained matress, rusty bulkheads, dripping plumbing, doors that don’t close properly… Lovely! BUT AT LEAST THE TEA WAS FREE. And that makes ALL the difference in my book. I would suffer any kind of hardship as long as there was free tea on offer. And, in it’s favour, The Naxçivan was incredibly quiet and smooth… so much so that I didn’t notice for the best part of an hour that we had left port.
Maybe there was no engine… maybe it was powered by the 1984 Soviet Olympic Rowing Team, chained and manacled to the Naxçivan’s hull, their anguished cries for help stifled by the fact that they had their tongues removed before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why the ship could only have eleven passengers was beyond me, it was massive, a great big train transporter. Okay, there may not be enough cabins, but there was a room with flilthy ripped airline seats, about thirty of them – it was only an overnight trip, what gives? I guess I’ll never know.
Tell you what though – I’d take the grotty Naxçivan over that ****ing Grimaldi Ferry to Tunisia ANY DAY. I’d taked the damn Shissiwani II over a Grimaldi Ferry, and that’s saying something.
Anyway, we got to within a couple of miles offshore of Aktau, Kazakhstan by early afternoon, but then we had to wait. A good dozen oil tankers were sharing a similar fate. This is always a worry – how long will we be stuck here? If we were offshore from an African country, I could quite imagine us waiting for days, but I was sure we’d get to dry land before midnight. Even so, I had to laugh when my friendly barman/passenger organiser said we would be one hour. It was more like ten.
At sunset, we started inching towards the port. We were going so slowly I didn’t really believe we were moving until I made a point of watching one of the oil tankers go from one side of my porthole to the other. It was dark before we were allowed to disembark. I had been warned that customs takes an age in Central Asia, but even so it took until midnight to get all eleven(!) of us through passport control. Maybe that’s why they only allowed eleven passengers. Any more and we would have been there all week. Eventually I took a shared taxi with some of the other passengers into town, something that end up costing me $10, which can’t be right in a country in which petrol costs less than water. I hate hate hate taxi drivers.
I was kicked out in a hotel that was $15 to share a room with an incredibly annoying drunken Kazakh tosser who insisted on repeating the only two English words he knew over and over and over again. Those words were “English?” and “okay?”. I gave up on having a meaningful conversation after about five seconds, but he kept plugging away at it for a good half hour, maybe longer, I don’t know, I fell asleep.
But, sod it, it’s Sunday 21 March and I’m in Kazakhstan. This time last month I was still in the UK. Happy Days!
DID YOU KNOW? Every country that borders the Caspian Sea requires difficult-to-obtain visas off Europeans.
I gave up all hope of a schedule months ago. When people ask me (and they do) when I think I’ll be finished I just shrug and change the subject. If I can get to India by May I will be one happy ginger galavanter, but I’ve got a long way to go until then, and Eritrea and The Seychelles still hang over this whole challenge like a sword of Damocles. I tell you what though, when I was getting the knock back from the border with Algeria three weeks ago, if you had told me that I’d be here in Kazahkstan today, I’d have given you a big kiss. Even if you thought Apple made good computers and everything.
As all good Lost fans know, time seems to have a way of ‘course correcting’ and The Odyssey is not immune to this. Imagine if I had got to Libya on 21st February as I had originally intended and not had the disaster with my Algerian visa… I would have been in Istanbul for the subsequent Friday night, but I still would have presumably had to wait until the following Thursday to pick up my Iranian visa, left Thursday night, done everything the same and got to Azerbaijan one week earlier… in short it would have made NO difference – I would have just been stuck in (lovely, but expensive) Baku for an extra week… the boat goes every 10 days remember? Ahh, it all works out in the wash.
So today I got up as bright and eager as I can these days. Honestly, sometimes I feel like my body is mounting a mutiny against me – since the UK I’ve been completely KNACKERED every morning without fail. I’m not moving fast enough to blame jet-lag, I just seem to have lost the ability to spring out of bed in the morning. My snooze alarm is my new best friend. I didn’t bother with a shower (it was skank), slung my bags on my shoulders and went in search of a way out out of this berg. In fact, where the hell am I? Oh yeah, a little place called Aktau. A pleasant sea-side town, if your idea of pleasant is Chernobyl. It was purpose-built by the Soviets to get at the oil in the Caspian Sea, it’s a bazzilion miles from anywhere, the beach is yucky, all the drinking water is desalinated (and hopefully destalinated) and the buildings are concrete nightmares.
But plucky old Aktau has one saving grace – The Guns and Roses bar! Oh yeah baby WOO!! Well, if it actually played G n’ R instead of 80s female power ballads and the beer wasn’t $5 it would have been AWESOME. I found out the train for the next town left at 7.30pm (it takes 10 hours to get there!) and sorted out my train tickets to Uzbekistan. This time tomorrow I will hopefully be in nation 149. Hopefully. After a stroll around the town (and a nice chat with a couple of teenage girls who both looked liked they had stumbled off the side of a Flaming Lips gig – one was dressed as a horse, the other as bunny rabbit, don’t ask) I decided it wasn’t for me and set up camp in the G&R (not to be confused with G n’ R, which is a completely separate copyrighted entity). The barman, Adam, was from Antalaya in Turkey and let me while away the afternoon using the free Wi-Fi to chat to Mandy (in Australia), Lindsey (in China) and Anna (in Liverpool) all at the same time through the wonders of Skype.
At 6pm it was time to head to the train station. I’m a bit anxious about this. Journalism is banned in Uzbekistan, and while I’m by no means a professional journalist (I c’ant rite 4 toffie), I’m loaded down with stuff (camera, laptop, tapes) that might make it look like I’m a journo when I’m not. The penalty is deportation ON A PLANE. This would be an utter disaster for The Odyssey. I’m worried that they might take my tapes away from me – I wanted to post them back to the UK today, but the post office is closed (it’s a public holiday here too). Well, if it happens it happens, there’s nothing I can do about it.
It may be a relic of the Soviet era, but the train is great – I’ve got a table to write up my blog upon, I’ve been given free cups of tea by the other passengers (and a ton of food I couldn’t eat even if I was hungry) and everybody’s been wonderfully friendly. We’re currently ploughing through the desert, (I presume – it’s dark and I can’t see a damn thing out of the window) my only concern is where I’m going to sleep. People more on the ball than me seem to have bagsied all the beds and I’ve found myself sitting on what could be a bed if it didn’t have two other people sitting on it too. It’s half past midnight and I have to be up at 4am.
SWORD OF ALMONDS, GIVE ME SLEEP BEYOND SLEEP!!
DID YOU KNOW? Once at a festival I rewatched the previous night’s G n’ R gig on the little screen of my video camera with none other than Kim Deal from the Pixies (and Breeders).
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…
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.