Border crossing hell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
No pictures but lots of writing.
I arrived in Uzbekistan and I’m ashamed to say was largely ignorant of the country as a whole. I’d read and heard bits about the politics of the country whilst travelling in Kazakhstan but I haven’t read enough myself to be able to comment on that so I won’t.
It’s a very popular destination with many travelers more so it seems than that of its neighbour Kazakhstan and many people I met seemed surprised that I was just making a fleeting visit to this country.
My reasons as I explained to them are clear; my Kazakhstan visa is only valid for 60 days. You have to leave the country after 30 days before you can re-enter it to activate the second 30 days on your visa. I have some large distances to cover in my second thirty days in Kazakhstan across some very inhospitable terrain of which I know very little so it’s important that I give myself enough time to make it across in the thirty day period that I have.
Uzbekistan or to be more specific Tashkent was where I met up with some incredibly interesting and lovely people who are also making their way around this part of the world.
Many of them were in the same position I found myself dealing with in both Urumqi and Almaty, waiting for visas to travel onto other countries in this region such as Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China. Central Asia really is a visa nightmare zone and each person has their own experiences in dealing with the various consulates here. It’s always good to meet other people and be able to share not only our experiences but also frustrations in going through these processes.
Before I talk about the people I met in Tashkent I should mention the border crossing. For most of us crossing a border simply involves going through the process at an airport and while it can be a time consuming event for the most part it’s fairly straightforward. The land crossing from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan was far from so in fact I think the best word to describe it would be utter chaos.
I got up early in the morning in order to get to the border at a reasonable time to cross in the morning. Unlike the previous border I crossed in China this one was open throughout the day bar a couple of hours here and there for meal breaks.
As I approached the border I was bombarded by people running up to me waving bundles of cash offering money changing services. This was the last thing I needed and all I wanted was a quite place to rest my bike up against and get everything I needed in order.
I found this by the side of the road next to a money changing booth. The lady there was extremely persuasive and before I knew it I was inside her booth sitting on a sofa while she counted out 100 dollars behind a heavily padlocked door and bars. I’d been caught unaware; it was also my own fault in not doing my research. I’d checked very quickly the night before on my phone the exchange rate from dollar to Uzbek ‘Som’ I found out that the official exchange rate was 1900 Som to the dollar. I was however blissfully unaware that there also exists a black market exchange rate of 2800 Som to the dollar. Flummoxed and unaware of this but knowing I needed some money for when I got into Uzbekistan I changed up my remaining 100 dollar bill and was presented with a huge stack of bills at the ‘official’ exchange rate.. It was only later that I found out about the other rate available. It wasn’t too bad, I hadn’t lost a great deal of money but I was a little frustrated I’d been outfoxed by the lady in question.
On the Kazakhstan side inside the building separating the borders I was ushered into a line, I say line in the loosest possible sense. There were three lines which people seemed to jump from one to another depending on the speed of each. There was also a part where those small enough could crawl under a barrier out of sight of the guards patrolling it. Women with children and elderly women seemed to have the right to go straight to the front which is fair enough I suppose.
I waited very patiently with my bike in what one might describe as a very “British way” after all us Brits are very good at queuing up. Anyone suffering from a fear of enclosed spaces here or a lack of personal space would certainly not have enjoyed this experience. Sweaty bodies pressed up against each other as people pushed their way impatiently forward and there was a distinct smell of body odor and vodka filling the air.
One of the guys nearby was carrying a large plastic bag, the type that you take to the laundry to do your washing in. He was playing around with the bag, moving things about and then I saw him pull out a small pistol! Yes a pistol, which he proceeded to stuff further down inside the bag. I was shocked obviously and tried to avoid all eye contact with the guy. Now I suppose there is always the chance that it was a fake pistol, one of those novelty lighters one kind find but it certainly looked real enough to me. How on earth was he going to get that through the security check? Not my problem I thought.
The officials were very abrasive and it seemed very much that they enjoyed the small amount of power they had in letting people through to the next stage.
Once through the first section I made it into a line where one has to present their passport and visa registration cards to exit the country. I negotiated this fairly easily as the lines became a little more organized. I thought I’d passed the worst of it to be honest.
However I next found myself outside in the boiling hot sun and faced we a sea of people all trying to get through what was now ONE gate. On this gate was one guard who would occasionally open it up to allow a few people through and ease the swelling of the sea of people pushing forward.
My efforts to indicate I was travelling with a bike seemed to fall on deaf ears and I was forced just like everyone else to get in amongst it, jostle, push and gradually try to work my way forward. It was a total nightmare and total chaos. People were shouting, small arguments broke out among small sections and individuals as they tried to force their way through. In fact I’d go as far as to say it seemed that some people were angry at me for having the audacity to try and take my bike with me.
People were leaning on the bike and the panniers attached to it kept getting caught. I tried my best to stay calm but at one point had to turn around swiftly to one lady and in a polite yet very forceful manner tell her to stop and wait! It’s just not what Brits are accustomed too all this pushing!
I finally made it through and was now in the no mans land section but still had to pass through the Uzbekistan side. Needless to say I made it through after yet more waiting, filling in of forms and for the first time having to remove every bag off the bike to put it through the x-ray machine.
All in all it was an experience that I certainly don’t want to have to repeat again but I was in Uzbekistan and so too I noticed was the man with the laundry bag!
I managed to locate the Gulnara Guesthouse which I’d read about in the lonely planet and was pleased when I managed to find it just after lunch. It’s a family run guesthouse with a huge open courtyard with trees and tables scattered around it.
It was here that I met amongst others three other cyclists:
Peter – A half German half British guy living in Belgium who was making his way towards China.
Eric – A Swedish guy who funnily enough Kenta had told me he’d met in Portland USA many years ago…..small world.
And finally Jacques – A Frenchman who has been travelling the world for the past 18 years on his bike and who was not only full of amazing stories concerning his travels but also loved to talk football.
In addition to the cyclists there was also Andreas, a German filmmaker, Rex and Judy an older couple from New Zealand who’d spent time in England. Jordi and Christina and lovely couple from Barcelona who travelled with a glorious air of freedom that I really admired and Jullen a young German guy who I spent the day sightseeing around Tashkent with for one of my days in the city.
The whole set up of the guesthouse made it have a real sense of community and it was easy to see why it is such a popular spot with many passing travelers.
I was only in Tashkent for what really only amounted to two days and like I mentioned one of those was spent taking in the sights of the city.
It’s hard to form a picture of what a country is like by just visiting its capital city but my impression of Tashkent was good on the whole. For me it lacked the charm of Almaty and had a much more ‘state’ like feel. Anyone who is familiar with the politics of this country will know that this is essentially a ‘police state’ and I’d been warned to expect plenty of attention from the local police.
In fact I wasn’t stopped once the whole time I was there but was told by a security guard that I couldn’t take photos of one of the bazaars I visited. The Government are extremely sensitive to photos being taken. It’s all out there in the virtual world if you want to read about it, I’ll let you all form your own opinions or better still take a visit to this part of the world, you won’t be disappointed.
Well as you can see this blog entry has gone on for a very long time. I could go into detail about what I did and saw in Tashkent but you can see from the photos I posted up the other day basically all I saw and did.
I hope I’m able to upload more photos but as I’m leaving bigger cities it’s becoming harder and harder to get online. Thus my blog entries may have to become less and less