Saturday, 15 August 2009

Adventures in Uzbekistan part 2

To get into Uzbekistan is not straightforward, as you might expect from this fairly murky regime. To obtain a visa, you must get a letter of invitation to visit the country from someone inside the country, which is tricky if you have never been there before to get to know anyone to ask you back. So you need to use a tour agency to invite you, and they make a formal request at some border office inside Uzbekistan. This office issues them with a unique visa application number which is then sent to you and you go and find the Uzbek embassy near you and wait until they deign to provide you with your visa, relieving you of US$55 for your time wasted. I say deign, because the Uzbek visa office in Almaty takes a very slap dash approach to its opening hours. Officially open from 2pm to 4.30pm every day, they may not actually open until nearer 3pm. There is no queue system, and the range of random applicants for visas are admitted seemingly in the order of the size of the bribe they have paid to the doorman to get in. 

We had all obtained our visas, but Dimitriy, our tour contact person, had informed us that the border closest to Shymkent was "not working" and advised to go to another crossing point called Yallama. He did not advise us that this crossing was 300kms instead of 70kms away from the airport, and it was only after we had been travelling at great speed in the ancient audi taxi that I asked the driver how much further it was and he told me it would be about another 200kms. The thought of flying on Tuesday morning direct to Tashkent began to seem, retrospectively, like not a bad idea at all, but too late for that. Our early morning start was taking its toll, and although along the route we did see camels grazing (a first for me in Kazakhstan), and we may have passed many other interesting sights, but we would not be able to relate these since we were all lolling our heads in states of total unconsciousness. It was hard not to all fall asleep at the same time, and at one point, we had to discuss who thought they could manage to stay awake for the next 30 minutes, so that we were not all out of it at the same time. The three of us falling asleep at the same time in an unknown place with an unknown taxi driver, on our way to somewhere that none of us actually knew where it was (and it was not marked on our map) somehow did not seem like good travel practice! 

And then after a long, long time of driving as fast as he could along a straight road through miles of more-or-less nothingness, the taxi driver stopped in a tiny town, took our stuff out and drove off. 

The border town is an absolute dump. My parents and I have done dodgy borders before, the most notable being the Thailand/Cambodian entry/exit point of Poi Pet which is another Border Hole of the Ultimate Order. This was a backwater of a place, full of puddles, potholes, assorted livestock, a few loitering locals and the official crossing point to our destination. I began to pray that Sergei, our contact, was indeed waiting on the other side. I had told Dimitry that we were coming from Shymkent by taxi after landing at 8.30am and he had told me Sergei would be at the border at 11am. We did not get there until 1pm, so I thought that perhaps Sergie might have given up and buggered off by now. He was not answering his phone. I did not tell my parents this. 
A very slow and tedious passage through customs was made slightly more interesting only by the chance meeting of a load of England football fans on their way into Kazakhstan. Initially I thought perhaps they might be hooligans trying to get into Kazakhstan at a small remote border crossing (possibly without internet connectivity), avoiding Interpol and entering illegally. But it turned out that they were an apparently respectable lot, who were taking the chance to experience a Central Asian cultural tour before going to watch the world qualifying football match the following Saturday. They did tell us that their next destination was Bishkek, and we later heard that an England fan had been shot in the knee in Bishkek after refusing to stop singing football songs in a bar when being repeatedly asked to be quiet by the locals, the only bit of trouble that any of us heard off, and frankly, he had obviously asked for it, so perhaps they did have alter-egos after all, we will never know. 

After two hours we finally emerged into Uzbekistan. Leaving the border crossing, we had a 500m walk along a donkey track lined with huge transport lorries waiting to cross into Kazakhstan. The drivers all had the look of people who wait at borders often and for very long times indeed, and it was no surprise to pass a guard post at the end of the track and see the guards playing poker, presumably safe in the knowledge that none of the guys outside were going anywhere until they had had their documents stamped. 

What joy to finally see the sign "East Line Tour" and meet the jolly Sergei, who had faithfully been waiting for us for nearly 5 hours! 

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