We’ve been in Dushanbe for the better part of two weeks now. We’ve just managed to get the required onward visas, and we plan to depart by bike for Penjikent and the Uzbek border tomorrow, aiming for a 4:00 a.m. departure in an attempt to avoid the worst of the heat. Tajikistan will have been a land of contrasts: we had snowstorms during our first days in the country, and humid mid-thirties temperatures as of late.
We stayed the first two nights in a grotty soviet-era establishment, and then treated ourselves to three nights in the high end hotel that had held the bike parts for us and received our UPS parcel. I spent most of that stay being explosively ill with something similar to what Chris had in Khorog. We now suspect both our bouts of illness can be correlated with us eating soft ice cream. It’s sold from machines on the street and is tempting stuff in this weather, but we’ve had a lecture from veteran traveller about how the machines are seldom cleaned, and that dubious water is used for cleaning. In future, we’ll resist the temptation.
For the past week, we’ve been at the Adventurer’s’ Inn, a mid-range guest house, where – when not chasing visas – we have read nearly all the available English books and magazines, relaxed with other travellers, and have slept and eaten a lot. We went to the Museum of Antiquities once, and took the No. 3 bus into town and back many many times. It’s all very civilized, because my grey hair means I’m usually offered a seat.
By the way, did you know that in Central Asia you can wash your clothes in Barf? I guess brand names selected in one language sometimes don’t work well in other languages. This one has certainly given us a good giggle: “Give me your dirty socks. I’m going to wash them in Barf.” etc.. We must be road-weary; we are easily amused. (For those not familiar with North-American slang, see online definitions) In fact, there is a whole line of Barf cleaning products here, so you can wash your floor with Barf and even clean mirrors with it. If you want to, that is.
The Final Visa Chase
Your eyes may well glaze over reading this, but it’ll give you an idea what it’s like.
Weighing our route options in the wake of failing to get visas for Iran, we’ve decided to take the boat across the Caspian from Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, to Baku, Azerbaijan. We’ve had Uzbek visas in hand since Almaty, but they are for a fixed 30-day window which began on June 27th. The time to obtain the visas required to move forward under the post-Iran plan would further narrow our remaining Uzbek visa window. The first step was to get the Azeri visas, which required applying for a Letter of Invitation. We applied and paid for this from Khorog, after resetting the online payment account (a multi-step process) to a different credit card. (In Osh we’d found my Visa card had been mis-used and had to cancel it.) We tried to start the application for the Turkmen transit visa before getting the actual Azeri visas. We’d heard that this could be done by showing a letter or email saying the Azeroi LOIs were coming, and it would have saved us a lot of sitting-in-Dushanbe time. It took us all of last Tuesday (30 June) to locate the Turkmen Embassy, which is at neither of the addresses listed for it on the web and for which we could find no working telephone number. When we finally located it at the end of the day, and after an altercation with a rude and dishonest taxi driver, it was closing. Come back zaftra – tomorrow. So we did. Then they told us that they wouldn’t begin the process till we could show an Azeri visa stamped in our passports. Such an expedient early start, where you show the Azeri visa as you COLLECT the Turkmen transit visa, only happens in Tashkent – not here.
The LOI for Azerbaijan, expected last Thursday or Friday, arrived late Friday. We printed it at an internet cafe and raced to the Azeri embassy before closing time. We were pleased to get the flexibility of a visa which can be started any time in the next three months, rather than another “fixed window”. However, we couldn’t start the Turkmen process till Monday, and even an “urgent” application would take “five working days”, meaning we’d probably get it Monday (13 July) and leave Dushanbe only next Tuesday (14 July). With three cycling days to the Uzbek border this would leave barely any visa time to do justice to Samarquand and Bukhara, let alone get there. We very politely asked if the visas could be ready at the end of this week – Friday. Call on Thursday to see, we were told. We did, and there was no news of our visas. Suspecting no Turkmen visas on Friday – or possibly at all – we went to the Kazakh Embassy as a hedge. We wanted to see if we could get a visa quickly and assure ourselves of being able to take the Aktau, Kazakhstan, backup route where a boat runs to Baku occasionally. They don’t do visas in the afternoon. Zaftra – come back tomorrow. This morning, we positioned ourselves near the Kazakh Embassy before phoning the Turkmens at 9:00 a.m. When we called, they said to call back at noon. We got a Kazakh visa application partly done, but could not complete it because we weren’t prepared to relinquish our passports. We called the Turkmens at 11:30. Our visas were approved. Be there by 12:30! So we were. Then followed a trip back to our guest house for more US cash (after nearly fainting at the requested payment), a trip to a downtown bank with tour of several departments, and a trip back to the Turkmen embassy to show proof of payment and collect visas. So we have them now!
And it was a hot day. Phew!
Georgia and Turkey issue visas at the border. After Turkey we won’t need visas!! Our full-to-bursting passports may make a nice souvenir, but we’re not sure we ever want to see a visa form or an embassy again. In fact, we are going to join Carsten’s newly-founded Society for the Abolition of Visas! We may even start our own chapter.