Concrete Buildings Never Looked So Good

Posted by on Sep 8, 2006 in Uzbekistan | 2 Comments

My route through Kyrgyzstan and into Uzbekistan looked good on paper but in reality it didn’t really work out the way I wanted. My plan was not to backtrack, but without a Kazak visa I could not take the direct bus from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Tahkent, Uzbekistan. I knew this, of course, and somewhere in the back of my mind had decided to fly a long time ago. The distance isn’t that great but the road goes through Kazakstan to avoid a large Mountain range. My other option was to head back South to Osh or Jalal-abad and cross into the Fergana Valley, but that would have taken a few days of driving and passing through Fergana, the most militant Islamic area of Central Asia. Besides, I promised the Uzbek Counselor that I wouldn’t go to “the mountains.” After all, the USA’s criticism of the Uzbek government’s massacre in Andijan a few years ago was what got it’s air force jets and Peace Corps kicked out of the country (and made my visa aspirations more difficult).

With that in mind I copped out as a “hard core traveler” and bought a place ticket to Tashkent. Of course, my plane left Bishkek at 7am so I had to check in around 5am. Luckily, three Japanese travelers at my guesthouse were on the same flight so we shared the early morning ride to the airport. There was a man near the check-in desk who wrapped my backpack in plastic sheeting, sealed it with tape and wrapped it with plastic bands to ensure it made it through the flight intact. With all of the straps on my bag it was 80 com well spent. This was wonderful for the flight but getting the bands off and my straps off was difficult without my knife, which was packed inside the bag.

Manas Airport in Bishkek is practically an US Air Force base

The flight was full of tour groups and my first impression of this supposedly conservative country was of the flat screen TVs over the Passport Control booths showing a fashion show with barely-dressed models. My taxi driver was a very animated Russian who pointed out all of the buildings in town to me on the way to my hotel. Uzbekistan has a tradition of bed & breakfast hotels which are hard to find for under $10 per night. When I arrived and was shown to my room the man took my passport to register it with the government but when I asked about the price and said that I had been told it was $10, not $15 per room he threw my passport back at me and said no. I was pretty tired and went to sleep, deciding to work it out later. I surprised the man a few hours later when I came back down because he expected me to leave. I usually leave when someone is so rude to me but I was too tired to move all of things across town. He turned out to be very nice most of the time but flew into a rage when you mentioned anything to do with money.

The Uzbek cym (pronounced som, like in Kyrygzstan) only reaches a 1,000 note (less than $1) so I was handed a stack of bills one inch thick after changing $60. I’m a little disappointed that more people aren’t appreciating how wonderfully crisp and new my dollars are after I went to three banks in the US to get the best notes possible for this trip. With local currency I was ready to explore Tashkent and headed for the metro. I love cities but I love metros even more. Tashkent has the only metro system in Central Asia and in true Russian fashion it was built to double as a massive bomb shelter. The stations are nondescript outside, with barely any signs, but once you drop your blue translucent plastic token into the gate and walk downstairs each station opens up with a vaulted ceiling and different decorative theme. Overall, the style is a cross between art deco, early 1900’s Russian design and 70’s kitsch. Every time the train stopped I strained to see what interesting design the doors would reveal.

The only problem with the metro is that it’s swarming with Militsia. I have to keep a watch out for the green uniforms and tried to blend into a crowd of step behind a pillar if they got to close. Usually I don’t try to hide from police but the police here love to check traveler’s passports and papers and then go through all of their bags. Some palm a bit of cash in the process and I really didn’t want to deal with the whole process. Once a man called to me and I just smiled and waved. The local woman in front of me tried to tell me to back but I just gave her a wink and continued on. Most times I passed through without any notice but on my last day an officer motioned me over because I had gotten too close. I started toward him and he motioned for me to come over. Stopping I just shrugged my shoulders, patted my bag and said “niet.” He sighed and let me go. I saw other foreigners in small corridors being searched, usually men, and felt sorry that they had not been so lucky.

Trademark infringement

Sightseeing in Tashkent seemed overwhelming at first, with lots of parks, monuments, museums and important buildings to see. But it turned out to be very easy because the monuments were easy to get to near the metro and most of the buildings didn’t allow visitors so I just needed a little time to walk around. The two and a half days I spent in the city were enough to get a feel for the city without getting bored. Unlike most travelers and guidebook writers, I love massive Russian-style parade grounds and especially adore the “ugly” concrete 70’s style buildings the Russians left behind. The Palace of the Friendship of Peoples is an elaborate example of the style, which looks like a building out of the original Star Wars movies. After being underwhelmed by the other monuments in town I came back to the palace to do my cartwheel.

The Palace of the Friendship of Peoples—sight of my Tashkent cartwheel

Both The Applied Arts Museum and The Fine Arts Museum had wonderful examples of embroidered “Suzanes” which were made for a woman’s dowery. I spent a long time drawing the small birds, peacocks and tulips that adorned the designs. The museum docents tend to assign themselves to you in these museums and stand at the entrance to every gallery, watching silently until you move and they follow with an annoying “click-click” of their high heeled shoes. I become so sick of being watched that I purposefully stood still and tried to see how long the woman would stand behind me until she gave up and moved herself. The modern Uzbek painting I saw was mostly poor mimicry of European works, but I did enjoy many of the brightly colored, almost Fauvist, portraiture from the 1960’s. To round out my cultural experience I went to the opera, something about Alexander the Great and a leopard, which was amateurish but performed with a lot of effort considering it used to be state-sponsored under the Russians. The theater held only as many spectators as performers and it was sad to see the cultural experience go to waste when the expensive seats were only about $1.25.

Cheap opera

Luckily, the first day I arrived a Swiss woman I spent time with in Bishkek came up from Fergana (she crossed from Osh) and we shared a room for my short time in town. Not only did I have someone to go for a drink before the opera, but I also had someone to take my carthweel photo and to complain about whatever local custom was bothering me at the moment. I was sick of hearing people ask where I’m from “acoodah?” and she had a run in with her taxi driver on the way into town. Uzbekistan seemed less Russian in many ways, although I still saw many Russians in town and most people seemed to speak Russian still. The people notice you as a foreigner more so than in Kyrgyzstan and make a point of it, shouting out from far away and asking too many personal questions.

On my first night in town I was walking back from dinner in the Chorsu Bazaar only a few blocks from my hotel when a man standing in the middle of the sidewalk shifted to stand in my way. I naturally swerved to avoid him but when he changed directions again I knew he was doing it on purpose. I kept walking forcefully and stepped up onto the slightly raised concrete next to him when he moved more quickly in front of me. I kept walking while he said something to me and when I didn’t answer he grabbed my right arm which I promptly pulled away. Then he grabbed my ear and I slapped his arm away again. My left hand held a full 1.5 liter bottle of water ready to smack him in the face but he was content just following after me yelling and carrying on. I don’t often have these sort of problems and was shocked that it happened along a well lit street in front of a bus stop surrounded by about 50 men and woman sitting around gossiping. It’s nice to know that my intuition and reflexes are still there after successfully avoiding all the drunks in Kyrgyzstan with little effort. After traveling as much as I have I’ve learned not to expect so-called religious people to necessarily be more honest, less violent or more sober just because they wear a special hat and wave their hands over their faces when driving by a cemetery. Of course, with every country the capital holds a certain kind of person and I was anxious to see what more traditional Uzbek life was like on the other side of the country.

Uzbekistan: Day One

Posted by on Sep 6, 2006 in Uzbekistan | 2 Comments

This morning I got up at 4:30am to drive to Manas International Airport in Bishkek for my 7am flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Because of the crazy borders and a mountain range going by land would have been difficult. I could either buy a Kazak visa to take the bus from Bishkek to Tashkent or travel for two days to Southern Kyrgyzstan (again) and cross over in the Feranga Valley. In the end I splurged for the $136 flight, which only took one hour. And with the time diference between the two countries the flight was a wash.

My taxi driver was nice and told me that I really needed to learn “choot-choot” Ruskie. I know what “choot-choot” means, and a few more Russian words but I’m convinced that some deeply subliminal conditioning as a child growing up during the Regan presidency has blocked me from the ability to learn Russian. I’m getting by okay but not looking forward to learning money and non-foreigner prices all over again—I was pretty set in Bishkek.

So far everyone who has talked to me in Tashkent has asked me where I’m from and how much something costs (my hotel, my camera, etc.). I’ve sidestepped the police three times on the Metro today. When they call me over (to search me) I just wave to them, smile and keep walking. I’m not sure how long I can keep it up but if that fails to work I’m planning to look worried and shout “my moosh” (“my husband”) loudly.

I was tired getting in today but because I’m leaving for Nukus on Friday afternoon I went to The Applied Arts Museum, Lenin Square and bought a ticket for the Opera tomorrow night. Tommorrow will be filled with even more sightseeing. Don’t tell anyone, but I really like the Soviet archetecture that everone else complains about.

Biding Time in Bishkek

Posted by on Aug 30, 2006 in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan | 6 Comments

My embassy outing yesterday did not go well. When I arrived my interpreter, Nargiza, talked to the guards who didn’t know if the consulate was coming to work or not. After some phone calls it was determined that he was at a conference and wouldn’t be in. We helped two other travelers, a Japanese guy and a British girl who was flying out the next morning at 7am. The appropriate word is “was” because she had no visa and no hope of getting on for days.

Nargiza called the embassy from the guards phone and made an appointment for me to come in on the 31st, two days later. We thought this was strange because the 31st is a Kyrgyz holiday so, although we will try, we’re not hopeful things will work out. Everything’s up in the air until then.

In brighter news, this morning I got the first two rolls out of the bread man’s oven and it was still steaming inside when I put chocolate and bananas on it for breakfast. Two newly arrived travelers from my guesthouse went to get an Uzbek visa. I actually asked them on the street (I was waiting for the bread) if they needed help because they were standing around looking at a guidebook. They dismissed me so I left them alone. I could have told them it was pointless to go to the embassy (because it’s closed) and to go to the embassy without a translator. But they were pretty firm in refusing my help so I’ll let them figure it out themselves.

I’ve been walking around town for the past few days looking for thermal underwear, a disposable camera and a sketchbook. I have given up on the sketchbook and bought blank paper. Finding something without lines or a grid was a feat in itself. I bought thread yesterday to repair my pants and will use that to bind a book myself. I saw some guys with papercutters in the “mall” in the underpass so they may come in useful. Today I found a fancy mall on the far South side of the city with a movie theater, food court and disposable cameras. I have been keeping my eye out for one since China and was starting to give up. All of the stores in Bishkek are having their summer sales so thermals aren’t quite in season, even in the outdoor shops. I have looking in at least five outdoor shops with no luck.

Tomorrow’s the big holiday and I will probably miss the national games in the hippodrome because I will be standing hopefully in front of the Uzbek embassy when they start. I’ve heard about a parade and the town has been decked out in flags and banners so there’s sure to be something worth seeing near the former Lenin Square. I’m always up for a few soldiers marching in unison.

I Am Alive

Posted by on Aug 28, 2006 in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan | 7 Comments

I’ve spoiled you.

When I was in China and updating every few days I feared that you would get used to it! After a week sleeping in yurts on Song Kul Lake and hiking around Karakol I’ve come back to an inbox full of worried notes from friends, family and strangers. You guys had my sister worked up enough to start inquiring around to see if anyone had heard from me! You see, it has taken me years to train my family not to worry about me and now you’ve worked them up into a frenzy.

I am fine, in Bishkek dealing with a lot of red tape at the moment. My Uzbek LOI (letter of invitation) hadn’t come through the first time I was in Bishkek so I left for the lakes to give it some time to process. I arrived yesterday from Kochkor (where I bought a bright felt carpet) and my LOI was waiting in my inbox. I’ve had people who speak Russian call the Uzbek Embassy twice now to make an apointment for me to apply for my visa but each time I am told to call back the next day. Today it’s closed and I was told that it’s also closed tomorrow for some reason. The Kyrgyz Idependence Day is on the 31st and Uzbek Independence Day is on the 1st so I’m sure to run into some problems if it’s clsoed tomorrow.

The application process for Uzbekistan is really a pain. First you need to obtain a LOI from a travel agency ($37). The you need to call and be put on the waiting list to get into the embassy. When you go to apply you need a Russian interpreter with you to even hand in the application. I haven’t found an interpreter yet but I hope to get someone to help me, because the owner of my guesthouse has turned me down. I have met more than one American who has been denied an Uzbek visa, but no Americans who have even tried applying in Bishkek so I’m not sure what to expect. I also have no idea how much the visa will cost because costs are different for each nationality. I am expecting $100, a Swiss girl I know paid $72 last week.

Once I obtain an Uzbek visa I can pay for and confirm the flights I reserved from Bishkek to Tashkent and then from Tashkent to Nukkus. I don’t want to pay before I get a visa, but I have to pay before the 31st to keep my booking, so you see there’s a tight window this week with all of these holidays. After that I can run over to the Tajik embasy on the South side of town and apply for a visa there. I have been told that they ask for a LOI but if you don’t have one you can bluff your way through it. That visa was $50 for 4 working days processing or $100 for same day for an English guy in my guesthouse—I’m not sure what it will be for an American.

Everything hinges on geting the Uzbek visa tomorrow (or at last resort on Wednesday) for things to fall into place. I’m already spending a great deal of time in Bishkek for no real reason other than to deal with visas. However, Bishkek is the cheapest place in the region for me to stop for a while and my guesthosue is really nice and peaceful. I’ve found a small Chinese supermarket around the corner that sells cold Diet Coke (Diet Coke is hard to find when traveling) and every morning I walk out to Soviet Street to get a coke and a fresh bread roll for breakfast. I’ll keep you updated on the visa situation this week. My Kyrgyz visa lasts until the 7th, but my flight is planned to leave the 6th. I’ll be in Bishkek for a while so no reason to be worrying about me for the next week.

Visa Man Pulls Through

Posted by on Jun 5, 2006 in Pre-Trip Planning, Uzbekistan | 4 Comments

I got my passport!!!

I don’t know if I have ever been so happy to see a FedEx man in my life. Thanks for worrying along with me, we can all now let out a sigh of relief.

Voicemail Runaround

Posted by on Jun 4, 2006 in Pre-Trip Planning, Uzbekistan | 9 Comments

On Thursday I left a few messages with the Uzbekistan consulate in NYC about my passport. When I talk to an assistant I was told to call back at 5pm to speak with the man in charge of visas. When I called at 5pm I received voicemail again, but this time I had the visa man’s extension. You see, the Uzbek consulate and embassy only publish their main number on their web sites and visa applications.

Both agencies have automatic voicemail systems which you have to navigate. You first select the “visa and consular affairs” extension, which would make sense if anyone ever answered that extension. The embassy in D.C. then goes into an appropriate person’s voicemail. The man at this extension does not return calls at all, but at least you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere. However, the NYC consulate’s system than asks for your extension. If you do not know the extension you stay on the line or press 0. I have tried every combination of staying on the line, pressing 0 and even typing in random numbers in the hope that it is a valid extension to no avail. You have better luck stumbling onto hidden video game codes than reaching an actual person.

On the off chance that an actual human being answers the phone you will hear some static and possibly a utterance in a foreign language. Both stunned silence and loudly repeating “hello!” will bring an exasperated response, but not a disconnected call. But be aware that any time you reach an actual person they will “go to check on something”, put you on hold and ultimately disconnect you. When you try to call back the line will be busy for about an hour and then you will be routed through the voicemail maze again.

Luckily, after talking to the assistant on Thursday I asked for an extension number to call. For anyone trying to reach the Uzbek consulate for visa questions that number is 212-754-7403 x109. Surprisingly, my call was returned Thursday night at 9pm. But, assuming that a consulate would not be calling me at 10pm est, I was not home. A message was left with my mom to call back at 9am est Friday and that’s just what I did. Because I was worried about getting my passport back in time I was prepared with a FedEx account number. Not surprisingly, I was routed through the dreadful voicemail system again but this time armed with x109. I left a nice and appropriate message requesting my passport back because of my impending departure and sat by the phone waiting to hear back from the visa man or his assistant. After two hours past the time I was told to call I tried again, nothing. I continued to call every hour throughout the day and was met with either a busy signal or voicemail.

At 10pm est the visa man answered the phone. Naturally, after calling the consulate about 10 times my level of anger had continued to rise. While I was understanding and restrained at 9am, I was furious and accusatory at 10pm—not a good attitude to take with the man holding my passport hostage. I started out requesting my passport back and was surprised to find that he had no idea who I was. If someone left me 5 voicemails in one day I would certainly pay attention. Visa man insisted that I should have called at 9am when his assistant was around. I explained that I did call at 9, and at 10, and every hour until I finally reached him. He continued to insist that I had not and that there were no messages for him. I politely voiced my concern with his phone system and suggested his assistant talk to the phone company, because there must be a serious problem with their system.

At this point I had a captive audience and I was on a roll. I should have given the FedEx number to him and left it alone but I wanted to know what the hold up was. He told me that he was not allowed to disclose the problem with my application, but that it was just taking longer and he needed another week. I wondered aloud how he could hold my passport for more than the allotted 10 days (in this case he wanted 30!) without at the very least contacting me to inform me of it’s status. Visa man began to get annoyed and went on about how they can not keep calling and calling people and that some of the phone numbers I supplied were not working etc. It became clear that he was trying to contact my school, which I listed on my application. Now, I did just finish up classes and the information is totally legitimate, but there’s no way the school is going to return a random call from the Uzbek Consulate, let alone release any information about a student which is covered under privacy laws. One of my fellow students had complained that her very own mother, who paid her tuition, was not allowed to talk to her teacher without prior written consent.

So, wether the hold up was my college or the Uzbek hotel information I provided, I’m not sure. In any case, I now know that there really is no easy way to beat the system of bribes, extortion and red tape involved in getting a visa to Central Asia. Even without needing a LOI, it seems that you still have to go through an agency to get a visa to Uzbekistan.

At the end of the call visa man agreed to send my passport back via FedEx and to return my $100 money order. Given that it was a Friday night I don’t expect the package to be mailed until Monday. Although I requested it arrive by Tuesday, I still have no idea if it will actually happen. I will brave the voicemail maze again on Monday to check that it’s being shipped, but I am not keeping my hopes up that I will be given a tracking number.

Passport Update

Posted by on Jun 2, 2006 in Pre-Trip Planning, Uzbekistan | 8 Comments

With seven days to go I am still waiting on my passport. After phone tag with the Uzbek Consulate in NYC I have discovered that they are holding it hostage. One would assume that the processing time would be 5 days—which is normal—but the Uzbek Consulate asks for 10. Even with 10 days of processing, weekends and mailing time I should have received it by now. From the message I got last night all I know is that they had some “questions.” I am not sure if they were trying to communicate these questions to me telepathically, because they never called me during the 16 days they have had my passport, application and $100 money order. Today I am sitting by the phone waiting for a phone call so I can request to have my passport sent back. At this point I am doubtful that I will be issued a visa, for whatever reason, but at the very least I need that passport to board my flight to Seoul next Thursday.

Passport Shuffle

Posted by on May 22, 2006 in Pre-Trip Planning, Uzbekistan | 11 Comments

Two days after getting my passport back from the Chinese Consulate in Chicago I sent it off to the Uzbek Consulate in NYC. Over a week has passed now and I am crossing my fingers that it will not only return with a 30-day Uzbek visa, but that it will return in time for my flight to South Korea. I didn’t planned for the extra six days my passport was held at the Chinese Consulate because of the May Day holiday (the U.S. doesn’t really celebrate May Day) so I’m cutting it a bit short.

Most of you have no idea how much research went into visas for Central Asia alone. With the help of David at Stan Tours I decided to try my luck at an Uzbek visa in the U.S. Apparently, I can get the visa in Bishkek, Kyrgzstan, but it might take a week and require a LOI (letter of invitation). LOI’s are a holdover from the days when Uzbekistan was part of the USSR. When it became it’s own country Uzbekistan (and it’s ‘stan neighbors) kept the bureaucracy and red tape that Russia is know for to this day. The silly thing about this particular piece of red tape is that a LOI can be easily issued to anyone who wants one—through a regional travel agent for $25-40. So, like usual, it’s all about money. Considering the Uzbek visa already starts at $100 (less for non-Americans), a budget backpacker can spend a lot before even entering a country in Central Asia.

The entrance cost, red tape and inflated lodging costs are why backpackers are still less likely to be seen in the ‘stans than oil executives. I’m sure this will gradually change (Kyrgzstan now offers visas on arrival at the airport), but it won’t be a Thailand any time soon. Turkmenistan still requires a fully guided tour to get more than a seven day transit visa and my entrance to Tajikistan will require a visa, LOI, GBAO travel permit and police registration.

Even with all of the research I did on Central Asian visas online and in books, I was never certain I had the correct information. My doubts we confirmed when I realized that every visa issuing office has different policies. The Uzbek consulate in NYC has different rules than the embassy in DC, and even different rules than the embassy in Kyrgzstan. In addition, the rules are different for every nationality and seemingly change depending on the whim of the issuing agent. After a week of phone calls to the Washington Embassy I got a hold of a man who confirmed that I didn’t need a LOI. His answer to my question about visa lengths was met with a series of questions about why I was going, what cities I wanted to see and if I was an independent tourist. The answer was an uncertain “I suppose that would be alright.” So I suppose all I can do is sit back and wait to see if it’s still alright the day my application comes up for consideration.

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