Khujand: From Uzbekistan To Tajikistan

Khujand: From Uzbekistan To Tajikistan

Lenin just got served
Alexander The Great's northernmost Central Asian outpost just got served

 

After 2 days in Samarkand, the group arrived in Tashkent in the afternoon and we did a leisurely walk through Independence Park, observing some national monuments and a public fair.

 

Memorial and Eternal Flame to Mothers of Veterans

 

By the memorial to veterans, there are gold plated books listing all the names of Uzbek soldiers that have been MIA and KIA during World War II.

 

 

Afterwards we said our next round of goodbyes to Patricia, Chris, and Johnson, who were leaving for Hong Kong and Singapore today.

 

 

The next morning the group got up and began our drive to Tajikistan. After about 3 hours on the road, we reached Oybek and the first round of passport checks to depart Uzbekistan.

A couple of things to know:

  • Remember the customs form you had to fill out twice when you arrived in Uzbekistan? And that they took one during customs and let you keep one for yourself? I hope you didn’t lose that piece of paper! You need to present that same form when you depart Uzbekistan while also filling a new identical one here. They will compare to two to check if you’re carrying the same or less amount of foreign currency than when you first came in.
  • To reiterate, make sure you list the same foreign currency on the departure customs form as you did when you arrived, and with that said, make sure that amount is less than what you arrived with. Otherwise they’ll keep the difference for themselves!

After they let you through here, they’ll inspect your luggage at customs, more out of curiosity than to look for anything to particular. For example, guard was interested in asking about the medicines I was carrying; others may want to look through all your photos on your camera to make sure you didn’t take any photos of military or policemen while in Uzbekistan.

Then you line up on another line to get your passport stamped out.

After that, they set you out on foot…

 

 

…to walk across No Man’s Land…

 

 

It’s about a lonely 10 minute walk to the edge of Uzbekistan.

 

 

After the Uzbek border guards wave you goodbye, you’ll come across the green coated border guards of Tajikistan.

 

 

Don’t get too nervous as these guards are much more relaxed and friendlier than Uzbek’s border guards.

At this point you fill out two identical custom forms exactly the same, where they inspect your passport, ask if you’re carrying more than $10,000 USD, and take one copy of your customs form while you keep the other for your eventual departure.

 

 

Then you keep walking to another building where they stamp your passport into Tajikistan.

 

 

After that, a bunch of cabs will be waiting for you at the border to take you to Khojand, about a 30-45min drive away. You’re now in Tajikistan!

 

 

Khojand, formerly known as Leninabad during the days of the USSR, is famous for being the farthest point that Alexander The Great’s ever reached in his conquest of Central Asia, and where he would set up his northernmost outpost, Alexandria-Eskhate.

His settlement still exists today in the form of a modern-day military citadel, where on the southwest corner houses a small museum that acts as a basic primer on Alexander The Great and Tajikistan.

 

 

After an hour at the museum we headed to the Sheikh Massal ad-Din complex facing the Panchshanbe Bazaar.

 

 

The mosques on your left are part of a religious plaza built in 1394. The 21m minaret here was built in 1865.

 

 

The bazaar on the opposite side of the mosques is a huge hall reminiscent of the Stabroek Hall market in Guyana, although instead of a British-Guyanese mix, Panschanbe Bazaar is imposing Stalinist architecture with a subtly Arab touch.

 

 

Afterwards we drove over across the river to the 22m-tall statue of Lenin that was moved here from Moscow in 1974 when Khojand was formerly known as Leninabad. It was then moved again from overlooking the river (and replaced by a statue of Somoni, father of the Tajik nation) to a quieter location in the suburbs. We found it anyways.

 

 

For dinner one of our monsooners, Siavash, was able to arrange a local family friend to host a Tajik feast for us where “anything you want, we’ll have it.” This included live music, unlimited vodka, wine, dishes re-served with less fat (literally), and after-dinner shisha. Hospitality at its finest, to the point the group stayed for nearly 4 hours.

Thanks Siavash!

 

 

- At time of posting in Khojand, Tajikistan, it was 7 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast and light rain

 

The Golden Road To Samarkand

The Golden Road To Samarkand

 

We travel not for trafficking alone:

By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:

For lust of knowing what should not be known

We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.


– James Elroy Flecker, 1913

 

 

 

The mysticism surrounding The Silk Road has been synonymous with the city of Samarkand for centuries, having been immortalized by generations of countless poets and philosophers, and its dubious existence comparable to that of the lost city of Atlantis.We’re glad to confirm that Samarkand still does stand today, and it’s very much real as it is magical.

 

The Registan just got served
Can you see "UZBEKISTAN" spelled here? I think we did good.

 

Waking up 7 am in Bukhara, our group got up for a 5-hour morning bus ride to Samarkand. We began to notice upon arrival how warm it was outside (up to 50-60 degrees F!). Due to a presumably an El Niño-related weather pattern causing this questionably warm winter for most of the globe, we took advantage of this by stripping down to T-shirts and lunched in the city center. Afterwards, we walked over to the crown jewel of Central Asia and The Silk Road, the majestic Registan complex.

Originally a commercial center and bazaar during medieval Samarkand, the three structures that make up The Registan are among the world’s oldest preserved medressas after the invasion of Genghis Khan. After its share of power grabs and earthquakes, the complex was reduced was a pile of unrecognizable rubble, until the Russian Soviets arrived and worked endlessly to restore them to the way they are today.

On the west side of the complex is the Ulugbek Medressa, finished in 1420 by the same architect who built the Kalon complex in Bukhara. On the east stands the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa, noticeable for its Ligers (Tiger-Lion hybrids) depicted on the top that defied Islamic regulations against depicting live animals on their structures. In between the two is the Tilla-Kari Medressa with its resplendent mosque within that also contains photos of what The Registan looked like (pretty much rubble) before Soviet restoration.

 

Ulugbek on the left, Tilla-Kari in the middle, Sher-Dor on the right

 

We first check out Tilla-Kari Medressa in the middle.

 

Tilla-Kari Medressa

 

The mosque inside Tilla-Kari:

 

 

The outside courtyard:

 

 

Sher-Dor Medressa on the east:

 

Sher-Dor Medressa

 

You can easily spend a few hours wandering here, losing yourself in arguably the most awesome sight of The Silk Road.

 

 

I also took a few panoramas in the courtyards (click to enlarge)…

 

 

…until Chris, Patricia and Eilidh started photobombing…

 

 

…and then I got an idea for my fellow monsooners to get creative (click to enlarge)…

 

 

…And then we started getting carried away (click to enlarge)…

 

 

Afterwards we headed to the Gur-E-Amin Mausoleum which houses the graves of one of the 3 great undefeated conquerors of the region (the other two being Alexander The Great and Genghis Khan), Timur. It also houses his 2 sons and 2 grandsons (including Ulugbek).

A famous true story is that when Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov discovered Timur’s tombs in 1941, he came upon Timur’s inscription “Whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I.” 

The next day, June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

 

 

Inside the mausoleum:

 

 

Come by at dusk when the mausoleum lights up:

 

 

A suitably wintry cold, rainy Sunday greeted us the next morning. Layering up, we first drove over to visit the Tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel off of the Siob River, known for housing the 18m long sarcophagus of Prophet Daniel after it was taken by Timur from Susa, Iran.

Legend has it that his body grows half an inch a year, thus requiring the construction of a newer, larger sarcophagus every few decades.

 

 

Afterwards we headed to Shah-i-Zinda or “Tomb of the Living King” and is otherwise known as an avenue of mausoleums (or a Necropolis) housing a descendent/cousin of Prophet Mohammed, and is also the site of a modern graveyard for today’s Sarmakandians.

 

 

Behind the complex lies the actual modern graveyard, which stretches endlessly as far as the eye can see:

 

 

Then through a local market, we walked to Bibi-Khanym Mosque. At 41m high, it formerly was one of the world’s largest mosques and was ordered to be built as a surprise gift by one of Timur’s wives, Bibi-Khanym, when Timur was away on a military campaign.

The story goes that the architect wouldn’t finish the construction of the mosque until Bibi-Khanym, who was of Chinese origin, gave him a kiss. When Timur returned and saw the mark that was left behind on the architect’s cheek, he was so upset that he ordered the architect (and 5,000 others) executed as well as mandating every woman should wear a veil so as to not tempt other men. In other words, Asian fetishism, yellow fever, and typical slut-shaming male privilege has been around since the dawn of time.

 

The outer gate
The mosque inside

 

Despite yesterday’s spring-like weather, it got really cold at this point.

 

 

Our group then allowed ourselves some free time to explore on our own after lunch.

 

 

At 4pm we regrouped for an modernist Uzbek fashion show by a Russian designer:

 

 

Afterwards we drank away at a local Uzbek wine tasting where they served copious of liquid confidence.

 

 

The results of the wine tasting:

 

 

The next morning the 6 of us headed out at 7am for a sunrise visit of the Registan.

 

 

Although the day’s overcast skies prevented the sunrise from being the pretty thing it could’ve been, a security guard approached us as soon as we arrived and offered for us to climb the minaret (usually off-limits to tourists) for $15 USD per person as long as we climbed back down before 8am.

We negotiated the bribe down to $10 per person and after he brought a key to unlock a secret door in Sher-Dor mosque, we crawled up a set of dusty stairs in the dark to reach a ledge above the building.

 

 

After reaching the first ledge, the guard instructed us to keep ourselves crouched down to avoid being seen, as we waited for each of us to climb up the minaret one by one (the stairs can only fit one person at a time).

Once I was up at the top, I was able to peek my head out for an alternative, illegal view of the Registan from its highest point.

 

We climbed to the top of this.

 

 

 

Afterwards, we snuck through the car park to avoid being detected and got on our 8am, 5-6 hour bus back to Tashkent.

 

 

- At time of posting in Sarmarkand, Uzbekistan, it was 13 °C - Humidity: 58% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: rain showers

 

New Year’s Eve In Bukhara

New Year’s Eve In Bukhara


Bukhara just got served

 

The next morning, the group boarded our 9 hour bus ride from 8am-5pm (with an hour lunch break in between at a rest stop) from Khiva to Bukhara. 

The drive isn’t as pretty as I would expect, as it’s endless barren fields of the Kyzylkum Desert.

 

 

When we arrived into Bukhara, we were dropped off at Lyabi-Hauz, the peaceful public plaza built around a pool in 1620 and shaded by old mulberry trees. 

It’s a central meeting point for the city and great place to kick back with some tea/coffee/shisha and people-watch; it still maintains an otherworldly charm that still channels the spirit of the time when it was originally built.

On the east side stands the Nadir Divanbegi Medressa of 1622, and facing it on the west side is the Nadir Diavnbegi Khanaka, a sufi cloister used for ceremonies and academics.

 

Nadir Divanbegi Medressa

Nadir Diavnbegi Khanaka

 

After freshening up at Porso Hotel 1 min away from Laubi-Hauz, we headed out for our New Year’s Eve dinner nearby:

 

 

Afterwards we headed to the main public square by the Christmas Tree where an outdoor public performance was being held by Uzbek pop and cover singers.

In true monsoon style, two-time monsooner Tan decided to start the party…

 

 

Then a curious crowd started to gather around us…

 

 

And then it was a free for all…

 

 

Your humble author couldn’t just stand by and watch either…

 

 

Then, 30 minutes before New Year’s, the music abruptly stopped and the police pushed us, and the rest of the dancing crowd, back to watch the jumbo-trons. There, 2 journalists came onscreen and read out in both Russian and Uzbek a horrendously tedious year-in-review speech written by the Uzbek president until the 1 minute countdown.

What an anti-climax.

 

I feel the same way.

 

But we had some champagne and a few pepsi cups on us, so we celebrated our way regardless:

 

 

After our toast, we headed back to the Porso Hotel lobby to continue our celebrations with more music and countless shots.

 

 

There was a somewhat awkward but entertaining moment where we paused to listen to the year-in-review speech given by Vladimir Putin to Russia (and I guess the rest of the former Soviet territories that included Uzbekistan) that ended up being equally tedious. 

I guess this year-in-review thing is an old Soviet/communist tradition…

 

 

The next morning the group got up late and headed out around 10am to check out the former emir’s Summer Palace. Although it was closed for New Year’s, the palace museum director let us in for a free peek nonetheless.

 

 

We then drove over to Bolo-Hauz mosque, the former emir’s official place of worship.

 

 

Afterwards we walked across the street to The Ark, the emir’s main residence and a fortressed town within that was bombed out by the Soviets in 1920. 

The bombed out ruins remain, although a few structures have been redone as museums.

 

 

The courtyard within the Ark has been decently restored:

 

The view from the Ark

 

Outside the Ark walls can be a climber’s dream:

 

 

Unlike last night’s escapades at an abandoned fairgrounds in Khiva, we walked over through a thoroughly functioning one here in Bukhara in order to visit the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, a 10th century monument to an exalted former leader of Bukhara.

It is Bukhara’s oldest Muslim monument and is known to change colors throughout the day depending on the angle of sunlight, thus earning the nickname “Bukhara’s most colorful building”.

Today Ismail Samani and his monument still commands the people’s faith.

 

 

Due to the monument’s unconventional architectural flourishes that don’t recall Central Asian styles, the existing but unconfirmed theory is that it was actually designed by someone brought over from India.

 

 

Legend has it that if you walk around it 3 times, your wish may still be granted!

 

 

Afterwards we went out into the amusement park and got on some pretty old school rides:

 

After the playgrounds, we stopped by for lunch at a shop that also specialized in carpet-weaving:

 

 

And then it was our walking tour through the old city from Lyabi-Hauz, including scattered old mosques and medressas that still give Bukhara the distinction of being one of the 3 main ancient cities of the Silk Road.

The one closest to Lyabi-Hauz is the Maghoki-Attar, Central Asia’s oldest surviving mosque.

 

 

Beside it lies an overview of the 12th-century level of Bukhara, the remains of the 5th century Zoastrian temple destroyed by Arabs, and an earlier Buddhist temple.

Part of the mosque — according to legend — was buried by locals in the sand to protect it from the invading Mongols and Genghis Khan and indeed only the top of the mosque was visible when it was uncovered in the 1930s.

 

 

Head west from here through a few covered bazaars that sell old Soviet memorabilia, jewelry, caps, and black market money exchange.

 

 

Eventually you’ll come upon the unrestored Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa and facing it, the Ulugbek Medressa

The Ulubek Medressa is Central Asia’s oldest medressa and was built by Ulugbek, the same architect responsible for the complexes at Gijduvan and the famous Registan at Samarkand (which we’ll see next in 1-2 days!).

 

 

Head more west and you’ll hit the resplendent 47m tall Kalon Minaret, flanked both by the Mir-i-Arab Medressa (distinctive for its forgeous blue domes) and the grand Kalon Mosque that can house up to 10,000 worshippers.

This complex reportedly left Genghis Khan so impressed and dumbfounded that he ensured these buildings to be spared when he invaded.

 

Kalon Minaret & Mosque
Mir-i-Arab Medressa

 

After watching the sun set on the Kalon complex, we wrapped up our walking tour and bid Yvonne, our first departed, adieu.

However, Yvonne would arrive at the airport an hour later to find out her evening Uzbekistan Airlines flight returning to Tashkent (so she could catch an 11am flight from there to India for a business conference) was inexplicably cancelled. Uh-oh. 

When she returned to us with the bad news, our local guides banded together to arrange her two Plan B options: either an overnight 9-hour 7:45pm sleeper train to Tashkent that would arrive at 5am the next morning (for $27 USD), or a private driver to drive her direct to Tashkent (for ~$125 USD).

She decided for the train and we had our local Uzbek guide Beck accompany her in getting tickets at the train station, up to the point in seeing her off in boarding the train. There another one of our local guides will see her safe passage throughout until her arrival in Tashkent, where we arranged for our private driver to pick her up at 5am and take her to the airport so she could make her 11am flight to India. 

Another travel story in the books!

 

- At time of posting in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, it was 11 °C - Humidity: 76% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy and showers

 

Khiva: A Journey Through Time

Khiva: A Journey Through Time

The father of modern algebra/algorithm, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, just got served


 

The next morning the group got up at a horrific 4am in the morning for a 5am bus ride to the airport.

 

 

We embarked on a 7am flight to Urgench, capital of the Khorazem region. Urgench has been regarded as a missable stopover city a stone’s throw away from Khiva, one of the three great epicenters of the Silk Road (Samarkand and Bukhara among the other two).

 

 

After landing at 9am, we drove 30 minutes to Khiva, 35km south from Urgench and right across the border from Turkmenistan.

 

 

You’ll know that you’ve arrived once you see the old yet incredibly well preserved Persian-built fortress walls, with nary another tourist in sight.

 

 

During the time of the Silk Road, Khiva’s name had been synonymous with the caravans of a brutal, systematic slave trade that kept the city profitable. Along with the constant threat of marauding raiders of the desert, Khiva was a destination only for the most determined, ruthless traders.

Hundreds of years later, after the rise of fall of many kingdoms, empires, and regimes that remarkably spared this city (unlike its more well-known cousins), it has become the most well-preserved medieval city of the Islamic world.

 

It is also the birthplace of prominent mathematicians that ruined our high school experience, including Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (latin name: Algoritmi…sound familiar?), aka the father of modern algebra and the concept of algorithms.

 

 

Approach the old city from the west side and relish your first glimpse of Ichon-Qala (the inner walled city).

 

Pay the 5,000 som photographer’s fee (essentially an admission ticket good for 2 days), and you’re ready to travel back through time:

On your right is the 19th century Mohammed Amin Khan Medressa, now converted into Hotel Orient Star, open from March to November.


The stumpy, yet beautiful turquoise structure beside the Medressa is Kalta Minor Minaret, which was only half-finished (and destined to forever be so) after the ruler at the time, Mohammed Amin Khan, died suddenly.

 

Keep walking east past the Kaltor Minor Minaret and on your left is an entranceway to a courtyard where you can see the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medressa to the east and Kuhna Ark to the west.

 

 

In front of Kuhna Ark is a still functioning well hundreds of years old. Today babushkas are still pulling up buckets of water from here.

 

 

You’re welcome to a free taste of salty well water at its most genuine.

 

 

Within the Kuhna Ark, known as the inner fortress and residence of Khiva’s former rulers, you can find a few museums, mosques, jail cell, and reception area (ie the Summer Mosque) for guests, all ornately decorated with such detail similar to what can be found in Esfahan.

 

 

Hanging out on the south wall of Mohammed Rakhim Khan’s Medressa is Khiva’s mascot camel, Katya. Obviously for a few thousand soms, you can take photos with Katya, or ride her on her back, if she lets you.

 

 

Even during the frigid temperatures of the winter season locals are getting hitched here.

 

 

Stop by at a traditional local house for lunch and have some genuine Khorezm food:

 

 

Walk through the oldest street in the city:

 

 

Then head inside Juma Mosque, built to resemble the Arabian mosques of ancient times with its 218 wooden columns supporting its structure. 6-7 of these columns date as far back as the 10th century and can be told apart by their relatively wider and larger size (obviously, wood grows over time…?).

 

 

Those of you who have been to La Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain may recognize some similarities.

 

 

At this point you might get medressa’ed out, unable to tell the difference between any of them like your humble author here (I’m just giving up right now):

 

 

Head south from Juma Mosque to check out the mausoleum of Khiva’s patron saint Pahlavon Mahmud.

 

 

About 3/4 east through the old city, you’ll come upon Islom-Hoja and its newer, taller minaret (Uzbekistan’s highest at 57m), completed in 1910.

 

 

For 5000 extra soms (or 4000 if you come in with a group as large as ours), give your glutes a workout and climb up to the top for panroramic views of Khiva:

 

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Then through the eastern gate, where slaves used to be transported, held and traded, you’ll come across the bazaar and some great Persian street meat/kebabs for 2,000 soms.

 

 

After you got your fill of the bazaar, head back out and walk back through the city at dusk.

 

 

After the shops close up, the family cars drive out, and the touts go home, head back into the old city at night. Except an occasional car to interrupt your suspension of disbelief, you can’t help but feel like you’ve actually stepped back in time to see what streets here were like during the heyday of the Silk Road.

 

 

Our group kept pushing forward where we stumbled upon an abandoned amusement park from the 70s. We couldn’t help but raid the fairgrounds, playing suitably creepy music in the background:

 

 

Some of us climbed over the gates of a decommissioned bumper car ride and mixed mischief with a healthy dose of nostalgia.

 

 

We promise we didn’t break anything and left things back as nice as how we found them.

 

 

- At time of posting in Khiva, Uzbekistan, it was -1 °C - Humidity: 30% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Taking Tashkent To Task

Taking Tashkent To Task

 

With the arrival of my college friend Remi this morning, our group was finally complete and we were ready to begin our first official day in the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent.

A few of us started off by learning about the black market exchange with the Uzbek currency vs. the official rate. You can either go to a bank/ATM to get the posted rate of 2,500 Uzbek soms to the US Dollar, or go on the street to exchange the black market rate at 5,000 Uzbek soms to the US Dollar.

 

 

For example, exchanging $20 USD at any ATM or bank will give you the official exchange rate of 50,000 soms, whereas for the same amount on the street with a black market handler you can get up to 100,000 soms. Every tourist does the black market exchange so don’t be shy and start bargaining! 

Like in Myanmar, make sure you bring crisp money to exchange as tattered, ripped bills are worth much less than their printed value.

 

Statue memorializing the earthquake that wiped out most of the city 40 years ago

 

Our first stop was our guides’ Eilidh and Ben’s personal favorite Central Asian museum, Uzbekistan’s Railroad Museum.

 

 

It’s an open-air collection of old Soviet locomotives and train cars from the heyday of the Cold War, which you are free to explore and climb all over. Think of it as an adult jungle gym.

 

Climbing to the top

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Afterwards we bus’ed it over to the Soviet behemoth and cousin to Shanghai’s Pearl TV Tower, the Tashkent TV Tower and the tallest structure in Central Asia.

No photographs are allowed past the entrance, so we had to settle for a beer at the revolving restaurant at the top.

 

 

Afterwards we walked 5 minutes over to the Central Asian Plov Center, Uzbekistan’s best place to try their national dish, plov, and to see the rice pilaf cooked in large cauldrons outside to whet your appetite.

A delightful mix of rice, vegetables, and meat bits cooked in lamb fat and oil, plov is served everywhere in Central Asia. However, it’s like a national religion in Uzbekistan where locals eat it voraciously, some approaching it as an aphrodisiac (the informal word for ‘foreplay’ in Uzbek is ‘plov’).

 

 

One look at the cauldrons and you can see why it’s worth worshipping over.

 

 

The best time to eat plov here are Thursdays as that’s when the best cuts of meat are picked out to be cooked into the plov (and not coincidentially, Thursday is when the most Uzbek babies are conceived!).

 

 

Just before food coma was about to set in, the group headed out for a ride on Uzbek’s metro. Also acting as military installations, the metro involves heavy security where guards search your bags carefully before you enter any station. Taking photos is also a big no-no.

Unlike other Soviet-style metro stations such as the ones in Kiev and Pyonyang, the metro stations in Tashkent don’t double as nuclear fallout shelters and have been dug quite shallow underground; you don’t have to descend 100m for over 10 minutes on endless escalators to get to the trains. A flight of stairs and you’re there.

 

 

We rode the metro a few stations until we got to the highlight of Tashkent, the Chorsu Bazaar.

 

 

A farmer’s market topped by a giant green dome, Chorsu Bazaar moves with the pulse of the capital city. Anything edible that can come from the earth and anyone who can cook are both found here.

 

 

Head up to the second floor for not only the delectable dried fruits and nuts, but also a better view of the mass of humanity below:

 

 

After spending an hour here, our group headed past the adjoining markets for a few black market money-exchange and garment window shopping before peeking at a nearby 250-year-old madrassa.

 

 

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel for an early dinner and bedtime; tomorrow morning we all have to get up at 5am for a flight departing at 7am for Khiva.

 

- At time of posting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, it was 7 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Opportunities In Turkmen Rejection: The Uzbekistan Visa On Arrival Loophole…For Americans

Opportunities In Turkmen Rejection: The Uzbekistan Visa On Arrival Loophole…For Americans

This story has a happy ending.

 

Sometimes, all the planning in the world can’t stop travel from being…travel.

We’ve acquired visas to places like Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. We’ve defied countless odds in moving hundreds of our monsooners to remote corners as far as Antarctica. We’ve hit 90 countries in 3 years without being slowed down. And yet we would finally find our match with the reclusive government of Turkmenistan, aka, “North Korea without the publicity.”

Similarly to how North Korea had inexplicably denied visas to all tourists for a period of time due to unfounded “fears of Ebola”, Turkmenistan similarly — without reason – just denied tourist visas for the winter season for all tour groups. That included us. 

We went as far up as the Ministry of Foreign Affair — hints of bribery even — for other ways to get in including a transit visa, and all we got were hollow apologies and a shrug. They’ve completely shut their doors, and we just happened to get stuck at the wrong place at literally the wrong time. 

Discovering all this literally a week before departure, this eft our group with a few problems:

 

1. We were supposed to start our trip in Turkmenistan, but without a visa that would now be impossible (and illegal). Therefore, with a week before departure we had to coordinate with 18 of our monsooners to rebook their flights to arrive in Uzbekistan.

 

2. To enter Uzbekistan, we originally arranged a group visa set for an overland crossing from Turkmenistan, but since we were no longer able to do such a crossing, we had to reapply for a new Uzbek visa on arrival for all 18 monsooners.

 

3. According to what’s written on the US State Department and the Uzbek consulate, visas on arrival are not allowed for us at Tashkent Airport; we had to get ours through the normal process at our local Uzbek consulate.

 

4. The normal process at the Uzbekistan consulate takes up to 10 business days or 3 weeks (they close on Thursday and Fridays) to issue a tourist visa. And by the time we found out Turkmenistan had denied our visas, all of us had less than a week (more like 5 days) left. Some of our 18 were already en route to Central Asia.

So as you can see, we were kinda stuck.

But if travel is going to get unpredictable with us, we can equally do our part in thinking outside the box. Thanks to our YPT partners Ben and Eilidh who live in the region, the situation was explained to the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a tentative arrangement was made for all 18 of us to get visas on arrival at the airport in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. All they needed were our new flight arrival information into Tashkent and our declaring residence in a country without an Uzbek consulate (mine would be Baku, Azerbaijan since I was traveling through there). They would then expedite the process to get us Letters of Invitations (LOI) for Visas on Arrival within 3 business days.

We were also helpfully informed that this has never been done before. Hm.

 

Arriving into Tashkent Airport, without a visa

 

But it worked.

After about a whole week of a nail-biting waiting game, the final process itself at the airport ended up being quite anti-climactic. Once you arrive, you’re forced to wait in nothing resembling a formal line for your passport to be stamped. The both on the farthest right will take care of the visas on arrival (they’re usually closed so you have to walk up to it and request staff to wake up and drive their agent over from home).

 

 

Some random guy will then walk over out of nowhere and take your passport and LOI to an unseen back room, while you wait outside for probably a good 30-45 minutes. Then he’ll come back out with your new shiny visa in your passport, asking you to pay.

Since we were getting our visas in a rush, and in a not-so-kosher way, most of us Americans coughed up $240 USD (our Singaporean friend only paid $85 USD!) for the service. Highway robbery, essentially.

 

 

But hell of a lot better than not getting in at all.

The fun doesn’t stop there. Once you get through one grueling line to get your passport stamped in, you’ll have to wait in the infamous Uzbek customs line. Only Curaçao had a similar ridiculous customs line where the country cares so much to go through each passenger one by one in a thorough examination of your documents and luggage.

For Uzbek customs, you have to fill out 2 identical copies of a customs declaration form, and you MUST be accurate in how much Uzbek (if applicable) and foreign currency you’re carrying. The reason is that they’ll take 1 copy for the arrival and they’ll inspect the second whenever you depart, making sure you’re not carrying more on you or taking any Uzbek currency out of the country. Not sure how this system is foolproof or makes any sense, but when in Rome…

 

 

We waited about an hour and half on the customs line. You have been warned! Bring a book.

 

 

And then, finally, we tasted freedom.

 

 

The arrivals gate at Tashkent bore much resemblance to my experience in Lahore — utter mass pandemonium and cab drivers following you up and down asking if you need a ride (and they don’t take no for an answer).

 

Look at them all waiting in the distance....

 

Greetings from Uzbekistan, from 18 pioneering monsooners in traveling the impossible and not letting anything getting in the way of the monsoon.

After all of us reunited at the hotel, Le Grande Plaza, we headed out to celebrate with a fine Uighur meal and drinks.

 

A cross between a xiao lon biao, pelmini with the sour cream, and doubled in size

 

Our journey begins today.

 

There is a happy ending to this story.

 

- At time of posting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, it was 7 °C - Humidity: 52% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear