Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Visa Madness

After three nights in idyllic Arslanbob (not sure of the origination of this name, but 'arslan' means lion in Turkic, so you can hazard a guess), we feel we should get to Bishkek and start working on our visa applications. It's a task we have avoided in Tashkent. We get up early and take a shared taxi down to the nearest town on the main highway. Here we agree a rate to Bishkek and then have to wait while the other passengers have finished their shopping in the bazaar. They are two women with a little girl, and one of them is drinking beer when we set off (not the girl, but her aunt, she of the gold teeth upper front left). It's 10.30 am and we know we're in for a long ride. Luckily our driver seems sane and although he hammers his Audi saloon he shows no inclination to overtake on blind corners, of which there are many. The scenery is marvellous. There are rolling green hills covered in poppies, mountains left, right and straight ahead, narrow gorges, reservoirs, and big open expanses of green grassland. It is the start of the summer and herders are moving their cattle, horses, goats and sheep to the higher pastures to graze. They use the main roads like everyone else, so we get a close up of the cowboys on their horses. This is Big Country. We climb over two high snow-covered passes, the second descending in a blur of hairpin bends into a gorge that belches us out onto a low plain leading to Bishkek. The little girl and her mother have a tendency to vomit at every twist in the road, so there are several breaks whilst they retch onto the roadside. Aunty just pops another beer and laughs raucously with our driver. Occasionally he taps me on the arm, points to the huge peaks in the distance, and asks "Anglia?" No, we don't have scenery quite like this in England. One time he indicates a donkey with the same question. Then he wants to know how much my walking boots cost in dollars. It's an interesting cultural exchange......

In Bishkek we come across a rather disturbing phenomenon amongst the travellers staying in our hostel. It is called Multiple Visa Psychosis or MVP for short. The symptons are varied but can include some or all of the following: a general listlessness, alchohol dependency, onset of Tourette's Syndrome, an inability to focus on anything for more than ten minutes, and obsessive and repetitive discourse on pending visa applications. There are some physical signs too - principally varicose veins and bruised kidneys from standing outside embassies and then scrimmaging to reach the counter. One Belgian cyclist we meet was clean-shaven when he arrived, and finally departs with a Rasputin beard. Everyone here is hanging around waiting for visas, going west, north, east and south. We have reached a cul de sac, with China as the end wall. But we are not alone and we get tips on flights and stories about our friend James, lots of stories. He has managed to get a visa for Pakistan here, against current form, and we need to do the same because that's our next destination. Because of the lack of flights we decide to miss Tajikistan and spend longer here (to apply for more visas!!). To get to Pakistan we have to cross into Kazakhstan to Almaty to take a flight to New Delhi, where we will then backtrack to Islamabad overland. Not quite what we planned, but hey ho. This means we need three visas and a visa extension. It's at times like this that we question our sanity, but then we are surrounded by other equally crazed travellers, so we kind of feel okay.

oh dear what can the matter be......

For those uninterested in the visa process, look away now. I too have succumbed to MVP. We visit the Kazakh embassy on Thursday and are given a form to complete. Come back Monday, they tell us. We ignore them and complete the form outside in 5 minutes. We queue up and submit it. Niet, come back Monday. We come back Monday and after being told by a stupid Englishman that we should not jump the queue ("What queue??" we ask), we submit our form again. They pass it straight back with a bank slip. Pay the fee and come back. At this point we pause. We need to extend our Kyrghyz visa before we complete our application, otherwise they may refuse us. We have already visited the Indian embassy where we are thrilled to see on their noticeboard that we can pay for a one-year multiple-entry visa. But when we submit our application the consul official tells us that it's very hot in India and 6 months is enough time to visit. Also the visa starts to run from the date of application so in this case we should resubmit it closer to our date of arrival. Undaunted we head for the central police office for visa extensions. We are dealt with by a warm, friendly and interested police woman. Like hell we are. Niet, niet, niet. Parusski? No, we don't speak Russian, but we do understand niet. We can only apply for an extension three days before the visa expires. Finally we try the Pakistan embassy. They have craftily employed a Russian receptionist to field queries from applicants. "Why haven't you applied in your home country?" she barks at us. We explain, and she tells us " The process is six weeks." This is her ace card, but we can trump her: "we have a letter of invitation from a friend who works for the United Nations in Islamabad". She hesitates and waivers. We have to bring the application form back with the letter. When we do, we are told to return the next day - no official is present to look at our application. Time for the vodka.
We need to get into these beautiful mountains that are visible towering above the city as soon as possible. Our sanity depends upon it..............

Friday, May 9, 2008

Way over yonder

We finally tear ourselves away from Tashkent, and I tear my back in the process, thus requiring enforced rest and sympathy for almost three days. Unfortunately we have only reached Ferghana, in the valley of the same name, and end up in an old Soviet-era hotel that obviously hasn't been maintained since the day it was built. The bathroom has been plumbed by a madman and the room creaks and groans and sighs like some of the old men in the park. Mind you, we have a room with a view of the mountains in the distance. Gayle goes out on our first night to look for a natural remedy for my bad back but incredibly cannot find any vodka.

The Ferghana Valley is the part of Uzbekistan that produces the most - agriculturally and industrially. It is surrounded by big mountain ranges and consists of the interlocking fingers of Kyrghyzstan,Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Have a look at a map. In some parts there are 'pockets' of a country stuck in the middle of a neighbouring one. It's a mess. The valley is supposed to be more traditional and conservative, with a greater Islamic influence, but we cannot see it. After the Andijon massacre in 2005, the Uzbeks banned the call to prayer here.

Once I'm back on my feet and Gayle has tired of tasting all the different ice-cream that Ferghana has to offer, we head East and cross into Kyrghyzstan at Osh. It's a surprise to us, because Osh is quite a scruffy ill-kept town, and yet we thought Kyrghyzstan would be wealthier - apparently Uzbeks come here to work because the pay is better. The people look noticeably different in their facial features, less Turkic and more Mongol perhaps? (The Kyrghyz people originate from Siberia.) Old men are wearing traditional tall white felt hats. We check out the hustle of the bazaar and try the food but move on the next day, eager to get into the countryside and happy to keep the taxi-drivers of Central Asia in gold teeth.

We arrive in Arslanbob, a small village of Uzbeks, famed for its walnut groves. It sits on a river overlooked by a wall of mountains streaked in snow, and it is so green and so refreshing for our eyes. They have developed a network of community-based tourism organisations in Kyrghyzstan where locals provide services to tourists. Here in Arslanbob we can get food and accomodation in the house of a local family. We meet Evi from Austria here and go for a long walk up to a waterfall in the afternoon. The villagers are friendly and the place is very quiet and peaceful. We are fed huge quantities of food. It's perfect. After tea there is nothing to do but curl up in bed and sleep. The next day we take a walk through the walnut forest - the largest in the world. In September each year about 1,500 tonnes of nuts are harvested here. Our guidebook tells us that the walnuts originated in Malaysia, so we can only assume they travelled here over the old Silk Road. Anyway, the walking is lovely and shady and green. After what has felt like three months in the desert we are so relieved and excited about being in the mountains again. Mmm. Green.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

China Crisis

We are in Tashkent and it is hot and sunny and, beyond our expectations, actually quite nice. The city is brimming with trees in full leaf, and despite the huge boulevards and large soviet-style buildings, it's a good place to hang out. There is no heavy traffic, and there's a good metro for getting across town. We arrive on Wednesday, and go along to the Kyrghyzstan embassy first thing on the Thursday. On their timetable of opening hours for Thursday it reads "Rest Day". We return on the Friday and wait nearly two hours for somebody to be bothered to open up. We are then asked for 300 dollars. This comes as a bit of a shock. Fortunately we work out that there is a variable pricing scheme and the official thinks we want "express" service. Not at that price we don't. In which case we can come back on Tuesday. They are closed on Monday for their "Constitution Day". Tough job, this embassy mularkey.

We need a bit of time to work out our real problem: how to get to Pakistan now that entering China looks unlikely. We seem to be heading into a cul-de-sac, with no way out. We would prefer not to fly if we don't have to, but apart from trekking from Tajikistan, across Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush, and into Pakistan illegally, we seem to be short of sensible options. Now if we could just get a map of the Wakhan corridor.........The alternatives are a flight from Almaty to Karachi via Sharjah, or a flight from Tashkent to Lahore. Sounds simple, but we still have to obtain a Pakistan visa and a visa to return to Tashkent, if necessary. Each embassy in each country seems to have different criteria, and quite frankly it's a pain in the arse.

Kent means city in the turkic language, so it's a disappointment not to see a single moustache in the city. We feel like we have drifted into Russia by mistake, not deeper into Asia. There are definitely a few Russians hanging on here. I am reprimanded by the hotel cleaner for speaking Uzbek with her and not Russian. On the train from Samarkand we had a long conversation with an army major. A bunch of squaddies who were finishing their national service filled our carriage. The major sat next to us and ordered one of his charges to translate for us. Savar was a very nice young man who wants to study in England or the States when he finishes university in Tashkent. But it seems like a pipedream because he lacks the money for fees. We asked if life was better since independence, and the Major thought so, except for the standard of education. He seemed to know a lot about Europe - even when the Channel Tunnel opened - and of course knew all about English football. We were asked about Iran and the Major suggested it was a better country for having been "colonised by the British". And then he laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "We were colonised by the Russians!". This is Great Game territory, where Russia vied with Britain for influence in the area in the 1800's.
At one point Savar whispered " He doesn't like the United States, but don't say anything!". The Major had worked with British soldiers and later we were told by someone else that the US had trained soldiers in the desert here before going to Iraq. However, Uzbekistan's current 'best friend' appears to be Russia. The Great Game continues.

We keep meeting lovely French people - they certainly outnumber any other nationality of tourist here. On one evening we go to an 'opera ballet' with Yann, who we met outside the Kyrghyz embassy. The ticket costs one pound forty and it's fair to say we get value for money. The ballet is a bit of hop skip and jump in chiffon, and the singers get drowned out by the orchestra, but the music is good. However, none of us can decipher the title of the opera from the cyrillic. We think it's an Uzbek composition judging by the story and the costumes. We leave none the wiser. In the cafe afterwards we are approached by Anvar and Sacha. They're a bit drunk but friendly, and Anvar speaks enough English to start discussing French literature and English rock music. He looks like Johnny Depp on a bad night. The next evening we meet up with Yann again to eat. Whilst looking for a cheap place we are picked up by a bunch of ex-pat teachers who invite us to a party. It's in a large plush house and waiters bring us drinks in the hallway. There's a large buffet. Everyone is interested in what we are doing, and we are interested in the red wine and food. It's a pleasant evening but ends disappointingly early. The freeloaders are almost the last to leave. The next night Anvar finds us again. We are having a hectic social life all of a sudden. Anvar tells us he is a writer, photographer and musician in a punk rock band, but he works in a bookshop. I ask whether he did national service, and he tells us that he failed the psychiatric report. When asked by the psychiatrist what he thought of his Motherland he replied that the whole world is his Motherland and he loves everyone and he could never use a gun. If they gave him a gun he would kill everyone. A bit more of this talk and a quick flash of his tattoos and they soon marked him down as 'unfit'. We also discover that he keeps a pet rat called Seed. "Seed?" "Yes, after Seed Vicious." The rat and his brother are the only vegans in Uzbekistan apparently...................