Tag Archives: borders

In the Hot Box with Stavros

“Are you smoking?” inquired my cabin-mate urgently, as we waited to pull out from salmon-pink Istanbul Gar, the city’s wonderful 19th century railway station on the banks of the Bosphorus.
“I don’t think so”, I replied, unsure as to what he was referring to.
“Don’t worry – I’ll open the window”.

I had never met a Stavros before – I didn’t even think such names existed outside of humorously tacky beach bars where fully-slicked waiters prey on 17 year-old British girls – but was delighted to discover that I was to be sharing a miniscule compartment with one on the night train to Thessaloniki.

“They laugh at me in England because of this name”, he confided. Stavros had just completed a masters’ degree in medical genetics in London, and had been visiting his Turkish girlfriend in Istanbul. “But the English are funny people. Where are you from?”.

Stavros produced an immense pouch of tobacco and spent the next four hours rolling cigarette after cigarette and drinking warm Amstel beer. “This is Turkish tobacco”, he explained, bright-eyed. “So cheap, and so good!”.

We spent a few hours planning my summer holidays for the next six or seven years – I needed to get to know the north of Greece, he insisted, as it was the most beautiful place on Earth – and I managed to extract a quick-fire lesson in Greek, ready for my arrival the next morning. After the fifth rolled cigarette, even the armies of mosquitoes decided they couldn’t take it any longer and buzzed off in search of juicier pastures down the corridor.

The rock of the train lulled us into sleep, from which we were dragged repeatedly once we reached the border.

“PASSPORT CONTROL!”, the guards bellowed from just outside the door, quickly followed by “BAGGAGE CONTROL!” – a precursory fumble inside my backpack. And exactly the same upon arrival in Greece.

“The Turkish still need a visa, you know”, Stavros mumbled, with a smirk. “Since we are in the EU, we can go anywhere”.

We were interrupted by a blue-shirted guide with a shock of black hair as he returned my passport. “Mr Lemon?”, he asked . “Welcome to Greece”.

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Garamjobat!

Churches! Men wearing shorts! No headscarves! Beer – everywhere!

Yes, I’ve made it back into this small island of Christianity amongst a vast ocean of tiled mosques and gamey lamb stews.

The clapped-out Azeri buses wish you a fond farewell

The clapped-out Azeri buses wish you a fond farewell

Crossing the border was far from straightforward, but of course, you knew that already. This time I was subject to the whims of a young adolescent toting an unfeasibly large automatic weapon, barking at the squadrons of exhausted Georgian Ladas which had jockeyed for position all morning to squeeze through the single entry gate. A thick smell of clutch hung in the air from the enthusiastic attempts to make it next in line.

Basking in this minor position of power, the guard delighted in seeing the crowds of pedestrians pile up for a good hour, unleashing his teenage angst on any foolhardy soul who dared stray across the line, making a break for passport control – before inviting a few lucky souls to set foot in no mans’ land. A few at a time. Just a few.

Eventually, I was selected amongst the seething crowds, and after a brief stroll across a dried-up river bed, I approached the Georgian side with trepidation.

More flicking through embarassing photos on my digital cameras?
Full-length explanations on why I had come to Georgia?
Picking through the pitiful selection of clothes in my backpack in pursuit of some chemical form of entertainment?

Not at all.

“Welcome to Georgia, my friend”. A handshake, a smile, and I was through.

What a tremendous place. I love it already.

Visa Woes Part XIX

I actually entered Azerbaijan twice – the first time courtesy of an entirely disinterested border guard on passport control.

Wearing that exasperated expression common to all people who find themselves suffering from serious computer issues, the (female) guard smashed two hammy fists on her keyboard and thumbed through my passport repeated.

“Where is your visa?”, she enquired, wearily. I pointed at the large sign above the desk which read ‘NO VISA’, and mentioned that I wanted to get one at the airport.

She rolled her eyes, muttered something inaudible (and likely unprintable), stamped my passport, and ushered me through. I was in. I had managed to save myself USD100, courtesy of an unconcerned border guard. I skipped to the luggage carousel, and began to think of the delights on which I could spend this unexpected windfall.

My recent experiences of Uzbekistan nagged away in the back of my mind. All the police roadblocks, the passport checks ad nauseam in the Tashkent metro, each minor official and hotel-owner examining my visa with unparalleled precision: I had no idea whether I’d find another paranoid police state in Azerbaijan – given the hefty price tag for the visa, it suggested as much.

My Swiss travelling companions had been dispatched tail between legs to the ‘Visa’ desk in the corner, which was closed. I looked inquisitively in their direction; my lost expression soon alerted another guard. Moments later, I was surrounded by half a dozen men and women in green uniform, demanding to know why I didn’t have a visa.

“You have entered the country illegally”, explained a hysterical woman with fierce green eyes and chestnut hair. “Where is your visa?”
“They let me through!”, I explained, the word ‘illegally’ still ringing in my ears, and visions of being chained to a radiator pipe in darkness multiplying in my mind.
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Just one time…

…it would be just great if things could be easy. Just once.

No sooner had I decided on the now-fabled Option Five, then I encounter yet another obstacle.

Sure, you can fly from Tashkent to Baku… just not this week. All seats booked on the four weekly flights. And only three business class seats available for the week after that.

So, if I do decide to ‘pimp up’ my escape route in the front of the plane by taking the next available ridiculously-priced seat, I will already have outstayed my Uzbek visa. Flying seems to be tricky.

If I were to cross any border overland, I’d need another visa, which means at least another three days in Tashkent for each one. Heading North, I’d need a Kazakh visa – then I’m stranded since I can’t come back into Uzbekistan without getting another visa… all the way miles and miles into the steppe in Astana. Heading South, I’d need an Afghan and Pakistani visa, plus all the hassles that would involve. I can’t even head East any more since my Kyrgyz visa is no longer valid.

So, quite how I’m going to get out of here, I don’t know.

And the Winner is…

Well, the phone lines have now closed on The Rhoute Poll #1, and it certainly makes for edge-of-seat stuff.

Of the 24,548 votes received, a good number of you were adamant that I gave the Turkmonsters another run for my wads of som.

“Ten working days to process a transit visa” was the received wisdom in my Samarkand hostel, “but it generally takes around fifteen. But you can’t re-apply within six months after you’ve been rejected for one visa.” So then, best case scenario I’d be pushing on the Turkmonster frontier by the end of July for a whopping five day sejour – worst case, I’d be looking at an early February arrival in Ashgabat.

In both cases, I’d be unlikely to make the pre-semester jollies in Fontainebleau in August. Next.

Back up into Kazakhstan and chill in Aktau until finding a trans-Caspian vessel? Over 8,000 of you were keen on that idea. I was less so. A good few days to process a Kazakhstan visa in Tashkent (my other one expired the day after the England game) plus two more treks across the whole of Uzbekistan (approx 30 hours) would set me up nicely to fork out hyper-inflated hotel prices in the bizarre outpost on the steppes, on the off-chance that enough Kazakh cargo would be making the crossing to Baku instead of taking the land route through neighbouring Russia.

“Don’t risk the Aktau boat”, fellow-traveller Mark warned me by SMS. “I met a Spaniard who waited over two weeks for that boat, and in the end gave up”. Two weeks hanging around a Kazakh port trying to locate truckies headed for Azerbaijan? Not my idea of a great July.

Around a third of you wanted me to try my luck in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thanks, guys.

“Indeed, the Kyhber Pass is beautiful” explained one jumbo-sized Pakistani I encountered in a hostel over the last week, “but you know, things are a little complicated right now in Pakistan”. I nodded. “There’s a nice run down into China though, if you were interested”.

Hmmm. Slightly defeating the point there. Suggest we forget that idea.

Option 4: Back to China? Shush. Don’t be ridiculous.

So, it appears my only other option is to take the jam-packed train back to Tashkent, dive on a plane and arrive refreshed and alive in Baku, Azerbaijan. In accordance with the spirit of Uzbek democracy, I hereby declare OPTION FIVE the winner of this inaugural poll.

The morons at Stantours, the self-described ‘experts’ in Central Asian travel (and the very same ones who screwed up my Turkmonster ambitions) have sadly proved themselves incapable of even booking a flight for me, no doubt suffering a lack of motivation since they already have their mitts on a few hundred USD of mine. Come on chaps, sort it out.

As much as I love Uzbekistan, I hear there’s trouble brewing in the Caucasus, so obviously I’d want to be there when it all kicks off. It’s all about the stories, after all.

Kebabs in Fergana

“Crossing from Tajikistan was no problem at all”, remarked a fellow backpacker as he slung his ancient backpack on the rock-hard beds in Osh Guesthouse. “This is Kyrgyzstan. It’s nothing like the hassle we had getting into Uzbekistan”.

A helpful warning from this Antipodean. At least I wasn’t being turned back though. A few weeks ago the border was closed to all those heading west to Uzbekistan, and nobody had been able to give me a straight answer over the past two weeks as to whether I’d be able to make it or not. It seems ludicruous and all blamed on Kyrgyz muslim extremists. For those who have ever been to Kyrgyzstan, the whole concept seems ridiculous. Most Kyrgyz i had met were more than happy to chill around the yurt all day and too much organised religion simply made them nervous.

The cab drivers in the bazaar were convinced I’d be able to make it through however – of course – and all ‘actively encouraged’ me to sling my bag in the back of their Lada and whizz off to the border. Fine.

Except the first taxi driver was clearly on auto-pilot, and took me to the airport instead.

“Bishkek, da?”
“Nyet, pal” I countered. “Now take me to the border right now, my man, and don’t think you’re getting any more som out of me than we’d already discussed” was what I would have said had my command of the local lingo been a little more than the first two words. Instead I went for the more direct “Uzbekistan! Granitsa! Davai!” which seemed to do the trick.

The Kyrgyz seemed genuinely sorry to see me go through the gates at Dostyk. “Send dollars!” the driver (half-) joked as I turned and perfected my Central Asian semi-bow with right hand on heart by means of a farewell. Continue reading

Happy Afternoon in Immigration

There are only two types of car in Kazakhstan.

That is the considered conclusion I reached after a good 12 hours in the country. The first is a dilapidated Lada, normally parked in a hedge or rusting away quietly outside a roadside shashlik joint. The second is the big, brash Mercedes, whooshing its air-conditioned passengers across the steppe and onto…erm… more steppe.

Yes, I’ve finally made it across the border and into Kazakhstan and feel just about ready to start pronouncing half-baked knee-jerk reactions to the place. Obviously getting here was far from straightforward – where would we be without life’s little adventures? – but when the bus broke down for the third time still hours from Almaty, the jollity of the situation was starting to wear thin.

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