After a couple days in Bishkek, the day came to move on from Kyrgyzstan. I had been happy to get out of China but I was pretty bummed to be leaving Kyrgyzstan. It was a series of surprises and a huge breath of fresh air after the strict regulations in China. Nonetheless, I had exhausted my options available in my current circumstances and had to move on.
To Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan
I left my hostel and hailed a cab to take me to the Western Bus Station in Bishkek, where I immediately caught a minibus bound for Almaty, Kazakhstan (there’s not really a direct route from Bishkek to Tashkent).
I fell asleep pretty quickly, expecting it to be a couple hours before we reached the Kazakh border. But I was shaken awake by another passenger not 30 minutes later and we were all herded off the bus to walk through customs. Kazakhstan has a fun system where travelers are herded into corrals and are not allowed to move on until said corrals are full. I was first in line but ended up near the back in the ensuing stampede into customs when the border guard opened the gate. Old women with carts ran over my feet and men threw elbows as they rushed to be first to each kiosk. In the chaos, we each had to fill out immigration forms at a narrow desk equipped with half a dozen pens for the hundreds of border-crossers. Thankfully for me, a Kyrgyz girl took pity and gave me her own pen then helped me find our bus again once we cleared customs.
Once we were back on the bus and zooming to Almaty, I managed to relax some. It was only a few hours to Almaty but I missed the last train to Tashkent and had to spend the night there. The Kyrgyz girl who gave me her pen invited me on a tour of the city for the night before we split ways.
I had been actively avoiding Kazakhstan when planning my route due to some preconceived ideas of the country that turned out to be unfounded. It took almost no time at all to realize that Almaty is cool. I took no photos during my 17 hours there but it’s probably the biggest surprise of my trip thus far. Hopefully I’ll be able to return there with more purpose in the future.
The next morning, I met up with my new friend for breakfast and then made my way to the train station. There were a couple hours yet until my train to Tashkent, but much of it was occupied when a Kazakh man invited me to join him for plov (a Central Asian rice dish with local peppers, lamb, and sometimes raisins) in the station cafeteria. I bought my usual train food of thick flatbreads and a few Snickers, then went out onto the platform to find my train. This time, I had a bed in a sleeper car; an upgrade from my 24-hour hard seat rides in China.
The train went on through the night in an uneventful way, and in the morning we stopped for Uzbek officials to come and check passports. I was almost not allowed entry after inadvertently throwing away a piece of paper that turned out to be critical. The guard glared at me as he stamped my passport, then waved me out of his cabin. Once arrived in Tashkent, I went straight to the Embassy of Turkmenistan to confirm my visa once and for all. It was closed of course, and I had to return the next day.
Nothing is easy.
Getting my Turkmen Visa: The Process
- In honor of officially getting my visa to Turkmenistan, let’s look back at the month of headaches it took to get it.
- I arrived in Beijing for the sole purpose of going to the Turkmen embassy. It took three trips to the embassy, a trip to the National Bank of China, and almost my full five days in Beijing.
- In Jiayuguan, I was emailed an additional form that could only be filled out on a computer. In Dunhuang, I sent that form to my mother in America who filled it out for me and sent it back. I returned it to the official in Beijing, who returned it to me for being incomplete. Cue repeating the process a second time.
- In Kashgar, I was sent a cryptic email regarding my visa status. It was “cleared,” I could “apply at the embassy,” or “pick up on arrival.” I replied asking for clarification as to whether or not I received the visa, and if I could pick it up in Tashkent. No response for a week, so I emailed again. No response for a week. I still didn’t know if I had it by the time I was leaving Kyrgyzstan, which put me about a week and a half before my visa was supposed to start.
- In Tashkent, I went to the embassy twice. The first time was at 1:00 PM, and I found it already closed. I came right at 9:00 the next morning, and waited for four hours while they dragged their feet. But at the end of that day, I was given my passport with the visa inside.
So there we go. In terms of chances of success, the hardest visa in the world by some accounts. It’s not a government that particularly wants tourists, so I’m curious to see what’s in store.
In the meantime, I have a week in Uzbekistan where I need to get from Tashkent to the border in the northwest of the country (where I promise more photos will come).