15. A hundred up but with remarkably bad timing!

September 14th, 2010

After queuing for well over three hours to buy a train ticket I eventually got one to Baku in Azerbaijan.  The system for buying tickets here is amazing, basically the lady has to check your passport then call someone at central office to see if there are any places.  If there are then she has to write the ticket by hand entering all your passport details and then has to cut the ticket out into a special shape that denotes the price you pay.  This means that each ticket takes between 5 to 10 minutes.  From Tbilisi there are 4 international trains a day and they only have one person doing this so you have to have a lot of patience, especially if the locals see you are as they will push in front of you if you’re a foreigner and then get aggressive if you say something.

Tbilisi, Georgia

I had one last meal in Georgia which left me speechless when the bill came. There was a lady in the restaurant singing some local traditional songs, it was so bad I put my earphones in and moved to a table further away but when the bill came I was shocked. I’d been charged for listening to the music! Yeah, it was only 2 euros but that wasn’t the point, it’s not as if I had a choice not to listen to it! Then another shock; the guy had got my order wrong and apologised saying that he would bring some fruit to make up for it, he’s put that on the bill too! I asked why I should pay and he simply replied because I ate it. I hadn’t realised the fruit was for display purposes only!

Tbilisi, Georgia

The night train to Baku in Azerbaijan was painfully slow but luckily also uneventful. The border checks were quite simple although the whole process took three hours but there I was, this is the hundredth country I’ve visited and the landmark I always said I would give up backpacking, although I’ll have to continue a little bit more until I get home again. But what about Azerbaijan? In 1918 it became the world first Islamic democracy although two years later the Soviets came and got rid of that, but as in 1918 and as it is now, Baku is a very rich oil town and the prices have come as a bit of a shock but I did hope not to be here too long. The day after arriving I headed to the Turkmenistan Embassy hoping that it would take no more than a week to get a visa but when I got there I was told that the embassy staff were on a diplomatic mission until Friday. I couldn’t believe it, this would add at least 5 days on top of the week I expected and this means that time is now running out on the visa’s I got in Istanbul for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Travelling in Central Asia is so frustrating, it’s bureaucratically backward and logistically lackadaisical!

Baku, Azerbaijan

I have left myself another potential route though as I did get a double entry visa to Kazakhstan just in case and it does look like I may need it. So the next day I headed to the ferry port to see when the next ferry would be, to my horror he said “3pm today”. This would have been fantastic if the visa’s for central Asia were like the ones from other countries, but these have set dates and I can’t enter Kazakhstan until the 18th and this ferry would arrive on the 15th! It’s a major setback as that the ferries to Kazakhstan are only once every 10 days or so rather than the better “once every day” to Turkmenistan. I asked why the ferries were not so frequent and got the response “the other ferry is wrecked in the Caspian!” Yep, that fills me with confidence. So I sit here twiddling my thumbs in Azerbaijan for what is likely to be two weeks with nothing much to do as there really is nothing much to see in this country. I appear to have amazingly bad timing!

My task of getting to NZ by not flying is looking more and more impossible!

16. In Baku..... Still waiting.......

September 18th, 2010

There’s one thing that just stopping at home can never teach you and that’s how to deal with people from different countries who may give what at first may seem as xenophobic comments about their neighbouring countries. Not surprisingly this happened here in Azerbaijan where I have been careful not to mention that I’ve visited Armenia. There was a horrible war (opposed to those good ones!) in 1992 where Armenia invaded Azerbaijan and still occupies about 15% of the country for “ethnic reasons.” Russia cannot be blameless in this as Stalin deliberately played about with the borders in a way which would ensure each country would contain a sizable minority and therefore would need an iron fist to rule, i.e Soviet style. Similar to the old divide and conquer strategy of the British Empire and not too dissimilar with the breakup of India into three countries in 1947/48.

Baku, Azerbaijan

While sat in the kitchen of the hostel on my own (I’m the only one here as this really isn’t on the main backpacking route) watching the BBC Scotland comedy “Still game” which I recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it, my peace was broken when two local guy walked in. One was the brother of the owner of the hostel and the other a friend. Within minutes the whole family had come in, which was a little embarrassing as I was sitting in just shorts because of the heat, and then started to place all manner of dishes filled with food on the table in front of me. Basically they knew I was on my own, they were having a family dinner so they thought it only polite that I should become part of the family for at least this evening. I know I’ve said it before but these are the moments which I go backpacking for. It’s the friendship and humanity, the humanity across peoples who can barely communicate through language but can easily communicate through the human spirit and what I’ve always believed to be the basic human trait of friendship and the want to help others. Unfortunately in the UK we do seem to have lost this spirit, but maybe that’s just my interpretation.

Baku, Azerbaijan

So, they opened up the best vodka imported from Russia and filled my plate with food. I could not admit that I’d already eaten and don’t really like vodka as it’s not about the food or drink, it’s about being there and taking part. Eventually of course it came to the point where “Misha” the bother, spoke in broken English about the war with Armenia and the occupied areas. I tend to try to calm such discussions by saying that it’s hard for me to know what happened or the rights and wrongs as I don’t know enough about it, but before I could be had lifted up is shirt to show me a massive scar from his chest to his abdomen. It turned out that he was at school in one of the disputed regions (Nagorno-Karabakh) when Armenian forces marched in and started firing. He lost a couple of organs and then showed me bumps in his legs where bullets had torn through his flesh. It’s hard what to know what to think or even say. I’ve been in Armenia and heard their side, and now I was sat here with a lovely family and this guy who was living proof that while I was screwing up my A levels by going out too much, this guy was being targeted at school by Armenians just because he was not “ethnic” Armenian. This emphasises more and more that we in the UK really don’t understand how lucky we are. Needless to say, both sides have been open and amazingly friendly towards me as a visitor and I wish that one day they can find it in themselves to do the same with each other but that’s easy for me to say as I don’t have the physical or mental scars.

Baku, Azerbaijan

One thing is quite amazing here though. As they have not seen the “tourist in Spain” side to British travellers as those who come here are definitely coming for the challenge, they do constantly talk about the British being very polite and the best travellers. This was really good to hear as I always have one thing ringing in my ears from my old scouting days and that is to remember that when you are overseas, you are an ambassador for your country, and what you do reflects on your country. With that in mind I felt obliged to sit there and finish off the bottle of vodka with the other two guys, me in my shorts and two guys with clothing half on, half off revealing war wounds..... How more British could you get......

Now that’s what backpacking is all about......

One last note. I realise that this isn’t really a blog but I thought it better to mention the why’s and what’s about travelling rather than A to B’s.... seen this, seen that...... but just to keep the “normal” blog up to date........

I’ve been unsuccessful in my Visa for Turkmenistan. To be fair, it is the second hardest visa after North Korea and I could have possibly got one but I was not waiting 20 days to find out as the guy told me it would take. 20 days to get a three day transit visa! pathetic! It would have been nice to see though as this is the place where the old leader became a bit of a megalomaniac naming January after himself, writing a book of the history Turkmenistan based on fantasy making himself some kind of deity, putting up a massive statue of himself which rotates towards the sun, imprisoning people who enter cities with dirty cars and telling everyone that he was immortal! ........ He died about 5 years ago! But his illegitimate son has taken over who is almost as bad with human rights issues just as bad as other countries in the region but EU countries turn a blind eye because of oil.

Baku, Azerbaijan

So I’m hopefully heading to Aktau in Kazakhstan when the next ferry is available. (Should be within the week although it's difficult with my pigeon Russian). I’ll be popping into Uzbekistan and then back to Kazakhstan again before trying to enter China but I won’t be able to blog for a while as the Internet is restricted in these countries (particularly Uzbek) and e-mail monitored (with recipients traced) so for safety you’ll have a week or two off blogging before I find somewhere more open..... If you look up Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on the internet you will see why they are not very open.

Better go on one of my three visits a day to the ferry terminal to see if it’s leaving (third day now!). They give you just 2 hours warning that the ferry is leaving as they only go when full. It’s a 2 mile walk but as they only speak Azeri and Russian I can’t phone.

Right, what can you take for sea sickness??????

17. Stans' update

September 29th, 2010

Just a quick update.

I've had some serious problems in Kazakhstan which I am unable to talk about freely due to restrictions on speach here. Currently in Uzbekistan where things are far better with a lot less hassle, but again there is no "free" internet. All news websites are banned here (BBC included, although you can get ITN! clearly not a valued news channel!). So I will drip feed information on where I've been once I'm out of the Stans.

So just a brief update on the route.

I had wanted to go from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and then into China, however there is pretty much a civil war going on on the border between these two counties and all the borders are closed. This means I have to go back into Kazakhstan (which for certain reasons I wanted to avoid) so have had to get another visa. I could go from Kazakhstan and then to Bishkek in Kyrgystan but I'm not sure if it's worth the wait for the visa which seems to take 7 days when all guide books say 1 to 3! There is also a national election there on the 10th so it probably will be too dangerous to go.

So the plan was to enter China and go into Pakistan via the amazing Karakouran (sp?) highway. I've been taking my time to get here as I was waiting for it to reopen after the bad flooding in Pakistan. It opened last week so hoped to pop over it before it's closed again when the snow comes (mid to end October). However, the Pakistan Embassy informed me that as of two months ago all Pakistan Embassies can only give Visa's to people who are resident in the country from which they apply. This is slightly gutting as I wanted to go to India via the land route but now can't. There is no other way to india as you can't travel through Tibet from one side to the other unless you do a $2000+ tour.

Kazakhstan

So what next..... Tomorrow I plan to try to get a Chinese visa. It has to be tomorrow as the Embassy closes for a week on Friday due to some inportant Chinese festival. Amazingly bad timing at the moment. If I get that (I've had to book hotels and flights I probably won't use just to get the visa!) the it's across to Hong Kong where I can re-stock on broken items and worn out shoes. From there I'm planning on taking a break from the overland travel as I really need to pop into India. As many of you know, the last time I went I ended up sponsoring a kid out there and had promised to pop over to help with the organisation I support and see what he's made of himself now he's all grown up!

It would be silly not to pop over and do this as this was one of the main reasons for taking the career break but to make sure I still to the over land route, I will return to Hong Kong about a month later.

Anyway..... I'll give you all the Stans gossip later. But seriously, if anyone is thinking about travelling here, don't take the decision lightly!

18. Kazakhstan, Corruption and Customs.

October 10th, 2010

(written 28/09/10)

On the third morning of visiting the ferry terminal in Baku, Azerbaijan, I was told that the ferry would leave at midday. W-hay, I was glad to get out of the place. The ferry was amazing for two things, first the price which was a very expensive $130US and second, the Luxury cabin I was allegedly in had not been cleaned for ages and had bird crap and all sorts of other bodily stains everywhere.

Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan

But the sea was amazingly calm and 22 hours later and after a good night’s sleep, only interrupted when the stewardess had to put someone else in my cabin due to flooding (I asked if that meant the ship was sinking but she was Russian with no sense of humour!), we arrived in Aktau, Kazakhstan. It took over three hours to clear customs but when I did there was another shock, no taxis and a 5 mile walk through the desert to town! Luckily someone stopped to pick me up soon after I started walking which was nice of them although they drove so fast and braked so hard that my face print will be forever left in the back of the passenger headrest. In town I tried to book a ticket straight to Almaty so I could leave Aktau ASAP and sort out visas. Typically for this part of the world the train was fully booked for 5 days! This happens here because they prefer to only send transportation when full to make as much money as possible rather than risk putting on more trains which aren’t full. I quickly had to come up with another route, so I decided to head towards Tashkent in Uzbekistan instead by going via Aktobe and Turkistan. I could get some visas there but it would mean two full days on trains plus a half day wait heading about 1000 km north east and then another 1000 km south east traversing two time zones and most of the country.

The morning the train was due to leave I checked with the hotel receptionist that the train time on the ticket was Aktau time and not Astana (capital) time. I’d learned in Russia that no matter which time zone you are in, all trains run to Moscow time so I assumed it may be the case here being an old soviet state. The receptionist assured me it was not, so I headed off to the Migration Police office to register that I’d entered the country safe in the knowledge I had plenty of time. Rather pathetically they don’t do this at the border even though they know you’ve entered. I was quickly seen at 9am but was told to come back at 10..... then 11am. Eventually at 11:30 I was registered which simply involved putting a stamp on a form! There is a stupid system in this part of the world whereby only one person is allowed to do a particular task, if they don’t turn up to work or at all then you’re stuck as no one else can help as they don’t have authority! It’s so frustrating. So eventually I got to the train station which was 16km out of town and not to my complete surprise the train had gone........ on Astana time as I had thought. Back at the hotel I didn’t even get an apology from the lady on reception just “I didn’t know that.” Well if you didn’t know that you shouldn’t have said anything then..... Must learn Russian for “cock.” However I did barter £10 off the room price which makes up for the money I lost on rebooking the ticket.

Aktau, Kazakhstan

The journey across Kazakhstan was pretty uneventful and the scenery bland. The area is called the “Hungry Steppe” which is just mile upon mile of arid desert with little life other than the odd nomadic tribesman, his flock and his camel (which are two humped here, different to north Africa!). I have to admit, it does feel quite strange having backpacked from the UK and then seeing your first Camel, it’s one of those things which really highlight’s how far I’ve come. After 26 hours I had a 6 hour stopover in Aktobe where I needed to get some proper food. The menu was in Cyrillic Kazakh and no one here speaks even the smallest amount of English so I had to do the usual and just point at the menu. I figured from the pictures on the wall outside all the dishes were big apart from the one small mash potato and hotdog thing so I should be ok if I pointed to the longest named item. I couldn’t believe it when it came..... it was the mashed potato and hotdog thing! Really need to know Russian for “cock”.

So after another night and full day of travelling I arrived in Turkistan. This is a major Islamic site in this part of the world as there is a mausoleum to the first Turkic Muslim Kozha Akhmed Yasaui. He brought Islam to both here and Turkey (although my guidebook says he “bought it” which is a far more interesting story). If you come here three times it’s meant to be the same as going to Mecca once. It’s a nice sight but I can help feeling a little disappointed as it is very clinical with little of the atmosphere you would usually get at such an important pilgrimage site. All life within 500m has been cleared out. As I’d been delayed in Aktau after one night I went straight to Shymkent from here and then to the border with Uzbekistan to cross into Tashkent. And this is where the major problems started.......

Turkistan, Kazakhstan


THE BORDER PROBLEM

Basically in Istanbul I applied for a double entry visa for Kazakhstan, when I was eventually given it after 10 days the visa actually just said 1 entry. I complained about it at which point the consul just came back with the same visa but he simply changed the 1 into a 2. I asked if that would be OK and he said yes! Roll forward a month and after entering Kazakhstan with no problem when I was leaving all the problems started. At the first control point I was asked to empty my pockets for “security reasons” and then was told that they had to count how much money I had to confirm I was below the legal amount permitted as noted on my declaration. I thought I'd been really good and watched them to make sure nothing was taken but when I got around the corner I counted my money and noticed $50 had been taken. I’d counted my money just before as I knew this kind of thing happens here, corrupt officials are everywhere. I immediately ran back shouting that they had taken my $50 and amazingly a crumpled up $50 bill appeared on the floor with them implying that it must have dropped. Yes, my perfectly crisp flat notes became crumpled in simply falling to the floor.

But then it was time to go the customs point and get my exit stamp. As soon as the guy behind the counter saw the number of entries on the visa that was it. He went away and came back with three other “mates” and they started accusing me of forging the entire visa. I obviously said “no” but I was not going to explain what had happened in Istanbul as that would have made the situation worse as they would have seen it as an excuse.

Damaged visa, Kazakhstan

After a short while they took me to a corner of the room where no one could see me and started to try to get into my bag for no reason as I had already cleared customs. I went over to stop them at which point one of them grabbed me so hard on the arm that I have a bruise from where he pushed his thumb into my arm. He then hit me with the palm of his hand in my face and I ended up with a slightly blooded nose but at least my action did stop them trying to steal stuff, although they did get a poundland torch! Really worth it. They then said that I would have to go back to Aktau and leave from there as that was where I had entered, they knew full well that this was a minimum of three days travelling from here and they all laughed. After me requesting my passport back to go to Aktau (with the intension of going to the British Consulate in Almaty) this they said a $50 fine would get me through. I just explained again and again that it wasn’t me who had changed the number. Then one guy went through my camera pictures and amazingly there was now a picture of the customs post on it. He had taken the camera and taken the picture and now said that I could be arrested for this having this picture. I just asked to look at the picture, grabbed the camera back and deleted the picture. Luckily these guys appeared to be quite thick! He just giggled coyly realising that I’d caught him out. The offer for freedom then came down to $30 and to be fair at this point I was really worn down, getting quite emotional and really wanted out, but just as I was about to give in and hand some money over I had a moment of clarity and my amazing well-known stubbornness re-emerged and I just stood there and waited. After all, would handing over the money be an admission of guilt, and what would happen to me then? Would they demand more money for trying to bribe officials, it could go on.... While they weren't looking I found the British Embassy Phone number in my guidebook and told them I was phoning. Amazingly at this point (almost three hours on) they eventually gave in, maybe I should have done this earlier but hey. But as I was leaving the guy who could speak a little English said I'd better not come back and used a hand gesture that suggested that if I did I would be in a whole lot of trouble than just a bruised arm or blooded nose.

I decided there and then that I was not going to go back through Kazakhstan so imagine my horror when arriving in Tashkent I discovered that this was the only land border open in northern Uzbekistan as there is all but a civil war going on between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, so I had to go back the same way. Gutted. Then in the guesthouse I noticed they had deliberately torn a page in my passport which makes it invalid so I have to go and get that fixed otherwise I may have more trouble in the future. It’s just all been completely unbelievable and far too much, I’m just a tourist but they treat you like vermin. My main concern now is what's going to happen when I go back to the border but I think I have the British Embassy behind me, I have their number on speed dial! I'm stuck in Uzbekistan until everything is sorted out and my passport repaired which is made worse by the fact that this is a police state so you are asked for your passport everywhere. As such I'm walking around with a letter from the British Embassy which proves that I'm me which is quite bizarre. It's all thanks to Kazak incompetence in Istanbul and corruption at the border. If anyone wants to travel here they should not make the decision lightly....... Or simply just fly here and not go over land!

But my hassles of the day weren’t over yet, the taxi driver from the border to central Tashkent decided to up the charge of his shitty old Lada en-route to quite frankly an unacceptable level. I’d really had enough at this point and figured it was either him or the car which was going to get it! So while he was travelling at speed I opened the passenger door as wide as possible pretending that I was going to jump out when he slowed but actually had every intension of just smashing the door into one of the passing trees. He looked shocked and shook up but guess what.... I got my price!

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

19. The issues build up and time drags on.....

October 14th, 2010

(written 02/10/10)

So I would not have to spend too much time in Kazakhstan on my eventual return I decided to pop to the Kyrgyzstan Embassy on my first morning in Tashkent to get a visa, this way I could transit Kazakhstan to Bishkek in one day and forget about the place. I put my name on the list to be seen and waited.... 3 hours later..... nothing. The Consul had not bothered to turn up and no one could do anything without him. Central Asian bureaucracy again, nothing moves without the exact person assigned to a task! So I would have to go back tomorrow. In the mean time I headed out to the Pakistan Embassy to see about getting a visa there. I was seen amazingly quickly but had some really disappointing news. As of two months ago the Pakistan Embassies all over the world only give visas to those resident in the country from where they are applying. This means that it is impossible to achieve one challenge I set out to do and that was travelling to India overland.

The only other option would be going via China, Tibet and Nepal which was my original plan to exit India but doing it twice in financial suicide on a trip like this. Because of Chinese policy since 2008 (imposed after the Olympics as there would have been a boycott otherwise) non-Chinese can only enter Tibet on a special tour costing at least $1500 (but even them I don't think I can continue into mainland China). I was prepared to pay it once, but not twice. I think I may try the India overland route other time but do it quicker so I can get a visa for Pakistan in the UK. Anyway, the guy in the Embassy was so apologetic about it that he invited me to talk to the Consul. This is why I wanted to go to Pakistan. The guys there were so friendly and I ended up having tea and cake with the consul as we just chatted about everything and nothing but particularly Cricket match fixing and the Indian Commonwealth games mess. He was a really nice guy and really apologetic, something that would never happen in the Central Asian consulates. The girl on reception even gave me her e-mail address in case I wanted to meet up later, cool.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

The next day I put my name on the list for the Kyrgyzstan Embassy again before heading out to the British Embassy to make a statement about the border issue. After being all but stripped searched to get in the guys were amazingly helpful and got straight in touch with the Kazakhstan Embassy. They arranged that I should go straight to the Kazak embassy to see what they could do about a new visa. When I went round there and said I was from the British Embassy as I’d been told to do the policeman on the gate would not left me in. There was a massive crowd waiting and pushing to get in for visas and he waved me away indignantly as if I was trying it on. I phoned the British Embassy to tell them what had happened, they said wait there 5 mins but within 2 a guy came out and had a word with the policeman and I was let straight in! The look on the policeman’s face was classic, I think he thought he was going to get into a lot of trouble. Actually, I hope he does!

Inside the Embassy I was told they would cancel the current visa and give me a new one which they would stick over the torn passport page. I could then take it back to the British Embassy to be re-stitched. However, he said I had to come back at 5 pm tomorrow. I couldn’t believe it, I needed to go to the Chinese Embassy tomorrow as after tomorrow it would be closed for a week due to 1st October celebrations which are important in China. This would mean I would need speedy processing of my Chinese visa which would add at least $100 to costs and missing out on Kyrgyzstan as time is running out on my current visas so don’t have time to apply.

Damaged Kazakstan Visa

When I went back to the embassy the next day to collect my new Kazakhstan visa the cheeky b*stards charged me a $30 processing fee even though all the mistakes were theirs! But that said, I’m happy they got the money rather than the border guards. The new visa also gives me an extra two weeks in Kazakhstan which I now need anyway with all the problems with waiting for the Chinese Embassy so may be I have been lucky?!?!? It now means that I don’t have to get stressed about leaving the country quite so quickly as it’s all getting so complicated and messy at the moment. You really can’t plan anything here in Central Asia, everything takes a week longer than you think as it’s all so corrupt, incompetent and bureaucratic. But I suppose I now have time to waste and I can see the sights of Samarkand and Bukhara on the old Silk Road route in Uzbekistan, these were places I’d thought I’d miss so I’m quite happy to see them. So I’m re-stitched and off to Bukhara on the night train.

New Kazakhstan visa