Day 02 – The Great Visa Hunt (Part One)

Friday 29 August

Okay, well that’s a bit of a hammer-blow.

A combination of research and a phone call to the Tajik Embassy (made by another chap in the dorm, a Canadian with Iranian origins so speaks the language, roughly), has brought to light that it is impossible to enter Tajikistan, or at least it will be when I wanted to go there.
It seems there’s some kind of regional economic conference taking place in the capital, Dushanbe, on around 12 September, and they’ve tightened up security quite considerably. From 1 September they’re closing the land borders to third-party nationals, and ending via-on-arrival support at Dushanbe Airport. In addition, Tajik embassies are not issuing visas at the moment; all visas currently being processed/applied for will only become valid on or around 17 September. So unless you already have a visa, you can’t get one.

This, in a nutshell, is the bad side of minimal planning and getting things done on-the-go. While it would have been considerably easier, and cheaper, to get my Tajik visa here in Bishkek, at this current moment in time it isn’t possible. As a result, I went straight to get my other visa, which also ended in failure, but for a different reason. I was led to believe that obtaining a visa for Afghanistan was a very simple and quick process here in Bishkek, and indeed it does appear to be, but only if the Consul feels like it. I turned up at the embassy; he gave me a form to fill in and said it would be no problem, but he couldn’t process it today and could I come back Monday. Bah: Attempts 2, Visas 0.

Getting to the Afghan embassy was made easier by the online marshrutka map– a valuable service in this city, even if it’s almost impossible to scroll around the city using it, only zoom in and out.
These marshrutkas, they’re the same the world over, be it in Moldova or East Timor. They’re a minivan with seats inside, with no openable windows and suspect suspension, driven by (almost exclusively) men who make London Taxi Drivers appear to drive safely.
Bear in mind they drive on the right in Kyrgyzstan. At one intersection, we wanted to turn left; we were in the far right lane. As we tried to turn left, another marshrutka came up alongside us on our left and wouldn’t let us cross his path. Two-thirds of the way across the crossroads, we managed to edge in front and turn. At which point the other marshrutka finally gave his intention known that he was turning left as well. Grrr.
They are, however, easy to ride and pick up – they cost a standard fare of 10som (there are 87 to the £), you can hail and stop them from virtually anywhere en-route even if they are supposed to have designated bus stops, they pass by every few minutes and there appear to be hundreds of routes, so you can get between most places in the city by using one – except the road the Afghan embassy is on as that’s an uneven, gravelly, half-finished, one-way street…

Now, the elephant in the room here is, Afghanistan?! Look, you only ever hear the bad, and the bad is concentrated in the South and the East of the country. The places I’m planning on seeing are in the never-talked-about North and West. Just because nothing’s ever said doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means it’s normal.

Apart from visas, today I’ve also been looking into treks. Kyrgyzstan is a mountain wilderness and it’s noted for its scenery. There’s also been an explosion in hat you might call ‘local tourism’; If you imagine that Central Asia is still populated by rural, semi-nomadic peoples; in the summer months, when it’s warm in the mountains, these people disperse amongst the valleys and live off the land. They don’t have permanent homes/buildings, rather they, effectively, ‘set up camp’ in a particular place, in yurts, which are basically very large tents, similar to the tepee/wigwam. However these days they’ve cottoned on to the fact that there’s more money to be made in sustainable tourism, so, in arrangements with tour agencies, they open out their ‘homes’ to hikers, and cook for them. This is a win-win situation; the locals get an income, and to meet with interesting people, and get their voiced heard, whilst the hikers can go through beautiful mountain terrain easily, by staying in warm, traditional accommodation, meet the locals, and eat good local food.
My aim is to visit a small mountain lake going on one of these ‘treks’ – the lake called Song-Kol, which although not the largest of the lakes in the country, is one of the prettiest – but the trouble I’m finding is that they’re a touch expensive, because I’m going on my own. These things work out cheaper if there’s a group of you who go, but finding a ‘group’ is quite tricky. Certainly, no-one in the hostel is going that way, and not at the time I want anyway.

I did book myself onto a small, simple, hike tomorrow though – a day trip to one of the local valleys here around Bishkek. It’s called the Alamedin Canyon, and apparently has a nice waterfall, as well as the possibility of a spa pool but I think I might pass on that option…

As for the city of Bishkek itself, well I’ve been here a day and I’ve pretty much seen everything I think I want/need to. It’ a nice city, don’t get me wrong, it just feels a little, well, ‘dull’. Watching marshrutkas nearly crash in an uncoordinated ballet movement is about the height of entertainment here.
It’s evidently ‘Soviet’, but not as much as somewhere like Tiraspol or Minsk. I’m not sure it’s evidently ‘Asian’ either, though. Apart from the weather, which is dry, clear, and in the low 30s Celsius, which makes it a major change from Latvia.

Today’s dorm mate is a Serb from Novi Sad called Nened, who’s been arrested and deported in Kazakhstan for not having registered his arrival with the local police. It wouldn’t have been so bad – he’d been in the country for about 10 days – but he went to a town noted for its nuclear reactor and bumped into a lot of policemen … Didn’t help either that when he said ‘Serbian’, the policemen thought he said ‘Syrian’, which would have been a somewhat different situation…
Anyhoo, me and him went out for some food, eventually finding some nice, but overpriced, dinner at the café restaurant at the end of our apartment block. It’s quite interesting to note the almost-but-not-quite comprehension between him and the locals when he speaks Serbian and they speak Russian.

Early start tomorrow; the minibus for the hike sets off at 8am from the office at the other end of town.

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