(29) Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Paper pushers pushing my buttons

With ticket in hand, I actually got on a train in the morning to Tashkent. Marta and Kuba and two other travellers were in a different car, so I was on my own in first class.

First class on these trains is a fairly meaningless term. I suppose there is tonnes of leg room, which I was thankful for, but the barely functioning air conditioning meant that the windows were closed and the car sweated and fans themselves the entire 8 hours. A young man going to Tashkent for a university entrance English test so we chatted off and on through out the trip as we also each tried to nap through the heat. The usual questions came up, including the question of my religion. “Muslim”, he says as he points to himself. “Christian?” He points to me. I shake my head. He holds up two fingers, looks at them, and says, “Muslim, Christian” as if he’s run out of fingers and there are only two possible religions. He tries again, and remains confused. “No Christian. But you have God,” he says, more of a statement than a question. OK, sure, I have god. I feel I might blow your mind if I try to explain atheism.

The scenery was more desert. Dust. Scrub. Did catch a glimpse of mountains as we went through Samarkand, even one with some remnants of winter snow. I’m bypassing Samarkand so as to sort out a Kyrgyz visa in Tashkent first. I’ll catch Samarkand on my way through to Tajikistan. While Kyrgyzstan is not definitely in my plans yet, I still hope to get there. I’ve been reading the forums on Lonely Planet’s website, and will base my decisions on what fellow travellers are saying. Considering Kyrgyzstan was the main reason for this trip in the first place, I would be incredibly disappointed not to go.

Arriving in Tashkent I took the metro to near my intended hotel, and walked the rest of the way. I’ve been impressed with accommodation so far in Uzbekistan – definitely the nicest for the lowest prices – but this was more like a (low) standard hotel. Clean and the BBC; I suppose I couldn’t ask for much more.

My main goal for my first afternoon was to get rid of my lovely (grumble grumble) painting I’ve been carrying around since Mary. Uzbek post wasn’t necessarily reliable, but Tashkent did have a DHL, so if I didn’t mind forking out some money, there was a more secure option for my painting to get home.

Instead however, I ended up heading out with Yoko, the non-sick half of a Japanese couple, to get something to eat and check out the wifi that was apparently available at a nearby mall. Yoko and her husband, Hiro, have been biking around the world since 2008. From what I gather they started in Turkey, went south all the way to South Africa, flew over to Central (and South?) America, and most recently through China and now in Central Asia. A few years ago they also spent a working holiday in Canada, where it turns out they spent 4 months in Vernon, just less that an hour away from my hometown of Salmon Arm. The world just got smaller.

I had no success connecting to wifi, but borrowed Yoko’s iPod Touch to find out that I was likely not in luck for a quick Kyrgyz visa as I could have swore I had read online a few days before in Buchara. The embassy is closed Thursdays, and it takes two days, meaning I would apply Friday, and not be able to pick up until Monday.

(insert string of expletives here)

Back at the hotel I fell into a slumber until 11pm, got up and showered, and went back to sleep with my mosquito net as my only cover. I planned to get up early the next morning to try the Kyrgyz visa anyway.

But I was not in luck. Friday it would have to be. There’s nothing worse than be excited to leave something and start something new only to find stupid details claw you back to where to don’t want to be anymore. If only I hadn’t been sick. If only I had been able to get on the train the first time I wanted to. But then I wouldn’t have been able to run into some of the friends I have met along the way, and I wouldn’t take the time to hang out in Samarkand, which is what I’ve decided to do.

So today, instead of hanging out at the Kyrgyz embassy, I went to the main bazaar in town, bought a lovely plate, took photos. With the help of many people, I tracked down the DHL office to enquire about sending my Turkmenistan painting home. It would cost over $100, which I’m OK with since I would prefer that it would actually arrive in Canada. But what I wasn’t expecting was the extra step of getting permission from the Ministry of Art and Culture or somethingorother. Which would cost another $20-$40 and unknown time. Even though I have a certificate from Turkmenistan, and I didn’t buy the damned thing here. The young man working there was very nice. He was originally from Tajikistan, but left during the civil war in the 90s. He points to a 3 inch scar above his left eye. “For my parents, this was the final straw,” he says.

I guess I’ll carry it to Tajikistan and try again their. I’m getting used to carrying it around anyway.

In the evening I meet up with Yoko and Hiro for dinner. Our server speaks no English but a series of chicken noises, chopping motions, and hand squeezing gestures, we wind up with the dinner we expected – a variety of kabobs and some salad. The temperature had become bearable.

Finally, the day to apply for my Kyrgyz visa comes. I arrive at 10:10. It’s still not open, and I’m 4th in the queue. I get my paperwork by 10:30, and rush to the bank to pay my visa fee. If all goes well, I should pay, and get back to the embassy by 11 so that I can drop off all my paperwork before they close between 11:30 and 2:30.

But of course it couldn’t be that easy. Step 1 at the bank – some unknown paperwork – was fine. But step 2, actually paying, was not. Step 2 only takes 2 minutes, but when you have two Korean business people trying to withdraw tens of thousands of US dollars and it takes an hour and a half, step 2 actual takes an hour and a half and two minutes. At least I was amused by the lack of personal space people have here. While the teller is handing over stacks of 100 dollar bills, an insistent old woman stands right between them, complaining about how long it’s taking (or so I assume). There are about 12 people waiting behind me, and eventually a guard tells most of them to go, as they will be closing for lunch soon after the Koreans are done. The 3 women working in the other nearby teller windows have been mostly chatting the last hour. I’m not a fan of the ridiculous paperwork and lack of service orientation. I suppose the bureaucracy provides jobs for a huge proportion of the population, but I’m over it.

I get back to the embassy at 12:30, and wait. I’m hungry, but I want to keep my place in line. Somehow, a woman that arrives after me gets to drop off her stuff first, but soon enough I, too, get to drop off my paperwork. Done.

I just have a small overnight bag with me – laptop, underwear, mosquito net, and toiletries – and head straight away on the metro to the bus station, where I quickly pick up a shared taxi to Tashkent. Get me out of here. I need a break from bureaucracy.