Thursday, 30 August 2012

Day 156 - Accident #3: Mauled by cows. (Kyrgyzstan)

Driving on Kyrgyz roads is a challenge – a fun and exhilarating challenge perhaps, but a challenge all the same. Besides the suicidal drivers, the lethal roads, the landslides and sheer drops and the very interesting selection of vehicles, there’s the endless stream of herds of animals sauntering along, taking up the entire road. We’ve discovered that approaching them front on is easiest; if they see an oncoming vehicle they seem to sort of move themselves around it, albeit very slowly and not always completely. From the back proves much more of an issue as they just keep walking straight, seemingly with no idea that you’re even there. We have “hit” (it’s more of a bump, no more harmful than when they walk into each other) many a sheep and cow, although I think we’ve managed to avoid the horses and donkeys so far. They tend to be the animals being ridden by the shepherd/farmer/whatever.  

Well there we were having spent the afternoon exploring the small town of Aslanbob and its surrounding walnut forest (the largest in the world) looking for a campsite, when we came face to face with a herd of cows. The road we were on was wide enough for us and possibly one cow next to the car. A steep cliff face rose up on our left, and on the right was a steep drop into the valley. We moved left as far as possible without tipping the car over, hoping the cows would merge to our right and we could pass them without too much hassle. The cows didn’t seem to notice we were there though and just kept pushing forwards. Completely surrounded by the animals we stopped moving forwards, closed all our windows and sat tight whilst we watched in awe as they shoved themselves past us on both sides. Four or five deep on either side, they were threatening to crush us, the ones on the cliff side literally falling on top of each other into the side of the car. A few minutes later the herd passed, we were still alive, and the farmer rode past on his horse, laughing at our misfortune.

On inspection of the car we found a scratch down the side from a horn, a few dents here and there and missing reflectors from both side doors. We went back to the scene of the crime and found the reflectors. So other than a bent bumper from a Thai scooter rider (Day 34) and dented side panels from some Kyrgyz cows, the car’s still in great shape.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Day 142 – In the mean time... (Border crossing Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan)

This was now our third border crossing where we had to split up – only one driver allowed per vehicle. I was designated driver to cross into China, Ben was assigned the job of China/Kazakhstan and this time it was Tunkles’ turn to play the bureaucracy battle. While he was busy photocopying forms and negotiating which guard would like to make which stamp, Ben, Denner and I went through immigration as foot passengers. It’s a fairly simple process involving choosing a queue, pushing your way to the front of it whilst attempting not to get trampled, looking into a camera for a couple of minutes while the guy at the desk twiddles his thumbs, and leaving the building to walk into no-man’s land.

The late afternoon sun was relentless and guards kept ushering us and everyone else away from the entrance to an unused building, where the only shade in sight was to be found. A slight breeze came up from the river separating the two countries, so we stood on the bridge to try and get some of it. We couldn’t decide if it was a man made river or not – it looked like maybe it was a natural river, but its border qualities (sharp rocks, fast rapids and suitable width) might have been enhanced. The gravel path on the Kazakh side was certainly not natural; too wide to jump across and graded so that any footprints were ruthlessly visible. And just in case someone did manage to get across the river and the path – not an easy feat, but surely not impossible – there were three metre high barbed wire fencing on either side.

 I think that was the smallest no man’s land we’ve encountered so far, with only a 100m long bridge separating the two border posts. We were right in the middle of the two, sweltering in the heat, and straining to see whether Trevor was still parked where we’d watched Tunkles take him, just inside the border area. After an hour or so we were beginning to get concerned – we’re prepared to wait for an entry, but it shouldn’t take this long to leave a country. What could possibly be going on? We began going through hypothetical situations that could have occurred, but I won’t jinx us by saying them here.

It was a busy border - there was hustling and bustling in both directions, and a lot of people were waiting in no man’s land like we were. We watched a lot of them – mainly ladies – stop between the borders to get dressed into entire bags of clothing (to avoid paying tax we assume); three or four pairs of trousers topped by a couple of dresses, a t-shirt or two over that and jumpers/jackets both on them and draped over their shoulders, tags still on all of them. It was obvious what they were doing, but apparently it’s a thing that’s done. In the couple of hours that we ended up waiting there we witnessed half a dozen instances of a border guard/army official/policeman walking through no man’s land from Kyrgyzstan and meeting a border guard/army official/policeman from Kazakhstan in the middle somewhere. They would shake hands, exchange cash, hand over a passport or two and return minutes later to their post on the respective sides of the border.

The crowd seemed to be getting a bit thicker around where we were standing, and suddenly there was a group of about 60 people – mainly ladies again, and fairly well dressed – frantically pushing each other and screaming, climbing over the massive overground pipe to get onto the road. Much to our amusement one young guy attempted a flashy jump over the pipe and landed face first on the ground. They all seemed really desperate and concerned, but we had no idea what about.

An army truck began reversing out of the Kazakh border area and through the boom gate into no man’s land. The crowd moved forward, thrusting themselves at the truck, and we watched in horror as the vehicle reversed into the throng and the people at the back pushed forward towards the truck, crushing all who were at the front. These people were acting as if they had refugee family members inside the truck or something.
At a certain point the truck stopped reversing and an army guy got out of the driver’s seat and stood aside whilst a man in civilian clothing got out the passenger’s seat and made his way through the jostling crowd to the truck’s back doors. It was difficult to see, but it seemed that the crowd was indignant towards him, perhaps he was refusing to open the doors? But the group was so tightly squeezed against the truck that he wouldn’t have been able to anyway. A stocky lady in a yellow t-shirt seemed to suddenly rise above the horde and with the support of some chanting, managed to heave herself onto the back ledge of the truck.
We watched in amazement as the lady in the yellow t-shirt and the army man in civilian clothing opened the back doors of the truck into the swarm, shoving crowd members into each other in the process. We really had no idea what to expect once the doors were open – were they all going to try and jump in to smuggle themselves across the border? Were people going to jump out? Would the truck be full of illegal goods or food products? And then the lady in the yellow t-shirt started lifting handbags, shopping bags, children’s backpacks, brief cases and other such small pieces of personal looking luggage up. For each item she held up, a selection of crowd members would wave their arms and scream, presumably trying to claim that item. It now seemed like some sort of Red Cross type delivery, but these people didn’t look like they were dirt poor and it didn’t quite seem to fit.

The army officer who had reversed the truck from Kazakhstan into no man’s land was standing aside while the proceedings took place, and he spotted us watching what was going on. Obviously bored he approached us and to our pleasant surprise, used his limited English to enlighten us as to what the situation was.

“Contraband,” he spat, disdainfully gesturing to the items getting tossed around in the crowd. He went on to explain that the Kyrgyz people go into Kazakhstan to sell their goods. “Kyrgyzstan, little money. Kazakhstan, big money,” which also explained all the ladies dressing up in seventeen layers of clothing. He ruefully told us about how they import goods to Kazakhstan every day, and every day they take more than the personal limit. Every day the excess goods are confiscated, and every day they are returned. He rolled his eyes and made a circle with his finger, indicating the vicious cycle that continues every day.

Because there is no repercussion for attempting to exceed the limits (fine, jail sentence, limited import allowance, or even just losing their items) there is no risk other than wasting half an hour at the end up the day jostling through a crowd to get their belongings back, these “business people” make a living out of doing this. If they try every day then I’m guessing that sometimes they’ll get the stuff through, and if they don’t then no loss. It’s bizarre that we have to sit in no man’s land for two hours waiting for Tunkles to take dozens of forms to different windows just to exit the country, yet confiscating goods that are being illegally brought into the country just isn’t a big deal. It was refreshing though to speak to an army officer who realised the irony of the system and was more than willing to tell us all about it.

Crossing the River Bureaucracy, By Tom Unkles (Border crossing Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan)

It was a warm August morn as we departed Almaty. We symbolically waved away the beautiful city of fun and friends, handing back our keys to our stunningly gold toothed landlady, Laauurra. A two and a half hour highland drive took us to the Kyrgyz border where the honour befell me to undertake the crossing.

Greeting us at the border in traditional and true soviet fashion was a forty minute queue. Slowly negotiating our way through, we arrived at the imposing gates to be split up in an imposing fashion by an imposing guard. "It's just me and Trev from here" is something I probably would say if I believed I was in a movie. Sadly though, I wasn't, so I continued to wait another half an hour for the imposing guard to open the gates. At long last however, a ray of sunshine shone into my dreary wait as the guard wrestled open the gates of fortune; with a roar (no scratch that) with a thunkedy-clunk, the surrounding Ladas and Japanese insurance write-offs rose to life and a mad twenty metre rally began as we sped through the gates to join queue number two.

Well, I did join queue number two. But I was promptly redirected to park. Somewhere else. To commence the exit paperwork procedures. Departing trusty Trev I then engaged several military fatigued border guards who pointed me in the several opposing directions I was supposed to take my paperwork. In frustration I entered the customs office building and was directed by an English speaking guard to take my paperwork into an office. After much deliberation as to whose responsibility it was to take care of the paperwork it was decided that the English-ish speaking Guard should do it. "Fiiill iin zis forrrm and zis one. Aaand zis one. Aaaand signnn heer." She continued for twenty minutes, directing me through the now familiar Russian forms. Thankfully with the hope of avoiding excess work for both of us she asked me to sign paperwork as both myself and Benjamin Andrew Crowley (who had stamped the car into Kazakhstan,) omitting any difference in our persons. Finally, we signed off our last form and she let me know the next step:

Guard: "Take three photocopies of this form to the outside window."

Me: "Sorry?"

Guard: "Take three photocopies of this form to the outside window."

Ok. As expected they did not have a photocopier I could use, but a friend/relative/shopkeeper/partner-in-crime based just back inside the Kazakh border town would be more than happy to oblige for a more than unreasonable price. A great scam really, but it could've been improved with some signage for the Copy Shop. Forty minutes later I returned, copies in hand, slightly indignant that a border guard was collecting the day’s takings from the shop as I walked in.

As instructed I move Trev up to the queue and as the usual kerfuffle ensues it is decided I should park again and move through immigration. As directed I move through a suspiciously efficient queue and a border matron stamped me out. Back to Trev.

Ok now things are moving. The various guards point me in the usual opposing directions but I find my window easily enough. Presenting passport I am told: "Niet. You make mistake." Commence ten minute staring competition and eventually I am enlightened with the knowledge that he himself should have stamped me out of Kazakhstan, and that I now will be stamped out of Kazakhstan twice. Ok. He is now prepared to look at my car paperwork. Commence staring competition number two. As victor I am rewarded with more paperwork and a third staring competition. Finally, I'm allowed to get Trev, just in time to arrive at the very back of the next queue.

Bizarrely, imposing guard #1 has little interest in searching Trev as all other cars have been. Our collection of State secrets remains intact... He is however, interested in our missing document. Back to staring guard. This time it was his mistake and he hands over a small piece of paper with a scribble on it. My key to exit Kazakhstan apparently as it's checked five times as I cross into Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan! And a surprisingly efficient entry. As I drove past the others who have now been waiting for over two hours, I'm pulled up by the first mean looking guard. Usual salutes and an unmistakable play for a few dollars is cut short as a young off duty guard runs over to demonstrate his best kangaroo impression. Pretty good really! Even better he has alerted the guard to the fact that we're Australian (and not American); the on-duty guard waves us through with a handshake.

From here the rest of the crossing is pretty standard. Forms, forms, forms and the usual ratio of four border officials watching  TV to every one official working. Short straw system I guess! Trev is stamped through in about half an hour, the crew are collected and very happy to be out of no-man’s land as we roll on to Bishkek.

Crossing from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan. Two and a half stars!

Day 148 - Beer and shashliks on the beach gone wrong. (Kyrgyzstan)

We spent a few days in Bishkek on arrival in Kyrgyzstan, mainly for the purpose of getting our Iranian visas. We stayed at a very bizarre “guesthouse” called Nomad’s, where we met a lot of very cool and interesting people – Bishkek, and in fact Kyrgyzstan in general seems to be overlander central, and it turns out we were all staying at Nomad’s – which is why we stayed there. The place was a shambles though and the owners screwed up at every turn, to the point where it surpassed annoyance and frustration and became hilarious. My bed in the dorm was double booked and I was confronted with a large English man jumping on top of me in the middle of the night; the one single room was triple booked, and was left to the guests to sort out; the yurta was double booked; the owners blocked their sink inside the house with rice pudding, then switched off the water to our bathroom; and above all the mum, dad and grown up sister left the 13 year old to deal with everything. I could go on, but in the end we did check out a couple of other places and decided to stay at Nomad’s because of the people we met there - an English couple who are four months into a motorcycle trip around the whole world and three Bulgarian guys who had taken their Land Cruiser on a mountaineering adventure to Kyrgyzstan. The Bulgarians left the following day, but were replaced by a dynamic duo going by the names Carol and Shaun, who had met in Pakistan and have travelled extensively all over the world.

We left Bishkek two days ago now and drove East towards Isik Kol, a very huge and beautiful lake surrounded by sandy beaches, rocky dunes and snowy mountains. We met up with Josje and Remco (our flamingo searching in Kazakhstan friends), as if it’s just a normal thing to text message a friend and then meet them on the road going through a tiny village next to a lake in Kyrgyzstan. We decided to camp together last night, so drove away from the village to look for a nice spot. There really weren’t many tracks off the main road though, and we were starting to get a bit frustrated when we spotted one off to the left – down to the lake, perfect! We noticed there were other people camping on this section of beach, but we thought we’d just go a little bit down and mind our own business. It was already 9pm anyway. So we found a spot, considered whether we were too intrusive on the other people at this distance and decided to stay.
Two minutes later a Kyrgyz man in an orange t-shirt appeared at our car and asked us for help. Apparently his car was stuck in the sand and he wanted us in our “strong car” to tow him out. We realised the people we were concerned about being invasive to were not camping after all, but were stuck in the sand! It turns out they’d already been there for several hours, so lucky for them we rocked up.

We thought we’d try giving it a push first – six extra people would surely help – and if that didn’t work then we’d get out the tow rope. We followed him to his car, and discovered not one car, but two, and not really stuck in sand, but more buried. They had obviously been trying to get themselves out for quite some time, and had done the old spinning the tyres over and over trick. The first car was a hatchback and the sand was at least half way up the tyres. We assessed the situation and decided to dig the front out a little then gave it a push and without too much difficulty, off it went. Orange shirt guy kept saying to Ben that the women (me and Josje) shouldn’t bother because we aren’t strong enough to help, which seemed a bit rich considering our car wasn’t the one buried in sand. Cultural differences. Well I proved him right anyway when the car started moving and I tripped over and everyone trampled me through the sand. Fortunately the sand was nice and soft and the only result of me being trampled was that I was now covered in sand.

The second car though was really buried. Sand came all the way up to the bottom of the doors, and when he spun the tyres we could see they weren’t even on sand now, but were actually suspended by the underside of the vehicle. They had tried to jack the car up, in the sand, which obviously hadn’t worked, and now the jack was jammed underneath the car aswell.

A guy with a hat on seemed to be designated driver (not sure why – he had obviously been enjoying a few evening beverages), and he kept spinning the tyres, while his incredibly intoxicated friend tried to steal our torches, kept chanting “Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan,” and egged on hat guy to “drive, drive, 1, 2 ,3,”, burying the tyres more and more, spraying us all with sand, and not being overly considerate of Remco who was trying to free the jack from behind the front wheel . If orange shirt guy hadn’t been so reasonable and nice we would have told the other ones to stop being so rude and left them to it.

The front tyres were so deep that we decided it would be smart to push the car backwards instead. Orange shirt guy agreed, drunk guy tried to run off with our torch again, and we all lined up in front. Hat guy started revving the car and we realised he was trying to go forward! After a lot of yelling and pointing, orange shirt guy got hat guy to put the car in reverse and with a bit of a heave we got the car out. The problem was that hat guy didn’t stop the car, so he crashed into the tree 20 metres behind, and the main problem was that the car had been so buried that when we pushed the car backwards, the sand had ripped off the front bumper. We hoped this wasn’t orange shirt guy’s car, and sure enough the owner of this car had been sent home, along with most of their shashlik and beer on the beach party, because they were too drunk. If drunk guy and hat guy had been sober enough not to be sent home, I can’t even imagine the state the rest of the group had been in!

While we were all assembled around the car trying to remove the torn bumper and tie up all the dangling bits of engine so that we’d be able to move the car forwards again, hat guy and drunk guy continued at their chanting and revving. I would have loved to leave them stuck in the sand with their broken car, but we couldn’t desert orange shirt guy who was obviously getting quite desperate. Finally we managed to get all the dangling bits out the way and successfully push the car forwards again. Hat guy who was driving almost skidded into the back of our car on the way out and we heard something tear off the bottom of the car as he drove off, but off they went.

There’s going to be a very hung over guy waking up the next day, cursing himself for having left his car at the beach and getting himself ready to go and dig it out. Then he’ll look out his window and think “oh great, I’m glad I’ve got such great friends who brought my car home for me,” then he’ll spot the pretty extensive damage and swear never to leave his car stuck in the sand, in the hands of his drunk friends again.
The worst thing is that when we were stuck in mud in Laos (Blog Day 79 - Car incidents), we gave a bottle of whiskey to the group of locals who helped us out. We barely got a “thanks” for our efforts here.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Day 145 - Visa part 3: Success at the Iranian Embassy (Iranian visas in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)

Having arrived in Bishkek on Sunday evening, Monday morning seemed like a good time to start the ball rolling with our Iranian visas. First things first though I had to get passport photos taken with my head covered. The guy in the Kodak shop we found was very efficient and helpful, assisting me in adjusting my headscarf and photo shopping out the corner of shoulder at the bottom of the picture, while the others went off and ordered us hamburgers and cokes for breakfast.

We found the Iranian Embassy pretty easily and were relieved when we saw that it was slightly less abandoned than the Consulate in Almaty. Outside we put together all our paperwork and I got dressed into my ankle length skirt and long sleeved top in the 35 degree heat (probably not necessary, but we really don’t want to risk upsetting anyone that can deny us visas). The guard at the century post directed us down the side of the 2 metre high, topped with barbed wire, brick wall, to a sturdy door with a doorbell on it. The sign on the door informed us in several languages including English, that visa applications are accepted between 9am and 12pm, and we kicked ourselves when we realised we’d taken so long to put together our paperwork, get my photos taken and eat hamburgers, that it was now just after 12pm.

In the afternoon we bumped into the French cyclists from the Uzbek Embassy in Almaty, who told us a tale of woes about their experience at the Iranian Embassy here in Bishkek. They had gone through an internet based agent and like us, had been given a reference number to collect their LOI and apply for their visas here. But when they went to the Embassy the number hadn’t come through properly, and apparently the people were really unhelpful and so far they had had to return thirteen times.

We were careful on Tuesday not to make Monday’s mistake of rocking up too late, and after holding ourselves up chatting with an Irish/English couple in a Land Cruiser doing our trip in reverse, we got ourselves to the Embassy by 10am. Clad in long skirt and top, and papers in hand, we made our way back down the side of the brick wall and rang the bell on the door. A lady not dressed quite as modestly as me arrived at the door aswell, and after several minutes the door was opened for us and we entered a small air conditioned (which I was very relieved about in my modest dress) room. An Iranian man and woman were sitting in two of the very comfortable waiting chairs filling in some paperwork and the lady who had entered with us marched straight upto the window, handed over whatever she was holding and left straight away. We sat on four of the remaining six chairs and waited to be addressed, grateful for the water cooler in the corner. Framed pictures of Iranian countryside and attractions lined the walls, along with a very interesting stamp collection.

The man at the window gestured to us and we approached with our pile of documents, hopeful that he’d have our reference number and our LOI would be sitting there, trying not to think about having to return thirteen times. He asked our names and looked in our passports, then checked his pile of papers and lo and behold, there was our LOI. Of course neither of the forms we’d already filled in were the correct ones so he gave us new ones to complete, which comprised of exactly the same questions as both previous forms. When we’d completed them, we sat patiently and waited while the Iranian man and woman finished their business, then when it seemed appropriate Ben approached the window with our forms. In the mean time, the Iranian man had reappeared with business cards for his restaurant that he handed to Tom and I, before leaving again.

The man on the other side of the window looked over the forms and pointed out the question of our residence in Iran, to which we had answered “various hotels”. This (not surprisingly, or unreasonably I suppose) wasn’t good enough – we needed actual hotel names, along with their addresses and phone numbers, even though we’d already provided all this information for the LOI which was sitting on his desk. He also wanted copies of our travel insurance and we had to go to the National Bank of Pakistan to pay our 70 Euros per person visa fee. He refused to give us directions, insisting that we should give the piece of paper on which he had scrawled the address to our driver. Fortunately we’ve picked up enough Cyrillic in the last few weeks, and the street was one we’d already driven on, so we just had to keep going along it until we found the bank. Inside the bank we approached the teller, who we handed our passports and the slip of paper from the Embassy to. We waited for a few minutes while she entered everything in her computer, then she handed us printouts to check. Everything was correct, except of course my first name, which she promptly corrected. When we were all satisfied we signed the papers and she asked us to wait while she got the lady five desks along to add a signature, then the lady in the office, then the lady in the office took it off somewhere else, and finally it was taken to the cashier where we were told to go and pay. We told her we’d be paying in Com (local currency), she did the calculations, we handed over the cash, and a few minutes later we were given a receipt and sent on our way.

We got the details of the hotels we had used for our LOI off my computer, looked out our travel insurance documents, and headed back to the Embassy. I put my long sleeved top back on, which had come off as soon as we left the gates and we rang the doorbell. This time he answered “Da” (yes) through the speakers, and let us in to the air conditioned room straight away. We gave him back our passports, along with the receipt from the bank and asked how long it would take to process. “Next Monday,” he told us. Next Monday! That’s a week away – we’d heard that this Embassy issues visas in three days. We asked if it could be any quicker and he told us that we could pay an extra 35 Euros each for Express service which would be either one or two days. We really didn’t want to sit around in Bishkek for another week, or have to return after a week, so we returned to the bank, paid another 35 Euros each, and on our return to the Embassy with our new receipts, we were told to come back the following day at 4pm.

We spent the next day at the incredible state museum, buying souvenirs and doing general touristy sightseeing, which is nice to do for a bit of a change. We had been planning on going straight to the Turkmen Embassy to get our transit visas, now that we’d have our Iranian visas (which is the condition of a transit visa – Iran being the next country we’d be going to after Turkmenistan), but when we were looking for the address, we discovered that there is no Turkmen Embassy in Bishkek.

We arrived at the Embassy at 3:45pm and I decided to wait outside for this one, as I was already really hot and wasn’t overly inclined to put on my long sleeved shirt again. Five minutes later they came back outside with four passports, Iranian visas stuck into their pages. It’s a very nice looking visa, and one of the few (India being the only other one we have) that include a picture on it. This of course now means I have a picture in my passport of me in a headscarf.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Day 139 – Visas for the Stans: Part 2 – Uzbekistan here we come. (Uzbek, Iranian and Azeri visas in Almaty and Astana, Kazakhstan)

It’s all going according to plan on the visa front so far. After frolicking around Kazakhstan with our adopted hitch hikers, we made it back to Almaty on Thursday. We had hoped that our Letter of Invitation would be ready that day and we could get our visas straight away, but alas it wasn’t ready until the following morning. Not to worry though because we spoke to David from Stantours on the phone and went to his office to collect the LOI straight away on Friday afternoon. From there we went on to the Uzbek Embassy where everything ran surprisingly smoothly. There were only a handful of people standing in the waiting hut, as opposed to the dozens that we encountered both previous times we’ve been there. We checked in with the guards and half an hour later three of us were granted entry through the gates. We chose to leave Denner behind, given the decidedly obtrusive beard that is causing more and more attention and questioning, and made our way in with all of our passports, forms, pictures, and the all important LOI. We waited in the same odd little room as before while the same white haired man as before dealt with our papers. After about half an hour we parted with US$75 each and were handed back our passports, each one adorned with a crisp and shiny Uzbek visa.

Our Iranian LOI is ready and should be waiting for us at the Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) Embassy. Stantours has issued us with a 6-digit reference number which the Embassy has a copy of, so as long as we arrive with that number along with our passports and passport photos we should get our visas no problem. The only thing left to be done for this one is that I need to get photos taken with my head covered. That’s definitely a task I’ve been sub-consciously putting off.

We visited the Azerbaijani Embassy in Astana, and as expected didn’t get much assistance. First of all we were told by the guards at the front of the ridiculous sim-style Embassy complex to come back the following day at 1pm (it took a lot of work to gather even this – they didn’t speak English and were very uninclined to offer us any assistance). On our 1pm return the following day we were ignored until we marched into their office and demanded some form of information. At this point we were pointed to a sign in Cyrillic that we supposed said the Embassy closed at 1pm and re-opened at 5pm, until 6pm. So we came back at 5pm, at which point they decided we couldn’t take the car in and gave us a bunch of bung directions that wasted most of our hour long window. With much difficulty we eventually coaxed our way into the complex and found the Azerbaijani Embassy. The lady who answered the door had us wait on the front porch while she fetched a slender man who spoke English, who in turn went and got a fat man who knew stuff. After being chastised for making our appearance so late in the day, they informed us between them that the only place to get an Azerbaijani visa is in the country that you will enter Azerbaijan from. So for us that means we have to get it in Iran which is leaving it much too late and much too up to chance for our liking, but they were adamant that there is no other way. We have it from a variety of other sources though that we should be able to get it in Uzbekistan either with or without an LOI, so we’ll continue checking each Embassy along the way and play it by ear. But other than a bit of time, we didn’t lose anything by giving it a go – you never know when they’re just going to turn around and decide a new rule.

So far Stantours has provided us with brilliant service. David has been most helpful and reasonable in answering our queries, even when it won’t be increasing his income, and the advice he has provided us with has been invaluable. After the NAVO debarkle in China (Blog Day 117 - The incompetency of NAVO: Part 1 - Kazakhstan visa troubles and Day 118 - The incompetency of NAVO: Part 2 - Our sub-par tour guide) it is extremely refreshing to be dealing with an agency who knows their business, provides a proper service and treats their customers with respect.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Day 138 – How an afternoon searching for flamingos became six days in the desert with some hitch hikers. (Kazakhstran)

When we left Astana last Saturday (today being Friday) we intended to take a small detour to a national park near a town called Korgalzhin where we were hoping to come across some spectacular animals and birdlife, specifically flamingos. We’d be going about 150km out of our way, then we’d double back and join up with the main road back to Almaty, arriving back by Wednesday to get our Uzbek LOIs and sort out our visas.

We arrived in the dilapidated, slightly ghosty and very ex-Soviet small town of Korgalzhin, and weren’t quite sure how to find the park. So we decided to try the very abandoned looking visitor centre we passed on the way in, and much to our surprise it wasn’t only open and inhabited, but there were actually other Western tourists there. Much to the disappointment of the lady in the centre who had been about to get her first business in probably quite a while, we offered the Dutch/Belgian couple a lift which they gratefully accepted, and declined the idea of a very overpriced tour guide. Squeezing six into the car, we intended to go and find some flamingos, camp the night somewhere in the park, and then drive them to the large town of Karaganda the next day where we could continue separately on our travels.

We didn’t find any flamingos though, but we had fun just driving around the very flat, dry, sparse land, inhabited with an extraordinary amount of wildlife, and ended up kidnapping Josje and Remco for the next six days.

This was the first time we felt we had really gotten off the beaten track; not just the tourist track but the track full stop. It’s the first time since Australia that we’ve gone for several hours without passing a single sign of life. It was hard to tell whether we were still on the road because there was little difference between that and the tracks crisscrossing across the land, and we were barely able to do more than 30 km/h for most of it. The road signs that we did come across were obviously ancient and were often undecipherable. It didn’t help that both of our compasses decided to go mental and we had to rely on our instincts and the extremely broken interactions with the very few people that we did come across. We emptied our petrol jerry can twice (only having used it once before during the whole trip), finding a dilapidated but in-use petrol station just in time on several occasions.

For water we relied on pumps in the villages we went through, utilising our 10L container for the first time and saving as much as possible. Most days we would only have one opportunity to get water and buy food supplies. On one occasion we couldn’t find water anywhere and resorted to asking a very helpful old Azerbaijani/Belarusian couple in a very derelict looking four-house village, who explained (we think) in hand gestures and finger pointing that they don’t have a nearby water source and have to get it imported by a truck. Considering the probable state of their finances and the inaccessibility of such a necessity we didn’t expect them to be able to help us, but they generously insisted on giving us three cupfuls (about a litre) and a handful of very sticky apricot sweeties.

The roads were so rough and so unmarked that it started feeling like we would never get out of the wilderness and make it back to Almaty. Needless to say though we reached the outskirts of the city and breathed a small sigh of relief, but even then it wasn’t all smooth sailing. We all needed a pee break before we really got into the city and it would become inappropriate to do so at the side of the road, so we pulled over in a nice leafy area and everyone dispersed to take care of their own business. Unfortunately I decided to be subtle and make my way into the foliage away from peeking passersby, and on the way I found myself stuck by the head to a very vicious tree. Ben, Tunkles, Denner and Remco were all preoccupied taking care of their own business, but fortunately Josje responded to my anxious calling and came to my rescue. In the couple of minutes it took for me to get my head stuck, realise, call out and for her to respond, the tree got more and more stuck to my head like some fictional strangling plant. Unable to get the alarmingly sticky balls of spiky tree out of my hair, she expertly dismantled the tree so that I could remove myself from it and continue with my business. I spent the next few hours struggling to free myself from the myriad of probably poisonous balls of tree that had relentlessly tangled themselves all through my hair, and will never again take tree free hair for granted.

It is nice to be back in Almaty, where we feel (possibly weirdly too much) very at home. We rang up our landlord from our last stint here (well our friend Gulmira rang on our behalf as the landlord speaks less English than I do Russian) and arranged our old apartment. We parked Trevor in the car park where the guys shake our hands and treat us like old friends, visited our favourite kebab shop in the central market and returned to McBurger - our favourite wi-fi hotspot.

Day 132 - Astana: A ghost town from the future. (Kazakhstan)

What a seriously weird place this is. Any city that is invented for the sake of moving the capital is going to be a bit odd, but we seem to have chosen timing such that it is particularly so. Made the capital in 1997, it has only been in the last five or so years that President Nazarbayev has pumped a considerable proportion of state funds into building the sky scrapers, domes and futuristic towers of the new town. As with a lot of these sorts of invented places (Docklands in Melbourne came to mind straight away) the whole place feels a bit like a ghost town from the future.

The apartment block we are staying in is obviously very new, but when you enter the building there are holes in the walls, wires lying around, missing tiles and bits of plaster, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s been left to ruin or hasn’t yet been finished. Our apartment itself is along the same lines, fitting in well with most of the city.

The complex of Embassies was very peculiar. It was a square of land, laid out with a grid of roads and split into quarter acre blocks. Each Embassy had a quarter acre block and was built in the style of a suburban family home, a neat flowerbed lining the modest driveway leading to the front door. The respective countries’ flags flying over the front porches were the only sign that this wasn’t a contrived sim city type housing complex.

Astana’s not an overly exciting place to spend a lot of time in. Other than gawking at the ridiculousness of the buildings, and a visit to the very impressive President’s Museum showcasing all the gifts and awards bequeathed to him by other foreign leaders, there isn’t really a whole lot to do.

Denner did manage to get himself a much needed whole new wardrobe though. We were pretty happy to find that our apartment came with a washing machine, and keen to clean his three pieces of clothing Denner jumped straight in. A few hours later he pulled his clean clothes out and caused much hilarity when we discovered that his almost entirely white/bone/beige wardrobe was now a very attractive baby blue colour. Confused by the Cyrillic script and unable to decipher the icons for temperature and time, he had inadvertently set the machine to 90 degrees Celsius and his navy blue sleeping sheet had bled all over everything else. For most people this would be quite a frustrating event, for some devastating; but for Denner it was a much needed change and a major improvement on most items.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Day 131 - Trevor's Revenge. (Kazakhstan)

Except for a couple of minor setbacks (the car being broken into being the main one, leaving our frying pan at our apartment in Almaty being one of the many more insignificant ones) we have been greatly enjoying Kazakhstan. Trevor however doesn’t seem to be having a good time at all.

We got him a new window and Denner fixed him up really well, but a couple of days ago we were exploring Astana and we found ourselves in the empty car park of a velodrome when Trevor decided to get his revenge on us for not parking him securely. Ben was driving and it was quite embarrassing when he wasn’t able to start the car. It then became worrying when none of us could start the car. Blaming it on the angle Ben had parked at, it seemed that the steering wheel lock was jammed and no amount of jiggling or pushing or turning could get it un-jammed. Denner got the trim off the steering wheel and had a look through the manual, but couldn’t find anything along the lines of how to fix jammed steering locks. The design is such that the mechanism cannot just be gotten into (thus negating the point of it in the first place), so Ben came up with the ingenious plan of giving the casing around the mechanism a good thumping. It seemed a bit stupid, but after an hour or so of fiddling and fumbling we were actually getting quite desperate. So as designated thumper, Tunkles got right in there with the sturdiest object in the car – ironically the tool kit was at our accommodation because we’re not leaving anything in the car since the recent theft incident, so the heaviest metal object we could find was our steering wheel lock. After a few minutes of slamming and beating, a Kazakh man who had been watching from a distance for some time came over and started talking to us in Russian. As always we apologised and told him “Niet Ruski”, and quite frustrated at his timing we tried to ignore him and encourage Tunkles in his bashing. This guy was pretty adamant that he would help though, so pushing Tunkles out of his way he jiggled the keys in the ignition, gave the wheel a bit of a yank (exactly what we’d been doing in the very first place) and with a smug grin on his face started the car. He got lucky timing – Tunkles’ work was what actually fixed it, but it didn’t really matter - the point was we got the car started.

Off to Asia Park shopping centre as previously planned. We turned into the car park, still scoffing at that smug little man that came over at exactly the right time and started the ignition first go. Ben parked the car right in front of the entrance, and as he switched the engine off, realised the steering had locked again. We couldn’t believe it – he had parked at exactly the same angle and done it again! We were pretty sure we knew what to do this time though, so Denner took the trim off the steering wheel again and Tunkles got in there with the metal steering wheel lock. It didn’t seem to be working quite as easily this time though, and after a little while we started taking it in turns to give it a go. One method that we were sure would work was Ben doing the hard work, and Tunkles meandering upto the car and in his best Russian accent insisting that he knew how to do it better than us. It didn’t work quite as well as it did with the real deal though. Then we decided to go and do the shopping and when we came back out we would pretend nothing had happened and we’d be able to trick Trevor into starting just like normal. This didn’t go according to plan either. Tunkles did a series of un-PC impersonations, but none of those characters could start our car either. As always, a variety of spectators will want to give their two cents. One guy wanted to disconnect the battery. That didn’t solve anything. We got a guy with a broken arm to turn the key, thinking he might have the same super powers as the first guy. That didn’t work either. A policeman and an army officer came up and demanded passports, bugged us with a whole lot of questions and just generally hassled us. And the whole time we took it in turns to try different combinations of bashing the lock with the lock and turning the wheel.

Eventually we realised that much to our disappointment we would have to get some help. We couldn’t take the car anywhere, so we needed some sort of call out service, and having tried so hard ourselves for over two hours, it was now after 9pm. Of course at this point we didn’t have any spectators who we could ask for help, so Tunkles went inside the shopping centre to ask the English speaking lady on the information desk for help. She was happy to make a phone call for us, but didn’t have a phone number, or know anything about available call out mechanic services.

The guy in Almaty who helped us find the new window for Trevor had insisted we call him if we need any help, so deciding to take him up on the offer Tunkles got on the phone. We were expecting him to give us a phone number for some sort of RACV/AA (roadside assistance) type service who would probably charge us a million dollars to come and take a look, then tow us somewhere for another million dollars, and then probably leave us to figure it out ourselves anyway. Instead though he called us back after ten minutes to tell us that he’d been on the phone to an auto locksmith in Astana who he had explained our problem to. This guy was going to ring us in a few minutes to get our location and licence plate etc and would come out to us, start the car so we could go home, and fix it the following day. The phone call we received a wee while later was from the guy’s nephew who spoke a little English, and we found ourselves in a bit of a predicament when we found out it was going to cost $200. Because of the whole language barrier issue it was very difficult to understand him entirely, and questions weren’t really possible, but we gathered this was the cost of the call out and getting the car started there and then. We assumed we would then have to pay for it to be fixed the next day as well. We considered cancelling him and trying a couple of other resources we could think of, but it was now 10pm or so and this guy was already on his way, so we decided just to go with it, get home, and re-assess in the morning whether to go with this guy depending on how it went, or try and do something else.

In the meantime the policeman and army officer had reappeared, obviously completely bored by their guarding the shopping centre car park posting. They didn’t speak a word of English, but by using the dusty back window as a drawing board, we established that they were school buddies, now 26 years old. They wanted to know how much our car was worth, they asked about our trip, and made various comments about kangaroos and Olympics.

A beat up maroon Audi rocked up half an hour later, and out of it appeared the uncle of the guy on the phone; all big belly, bald head, rosy cheeks and smiles. With him was the locksmith; tall, dark and all business. He got straight to work while we chatted in sounds and hand signals (the dusty window was full) with the smiley fat guy, the policeman and the army officer, and ten minutes later the key barrel was out and the car was starting with a screwdriver. The smiley fat guy and the all business locksmith would follow us home, take the key barrel away with them overnight, and return it the following day, as good as new. We ascertained that the $200 was in fact for the entire job, which considering the 10pm callout, coming to our accommodation twice, basically overnight service and general efficiency and professionalism, was a price we were more than happy to pay.

So the good news is that we now have a refurbished key barrel, two new keys which work splendidly (our old ones are getting pretty worn and unlocking certain doors was becoming increasingly more difficult), and the problem was nothing to do with Ben’s parking.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Day 124 – Visas for the Stans: Part 1 – It’s not all bad. (Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkmen and Iranian visas in Almaty, Kazakhstan)

After our hold up on Monday with having the car broken into and needing to prioritise fixing that before working on visas as planned, we got down to business on Tuesday. We spent the whole morning stuffing around trying to get all our documents printed and copied and filled in. The form for Uzbekistan has to be filled in online and then printed out, and all the other ones had to be photocopied or printed. As it turns out it’s not that easy to just find somewhere that has internet, printing and photocopying, so we had to do it in bits and pieces. On top of that the Uzbekistan form on the internet was a total pain, hence ending up spending the whole morning just getting the papers sorted out. By the time we had them all ready to go, grabbed a quick bite at KFC (it was in the same centre as the internet cafe so we didn’t really have a choice) and filled in the forms for Kyrgyzstan which will be our next country and therefore the first visa we would apply for, it was early afternoon. Given our experience of Embassies in the past, it seemed likely that they’d all be closed for the next couple of hours, but we made our way to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan anyway.
It’s usually pretty easy to find Embassies – they’re generally the monstrosities surrounded by seemingly unnecessarily large fences topped with barbed wire or similar, and a disproportionate amount of cameras on every corner; a buzzer next to an uninviting and very locked gate the only hint of humanity. We’re becoming used to recognising them though as the little house with a pretty big fence and a flag of the respective country. This is exactly what the Kyrgyz Embassy in Almaty looked like. A guard unlocked the gate for us and we followed the hand written arrow on an A4 piece of paper around the side of the house and down the steps to the basement.
Outside we’d met seven friendly French cyclists with questionable hygiene, cycling from France to France via the rest of the world, who offered us some very useless advice about how time consuming and bureaucratic the Kyrgyz visa process would be. Apparently we’d have to wait in a huge queue and then be charged hundreds of dollars and told to come back in a week for our visas. What happened to us though is that we waited in the tiny waiting room with a couple of ladies and three fat Korean men, one of whom continuously stank out the small room with his farts. After about ten minutes the Officer (it seems odd to refer to him as such considering the informality of the affair, but I’m not quite sure what else to call him) emerged from the door (he’d been talking to the stinky Koreans through the usual window) and on seeing our Australian passports, greeted us quite warmly. He looked through our forms and photocopies, nodding approvingly and arranging our passports on the counter. He outlined the various options ie. express/regular service, two/four week visas and the various prices. Considering the express service should be three days, but “maybe we can do it today”, we thought that seemed like a pretty good option. He ushered us into the room he’d emerged from and asked us for our entry and exit dates. We handed over four crisp one hundred US dollar notes and were told to come back at 5pm (currently 2pm) to get our visas and $20 change (the visas were $95 each).
It seemed a little too good to be true, especially considering the hassles the French cyclists seemed to have had, but sure enough we went back to the Embassy/guy’s basement just before 5pm and were handed four passports fitted out with Kyrgyz visas for the 10th - 24th of August, a $20 note poking out from the bundle.
We found out this evening (Friday) that Kyrgyzstan decided yesterday to become visa free. We have wasted $95 each and a couple of hours, but at least we’re not those poor French people waiting a whole week for visas they now don’t need.
Considering our success on Tuesday, we had pretty high hopes for Wednesday. We started off by making our way to the Turkmen Embassy. It’s not that easy getting addresses for these places – unfortunately there’s no up to date, reliable Embassies of the World address book, and it usually takes  several sources in order to find an address and a map with the address on it. Just to add to the challenge, over the various sources we’ll usually come across a couple of different addresses. Turkmenistan seemed to have only one reasonable looking address though, so we found it on a map and made our way there. When we were on the right street, we parked the car to look on foot. I don’t know how he managed to notice or decipher it, but Ben found the front door of the dilapidated building that used to be the Turkmen Embassy, and on it was a manky piece of A4 paper that we suppose read in Russian “the Turkmen Embassy has moved locations” and listed an address. Fortunately this address was on a road that was marked on one of the maps we had and we found it easily enough.
The front gate was open, but neither of the doors at the front of the building showed any signs of life. Spotting the Turkmen coat of arms on a wall plaque, we decided we were definitely in the right place, so made our way around the side of the building to a car park and toilet block. As it turns out, this was the correct entrance for the Turkmen Embassy. A few people were waiting around an open door, so we went in there where we found a security guard who took down one of our passport numbers and gestured for us to wait outside.
We were ready to be waiting there all afternoon, but after about half an hour all the waiting people starting jostling inside the door. The queue dispersed quite quickly and we were met by a very helpful and suitably friendly Turkmen Official who told us to go and get our Iranian visas, then come back and apply for a transit visa.
There are two options to get visas for Turkmenistan: 1.) Show the visa of the next country after Turkmenistan (it has to be a country that cannot be gotten to directly from the country you’re applying in), and get a 5-7 day transit visa. 2.) Organise a tour and a tour guide through a travel agency, and get a tourist visa. Originally we had thought we’d go down the tour guide option so that we weren’t limited so much in time, but cost was a big factor, not to mention our previous experience with having a compulsory tour guide in the car with us. So we’d decided to go to the Embassy and see what they said. It does seem to be that no matter how much researching and reading you’ve done on this matter, once you get to the Embassy the story can be completely different. Unfortunately in this case it wasn’t, but his insistence that bothering with a tour guide is a waste of time and money did swing us more towards the transit visa notion.
Next stop: Iranian Consulate. The address we had was on the same street as the Kyrgyz Embassy, so we found it easily. The only problem was that when we found it and pressed the buzzer next to the gate to ask for the Iranian Consulate, we were greeted with a very angry sounding Russian man who informed us that “No, this is Chinese oil company”. Of course he refused to assist in any way, and kept repeating “Chinese oil company”. We couldn’t find any other gate, buzzer or entrance that could conceivably be anything to do with the Iranian Consulate, so we went to get some free wi fi and find a new address. They really don’t want people finding their Consulate in Almaty as it turns out. We found some addresses that just didn’t make any sense on a map, and some that were only parts of addresses. Eventually we found two addresses that we could sort of find on a map, so took down both and made our way to the one we decided was most likely.
As we drove up the street approaching the address we were looking for, we were happy to find a large, free standing building, surrounded with a high thick brick wall, completed with a menacing looking gate and a century post. As we got closer though, we realised that the century post was out of use, the paint on the high thick brick wall was peeling, and the menacing looking gates were rusted and lying open. Still hopeful we pulled up outside and tentatively entered the grounds through the dilapidated fence. It became clear pretty quickly that the building wasn’t in use, and probably hadn’t been for a very long time. We walked around the outside anyway, poking our heads in the dingy doorways, and peering through shattered windows, looking for some sort of sign that might point us in the direction of the current Iranian Consulate. After a short while of this we gave up and made our way back to the car, a bit disheartened and very frustrated. On the way out Tunkles poked his head into one last entranceway, and as he turned away a man called out to him from a window on the upper level. Establishing that yes, this was in fact the Iranian Consulate, we made our way up a haphazard staircase which led to a room that fitted the nature of the outside of the building. A lone desk sparsely covered in sheets of paper took up one corner and a pile of rubble another. After establishing that we were Australians looking for Iranian tourist visas, the man who had greeted Tunkles from the window asked for our passports and took them through an empty doorway to another room. In the mean time this man was replaced with another man who spent a long time explaining that basically it was going to take three weeks if we applied with them now. Astana (the capital) would probably be the same story, but he didn’t know. We could use an internet agent which might speed up the process, but he couldn’t really tell us anything definitive about that either. Disheartened we got our passports back from a disturbingly long stint in a different room and went on our way.
Before visiting Kyrgyzstan the day before, we had stopped at the Uzbek Embassy, but had been turned away by the guard and (we think) told to come back at 2pm the following day (Wednesday). So after our visit to the Iranian Consulate, it was just about time to return to Uzbekistan. This one fits the same category as Kyrgyzstan in appearance, except for the wooden shelter built quite interestingly around a tree that takes up the entire pavement and is used as a waiting area. On arrival we entered the little room where the security guards hang out, gave them a passport to take down the number, and sat patiently in the waiting hut. While we were sitting there, preparing ourselves for who knows how long a wait, we spotted two Western looking dudes with bicycles sitting in the gutter (they’re very nice gutters), holding passports and papers. Noticing that one of the passports was Australian we decided to put on our sociable caps and go and say hi. Ben from Brisbane and Brendon from Chicago are in the process of cycling from Shanghai where they spent the last two years, to Dublin to raise awareness for haemochromotosis. We’ve been going through some pretty tough terrain on our trip – mountains, unmade roads, desert, etc. and it’s enough to make us exhausted in the car sometimes. I can’t even imagine doing that journey on bikes. Find their blog at .
We spent the next couple of hours chatting with them about roads and embassies and border crossings, and then a guard seemed to be letting some people through the locked gate. So we all jumped up and sprinted over, and the guard held up one finger at us, indicating that one of us could go in. We didn’t have a hope competing with cyclists obviously, and Ben (Shanghai to Dublin Ben) was quick off the mark and managed to snatch the spot, the gate being firmly and quickly locked behind him. We tried to talk the guard into letting one of us in as well, but he wasn’t having a bar of it.
When Ben (not our one) returned we found out that he’d been turned away because he doesn’t have a Letter of Invitation. We know that Uzbekistan requires Australians to have LOI’s, but so does Kyrgyzstan supposedly and it didn’t seem to matter then, so we had been just trying our luck anyway. As I said before, you can research and read and know all you like, but when you rock up at the gates you play by the rules that the security guard sets, and when you get inside you play by the rules of whoever’s standing on the other side of the window. We thought we may as well wait until we got let in, and hear it for ourselves. Who knows, maybe we could make a “special payment” directly to the Embassy and not have to bother with the LOI.
Eventually the guard opened up the gate again and a swarm of people jostled and shoved each other to get in. Ben (our Ben) was holding all our forms and passports so that if only one of us could gain entry he could do it, but three fingers were held up to us. Ben, Tunkles and I pushed our way in front of the rest of the crowd and made our way down the pathway on the other side of the gate. We got to the door of a one room building and discovered that Denner had managed to sneak past the rigorous security and followed us in. Entering the building we realised why they were only letting a handful of people in at once, and were suddenly quite grateful for it – the room was luxuriously furnished with a brown velour couch, a stained wooden dining table and half a dozen fading plastic chairs, leaving very little floor space. Squeezing between the table and the wall, we approached one of the windows where a man flicked through our forms before taking them and our passports off into another room. This was a good sign – he hadn’t just handed it back straight off. But alas, he returned a few minutes later with the expected news that we’d need a Letter of Invitation. Ben tried very tactfully to suggest a “direct payment” to the Embassy, or a “special fee” straight to the guy we were dealing with, but yet again this was met with no sign of understanding and a repeating of the process that we needed to go through. Frustrated but not surprised we went back out the front, compared stories with Ben and Brendan and set off on our way.
Research and pre preparation might not be the be all and end all when it comes to this stuff, but it can certainly help. Months ago I’d lined up all the possible LOI’s that we might need when we got to this part of the world, so all I needed to do was shoot an email to David at Stantours and tell him we need to get the ball rolling with the Uzbek LOI now.
The plan for Thursday was that we’d call the Iranian Embassy in Astana to see what they’d say on the matter. Unfortunately phone numbers in Kazakhstan seem to be pretty confused and we quite literally spent several hours trying combinations of every phone number we could find anywhere with absolutely no luck. Considering they didn’t have power when we visited them we knew it was a long shot, but we even tried calling the Consulate in Almaty. No luck there either.
David from Stantours replied to my email and we met with him this evening to hand over the cash so he could get the process started. After a bit of a chat with him we decided to use Stantours as our agent for Iran aswell and we’ve sussed out our plan of attack for the rest of our visas until Azerbaijan.
We’ll go and do Astana and the rest of Kazakhstan, then come back to Almaty on the 9th or 10th by which time our Uzbek LOI will be ready and we should be able to get visas on the spot in Almaty. On we’ll go to Kyrgyzstan where our Iranian visas should be ready for us to collect in Bishkek, at which point we will be able to apply for Turkmen transit visas. We’ll continue on our way to Uzbekistan where we’ll collect our Turkmen transit visas in Tashkent. We will try all Azerbaijani Embassies along the way, hoping that one of them will just give us a visa, but most likely we will need to get a Letter of Invitation and apply in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. If we need to do that we’ll get onto Stantours again.