Monday, 10 September 2012

Day 161 – Visas Part 4: All the way to Europe. (Turkmen and Azeri visas in Tashkent, Uzbekisatn)

So just a quick re-cap: We got Kazakh visas in China, Kyrgyz and Uzbek visas in Kazakhstan, and Iranian visas in Kyrgyzstan. Now that we had Iranian visas we could apply for Turkmen transit visas (Iran being the country we’re “transiting” through Turkmenistan to) and according to David from Stantours Tashkent was our best opportunity to get Azerbaijani visas without LOIs. Once these last two were taken care of, we’d be set all the way to Europe.
So on arrival in Tashkent yesterday morning we searched for the Turkmen Embassy. We try to steer away from Lonely Planet whenever possible, but much to our horror it’s often our first reference point out of convenience when we arrive somewhere. As always the address and map that Lonely Planet provided us with sent us completely in the wrong direction. We found ourselves winding aimlessly through side streets, none of the names marked on our stupid Lonely Planet map and nothing seeming to make sense. We stopped at the Slovakian Embassy which we happened to pass, hoping they’d be able to point us in the right direction.
“Next to Korean Embassy,” the ever so friendly guard spat at Ben.
“Ok, but where’s the Korean Embassy?”
“Korean Embassy,” and a very vague wave of the arm pointed us back the way we’d come. A bit more of this back and forth followed until we decided to just give it a go.
Surely we drove on every single street in that area, but we couldn’t find the Korean Embassy or the Turkmen Embassy. Eventually though we found the street name we were looking for, and even the correct number. We parked out the front, but were not at all hopeful – it was quite clearly just someone’s house. While we were considering whether to ring the bell just in case, a man standing on the street asked us what we were looking for and gave us directions which led us in exactly the opposite direction from the way the Slovakian Embassy guard had pointed, and nowhere near what Lonely Planet had said. After following the new directions for a bit we passed the office of Advantour, a well known travel agency in this part of the world, so we thought we’d pop in and see if they could shed any light on the location. Not only did they know where the Embassy was, but were able to provide us with a free map of the city on which they marked it. After that it was a piece of cake.
The Turkmen Embassy in Tashkent is a far cry from what we’ve become accustomed to. As opposed to the humble houses and ruined buildings we’ve found ourselves at lately, this was a shining monstrosity of wealth and glamour. The most imposing building on the wide boulevard, it was more like a palace than anything else. We parked the car and found ourselves at the gated entrance 10 minutes before 11am opening time. Lonely Planet advises to arrive two hours before opening time to put your names down – this is nonsense. Glad we hadn’t paid heed to this, we said hello to the guard who casually flicked through one of our passports and commented on the myriad of visas and stamps. We waited patiently in the shade with the lady and man who were already there.
At 11am a few people exited the gates and we were asked quite politely to wait a few more minutes while the lady and man were allowed in. Sure enough a few minutes passed and the man from inside the Embassy came back out and ushered us in. We had to leave my camera, Denner and Tunkles’ phones and Ben’s ipod with the policeman guard outside, then we followed the man along the wide footpath through the perfectly manicured lawn to the staircase that led to the heavy wooden door into the building. It’s always the same though – no matter how grand or large the Embassies are, us plebeian visa applicants are always shown into a small, non-descript office. This was no exception. Several other people had appeared out of nowhere and were ushered in behind us, and fortunately one of them posed as translator between us and the Embassy man. “Yes we have our Iranian visas.” “Yes we have completed application forms.” “Yes we have photocopies of our passports, Uzbek visas, Iranian visas and passport photos.” Of course the forms we had weren’t the right ones – just for something a bit different, but he gave us new ones to fill in and even when we discovered he wanted two photocopies of everything, did the extras himself for no charge!
Our plans have had to be pushed back a full week though because these visas will take 20 days to issue. Apparently there is no express service or “extra fees” available. We had planned to be in Turkmenistan 14 – 19th September (5 day transit visa), but 20 days from 29th August when we applied is 18th September. Unfortunately our Uzbek visas only last for 25 days meaning we must be out by the 23rd which is a Sunday, so actually we must be out by the Friday which is the 21st. This all doesn’t leave us much time to play with. We’ve opted for our visas to start on the 21st, allowing a couple of days of leeway on this side, but none on the other.
Our next task was Azerbaijani visas. Giving up completely on Lonely Planet, we used the list of Embassies on the city map from Advantour as reference. The very annoying thing though was that there’s a list of addresses and phone numbers, but no grid reference, and we absolutely could not find Sharktongi Street on the map. A quick visit to reception at the Tashkent Palace Hotel which we were parked in front of solved this and off we went to Sharktongi Street. We found it remarkably easily after that, stopping at the first official looking building on the road, which funnily enough turned out to be the Azerbaijani Embassy. We found what seemed to be an entrance and were told by the guard to come back at 3pm.
At 3pm we returned to the same entrance where the guard had us follow him to a different entrance – the main entrance as it happens. We sat in what seemed to be a bus stop outside while he took our passports and copied details into a large book. A Lexus with diplomatic plates pulled up between us and the front gate and a man in a suit and a lady in white trousers got out. The man was frisked with a metal detector and the lady was flashed a gold toothed smile. Ten minutes later we were given the same treatment (so if we wanted to take anything inside, it just had to be on me) and allowed inside the complex. We had to register our passports again with a dark haired lady in an air conditioned booth just inside the gate, then she pointed us to a door at the side of the modest cement block building. The man from the Lexus out front opened the door for us and we were asked to sit at his desk in a very nice office that felt nothing like a visa application office at all, but more like some sort of Executive suite in a fancy office block. The carpet was lush, the desk was mahogany and the walls were covered in framed pictures of men with beards and hats. A calendar of Azerbaijan and a book on the atrocious terrorist actions of Armenia sat on the desk in front of us.
When we’d established that we were looking for Azerbaijani tourist visas he asked if we had LOIs. We are well aware that officially Australians should have LOIs, but had also heard that at this particular Embassy it could be got around.
“Ok so you have no Letter of Invitation. Ok,” he paused thoughtfully, then resumed. “So you do not have Letter of Invitation. Usually you need Letter of Invitation, but as you do not, I think I can help. Yes, I will try and help you.” After some more contemplation he continued. “Usually tourist visa cost $80, but... I think if you pay $160 it will be ok.” Finally – the first Embassy where we were able to pay a “special fee” to get an extra service! And we could pick them up between 10am and 12pm the following day.
He gave us the necessary three page application form and we got to filling it in. For the question of accommodation and inviting agency in Azerbaijan, he directed us to a pamphlet of hotels and serviced apartments lying on his desk and told us to copy down the details of one of them. This would also suffice as our contact in the country. Easy. Then there was a series of questions regarding our feelings towards Armenia – are we in any way related to anyone who is or has been Armenian, have we ever been to Armenia before, have we fought in any regiment of any defence force that has crossed paths in any way with Armenia, have we been to the strip of land that is “part of Azerbaijan, but occupied by Armenia”, etc. When we’d answered no to all these questions, listed all the visas we’ve been issued with in the last five years and completed all our personal details, we handed the forms and our passports over.
Considering how many times we’d already had our passports checked in Uzbekistan and the density of police roaming the streets, we weren’t overly comfortable being passportless for an evening and morning. We also were still to find accommodation and would need them for that. So we got photocopies from our collection in the car and asked him to put an official looking stamp on them, with an explanation that we don’t have our passports because the Azerbaijani Embassy does. He was pretty hesitant to give us this stamp and signature, but when we promised we’d return them when he returned our passports, he agreed.
We returned the following day at the designated time and were given back our passports, yet another page taken up with a sloppily hand written visa. They are valid for one month from 10/10, which is fine if everything goes according to plan, but we had hoped that Azerbaijan could be a contingency exit if there was to be a problem with the Turkmen visas. He didn’t ask for the stamped passport copies back and we didn’t offer them.
If our Turkmen visas were to be denied or delayed, we have three potential backup plans. In order from worst to best: 3.) We drive the 300km from Tashkent back to Kyrgyzstan where we don’t need a visa and would be given a 30 day entry on arrival. 2.) We catch a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan which we now have visas for, but timing would be an issue. We might have to just go back to the Embassy in Tashkent and give our mate another few dollars to have the dates changed. Or seeing it’s hand written, we could probably just change it ourselves. 1.) We catch a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Iran which we already have visas for (valid for three months from issue which is heaps of time).
Apparently the Turkmen President is a big motoring enthusiast, so we’re pretty hopeful that our visas will be there waiting for us by the end of the 20 day waiting period.

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