Thursday, 20 September 2012
Day 178 – Visas Part 5: Granted entry to a Stalinist State. (Turkmen visas in Tashkent, Uzbekistan)
We found the glamorous building easily this time, and knew to leave all our electrical gadgets in the car. It was bang on 11am when we got to the entrance, but we were a bit concerned to find not only no other civilians, but no policeman guarding the monstrous gates. Doubt as to our likelihood of obtaining the visas that day started creeping in as the minutes passed and we waited. The guard post was empty, so we were just milling around hoping somebody might see us out a window or through the many surveillance cameras facing in our direction.
After what was in reality probably two or three minutes, but felt like about two hours, the door at the side of the building opened and two men that we recognised from application day meandered out. They were deep in small talk and concentrating on each lighting himself a cigarette, but as they reached the bottom of the stairs, the one in the lilac shirt who we’d mainly dealt with last time, glanced up and spotted us. He held up his finger to indicate that we should wait a moment and hurried back into the building, butting his cigarette in the lush garden bed. When he reappeared, the two men approached us, obviously recalling who we were and what we’d be there for. The gates were opened and we entered the grounds.
“Telephone? You.” The lilac shirted man addressed Ben.
“Well we tried, but the lady who answered couldn’t understand me,” Ben responded, thinking that we were being asked whether we had phoned, or perhaps being chastised that we hadn’t. (We actually tried to phone several times in the previous week, and even had one of our guesthouse owners give it a shot.)
Then we realised he was simply asking if we had any mobile phones with us, to which we told him we didn’t. We followed lilac shirt man and his Reebok adorned colleague along the familiar wide footpath, through the same perfectly manicured lawn to the staircase that led to the heavy wooden door into the building. Inside the small, non-descript office, lilac shirt man disappeared and reappeared with a large ring bound folder. He asked for our passports, checked our nationality and began flicking through the folder. Each paper had a bunch of writing and some stamps, but what he was looking for was in a small table in the centre of the page, the right hand column of which mainly read UZB. As he flicked through we spotted a few IRA, a bunch of FRA and a couple of GBR, but no AUS. As he turned over the last page, our shoulders dropped, our hopeful smiles disintegrated, and we began turning towards the door. The man in the lilac shirt though slammed the folder shut, pointed at the chairs and said “SIT” and left the room with our passports. We sat.
Another man appeared on the other side of the glass wall and started to make some phone calls. This was starting to look hopeful again. He got off the phone and addressed us in Russian, at which point the chubby man in his Reebok t-shirt who was still standing on our side of the glass, started translating. When did we apply? I told him 30/8 (I didn’t specify that it had still only been 18 days – hopefully they wouldn’t notice). Some discussions between the two men ensued and another phone call was made. Next thing we know, he’s telling us we would have a 5 day visa – as we expected, and asked what date we would like it to start on. Why did we have to write it on the original form if we could just decide now? I had a quick look at the calendar behind the glass and decided to stick with what was on our application forms – Friday 21/9. We were told to come back at 4pm with $35 each.
We were pretty flabbergasted at all this; friendly and prompt (if you don’t include the 18 days) service, a fairly simple application process, and now a very reasonable price. I had been prepared to be charged well into the hundreds of dollars for this privilege, and had certainly anticipated a string of struggles and frustrations.
By 4pm we’d visited the National Plov Museum, had our roof rack and fog lamp welded, bought new bulbs for a brake light and a side light, and were standing outside the magnificent gates once again. This time a stocky policeman was manning his post and told us in Russian to come back tomorrow. We gestured that we were “collecting”, and he didn’t really seem to care, so we took our place amongst the other dozen people gathered around. A middle aged lady in a black dress and an old lady in a colourful headscarf had a great time staring and talking about us in front of our backs. Being a tourist attraction does ware thin, but we weren’t about to make a scene in front of the Embassy where we were hopefully about to collect our visas.
At 4:20 the doors opened and our friend in the lilac shirt sauntered through the garden and unlocked the gates. Everyone crowded around, and he let one person in at a time. Black dress lady was first – she was the pushiest, and her head scarfed companion followed. Each person was only talking a minute or so, so we weren’t too perturbed about the pushing. Lilac shirt man was very friendly with everyone, laughing with the civilians at a stupidly small dog struggling to climb the kerb, and seeming to find many things that we couldn’t understand to be quite hilarious. Our turn came so we left the joviality and made our way to the doors once again. Four passports each complete with a Turkmen visa and an A5 receipt were pushed through the slot at the bottom of the glass window, our $140 was pushed through the slot in the opposite direction, we said our sincere thankyous, and strutted out of the building, barely able to wipe the grins off our faces.
We stopped at the Turkmen run convenience store around the corner for a celebratory coke and ice cream. While we were there, our lilac shirted friend entered and made a purchase.
At the end of all this though, I am a bit devastated at the placement of my visa. As any Australians with passports issued since 2009 will know, there is a variety of Australiana pictures on each page, and if you happen to have the privilege of being in the possession of one of these fine documents, I would challenge you to flick to page 25 and 26. For those of you who don’t fall into this demographic, some of the pictures include kangaroos, kids playing netball, a country pub, a wattle tree, a surfer, and on page 26 there is a very nice image of a couple of girls in bathers. My Iranian visa complete with headscarf adorned headshot, had been inadvertently (unless the Iranian Consular Officers had an unexpected sense of humour) placed on page 25, directly beside the girls in bathers. I found the cultural contrast quite amusing, and greatly enjoyed pointing it out to people. Now though my page 26 is taken up with the Turkmen visa, and there is nothing humorous about that double page anymore.