August 27: Khiva, Uzbekistan
7:37 The Uzbeks rank just below New Zealanders on the list of friendliest people I’ve met in the last year. I’m sure going to miss them, particularly our guide Jalal.
7:42 Today we will drive about 90 km to the border where we will exit Uzbekistan at Nijazov and enter Turkmenistan at Shovot. After saying goodbye to Jalal and crossing the border we will pick up a new guide, then drive 100 km to Kunye Orgench where we will camp for the night. Crossing this border is said to be one of the most stressful and time consuming in all of Asia. It’s not ‘North Korea’ crazy but it’s close.
8:30 I exchange my last 159,900 com for US $37. While sorting my cash I find 7 Brazilian Real and a $5 Canadian bill in my laptop case. These weren’t declared when I entered Uzbekistan so technically I shouldn’t be leaving with them, but since we’re talking about pennies I decide to hide them in plain sight (in my wallet) and take my chances with the cash cops.
8:15 In the last few miles before the border we pass a group of four men picking cotton and at least eight men driving donkey carts on the shoulder of the road. They are almost certainly secret service agents.
9:04 We enter the customs inspections building and partake in the time honored Uzbek tradition of filling out forms and waiting.
9:23 Customs declarations complete. In addition to the normal questions, the Uzbek officials want to know how much currency you are exiting with. You simply cannot exit with more than you had at time of entry. I ask a person familiar with such matters what I should declare as I withdrew some US cash from an ATM and didn’t spend it all. He suggests that it would be better to lie than attempt to explain this. (Not many Uzbeks use ATMs as the machines could only hold a enough currency for a few withdrawls.)
9:24 We line up at a second building where we will repeat the process a second time. Don’t ask why if you want to cross today, I’m told.
9:37 We walk across the border, present our Letters of Invitation, pay $10 US for which we are given a receipt, and then take a seat in a waiting room. I gaze out the window and notice a watch tower in a nearby field. It’s complete with two cardboard cutouts of armed soldiers.
9:39 Duncan is allowed to drive our truck across the border after fulfilling the demands of the extremely small-minded border officials. The truck is now lighter by two bottles of beer and two packs of cigarettes.
10:00 The truck’s paperwork checks out and Duncan is instructed to drive ahead about 50 meters to the next stop.
10:06 We walk across the border a second time. I don’t know what it was that we did at 9:37 a.m. because I was sure we had walked across the border but apparently that was only a pre-border walk. This is the real border say the guards.
10:08. It’s time to fill out Turkmenistan’s Customs and Immigration documents. The first few questions are straight forward but down around question #10 they ask you to declare all currency and weapons that you are carrying. It’s okay to carry a weapon as long as you declare it. What you cannot carry is codeine. They don’t seem to be too worried about semi-automatic weapons but do NOT attempt to bring codeine into Uzbekistan.
10:22 We each submit our passport and LOI and sit down to wait while visas are printed and affixed to our passports. This could take a while as they do everything by hand and everything in triplicate.
10:42 I am instructed to pay $55 for my visa. Residents of other countries pay slightly more or slightly less. Canadians are different, I’m told.
10:48 We are introduced to Rustam who will be our guide for next 10 days. Tourists must be accompanied by a guide at all times with the exception of visits to the city of Ashgabat where we are free to roam but prohibited from photographing any government buildings, uniformed personnel, military instillations, airports, post offices, statues, monuments, fountains, businesses, means of transportation or squirrels. We are free to photograph all the blue sky and green grass we desire as long as no man-made structures or objects appear in those photos.
10:51 I sign a document in six different places before receiving my passport with visa intact. There is a small issue with payment though. The clerk says she doesn’t have change for a $20 bill even though each of us have given her stacks of $1 and $5 bills. Apparently she cannot redistribute any of the bills once they have been placed in the drawer.
10:54 The supervisor in charge of the $1 bills is summoned and she authorizes the distribution of another $10 in change. She will not open the window to the cage so I speak to her through an intercom. The intercom housing is covered with a decal showing a shirtless boy playing T-ball in front of bunting and an American flag. I have no idea what that’s about and I’m not asking.
11:26 I’m told to line up for a facial scan.
11:27 I’m told the scan is complete. At no point did any equipment come within 4 meters of my face so I have no idea how they scanned my retinas or whatever it is they claim to have done. If there was an Uzbek credibility index this would surely rank right up there with the cardboard cutout soldiers.
11:33 We are sitting outside under a large carport, and the officials have started the process of opening and inspecting our bags. We are toting 26 big backpacks and at least 40 daypacks and purses.
13:03 The bag inspection went much faster than I expected. The sniffer pup didn’t even flinch at my hiking boots.
13:06 I walk across the border (yes, the real border) and go through the final passport check.
13:08 Duncan is told to drive the truck ahead about 20 meters before he must stop again.
13:10. Two more guards ask to see my passport and visa. One checks the paperwork while the other asks for US $1. When I open my wallet he sees that I have a wad of US cash so he ups the price to $5. Each. I happily pay my first official bribe. I think the story alone is worth at least $20.
13:28 We are rolling! Goodbye Uzbekisan; Hello Turkmenistan!
14:05. We’re not off the hook yet. Tourists must report to a tourist registration office within three days of entering the country. Of course these offices are only located in a few cities and the airports. It’s quite clear that tourists just don’t show up at the border. We have driven about an hour to this office and wait another hour while our passports are copied and a hand written form is presented to us. Yes, it’s in triplicate.