Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
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That left me with four choices.
Option One: Russia
Well, not really a choice, as now Russia has just tightened their visa policy, so you need to get the visa in your home country, or bribe you way through the Mafia machine (but who knows if that's even possible).
Option Two: Iran
I applied for an Iranian visa about six weeks before, but did not receive any reply from the MFA, who carry out background checks on travelers, especially Americans, because of our foreign policy with them (I could easily be a spy). The time had come to make a decision and Iran was then scratched off the list.
Option Three: Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan offers a transit visa, good for only five days. You must specify entry and exit points and exact days of travel. Getting the visa can take up to ten days. From Turkmenistan you can either enter Iran (see choice two) or take a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Baku, Azerbaijan.
Option Four: Ferry from Kazakhstan to Baku, Azerbaijan
This ferry leaves sporadically, everywhere from once every six days to once every two weeks. One Japanese traveler was stranded in Aktau, Kazakhstan for 20 dyas before finally boarding the ship.
So, at squeezed at the crux of the continent, I chose option three.
On Monday, I went to the Turkmen Embassy, but it was closed because of the New Year (I partially expected this, but it was worth a try). The guard said to come on Wednesday. I returned Wednesday, but it was closed. The guard said to come back Friday. It was closed. "Come back in the evening," the guard said, as their hours had changed. I waited in line outside in the dark cold for a couple of hours before the man in the office told me "no transit visa issued to Azerbaijan, only Iran."
This was new news not found on any websites or in the guidebooks: one week of waiting only to be told "sorry." Supposedly a ferry arrived late this past summer, stranding travelers in Turkmenistan, with expiring transit visas--something they didn't want to happen again (have they considered making their visa policy more flexible perhaps?)
For a break from Tashkent, I went to Samarkand for the weekend. There I learned that my Iranian visa had been approved. On Monday, I went back to the Turkmen Embassy and applied for a transit visa to Iran. But the next day, the Iranian agency e-mailed back saying I still had two to three more weeks of processing to endure. My Uzbek visa would expire by then so I abandoned this option...again.
This left option number four, so I needed to get an Azerbaijan visa, which took from between two and seven days depending on the mood of the apparatchik (people described him as almost crazy) and wait for up to three weeks for the ferry. Hold on a second...is this insane or what?
These two weeks continually reminded me of four things:
First, the ever-tightening grip of governments over people's movements, despite talk of "free trade" and under the umbrella of the "War on Terror."
Second, how foreign relations--good or bad--get transferred to visa policies. Thus, countries like Iran put Americans through many hoops.
Third, how thousands of people around the world are seeking a better life, applying for American or Canadian, or Australian or European visas. They must wait months for an answer (but hopefully better lives can happen at home too).
Fourth, that the old Silk Road had its taxes and bandits and bureaucracy too. Government control is a part of life, but one that must be continually checked by the people to avoid Uzbek style "democratic" rule with false elections and more militsia than you can shake a stick at (I don't recommend doing this though).
So I needed another option...
Option Five: Cross Uzbekistan, travel to Kazakhstan to the edge of the Caspian at Aktau, then fly across the Caspian Sea to Baku, where you can get a visa on arrival for $100. This became the only feasible choice, unless I wanted to be waiting for visas and ferries for most of my trip through Central Asia.
At this point, I was tired of the visa game, took option five, and got an easy Kazakhstan visa (thank you, Kazakhstan), processed in one working day and left Tashkent. At least now I could take a deep breath and move forward.
But visas were only part of the story in Tashkent...