Journey to Baku

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

After leaving Mizdakhan, I purchased a train ticket from Kongrad to Beyneu in Kazakhstan. This was the first leg of a long journey that would last three days and finally end in Baku, Azerbaijan, with no cash on hand.

I had tried to withdraw some extra funds for this long journey using my ATM cards, as I use internet banking while traveling. Both cards were refused. I checked online and my bank accounts with blocked as well. Something was wrong, but I had no time to fix it, because my Uzbek visa was about to expire: bad timing but what can you do.

In Kongrad, I slept in a small cafe gastinitsa at the railway station and boarded the train the next morning. The 12 hour train journey involved two searches and interrogations and passport checks. One of the officers tried to get me to come with him to another room, the key words meaning he wanted to steal some things from me, if he could: "Nyet," I shoed him away, having enough of the Uzbek militsia.

The train was a living community, with large numbers of people selling anything you wanted, mullahs praying with passengers, and people coming and going. I bought pomegranites, eggs, bread, and toothpaste.

At Beyneu, hundreds of people crowded into a miniscule train station to purchase tickets. I had no Kazakh money as I was being searched during the "money changing" stop, if you will. In addition to being a tourist, I happened to have a beard, so was profiled both for being a backpacker as well as an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist. It got me thinking, didn't the government idolize Amur Timur--he had a beard, didn't he?

In the small room on the train station, some people showed their ugly sides and tried to rip me off in transacting money or just yelled. Drunks flew to the ground in convulsions, imbibing too much while waiting for the train in the cold. People pushed and shoved through the small entrance, but we still kept smiling, some of us: "hey I know you. Why are you pushing?! It was hectic and took two hours just to buy a ticket, a challenge and an opportunity.

At 1 am, the sleeper train left in the bitter night cold. I awoke at sunrise on the Kazakh steppes, covered in a little snow, as we decended to below sea level, the Caspian Sea at Aktau, where for a change, the weather was balmy.

Here I managed to cash a traveler's check, with just enough money to reach Baku, purchase a visa, get transportation, and buy food. Unfortunately, even the 2007 guidebook was about 30% too low for the plane ticket across the sea, which set me back. Still, I thought I was ok, staying the night at the airport hotel, with a little help.

In the morning, the Soviet-built Air Company SCAT propeller plane was off, humming over low clouds and under high clouds as the dawn turned rosy. At the Baku airport, the visa had also increased 30%, though I checked the embassy website while in Tashkent! So I didn't have enough money, explaining my situation to the visa official. He helped me out, stamped my passport, and I was in Azerbaijan, the Caucasus. Thank you to him and everyone who helped me on this financially-challenging leg.

P.S. What happened with the banks is that they saw activity from both Germany and Uzbekistan and froze my account. Somehow the server from Karakalpakstan was registering as German. Either way, everything was straightened out the next day, despite owing more than I had on hand by the end of it all.
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