“Where once merchants had travelled at will between decaying Muslim knanates, the frontiers of the new Central Asia were a bureaucrat’s paradise”. (Shadow of the Silk Road, Colin Thubron).
So, so true.
The kindest thing which can be said about the border crossing from Uzbekistan into Turkmenistan is that they didn’t actually strip search us.
The border post itself is like something out of a LeCarre novel. Imposing fences flank two fortress-like buildings separated by a 100 metre no-man’s land in the middle of a flat, featureless, windswept desert.
Our Uzbeki guide and driver dropped us off short of the Uzbekistan control point and promptly legged it. That might have been a clue.
Getting out of Uzbekistan was typically and tiresomely bureaucratic.
Our passports were checked by an armed guard at the gate of the border control area, and then again to get into the building. Then our documentation was checked. One of the more creative methods of maintaining control which has been adopted by the freedom loving Government of Uzbekistan is to require that every accommodation provider give you a piece of paper recording where and when you stayed for each night you spent in the country. These must be produced before you are allowed to exit.
Luckily, Julie is partner in charge of little pieces of paper and she had been vigilant in getting and keeping them. They were checked, every night was accounted for and our passports were stamped. We threw our trusty packs on our backs and trudged off into the no man’s land separating a fairly repressive from a seriously repressive regime.
And that is when things got interesting. We really had to get into Turkmenistan because we had used up our single entry visa to Uzbekistan and were not entitled to go back.
We had a visa for Turkmenistan, which had taken quite some time and effort (see previous post on Tashkent) but that doesn’t guarantee you anything.
We have often said that the single best thing you can have with you when you are travelling is an Aussie passport. There is something quite magical about that little document. It makes people smile and open doors. It somehow makes customs officials and hotel concierges want to talk about cricket and kangaroos and their cousin who drives a cab in Melbourne.
Not in Turkmenistan. The officious 16 year old who processed us took great exception to Julie’s passport. It is eight years old and cluttered with visas from travel to some of the world’s more challenging destinations. In contrast, John has a brand new passport so all evidence of previous misadventures has been expunged from his history.
When confronted with a potential terrorist, in the entirely unconvincing guise of a retired solicitor from Brisbane, the obvious thing to do is to direct said terrorist and her travelling companion to a holding area. You then proceed to examine each and every page of Mata Hari’s suspect documentation under UV light, while keeping a close eye on her. Which is what our master spy catcher proceeded to do. In scrupulous and time consuming detail.
He periodically disappeared, each time returning with a more worried looking frown, and continued checking and rechecking information on two computer screens. Eventually, and undoubtedly to his great disappointment, he had to accept that yes, Julie’s passport was either genuine or a truly masterful forgery.
That however was not the end of our junior George Smiley. You see, we only had four days to run on five day visas and in that small bureaucratic mind there was a clear and present danger we would overstay. Never mind the fact that it was his own country’s bureaucracy that had decided only to grant us five days.
We could have just said “Look out the window at the desolate wasteland in which you live. Do you seriously believe we would want to stay here?”
Instead, ensuring we were not an overstay risk required that our guide, who was thankfully waiting for us, be contacted to confirm that yes, we would be gone from the blessed motherland within the niggardly time granted.
That of course only took care of the paperwork. The possibly more serious risk of just what a couple of so obviously suspicious characters might be attempting to smuggle into the country still needed to be addressed.
Thankfully this part of the process fell to a group of three other officials on whom our Aussie passports did work a bit of their usual magic, only it took a while. They started by pulling everything out of our packs.
“Do you have any Islamic literature?” We wanted to say, “That’s a turn up. It’s usually porn that gets customs officials excited.” What we did say was, “No, sir”.
“Do you have any psychotropic medications?” We wanted to say, “We are beginning to understand why you would you need them to live here”. What we did say was, “No. sir”.
They were particularly interested in medications. You will appreciate that travelling indefinitely, a gent of a certain age has a reasonable collection, and trying to mime some of it was pretty challenging.
Eventually they must have decided we were harmless enough and that it was more interesting to try and talk about the kangaroo and the giant bird on the coat of arms on our passports. We happily indulged them and they ultimately waved us through.
Kangaroos 1, Bureaucrats 0.