Leaving Tajikistan I got caught behind a busload of Japanese tourists while crossing the border. The processing was slow and, as I waited around, I got chatting to some of them who spoke English. The first thing they usually see is the bike and are naturally curious. When I explained my story to the lady, who spoke good English, I watched their faces light up as she translated the story into Japanese. As is the custom in Japan, someone gave me a gift of chocolate-coated nuts. I said in my best Japanese “Domo arigato giazmas”, (‘Thank you very much’), possibly the only phrase I remembered from my year of high school Japanese lessons. I held out both hands to receive the gift and bowed in gratitude. It was a fun affair to pretend I was in another culture. As they laughed, more gifts started coming, chocolate bars, biscuits and sweets. It was like a small procession and it caused my face to light up in gratitude.
The border guard looked as though he’d rather be elsewhere. I went to one window where I saw in plain sight a man bribe the border official to let him pass quickly. As I approached the window with my passport in hand, I was directed to an office. There I met another grumpy looking man sitting behind an old computer. He instructed me to sit in the chair next to him. Great! I thought, here we go. I’d been warned about this by other travellers so I had my story straight. As he flicked through my passport I could sense he was looking for something. We both knew what. “Regiztrazion!” he boomed in his best English. “Niet” I replied in my best Russian. His faced looked sorrowful, as I needed to pay, “Regiztrazion …” he said again. Switching to English, which he clearly wasn’t comfortable speaking in, I explained that I went to the OVIR (registration office) in Dushanbe (which I hadn’t) and they said I didn’t need to register. The game began, like moving the initial chess piece. He gestured I needed to register, I gestured that I didn’t. He insisted. I explained that if I was less than 30 days in the country I didn’t need to register – which was technically correct. It seemed that there was a rule somewhere, but nobody, not the officials in Dushanbe, the border guards, hostel owners or tourists knew exactly what it was or, for that matter, where they could find it written down. By this time my pulse was racing. For a moment there I realised this could go on all day and the man was getting grumpier by the minute. “Niet” I replied again. “OVIR. Dushanbe. Visit, Niet regiztrazion!”… Luckily I had time. At some point he realised that he wasn’t going to get any money out of me and reluctantly starting typing my details into the computer as I’d seen him do with the Japanese tourists. Checkmate, I thought, careful to hold my smile internally. When he was finished, he cast the passport aside sliding it across the table to me and did the same to gesture me out of the room. The kind of way you do to a dog when you want him out of the house. “Thank you” I replied in Tajik, silently mouthing ‘arsehole!’ under my breath. But of course, I knew it was just the way things worked in this part of the world.
And so, having got through one checkpoint, I proceeded to the other. I found my new Japanese friends waiting there and said “Konichiwa” in Japanese. They smiled. I was picked out of the crowd and asked to come through for a medical check. A large man in a white lab coat entered the small room and looked at me. I wasn’t feeling well but tried to hide it. He pointed some hand held device at my forehead and I heard it go click. Then I was let go; my passport stamped and I proceeded to customs.
There was a huge crowd formed out the front and I thought to myself this could take all day. I was asked to fill out two customs forms and to declare everything I had. Shit, I thought, this could take a while. I tried to go through the car area in the hope they’d see my bicycle and I’d be let through, but I was just turned back and told to go through with the crowd. I had to declare everything on this form; how many bags I had; how much money I was carrying with me and, I might as well share this, if I had any a) weapon, ammunition, explosives or radioactive materials: No. b) Drugs, psycho tropic substances, poisonous, drastic or medicines (sometimes even the questions didn’t make sense) …well yes, Medicines. c) Objects of fauna and flora, their components and products of them (technically I was carrying bags of nuts and seeds with me for my muesli at the time, but I wasn’t going to be a smart arse about it): N.o d) Radio frequency radio electronic devices and means of communication: yes, mobile phone. e) Objects of antiques and art: No. f) means of transport: Yes, bicycle. g) Printed matters and other data carriers: Yes, books, laptop, USB sticks and portable hard drives. h) Goods subject to tax (who know’s the answer to such a question without knowing their tax system?): Ok, no. i) Temporarily imported (exported) goods: No, as per h). Then, on the back, I had to fill in anything I answered yes to with further detail and so I left this blank seeking further clarification. When eventually I was pulled though the crowd and the guy went to stamp my form he saw that I answered yes to some of those nasty questions, and so he screwed the form up and asked me to fill in another ticking no to all the above mentioned questions. Once this was done, they began inspecting the contents of my bags realising this was going to take forever. In the end we put them on the X-ray scanner and in about five minutes I was through, or so I thought. The customs official then asked if I’m carrying any drugs I should declare them now. No, we’ve already been through this before I thought. Then he got my passport from the guy in military fatigues and, before giving it back, asked me again, am I carrying any drugs? I thought, what was this, a setup? No, I replied. Are you sure, he asked again. Yeah of course I’m sure. No, I do not have any drugs. Do you take drugs? Now I knew he was playing with me, No, I sighed, I don’t do drugs. Ok, he replied with a smile. Goodbye. I hoped that this wasn’t going to come back to bite me when I tried to leave the country and they found out all the stuff I had and didn’t declare.
The maximum currency that Uzbekistan prints is worth about 50 cents. It’s 1000 somoni. So, when I changed 50 USD, I got a wad of cash so big it needed it’s own rubber band. People literally walked out of the banks with a bag full. It makes you feel rich having so much money it doesn’t fit in the wallet. But, in all fairness, it’s a pain in the arse to carry around and easy to ‘lose’ or skip a few notes while counting them out.
On the road I was invited to plenty of Vodka dinners in Uzbekistan. It usually started with a drink. Someone would flick their throat and, if I was in the mood, we’d sit down for a bottle. I only did this once before realising that once the bottle was opened it was to be finished. Sometimes these invitations would be late in the evening and I was asked to share a simple dinner of bread and mutton. This usually involved several bottles of vodka of varying quality and a drink to everyone’s health. Mine, his, yours, theirs, their late grandfather… it was all the same. The vodka went down rough and didn’t make an easy day’s cycling the following morning, but it sure made for an entertaining evening.
I spent some time in Bukhara after arriving a little earlier than I’d planned. Located on the Silk Road, the city has long been a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion, an interesting place to lay low for a while. Numerous mosques and madrassas have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites so it was a fascinating city to explore. It was a 450km cycle across Turkmenistan and the Government only allow a five-day transit visa with the dates needing to be specified well in advance. In all fairness it is enough time to cross from Turkmenistan to Iran, but not nearly enough for sightseeing. In Bukhara I found the most delicious fresh figs for 50 cents a kilo and dates and nuts equally as cheap. I met other cyclists there travelling along the Silk Road and we exchanged maps, phone sim cards and leftover money.
I heard in the capital Ashgbhat that they used to have a statue in the capital of the dictator. It was made of gold, presumably with some insightful expression across his body or a look of stern determination in his face. I imagine this finely carved figure pointing to the heavens. But, if it’s not enough for your ego to be delighted with a golden statue of yourself in a capital, imagine one that rotates so that it always faces the sun! In this part of the world I’m sure it’s considered normal. I was looking forward to moving west again after my stay in Bukhara and especially arriving in Iran.