(Emily) So, let’s recap. We were unable to exit into Kyrgyzstan on Thursday when we found the borders were unexpectedly closed; we had to re-trace the 350km back to Tashkent on Friday morning; our Uzbek visa ran out on Friday and we had to seek help with the UK embassy; we were told not to leave the city of Tashkent; we spent the weekend holed up at the hotel, me with a very dodgy stomach; we applied for our Kazak visas as soon as we could and picked them up on Tuesday evening….
Wednesday arrived and we thought, yes, finally can get back on the road. First we had to go back to the British embassy to find out from Maksim whether the official letter we’d got would be enough to make up for our expired visa when we came to exit the country. Apparently not. Cue a farcical four hours at the airport in an tiny unmarked office (no way we’d have found it without Maksim’s help) where they deal with visa extensions. Mr Jobsworth, flanked by a pre-teen security guard and someone else whose role we never established, made us sweat it out while he tutted, shook his head, made numerous calls on his four telephones and was generally about as unhelpful as it gets. It was hard to take his official role seriously as he had Russian MTV on in the background and the adolescent gun-toter kept yawning theatrically and laying his head on the table. But of course, we were in a sticky situation and had to kow-tow to his power, as did Maksim, while all we really wanted to do was shake him by the shoulders and say ‘Just let us leave, damnit!!!’ Finally, after having to go off to a bank in town and pay $40 each (grrr) and find somewhere to photocopy our documents (not a facility they have at the airport of course…) we were given a new visa. Not before writing down something to the effect of ‘I acknowledge that I must leave the country by the 12th August (the next day) and will under no circumstances be permitted to apply for another extension.’ (Couldn’t help wondering what would happen should the need arise – mechanical problems for example. Perhaps we’d be thrown in jail…?!)
And so it was that we weren’t packed up and ready to go until 4pm. Lucky the border to Kazakhstan was only about 20km north of Tashkent… James managed to navigate us out of the city (no regretful glances back to this place) and we were on our way. At a police checkpoint we stopped to clarify that we were heading the right way to the border crossing, only to receive the old ‘x with the arms’ response – closed. No worries though, there’s another one about the same distance away at Keles… Okaaay. Slight change in direction and we were off again. Some confusion in actually getting to Keles (as usual, they don’t sign the border from the main road – a simple ‘Kazakhstan this way’ really wouldn’t go amiss) and after a few kilometres of pretty bad road, we were there. It was busy, and definitely open. Phew. The guards stopped to look at our passports, always a good sign, but then told us cheerfully that this border was for pedestrians only – we’d have to go to Chinoz, about 60km south-west of Tashkent, back towards Samarkand. WTF!! All we wanted to do was leave!! James was getting seriously hacked off by this stage (well, so was I but I’m thinking of the stream of expletives coming through my earpiece!) and we were seriously worried that even if we got to Chinoz while it was still light, we’d find that this one was a no-go too; our recent experience had told us that the police/border guards don’t always know what they’re talking about when it comes to other borders.
Anyway, we cursed and moaned our way towards Chinoz, and luckily happened to stop on the main road to ask someone where the border was just as we’d passed the (unmarked) turning – cue a bit of riding the wrong way back up the highway, oops. We were flagged down at what we thought was the border control post. Turns out it was just a police checkpoint where a crooked cop did the old ‘vodka breath’ routine on us, trying to get some dollars. Pretty fed up at this point, we didn’t play ball; ‘We have not been drinking and no we won’t give you any money.’ He got the gist and waved us on with a laugh. Yeah, funny. Another couple of kilometres and we reached the actual border, only to be told by a waiting trucker that it was closed (naturally) and would re-open at seven in the morning. James went up to check with a soldier at the gate that come the morning we would actually be allowed entry at this one and, to our delight, he beckoned us through. (It’s all a bit wrong but foreigners definitely get preferential treatment.) The ironic thing is that after all the palaver of filling in numerous customs forms when we entered Uzbekistan, jumping through hoops to obtain a visa and extension, and riding round half the country to find an exit point, getting back out was a breeze! They didn’t want to check our bags, barely glanced at the passports when stamping us out (we had to show them that there was a second visa) and one of the guards even gave me something to take for my stomach! Result! Goodbye Uzbekistan, and frankly, good riddance!!
Even though once through into no-man’s land we discovered that the Kazakhstan side was already closed, it didn’t dampen our spirits – who cared, we were out of Uzbekistan and that was the main thing! We shared some melon with three Spanish guys in a Kia hatchback who are doing the Mongol Rally and pitched our tent in the road as darkness fell. With both borders either side of us now closed, we were assured perfect security and we settled down to watch ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ (awesome!) while the stars twinkled above us and crickets chirruped in the adjacent field. For the first time in a few days we were very happy bunnies!