03 Sep, 2009
Posted by: Scott In: The Rally
Ah yes, Hotel Dushanbe: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
That’s the way we felt, coming back to the same hotel in the same city that we had waited in for a few days the week before. We had a few priorities to take care of, the first being finding a way to get out of the country before our visas expired yet again in four days time. What we wanted to do was get a flight from Dushanbe to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, explore the northern part of the country, take a taxi from Bishkek to Almaty, Kazakhstan, explore that city, and then take a train across the country, into Russia, and then eventually reach a Siberian Express stop where we could take that train all the way to Irkutsk and then Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, our final destination. Unfortunately it was Friday and we weren’t expecting to be able to get much done during the weekend, especially as it was the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Time was of the essence.
We walked a short distance to the airport and inquired about tickets. There were no tickets available to Bishkek before our visas ran out. We would have to wait for a week in the city before taking off the next Thursday. Scrap that plan. We left the airport and got a taxi to the Russian Embassy, as we would have to extend our visas in order to take the train across the country to Mongolia. The driver initially asked for 35 somoni for the ride, which was quite expensive. We got him to agree on 20, which was much more reasonable considering the distance. We drove a few minutes and he stopped in front of Hotel Tajikistan–not our destination. I reiterated that we wanted to go to the Russian Embassy, whcih was supposed to be located on Ismoili Somoni street, a few kilometers distant. He explained that the embassy was now in back of Hotel Tajikistan, and I thought, “okay, maybe they changed locations since my guide book was published.” It had happened before! I gave him 20 somoni and he then said that the fare was in fact $20, not 20 somoni. I balked at this, as it was a crazy price to have to pay–more than twice what he originally asked for. Unfortunately we didn’t have any notes smaller than 50 somoni, and I wasn’t about to give him my $20 note, so I handed it to him and asked for change. Knowing that that wasn’t going to happen,we kind of gave up and repeated that he was crazy for charging that much, we thought it was 20 SOMONI, andno, we wouldn’t give him more money than that. He was obviously deliberately trying to take advantage of two foreigners that he thought were fresh off the boat in Tajikistan. What an ass. I slammed the door and ignored his calls for additional money, walking towards where he pointed that the embassy was.
It turns out that te embassy wasn’t even located there–he had taken us to the wrong spot. The embassy was indeed located where the guidebook said it was, another mile and a half away. We resolved to agree on a set price, in somoni, next time, and to just walk the rest of the way to the Russian Embassy. It was a long, hot walk, but we got to the embassy within a half hour or so. It was almost 1:00PM, and the embassy was closed for lunch already. Crap. We walked back, taking the street trolley most of the way back to the main street of Rudaki. From there we took a bus north towards the Turkish Cafe Merve, where we had some lunch. After that we took another bus northwards towards the Varzob Bazaar, the area where the Adventurer’s Inn was located. We wanted to ask the owner to see if there was any advice or help that he could give us in regards to getting out of the country and to where we needed to go. We related our story and what we were trying to do, but he didn’t have much useful advice for us. We thanked him for his time, and set off back to the Russian Ambassy via bus. We arrived there and it still seemed closed. Inquiring to a nearby man in a soldier’s uniform, he related that the embassy was closed on Fridays. That’s just great. We left there to go back yet again to the airport to check on alternate flights.
We went back to check on other, less desirable flights. We check from Dushanbe to any city in Kyrgyzstan. Nope. Khojand, Tajikistan to any city in Kyrgyzstan. Nothing. Dushanbe to Almaty, Kazakhstan? Yes, the next flight was on Monday evening, just before our visa runs out. We decided to get on that flight, costing $205/person, so that we wouldn’t have to re-apply for visa extensions and whatnot. This way would make it difficult to visit Kyrgyzstan (we would have to get another entry visa into Kazakhstan), but if we could do it we would. With that taken care of we went back to the hotel to grab my computer to go to the internet cafe. The internet cafe was closed. Not very good luck that day with things being open. We finished off the evening with a middle eastern dinner at Al-Sham restaurant, which was okay but nothing special. I had eaten at many better places in the U.S. before.
The next day we just chilled out, used the internet, and got some errands done (my work as well as shipping a couple packages of stuff we didn’t need anymore back to the U.S.). We went out to dinner with our Tajik friend at a place outside of the city center that we had spent so much time in. We were looking to get some plov (fried rice Central Asia-style), but they said they didn’t serve it in the evening so we ended up with a plate of kebabs–still good! On Monday morning I set off for the post office so that I could send home a couple of large, heavy packages that I didn’t want to lug all the way to Mongolia (my tent, sleeping mat, camping stove, etc.). I knew it would be expensive, and that it may never reach its destination, but I thought it was worth a try. I grabbed a taxi from our hotel and headed towards the international mail window of the post office/cell phone shop/Chinese trinkets building. There was one older lady staffing the post by herself and I could tell by the look she gave me that she knew I was going to be trouble. I spent the next two hours filling out two postage forms in quintuplicate, itemizing everything I was shipping (she would go through every piece and decide what was okay to send and what wasn’t–oddly enough, she said I couldn’t send a deck of playing cards or the old car insurance paperwork from Moldova). She finished up the process by tearing strips of cloth off of a large roll, going in the back room and machine-sewing them together to fit the exact measurements of my packages, inserting my items, sewing the packages closed by hand, and then dobbing big spots of hot wax all over the top of each and stamping them multiple times with an official iron seal. Tajikistan Postal Services–welcome to the year 1900! It took a while but she was laughing in the end (maybe because of the ridiculous $250 I paid for the postage?) and we parted on good terms. I asked how long it would take and she replied it would be about two months. Yup…about what I expected. We’ll see if the packages ever show up.
We left the hotel late in the afternoon and took a taxi to the airport. Dushanbe International Airport is the largest, busiest airport in the country, but you would never know that just by being there. The entire thing consists of a ticket lobby, one metal detector (which obviously didn’t do anything security-wise as people were just cramming their luggage in on top of other luggage, and a large waiting room. You must walk outside or tax a tram to the planes and board them via ladder. We spent a fair amount of time battling our way past the first checkpoint, being pushed and shoved by the other passengers waiting in line. We finally got through when one of the airport personnel took pity and assisted us foreigners in cutting to the front of the line. The next stop was the declaration room, where my guy was jovial and let me through with no problems but Collin’s guy tried to make him pay a ‘fee’ of a few U.S. dollars because he didn’t mention that he had it in his wallet. Next: baggage check-in. Even though I had sent a large amount of my luggage home I was still hit with an over-limit fee of approximately $60 or so because I was thirteen kilograms above the limit. Ouch. Collin had a bit of a rough spot during the passport control section of our plane-boarding process as he also handed the guy his expired GBAO permit. The customs office had no idea what it was and thought that it was a problem since it had expired some days prior. He called up his commander and we eventually sorted everything out. Then it was time to sit in the packed waiting room and try to listen for when we would be boarding our flight (no monitors or postings, just infrequent announcements in Russian). We heard out flight to Almaty being announced and boarded a tram out to our vessel, a small, 1960′s-era Soviet prop-plane. The seating was a bit cramped, and there was no air conditioning, but we endured the next two hours in relative comfort and were even served a meal in the process! We arrived in Almaty at around 11:30PM (we lost an hour to another time zone change).