Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Gates of Hell

Darvaza means gateway in Turkmen and the ex town of Darvaz was the gateway from one province to another. In 1971 a Soviet drilling team was routinely drilling for gas here. It is said that sink a pipe anywhere in Turkmenistan and you will strike natural gas. We do not know what went wrong here as the Soviets were never a wrap for transperency but the drilling here resulted in the earth collapsing and a massive crater forming. Gas was escaping through the collapsed earth in the crater so someone decided to light it, the thought being that it would burn itself out in a couple of weeks. 40 years on it is still burning and represents a unique and bizarre tourist attraction!

The road north of Ashgabat is an uneneding straight line through the desert. The countryside is monotonous scrubby desert broken by the occasional “Lawrence of Arabia” classic sand dune. The 200 odd km drive takes 4 hours with a detour to wander through a local village on the way. The turn off to Darvaza is unsignposted and the township itself is long gone a legacy of the dictator Turkmenbashi’s visit during the construction of yhe highway. He found the town to look scruffy so on a whim he sent the bulldozers in and razed it to the ground.

The crater is an 11 km desert “bush bash” and my driver tackles it as if he were doing the Paris to Dakar rally. I am relieved to get out at the crater and walk the rest of the way to our campsite.

From afar the crater looks unremarkable during the day. It appears to be the size and shape of the MCG. Up close the view is jaw dropping. The hole goes down some 30 metres and the scorched black earth is pockmarked with flames leaping through invisible pores through which the gas is escaping. Around the periphery the flames only dart up a couple of metres seemingly dancing with the breeze. In the very heart of this inferno are two large vents propelling flames a good 10 metres into the air. All around there is the smell and sensation of getting too close to a lit natural gas oven. I watch the sun slowly set before heading back for a BBQ chicken dinner and some porty tasting Turkmen wine. As the night takes hold the crater glows a bright gas flame orange. I revisit the crater in the dark and the vision of hell is complete. The demonstration of natural forces at work is truly awesome!

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Back on our camp mats sipping vodka and eating melons the milky way splayed above us with a clarity that I have not seen before. Unfortunately the northern hemispheric stars are foreign to me but I am sure I spotted the constellation of scorpio on the northern horizon. An early night and off to an uncomfortable and colds night sleep in the desert. A final dawn view before it is off to leave this stunning and remarkable place.

The white city

Ashgabat apparently means city of love in Turkmen, but more rececntly it has been renamed the white city and I am told has an entry in the Guinness book of records for the number of white marble buildings. In contrast to yesterday the sun shone brightly lifting my mood. Overnight I have also rejigged my itinerary to accommodate the blip in the Uzbek visa. It does, though, mean that I will cross into Afghanistan. I must admit to having second thoughts lately but I will literally day trip across and not stay a night. I am comfortable with this plan.

Today was a long walking day and after 7 hours non stop I have seen and photographed all there is to see here including a couple of surreptitious ones of the parliament and presidential palace which are no go zones.

The buildings here are really mindblowing. They are massive and ostentatious in size and design and the white marble with gold trim means everything literally sparkles. The only problem is they look so out of place here recalling more Europe than central Asia. As I can’t put my photos up at this time have a look online yourself, this site has a good collection: http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/06/the-city-of-white-marble-ashgabat-turkmenistan/100528/.

As I wander from building to monumental buildings the amazing thing is that there is no sign of life in any of them. Apart from the occasional gardener working outside there is noone. The ticket office to the Palace of fine arts is empty there are no punters here nor at the museum at the monument of Independence. The surrounding car parks are empty. The parklands are also devoid of peolple enjoying them and weeds are in the ascendant in many of them. The parks also reveal Turkmenbashi’s other fixation apart from marble and gold namely fountains and in many areas it looks a bit like waterworld!

The large amusement park lies empty and pathetic in the heart of town and judging by the weed overgrowth it has not been used for years. The giant white marble gates stand empty, the ticket offices closed. The car park around the white marble pyramid shaped shopping centre is almost empty. There are anly three shops inside the complex, one is closed. Most of Turkmenbashi,s magnificent creations are sterile.

As an overview of this ex Soviet nation I am happy to report that despite the millions that have been wasted on the folly of these buildings to satisfy the ego of a dictator, the people here seem happy and enjoy a good standard of living. everything is westernised, there is plenty of food and almost no beggars here. The economy should be strong on the back of massive reserves of natural gas. While they are all state owned and are used to support the lavish lifestyle and the massive marble palace that belongs to the president, some must trickle down to the people.

The locals are also very curious of tourists and are friendly and accommodating. Yesterday a guy drove me to the bank for my payment for the Uzbek visa. I assumed he was a taxi (they are completely unmarked here) but when I went to pay he refused and shook my hand. The restaurant owner 2 nights ago shouted me a beer just because I am a tourist. He speaks no English and I speak neither Russian nor Turkmen so I still don’t know why. Speaking of restaurants, the food is also a surprise, lots of BBG meat, shashlyks etc but also great Russian food, not at all what I expected.

I may be offline for a few days as I am heading out into the desert. The feature here is the Darvaza gas crater where I will be camping out overnight. Now if you didn’t look at the Asgabat link, please do have a look at this one, its awsome: http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/06/the-city-of-white-marble-ashgabat-turkmenistan/100528/

Soviet Disney

The most ethnically remote part of the Soviet Union in many ways suffered more repression than most. The practise of their muslim faith was severely repressed and this far flung desert out post yielded prolonged resistance against their occupiers. In 1995 the unknown Saparmurat Niyazov was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Niayazov declared independence for Turkmenistan and so was born an even more repressive and bizarre rule than was enjoyed by the Kims in North Korea!

Of course he banned all other political parties and started a cult of personality with the order that everyone henceforth call him Turkmenbashi which, translated, means “leader of the Turkmen. Suddenly golden statues of him appeared everywhere and plastered buildings with his image. His slogan ‘Halk, Watan, Turkmenbaşi’ (‘People,Nation, Me’ – an eerie echo of Hitler’s ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer) was ubiquitous.

He bulldozed cities and suburbs on a whim and without regard for the peoples he displaced and replaced them with grandiose white marble edifices glorifying his own reign. He assumed total control of the media. He banned ballet and the listening to music in people’s cars. He renamed the months of the year and days of the week after members of his own family and replaced the bible and the Koran with his own version of “how to live life” known as the Ruhnama. He declared himself President for life, a term cut short by his death in 2006 from a heart attack.

Niyazov’s successor as dictator has relaxed most of the excesses of Niyazov. Even the massive gold statue of Niayazov in Ashgabat which rotated to follow the sun has been dismantled. Nonetheless Ashgabat is still one of the strangest cities on the planet.

Ashgabat has been rebuilt out of the devastation of the earthquake that levelled the place killing 110,000 people in 1948. In Soviet times a grey bleak outpost it has been rebuilt in the last 20 years all in dazzling white marble. There is no high rise but rather massive white marble edifices, often covered  with gold domes and gold trimmings. Bellagio style fountains abound. Individually of themselves beautiful but the massed effect of  large city where every building has a similar theme is less than beautiful and more plain crazy.

My first task is the ever recurring theme of visas. I arrive back mid afternoon and it is off to the Tajik embassy first which is in the same suburb as my hotel, but where? I have no map of this area and noone at the hotel I am staying at speaks English nor cares. Finally another chap in the lobby gives me directions in broken English. Twenty minutes later in the 40 degree heat I find it. Finding a gate ajar I walk through the green, leafy garden and walk into the modest mansion into a sitting room area beneath the stairs. There is no office, desk or counter here so I sit on the plush sofa and arrange my paperwork for the visa on the coffee table. I clear my throat to alert themm i am here and a welldressed lean young man emerges from another room with a faint note of surprise in his eyes. I say “visa” and he sits down examines my documents asks for $50 and goes into another room. Minutes later I am the proud owner of a Tajik visa!  As I leave I now see that the gate has been locked and someone has to let me out. I reflect on my luck, any other time and the gate would have been locked and I would have failed in my mission/

The contrast with this morning could not have been more stark. Uzbekistan has been the thorn in my side and I catch a taxi down town bright and early. This morning the receptionist in the hotel speaks English so I get her to teach me the word “embassy” in Russian so that I could ask the taxi driver. The Uzbek embassy is an ugly grey concrete jungle and there are 30 people milling outside 30 minutes before opening. Lucky it is an overcast day the temp would only be just on 30 degrees today. Bad photography weather but good visa weather. A tiny side window facing onto the street opens and the crush begins. Mine is the only foreign face and the embassy official with calls from a preexisting list of names. This goes on for 20 minutes and as the crowd thins I get right up to the window and a guy looks at my documentation and I am allowed inside the building. All goes well except that to pay for the visa I have to go on a 20 minute trip to the bank by car. A nice local drives me over and refuses to accept payment. In the bank the queue is only a short 5 people in front of me but it still takes 40 minutes all up to pay and then it is a taxi back. I am apprehensive, though, as the payment was only $75 when it should have been $190. I noticed on the paperwork reqest done by the agency that the 14 day period and double entry was specified but in the length of time section it had 7 days. The guy asked and I explained that I wanted 14 days and in that time to go out to visit Afghanistan. I get my passport back and have an Uzbek visa but it is for 2 batches of seven days and I have to leavve the country in between. Not a good fit for my plans. Back to the drawing boards!

Khan!

4 hours drive east of the Turkmen capitol Ashgabat is the ancient city of Merv. Established over 2000 years ago it reached its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries AD when, as a major centre on the silk route it stood alongside Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo as one of the great Islamic cities of the world. It is said that Merv was the inspiration for Scherezade’s One Thousand and One Nights. In a story that is to be repeated throughout central Asia, in the 1200s Merv was approached by envoys of the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. They demanded grain and a pick of the city’s most beautiful women in return for protection. Merv’s rulers responded by killing the envoys. Three year’s later Khan’s son arrived at the head of the mighty Mongol army. Merv surrendered and all 300,000 of her citizens were rounded up and slaughtered by the Mongols who then destroyed the mighty city.

I meet my guide for the next couple of days a burly middle aged Russian called Oleg. He tells me later he is actually one of the partners of Stantours. He has a passion for archeology and really brings these lifeless that otherwise would look like rubble and sand to life. His English is good but literal and, unsurprisingly, does not read nuances very well. I also found a cultural barrier of some sort between us that made him very hard to read.

First afternoon we head off to the complex of Merv. The heat was a reasonable 37 degress outside and s this complex covers hundreds of hectares we drive between monuments. there is a surprising amount left standing with tombs, mosques and palaces in evidence. The photography was magic/

The next day it was a 3 hour each way bone jarring 4WD out to the 4500 year old ruins at Gonur. The lack of anything than an unsignposted dirt track through the scrub is surprising for such a significant archeological site. What is even more surprising is that there is a little withered old man in a mudbrick house out there to collect an entry fee! All around is flat desolate and sandy. The temperature today is over 40 degrees but as we walk through the ruined foundation Oleg brings to life the buildings and the culture and customs of people who thrived here in an era that was as far removed from the birth of Christ as we are today. Most impressive are the massive pottery kilns and everywhere are shards of exquisite ancietn pottery work. We go into a mudbrick hut one of only two buildings in the ruins to see the well preserved ecavation of horse and sheep bones. All around there is a ledge filled with the best of the intact pottery. We are free to pick them up and examine them. 4500 year old pots in my hands, museum pieces!!! I’m glad I didn’t drop one!

Well satisfied we head back. I have “rescued” a couple of pottery shards from the thousands laying unloved on the ground that are classified as archeological junk. Hopefully I will get them home intact.

Dear reader I do actually have some photos to accompany this article. Unfortunately the internet cafe here has blocked me from uploading any onto the computer. I will try elsewhere later, until then I am sorry

 

Turkwomen!

After only 5 hours sleep in grotty hotel room in Ashgabat, no breakfast, it is of to the airport for my 40 minute flight to Mary. I feel thirsty but without a headache or hangover. Without bottled water I am unable to even brush my teeth and they are certainly complaining to me at their neglect. The streets are wide and empty and everywhere ther is brand new white marble. There is no advertising and my initial impression is that it is uncannily like Pyongyang that I visited last year. At the airport my efforts to change money come to naught so I check in and wait.

While sitting in the waiting room I am struck by the beauty of the Turkmen women I have seen in my short time here. Invariably they are deressed in what seems to be a national “costume consisting of a brightly coloured sleek full length dress. Around the collar is a colourful ornate strip of embroidery. The dresses are all cinched in at the waist to reveal seemingly perfect hourglass figures. Long hair pulled back beneath colourful patterned scarfs and pretty faces. The faces are a mix in keeping with the racial melting pot that this area is. The rounded mongol faces are the leats attractive but there are exotic Turkic/Persian visages and lots of Russian pretty tennis player look alikes here also. I have just settled into my seat when I am roused by the sound of multiple little bells just like Santa’s sleigh at christmas. I look bak to see newly weds. He is in a suit and tie but she is wearing bright red full length patterned gown with a headdress reminiscent of the flying nun all covered in royal red and her face invisible due to layes of white thread sitting in front like a curtain. The effect is a little bit burkha but rather than looking oppressed she looked beautiful. Little bells were sewn into the dress hence the sound.

Flying to Mary I have the Iranian mountains to my right as Ashgabat is only 50km from the Iranian border. As we approach Mary the countryside flattens to broad fertile plains around the Murgab River a stark contrast to the arid desert and mountain all around. It is easy to see why this area became the centre of successive sophisticated civilisations along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between Europe and Asia. It is the ruins of two of theses that I am here to see, firstly the city of Merv which flourished in the middle ages and the even more exciting Gonur which was a Zoroastrian city in the Bronze age, some 4500 years ago!

Encounters with the Turkmen!

It is now 3am and I have been in airports or flying for the last 30 hours. I have survived the additional security measures for Chinese flights in and out of Urumqi which reflects the Chinese unofficial war with the Uigher minority there. I am sleepy and irritable and grateful that the middle aged guy stting next to me speaks no English. I will eat anything that vaguely resembles food on the meal tray have a glass of red and hopefully drift off to sleep for a couple of  hours on this short 4 hour flight to Ashgabat, the capitol of my first Stan.

As the meal comes the guy beside me comes to life points to himself and says “Juma”. I respond in kind with “Peter” and he grins broadly and says “Pizza” Great! As I shake the big bear paw mitts of his I figure that the conversation will be stillborn as he speaks no English. How wrong can I be! He nexts asks me “American?” When I respond with “Australia” he clearly has no idea. I figure it is the language barrier so I try my best Julia Gillard pronounciation and it is no use. At that point he taps his mates in front of us on the shoulder and I am introduced as “Pizza” to my new best friends Dara and Ali. A conversation in Turkmen betweeen the 3 ensues and Dura is convinced I am from Austria! When I shake my head Juma next to me asks “Euro?” I say dollar but now I think he thinks I am American again.

The meal is over and Juma points at my wine. He motions to me to drink up and says vodka, with an evil smile on his face. At that point a duty free litre is produced from in front of us and it suddenly becomes party time. Those who know me will know that I find vodka boring, neutral and bland but I humour him as I am sure the flight attendants will put a stop to it anyway. Wrong again. They not only turn a blind eye, they supply tomato juice and fresh tomatoes to wash the vodka down with.

The bottle comes round after my first generous shot. When I decline he says “chut chut” which I have since found out means a little more and I am topped up. One thing I will say about Vodka, drink a shot and you will smile, I guarantee it and so I found myself smiling and decided to try and nail the issue of my nationality for him once and for all! When in doubt overseas a reliable standby is to say kangaroo, even with appropriate arm motions and even a hop. No way this time, I draw another blank look.

Then on my third shot of vodka I have it! Pull out the airline book to the pages where it shows you their routes. There on the map of the world I proudly point to Australia! He looks amazed and points to the dot that says Melbourne. I give him the big thumbs up!

I lost count but between the four of us that bottle of Vodka disappeared. I drifted off to sleep and next awoke just minutes before landing to the screaming pain of ears that needed to be equalised. Despite the vodka my anxiety levels were high as I present my LOI to get the visa. Amazingly after being relieved of $107 in visa fees it was a quick stamp in the passport and I am through. The luggage arrives and as I stroll past the customs man he asks me where I am from. When I say Australia he immediately replies “Kangaroo” and waves me through with a broad smile.

 

Of Mice and Men

A new race has begun! I have to regroup and find a way out of the disaster. It is now five weeks until I depart and I don’t even have a passport! Next working day I have my documentation up and ready and am waiting at the Rosebud Post Office for their opening only to discover that my passport photo does not pass muster because of fine shadow behind my head. New photos are taken and I race back to Sorrento to get them endorsed and to back to Rye Post office for processing. A new passport, priority processing and a very painful penalty for the loss of my existing passport leaves me $560 poorer.

Now its back on line to start the tracking process. Nothing for 24 hours so I phone. No word as the it has not yet made it up there. Ring tomorrow. In the meanwhile I am rejigging my travel plans to excise Uzbekistan and Afghanistan and am becoming increasingly enamoured of spending that time in western China. Tomorrow comes and my call yields a positive response but wait, there is a hold up and someone will ring me back. I am barely able to concentrate on my work while waiting for the call and when it comes another bombshell hits! Yes all the documentation is complete including copies of my citizenship papers. I was born overseas and naturalised as an Australian citizen in 1964. Despite the copy (I have the original) of my glossy citizenship certificate that I have sent, the Department of Immigration have no record of me at all and therefore the passport application is on hold! To be fair to the passport officer who must have sensed the near suicidal despair in my voice she promised to chase it as a top priority but could not guarantee that they could make the 5 day express deadline. True to her word she rang the next day to confirm that the problem was sorted and my passport was ready the next day.

I email David again with my new passport details to get the Turkmen LOI redone with an explanation why. I have wiped Uzbekistan and Afghanistan off the schedule. I plan to fly out of Turkmenistan back to China and do the Karakorum Highway from Kashgar to the Pakistan border. It fits into the alloted time beautifully and is scenically spectacular! I am happy again and console myself that Uzbekistan could be paired up with a future trip to Iran. After getting close to Afghanistan 7 years ago atop the Khyber Pass perhaps this will never be attainable in my lifetime. I am inwardly a little disappointed but have come to terms with it.
David has a counter proposal. A minor readjustment of my time in Turkmenistan leaves me enough time to get the Uzbek and Tadjik visas in its capitol Ashgabat and suddenly my original plan is viable again. I am like a withdrawing, convulsing heroin addict who is offered a hit! A microsecond later I am emailing back to go ahead. My passport goes back to the Afghan embassy in Canberra for yet another visa which arrives back in record time. At $125×2 I have provided the Afghan economy with a huge boost!

I fly out tonight, and it was only 2 nights ago that I received my Tajik LOI and permits so that I can at least apply for the visa while over there. Outstanding was the deposit for my arranged jeep and guide through the Pamirs in Tajikistan. That was originally sent as a direct deposit a month ago. A couple of days later it bounced back into our bank account. When we inquired from the NAB as to why the response essentially was “are you kidding, who sends money to Tajikistan?” When we repeated the effort the transfer took 3 weeks with an email only as late as last night to confirm receipt over there. The last piece of the puzzle is laid down at the 11th hour.

It is ironic and brings to mind John Steinbeck’s famous quote “the best laid plans of mice and men are apt to go awry”! This “mouse” had grandiose plans, six Stans in six weeks which equated to five visas in 3 months. Here I am 2 days from departure with just one visa in a sparkling new passport and somehow all six Stans are still in play. Does all the hassles I have had mean that the trip will run smoothly or, more likely is it a harbinger of the hassles I will experience in the next six weeks! Either way, all say is roll on Friday! The next time you, my readers will hear from me I will be in the most secretive, Stalinist Stan, Turkmenistan.

Washed up in Washington

Australia Post will not send passports securely overseas and I have to engage the services of an international courier firm. As so much stuff ordered online gets delivered by one of these companies these days it does not seem to be such a big deal. Toll has set up a specific visa service for passports but the price at $360 for each application (on top of already steep visa fees) is excessive combined with waivers that do not promise turn around times less than 25 days per visa. No good for my deadline. Fedex never seemed to answer the phone while DHL proved to be bright and breezy with a “can do” attitude and a price of $100 each way on top of the visa fee. DHL got the gig.

The envelope over to the US was quite bulky with paperwork and I checked and rechecked every item. The fee for the visa was $190US and it had to be by bank cheque. I remember asking about the strange looking paperwork from the bank, none of it looked like a cheque but was reassured that it was all there. I copied it all and sent the originals with a self addressed envelope to be couriered back. I tracked it all on line all the way and 3 days later it had been signed for by the Uzbek embassy in Washington. Mistakenly, not wishing to be a nuisance I did not contact the embassy for a week figuring my covering letter with contact details if there was a problem would suffice. As I get back onto the Uzbek embassy website to get the phone contact details my heart sinks a little. In among the fine print of the visa application details is a list of their preferred couriers and DHL does not figure among them. I have to get up at 6 am to phone and catch the embassy at 4pm Washington time the only time they are actually available for phone enquiries. The Uzbek at the other end, Mr Ismailov, in halting English confirms that they have received my application but will not act until they have payment and they are waiting for the cheque not the copy of the statement from the bank that I have sent. As I sit at my home desk in Rosebud half a planet away in the predawn light and examine my copies of the paperwork I am horrified to see that he is right. The only thing the bank issued is a copy of the cheque, not the original!

I scamper to the bank that morning between patients and a cheque is reissued. Australia Post is the next port of call and we pay for the highest price express service. Again I track on line and within 24 hours it has made Los Angeles. The tracking ceases there and it is days before we find out how to trace it through the US postal system. I take to anxiously ringing the embassy at 6 am every alternate day, by now I know Mr Ismailov at the other end but he pretends not to recognise me on any occasion. It takes an amazing 8 more days for the cheque to travel from LA to DC! In the meanwhile as my anxiety increases I quiz Mr Ismailov how long it will take him to issue a visa. He promises a quick turnaround once the cheque arrives and is presented to their bank but their finance officer only goes to the bank once every couple of weeks! He also confirms that while DHL is not a preferred courier they have dealt with them before so all should be allright.

I phone on the day that the cheque has arrived at the embassy to be told that they have already, suddenly, issued the visa and sent my passport back that same day. Celebrations, back on track. Despite the lost time I have in the interim rearranged my arrival into Kazakhstan with the ever reliable David of Stantours to fly in and get a visa on arrival at the airport with an LOI, one less overseas journey for my passport to collect another visa. My passport should come back home in a couple of days leaving me just with a Tajik visa to get.

Two days on and nothing is happening as I try to track the return journey through DHL. Repeated phone calls now to DHL yield dead ends so it is awake again at 6am to ring Mr Ismailov. Again he repeats the story that my passport went off already. As I challenge him about the details my heart sinks. He relates that he tried to activate the bar code on the return envelope online at the DHL website in the US. When it was not recognised he chose not to email me to arrange pick up rather to send a staff member a block down the road to post my passport into a DHL drop box. Disaster!

Frantic calls to DHL ensue and suddenly the friendly “can do” facade slips. They can do nothing until there has been a pick up and deny any knowledge of the existence of DHL drop boxes. At this point I also discover that there is a DHL Australia and DHL USA and while nominally the one company they do not share databases and know nothing about each other!!! My frantic calls move offshore to DHL USA and we actually manage to isolate the drop box that the passport has been put in. Despite the denials from DHL Australia over the existence of these drop boxes it is actually a DHL Express drop box and the prospect for finding my passport firm up. I fire off an email to the Uzbek embassy regarding the missing passport and amazingly get an email back from the consul immediately despite it being late at night in Washington DC. Not once has the embassy initiated contact with me and this new turn seems to be a positive. Alas this proves unwittingly to be my final mistake as the Ubek embassy contacts DHL and request a search. Subsequent calls by me to the previously helpful DHL USA are now met with a standard response that they are investigating on behalf of the Uzbek embassy, they can tell me nothing and I need to contact the embassy. They hide behind a barrier and the die is cast! I now know where this will end. Gloomily I wait another week calling the embassy every second day. When I cancel my passport online after a week I know I have no choice. I also deep down know that my passport will be found in the near future but I have run out of time.

My well organised plans are in tatters!

Everything you wanted to know about visas (But were afraid to ask)

Visas in the 21st century generally do not feature as a big part of the travel experience. More often than not they are the annoying bits of paper we fill in on the plane trip in and the stamp in the passport we queue up for at immigration on arrival. Sometimes as in the case of countries such as India they have to be prearranged but are a formality apart from the hefty fee which is a revenue raiser for the government of the day. Countries such as USA and even little Rwanda have put in online processes and abolished fees as part of the way forward while China seems to still be a little bit more demanding and closed about its processes. Then we come to the Stans who set the bar higher than any countries I know!

Reflecting their ex Soviet pedigrees the Stans present major barriers to any would be tourist and each country has a different set of standards. Overall there is a slow but steady chipping away at these barriers when compared with my research 10 years ago but there is still a long way to go. Special mention in this process goes to little Kyrgyzstan, the stunningly beautiful mountainous Stan often referred to as the Switzerland of central Asia. It has abolished visa requirements and fees altogether presumably as a prelude to a greater push for tourism. Yay! For me its already one down and only five to go! Easy street were it not for the fact that all bar one of the other countries have no embassy presence in Australia. Somehow I have to get my passport securely to and from embassies half way around the world.

So online I go and start to work my way through the mountain of paperwork. All of the questionnaires are more detailed than anything I have ever completed. Some ask for letters confirming my employment. All ask for obscure details such as my mother’s maiden name. The Uzbek process asks for a complete photocopy of my passport, every page, to be sent with the original as well as the obligatory passport sized photos. The Tajik process includes a separate application for a GBAO permit without which I cannot travel the majestic mountainous Pamir Highway and all bar one ask for a Letter of Introduction! This LOI, in theory represents an invitation to the traveller from a local person or a tour company who, I guess assumes some responsibility for the movements of the tourist within that country. For me as an independent backpacker I have to employ and pay a tour company to write them for me. A bit of online research and all roads lead to the catchily named Stantours run by a German expat living in Kazakhstan called David Berghof. David has rapidly become my new best friend!

The earliest one can start to collect visas is 3 months in advance so 3 months ago I made my first contact and I have a neat plan of attack which should see me just managing to pick up the 5 visas in the nick of time. I email David for the LOI and outline my plans for my first Stan. Turkmenistan has a further quirk in that independent travel outside the capitol for more than 3 days without a guide is not permitted so David sets me up with a 7 day tour, guide and transport and LOI. When he tells me that with the LOI I can get a visa on arrival at the airport without having to send off overseas my spirits lift and I know that the rest will fall into place!

Afghan visa

 

With the extra time gained I immediately send my passport to the Afghan embassy in Canberra, which proves to be the easiest of all and back comes my passport with a shiny new Afghan visa! At the same time my Uzbek LOI arrives from David and it is with some trepidation that I prepare to relinquish my passport to the closest Uzbek embassy in Washington DC. Let the nightmare begin!

Six Stans in six weeks!

Ten years ago I first investigated the possibility of travelling though the central Asian republics affectionately known as the “Stans” to back packers. I purchased the Lonely Planet guide at that time and this out of date tome has sat beside my bed for the last six months. As with so many things in life, chance plays such a large part and as I feel out of love with my initial travel idea of walking the Camino Santiago this year, the accidental conjunction of having 6 weeks holiday and the time of year led me to resuscitate my former plans.

The Stans comprise the 5 countries that were the southernmost outposts of the former Soviet Union. Their people are vastly different to the rest of Russia. Asian and Muslim they had little in common with their former masters. Rich with oil and gas deposits, they were, though, prized possessions of the Soviet empire. They were also the springboards for the ill fated Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union these countries were unpreparedly abandoned and left to become independent nations. Knowing nothing other than totalitarianism, each country threw up dictatorships as their governments and this more or less prevails to this day. Some experienced internal unrest with opposition groups and armed warfare but, with the obvious exception of Afghanistan all is peaceful and safe for travellers in the Stans today.

So why the Stans? A remote former Russian outpost, surrounded by troubled hotspots such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan as a holiday destination? Have I finally gone completely mad? I guess in a week’s time, when I fly into my first Stan I, and you my faithful readers will know. Suffice it to say that this is an area rich in history. Alexander the Great came through here in 300BC and built massive cities here the ruins of which, despite the predations of a rampant, marauding Genghis Khan still survive. In the middle ages the Silk road, the trade route between Europe and China snaked through this area leaving flourishing cities such as Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand which today are absolute tourist gems. Then there are my favourites, massive mountains and much of my time will be spent revelling in the mountain scenery of the 7000 metre peaks, glaciers and lakes of the Pamirs and Tian Shan ranges. To wrap it up I will finish in Astana, the new capitol of oil rich Kazakhstan with the crazy ultramodern buildings that have earned it the nickname the “Dubai of Central Asia”

The_Caucasus_and_Central_Asia_-_Political_Map

For the record I will be starting in Turkmenistan and going though Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Internet availability is likely to be fairly lean so I apologise in advance if the emails are a bit spasmodic. Also as I am not taking a laptop there may not be any photos attached but I will try and keep the communications as interesting as possible. In the meanwhile I am packed and ready to go. Roll on Friday!