Upon arrival in Bishkek we found ourselves a guest house and made preparations to begin the Central Asian visa dance.
The dance is long, drawn out and nobody is exactly sure of the steps. It seems to be different for each person. Our first partner was the beast of Bishkek as the woman at the Uzbek embassy is affectionately known.
You have to call for an appointment to pick up your visa. I called as soon as I could get mobile phone reception on the way down from the last pass into Bishkek. It was 4:50 on a Friday. a little late but still within the nominated time frame within which to call. I received a terse “no. Call back on Monday” to my request for an appointment. Stupidly I made the mistake of questioning why it wasn’t possible to make a simple appointment. The answer was still no and she had my name and case number and a grudge. On Monday we went to the Iranian embassy and the pleasant woman told us where to pay and we were instructed to come back on Wednesday to pick up the visa. The only painful part of the process was the cost €100 for an Australian passport. Luckily it was only €20 for Vietnamese. Clearly a bit of solidarity between those who have been the victims of US imperialism. I should add that we had already obtained a letter of Invitation through a travel agent. (Stan tours if anyone is interested. We used them for our Uzbek LOI too and they were great.)
Later that afternoon I called the beast back as directed. “Wednesday 10 am” was the terse response to my request. “Our passports are at the Iran embassy can we come on Thursday”
“No Friday 10 am”
“Why can’t we come.. ”
So that was that
By Friday my friend Grum had arrived in town and had already incurred the wrath of the beast by having the audacity to turn up without an appointment he was sent packing in no uncertain terms clutching the number to call to make an appointment. Yes she wouldn’t even allow him to make an appointment even though having to write the number out for him was clearly more effort than saying tomorrow 10 am. He did however tell me that there was hardly anyone else there.
My suspicions were confirmed when we got talking to someone in the line outside the Embassy. He’d called on Wednesday and got offered an appointment on Thursday which he couldn’t make. It seems like she deliberately refused us an appointment on Thursday just to be spiteful.
A few minutes later the beast emerged from her lair and started reading from a list of names. Of course our names weren’t on it. So we should have been the first names down given that I’d made the appointment 5 days before but were forced to wait until everyone else had gone which would prove costly later. The process itself was straightforward we handed over our application forms, letter of invitation and some cash and 15 minutes later we departed with an Uzbek visa apiece.
Then it was a mad dash to get to the Turkmen embassy for the last of our central Asian visas. The closed country requires you to have a very expensive tour guide if you want a tourist visa so we were applying for the 5 day transit visa instead. So you have to get the visas for the countries you are entering and exiting from first. For some reason they require colour photocopies of everything so we first had to go to the copy shop which of course was in the opposite direction to the Embassy. Then the Embassy itself was miles away. We passed through fields to get there. We finally got there at 12 o’clock. The security guard made a phone call and indicated that the staff were having lunch and we’d have to come back at 3. Kim was very impressed with the idea of a 3 hour lunch break – lots of time for sleeping. Kim returned at 3 but the consul was busy. “come back on Monday”. So now we’d have to wait an extra 3 days all because of the beast of Bishkek.
On Monday finally the consul was available and we were ushered into his office past the carefully manicured lawns, terrace with a barbecue and very inviting swimming pool. No wonder he was so busy. He gave us the forms to fill in, which we had to do outside, and then asked if we wanted the express or normal service. The express I said eagerly, thinking we could be out of there in a couple of days. “Come back in seven days” Not exactly what you would call express. It takes longer than the visa is actually valid for!!!
So we were there for another seven days. Bishkek doesn’t really have any sights but it’s a pleasant enough town. Lots of trees and parks and we spent the time relaxing and catching up with old friends. Grum flew into town a couple of days after we arrived. He is riding around the world having set off from New Zealand more than a year ago. I’d spotted him and his bike in the backpacker area of Ho Chi Minh City a couple of months before we set off and went over for a chat. We caught up again that evening and he was a mine of useful information having already been on the road for so long. We’d been following each other’s journeys ever since. Unfortunately for him he’d been unable to get a visa for Pakistan so he’d had to fly in from India to continue on his journey. It was great to catch up again and share some tales from the road.
After enjoying a few days sleeping in a bed we’d moved to the fantastic AT House run by Angie and Nathan. The house is for touring cyclists and there is always a tent or two pitched in their garden. With a big communal table and places to chill out around the garden it’s the perfect place to catch up with friends and make new ones. A German guy and an American woman who were cycling for peace going in opposite directions and many other cyclists who had just crossed China and were heading for the Pamir highway. So whilst all the waiting around was frustrating it was really nice to have a great place to recharge our batteries.
There is also some amazing landscapes to explore outside the city and we took a couple of trips. The first of which we had another fortuitous chance encounter. We’d travelled to Issyk Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world. It’s lovely. Like most places in Kyrgyzstan it’s surrounded by mountains and in the summer months the northern side of the lake becomes the playground for the city of Bishkek. It was still early in the season and we’d gone to the less frequented southern side of the lake so it was pretty quiet. We took a walk to explore a nearby canyon. Shortly after leaving the main road we bumped into a pair of French guys. They had hitched hiked and walked from France and were on a 5 day hike through the mountains. We chatted for a while and then continued up the valley. After lunch we decided to turn back. The valley wasn’t anything special and it started to get steeper. When we returned to the main road the two French guys were talking to a couple of cyclists who turned out to be Flo and Seb who had come to the presentation we had given in Hanoi!!! The French guys had got talking to them, told them about the Scottish/Vietnamese cyclists they had just met, and they realised that they knew us. The next day we found out we’d gone the wrong way and the canyon was a few kilometres further down the road.
It wasn’t all just fun and games. We also did some promotion for our trip thanks to some awesome groups who I contacted through 350.org. Camp Alatoo is a great organisation which among other things raises awareness of sustainability among local communities. They organised a press conference for us which saw us appear on the TV evening news, the main newspaper in Bishkek and a dozen or so news websites. They also organised a meeting where we shared our story with other climate change activists. Move Green who work with young people to increase their understanding of environmental issues also held a meeting for us.
About the only downside to Bishkek is the driving which was easily the worst we had experienced so far on our trip. In Vietnam people drive terribly but slow so you can usually anticipate any trouble. In China most drivers are pretty courtious to cyclists and many towns have pretty decent cycling infrastructure. In Bishkek they drive badly and fast. A lot of young men swinging their dicks around driving too fast and too close. So of course there are accidents. Each time we went to the Turkmen Embassy we saw at least one crash. Just a few dents, nothing serious, for a car, but if a cyclist had been involved…. And the roads are narrow and there is absolutely no cycle infrastructure. Some of the people that we met there, who are keen cyclists, avoid riding in the city because they find it so intimidating.
Finally it was time to leave, but not without one more hitch. As we arrived at the Turkmen Embassy at around 10:30 a shiny black car was just pulling away. Turns out it was the consul no doubt on his way to an important coffee date or shopping expedition and there was nobody else there who could perform the tricky task of sticking a label into a passport. “Come back at 3.”
So we came back at 3 and he was there, but I still had to go back into town to pay the fee at the bank. So in all it took 6 visits to the embassy and 10 days to secure a visa that would give us 5 days to cross the country!!! My advice for getting a Turkmen visa – get it in Dushanbe. If you have to get it in Bishkek get to the embassy early and give yourself plenty of time.
Next day after some considerable fannying around on my part we were ready to leave. As we had already cycled the route from the Uzebek border on our way into town and considering we had already spent more than 2 weeks in Bishkek we decided to hitch a lift to the border. We cycled out of town and found a likely looking spot with a nice place to pull over and waited with our thumbs out. Plenty of people stopped but most to tell us we would never get a lift and that we should go back into town to get a taxi. A few stopped but hadn’t seen the bikes and one guy wanted to help us so much he drove off and came back to tell us how hopeless out strategy was. While I was talking to him a guy in a white van pulled up. He was going all the way to our destination. It took around 9 hours to cover what had taken us a week to cycle and he dropped us off at hotel 10 km from the border which we’d cross when it opened again the next day.