Let Us Out of Tajikistan!

When we got back to Khorog, we didn't have much time to plan our departure. The four of us decided that we really wanted to fly to Dushanbe, rather than repeat the overland trip (once was enough). The number of flights leaving Khorog, depends primarily on the number of flights arriving from Dushanbe (and there are fewer people wanting to fly in to Khorog than there are wanting to fly out). The second factor affecting the flights is the weather, since the flight passes very close to mountains, the conditions have to be perfect for planes to take-off (rumour has it, during Soviet times, this flight was the only one where pilots received a danger bonus). Despite obviously unpredictable factors, the Tajik Air ticket purchase system remained mind-bogglingly infuriating:
- You can't reserve a ticket for the flight until one day before or the same day of the flight and you can't put your name on a waiting list.
- You can't reserve by phone, or with an agent, you have to go directly to the Khorog airport to buy a 7 a.m.
- Once at the airport, no matter how early you arrive, or how close to the front of the line you are, you will inevitably be last in line, after the Tajik men invite all their 'friends' or 'family members' to the front of the line with them (Yann nearly got into a physical fight with one particularly disagreeable fellow, trying to keep him from getting in front of us)
- Nobody seems to know when the office will open, or whether or not there are tickets left for that day's flight, or how many flights there are that day, and no one seems to work at the office. After waiting for almost an hour, a door opened for about 30 seconds, the time for an old man to jump to the front of the queue and hand in his passport as his 'reservation'. He was the only one in line to get on the day's first flight.
- If you are lucky enough to have a staff member take your passport, then it serves as reservation, but we were told that there was 'no chance' we could get a flight that day, and we were fighting to get them to hold us a spot for the next day.
- Meanwhile, all the jeeps heading to Dushanbe fill up from 6-8 a.m. so that by the time we abandoned the hellishness, there was not a single jeep willing to go to Dushanbe AND we didn't have a flight booked for the next day.

With time running out on our visas, we couldn't really afford to linger in Khorog, but after more than an hour wandering around the two bus stations, it was quite clear that everyone heading to Dushanbe had already left. We were eventually approached by a few young guys who were keen on signing us on. Lucky for us, we had chosen the back-to-school weekend to leave Khorog, along with pretty much every young person in Eastern Tajikistan. Prices were much higher than they were supposed to be, but at least the jeep (UAZ) was in new condition.

Within less than an hour on the road, one of the two teenagers squeezed in the trunk with our bags had already started puking. I fed him some gravols and he slept for a long time, which was a relief. Our driver drove exceedingly slowly, which in some ways was a welcomed change, but was also frustrating as he tried to haul the jeep over steep parts of the road in high gear. It was also his first time making the trip to Dushanbe, he got lost in the middle of the night a few times, until he found another jeep to follow. He was a terrible driver who was not comfortable driving the jeep, but at least he was cautious, we made it to the Dushanbe in 22 hours (exactly the same amount of time as in the opposite direction, but this time with virtually no stops). Within a few minutes of entering the city the jeep got stopped by police for having a 'non-regulatory' sticker on the front window, our driver was fined the same amount as the price he charged us for one spot in his jeep. It was karma, for having overcharged us. Now two fat greedy Dushanbe police officers have our money instead, or even better, maybe the Government of Tajikistan has it.

Before leaving Khorog, we had found its only internet cafe, and Yann had read the news that the Uzbek authorities had closed the border with Tajikistan for the next two weeks. This was a serious issue for us as our Tajik visas were expiring before the reopening of the border and our only onward visa was for Uzbekistan. Not to mention, we didn't have a single spare page left in our passport for a new visa, but probably not enough time to apply for one anyways. Oh, and there are no flights between the two neighbouring countries because they just don't get along very well. Myriam and Mathieu, being Central Asian residents and used to the governments bad behavior, tried to reassure us, but we were already making backup plans, trying to figure out the cheapest way of bypassing the Uzbek-Tajik border.

After two nights in Dushanbe, at our beloved appartment, we set out alone to the border post closest to Dushanbe (in case we got sent back), our Russian landlady made sure to remind us that the border was closed. We got to the border quickly, and through the first two Tajik checkpoints without anyone telling us to turn back. We were feeling relieved by the time we were in line for our stamps out, although we heard that the Uzbeks were making all the trouble. The guard took our passports, did the usual inspection and prepared his stamp. But wait... what's this? The consular officer in India has signed your Tajik visas, but he hasn't stamped them with his official consular stamp, we simply cannot let you out of the country. At first, Yann and I were pretty sure that this was a ploy for us to hand over some money, but we held our ground. We had been stamped into the country, we had the receipts for our visas, we were officially registered with the government and we were not shelling out any more money. One of the customs officers began making phone calls to his 'bosses' and we were told that we had to go back to Dushanbe to get our stamp. We held out for three hours at the border, the customs officer even drove us to the army barracks where he made a personal plea to his superiors. The little guys at the bottom of the pecking order had opened up a can of worms and now nobody was willing to give the go ahead on stamping us out (although they will gladly turn a blind eye when things that are actually illegal are going on). We were driven to the taxi stand and sent back to Dushanbe with instructions to the driver as to where to drop us off for our stamp.

So where do we end up? On the steps of the Department of Foreign Affairs, with all our bags and in a really bad mood. Yann marched right in, past the security guards, waving his passport "I need a stamp". We were eventually kicked out and sent to the consular affairs office at the back of the building where we waited for five hours for, once again, the 'boss'. She never showed up, we were told to come back the next day. By this point, we were too exhausted to continue being mad, we were just amazed by the incompetence. The next morning we only waited a little over an hour, this time the 'boss' was in, but the 'stamp' hadn't arrived yet?! Is there only one of these in the country? We got our stamps and made ourselves one last tuna fish sandwich at the appartment and left for the border, take two. We crossed hassle free and were in Samarkand by that night.


Anonymous said...

Coucou a mes deux amours,

Je crois que lorsque vous serez de retour au Canada, vous allez etre endurcis pour attendre dans une urgence a l'Hopital.

Sur ce, bon anniversaire, si je calcule bien, cela fait un an le 11 octobre que vous nous avez quitte.

Alors apres un an, comment on se sent!..

Bonne anniversaire.

De la part de la matante Denise et du beau Raymond.

2par4 said...

One year. Two incredible adventurers.