Where were we?
Oh, right. The gate at Kazakhstan’s Russian Embassy had frozen shut, and after a comical experience watching the security guard try to thaw it open (burning newspapers?), my colleague and I finally escaped the clutches of black hole bureaucracy, Russian transit visas in hand.
Or so we thought.
Although the official Embassy site states that Russian transit visas are 72 hours, our dear friend (remember Mr. Stick-In-The-Butt?) had written up our visas to expire in just one day. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem, as our transit flight out of Russia was scheduled to leave at 11PM. Lo and behold, our flight gets pushed back to 2AM and the immigration officials in Yekaterinburg refuse to let us into the terminal on the grounds that our visas had expired. Luckily, I bravely fought off bureaucracy by standing still and smiling (my broad Russian vocabulary of 20ish words wouldn’t have cut it), and my colleague and I finally jetted off to Tajikistan.
The whole experience—getting the visa, the transit, arriving in Tajikistan—was quite exhausting. I’m working on a short story to capture the details and included an excerpt below:
Inside the Dushanbe airport, the light—stale and spirit clogging—lends the building an eerie, post-dawn haziness. Its rays poke through low-level windows and highlight stained tiles. Passengers, bleary eyed from the red-eye transit, file out from the airplane, down a temporary plane-side staircase and into an off-white room. The room is empty except for a couple of police officers and one passport control official, none of whom are pleasant on the eyes. The air is clammy and almost choking, like an ER ward at the end of a jampacked night of open wound activity.
The immigration line into Tajikistan, if you can call it a line, is seemingly endless. Slow and purgatory-like. A frustrating and dense funneling of people and bags and passports. Three steps forward. One back. People are pushing. One policeman, husky and prominently mustached, pushes back. Tajik murmurs ebb and swell with the wave of pushing, and nobody seems to be getting anywhere. It’s a chaotic and undignified struggle. Against the line. Against logic. The unruly crowd and their banter. The pushing. One passport control official processing an entire plane of passengers. Three steps forward. One back.
I’m hallucinogenic with fatigue. What time zone is it? I didn’t sleep much on the flight in. I can never sleep in the middle seat. The subtly awkward wrestle for space. The spilling over of broad-shouldered body mass. It’s too much unwarranted tension for shut eye.
On a lighter note, Tajikistan was fun!
Below are some highlights:
- Late one night, just before bed, an earthquake aftershock from northern Afghanistan sent my hotel room into a rumbling seizure for a handful of seconds. Considering the room was 6 floors up, it was a bit startling.
- One day, my colleague and I employed a driver to take us to the outskirts of Dushanbe in search of the only official car dealership in Tajikistan. Our driver, who refers to himself as Jackie Jackie Jackie, always spoke in the third person. “Jackie so clever! So smart! Tres bien!” When the Afghan-U.S. war broke out 2001, he ferried BBC employees from Dushanbe into Afghanistan.
- The only official dealership in Tajikistan is in fact Mitsubishi, and it happens to be run by an incredibly nice family. Takhmina and her brother Rustam took my colleague and I out several times during the week. On Halloween we saw traditional Tajik dancers and continued the night at a local karaoke bar. We also hung out at their family villa outside of Dushanbe. Fresh grapes! Mhmm.
- Following a lackluster dinner just down the street from our hotel, my colleague and I were stopped by a policeman who wanted to see our passports. I had mine in my pocket, but my colleague’s was still being registered with the hotel. The policeman ordered us to come with him, but there was nowhere to go. Thinking I knew what was going on, I asked, “Harasho? Harasho?” and tried to palm a wad of cash into his hand. He said “Nyet” and walked us farther down, first into an unlit alley, then back onto the sidewalk. I was scared. My colleague dialed the hotel on his mobile phone, but the policeman refused to take the mobile. Two kids, about my age, approached us after hearing my plea in English. They end up chatting with the policeman. Still not going anywhere. I grew more annoyed, raised my voice, took the cash out of my pocket again and nearly forced it into the policeman’s hand. My body language must have worked, because after he pointed at my other pocket (and both of my colleague’s), the policeman let us go. I saw a small smirk on his face. On the walk back to the hotel (I was still shaking in fear and frustration), I realized that I had only given him about $1.20. Cheapest bribe I’ll ever make, that’s for sure!
A fun week indeed. If you’re looking for the tastiest shashlik in Central Asia (or for a Mitsubishi Pajero…or for an entanglement with local law enforcement), then Tajikistan is your place!
Hope you enjoyed.