Four days without a country

And on the 5th day, she was free!

This week I headed to Turkmenistan, a country known for visa and other difficulties for tourists. Because of all of the issues that I had read about, I planned to enter on transit visa, booking it through the country in the 5 days that would allow. 5 days would be a bit tight, but if executed well, plenty of time to get to Ashgabat, make a day trip to the Door to Hell, and be on my way.

IF I got into the country that is. Which I did not.

So what happened?

Well, the abbreviated version is that my visa was denied and the folks at the border took 1.5 days to communicate that to me, meaning my Uzbek visa expired and I couldn’t go back into the country, triggering a several day mini-disaster in which the US Embassy had to get involved. 4 days and $250 later, I was back in Uzbekistan with two days to GTFO.

The longer version has a few more highs and lows:

I applied for my Turkmenistan transit visa at the Turkmenistan embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Everything seemed easy (a little too easy), though I had to go to the Azerbaijan embassy to get an official letter on my behalf, as that was the country through which I would be departing. I submitted the application and was told that it would be ready on Monday morning at 9:00 am at the Farab border crossing. In a few days I would get a code in my email to present. Based on everything I’d read and heard, I asked for more documentation than that, which I was denied. At the embassy they let me take pictures of everything I was submitted and gave me an email address to follow up with.

A few days passed and I hadn’t heard anything and was starting to get worried. On Friday I sent the embassy an email to follow up – no response. On Monday, before heading to the border, I sent another follow up – no response (even to this day). I was worried, but the consul had assured me 100% guaranteed, no problems, the visa would be at the border at 9:00 am on Monday. And since my 5 day plan didn’t have much wiggle room, I wanted to cross the border as early as possible. So I arrived to the border when it opened at 9:00, expecting 100% guaranteed no issues. I was severely disappointed by that expectation.

I cleared out of Uzbek no problem and got to the Turkmen side where they said that I didn’t have a visa. I explained that I applied at the embassy in Dushanbe and was told that I would pick it up there starting at 9:00 am on Monday (it was now 9:30). Real sh*tty timing for the Russian offline file for Google Translate to corrupt.

They told me to wait. No problem I thought. Little did I know this would be the 1st of about 100 times being told to wait. After 1.5 hours of waiting, my menstrual cup runneth over and I asked for a toilet. No. Sit. Wait. I try to explain the problem, without being traumatic and showing them, that I really need a toilet.

No. Sit. Wait.

So I sat, and waited, and bled, and cried. Sitting in 95°+ heat, among strangers, while my shorts filled with blood (Ack! Gross!! I know guys, but humans are gross.). I had a feeling this wasn’t a sign of good things to come, so at this point I started asking to speak to the US Embassy. Finally after I’d cried enough or more likely been annoying enough, they let me pee behind a bush. Thankfully I have some wet wipes with me, so I was semi able to clean myself up, but it wouldn’t last long.

img_20160620_134838599-01.jpegAs I returned from my bush, an Australian couple on a bike was also told to sit and wait. They also applied at the Dushanbe embassy, so I felt relieved to have some strength in numbers. We swapped stories for a few hours until a guard came for them. Their visa was sorted. The guy spoke some Russian, so he asked about me. The guard said mine wasn’t ready yet, but that it would come later in the day for sure. They said they felt bad leaving me, but of course I wouldn’t want them to wait. They left me a water bottle, which would prove invaluable.

A few more hours in the heat and sun and wind of asking about the visa and the US Embassy and the toilet and I made little progress. One guard gave me a knock-off Snickers. They told me if I had the number for the embassy, I could call them. I was getting periodic bursts of signal from my Uzbek sim, so I sent a few FB messages out asking friends to look up the number. The first response was, “why, didn’t get through?” to which I responded, “just do it please, I’ll explain later.” I couldn’t risk wasting my precious few messages on banter.

I got the number, went to the guard and he said, wait. I thought he was going to get a phone, but he just went and chatted with another guard. Eventually after following him around for 30 minutes, he gave me a phone to use. I called the embassy and told them I was stuck and that I needed help making progress; she asked first if I was OK. Tears welled up and I lied, yes, quivering. She said it was OK to tell her and I told her about the heat and the bleeding and lack of food and water. Horrified, she said she was going to run to find someone. She got another woman on the phone who was equally upset at the conditions. She would need to make some calls and asked if they would let me call her back in 20 minutes. It took me 6 hours to get them to let me call her, so I wasn’t sure, but I told her I would try. 30 minutes later I called back. Three times, with no luck. I was on my own again. A Russian couple came through and found out what was going on and made me take their jug of apple juice. It was heavenly.img_20160620_162533313-01.jpeg
At 7:00 pm, two guards came from the main building. One spoke decent English and explained that the border was closing and I had to go to the other side since my visa hadn’t come. After some arguing, he reassured me that my visa would come at 8:00 or 9:00 am. I told him I would leave and asked him if he thinks it’s OK to treat people who want to visit his country this way – out in the heat and wind, sunburnt, hungry and thirsty without a toilet, for 9 hours? I said I certainly don’t treat guests in my home that way. His face, shoulders and tough attitude dropped. “You have no food?” He actually sounded sad. I was planning to stay on the other side of the fence and he said they would bring me something to eat.

img_20160620_185433393-01.jpegA kind Uzbek guard came over as I settled into the dirt against a wall, planning for it to be my camp for the night. He told me to come back to the Uzbek side where I could get food and sleep and come back in the morning. I explained that my Uzbek visa would expire at midnight, so I couldn’t. “It’s OK. I help you.” And he did. He talked to the owner of the small “café” between borders who fed me and let me sleep on a small bed set up in a storage room.

“Missus! Your visa!” The stretch between the two borders isn’t too long, but long enough in the heat that a young man runs a marshutka taxi between the two for a dollar. I opened the storage room door and he ran in and grabbed my backpack. I was excited, thinking the guard from the end of the day came through – 8:30 and my visa was ready!! Except it wasn’t. They had me show them all over again all the pictures I had of my documentation.

img_20160620_190623225-01.jpeg Sit. Wait. But this time I had to stay on the Uzbek side of the fence. I contemplated whether or not I should finish my water from the Aussies, unsure of when I could get more. When I asked about a toilet then, the guard pointed to the open field surrounded by truckers. I brought my umbrella out with me to create a screen.

img_20160621_090403456-01.jpegSit. Wait. No answers. No water. No food. No call to the embassy. Just sit. Wait.

At noon, I’d had enough. I got up and walked to the border and stood in the middle of the road, blocking the traffic of semi-truck drivers crossing. I refused to move until I was able to talk to the embassy and get some information (and food and water). The Uzbek guard who had helped the day before begged me not to make problems for him, since I was on his side of the border. He promised a call to the embassy and took me first back to the café again for something to eat.

On the way, he chastised me, saying I’m becoming problem on his side when I do that.

“I’m your friend. I help. Me friend. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, but I am a human being, do you understand that? Human beings need to go to the toilet and need food and water. You’re my friend, I understand. But I’m a human first and you need to understand that.”

I ate and called the embassy in Uzbekistan. They were aware of and working on my situation, which was surprising because even I didn’t know what was going on. He explained that my Turkmenistan visa had been denied and he didn’t know why they kept making me wait instead of telling me so. But now, my Uzbek visa had expired, which meant I couldn’t go back into Uzbek either. They were working with the Uzbek government to get me an urgent exit visa, to let me come back in the country for 3 days. He explained that because Uzbekistan had let me attempt to cross into Turkmenistan without a visa, they were responsible for me, meaning they had to give me a place to sleep and all the basics. Though for some reason, using the toilet was still an argument every time for the first few days.

This was all “good” news. Until they said that the visa had to be placed in my passport in the capital city of Tashkent (8+ hour drive from Farab). And, I couldn’t take it there. The embassy was working on arranging a courier that wouldn’t charge me an arm and a leg when I met a man who was only at the border to help a tour group cross. He runs a tour company in Tashkent and was headed back there.

The guards explained my situation and he was happy to take my passport with him. He even volunteered to run to the nearest city and get me something to eat if the food I was getting wasn’t enough.

Sit and wait. The embassy requested that once the visa was placed in my passport, I be allowed to travel to it, rather than wait for it to come back to the border (which would take up one of the three days I’d have to leave the country).

Denied. Day 4. Sit and wait. Because life, some Shanghai summit started at the same time, blocking off the airport (and the visa office in it) for hours, even to diplomatic vehicles. The Uzbek government denied my request to waive the $160 visa fee (despite the fact that I paid one about a week prior), and charged an $80 rush fee on top of it. But apparently they also wanted to hand my case over to another department that wanted to charge me a fine of 6,500,000 som ($1000-$2000 depending on which conversion rate you use). So at least there’s that.

Once the visa was acquired, it was the issue of getting it back to the border. Because of the summit, not even DHL or other couriers would take it, unable to guarantee its delivery in less than 2-3 days. Not wanting to give my passport to just anyone, the embassy exhausted their list of contacts before sending it by taxi. It would be another night.

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(pro tip: stack the “mattresses” for extra luxurious comfort)

What was it like? I had water and was fed and sweating constantly and watched terrible movies in Persian. I got to wash my hair once in the café kitchen sink and passed time on day 3 taking out the stitches in my knee from an incident the week before. With the guidance of the guy running the café, Mirshod, I became a mini currency exchange – slowly selling off the ~$35 in Manat I had so preparedly picked up in a hostel in Uzbek, and trading back and forth dollars and som. I made about $4. I finally got through the waiting period to play the next levels of Candy Crush.

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(I’ve had enough potatoes for awhile…)

The Russian card game I learned on the trains came in handy – I got my deck out and played with Mirshod and a few guards. The evening of day 4, one of the truckers gave me a few coffee packets. Glorious.

img_20160623_182728184-01.jpegI enjoyed them on the patio with Mirshod and the truckers, laughing as one tried to take a picture. It doesn’t matter which country you’re in, dads can’t work cell phones.

img_20160623_201421019-01.jpegApart from circumstances, I’m so thankful for Mirshod. He let me sit in the café all day and made sure I was fed and drinking, offering a cold Pepsi each day at peak heat. The guy from the embassy told me that every time he called, Mirshod was pushing him for updates, saying he couldn’t keep watching me suffer.

img_20160623_201221770-01.jpegOn day 4 as I begrudgingly contemplated how to absorb the $240 visa fees into my budget, I reminded myself I was prepared for this. This is what I have emergency cash tucked away for. You’re prepared for this, I repeated to myself.

Well, I may have been technically prepared, but definitely not emotionally. It was just 4 days, I think now that I’m on the other side of it. And after the first one, conditions weren’t all that bad, I start telling myself I’ve been over dramatic. Though, as terrible as this started, people helped, on all sides of the situation.

I laughed and had fun and made a few friends and learned a new skill. I actually had the time to go through a lot of pictures and write a few blog posts (next time I wish for a few days of focused work time, I’ll be more specific). I even had myself a “spa day” on the fourth day – I washed my face in the kitchen sink and cut and painted my nails.

That lack of freedom, though, is something I wish to never experience again. Not only was I physically restricted to a small area, but I did not have the agency to act on my own behalf. I was completely dependent on others to negotiate the visa, transport my passport, etc. To deal with everything while the best I could do for myself, for the situation, was sit and wait.

So what’s next?

Well, I have cleared the border, spent a night (and showered!!) in Tashkent before heading on to Shymkent (just across the border in Kazakhstan). Kazakhstan is great for US citizens because we get 15 days visa-free, so now I have time to get my head together. I had to replenish half of my toiletries because they melted at the border (since I try to travel liquid-free, there’s always a chance for this).

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(insult to injury)

Don’t let this happen to you.

If it does, it’s not your fault. And if even you’re “prepared,” know that it’s going to take a physical, mental and emotional toll. But there are a few things that you can do to avoid and be ready for situations like this.

  • Get as much documentation as you can when preparing to enter a country with known issues – do not trust even employees of an embassy when they assure you there won’t be issues.
  • Have the numbers for your country’s embassy in the countries in which you will be traveling written down – you probably won’t have internet access when you most need to look these up.
  • Pack water and snacks for tough crossings!
  • Communicate with someone prior to your crossing attempt and give them an anticipated follow up time – if they don’t hear from you, there’s a problem and make sure they know whom to contact.
  • Join program(s) offered by your country that will make things easier – US citizens have STEP and I’m glad to be a part of it. This is how the embassy so easily had my information, and even offered to call my listed contact (mom) on my behalf.
  • Be sure to have emergency cash, preferably USD, so you aren’t screwed without an ATM. I was so happy that I replenished my reserves just two days before this, after having to use some for visas in the Stans.
  • Give yourself enough overlap in time with your visas when going between two countries that require them for entry.
  • Be nice to everyone helping you out – they will feed you.

Final thoughts.

I may have had a sh*tty time “in” Turkmenistan, but f*ck if I don’t have a hell of a tan.

Cheers!

lovingly,
jess

P.S. Turkmenistan – you owe me $250, some shampoo and 4 days of my life back. But I’ll just take the cash. Seems like the least you could do.

 

24 thoughts on “Four days without a country

  1. Natalie

    Wow! That is quite the story. Did you ever find out why your visa was denied? Or it something you’re never going to figure out the answer? Will you try again or was once enough?

    1. jess Post author

      Thanks! I’m going to start asking now. The embassy advised I wait until I was in a safe place (and personally I need to calm down). It’s pretty hit or miss whether it’s approved, so not unexpected. If I do go again, I think I will go with the tourist visa and work with a company.

  2. Maria

    Wow! I heard of visa problems and I must admit it’s such a typical behavior for Turkmen authority. It’s such a shame for me as a citizen of TM to read such things, I’m really sorry for you, Jess. The thing is, the government itself and executives are uneducated and more important they’re disrespectful to those who have no power. Sad that such customs officers represent the whole country. Sad, the government represents the country and the nation. Hopefully, one day everything will change.

    1. jess Post author

      Thanks Maria – I’m certain this experience isn’t representative of all of Turkmenistan and that’s how I’ve been looking at it. That the people I interacted with had no power and I can’t hold that against them. Hope to visit your country on better terms in the future!

  3. Ted

    Damn Jess. You have enough drama for a few chapters in a book if you decide to write one. Glad you’re ok. I commented to your mom how dark you looked before you wrote about your tan. Holy crap. Standing in front of trucks to block travel? It’s funny & scary all wrapped together. Wow.

  4. Laia

    Oh my Jess this is a shocking story! I’m not sure I can even imagine how hard these days have been for you… and I admire you for being able to see the good things that happened – being helped, making friends, learning to exchange.
    Wish you a safe trip.

    1. jess Post author

      Thanks for the well wishes! And as a traveler I think you know just as well as I do that we have to see the good side or we’d never go anywhere 😉

  5. Maja

    I saw your call for help in some of travel groups few days back. It is awful what happened, I am happy you are safe and sound now!

  6. Daniela N

    Mildly put: HOLY SHT
    If I were you I don`t I could have survive with so much grace (maybe grace is not the proper word haha) and I would have definitely cry on anger and stress few times.
    I know there are nice people everywhere, I met some of them myself and yet never on the border between two countries!
    Be safe and good luck!

  7. Jon

    Wow, what a story!! And in the end you give tips so that others won’t suffer the same fate.. I’m glad you learned and grew from this and.. man I don’t know if I want to visit Turkmenistan now (or if I ever really did, or i Had even thought of that country in the last 6 months)

    1. jess Post author

      Yeah, I’m not rushing back anytime soon. But I also don’t want to let some powerless border guards be my impression of a country. So will have to see sometime in the future (with a secured visa ahead of time!).

  8. Karin

    Thumbs up for you keeping your enthousiasm for visiting the country in the future 😉 for me i think the period would be the worst part. Always comes when less needed. However, thanks for summing up the information in the end, i might travel there at some point so that’s useful! Still, their transit visa policy must be really strange.

  9. Hannah

    Ah jeez….always an adventure eh? I have to say as much as it was SUPER SHIT at the time (seriously I felt so bad for you reading this) it does make a brilliant story 😉 keep on adventuring!

  10. Kathy

    Wow. The silver lining to this is you’ve become a fucking silver back gorilla. You are super strong and nobody can take that away from you. I’m in tears over here reading this because I couldn’t EMOTIONALLY handle ALL OF THAT. I’m a need-to-be-in-control person 99.9% of the time. So happy you are ok. Thanks for spreading your story and your tips. Hopefully, the next traveler traverses more successfully because of your experience. xoxox Take care girl!

  11. Tracy

    Holy cow. This is the makings of an interesting movie scene. So glad you are OK now. And also, how amazing that people were rallying around you who you just met. Humanity. <3