CIS Registration woes II: Tajikistan
Hiding in the mountains then some sleight of hand saves us from another fine
We entered Tajikistan on Thursday, the 23rd of July. We arrived in style – police escort via an illegaly commandeered private taxi with the Quike on the roof and our passports confiscated. At the exit gate from Uzbekistan, and entry into no man's land, an officer ordered us to follow him quickly to the Tajikistan side. We had no choice but to oblige because he did, afterall, still hold our passports.
As he was luring us along, a panicked young British lad approached us. He had mixed up his dates and had arranged visas with the final exit day for Uzbekistan one day prior to the first possible entry date for Tajikistan. Oops. Now, he and his girlfriend were bound to camp the night out there in no man's land. He was asking us for a loan of our tent for the night, and he'd return it the next day to us in Penjikent. We really wanted to help him, but if he could only hear out our story he'd have understood why we were frantic to get onto Tajikistani soil. We didn't want to leave a single piece of equipment on the other side. Instead, we tried to call the British embassy for him on our satellite phone but Thuraya service was, yet again, temporarily unavailable (grrrr).
After our woes in Uzbekistan we were anxious about getting all our information and documents correct from the very start in Tajikistan. Upon entry at the border, the guards were very nice to us and didn't care to check through our bags at all. They even wanted to help us fill in our migration cards, but we could see that they were writing in the wrong information, so we had to cut in and correct them. They wanted to write we had Tourist visas but we had to cross it out and write in that we had Business visas. We also asked them about registration and they said we didn’t need to for 30 days. We again re-iterated that we have Business visas and then they told us to register at Penjikent, but they did not sound at all confident when they said this.
The next day we went with our English-speaking host into Penjikent town to register at the police station. On the way we spotted a tourist information office and decided to just quickly ask their advice before we went to the migration desk. There we received confirmation that with our Business visas, we would need registration within 3 days of entering Tajikistan.
We went to Penjikent police station but they refused to register us, but not in the same sinister manner that had occurred in Gagarin, Uzbekistan. Just recently in March (2009) there had been a law change allowing tourists to travel in Tajikistan without registration for 30 days. These police officers knew of this law change and were proudly exclaiming this new good news to us. We corrected them and told them we had Business visas, and they seemed a bit puzzled by this information. They then asked us for what purpose we were in Tajikistan, and we replied “tourists” and so they again gave us the good news that we needn't register there and then.
With a sense of deja vu we tried to nip this problem in the bud and demand registration. However, the officer became increasingly irritated. It was very hot in there, and there were many other people waiting in the queue. Our host was also puzzled as to why we also were not happy at the news that we needn't register, and he too was getting restless and wanted to leave. So we decided to just leave the problem for the time being, and just try again on Monday. Our understanding of the 3-day rule for Tajikistan was that it didn't include Sundays or public holidays (although maybe it does now... who knows?!), so we could still register until Monday.
On Monday we went back to the tourism office to tell them what had transpired on Friday, and it was again confirmed that we needed to register that day, according to the law. We then went back to the police station, the officer this time called his superior and got the news that actually, we needed to register by that day, but in Khojand or Dushanbe only. By that time it was almost midday, and the fastest we could possibly get to either of those cities was via an 8-hour taxi. Therefore, we were bound to our fate of becoming illegal by close of business that day.
We then went back to the tourism office and they gave a few suggestions for our course of action, but in the end decided to palm us off to the local “fixer”, Niyoskol Nematov. At Niyoskol's place we spoke at length with him and his business partner (Saudullo) and they confirmed that we did need that registration that very day in Dushanbe or Khojand, and without it we would be facing a USD 100 fine, each. At this news our faces sunk, and they could tell we'd been through an ordeal. We told them the whole story of all our troubles in Uzbekistan, and they took pity on us. After a bit of deliberation amongst themselves, they came up with a solution. They said we could work for their tourist agency while they fixed our visas. The pay, they said, would be quite bad, compared to what we'd be used to in Australia, but really it was an extraordinary amount to us then. We were prepared to trust in these strangers because without them, we were in big fine territory, and constantly fearing who’d pick us up, and how much they'd fine us.
By that very evening we had returned to the village, packed up all our things, and ridden the Quike back to Niyoskol's place in Penjikent town. We shared dinner with him and some other tourists and then went off to sleep. With no other option, we tried to just relax and have faith that our troubles would be solved by these kind men. Our first day on the job would be the very next day, but we'd have time to pack our things in the morning because Saudullo said the earliest we'd be heading off would be midday. As for our visa problem, Saudullo lined us up to have our passports sent to his son in Dushanbe, who would go and represent us at the OVIR office in the capital.
At 9 am, after wandering out of the room bleary-eyed, we were told that we'd be leaving on an overnight trip up to the 3000+ m mountains within 30 minutes, because the other Australian (a tourist) wanted to leave early. So we had to turn around and very hurriedly pack up our things, safety equipment and all. When we were walking out to the bus we spoke to the other Aussie and apologised for keeping him waiting, and he looked confused. He'd been told the same thing as us – that it was us that wanted to go early, and we were waiting on him! We had a laugh about it this strange joke that had been played on us as we jumped in a big, old, four wheel drive beastily bus, and headed for the hills with our compatriot.
On the way to the Fann mountains we came across a similar beastily old bus that had broken down. Our bus pulled over nearby and then a big group of Czech and Slovakian mountaineers disembarked and climbed aboard our bus. So that's the real reason we'd left early – to pick up the other tour group that had been stranded when their bus had broken down.
From Penjikent, the bus had headed east along the Zerafshan valley toward Ayni, but then about 50 km down the road we turned south onto a side road. This gravel road deteriorated over the next few kilometres and heading deeper into the mountains it became a definitely 4wd only track. We were still passing villages along the way, beautiful old towns with mud-brick houses and eroded steep streets.
The road came to an end at a small village called Artush, and we could see that that site was often used as a base camp for those venturing into the mountains. There we had tea with the local family and then started walking. Our task was to walk up the gully, without any idea of direction since we'd never seen a map, and then at the top in the big two km-wide bowl of lakes, find a man named Askar. We would recognise him as the Tajik guide of a big group of French tourists. When we found him we were to give him a hand-written note from Saudullo. We had no idea what the note said because it was in Tajik, but we knew it was something about us.
The walk up there was amazing, with snow-capped mountains in the distance, a clean blue sky, the temperature gradually dropping to be perfect walking conditions, a rippling stream alongside, pine trees sprouting from the most impossible rockfaces. Occassionaly we would have to step aside to let a loaded group of donkeys past – these animals were employed to haul equipment up for almost all the tour groups there. The track itself was becoming very steep and loose underfoot, and many people cannot walk it whilst carrying a big overnight hiking pack too, so they give it to the donkeys to carry. Along the way we would often stop while a trickles of stones fell across the track into the river gully and we could imagine an unexperienced walker slipping down the same path. We were very surprised when we came across a very old Tajik Babushka coming down from the mountain – complete with traditional robe dress and walking stick!
At the top, first we came across a big bunch of Tajik women of all ages. We had a quick chat with them and found out they were locals who lived up at that camp every summer. They pointed off to the other side of the bowl to where we might find Askar and his group of French tourists.
After a few more misses (turns out that the Fann mountains is a very popular destination for big groups of French tourists), we finally found Askar and gave him the note. He led us to a nice spot to set up our tent and then we went to help out with the food preparations. It was very difficult to get them to let us help, because they could only see us as guests, not workers. But we really needed to learn, and fast, if we were to be hired as mountain guides for the next trip. And we really didn't want to disappoint the man looking after our passports.
The next morning we walked back down with the group, trying to walk alongside Askar and learn the names of the surrounding peaks and any other information that might be useful for a mountain guide to know. By the time we returned to the base camp and drop-off point, we felt confident that we'd be OK guiding a group on that hike. We jumped back in the beasty bus for the ride back to Niyoskol's place, dreaming of our first showers since Uzbekistan.
However when we returned we were in for another surprise. We had hardly the time to sit down before we were told that one of us would be heading back out to the mountains for a 7 day hike, and we had one hour to get ready. Seeing that the group of tourists was just four French girls, who spoke English quite well, we decided that Megan should go. The next day, Roger headed off with a Belgian family of four. We arrived back in Penjikent on August 4. But our passports still had not arrived back from Dushanbe.
While we sat and waited for our passports we met several tourists at Niyoskol's place – another Aussie, some Spanishes, Frenches, Norwegians, some Brits doing the Mongol Rally, and some mountaineers from Lake Baikal in Siberia.
The next day we decided to push the issue of our passports a bit more and we called Saudullo in Dushanbe ourselves. He said that Megan's visa was fine and would be registered for USD 40. But unfortunately, he gave us the news that Roger had a tourist visa and did not need registration so he was not going to try to register it. We tried to explain to him again the situation, but he would hear none of it.
Later we went through the same process with Niyoskol and eventually we convinced him that Roger did need registration. At realising this, Niyoskol became very sorry because by then the registration was VERY late, and even his pulling of strings could not do anything about it. The next day the passports arrived back in Penjikent - Megan's registered, but Roger's not.
Out of luck and out of ideas, we went back to the Penjikent tourism office to ask them for advice. A man there gave us the unofficial advice that we just go on our travels as per usual, and then if anyone picked us up we say that we didn't know it was a Business visa, that we thought it was a Tourist visa. If need be, we could then bribe a registration office or border official near the border, which should be only about USD 30. Then it occurred to us that no police officer had yet correctly read Roger's visa, and they all believe it to be a tourist visa. We decided that we would take advantage of this and try to register Roger's as a tourist visa. However, the problem there was that no-one would register it this far in advance of the 30 day limit.
After a bit of scheming we came up with the plan to tell the Penjikent passport office that we were about to go trekking in the Fann mountains for the next 30 days, so this was the only opportunity to register Roger's “tourist” visa. A man at the office wrote this down for us in a note in Tajik. With this bogus note in hand we marched back to the passport office.
It all went surprisingly smoothly. Although there were a few instances when their eyes were wandering over to the correction stamp that would prove Roger to be illegal, we managed to prevent them actually reading it by momentarily diverting their attention to something else in the room, or asking another question about their family, town, or the mountains. The officers even took a good look at the stamp on the handwritten correction note, noting its detail and which embassy had stamped it, but they appeared to not actually read the note underneath the stamp. They did pick up something fishy when they found that Megan's visa was already registered but Roger's was not. To this, we said that we were independent travellers (not travelling together) and we had met at Niyoskol's guesthouse. We told them that a few days prior Megan had gone to Dushanbe on her own to visit a friend and done her registration there. Now Roger needed to also get his visa registered, and Megan was coming along to help. And so within about half an hour, we managed to get them to fill in all the registration forms without them ever realising that Roger's visa was a Business visa.
The next problem was payment. We took the walk, with police escort, to the local bank branch, but it was closed. We certainly didn't want to have to come back the next day to seal the deal, because perhaps it fall through if they had too much time to think about it. To tackle this we came up with two solutions. First, we said that we needed the registration that very day, as the bus went up to the Fann mountains very early the next morning. Next, we offered them a little extra payment to take the money then and there, and process it themselves at the bank the next morning without us. They were asking for USD 25, but we only had USD 20 plus 28 Tajik Somani (which is about USD 7).
With some smooth talking, a USD 2 bribe, we triumphantly returned to Niyoskol to tell him the good news. He could hardly believe that we'd managed to overcome this problem by ourselves and with such a small bribe. We told him that we'd learned from the best - him. We could tell that he was very relieved to hear that despite him not being able to help us as much as he thought, our encounter with him had worked out alright in the end.
After all that, we ended up successfully negotiating our Tajikistan visa registration. And since all these registration forms are on paper only, and not in networked computers, the guards at the exit border had no way of telling that Roger's visa was incorrectly registered as a tourist visa. It may have cost us an extra USD 17 in bribes, but at least we didn't have to shuttle to Khojand or Dushanbe to get it done! So apart from the extra stress and time spent on the process, we believe we actually came out on top for this one!