CIS Registration woes I: Uzbekistan
Some are kind and Samarkand
Initially, our planned route had us venturing through Uzbekistan twice. First we would enter somewhere between southern Kazakhstan and Samarkand, and then we'd exit near Penjikent in Tajikistan. Then, after riding north near Khojand, our plan was to then re-enter Uzbekistan in the Ferghana valley during the Islamic month of Ramadan, ride around for a month, and then exit to Osh (Kyrgyzstan).
This plan, from the start, proved some difficulty. As you may be aware, CIS visas sometimes require a Letter of Invitation (LOI; or Letter of Support, or Visa Support Letter) to be obtained by a local firm at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the given country. For Uzbekistan, we had a travel firm in Tashkent (we will not name the firm here), personally apply for a Visa Support Letter (VSL) for a 3-month dual-entry Uzbekistan visa for us, however even they could not acquire anything beyond a 30-day single-entry VSL for us. The MFA told them that we would have to get our second visa at the embassy in Dushanbe when we went to Tajikistan after our first visit into Uzbekistan.
The other point here is that unlike the China visa, the Uzbekistan visa gives you a 30 day window within which you can enter and exit. Therefore if you enter later than your first validity date, you will get less than 30 days in the country. Also, land border crossings often close without warning and sometimes for several days, so to be safe, you should make your first exit attempt a few days prior to the end of your visa. In other words, be careful with which dates you choose for your visa, and don’t expect to be able to use all of the days.
After obtaining our LOI, the next challenge was the visa itself. When doing slow cycle touring through CIS countries you also must factor in the earliest dates possible to apply for said visas, which will vary considerably between embassies. There are no CIS embassies or consuls in Australia, so posting off to another country was always our only option. After a lot of asking around, we found that the cluster of CIS embassies in London would be our best opportunity for obtaining the visas in the right time prior to our departure for Kazakhstan on April 21. The Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan embassies were the tightest for visa processing, as they each could not issue a visa more than about (again, a vague law) 4-6 weeks prior to the first date of validity. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were a bit more relaxed and we could get those about 3 months in advance. So in March, we sent our passports and photos off to TravCour in London to handle all our applications.
With this we also emailed through the copy of our VSL for the Uzbekistan visa. On it was clearly stated that the purpose of visit was Tourism. Then, when we received the visas from TravCour, they quoted us as having purchased Tourist visas for Uzbekistan, so we believed we had Tourist visas. Later, at an inappropriate time, we learned that the Type B-2 code written on our visas indicated that we actually had Business visas.
Before we entered Uzbekistan we believed that Tourist visa regulations state that we must register within 3 days (or on the safe side, 72 hours) of entering the country, and then at that registration desk we would get the latest information about when we would next need to register. We also understood that we would need to register at an address if we stayed 3 days or more at any one address.
After entering Uzbekistan at the Tselina post (on the now disused Tashkent-Samarkand highway, it is now a pedestrian-only border post, date 5/7/09) we went to the Gagarin passportny stol within 72 hours of entering to try to register there. Accompanying us was the man whose house we were staying at (Tolik)
In the passportny stol office, the migration officer first told us that we must go to Jizzakh OVIR, 70 km away, to register, and that we could not register at that office. He was very friendly, polite, and helpful at this stage.
There was then a series of events. Firstly, the officer took a closer inspection of our visas. Next, our friend threw in the word "journalist" (it's the same in Russian) when he was describing what we were doing in the country (we had told him that our pictures etc. would go in a magazine). As soon as the police officer heard this word, his demeanor changed. Then, the officer called his superior to ask what to do with us, telling him we were journalists. Unfortunately Tolik did not speak Uzbek and could not understand what the officer was saying on the phone.
After the officer got off the phone, his story changed. He told us to go to Samarkand instead to register, and it wouldn't matter when we turned up, as long as it was before the end of the visa. We clarified this with him over and over, and he kept saying that there would be no problem. He was very blunt and rude at this stage, not answering any of our questions at all. He ordered us out of his office, refusing to talk to us anymore, and sending us to Samarkand.
We left the office a bit confused, but he refused to register us so we didn't know what else we could do. We just took his word for it, since he was growing increasingly aggressive and adamant that he would not register us there, and that we had to leave.
Along the way to Samarkand we stopped in at Pakhtakor and had our good expedition watch stolen there. We stayed there for 3 days while the police tried to locate it for us, but they had no luck. During our stay there the Pakhtakor police also took down all the details of our passports and visas and it was translated to us that we had indeed been registered there, but since we had no extra stamp or slip in our passport afterward we didn't believe that we had been registered.
We explained to the police there that we needed to get to Samarkand several days before the end of our visa, which was approaching fast, so he ordered a truck to take us there fast as compensation for the time we had lost in Pakhtakor waiting for our watch to re-appear. The officer we were in direct contact with was the head of the investigative unit of Jizzakh Oblast police. (He was very nice to us!)
We arrived at the Samarkand Oblast border by truck late at night, and the Big-wig Jizzakh Oblast police officer had told us that we would be able to set up our tent there and camp the night before riding into the city the next morning, as it would be a safe place to set up camp with all the police around. The policemen that were physically at the Oblast border were not at all compliant with this, and after holding us for a while (they also inspected our passports and visas several times over) and yelling at the Big-wig Jizzakh Oblast police officer over the phone, they instructed the truck to take us to a certain hotel in town. As it turned out, we were forced to stay at the 3rd most expensive hotel in Samarkand for the night. But the upside of this was that we would at least be able to get them to register our passport for us.
Regal Palace hotel registered our passports without a problem (16th-17th July 2009).
The next afternoon we rode into town and met a man, Dima, a bike enthusiast. He took us to his place to stay there, and he said we would need to register at his address the next day. We didn't go that same day to register because he needed to work (at the hospital, he was a doctor). By the time we went to the passportny stol on Saturday afternoon it was closed for the day (nb. we later found out that we went to the wrong office at that time, so perhaps OVIR was actually open then).
On the Monday, 9am, we went to the correct OVIR office with an interpreter, Shamil. (Shamil knew all the rules, knew which office to go to, and was an official English interpreter, but had been in Tajikistan the previous few days and that's why he hadn't helped us the few days earlier). There, we met an officer named Dila who handled our case.
This is where we found out we had a business visa not a tourist visa, and there were even stricter regulations for registration of business visas.
First, the figure of $1500 USD each was quoted as the fine. Then, thanks to some smooth talking by Shamil, they said we could simply move on to Tajikistan instead, without a fine.
We tried to explain our story of the Gagarin police officer to Dila. She tried to tell us that Gagarin was actually in Kazakhstan and that's why we had wrong information from that officer. We insisted that no, Gagarin is in Uzbekistan and the officers were all wearing green uniforms like her's, and we even showed her on our map that Gagarin is in Uzbekistan.
Next she suggested that we'd consulted the wrong person at the station, that perhaps we'd just spoken to someone in the hallway who was pretending to be police. But again we insisted that we had been in his office at the desk and he was definitely the migration officer.
Next she suggested that it was a translation problem. But again, we insisted it wasn't, because our friend Tolik spoke Russian and had read our documents and knew what we were doing (and we knew a bit of Russian ourselves too). Also, the officer had said to us: Samarkand, 20 July, first registration, no problem. This we can understand in Russian.
Next was the process of the paperwork. The first document was one stating that we agreed to voluntarily leave Uzbekistan within 72 hours. But we refused to sign this document, as we didn't have our passports back and didn't know when they'd give them to us, and if we signed it we'd be setting ourselves up for another fine.
The second document was a statement, hand-written by Shamil in Russian, of what had happened and how it eventuated that we were so many days late with our registration. We signed this document.
The third document was a form, which we have the serial numbers for. It said that all these problems were our fault and that we have read the law and now understand it. We did not want to sign this form because we still had not been explained the law and we did not believe it was our fault. Roger wanted to write in about how we had been misinformed by the Gagarin police but Dila didn't want anything bad written about the police so she threatened to deport us to Australia. Roger then changed what he was writing to what she wanted us to write and then she said it was just a joke, and we would not be deported to Australia.
We were refused photocopies of all these forms.
We have a copy of the excerpt of the registration laws now, but it does not state the law clearly – it just says "place", not Oblast or country or any place with a defined border. Dila said it meant Oblast, but who knows whether that is the law or not. According to this interpretation, it is possible to travel throughout Uzbekistan indefinitely without registration, as long as you change Oblast very frequently. We doubt that this interpretation of the law would hold up at the border.
Business visa registration required proper documentation sent through from the local Uzbekistan travel firm to the Gagarin police office, and yes we could've registered there if we'd had that form. We had never seen this form before and had certainly not been told to take it with us to any migration office.
There was also some mention that business visas require registration for every 3rd day, no matter if you are changing Oblast every night. Also, there was mention that business visa holders must ONLY stay in hotels, and must have every night accounted for at a hotel.
Throughout these three days that Samarkand OVIR held us at their office, they had confiscated our passports. They said that they were being held for processing – getting stamped and such. We asked about this stamp, and Dila explained to us many times that it was not a deport stamp. She said that it indicated that we were leaving the country voluntarily due to breach of stay regulation. She said that we were allowed to apply for and receive a new visa for Uzbekistan immediately after exiting, and that we could re-enter without a problem. However, should we breach a single law in any way in the next 12 months, we would face much bigger fines and consequences. Our friend in Tajikistan (who has a lot of experience with Uzb visas etc.) took one look at our stamp and said that we have very low chances of a successful visa application in Dushanbe, so for all intents and purposes, this was a deport stamp. And from our experience, we knew that we had even lower chances of going through Uzbekistan without being picked up for doing something wrong (especially with this new stamp on the passport!) and so we didn't want to try to re-enter Uzbekistan.
Samarkand OVIR held our passports from Monday morning 20th July and the passports were only handed back to us after we had officially left the country (with exit stamp) on 23rd July. We had avoided calling the embassy because we were advised that our removal to Tajikistan without fine was a good solution, and that worse solutions could involve deport to Australia or enforcement of this massive fine. It appeared to us that Samarkand OVIR had completed its paperwork on July 22 and were now ready to get rid of us. On the afternoon of 22nd July we were at the Samarkand OVIR office and Dila was instructing us to leave right then. We explained that it would take a while for us to pack up our things, load the bike onto a car safely, and then if we crossed the border that day we would arrive very late into Tajikistan and would not have enough time to find a safe place to spend the night. Because we were arguing with her, Dila started saying that the armed soldiers would come and take us to the border in handcuffs. So we decided that this was the point that we should involve the embassy.
We called the British embassy (Tashkent) and once we had them on the line, Dila backed off and changed her story about the soldiers. The policemen then drove us from OVIR to Dima's house but on the way stopped to find a private taxi with a roof-rack that could drive us and our bike to the border. It was not a police vehicle. It was about 8.30pm when we arrived at Dima's house and we were ordered to pack up our things and leave NOW. The Penjikent border closes at 10 pm and so we knew that we had not enough time to get to the border before then, and feared what they'd do to us if we arrived there and the border was closed. We again called the embassy and they advised us that everything the Uzbekistan policemen were doing was illegal (passport confiscation, putting us in a private car). The British embassy spoke to the Uzbekistan police officer then too, and then this officer called to his superior, and after this the Uzbekistan police backed off a bit. Soon enough we were told that we did not need to leave that night and instead would go the next morning.
The next morning, we loaded up at 8 am, and drove to the border. Our actual crossing was still a bit stressful since we never had any idea where our passports were, and who had them, until they were handed back to us in no man's land. We had several of the border guards very confused as to what we were doing there at the border without a passport, and since we weren't really sure ourselves, we couldn't give them a good answer. But we made it through virtually hassle-free, and were out of Uzbekistan and breathing a bit easier by late morning.