Shymkent was just the perfect town to spend an extra day catching up on our blog writing. We had seriously fallen behind with our last published entry going back almost two weeks. After our day trip to Turkistan, we spent an extra day holed up in our hotel room (except for a brief afternoon visit to the bazaar) furiously writing our Kyrgyzstan blog entries. The lack of internet connection at the hotel delayed their publishing but we were able to work without distractions.
Then it was time to make the dreaded Chernyaevka crossing into Uzbekistan. The 100 km stretch of desert from Shymkent to the border was covered without incident on a marshrutka that surprisingly only cost half of what we were expecting based on a dry run the previous day. It was also a breeze to walk through the Kazakhstan exit and customs except for the typical attempt by local women to cut in line ahead of you. We had heard of this practice but it was amusing to see it happen in person. Even though we were not severely inconvenienced, we did make an attempt to communicate to the offenders that they were invading our space. We only got shy, evasive smiles in response.
Once past the Kazakh exit gate and into the Uzbekistan area, we encountered the phenomenon that has been recounted in a lot of forum posts. The complete absence of civic mindedness coupled with official incompetence compounded with indifference. First, you find yourself behind a mass of people (calling it a queue would be incorrect) in a state of flux as the more aggressive ones are always trying to get ahead of the meeker ones. This mass is barricaded by a group of officials who communicate with a radio with another group of officials "managing" another such "queue" which can be seen 50m away across an open courtyard. People are let out of both "queues" in short bursts. Those who get past the first queue scamper across the courtyard and then try to get as far ahead in the first queue as they can. The officials overseeing both queues are perenially engaged in shouting matches with someone in the queue (usually a older woman). Ill tempered babies are an unexpected boon as this gives the holding parent the right to legitimately demand a better position in the queue. The second queue includes a ramp with a switchback which provides plenty of opportunity for many to literally "jump" ahead in the queue. The sight of grown ups (men and women) who emerge from the first queue, scamper across the courtyard and then launch themselves at the switchback like high jumpers while those whose places they just usurped watch helplessly would have been comical were it not for the fact that you also happen to be one of the laggards. This second queue builds up until release comes every 10 minutes or so when the gate is opened at the head, followed by a mad rush that resembles a sheep herd crossing a road. After a couple of such releases, we found ourselves at the same position with no progress. Concerned at this, we moved away and managed to deposit our heavy backpacks on the platform at the head of the queue (despite discouragement from the officials).
V tried a different angle of attack, trying to convert our weakness into a strength. He approached the most senior looking official and got his attention with "Anyone speak English, here?". After some brief nudges among the officials, one of them was volunteered to deal with V. "We are foreigners who cannot deal with this situation. Can you let us through?". This elicited some sympathy and he said "One moment, please!" and walked away. Neither he nor the moment materialized. The locals chuckled and kept repeating "Moment, please!" in amusement.
Helped by a dose of adrenalin and lunchtime hunger, we managed to convince ourselves that we were sheep and pushed hard at the mass of humanity in front of us at the next two "releases" and miraculously found ourselves ahead of those even meeker than us. This continuous state of flux imposed its own system of ranking that was a combination of aggressiveness and nimbleness. The amount of time you spend there reflects your own worthiness in terms of these attributes. Of course, possession of a bawling infant gets you some bonus points. Within a quarter hour, M was a good 5 feet ahead of V with a good chunk of Uzbek-Kazakh humanity between them. V had to elevate himself off the ground and hang on to the iron railing with his hands while his toes rested on the ledge. He held on like this till the next "release" when he executed a very deft maneuver around a large suitcase to gain a few yards. Ardent fans of the NFL may have fared a little better, but this was stuff to write home about. Once past the switchback, one had no control of one's movements as the mob pressure simply forced us forward. V suddenly found himself 3 feet away from the gate when M managed to get through. After some yelling, pushing and shoving, the official saw that he had separated a family and let V through.
Inside the building, the story changed completely. V found that M had made her way to the very top of the inner queue due to yet another "weakness". Since the customs forms are in Uzbek only, one of the officials saw that she was a foreigner and offered to help her filling it out. Of course, we were wary of scams in Uzbekistan where a "fee" is demanded for this service. But on this day, no such demand was made.
Then came the moment we had been waiting anxiously for ever since we got the Uzbekistan visa in New Delhi. The consul there had mistakenly issued single entry visas despite our application for dual entry. At our persistent urging (through the intermediary of a Tamil speaking chowkidar at the embassy gate), he had handwritten a correction with an endorsing signature on the visa. Would the official in front of us honor the handwritten correction? The official examined it carefully, looked at us and pointed at the correction "Two entries?". We nodded and said "New Delhi consul mistake". He nodded, stamped the second entry and let us through. Within minutes, the customs forms were fully filled and we were through the X-ray machines and out on the street. The entire ordeal had lasted a mere 100 minutes. But since we had gained an hour in entering Uzbekistan, it had technically only lasted 40 minutes. Well, kind of. Ok, let it go.
The border post is on the outskirts of Tashkent city and is just minutes away by taxi from a metro station. We waded through waves of taxi offers that went from 50,000 UZS down to 4000 UZS. Once on the metro, we felt right at home! Back in Tashkent with a weekend to spend and another visa (Azerbaijan) to hunt for.
Oh come on - that was a pretty cool affair. I've had similar 100 minutes experience at Heathrow !!! Surely a little pushing and shoving can't be all that bad - you've simply got to push and shove harder :):)
Just kidding. Land crossings are always scary, especially if you can't speak the language.
Westwards Ho ! From , on Oct 5, 2012 at 12:26PM
is metro that good. come on.. hope u r having some fun. From, on Oct 10, 2012 at 12:21AM
@Ramesh: The earlier land border crossings on this trip have been very salubrious affairs as documented in this blog. The pity about this crossing is that this was a needless stampede. A little bit of thoughtfulness (like shown by Mumbaikars in BEST bus stops) would make it a lot easier for these folks. We were only going to do this once, but the locals do this regularly. They need to make their lives better for themselves. From, on Oct 13, 2012 at 03:43AM
reminds me of colg days when you want to get tickets on first day first shows for superstar movie releases....
hope you guys are doing fine and having fun..
nice blogs! From , on Oct 15, 2012 at 10:49PM