Organising, coordinating and actually getting visas is one the most problematic, time-consuming and frustrating things about traveling in Central Asia. My visa dramas started in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
From the tranquil valley of Tash Rabat I headed to Bishkek to start organising my visas for the rest of my Central Asian travels. It was a long drive across one of the most mountainous countries in the world. It was surprising to see so many different kinds of mountains along the way. Rocky barren mountains to green grassy mountains to snow-covered steep mountains. It was a real lesson in geography.
The roads were terrible and along the way I often saw horses which for me came to represent Kyrgyzstan and their nomadic past.
After travelling all day I finally arrived in Bishkek. It was far from what I expected. To be honest I’m not entirely sure what I expected but because it used to be part of the USSR I think I thought Bishkek would be a big ex-soviet style city – dreary, big buildings set in a now modern city. What I was forgetting is this is Kyrgyzstan, a country that has strong nomadic traditions and this would’ve been the back-waters of the USSR. So yes, there were ex-soviet buildings everywhere but there were also lots of parks and most of the streets were lined with trees. The city was mostly low-rise, laid-back and low-key. It had a really nice relaxing atmosphere. After some exploring I also discovered there were some lovely little coffee shops, cafes and restaurants.
On my first day in Bishkek I went straight to the Tajikistan embassy to apply for my visa and GBAO permit which is necessary for travelling the Pamir Highway. When planning and looking forward to this trip the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan was a stand out highlight. The second highest highway in the world across high plateaus the locals call it ‘The Roof of the World’. The Pamir Mountains are also one of the key links on the Silk Road and Marco Polo had crossed the Pamirs into China.
First in line at the embassy I was so eager but unfortunately my eagerness was met with disappointing news. Tajikistan’s borders were closed and no visas were being issued until 15 September! What? Which country closes their borders? I’d never heard of such a thing. But Tajikistan had done just that as they were holding the annual summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with Putin and Xi Jinping (the President of China) in attendance.
I considered my options. Wait and apply for my Tajikistan visa on 15 September, but that would mean missing other places further on. Or skip Tajikistan, especially as there was a strong possibility the embassy would be issuing shortened permits to travel the Pamir Highway. After much thought I made the difficult decision to abandon my plans to travel the Pamir Highway and through Tajikistan. I was devastated. It also meant my plans for applying visas was in disarray as I’d been planning to apply for three visas in Tajikistan!!
The next day I scrambled to put together the information I needed to send an agent to apply for the letter of invitation and code which was in turn required to apply for the Uzbekistan and Iran visas (keep an eye out for my upcoming post with tips and info on how to navigate the confusion of applying for visas for the Silk Road/Central Asia).
With the information sent to the agent and the fees paid I now just needed to wait – two weeks for the letter of invitation for Uzbekistan and up to three weeks for the code for Iran. Given the timeframes I decided to make the actual application for my Uzbekistan visa in Bishkek and apply for my Iranian visa in Uzbekistan.
So with two weeks to fill while waiting to apply for my Uzbekistan visa I set off to explore the mountains of Kyrgyzstan (more on this soon!)
Two weeks later with my travels around Kyrgyzstan complete I headed back to Bishkek. As it was the weekend the Uzbek embassy was closed but a day trip to the stunning Ala-Too Mountains sounded like a fantastic way to pass the time. The Ala-Too Mountains are often visible in the distance while walking around Bishkek and it took only a short taxi ride of half an hour to arrive at the gates of Ala-Archa Canyon.
Snow-capped mountains reared up on either side and more mountains in the distance beckoned me through the valley. I was lucky to have a gorgeous sunny day to accompany my stroll along the valley path.
Back in Bishkek all my documents, including my letter of invitation, were in order and I was ready to apply for my Uzbekistan visa. I just needed to make an appointment to apply. On Monday I called to make the appointment for the next day (which is normally possible without any problems). Unfortunately I was told an appointment wasn’t available until Friday! No amount of pleading could change the embassy’s position. How frustrating!
Despite not having an appointment I decided to try my luck the next day by just turning up. After waiting a couple of hours all people with appointments had been processed and I headed inside. The embassy official was not at all pleased and she soundly told off for not complying with the rules. After telling me off the she disappeared and 15 minutes later returned with my passport and a visa affixed inside. I was triumphant!! I could now travel to Uzbekistan.
I stayed at USSR Hostel in Bishkek. It has a very central location and is set in an old topical Soviet style apartment block, ie. a big concrete box with dingy concrete stairwells. However, inside is two modern apartments which are very comfortable and not at all what you expect from the outside. The owners are also very helpful, although they’re not always at the hostel itself.
To get to Bishkek from within the country it’s best to take a shared taxi or marshrutka (little mini-vans).