How To Drive In India (And Not Die)

India‘s vast geography is a canvas for adventure, but such a big country invariably poses transportation difficulties. The solution to long distance travel in India has generally fallen under the purview of the country’s iconic railway network. In spite of delays and crowds, the train is the best way to see India.

Some might notice India’s ever-expanding road network and be tempted to hop behind the wheel. They might have visions of the open road, quaint towns and beautiful countryside, a trip unconstrained by bus or train schedules – a Kerouac experience for the yogic set.

I had similar thoughts before I entered India last year after driving there via Europe and the Middle East. I had seen the video of crazy Indian intersection below, and I naively assumed that type of scene would be rare. Then I spent two months driving from Amritsar to Kolkata covering almost 2,000 miles on back roads, high roads, trunk roads, city roads, mountain roads and paths that should be ashamed to call themselves roads. About 5% of the driving was sublime. The remainder was a grueling mental and physical test – less Kerouac, more “Mad Max.” I loved a lot of things about India, but driving was not one of them.

So my first piece of advice for driving in India: Don’t.

But if you’re the adventurous type, and you’re going to do it anyway, you need to know a couple things to survive that asphalt jungle. I lived to tell the tale, and I pass on this knowledge so that you don’t become one of the 140,000 people that are killed in road accidents in India every year.

With the type of chaos on display in the video below, it might be assumed that there are umpteen rules, unwritten and otherwise, that every driver strictly adheres to. In fact, there are only two:
Rule 1: Don’t Hit Anything.
Rule 2: Don’t Get Hit.

Straightforward, isn’t it? But as the Japanese say, the reverse side also has a reverse side. Beneath these simple precepts lie several conventions that are indeed unwritten, which allow for traffic to function normally. None of these practical guidelines bear any of the hallmarks of normal rules or laws, like standardization, adherence or enforcement. Consider them to be broad suggestions on how to not die on Indian roads.

Rule 1 is important because the last thing you want to do in India is crash into someone. While mob justice is rare, insurance and liability are a huge worry. Follow these four guidelines to ensure you don’t cause a diplomatic incident.

Praxis 1.1: Drivers only see what’s in front of them.
Indian drivers are forward-looking people in one very literal way. Under no circumstances should you assume that anyone will check their mirrors, if they have them. Drivers of cars and transport trucks alike will brake and swerve willy-nilly like a Camaro in a car chase. Anything behind their peripheral vision is not pertinent, and for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist. If you cream someone who swerves into your lane at the last minute, that’s your fault, bucko.

Corollary 1.1.1: All mirrors are vanity mirrors.
Corollary 1.1.2: Whoever is behind, even by an inch, is always at fault in a crash.
Corollary 1.1.3: Don’t assume that vehicles have the same safety features as yours, like mirrors, airbags or working brakes.

Praxis 1.2: Be ready to brake.
On the road in India, remember the Boy Scout motto. Never assume that a gap in front of you will stay clear, or that there won’t be an impromptu cricket match after a blind turn on a mountain road. Be prepared. As I was driving on the four-lane divided highway from Agra to Varanasi, I rounded a long bend to find two extremely drowsy cows blocking both lanes. I hauled the car down from 70 mph to 0 with inches to spare. The cows were unperturbed by my horn and I had to slowly creep forward until a light kiss from my bull bars made them get up and move, like a couple of unimpressed teenagers.

Corollary 1.2.1: Animals are everywhere.
Corollary 1.2.2: You can get 7 years in prison for killing a cow.

Praxis 1.3: Use your horn at all times.
Timid foreigners driving in India are at first reticent to use the horn, which back home is deployed only in extreme cases of grievance or impending danger. Since every minute on the road in India is an extreme case of grievance or impending danger, it’s imperative to use the horn liberally and confidently. In addition to establishing dominance, you’ll learn a horn has many other uses, among them relieving boredom, filling awkward silences, breaking up cricket matches and waking cows.

Corollary 1.3.1: The louder the horn, the more important you are. Bonus if it plays a melody.
Corollary 1.3.2: False flag operations, where tiny hatchbacks use foghorns to part traffic, are not unheard of.

Praxis 1.4: Don’t drive at night.
Driving at night is almost a surefire way to hit someone. Until the sun has been well and truly down for several hours, nobody turns on their lights. Then every driver flips on their high beams, utterly blinding oncoming traffic. Humans and other animals are sadly not luminescent, but pedestrians and cows don’t distinguish between night and day when it comes to walking patterns. Just as pedestrians seem to have little sense of the speed of an oncoming vehicle, they also don’t seem to realize they are virtually invisible at night.

Rule 2 is just as important and subtle in its observance. Remember every parent’s pathetically thin defense when faced with lending their car to their teenager? “We’re not worried about you, honey, we’re worried about other drivers.” Were the kids raised in India, this excuse would hold a lot more water.

Avoiding getting hit is less about following any laws, and more of an art or a craft – an instinct, if you will – for avoiding vehicular tragedy. Fortunately, it’s an instinct that can be developed with experience.

Praxis 2.1: Small vehicles make way for large vehicles (Might Makes Right).
Philosophers and historians agree: when Thrasymachus contended that justice remains the domain of the strongest in “The Republic,” he was auguring modern traffic dynamics on the subcontinent. Drivers these days have adopted this ancient maxim. More practically put, that 10-ton truck is going to merge into your lane whether you like it or not.

One night I was inching forward on a jammed two-lane artery road into Haridwar. Several bus drivers who were sick of waiting in our lane simply turned on their musical horns (C1.3.1) and maneuvered into oncoming traffic, high beams flashing. Traffic coming from the other direction parted like a zipper, some vehicles veering into our lane, displacing smaller cars and motorbikes, others nose-diving into the ditch on the other side and bouncing along on their merry way. Point is: move, unless you want to argue the finer points of justice with ol’ Thrasy in the afterlife.

Corollary 2.1.1: Position yourself next to a smaller vehicle for an escape route.
Corollary 2.1.2: Upon a meeting of vehicles of equivalent size, inch forward until one driver yields.

Praxis 2.2: Signage isn’t relevant.
Speed limit? That’s when your car can’t go any faster. Stop sign? Invisibly located behind a tree. Red light? Shmed light. Don’t get hung up on the details like lane markings or “one-way” streets. These are merely road decorations. If you attempt to stop at a red light when everyone is flying through at 40 mph, things will end poorly.

Corollary 2.2.1: Go with the flow.
Corollary 2.2.2: For every sign restricting the weight of a vehicle there will be a smaller vehicle carrying a load as heavy or heavier than the restricted vehicle.

Praxis 2.3: Chill out.
Indian roads are not the place to freak out on somebody. If you get all road rage-y on someone who cuts you off, you’re going to get bashed up.

Here’s an example of how it can go wrong: I was driving into Agra, and vehicles were five abreast on a two-lane road. A little rickshaw hauling about eight people appeared out of a gap beside me and started to worm in between my car and to the left-front of me. Indignant, I moved slightly forward to cut him off (C2.1.2). He squeezed; I inched. Then he gunned his little motor and plowed through, ripping off my front bumper. He stopped and him and all eight of his passengers stared at me. The moment when my mouth was agape, registering my shock, was all the leeway the driver needed. He gave me a little head waggle as if to say, “No hard feelings,” and then lane-split his way down the road.

Another example: at a tollbooth in the country outside of Kolkata, three young men piled into my car. They wanted a ride into the city. At first I protested: my car, in spite of its appearance, was woefully underpowered and the shocks were gone. They simply smiled and wouldn’t leave. I relented. They turned out to be friendly, and I didn’t have to pay any tolls all the way to Kolkata. Also, one of them gave me a samosa.

Point is, if you stick to any principle you have about driving, you will suffer for it. As with all irritants in India, the solution is to take the long view.

Corollary 2.3.1: Every gap is navigable if your vehicle is small enough.
Corollary 2.3.2: Personal space on the road is as abundant as personal space in a crowded Delhi metro car.
Corollary 2.3.3: An accident in India is going to hurt a lot more people than just the driver.
Corollary 2.3.4: All vehicles are pack animals, designed to be worked until their last gasping breath.

Final Advice
If none of this has put you off from driving in India, then you are certainly cut out for it. It is actually sometimes very much worth it. The scenery off the beaten path, especially in the northern mountains, is unparalleled and difficult to access without your own vehicle or a personal tour guide. The apprehensive might parcel out their fate to a local driver who navigates Indian roads on a daily basis, but the thrill-seekers will see to their journey themselves. Just be aware that if you do tackle India like this, you’ll need a vacation when you get back.

N.B. If you are riding a motorcycle, all bets are off.

[Photo Credits: lead photo Bernard-SD; all others Adam Hodge]

10 Big Travel Adventures For 2013

Travel adventures to Denali National Park in AlaskaThough 2013 may only be a few days old, it is never too early to start planning our travels for the year ahead. If you’re looking to put a healthy dose of adventure into your life this year, then Gadling is here to help. We have ten suggestions for big travel adventures that are sure to challenge and delight in the months ahead. These journeys are not for the faint of heart, however, as they will carry you to the very ends of the Earth in pursuit of a true once-in-a-lifetime travel experience.

Backpack Through Denali National Park
Even in the 21st century, Alaska remains a wild and untamed frontier that is quite simply the perfect playground for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travelers alike. At the heart of that beautiful landscape is the incomparable Denali National Park, which is essentially 4.7 million acres filled with breathtaking scenery and spectacular wildlife. Alaska Alpine Adventures offers both seven- and ten-day backpacking excursions into the park, taking travelers across massive glaciers, high into mountain passes and along remote rivers that few people ever see. These trips are a backpacker’s dream come true in one of the last great wildernesses on the planet.

Explore Namibia’s Skeleton Coast
Located along Namibia‘s northern-shores, the Skeleton Coast is so named for the smashed hulls of ships that have washed up on its beaches. More than a thousand vessels have come to rest in those sands, giving the place an otherworldly feeling that is difficult to describe. Desolate, yet incredibly beautiful, the coast is home to an array of wildlife including sea lions, baboons, elephants and even rare black rhinos. The region is inaccessible by land, but several adventure travel companies, including Audley Travel, can arrange for safaris to this remote corner of the world. This is a destination for those who truly want to get away from it all, as it is seldom visited and far from the traditional travel crowd.Travel adventures in the Himalay with Sacred RidesMountain Bike The Himalayas
For decades, one of the staples of adventure travel has been trekking in the Himalaya. But for those looking for a completely different challenge amongst the tallest mountains on the planet, Sacred Rides has a fantastic alternative. The company, which specializes in unique mountain biking tours around the globe, gives travelers the chance to pedal their way through Nepal on a 12-day tour that is truly unique. This adventure takes riders into the remote Mustang Valley, through the shadows of both Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, and into the deepest mountain pass on the planet. Along the way, they’ll catch their breath in ancient Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries and rustic mountain villages.

Whitewater Raft The World
We’ve told you about Mountain Travel Sobek’s amazing new rafting excursion before, but it is so ambitious and grand it’s worth mentioning again. The company’s Six-Continent Whitewater Adventure is unlike any other, offering travelers the ability to experience Class III-IV rapids in California, Ecuador, Spain, Kenya, India and Australia on a single 25-day whirlwind journey. If you’re a fan of whitewater rafting, it simply doesn’t get any bigger or more adventurous than this.

Trek The Atlas Mountains
Already hiked through the Andes, Alps and Himalaya but still find your feet are itching for an adventure? Why not hit the trail in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco? Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains offer unexpectedly rugged routes that wind through verdant valleys, across sparsely populated alpine meadows and over snow-capped summits. Travelers are treated to breathtaking vistas and are welcomed by the friendly locals who inhabit the tiny villages that are sprinkled throughout the region. Explore World Wide offers a variety of travel options to the Atlas Range, including short climbs to the top of the 13,671-foot Toubkal Peak and extended 15-day treks across the region. Like all great hiking excursions, these options provide a good mix of scenic landscapes, physical challenges and unique cultural immersion opportunities.

Learn To Sea Kayak In Patagonia
If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to sea kayak, there are few places on the planet that are better suited to obtain those skills than Patagonia. The incredible wilderness located along the southernmost tip of South America is amongst the most beautiful settings on the planet and it remains an incredibly remote and wild place even today. And who better to train travelers in the art of sea kayaking than the folks at NOLS – the National Outdoor Leadership School. The organization leads a couple of trips to Chile each year where their guests gain paddling skills while traveling through lush rainforests, past towering granite spires and around pristine beaches. Paddlers will encounter plenty of wildlife along the way as well, including sea lions, giant otters, Andean condors and much more. This trip is a mix of equal parts adventure, learning and exploration that lets travelers go home with new skills and a host of wonderful memories.

Travel adventures on the SerengetiTake A Walking Safari Across The Serengeti
The Serengeti is one of those iconic destinations that every adventure traveler should have on their list of places to visit. With its dizzying array of wildlife, it is simply a magical place for animal lovers and naturalists alike. But those looking to experience the traditional safari in a unique way will want to check out the Walk on the Wildside itinerary from the team at Mountain Madness. This trip gets travelers out of the safari vehicle and actually puts them on the rolling savannah on foot. Specially trained guides will keep travelers safe as they spend their days hiking from one campsite to the next, all the while moving amongst vast herds of antelope, wildebeests and zebras, keeping their eyes peeled for elephants and lions along the way. At night they’ll actually camp right on the Serengeti, drifting off to sleep to the sounds of wild animals grazing just outside their tent.

Go Camping In Antarctica
For many, a visit to Antarctica is the ultimate adventure, as the frozen continent is the very definition of the “ends of the Earth.” While there are numerous travel companies that offer cruises to the bottom of the world, not many of them also offer the ability to actually go camping while there. But adventurous travelers looking for the ultimate cold weather camping experience will want to check out the itineraries available from Quark Expeditions. Their Crossing The Circle tour not only offers the option to go kayaking with whales and visit remote penguin colonies, but travelers can actually camp on the Antarctic Peninsula itself. Just be sure to pack a warm sleeping bag and your long underwear.

Climb The Highest Peak In South America
Located in western Argentina, the 22,480-foot Aconcagua is the tallest peak in South America and the highest in the world outside of the Himalaya. Despite its extreme altitude, however, the mountain requires only a few rudimentary technical skills to climb, making it accessible to adventurers who enjoy venturing into thin air. The standard route to the top is essentially a challenging hike requiring about three weeks to complete, including acclimatization and shuttling gear to high camps. The climb also happens to serve as a great training ground for a potential attempt on Everest or other more demanding mountains. The Adventure Consultants are one of the best companies around when it comes to organizing an Aconcagua climb, offering multiple expeditions to the mountain each year and providing top notch service, skills training and guidance. This is the trip for those who have trekked to the summit of Kilimanjaro and are now looking for new high altitude challenge.

The Ultimate African Adventure – Cairo to Cape Town Overland
If you’re looking for the ultimate African experience, it’s tough to beat Intrepid Travel’s amazing Cairo to Cape Town overland adventure. As the name implies, your excursion will begin in Egypt‘s capital city and proceed south to the capital of South Africa. In between, travelers will pass through the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. The trip is an incredible 117 days in length and offers a mix of camping and rustic accommodations. The itinerary features stops in some of the continent’s more vibrant and exciting cities, while also providing plenty of opportunity to encounter Africa’s famous wildlife in a number of fantastic natural settings. If you’re a fan of African travel, it just doesn’t get any better than this. That is, provided you have four months of vacation time saved up.

Hopefully this list has provided you with some ideas for your own big adventures for 2013. Good luck in your travels in the year ahead and enjoy the road.

[Photo Credit: Kent Miller, Kraig Becker]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Illegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 1 of 2)

chinese soldier with maoAfter three months of arduous solo travel along the Silk Road, I was ready to cross my final frontier. I’d been forced to deviate from my plan to travel overland from Cairo to Shanghai, and was on a Xinjiang Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to the Chinese city of Urumchi when a moment of terror washed over me.

While leafing through all of the exotic visas in my passport, I began to recount in my mind all the border shakedowns I’d experienced on the trip. I had been denied entry at the Syrian, Kazakh and Azerbaijani borders, was hit up for bribes at the Moldovan, Turkmen and Georgian frontiers and had almost been refused the privilege of leaving Uzbekistan.

You hear a lot about how we live in an increasingly connected, borderless world where everyone speaks English, believes in free market capitalism and has minty fresh Dentyne breath. But on this trip, taken right after the turn of the millennium, I had encountered a big continent whose borders were patrolled by avaricious officials who washed their uniforms in Barf® brand detergent, ate horse meat pizzas and definitely did not speak English or take American Express.chinese visaRelieved that I was about to navigate the last hurdle with officialdom on a difficult trip, my reverie turned to panic when I discovered a line on my Chinese visa that I hadn’t noticed before. It read:

Enter before 00.05.11

barf detergentIt was May 19, and my heart began to race as I tried to figure out if the enter-by date referred to November 5 or May 11. I realized that I’d been granted the visa at the Chinese consulate in Chicago on February 11, before the start of the trip, and figured that I must have only been given 90 days to enter the country.

I’d never been to China before but knew that authorities there aren’t exactly renowned for their flexibility. Would they detain me? Deport me? Fine me? I had no idea but I was due to meet my girlfriend, Jen, in Shanghai in two weeks. My plan was to spend the fortnight crossing the country by train, with plenty of stops along the way.

The Bishkek-Urumqi flight left only once a week and if I was repatriated to Kyrgyzstan, how would I make it? I had already put our relationship on rocky ground by taking off for four months and feared that if I wasn’t in Shanghai when she arrived, we’d be finished.

As our plane touched down in Urumqi, a city of more than 2 million residents about 4,000 kilometers northwest of Shanghai, a panel above my head came unhinged and dangled from the ceiling in what seemed like a bad omen.

urumqi airportAll of the other passengers pushed and shoved as we made our way toward the passport control except for me. I was in no hurry to meet my fate. I tried to analyze the faces of the Chinese officials at the end of each scrum, but couldn’t decide which way to go as they all looked equally severe and uncompromising.

I felt nauseated when my turn arrived and the uniformed official leafed through my passport, pausing for only a moment to glance at my Chinese visa.

“Weah is yo vee-sah?” he asked, in English.

I pointed out my Chinese visa but he shook his head dismissively.

“This is failed vee-sah”, he said. “I must speak my leader.”

My heart sank as I was escorted away from the passport control area a few minutes later, after the crowds had gone home. A uniformed officer named Akbar, who could not have been more than 21, told me to sit down on the luggage conveyer belt, as there were no other seats.

Akbar, was an ethnic Uighur – a Muslim, Turkic people that once dominated Xinxiang province but now make up less than half its population. He was the lone Uighur working in the airport and said he would serve as my interpreter.

The Chinese are notorious for squashing any notions of independence amongst the Uighurs of Xinxiang, so as I waited to learn my fate I tried to not so subtlety win him over to my side by creating an us against them mentality.

“Is it hard for you, being the only Uighur working here?” I asked, rather clumsily.

“No, we are equal in the army and we are a national protected minority!” he said, defensively.

“But I read that there were some Uighur politicians that were arrested recently,” I said.

“Where did you read this?” he asked.

“In America,” I said.

“And you believe these things?” he asked, looking disgusted.

It was just my luck – I’d been set up with an Uncle Tom Uighur. Just as I was pulling out my photo album of shots from back home as we sat together on the empty airport’s lone luggage belt, three of his colleagues joined us.

The crew looked at my shots of friends, family and Chicago street scenes with rapt attention. I pointed to a photo of my girlfriend and mentioned that I was meeting her in Shanghai and thus would really, really prefer not to be deported.

chinese soldiersAfter what seemed like hours, a gang of more important and nastier looking soldiers beckoned us. The Uncle Tom Uighur and I were led into a room that had cheap folding chairs along the perimeter of its four walls. We sat down and I did a quick head count. There were eleven uniformed officers, all training their eyes on me, the American with the “failed vee-sah.”

One of the officers read me the riot act, in Chinese, and the Uncle Tom Uighur interpreted.

“You have violated our border by trying to enter with a failed visa,” he said. “You cannot enter China with this visa – you are an illegal immigrant.”

I took in what he said along with the flurry of angry sounding Mandarin that filled the room.

“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “I’m not an immigrant; I’m just here for a visit.”

He ignored me and continued.

“You must write down what you have done, and admit that you agree with what I have just said,” he said.

I was elated. It sounded like all they wanted was a confession. If a Cultural Revolution style self-criticism was all they wanted, I was happy to comply.

“What exactly do you want me to write?” I asked, eager to cooperate.

He relayed my question to the others in the room and several of them chimed in, but Akbar’s interpretation skills seemed to be lacking. I could tell by the look on his face that he was confused.

“You must admit to your crime,” he said.

Knowing full well that neither he, nor anyone else would fully understand my confession anyway, I decided to have fun with it.

Dear Xinxiang Frontier Border Control Authority,

“I David Seminara, who arrived on flight 718 from Bishkek, fully admit to the grievous crime of arriving in China a week late. I fully recognize the serious nature of my transgression, and its implications on China’s 1.2 billion citizens, who have no doubt been waiting with baited breath for my arrival. I am sorry if my delayed arrival has in any way jeopardized either Chinese national security or Sino American relations.”

The khaki uniformed guards began passing around the confession and it seemed to please them.

“Now you must sign your name,” Akbar said, thrusting my absurd confession back at me.

I was just about to sign when the thought occurred to me that once I signed a confession they could impose any penalty they liked. Maybe I’d seen too many American movies, but I didn’t want to sign it.

“I’m not signing it until you tell me what the penalty is,” I said.

My refusal seemed to touch off a storm of indignation in the room.

“You must sign, you have a failed visa!” Akbar yelled.

“First I want to know what the penalty is,” I repeated.

The group began to loudly confer for several minutes, and to me, they sounded like thieves arguing over how to split their booty.

“You must pay 1000 yuan ($125) and also you must buy a new visa,” Akbar said.

urumqi airportIn retrospect, the amount of the fine doesn’t seem exorbitant, but at the time, a dorm bed in a Chinese youth hostel cost just 10 yuan, and I was traveling on a razor thin budget, so it seemed like a king’s ransom. I assumed that it was negotiable.

“But the visa itself cost only $30,” I argued. “Why should the fine be $125?”

As Akbar interpreted my comment the room exploded in a cacophony of angry sounding Mandarin. My head began to swirl from all the menacing voices. I tried to haggle with them by pointing out that my visa hadn’t expired, claiming penury, and reiterating that I had to meet my girlfriend. I also showed them my plane ticket home, but they were unmoved. Visa applicants are supposed to apply in their home countries, but the Chinese law doesn’t account for people like me who leave the country and are gone for longer than three months before entering China.

I asked to see the amount of my fine in writing and this seemed to whip the room into an even more hostile lather.

“YOU MUST PAY OR GO BACK TO BISHKEK!!” Akbar shouted, clearly exhausted from the exertion of trying to interpret with multiple people talking at the same time.

Minutes later, someone produced a pamphlet, in English, that specified that fines for entering the country with an invalid visa ranged from 500-2000 yuan.

“Fine, how about I pay 500?” I asked, still hoping to save a few bucks.

At this, a young female officer, who had been silent until this point, spoke up, surprisingly, in English.

“Relations between our countries are not good now,” she said. “If a Chinese person tries to enter America with a failed visa he would be fined $500 and put in jail. You are an illegal immigrant – you must pay what we say!”

I asked to call the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but they claimed that the phone in the airport only worked for local calls. Exasperated, I offered to sign the confession and pay the fine, but Akbar and the gang weren’t done with me yet.

“You have to wait until Monday to get your new visa because the office in Urumqi is already closed today, and it is not open on the weekend,” he said.

urumqi airportIt was Friday afternoon at about 3 p.m. and I had no idea what they were going to do with me. The officers filed out of the interrogation room and I was told to sit back down on the conveyor belt. I had no idea who had my passport or what was going on until a portly man from Xinjiang Airlines approached us.

“We made a mistake allowing you to board the flight with a failed visa,” he explained, in English. “Since it was our fault, you will be our guest this weekend.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly wondering if perhaps my luck was turning.

“You will pay your fine and get a new visa on Monday but for the weekend, you will stay at the airport hotel and we will pay for your room and meals,” he said.

This sounded like a pretty good deal until I found out that the airport hotel was 40 km outside of town, in walking distance to nothing. I told them I’d pay for my own room in town, but they said it would be impossible for me to check in anywhere without a passport.

“Am I allowed to leave the city?” I asked. ” I planed to travel to the Heavenly Lake.”

“No, well, not really,” he said, clearly waffling.

I took that to mean that I was free to do as I pleased but without a passport, my options would be severely limited. As we walked out of the empty terminal toward the hotel, the reality of the situation began to sink in. I was spending my first night in China as a passport-less “illegal immigrant” under a kind of loose house arrest. What did the Chinese authorities have in store for me?

Read the final part to this story here

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.

[Photo credits: Ed-Meister, Upyernoz, Marc Van der Chijs, Isaac Mao, Eugene Kaspersky, Toasterhead, and Cornfed 1975 on Flickr]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Final Part

bukharaRead parts one, two, three and four of this story.

I said a tentative goodbye to Marina, not knowing whether she wanted to lose me or not. I didn’t have the mental capacity to deal with the chaos and uncertainty of a new place, so I was pleased when Marina said we should share a taxi into town. But before we could leave the station, two soldiers at the exit tried to shake me down.

Marina managed to shake them off and we hopped into a taxi that, although nameless, looked like a vintage ’57 Chevy. We headed out of the station at an absurdly cautious speed and began rolling through deserted vacant fields when an argument broke out between the driver and Marina. I had no idea what was going on, but Marina said it was just a disagreement over what route we’d take.

I couldn’t help but fear that perhaps they were planning to rob me and were having a spat over who would get what. I had expected an ancient Silk Road city like Bukhara to have a small city plan, with an old center right near the train station. Yet either I had thought wrong or I was being taken to a field to be slaughtered.soviet apartment blockAfter about 15 minutes of driving through a barren wasteland, we pulled up in front of a dismal, Soviet era housing project that arose almost out of nowhere amidst a backdrop of vacant lots. Malnourished looking children were playing with sticks in front of one of the buildings and a few mangy looking stray dogs were picking through an overflowing trash bin.

I didn’t need to enter Marina’s building for everything to suddenly make perfect sense. I had judged her harshly for prostituting herself in the Middle East but I hadn’t considered the fact that she had grown up in grinding poverty and had no other way to improve her lot in life. Who was I to judge her and the decisions she made? I was also pretty certain that her argument with the taxi driver was over who would get dropped off first. She probably didn’t want me to see where she lived.

Marina got out of the car, and I asked if we could meet up so she could show me around town.

“That probably isn’t a good idea,” she said, much to my chagrin. “But here’s my address, send me a letter, OK?”

And with that she leaned into the cab and gave me a quick, surprising kiss before retreating into her apartment building. I planned to write, but I lost the scrap of paper and couldn’t. As we made our way towards the B & B I had picked in the old town, we passed an inconspicuous looking restaurant called “Italian Pizzeria.”

“Stop the car, STOP please!” I called out.

I paid my fare, grabbed my bag and walked in as images of hulking slices of gooey New York style slices danced in my addled brain. The “Italian Pizzeria” had a ’70s décor complete with swiveling chairs, drawn flowery curtains and a room temperature of about 90. I was the only diner.

“Hello!” called out my young waiter in English.

“You speak English?” I asked, pleasantly surprised.

“Of course!” he replied.

“What kind of pizza is best here?” I asked.

horsemeat“It’s likeabobolihorsemeatpizza,” he said, so fast that I couldn’t understand him.

“Can you repeat that, please?” I asked.

“You know Boboli?” he asked.

“Boboli pizza crust?” I asked, feeling very much like I’d entered the Uzbek Twilight Zone.

“Yes,” he said.

“Wait, how do you know Boboli?” I asked.

“I was an exchange student in North Carolina,” he said.

“I see, well, what did you say was on this Boboli-like pizza?” I asked.

“Horse meat,” he said, smiling broadly.

I’d been warned that horsemeat was considered a staple in Central Asia, yet after a grueling 75-hour death ride with very little food, a Bobolihorsemeatpizza was not precisely what I had in mind.

“I’ll take the Boboli horse meat pizza without the horse meat, OK?”

“You are American?” he asked.

“That’s right,” I admitted.

“I think Americans don’t like horse meat,” he said, smiling.

“I think you’re right,” I conceded.

“But how do they know, you never have eat it I think,” he said.

I was in no mood for a discussion on the merits of horsemeat, I just wanted a goddamn pizza and eventually I got one, for 600 som, or less than $1. I paid for the pizza with a U.S. dollar and wondered if any pizzerias in the U.S. would accept Uzbek som.

Feeling much better with some food in my belly, I set off towards the old town, looking for a place called Sasha’s B & B. It turned out to be an ornately decorated old place with two levels looking onto a serene courtyard. (see photo of the author at Sasha’s below) I had decided sometime shortly after I’d discovered the turd on the toilet back on the Exile Express that I would splurge on accommodation when and if I reached Bukhara.

sasha's bukharaI hadn’t defined what “splurge” meant, but since I was spending only about $3-$10 per night on accommodation, I envisioned forking out something more than that. I was shown a room that looked fit for Genghis Khan himself. It was ornately decked out with fabulous Bukhara rugs, a big bed with a hand-caved headboard that would have sold for $8,000 in a SoHo furniture shop and a fancy TV set.

“How much?” I asked, fully expecting the woman to say something like “4 billion som.”

“Twenty dollars” she said.

It was a bargain, but in three months on the road, I’d never spent more than $15 per night, so I hesitated. The woman saw me vacillating and added, “If that’s too much we have basic rooms across the street for $10.”

I didn’t want a basic room; I wanted the kind of room a sultan who travels with a harem would occupy if he were in town. Yet, for some odd reason I couldn’t permit myself this little luxury. It seemed extravagant, gluttonous, and unnecessary.

“I’ll take the more basic room for ten,” I said.

In speaking those words, I felt like a reluctant groom at a shotgun wedding grudgingly saying, “I do.” And as I headed off to my “basic” room I felt like I’d changed. I’d become a man of simple taste.

[Photos by Dave Seminara, sly06, Sarah Lafleur-Vetter, and Adam Baker on Flickr]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part Four

turkmenistan desert camelsRead parts one, two and three of this story.

Day Four

I woke up in a sweat and was told by Marina that we had crossed into Turkmenistan, a country I had no transit visa for. The compartment was a white-hot crucible of heat that was exacerbated by the fact that none of the windows would open.

The train stopped at a dusty little outpost and the conductor, Ermat, already drunk at 10 a.m., came by with a hammer and began smashing out an entire large windowpane. I stepped out onto the platform to take some pictures of the train for posterity and was immediately accosted by a soldier. Marina rushed over and interpreted for me.

“He says you took a picture in a military area – you must give your film,” she said.”But all my pictures of this train trip are on this roll,” I said. “And I just took a shot of the train, not a military area. Tell him I’m keeping it.”

“Dayveed, please give it to him – you will be in trouble!” Marina protested.

Noticing that some kind of brouhaha was taking place, a crowd began to form behind me. After 70-some odd hours on the train I was in a foul mood, and almost didn’t care what happened to me. A small entourage formed behind me as I was asked to follow the soldier into an office in the station.

“Marina, tell him we don’t have time for this, our train could leave,” I protested.

“Just give him the film and we can go,” she pleaded.

“I am NOT giving him my film!” I insisted.

turkmenbashi statueWe were led into a large room where four other soldiers stood around below a framed photo of Turkmenbashi, the country’s mad dictator, who named days of the week and months after he and his mother, and banned opera, ballet and the circus, among other things.

After I refused once more to cough up my film they asked to see my visa for Turkmenistan. I handed them my passport and pointed out my Uzbek visa as well as my ornamental Kazakh one. It seemed logical at the time, but was probably akin to a Guatemalan showing up at Kennedy Airport with Mexican and Canadian visas and demanding to be let in.

“Day-VEED,” Marina said with a greater tone of urgency. “They say you must give them the film or you cannot leave!”

I opened up my camera and pulled out my film, stretching the whole roll in a highly theatrical manner and then spiked it down into a garbage can at one of the soldier’s feet and stormed away leaving the circle of onlookers shocked and speechless.

I stalked out of the office and back towards the train half expecting to be clubbed from behind, or placed into a gulag, but nothing happened. As I sat in my compartment a few witnesses came in and just looked at me as though I were a mental patient, and I began to think that perhaps I would be if we didn’t get to Bukhara soon.

A very well dressed young man who turned out to have been from Tajikistan approached me, and said, in flawless English, “I think you just did a very foolish thing. You have to realize where you are and be more careful. These people will put you in jail – they don’t care if you are American.”

A few hours later, our train passed across the Uzbek border and a couple of moneychangers began working the train. Marina explained that if I changed money at a bank I’d get only 200 Uzbek Som to the dollar, compared to 700 or more with a moneychanger. The rub was that the largest denomination was a 200-som note, so if you wanted to change $100 on the black market, you’d have to be ready to carry a huge bundle of notes. Changing money on the black market was technically illegal, so one needed to be discreet and have a big bag to carry the notes in.

An hour after my neighbors tricked me into believing that we’d arrived in Bukhara, we did in fact pull into the station, but I didn’t believe them until I actually saw Marina alight onto the platform. Aliya and Dima, who seemed like a married couple by this point in the trip, still had several hours to go until Tashkent, but joined us out on the platform to see us off.

I felt utterly exhausted, like some starving, island castaway who’d just been rescued. We had boarded the train on Monday at 11:30 a.m. and it was 3:40 p.m. on Thursday as we arrived in Bukhara. We had spent almost a full workweek on board.

I wasn’t sure whether Marina was going to share a cab with me into town or if she didn’t ever want to see me again. Dima and Aliya hugged me goodbye, and I felt like I’d miss them. I hardly knew them, but I felt as though we’d been through a terrible ordeal together. Aliya, who had the top button of her Al Pacino Couture jeans unbuttoned, Al Bundy style, said, “Dayveed, can you fax me a visa to America?”

“Fax you a visa?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, I want to come to America – Cal-eee-forn-ya.”

This is a five part series that will run in installments this week. Check back tomorrow for the final part of this story.

Read part one, two and three.

Click here for the final part to this story.

[Photos by peretzp and David Stanley on Flickr]