The former Soviet satellite state underwent a dramatic architectural transformation after independence under the leadership of the authoritarian “President for Life” Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006. Concrete soviet blocks were razed and replaced with marble-clad government buildings and housing complexes in a garish display of Turkmenistan’s immense natural gas wealth.
Niyazov’s successor, Gurganguly Berdymukhamedov, attached himself to the record by adding the honorific “Distinguished Architect of Turkmenistan” to his current list of titles.
The Guinness website says that if laid out flat there would be over 10 square feet of marble for every 50 square feet of land in the city. In 2013 Turkmenistan was ranked the fifth most miserable country in the world.
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.After 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.
“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.
I 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.
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.
We 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.
On my third morning on board an increasingly hellish train ride, I found a fully intact piece of excrement resting on the train’s only toilet seat I could get to. It seemed not to have been an accident; in fact, the feces looked as though it was carefully placed there by some very malicious, or very inaccurate person. I marched down towards car number one to talk to my Western compatriots, Brian and Sherry. Now it was my turn to be outraged. But Brian thought it was hysterical.
“You know they stand on top of the seat,” he said, chuckling. “It’s just not an accurate way to go to the bathroom.”
I had been eating Chips Ahoy, a box of cereal and some noodles I brought on board with me but decided I should probably fast for the rest of the trip to avoid having to move my bowels in the appalling bathroom.
Aside from the fecally ornamented bathroom, the train was becoming even more nasty and unbearable. Ermat, the conductor, dropped by to chat, brandishing a bottle of cheap vodka, around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. He was already piss drunk and sweating profusely. We were passing through the massive Kyzyl Kum Desert and the train was sweltering. He was a diminutive, balding man with too many buttons undone on his short-sleeved uniform shirt.I did a few shots with him and the rest of the gang in my compartment just to be sociable and Ermat began to recall his days as a Russian soldier in Afghanistan in the ’80s.
“He wants to tell you about some battle but I don’t understand him very well because he’s too drunk,” Marina complained.
Undeterred, Ermat took matters into his own hands, drawing a map on the bunk’s tattered blanket with his finger and repeatedly pointing to a spot and emphatically declaring “Jalalabad” over and over again.
“He says that out of 500 men at this place, over 300 were lost and for nothing,” Marina said, grudgingly playing the role of interpreter.
Ermat started crying like a baby and half-keeled over onto Aliya’s lap. She looked disgusted initially but eventually took pity on him by stroking his head. I tried to change the subject by asking him when we’d arrive in Bukhara, but he had no clue.
“It could be tomorrow,” he said.
“It could be?” I asked. “But it might not be?”
I never got a straight answer and eventually Ermat left for a nap. The conversation turned to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I opined that the Russians shouldn’t have invaded to begin with and Dima immediately pounced.
“Why did the Americans invade Vietnam?” he said, springing to attention from his top bunk.
“That was different,” was the only response I could muster in my increasingly inebriated state of mind.
Outside the train was an endless vista of flat desert boredom; think of the Indiana toll road without the radar toting Gestapo or unlimited breadsticks at Fazoli’s. After determining that the piece of excrement was still safely perched on the toilet seat, I hopped up onto my bunk and dove back into the book I’d been reading – Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which seemed to fit the occasion.
Dostoevsky had been forced to endure five years of military service (after five years in a convict prison in Siberia) in Semey, Kazakhstan, for his revolutionary activities and judging from what I could see out the window, his punishment definitely did not fit the crime. It’s fascinating to note the grave frame of mind Dostoevsky was in at the time he wrote what was to become his most acclaimed novel. A lifelong roulette addict, he was always in debt, looking for a way out.
According to Bruce Lincoln’s “Between Heaven and Hell- The Story of a Thousand Years of Artistic Life in Russia,” Dostoyevsky managed to gamble away most of his wife’s jewelry, her fur coat and her wedding ring.
My fortunes didn’t seem to be much brighter. The heat had sapped all my energy; I was starving and was beginning to hate the sound of Aliya’s voice. Just as a cockroach scurried up my thigh and right into my shorts, two hefty women who were perched on sacks of rice on the floor outside knocked and asked to see my passport.
The older of the two women who had a thick moustache and dazzling electric blue eyes took it from me reverentially with two hands as though she were receiving a diploma.
“Day- veed- Sem- ee- Nar- Ah,” she said, reading aloud, and doing a better job of pronouncing my surname than 95% of American telemarketers.
As night fell on the third day aboard the Bedbug-n-Cockroach, Hookers-n-Drunken Afghan War Veteran Conductor Express to Tashkent I asked my compartment neighbors about Uzbekistan’s notoriously corrupt and autocratic leader, Islam Karimov; I was curious to know how three young people felt about him.
Marina was characteristically tight-lipped.
“Karimov is good,” she said.
“Good in what way?” I asked.
“He’s good,” she said. “Will you give me a massage?”
I didn’t want to give her a massage, or succumb to her flirtation, so I asked Dima and Aliya about Karimov but neither was ready to offer an opinion.
“Aliya likes him and Dima says he doesn’t care, his parents live in Tashkent but he’s Russian, so he doesn’t care about Uzbekistan,” Marina said, interpreting for the others.
“Why do you want us to say something bad about him?” Marina asked. “Karimov – he’s a good man.”
We live in an increasingly borderless world and we have access to many countries that were closed (or non-existent) 20 years ago. As reported earlier this week, Americans are especially lucky with access to 169 countries visa free. Still, there are still many countries that Americans need advance visas to visit. Visa applications and processing services can cost several hundreds of dollars and take a lot of time and energy to obtain, so figure in that into your travel planning but don’t let it discourage you from visiting.
Nearly all countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East will give you a visa free or for a fee on arrival. See below for our guide to countries you will need to apply for advance visas, along with fees, useful information and links to consular websites. Asia
China: US citizens pay $130 for tourist visas, single- or multiple-entry up to 24 months from date of application. Keep in mind a trip to Hong Kong or Macau counts as an exit from China, so plan on a multiple-entry visa if you’ll be in and out. You’ll need to send your actual passport in for processing and ideally plan 1-2 months in advance of travel.
India: Fees from visa contractor Travisa start at $50 and visas can be valid for up to 10 years, but note that you must have a gap of at least 2 months between entries.
Vietnam: Single-entry visas start at $70 and multiple-entry visas are valid for up to one year. Another option for Americans is a single-entry visa on arrival, apply online and pay another stamping fee at the airport.
North Korea: Not an easy one for Americans as there are no consular relations between the two countries, but it is possible if you go through a specialist travel agency such as New Korea Tours and realize you’ll be visiting only on a highly-restricted and guided group tour. Note that you’ll have to go through China, requiring another visa of course!
Russia: Russian visa rules are quite strict and complicated, so you’ll need to have a solid itinerary set up before you apply as visas are valid for specific dates and not extendable. You’ll need a sponsorship for your visa, typically provided by your hotel or tour operator for a small fee, and you’ll register your visas once in the country. Fees start at $140 and applications should now be filled out online. Tourist visas are generally only valid for two weeks and even if you are just traveling through Russia, you’ll need a transit visa.
Belarus: Similar to Russian rules, a letter of invitation must be provided from an official travel agency in order to get a visa. You also have to show proof of medical insurance and financial means (about $15 USD/day, can be demonstrated with credit cards or paid travel arrangements). Tourist visas start at $140 and $100 for transit visas. Gadling writer Alex Robertson Textor is currently planning a trip, stay tuned for his report next month.
Azerbaijan: The country changed its visa policy last year, and now Americans must obtain an advance visa. You’ll need an invitation from an Azerbaijan travel agency, then a tourist visa costs $20 and takes 10 business days to process. Transit visas don’t require an invitation letter but should still be obtained in advance of travel.
Australia: Getting a tourist visa is simple and cheap ($20). Apply online at any point in advance and you’ll be verified at the airport. Valid for as many entries as needed for 12 months from date of application.
Brazil: Tourist visas are $140 plus $20 if you apply by mail or through an agency. If you are self-employed or jobless, you’ll need to provide a bank account balance, and all applications should include a copy of your round trip tickets or other travel itinerary.
Iran: There’s a current travel warning from the US state department, but Rick Steves is a fan of the country and several reputable travel agencies provide tours for Americans. The US consulate notes that some Americans with visas have been turned away, so your best bet is to visit with a group.
The good news for expats, students studying abroad, and other foreigners with residency is that many countries will allow you to apply in a country other than your home country for a visa. For example, I traveled to Russia from Turkey, getting my visa from a travel agency in Istanbul without sending my passport back to the US. Always check the US state department website for the latest visa information and entry requirements.