Living between the lines

Tajikistan has been dramatic from the outset.

After an absorbing and occasionally difficult three weeks in Uzbekistan, I was excited for what promised to be an equally challenging but likely incomparable experience in Tajikistan. The seasons are changing from autumn to winter, a transition which is accentuated by vastly dissimilar topography. Uzbekistan is 80% flat desert, Tajikistan is 93% mountain.

On the last day of September I cycled the final 30 kilometres from the house of a local family near Samarkand to the Tajik border.

The following hours took an unwelcome turn, but not in the way I had been anticipating.

Tourists in Uzbekistan are required to stay in a hotel at least once every three nights. Stamped papers are collected as evidence. Being budget conscious, I resolved to take my chances at the border and rarely paid for accommodation.

Therefore, if there was to be an issue at the border, I expected it to relate to this indiscretion. Instead, leaving Uzbekistan was flawless. Recalling advice from a friend I met on the ferry to Kazakhstan, I engaged the officials with a stream of football related nonsense. Will Mourinho will get the sack? What are Liverpool’s chances this year. Are Real are missing Ronaldo? The guard and I laughed heartily about a faux-disagreement and I continued to laugh heartily as I prised my passport out of his hand and jovially skipped down the corridor and out of the building.

Flush with success I swaggered into the Tajik border control and arrogantly presented my passport with my e-visa neatly folded inside. In fact, I was so confident, I didn’t register the first time the border guard shook his head and said “Sorry Sir, you have a visa problem.” I thanked him graciously, and reached to reclaim my documents. “Sir, you have a visa problem.” I heard him this time.

“What? No, no there’s no problem, my visa is right there!” I had been pedantic in my preparation, an oversight was impossible.

They pored over my visa on the other side of the glass. Clearly the computer indicated a problem but they were yet to figure what it was. My eyes wandered down the suspect document, drifting over specifics I knew so well. There was my date of birth, my address, my passport number and there was my visa’s date of validity. I felt a stab of adrenaline spark my heart. I looked again at the upside-down numbers. I must have read wrong, but I hadn’t read wrong. It says 30/10/18. I fumbled for my phone to check the date, it showed the 30th September.

I felt like a plug had been pulled and my blood was draining through my feet. The visa isn’t valid. I had entered the wrong validity date.

All at once the potential implications of this mistake began to stack themselves rapidly and haphazardly upon my consciousness. My Tajik visa wouldn’t be valid for another month, I couldn’t go forward. My Uzbek visa was single entry, I had just left Uzbekistan. I couldn’t go back. I was stranded interminably in no-mans land, a stretch of tarmac 300 meters in length, running through empty scrubland with the Uzbek border gate at one end, the Tajik at the other. I am inside the small brick border control building sitting alone at halfway.

I felt sick. Sick with my own stupidity, my carelessness, a completely avoidable mistake with potentially dire consequences. Could I survive a month in this nowhere place? There was no food, nowhere to sleep and no way to make contact with the real world. With no Tajik SIM card and no WiFi I couldn’t even contact the embassy. Even if I did survive the month, the seasonal consequences would be great. I would be cycling through the Pamir mountains in late November and December, rather than October, a potentially impossible task. Least importantly I had carelessly tossed away $70, almost the cost of my entire traverse of Uzbekistan.

The border guards were still inspecting the visa. With painstaking reluctance I pointed out the error and asked whether the date could be altered. I knew the answer before asking the question. Visa issuance was none of their business, I would have to buy another e-visa. I didn’t even know if you could have two visa’s at once but I had to try.

The officials were sympathetic of my horrendous mistake. Borrowing one of their phones, I assiduously filled out the e-visa form again. The signal was intermittent but after several attempts and not a little frustration I sent off my second application.

Under usual circumstances I would have expected a reply within a day or so, but the circumstances were unusual. I had now applied for two visa’s a month apart with a fifteen day overlap in the middle. I might as well get comfortable.

I set up a base of operations outside the control room on a metal bench, the rearmost legs of which were sheared so that I was pitched forward slightly further than was comfortable. Here I sat and attempted to amuse myself, which largely consisted of reading Sherlock Homes and angrily smashing walnuts between the hilt of my penknife and the hollow arm of the bench. I made such a racket that the border guards probably thought I was forging a some sort of weapon to hack my way through the fence and into Tajikistan.  

Every hour, on the hour, I would present my passport to the guard who would scan and return it with a grave “no visa.” Each negative diagnosis threw me into a state of anxiety as I didn’t know whether my application was yet to be processed or whether it had been processed and subsequently rejected, a far worse outcome.

At five that evening all hope of further developments that day had receded and my mind turned to sleeping arrangements. The prospect of camping in full view of the luggage laden travellers on pitted, hard and litter ridden scrubland was unappealing.

As light fell I pushed the bike to a large building with dual tunnels for vehicle checks at the Tajik end of the strip. I found the affable official who had helped me earlier and asked if there was anywhere indoors I could sleep. I would have taken anything, the corridor, the toilet, I would have lain prone and rigid in an air vent. Thankfully I didn’t have to go to these lengths. He led me to an unused office and even laid out an army issue sleeping bag for me. The room was tiny. My head and feet touched each end and at the sides I was wedged between a computer desk and the wall but it was warm and safe from prying eyes. It was a small victory in the face of an unexpected setback. As I drifted off I wondered how many nights I might spend in that broom-cupboard office.

The following morning I reclaimed my bench and, on the top of a cardboard box, requested in cyrillic to borrow the phone of anyone who had access to the internet. If my visa was rejected I needed to know. Affixing the sign to the head of my bench, I bought a loaf of bread off a passer-by and settled back into my routine of hourly visa checks and Sherlock Holmes.

The day progressed and my sign attracted several good-Samaritans who allowed me to check my email. No reply meant the jury was still out, a rejection meant imprisonment.

At 3pm that day the confirmatory email was received and I was liberated. I whooped in excitement and sprinted round the corner into border control for what I hoped would be the last time.

I handed over my passport. The officer had already rejected me several times that day and with his usual gravity he peered at the computer screen. My heart thumped with anxiety, I half expected some final twist in the story, a sting in the tail.

His previously austere face suddenly broke into a wide grin. Ceremoniously rising from his chair he stamped my passport, grasped my hand and said “Welcome to Tajikistan.”

Comments

  1. A tiny moment in a long journey, the heart-stropping threat of a month in limbo. Brilliantly captured. That's one numeric banana skin you won't slip on again! xxx

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  3. Excellent! I can feel the tension and the anxiety. It reminds me of the day I landed at an airport in China with the wrong stamp in my passport. The best advice I was given by the flight crew was to keep calm. Just as you did, never get angry with officialdom abroad. Keeping cool was your best response. Nice one!

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