Scott and I returned from a week long trip to Uzbekistan with some of our friends in the wee hours of the morning. Aside from unfortunately breaking my twelve year non-vomit streak in Samarkand, we had a wonderful time! More stories and pictures are forthcoming once we get ourselves settled for the summer.
Getting there required a lot of advanced preparation, much of which was undertaken by one of our wonderful colleagues and friends here. Getting a visa to Uzbekistan can be problematic, at least for US citizens. You need a letter of invitation to apply for a visa, and probably the easiest way to get this for most tourists is to go through a tour company, who will also create an itinerary for you.
Once our tour company had letters of invitation for us, we needed to actually apply for visas. There were two clear obstacles here. One is that we all live in Astana, but the Uzbek embassy is in Almaty, which is either an overnight train ride or a short flight away. The other obstacle was that they wanted cash payment--in US dollars--for visas. Fortunately, our friend who organized the trip needed to go to Almaty for a conference, and he kindly offered to take all of our passports and great wads of cash to the embassy for us. Amazingly, this all worked out. The official he dealt with asked if he had our trust, and once he assured him that he did, he processed the visas. In terms of dollars, the local bank we deal with here allows us to withdraw dollars from the ATM, but seems to only have $100 bills. The visas for me and Scott came to $330 total. Luckily, our friend had collected some smaller bills, so we were able to work out the amounts.
We flew out of Astana on a Friday evening, which turned out to be a dreadfully crowded time at the airport. We had checked in online earlier in the day, but the system would not let us print out boarding passes, so we had to stand in line. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that the prevailing system seems to be to reward people who get to the airport late by allowing them to cut in front of everyone else. To be clear, I'm fine with helping people with tight connections at airports, but the Astana airport has few if any connecting flights, and I think that people who don't plan their time are in a different category. The same thing happened at passport control, and I started to despair ever being able to leave.
But leave we did. At some point during the flight, flight attendants started handing out customs forms for Uzbekistan. For reasons best known to themselves, they handed me and Scott one form each, although we were going to need two. Naturally, we didn't know this until we got off the plane.
We reconvened with our group when we landed, and it turned out that some people were given two forms to fill out. Nobody was particularly clear whether they needed to complete the second form, or if it was just provided in case they made mistakes on the first form. As members of our group individually went through the line in customs, it became apparent that the standard practice is for the customs officials to keep one copy of the form, and to stamp the other copy to give back to us. We would then need to hold on to our copy for the duration of the trip. I rushed around the customs area, looking for additional customs forms in English for me and Scott to fill out. Some members of our group were allowed through with only one form completed, so Scott went through with only one copy completed, while I hastily scribbled on my copy. The customs official decided to lay down the law with Scott, and took the one completed copy and only gave Scott one stamp on the copy he had, rather than the two stamps everyone else got. So when I got through the line, I found Scott hastily completing his form so he could get the precious stamp. However, nobody was willing to give it the second stamp! One of our Russian-speaking friends intervened and asked several officials very nicely. They each kept sending us to someone else, and finally someone (I think the original official) relented.
Crisis averted. I felt quite uneasy, both because we had to keep track of extremely flimsy customs forms for the duration of our trip and because we'd had such difficulty getting our paperwork in order prior to leaving the airport. With that, we headed off to our hotel in Tashkent. I'm happy to say our Uzbekistan experience improved markedly after leaving the airport.