I am stuck. Again. The Uzbekistan government released an electronic visa on the 15th of July, with updated regulations for 50-odd countries, including the U.S. This was exciting, because before this Americans were required to have a letter of invitation in order to obtain a visa, which costs 60-70 usd. But the website doesn’t work yet.
A representative from a Central Asian travel service informed me that it will probably take 2-3 weeks before the site is actually running properly, and that is a problem, because I plan to be IN Uzbekistan by then. So, Marine and I found an online application form, filled it out, printed it, and took it to the Uzbek embassy here in Baku, having left the Letter of Invitation section blank. I was certain this wouldn’t work- embassies are bureaucratic institutions, if there is a box to check it needs to be checked before being approved, and we definitely filled out an outdated form. We got to the embassy and there was no line. They let us in, we turned in our papers, and sat down to wait. I was sure they would send us away with some sort of unusual quest to fulfull before returning again in a few days, but to my surprise, they accepted everything, issued us stubs with the prices on them, and told us they would email us in 2-3 days when our visas were ready!
I was very pleasantly surprised by the service and their realistic assessment of the circumstance, but was a bit dejected by the number on my stub, $160. Ouch. I paid less for the ten year Chinese visa. Marine, who is French, was charged $55. Well, Uzbekistan is wising up and sticking a few funnels into us Western moneybags alright!
A note on currency: All the atm’s here spew out dollars as well as manat. The visa fees are in dollars. In Uzbekistan you have to use dollars to pay for a lot of stuff, and you will get in trouble if you leave the country with more dollars than you came in with. So they are regulating currency leaving the country, but it is MY currency that they are keeping overseas. I am not very happy to learn that this much United States currency is being horded overseas, it seems like the sort of thing that could sabotage the fragile stability of the American economy in time, just like allowing native companies to be based abroad, or allowing foreign investors to build infrastructure in our country. Hell, maybe it will lead to world peace because everybody from the far side of the globe owns stuff on the other side and we’ll realize that borders really tangle up international trade and commerce… or maybe it will lead to war and economic downfall. The point is, it is just weird.
The reason they use dollars so much is, of course, that it is a lot more stable than the Uzbekistani “s’om.” Iran as well, whose rial is experiencing incredible inflation, having been devalued by almost 50 percent in the last 6 months, exchanges their currency for dollars in such cases, but the government has recently banned dollars, likely hoarding them for themselves while they desperately cling to power in the death throes of a domineering regime. There are Iranians everywhere, by the way, particularly Georgia and Azerbaijan, where many could be considered what we call “economic migrants” fleeing from the volatile economy and also the conservative totalitarianism of the current government. Many Iranians are here in Baku to take expensive international tests to get certificates for finance and other fields, but they require excellent English fluency to pass them. I met one fellow taking English classes in Tbilisi after failing his test once, which cost over $1000. He felt like a fool for failing, but he could only study after work and he was usually too exhausted to put in the hours of study necessary. An Iranian’s money doesn’t go very far these days, and the current economic crisis is largely due to Trump pulling out of the nuclear deal, of course.
Oddly enough, this could be exactly what Iran needs long-term: the liberal, open minded younger generation may be able to take control away from the conservative religious one. It has to collapse, it will collapse, and hopefully a garden grows from the ashes. Of course, a lot of people will probably be killed in the transition, and if the new government is, say, a democracy that wants to take control of their own national resources or something reckless like that, the U.S. will simply strike them down for refusing to be their puppet, thus keeping Iran subdued by sabotaging technological development, which seems to be official foreign policy of the U.S. government. This keeps the region unstable, unhappy, and poor so that we can exploit their resources. Yes, America is present here, both in policy and in currency, and boy, does this make it hard to travel! The Germans laugh at me as they flit freely across the globe with their excellent passports. The euro is used in the same way, of course. Yes, the high ideals of the Western world put honorably into use as usual. Like every country, the disparity between the values of the people and their governments are glaringly obvious.
(Nobody seems particularly interested in widespread peace and prosperity, everybody looks out for themselves, totally blind to the fact that we are safe and prosperous when our neighbors are safe and prosperous, and the world seems to be getting smaller and smaller, which means, more neighbors.)
Well, that was a bit long-winded and politically charged, but the point is I have to use dollars and I can’t take any out of Uzbekistan. Curious.
To mosey back around to where I started, I am feeling very trapped in Baku right now. I missed all of the mountains to the North, same as I did in Georgia. Already I plan to return with a backpack to explore these. I am having a hard time finding enthusiasm right now, which is terrible because this is the trip of a lifetime. I just want some company, darnit! It looks like I will not be traveling with these Americans, because they do not have their Chinese visas. This means they will be in Baku for another two weeks. After spending so much time in Georgia, I am weary of the city life and need no more socializing in hostels, spending heaps of money, drinking beer and lolling around wondering what to do with myself. Shameful, I know; there are museums and temples, mosques and other attractions. But I’ve seen a lot of mosques, museums, buildings, attractions. One gets a bit bogged down by the tourism industry after a while. I can take pictures of these things, I can spend my time bussing around looking at these things, but what does it mean to me? Not much. Perhaps this is my own problem, but I learn more from talking to the kids running a market in the middle of nowhere, passing through the little villages and seeing what real life is like. Baku is like a giant resort, a playground for the rich, a glamorous and impeccably clean amusement park. To a degree I have a taste for this, I like walking through old town, which is beautiful, closed off to cars, full of big parks, beautiful buildings, statues, fountains, restaurants, boutiques and souvenir shops. It’s interesting, for a day or two.
Someone was profoundly inspired by “Hungry Hungry Hippoes…” I couldn’t believe someone had memorialized the game in stone on the shore of the Caspian sea!
See, it’s nice!
And I can’t wait to get out of here. A boat, a sea, and expansive deserts await, one of grass, dust, and sun, another of aloneness, loneliness, and fatigue. The Devil is in the desert though, maybe we’re set up for a good boxing match. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll find some riding partners. From what I can tell, it is something of an accomplishment that I have met so few cyclists going my way at the same time. This American kid has been riding with people for months at a time, constantly meeting other cyclists. Me, I rode for three days with a Canadian guy… in Spain. Maybe it is meant to be, perhaps I ought to be using couchsurfing and warmshowers. But I don’t want a phone, so I get what I deserve.
On the upside, I have plenty of time to study some Russian. It seems miraculous that I can continue stuffing unfamiliar sounds and symbols into my brain. I will know the most important ten words in a number of languages when I get home. And after I get a crude grasp of basic Russian, time to frantically switch to CHINESE. Son of a gun. Anyhoo, my budget is going to be dealt a savage blow by the $70 boat ride, the $160 visa and the additional days in Baku, but I’ll make up for it, largely free from any bureaucratic constraints until I reach Nanning, near the Vietnamese border (I am going to Tajikistan after all, I am told the Pamir valley is not to be missed, but that should be an easy and cheap visa, hopefully).
Alright, there’s a bit of a strange blog post, I’ll check in again from the other side of the Caspian!