Central Asia has always been a place where schedules constantly change, and procedures are negotiable. These days traveling in the region is arguably more complicated than at any point during the post-Soviet era.
Of late Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all squabbled over borders. In late January, for example, Kazakhstan protested an Uzbek attempt to unilaterally demarcate a roughly 35-mile stretch of disputed border. The two sides pledged to begin negotiations on February 10. Nevertheless, such disputes often add to already substantial delays typically encountered while crossing borders.
At the same time, the issue of border transparency has become increasingly important in the region. Some leaders, especially President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, now associate transparent borders with instability. Thus, over the past year Uzbekistan has tightened border-crossing practices. It is perhaps no coincidence that Uzbek authorities are struggling to contain a radical Islamic insurgency in the Ferghana Valley.
Kazakhstan is the latest country to add to the obstacles. As of February 1, Kazakhstan announced it no longer recognized transit visas issued to foreign nationals by other CIS states.
The new "rules," combined with government insecurity, are enough to turn a relatively simple itinerary into an odyssey.
First of all, because air travel from the West to Central Asia is still not in very high demand, people who need to be in one city on a given day find that flying to a neighboring capital is, in theory, the quickest way to arrive. Such a gambit, however, puts travelers at the mercy of border guards who often act in an arbitrary manner.
My travel experience in late January is a case in point. I opted to fly via Istanbul rather than Frankfurt, to Central Asia (primarily because the ticket was cheaper). However, I found that in winter there is no direct flight from Istanbul to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan my ultimate destination. Thus, I was forced to fly through the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, and transfer to Uzbek airways.
Uzbek airways have scheduled flights between Tashkent and Bishkek, but this does not mean that the planes will actually take off. Upon arriving at the Tashkent airport an hour before the flight, I was told the flight was cancelled due to a lack of passengers, and that the next flight would be in five days. The airline showed little concern for my need to be in Bishkek the next morning.
Without much competition in the skies, the only alternative was to go by land. Taking westerners from one major city to another is a burgeoning entrepreneurial enterprise in the region, so finding a driver to make the eight-hour commute was not difficult. However the only direct route from Tashkent to Bishkek is through Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan had just begun requiring transit visas. I had heard about this new policy before I left the United States, but as I did not intend to go to Kazakhstan, I didn't bother getting the visa.
Of course, the mere existence of a regulation does not automatically mean that it will be enforced. Conversely, sometimes a regulation will be enforced by those who do not even technically have the right to do so. A traveler often finds out only at the border.
I arrived at the nondescript border post in Saryagach, north of Tashkent, about 5pm. The Kazakh side of the crossing was clearly visible in the afternoon sun and traffic was minimal. The crossing would have been quite easy, except that the uniformed soldier guarding the Uzbek side would not let us out. Period. We had to go to the larger, main station, half-an-hour to the east, where, we were told, officials there were authorized to let me cross (my driver, Yuriy, did not need a visa). This didn't seem so problematic (Bishkek is east of Tashkent), until I found out what Yuriy already knew: because of construction, cars were not allowed to cross at the main station.
Once we arrived at the main station and found a parking space on the Uzbek side, Yuriy dutifully told my tale of why I didn't have a Kazakh visa, and asked for permission for me to cross. In succession, about half a dozen guards, regardless of their interest in my case, referred us to someone else somewhere else in the complex. Finally, in the innermost sanctum of the station's offices, I received a hand-written exit stamp allowing me to leave Uzbekistan. On the Kazak side, there was more interest in what I was doing there (one guard asked for a U.S. $2 bill as a souvenirhe turned down two $1 bills), and after the proper information was entered into the proper log books, I was allowed inwithout getting (or paying for) a visa or an entry stamp in my passport.
Once I made it into Kazakhstan, I was deposited in the border café for an hour and a half while Yuriy went back for his car (containing my luggage) and entered the country at the first crossing, circling around to pick me up. And like clockwork he appeared, shortly before 8pm, in his late-model Daewoo. The make of the car was important because it was the target of many a Kazak soldier or police officer who pulled us over throughout the night looking for contraband. Without even looking in the car, they all asked for money, but did not press us too hard when Yuriy refused to pay.
Nearly 12 hours after we left Tashkent, at 4am, we arrived at the Kazak-Kyrgyz border and crossed, quickly. It was somewhat anticlimactic. Perhaps the time of night was a factor, but there is also clearly not the same tension between the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz that is found on the western end of the Tashkent-Bishkek highway.
To cover a distance that would probably have taken less than six hours on a Western highway, we spent nine hours on roads covered with more fog than street lights. But, as many people would tell me, we made great time.
Todd Diamond is the communications officer at the Open Society Institute in New York.