So as you’ve probably gathered, we enjoyed a prolonged stay in Istanbul. A five-day sightseeing pit stop turned into ten, and all of a sudden we were pushing the two-week mark since our arrival on 1st September. Of course, in some ways this was fantastic – the point of our trip is not to get from A to B but to enjoy the bits in between, and Istanbul is definitely worth a good explore. Besides, we had planned to slow down after Europe, so this hold-up did not mean we would have to race across the Middle East. But we hadn’t banked on staying here for a fortnight. So why so long?? VISAS.
Visas are a desperately boring topic to write about, the type of thing you couldn’t really care less about the vast majority of the time, that is, until you need one. Then suddenly it becomes very important, very quickly. The ten-man squeeze to get into the visa office turns into the crush to get out of a sinking ship (we shelved the idea of good old-fashioned British queuing in favour of the elbows-out, don’t Φ@£# with me approach which the locals seemed to have perfected); sign language with some Russian-Turkish-English thrown in to the bloke behind the counter (elbows out to stop others smashing past you) became frantic pleas. “Give me a visa. Get me out of here.” I mimed desperately. Still the bloke repeated, painfully slowly, “Why – you want – come – Uzbekistan?” in the most amazing Borat impression I’d heard so far. Good question, we were beginning to think. Under normal circumstances it would have been hard not to laugh, but on this occasion a forceful Uzbek lady was digging her elbow into my back to try to get to the bloke’s window. Thinking desperately, we gasped, “Uzbekistan – harasho! (Russian for “great!”)” giving the corniest fake smile (the lady’s elbow in my back turns that into a grimace) with a thumbs-up included, like something out of a tacky travel magazine. The man was clearly convinced however. “Passport.” he said slowly and deliberately, stretching out his hand below the glass as if throwing a buoy to a drowning man. Phew. We were getting there.
I will spare you the details of all these applications – as there is nothing worse than reading about someone else’s admin issues. Because of consulates’ varying processing time, letters of invitation, hotel booking requirements and exact entry and exit dates needed, we have spent a lot of time trying to make numbers and dates add up with various officials across Istanbul. Then add to that the Turkmens who want you to have an Uzbek visa before you even bother applying, and the Uzbeks who want to send your application off to their capital Tashkent while you wait… And that’s before even mentioning that Brits are not “flavour of the year” in Iran, whose visa policy has tightened to such an extent that we stand the best chance of success by applying from a small Turkish town on the Black Sea coast. A real headache.
There have been some hilarious encounters on the various visa runs however. The Turkish are unbelievably helpful, a trait which is made more striking when simultaneously dealing with Central Asian consular officers – who are distinctly uncharming, shall we say. The hunt for the Tajik consulate (which had moved to an unmarked semi-detached house in the suburbs) was coordinated by a large tea-drinking Turkish man, who practically jogged along hailing minibuses for us while offering us tea all at the same time. The building was impossible to find, until we enlisted the help of a couple of Syrians (outside their own unmarked semi-detached consulate) who banged on the door loud enough before declaring that the consul “had probably taken the morning off”. Sure enough we came back at 2pm and there she was, and Tajik stamps were in our passports in under half an hour!
So we took in a very full experience of Istanbul, combining looking around gigantic mosques, bustling bazaars and beautiful castles with more stressful trips to consulates in the city outskirts, before eating our fill of kebabs and baklava to recover.
We now have the Uzbek and Tajik stamps safely in our passports. The day we left (Monday) we launched our final assault on the Turkmenistan consulate – a darkened room with paintings of President Berdimuhamedow (the supreme leader of Turkmenistan) perched on top of a bucking horse. As a result of the West condemning the single-party Turkmen government for its human rights abuses, Turkmenistan only grants the vast majority of Westerners a 5-day transit visa across their country. Luckily, that is all we will need. A consular officer with impeccable English helped us fill in each form (and there were quite a few, including a dodgy-looking ‘statement of intent’…), and let us know it would take a solid two working weeks processing time before any mentions of stamps. But we could pick them up from “any big city with a Turkmenistan consulate” further east. This was a result. Did they have any sort of receipt? we asked hopefully. It all seemed a bit too well-organised to be true. “No receipts, he replied. This is our old system. You must not worry.” And shut his window. With that we left Istanbul – running through how we will possibly pick up this Turkmenistan visa in about 1,500km!