Hey There, Tashkent?! Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan (Semi-Live Blog)

These events happened on Saturday, the 26th of June, 2021. We hoped to fly from Manas International Airport (FRU) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Islam Karimov Tashkent International Airport (TAS), Uzbekistan. I’m trying to update this blog as a sort of semi-live blog while on the move.

Saturday, 26th of June: 60 Days Up, Go to Tashkent, Uzbekistan?!

Goodbye, Bishkek

Time to go!

Jonas woke me up at 7:00 to shower and finish packing. He pointed out that today was another one of those beautiful Bishkek days that’s clear and shows the mountains. Yesterday evening they were veiled in clouds and today we could see the snow line descended a little once again. It won’t last.

I realized we had forgotten to check in online the day before. Did it still make sense to do that? Moreover, how could we forget? It wasn’t necessary by now and would just add extra stress before finishing up the packing.

We took a taxi and enjoyed the classical music in the elevator once more. I must say I preferred it over the clubbing music from the last apartment in Bishkek. The drama of arriving at the ground floor is simply bigger.

Taxi ride to Manas International Airport

Jonas still has too much Kyrgyz Som, so he ordered a Yandex but with the pay in cash option. It’s 500, which is still incredibly low for the distance to the airport and considering it’s… An airport and people can basically ask for whatever price.

We dropped off the key and said здравствуйте to our taxi driver. He responded with “Good morning”. He wanted to practice his English in the car, which was already some of the best English we’ve heard here. Omur is retired from the military, has worked at every border of Kyrgyzstan except the Chinese border (“I don’t know why”) and has served with the UN blue helmets in South Sudan. Now he’s looking to either do taxi driving (he also has a 4WD) seriously, apply for a position for which he needs to speak English, or become a truck driver in the EU, preferably Germany, not Latvia and the like.

Jonas tipped him generously and saved his phone number in case we come back and want to do a trip into the mountains.

At the airport

Back at Manas International Airport, there were so many people. Just a few days earlier the gov said you can only be at the airport if you have a ticket. No more loitering in the arrivals hall by taxi drivers.

Lots of people wore masks, more than we’re used to. Some employees also wore hazmat suits. We entered the building with our luggage trolley and went up to the second floor to see if we could check in our luggage. Too early.

We waited for a little till they called it and then queued. An older lady asked Jonas if he could help her tape bet luggage together while I held our spot in the queue. I kind of assumed she wanted to go in front of us, which has been a very common request in the previous months.

Once it was our turn, I heard the conversation with the check-in person and the passenger next to us. She asked if he has a visa to Uzbekistan and he was like I don’t need one, I’m in transit. So I fully expected that we also needed to show our proof that we don’t need a visa to Uzbekistan. But our lady didn’t ask.

Next, we spent about 50 minutes in one of the cafes, drinking a cappuccino and eating a sandwich. Jonas asked if they had anything vegetarian, which was a no. But they could make a tomato, cucumber, and cheese sandwich, no problem. It was pretty good and only 130 Som, which isn’t much for at the airport. Similar prices to German sandwiches in the city (this means Germany is just really cheap). I also finished the Turkish delight I still had, starting something of a sugar rush that would probably last the whole day (ETA: it did).

Passport control + security

At 11:30 we continued to passport control. Jonas and I went to different booths but we could look at each other through them. Jonas was faster. My guy asked me if I speak Russian (чуть-чуть) and then asked me since when I’d been here. Ah, numbers and dates, my weakest link. I stumbled through “два… двадцать… восемь? Апреля” and heard Jonas receive his stamps. Mine followed soon after and then the guy asked me if Jonas was my husband. I said “Нет, он мой парень” and he repeated back “Ah, parent”… You can see it’s going FANTASTIC with my Russian.

Then we went through security. They were adamant everyone took their shoes off. They had the same plastic shoe covers as at Aqualab and we put them over our socks. Scan scan, a little touchy between the boobs by a lady, put on the big hiking boots again, and we’re at the gates.

Some screens at the gates didn’t work, so we had to walk around a bit to find one that told us our gate, but they didn’t know yet. We’d walked past the window and spotted a big Uzbekistan Airways plane among a sea of planes from other airlines (mostly Aeroflot). The plane was pushing out a lot of cardboard boxes so it had probably arrived recently. A simple educated guess told us that’s gonna be our plane.

We killed some more time and bought a new bottle of water. Then we looked on the screens and saw that gate 5 is ours, so we headed there thinking boarding hadn’t even opened yet. When we arrived, boarding had started but there was no queue? Strange. Everyone was acting as if we were even a little late. And what do you know, when we hobbled down the passenger boarding bridge to enter the plane it was already full. None of this had been announced on the intercom.

The flight to Tashkent

Aboard, we soon received a cup of water and the Uzbekistan COVID-19 entry form. It has an Uzbek side and a Russian side, but Jonas forgot to grab a pen before buckling in. We rolled out of the lot and Jonas put in a podcast. I noticed at the first turn after take-off that the pilot made it a very sharp one. Like uncomfortably sharp. The baby some six seats away from us revealed itself by singing the shitty song of its people after 20 minutes. The crying doesn’t stop till we land in Tashkent.

Once cruising, I was distracted by the scenery from the sky. Daytime flights are much more real. I could see the Chuy Valley and some lakes. I looked away for a minute and then out the window again and saw a cool lake with salt flats nearby. On the map, I confirmed it’s a lake named Bilikol in Kazakhstan. Again, like the flight from the UAE to Kyrgyzstan, we took a route via Kazakshtan instead of a shortcut over the Kyrgyz Alatau or Talas Alatau ranges. Probably because of strong turbulence, but I’m guessing. The pilot made another sharp left turn to head for Shymkent in Kazakhstan. I joked to Jonas that the pilot drives the plane like a racecar.

Jonas had grabbed a pen and we’d both filled in our Uzbek COVID-19 entry form. It says there that you promise to self-quarantine for 14 days. Everyone in the travel group says they’d filled it in but didn’t sign the form. Something of a loophole. Perhaps it’s a very western idea that as long as a form hasn’t been signed, it’s not valid. If the person who checks this form tells us to sign it we’ll do that, of course.

The older lady in the row next to Jonas had asked us before for a pen. Now we gave it to her. When she was done, she sprayed it thoroughly with disinfectant and gave it a rub down before giving it back. I’d almost forgotten about covid.

We made another turn and headed into Uzbekistan. We flew over the southern outskirts of Tashkent over a structure that looked like a prison. Then we made a sharp turn and I was not amused once again. This was actually quite scary. Now flying northeast, the mountains nearby Tashkent revealed themselves for a few minutes before they disappeared into the haze again. Another sharp turn. My window reveals an airport runway, but it isn’t where we’re going. I look it up on the map and it’s Tashkent Vostochniy airport.

The landing at Islam Karimov Tashkent International Airport was quite smooth. People couldn’t wait to get off the plane and were quite pushy. We had to walk down the stairs and get onto a bus for a little while. It was hot, but not as hot as anticipated. The bus ride to the terminal was also nice and short.

PCR test check + immigration + customs

I’d been filming the journey from Bishkek to Tashkent. When entering the arrivals terminal in Tashkent, someone freaked out and told me to delete my videos. I only had to delete the last two, but I apologized and felt a little stupid. Had I just risked being refused entry into Uzbekistan?

We were all pushed into a queue where someone needed a document. We were already at the desk when we figured it’s the negative PCR test, so Jonas grabbed them from my backpack and handed them over. The ladies looked over them and then stamped them and handed them back. Next up, immigration.

The queue was short but I was very nervous. Jonas went first. There was a snappy young guy with a good demeanor who asked a few casual questions to probe what kind of people we are. Jonas stated the reason for his visit (tourism) and the length of his stay (30 days). I was happy when I picked up the stamp sounds and Jonas went through. My experience with this guy was very similar. He came across to me as a guy who likes to party and would probably know the best spots in town. I also received my stamps and we were in.

The stamp was very wet, so I had to keep my passport open for a while to let it dry. The red ink looked almost kind of glittery. Jonas needed a toilet and I grabbed our luggage from the standstill carousel and tried connecting to the WiFi. I only noticed then that we’d forgotten to book an onward flight like we usually do. Good thing they didn’t ask for this.

Compared to the stress and preparations of flying from Malaysia to the UAE during this pandemic and then from the UAE to here, this was peanuts. We also have never been this badly prepared for a travel day in recent history. That is kind of nuts.

While I used the toilet, Jonas got his hands on some Uzbekistani So’m (UZS) from an ATM (fee of 1.5%). We checked at the info desk before customs for the prices of SIM cards. It was about double the price from what we found online for inner-city prices and they were “out” of the package we wanted. So we decided to go rogue and take an analog taxi instead of a Yandex taxi to our Airbnb in Tashkent. We looked up the name of a nearby landmark of our Airbnb – the metro station – and headed out to throw ourselves to the lions.

The taxi from Tashkent airport to Tashkent city

All we had to do is find a willing taxi driver to take us to our home in Tashkent. Jonas told me beforehand that anything under 50.000 UZS would be an okay price. Into the heat, the first two guys showed up. He asked which hotel we needed to go and I said it wasn’t a hotel, but an apartment. Buyuk Ipak Yo’li metro stop, do you know it? Yes, he did. Then what’s the price? 120.000 UZS. No thank you. This was accepted.

We walked a bit further till the next taxi driver walked up to us. We told him the address of the kvartira in Tashkent again. “Сорок,” he said, which is 40, the three extra zeros implied. Great, let’s go.

The walk to his car was a bit far and came past several groups of men hanging around their vehicles chatting with their face masks down. At night, I’m not sure if we would have opted for a taxi that wasn’t parked right in front of the airport. But perhaps we would have simply dodged the issue by immediately buying a SIM card.

My first impressions were that mask-wearing is taken a lot more seriously than in Bishkek. That is not a high bar to clear, even as the daily cases in Kyrgyzstan are rising sharply while heading toward July. Perhaps Uzbekistan has clearer rules or higher punishment or actually enforces punishments for failing to wear masks. But most people just have it on their chin or below their nose – it’s hot, I don’t blame them – so the fact that I find this ‘serious masking’ reveals how my standards have shifted drastically since leaving Malaysia back in January.

At the tiny car, the driver flips part of the backseat to make room for our backpacks. The steering wheel is on the left and Jonas sits in the passenger seat. I don’t think it would have been accepted had I taken the front-row seat. We drive off to the northeast of the spider web that is Tashkent. I’m stoked.

The journey itself didn’t show many interesting sights. We passed the old train wagons from yore and a few other buildings. I was paying attention to where we were going with my offline map that can also do navigation in Russian perfectly well (yes, it’s OSM). But the driver had also typed in the address in his phone, so my phone was redundant.

His driving was quite alright. Sitting in the back, I obviously didn’t have a seatbelt available. There were lots of wide roads with of course lots of traffic. Once in our neighborhood, we needed to drive past our destination for quite some distance to finally make a U-turn somewhere. The necessity for U-turns tells a lot about a city’s infrastructure. He dropped us off at the apartment we thought was correct judging by the map and paid him the 40.000 UZS. Jonas received change for his big bill and we thanked him and said goodbye.

Our Tashkent Airbnb

As already established, we were quite underprepared. The unlimited mobile data in Kyrgyzstan made us complacent. Jonas found somewhere offline the entry code to the main door of our apartment complex. We typed it in, but it didn’t open. If only he had saved the WiFi password given by the app somewhere, we could connect to the WiFi from the ground floor and send our host a message. Then Jonas had an idea that was the last resort. Instead of typing in all three numbers one by one, what would happen he pressed them all at the same time?

Clang. The door opened. Brilliant.

We walked up the stairs to our floor and drew the attention of our downstairs neighbor, who asked us something I didn’t understand. Then we arrived at our locked door. We’d arrived 20 minutes early and sat down in the cold stairwell. Our host would come by and give us the key and an intro to the apartment. She was on time.

We took off our shoes and received the tour. She told us that she lives outside of the city and that she can’t reenter Tashkent once the restrictions go into effect. We’d read about the upcoming restrictions starting the 28th of June; all restaurants, pubs, shisha lounges, karaoke bars, etc. need to close by 20:00 to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Jonas had looked at the numbers of Uzbekistan and Tashkent, and it’s honestly not that bad considering the size of the population. Anyway, if we need anything, we can contact her sister who lives inside Tashkent. And no one knows till when these rules will be in effect.

After she left, we unpacked a little, rehydrated, and relaxed. Then it was time to head out to buy an Uzbek SIM card and buy some groceries.

Friday, 25th of June: Packing for Tashkent

Picking up the negative PCR test

We didn’t even check the results the night before departure, that’s how confident we were that the test would be negative.

After lunch, we walked to the clinic to pick up our negative tests with wet stamps. We wanted it in both Russian and English for the Uzbek authorities. Upon arrival, the Aqualab was again a little chaotic with a few too many humans for the width of the corridor. I was putting on plastic shoe covers when a man in full motorcycle fashion asked for our papers. No lab coat, no badge, so I was like don’t give our pickup papers to him. Jonas did so anyway, thinking the guy must work there. I was like no, we do this shit ourselves and followed the man to the reception area where another competent lady was putting together our lab-originated negative tests.

I was really not amused by this sudden trust in random men by Jonas. The PCR test had our full names on it, but no passport numbers nor addresses. I’m usually the least concerned with privacy, so I found this an extremely odd experience.

Underground printing

Now that we had our tests, we wanted to print out some more booking confirmations and such. So we went looking for a типография or copyshop. We knew that the best place to find them is in the underpasses on major thoroughfares like Chuy Avenue. We weren’t close to any and our final stop would be at Social Coffee to try out their pistachio latte. I tried finding a copyshop closer to our location but it all turned out to not be real, so we ended up at the underpass at the Revolution Militants Square.

Jonas had prepared a nice USB and a young woman printed out our documents. That took less than five minutes and cost us 30 KGS for 10 pages. Not bad. Afterward, we headed to Social Coffee for that pistachio latte. But perhaps I should stick with local specialties and try the beetroot latte next time.

In the evening, we went to the fancy restaurant Pishpek for dinner. We couldn’t sit in the garden because of a private party, so we sat inside and listened to the rants of an astonishingly rude American sweet-talking a local man into doing business with him. He insulted every party at the table several times, including his nice translator lady. It was unbelievable.

At night, I did some more packing for the flight.

Thursday, 24th of June: PCR Test #3

Right now, you need a PCR test to enter Uzbekistan

Though we’re fully vaccinated + more than two weeks with Sinopharm, we still needed a negative test to enter Uzbekistan. For our third PCR test after the first one in Malaysia and the second one in Sharjah, we weren’t very nervous anymore. In fact, we were slackers. For the first two tests, we’d called and WhatsAppped with clinics in advance, made a reservation, and showed up on time. With this one, we knew from the Bishkek expat Facebook group that a private clinic company called Aqualab does PCR tests for a reasonable price. Intentionally or not, someone in that group repped Aqualab with the dubious tagline:

with aqualab it's always negative PCR test Bishkek travel to Tashkent

We find this hilarious. We understand that some people might not find it funny what this implies. It’s an expat group and not everyone has a high level of English. I wonder what Aqualab thinks of this, positive advertisement or negative?

But yes, in Bishkek, you just walk into one of the many Aqualab clinics – which angrifyingly aren’t mapped on Google Maps – and ask for a PCR test. No appointments, no nothing. Just walk in.

Aqualab #1

So on this beautiful Thursday, we walked into the Aqualab clinic on Moskovskaya × Yakov Logvinenko. Inside, people wore blue plastic shoe covers, which confused the hell out of us for a moment. A doctor/nurse picked up on us and asked us what we wanted. I said PCR but in Russian – мы хотим тест ПЦР – which she understood. But they only do those at this clinic after 13:00. She pointed at a sign with the PCR test times at all the other Aqualab clinics across Bishkek. We found one that was a taxi ride away but had good opening times. Then she said there was another one that wasn’t on this sign in walking distance: Panfilov × Kievskaya behind the Optima Bank. We thanked her and left.

Back to ЦСМ №7

But first, a side-quest! Jonas and I had found a form posted in the expat group. It’s a form that’s a proof of vaccination within Kyrgyzstan, kind of like the individual QR code proofs that European countries are making for themselves. We already have our vaccination card laminated and everything notarized and translated into English. But we’d still love to have this for future travels within Kyrgyzstan. Obtaining this is tight with our departure for Tashkent, but we could give it a try. So we walked the one block over to ЦСМ №7.

Tanya was working there again and I was happy to see her. One of the young people doing registrations said we should call a phone number on a poster and can only get a “справка” here for now. An unfamiliar word, we translated it into “reference”. Tanya walked us three floors up to the administration. Finally, after one and a half months, we’d made it to the inner circle of ЦСМ №7!

There was a kind old lady there who typed up details from our passports and our vaccination cards. She printed them out after several attempts to get my incredibly shit passport number correct, I had a printout. Jonas had similar problems, also because here they expect three names on the passport, so she’d given him a middle name of CEUTSCH. It was understandably very difficult when one is used to typing everything on a Cyrillic alphabet keyboard and then find similar-but-not-the-same letters on a Latin alphabet keyboard. An older man went in between our two type-ups because it was quick and he was talking a lot to us even though I didn’t really know what he was going on about.

We left with two beautiful printouts of our info, which we had to bring downstairs to let Tanya stamp them. I somehow really like hanging out at ЦСМ №7. If I had to become an expat in Bishkek I’d try to get a job there. I can’t explain why, it’s just a feeling.

Aqualab #2, PCR test #3

Now, back to the business of obtaining a PCR test for the officials in Tashkent. We walked to Panfilov × Kievskaya in this pleasant weather and entered the second Aqualab. Inside the waiting room were four people with the blue shoe covers – бахилы – on. We also put them on and several people told us that we’re behind the older lady in the room, who vehemently defended her spot in the queue. I said we just needed to ask something at reception (1. Do you do PCR tests right now? 2. How much does it cost? 3. Do you accept payment by card?) when a doctor/nurse came and told us it was too busy in the tiny waiting room and we could only come in when two people had left. Okay. But do you do PCR tests at this time? Yes, now leave.

I have no idea why, but Jonas didn’t take his blue shoe covers off and didn’t put new ones on after standing outside waiting for two people to leave the clinic. Ten minutes later, we were back inside. We went to reception, where a friendly and competent lady asked for our passports, phone numbers, and if we had anything to eat or drink in the last two hours. The results would be available online at 23:00 – in English and Russian – and we could come back the following day to pick up the results in person. We had thought about only printing it out and not going for a… wet stamp… but eventually, we just want the most legit-looking thing.

Aqualab accepts VISA credit cards, so we didn’t need to run to a bank to get enough cash to complete this task. While Jonas was paying (1700 KGS per person), I already had my paper and my bag with the plastic tubes that the tests will go into. I went in for the test where the angrier doctor/nurse from earlier waited with her colleague. She told me to sit on a funny chair against the wall. I put my head into the wall like I’d done before so I can’t move backward. You see, I’m kind of becoming a pro at this.

Her colleague did the actual swabbing. One swab for both nostrils. It went in deep and was uncomfortable, but nothing traumatic like the test in Johor Bahru. She rubbed that into the plastic thing and put it away, then grabbed the second swab for my throat. That one was more uncomfortable because it went straight for my gag-or-cough reflex. It became a cough, but I am beyond any sense of embarrassment for this kind of shit. It’s liberating.

Then it was Jonas’ turn. I watched him get poked in his face holes and translated the Russian instructions. It was also done in a jiffy and then it was time to walk to Simit House for a glorious breakfast. We’re one step closer to going to Tashkent!

8th of June: Booking Tashkent

Maxing out our 60-day Kyrgyz visa

We first thought we needed to fly on the 24th of June. But then Jonas found a flight on the 26th of June; exactly 60 days after we arrived in Kyrgyzstan from the UAE when counting the day of arrival (28th of April) as day one. Tight, but also perfect. We prefer to count the arrival day till the departure day and still subtract one day to be sure we don’t get into trouble.

Anyway, we booked that flight for the 26th of June with extra luggage. It’s with Uzbekistan Airways, which is good because that means the crew is up-to-date on the latest rules of Uzbekistan. We also booked a place to stay and that was that.

Marie Kondo-ing my stuff

Since the pandemic started, my luggage has become the bane of my existence. It has become too much. It actively weighs me down.

Back when it came out, we watched only two episodes of Marie Kondo – the two episodes of people without children, the others were intolerable to watch – so it’s not like I learned much from it. The things that stuck with me are “does it spark joy?” and “thank the stuff you throw away” and I can do those things.

With Jonas’ help, I had to take a long hard look at all the shit I’m carrying and managed to cut it down quite a bit. It’s still not perfect, but there was progress. The direct reason for this critical cleanup session was a story in the Every Passport Stamp Facebook group from someone who was detained upon arrival in Uzbekistan for carrying around medicines in unmarked vials. So we ditched all our contextless meds, like the anti-motion sickness pills from Cabo Verde and some heavy pain meds from my sterilization surgery in Thailand.

You hate flying. Why not travel overland from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan?

Excellent question. Well, there are several reasons:

  1. Getting vaccinated in Bishkek on the 11th of May and needing to be back in Bishkek for the second shot on the 1st of June shifted our priorities. We probably would have circled Issyk-Kul if not for our need to be back after three weeks.
  2. This time planning gave us an awkward five weeks in Bishkek that I needed to use for point 3. Five weeks isn’t enough to do meaningful things both in Bishkek and in Osh. So I quickly became in favor of spending the whole five weeks in Bishkek because:
  3. I’m trying to move a big project forward and need time to sit still. Yes, it’s inconvenient to partially spend a beautiful summer quite indoors and in the city. Especially in a beautiful and outdoorsy country like Kyrgyzstan. But I need to do it now. Sadly, this project will also bleed over into my first Uzbekistan trip. But again, I need to do it now.

At the time of writing, the land border from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan is open around Jalal-Abad and Osh, but the reverse isn’t true and one needs to fly. There was the idea to reenter Kyrgyzstan from Uzbekistan at Osh but that’s not allowed right now. There are also no flights from Tashkent to Osh. The only overland opportunity, which we missed, was to go from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan.

Why don’t you stay in Kyrgyzstan? They have the ‘Green Corridor’

Technically, it’s also possible to overstay our 60-day tourist visa because of COVID-19. It’s called the ‘Green Corridor’ and it’s super vague. One needs to register to overstay with permission.

green corridor Kyrgyzstan expats in Bishkek

Anyone who has traveled to Belarus and the like for more than five days knows the ordeal that is getting your registration in order. It’s something inherited from Soviet times and if you stay within your sixty days, you don’t have to deal with it. The rule of the Green Corridor that makes our brains melt is something like this: if you want to stay more than sixty days, you need to register on your fifth day after arrival. No, not your fifth day of overstay, one must somehow predict one’s overstay and then already register with the police or something. I do not want to mess with this.

(And yes, in Uzbekistan we also need to register during our 30-day visa. But the rules for that are clear and understandable.)

After overstaying our 90-day visa to Malaysia by, uh, eight whole-ass months, we’re kind of done with being semi-legal. Government communication to its foreigners staying there became quite poor over time in Malaysia. In Kyrgyzstan? It’s really something I wouldn’t count on. So we concluded it’s better to just… leave after sixty days.

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