Capt. Nena Plots Her Own Course to Tajikistan
From Termiz, the group takes a charter bus to the Tajik border, boarding another charter on the other side bound for Dushanbe. Most of the group does that, anyway. Nena, who applied for her Tajik e-visa a few days prior using some sketchy website as opposed to applying for one on the official government website, is once again waiting at the hotel at the last Stan, waiting. Online, she paid $120. The rest of us paid $50, and we actually received visas. I only tell this story because the majority of Americans go their entire lives without applying for a visa, and so hopefully I can offer a bit of insight in this short cautionary anecdote.
First of all: governments issue visas, not corporations. Sometimes, however, the process for paying for a visa to a country may be farmed out to a separate entity for simplicity's sake, usually for a small additional fee like a credit card fee, usually no more than one or two dollars. This is especially true for e-visas (“electronic visas”), which are visas you apply for and obtain online, usually in your email.
Second: when applying for a visa, it is critical you find the official website for obtaining an e-visa. Usually a quick Google search will take you to Tripadvisor, Reddit, or Yahoo! Answers forums where users discuss the e-visa process and provide the best links. This is vital, as you have now learned from Nena’s example, because there are many illegitimate, shady, and downright predatory visa websites that pay their way to the top of Google search results.
Many of the websites that appear on Google, with names like “VisaHQ” and “iVisa” aren’t necessarily fraudulent, but they generally create more trouble than they are worth. Such companies claim that they offer more insight into the various e-visa and visa-processes associated with the hundred of sovereign nations that issue them, and thus collect an additional fee to ensure your application is checked prior to applying. While this may seem like a helpful service, often their websites provide out-of-date application information, lose applications, or take so much time that you receive your visa late, if at all.
Of course, Nena has no visa, and no leads on when one will arrive, so once again we leave her alone with the contact info of a local travel agency, where she is to make arrangements to either meet us in north Tajikistan, or else when we arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in a few days’ time.
Before arriving in the city proper, we visit Hisor fortress in the outskirts of Dushanbe. Once again, we practically have the entire site to ourselves, but this time it is because there are at least two or three weddings taking place just outside the fort. Who would want to see some dumb fortress when a trombone trio is blowing ancient Tajiki jazz over the sounds of a hundred people stomping on thousand-year-old cobblestone streets. When the guide attempts to corral us and take us to the fort museum. We never make it. A few of our group are dancing, others are taking photos with some of the bridesmaids. I am trying to ask a little Tajik boy with a “Feminist Badass” t-shirt if I can take a photo of and/ or with him. He shakes his head 'no,' and we board the bus.
The city of Dushanbe offers many more cultural delights. As we stroll around the impressive city center, with its large square structures and minimal tourist traffic, we catch tiny hammers and sickles on the edges of these imposing government buildings. In front of a fountain, two local teenage girls ask to take pictures of us all, and we happily oblige. In the presidential gardens, one of our group asks our guide, a tiny older man with a good sense of humor, where the bathrooms are. The guide informs him he can make water behind any of the bushes, as there aren’t any public toilets nearby. We resume strolling through the well-maintained park, only to hear yelling in Tajik after hardly thirty seconds’ journey. A man in military uniform is chewing out the kid in our group who, presumably, had just been urinating on the Federal Flower Patches of Tajikistan. Our local guide quickly jumps in and begins apologizing profusely, flashing his tour guide card. The entire group is staring at the drama unfolding and, I think it is safe to assume given all the circumstances, that the urinator is likely peeing his pants in fear. After only a few minutes, however, the guard walks away as if nothing had happened. Apparently, tourists can get away with quite a bit in Tajikistan. Our guide explains that the rise of the Taliban from the south to the north in Afghanistan has made many Tajik officials concerned for their secular government’s future. As a result, they are trying to increase safety and welcome tourists to establish closer ties with the west. This manifests itself by tourist vehicles never getting speeding tickets, simplifying visa application processes, and, apparently, letting Welsh kids urinate on national monuments.
In the afternoon, we visit a national museum which provides ample information about the country’s history. We view a massive stone reclining Buddha, which is somehow installed in the museum’s small second floor. That night, we eat another dinner of kebabs, rice soup, and warm, sugary white wine before retiring to the hotel lobby for some civilized drinks.
Khujand and Its Environs
We awake early the following morning, determined to make it to Khujand in Northern Tajikistan. We wind through the mountains and stop for lunch at a hotel and restaurant that serves incredibly greasy fried chicken tiny threads from the chicken’s feathers buried in the oily fat. That afternoon, we visit the Khujand bazaar, a system of alleys, buildings, and street stalls selling everything under the sun. Before leaving Khujand, we visit an abandoned park with Batman-themed bumper cars and the nation’s tallest statue of Vladimir Lenin, hidden among the tall grasses.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.