A few years ago, I experienced my first ever nightmare while traveling. This was the blog I initially wrote and was immediately featured on Travbuddy, a couple of years back. Anyway, here it is in full.
It all started around May-June of 2012. We were thinking of places to go for September holiday. We thought of a European loop but then couldn't get excited about it so we said, why not Central Asia? We thought of doing Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. All of these countries did not have any embassies in Hanoi where I was based. However, our tour manager in Tashkent (fly.uz) said that they could issue an advance approval through an LOI (Letter of Invitation). Since I am a Filipino, I knew that my passport was going to have issues at the border, so I made sure that it was okay to travel to these countries. I got my approval for both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Our tour manager in Tashkent confirmed that I could get a Kyrgyz visa on arrival provided I have a double entry visa for Kazakhstan. This was confirmed so many times by the tour company in Bishkek as well. After confirming several times, we decided to book and pay for everything.
Our itinerary was like this: HAN-BKK-TAS (Vietnam Airlines + Uzbekistan Airways - the latter is such a dreadful airline). The plane was old and yellow with age. It was absolutely filthy and there was toilet paper on the floor. Apparently a lot of Israelis take this airline to go to Bangkok because it is a cheaper option from Tel-Aviv. I was seated right next to a middle aged Israeli man who pretty much told me about how shitty the airline was. (Not fun as I am a nervous flier).
We arrived in TAS around early morning and for some reason, our bus took us to a transit building - along with about 20 or so tourists from Taiwan. Nobody really spoke English and there were so many people sleeping on the floor and right on the stairs. After trying to find people who could speak English and guide us to the arrival building, a bus finally took us to the right building. There was nobody at the Visa on Arrival window, and a few minutes later, a guy arrived. I cannot remember the amount (but I remembered feeling overcharged- no receipts were given), but the guy made a terrible mistake on my visa- we asked for double entry, and he only did single entry. I had to argue with the guy until he changed it but forgot to sign the visa (as I found out coming back from ALA. It gave me another headache at the immigration in TAS). TAS is an odd airport. It took us over hour just to clear the green zone (must declare everything as in EVERYTHING), that's on top of around an hour just clearing immigration in an area so small that multiple arrivals are just absolute bedlam. It was definitely the worst airport I've ever been to. So far.
Fast forward to next leg of the trip, after a wonderful time in Samarqand, it was time now to fly from TAS-ALA via SCAT Air. The guy at the check in did not tell us that the plane was a tiny Bombardier jet. Meaning my backpack which normally fits in the overhead compartment in bigger planes wouldn't fit at all in this plane. Suffice to say, we had to have our backpacks in between our legs, during the entire flight from TAS-ALA. The instructions were entirely in Russian and Kazakh. Nobody spoke English. I was shaking my head.
ALA was refreshingly more efficient than TAS. As a planespotter, I love taking photos of these birds. As we left the plane, I took a snapshot of SCAT Air, and then out of the blue, this guy with a big hat chased me down and yelled 'DELETE! DELETE!' while pointing at my DSLR. I was like, 'Chill out dude,' and I deleted the photos. Visa on arrival was less hectic at ALA, however, the woman tried to argue with me that she can only give a single entry. I told her, with the piece of paper from Kazakh MFA told us that it was for double entry. Wow, they are so unfriendly. She relented and I guess realised her folly and she gave me the double entry.
ALA was strange city. That's all I can say for now. Most private cars double as taxis. It was freaky. And you can't even take photos of their Bazaar. 'Nyet' was an all too common word I heard in Central Asia- I was ready to call them the 'Nyetistans'.
Fast forward again, our Kyrgyz guide and driver picked us up at our hotel (Astra Hotel) and we drove to the border. Cleared Kazakh immigration and crossed the bridge over at the Kyrgyz side. Kyrgyz officer took my passport inside an office and BAM. They told me I couldn't get in because of my Filipino passport. I thought that was odd considering that I was assured by our Tashkent tour manager, the Bishkek travel agency and even confirmed by a Kazakh embassy in KL (that I needed a double entry Kazakh visa to qualify for a Kyrgyz visa). I was shocked. Immediately the border guard escorted me back over to the Kazakh side- the person travelling with me (Australian) went back with me as well despite being let through. Thankfully, I always have my mobile with me with Kazakh and Uzbek numbers, overcoming my initial shock, I calmly texted our Tour Manager in Tashkent and told him what happened and he said he would take care of it. We were told that our tour agency in Bishkek which was about 30 minutes away would go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so we had to wait in no man's land with our Kyrgyz guide. The Kyrgyz manager said that she could get me a visa and she would get it at around 4PM, and then 4:30. By 4:30 she called me and she was saying that I might have to go back to Almaty and try to fly in to Bishkek the same night. I vehemently disagreed with this option considering that if I went back to Kazakhstan, I would use up my double entry. It was obvious by now that she couldn't get a visa for me. So I accepted my fate and called my travel partner who initially went through the Kyrgyz immigration to come back to where I was. She tried explaining to me that I could get a visa at Bishkek airport- which I thought was a big fat lie. If she couldn't get me a visa right at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, what made her think that I could get a visa at the airport? I wasn't born yesterday. I used to work with many embassies and consulates and I have a lot of friends who are ambassadors and consuls and I knew in the back of my mind that the Bishkek travel agency royally screwed up my travel plans. If I went through with their plan of me going back to Almaty to fly to Bishkek and I got refused again at the airport, I would not be able to go back to Kazakhstan (visa used up) and I would end up in jail and get deported! I firmly told her - "I do not want to go to Kyrgyzstan anymore!' I told her to book me a hotel or room of the same price in Almaty that night and fly me to Tashkent first thing in the morning. She tried to wiggle out of this one as well, she told me that there weren't any available flights to Tashkent from Almaty! This despite my tour manager in Tashkent saying that there were. She even used our tour manager's name - Rustam to lie to us. I told Rustam that he had to fly us back to Tashkent even if it meant us flying through Astana first and then flying from there to Tashkent. We just wanted to get out of there. I did not want to miss my plane to Bangkok. It was a horrible, horrible experience. All because some woman in Bishkek did not do her homework.
For ALA-TAS, we flew with Astana Air- clean and looked more professional than the drab Uzbekistan Airways. While waiting for the check in counters to open, we found a seat nearby. Then when our flight was announced, we had to file in and get checked again! A man approached us and asked to check our tickets apparently to confirm our flights. I found that odd but since I was in Central Asia, we thought it was normal, he made what looked like a very quick call and then said that our counters were open (duh, it was on a tiny screen). I grabbed my tickets from him and went to the queue and he then shouted - 'TENGE! TENGE!' This dawned on me that this was a scam, and apparently a common scam right inside the airport in Almaty. I told him I didn't have any and then walked quickly away from him. The toilets at the airport were filthy and there was a single gate.
The moment I landed in TAS, got snagged at the immigration again, all because the dude who did my visa on arrival did not do his job correctly. Thankfully, an Uzbek woman who was also in the same queue helped me get through (I was loudly complaining how people do not know how to properly queue). Same thing, took a lot of time queueing at the customs green zone.
Spent a quieter day in Tashkent, went around the city to see the sights we missed. Our 'guide' was some kid who was more interested texting rather than doing anything. He drove like a maniac too.
Finally TAS-BKK- I was so happy to leave for Bangkok. We wanted to buy some last minute souvenirs at TAS, but guess what. They don't accept their own money right in the Duty Free at the airport. Wow.
We lost a lot of money on this trip because of inefficient travel agents and very odd government policies. When I went back home, I told my friends to never ever consider going to Kyrgyzstan. I've been to quite a respectable number of countries now, but never was I treated as shabbily as in Kyrgyzstan. Central Asia has its charms- I think that travelers should go and visit Samarqand at least once. Other than that- the rest would be entirely forgettable.
Dave Ryan A. Buaron, Owner and Co-Founder THE NEXT ESCAPE: TRAVEL, ARTS, SPORTS AND LIFESTYLE