While I collected my Tajikistan and Uzbekistan visas in Baku, Azerbaijan, I didn’t get my Kazakhstan visa there because I thought I could do it easily in Tashkent. And because I was in a hurry to get back to Armenia. And because, well, I couldn’t actually find the embassy.
The latest edition of Lonely Planet (circa 2010) made it sound like it would be a piece of cake in Tashkent, taking just two business days. It wasn’t until a couple weeks before I headed to Uzbekistan that I heard otherwise.
That I should prepare myself for long, chaotic lines and hope I could charm the guards to let me in.
That it would take at least five business days.
That a guy on the Mongol Rally a few years ago left the embassy in Tashkent in tears.
Why didn’t anyone tell me all this earlier?
All that swirled in my mind as I approached the Kazakhstan embassy on Chekhov Street around 8:30 am. the day after arriving in Tashkent. To my surprise, the only people in sight were two guards in olive green uniforms. Reading the sign on the fence surrounding the embassy revealed why: it was Wednesday and the embassy was closed. Damn.
I returned the next morning around 8:00 a.m., an hour before the embassy was scheduled to open. This time, about twenty people were hanging out casually around the embassy entrance, some seated on benches and some standing along a green metal fence. I was confused as to where the line ended but, a quick inquiry to the officer on duty revealed I simply had to add my name to a list posted on the nearby bulletin board. As I wrote my name in at number 44, I wondered how early those at the very top must have arrived.
Then I found a spot on the curb and prepared myself for a long wait.
An hour later, an older French couple arrived, joining me as the only foreigners in the crowd. I showed them where to add their names to the list (which had reached nearly 70 by that point!) and we passed the next thirty minutes taking about their journey driving from France to Mongolia.
At 9:30 (half an hour after the embassy should have opened), one officer moved the metal fence around the corner to create a designated line, while another officer delegated the task of reading the names on the list to a petite woman standing just in front of me. The embassy was finally open.
Despite the list, people seemed to just push their way through to the officer at the gate and plead their case to go inside. So I did the same, staying close to the woman reading names in case mine was called, while working my way to the front and trying to make eye contact with the officer at the same time. It worked and by 10:00, he signaled it was my turn.
Contrary to my expectations, the consular official inside greeted me with a smile (this was especially surprising because I heard him yell at an elderly Uzbek woman earlier who fled in tears). He asked if I spoke Russian, seemed pleased that I did, glanced through my passport and then directed me to pay $30 to a young woman sitting behind a desk. She took my application, stapling my photo to the corner and then issued me a receipt. They instructed me to return a week later at 5:00 p.m., at which point I asked if it was possible to expedite the process at all.
Unfortunately, the answer was negative, confirming my worst fear – that I would need to stay in Tashkent longer than planned, thereby losing time in the historic Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.
I started thinking to myself that Kazakhstan better be worth it.
One week later, I headed back to the embassy around 9:00 a.m. Although I couldn’t pick up my visa until that evening, I noticed the previous week that the list for the evening started in the morning. I managed to get in at number 3 – a big improvement over 44.
Not totally trusting the list and wanting to make sure I got in line toward the front, I showed up again around 4:15, taking a seat on a bench with about 15 others. As 5:00 neared, a large man with a pot belly took charge of the list and started identifying who was who. However, 5:00 came and went with no sign of the embassy opening. To make matters worse, the wind was swirling around, carrying all the sand in the city with it, creating a mini-sandstorm. I looked into the distance and the sky seemed to be growing darker. I initially thought it was the sand, but it turned out to be storm clouds instead. By 5:30, we were bracing for a thunderstorm as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled in the distance.
It was horrible timing for the only rain I saw in ten days in Tashkent.
Finally, at 6:05, with rain falling at a steady pace, the guard announced the embassy was opening. Everyone rushed toward him as he tried to push the crowd back behind the fence and into a line. I resisted being forced back, repeatedly telling him I was number three on the list. Indeed, the two people in front of me already hurried inside. To my surprise, several of the women behind me pleaded my case, trying to make sure I got my place in line. It worked and the guard let me in – I ended up about eighth in line instead of third, but by that time, it didn’t matter. Within minutes, I had my passport in hand with my Kazakhstan visa pasted nicely inside.
As I rushed through the pouring rain to the nearest subway station a few blocks away, I breathed a sigh of relief. At the same time, after a sandstorm, thunderstorm, and losing precious time to visit Samarkand and Bukhara, the thought persisted:
Kazakhstan, you better be worth it.