Bright Star

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Some of the world’s most notorious leaders have passed through its gates – Timur, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to name a few.  Istravshan or Ura-Tyube controlled the Silk Road trade in its early days, and attracted a large number of skilled merchants and craftsmen who built and rebuilt many beautiful mosque, madrassas, temples and homes throughout the centuries.  Today, the city is a quiet museum that showcases over 2,500 years of the region’s history.   Visitors usually need to find the man with the key to see inside places like this one here.  It’s always good to add a donation if there’s a box at the entrance.

Colorful Past

Stalin and Lenin in Khojand's Market Bazaar

The giant Lenin statue is gone and the crumbling, dimly lit Hotel Leninabad has embraced capitalism.  They open after dark – serving drinks and beats to locals until dawn.

The most attractive vision of the past is this colorful pediment containing both Stalin and Lenin on the side of Khujand’s Panjshande Bazaar. This facade is probably seen as too beautiful to destroy.

Time is Relative

Russian Signage in a Tajik Mosque in Istaravshan

This ancient city is the one of the oldest Silk Road stops in the region whose history spans across 2,5oo years.  Istaravstan is one of those places where travelers can just spend the day getting lost in this living museum.  It’s also hard not to notice the more recent Soviet presence in the city after passing a statue of Lenin or signs written out in cyrillic.

Old habits die hard in Leninabad

Panjshanbe Bazaar
The Panjshanbe Bazaar is more of a reflection of Leninabad times than of the Silk Road Era long before it.  There is an overwhelming selection of dried fruits, nuts, candies in the main building.  It’s the first stop for anyone looking for electronics, socks, cosmetics or just a bag of kurut or dried yogurt balls.

Birds in Flight

Birds in Flight

Across from the Panjshanbe Bazaar lies the Mausoleum of Sheikh Muslihiddi who was known to be a holy miracle worker in ancient times.   Mongol invaders destroyed the city as well as the mausoleum in the early 13th century.   The mosque and madrassah are slowly being reconstructed now that the Soviets are gone as well.

As worshipers complete their afternoon prayers in the courtyard, a mother entertains her child by feeding the birds.

Stuck in time

Life standing still
Russia rolled into this region in the late 1800’s, embraced it with Soviet style reforms and began calling it Leninabad in 1939. Much of the city’s Soviet period architecture is a fading reminder of the last economic boom this city experienced.

Panjshanbe or “Thursday” Bazaar is where one can get a pair of socks, a loaf of fresh Naan, a boot leg music CD or a 20 kilo bag of potatoes. It’s current Soviet decor reflects on how the city remains to be stuck in time. The faux-vaulting wallpaper lining the entrance’s vaulted ceiling is fading and pealing, and the featureless statues greeting patrons have had 20 too many coats of silver spray paint.

A Little Time in Japan and Little Time in China

Kumamoto-Jo Castle
Kumamoto-Jo Castle in Kyushu – Japan
Mt. Aso - Kyushu
Mt. Aso – Kyushu

Japan will always be on the top of my travel list. June was spent traveling around the southern parts of Japan. Previous visits were short, but we now had the ability to spend as much time as we liked or could afford on the weak USD. We started in Osaka since a couple of friends were getting married in May on Lake Biwako near Kyoto. After that, we grabbed a Peach Airlines Flight to southern island of Kyushu and spent a couple of weeks hopping around the volcanic island. We ended up just skirting the usually wet rainy season they experienced just a few days after we flew to Tokyo.

We ended the Japan trip in Tokyo. We decided to rent out a service apartment in the Shinjuku. Here, we planned out our upcoming Fall trip and sorted out most of our visas to the “Stans” of Central Asia, spent our days hanging out with friends, enjoying the city, local food and the luxury of having access to real high-speed internet.

Narita Airport - Tokyo
Departing Gate at the Narita Airport – Tokyo
Beijing International Airport
Arrival Gate at the Beijing Airport

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Bumpy ride to Beijing!

It’s been a few years since I have experienced one of those flights that makes you swear you will never fly again. We landed after the pilot decided to head straight through a storm that was heading towards Beijing. When we landed, most passengers were flushed and blurry eyed as we streamed into to arrivals terminal at Beijing International. Some fellow passengers were stained by the flying sodas, juice etc. that flew through the air as our plane made an unexpected drop during dinner service. I managed to escape unscathed. I was just so happy to be on solid ground once again. The pilot did manage to get the plane down ahead of the storm, but the dark clouds caught up streamed in and opened up just as we arrived into the city.

The downpour started just as we got off the metro. We got trapped at the metro station without umbrellas or a small boat to get us through the flooded streets to our hostel. We ended up spending about 1 hour waiting for an opportunity to make a run for it. The journey from metro to hostel required some puddle and sidewalk sink holes dodging but we finally made it.

We managed to drag ourselves and our stuff safely to the Hutong west of the Forbidden City that first stormy night in Beijing. We got soaked but our stuff wasn’t. I’m not sure how we pulled that one-off, but we did thankfully.

Inside the Forbidden City on a Smoggy Day

Waiting on a Visa…

We had just one night at the Hutong Hostel and later moved to an apartment on the other side of Beijing until we headed west towards Central Asia in a couple of weeks. Hostels are great but having a washer, kitchen and quiet work area were necessary this time.

We were here to get our Turkmenistan Visa and see more of post-Olympics Beijing. It was a lot of work for all the back and forth, waiting, some more waiting all for a 10 day required tour. Beijing is a large city so there’s much to see and do while we wait.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square
Military Museum - Beijing
Military Museum – Beijing

The National Museum, the Olympic Park and the Military Museum were the top three on our must see list this time. We got our Turkmenistan visa, saw the top three, and managed to see both the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square again.

Our time in Beijing soon came to an end. With our visas in hand and better idea of what direction we will be going in the next few months, we boarded an Air China flight to Urumqi. In Beijing, we managed to survive both the elevated AQI levels and a couple of storms that pummeled the city during our two-week visit. I’m sure Beijing will all be a totally different the next time we stop by for a visit or maybe not?

Acquiring Central Asian Visas in Tokyo

It’s been a long time (a few years actually) since I’ve written anything substantial in a blog post, so please forgive me as I get my ‘blog legs’ back in order. Oddly enough, this will start off with a case of deja vu from early 2008. Back then we were traveling around Laos and Vietnam and were trying to do some forward planing for the next few months. Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, and China were on our wayward list, but what about after that? How about Central Asia or “the ‘stans” as they are colloquially known? Thoughts of Mongol hordes, glorious Persian architecture, and towering mountains filled my head and invoked some serious wanderlust. We could travel by land across China and fly out from somewhere in the region (Tashkent perhaps?). A great way to spend late Spring/early Summer. Easy, right?

A few days of detailed Internet searching put that notion of ease quickly to rest. Central Asia is definitely not high on the tourist/backpacker roadshow and gathering information on a general route through the region was few and far between. Tales of “Letters of Invite”, mandated tours, and Soviet style bureaucracy left a distinctly dry feeling in ones mouth. We would either have to get visas as we went (less than ideal given visa constraints) or would have to get them all at once in Beijing (the only place in East Asia with all five consulates). Given that we were coming into China on a 30 day non-extendable visa, logistics among the embassies would be tight. This was right before the Olympic games and the Chinese authorities were starting to clamp down on giving out/renewing visas. Ultimately, however, our hopes were dashed when we arrived in Beijing in early April. The March 2008 events in Tibet resulted in the closing off of western China to foreigners (i.e. anything past Chengdu). We decided at that point to move on to North Africa and would revisit the plan for Central Asia at a later date. The one upside was that we started following the Uncornered Market folks, as they were one of the few blogs out there with information about the region.

Fast forward to 2012 and we’re in East Asia again. After spending three months last year dealing with visa/tour fun for our September trip to Iran, acquiring visas for Central Asia is easy by comparison. It took us a total of 10 calendar days (i.e. Monday to the following Wednesday) to get four visas for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakstan in Tokyo. This can be done a few days earlier (say 7 or 8) if you’re prepared and quick enough on the metro.

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General information for Central Asian visas in Tokyo

Keep the following tips in mind when getting visas here:

  • Plan, Plan, Plan. Specifically the order that you will be traveling to these countries, the number of entries desired, etc. Central Asian visas are date specific (i.e. 1-Sept-2012 to 31-Oct-2012 for 1 entry with a maximum time in country of 30 days).
  • Visas for these consulates normally take a week to process (up to two in the case of Uzbekistan), which would mean a month or so for all four. However, you can call ahead and explain that you’re getting all four and kindly ask if you can leave a copy of your passport instead of the original with the embassy. This way you can apply for all of them in parallel, cutting it down to a week. The consulates of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were happy to do this for us, but Kazakstan said they would have to keep our original passports.
  • If you apply in parallel you should do it in the following order: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (which are a few blocks from each other in Nakameguro) and Tajikistan and Kazakstan (which are a few blocks from each other in Roppongi).
  • Pick them up in the opposite order. When we picked up our passport from the Kazak embassy, we dropped off our passports at the Tajik embassy. The next day we went back and picked them up from there and then went to the Kyrgyz and Uzbek embassies (who put the visas in on the spot).
  • When speaking to the the person from the embassy and using English, please be very polite. Most of the staff speak Japanese as their second language, so you might be getting the ambassador (him|her)self!
  • Most of the embassies expect ‘bank transfers’ for payment. This is quite common in Japan and can be done at any bank ATM machine (you can pay in cash and it is directly deposited into the consulate’s account). The catch here, however, is that the transfer option is only available in the Japanese language ATM menu. If you don’t read Japanese kindly ask someone there (the guard, etc) to help you or bring someone who does with you. Keep the transaction receipt as this is what you will present to the consulate for proof of payment.
  • Some consulates expect the payment receipt at time of application and some expect it at pickup time.
  • Emails to any of these consulates routinely go unanswered; call instead.

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