Many years back, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, I decided to go to the ex-Soviet states of Uzbekistan and Russia.All of this happened in the early days of Uzbekistan’s independence and very soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before deciding to venture into the land, which was a dark spot on the world map, for me and for many others, due to international political manoeuvring and propaganda, churned to dispel socialist ideas, I brought my prior travelling experiences to the forefront, and deciding that it couldn’t be much different from the rest of the world, planned my trip accordingly. Soon you will start understanding the uniformity blunder and the cliché library.
I boarded the flight from Peshawar, Pakistan to Tashkent, the proud capital of the newly independent Republic of Uzbekistan. The flight experience was not much different from any local or international, approximately 2 hour, flight. But, the usual stuff ended with the flight.
Around 4 in the evening, we arrived at Uzbekistan’s Tashkent International Airport. The plane came to a halt. The air-stairs rolled into position, and the flight crew opened the door. Under normal circumstances this hatch might had opened into a usual scenario. But this time it was an opening into wonders of the yester years.
The vehicle awaiting the alighting passengers was no modern low floor bus, like the ones which were used at nearly all the airports by that summer of 1992. It was no Scania or Mercedes. It was some Ikarus truck with a trailer.
The new and unexpected did not end with this. This bus was in fact just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Cramped in that tow trailer, we reached the doors of the terminal. My regular-procedure routine kicked in and I hurried off the bus, towards the terminal, to go through the passport control ahead of the whole flight.
As soon as I entered the terminal, I saw a long corridor ahead of me. But some 5-6 meters down the path, the corridor was cordoned off. I was just taken aback a little to see two mid-aged women, dressed in white gowns, ones which looked like medical gowns, attending the make-shift counter. With overwhelming astonishment, invoked by the looks of the immigration staff, I approached the counter, and before I could even say hello, one of the attendants asked me for my passport.
In the meanwhile, a second queue had formed on the parallel counter, and the person at the head of the line had also handed his passport over. After grabbing my passport, the madam behind the counter asked me for something in her proficient Russian. Since I could not speak the tongue, I said: “Sorry, I can’t understand”.
The woman repeated her demand in a louder voice, as if instead of saying that I could not understand, I had said that I was deaf. But, the raising voice technique did not do any good. I still was at a loss to grasp the essence of her query. But looking at her outfit, and taking the surroundings into account, I was sure that she was not asking me out for a drink or for a dance!
The passenger behind me jumped into our intimate conversation and said: “She is asking for the tourist voucher, which you submitted at the Uzbekistan embassy for visa”.
Ok, so she was asking me for the piece of paper, which as per my understanding was a confirmation of hotel reservation. Back in those days, one had to make hotel reservations in advance for the purpose of getting visa to visit the ex-Soviet Union (they had a single visa for a number of newly independent states including Russia).
I handed out the three day hotel reservation confirmation, or as they called it the tourist voucher. The woman took a sigh of relief and started entering my data in her register. That was another very strange thing for me, because even back in 1992 immigration control officers already used computers everywhere.
She took her time, entered all my details in her register and handed me back my passport and the tourist voucher, without stamping my passport, and signalled me to move on. I was nothing short of bewildered by the process of immigration control. No stamps in the passport, no verification of visa, nothing!?
Lost in my thoughts, about the procedures, I went down the aisle, and some 10 meters down the line turned right, and voila, there they were, the regular uniformed, strict looking men and women in peaked caps.
As I reached the row of immigration counters, I scanned the territory to find the shortest queue. I saw a vacant lane and went right ahead to the immigration officer, who was probably waiting very anxiously to prey on the first fowl.
Approaching the counter I said: “hello”, and extended my passport towards the guy manning the station. He grabbed the passport, not even bothering to respond to my greetings. But, hey, who can complain about such behaviour exhibited by uniformed officers.
He took a look at the photo in my passport, and then raised his head to confirm if I was the same person or not. Then he lowered his gaze towards the passport again, and again raised his eyebrows to see me. He repeated this eye shifting at least ten times, while every time turning a new page in my passport. I was standing there and wondering if he could see a different photo on each page of my passport. But, the more he looked at me the more my lips broadened in smile.
After making sure that my passport had all 36 pages, as was written in it, and after feeling the authenticity of the passport with his fingertips, he also asked me for the tourist voucher. The difference this time was that the monsieur behind the counter could utter a few words of English.
Taking the tourist voucher from me, his hands disappeared under the counter, where there was an open briefcase, which had a computer installed in it. Now that was amazing, because back in 1992, laptops were very expensive, so at all the airports, where I had been, immigration officers enjoyed the pleasure of using table-top computers.
After all, there was something more advanced about the Soviet Union as compared to the rest of the world.
The immigration officer took his time playing with his advanced office equipment, and I kept wondering that probably he was trying to force his computer to declare me one of the world’s most wanted criminals. But failing to compel the database, after some 20 minutes, he gladly stamped my passport, and disembarkation card.
Taking back the custody of my passport, and nodding goodbye, I proceeded towards the baggage claim area.
The baggage claim area again welcomed me with a surprise. There was only one conveyor, but that conveyor and the surrounding area was barricaded behind a steel grill, and it was very badly lit. I went inside that prison cell kind of baggage claim area and waited for my bag.
Soon my bag appeared from behind the cavity. I took my bag, and started on my way following the exit sign. Just 10-12 steps away I came up to the customs counters. As everywhere, they had this red marked passage and a green-channel. I had a small bag with only my personal belongings, and nothing to declare, so I went through the green-channel. But, remember we were at the Uzbekistan’s Tashkent International Airport, not Singapore’s Changi Airport. As I stepped between the counters to pass, an officer of the Uzbekistan customs asked me to stop. He took my passport and asked me for the declaration form.
I informed him in a very casual manner that I had nothing to declare, hence no declaration form. The officer smiled and said that I needed the declaration form in any case. I said ok and asked him to give me a declaration form, so that I could fill it and go.
The officer pointed towards a window a few meters back and told me that I had to get the form from there. I grabbed my bag, and went to get the declaration form. As I approached the window and asked for the dreaded form, I was told that I had to pay for it.
Now that was something really new. Where in the world have you ever purchased a customs declaration form? As far as I am concerned, I had never even dreamt of purchasing such items, and mind you I had travelled extensively before that late August day.
Now you should get ready for the real fun. My lack of information, about the place where I was heading, started paying-off. I had money, but I had all my money in traveller’s cheques. Back then it was the safest way of carrying money. At any airport in the world, you could arrive, and readily cash your cheque(s) to have local currency. Back in those days there were a lot more different currencies then today.
I asked the person behind the counter about the price of the declaration form. It was just 100 roubles. In 1992 it meant about 10 US cents. I told him that I needed to exchange money. He pointed towards a man sitting behind a nearby pillar and told me that I could exchange money with him.
I went up to the money man. It is needless to say that he could not speak English. But, as they say, money loves silence. I had no problem making him understand my intentions. I took out a hundred dollar Thomas Cook travellers cheque and gave it to him. He took the cheque. Looked at it very closely, and then turned it over to see the back side. Then he raised his eyebrows and looked at me as if I had tried to con him into exchanging a counterfeit US dollar bill. Most certainly it was the first time in his life that he had seen such an instrument of payment.
He uttered some words in the exotic tongue, and handed me back the cheque. I again attempted to explain to him with gestures that I needed to cash the cheque. Responding to my persistent query, he just managed to utter “No, no, no”. Maybe I am not a native English speaker, but I could understand that he had refused to cash the cheque.
Now that is what you call a dead-end. I asked the money man if there was a bank in the terminal. He probably did understand the word “bank”, because he pointed towards the exit, saying something in the same mysterious language. I grasped the idea that he was telling me that the bank was outside the terminal building. I thanked him for nothing, and went back to the customs officer.
As he was the only person, who could understand English, I tried to explain to him that I was ready to leave my bag, go out, exchange money, and then come back to buy the declaration form, and go my merry way. But after listening to my marvellous plan, he simply told me that I could not go out until I had submitted the declaration form.
So, comprehending the vicious circle of no money no form, no form no exit, no exit no money, and back to square one, I just put down my bag in the middle of the territory and sat on it. I was now contemplating how I was going to pass the rest of the 29 days of my journey at the airport, awaiting my return flight and dreaming about the historical sites of Uzbekistan that I could see.
As I was sitting there, just gazing around, one of the passengers, who had arrived on the same flight with me, came up to me and asked, why I was sitting there, and not leaving. He was also from Pakistan, so I had no problem explaining that I was caught in a vicious bureaucratic circle.
After listening to me he asked me to come with him. We went straight to the window, where they sold those dreaded declaration forms. He took out a 100 rouble note, which carried an image of bald Lenin, and giving it to the official salesman, bought me a form.
To tell you the truth I had no idea, how much those 100 roubles really translated into. Taking the form and thanking my benefactor, I assured him that I would give him back the money as soon as we could go out and find the bank. He just shrugged off the idea of returning 100 roubles, but at the same time gave me the “good news” that there was no bank at the airport, even beyond that exit gate.
Anyway, I victoriously returned to the same Customs officer, gave him the filled-out declaration form, and waving “hasta la vista baby” hurried towards the exit.
To be continued…