Central Asia is one of the best travellers destinations out there and yet surprisingly is not heavily visited by backpackers. In 2012 I got to visit Tajikistan for the first time and went exploring down the Wakhan Valley.
This is one of my favourite regions in the world and I loved my time there.
It’s what happened after the Wakhan Valley that became a nightmare.
I had gotten my Tajikistan visa quite easily at the Tajik Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It took only 30 minutes and considering how much of a bureaucratic hell Central Asia can be in regard to visas, that was a miracle.
But I spent longer in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan before heading to Tajikistan that by the time I got there I had already used up part of my visa. So in Dushanbe (the capital of Tajikistan) I took a deep breath and went to the foreign police to organise a visa extension.
I had to fill in a form and wait in line for 2 hours. Finally when my turn came I presented my extension request to the lady at the window.
“Ok, leave your passport and come back in 3 days”, she said.
That was no good as I was leaving the next day to the far south, a 16 hour drive away, to visit the Wakhan Valley with a friend. Also for the Wakhan and Pamir region you needed a special permit to enter which was stamped in your passport, so I couldn’t go without it.
“Is is possible to give you the application papers and then you put the visa extension stamp in my passport when I get back, as I need the passport for the security checks in the Pamir area?” I said to the lady.
She though for a moment before saying, “Ok, that will be fine”.
I made sure she understood what I was saying just to make it clear, “So the day I come back in here I can get the extension stamp in my passport that same day, yes?”
“Yes”, she said.
Great! Problem solved.
This way I could spend the maximum amount of time in the south with the remainder of my visa, and then be able to stay longer in the north once I got my extension.
So the next day we departed.
The drive down south is beautiful, with soaring mountains all around, and most of the journey following the river that separates Tajikistan with Afghanistan.
My time in the Wakhan and Pamir are some of the best travel memories I have.
But saying goodbye to others, myself and a Japanese friend started the long journey back to the capital, as my visa was running out.
It was a 15 hour trip with a crazy driver speeding on some of the worst roads ever.
Arriving late at night back in Dushanbe I passed into a deep sleep at a guesthouse before heading back to the dreaded foreign police the next day.
Waiting again in line I reached the window where there was a different lady from last time. I handed my application receipt over and she retrieved my form.
“Leave your passport and come back in 3 days”, she said.
“Sorry what?” I said, somewhat worried.
You see my visa for Tajikistan expired that day. That was the reason for double checking before I headed south.
“Leave your passport and come back in 3 days and your visa extension will be ready”.
“Sorry, but I spoke to a lady last time I was here and she said I could take my passport with me and get the extension the day I came back”.
“You were given wrong information, you must leave your passport with us for 3 days and then come back”, she said matter of factly.
The lady I had dealt with before was nowhere to be seen.
Fuckity fuck fuck, etc…. was pretty much what my thought process had now turned into.
I went on to explain that my visa was running out that day and I needed the extension now.
“Sorry”, was the reply.
I didn’t have time to leave the country as it was now late in the day, and besides that I had arranged to pick up my Iran visa in Dushanbe, a process that is a headache upon itself.
I had no choice, I would have to overstay the visa and figure it out.
I told the lady I didn’t have time to leave and would be overstaying the visa and what should I do next.
She said to come back the next day when the visa had officially run out.
That night I just wished I was back in the Wakhan Valley with my mates, piled into an old Russian Lada car with way too many people, cruising one of the most beautiful places in the world.
To make matters worse I looked at forums online about overstaying visas, finding horror stories of thousands of dollars in fines.
I had only one good thing going for me – the fact I had applied for the extension beforehand.
I will save you the long 30 minute or so conversation with the foreign ministry and police the next day. I was initially arrested for all of it as I was making a scene as I knew I wasn’t in the wrong. I stood my ground.
They eventually released me. Yes I had broken the law, but was mislead by their side on the visa extension process.
I asked one of the women there if there was a fine, and she said probably. I asked how much, she smiled and didn’t say anything.
They said to leave my passport with them and that I was prohibited from leaving Dushanbe, otherwise I would be arrested and put in jail for sure that time.
“Come back in 3 days and we will see what happens, leave your application form with us”, they said.
I had now decided to nickname them The KGB!
Tajikistan was part of the former Soviet Union and known for its government bureaucracy. Not much had changed, with alleged corrupt officials involved in the drug trade out of Afghanistan driving around in stolen cars from Germany.
This was not going to be fun.
No offence to friends from Dushanbe, or others who may be from there, but it’s not the most exciting city in the world. In fact there was fuck all to do there, and I was trapped.
Staying in the guesthouse I ended up watching reruns of ‘Friends’ (shoot me) and chatting with the owner and his buddies.
Thankfully an Aussie I had met in Kyrgyzstan came to the city for 2 days en-route to the Wakhan and so I had someone I knew to chat with for a while, my Japanese friend having left already.
But that didn’t last long.
The highlight of my days in Dushanbe was getting ice-cream. Yep, enough said.
Every other day I would go into the foreign ministry and police, wait in a bloody line for 2 odd hours, before being told to come back again in 2 days.
The woman in the photo below helped save my sanity everyday by serving me up tasty ice-cream!
To save this article going on forever I will jump ahead of time and skip some more in-depth details with the police.
Basically after a wait of over a week a miracle happened. Going back into the office yet again and the usual waiting in line, I was told that my extension had been granted.
They had taken into consideration the fact that I had applied for the extension before my visa had run out and decided against fining me or putting me in jail.
They were somewhat non-caring in the whole thing, frankly most of them wouldn’t have given a shit what happened to me. But there was one younger person that worked there who was more helpful.
It seems like the younger generation are showing much more enthusiasm for foreigners visiting, as is the case in many parts of the world.
My situation was not over with yet as I was told the extension was only allowing me to get on a plane and fly out of the country.
I had been reading on forums about corrupt officials at the airport asking for bribes from foreigners to stamp them out of the country, sometimes up to and above $500.
To prepare for that situation I checked with the police exactly where on my visa it showed that I was legally allowed to leave the country.
I also still had to get my Iran visa, which would take another 3 days.
The man at the Iran embassy was friendly and I had to pay for the visa and come back after 2 days to go for an interview. The interview was quite fun with the Iranian official in charge asking me lots of random questions for 30 minutes.
It was more like a simple chat over a cup of tea.
Finally I had received my Iran visa and couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of dodge. The very next day I headed to the ‘airport’ to catch a flight to Tehran, the capital of Iran.
Sure enough while waiting in line to get stamped out of the country an older immigration official came over and took me to the front of the queue.
He didn’t speak a word of English and gestured that something was wrong with my visa by comparing it to another persons visa in another passport. The man in the immigration booth agreed. They were obviously working together to scam tourists.
I pointed to the part of the visa that stated I could leave. He shook his head and said “Dollar”, making the motion with his fingers for money.
Fuck this guy.
“Niet dollar!” I said.
“Somoni!” the man replied (Somoni is the Tajik currency).
“Niet dollar, niet somoni, niet problem”, was my final reply.
Looking at him I thought fuck it and grabbed my passport out of his hand and walked fast to get behind the line leading to another booth. He went to pull me back but I pushed him away and shouted very loudly “Niet!”
This made him back off. He obviously didn’t want a big scene, which is what I had guessed.
Waiting in the next line I was just hoping that the guy there wasn’t in on the bribery scam. He was a younger man and said straight away:
“No problem, thank-you for visiting my country.”
Well that was a big relief!
He stamped me out with a smile on his face. I said to him how much I loved travelling around Tajikistan (not the Dushanbe part) and thanked him.
I went through to the waiting area.
I had only a few dollars worth of the local currency left and went to buy a Snickers bar at the only stall in the airport. It’s a very simple and small airport and not modern at all.
“How much for Snickers?” I asked.
“How much do you have left?” was the reply from the lady at the counter.
Fuck this, I was done.
Walking out to get on the Tajikistan Airways plane wishing I knew Russian for “You can shove the Snickers bar up your ass”, I was ready to leave.
Most of Tajikistan Airways planes were (maybe still are) banned from flying internationally due to bad safety.
That fact was not lost on me as the old Boeing took off and I was finally on my way to Iran.
Apart from that visa ordeal and being stuck in Dushanbe (one of my least favourite cities), I really loved my time in Tajikistan.
Indeed I go back a lot. Most of the people are very friendly and the scenery is stunning.
Definitely go if you get the chance.
In over 20 years of travel I never had a visa problem except this one time. Which reminded me for the future to always get a second opinion when it comes to visa issues.
I wanted to share a mishap in travelling which is why I wrote this. It’s easy to think that everything is always great in travel when you see blogs such as mine, but annoying things do happen from time to time!
I do love Tajikistan though. Read my article on how to travel the Pamir Highway there, the second highest highway in the world.
On another note since I wrote this article I went back and visited the Wakhan Valley in Afghanistan and hiked 10 days in the mountains there. I wrote a guide on how to do the adventure.