In Moscow without a visa

Day 23 – 22nd August – Bishkek to Moscow to Barcelona (6010km – by plane)

The alarm clock woke me up at one o’clock in the morning. I was deeply asleep and could have gone on for 10 more hours, but I had to get home.

The taxi driver was a young guy that turned out to be a lot more helpful than the two from the day before – he helped me get from the lobby to the car and once we got to the airport he left the car in the drop-off area and took me to through security and up to an information desk where I could ask for assistance. The woman at the desk asked for my ticket and said she would call a Ural Airlines representative.

I had really been looking forward to this. Finally, three days after breaking my foot, I was in the hands of an airline that would take me home. They sat me on a wheelchair, pushed me to the front of the check-in queue, took my suitcase, printed the boarding passes and, most importantly, reassured me that I would have no problems to connect flights in Moscow.

When I was buying the tickets the website kept insisting that it was my responsibility to have a proper transit visa for Russia, the same warnings were written on my ticket, and I had found contradictory information online – most people said that there was an international transit area and that a transit visa was not needed so long as you did not leave that area, but everything I could find was several years old and EU-Russia relations have been deteriorating since the war in Ukraine. Then there was the information on Domodedovo Airport’s website, which said that I needed to take my luggage through security and customs before taking the connecting flight and that required going through customs myself. I had seen several warnings that travellers without a proper visa would be returned to their point of departure. I must confess that I was rather worried about finding myself on a plane back to Bishkek after all the trouble it had taken me to get here.

Fortunately, the staff from Ural Airlines told me that they would take care of my suitcase and there was no need to leave the international transfer area.

I had to wait for two hours in the departures area because the flight had been delayed, and finally, past six in the morning, the boarding started. Instead of going through the regular boarding gates, I was wheeled through some restricted areas, onto the ramp and to the airstairs – Bishkek airport has no fingers. I was hoisted up the stairs and sat in the front row before the rest of passengers started boarding the plane.

I had a four-hour layover in Domodedovo, but because of the delay, that had been reduced to just under an hour. I had to wait for everyone to deplane, then a special truck docked onto the R1 door, which is only used to load the catering or emergencies, and I was put on a wheelchair, transferred to the truck and then driven to the terminal.

There, I went through a security check that seemed to be the one used by airport staff and then through a door right to the gate area where my plane was departing from. It was nine in the morning and the flight was leaving in twenty minutes, so I thought everything was going great until they told me that the flight had been delayed until midday and parked me next to the gate.

I spent my time reading and watching people argue about the delay with the ground staff. I tried to move around and see the terminal, but my back and ribs still hurt, so I could not get any further than a nearby restaurant where I had a sandwich. I hated having to pay airport prices, but I had not eaten anything since the pizza the night before.

At noon, we boarded the plane and headed to Barcelona. I think I have already said this many times, but Barcelona airport has one of the most beautiful approaches in the world. As the airplane lines up for its final approach you are over the sea and can see the whole city to your right, all the landmarks easily recognisable and, this time, I was particularly emotional to see my city.

I went straight to hospital, where they confirmed the three broken bones in my foot and also found that I had two broken ribs. They changed the cast and told me that the foot looked better than they had originally thought seeing the x-ray I brought from Osh hospital – it might not be necessary to operate the foot. They told me the medical team would study the case and tell me something in a few days. In the meantime, I had to keep my foot up and try to rest as much as possible.

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The 600,000-kilometre Mercedes

Day 22 – 21st August – Osh to Bishkek (669km – by car)

669 kilometres between the second biggest city in the country and the capital. Roughly the same distance that separates the second biggest city in Spain, Barcelona, and its capital, Madrid. Back home, you can do that journey by motorbike, car, bus, train and plane. Here, there was no bus and no train, there were no available seats on the next flights and the motorbike was out of the question. Back home, it takes six to seven hours to drive the road that connects the two main cities. Here, it took 12 to 13.

The taxi I had booked via CBT Osh rolled outside my hostel punctually at 8 o’clock in the morning. It was a black second generation E-Class Mercedes, the ones that cover astronomical mileages doing duty as taxis in Stuttgart, and judging by the mileage on this one, it may very well have been shipped to Kyrgyzstan after its driving duties in Germany were done. It received the usual local treatment: lots of blankets over the seats, a wooden bead seat cover for the driver and a poor tinted window job that had become translucent, almost completely blocking the view out of the back windows. The dashboard was lit like a Christmas tree with warning lights and error messages, there were unplugged bits of wiring loom hanging from below the passenger seat, the seatbelt buckles were missing and, needless to say, the aircon was long dead. Somewhere along the trip I caught a glimpse of the total mileage of the car at that moment: 618,739 kilometres.

 

The reason the journey to Bishkek took so long was not the car, though, but the road. Despite being the road that connects the two main cities, it was only better than the dirt tracks I had been riding on in that it was sealed, but it still only had two lanes, went across all towns and villages through the centre, had bumps and potholes everywhere, and tarmac could disappear without notice at any moment.

I had had time for my back, ribcage and shoulder to recover from the first fall a week ago, but hopping everywhere with a cast on my foot and now the constant shaking and violent jolts sent straight up my spine through the car seat every time the we hit a pothole sent my recovery down the drain.

I barely left the car every time the driver stopped for a pause, other than standing next to it and stretching my legs. I didn’t eat anything and only visited the toilet once. The only thing I could think of was the bed in the hotel room in Bishkek, the most comfortable, luxurious accommodation we had seen all trip.

With 40 kilometres to go, we entered the sprawling suburbs of Bishkek, and the tarmac disappeared once again. They were resurfacing the road, and traffic crawled at walking speed amidst a thick cloud of dust. I had got my hopes up that we would arrive in half an hour, but now it was clear it was going to take much, much longer.

The car was overheating again – it had already given signs of trouble climbing some mountain passes on the way – so the driver stopped for one last break with 10 kilometres to go at what looked like a marshrutka depot, where he knew other drivers. After having a cigarette and chatting to his friends while the car cooled down, he got on the driver’s seat again and twisted the key. And nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Not a single noise.

He tried several times, but the car was dead. He was really embarrassed about it and apologised profusely. As a solution to get me to my destination, he walked out onto the main street, hailed a city taxi and paid him to take me to the hotel.

When I crawled into the reception area, the poor girl behind the desk must have thought the zombie apocalypse had started. It was clear that the high traffic season for motorbikes was at the beginning and at the end of the month, the hotel was deserted and there were only a handful of bikes outside, in contrast to the storm of activity that had taken over the courtyard when we arrived at the beginning of our trip. I dumped a lot of information on her –what had happened to me, that I wanted a room but needed a taxi to leave in three hours, that my bike was arriving the following morning but I’d be gone by then, that I had luggage stored somewhere in the hotel and needed it right away, and please could she send some food to my room.

A very nice German couple helped me get to my room and after a painful shower a pizza was delivered to my door. Half an hour later, the manager arrived and sorted everything for my bike to be unloaded and stored in the hotel the following day. Clean, fed, and with the bike transport sorted on this end, I lay in bed to try and get some sleep before the taxi to the airport picked me up in an hour.

Issik-kul

Day 5 – Sunday 4th August – Bishkek to Tossor (338km)

We got up at 6am and the hotel was already bustling with activity – a whole party was setting of to China with Sambor, the guy from AdvFactory, others were ready to leave for Mongolia, others had just landed in Bishkek and were already dusting off their bikes, which had been sitting at the hotel for over a month, and an Italian guy was fighting with his old Africa Twin trying to convince her to stay running. We joined in the frenzy and started loading our bikes, a process which always takes much longer than expected and is never right the first time. Well, nevermind, we’d have plenty of time to perfect it over the next few days.

We were lucky it was Sunday, as the traffic was much, much calmer than on the previous days, so getting out of Bishkek was a lot easier than I feared but that did not free us from going through the rite of passage this kind of travel inevitably entails – getting stopped by the police to try and extort a fine out of you. There were police cars stopping drivers every few kilometres outside the city, I don’t know if it is a regular thing or it was because it was Sunday and possibly the first weekend of holidays for many people and we were travelling on a road to a popular tourist destination. Be as it may, we went past many of them without problems, riding at the same speed as the rest of the traffic, until one signalled us to stop. Marc was riding first, so he stopped a bit further down the road and I stopped closer to the police car. The guy came to me making gestures that seemed to mean that it was not me he wanted to stop, it was Marc, but when he got to me I got off the bike, shook his hand respectfully and introduced myself. He asked me where I was from and when I said Barcelona he inmediately started talking about football and by the time Marc had reached us he was explaining that he had a team with his police friends and they called themselves Barça. When he saw Marc he explained that he had been doing 51km/h through some roadworks and the limit there was 40. He said up to 50 was OK, but above, he mimicked writing a fine with his hands. That was total bullshit, as we were all going at the same speed, so we kept smiling and talking about football. He asked to see Mark’s license, had a quick look at it and let us go with a friendly shake and a reminder not to go more than 10km/h above the limit.

From there on, the route was rather monotonous, it was a main road in relatively good condition, the only entertainment provided by the occasional sucidal overtaking, until we turned off to visit Burana Tower.

This tower is the only thing that remains of an ancient city calle Balasagun, and it was used as a watchtower from which fire was lit to send a message to warn about danger or invaders. We had barely parked the bikes at the entrance when we were surrounded by curious people, all asking questions about the bike and wanting to have their pictures taken with us. We had a quick look at the tower, and went on towards our destination for the day: a yurt camp by lake Issyk-kul, the largest lake in the country, measuring 182 kilometers long by 60 kilometres wide.

We had been travelling at relatively low speed, so our fuel consumption was really low and we were not too worrid about finding a petrol station as the road around the lake was a main route, but after passing village after village with abandoned stations as our fuel was running low, we began to worry. We had not filled our jerrycans because we did not want to carry too much weight, and as we were starting to realise it was a mistake, we turned a corner and saw small petrol station and lots of cars queueing for it. We had to wait for a while, but we got enough fuel to have peace of mind for the following days, which was nice. What was not so nice was how 10 extra kilos felt perched high at the very far back of the bike…

We reached Tossor and stopped to buy some supplies and ask for directions to the yurt camp. We were pointed down a side street that turned into a sandy track before reaching the camp, which our heavy bikes did not like one bit. Marc made it through without problems, but I almost fell over. Luckily, I reached the camp without incident and we immediately went for a swim in the lake.

The problems begin

Day 3 – Friday 2nd August – Istambul to Bishkek (3740km – by plane)

I did not get a wink of sleep in the 5-hour plus overnight flight to the Kyrgyz capital – we were crammed together in a 737 with barely any more room than a low-cost flight and as I stepped down the flight stairs into the scorching heat everything had a dream-like quality. The airport was small, it looked more like a regional airfield than the international airport it was, consisting of only one runway we had to backtaxi on and a single terminal building without any fingers. On the tarmac, a couple 737s from Eastern airlines, a cargo 747 and an Ilyushin Il-76.

We got our passpaports stamped without hassle – the country offers visa-free entry to EU citizens, changed some money and met the guy the hotel had sent to pick us up. There was one thing we needed to do before, though – go to the Tajik embassy to sort our visas for that country. We could have done that online from home, but the e-visa is only single-entry and we wanted to try and get a double-entry one at the embassy so that we could reenter the country after going to Uzbekistan without having to worry for a second online application to be accepted while on the road. Unfortunately, the guy there told us that they only issued double-entry visas for business, so we applied for a regular tourist one. We would have to apply for a second one online while in the country. It was Friday morning and the guy told us that they were closing for holidays on that very same day, but as a special favour he would process the visas and have them ready by that same afternoon.

There are some places scattered around the globe that are little havens for the few crazy ones of us that decide to see the world from a motorbike, and the hotel was one of them. This was the point where AdvFactory sent the motorbikes to from all over Europe and there was an atmosphere of excitement about the coming trips in the air. The courtyard was packed full of motorbikes, some ready to go, others still half assembled, others proudly wearing a layer of dirt waiting to be shipped back home, and there was talk everywhere about places to see. Some people giving advice about the routes they had just completed, others talking excitedly about their destination – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, India, Mongolia, with sunburnt faces, and grease under their fingernails. We found our bikes and our luggage, unpacked, had a well-deserved shower and then went out for a meal.

In the afternoon, after a nap to make up for the sleepless night in the plane, we took a cab back to the Tajik embassy to collect or visas. The ride there was an adventure in itself – the car was a crumpling old Lada with an engine that had a habit of cutting off while in the middle of crazy traffic and the driver did not speak a word of English and did not seem sure about where we wanted to go but it did not matter, it was all part of the adventure. The real problems started when we got to the embassy. The guy there told me that there was a problem with my passport, that I had less than six months before its expiry date. I felt the blood drain from my face.

‘That’s not possible’ I told him. ‘It’s November 2020!’. I handed him the passport again and pointed at the date. ‘Ah, yes, yes, sorry, it’s the other one’ he said. We looked at Mark’s passport and sure enough, it expired in less than six months. It was only by a few days, but it was enough for the visa to be denied, even though he had had no problem obtaining an online visa to Turkey or entering Kyrgyzstan, and there was nothing we could do about it there.

We went back to the hotel crestfallen and started evaluating our options. There were a lot of suggestions by the people there – contact a Spanish embassy to renew it, apply for a visa online, doctor the expiry date on the passport, a British guy even offered to photoshop his own e-visa with Marc’s details. Mark had his wife start pulling strings from Spain regarding the Spanish embassy and we tried to apply for an online visa with a different expiry date. The problem was that the system asked for a picture of the passport as well, so if someone checked the picture in person, they would see that the dates did not match. Someone suggested sending a photoshopped version of the passport with a different date, but the first picture had already gone into the system. We tried to cancel the application, but the system is very poorly designed, and it was now stuck awaiting a payment we did not make. There was not a lot more we could to about it, so we went out for dinner with the guys from AdvFactory and got drunk on unfiltered Kyrguiz beer.