Always be careful who you’re speaking to.
“$20, $20, give me $20” said the border guard between Turkmenistan and Iran.
In most cases when a corrupt minor official asks us for money, it’s a simple matter of ignoring them and walking away. When we travel to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, for example, being asked for paperwork by bored underpaid police officers is par for the course. When this happens we usually keep walking or tell them very quickly our passports and paperwork are at the hotel. Very occasionally when we’re feeling a little saucy we might tell them our passports are at a particular embassy getting Visas. At this moment, I wished I was in Tashkent.
The metro in Tashkent is extremely opulent and is a must-see for train-spotters and ‘norms’ (I assume this is what train-spotters call the rest of us) alike. Different stations have different themes. Kosmonavtlar is a particular favourite of mine. Its murals depict mans’ (I use the term advisedly as there are only men depicted in this station, even the glorious equitable Soviet Union was lacking in feminist credentials) exploration and yearning for space, starting with the early stargazers to the modern Kosmonauts. The whole station is themed in a dark nighttime blue. It might not quite be on the same scale as the famous Moscow metro, but it certainly isn’t far off.
One problem with catching the metro in Tashkent is you need to be stopped by police and if you’re carrying anything, have it inspected. On a recent trip, we even had our photos on a laptop examined. Not for any national security risk; once again just bored underpaid police utilising one of the few perks of the job. Smiling and nodding politely usually does the trick, but getting too agitated or irate is likely to cause more problems than it’s worth.
But back to reality. Having done exactly that and gotten quite irate at this border guard, we had come to an impasse. Walking away wouldn’t work as he not only had our documents but we were also at a heavily armed border crossing and had yet to even be stamped into the country. That’s when I saw my proverbial knight in shining armour walk past.
One thing tourists will often quickly get sick of is the random people asking “where are you from?” or in the Russian speaking countries “otkuda vy?”. What does it matter where I’m from, will I get quicker service if I answer this question correctly? Surely if the shoe was on the other foot wouldn’t you – the random elderly man on the street – get sick of being asked every 5 minutes where you’re from? My knight had of course done exactly this, walked up to us and asked where we were from.
Luckily I had decided to be nice and answered his question and began to engage in conversation with him. At first it was a tiresome exercise but it turned out he was the ambassador of Iran to Turkmenistan and was returning home to visit his family. He was just waiting for a nice large black car with tinted windows that surely they use on space shuttles to pick him up. It was at this point when he was walking to his convoy that the young border guard had been asking for a bribe to let us continue.
I yelled out to him “Excuse me, Excuse me, Mr Ambassador!”.
“Yes, Ben?” he replied.
“Can you help? This border guard is asking for a bribe.”
After a couple of minutes of being yelled at, a red faced young boy (and I use the term boy as he had definitely had his manhood cut down to size) let us through, stamping all our papers and documents in an usually timely and efficient manner, allowing us to begin our journey into Iran.
Join us in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan this April for the Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan Secrets Tour, Or check out our International Tours for even more wild and weird locations off the beaten track!