“Altogether now, in no mans land.” – The Farm.
In life as it happens, it’s going to be quite hard to describe the sheer adrenalin rush and magic of the winter day when I backpacked it alone into Afghanistan. It’s just another day in my life but as a heated ball beat down on my Northern Irish bake (face), I could sense this one meant more to me than many of those days gone by. I was so excited. I forgot about all my worries in life. This was a high. Here is an overview of my border crossing into magical Afghanistan, leaving behind the ugly and overbearing military dictatorship of Uzbekistan. I can say that again. I won’t shed a f**king tear if we never meet again, Uzbekistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan, you touched my heart. Perhaps it’s my younger days of growing up in and around bombscared Belfast that subconsciously inspire me day to day. Of that. I’ll never know. I was happy. And you knew this, but I’m not fucking scared. And don’t you dare try to tell me Afghanistan is dangerous if you have never been. Some of my best friends are Afghans.
“I think I’m just happy” – Kurt Cobain
Backpacking in Termiz, Uzbekistan
I packed the night before and I slept for only a few hours. I stayed in the Sorxan Atlantic Hotel in the city of Termiz, there was something inspiring on the go here, the southern most city in Uzbekistan and one of the Soviet Union’s entry points into a world they didn’t really know – a country whose home is Islam. The Republic of Afghanistan.
On my travels, Termiz as a city is as ridiculous as they come. A heavily policed city of lunatic taxi drivers, decent bars, a friendly bazaar and just a 20 minute drive to the Uzbekistan exit border. If you do plan to cross the land (water/bridge actually) border into Afghanistan, please spend at least a night in Termiz. It is certainly a quirky city to inspire you for what’s coming. Here are a few shots of my time in the city itself, the calm before the storm.
Termiz to the Border
Like many parts of my journey, nothing is ever simple or smooth. I awoke at 6am, left my Termiz Hotel at 6.30 am in search of any fast way to the border. Public transport wise, you have three main options (aside from cycling, hitchhiking etc.).
1.Marshrutka to the Border
2.Shared taxi to the Border
3.Solo taxi to the Border
At 6.45am the Marshrutka Station was empty. I’d have to wait another hour for the sake of saving about $1.50 USD. A no brainer as I was excited and in this instance I forfeited my money for time. First taxi share attempt won’t take me to the border. The second guy would but the car wasn’t full. It was just me. It was a white Chevrolet.
The price would be 25,000 Uzbek Som to the border if I’m on my own, around $4 USD. If I find someone else I can pay 15,000. He’s a good lad and I trust him which takes some doing in Uzbekistan. With time ticking and no other customers in sight I decide to take it. For once in life, I couldn’t care less if hes ripping me off or not. I’m heading backpacking in Afghanistan!
Termiz to the Border
The trip to the border is not as easy as it sounds. There is one ridiculous un-necessary passport check on the edge of Termiz. After that there is a problem. The winding road to the border is closed, cordoned off. The road is blocked. I fear the worst.
The Uzbeks have been known to close this border at short notice any time. So we turn back and head towards Termiz. The dream is over. My excitement is waning now, take me to Afghanistan!
We see two ladies at the roadside near a bridge and my driver winds down the windy to ask them an alternative route to the border. Excitement restored. Even better, they hop in and join us. It’s now a shared taxi but still no sign of the border. The girls get out on the edge of a carriageway which leads to a huge bridge. This bridge has a gate at the end of it. It is now clear that this is the border exit point. I pay my driver as he can go no further and I’m dumped out as a lonely backpacker trying to leave Uzbekistan. It is 7.55am. It’s freezing cold. I know this is the border.
Opening Hours of the Friendship Bridge Border
So what I say here isn’t gospel. It’s my own personal experience on the day and it really can vary. My taxi leaves and I walk up to the exit gate with my passport. The Uzbek soldier gives a firm “NIYEYT” at me. It means no. He puts his arms together in a cross signal. It means the border is closed. Oh shit. I was so upset. The Uzbeks are known to close this border at any time due to security threats.
I read on the news there was a bomb in Kabul a few days ago. Bad timing I thought but I persevered. “Irlandia, tourist” I said. He forced me to walk back and I did. I stare solemly back at the lonely road to this point, pondering what is going wrong.
“Nothing’s going to change my world” – Paul McCartney
It was also windy and cold but that didn’t matter. All I wanted was an exit stamp for Uzbekistan and to walk across the bridge into Afghanistan. Was my dream being taken away from me? I was all alone with two soldiers. They were holding large rifles and they were in control. I couldn’t argue with them. So I bided my time. 17 minutes later, 4 guys turn up in a car. They’re either Uzbeks or Afghanis (I think it was a 2-2 draw). They have baggage with them and they get their passports out. Phew! I thought, there are other people here wanting to cross this border! By the way, with the armed soldiers around and the strict Uzbekistan border control points, I didn’t take as many photos or videos as usual.
One of the guys speaks a bit of English and he explains to me that the border is closed at night for security reasons but no to worry, it will open soon. Brilliant! He was right. At 8.25 am the soldier signals for the five of us to show our passports. The sweat is over.
I’m happy again but I may have a huge problem leaving Uzbekistan. Money. Money is a huge issue within Uzbekistan. You see I changed all my money on the black market. The bank rate is $1USD – 3,000 Som. The black market rate I found was $1USD – 6,100 Som. More than double!
“I sold my soul with ma cigarettes to the black market men” – Don Walker
I’ll say this now as you need to know it – Uzbekistan is the most strict country I have ever been to for bag and belongings searches. They check everything. They check your wallet, every sim card, memory card, hard drive. Pornography is forbidden in the country so delete any photos of Carol Vorderman’s tits or Brad Pitt’s willy before you get to the border checks. But the craziest thing is they check your money and you should always leave the country with less money than you came in with. It sounds obvious, but perhaps not if you swapped it on the black market. There are no ATMs in the country and no access to PayPal so no issues there. You need to fill in a declaration on entry detailing every cent of every type of currency you have and same again when you leave. This was crazy difficult for me as I had 12 different currencies entering the country. I collect banknotes and coins and no way were they getting hold of my Lenin era USSR banknotes that I bought from a street vendor in Dushanbe or my Ukrainian Hvarna. But realistically it’s the US Dollars they are interested in. I arrived in Uzbekistan with $400 USD. I was now leaving with $220 USD. No big deal in theory. BUT due to my black market changing, I was also leaving with well over 600,000 Som. Bank equivalent rate of $200 USD. So in essence I hadn’t spent any money in my first three days in the country. That’s impossible. They’d seen me pay my taxi driver. I thought I was f**ked here.
First Uzbekistan Passport Check
At the first passport check one Uzbek soldier calls on his radio to alert his mates that there is one tourist from (Northern) Ireland (I used my Irish passport for this trip) on route to Afghanistan. It’s a novelty for them and a brace of equally childish Uzbek peelers crowd round to check my visas are in order. They ask me a few quick questions and then show me to a bus. I have to get on this bus and take it the further 800 metres to the next passport control check. I was going to walk it but as I assumed the bus was free as it was within the border zone I fired my backpack onto the bus and we drove the 3 minute journey to the next gate. The other 4 guys got on the bus with me. There’s a catch. The bus costs 5,000 Som (just over $1USD). At least that’s $1 USD less when leaving the country, I was actually happy to pay it! I pay it and get off. Its now 8.35am.
Bag Check and Customs Declaration Leaving Uzbekistan
I fill in the form in detail. No stone un-turned and I head into the security check room. The officer confirms all my details are correct. He also asked me where I went in Uzbekistan and if I had registered every night. I told him Denau, Samarkand, Bukhara and Termiz and I had all necessary proof. When backpacking in Uzbekistan be sure to get a registration slip from your hotel/ accommodation every night. As a travel writer, I get free stays in most hotels but you still always get a registration slip so no worries there. He checks my Afghanistan visa and asks why I am going there. “Tourism” I reply and then I bombard him with a list of backpacking sights I aim to tick off in Afghanistan. Masar e Sharif, Takht e Rostam, Balkh, Tashkurgan, Samangan. At this point he is satisfied with my paper work and passport so it’s time for the bag and body check.
“Propaganda as a substitute for action was the essence of fascism” – Mac Smith
Bag and Body Check
Everything is checked. With scanners, with scanning devices and there is a separate room which is private. One for males, one for females. In here they can ask you to get naked if they suspect anything. I had heard of one girl that had to show her boobies at the Uzbek to Tajik border. He just body checked me.
All the time he was checking my bag I kept thinking of the extra money I had. I hid 200,000 of it in a side pocket of my winter coat! Yes, I was carrying 600 grand on me and I hid 200 grand from him! He checked my camera, my phone, my laptop, my hard drive. It took ages. Uzbeks don’t care about time. They love to waste their time and yours and they laugh immaturely as they do it. So my laptop was checked thoroughly.
Exit Stamp for Uzbekistan
After the strict border bag search, I was free but as I tried to leave the final exit point of Uzbekistan, the soldier reminds me in local lingo “here mate ye forgot till get yer Uzbekistan exit stamp” and he was right!! I had my exit document and he saw me coming from baggage control so he knew I’d had my bag checked. But I hadn’t yet got my exit stamp. I feared another long delay here but he ushers me to a booth and within thirty seconds I have that exit stamp and the soldier opens the door. I’m out of Uzbekistan. Yee-ha! And the buzz comes back. I adjust my watch back by 30 minutes – Afghanistan is 30 minutes behind.
In No-Man’s Land: The Lonely Walk from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan
An odd feeling enters my mind now. As I backpack from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, I ask into myself “what country are you in?”. The answer is simply “none”. I’m standing on planet earth, on land, but I am officially in no country. I have my exit stamp for Uzbekistan. This means I am no longer in Uzbekistan. But I have no entry stamp yet for Afghanistan. I am in no country. I am in no-mans land. Nobody will protect me here. Neither Uzbekistan or Afghanistan can take care of me here. The feeling is an odd release. From the moment I said goodbye to the last Uzbek soldier, I am walking alone down a road to Friendship Bridge. My backpacking buddy Nate Jacobs wrote about his experience here too – he felt the loneliness as well. It’s pretty remote.
“You come in on your own and you leave on your own” – Richard Ashcroft
Crossing Friendship Bridge
There is nobody else on the bridge. Not a soul. No Uzbek soldiers. No Afghan soldiers. The bridge is over a river and I walk onto it alone. The other 4 guys that I met at the first control point are gone. They’re already in Afghanistan. I cross the bridge alone. Of course I do. On the “Uzbek side” of the bridge there are videos cameras. I know for a fact some Uzbek lunatic is watching me. That’s what they’re like. Halfway across the bridge the cameras stop.
There are no cameras visible on the “Afghan side”. To all intents and purposes I am in Afghanistan.
As a dull cloud clears and winter sun smiles down on me, I am in Afghanistan. At this moment a freight train energises its way past me, just to remind me there are other people around. I briefly envisage Ringo Starr belting out a shit Thomas the Tank Engine line. This is truly off the rails though.
I’m already at the entry point for Afghanistan. A hat trick of Afghan flags are here on my right, it’s exciting.
And a “Welcome to Afghanistan” sign is in front of me.
I’m here. I have crossed Friendship Bridge. The land I’m standing on is Afghanistan. There is nobody else about, the train has long since past. Oddly the sun now shines, the clouds clear. Shame on you, Uzbekistan, this was a subliminal message, the sun’s out. There’s a Northern Irishman in town.
Arrival in Afghanistan at Hayratan
An Afghan soldier raises his non-gun arm to greet me. “Salam Alekum” I say to him. He shakes my hand, smiles, opens the gate and lets me in. I’m sent to room 204, Passport Control. The building is small, I doubt there are 203 rooms before this one. But it is room 204. As well as my mate Nate Jacobs, we are the only two tourists who have crossed this border in the last 5/6 months. I mean backpacking tourists. The list of names in the book is small and apart from those 4 Afghan/Uzbek guys, there was nobody else. It’s normally just Uzbeks and Afghans crossing here.
I head into the room where an equally friendly Afghan guy takes my passport, fingerprints and a photo. “What’s in your bag?” He asks. “Books, clothes, toiletries and passion”, I reply. “Irlandi?” he says meaning Ireland, “capital city?”. “Belfast”, I smurkily lied back at him. “Belfast City. That’s our capital”. “Dublin?” he asks. He’s educated, this dude. I do a Mickey Mouse impression and he laughs with me. He stamps my passport and welcomes me in. “Belfast, North Ireland” he says, looking into my eyes. He knows; and I smile.
There are no issues here whatsoever. He’s happy to see me. I am delighted to be here. See the blue sky? That’s Afghanistan. I’m in.
Welcome to Afghanistan.
I walk past some barbed wire, sandbags and barricades and I am now in Hayratan, Afghanistan!
Due to the 30 minute difference in Afghan time, it’s now 9.17 am. I was on tour here in Afghanistan with Untamed Borders and was due to meet my contact Noor, at 9 am. I’m 17 minutes late, but no worries as he is a bit late too! I talk to the friendly border guards, they’re all armed and I turn down a taxi driver who offered to take me to Masar e Sharif. Waiting on a friend, I told him. Within 5 minutes, Noor is here, along with his mate Reza and our driver Sakhi! They pull up in a car near the border. It has been an exciting journey, but now I’m in Afghanistan, the fun really begins! It was off to tour Masar e Sharif, Balkh, Tashkurgan, Aybak, Samangan, eat some Mantoo and smoke some Shisha over the next three days!
Time taken at Uzbek exit point: 1hour, 2mins.
Time taken at Afghan entry point: 6mins.
It says it all really.
“No alarms and no surprises, please” – Radiohead
Final Passport Check in Afghanistan
OK so there was one final passport check. After driving away from the border, the exit gate for Hayratan town is armed and manned by soldiers.
On the way I spoke to Reza who was once an under 19 international footballer for Afghanistan. “Ever heard of Belfast Glentoran?” I venture at him. Of course he hasn’t but when I show him the top that has green, red and black colours we notice it’s the same as the Afghanistan flag!
They ask to see my passport at this checkpoint and that’s it. Off we go, heading to Masar e Sharif, my first proper stop in the country – to check into my hotel!
Here are some videos in order of my journey from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan: