World Borders: My Journey From Uzbekistan to Afghanistan on Friendship Bridge to Hayratan

“Altogether now, in no mans land.” – The Farm.

World Borders: Crossing From Uzbekistan to Afghanistan on Friendship Bridge to Hayratan

World Borders: Crossing From Uzbekistan to Afghanistan on Friendship Bridge to Hayratan

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

Goodbye Uzbekistan

Goodbye Uzbekistan, if we never meet again

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.

My Hotel in Termiz

My Hotel in Termiz

My hotel room in Termiz. There was just something inspiring on the go here.

My hotel room in Termiz. There was just something inspiring on the go here.

Night fall in Termiz

Night fall in Termiz

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.

Clock tower in downtown Termiz

Clock tower in downtown Termiz

Uzbekistan government propaganda in Termiz

Uzbekistan government propaganda in Termiz

My hotel room view in Termiz

My hotel room view in Termiz

My Hotel - Surxon Atlantic

My Hotel – Surxon Atlantic

Termiz Bazaar

Termiz Bazaar

A few lads I met in Termiz Bazaar

A few lads I met in Termiz Bazaar

Local restaurant in Termiz

Local restaurant in Termiz

Dinner in Termiz

Dinner in Termiz

Dinner at Farhon Restaurant in Termiz

Dinner at Farhon Restaurant in Termiz

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

Downtown Termiz at 7am

Downtown Termiz at 7am

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.

Leaving Termiz city, Uzbekistan

Leaving Termiz city, Uzbekistan

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!

Leaving Termiz on route to the border

Leaving Termiz on route to the border

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.

Driving to the border

Driving to the border

The rocky road to the border which was closed

The rocky road to the border which was closed

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!

Back the way we came

Back the way we came

The bridge where we met the two ladies

The bridge where we met the two ladies and dropped them off

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.

Border exit point from Uzbekistan

Border exit point from Uzbekistan

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.

On the way to the border

On the way to the border

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

A lonely car at the border point

The lonely car at the border point

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.

Staring back to the wilderness of Uzbekistan from the border

Staring back to the wilderness of Uzbekistan from the border

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.

One last glance back at the Uzbekistan side of the border

One last glance back at the Uzbekistan side of the border

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

Over $200 US in Som according to the banks. Less on the black market.

Over $200 US in Som according to the banks. Less on the black market.

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.

Backpacking through Uzbekistan with shitloads of cash

Backpacking through Uzbekistan with shitloads of cash

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.

Uzbekistan border exit forms

Uzbekistan border exit forms

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.

A ridiculous amount of Registration slips for some of the places I stayed in Uzbekistan

A ridiculous amount of Registration slips for some of the places I stayed in Uzbekistan

“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.

They look at every photo on your hard drive and camera - crazy!

They look at every photo on your hard drive and camera – crazy!

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.

Uzbekistan exit stamp

Uzbekistan exit stamp

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

The lonely bridge to Afghanistan: Friendship Bridge

The lonely bridge to Afghanistan: Friendship Bridge

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.

A sneaky illegal photo I took on the bridge, in no man's land (or bridge!)

A sneaky illegal photo I took on the bridge, in no man’s land (or bridge!)

There are no cameras visible on the “Afghan side”. To all intents and purposes I am in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan viewed from my walk across the bridge

Afghanistan viewed from my walk across the bridge

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.

The freight train goes past me

The freight train goes past me

I’m already at the entry point for Afghanistan. A hat trick of Afghan flags are here on my right, it’s exciting.

A hat-trick of Afghanistan flags on my right

A hat-trick of Afghanistan flags on my right

And a “Welcome to Afghanistan” sign is in front of me.

Arriving in Afghanistan

Arriving in Afghanistan

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.

World Borders: Crossing From Uzbekistan to Afghanistan on Friendship Bridge to Hayratan

Arrival in Hayratan

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.

The passport control room

The passport control room

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.

Stamp for Afghanistan

Stamp for Afghanistan

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.

I'm in Afghanistan!

I’m in Afghanistan!

Welcome to Afghanistan.
I walk past some barbed wire, sandbags and barricades and I am now in Hayratan, Afghanistan!

The Afghanistan side of the border at Hayratan

The Afghanistan side of the border at Hayratan

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!

With Noor, Reza and Sakhi in Afghanistan!

With Noor, Reza and Sakhi in Afghanistan!

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

Arrival in Afghanistan at Hayratan

Arrival in Afghanistan at Hayratan

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.

The final passport check in Hayratan

The final passport check in Hayratan

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!

Glentoran FC arrives in Afghanistan

Glentoran FC arrives in Afghanistan

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!

The drive to Masar e Sharif, Afghanistan

The drive to Masar e Sharif, Afghanistan

Here are some videos in order of my journey from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan:

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23 thoughts on “World Borders: My Journey From Uzbekistan to Afghanistan on Friendship Bridge to Hayratan

  • Okay, now I see why you aren’t a fan of Uzbekistan. You would think it would have been the opposite crossing into Afghanistan. But, given they are trying to turn things around after 35 years of non-stop conflict, glad to see it was a smoother experience for you getting into Afghanistan. BTW, would you say your experiences in Uzbekistan were better or worse than in Venezuela?

  • Hi Ray, thanks for the comments. At least with Venezuela, the people there have common sense, they don’t waste time in their lives and they are easy enough to chat too. It’s a shame Venezuela is so dangerous. Uzbekistan on the other hand is not dangerous but has ridiculous military checkpoints everywhere, slow lazy drivers and is generally unwelcoming. I don’t really want to go back to either of those countries, but I did love Karakalpakstan as it was truly off the wall stuff! Safe travels. Jonny

  • Hi Jonny!
    Very nice to meet you, you are a great traveller!
    Iìll be in usbekistan next 15-18aug and I’like to visit Afghanistan from Samarkand to termez.
    But I think it’is very difficult for these reasons:
    1) last year I visit Israel and Jordan (I have on the passport the stamp of Jordan border…)
    2) I don’t have an Afghanistan visa at the moment and I think I have no time to obtein; it’s not possible enter in Afghanistan without visa or have a visa at the border?
    Thanks in advance!
    Simone

  • Hi SImone, thanks for the email. I was there in January – February 2016 so the rules have probably changed – you’ll need to check with appropriate authorities. 1. You should always ask for those type of passport stamps on a separate page, so either get a new passport, change nationality (by whatever means you can – marriage – parentage – dual national etc.) or pray they don’t check at the border that day. 2. Visas for Afghanistan are EASY to get in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) or in Khorog (Tajikistan – the easiest place). Safe travels. Jonny

  • A real shame you didn’t get to know Uzbekistan and its people. You shouldn’t let the politics of a place cloud your judgement of its culture and the people who live there.

  • Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment. Yes I did get to know the people in that country and I currently live with two of them. Girls were almost impossible to talk to and men often immature and rude – especially on the borders and at bus/taxi stations. Overall the country is not welcoming for tourists sadly – and that opinion I have will not change. Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan are nearby and much friendlier, but it’s only my opinion. Safe travels. Jonny

  • Thanks for a detailed report. Informative. I must say that your mind is clouded by your annoyance. I mean there are conflicts in Afghanistan and it is so much better when the country bordering it is thorough with checks. Yeah it’s annoying and nobody likes getting investigated but it’s for the security. Pretty sure the border patrol is not having that much fun checking every single crap. Without that, hell knows what kind of people could pass through. Sorry about the drivers though!

  • Excellent man! I chanced upon this blog by mistake and thoroughly enjoyed reading about your crossing.

    When applying for visas, for and in any country, so you suppose you had it relatively easier because of an Irish passport? Would it be equally easy to get a visa if you were Asian maybe? Just asking out of curiosity!

    There’s another blog that you might be interested to read yourself –

    https://eurasiaoverland.com/2009/12/16/17i/

    You wrote about your travels like you were talking to us. I felt I was traveling with you. Some good pictures there.

    Safe travels to you man!

    Cheers

  • Hi Malina. Thanks for the comment. Apologies for the delay. I have been going through depression and only checking through my old comments and messages now. Afghanistan was a good time of my life before all that. Stay safe. Jonny

  • Hi Mickey, thanks for the comment and sorry for the delay. I was suffering from depression and only now I am checking all comments, meesages and blog emails. That was years ago and yes Afghanistan was easier to whackpack back then on an Irish passport, Asian probably too. But things really change a lot, especially now and after COVID-19 crisis. Stay safe, Jonny

  • I loved this post from an NI guy traveling in these obscure (to us, not to their residents) countries. You’re very brave: These authorities are populated by totally corrupt chancers. I know it’s not fashionable to say but they do represent the average local person if they could find themselves one of these jobs where they could extort others too. They’re a fascinating, but centuries-behind culture when it comes to fairness. It’s fine, unless they have the hide to complain about how materially poor they are….hello, there’s a reason, and an extremely corrupt, tribal culture is a big thing behind it. I’m assuming you’ve seen Afghanistan: family/tribe first, everyone else can go to hell: subsequently, a completely failed society where people are now starving because their non-existent society could not fight the Taliban. I feel sorry for the elite of Afghanistan, but if they couldn’t convince their compatriots to adopt concepts of democracy and fairness, why could non-national Westerners? The whole idea was ridiculous, and an enormous waste of money, as we’ve discovered.

  • Hi Lina, Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed backpacking in Afghanistan but it was 6 years ago now. I hope you are all safe and well. Safe travels. Jonny

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