One of the biggest challenges in central asia continues to be the visas. Each country we've been to requires a visa and many of them have additional requirements.
To visit Tajikistan for example, you need a visa, which is theoretically possible by simply going to a Tajik embassy and waiting. To visit the Pamir area you also need a GBAO permit, which you can theoretically only get in the country. Finally, when you show up in the country you have to register with the KGB within 72 hours of arriving.
We got both a 45 day visa Tajikistan Visa and a GBAO permit in Bishkek simply by filling out a form and writing a brief letter saying why we wanted to visit the country. We've heard though that they subsequently changed their rules and now the Bishkek embassy requires a letter of invitation from a travel agency, doesn't give GBAO permits, and only issues 30 day visas. That would have totally messed up our trip as the main border crossing into Tajikistan is only possible with the GBAO permit.
Tajikistan is not the only country that does this nonsense. Kyrgyzstan has wisely got a policy of issuing visas in the airport (Tajikistan does this too). They also didn't require visas for CIS countries like the Czech republic. They changed the rules for this in July, the middle of the tourist season. We ran into a cyclist who had cycled all the way into the Pamirs only to find out the entry requirements had changed and he couldn't complete his trip because he now needed to go back to Dushanbe and wait a week for a Kyrgyz visa. Ridiculous.
Our next destination is Uzbekistan, and the Visa requirements for there are even more silly. Canadians need a letter of invitation from a travel agent in the country. This was quite a job to get because the only decent agency that does this doesn't accept any normal payment system. We tried to pay them with a bank transfer but my bank didn't recognize any of the routing numbers and said the money would likely just vanish into a puff of electrons. Instead I paid online which required a painful registration and confirmation with some weird online payment system. In the end we got our letters, a second copy of which were sent to the Uzbekistan consulate in Dushanbe.
We had heard horror stories about this embassy from other travellers. The consul has a reputation of being none to friendly and yelling at you if you can't speak Russian. And apparently all the forms are in Russian and Uzbek only and have no translation. As a result we decided to ask for a favor. We had made friends with a guy in Khorog and we asked his brother and a female friend to come with us to the embassy to help translate. It was probably a good thing we did.
We got to the embassy at 8:30 only to find out it didn't open until 9:00. We waited on a bench for a while and then clued in and turned the corner where a small crowd had gathered at a doorway. At about 9:25 the doorway opened and people stampeded in. An unhappy man stood on stairway, barked some stuff in Russian, and gathered a handful of out-thrust passports. Then he vanished.
Our friend fought his way up the stairts and into an office for us, and after a while we were invited inside a room where we were given some forms to fill out. With our translator this turned out to be relatively easy, and we soon handed the forms, a Visa photo, a copy of our letter, a copy of the first page of our passport, and our actual passport to an unhappy man behind the desk. We were told to wait outside. Our translators were quite stressed out by now and both agreed that the people in the office weren't about to win any hospitality awards.
About 30 minute later somebody yelled "Dwa Canadensaya" (or something similar) out of a window, and we went up to the office. We paid our money and we got our passport with a Visa. The whole process had only taken about 2 hours, but I'm sure that having a translator along helped a huge amount. I've heard from other people though that you can find the form online somewhere and print it out yourself so this may work too!
Lara's decision to print out a stack of about 50 visa photos on our computer at home has turned out to be a real time saver many times over. We've used them for China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan (including the KGB registration) and Kyrgyzstan. It would be nearly impossible to get a passport photo done over here. Don't travel in central asia without a photocopies of your passport, lots of passport photos, and a healthy tolerance for ridiculous red tape.