Melting in Tashkent

Check out this forecast, and you’ll see what I mean about melting. Temperatures around 40°C for the next two weeks, no rain, no cloud, nothing. Just hot hot hot. Obviously if you’re reading this some time in the future, that forecast may well be for 3 feet of snow, but trust me right now it’s all heat.

I tried walking around the other morning at 10:00, but it was already too hot to do anything. Instead I headed for the coolness of the Metro, to find one of the many parks around Tashkent. There really is an incredible amount of greenery around this city, probably as much as I have seen in a city anywhere in the world. So I sat next to a fountain, reading a Dostoevsky book I picked up the other day. There are huge armies of women that maintain many of the parks, and I watched some of them at work. To deal with small weeds growing up between the paving stones, they dig them out by hand – but they have about 20 miles of paving stones to deal with. Very slow, but I guess it employs more people, and may be better for the environment than dumping a load of Roundup on the paths.

The reason I’m still here is that although I’ve finally gotten all my visas, I’m still waiting for my spare parts to arrive. With this heat, I wouldn’t be doing much riding anyway, but I would like to get up into the mountains. It ended up taking 5 days to get all my visas together, with varying degrees of ease. Chinese was straightforward – took in passport Monday morning, collected Wednesday morning for $60. Asked for 90 days, but only got 60 – so I think best to ask for longer than you want. Should be able to extend this later though. Kyrgyzstan visa was easy – all done within 30 mins, $55 for one month.

Kazakhstan was more of a hassle though – all the online resources I could find say that NZ passport holders no longer require an LOI. But when I got there they said I needed an invitation, and they were giving the same story to as Japanese couple. I’m sick of the LOI tax, so asked about transit. They’ve given me a 5 day transit visa, luckily valid for one month, not exact fixed dates ala Turkmenistan. No idea how I’m going to cover the distance I need to in 5 days, but I’ll work something out, may even be able to extend the visa a little. We’ll see. Originally I was told to return the next day to pick up my Kazakh visa, but on returning I waited an hour before being told “come back tomorrow.” OK, back again…good thing the Metro here is good…and I get my passport back, $20 for a 5 day transit visa.

And yes, from the above you can see that I am now going to go via Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, a detour from my original plan. I’ll put up another post about this in future, explaining why. Tajikistan can wait, maybe in future I’ll put together a loop involving the Karakorum and Pamir Highways.

Random thoughts on Uzbekistan:

  • Could someone please explain the pencilled-on monobrow to me? Women the world over spend thousands carefully shaping their eyebrows, with the monobrow being seen as a cardinal sin – yet here if you can’t grow your own monobrow, you just pencil one on
  • Police on the Metro – how do they decide who to stop? After many journeys on the Metro, unmolested, unlike most other tourists, I was stopped for the first time. The difference this time was that I was dressed in some new clothes brought locally – n.b. these are modern clothes that Russians would wear, not Uzbek clothing, and was with a Russian local. But I’m not sure they policeman could read. He looked at my passport, then I had to find the visa for him, then he asked if I’d been there since 2006, as he couldn’t seem to read the dates. Not quite following the Russian, I just said yes, he said “OK, no problem.” I retrieved my passport and went on my way. At least he didn’t ask for money, like the diplomatic police at the Kazakhstan embassy. Apparently the Kazakh police are much smarter, and when they want money, they demand it, and it’s difficult to get out of it. Here it’s easy to plead ignorance.
  • Related to the above, it’s been interesting to see just how many people think I’m Russian, and local – people keep asking me for directions. I need to learn how to say “Do I look like a local to you?” in Russian. I could just tell them to F— Off, and then they’ll be sure that I’m Russian.
  • Racism. Wow. You would think that with modern communications, international media, etc., locals would be used to seeing people with different coloured skin. But no, any black people walking around (and there are very, very few), will have to deal with people staring, pointing, and saying “nigger, nigger.” Locals (at least the Russian locals) really cannot deal with Africans or Asians. Quite interesting, different to the much more cosmopolitan cities of Western Europe, etc. Not that racism is non-existent there, but it tends to be beneath the surface.

I think I’ve found a local pub that will be showing the rugby today, and at a more convenient time than that for my New Zealand-based readers. It seems to be an expat bar, so I’m expecting high prices, well above what locals could afford, but it will be worth it if I can watch rugby, and flip over occasionally to the yachting – let’s hope things go better there than last time!

Go north, young man

This was how the conversation was going with Alex, a Hungarian I met in Bukhara. And so I am going north, via Kazakhstan to China, rather than via Tajikistan. I will miss out Kashgar, but I will see Urumqi.

“I’m 56 years old. I’m no longer scared of anything. I’ve seen enough. Death? No, I’m not scared of that. War, murder, hate, I’ve seen enough of it all. I look into your eyes and I don’t think you’re scared of anything either”

Now this is somewhat disturbing to me. It could be that I’m well on my way to developing the Thousand Yard Stare. If I can find an Internet Cafe that will let me upload some photos, I’ll try and upload the picture I took when I came out of the desert in Turkmenistan, after covering far too much distance without a break.

But different people seem to see different things in my eyes, or so they tell me. I’ve had people say they know I will make it home OK, they “can see it in my eyes.” I’ve also had women describe them as “magnetic.” Hmmm, all a bit much.

But enough of that, for Alex was a very interesting man. We had a long, wide-ranging geopolitical discussion, covering many topics. He currently lives in Almaty, and he strongly recommended that I visit Almaty (“Go north, young man”). I had been thinking for a while that I didn’t feel like going through Tajikistan, and I had recently met three other cyclists all going via Almaty. So I decided, why not? One of the nice things about what I’m doing is being able to change my plans, to take a 1,000km detour if I feel like it.

So I’m going to spend quite a bit more time in Kyrgyzstan, making my way from Osh to Bishkek, and then looping around Issyk-Kul. Hopefully the bit higher elevation will lower the temperatures a little, and from what I’ve seen, it should be all grass-covered valleys, washing in melted-glacier streams, and sleeping in felt yurts with nomad families. Or something like that. I hear there’s also some good bars in Bishkek too…

When I loop back to Bishkek, I’ll go up to Almaty, and then across to Korgas on the Chinese border. North of the Tien Shan range, and along to Urumqi, before coming south a little to rejoin my original planned route east. Of course, things could always change again, but probably not too much for the next month – visas are a pain.

And there’s a SUPERMARKET!

Oh dear. Things are all getting a bit bad when you get genuinely excited at seeing a supermarket. I didn’t really need much, but I wanted to go in and push a trolley around gleaming white air-conditioned aisles, marvelling at the ridiculous levels of choice available. I ended up spending $20 (i.e. quite a lot), on some things I didn’t even really need. But it was just a bit too much for me, seeing all those varieties of shower gel. It was more or less a Western supermarket, and most of my readers would not even blink at it, but when you haven’t seen one since Erzurum, quite a few weeks ago, it’s quite a novelty. It’s quite close to where I’m staying, and I think I shall visit again.

I am now in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a city of two million people, with wide tree-lined streets, all feeling very modern, even with a metro system. After being down in Samarkand, I was back to feeling very good on the bike – I was going to take 3 days to here, but in spite of a headwind I made 145km on the first day out, and then the wind was gone yesterday, so I set a new personal best, racking up 195km to get to Tashkent. 25-30km longer than I’ve ever covered in one day. I considered riding around for another 5km, to make 200km, but I’m not that much of a dork. A 200km day can wait until China.

For those cyclists coming this way, and wondering about the road from Samarkand to Tashkent, where it crosses through Kazakhstan, just follow the M39. Shortly before the border is a police checkpoint, and some blocks across the M39. The police will tell you to turn down the road towards Gulistan, then go north from there. My map shows that road as very small, but it’s a brand new 35km dual carriageway to Gulistan. From there the road is a bit rough for the next 50km or so, before improving for the last part to Tashkent. The detour adds around 50km to the trip. Damn Stalin and his gerrymandering.

So I was struggling with a headwind, when I saw two cyclists sitting by the road. Two nice Swiss guys, who I stopped at chatted to for a couple of hours. They had given up after 10km, and were sitting under the trees, smoking, drinking vodka, and reading. A pleasant couple of hours, and a nice diversion from what could have been a tough day. Could have been tough, but then later that day I grabbed the back of the truck for a haul up the hill, then as I rolled down the other side, “Wherever I May Roam” came on the MP3 player, the scenery was fantastic, and all was good with the world. Thought of all my friends, probably sitting at work staring at the clock, waiting for 5:00 so they could go to the pub – and I knew I was right where I wanted to be.

But it is not without challenges – I was waiting for a kebab last night, when there was a delay as the guy making the kebabs had to stop to wrap a fresh strip of bandage around his colleague’s thumb, which was spurting blood. Even more blood started coming through the bandage, as he went back to work making kebabs. No washing of hands or anything. I looked around, thought about it a bit (this is a sign of how far I’ve come, I needed to think about it), and walked away. Found an amazingly clean Turkish fast food restaurant, two dinners for around $5. And didn’t get sick, so that’s good – the stomach seems settled right now.

I’ll be here for a few days, sorting out Chinese, Kyrgyz and Kazakh visas. I may also get some bicycle spares delivered to here, which might take a few more days. But it seems a nice enough place to kill some time, wandering around those aisles with my trolley…what? You have a choice of toothpaste? And more than two sorts of noodles?…all this decision-making will tax my brain a bit.

Relax/Relapse in Samarkand

Grrrr. I’m starting to get a bit annoyed with this now – had either a relapse (or a fresh dose from something dodgy eaten at the bazaar) of the stomach problems I had last week, and ended up spending another day in bed. This means I didn’t leave Samarkand today as planned, but it doesn’t matter, as I’ll still get there by Sunday, and the embassies aren’t open until Monday.

Besides, the place I am staying at is fantastic – cheapish, clean enough, includes decent breakfast, and dinner for an extra $1. Best part is the shady courtyard, perfect for sitting and relaxing during the late afternoon, when it’s just too hot to go and do anything else. Bahodir’s B&B; is the name – must be in the Lonely Planet, as there’s a bunch of other traveller-types there. It’s been very strange to have decent conversations, not in pidgin English. Good up to date information from people coming the other direction too. But a bit odd, since it’s probably more tourists than I’ve seen since Istanbul.

People say that Samarkand is not all that interesting, and that you should spend more time in Bukhara. Probably Bukhara is worthy or more attention, but there’s still more than enough to do here to keep you occupied for several days, especially moving at my slow pace. Lord Curzon called The Registan “The most noble public square in the world,” and he’s possibly right – although Esfahan does come close. However I do have to note that the sound and light show is exceedingly boring. Still, if you don’t sit on the seats it costs nothing, and is only a couple of minutes walk from where we were staying. But we still ended up leaving early. Apparently it kept going for ages after we left, switching to a Russian version.

Two days of riding from Bukhara to Samarkand was livened up by riding with Robert, a Belgian cyclist on his way to Beijing. His Russian frankly embarrassed me, but it did make it easier for us to ask to sleep at a chaikhana (tea house) for a few hours after lunch, and then later for another chaikhana to find us a shed to sleep in out the back. This got me to thinking – imagine going to a cafe in Auckland, having lunch, and then asking if you could sleep on the tables for a few hours afterwards. If you weren’t laughed out of the place, you would be thrown out. Yet here that’s absolutely no problem at all. Even when we wanted to stop the night, they could have just told us to go to the hotel next door, but finding a free place to stay proved no problem. Even got free tea and fresh apricots.

Going to muck around a bit this afternoon, get some fresh supplies, perhaps pick up a broad-brimmed hat, do a little bike maintenance, then relax in the courtyard. Heading to Tashkent tomorrow, think it will take me three days, unless the wind is majorly in my favour. Apparently there is a bit of a climb, but nothing major. The wind has been a bit problematic recently though, tending to swing about during the day, often seeming to match the turn the road has taken. Temperatures are still high, but bearable. Plenty of mid-afternoon rest required though – the midday sun is for mad dogs and Englishmen.

Shattered, just shattered

10 days in a row, and over 1,000km, across hot dry deserts, in temperatures over 35 is apparently my limit. I’m just absolutely shattered, feeling worse than I ever have before, barely capable of any speech, let alone coherent thought. I’m rolling into Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and it’s a beautiful city, but I’m just completely beyond taking it in, unable to think or concentrate. The last bottle of Gazly Su I had in Turkmenabat has upset my digestion big time, and I haven’t eaten anything all day, and I’ve just been too long on the bike without a rest. What am I doing to myself?

I woke up in Merv, feeling like crap. Normally when you wake up like that, you should have a rest. Instead, I decided to do the obvious thing, and ride for 160km across the desert. Hey, why not? Long hot dry riding, long way between any sort of towns, and even then they were just a few dusty houses. I get water, and move on, seeking camp in the desert.

And so, when I woke up the next morning, feeling even worse, and barely functioning, I was very slow at loading up the bike. Doing my last task of rolling up the tent, I just about have it done, when a sand-coloured scorpion comes running out from under the tent, and shocks me into life. Yikes! And then I couldn’t see where it went, as it is well-camouflaged. Finally I see it move, a couple of metres away, so I relax a bit, get the tent finished, and move off. I try not to think about A) the thinness of my tent floor, and how easily it could have pierced it, or B) that I was too lazy to put on any footwear when I got up and went to the toilet first thing that morning. Must be more careful.

Limp into Turkmenabat, luckily not too far, only 80km. Outskirts of town go on for ages, and it seems to be market days – TVs, fridges, live sheep, all sorts being loaded onto vehicles. Find a massive ripoff hotel, but I’m just too tired to argue, and settle for it. Then the bitch doesn’t like my $50 note, since it’s got a tiny rip. If you travel in this part of the world, make sure your US dollar notes are in immaculate condition, no marks at all.

Last day, takes forever to get to the border, then finally get through and into Uzbekistan. Wasn’t going to push all the way to Bukhara, but there weren’t really any decent campsites, and I was in a bad way, and really wanted a nice bed. Limped along, and finally, near dark, made it to Bukhara, and found Sasha and Sons which is just outstanding, the best place I’ve stayed in. Fantastic fitout, modern bathroom, clean soft proper bed…I almost shed a tear when I turned on the TV to find BBC World, the first time I can recall watching English language TV in months.

Just perfect, just what I needed, and I spent most of a day in bed, recovering. Starting to come right now, going to move to a cheaper homestay tonight, maybe stay here a few more days, maybe push on along the Golden Road to Samarqand – will see how I feel.

Turkmenistan continued

This is the second in the Turkmenistan series, all published around the same time. You may wish to read the first part if you haven’t already.

Long hot days crossing Turkmenistan means on the road around sunrise, ride until the heat gets too much, then seek shelter for the hottest part of the day, before doing a few hours later in the afternoon. I’m now drinking huge amounts of water, including the “Gazly Su” that is sold everywhere – carbonated water with a shot of syrup, around $0.20 for a 1.5L bottle. Unfortunately drinking this will come back to haunt me in a few days…

Leaving Ashgabat, I was pretty grumpy with the police, especially after being harassed for wandering around at 11:30, after the pub closed. Seems they didn’t like that. But as the day goes on, and I meet more local people, I’m much happier. Late in the day, a car pulls over ahead of me, and the driver jumps out with a fresh loaf of bread, hands it to me, and leaves. Doesn’t even want to stop for a chat, just wanted me to have the food. Getting water at Kaka everyone is nice, and offers me a place to sleep, but I want to push on a little. Stop in a field, the local shepherd comes over on his donkey for a chat, and to watch me cook dinner. He then leaves me alone with the spiders, which are now around the size of my palm. Yikes.

The following day I stop at Tejen for lunch, at a cafe/bar. I get invited over to another table, where a few men are having some food and drink. Suddenly there are shots of vodka being poured, and toasts to Turkmenistan. A few more shots, and I am everyone’s best friend. A few more shots, and I realise I really need to get out of here. Finally they let me go, and I wobble off on my bike, off into the blazing sun. No way I should have been out in that, and 20km down the road, at a police checkpoint, they grab me, and tell me to sleep in the room they’ve got. Not sure if they knew I was drunk, or if they thought I was suffering heatstroke, but it works out very well.

Normally if you get picked up by the police you’re in trouble, but in this case it would have been the other way around. There are no towns for another 50km or so, so stopping with them was great. Later that night, after I’ve slept for the afternoon, and feel much better, they wake me up for a communal meal with them by the side of the road. Really nice guys, and they made me feel better about the Turkmen police.

Then push on towards Mary, and Merv. Tried riding around Merv by myself, but it was just a big pile of mudbricks, and it takes quite a bit of that to get me excited these days. Think I needed to have a guide. The abandoned factories on the edges of a World Heritage Site are a particularly nice Soviet touch. Found a nice family who let me camp on their property – suddenly Dad was out levelling a patch of land, the kids were out – sweeties for them worked well, Mum was offering food, all very nice. We were being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and I got out some DEET – they’d never seen anything like it, and were extremely impressed. Guess you can’t get that here.

Feeling tired, the driest 250km to the last town near the border coming up…

Turkmenistan parte the firste

The arrivals hall door to the Turkmenistan customs post is locked, and it seems no-one can find the keys. Just classic – this is one of the most reclusive states in the world, getting up there with North Korea, and they can’t let me in, because the door is locked and no-one seems able to open it.

I’m standing in no-man’s land, between Iran and Turkmenistan, trying to make a start on my 7-day transit visa. I’ve got a lot of miles to cover, but luckily today I only need to go to Ashgabat, around 50km away, pretty much downhill all the way. So I go for my usual policy when I have to wait for various police, customs and petty officials – I sit down and go to sleep. I don’t fully understand it, but this is a remarkably effective way of getting some action. If you sit there looking frustrated, they make you wait even longer, but it annoys them when you go to sleep, so they process you. And sure enough, after a little while, someone comes out, and leads me around through the departures hall, down a dark “officials only” corridor, and into the arrivals hall.

This continues a theme already started on the Iranian side – I got there early, around 6:45, but they weren’t ready until around 7:30 or so. I was still the only non-official there then, so they took me backwards through Iranian customs, as they couldn’t be bothered opening the other door. Quick and easy, stamp from one officer, signature from another, see you later.

Turkmenistan proved a bit different though. After leaving my bike in the customs area, I went to the passport control part. My bike was clearly a great source of amusement, and I would periodically hear the bell go “ding ding” as another customs official came along to play with it. Went through the medical inspection “say aaah – OK you’re healthy,” paid my $12US, then after a myriad of form filling in (not by me), I moved to the customs area.

As I was still the only one there, I had everyone gathered around – probably about 10 people. Random questions about how much foreign currency I had, how much the bike cost, and then they tried to get me to give them $100 for bringing the bike in. I just played dumb on that one, and they gave up. Cursory look in the top of a couple of panniers, and then I was free to go – but not before one of them went for a quick spin around the compound. Not being used to the weight, he was wobbling all over the place.

And then down into Ashgabat – suddenly women everywhere, dressed in hooker chic. Nearly crashed my bike at the shock of it, after a month in Iran and a month in Turkey. Teams of women sweeping the roads/tending to the gardens, huge fountains and monuments everywhere, enormous white buildings doing goodness knows what. Police everywhere – almost every street corner it seems. Crazy. Very nice, clean, new-looking place though. Go to the bazaar, shocking amounts/variety of food available, making a very pleasant change to dusty little corner stores like I normally frequent.

Did the walk around, go up Turkmenbashi’s monument thing – the statue that rotates to face the sun. That’s not very quick though, you don’t see it moving. One of the craziest things was that I couldn’t take pictures of a lot of things I wanted to – military people stopped you. I wasn’t even allowed to stop and look at some statues, I was told to keep moving. What’s the point in building monuments if tourists can’t take pictures, or even stop and look at them? Soviet mindset.

This being my first time back in a country with alcohol for a month, I thought it was time for a beer. I will have you know that I waited until 4:00 though, as per the rules. Good thing clocks went forward 90 minutes when I crossed the border…Found a couple of nice places, including one with a live Russian band, singing quite a few English songs. A bit weird.

First beers in a month meant first sore head for a while as I rolled out of Ashgabat the next morning. Police seemed to be at every little intersection for miles out of Ashgabat. The road started well, dual carriageway swept every 10 metres…but quickly descended to a pretty poor road, with some roadworks nearby, that seemed to have stopped some time ago. Guess Turkmenbashi spent all the money on statues of himself (because the people demanded it, apparently), and that didn’t leave any for roads. I think maybe he mostly travelled by helicopter.

Long hot days ahead crossing Turkmenistan…more posts to come