Sunday, 30 September 2012

Day 191 (Turkmenistan and Iran)

At this point, there's lots of story missing due to the severe lack of internet opportunity and lots of awesome stuff to keep us entertained, but we've made it through Turkmenistan to Iran, all alive and well.

Turkmenistan - what an incredible place, about which I will write plenty more in due course. Our five day transit visa was of course sorely short, but enough for us to visit an eternally flaming gas crater in the middle of the desert, a 55m deep natural thermal spring, and the unique capital city, Ashgabat.

Iran is a very interesting change of scenery after Central Asia, about which I will also share more. The variety of food and drinks is outstanding, especially compared to the narrow selection we've become accustomed to. The compulsory head to toe covering for women isn't quite as charming, especially in the late summer heat, but more on this exceptionally diverse subject later.

I just wanted to inform our readers that we're still on the radar and although the story is falling behind, it is not forgotten. I also have myriads of amazing photos which will be put on facebook as soon as we get a wi-fi connection.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Day 178 – Visas Part 5: Granted entry to a Stalinist State. (Turkmen visas in Tashkent, Uzbekistan)

The designated 20 day waiting period for our Turkmen transit visas took us until Wednesday, 19/9, but after doing the rest of Uzbekistan, we arrived back in Tashkent a few days early, hopeful that we might be able to pick them up a couple of days sooner. We spent the weekend ticking off everything we wanted to do in Tashkent, and set off to the Embassy for 11am opening time this morning (Monday). Ben dressed in gray wool slacks and a beige cardigan for the occasion, and I brushed and plaited my hair. Looking good would surely bring us luck.
We found the glamorous building easily this time, and knew to leave all our electrical gadgets in the car. It was bang on 11am when we got to the entrance, but we were a bit concerned to find not only no other civilians, but no policeman guarding the monstrous gates. Doubt as to our likelihood of obtaining the visas that day started creeping in as the minutes passed and we waited. The guard post was empty, so we were just milling around hoping somebody might see us out a window or through the many surveillance cameras facing in our direction.
After what was in reality probably two or three minutes, but felt like about two hours, the door at the side of the building opened and two men that we recognised from application day meandered out. They were deep in small talk and concentrating on each lighting himself a cigarette, but as they reached the bottom of the stairs, the one in the lilac shirt who we’d mainly dealt with last time, glanced up and spotted us. He held up his finger to indicate that we should wait a moment and hurried back into the building, butting his cigarette in the lush garden bed. When he reappeared, the two men approached us, obviously recalling who we were and what we’d be there for. The gates were opened and we entered the grounds.
“Telephone? You.” The lilac shirted man addressed Ben.
“Well we tried, but the lady who answered couldn’t understand me,” Ben responded, thinking that we were being asked whether we had phoned, or perhaps being chastised that we hadn’t. (We actually tried to phone several times in the previous week, and even had one of our guesthouse owners give it a shot.)
Then we realised he was simply asking if we had any mobile phones with us, to which we told him we didn’t. We followed lilac shirt man and his Reebok adorned colleague along the familiar wide footpath, through the same perfectly manicured lawn to the staircase that led to the heavy wooden door into the building. Inside the small, non-descript office, lilac shirt man disappeared and reappeared with a large ring bound folder. He asked for our passports, checked our nationality and began flicking through the folder. Each paper had a bunch of writing and some stamps, but what he was looking for was in a small table in the centre of the page, the right hand column of which mainly read UZB. As he flicked through we spotted a few IRA, a bunch of FRA and a couple of GBR, but no AUS. As he turned over the last page, our shoulders dropped, our hopeful smiles disintegrated, and we began turning towards the door. The man in the lilac shirt though slammed the folder shut, pointed at the chairs and said “SIT” and left the room with our passports. We sat.
Another man appeared on the other side of the glass wall and started to make some phone calls. This was starting to look hopeful again. He got off the phone and addressed us in Russian, at which point the chubby man in his Reebok t-shirt who was still standing on our side of the glass, started translating. When did we apply? I told him 30/8 (I didn’t specify that it had still only been 18 days – hopefully they wouldn’t notice). Some discussions between the two men ensued and another phone call was made. Next thing we know, he’s telling us we would have a 5 day visa – as we expected, and asked what date we would like it to start on. Why did we have to write it on the original form if we could just decide now? I had a quick look at the calendar behind the glass and decided to stick with what was on our application forms – Friday 21/9. We were told to come back at 4pm with $35 each.
We were pretty flabbergasted at all this; friendly and prompt (if you don’t include the 18 days) service, a fairly simple application process, and now a very reasonable price. I had been prepared to be charged well into the hundreds of dollars for this privilege, and had certainly anticipated a string of struggles and frustrations.
By 4pm we’d visited the National Plov Museum, had our roof rack and fog lamp welded, bought new bulbs for a brake light and a side light, and were standing outside the magnificent gates once again. This time a stocky policeman was manning his post and told us in Russian to come back tomorrow. We gestured that we were “collecting”, and he didn’t really seem to care, so we took our place amongst the other dozen people gathered around. A middle aged lady in a black dress and an old lady in a colourful headscarf had a great time staring and talking about us in front of our backs. Being a tourist attraction does ware thin, but we weren’t about to make a scene in front of the Embassy where we were hopefully about to collect our visas.
At 4:20 the doors opened and our friend in the lilac shirt sauntered through the garden and unlocked the gates. Everyone crowded around, and he let one person in at a time. Black dress lady was first – she was the pushiest, and her head scarfed companion followed. Each person was only talking a minute or so, so we weren’t too perturbed about the pushing. Lilac shirt man was very friendly with everyone, laughing with the civilians at a stupidly small dog struggling to climb the kerb, and seeming to find many things that we couldn’t understand to be quite hilarious. Our turn came so we left the joviality and made our way to the doors once again. Four passports each complete with a Turkmen visa and an A5 receipt were pushed through the slot at the bottom of the glass window, our $140 was pushed through the slot in the opposite direction, we said our sincere thankyous, and strutted out of the building, barely able to wipe the grins off our faces.
We stopped at the Turkmen run convenience store around the corner for a celebratory coke and ice cream. While we were there, our lilac shirted friend entered and made a purchase.
At the end of all this though, I am a bit devastated at the placement of my visa. As any Australians with passports issued since 2009 will know, there is a variety of Australiana pictures on each page, and if you happen to have the privilege of being in the possession of one of these fine documents, I would challenge you to flick to page 25 and 26. For those of you who don’t fall into this demographic, some of the pictures include kangaroos, kids playing netball, a country pub, a wattle tree, a surfer, and on page 26 there is a very nice image of a couple of girls in bathers. My Iranian visa complete with headscarf adorned headshot, had been inadvertently (unless the Iranian Consular Officers had an unexpected sense of humour) placed on page 25, directly beside the girls in bathers. I found the cultural contrast quite amusing, and greatly enjoyed pointing it out to people. Now though my page 26 is taken up with the Turkmen visa, and there is nothing humorous about that double page anymore.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Day 167 – Entrance fees and carpet galleries. (Uzbekistan)

I am often chastised by fellow travellers for not “embracing the culture” or “accepting differences”, but there are some things that from time to time really frustrate, and even offend me, about other “cultures”. The main issue on my mind at the moment is the relentless quest for money from foreigners that seems to be something that all Asian countries that I’ve ever visited (Japan excepted) have in common. Just because I’m Western doesn’t mean I’m rich, and certainly doesn’t mean you should be taking advantage of me.
The Registon in Samarqand is one of the most beautiful and well maintained buildings I’ve ever visited. As non Uzbeks we were required to pay an entry fee of 13,300 Som (about $5) which in relation to Australia for example is a very low price, but in the context of where we are is a reasonably substantial amount of money. Paying the fee I don’t have a problem with. What I have a problem with is that once inside the grounds we’re not actually free to appreciate the buildings because of the incessant drone of stall holders hassling us to buy their overpriced and tacky souvenirs. Not only that but large sections of the site are not even visible because of the covering of rugs, shirts and fridge magnets.
On the other hand, the Registon was traditionally the centre of commerce and an economic hub, so are they not maintaining its historical integrity by continuing the tradition of it being a market place? Well if it is to remain as essentially a bazaar, then there should be no entrance fee. Is it a tourist site or a shopping centre? I don’t think it should be both.
The Registon is far from the only example of this disrespectful deviation from local history and culture. In Bukhara we visited one of, if not the oldest mosque on the Silk Road. It was one of the simplest and least restored of all the ancient buildings we’ve seen, which in itself held a certain charm. We were prepared to pay the inevitable entrance fee, which as it’s no longer a functioning mosque I have no issue with. When we arrived at the entrance though, we were greatly disappointed to find that the mosque has in fact been turned into a carpet “gallery”; every wall, pillar and piece of furniture covered in carpets that the lady who was also accepting the entrance fees was hoping to sell.
One thing I really despise is the notion of taking an each way bet with mosques and other such places of worship. The way I see it is that either it should be a mosque which anyone is free to use as a mosque, or it should be a tourist attraction where everyone is treated as a tourist. If it is a functioning mosque then enforcing a dress code, prohibiting photos and portraying an aura of respectful calm is appropriate. If it is a tourist site then taking photos and exploring the buildings should be acceptable. By trying to be both, neither is going to be satisfactorily achieved.
Dual pricing is something I continue to battle with in my own mind. The only conclusion I can come to is that it is appropriate in some instances and not in others. There is no doubt in my mind though that the examples I’m talking of here should not include dual pricing. In the case of a mosque, why should I be religiously discriminated against because of my background? What if I genuinely wanted to pray there, yet because I can’t speak Uzbek and look Western, I’m treated as a tourist. If dual pricing is to exist, it needs to at least be appropriate. I doubt taxes pay for the upkeep of any of these sites, which would be the only argument against. 
We visited the tombs of St Daniel (from Daniel and the Lion’s Den) and Job (from the Old Testament book of Job), and to each one we paid an entrance fee. Inside there were people praying and taking part in religious rituals. Did they pay an entrance fee? Or was it assumed that because they were Uzbek that they were there for religious purposes? There were also people set up on knee high tables and rugs, selling the usual array of hats, magnets and plates. Did they pay an entrance fee? Or do they just have an agreement with whoever charges the entrance fee? Maybe he takes a cut of the stall holders earnings.
It’s also very difficult to tell when the entrance fee is official or not as there seems to be no regulation or repercussions. The fact that the ticket price is often negotiable, and there is usually no ticket handed over in return for our money, raises alarm bells. But as there doesn’t seem to be any sort of body regulating it, we have no option but to either pay the price or leave the site. Imagine if someone just set up a desk at the front of a State Library in Australia or Europe and started demanding payment from everyone entering.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Day 173 – Worst oil producing nation ever. (Uzbekistan)

First I should justify myself – I actually don’t know if Uzbekistan is the worst oil producing nation ever, but it certainly is the worst I’ve ever been to. I thought “ever” made for a catchier title than “than I’ve ever been to”.
Availability of petrol was one of the aspects of this trip that we were careful to research as much as we could, and prepare for however possible. Right from the beginning we have been on our toes in terms of playing it safe with having enough petrol, but this is the first country where it has truly been a concern. We fully expected to be resorting to plastic bottles by the side of the road in South East Asia, and even though we continued to pass an abundance of international petrol stations everywhere we went, we were always careful not to get complacent. “Just because we haven’t had any problems yet, this might be the first road where there isn’t a proper petrol station. We’ll fill up before leaving this town just in case.” Even in China we adopted the same philosophy, but still, even in the remotest of areas a petrol station would always appear before the end of a tank.
Kazakhstan had us worried a few times in the desert, but still, there always was a petrol station somewhere, and it always had some decent quality petrol. Kyrgyzstan was a breeze. Yet here we are in Uzbekistan, the world’s 55th oil producing country, surrounded by some of the most prolific, and yet petrol shortage is a daily concern.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of petrol stations, varying from a single retro bowser under a sheet of corrugated iron, all the way to a vast and shiny shelter harbouring a dozen modern bowsers, complete with convenience store and electronic signs. The problem is though that about 25 out of 30 are closed, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the state that they’re in. Of the five that are operating, four will be selling only gas and one will have 80 octane available (we’ve even seen 76 for sale). So it’s essential that we constantly have our eyes open for the all too valuable petrol, and if we find some we get as much as we can squeeze into the tank.
It is incredibly frustrating when we drive past this myriad of out of use petrol stations, yet there is a brand new one in the process of construction on every stretch of road. Surely it would be more beneficial to get the petrol to the already existing businesses before starting up new ones left, right and centre.
But what do the locals do? They can’t all just be running around on thin air? Well actually, not far off. They’re all fuelling their cars with natural gas, which apparently is much more available than, yet essentially the same price as any sort of petrol. Unfortunately we once again don’t have the correct adaptor so can’t tap into the natural gas supply. That would make life a lot easier.
So where does all their oil go? We see petrol tankers driving around. Where are they going? I have a theory that if they stopped putting so much oil in their cooking, maybe there’d be enough to supply the petrol stations.

Day 173 – Making friends with cops. (Uzbekistan)

As previously blogged about (Blog Day 161 – Police checks), there is an abundance of police checks in Uzbekistan. Since our first day here, when our passports were scanned five times within 250km, they haven’t been quite as prolific but they’re still unbelievably more common than anywhere else any of us have ever travelled to. At some checks, they don’t seem to be pulling anyone over – we guess they’re just taking footage of all the passing traffic, but we’ve still had our passports checked more in the last two weeks than I have had in my entire life up until this point. Most of them are not overly intimidating though and sometimes the whole thing can be quite light hearted.
There was one checkpoint where the golden toothed policeman laughed at Denner’s eyebrow ring then, without even glancing at a passport, waved us on. I guess he realised people with eyebrow rings are rarely up to no good...
We were sitting waiting for ages at one of the first police checks we went through, so Tunkles and Ben got out to go and have a look at what was happening. More intrigued by the funny foreigners than our documents though, the policeman called over all the other policemen to laugh at their beards. Realising how to make friends with these ones, Ben rushed over to get Denner out of the car. When they laid their eyes on his extreme facial hair, they all lost it. Nothing more was done with our documents and after letting the hilarity subside a little, we were free to go.
A few days ago we were perturbed because the policeman who had pulled us over had looked at our passports and was waving us to go on, but another two had appeared at the other side of the car and quite forcibly insisting that (we thought) we put our back window down to have our boot searched. Confused by the mixed messages, we wanted just to drive on, but the second and third policemen were pretty adamant that we pull over. So we did. And we realised they weren’t asking to search our car, but were in fact trying to tell us that we’d left our stupid electronic back window down. Here we were being all indignant, and they were just trying to help!
One policeman waved us to the side of the road, then approached the passenger’s window as they invariably do, seeing our car is right hand drive and here we drive on the right hand side. The appropriate greetings were made, he shook hands with the three men, and proceeded to ask us where we are from and where we were coming from. Seeing we can’t tell the difference between these questions, it’s a stab in the dark as to whether we’re answering the correct one or not. We often get some odd looks while they’re realising our confusion. The policeman sternly asked for all our passports and registration documents, then began moving away from the car. As he turned away, he did a double take and burst into laughter, pointing at the driver, the passenger and back to the driver, miming steering. Slapping his thighs in hilarity he called over his fellow policemen and they surrounded the car, laughing hysterically at us silly foreigners with our steering wheel on the wrong side. The first policeman moved around to the driver’s window and vigorously shook hands with Ben who was driving, before handing back our passports and registration with not so much as a second glance. Still chortling to himself and shaking his head in amusement, he waved us on our way.
Entering the area near the Afghan border, we went through a fairly intense checkpoint. We had to park and take our passports, registration slips and car import document into a little office where all our details were copied into a large, very neatly hand ruled notebook. All vehicles leaving the area
were being thoroughly searched; luggage, tyres and anything that can be stripped from the car being put through a scanning machine inside a portable trailer. There were a lot of trucks – mainly European – going through this checkpoint, on their way to and from delivering goods to Afghanistan. It looked like people were there for hours waiting to be cleared, and we weren’t looking forward to our return the following day.
On our return though we were pleased to find out that they don’t in fact hold up every single vehicle for an excruciating amount of time – just most. This time we knew which office to go to, so we went straight there where our passport details were copied into the big book again, and the policeman didn’t even glance at our registration or car importation. Nobody was interested in searching our car and five minutes later we were away.
We went through a second checkpoint on the way towards the Afghan border. This one was a bit less intensive, but we were still required to park the car and take our documents into a little office. The guard who was designated the task of taking our details was much more interested in having a chat though, and continued to do so. Unfortunately he really struggled to fathom that we couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but after a bit of gentle nudging, we got him to try miming. He was very taken with me and whether I was married. We told him that Ben and I were married, and he was very excited to find out about our potential children. After miming it differently a substantial number of times, he finally believed us that much to his disappointment, we were childless. We realised afterwards that perhaps he was fishing, and we were supposed to ask him about his wife and children.
On our way back through this checkpoint the following day we weren’t even stopped, so I suppose if anyone was ever to tally up all the hand written notebooks, we would technically still be in that area.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


Please check out the newly updated Uzbekistan album on our facebook page.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Day 161 – Visas Part 4: All the way to Europe. (Turkmen and Azeri visas in Tashkent, Uzbekisatn)

So just a quick re-cap: We got Kazakh visas in China, Kyrgyz and Uzbek visas in Kazakhstan, and Iranian visas in Kyrgyzstan. Now that we had Iranian visas we could apply for Turkmen transit visas (Iran being the country we’re “transiting” through Turkmenistan to) and according to David from Stantours Tashkent was our best opportunity to get Azerbaijani visas without LOIs. Once these last two were taken care of, we’d be set all the way to Europe.
So on arrival in Tashkent yesterday morning we searched for the Turkmen Embassy. We try to steer away from Lonely Planet whenever possible, but much to our horror it’s often our first reference point out of convenience when we arrive somewhere. As always the address and map that Lonely Planet provided us with sent us completely in the wrong direction. We found ourselves winding aimlessly through side streets, none of the names marked on our stupid Lonely Planet map and nothing seeming to make sense. We stopped at the Slovakian Embassy which we happened to pass, hoping they’d be able to point us in the right direction.
“Next to Korean Embassy,” the ever so friendly guard spat at Ben.
“Ok, but where’s the Korean Embassy?”
“Korean Embassy,” and a very vague wave of the arm pointed us back the way we’d come. A bit more of this back and forth followed until we decided to just give it a go.
Surely we drove on every single street in that area, but we couldn’t find the Korean Embassy or the Turkmen Embassy. Eventually though we found the street name we were looking for, and even the correct number. We parked out the front, but were not at all hopeful – it was quite clearly just someone’s house. While we were considering whether to ring the bell just in case, a man standing on the street asked us what we were looking for and gave us directions which led us in exactly the opposite direction from the way the Slovakian Embassy guard had pointed, and nowhere near what Lonely Planet had said. After following the new directions for a bit we passed the office of Advantour, a well known travel agency in this part of the world, so we thought we’d pop in and see if they could shed any light on the location. Not only did they know where the Embassy was, but were able to provide us with a free map of the city on which they marked it. After that it was a piece of cake.
The Turkmen Embassy in Tashkent is a far cry from what we’ve become accustomed to. As opposed to the humble houses and ruined buildings we’ve found ourselves at lately, this was a shining monstrosity of wealth and glamour. The most imposing building on the wide boulevard, it was more like a palace than anything else. We parked the car and found ourselves at the gated entrance 10 minutes before 11am opening time. Lonely Planet advises to arrive two hours before opening time to put your names down – this is nonsense. Glad we hadn’t paid heed to this, we said hello to the guard who casually flicked through one of our passports and commented on the myriad of visas and stamps. We waited patiently in the shade with the lady and man who were already there.
At 11am a few people exited the gates and we were asked quite politely to wait a few more minutes while the lady and man were allowed in. Sure enough a few minutes passed and the man from inside the Embassy came back out and ushered us in. We had to leave my camera, Denner and Tunkles’ phones and Ben’s ipod with the policeman guard outside, then we followed the man along the wide footpath through the perfectly manicured lawn to the staircase that led to the heavy wooden door into the building. It’s always the same though – no matter how grand or large the Embassies are, us plebeian visa applicants are always shown into a small, non-descript office. This was no exception. Several other people had appeared out of nowhere and were ushered in behind us, and fortunately one of them posed as translator between us and the Embassy man. “Yes we have our Iranian visas.” “Yes we have completed application forms.” “Yes we have photocopies of our passports, Uzbek visas, Iranian visas and passport photos.” Of course the forms we had weren’t the right ones – just for something a bit different, but he gave us new ones to fill in and even when we discovered he wanted two photocopies of everything, did the extras himself for no charge!
Our plans have had to be pushed back a full week though because these visas will take 20 days to issue. Apparently there is no express service or “extra fees” available. We had planned to be in Turkmenistan 14 – 19th September (5 day transit visa), but 20 days from 29th August when we applied is 18th September. Unfortunately our Uzbek visas only last for 25 days meaning we must be out by the 23rd which is a Sunday, so actually we must be out by the Friday which is the 21st. This all doesn’t leave us much time to play with. We’ve opted for our visas to start on the 21st, allowing a couple of days of leeway on this side, but none on the other.
Our next task was Azerbaijani visas. Giving up completely on Lonely Planet, we used the list of Embassies on the city map from Advantour as reference. The very annoying thing though was that there’s a list of addresses and phone numbers, but no grid reference, and we absolutely could not find Sharktongi Street on the map. A quick visit to reception at the Tashkent Palace Hotel which we were parked in front of solved this and off we went to Sharktongi Street. We found it remarkably easily after that, stopping at the first official looking building on the road, which funnily enough turned out to be the Azerbaijani Embassy. We found what seemed to be an entrance and were told by the guard to come back at 3pm.
At 3pm we returned to the same entrance where the guard had us follow him to a different entrance – the main entrance as it happens. We sat in what seemed to be a bus stop outside while he took our passports and copied details into a large book. A Lexus with diplomatic plates pulled up between us and the front gate and a man in a suit and a lady in white trousers got out. The man was frisked with a metal detector and the lady was flashed a gold toothed smile. Ten minutes later we were given the same treatment (so if we wanted to take anything inside, it just had to be on me) and allowed inside the complex. We had to register our passports again with a dark haired lady in an air conditioned booth just inside the gate, then she pointed us to a door at the side of the modest cement block building. The man from the Lexus out front opened the door for us and we were asked to sit at his desk in a very nice office that felt nothing like a visa application office at all, but more like some sort of Executive suite in a fancy office block. The carpet was lush, the desk was mahogany and the walls were covered in framed pictures of men with beards and hats. A calendar of Azerbaijan and a book on the atrocious terrorist actions of Armenia sat on the desk in front of us.
When we’d established that we were looking for Azerbaijani tourist visas he asked if we had LOIs. We are well aware that officially Australians should have LOIs, but had also heard that at this particular Embassy it could be got around.
“Ok so you have no Letter of Invitation. Ok,” he paused thoughtfully, then resumed. “So you do not have Letter of Invitation. Usually you need Letter of Invitation, but as you do not, I think I can help. Yes, I will try and help you.” After some more contemplation he continued. “Usually tourist visa cost $80, but... I think if you pay $160 it will be ok.” Finally – the first Embassy where we were able to pay a “special fee” to get an extra service! And we could pick them up between 10am and 12pm the following day.
He gave us the necessary three page application form and we got to filling it in. For the question of accommodation and inviting agency in Azerbaijan, he directed us to a pamphlet of hotels and serviced apartments lying on his desk and told us to copy down the details of one of them. This would also suffice as our contact in the country. Easy. Then there was a series of questions regarding our feelings towards Armenia – are we in any way related to anyone who is or has been Armenian, have we ever been to Armenia before, have we fought in any regiment of any defence force that has crossed paths in any way with Armenia, have we been to the strip of land that is “part of Azerbaijan, but occupied by Armenia”, etc. When we’d answered no to all these questions, listed all the visas we’ve been issued with in the last five years and completed all our personal details, we handed the forms and our passports over.
Considering how many times we’d already had our passports checked in Uzbekistan and the density of police roaming the streets, we weren’t overly comfortable being passportless for an evening and morning. We also were still to find accommodation and would need them for that. So we got photocopies from our collection in the car and asked him to put an official looking stamp on them, with an explanation that we don’t have our passports because the Azerbaijani Embassy does. He was pretty hesitant to give us this stamp and signature, but when we promised we’d return them when he returned our passports, he agreed.
We returned the following day at the designated time and were given back our passports, yet another page taken up with a sloppily hand written visa. They are valid for one month from 10/10, which is fine if everything goes according to plan, but we had hoped that Azerbaijan could be a contingency exit if there was to be a problem with the Turkmen visas. He didn’t ask for the stamped passport copies back and we didn’t offer them.
If our Turkmen visas were to be denied or delayed, we have three potential backup plans. In order from worst to best: 3.) We drive the 300km from Tashkent back to Kyrgyzstan where we don’t need a visa and would be given a 30 day entry on arrival. 2.) We catch a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan which we now have visas for, but timing would be an issue. We might have to just go back to the Embassy in Tashkent and give our mate another few dollars to have the dates changed. Or seeing it’s hand written, we could probably just change it ourselves. 1.) We catch a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Iran which we already have visas for (valid for three months from issue which is heaps of time).
Apparently the Turkmen President is a big motoring enthusiast, so we’re pretty hopeful that our visas will be there waiting for us by the end of the 20 day waiting period.

Day 171 – The brick phenomenon. (Uzbekistan)

The money situation in Uzbekistan is an odd one. To begin with, it’s the first country any of us have ever visited that has two working exchange rates. It is a very peculiar concept, and we’re still struggling to get our heads around the fact.
The official exchange rate is what’s given out at the bank or a legally licensed currency exchanger. Then there’s the “real” rate, which is illegal. Almost any shop/stall/man on the street will happily exchange money for you at the street rate, and this seems to be the thing that everyone does – tourists and locals alike. We haven’t been so brazen as to try, but apparently most policemen are even happy to exchange money at the street rate. Why does everyone do their banking on the black market? Because nobody wants to accept 1,950 Som to US$1 (we actually checked at a bank this afternoon, just for the fun of it), when any stall holder at a bazaar will hand over somewhere between 2,500 and 2,700 Som for US$1.
We’re really not sure why this is the case. Why does every Dilshod, Sunnat and Muzaffa* want a surplus of US$ so much that they’re willing to pay 30% above what they’re officially worth? Why does the government want to keep the value of their own currency so artificially low? Can I go down to the market and get 2,700 Som for my US$, then take that Som to the bank and give them only 1,950 in return for US$1? Or do the official outlets only sell Som? We have a few theories about some of these questions, but it all seems a bit ridiculous just the same.
The other thing which is in some ways even harder to comprehend is the fact that everything is in wads. The highest note is worth 1,000 Som, which means that for the equivalent of $1 you need to hand over three notes minimum. Seeing as most meals will cost about 10,000 Som pp and souvenirs are up past the 20,000 Som mark, almost everything ends up being paid for in bricks.
After crossing the border into Uzbekistan we were pretty hungry, so we obviously needed some money. The first town we passed seemed as good a place as any so we stopped there. We’d heard the concept of changing money illegally, but weren’t quite sure how to go about it. Do we really just walk up to any old codger on the street and ask him to change our US$? As if asking for directions isn’t awkward enough. A burger shop down a side street took our fancy, so we went there with our dollars. At the counter we asked if we could pay in US$ and were declined. Maybe this wasn’t as straight forward as everyone seemed to make out. A moment passed and he revised his response with an “ok, ok, dollars”. We used his calculator to negotiate a rate, which was obviously a complete stab in the dark for us, and he handed us each a brick in return for our $10 notes. As it turns out, it actually is just that easy.
Because we had no way of knowing whether we were being ripped off or not we’d only changed a small amount that first time, so when we got to Tashkent we had to change some more. Feeling like old hands at the illegal exchange game, we took our $540 between us to the bazaar. Still a bit uncomfortable with the idea of wads of cash just changing hands in the middle of the kafuffle on the street, we entered a jewellery shop and asked them to change it for us. Again we were given the head shake straight off the bat, then suddenly it was possible and we were swarmed by half a dozen men. We were gestured towards a small booth at the front of the shop where we proceeded with negotiations. The rate at the burger shop had been 2,640 S/$, so we were happy to settle for 2,680 S/$. The man in the booth did the maths, I checked it, scribbled the numbers on my arm and tried to prevent my jaw from landing on the ground when the cash was handed over. Considering we got about half of it in 500 Som notes, we were thrust a total of probably over 2,000 notes. We had heard of the “brick phenomenon”, but really hadn’t understood the magnitude of it until these wads of cash were slapped onto the counter in front of us. Caught unawares, we realised we hadn’t brought anything to carry it in. We were handed a small, clear plastic bag, one of the ones that you’d buy fruit in at the supermarket, but it didn’t feel quite right walking through the bazaar carrying this very weak bag full of heavy cash bricks. Tunkles ran off and bought a child’s backpack, which he kindly gifted to me and it has now become the money bag.
Everything we’ve been taught about money etiquette comes down to “don’t count it, flaunt it, or wave it around in public”. It’s rude and it’s not safe. Well it’s certainly a challenge, but we really have to put that predisposition behind us here. When you need to pull out five notes just to buy a bottle of coke, there really is no room for discreteness. Sitting at a table in a restaurant and counting wads of cash that put most reference books to shame is part of the Uzbek experience.

*to replace the common Western phrase “every Tom, Dick and Harry”, I have included the top three Uzbek names.

Day 161 – Police checks. (Uzbekistan)

After the border crossing itself and the passport check to leave the border area, we headed towards Tashkent, expecting to cover the 250km within the day. The roads were good so our average speed was higher than we’ve managed since China (and before that Australia), but what we hadn’t accounted for was the unbelievable amount of police checks we’d encounter. We are becoming quite accustomed to police hanging around at the side of the road, pulling people over whenever they feel so inclined, making up an offence and asking for a bribe. What we aren’t used to though is a police checkpoint that resembles a border crossing every 50km, not to mention the police and army at the side of the road every 1 or 2km. On top of that, the system seems to be on the increase as there were at least a dozen checkpoints under construction in this section. In that first 250km, we had our passports checked five times – and not just looked at, but actually taken to a computer inside an office where they’re scanned and our movements are recorded. At one check they flicked through one of our passports, and finding the page with the Iranian visa on it asked us something that we assumed to be “So you have a visa to go to Iran?” Obviously we answered yes, because we do. Then sensing their heckles rising, it dawned on us that with the passport photo on the visa, the policeman had mistaken it for the title page. We quickly found the actual title page and cleared the air. Only that morning a man had asked me and Ben whether we were Israeli. It’s certainly a change of scene from the usual “American?”
The thing is though, we weren’t once asked for money or accused of anything; they really are just keeping a record of everyone’s movements. Considering we entered the country in an area where there is regular fighting, and shooting across the border is not unusual, and we then skirted the Tajik border (including an enclave) for most of the way, we are hoping that this won’t be a trend throughout the country. The police presence in Tashkent is still very high, but we haven’t been stopped at all yet in the city.
As a result of all this though we didn’t make it to Tashkent until this morning, camping overnight on the way.
The fact that we camped on our first night may or may not cause us problems in the future. Supposedly all tourists are meant to register at a hotel every night spent in Uzbekistan. We keep hearing different stories though – one guy told us that if you register every 2nd night it’s fine, someone else reckons every 3rd night is ok. The hotel we’re staying at in Tashkent wasn’t even comfortable taking us because we hadn’t registered on our first night. Some say nobody will even check at the border, yet others are under the impression that if you don’t register every night you’ll be fined. So we’re still playing it by ear and not quite sure what we’ll end up doing. We’re not in cheap land anymore, so we can’t really afford to stay in accommodation every night. The cheapest we could find here was $30 pp, so hopefully we’ll discover that camping sometimes is ok.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Day 164 – Melons, shashliks and a revolution. (Uzbekistan)

We’re staying at the delightful Bahodir B&B in the centre of Samarqand. It’s a charming affair; a leafy central courtyard draped in a series of rugs and quilts serves as the relaxing communal area, and a selection of doors, staircases and corridors lead from it to the haphazard variety of guest rooms in the surrounding array of buildings. The staff are very quiet, but the service has been impeccable – on arrival we were ushered to the courtyard and served tea and melon. Quite amusingly, there are melons (watermelons and a type I’m not familiar with which is white and oblong and resembles cantaloupe) all over the place. To get the car into their front entranceway, they had to move some chairs, a desk, and about a dozen melons that were lined up at the edge of the ground.
Uzbekistan is the first country we’ve been to since Australia where we’re paying what we refer to as “real money” for things like accommodation. We’re staying at the very cheapest place we could find and we’re paying $11 pp for a four person room. This is a far cry from the $2 or $3 pp for single or double rooms in South East Asia. Compared to the competition though, it is phenomenal value. Not only are there melons lining each corridor and filling every nook and cranny, but we also get a breakfast of eggs, meat, cheese, bread, rice pudding, fresh yoghurt, tea and coffee included. And every evening they offer a hearty dinner for about $3, which so far we have failed miserably at being a part of.
On our first night we arrived after dinner time, but with all the melon and tea, we weren’t too bothered. On our second night we decided to check out the surrounding areas and ended up searching the streets of Samarqand for what seemed to be a non-existent meal. There isn’t a clear hub and we just couldn’t find any cafe/restaurants.
It happened to be the National Day (September 1st) and the streets were packed. There were a lot more sparkly hats and decadent dresses than you’d find on a usual evening, and there were umpteen ice cream stalls around the city, each one with a queue extending far down the street. It seemed that every single person in Samarqand was dressed in sequins and eating ice cream.
Last night we decided just to eat at the B&B, but when we got there and approached the kitchen to ask for dinner, we were told it was all finished. Another frustrating walk followed and we found ourselves at what turned out to be quite a nice shashlik joint.
So there we were enjoying our shashliks and nan, when a man from another table came to ours and addressed Ben.
“Something something something in probably Russian, blabla etc Amerikansi, blablabla,” and thrust a bowl of grapes at him, bowing respectfully as he retreated.
“No, no, not American...” Ben tried to shake off the usual assumption that we were American, but the man cut him off, finished what he was saying and returned to his own table.
Usually we’re treated with disdain until they realise we’re not American, so this was new. It was a shame we’d been fed so many grapes at the B&B in the afternoon so we were a bit graped out, but we managed to get a few down for the sake of politeness.
We continued with our shashliks and as far as we were aware were being left alone. Then as part of usual, jovial conversation, Ben inadvertently made a hitting my face gesture. The man who had so kindly gifted Ben with grapes 15 minutes before, now turned around and quite ferociously told Ben, using very flamboyant hand gestures, that he should not be hitting his woman, and should instead be blowing kisses and hugging me. Ben apologised profusely and we tried not to do any more to draw attention to ourselves.
After our interesting meal of shashliks and grapes we got back to the B&B, and there we were in our room minding our own business when we heard a ruckus on the street. At first we assumed it was some sort of party that was conveniently assembling 20m from our window, but then as the yelling became louder and the torch became brighter, we considered the fact that we might have found ourselves in the middle of a revolution. Not sure exactly what one does when you may or may not be in the midst of a Central Asian revolution, we looked out the window for a bit and then Ben decided he’d go down to the front door and see if he could figure out what the story was. I watched him out the window, assuming that he’d have a quick look, maybe ask someone something, and then come back up. Instead though he had a quick look, then started walking in the direction of the noise. After a few minutes I decided he’d probably got caught up in some trouble so I went to rescue him.
I followed the noise down an alleyway, hoping that’s where Ben had gone. Clumps of residents were peering out of doors and windows, congregating at the side of the unlit street. As I got closer to the noise I saw that the road was on fire and there was a large group with torches shouting and dancing. A couple of cars were following the crowd, honking their horns and revving their engines.
It was only as I got right up to the crowd and found Ben with some other people from our B&B watching intently from the edge, that I realised for sure that this wasn’t a revolution, but was in fact some sort of party. As it turns out this thing that we thought was a violent revolution, was in fact just a harmless wedding. Funnily enough we’d been discussing earlier that afternoon how we couldn’t get away from weddings in Kyrgyzstan; they were at every site we visited, we passed the cars on the roads, squares in the cities were usually hosting at least one or two, country towns were often decorated for one. Yet we hadn’t seen a single one in Uzbekistan up until this point.
The men were processing with torches, dancing wildly and singing enthusiastically. One of the torches had fallen off its pole, providing a brilliant ball of fire on the road which was now the centre of attention. It was an eerie scene, the long shadows from the flame casting on the sides of the mud brick houses, the fire the only real source of light. It was difficult to tell what was shouting and what was singing, and some of the dancing looked like brawling.
While the men were enjoying their loud fire party, the bride was couped up in the back seat of one of the following cars. We watched the proceedings until the fire started getting out of hand and was put out by the perturbed resident of an adjacent house. The procession continued down the alleyway.
Because I’d left the B&B expecting to be rescuing Ben from a revolution, I hadn’t taken anything with me. Frustratingly this means it was one of the very few times I wasn’t carrying my camera. But on the bright side, we weren’t stuck in a revolution and got to witness an Uzbek wedding. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan, by Tom Denner. (Border crossing)

For a minute I pause in disbelief as we approach the crossing; the gates are shut and there seems to be no one crossing the border; it's closed. We approach the gate regardless to make sure, and a wave of relief sweeps over me as a guard appears. He opens the gate, and waves us through the radiation scanner to the customs and immigration building.

All in all emigration was a fairly painless process. For a moment it seemed like we may have some problems as we'd overstayed our visas, but thankfully news of the new “visa free regime” had reached this crossing, and after a few moments of deliberation, the official stamped us out of Kyrgyzstan. (As of about a month ago the forty four most developed country – Australia being one – don’t need visas to go to Kyrgyzstan.)

After Tom's rendition of the arduous exit procedures in Kazakhstan, I was expecting at the very least a sizeable amount of paperwork. The guard though seemed to have little to no interest in the car. Tom was issued a temporary import document on arrival in the country, which I showed to the guard expecting to have to undergo some sort of formality. After briefly glancing over the volunteered document though, we were simply waved through. Thanks Kyrgyzstan for the easiest exit we've had in quite a while.

Across no-man’s land things were somewhat more complex. After a decent wait at the initial entry gate, we were ushered through into the vehicle inspection bays. After initially all being sent to the customs/immigration office to fill in the most comprehensive customs declaration I have ever had the displeasure of encountering, I was hurriedly pulled aside as “the driver” to deal with the importation of the car. Lacking the necessary Russian linguistic skills to fill out the customs forms, I was directed to a small office with an English speaking customs officer who would assist me in filling out the forms.

“You are Australia?”

                                                            “Yes I'm Australian.”

“Ah, kangaroo, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide”

                                                            “Yes yes,” (thinks). Usually don't get Adelaide, wonder where                                                        that came from...

“Car registration?”

                                                            “Is FJI-627”

“Car document?”

                                                            “Ah, carnet?”

“No no no! Car document! You owner document!”

                                                            “Ah registration certificate?” (I hand him a copy, hoping it's                                                            what he wants.)

“Where do you go?”

                                                            “We are going to Tashkent.”

“No no! Where do you go...ah...leave?”

                                                            “Oh! We will go through Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan.”

Our exchange briefly abates as he enters various details into his computer, pausing every so often to ask about details on the rego certificate. We seem to be making good progress, when I'm asked another question.

“In Australia you play football yes?

                                                            “Ah yes, yes we do.”

“Adelaide play football in Tashkent...ah...few days ago.”
“Oh wow, that's great!” (thinks). So that's where Adelaide came from.

“Yes yes. Australia...ah...Asian league.”

I smile and nod enthusiastically. I barely follow AFL when I'm at home, let alone when I'm halfway across the world. Soccer however I actually just don't follow in any sort of capacity. My customs official however seems to be a pretty keen fan, and I'm keen to keep him happy. I rack my brain and think of the only Australian soccer player I can name -Mark Schwartzer-. This receives a very warm response, and he begins to recite the names of several other Australian soccer players. I smile and nod enthusiastically.

Our back and forth continues in a similar fashion; questions about my person, the car and our direction of travel, being periodically interrupted with non-specific banter. Turns out my customs official is 26, and has been working for customs/the army(?) for ten years, and in another 14 he will receive something similar to a pension for his service. At this point he plans to leave and pursue employment in an area he is more interested in. Hopefully something to do with Oriental history, which he is currently studying in Tashkent. He explains though that there are not so many jobs in this area, and he does have a wife and two daughters to support.

Everything has gotten quite casual by this point, he even tells me not to bother filling in some of the more ridiculous sections of my personal customs declaration: specifics and value of any medicines carried, type and value of any electronic or wireless communication devices, specifics of any books or documents carried etc. As I'm filling out the duplicate copy of the declaration however, (because one copy of course is never enough) he stops in mid flight from telling me how much grief his wife is giving him about buying a new Chevorlet Lacetti, and leans in very close to me.

“Do you have machens make you relax?”

It comes out almost as a whisper. I immediately know this is a serious question, but I have no idea what he's asking.

                                                            “Sorry I don't understand.”
“You have mercins...pill pill make you relax?”

He touches his temple and gently rocks his head. His eyes roll back, and suddenly it makes sense: he wants to know if I have any “relaxing” pills.

                                                            “No no, nothing like that.”

“Good, because if you do, I will arrest you.”

He reaches over, wrapping his index finger and thumb around each of my wrists like hand-cuffs, and pauses for a moment looking directly into my eyes. A slight sly smile crosses his face, as if recalling previous triumphs over smugglers and unfortunate tourists. A moment passes, and he lets go, leans back out, and carries on like nothing's happened. I pause for a moment and go back to filling in my form.

“Ok, finish?”
                                                            “Ah, not quite.”

He takes the form from me, puts a line through an incompleted section, -“No worry.” He then indicates to sign the dotted line before enthusiastically stamping the form several times. Two officials are called across; he wishes me good luck and indicates for me to go with them.

When we first parked in the inspection bay there was another car ahead of us being searched. The two officials were going through every compartment, looking under every seat and carpet, through the engine bay, under the car etc. This is a level of scrutiny we just haven't encountered yet, and if they decide to give us the same treatment we could be here for days.

The first inspector asks me to open the boot, which I do. He is confronted by a wall of bags and equipment, but singles out one, and asks me to pull it out. It just happens to be Eils’ bag, and just happens to have the strap of a not so flattering bra sticking out of the zip.

“Ah... your friend?”
                                                            “Yes, my friend.”
“Ok, put back.”

A few other items were chosen at random and meagrely inspected before the pair moved on to the inside of the car. The assistant inspector pokes his head into the chaos that is the back seat of our car and begins searching for contraband, the other turns to me and asks if I have any maps or books.  I indicate to where the maps usually are, and he turns to inspect them at exactly the same time as the assistant inspector is turning to show his colleague Pinchy, one of our mascots. The chief inspector turns round, only to be confronted with an eight inch red lobster and jumps two feet back before realising it's just a rubber toy. He mutters something under his breath, and shakes his head before turning to me.


                                                            “Ah no, lobster, very tasty.”

I mime eating and rub my stomach. The inspector nods and laughs.

“In Russian, scorpion.”

The pair look over a couple of maps, one of the books in the back seat, and have a brief glance over the roof box before the chief waves his assistant away.

“All good, yes.”

                                                            “Ok, so I can go now?”

“Yes yes, all good.”

I jump in the driver's seat and think to myself how much more difficult that could have been. The inspector looks at me through the open window of the car door. There's a strained and slightly puzzled look on his face. He's seen something, or remembered something he's missed, and is now going to pull me out of the car so we can spend another hour here going through whatever it is. I wait in painful anticipation for the longest of moments, before he suddenly seems to have an epiphany. He stands to attention, salutes, and says,

“Welcome... to...Uzbekistan.”
                                                            “Thank you very much.”

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Day 159 - Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. (Border crossing)

In true Kyrgyz form there were no signs to help us find the border, so after driving 14km in the wrong direction we pulled over to ask someone. The easiest place to ask for was Kara Suu, the town that we thought we were probably heading towards which was the wrong way. I got out the car and approached a man at the side of the road, saying the name “Kara Suu” several different ways until he understood where I was talking about. Confirming our suspicions he pointed in the direction we were heading in and repeated “Kara Suu”. I started walking back to the car to tell everyone we needed to do a u-turn, but unfortunately the man followed me. Realising that this man was trying to hitchhike to Kara Suu and he had quite understandably misunderstood my quest for directions, I then had the awkward task of trying with no common language to explain that we were unable to give him a lift. Oops.
A couple of people later we found ourselves on a road that seemed to be heading in the right direction, but were promptly pulled over by a policeman. Ben addressed him out the window, thanking him profusely for helping us and spending the next five minutes getting directions to the border. By the time we absolutely knew exactly where to go, the policeman had forgotten that he’d pulled us over to begin with. Brilliant. And his directions were correct.
We arrived at the closed gates to the border, and Denner had the task of being designated driver for the day. His story will follow to fill in this bit.
While Denner was busy chatting up the border guards, we were inside the large square building dealing with the real bureaucracy. Considering the beating we were getting we thought Denner would be there for hours, but apparently they weren’t so concerned with him and the car as they were with us.
On entering, we’d been given two identical forms each to fill in. Aside from the usual name, DOB, passport details etc, there was a section to declare things such as “any weapon, ammunition, explosives, radioactive materials”, “drugs, psycho tropic substances, poisonous, drastic and medicines”, “objects of flora and fauna, their components and products of them”, “radio-frequency radio electronic devices and means of communication”, “objects if antiques and art”, “means of transport”, and the list goes on. We have heard a few horror stories about how strict the Uzbek borders are, so we carefully went into great detail filling in the section about the car, in which they wanted to know things that we didn’t even know existed. We meticulously counted our cash to declare exactly how much we were taking into the country with us. Apparently a guard will usually want to see the cash (and we were expecting a bit to be skimmed off the top), and you must leave the country with less US$ than you enter with. I’ll go into the currency more in a later blog. Ben also has quite a collection of notes from all the countries we’ve been to, adding to a sum total of less than $10, but choosing to play it safe he decided to show them this and ask whether or not to declare it. The guard obviously had no idea what Pilipino Pesos and Thai Bhat look like and assumed it was a large sum of money, so even when Ben assured him of it’s very miniscule value, he wanted to confiscate it. After a bit of gentle persuasion (no payment involved surprisingly), the guard hesitantly handed the wad back to Ben and told him to hide it.
In answer to the “drugs, psycho tropic substances, poisonous, drastic and medicines”, we had specified “paracetamol, anti-inflammatories, gastro-stop, doxycycline”, and our various other drugs. We’d even vigilantly estimated their value and written “Alfred Hospital” for the issuing authority. After deciding to leave the “accompanied baggage, including hand luggage in amount place” and “unaccompanied baggage (due to cargo accompanying documents) in amount place” squares blank, we copied it all onto the second form, dated and signed it, and approached the small wooden desk in the middle of the room. The guard Ben had shown his money to went through our forms, crossing the boxes we’d missed and stamping the declared amount of US$. When he got to the bit where we’d declared drugs, he looked at us sharply and flipped the page over to see what we’d specified.
“Paracetamol, what is this?” “For sore head.” “Ah, ok.”
“Gastro-stop, what is this?” “For diarrhoea.” He didn’t know what diarrhoea was, that was awkward. “Um, toilet, you know?” He didn’t. Some uncomfortable miming ensued, and he eventually gleaned understanding.
He went on to question us about all the drugs, asking us “So this is all medicine?” “Yes.” “Normal medicine?” “Yes, normal medicine.” “Not psycho tropics?” “No, not psycho tropics, just normal, legal medicines.” “Oh ok, you do no declare this. Only psycho tropics drugs.”
So there’s a whole section for declaring illegal drugs. Who would you nominate as the issuing authority? How would you estimate the value? That’s certainly a new one.
Then he got to the car section. “You each have car?” “No, we have one car between us.” You are driver? Who is driver?” Denner was just outside the window with Trevor, so we pointed over there and explained that the driver was already dealing with the car importation. He had been surprisingly reasonable during this whole process, correcting our mistakes with whiteout as he went, but he was obviously getting to the end of his tether by this point - understandably considering every single section (except name, DOB, nationality etc) was wrong. Indicating the car section that we’d so carefully filled in he told us “Only driver”. We apologised profusely and gratefully accepted the new forms he thrust at us.
With only our electronics and US$ declared on the new forms we approached the same guard. He couldn’t be bothered with us this time and palmed us off to his colleague who stamped, crossed and signed our corrected forms.
Customs was in a large square room, full length windows lining the walls. Aside from the small wooden desks the guards were sitting at to check our forms and the standing height desks for us to fill in forms at, there was a luggage scanner conveyer belt at the exit, and a small room in the corner that we had noticed was the strip searching room. Every bag was going through the scanner and then being opened and searched by hand. Around half the people going through were also being escorted into the strip searching room in twos and threes. As we laid our bags on the scanner, I noticed the one female guard eyeing me up and speaking to the guard who had mainly been dealing with us. Despite not understanding the words that were being said, I could clearly tell that they were discussing whether to strip search me. She was really keen – give the white girl a kick up the bum I guess, but the male guard who had corrected our forms was telling her just to leave us stupid tourists be – we can’t even fill in customs declarations forms properly. In the end our bags went through the scanner and we were waved through the door and sent on our way to Uzbekistan.
Considering the Kyrgyz side of things had taken 15 minutes, we’d then been left to wait in no-man’s land for 30 minutes and then we’d been stuck in Uzbek Customs for an hour, we found a shady spot behind the brick wall surrounding the border area and got ready to wait for Denner for at least another hour. Five minutes later Denner and Trevor appeared and we were free to go.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Day 152 – Life as a nomad. (Kyrgyzstan)

After meeting up with Josje and Remco at Isik Kol (also spelt Issyk Kul), we decided to visit a nearby salt lake before heading to Song Kol (kol or kul means lake) all together. The salt lake was pretty incredible, so salty that your body just floats on the water. It is a bizarre sensation not needing to tread water to stay afloat. When we got out of the water the hot sun dried our skin quickly and we could see the salt oozing out of our pores. We crossed the car park to Isik Kol, the fresh lake, to rinse the salt off our bodies, and set off South towards Song Kol.
To get to Song Kol we had to cross two unbelievable mountain passes, before sweeping into the vast valley where the lake is, 3,400m above sea level. The roads in Kyrgyzstan leave a lot to be desired – most of the mountain roads we’ve taken (including this one) are wide enough for one car, sometimes barely, right on the edge of the drop with no barriers, and completely unmade. The road surface is often just rocks from landslides.
The plan was to stay in a yurt next to the lake, which is apparently a thing. We’d gone to the CBT (Community Based Tourism) office in a nearby town where we were given directions and told just to rock up at the yurts with CBT flags and arrange with the owners.
When we got to the lake though we had to turn off the “main road” onto our choice of several 4x4 tracks and horse tracks, negotiating our way through chunks of mud, crevices, dried up river banks and small but fast moving streams. We passed a handful of yurts and tents scattered across the hillsides, and inadvertently drove up a few of their driveways. Mostly we were met by confused looks and a couple of angry gestures, but we came across one group of children who wanted to talk to us and asked to play with Pinchie, the plastic lobster hanging in the back of the car that was gifted us on our departure from Melbourne.
A few ridges and crevices later a large group of yurts appeared over the horizon and we realised that they were probably the CBT ones we were looking for. Before we got there though we came across a small group of four yurts and a tent with a CBT flag flying out front, so we stopped there and were pretty content with the offer of 350 Com ($7) per person per night including breakfast and 250 Com ($5) per lunch/dinner (we’d been expecting about 650 Com pp pn and 200 Com per meal). While we were arranging our stay, we got talking to the owner of the Lada that was parked in front of the yurts. It turns out he’s the French Deputy Ambassador in Bishkek which explained the diplomatic plates on the car, and we gladly took him up on his offer of taking the Lada out for a quick spin. So now we have not only driven any old Soviet built car, but a Lada; and not only any Kyrgyz car, but one with diplomatic plates.
Yurts are made from a wooden frame, often brightly coloured although ours wasn’t, held together by a variety of vibrant materials. Over the frame are layers of handmade felt, each section held onto the frame by colourful ropes tied around the other portions of felt. The emblem in the centre of the Kyrgyz flag is based on the point at the top of the yurt which is a circle with three crosses through the centre. Vividly coloured velvet quilts and tapestries were hung around the inside walls, and the floor was laid out with patterned rugs and sleeping mats. A pile of folded up bedding at the side and a small poo fire stove (essentially the same as a wood stove, except the fuel of choice in this neck of the woods is cow poo) were the only pieces of furniture. They’re basically sturdy, more permanent tents and we even had the pleasure of witnessing the moving of one which involves removing all the felt, and because it was only being moved a couple of hundred metres, the frame was literally picked up and carried to the new spot. There are funny circles all over the ground where there used to be yurts and all the grass is dead.
We waved goodbye to the French Deputy Ambassador and his Lada and spent our first afternoon exploring the hills surrounding the lake. We drove across the flat (ish – it was all crevices and river beds again) land to where the mountains jutted out of the landscape. There we parked Trevor at the top of a ridge with a spectacular view over the surroundings, and from there the plan was to go for a bit of a trek before dinner. I decided to keep Trevor company while the others climbed up and down uneven slopes and rocky inclines, making their way to a cave in the side of one of the hills before returning to Trevor and I.
The meals were interesting. We really weren’t sure what to expect, but we had anticipated that there would be a large meat component in the dishes, considering the land is really quite barren in the area and there are herds of cows, yaks, sheep, goats and horses all over the place. This wasn’t really the case though. Each meal was along the same lines as the others. There was always a stand of bread or some sort of bread product and a handful of dainty crystal bowls full of homemade butter, solidified lard, sugar and delicious homemade jams (no idea where they find the berries for the jams – we guess they buy them in). Then there was the main part of the meal for which we were served a very tasty vegetable soup with one chunk of tough meat on one occasion, a whole small grilled fish on one occasion, and pancakes and flavourless porridge for breakfast. And chai (tea). Lots and lots of chai, which is served in ceramic bowls, and topped up with ferocious regularity by the host.
The meals were served inside the tent which we gathered is where the family actually live. There was a small cot in the corner which the baby was sometimes asleep in, a pile of bedding, a poo fire stove, a one ring portable gas cooker and a small wooden cabinet. We were seated around a rectangular table in the centre of the tent, surrounded by rugs to sit on, and always bizarrely with four of us squeezed along one side of the table, one on each end, and the other whole side empty except for the girl who came to serve us more chai.
It was hard work partly because of language barrier and partly because nomads don’t seem to be too concerned with the concept of time, but we managed to organise ourselves a horse ride. Our guide wasn’t exactly great, but it does feel like quite a fitting way to explore a small yurt village in the hills.
Everything was going swimmingly until our lunch was interrupted by a dozen French people who just rocked up and decided they wanted to have a picnic directly behind our car. This of course meant that their view was blocked by our monstrosity of a vehicle and they required us to promptly finish our meal and remove it from their otherwise perfect view. The next day was spent flitting between enjoying relaxing in the fresh air, swimming in the lake and taking in our surroundings, and attempting to deflect the continuous stream of arrogant and unreasonable demands from the French people. But what’s a holiday without a bit of conflict anyway?
French tourists aside, this was still one of the most memorable places we’ll probably ever go to.