I know this blog is a bit of a late arrival, but we’ve really been struggling to find wifi that has the upload capacity required. But I hope you all enjoyed Peter’s last post about our Silk Road experience.
While we have just arrived in Kyrgyzstan, this blog will be about our time in Turkmen and Uzbek, and I’ll do another on Tajik because it’s deserving of its own post, so watch this space. Apologies for the info dump!
When I last signed off, we had finally – third time lucky – managed to exit Iran. Our exit was smooth and our border experience entering Turkmen was fairly interesting. It took hours, and anyone wanting to implement a red tape, time consuming, job creation and revenue generating process should go there and take notes.
We were somewhat skeptical about our entry to Turkmen. We didn’t have visas, only a ‘letter of invitation’ obtained through the rally organizers. The problem was, that we met several teams on their way back through Iran who had been denied entry, despite having the LOI. Adding to our concerns were that due to our ‘comedy of errors’, we’d used our full 10 day visa in Iran, so we didn’t have a ‘go back and find another way’ option.
- presenting our LOI and being waved to the next building (at which point I discarded my headscarf with reckless abandon), we
- presented our LOI and passports and a small window and were told to wait, then
- were called back to the window and given a receipt and told to go over to the ‘bank’ to pay, then
- stood at a wooden door waiting for the bank to open, and once we had paid for our visa, and several other charges we didn’t understand as it was all written in Turkmen, we
- went back to the first window to provide our proof of payment and were told to wait, then
- were called back to the little window where we had our photo and fingerprints taken, and were given our passports with our visa. Relief! We were in! But were we?
We headed back to our parked bikes only to have another military guard redirect us towards another building. It appeared we were in, but the bikes still had their turn!
In the first office, we had to complete insurance documents which included a map on which we had to draw which route we were planning to drive, and which border we were going to exit. Then we had to go to another office to get the forms stamped. Then we had to go to a third office to the ‘bank’ to pay the insurance (no, a different bank to the first one, that would be too simple).
This official was very friendly, and started asking about the Australian ‘plastic money’. It turns out he collects banknotes and has some from all around the world. He is particularly proud that he has notes that predate the Euro. Peter pulled out some Australian notes and he jumped at the $5.00. He didn’t have one of those! Bargaining ensued and very soon three US$ notes were taken from the draw (yes, the bank draw), and the sale was made.
As the form filling and stamping continued, we became good friends and bread and Fanta was offered. “Fanta?” Peter asked, “We thought you’d have vodka!” Sure enough, from behind the desk came the vodka bottle, and glasses were filled. Nastarovia! Eventually, with only one more office to visit for another form and stamp, we were free to go!
It is interesting how a simple line in the sand (because that’s what a border is, really) can have such a dramatic effect. The feel of Turkmen was immediately noticeably different. The features of the Turkmen people were softer and more oriental. The place was sparkling clean. Most of the border officials spoke passable English. A world of change in a single step.
Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmen, but neither of us had any real interest in seeing it. Instead we planned to head for Mary, close to the ancient city of Merv.
We were absolutely astounded by the roads leading from the border to Ashgabat, which we had to pass to get to Mary. Talk about glitz and glamour! The roads were the best I’ve seen in my life. Four lane highways that looked like they’d never been used. Massive bridges, roundabouts the size of a rugby oval with looming gold statues adorning the centre, women sweeping the street by hand with grass brooms, lest a speck of dust be found. And this was for almost 40km!
As we approached the final roundabout before our turnoff to Mary, we caught a glimpse of Ashgabat in the distance. It was gleaming white and gold, a sparkling jewel in the desert.
On to Mary we went. Soon after our turnoff, the pomp and glamour dissipated until we were left once again with the soviet remnants of Turkmenistan. But it was clean, and neat, with people taking obvious pride in their homes and land.
What we did find quite oppressive, were the constant security checks (which continued into Uzbek and Tajik). Every few kilometers, four-lane highway or not, there is a stop sign and you must stop long enough to have your photo recorded on the CCTV cameras. Every stop is patrolled, and the guards pull over random cars to ‘check papers’ – that is your papers, not the vehicle’s. Very ‘1984’.
The drive to Mary was fairly uneventful although we did see lots of camels which made us feel like modern silk traders progressing along the ancient route. We didn’t realise the route we’d taken would take us across the Karakoum Desert (fourth largest in the world), but we knew it soon enough. It was hot, it was dry, it was sandy, and there were camels everywhere- both wild and farmed. We were in the desert alright!
One of the disadvantages of slathering yourself in sunblock and SPF lip balm, is that your face becomes fly paper for any living creature that happens to pass by. Like magnetism, they are sucked into my wind tunnel and SPLAT – they commit bug suicide by attaching themselves to my sticky skin. The desert was the worst – probably because the bugs were huge, and we rode through swarms of ‘things’. But I am becoming immune to bug guts, and tell myself that I will look 10 years younger from the forcefully applied protein treatments by the time we finish.
Arriving in Mary was quite comical. Out of the desert, passing poor villages eeking out their existence, as soon as Mary drew near the roads smoothed out and widened, the housing changed to modern, clinical (and very symmetrical) structures, and the white, green and gold colour scheme was back with a vengeance.
We stayed at the Mary Hotel – the only one with wifi. Turns out wifi is only available in the lobby. They also only accept US$ – not their own currency, and there is nowhere to draw US$ (so if you’re planning a trip, cash up!).
The next day we set out for Turkmenabat, our last stop before crossing into Uzbek. Our first detour was to an electronics shop to buy a new USB charger. As we exited the shop, we were assailed by two little street urchins who just ran up and hugged Peter and I. They were so happy and they kept hugging us. We let them sit on the bikes and took some pictures, and they waved us off with massive smiles in their faces.
USB replaced, we set off for the ancient ruins of Merv. We found the ruins which were extraordinary and very, very old. Like most of the ruins in this part of the world, we found them casually reposed on the roadside. No signage, no fences, no entrance fees or audio tours for hire. It was basically a ‘self guided’ tour and we were the only ones there at the time. It is believed that the Hindu religion began in Merv. Check out our Instagram for some stunning pictures Peter took.
We reached Turkmenabat after another long, hot, dusty day crossing the desert. The roads were atrocious with potholes big enough to take a bath in, or swallow a small child. There was not one place to stay which had wifi. We had maps to download and blogs to write, but it was not to be. Instead we spent our remaining Turkmen currency on dinner, having to put back one piece of chicken and exchange our big bag of chips for a small one, when we realized we didn’t have enough (and we were not putting back the beer!). We settled in for a quiet night and did our laundry. Guess which ‘engineer’ designed our clothes dryer out of the three available hangars (but nowhere to hang).
The next day we set out for the Uzbek border. This crossing was fairly uneventful. The usual parade of windows to pass through, and even a medical check! This involved standing at a window adorned with graphic pictures of people bleeding out from Ebola, while a man sitting inside the cubicle took our temperatures by aiming his temperature gun at our foreheads, then turning it around to show us the reading before barking “normal!” and shuffling us off to the next station. We had a real giggle at that, particularly given his (non existent) safety gear and sophisticated testing equipment.
Once we were through we headed for Bukhara. We stumbled upon a quaint little guest house which was amazing. They opened their courtyard doors so we could wheel the bikes right inside. They brought us a bowl of delicious fruit and Chai to welcome us, and even offered to cook us dinner. We thanked them but explained that we wanted to explore the city, and off we set! Our hosts had helped us exchange some currency, and we felt like millionaires with our $7,400 Uzbek so’ms to US$1.00!
Bukhara is an ancient city with a famous Minaret which has profound significance in the Islam faith. It is beautiful- simply incredible that is more than 500 years old, yet looks like it was built yesterday. The mosaic tile work is exquisite and it is hard to fathom how such a magnificent structure could have been erected so long ago. It is still used today as a university.
We then strolled into town to one of the ancient watering holes (yes, Bukhara is an actual, real life desert oasis), which is now both a watering hole and a drinking hole! After our long hot day we enjoyed some local beer, served in half litre bottles with 10.5% alcohol content.
The next day, Samarkand was in our sights, with the Tajik border close by for crossing the day after, and off we set. We stopped by another building which had been saved from destruction by Gengis Khan because at the time his armies raided, it had been covered in mud!
On our way, we decided we needed fuel and pulled up at the petrol station. No ‘benzin’. No benzin in Uzbek. There is no benzin at all in Uzbek. We began to panic. All the cars there run on LPG gas, and the only place to buy benzin is on the black market (and only 80 octane is available). We eventually (after driving around for ages trying to find some) pulled in at a motor repair shop. A taxi driver who was there offered to get us some (at what we would later learn was double the market price, which was only US$0.70 per liter). He drove us from place to place until finally, we found benzin! After that we realized that we needed to look out for the clear bottles of petrol on the side of the road outside shops or stalls, a that is where we could buy. We didn’t begrudge the taxi man his tidy profit – he saved us!
it was crazy driving for hundreds of kilometers past closed up fuel stations- some which looked brand new – but are now redundant.
We arrived in Samarkand and pulled up outside the first hotel we could find. A man came up and started talking to us, but didn’t know English. “Is this a good hotel?” Peter asked, pointing and then putting his head on his folded hands and pretending to sleep. The man indicated ‘no’ and gestured around the corner and told us to wait, his wife was coming and could speak English. When his wife arrived they spoke, and then made a call. He handed the phone to us, and it was his daughter Victoria who could speak English. She told us that her father had a big house and invited us to be his guests that night. If we were willing to stay with him, we should follow him home. We agreed and off we set.
We had a wonderful evening with this family. Victoria came to dinner with her husband and young sons. It was a feast!
She and her husband both went to English school which is where they met, but explained they done get to practice very often. The meal was absolutely delicious and afterwards Victoria and her husband took us on a tour of Samarkand. It was incredible to hear them give us the history of their city, the role religion has played, and how they practice their Islamic faith.
The next morning Victoria’s husband collected us for breakfast, took us to buy motor oil, and we said our farewells.
Off to the border at Samarkand- Tajik beckoned. The road to the border was about 100km of gravel and potholes. And not nice, smooth gravel. But our spirits were high and we muddled along as fast as we could – sometimes even reaching 40km/h! Eventually we arrived – only to be told the border was closed. Well, the Uzbek side was open, but the Tajik side was closed. Pedestrian traffic only, no vehicles. The poor guards tried to help us, one even getting on his private mobile to see if we could get through. But it was not to be. They didn’t speak any English but we were able to communicate that we had to drive to the next border crossing at Bekobod. Which looks close on the map (about 150km) but in reality, when following available roads, is about 500km away.
We had no choice, off to Bekobod we set. Back down the gravel road. But Bekobod proved elusive. The map showed a road, we followed the road, turned out it was closed. Or broken. Or non-existent. We drove for hours, various people giving us various directions all of which proved futile. The only thing we were gaining was km’s on the clock and proficiency and buying black market benzin. Eventually at one of the security stops, we asked a police man who drew us a map. We were desperate. We’d been driving for hours and it was getting dark. We realized we’d be spending another night in Uzbek.
We followed the map which looked like the only set of decent directions we’d been given. We eventually found (what we though was) the road, and off we set with plans to camp at the border and cross in the morning. But it was not to be. The road turned from sealed, to sealed in places, to unsealed, to single lane. More gravel and potholes. As we bumped and bounced along, our hopes of reaching the border faded with the daylight. But we were determined, and on we pushed. By 10.30pm we were exhausted, but Bekobod looked close! We rounded a corner and saw a tavern, and decided to stop for dinner. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast and had been riding for more than 12 hours.
A feast was delivered, and devoured with relish.
Then the ‘conversation’ started and once again the English friend was dialed in to translate. The tavern owner invited us to stay at his home, if we hadn’t booked a hotel. We readily accepted and after we’d eaten, followed him home. We were given a huge room with comfy futons on the floor. The toilet was a hole in the ground and we washed from a bucket of water which had been hand pumped out the ground and heated on the stove. I tell you, it felt to me like the Ritz. After the day we’d had we were so grateful for the hospitality and the kindness shown to us, I felt like a queen. We lay our heads down, our troubles forgotten, and slept like babies.
The next morning we were treated to a breakfast feast.
The man in the cap is a former English teacher and cousin of our host, and was invited to meet us and translate. We enjoyed our breakfast with the two young lads, one of whom also spoke excellent English and was studying Metallurgy in Moscow. Peter had colleague.
At breakfast we were told the devastating news that the border in Bekobod was also closed, but there was one 50km away which was open. After declining invitations to stay another day, visit the cousin’s house, tour the bazaar and see the city, we accepted the offer to escort us to the main road leading to the open border. They readily jumped in the car and off we set. On the way, our host stopped and bought us two fresh loaves of bread which he gave to us to take with in our journey.
After driving past the border, we backtracked and were finally there! (Let’s just say, one Whizzer said, as we drove past, “what’s that, that looks like the border” to which the other replied “no, it’s too soon, he said drive for 50km, that’s only 30km”. Needless to say we got there eventually.
Tajikistan. Our Pamir adventure was about to begin.
Now you may begin to wonder about the title of this post. I mentioned earlier about my firm belief in my burgeoning complex due to my regular bug guts infusion treatments, but let me tell you that life on the road is not all glitz and glamour, ladies. I forgot to mention in my last post (call it PTSD) that I lost my sunglasses in Iran. Not just any sunglasses. I am as blind as a bat, and suffer from ‘dry eye’ (who knew it was a thing?), so they were prescription sunglasses especially designed for dry eye and fit more like goggles than glasses, to prevent the air getting in, and, well, drying out your eyes.
Luckily I also have a set of clear lens goggles for ‘night’ driving. So since Iran I’ve had no sunnies. Driving through the desert with no sunnies is not much fun, and I’ve developed a permanent scowl. If anyone wants to put their hand up to start a GoFundMe campaign for the Botox treatment I’ll no doubt need upon my return, please feel free.
With glasses, despite the amount of sunblock used, comes the inevitable ‘sunglass tan’. Now, as my glasses are more ‘goggles’ my tan is, shall we say, fairly severe. It’s literally the bottom half of my face. Which is growing darker by the day.
It has also been, shall we say, several long weeks since I’ve had my legs waxed. Nine weeks to be exact. And let’s just say it’s not just the weeks which are very long. And please don’t mention my hair, which is buried under a helmet 10’hours a day, ground with dust, sweat and Houdini bugs which manage to crawl in under the helmet (the ones that get into your ears and wriggle about are the most fun, until you mange to crush them with the arm of your glasses as you ride along).
That, and that my clothes have only been hand washed (by exhausted hands) since Dublin, don’t be alarmed if you hear reports of a scowling, hairy, patchy-faced creature roaming the mountains of Central Asia – but you have the inside scoop!
To illustrate, here is a picture of me after we followed some coal trucks when crossing the Uzbek-Tajik border!