A Travellerspoint blog

Snake attack

Desert Commando Raid

Aral Sea - Aqtau

As a child our parents had very few surpluses. Love, enthusiasm … and milk. We had a couple of house cows that had been chosen for the size of their udders. I believe that’s a quite common and reasonable decision making principle. Mother made every imaginable milk recipe but there still remained a billy full each day which we sold to the neighbour for one shilling per week. (The love obviously extended to the neighbour.) One of the milk foods we enjoyed was ‘junket’. Basically milk with an added product that was sourced from a cow’s stomach called ‘rennet’. When it set, the bowl was sprinkled with cinnamon to disguise it and provide some taste. I remembered all of this as I first gazed down from the escarpment at the Aral Basin. This is the enormous exposed seabed that used to be the Aral Sea. While it used to be the 4th largest body of inland water in the world, nowadays the sea is only a fraction of its original size and holds a bit of water in the northern end. It’s the largest man-made ecological disaster in history and well worth reading as a study in stupidity. (I recommend you check it out). The view that spawned these thoughts was of a huge depression disappearing over the horizon, full of white dust sprinkled with sparse brown bushes. Its a few hundred kilometers from any form of civilization. Getting there involves a days drive on rough desert tracks and through millions of tons of dust.
After checking out the landlocked fishing boats, an old fish factory, the little museum and attended the ‘Miss Moynaq Nurse 2011’ competition at Moynaq we stayed the night with a hospitable local family. Next day we drove north to eventually find the remaining water which looked surprisingly like – well – any other water. It is highly saline and no longer contains any fish or other life forms. For a few minutes however, it did contain a few Kiwi toes although I confess to prudently remaining on shore given I had heard stories about the cocktail that was discharged from the most notorious Soviet chemical plant that used to be on an island just offshore before being abandoned as too dangerous.
Poor fishing

Poor fishing

We camped the night on the muddy / dusty shore. Tiny tents with only a sleeping bag to lie on. That evening Flypaper made a Tuna Salad with a can bought from home for these camping nights. It was delicious – but our guide and driver were reluctant to try it. The next day we saw a small lizard sunning on a rock. “Look – Tuna.” the driver shouted.
The night was thankfully cool and given the lack of toilet and washing facilities in this bare exposed place, none were sad to move on in the morning. We were hurried along by a few spots of rain which quickly and fortunately fizzled out. Our guide, who considered this was a very romantic exercise, advised we could be trapped if it rained – not a prospect to relish.
Aral abode

Aral abode

The following day involved another 120km of desert bashing - on the lookout for snakes, scorpions, foxes, desert rats and other creatures that had all missed the opportunity to join us in our tents – before turning north again towards the Kazakhstan border.
To achieve all the desert driving and knowing from our past daily experience that it is very difficult to buy diesel in Uzbekistan, our guide contacted an uncle who was a farmer in a small town enroute. Uncle in turn called in some favors from his mates at the Guvmint agriculture fuel station and we made a clandestine raid to fill our tanks and a couple of additional plastic containers. Very exciting. Our new friends were charging black-market prices for Guvmint fuel and in some hurry for us to do the business and get away before any locals discovered their sneaky activities. In my mind it was like a Commando raid. We individually drove in, fueled and scampered away while our guide paid and ran down the road after us urging greater speed away from the scene.
The last night in Uzbekistan was supposed to be in the tiny tents on mud again. However, a storm was brewing and the prospect of tenting wasn’t appealing to anyone – least of all our guide who suspected he may have a mutiny to deal with. He found us an empty house in the border town and we enjoyed a relatively civilized night. (It must be noted that our concept of ‘civilized’ has dropped a notch or two in recent weeks) At least we could sleep on dry hard concrete and did have electricity. In the morning I trotted off down to the back of the dirt compound to find relief in the little mud hut with the hole in the floor. It was just daylight and I was glad not to have to strike a match. That exercise would likely have created a methane explosion that would have alerted the authorities to our illegal accommodation. On exit, and in that contented state of mind created by the successful exercise, I was terrified when a Camel suddenly poked its head through a gap and bellowed at me for disturbing it and its calf. I can assure you I was damned glad to be on the way out rather than in.

When one thinks of Camels one thinks also of the Middle East. While I don’t know the statistics, having travelled in the Middle East and now Central Asia, I suspect there are far more Camels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan than anywhere else. They roam all over the deserts, in the streets of the towns an often trot across in front of vehicles. They are mostly single humps but a few twin fuel tanks are also around. All look pretty shaggy at this time of year and the fat / energy storage humps are a bit deflated. In Kazakhstan we have also seen enormous herds of horses roaming around the steppes … along with countless mixed herds of goats and sheep. It’s difficult to conceive how they can all live on scraggy shrubs that appear to lack any food value. No wonder the Camels constantly moan and groan.

Being ‘tourists’ we enjoy a certain status at border controls. Privileges like driving straight past 2 kilometers of patently waiting locals, some of whom may already have spent 2 or 3 nights sleeping in their cars waiting their turn to present their humble travel documents. Again we were 1st to exit and enter at the Uzbek / Kazak boarders on that day. Their systems are a little strange by our standards and my companions claim there is no excuse for inefficiency. I travel to experience these things. If everything operated as at home it would be very uninteresting. ‘Culture’ is about the way others live their lives and do things. The mere 3 hours to move from one country to another was in my mind quite acceptable, rather entertaining and probably as good as it gets. However, in terms of inefficiency, I was reminded of the similarity and process of obtaining a building permit at our local council. The Customs search was very blasé. Both sets of officials stood well back from the vehicles exposed backside and questioned me about things they hoped could be confiscated for their own use. Wine, cigarettes, drugs. Sadly we were unable to contribute to their predilection – had we any I think our need would be greater than theirs.
So far there has been no issue with vehicle insurance, bonds or any requirement whatsoever in regard our cars. They study the wrong side of our ‘registration document’, copy irrelevant details from the ‘change of ownership form’ and never crosscheck registration number or anything else. If I was a smuggler I would smuggle cars. Flypaper was quite indignant that the Kazaks didn’t even want a customs declaration from her. It’s as if she was a ‘chattel’ in my ownership and control. Travel does provide discovery of some very good ideas.
Mirrage

Mirrage

The main highway north from Uzbekistan to the first town in Kazakhstan lived up to reputation as a shocker although we did manage to average 30kph. The night in Beyneu was remarkable only in the respect that a ‘charming’ lady showed us some wonderful rooms in her hotel … then checked us into the slummy down market end of the establishment and was rude to us for the duration of our stay. Contrary to this behaviour, Flypaper & I found a delightful elderly lady in the market who not only ran a tidy vegetable stall but was a notorious black market moneychanger. Her money counting and rate calculation skills were legendary and left me gasping in admiration as she changed our leftover Uzbek Soms into Kazak Tenge. She gave a very fair rate a lovely big flash of gold teeth … and enhanced the reputation of Kazak women.

As a result of a combination of factors we have a week in Kazakhstan on a route that is nothing more than a terrible track posing as a bad road around the north eastern side of the Caspian Sea. If we drove and suffered long each day we can cut it out in about 3 days. Our maps showed the Russian built oil port of Aqtau which used to also be a popular Russian tourist destination way to our west on the Caspian. It only added 500km each way over a terrible road – so we decided to do it. The road was so bad for about 260km that we left it and drove on desert tracks similar to those experienced around the Aral Sea. Our average speed rose from 30kph to over 50kph … although some of the time was spent flying through the air when we failed so see a treacherous bump. The Nissan Terrano’s are performing superbly. They appear to be unbreakable, quite comfortable and remarkably fast in the hands of desperate drivers keen to arrive. HeeHaw is inspirationally named as it takes enormous punishment but is always ready to accept more.
I write this in Aqtau where we have decided to recoup for 3 days before again challenging the 1,000km of deserts on the way to Russia. I have studied run down apartments and abandoned hotels, paddled in the Caspian, avoided tons of broken Vodka bottles littering the shores and escaped from a ferocious snake attack. True. I stood between the rippling surf and some rushes – right where a huge snake was headed. As it raised its head and gave me a very nasty look, with great presence of mind, I elected to digitally record my death. Contrary to what I have read and seen on TV, it is very difficult to take photographs while hopping backwards and sideways dodging vicious fangs. Consequently, the 2 photos are not good quality. Even worse, the evidence shows it was about 600mm long and at the moment the shutter closed was retreating.

Posted by Wheelspin 21:49 Comments (6)

The Perfect Woman

Rhubarb and Cucumber

Bukhara – Kiva – Nukus

Most male readers may consider they have, at some time in their life, met the perfect woman. It was probably your mother. There may be other challengers but they are unlikely to reach that perfect score, although I concede, that in some areas, the later contenders do very well. The theory that breast milk creates bias has some merit but I know some guys who profess to have sampled a range of breast milks and have not had their bias significantly muddled. This would make an interesting study. Few of you however, will have met the perfect Uzbek woman. I may have had that privilege.
The ‘Babushka’ at our Bukhara Madrassah (converted historic religious school to hotel) would be a formidable challenger for Mrs Uzbekistan. Here is my argument in support.
I do not know her name and would never have presumed it appropriate to ask. Our young English speaking host claimed she was a, ‘Sort of Auntie’. That in itself adds a certain mystique which the judges would appreciate. She may have a ‘history’. For the purpose of this argument I will call her ‘Mu’ (Madam Uzbekistan).
Contests of this nature always feature physical attributes. Please remember, Uzbekistan is Central Asia, a huge distance from any ocean and has extreme temperatures. It has a desert climate with temperatures ranging from -30 to +50. A well insulated woman is invaluable. Without being smothering, Mu would adequately impede any sneaky draft that found a gap in the sheets.
In any society, a fine cook is an asset … in fact, it’s a winning hand. Mu was the provider of our Uzbek Plov. It was superb. Without doubt this is her strong suite. She used good lean cuts of beef for the protein element together with carrots, raisins, onions and delicate spices cooked to perfection on a metal drum over a wood fire in our courtyard. This was followed by a desert of strawberries, banana and kiwifruit which created the best meal of our journey to date. Given there is no other meal in contention against Plov here in Uzbekistan, the judges would unquestionably award bonus points for this skill.
Most men would agree that arriving home to a wonderful smile is a wonderful reward - and worthy of good points. Um is exceptional in this category. Not only was the smile ready and constantly offered for any reason, but it featured the ultimate Uzbek quality. Um has an impressive array of gold teeth. Having ones wealth on display provides a secure feeling and any man would be relieved to arrive home in the evening to see that his savings remain secure. She certainly gets my vote and I’m sure, having learned her credentials, you would agree that Um does set standards that those women you know, should be aware of if they expect to hold your interest.

Apart from our encounters with the Chinese police from which we emerged with both our reputations and wallets intact, and quite a few conversations at Passport controls throughout Uzbekistan, I have been a little disappointed that they haven’t proved to be more worthy adversaries. There was an incident in Kyrgyzstan when a Policeman waved us down – but we were so stunned at his unexpected instruction that we didn’t stop for about 120m. He looked at us with the expectation we would reverse into his clutches. We furtively looked at him in the rear vision mirror (comforted by the fact he was too fat to run) and discussed with our guide what it was we may have done to attract his attention. The only law we had broken that the guide could think of was driving with a dirty car … so we drove on.
Here in Uzbekistan the police wear a fetching uniform with matching cap that is sort of like an inverted cake tin with a little peak. The whole ensemble is a nice matching shade of mid green. The local people call these enforcers of the law ‘cucumbers’.

Throughout all of Asia the population has the most astonishingly well developed peripheral vision. This is most evident in the driving skills. Every other driver knows exactly what is happening through a 200 degree arch without flickering an eye (and nothing behind that is of any interest whatsoever). The streets and footpaths are littered with traps. Missing manhole covers that expose deep dark holes that could transport you direct to hell without a stop. Rocks cunningly set to trip, uneven steps both up and down, missing pavers and work in progress that stalled years prior leaving the job worse than before it started. There are large drains that smell multi-functional and leave one quite convinced that a splash into one of those would require an antibiotic bath – although I personally would prefer to die as soon as possible. Across and through all of this, people young and old stroll along chatting without so much as a glance at their path or the obstacles they are navigating past. Vehicles miss them by millimeters, they float around obstruction and step over refuse that could be the harbouring the next plague. It’s as though they have a special sense directly connected to the mysterious contrivance that regulates the length of their stride. It also works in the dark when we inferior types are groping in fear and usually find the thing we feared.

The Uzbeks are very proud of their roads. They claim they are the worst in the word. This is a big boast given some of the other countries I have experienced. However, the average of the sum of their total road network may result in their claim being justified. It may be true given the number of donkeys still outnumber cars and many of the roads were build for these valiant little workers. We have principally driven their very best roads. On average these have been shocking. For our final few days around the Aril Sea we have been promised some really bad ones. While it may not result in a ‘coupe de tat’ by those wishing to protect the only thing that Uzbekistan can claim to be their best, the ‘Guvmint’ has agreed to accept millions of Euros to convert their main intercontinental highway into a 4 lane thing of comfort and speed. The ‘E40’ is a major highway that starts at the English Channel, crosses 8 countries and currently ends at Tashkent … on the map. The last 3rd is barely worthy of the E40 designation but that will change soon – well, perhaps in around 10 years. Sadly the Uzbeks have the Chinese mentality when building roads. They don’t do a short section then add to it. Oh no - they build it in 200km sections and expect the traffic to bounce along offroad for the distance and years that takes. The section from Samarkand to Bukhara was expected to take 5 hours – we bounced and jounced through dust and difficulty for 9.5 hours. Fortunately Bilbo and HeeHaw are up to the task and it justified our choice of transport.

These roads would have been perfect for our laundry equipment, but, as I predicted, the Washing Machine has yet to be pressed into service. Since south eastern China we have experienced a beautiful fine spring which, together with our transit of arid lands has resulted in temperatures that enable our traveling ensembles to be laundered and dried in the hotel rooms each night. If this was TV, you would think that I have only 1 shirt & trousers. I like this arrangement. Throughout my life one of the greatest challenges I have faced is deciding what to wear each day. Usually at home, I ask for Flypapers advice. Here, I’m my own man making this important decision alone.

Since Xi’an in central China we have been following the principal fabled ‘Silk Road’. It’s actually lots of roads joining Europe & the Middle East with China. Xi’an, Kashgar and Bukhara are all important crossroads where ‘caravans’ tended to join from north and south. We departed Bukhara on a northern leg that passes Nukus headed for Russia and northern Europe. From here it is no longer known as the ‘Silk Road’ – it’s the ‘Rhubarb Road’. This is true! The Chinese have known about the medicinal properties of Rhubarb for centuries. When ‘Peter the Great’ learned about it he purchased a monopoly of all Rhubarb leaving China and introduced it to Europe via Astrakhan. I know of no other person who made their fortune from Rhubarb and consider it very appropriate that we are following this route.

Posted by Wheelspin 21:43 Comments (3)

Psychiatric care required

Can I borrow your wheelbarrow to carry my money?

Osh – Tashkent – Samarkand - Bukhara

When warned by well meaning worriers that Uzbekistan would be our greatest challenge on this journey; we consulted the ‘font of all knowledge’ (the Internet) to become prepared for our fate. Almost universally the information advised that the Uzbeks were descendant from bloodthirsty warmongers who had similar aspirations to Helen Clark – start with a small country then rule the world. We were told that that the police would hassle us for bribes and those in any form of authority from the room maid up would take pleasure in making our life miserable. I was even warned that all in unquestioned authority still practiced the ancient art of making money purses from careless travelers’ genitalia. Evidently the Prime Minister has a very good collection. As I write, I’m pleased to confirm that my underwear elastic has not been stretched beyond normal tolerance and there has been no suggestion of any surgical procedures. I do speak for myself but Flypaper and the other 2 have not shown any sign of distress which would surely be evident in the event they were requested to contribute to the cultural heritage in this way. To the contrary, all of our experiences here in Uzbekistan have been without extreme duress – although there have been a couple of mentionable events. I would even go so far as to say we like the place.

In spite of fearful expectations, our entry at the boarder was little more than an exercise in time mismanagement. The armed solders had welcoming smiles and were proud of their ability to say, “Hello Passport”. (Note to NZ control room : I would like a talking passport that could respond) Their Komandant was a tall, bespectacled, young gentleman with what appeared to be a lot of bird droppings on his shoulders. Given it was his 4th language (and he probably knew a couple more) he softly spoke reasonable English and patiently helped us fill out our multipage entry forms - before sadly apologizing that transposing all this information onto numerous other forms would cause us some delay but it was his duty to undertake this important work. He did seem genuinely shocked when I declared I had absolutely no money but relied on my wife to provide for me. The look in his eyes flickered between disbelief, sympathy and a suspicion that I may be in need of psychiatric care. He did accept our arrangement however, which was fortunate given I had forgotten that Flypaper had stashed all our US currency in my bag and discovery of this may have ignited some of his ancestral tendencies. After a further hour we were summonsed into a tiny office and asked to sign a couple of forms in Russian that the Kid Komandant told us were our declarations saying we understood all their laws and would abide by them … and that we must leave their country 4 days latter than we intended. Perhaps there will be an unexpected delay that we are as yet unaware of. His final act was to inspect the contents of our cars. This was proceeding without much effort on his behalf or concern on ours – until he discovered a small device used by our ‘partners’ to theoretically use men’s urinals. (Please don’t ask me for further explanation.) The Kid K and Jeanette both exhibited equal measure of flustered embarrassment while I ran to hide behind the shed for fear that my mirth would spoil the occasion. After that, he lost enthusiasm to ask about various undeclared items and we were soon wished a happy journey. There was no form to fill out in regard to our cars, no bonds, insurance fees or any suggestion of interest in our mode of travel whatsoever. This was quite contrary to what we expected.

Between the large cities, all vehicles are regularly stopped by the police at Passport Controls. There is obviously some measure of paranoia between the neighbouring local bodies that possibly goes back to the days when they snuck over and stole a few goats and women to bolster the insulation on cold winters nights. I was interested to note that while back in the queue, drivers would toot in annoyance at the holdup but as they drew closer became amazingly quiet and compliant. We are always singled out for special treatment and have to trot over to a small hut where various details of our identities and intentions are copied into large books. Perhaps we’ll get ‘fan mail’ in the future.

The cities in general are large, beautiful with huge trees lining the roadways, have impressive buildings, lots of large monuments, enormous markets, Mosques and places of historic interest. In my own opinion, the Mosques tend to vary only in size or name and the historic stuff and monuments are all pretty similar given they feature a couple of hero’s that were particularly ruthless. I wonder at the psychology at work here. The adage, ‘When you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all” keeps flashing in my mind. In Tashkent they have removed Lenin’s monument and replaced it with a globe showing Uzbekistan as the centre of the world – which for us at present, it is. There are police and military personnel at every intersection and at every place of potential interest – as well as in the beautifully presented underground Metro stations to ensure sneaky travelers don’t take photos. It’s all a bit bizarre. Given the locals are all pretty compliant, it probably came as a shock for 2 policemen to observe us turning left illegally and through a red light – 3 times. (You do that when you’re lost) They simply stood in amazement thinking … “It’s them again”. To date there has not been any suggestion of a bribe although the locals tell us that corruption is the No 1 industry.

The roads in Uzbekistan are all similar … potholes connected by badly made and crumbling tarseal. Road maintenance is not a high priority and it seems that when the Russians abandoned the place back in the early ‘90’s they took the entire road fixing paraphernalia with them together with the knowledge that tarseal doesn’t last forever. There are various posted speed limits in town but not in the country. This becomes understandable when one discovers that it’s almost impossible to drive above 80kph without trashing ones car. We did discover a place where the road was reasonable so Martin bet a bottle of local wine (his largess knows no bounds – the wine is about $4) that it wouldn’t last 30km. His rash wager was safe enough and he was able to relax again after about 4km.
An interesting feature of the dual carriageways is a center divide that have regular gaps to enable U-turns. I believe I know why. The ‘not so smart’ people who are lost or looking for a shortcut speed along in the fast lane then stop suddenly to turn. Inattentive drivers, those going too fast or those driving without brakes crash into them. It’s cheaper than building a university but has the same result – improving the net IQ of the country.
Fair Cop

Fair Cop

The older cars are various unidentified Russian machines that we study in disbelief. Especially when they have very agricultural roof racks carrying enormous loads. Moving house in 1 trip is normal. They are used as utility vehicles and occasionally have an equally overloaded trailer. It’s frightening to be near them if they are moving. The newer cars are generally very small and all Daewoo (who have a factory here in Uzbekistan). The trucks are all Russian and have the appearance of being of 1950’s vintage, although we are assured some were manufactured since then. It’s difficult to tell which ones. All run on petrol or ‘Gaz’. I understand this is CNG given we see big bottles bolted to the roof of vans and buses – they look as though they are rocket powered. The universal use of “Gaz” and petrol has given us an unexpected problem. There is no diesel available at service stations. We survived on Kyrgyzstan fuels as far as Tashkent but when we tried to buy more to continue our journey it became evident that none of the regular Service Stations had any ‘Dizel’ in their tanks. The problem was solved in Tashkent by a shifty character who suggested we follow his beaten up red Lada to a backstreet where we were told to wait. After 20 minutes he returned with 240 litres of ‘Dizel’ in 20 litre containers – in the back of his Lada. We filled our vehicles with this and paid the black market price – grateful that he proved helpful but unsure if we were breaking one of those laws we had promised to uphold at the boarder. (We hadn’t) This fuel took us to Samarkand where we were assured there would be fuel. After our local guide took us to 8 service stations it became apparent there was no ‘Dizel’. Fortunately a group of truck drivers parked next door had seen a commercial opportunity. One of them had a diesel powered truck and offered to siphon fuel from it for us. Martin bargained the price back from US$1 to NZ$1 (not a bad price) and we spent the next hour waiting for the fuel to piddle out of a thin hose into our jerry can that was sitting in a flowing drain to get some siphon fall. I suspect the generously helpful driver will forget to tell his boss why the truck has recently experienced very poor economy.
Moving house - one load should do it

Moving house - one load should do it


Disel Tanker

Disel Tanker

Interestingly, anyone can operate as a Taxi whenever they wish but some take it seriously by having a magnetic sign on the roof. Astonishingly they have no meter and rely on the generosity of the passengers to determine the price. Our hotel ‘madam’ pantomimed 1,000 SOM per person for virtually any trip in the city. It’s a pittance. There is also no law specifying the number of passengers per car. We’ve managed 6 in an 800cc Getz. (It’s fortunate we were already married or, given the squeeze, we may have felt obliged to do the honorable thing.)

We are visiting in spring. The highly productive country that we have seen looks beautiful. (The deserts bits look like deserts everywhere at any time.) The temperature has hovered around 35-40C most days – we are grateful that we are not here in mid summer when it gets much hotter. The local mature women are resplendent in long colourful gowns that appear hot but are obviously comfortable for them. Young people are all dressed in modern western dress and look very chic – while the mature men are typically nondescript and unremarkable – as they are the world over. I fit in very well.
The food throughout Central Asia is similar and we have no difficulty finding plenty to retain full pressure on our belts. Both here and in Kyrgyzstan we are urged to try the National Dish – Plov. We did … and swore to be very hungry before we do so again. The Kyrgyzac dish we tried was rice soaked in mutton fat that features some suspect spices and meager bits of meat. However, the Uzbek stuff does look much better. By coincidence we are staying at a small family hotel in an old restored historic Madressa (religious school). The Matriarch just happens to have an unsurpassed reputation for Bukharan Plov, which she whips up in the courtyard below our room. We’re an easy touch whenever a reputation is flaunted and, just like the sheep that will be a principal ingredient, we have again been led to the Plov pot.

Uzbekistan has a currency problem. US$1 buys around 2,400 Uzbek SOM on the black market. (The ‘official’ rate is quite a bit less – about 1,600.) If you change (say) US$200 you need a wheelbarrow to carry the cash. Everyone is flaunting enormous bundles of money, usually in 500 or 1,000 SOM notes and to begin with, we were quite worried about displaying our ‘wealth’ … until we realized that neither we nor anyone else were wealthy at all. Buying an ice-cream requires fumbling out three 1,000 SOM from your wad of 4,800 notes - it seems like a big deal. Buying a tank of fuel is like buying a car for cash at home. To change money we hand over a couple of large denomination US$ notes and the delighted black-marketeer delves into a large sack of pre-counted SOM. It’s simply not practical to sit in his little office (that’s usually full of interested yapping locals) to check it’s correct - but we haven’t been swindled yet. Obtaining the money is not difficult as the black-market moneychangers are common and easy to find – just ask anyone who isn’t wearing a police hat.

Thanks for the many messages to this blog, by email and facebook. Apologies for not being able to reply to all. Please keep sending them – its wonderful feedback and inspires me to continue writing.

Posted by Wheelspin 06:07 Comments (6)

Dung powered television

Wife kidnapping has a lot going for it

Leaving China for Kyrgyzstan via the Irkeshtam Pass is a spectacular journey. The poorly sealed bumpy road winds alongside a river up through fertile valleys where we observed the inhabitants starting their day. This meant witnessing many men attempting to supplement the irrigation system or reduce the dust problem. Some modestly turned away. This is a desert region that is productive only with the application of water near the villages. Everywhere else is barren with breathtaking views of the snowy mountains that back on to Everest. The pass rises to 4,500 meters (13,000’) above sea level. We were advised that this could cause altitude sickness. Near the top, Flypaper & Jeanette visited a culvert under the road to add their paltry contribution to the low precipitation. Shortly after, Flypaper mentioned she felt a bit light headed. I explained that it is a well known medical fact that sudden release of bladder pressure at high altitude results in this condition. With this comforting knowledge she had no further problems … and no-one else bothered to complain.
The exit from the big C was, as expected, a couple of hours witnessing a combination of acute paranoia and gross overstaffing by the arrogant gang that controls the country. Our passports were examined by over 30 people at 5 passport controls plus immigration and customs. The cars on the other hand were processed in a few minutes with virtually no examination. Some time was spent examining the photo backup on our laptops. I can’t imagine what they thought of my picture of the local butcher utilizing their road sign a short time earlier. Perhaps it alerted them to the possibility of yet another serving of rice soaked in mutton fat for the evening meal.
IMG_3045.jpg

With the assistance of an interpreter / guide who was named (by hopeful parents) ‘Talent’ our entry to Kyrgyzstan was quick and easy. The only incident was the blatant theft of a ‘commodity’ from ‘Bilbo’ in full view of the occupants. Their self control was commendable. Perhaps they were influenced by the Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder.

We had heard numerous reports about our first night Kyrgyzstan accommodation at Sari Tash. A recent ‘Intrepid Travels’ program stayed here and the star of the show was seen clutching a bucket containing her head and in intestines for the following 24 hours. As it turned out, we stayed down the road with the opposition guest house. It was an ‘educational’ night in very primitive circumstances living with and as the locals. No luck with the food (which was plentiful, fresh and tasty) – we remained disgustingly chubby and as yet have not been introduced to the bucket we carry in anticipation of a enforced weight reduction program. Sari Tash is a primitive village devoid of street lights, 3,500m above sea level and without neighbours for a long, long way in any direction. The night was gloriously clear and during the long (horizontal) walk to the long (vertical) drop during the night, I witnessed the glorious northern night sky. Stars like a jeweler’s dream – large and sparkling multicoloured gems hanging in a velvet sky enveloped in utter silence. Very few people in the world have ever seen the northern sky as it used to look 7 million years ago before mankind created light pollution. Our hosts and their neighbours lead a hard and primitive existence caring for a small heard of sheep and goats, a couple of cows and a few chickens. Their entrée to the 21st century was a archaic TV made obvious by the Satellite dish next to the dried dung heap. They cared for the world’s most contented wolf whose occasional yawns were a danger to anything nearby.
Dung powered TV

Dung powered TV

Kyrgyzstan has a tough history. Virtually everyone who felt the need to ride out and do a bit of raping and pillaging has had their way with this central Asian country. In recent times they have been bullied and ravaged by their northern neighbour, Russia. Sadly it appears that the same thing is about to happen compliments of their eastern neighbour. Already China has taken every piece of scrap metal out of the country and is ripping coal and other minerals out via polluting processes here, there and everywhere. In return China is building large new highways over the Irkeshtam Pass and two other passes. Very good of them – these roads will enable even more economic rape.

On route to the second largest city, Osh, we saw thousands of donkeys valiantly productive in ways that plucked on our heartstrings. 100kg donkeys carrying 130kg fatties uphill at a brisk trot. I was regularly tempted to leap out and reverse the equation.
Kyrgyzstan is 97% mountainous. It has the largest number of goats per head of population in the world. (That fact is bound to come in handy). Many of the country people are semi nomadic. They farm the mountainous valleys during summer and scurry down to their mud brick huts in winter where the temperature only falls to around -20C.

The city of Osh is ancient, famous – and a bit disappointing since the Russians rebuilt it in their inimitable style. On arrival at our guest house we were informed that the city water had been turned off for 3 days - so that the streets could be washed. This begs comparison with our own local body management but I have no access to heart medication (and I’m on holiday). Given we hadn’t showered for a couple of days this was unwelcome news but not fatal. Of interest in Osh was the introduction to a little 4 door, 3 cylinder, 900cc, hatchback car – a Daewoo Tico. It’s surprisingly good. There’s a deluxe model that has hubcaps. The Tico is manufactured next door in Uzbekistan and sells for US$1,500. That’s equivalent to 10 donkeys. While I believe the donkeys would be a better long term investment - consider maintenance, reproduction and dung production - the Tico has created a whole new commercial enterprise. Everyone is in the Taxi business. Given everyone owns a Tico Taxi there is little trade for any of them so they either cruise around hopefully looking for a tourist or congregate in groups smoking and complaining about the lack of tourists – and water. US$1,500 is cheaper than a Chinese electric scooter. It’s impossible to live in a scooter.
10 Donkey equivilent

10 Donkey equivilent

We had long and meaningful discussions with ‘Talent’ who is frustrated by his ability to find a wife with similar ideals and interests. (I strongly advised him against such nonsense and suggested he consider their cooking and dung stacking skills). He is about to resort to the ancient and common ploy of kidnapping a girl at random in the hope that her parents will advise she accept the inevitable. This is true. A majority of marriages result from kidnapping and it seems to work well. Flypaper and Jeanette exhibited some revulsion to this system but when one considers it in depth, it has considerable merit. The greatest benefit that Talent confessed is that the ‘bride price’ for a kidnapped girl is considerably less than one chosen by romantic notions. This is pure capitalism. A dopey star-struck guy in love is easily manipulated to pay 6,000 SOM, 10 sheep, 1 cow and a horse for his chosen one. The kidnap price is well less than half that, which is a strong incentive to support this traditional system. Let’s face it; based on Western statistics, at the end of the line you’re buying a very long odds chance of eternal happiness. Taking the cheap option is at least one positive step in the long term view. (The things one learns when it’s too late). I freely gave Talent the benefit of my considerable experience in the marriage business together with my email address requesting he advise me the outcome of his efforts.

Given we travelled right across Kyrgyzstan we claim to have seen a cross-section of the country during our brief visit. I suspect this is a country you will hear more about in the future. Last year there was a brief uprising of citizens impatient for change and annoyed at the blatant rampant corruption that extends through the whole community but gets greedier higher up the tree. They burnt down 1,700 houses and lots of commercial buildings. The houses are being rebuilt by the Asian Development Bank. The Commercial stuff belongs to the corrupt contingent so will soon be reconstructed with inferior materials compliments of the peasants who always underpin every society. I believe this key central Asian country will also feature in arguments between neighbours and eventually become an important trading route between China and Europe – just as it was in the days of the ancient Silk Road. We’ll hereby coin the new name of the trade route – the Synthetic Route.

Exit from Kyrgyzstan was as easy as entry. The small team that we woke up at Customs and Immigration seemed delighted to practice their English and were unfazed by some of the new words we introduced to them. I wonder how the next travelers will respond to ‘Kiora and Kapai’.

Posted by Wheelspin 09:45 Comments (6)

Piggy goes to market

Population control through inattention

At school when I was about 14 and suffering from regular outbreaks of acne, I suddenly noticed a young lady in my class was no longer an obnoxious distraction but had become quite a pleasant distraction. I don’t recall if this change in attitude stemmed from the fact she had her teeth braces removed or because her blouse suddenly seemed to have changed shape or shrunk – probably the teeth. I consulted with my best mate as to how it could be arranged for me to sit near her on the bus (I wasn’t quite ready for a conversation). He promptly told the whole school that I was in love with her. Mortified as I was, I did learn a valuable lesson. Never tell anyone a secret. Now, here I am on the cusp of making the same mistake – but I know I can trust you. So long as this knowledge is keep well away from our political miss-managers that will be OK. Here in China, every road that has been blessed at some time with a puddle of tarseal is tolled. Transportation in China is growing at a phenomenal rate and those who must deal with the consequences have wisely decided, unlike the dazzling brains in the West, that the motor car and truck is not about to vanish any day soon. They are building roads at a rate you and I will never comprehend. Over thousands of years many civilizations have made huge alterations to the world. Roads have been laid, walls built, rivers dammed and changed course and large cities have sprung up. However, nothing preceding has even made the impact on Earth that is currently occurring in China. Our guide calls a ‘small city’ any place with about a million people. There are very few cities with less and those are being added to at a phenomenal rate. People are being moved from traditional homelands to new places and new industry is sprouting up all over. It’s mind boggling. To enable all of this requires a roading infrastructure that is likely to eventually make up almost half the paved roads in the world. Someone’s gotta pay. We’ve certainly done our bit. Daily tolls on various classes of roads range from 50 – 200 Yuan per day (NZ$10 – 40).

Roads in China span the range of smooth superhighways through to lumpy farm tracks. Sometimes one evolves into the other without warning. All are inhabited by the biggest overloaded trucks in the world … together with all types of conveyance and people doing goodness knows what including leading their pigs to service.
Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty

The Expressways are 2 – 4 lanes each way. Usually rather new and very smooth with good signage, Armco, and a center divide. You are not a successful provincial leader if you haven’t commissioned a couple of highways. This is easy enough without a Resource Management Act, guaranteed payment from tolls in a growth market and virtually unlimited practical road-making resources that include lots of long handled shovels. The posted speed limit is 120kph for cars, 100kph for trucks and 60kph for agricultural machinery. Also well signed is the instruction for cars to use the fast lane when overtaking and trucks to use the right lane closest to the edge of the highway. No-one takes any notice of the signs. Any speed will do - from walking to subsonic. The trucks prefer the fast lane and much of the passing is done on what we in NZ consider the wrong side – but you can’t be quite sure that the truck isn’t about to move over … and given their oversized load blocks their mirrors they have no idea you are about to undertake them. ‘Undertake is an appropriate word given it extends into undertaker which is potentially the next person who will take an interest in you. Often, and particularly in the South, you can expect to find families out for a stroll on the expressway, farmers taking their animals and produce to market in a motorized wheelbarrows, broken down vehicles stopped exactly in the lane where their problem developed and repair workers asleep behind a few warning rocks. You may also encounter elderly people strolling down the center lane because this is exactly where the track they have strolled for the past 70 years is – the nice men with the big machines just tidied it up a bit for them.
There are many tunnels. These provide for invisible pedestrians. I’m not sure if its potholes or pedestrians that cause the bumps in the exhaust filled back holes through inconveniently positioned mountains.
Equally disconcerting are the moments one rounds a bend to discover an enormous earth moving machine approaching in your fast land. The driver is confident who will do best in a head on collision and one should make a quick judgment in terms of deciding to test his theory – or not. (Driving direction on any road seems to be a bit arbitrary.)
A highway need not be completed before traffic uses it. Often the total (say) 300km will be under construction with multiple sections in various stages. Traffic just bounces along on the unstarted or unfinished bits and feels very grateful when a nice smooth patch is encountered for a while. The unstarted bits range from farmers fields, bare desert, old potholed provincial roads to recently built but instantly destroyed highway. The destruction of all sections is caused by the enormous overloaded trucks of which there are hundreds of thousands. Some of the toughest off-road driving I have ever encountered occurred on Chinese Expressways. On many days we will bump pass (by the skin of our teeth and with the grace of any interested god - there’s supposed to be plenty in most areas) say 30 trucks per kilometer (perhaps 6,000 + in a day) – often in thick dust that obscures the front of the truck and makes approaching traffic impossible to see. After a while one becomes philosophical but I still find it difficult to blink and ones over exercised sphincter muscle often develops cramp.

Provincial or ‘ordinary’ roads that may have served well for the past 20 years when there was limited traffic are now of no interest to the local leaders who expect to have their photo taken with the President when their new Expressway is opened. There is no maintenance of the older roads that have usually deteriorated into a series of linked potholes. I recall a stretch recently – 10km of straight road with 5,000 bends in it. It’s the best upper-body workout imaginable. Trucks are still the No 1 challenge but Taxi’s, 3 wheeled utes, put-puts, demented scooter pilots and pedestrians oblivious to all around are close challengers. The speed limit is not revealed and there are no other obvious rules except when you give up trying just go back to the correct side and follow a cyclist – or anything else that you hope is going in the same direction as you. A two-way road is usually good for 5 lanes but none of these can be guaranteed to have an orderly flow in a single direction. All alternate between seal and dirt but often it’s impossible to tell which surface one is on at any given moment. Indeed, one couldn’t care less and there isn’t time to look.

City streets are often in good condition. This is due to the fact they are protected by a layer or two of trash. Again, direction of flow and speed is optional and uncontrolled intersections are free for all. It’s very efficient. The cities in the east of China are far more challenging than those in the west where they are often new, wide and well designed with separated motorcycle / bicycle lanes. The western China cities are also much cleaner and very tidy. They put considerable effort into beautification and are quite impressive given the barren environment from which they have evolved.

The minor country roads are different again. Narrow, poorly defined and populated by all the local agricultural machinery together with the agriculture itself – plus the inevitable put-puts, bicycles, and strollers. Villages and small towns typically feature dirt roads which make them a bit messy in the rainy season. During our couple of weeks in the South and moving up through the less developed central areas it rained most days. Bilbo and HeeHaw became very grubby. It wasn’t until a farmer approached us and asked if his sow could mate with HeeHaw that I reasoned it was time for a wash. A superb car wash and inside clean can be acquired for 15 - 20 Yuan – about NZ$3 - 4. Usually there’s a male organizer who applied the water and a couple of enthusiastic women who scrub and dry. Very good value for 20 minutes entertainment. I do often wake up at night feeling sorry that the pig was deigned.
Team work

Team work

One thing that is consistent with all roads is the way the authorities deal with the issue of slowing traffic in the event of road works or something they deem to be a little more dangerous than the status quo. They accept that no-one takes any notice of signage and the majority of the population is unable to pay a fine (if you could catch them). The solution is simple. They dig a trench across the road. Speed bumps are a waste of time – the motorcyclists just remove parts of them to maintain smooth progress. The trench is typically 500mm (1’8”) wide by 150mm (6”) deep – enough to tear out the front suspension if hit at any speed above 20kph speed. These provide adequate incentive to slow down and there is never a warning they are ahead. As a result, motorists stay alert. This state of mind also helps to spot large square patches of seal removed for no obvious reason. These ‘patches’ are about 3m x 4m (10’ x 13’) and also deep enough to spoil your day. I’ve concluded that both the trenches and squares are a form of birth control. It’s simple – if mother or father dies there’s no chance for junior from that coupling. The other ‘warning’ devise used by motorists (usually large trucks) that have broken down (usually in the fast lane) is a row of large rocks placed across the lane at a carefully calculated distance that would enable a inattentive motorist to hit them, focus - and discover they have lost their steering and are about to crash into the idiot that fate decreed would organize their joint demise.

In the western desert where the roads are fabulous and often almost deserted, we have had two encounters with the law. The first was an astonishing accusation that I was speeding. As one should do, I asked through our interpreter guide for the evidence. I was told that I featured in a photograph and was directed to a car sitting well back off the road in the dust. On approach I discovered it contained 4 policemen. 2 were asleep, 1 was studying a blank laptop screen and the other was searching for my registration number on a handwritten list – it wasn’t there. The one who stopped us simply gave up and waved us on.
The next day they were a bit more organized. After a 2 hour drive through an amazing feat of road engineering that took us through a spectacular gorge that was in turn, through some rugged desert mountains we emerged on to a wonderful highway that had all the appearances and signage of a 120kph limit. Imagine our surprise to be stopped and each presented with photo’s proving we were exceeding 60kph. Me by 25% and Martin by 50%. There was no question of our speed – we were astonished that it wasn’t 100% each. (Our guide believes it was a police temporary speed trap.) After being relieved to discover none were descendents of Genghis Khan, 30 minutes of pleasant 3 way conversation and perusal of the Central Government official papers that we presented, it was decided we could proceed without horrendous fines or any other penalty. They already had a big drawer full of cash and pulling in more every couple of minutes. Out of appreciation of their wise decision I presented them with a 20c plastic Tiki to hang on the shed wall. I think they got off lightly.
Its a fake

Its a fake

As we move west into the desert and ever closer to our exit from China, there are a number of unexpected things on display. Lots of oil wells and refineries, very modern prosperous cities, astonishing intensive desert farms – their grapes. pears and apricots are superb. All grown with artesian water. We have also seen some of the worlds largest wind farms. Hundreds of fans … sitting idle. Too late to tell the well meaning energy experts – the wind is more often than not too strong. Windmills have a limited window of operation. Both too little and too much wind renders them useless. Oh well – there’s always coal in abundance.

You will have seen Asians, particularly women, prowling around with face masks. These were really popular during the swine flu epidemic (which by the way is still prevalent here in China and probably due to the fact that the majority of the population keeps a swine or two handy to the back door for garbage disposal and the well known rainy day.) There is usually good reason for wearing a mask, particularly if you are about wipe out a large part of your neighbourhood with a new disease that you probably unknowingly cultivated in your bathroom. Another good time is when the wind is blowing the Gobi desert into your noodles. The western center of China is a big dusty bowl, much of which is held in the air by cyclonic winds for a good part of the year. The men keep their mouth shut and get on with playing Mahjong. The women however wear multicoloured cotton masks that loop around their ears – I imagine enabling continual chattering while they do all the work. It was probably a negotiated settlement by the union of women; “If your want us to work we must be properly equipped to chat”. As were traversed this part of China, Flypaper & Jeanette also bought masks. As a lad I often donned a mask and considered I had been transformed into Zorro. With a wooden sword and Mothers best broom I could gallop around the back yard saving distressed damsels and disposing of all of the bad guys between arriving home from school and dinner – no problem. It’s not quite right that my life has evolved to the point where it is now the distressed who wear the masks. Flypaper had developed a continual cough that was scarring the general public into believing she was a special biological weapon sent by the New Zealand guvmint to conquer China. Given they just moving away from a socialist regime they were not keen on this idea. The first time she wore it we stopped at the road toll booth to pay our fine for driving … and the tax collector thought it was a holdup. It seems the word has spread ahead because now people seldom get excited and just give the impression of giggling amongst themselves saying, “See why we call the Westerners “big noses”.
Chinese astranaut

Chinese astranaut

Tomorrow we leave China and enter Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Given you’ve probably never heard of these countries I suspect the details I provide will be the final rounding out of your education. Unfortunately we don’t expect reliable internet service – so the information you are undoubtedly now craving may be a little slow appearing.

Posted by Wheelspin 21:41 Comments (5)

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