A Travellerspoint blog

May 2011

Highway Robbery

Who put these rocks in my bed?

Aqtau – Volgograd

Those who have the dubious distinction of having seen the movie ‘Borat’ may recall that he introduced his sister who was the 3rd best prostitute in Kazakhstan - and had the trophy to prove it. I don’t think I met her during our visit but I suspect I have spoken to some of the other contestants. Let me hasten to assure you that our conversations were short and I am unable to enlighten you in regard to their special competitive talents. On the few occasions I have been allowed to venture out alone I have been approached by obviously concerned and caring young (and not so young) ladies who enquired, “Are you lonely”? Generally I responded “No” and walked on looking like an obvious liar. In the spirit of research, on one occasion I did say “Yes”. I’m glad I did because the young lady cheered up and with a big smile, showed me some money. When I tried to accept her generous donation to my ‘happiness’ fund she withdrew the offer and tottered off on very high heels to question some other guy.

The language barrier has been quite challenging on occasions and usually makes ordering our evening meal a bit of a lottery. Sometimes another customer or employee with a smattering of English will assist which improves the odds in our favour quite considerably. One restaurant was quite innovative. They telephoned the local school English teacher so I was able to have a very strange game of ‘pass the phone’ involving questions from our unknown interpreter. “What you like?” What do they have? (Chatter between waitress and her teacher). You like soup? Yes. (More chatter). You can see how the game works and can also see that it takes a long time to play. On another occasion, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, a very modern young lady who was obviously expecting to be whisked off to Paris at any moment to show off her choice of clothes, arrived breathlessly from a back room announcing, “You are lucky today. I have been sent by God to help you”. I immediately wondered why God didn’t just stroll out and take our order himself. Again, the soup was delicious. I’ve concluded that learning the word ‘soup’ in every language would keep my belt nice and tight. It wouldn’t be difficult as the words soup and salad are surprisingly similar in almost every language.
Often the interpreter, who will embarrassingly apologize over and over about their failure to remember a word, will labour through pages of menu options and we will courageously make our choice … only to be advised that option is not being provided today. On occasions there has only been one dish on offer but the menu details all of the cuisine that the hidden cook dreams of making should circumstances change.

From Xi’an in China until Atyrua in Kazakhstan we have travelled without variation through desert. Hot, grey, dusty desert – usually with small grey green bushes and tough herb looking vegetation. The quantity and variety of animal and bird life that exists under these conditions has never failed to surprise me. There are the obvious herds, large and small, of sheep, goats, camels, horses, cows – and a few roaming donkeys. (Most donkeys are hard at work while the rest graze.) In addition, lizards, foxes, gophers, snakes, mink, rats, ferrets, rabbits and turtles are examples of things we have seen – we’re told there are more and mysterious furry bumps on the roads confirm this is probably correct. The ants are also extraordinary. Some are 12mm long and, if the power to weight ration of the little ones we are used to is consistent with these monsters, there is little point in applying the hand brake on the car. About 8 of them could steal it without any problem – should they suddenly have the urge to own a Nissan Terrano. So far we’ve been fortunate they must prefer other makes or models. The birds vary from common sparrows, pigeons and pheasants through to brilliantly coloured and extravagantly tailed flyers, waders and walkers.
It is the knowledge of unknown dangers lurking in the bushes that has made me realize that the urge to urinate is purely psychosomatic. I learnt this when Flypaper announced she was about to sneak into the undergrowth for a spot of private meditation. Being both courageous and gallant I offered to go in and clear the site of ferrets, snakes, scorpions, ants and other nasty things that could be exposed to her immodest display. Her urge mysteriously disappeared.

‘As hard as an Uzbek bed’ is a new phrase added to our conversation. Flypaper & I have many unique understandings … well, perhaps not understandings – that may never occur. However, should you be a fly on the wall listening to our conversations, and assuming as a fly you would understand our accent, you are likely to hear many expressions of this nature developed over years of experiencing stuff we would have be better avoiding by staying at home. All beds in Central Asia are hard. This could be due to the traditional lack of rubber trees or it could be that the inner-sprung four poster was difficult to carry around on the horse while out doing a bit of pillaging or even just roaming around looking for a spot of food for the family goat. In our experience however, the Uzbeks have made hard beds their special experience. Again I speculate. Uzbekistan has been particularly unfortunately positioned right between lots of power crazy guys who had ambitions to rule the world. In attempting this challenge they tended to exhibit quite a bit of disrespect for the locals while passing through. As a result, I suspect it is payback time. Current visitors’ are discouraged from returning by providing beds that are best described as exhibiting all the comfort of a concrete slab sprinkled with rocks. As a boy I often went out for the weekend equipped with a big knife given to me for my 6th birthday and a fishing line. These tools could also manufacture a bow and arrow if my interest waivered and I decided to wipe out a pond full of frogs or create some other ecological disaster. On those nights I happily slept on the ground, often in a cave, and reveled in pleasure of being tough. Times have changed. The knife is smaller and I now have to consider the comforts and pleasures expected by Flypaper. She recently (affectionately) expressed displeasure at my inability to keep her in the comforts that I have spoilt her with over the years we have toiled to become weak and soft in spite of jointly adding layers of personal padding. This is grossly unfair as, before I married her, she was tested and passed with honours. We travelled in an old Landrover from London to Capetown without any of the comforts expected in civilization. She never complained – except when the rat that lived in our roof rack continually ate the soap and potatoes – and suffered astonishing hardship. I was impressed and decided that a woman could share my macho world after all. Now the Uzbeks are challenging those standards by providing sleepless nights - often followed by cold showers. As I write, the hardship is reducing. We have entered Southern Russia and the rocks have been removed from the bed. The shower remains an undetermined experience. I feel my role as a satisfactory provider is improving.

I’ve previously commented on the brilliant driving in China based on awareness and lack of restrictive rules. The standards deteriorated as we moved west. Kazakhstan was bad, Russia is truly shocking. Much of this is due to the inability of the drivers to see through the vodka fumes that rise from the bottle clutched between their thighs. Near misses are common, evidence of accidents is everywhere and we regularly see drivers arguing in the middle of the road while their cars appear to be in steamy embrace.
I have deduced that accidents increase in proportion to the number of police and road rules. Our own (western) proliferation of laws also results in poor judgment and a reliance on signs and ‘our rights’ instead of common sense and skill.
As we approached the Russian boarder gate we actually saw an accident take place only a few meters ahead. An eager Lada was parked too close to the narrow gated entry. A huge articulated truck trying to negotiate the gap lost sight of it and lightly scrunched the fender. Then the hilarity started. So many people leapt out of the Lada I thought they must be running around and hoping in the other side. The driver performed like he had just lost his firstborn, or worse, his prize billygoat. There was a rising level of wailing from his passengers who sounded as though they had each lost a vital organ while being flailed by a hedgehog on a salty rope. Adding to the furor were the witnesses who ran in from all directions offering their services to the highest bidder. Quickly the other cars in line started tooting in frustration and some drivers rushed up to the accident threatening much more grievous harm if the narrow way wasn’t cleared pretty damn quickly. I feared that one huge Russian truck driver who had had his voice box replaced an amplified foghorn was about to have a heart attack but changed his performance to simply foaming at the mouth while roaring obscenities and gesticulating like an Italian Opera diva. It was a wonderful show. The only area of calm among the sea of distraught shriekers was the offending truck driver who simply evaluated the damage and peeled of a few Rubles for the Lada owner. Immediately the whole performance stopped and everyone dispersed. We proceeded happy in the knowledge that money fixes everything.

Well, nearly everything. The passage of money didn’t repair my hurt feelings when, for the first time on this journey, I was set up a by a greedy (Russian) policemen and fleeced. It had to happen and will likely do so again. Both our cars were driving together when a chubby little trainee cop leapt out from behind a bus shelter waiving his little red disk which means, “Stop or I’ll shoot you”. I stopped HeeHaw pretty smartly while Bilbo continued over the horizon. The next 30 minutes were spent with chubby boys ‘big hat’ boss in pointless discussion about my serious crime for which he advised the solution was the payment of US$300, 6,000 Rubles or jail. He drew a very nice picture on the back of an arrest warrant indicating I had illegally passed a car in the intersection right in front of the bus stop. None of us saw any other vehicle and I could tell from his reluctance to look directly at me that he hadn’t seen one either. I realized immediately that it was a rort but, having also experienced swindling cops at home, I have a policy of putting up a good fight. Its difficult using logic and reasoning when the parties can’t understand each other. There was a certain satisfaction in calling him names to his face that can’t be printed here. I also called on a military guy, who was lolling around, as my witness – but he was made a better offer by the cop. That was a win to me because it meant the thieving @#*&@#% wasn’t going to get 100% of the funds. After a satisfactory period of arguing he asked me to hop into the passengers’ seat of his car where we reached a settlement (below the level of the windows) of 1,000 rubles. (NZ$50). We all (3) shook hands and I was free to continue our journey. It was clearly highway robbery. A few kilometers down the road I stopped and sterilized my hands.
Sterilization

Sterilization

Posted by Wheelspin 05:07 Comments (3)

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)

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