Nuking it to Nukus
For those of you who don't know us so well, Russ is one of my oldest friends dating back to the pre-historic university period. He was also the first person to come and introduce himself to Jenny when we first started 'dating', and so is considered one of our oldest (40!) and dearest friends. As is evident from this blog we had been planning the trip for over 3 years, but were quite happy when, with about 6 months to go Russ decided to learn to ride a motorbike and undertake a similar overlapping trip. We thought, quite correctly that by the time we met up with Russ we would be in need of some further company.
We had met up with Russ briefly in Baku, for one drunken night, after 3 weeks in the alcohol wilderness of Iran, but had to part company as he was then heading to Turkmenistan, where we had no visa, and we were heading to Kazakhstan, but both of us by ferry. We knew we would be meeting Russ in Uzbekistan, but also had managed to get ourselves a little ahead of schedule, so had to kill some time in Kazakhstan, until our Uzbek visa was valid. Now we had a dilemma - try and get through to Uzbekistan, ignoring the fact that we had no right of entry for 3 more days - or wait around knowing that Russ at least would appreciate our company, and most probably needed some help navigating the Uzbekistan health system. Well to us it was obvious what we should do - give it a go at the border, where the worse case scenario would be waiting in no mans land for three days. Damn it, Russ's friendship is surely worth it?
We raced to the border and arrived around 4.30pm, which probably gave us 90 minutes to get across the border. Given that our last few border crossings had taken 4 hours or so, this would mean we would have to cross in record time. But we also thought that this might mean that the guards would rush us through. As it turns out we were 90% through before anyone noticed that we were crossing ahead of our visa. The guards spoke no English, and separated me and Jenny by taking me to a room with a computer English/Russian translator program. I asked if we could change our visa, perhaps with some money changing hands, but the Russian guard answered with a straight 'No you must stay here for three days'. At this I felt we were done and dusted, before the guard returned to the computer to type in 'Joke'. At this I knew we were through - and it turns out Jenny had also secured our freedom in the other office. Uzbekistan and Russ here we come!
It still took us another day's driving to get to Russ in Nukus, who by this time was feeling better, but still in hospital, and looking unlikely to be let out. Apparently the hospital had diagnosed his illness as possibly infectious, and they would not release him until tests had proven otherwise, It was late on Friday afternoon by the time we got to him, and unless the results were out by 5:30pm he would be kept in until until at least Monday! Just as it was looking like he was doomed to spend another two days in hospital the results came through and we were released to the nearest bar. No need to add, although I will, we were all feeling sick the next day.
Once we had sprung Russ's release we were free to explore Uzbekistan, which is an ex-Soviet republic, now under the leadership of the same man who was in charge during the Soviet era. Some call him a dictator, and it is certainly apparent that he has a almost total grip on the country. One of his latest edicts was a big help for us, as he had decided that all foreign tourists should be exempt from any police corruption, and hence any policeman who was found to be looking for baksheesh from a foreigner would lose his job immediately, no questions asked. This cut out a big hassle for us, and also meant that twice we got away with being caught on a radar gun - the police are only interested in a 'on the spot fine' which is, of course going straight in their pocket. Insisting on paying at a police station or town soon means a let off.
Our first target was Khiva, which is a town full of stunning turquoise and blue tiled architecture, and famed for its historic slave trading. The splendor is diluted somewhat though, with the town being turned into a virtual museum, with the only occupants being stall holders, hotels and restaurants. It is interesting to see the large and colourful Islamic buildings that existed side by side with the slave centre, but without a true hustle and bustle the town is missing out on one vital ingredient - real people!
On the way to Khiva we stopped off for some off road exploration with Russ, looking for a potential campsite, and although unsuccessful our return to the main road coincided with the French Citroen convoy stopping for a break, and suddenly we were a 3 car and one bike convoy again. The three French guys, Dominic, Jean-Marie and Bernard were also joined by Eva the Russian photographer, and made for interesting traveling companions. Of the French, Dominic the mushroom growing architect, was the only person to speak English. He traveled in the very old beautiful Citroen with Eva, and had fallen out with Bernard in the other car, who had apparently pulled a knife on him. Jenny speaks quite good French and was left to communicate with Bernard and Jean-Marie, but could never find out the truth of this story. We were left to shake our heads from afar and wonder if these guys would make it back to France together and in one piece.
As well as staying together in Khiva we spent one night wild camping, below some 2500 year old ruins, and near a Yurt stay. We decided not to spend the $40 a person on a night in the yurt, but did take a very pleasant breakfast there, although our French friends decided it was too touristy for them. Their loss!
Khiva, Bhukara and Samarkand
We ended up spending five days at Khiva, which is certainly too long for what is available to see as a tourist, but it was nice for us to spend some chilled time together with Russ, and we had struck a real bargain for our hotel at $10 a night including breakfast. For those heading to Uzbekistan in our wake we would recommend the Hotel Arqonchi, not far from the big fat incomplete minaret, and also the Oriental Nook restaurant (see piccie below), only five minutes walk away. Either way bargain hard for your hotel room as we reduced this down from $35 a night!!!
We would have only spent 4 nights in Khiva, but as we were about to leave I managed to pick up our first real bug, a 24 hour vomitathon. Not at all girls blousy like Russ' illness, rather a real man's illness for a real man. As usual Jenny came good and nursed me to complete health (ie she stopped me drinking).
With Khiva done, the normal tourist route takes you on to Bhukara, Samarkand and possibly Tashkent, but both me and Jenny were a bit overdone on astonishingly beautiful mosques and minarets, so we decided to give Samarkand a miss. And our advice would be, if you are a big Islamic architecture fan, go to all three, otherwise go to either Bhukara or Khiva but not both. So, after two days in Bhukara, we took the overnight, 3rd class train on to Tashkent (to give you a clue how much fun that was, we happily paid for 1st class on our return) and started the search for a Chinese visa.
Facking Tashkent Chinese Embassy
Please excuse the swearing above, but you wouldn't believe the amount of grief this embassy gave us and lots of other overlanders. Don't go here unless you have no other choice and then go the night before and bribe the guards to get in the next day. Essentially you have to queue up to get in to apply for a visa, but no one who hasn't already bribed or slept with the Russian guards outside will get in.We learnt of lots of horror stories outside and decided after one days waiting to ask the British embassy for help. It was not so hard to get in to see them, but it seemed that they did not have a record of mine and Jenny's taxation and hence just fobbed us off with a suggestion of trying a travel agency.
At this point we realised we were going to be in Tashkent for some time, and decided to book ourselves into plush hotel with some added overlander luxuries, such as a swimming pool and toilet paper. It turns out the plush hotel, the Grand Orzu, was an overlanders hotel, as we met both the Dragonman bus, and fifteen escorted round the world bikers. Of course, we knew we were the only real overlanders there, as we wiped our own bottoms with said toilet paper.
We also hooked up with our American friends traveling on push bikes, Natalie and Alex, and picked up a new cyclist friend, Andre, the Swiss German percussionist who had cycled from Switzerland to central Asia in an attempt to recapture his love of music. He found it on the decrepit hotel piano, much to the concern of the other guests. Andre confirmed our suspicions that all Swiss Germans are crazy and that all cyclists are crazy. It certainly counted double for him.
Lying and Cheating
Fully ensconced in the Grand Orzu ($65/night for triple room) Russ and Jenny set about finding a travel agency that would secure us a Chinese visa, whilst I guarded our place by the pool. The agency, Irena Sport and Travel, took the money and promised us that they would sort out the visa. There was only one hitch, they spoke no English and hence the whole application was done with a combination of mime, basic Russian and a sample application form. Because we needed the visa fast we had to pay double the already extortionate price, but this would be worth it as we would be able to leave the expensive capital and get back to frugal living. All we had to do was wait until Friday at 5pm to pick up the visas, and then hop onto our first class return train to Bhukara at 7pm. Sounds simple - so perhaps time for a celebratory cake?
Arriving at the travel agency on Friday we were told that we would have to wait until 6pm, as the Chinese were in a meeting (Free Tibet? Flood 10 million people? Remove free tea from the canteen?), so we got out the cards and played a game or two of Sheizer Koffen. At 6pm on the dot our passports turned up and we were ready to party, until I checked the date - it was a month too early! Damn Damn Damn. Obviously a debate started about the rights and wrongs of this, and it was soon obvious that we weren't going to get a replacement visa, and hence all we were discussing was whether we would get a rebate. We knew we had a strict time limit, as our train was leaving in less than an hour, but Irena was a hard ball foe. All we could get out of her was she would give us the agency fee back, but she wanted to rip the visa out of our passports. Obviously no good for us.
As the clock moved to half past we played our final hand, a pretend phone call to the police, with some strategically placed Russian words to allow Irena to think we were informing on her. Bingo, suddenly we had a fist full of dollars, and a reason to sprint across town to catch our train. Phew. We had lost only half of what we could and our passports lived to fight another day.
Our 1st class journey back to Bhukara was all the merrier for our small victory, and we celebrated as we often do in central Asia, with some bread. Bread is, as you would expect, a staple of the central Asia diet, but this does not explain why it is mostly cardboard like and tasteless. Don't mistake this moan for dissatisfaction, as we have all got used to it, and now can chew our way through month old bread like a local.
On arrival back to Bhukara we picked up the bike and Dino (who had had the French flag stolen from him) and headed for Tajikistan, via Samarkand where had a quick peep at the Registan, which looked blue and tile like. Soon we were at the border, where again we crossed in about an hour, to find a whole new landscape - hills and mountains.
Once on the other side of the border we consulted the map, and figured we should be able to reach lake Iskander Kul by dark, where we could hole up for a few days and consider our next moves, both regarding our Chinese visa and our Tajikistan leg of the trip. Unsurprisingly we found the roads in Tajikistan to be nothing like we had met before, with a large percentage of vertical drops, crumbling sides and horrendous pot holes. We tried as hard as we could to get near to our target, but with dusk settling in and a further 70 kms to go we realised we were not only breaking our golden rule of not driving at night, but also doing it on the most tricky and dangerous roads we had yet met. With about 2 seconds conversation me and Jenny decided to call it a day, but the only problem was letting Russ know, who was driving ahead of us. We tried in vain to alert him by flashing our lights, but no matter what we would do Russ would not stop. All we could do was pull in at the first place flat enough to park, and hope Russ had the good sense to realise we were no longer driving, and come back.
We set up camp in a small village, after asking the local elder's permission, having also phoned and texted Russ, with no response. The headman brought out tea, with ginormous sugar cubes, rock hard bread and some sweets, so we tucked into this nutritious dinner. After about an hour we finally got a call from Russ - he was going to try and push on to the lake, as he could find no ground safe enough for him to camp without scorpions, and was also aware of some road works that would close the road for the next day's daylight. All we could do was to settle down and go to bed, and hope in the morning we could safely navigate past the road works down to the lake to meet up with Russ. We were soon asleep, and dreaming of soft bread and sit down toilets when the phone rang. It was an especially cacklerly line, and Jenny could only make out two words being repeated over and over again. 'I've crashed'.......
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