September 2nd, 2016
Filling Up and Checking Out
Our Turkmen transit visa will expire today so we need to leave. Conveniently, the border with Uzbekistan is only 40km (25mi) from Turkmenabat. We are expecting to spend quite a bit of time on border formalities again. Breakfast is more varied than expected. By the time we finish it, the students of Storm have long gone. They also have a lot more luggage to be checked, so we won’t be surprised if we’d see them again today.
Yesterday’s worries of having to buy our bikes back from behind the hotel gate prove to be unfounded. And the price of our room hasn’t gone up overnight either. Because it’s already quite hot mid-morning, we load the luggage on the bikes in the shade of the the large outside stairway of the hotel.
We get water and food at a small corner shop and fill our tanks with fuel too. Even though it’s only 150km (95mi) to Bukhara, the first larger town over the border, we’re certainly not going to reach it on petrol fumes and we’re not going to risk not finding a filling station just over the border. On top of that, we don’t have a single Uzbekistani So’m in our wallets yet and we don’t expect any money exchange services at the border.
Before we get to the border, we first need to cross the river Amudaryo, somewhere in the outskirts of Turkmenabat. That sounds more adventurous than it is because there is a bridge. Or at least, the one that the Turkmen are building isn’t finished yet. To accelerate the completion, we’re asked to pay toll charges to cross the river over a shabby pontoon bridge. Interestingly, the toll charges are 30 Turkmenistani Manat plus 9 US$ (€7,50). Suspiciously, this amounts to approximately 9 US$ plus 9 US$ per motorcycle. Despite the receipt we got, you can guess now which part of that toll goes into the boss’s pocket…
Upon entering the pontoon bridge, we understand that part of the toll we just paid must be a fee for this attraction. Comfortably wedged between a truck and a bus, we get most excitement for our money as the metal sections of the floating bridge hinge up and down under the weight of the large vehicles. As a bonus, we need to stop on the metal slopes now and then. As always, easy does it, and we reach the other shore without problems.
Forms and Atom Bombs
A bit of a detour through the town of Farap finally takes us to the long straight along a canal to the Turkmen border post. Border guards, passport checks, customs. We need to fill in forms to register the motorcycles and declare the goods and money that we’re carrying. This only makes sense if we had also done that upon entry, but we didn’t. We decide not to ask any questions and start filling in the forms. For our convenience, they’re all in Turkmen.
Because my Turkmen is almost as good as his Dutch (“Van Persie!”), a teenage soldier is assigned to help us. He wears a plush green suit with a pixelated pattern of all possible shades of green (three). He seems to be slightly irritated, although this might be the highlight of his otherwise boring day. At some point he takes my pen and answers the list of multiple choice questions at his own discretion. The options are bar and ýok. I remember that ýok means no in Turkish. And bar means pub, but it would make more sense if it means yes in this context. We hope that he provides us with the correct answers for the questions about prohibited substances, nuclear weapons and plans to overthrow the government.
After two tries with all the forms, we finally pass the test. We continue to the X-ray scanner to have our hand luggage checked, but the lady who is responsible for this procedure is absent, so we wait patiently until she appears from the lavatory. In the mean time, some locals arrive, but they’re only frisked quickly. The lady is not very interested in the scans and we’re asked to follow her colleague to his office. He asks us about some forms that one of the other guys took from us 30 minutes ago. We tell him and he’s perfectly happy with that explanation. He seems relieved that no more papers are added to the already impressive collection of big piles of forms on his desk.
Bar! Ýok! Ýok! Ýok! Bar!
We are led to another office at the outside of the building. The officer here is interested in our declaration forms. Because Pixel Man has managed to fill in one of the multiple choice questions with both bar and ýok, I need to redo this form (again). Although the entire exercise seems futile, I don’t complain. Instead, I repeat bar or ýok loudly for every question, much to the amusement of the officer. He asks me a question in Turkmen and I can only distinguish one word: “Türkmençe”. I answer “ýok!” More cheerful laughter. He copies some of the answers on our other forms in a very large book with hand-drawn columns. There is no computer in sight here.
As a formality we need to open a bag or two, but there is no rigorous search. Thankfully, Big Book Man and his colleagues are more interested in us than in our luggage.
“You have children?”
“Engineer” (which sounds a lot like Inžener)
“Where are you going?”
“O’zbekiston, Kyrgyzstan, Hindistan, …”. Respectful looks.
“How fast your bike? Only 160km/h (100mph)? Not very fast!”
With our passports stamped, we’re free to go now. Meanwhile, with all the jovial form-filling, it’s almost 2pm. And if it comes to border crossings today, we’re only halfway there.
Two more gates with passport checks. The second one only opens when tea break is over. We have a 15 minute lunch break ourselves to wonder why all three border guards need to have a break at the same time. Finally, they open the gate and we’re off to Uzbekistan!
To compensate for the less fancy uniforms, the Uzbek border guards carry very large guns. The mood is friendly though. At first they think we are part of the group of Dutch students. We do appear to have different visa than them and they’re asking a few questions about that, until they find out we’re rather Team Gentle Breeze than Team Storm.
At the next check post, trucks and cars are supposed to drive through a disinfection pool, and they’re photographed too. None of that for us, thankfully, but we do need to visit the doctor. Yes, the doctor. He checks whether we have a fever using an infrared thermometer on our foreheads. I hope we don’t end up in quarantine, because I’ve been very warm ever since we left this morning. We keep cool and all is well.
The officer in the next booth checks our passports. He takes a very long look at each of us when comparing the passport photos with reality. No further questions.
We’re asked to fill out two more declaration forms on a wobbly table that is littered with some empty water bottles with meanwhile familiar Dutch names. Except that Bar is Ha, and Ýok is Yo’q, the forms look suspiciously like the Turkmen forms. You’d swear these countries were once part of something larger…
Formally we’re supposed to declare each and every thing we carry, and its value. We find that ridiculous, so we invent some categories like clothing, tools and electronics and creatively estimate their value. If we need to believe the large signs with importation rules that are hanging on every wall, we’re well over the limit that would require us to fill out a cargo form. Because our visa for Uzbekistan only has a duration of 30 days and we’d like to see some of the country, we wisely keep shut. Nobody bothers.
After another X-Ray check of our hand luggage, a male and a female officer take a lot of time to type all our personal details, and those of our motorcycles, meticulously into a computer. On two separate occasions, they ask me and Petra what Petra’s profession is. We’ve done our homework and both answer what we filled in on the visa application. Mr. and Mrs. Border Official seem to be happy. This is clearly not the place to try to be funny and answer “A revolutionary!”, or even worse: “Your next president!”
They’ve Got Our Drugs!
What we expected is coming: the question about drugs. We read about the prohibition of certain drugs such as codeine-based pain killers in Uzbekistan, so we’ve prepared for this situation and dump our deluxe medical kit on the lady’s desk, as if to say: “Here, you have special rules, you figure it out!”
Ironically, transparency seems to be the best strategy here, in a country that is 156th out of 176 countries on the list of Transparency International. She looks at each package and asks a few questions about the prescription medicine for altitude sickness. Everything is returned. Let’s see what they come up with next…
Aha, she’s not done yet! The attention of the female officer is now focused on the thicker parts of Petra’s motorcycle gear. Except for helmets, the concept of motorcycle clothing hasn’t really caught on outside of the Western world. Why would you spend money on special clothing if you can wear normal clothing too?
“What is it?”, the officer asks.
“Padding for protection in case of an accident”
She feels and prods around on the plastic protectors that are in pockets on the inside of Petra’s jacket and pants.
“Why are they so low?”, she asks with a suspicious look at Petra.
“They fit on knees and hips when you sit on the bike, not when you stand upright”
She gives the protectors one long quizzical look but then accepts the explanation. This is the first border crossing at which they’re actually interested in the stuff we’re wearing (or what you can hide inside). And hopefully the last one too.
They’ve Got Our Money Too!
Finally, they require a declaration of the amount of cash that we carry. Guess what? We prepared. Several packages of dollars and euros, wrapped in plastic and marked with a value, appear from our pockets. They’re smaller than before we entered Iran, though… We count our reserves before every border crossing and take note of the amounts for situations like these.
The male officer adds up all the amounts and compares the sum with our declaration form. He says we’ve declared more than we carry, which is most likely not a reason to incarcerate us immediately. Petra remembers paying for the pontoon bridge attraction this morning and finds the missing US$32 in her wallet. Much to the officer’s amazement, our declaration is now correct up to the last cent. As if it were a miracle, he even asks us how on earth we knew that this was the correct amount. Must not look smug! Must not look smuggler either!
Top tip: the good thing about wrapping your cash is not only that it survives wet weather and sweaty bottoms, but also that the officer didn’t bother to count. He believed what was written on the packages. Well yes, the numbers did match the value of the contents, but the lesson here is that they had no reason to count it, which saves you time and hassle.
The officer returns our cash and now wants to see our luggage. So far, we’ve passed his tests with flying colors, so we sincerely hope that he doesn’t want to see each and every pack sack in our luggage. Thankfully he is satisfied with a quick glance in my panniers and top case. Without looking at any of Petra’s luggage, he suggests “You have similar things in your luggage, right?”. She answers “Yes, but my clothing is smaller!”. There is no denying that.
Although all this went well, it also took very long and we’re pretty tired. We have to force ourselves to focus, to figure out whether we’ve forgotten anything. It’s past 5:30pm now and we’re the last ones here. Just before riding off, I can’t find my passport and my vehicle papers! I’ve seen them last on the copying machine in the office, so that’s where they probably still are. I rush in and we find the documents. The officer has also wrongly kept my declaration of goods and cash, something that could have caused problems at the exit border, which can perhaps only be solved with a ‘special fine’.
This has been the longest border crossing so far. One more passport check (of course!) and we’re leaving the premises. We’re finally in Uzbekistan! It’s still more than 100km (60mi) to go to Bukhara, though. Let’s hope the road is good.
Loud Pipes… Need Repair
I find out why my left boot has been feeling warmer than my right boot: my exhaust pipe has slowly wiggled itself off the header pipe and the hot exhaust gases have been blasting the dead cow on my left foot. The pipe must have come loose after my tumble near our first Iranian campsite, a few days ago. It has also gotten a lot louder this way. I really don’t feel like digging up my tools from the bottom of my pannier. Repairs will have to wait until Bukhara.
The road to Bukhara isn’t exactly Swiss asphalt, but it could have been a lot worse. Traffic is quiet and the evening mood gives us some time to reflect after a busy day. It’s time for our recurring conversation: Me: “Well?”, Petra: “We’ve ridden all the way to here by ourselves!”. Satisfied grins behind two dusty visors.
As we pass the village of Qorako’l, I realize that there is no lack of apostrophes here: Yo’q, O’zbekiston, So’m, … I’m going to be mightily impressed if it turns out that they stole them all from the Hells Angels.
There are many Uzbeks on the roadside, on bicycles and horse carts. They already seem more outgoing than their southern neighbors. Most of the people we pass, wave, honk or smile. Even two-year-olds smile and wave on their own initiative. This looks promising.
We arrive in Bukhara not long before sunset and find a nice room in what used to be a Madrasa, a school for Islamic sciences. There is a large courtyard, giving access to more than ten rooms on two levels. The entry to the courtyard has a few steps and the old wooden door is narrow. There is no way we’re going to park the bikes inside, but they can stay behind the gates of the owner’s house across the street. Great. We’ll rest here for a few days. We need some time to recover because we’ve been riding for 10 days straight, covering more than 2600km (1620mi) since Esfahan in Iran.
Bukhara is a nice place to spend some time. Our guest house is close to the historic center of town, which has been renovated nicely. We see the first western tourists since Esfahan here.
Rather randomly, we pick a restaurant that has a roof terrace overlooking the old town. When we’re having dinner, a dozen students from Storm show up! I said we wouldn’t be surprised to see them again today, but in this place, we are. This is even a larger coincidence than meeting them at the border of Iran and Turkmenistan! At last, we know for sure now who is following whom…
Food and beer — a nice last evening with these guys and girls. They’re on a very tight schedule and will drive to Samarqand tomorrow. Here is their video of today’s experiences:
A few days ago we’d already read the news that the Uzbek president had suffered from a seizure and has since been receiving intensive care. On western news websites we read that he has passed away today.
We express our condolences to the guy running the guest house tonight, but he maintains that the president is still recovering in hospital. By the time we return from dinner, the news has also reached him and he is very sad. He is in his mid-twenties and Karimov was the only president he has ever known, as he came to power after the fall of the Soviet union, about 25 years ago.
What bothers us is that a pattern is emerging: when we entered Turkey, there was a military coup; when we entered Uzbekistan, their president died. We’re curious what will happen when, or rather if, we reach China.
(the story continues below the map)
September 3rd, 2016
The Quest for Cash
On trips like this one, or countries like this one, you can’t expect to achieve too much in one day. Today’s goal is to find a way to withdraw money, because we want to keep our reserves as, well, reserves in case the proverbial sh*t hits the fan.
First we have to figure out how things work (or don’t work) in this new place. We know that the currency is So’m and the official rate is 2,700.- to the US dollar. The street rate is 6,200.- to the dollar. Yes, that’s the same dollar. That means that everything will be more than twice as cheap if we find the ‘right’ person to do business with. I don’t know what I find more intriguing: the difference between the rates, or that the rates were more like 2,100/2,700 not so long ago. It tells us that there is not much trust in the local economy and that that feeling is getting worse.
Before diving headlong into the first street deal with a potential undercover cop — they probably don’t have the best rates — we first look for an official way to get a little local cash so we can have lunch and get some groceries. Why don’t we go to an ATM? Well, they’re very difficult to find. Bukhara is not the smallest town, but there are hardly any places where we can get money from a machine. If we do manage to find one, it doesn’t accept our cards, or it’s broken, or empty, or a combination of the above.
It’s mind-boggling how inefficient the simple process of getting money can be, and how long we need to walk around in the heat to find out that it’s not possible the official way. I mean, something is wrong when it’s more difficult to get at your own money than at someone else’s…
So far we’ve been able to manage by paying with dollars at a somewhat unfavorable rate.
When walking around Bukhara, we find a square around a football stadium. There is a big screen with a live broadcast of the presidential memorial service and funeral in Samarqand. Quite a few people have brought flowers. Just as we think this is not our business and we should continue walking, we draw the attention of a police officer and he shoos us away, pointing to the other side of the street. Alright, keep your pants on!
We spend the rest of the afternoon in the courtyard of the guest house, enjoying tea and local sweets. The other guests are all foreign. We meet an American couple who turn the topic to the coming presidential elections almost immediately. As if we need any convincing, they keep on bashing one of the candidates. Phrases like “only 15% of the votes” and “egg on his face” are used…
September 4th, 2016
The Quest for Cash II
There are days on which you can actually accomplish more than one thing! We’ve found a hotel with an ATM where we can replenish our reserves, in dollars, mind you. And we’ve gotten our hands on So’m. It appears that the two biggest notes they have are 1000 and 5000 So’m. That sounds like a lot, but their biggest note is worth approx. $0.83 (€0,74).
This is another reason to avoid shady street deals: you’ll want to count the money you got, but US$ 100 is 620,000 So’m. That’s at least 124 notes to count while trying not to draw attention to yourself. For a few percent more we have a carpet shopkeeper exchange money for us. To our amazement he comes back with no fewer than 620 bank notes! In terms of piles of paper, this is worse than Iranian Rials! We will quickly need to learn the local technique to count money manually.
With our newfound fortune, we have lunch and good coffee. You know you’ve come to the right place when a busload of Italians also have molti espressi!
The Ministry of Discouragement
We’ve found a local Beeline SIM card too. It was all quite complicated with the need for the registration slips that the guest house personnel stuck in our passports. These slips are required for foreigners so the police/border control/government can track where you’ve been.
When you stay at a registered hotel or guest house, these slips are arranged for you. However, if you stay at a private person’s house, or go wild camping, you’ll have to go through the hassle of arranging these slips yourself at the Interior Ministry’s local Office of Visas and Registration (OVIR). There is an obvious sense of discouragement here… Leaving the country with too many inexplicable gaps in the dates of these slips may cause problems.
Today we also take time to give our camping kitchen utensils and our clothing a good cleaning. You wouldn’t believe the dirt that we’ve gathered in our motorcycle gear since Eastern Turkey! The amount of collected exhaust fumes of 3.200km (2,000mi) of busy Iranian Roads with their big smoke-belching 1960s trucks and Zamyad pick-ups is quite disturbing.
September 5th, 2016
Developments East & West
Our (first) passports have been delivered at Mission Control back home! Peter and Leonie sent them by courier from Turkey to Switzerland. Our good friend Markus will stand in line for us at the Chinese consulate in Zürich. Let’s just hope that Uncle 我说三十 hasn’t been relocated from Tehran to Zürich meanwhile!
Our tour organizer in China is asking us where we’d like to enter China from Kyrgyzstan. There are only two official border crossings: Irkeshtam in the far South and Torugart more toward the East of Kyrgyzstan. They’re 800km (500mi) apart if you take the shortest route, and there is no German Autobahn between them. Complicated as things are during this trip, this kicks off a long visa and route planning session.
Because I am not sure whether you liked geography in school, or paid attention when the Soviet Union fell apart, here is a map:
(click the markers on the map for more information)
Our discussions entail visiting the plains of the Pamir in Eastern Tajikistan as an optional extra. This is something that has been high on our list, but we hadn’t thought possible, due to the schedule of the China transit. We are happy that we decided to postpone the 5-day China transit to October 10th-14th.
However, if we spend time visiting Tajikistan, we will use Irkeshtam as our entry point to China and there won’t be time to see the rest of beautiful Kyrgyzstan at a speed that we like.
Ooh, another condition: we need to pass through the city of Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan to pick up the tires that we reserved at Patrik’s place (Muztoo).
Are you still following? 😀
What has India got to do with this? That’s months from now! Well… we still have to get our Indian visas, and there are three reasonable options left to get them along the way: in Tashkent (Uzbekistan’s capital), in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan’s capital) or in Islamabad (Pakistan’s capital). Knowing the inflammable political situation between Pakistan and India, we think it is best not to postpone our Indian visa applications until we reach Islamabad.
Bishkek is in North-Kyrgyzstan and would make Torugart the most sensible place to enter China. But that would definitely scrap our plans to visit Tajikistan. Choices, choices…
More news from China. It seems that The Authorities have decided for us: we’re expected to enter China at Irkeshtam. Period. That means we’ll try to get our Indian visas in Tashkent, travel to Osh, then to Eastern Tajikistan. If we fail to get our Indian visa in Tashkent, we’ll travel through Bishkek to Osh, et cetera.
But wait a minute… where do we get our visas for Tajikistan?!