What? An update of this blog? After more than three years? What happened? Well, life, the universe and everything, I guess. More about that in the epilogue of this trip, maybe.
On top of that, I did some major maintenance on my Motto #2. Anyway, welcome back — all twelve of you. Let’s pick up where we left off before we get old and forgetful.
September 5th, 2016 (continued)
The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast beckons
You’ve had more than 3 years to come up with an answer to the question that we left you with: “Where do we get our visas for Tajikistan?” Because Tajikistan is very high on the list of poorest countries in Asia, we expected the answer to be complicated, but it’s surprisingly simple: you can apply for Tajik visas online. That’s a relief and saves us at least one embassy visit in at most three countries.
This also has positive effects on our route and time planning. We’ve always seen a visit to Tajikistan as an extra on this trip, be it a very desirable one. Ever since we plunged headfirst into the visa planning swamp back in Athens, we believed that the strict China plan would keep us from seeing high plains of the Pamir. We’re very pleased now that the improbability has become a real possibility.
Tailpipes and Tea
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You may remember we’re still in Bukhara, our first city in Uzbekistan. We’ve found a good place to stay for us and our motorcycles, we’ve checked out a few good restaurants in town and found out that the piles of local paper money you get for US$ 100 can keep you warm at night.
After the long route and visa discussion there is not much time to do anything important today, except some much needed work on my exhaust pipe, which has actually been two exhaust pipes since we’ve left the Turkmen border. Our bikes are parked in the courtyard of a house across the street. At least one of the people running our guest house lives there.
While wrenching and checking the bikes I meet Akmal. He appears to be in his twenties and he seems to live here too. And if he doesn’t, he is hands-down the most relaxed burglar I have ever met. As a good host he offers me plenty of tea and some fruit and we get to talk a bit about the motorcycles, our trip, children, work and any tips I might have about webshop hosting in Uzbekistan.
With all the ATM searching, money exchanging, money counting, clothes washing, trip planning and bike maintenance you’d almost forget that this is supposed to be a long vacation. With that in mind, we decide to stay another day, to the delight of the lady running our guest house.
We could have spent a lot more time here, but we find Bukhara a bit too touristic for our liking, and we’re suffering from what I call mosque fatigue. We’ve seen quite a few mosques by now, and it’s the same feeling you get when sightseeing the umpteenth church in Rome: pretty and the effort to maintain and restore them is impressive, but frankly it’s also a lot of the same. There is a cute small one near our guest house. Those with any knowledge of Spanish could call it a mosquito.
September 6th, 2016
One more thing we want to do before we leave, is arrange some 3rd party liability insurance for the motorcycles. An insurance office at the border would have been nice, but there wasn’t one, or maybe they went home before we finished jumping bureaucratic hoops. The insurance is probably not mandatory anyway, but if it’s easy to get, why not? On top of being insured (probably) we might also avoid ‘negotiations’ at the expected checkposts along our route.
With two vague and vaguely memorized route descriptions of the friendly guest house lady, it takes us almost an hour of searching before we find Asia Insurance in Djalol Ikomi Street. At least we seem to be in the right continent.
We’re met enthusiastically by an employee who gets to work with our vehicle papers immediately. This looks promising. However, with the help of a colleague, it takes him about an hour to draw up an insurance policy. Instead of asking us for the details, he’s guessed his way through the data on our registration papers. The Swiss papers are made up in four languages, but Uzbek is not one of them.
He keeps on printing ‘final’ versions of the policy after which he asks us whether the numbers are correct. And they aren’t. I refrain from calculating the number of possible permutations of assigning the wrong numbers to the wrong form fields. After only four corrections we’ve each got an Uzbek 3rd party liability motorcycle insurance for one month! We hope they’re not charging by the hour, because the total amount is US$ 3,60 (€4,40) for two motorcycles. Maybe my calculation is flawed, but this must be the safest country to ride in.
September 7th, 2016
We’ve got one more delicious breakfast at this guest house, after which we — you’ve guessed it — need to exchange some more money. Our go-to-carpet-salesman for the job hasn’t opened his shop yet, so I’ll have to deal with the money exchangers at the street corner. I’m not terribly pleased with this, because a man who is wearing a policeman’s uniform and scanning the area is probably not a money exchanger with a sense of humor. One of the money exchangers asks me whether I want to do business and takes me into the shady pharmacy at the corner.
It’s quite obvious we’re going to exchange money illegally and I don’t think pharmacies are exempt from the law. My excuse for being caught red-handed with a freshly exchanged pile of paper money will be that I need to buy Excedrin, Tylenol, Aspirin, Diclofenac, Ibuprofen, Ketorolac and Naproxen — or whichever of those that don’t contain the locally prohibited codeine. And if the cop won’t believe me, I could put those pain killers to good use in a brightly lit interrogation room. It’s all less exciting than that and one minute later I walk out with another 620,000 So’m.
The Warm Shoulder
We say our goodbyes to Akmal and we’re on the road again, well rested and happy about our clean motorcycle gear. It really makes a difference not getting into what feels like a dirty rag in the morning.
It’s a bit of a messy ride out of town. Soon enough, we’re on the highway to Samarkand. We encounter several police checkposts, but nobody seems to take any interest in us or the motorcycles. It’s only cars and trucks with Uzbek plates that are stopped. We do attract some attention when having lunch on the hard shoulder in the shade of trees. We are honked or waved at twice a minute. A pretty decent rate.
Crouching Lada, Hidden Sofa
Each country has its own traffic peculiarities. In Uzbekistan, it’s the large number of boxy VAZ-2105 that’s still driving around here, also known as the Lada Riva, if you remember. In one of them, parked at a gas station with an open hood, we see that it’s been converted for the use of methane or propane. So most gas stations here are also… well, gas stations. That makes a lot of sense in a country with so many natural gas reserves. It supposedly burns cleaner than liquid fuels, provided that the engine development engineers made an effort. And they haven’t, so after a propane-powered Lada goes past, you can smell it for minutes. It’s still better than the situation in cities in Iran, where the air is pregnant with combustion byproducts.
In many Uzbek households there is a kind of large wooden sofa, called tapchan, which is large enough to seat an entire well-fed family. Where tapchans really catch your attention is on the roof of a moving Lada Riva — the tapchan perfectly matching its squarish shape. Poetry in motion. Imagine the colossal 3×3 meter (10×10 ft) heavy wooden structure, tied to whatever ornaments you can find on a VAZ-2105 and with a couple more ropes under the car’s chassis ‘just to be on the safe side’. All the tapchan’s pillows are filling the poor Lada’s entire back seat. You must think this is a one-time peculiarity, but we’ve already seen two of these contraptions today. IKEA, are you reading this? There is a huge market for your new easily (dis)assembleable tapchan design here. I suggest you call it Nödstopp.
The road to Samarkand is not in good nick and in some places very bad with lots of holes, dips, bumps and treacherous grooves. Because this takes a lot of our concentration, we have a few more breaks. On one of those breaks, another Lada stops. The driver greets us cheerfully and insists on buying a watermelon for us at a roadside fruit stall. He gives us a big one, quickly gets back into his car and speeds off as if he is running late for his next fruit donation appointment. We barely have time to thank him. Thank you, swift generous stranger!
So there we stand by the roadside with our cleft watermelon. I’m glad we’re not alone here because there’s no way we’re going eat all that, or transport it on the bikes and keep it edible for later. We cut it into more pieces and start handing them out to thankful bystanders. Watermelon is the perfect fruit for them. I mean, it would have been cruel to give them, say, Granny Smith apples. We’ve eaten all we can eat and there is still half a melon left. We leave it for them and ride off waving.
Mise en Place
The road remains bad for a while but improves a bit before Samarkand. I am amazed – again – how good the OpenStreetMaps are. Here we are, riding in a country that’s not know for its openness, from one unknown city to another and we arrive at a B&B in some back alley without any tiresome detours. And there is still enough excitement, if that’s what you think is missing.
The B&B owner says we can put the bikes in his courtyard. But how to get them in there over the high curbstone? We improvise a ramp with a large terrace tile. With the right dose of gas and some bash plate scraping we’re in. Happy days.
The room is simple but clean and not far from the main attraction in Samarkand: the Registan. This is a big square, surrounded by three impressive 400-600 year old madrassas. We have a quick first look in the dark before dinner. For now, the large and modern Registan Supermarket gets most of our attention.
September 8th, 2016
Give it the Beans
We’d expect the area around the Registan to have quite a few restaurants and cafés, but there only few. There is a coffee shop that advertises with coffee beans but then pours hot water over your Nescafé. It all makes sense because imported coffee beans really are outrageously expensive here, even for Western standards.
We leave the sightseeing for tomorrow because we need to do our homework on the Indian visa application, which requires filling in an online form, printing it, and — we are not making this up — attaching your specially prepared 5x5cm pass photo with a light blue background. Then you are ready to make an online appointment. We don’t want to delay this and risk getting a late appointment slot at the embassy in the next city: the capital Tashkent.
September 9th, 2016
Sightseeing today. Although the mosque fatigue hasn’t completely worn off yet, we’re going to see the Registan and I’m looking forward to taking some photos. Our excitement is dampened by the fact that we’re asked to pay ten times as much as the Uzbek couple ahead of us in line. Yeah sure, we can afford it, but it doesn’t mix well with my Western logic. Or anyone’s Western logic for that matter: there would be an outcry if anyone in Switzerland would ask foreigners ten times as much for the same attraction, just for being a foreigner. And don’t give me the “Oh, but the locals merely get a discount” bullsh*t.
I’ve been reading about 14th century conqueror Timur/Tamerlane a bit. He has his own roundabout here in Samarkand, with a statue to match and he’s been buried nearby. To summarize, he built up a sizeable empire in Central Asia in the area that now roughly encompasses (parts of) Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus and eastern Turkey. He seems to have been quite the atrocious warlord. Word has it that he negotiated with the Turkish city of Sivas that there would be no bloodshed if they surrendered. They did and then he buried 3,000 of them alive… without bloodshed.
The reason I’m telling you this is that I’m applying ‘Timurese logic’ to the question of the invisible lady in the ticket booth at the Registan. Don’t worry, nobody is going to be buried alive. She asked “Would you like to go in?” After we heard the price and said no, we walk onto the square in front of the Registan. This is outside, so technically we’re not going in. There are some guards standing here and there, but nobody is checking any tickets. Admittedly this is childish, but: no bloodshed.
The madrassas are impressively large but not as nice as those we’ve seen in Iran. The artwork is nice, but giving a more ‘pixelated’ impression here and there. Most of the Registan has been restored to its old glory in the second half of the last century. On old photos we’ve seen the disturbing results of earthquakes and the harsh climate. We think there will be more work to do in the near future, because some of the minarets are leaning to one side and buildings are sagging.
Then it’s onward to the Bibi-Khanum Mosque and Shah-i-Zinda. The latter means “the living king” but ironically houses the mausoleum of the recently deceased president. If you think that’s inappropriate, we suggest you read up on him and form your own opinion. We’re not going in because there is a massive queue of mourners with flowers, waiting to pay tribute to their former head of state. There is no place for us in this ‘private matter’.
We’re skipping the inside of the Gur-e Amir Mausoleum as well. I guess we’re a bit saturated with all of this.
If you’re wondering who is yelling “Taxi!?” at the most inappropriate moments, I can tell you: many people, mostly younger men, hoping to earn a few So’m with the transportation of tourists to tourist destinations in their own private car in an unorganized decentralized Uber-kind-of-way.
I’m not up for more kebab and shurpa (soup) tonight. I’m even willing to risk seeing more tourists to get some European-style food. And guess what? We’ll take a taxi. Before we find one, or, actually, before one finds us, we need to find our way through some stalls on the rightmost lane of the road. I get distracted and suddenly find myself 50cm (1.5ft) lower than I expected to be. And my foot is getting really wet too.
Apparently I have stepped into a hole between the gully covers and now I am knee-deep in that gully. I get away with a big bump on my shin. You won’t see me cheering, but it could have been worse. As you’ve noticed, I’m not feeling the vibe with this town yet and I’m glad I won’t need to stay here with a broken leg or something. This experience may explain, though, why there are quite a few people walking with crutches here.
I’m annoyed. I think it has to do with my soggy and stinky right sock and shoe. And when I’m annoyed, I’m prone to take shortcuts. So we’re not going back to the B&B to change and put a wet sock in my only right shoe again. We’re going to take a taxi! Squish, squish, squish, “Taxi!”, squish, squish.
A ‘taxi’ with a slightly damp floor mat takes us to restaurant Platan, which is 10 minutes away from the town center. We never would’ve expected a popular restaurant in this slightly run-down neighborhood. There are no street lights and there are plants growing from the cracks in the pocked street surface. These haven’t bothered anyone for a while: there are stalks of more than a meter high in the middle of the street. If they wait a few more years, cars will have to wade through.
Just before we reach the restaurant, we can see two touring cars spilling their passengers all over the patio. The great and fresh food makes up for the long wait. The bill gives my Uzbek money counting skills a good work-out.
September 10th, 2016
Good news from Zürich. Mission Control managed to get our Chinese visa applications accepted. It looks like we’re going to get visas with a longer validity than the Chinese embassy in Tehran wanted to give us. Today is exactly one month before our appointment at the Kyrgyz-Chinese border in Irkeshtam, so a 30-day visa valid from tomorrow would nearly have been enough. The thing is that we’re not near an embassy, and we were discouraged to apply for Chinese visa in any of the ‘Stans by our Chinese transit organizer. According to them, nobody has succeeded in getting one here since the Xia Dynasty. You may remember that all of this was already decided when we were in Esfahan. We hope to rejoin with our (first) passports again in Kyrgyzstan.
Because WiFi internet connections in accommodations in Uzbekistan regularly have mere tectonic speeds, we use WiFi tethering through Petra’s phone, getting our data through our prepaid Beeline SIM card. This is much quicker, more stable and much better for my nerves when finalizing our Indian visa application appointments in Tashkent, next week. What we don’t realize, is that Windows Update is greedily sucking data in the background, resulting in a quick depletion of our 1200MB data credit. Some would say that it’s our fault for using Windows in the first place. We buy more data credit from a two obviously drunk and giddy teenage kiosk employees next door.
We also complete the application of the Tajik eVisas. The special permits for Gorno-Badakhshan are arranged with a simple checkbox on the visa application form. If it were only this easy everywhere…
Another delicious dinner at the same restaurant as yesterday.
September 11th, 2016
Dave and Fi
At breakfast in our B&B we meet David and Fiona of Team Travelling Tiffins, a British couple who have done extensive traveling all over the world, resulting in an impressive and varied website with great photos. Worth a visit — or two. They’ll be leaving for Tashkent as soon as they get their train tickets sorted out. We are leaving today and agree to meet again in a few days. We arrange to get a room in this B&B’s sister accommodation in the capital.
At the Outskirts of Babylon
My washed right shoe is dry, but still smells a bit like a foul drain pipe from my short excursion in the gutter. I consider it a souvenir from Samarkand. We stock up at the fabulous Registan Supermarket, saddle up, repeat the terrace tile maneuver and are on the road again.
Many gas stations are closed or have been dismantled. Fortunately, the last one before the highway to Tashkent is open. They advertise with 95 octane fuel (RON), but actually only have 91 octane. The engines of our bikes don’t have such a high compression ratio, so this should be fine. It’s not like we have much of a choice either. However, they have 80 octane fuel too, for those ‘more tolerant’ Ladas that haven’t been converted to propane.
The display of the only working pump is almost broken and very hard to read. I think the price is 3,000 So’m per liter (€0,40 or $1.80/gallon). Not running on reserve fuel yet, I know I have space for at most 17 liters, but when I’ve finished, the pump shows I have filled up with 20 liters. Interesting. The difference is not worth taking Uzbek language classes for and then complain about it. When paying what I think must be 60,000 So’m, I notice some reluctance in the attendant’s reaction. I recount and give him the money again. Without writing down the amount he expected, he grumpily accepts the money, walks away and turns the pump off. Ehm… Mr. Attendant, there is someone else who’d like to fill up. He refuses to turn the pump back on.
The attendant makes a universal gesture for finito, basta, or perhaps that he’s on his break, or maybe that the pump is empty, or that he’s now going to try on his prom gown — we don’t know. We counter with the universal gesture of Come on, don’t be such a party pooper! and a matching facial expressions. We think our gesturing doesn’t mean We think that pink would look good on you, because he immediately turns the pump back on.
Petra has a similar experience as I did by filling up with an impossible 16 liters. Because the experiment is repeatable, we can see a Nobel Prize for the practical compression of liquids coming to Samarkand soon.
Weak at the Knees
The road to Tashkent is better than expected – the ride otherwise uneventful. There are friendly drivers and car passengers waving and giving us thumbs up. We also see several donkey carts. No opposable thumbs up from the donkeys. We get a glimpse of the Kazakh plains in the west and see the mountains of what must be Tajikistan in the east.
The traffic in Tashkent is a lot busier than we’re used to. The mild chaos reminds us of Tehran a bit, except that it’s still less dense and the drivers Tehran were more attentive. We reach our B&B without problems, though, and get to park our motorcycles in the courtyard again, between drying white bed linen. If the wind would pick up, we can guarantee that they won’t be white anymore. On the plus side, the motorcycles would be a bit cleaner.
After the unpacking, showering and resting routine, it’s time for dinner. There seems to be a small joint at walking distance. Communicating with the staff proves difficult. We even try the small picture book that we brought along. After ordering, we’re not surprised if the waitress would turn up with a live lamb. We’re pretty close though: shurpa with what looks like a well cooked entire lamb’s knee – one each!