Uzbekistan and Kyrghyzstan"
den, as they tend to say here. Communication is becoming increasingly
difficult, since our Russian is rather tentative, and English
has not yet penetrated these parts. Add to that an unreadable
Alphabet, lots of people asking lots of questions in lots
of different unknown local languages, and you have a wonderful
linguistic shashlyk (or goulash). The fact that we do speak
some Czech helps a bit as far as communication in Russian
goes, but Turkmen, Uzbek and Kyrghyz, all of them Turkic languages,
tend to result in politely vacant stares on our side.
here have been very friendly and very curious about the bikes
(sometimes almost aggressively so), smiles illuminated with
gold teeth are flashed readily, local wine and food is apt
for consumption but not much more, the roads are manageable,
signposts either non-existent or unreadable, checkpoints are
legion and the weather has been on the toasty side. Read more....
now in Almaty, Kazakhstan, enjoying some luxuries (such as
Internet, reliable warm showers and pizza), difficult to find
in most parts of Central Asia ! other than capital cities.
Our arrival in Central Asia was not entirely pleasant: We
did consider ourselves somewhat hardened in terms of difficult
customs procedures, but we have to admit that Turkmenistan
was a bit of a surprise. Not only are they inhumanly slow
in filling out elaborate customs documentation (four hours),
while letting you bake in the sun, they also have an admirable
system to extract money from the unsuspecting motorist : Per
person $15 passport fee, $20 compulsory insura! nce, $10 handling
and best of all $48 gas price compensation (Gas is very cheap
in Turkmenistan, $0,02 per liter, and they don't see why tourists
should benefit from that). No point in arguing, we tried very
hard, it is all official, signed by the President himself.
Saparmurat Niyazov, modestly called Turkmenbashi, "Head
of all Turkmen" was another surprise. We thought that
kind of absolutely ridiculous personality cult died with the
Soviet Union but it is still alive and well : His face is
grinning down from thousands of posters all over the country,
Ashgabat, the capital, is filled with monuments to his glory
(including one golden statue of himself that revolves in order
to greet the rising and setting of the sun). The road leading
from his residence palace to his office palace is closed for
an hour twice a day, when His Corpulence is being hauled to
work and back. It's all quite obscene. At the time of writing
this, we heard of another of his brilliant initiatives: Any
foreigner that wishes to marry a Turkmen has to pay $50,000
to the government. So much for a cheap date.
than President Fathead and the Sunday market in Ashgabat,
there was not much to see in Turkmenistan. The 1200 km from
the Caspian Sea to the Uzbek border took us over bumpy roads
through mostly unchanging flat desert and nondescript towns.
crossing into Uzbekistan was uneventful and quick, followed
by a short ride to Bukhara, one of the Central Asian jewels
in terms of architecture and history. Central Asia has an
amazingly complex history filled with mythical names such
as Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane. It appears that more or less
every city in the region can boast about being razed to the
ground by at least one of the friendly characters above.
spent a couple of days in Bukhara sightseeing, shopping and
taking in the very relaxed atmosphere. Although there are
pretty good tourist facilities in town, tourists were pleasantly
few. We rode on to Samarkand, city of Tamerlane the Earth-Shaker,
filled with splendid monuments and a bustling bazaar, where
we continued to imbibe ourselves with culture and tried to
rationalize buying souvenirs without having any remaining
we happened upon a rather ridiculous currency exchange scheme
: As we tried to indulge ourselves in an Italian restaurant
located in a major hotel, we were shocked by the grotesque
prices quoted in dollars. Upon inquiry, the waiter told us
that they would gladly accept payment in local currency, at
the government rate of 340 sum to the dollar. All we needed
to do was go down to the lobby, and exchange our dollars at
an office of the Bank of Uzbekistan, at the rate of 880 sum
to the dollar, effectively more than halving our total bill.
Discrepancies between official and black market rates are
easy to understan! d, but discrepancies between the official
government rate and the national bank rate seem difficult
to justify. Maybe the trick works with people on expense accounts....
a short stop in Bishkek, capital of Kyrghyzstan, we rode to
Koshgor, on the road to the famous Torugart border crossing
into China. Friendly locals organized bed and breakfast for
us, as well as a stay with a family of shepherds in the mountains
for the next couple of days. Getting there wasn't easy, the
road being no more than a barely recognizable stony jeep track.
The shepherds along the way, that had just moved into the
mountains and set up their summer residence yurts, greeted
us enthusiastically, inviting us to share their national drink,
fermented mare's milk. One sip was enough. Never aga! in.
found our assigned family, set up our tent and spent a rather
lazy couple of days enjoying the scenery and eating and chatting
with our hosts in broken Russian. The only exercise consisted
in a horse ride up to a tiny lake higher up, which was pleasant,
except for the fact that my horse was so skinny that it felt
like our roles should be reversed. The next day, as we were
about to leave, we found out that someone had played around
with Ellen's electric handgrips, resulting in a completely
empty battery. The terrain was too rough to jumpstart the
bike and recharge the battery, so after much discussion, we
requisitioned a jeep and trucked it down the mountain to Koshgor
where we were able to fix the problem.
there, we rode around Lake Issyk-Kul, second largest alpine
lake in the world (after iticaca in Peru), where w! e met
Vladimir "call me Bob", proud owner of a Yamaha
and a liquor business. He invited us to do all kinds of mischief
(related to both his Yamaha and his business) which we had
to regretfully decline, as we had to get to Almaty to catch
our flight to China.
stretch from Kyrghyzstan to Almaty was once more pretty rough,
leading us through great scenery within 90 km of the Chinese
border into Kazakhstan, where we were very well received by
Matt Towse, fellow biker, whom we had met over the Internet
while planning the trip. The bikes are going to take a well
deserved rest here, while we will fly into China for a week.
The fun continues...