"Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrghyzstan"


Dobry 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.

The people 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....

We're 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.

President 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.

Other 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.

The border 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.

We 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 luggage space.

In Tashkent, 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....

After 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.

We finally 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.

From 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.

The last 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...

We'll be back

Ellen & Manou