Archive for the ‘Uzbekistan’ Category

Just let us leave, pleeeease!!

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

(Emily) So, let’s recap. We were unable to exit into Kyrgyzstan on Thursday when we found the borders were unexpectedly closed; we had to re-trace the 350km back to Tashkent on Friday morning; our Uzbek visa ran out on Friday and we had to seek help with the UK embassy; we were told not to leave the city of Tashkent; we spent the weekend holed up at the hotel, me with a very dodgy stomach; we applied for our Kazak visas as soon as we could and picked them up on Tuesday evening….

Wednesday arrived and we thought, yes, finally can get back on the road. First we had to go back to the British embassy to find out from Maksim whether the official letter we’d got would be enough to make up for our expired visa when we came to exit the country. Apparently not. Cue a farcical four hours at the airport in an tiny unmarked office (no way we’d have found it without Maksim’s help) where they deal with visa extensions. Mr Jobsworth, flanked by a pre-teen security guard and someone else whose role we never established, made us sweat it out while he tutted, shook his head, made numerous calls on his four telephones and was generally about as unhelpful as it gets. It was hard to take his official role seriously as he had Russian MTV on in the background and the adolescent gun-toter kept yawning theatrically and laying his head on the table. But of course, we were in a sticky situation and had to kow-tow to his power, as did Maksim, while all we really wanted to do was shake him by the shoulders and say ‘Just let us leave, damnit!!!’ Finally, after having to go off to a bank in town and pay $40 each (grrr) and find somewhere to photocopy our documents (not a facility they have at the airport of course…) we were given a new visa. Not before writing down something to the effect of ‘I acknowledge that I must leave the country by the 12th August (the next day) and will under no circumstances be permitted to apply for another extension.’ (Couldn’t help wondering what would happen should the need arise – mechanical problems for example. Perhaps we’d be thrown in jail…?!)

And so it was that we weren’t packed up and ready to go until 4pm. Lucky the border to Kazakhstan was only about 20km north of Tashkent… James managed to navigate us out of the city (no regretful glances back to this place) and we were on our way. At a police checkpoint we stopped to clarify that we were heading the right way to the border crossing, only to receive the old ‘x with the arms’ response – closed. No worries though, there’s another one about the same distance away at Keles… Okaaay. Slight change in direction and we were off again. Some confusion in actually getting to Keles (as usual, they don’t sign the border from the main road – a simple ‘Kazakhstan this way’ really wouldn’t go amiss) and after a few kilometres of pretty bad road, we were there. It was busy, and definitely open. Phew. The guards stopped to look at our passports, always a good sign, but then told us cheerfully that this border was for pedestrians only – we’d have to go to Chinoz, about 60km south-west of Tashkent, back towards Samarkand. WTF!! All we wanted to do was leave!! James was getting seriously hacked off by this stage (well, so was I but I’m thinking of the stream of expletives coming through my earpiece!) and we were seriously worried that even if we got to Chinoz while it was still light, we’d find that this one was a no-go too; our recent experience had told us that the police/border guards don’t always know what they’re talking about when it comes to other borders.

Anyway, we cursed and moaned our way towards Chinoz, and luckily happened to stop on the main road to ask someone where the border was just as we’d passed the (unmarked) turning – cue a bit of riding the wrong way back up the highway, oops. We were flagged down at what we thought was the border control post. Turns out it was just a police checkpoint where a crooked cop did the old ‘vodka breath’ routine on us, trying to get some dollars. Pretty fed up at this point, we didn’t play ball; ‘We have not been drinking and no we won’t give you any money.’ He got the gist and waved us on with a laugh. Yeah, funny. Another couple of kilometres and we reached the actual border, only to be told by a waiting trucker that it was closed (naturally) and would re-open at seven in the morning. James went up to check with a soldier at the gate that come the morning we would actually be allowed entry at this one and, to our delight, he beckoned us through. (It’s all a bit wrong but foreigners definitely get preferential treatment.) The ironic thing is that after all the palaver of filling in numerous customs forms when we entered Uzbekistan, jumping through hoops to obtain a visa and extension, and riding round half the country to find an exit point, getting back out was a breeze! They didn’t want to check our bags, barely glanced at the passports when stamping us out (we had to show them that there was a second visa) and one of the guards even gave me something to take for my stomach! Result! Goodbye Uzbekistan, and frankly, good riddance!!

Even though once through into no-man’s land we discovered that the Kazakhstan side was already closed, it didn’t dampen our spirits – who cared, we were out of Uzbekistan and that was the main thing! We shared some melon with three Spanish guys in a Kia hatchback who are doing the Mongol Rally and pitched our tent in the road as darkness fell. With both borders either side of us now closed, we were assured perfect security and we settled down to watch ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ (awesome!) while the stars twinkled above us and crickets chirruped in the adjacent field. For the first time in a few days we were very happy bunnies!

Tashkent Take 2… and this time we’re not legal!

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

(Emily) After a hot and sweaty night on the floor, James sat bolt upright at five to five – ‘It’s light!’ – and was stuffing his silk liner into its bag before I’d even got my bearings! We left the petrol station by half five, determined to reach the Kazakhstan embassy in Tashkent for opening time and hoping against hope that there would be a one-day visa application process (not common but we’d heard Tajikistan offered this service). Two things were playing heavily on our minds: the fact that our Uzbekistan visa ran out that very day and our rather serious shortage of fuel. When we’d filled up in Tashkent, it was to get us across the border and into Kyrgyzstan (where petrol is freely available again) but now we were having to turn back and re-do the 350km having already emptied our jerry cans into the tanks. We were all too aware that the return leg would take us once more through the mountain pass… to run out up there would not be funny. We hurtled along at quite a pace and, by not allowing ourselves any drink or toilet stops, made it to the pass in record time. Just as we pulled up to the military checkpoint at the entrance to the pass, the petrol lights came on. (Incidentally, the guards, who recognised us from the day before, seemed very shocked that we’d not been allowed through at the border – they too were under the impression it was open…) Luckily, once through the two tunnels at the top, the majority of the pass was on the other side – all downhill. I think this was the only thing that slowed our fuel consumption enough to get us to the first major town and, thank god as James was up to 77km on his reserve, an open petrol station. Inevitably, the queues were stretching back on the road but everyone insisted that we go straight to the front (wouldn’t see that happening in the UK!!) and we were soon tanked up and doing the last 100km run in to Tashkent.

We approached the city at 9.30am – not bad. However, as we’d feared, trying to find the Kazakhstan embassy was a nightmare. It really is the hardest city to navigate and even James’ usual bloodhound skills were thwarted. Amazingly enough, after half an hour of riding round aimlessly, a guy in a passing car slowed down and waved to us – it was Said, the guy who’d shown us to the B&B on our first evening in the city!!! He must be our guardian angel! Once again, he came to the rescue and led us to the embassy (after a small glitch of first taking us to the Kazakhstan cinema – slight loss in translation there!) It was 10.30 am by this stage and it just remained to be seen whether they would be able to issue us a visa on a same-day basis… But it was closed. Nooooooo! This surely was not happening!!! ‘Come back Monday and you might be able to get a visa for Tuesday’, was all we were told. But our visa runs out today and… oh, you really don’t care do you?

There was only one option left – go to the UK embassy (thankfully round the corner on the map though even then it took 15 minutes to find) and plead for help. Annoyingly, when we got there are half eleven we were told that consul was dealing with foreign visa applications and wouldn’t be in a position to see UK nationals until 2pm. More teeth gritting and we settled down on the grass by the gate to camp it out. The guards tried to tell us we couldn’t sit there but we were in no mood for it. Our luck finally changed, however, and someone came out to get us at about twelve (I think the vigil on the lawn helped!) and, to be fair, we were then helped out a great deal. Maksim (Uzbek but good English) took the details of our plight and started making some calls. Turns out the UK embassy, the Kyrg embassy and the Ministry of Internal Affairs itself all thought the borders were open – it took some convincing that we’d seen it with our own eyes and it was three hours before the MIA actually agreed this was the case. Ludicrous! Evidently, it was quite a problem that our Uzbek visa was about to expire (I’d naively assumed that we could just get a extension no probs…) and Maksim spent the afternoon driving us round to various police stations trying to get someone official to write a letter that would pardon us due to the circumstances of the Kyrg border being closed. It took a while; seems no one wanted to take on the responsibility of letting us off. Maksim said the embassy never usually went out personally to help clients like this so I think our situation must have been pretty serious! It wasn’t until half six that we were shown to a hotel and told to keep the hard-gained official letter with us at all times. We were also expressly told not to leave the city limits. Oooh, under house arrest, exciting!! Taking our boots off that evening was the best feeling ever!!

On the bright side, seeing as we couldn’t apply for our Kazak visa until Monday, we now had a few enforced rest days that would allow us to tinker with the bikes and re-charge our own batteries. On Saturday, James contacted Denis (of Steel Scorpions fame) to see if he knew any bike shops where he could get some bolts and other bits and pieces. Turned out Denis also needed some parts so they went off in the afternoon to what James tells me was basically a tin shack where Denis’ mate was running a workshop (that’s about it in the way of bike mechanics in Tashkent!) However, he got what he needed, and also got an invite to the VM bar that evening –we’d already heard about this place on the HUBB as a recommended place for bikers and it turns out it belongs to Yuri, VP of the Steel Scorpions who we’d met with Denis the other day! We were both still knackered and intended to go for one or two drinks only, but one thing led to another (a few beers, a trip out in Yuri’s car to get kebabs across the other side of town, live music back at the bar…) and it turned into quite a late night! It was a cool place; a very US bar vibe with snowboarding and other adventure sports shown on a big screen and decent music (even Springsteen, Dad!) The band were really pretty awesome and played a mixture of Russian and English songs, the most poignant of which being Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’ , a sentiment that Yuri and Denis and the rest of their Russian heritage friends long for; the crowd went wild for that one! We also managed to change a stack load more money on the black market (far better rates!) in order to be able to pay for our hotel in Sum and so when we left, James looked like he was wearing jodhpurs such was the amount of notes stuffed into his pockets!

Other than that, our time in Tashkent has been very quiet. The hotel, a two-star delight, serves its purpose but lacks the genial atmosphere of a hostel and most of the other guests are vulgar Russians who spend the day drinking vodka by the pool in very tight speedos! We haven’t even been in the pool – it’s too hot to go outside before about 7pm (I don’t know how you managed it in Egypt, Joanna!) – so have spent most of the time lounging in the comfort of air-con, doing the diary and reading. We’ve even watched a couple of films on our laptop (‘Australia’ – one of the worst films ever made, and ‘District 9’ – odd but good). I’m recovering from a pretty horrendous bout of ‘Delhi-belly’ or rather, ‘Uzbek belly’; must have been something we ate at the cheapo café up the road on Sunday evening. I was so bad that I couldn’t accompany James to the Kazakhstan embassy yesterday morning. (Turns out this was probably just as well – apparently it was a complete bun fight and it took three hours to be seen and even then only after a significant bit of blagging on his part… and there was no toilet!) On the plus side, the four days rest has seen my ankle return to pretty much normal size for the first time since the accident : )

This afternoon we took a taxi pick up our Kazak visas at the embassy. I say ‘taxi’ but actually in Central Asia it’s customary to just flag down any old passing car and hop in! (The ‘know your killer’ ad campaign clearly hasn’t made it over here – there are never any belts in the back…) We got there in good time – 4.30 for a 5pm opening – but it was gone six before we had the goods. Still, at $20 each at least the enforced detour hasn’t cost too much. That said, tomorrow morning we may well have to go to the airport to get our Uzbek ones officially extended – why it can only be done at the airport, and why we had to wait until now to do it, I really don’t know – and this might prove costly. I think it’s a bit of a cheek to charge us when we made every effort to leave the country but I doubt they’ll see it that way. Suffice to say, we will be mighty relieved when we’re back on the road tomorrow and finally out of Uzbekistan. Touch wood.

Access Denied

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

(Emily) The route to get from Samarkand to Tashkent looked relatively straightforward on the map, but for one point where the main road takes you into Kazakhstan for about 30km – seeing as we didn’t have visas for that country, we had to take a detour. Quite the detour it turned out to be! We knew something wasn’t right when we ended up on farm tracks and roads under construction (Donato, who’d done the route himself, had said the roads were pretty good) but all we could do was keep asking ‘Tashkent?’ and we were always told, ‘Yes, that way.’ At one point, a couple of melon sellers showed us where we were on the map and we’d gone way off track, having missed the original turning to get us back on the main road. Grrr! (They did give us a melon which was a nice consolation!) As a result, we didn’t get to the city until 5pm, instead of the anticipated 2pm, meaning that we’d missed the chance to go and ask about border crossing at the Kyrgyzstan embassy. Very frustrating!

Tashkent is a massive city and the roads are really busy – this, together with the fact there are no street names anywhere, meant that the chances of finding the B&B we’d been given a flyer for were remote. We did actually have a map of the centre (part of our Central Asia map, Tashkent being a capital) and we tried asking a few people where we were but no one seemed to know!! Luckily, one guy who stopped to talk to us knew where the bazaar near the B&B was and offered to guide us in his car – what a star! It was a hairy ride on multiple lane roads with people weaving in and out all over the place but finally we pulled into a quiet leafy avenue and the target accommodation: Said, the legend, had got us there! We were so relieved – it had been a long day, especially for James who was understating how crappy he felt with bad stomach and flu. All we wanted was a shower and to sleep…. Not to be; the bloody place was full. Noooooooo!

We stood by our bikes for a good ten minutes, not quite knowing what to do. We hadn’t passed any other hotels, and the few shown on the map (not that we could follow it anyway) were all four star. We even asked to put our tent up in the courtyard of the B&B but this was a no go. Before we lost the will to live completely, I said we’d just have to go back out into the mélé and ride until we saw somewhere; after all, a capital city had to have its share of hotels. So back on the bikes and back into the traffic. The first hotel we came upon was a condemned building – not a good start. After twenty minutes we pulled in to the side of the road by a metro entrance to try and get our bearings when a good samaritan on foot stopped to offer assistance. Denis, it turns out, was part of the local biker club; The Steel Scorpions. (This was quite a surprise to us seeing as we’d seen no local motorbikes in Uzbekistan whatsoever. That said, his club is only ten strong so I guess it’s a minority hobby!) A fellow biker, he was keen to help us out and after a while managed to get hold of the club’s vice-president, Yuri, who came to show us to a hotel they knew in his car. What lovely people! So it was for the second time that we were back on the roads, trying to keep up with a guiding vehicle (not so difficult this time: a twenty year old Lada 4×4!) They showed us to a place which was cheap without being crap, and even had parking. Result. Except it was… full. Nooooooo!

Denis and Yuri were a bit stumped at this point, trying to think of somewhere else we could stay. While we were all pondering, another friendly motorist stopped by having spotted our GB plates. Muzaffar was very excited to have the opportunity to chat with some English people – he’d studied in London for two years previously – and promptly invited us to stay at his house!! Four complete strangers in the past hour and a half showing us unbelievable kindness, so humbling. We jumped at his offer and, having swapped details with the Steel Scorpions, were soon following our third car through the city. Muzaffar lives about 15km out of town and, I have to admit, when we first pulled into his estate of seven or eight blocks of flats, bike security alarm bells were ringing in my head. However, he came up trumps and had called ahead to a friend to arrange a garage spot for us. Result! What followed was an absolutely delightful evening in his home. He and his wife and baby (both visiting her mother at the time) live in the apartment with his parents; Jamila, Muzaffar’s mother, put on a tasty spread of soup, bread, melon and plov (traditional rice dish) until we were full to bursting. We had a great chat with Muzaffar and his friend, Bobir, about the relative merits/disadvantages of living in the UK and some of the frustrating and restrictive laws in Uzbekistan (for example, vehicle tax is an extortionate 120% of the vehicle’s value). They even helped us out on the border crossing front – Bobir had a friend who was a policeman in Osh so they rang up to ask about whether it was possible to cross there at the moment. ‘Yes, definitely’, came the response – such a relief. When we finally put head to pillow (new sheets brought out of their packaging in our honour) we went out like lights.

Muzaffar’s good deeds continued in the morning when he led us to a petrol station so we could fill up for our final run out of the country and he then stayed with us until he was satisfied we were heading out of town on the right road. We owe you, Muzaffar!! We figured we’d head to the border at Uchkurg’on as it was closer than Osh, reasoning that if Osh was open (that’s where all the recent troubles have centred) then this one should be too. Worst case scenario we could always continue down to Osh if necessary. The roads were pretty good on the whole but the 340km down the disputed and heavily militarised Ferghana Valley still took about six hours due to a mountain pass that slowed down our progress and numerous stops to chat with curious locals. Once we reached Namangan, the main town before the border, we had to ask for directions so many times – you’d think something as key as a border crossing would be signed, but no – and we finally rocked up about 5pm. The gates were very firmly closed. Nooooooo!

Hope rose when we saw that at least the post was being manned. James jumped off the bike to go and speak with the soldiers on guard duty and eventually a female sergeant who could speak a little English came out. The upshot of it was that the border was most definitely closed. As was the post at Osh. I heard the words ‘…go back to Tashkent…’ more than once and sat down with my head in my hands in despair. James was applying a more positive approach, trying to appeal to their humanity. He explained that we’d been told by a member of the police, and several other people on our journey down, that the borders were open and that we were in a bind as our Uzbek visas ran out the following day. Before she got into a passing minibus, presumably to go home, the sergeant said that a group of officers were expected that evening at that maybe if we waited to speak to them, they might be able to do something. I took this to be very encouraging and began inspecting the surrounding area for somewhere to pitch our tent – they told us that the border closed at 6pm (er, how could it close if it was already closed?) so even if the officers pulled some strings, we still wouldn’t be able to get through until the following day. However, at half past six the soldiers passed James the phone – it was the female sergeant again. There was nothing that could be done; the border was closed and crossing into Kyrgyzstan was ‘impossible’, end of. Nooooooo!

Such was the lateness of the hour and we were so exhausted and defeated, I was sure that James would suggest camping nearby and then heading back to Tashkent in the morning (the thought of retracing the 350km was sickening) but he was determined that we should at least try and get a few km under our belt before it got dark. Urgh. So, back on the bikes with one last lingering look at the gates, we headed back in the opposite direction. In retrospect, it was a sensible decision – we managed to get a good 70km away and were back on the other side of Namangan before it got too dark to ride. Seeing as all the petrol stations were closed up, we thought perhaps one of them might prove to be a good shelter for the night so we pulled in to an abandoned garage, quietly opening the gates and rolling in with our engines off as not to attract attention. Unfortunately, there was someone there manning the office. Ah. ‘Er, no benizine, right….?’ we spluttered, trying to act like we thought there might be petrol. He was a friendly guy so we thought we’d try our luck – out came the ‘point it’ book and we gestured that we might put our tent up. He acquiesced and I was so relieved – all I wanted was to sleep (and hopefully wake up to find it was all a dream). However, Nassim had other ideas and had soon called in a couple of his friends. ‘Great, now we’re going to be gawped at all night,’ I said through gritted teeth (was somewhat having a sense of humour failure at this point…) After establishing that we hadn’t eaten (I tried to assure him that our manky melon was quite enough), Nassim put us in his car and so began a magical mystery tour of his town – we couldn’t communicate so could only speculate at what he was doing at the various stops… In the end, he pulled in to what turned out to be his own house where his wife and mother quickly busied themselves with laying on a meal for us! Her plov was the best we’d tasted and we were happily tucking in, enjoying exchanging smiles with his gorgeous three year old daughter, when suddenly it was time to go! Heads spinning, we got back in the car and, after another mysterious stop, found ourselves back at the petrol station. Here, Nassim and his friend invited us in to the back room and we were given chai and shashlik (that’s what he’d picked up on the way). All very strange but we weren’t complaining!!

After a while, we were so desperately tired, and in severe danger of being killed by their kindness, so the hinting/yawning tactics began. At one point, Nassim’s friend started looking through the pictures on our camera. ‘Crap, there are nearly one thousand photos on there…’ I muttered to James. Thankfully, they must have picked up on our exhaustion, and as we made our way to the bikes to get the tent set up, they stopped us and gestured that we could sleep in one of the back rooms. Oh the relief! Ten minutes later, our roll mats were down and so were we. What a day!!

Bukhara & Samarkand – legends of the Silk Road

Monday, August 9th, 2010

No sooner had we rocked up at Labi Hauz, the centre point of Bukhara that comprises of a historic pool (one of two that remain of the many that served the town’s washing, drinking and laundry needs in the 17th century), than we were approached with an accommodation offer. Having agreed earlier that we would jump at the first place with a shower for under $10, we grinned at each other upon hearing the words ‘Air con… lovely breakfast… quiet location… off road parking… ten dollars’!! Never had finding a place to stay been so easy! (Not so easy getting the bikes into the courtyard but James managed – see pics…) Bukhara turned out to be an absolutely delightful town – dusty yet beautiful, bustling but chilled out – we couldn’t ask for more and we settled in for a much needed 24 hours off the bikes.

Our B&B was a cute little family run place, centred around a cool shady courtyard, and we were ushered to sit down for melon, chai and biscuits as soon as we crossed the threshold. The owner’s son, Abdul, spoke great English and was able to advise us on where to find petrol the next day – we had passed many abandoned gas stations in the 60km from the border to Bukhara, and the one place open for business was sporting a queue of at least 100 cars. We definitely needed insider knowledge on that one! He also arranged for us to change some money on the black market at a rate of 2200 sum for your dollar, as opposed to the 1600 sum offered at the official rate!! The currency here is ridiculous – the biggest note is 1000 sum (about 30p!) so you are forced to carry round great wads of cash just for a trip to the minimart. (Makes you feel pretty flash though!!) There was a lovely French couple, Edward and Marie-Sophie (so Parisian, so chic), staying at the B&B who had come Uzbekistan for a holiday – how cool is that?! I hadn’t even heard of the country before I realised our trip would take us through it, and they’re choosing it over Italy or Spain for the destination of their precious time off work. Risky; I like it!!

The next morning, after a fantastic, and huge, breakfast comprising of chai, fresh figs and grapes, bread, muffins, fried egg, sausage, and a strange concoction of what looked like curd-like cheese that you add milky yoghurt and sugar to (absolutely delicious, thank goodness!!), we headed out for a leisurely wander around the historic city. The place is filled with stunning mosques and madrassahs (Islamic schools) and with the perfect blue sky as a backdrop to the intricate tiled facades, James was in photographer heaven!! One key monument is the minaret of the Kaylon mosque; a launching pad for criminals back in the day. Legend has it that the only person to have survived the fall was a young, recently married woman. Her last request to the executioner was to wear the dress her husband bought her for her wedding day. Not knowing which was the favoured garment, her servant brought all forty dresses from her wardrobe which the lady subsequently donned one by one before being pushed to her death. The padding cushioned her fall and she survived, prompting the impressed emir to spare her life. It is now a Bukharan tradition that a man must give his bride forty dresses on their wedding day – just in case! (Sounds like an awesome tradition to me!!)

When the time came, we really didn’t want to leave Bukhara and could have easily spent another few days chilling under the ancient mulberry trees surrounding Labi Hauz and chatting with the friendly locals and travellers – we even bumped into Michael and Noemi again, the French cyclists from the Caspian ferry, who had caught up with us having crossed Turkmenistan by train! However, we were all too aware that our Uzbekistan visa would expire on the 6th and it was already Monday 2nd (the visa was actually issued for 30 days but seeing as we got in Istanbul before the accident, we had used most of it up before we even got into the country) so we reluctantly packed up, and with help from Edward and Marie-Sophie, managed to get the bikes back into the street and away. Goodbye Bukhara, we’ll be back one day…

We headed straight for the one petrol station that was open for business (thanks Abdul!) and, although we were pretty hot and sticky after a 30 minute wait in the queue, we happily left with full tanks plus 15 litres in jerry cans. (The petrol crisis is an issue long-suffered by the Uzbeks – apparently there is plenty of oil in the country but that’s the problem; the government want to hoard it until prices go up so they can make a hefty profit…. Nice.) The ride to Samarkand was fairly unmemorable (that’s a good thing!) save for getting mobbed by curious locals whenever we stopped. After the usual married-children-age trio, questions always turn to the bikes: make, top speed and, of course, how much? James always plays this one down, not wanting to a) rub peoples’ noses in it or b) make the bikes appear more tempting than they already are (not that we’ve ever felt even the slightest bit threatened; people everywhere so far have been nothing but genuine). We rolled into Samarkand at about half past four, having seen zero petrol available since leaving Bukhara; the Malaysian bikers hadn’t been exaggerating. (Incidentally though, we were having absolutely no trouble whatsoever with the police – at most they would pull us over just to gawp at the bikes then wave us on again.)

A guy in Bukhara had recommended Bahodir’s B&B in Samarkand. We weren’t sure where it was but once we saw the domes and minarets of the mosques in the Registan in the distance, we knew to aim for that to get to the centre. Two helpful teenagers led us to the hostel, just round the corner from where we came to a stop, and the garage doors magically opened as we approached. Result! Uzbekistan so far had the record for the quickest transition between arrival and accommodation; normally we’re riding around for at least an hour! We’d just finished getting the kit of the bikes (another bonus being that our room was the first door off the hall where the bikes were parked) when we heard the rumble of another bike. In swept a badass on a Harley, who promptly took off his helmet and asked, ‘James?’ WTF?! Turns out it was Donato, one of the bikers we hooked up with on the internet months back to form a group to cross into China (making the whole thing a lot cheaper) – what are the chances! (Well, quite high I suppose seeing as we were on similar routes and it was the only backpackers in town… still, don’t ruin the moment!) Donato, and his travelling companion, Stefano, has been having a few difficulties obtaining their Pakistan visas so although for most of the trip they’d been ahead of us, this had caused some delay. Now with girlfriends in tow, who’d flown in from Italy to Tashkent, their plan was to get that sorted before heading to Kazakzstan and then our meeting point of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It was great to catch up with Donato and Roberta (Stefano was due the next day) over the communal dinner at the hostel – he’s done a heck of a lot of overlanding, most of it on his Harley – and I was reassured by his bike thinking that hopefully wherever a Harley could go, me on my XT could go. Fingers crossed!!

We didn’t get out much in Samarkand. After Bukhara, it seemed quite big and we were both recovering from slightly dodgy tummies… We did pay a small bribe to be allowed up one of the minarets in the registan (the main square around which two madrassahs and a mosque were situated) at sunset. The guards were ostensibly there to prevent anyone from coming in to the square which was a ticketed affair during the day, but actually they were leading tourists up the tower to make a few dollars on the sly. Brilliant! The tower was not designed to be a tourist attraction – uneven worn away steps led up to a derelict ‘worksite’ half way up and then narrow spiral steps up to the top. The guard indicated only five people allowed at a time, but in actual fact the ‘viewpoint’ was a small hole out of which one person could poke their head!! After awkwardly negotiating our way past people on the stairwell, we each took it in turns to pop up like meercats and take a few quick photos. It did indeed provide the best view of the city but was not for the faint-hearted! Jackson, you’d be proud of this climbing escapade!

Our two main priorities in Samarkand were to find out where we could get enough petrol to make it to the capital, Tashkent (the only place where it is apparently readily available) and to investigate whether we could cross into Kyrgyzstan at Uchkurgon; this is a border to the north of the more unstable crossing at Osh. Donato came up trumps on the petrol front, assuring us that we’d be able to go with him to a black market supplier but as for our border options, we were a bit stumped. The ‘internet café’ down the road was an absolute joke – after twenty minutes we still hadn’t managed to open a page and the sullen git behind the counter still had the cheek to charge us (James refused to pay, good man) – and the word among the travellers that we chatted to at the hostel was that all borders were closed. This worrying news prompted us to find somewhere with a better internet connection – an endeavour that took us all over town but we did eventually locate somewhere decent. Fat lot of good though because trying to find a definitive answer is nigh on impossible. Several government advisory pages were saying non-essential travel was unadvisable but not whether the borders were actually open or not. The closest we got to an answer was discovering from other travellers’ blogs that people had indeed been going through Osh and Uchkurgon as recently as two weeks ago. We were encouraged by this but decided that, on a cautionary note, we would head to Tashkent the next day and actually enter the city proper (something we’d wanted to avoid) so that we could find out for once and for all from the Kyrgyzstan embassy itself. (Also, in the worst case scenario, we would be able to apply for a Kazakhstan visa in Tashkent and enter Kryg that way instead… keeping up with this?)

Poor James was not doing too good – the symptoms of flu had crept in alongside the bad stomach and what he really needed was a few more days of rest. However, with the Uzbek visa expiry fast approaching, we had to hit the road again on Wednesday morning. Donato, together with a local guy riding pillion to give directions, headed up a fuel run and then we were off. ‘I just can’t wait until we’re in Kyrgyzstan tomorrow and all the time pressures are off us…’ said James into my ear piece. I couldn’t respond (our comms system has been a one way affair since the middle of Turkey) and there was no wood around to touch. Hmmm…..

Greetings from the other side!

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

(James) Hi everyone, thanks for all the lovely messages! Just a very quick update to let you that we’ve made it across the Caspian (eventually), the Turkmenistan borders (unbelievable!) and the Karakum desert (roasting!) and are now having a restful 36 hours in the historic town of Bukhara in Uzbekistan to recharge our batteries. We’ve had an interesting and eventful week and will submit our ‘report’ when we get a chance! Just now we’re enjoying the luxuries of chilled water, showers and the comparatively cool temperatures (40 degrees!) of Bukhara! Anyway, just wanted to let you know that we’re alive! I’m going for a beer!