Archive for August, 2010

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!!

Photos

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Having a few technical glitches with the local internet so can’t put up links for the new Turkmen/Uzbek galleries. They are there though – just go to the homepage in smugmug via any of the other country galleries : )

In the meantime, we’ve given you plenty of new reading material!!

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…..

Escape from Turkmenistan

Monday, August 9th, 2010

(Emily) We weren’t exactly rested after the night’s events and being woken up at the crack of dawn by a tractor didn’t really help… still, it was just as well as we were keen to cross into Uzbekistan that day and although our target town of Bukhara was less than 400km away, you just never know what the roads are going to be like. Best to prepare for the worst!! Thankfully, the road to Turkmenabad was pretty good and for long stretches we were able to maintain a steady 85-90 kmph (that’s fast for us, Jackson!!) We were back in desert lands again and this time the winds were pretty strong, blowing a constant stream of sand across the road and our faces. Not for the first time, we were reminded how fortuitous it was that we’d bought some goggles in Istanbul; sunglasses just wouldn’t cut it in these conditions. We saw the odd desert squirrel scampering about in the dunes and at one point a massive bloody great eagle took off from right next to where James was passing! His yelp of shock was quite comedy coming through the headsets but I don’t think I’d have found it so funny had it been me – the thing was huge!

By midday we’d made it to Farrap, the border town. When we were stopped at an official looking checkpoint, we assumed this was the start of the exit process and were asked to hand over first $20 then another $18. (You never quite know what these things are for, but as long as locals are given the same treatment and receipts are issued, we assume it’s legit.) The two guys in the office launched into the usual line of enquiry: ‘Married?’ (Yes – cue action of the two index fingers joined alongside each other to symbolise this); ‘Children?’ (No – cue gesturing to the bikes and mimicking that they were our babies); ‘How old’ (cue using a licked finger to write our ages on the dusty tank, always met with the raising of eyebrows – how can we not have children?!!) Anyway, we went on our way across a pontoon bridge lined with metal sheets (thank god it wasn’t raining), all the time expecting the border post to be round the corner. And we rode, and we rode. James kept stopping to ask people for directions (you’ve gotta love it when you’re simply asking where a country is: ‘Uzbekistan? This way?’), each time met with a vigorous nod and pointing in the way we were heading. However, 30km later when we found ourselves on a desert highway stretching out into nothingness, we were having serious doubts. Once again, James flagged down a passing car: yes, yes, this way. Hhhmmmn. It was only when a lorry driver going in the other direction flashed and signalled ‘turn around’ without us even asking that our doubts were confirmed. Damn it, and damn people’s desire to give an answer even when they don’t understand!!!

It was only half one when we reached the actual border but annoyingly, it had closed for lunch (thus causing a massive queue of trucks waiting to cross over – surely having a lunch rota would solve a lot of problems and avoid the inevitable backlog of paperwork once the gates opened again at 2pm?) Anyway, the guards let us sit in the only spot of shade by their office/portacabin and while we ate our penultimate can of tuna on mangled crackers (surprisingly good combo… or maybe it’s just that our standards have dropped), they amused themselves by finding random English words in our Russian phrasebook. We were just relieved they didn’t come across the ‘sexual relations’ page; do Lonely Planet really feel it’s necessary to teach the intrepid traveller ‘touch me here’ and ‘don’t worry, I’ll do it myself’?!!! Could have all become a tad awkward… Saved by the bell though, and at two on the dot we were ushered through the gate.

Considering how long it had taken us to get into the country, we weren’t surprised when a form-filling offensive was launched at the exit point too. We were lucky when a fellow ‘tourist’ who understood the Russian/Turkmen on the forms took pity on us and helped us to fill them in – no help whatsoever was offered by the officials. When we went through to actually submit all these papers to various desks, quite how pointless it all is became clear; the guy at one desk tried strenuously to ask for a certain document, looking very serious about the matter, but when it became clear his efforts were in vain and we just didn’t understand, he sighed and waved us through!! Clearly it must have been important… Finally, we were out of Turkmenistan (not exactly a highlight, though I do feel pretty badass to have ridden through desert!) and knocking on Uzbekistan’s door. Can we come in please? Yes of course, but not until you’ve filled in a form detailing every item of value on your bike plus money in any currency down to the last dollar/euro/sum. Oh goody, more forms. And we have to fill out a second copy to keep for ourselves because you don’t have a photocopier, or even carbon paper? That’s swell. Seriously, this level of paperwork was in danger of de-foresting the whole country. Luckily, we’d read warnings on the HUBB saying that it was vital to be honest and precise when declaring all cash and items of value. Apparently, the police are likely to stop you at any time, and customs when you leave, and do a thorough search – anything found that is undeclared is confiscated. One guy who kept a hidden stash of $5000 found this out the hard way… Craperola!

Just as we were leaving (a good three hours later), we came past four bikes parked up by the Uzbek gate. At first James assumed they were police bikes – very smart looking, with matching paintjobs and mini fire-extinguishers in the back – but it turns out they belonged to a group of Malaysian guys who are pretty much doing the same route as us, just in the opposite direction. Azizi and his comrades were super friendly and enthusiastic, it’s such a shame there wasn’t more opportunity to chat and exchange stories. They had only been on the road for a month, and expected to be in London by the end of August – gulp! That meant doing our route up ‘til now in one month instead of three! (Ben and Jo, we’ll send you their contact details – they don’t know anyone in London and will be there for a week or so at the beginning of September. They were excited to hear about your Malaysian connections!) Rather ominously, they told us that corruption in Uzbekistan was rife and that in the end, they’d paid to have a police escort through the country. Also, they confirmed the rumours we’d heard about lack of petrol, as in, there wasn’t any anywhere. Ah. So it was with some trepidation that we said our goodbyes and headed off towards Bukhara…

A highly surreal 24 hours!…

Monday, August 9th, 2010

(James) It’s difficult to know how to even begin to describe Ashgabat so perhaps first we’d all be better off with a brief introduction to the complete ‘nut house’ that is Turkmenistan. Most of you will know little, if anything, about Turkmenistan (don’t feel bad, there’s absolutely no reason why you should!) and to be honest until our route planning indicated we’d need to cross it, neither did we. So, here’s a very brief summary of the country which might go some way to help paint a picture for you, although you’ll have to trust us when we say nothing can prepare you for the reality of the place.

Historically, Turkmenistan has benefitted greatly from its position on the Silk Road which has bought it great wealth and allowed its various rulers (many invading armies have passed through the region over the centuries including Ghengis Khan and Tamburlane) and inhabitants to flourish both economically and culturally. You may not know it but every one of you has been affected by some of the great thinkers produced here. You’ve probably never heard of the Saminids but up to 13 centuries ago they were making scientific and mathematical discoveries that we have all come to know and love/hate (I suspect mostly the latter!), discoveries that directly affect our lives and are still essential to all of our scientific and technological advances. Can’t think of any? Well, the Saminid Astronomer, Al Biruni (973-1046AD) not only proposed that the Earth rotated on its own axis and circled the sun but also calculated the distance of the moon from the Earth to within 20km, remarkable in itself but consider that he did this at the turn of the first millennium and some 500 years before the likes of Galileo and Copernicus were even born! Al Biruni wasn’t a one off either – whilst he was making his advances in Astronomy, a contemporary, Abu Ali Ibn-Sina (980-1037AD) was making huge leaps in medicine culminating in his book, the ‘Canon of Medicine’, that was so far ahead of its time that it became a bible to doctors in Europe until the mid 17th century, some 600 years later. Probably most important of all were the Saminids’ advances in mathematics, discoveries made some 200 years earlier than those of Al Biruni and Ibn-Sina. The greatest of these was Al Korezmi (787-850AD) and he has two claims to fame which we all know well. He invented a mathematical formula whose name, although slightly bastardised over the years, still bears his name: the algorithm (taken from ‘alkorezm’). Not finished there, he went on to produce a book titled ‘Al Jabr’. Again we know it by its slightly bastardised name, ‘algebra’.

So, with a list of great thinkers in its history, a geographical position on the silk road that not only made it strategically vital to any ruler or invading army, but also ensured its prosperity, and more recently, having discovered itself sitting on absolutely vast natural gas reserves you’d think that modern Turkmenistan would have a fine blend of culture, character and a sense of itself. Er,…. no.

Turkmenistan is one of perhaps two countries (the other being North Korea) that have almost total control over their population and that do almost anything without fear of being questioned. In 1924 Turkmenistan became part of the Soviet Union, and it remained so until the latter’s collapse in 1991, when it’s former Soviet puppet governor Saparmurat Niyazov, declared himself President of the newly independent state, and shortly after declared himself ‘President for life’. Niyazov felt that the country lacked a sense of national identity so embarked on a program to correct this – the identity he chose? His own. He started by renaming himself ‘Turkmenbashi,’ which means ‘Leader of all ethnic Turkmen’, but this was only the beginning of his personality cult. He renamed the capital’s airport ‘Turkmenbashi’, and followed this up by renaming the Caspian port city of Krasnovodsk… you guessed it, ‘Turkmenbashi’. Niyazov didn’t stop there, giving his name to hundreds of streets and schools around the country, and also renaming January, you guessed it – ‘Turkmenbashi’! And he didn’t stop there, either – April was renamed after his mother as was the Turkmen word for bread (the use of the actual Turkmen word for bread was made illegal!). His picture hangs everywhere throughout the country so he’s always watching you with an expression that clearly says ‘I bloody OWN you!’, there are large gold statues of him everywhere (some of which rotate so they always face the sun), his face is the logo of the three state TV channels and is legally required to appear on every Turkmen branded bottle of vodka as well as every clock and watch face.

Like any other dictator running a personality cult he needed a book of his own; after all Mao had his little red book. So in 2001 he wrote the ‘Ruhnama’ which means ‘Book of the Soul’ which contained moral guidance, poetry and a highly revised history. The book was to be a bible for Turkmen, and became required reading for all Turkmen citizens. Niyazov instructed that it was set next to the Koran in all mosques (itself a blasphemous act) and those clerics that refused or questioned this were arrested/beaten or closed down. He declared that he had spoken with Allah and had been told that if anyone read the ‘Ruhnama’ three times they would be assured a place in heaven (in doing so was attempting to deify both his book and himself – he largely succeeded). To this day, any student wishing to enter university has to sit in-depth exams on the ‘Ruhnama’. Exams on the book are also required if one wants any job working for the state, or even a driving license, and school children are required to study the book for two hours every day! Nihazov also banned all Soviet-era books and closed all libraries in the country outside of Ashgabat, claiming that Turkmen did not require non-Turkmen literature (today the only books in the capital’s library are the ‘Ruhnama’ and other books written by Nihazov). The ‘Ruhnama’ went on to win the Magtymguly International Book prize, which could be described as a sort of Booker prize but for pro-Turkmen poetry. Following the judging panel’s decision, the award was presented by the panel which consisted of none other than the winning author, one Saparmurat Nihazov!!

To solve Turkmenistan’s healthcare problems, Nihazov fired all 15,000 of the country’s public health employees who had been educated in techniques not developed within Turkmenistan and thus alien to Turkmen culture, and replaced them with conscript soldiers (he reasoned that not having medical knowledge meant they wouldn’t order expensive treatments). He also closed every hospital in the country except the one in the capital, claiming that the sick would have to make their way to Ashgabat if they were ill! Niyazov didn’t like beards or long hair on men so both were banned, he didn’t like make-up as it tended to ‘whiten’ peoples faces and claimed it made it difficult for him to differentiate men from women so make up was banned. He particularly hated lip-synching on songs so to stop it (and to promote ethnic Turkmen music) ALL recorded music was banned! In 1997, he quit smoking, and not wanting to go it alone, banned smoking in public places throughout the country. He also banned gold teeth and gold caps claiming that the best way to prevent tooth decay was to chew bones.

On the positive, all Turkmen have free access to gas, but unfortunately matches and lighters still cost; the solution to this is that all Turkmen leave their gas hobs lit constantly -as if the country weren’t already hot enough!

Tukmenbashi died very recently but, like Kim Il-Jong in North Korea, he has been elevated to such deity-level that he is still considered to be the ruler of the country. He has since been succeeded by one of his key advisors who, rumour has it, is his illegitimate son (they certainly look very similar!) Given the crazy legacy of this ‘great leader’, and the control over his people, we entered Ashgabat with our eyes wide open. We were not disappointed. The city is a giant vanity project, full of very new, very over the top bright white and gold buildings of all shapes (most of which sit empty), wide roads with white and gold lamp posts and, of course, golden statues of the great man himself! The city is a cross between Las Vegas (without the ‘fun’), Dubai (without the wealthy communities) and Pyong-Yang (not that I’ve been there but it has the strange buildings built purely to make some sort of statement) and is so utterly unrepresentative of the rest of the country it defies belief. There doesn’t seem to be any social scene worth mentioning and the people, unlike those in more rural areas, seemed nervous (they are told foreigners are likely to be spies) which is not surprising given the very high police/military presence in the city.

Having found a hotel for the night, we were assigned a room. Our room was in a ‘special’ part of the hotel away from Turkmen guests, not for reasons of racial purity (although the country’s leadership is highly xenophobic) but because all tourist rooms, as well as cafes/restaurants frequented by foreigners, are bugged, as are all telephone calls. Having had a much needed shower, we did some laundry and headed out to do some ‘sightseeing’ which proved to be a bit of a farce as by every building and statue stood a really angry looking soldier who, when asked if we could take a photo (you absolutely have to ask before taking out your camera) would bark an answer back at us that was hard to mistake for anything other than ‘NO!’ (still, we managed a few sneaky shots but nothing to do it justice!)

We managed to find a ‘restaurant’ and over a particularly crappy meal tried to discuss what we thought of Ashgabat (sticking to slang to avoid any potential problems with bugs or secret police) and then headed back to the hotel at 11:30pm by taxi. I mention by taxi as there is a curfew at 11pm and you do not want to be caught out after this time! (We later met up with one of our ‘China crossing group’, an Italian called Donato, who not knowing of the curfew had ventured out at midnight to find some water. Not being able to find a single shop open he went over to ask a soldier and was promptly arrested and held for questioning!!!)

The next morning we hit the road at first light. Although we were eager to get as far as possible through the desert towards Mary (it’s a town not a person!) before the temperature got too hot, our eagerness was slightly tempered by the fact that the previous night’s gastronomic extravaganza had given both of us a case of the trots (never ideal when riding in hot weather through desert with no cover for ‘emergencies’!). For 50km we enjoyed pretty decent tarmac but eventually it ended and soon the road had deteriorated, forcing us to more than halve our speed (never good in such heat). Even the ‘good’ roads in this part of the country seem to be ‘surfaced’ in the most bizarre and completely inconsistent patterns so we’d get 500m of ‘reasonable’ road followed by 500m of utterly broken tarmac, followed by 500m of totally potholed road and then 500m of gravel. The ‘smoother’ sections of road also contain 2 really deep ‘trenches’ caused by trucks driving on the melted surface. These trenches are often up 30cm deep and on more than one occasion my foot pegs have ground on the road even whilst in a straight line. Once in them you can’t get out until they ‘surface’ which can be a problem (Emily: I discovered this when doing an overtake and got myself stuck in trench whilst heading towards an oncoming car! Not ideal!).

Given our early start we’d managed to get some decent distance under our belt so with the heat of the day approaching as we passed a few small trees and bushes at the side of the road we decided that it might be an idea to take advantage of the shade (and cover provided for the all too frequent calls of nature!) So we parked up and spent a couple of hours reading, sleeping and enjoying the fact that we could take our boots off, disturbed only by the friendly beeps of passing cars and one random wearing a white sheet over his head – a common thing here due to the dust and sand storms – who walked up to us (from where we have no idea!), gave us a large melon and walked off without a word! By 3pm we hit the road again but soon were stopped at another police checkpoint where a Turkish trucker wandered over to say hello and invited us for chai in the shade provided by his truck. Turns out that he was also heading to Uzbekistan and had driven up from down near Cappadocia. He’d had a puncture and having run out of spare tyres, was having to wait for a colleague in another truck (with a spare tyre) to arrive. His plight perfectly demonstrated the issues we’re facing out here. Like us he was on a 5 day Turkmen transit visa but he’d already been waiting at the side of the road for 4 days and his help was still 2 days away!!! It’s times like that that we really appreciate how easy and convenient we’ve got it at home!

Having managed to stop the flow of chai (it really brings on the old bowel movements!) and said goodbye we hit the road again but were soon put onto a diversion by the military that took us onto some horrendous tracks in the middle of the desert, occasionally taking us through tiny settlements none of which were even close to being on our map. This diversion lasted for over 2 long hours (fuel starts becoming a concern at times like that!) but eventually we arrived in Mary but it was already dusk. We wanted to get out of the other side of the city so we could camp but true to form there were absolutely no road signs and no street signs so we were forced to wing it. Although we made it through the town ok. we ended up on a road going east instead of north east which required further cross country riding to correct but finally, with the sun going down, we found ourselves racing northeast on some decent road trying to find somewhere unpopulated so we could camp for the night (stopping anywhere remotely near a settlement tends to result in dozens of people coming from nowhere to ‘talk’ to and watch us – not ideal when you just want to sleep! The setting sun was also a problem as we have a well established safety rule about riding after dark – we just don’t do it, so Em was getting increasingly concerned.

Eventually we spied a farm track leading away from the road and into some trees so we headed down it and quickly the trees came down so low that we had to duck under them – a good sign that the track was seldom used. We followed it for 1km before arriving at a small clearing with some grass on the side underneath an overhang of trees. Perfect! We quickly set up our tent using just the mesh so we could see all around us, and parked the bikes on either side, before enjoying dinner (more tuna!) and an amazing sunset. We were ready for bed by 8:30pm as it was dark and we wanted to hit the road at first light in the morning in order to allow time for a potential border crossing. And that’s when our evening got a little surreal!…

It must have been about 11:30 when we were abruptly awoken by the sound of some large vehicle crashing through the tree covered track to our right. A full moon was up and was bathing everything in white making it really easy to see all around us so we could make out a truck with one very weak headlight. It came to a grinding halt no more than 5m from us and two people, a man and a woman, stepped out and walked off in different directions before coming back a couple of minutes later. They were standing talking quietly so close to us but couldn’t see us as we were just in the moon shadow caused by the trees above us. It would be fair to say we were a little nervous. What had we stumbled upon, who’s land were we on? We had absolutely no idea so silently sat there wandering what to do. Occasionally we’d see one of them (or was it a third person?!) walk off one way and then come back a few minutes later. All the while we’d whisper reassuring things to each other:

“Perhaps they’re travelling workers just looking for somewhere to sleep too?”

“Then why aren’t they sleeping?”

“We just need to stay quiet and make sure we’re packing up before first light”

“Oh shit, I’ve lost sight of that other guy, where’s he gone?”

This went on for a while and we did ponder the fact that absolutely nobody had any idea where we were should this be something untoward. At one point we heard noises coming from the vehicle, and figured that if they were having sex (who know’s what Turkmen sex sounds like but if it’s a weird as everything else in this country!?…) at least they’d likely be asleep soon and we could ‘relax’. A while later we heard more talking and again people were walking around the clearing (all the while staying surprisingly quiet given that they were in the middle of nowhere with, as far as they were concerned, nobody nearby to disturb) within a few metres of us but again the shadow and our tent’s mesh seemed to completely conceal us. After what seemed like an age they climbed back on the truck and started the engine, before engaging first gear and starting to circle the clearing. The truck had a horrendous turning circle and it crashed through the trees on the other side of the clearing at an all too rapid speed.

“Shit!” I cried, as I realised that its current turning circle would take it straight through our pitch.

“Em, open the mesh door on the tent in case we have to bail out!”

Em quickly did it but we both knew that hitting our tent would also mean wiping out the bikes.

“They’re definitely going to see us now” said Em as the one dull headlight swung round to face directly at us from just 10m away. Then the truck slowed to a halt keeping its headlight pointing straight at us for 10 seconds before straightening up and coming to a stop where once again the driver left the engine running and the occupants got out.

It’s fair to say that at this point we a tad nervous. They had to have seen us, and now they were walking around the truck with torches. Finally it got to the point where the game, we thought, was up.

“You’d better say something” piped Em.

One of the men was now just 3m from the tent so I tried to say hello, but with the truck engine running so close the man didn’t seem to hear me, and suddenly turned on his heel, walked back to the truck, selected 1st gear and ploughed off through the trees!

We were left dumbstruck!

“What the f*@k was that??!!!….”

We had no idea, and although we talked through it, and tried to work out how the hell they hadn’t seen us, we laughed nervously at what had been a completely surreal 2 hours! We decided we couldn’t have a been witness to an illicit affair as women here simply don’t have the freedom to disappear out of the house at night, other ideas were raised and dismissed in rapid succession leaving us to conclude that we must have been witness to some sort of Turkmen ‘dogging’ scene and it’s been referred to as ‘dogging-gate’ ever since.

Happy Birthday to us!!

Friday, August 6th, 2010

(James) Yes, we’re 100 days old today so we ‘decided’ to spend it under ‘house arrest’ in Tashkent! Long story, but one we’ll be sure to fill you in on in the coming days…

In the meantime, we’re trying to update our diary and photos from the last couple of weeks during which we had little or no internet access. Thanks Jess for being our number one fan today! Work must be really boring!!!

Watch this space….

Sand dunes, camels and the odd bit of tumbleweed

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

(Emily) Tempting as it was to sit in the shade until the relative cool of the evening, we had to force ourselves to get away from Turkmenbashi; we had no chance of making in to Ashgabat (about 600km away) in the half day we had left, but every mile we could cover now meant less in the morning. Naomi and Michael were taking the train – there was no way they could cycle across the whole country in the five days permitted by the transit visa – so we said our goodbyes and reluctantly headed out into the sauna. It was about 2.30pm and without doubt, the hottest climate I’d even been in. Even James, who’s been to the outback in Australia and worked in Namibia, was shocked – it was about 54 degrees in the shade (er, what shade?!!) To make matters worse, within a few km we were well away from the sea and the city and on a lone road which stretched out ahead of us into the most desolate landscape. I have to say, I started out feeling quite uneasy; this would not be a great place to break down. Luckily, the road was actually pretty decent and, as we had a full tank of petrol and six litres of water, after a while I was able to relax into the riding and just tried to think about anything that would take my mind off how ridiculously hot it was. We stopped regularly to top up with water, enjoying the brief but blissful coolness of the wind on sweat when we first took off again. Seeing our first camels was an exciting moment and from then on we passed them regularly, often wandering right into the middle of the road. I was relieved that we were sharing the road with at least a few other drivers – my mind back on the worry of a breakdown – and there was much waving and tooting as people passed us. During one water stop, a car pulled in next to us and a couple got out to take a few photos of themselves with the bike before heading off again with a wave! Later on, a 4×4 stopped and the driver gave us his number in Ashgabat should we need anything – very kind!

At about half past seven in the evening we came upon a truck stop – literally a small shack/home where seven or eight lorries had pulled in – where there was a possibility of a cold drink (the water in the bottles strapped to the bikes was practically at boiling point!) and, once off the bikes, found that we had pretty much reached our limit for the day. The friendly proprietor happily gestured that it would be ok to pitch up on the sand behind his building and soon we had set up the tent between our two bikes and were ‘feasting’ on tuna and bread (left over from our ferry crossing rations). Darkness fell quickly and we were more than ready for an early night. It was still so warm there was no need for the fly sheet so we lay under the stars in our mesh inner shell (I still made sure it was tightly zipped up though having read about scorpions, snakes and even tarantulas in the Lonely Planet!!!) and drifted off in no time at all. It was a slight concern that there was a herd of camels about 100m away and James last words were, ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure they can see in the dark’! (James: I’m not going to lie, I had no idea, and my concerns were not helped when an almighty ruckass kicked off right by our tent in the middle of the night – I couldn’t see anything but the sound of heavy running, several dog’s frenzied barking, the braying of a donkey and a few camels making whatever sound camels make and all of them chasing each other round our tent didn’t ease my doubts. What a way to die! By some miracle, and I still don’t know how, Em slept through it. I decided against telling her until the morning…)

It was such a relief to set off while it was still a reasonable temperature the next morning – due to the desert landscape with nothing to absorb the heat, it had actually got quite cold in the night. We were almost half way to Ashgabat and reasoned that, given the good road condition, we should get there by midday. Ha. It didn’t take long before we were diverted off the main road and onto a gravel section in order to pass over a new bridge; a very bizarre set up – the bridge had perfect tarmac and even street lamps yet was over nothing but sand and was strangely misaligned with the main road. Oh well, very odd we thought. Then came the next one. And the next one. It was just the oddest thing, probably another strange vanity project on behalf of the crazy former leader (more on him later), and made progress frustratingly slow and we had to keep bringing the speed right down for the off-road diversions. There were so many of these stupid bridges, you wouldn’t believe it but, annoying as it was, thank goodness we weren’t doing it in the heat of the day. In the end, it was mid-afternoon before we came upon an ostentatious grand arch signalling the entrance to the city of Ashgabat. It might well have said, ‘Welcome to Crazy Town’….

Entering Turkmenistan – how hard can it be?!

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

(Emily) You’d think that arriving at the Turkmenbashi customs post at the port at 8am was fairly good timing – we’d slept for six hours on the boat and would soon be away to get a decent morning’s ride in before the heat of the day. We weren’t so naïve! We’d heard from several other overlanders that Turkmenistan took bureaucracy to a new level and so were ready for a good few hours of  paperwork, but even with the forewarning we were not quite prepared for the upcoming masterclass in incompetence and penpushing!! Despite the fact that they only had fourteen passengers to process, and only four of us were foreigners, it was nearly an hour before we were even permitted to approach the first window. The Turkmen nationals in front seemed to have quite a few hoops to jump through themselves, and were all subjected to a thorough bag search, even though their bags were first sent through an x-ray scanner like you have in airports (we concluded that this fancy bit of kit had been acquired for appearances sake only and that no-one actually had a clue how to use it!) James was particularly amused when he noticed that they had installed the ‘one-way’ glass the wrong way round – meaning that we could see into every office but the occupants couldn’t see out! Genius!! Finally the documentation process started for us but it was indeed just the beginning… I won’t bore you with the minute details but suffice to say we were moved along from one cubicle to the next to the next where one official after another would painstakingly enter all our details into their own ancient log book (er, ever heard of a computerised central database anyone?!! There were a few pcs around, but it obviously hadn’t clicked to use them – why type information in once when you can copy it out twenty times?) and worse, kept being sent back to the ‘bank’ (another cubicle) to pay various fees where the ‘cashier’ (very bored woman) copied out four receipts for each payment despite the fact she was using CARBON PAPER!!!! How on earth would they cope with a busy day?! It was hard not to crack up when we were passed the book to sign our names, in the same place on each of the four pages, then watched as each page was stamped, counter-stamped and signed by the cashier. (We were never subsequently asked to present these receipts at a checkpoint and, from what we could see, the copies retained by the bank we just shoved in a drawer. All so pointless!!)

About half way through our ordeal, Naomi and Michael were allowed to go (not before the customs officers had fun testing their bicycles bells for about ten minutes). Meanwhile, Nadia – a Turkmen woman who was returning from living in Baku for the last eight years – was in tears because she was getting charged hundreds of dollars for going over her 60 kg luggage allowance… We were ushered into yet another office cubicle, this time to begin the registration for our bikes and after another 45 minutes received a document that included a map of the country detailing our intended route. Deviate at your peril!! At one point we were even sent outside to the ticket office to pay a supposed ‘bridge tax’ (what bridge?!) We watched in despair as the clock crept past ten, then eleven… It was well past midday before everything had been triple stamped and our details had been handwritten in about ten different places (we noticed on one form that we were tourists numbered 90 and 91!!). In the end, customs hardly even looked at our bikes – it was now absolutely baking and I think they just couldn’t be doing with spending too much time in the heat. It was quarter to one when we were ushered off with a smile (but of course not even a hint of apology that the whole thing had taken so unnecessarily long) only to turn the corner and find the gate out of the compound was closed!!! It took another 15 minutes for them to find someone with a key, all the while we were sweltering in our bike gear and had kissed goodbye to getting anywhere near Ashgabat, the capital, that day. It was all we could do ride a couple of km towards the city in search of petrol and when we spotted Michael and Naomi sitting in the shades of some trees, we stopped to join them and slumped down for a cold drink. Exhausted and we hadn’t even gone anywhere yet!!!

Caspian ‘Cruise’….

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

(James) Before I start I just want to let you know that this next post will contain overzealous use of inverted commas as I don’t want to allow anyone to make the mistake of trying to picture some of what I will describe – it would be futile, some things just can’t ‘appreciated’ ( there I go already!) unless you have experienced them first hand!  I should also point out at this stage that this is not a ‘ferry service’ that crosses the Caspian from Baku to Turkmenbashi but a ship designed to carry rail stock, it doesn’t have a timetable of any sort and you are allowed on pretty much at the captain’s pleasure. The reason there is no schedule is simple, if not a bit bizarre. The crew don’t get paid per crossing but based on the load the ship is carrying so when we arrived on the Monday morning the ship was in dock but waiting for rolling stock to arrive at the port, and had no plan to leave until it had enough. The same logic applies at the other end, so whilst the crossing itself might only take 13 hours, the ships regularly sit for several days off shore, refusing to dock until they are satisfied that there is enough rolling stock waiting for them at the port!

So, having got all our gear together  and put our bike clothes back on we left the hotel and took a taxi down to the port where to our relief we found our bikes sitting in the customs ‘lot’ exactly as we’d left them. We loaded the bikes back up and then walked back down the alley to the ‘ticket office’ (a small door in a hut with no sign on it) to find out if there would be any berths available for us and were happy to see not just the really grumpy old woman who normally sells tickets (and who usually requires a bribe just to actually allow you to buy a ticket!), but the captain as well – surely a good sign?! We happened to bump into Michael and Noemi, a couple of French cyclists we’d first met and got chatting to on the road to Baku a few days earlier (cut short by another corrupt policeman pulling up to demand money!) who were looking to get on the same crossing so at least sailing or not we’d have some nice company! We’d been sitting quietly for half an hour trying not to draw attention to ourselves (the hut was air conditioned and given it was 39 degrees we’d gotten a little clammy – we did not want to be sent outside again!) before Michael and Noemi were sent to sit with the ticket lady and I was ushered over for a word with the captain. 20 minutes later, following a bit of gentle negotiation, we agreed on a reduced price (plus a little backhander for the Captain!) and were told that we should go back down to the customs area and start getting the necessary paper work stamped. Within 2 hours we were riding on to the ship and tying  the bikes up next to the rolling stock whilst negotiating a small fee with one of the crew to keep an eye (i.e. don’t steal everything) on the stuff we were leaving with them. Having secured the bikes, we had to walk with everything we’d need for the crossing back off the boat and round to the starboard side past several cranes loading additional cargo and up a pretty hairy looking set of stairs. Having survived this and now feeling like a couple of ‘boil in the bags’ we waited on deck for the ‘Helga’ (grumpy old Russian type) to allocate us a ‘cabin’. Ours had seen better days for sure and apart from being incredibly grotty was boiling! The ship itself must have been 50 years old and our ‘wall’ was the actual metal hull of the ship, air conditioning was provided by an open port hole (ooh, a cabin with a sea view!!), but we did luck out on the shower front and we had a nozzle from which some water would drip out. Having ‘showered’ (no towels but it didn’t take more than a minute to air-dry) we had little to do but stay out of the sun so we  sat in our cabin (stifling)and waited for the crew to decide to put to sea which fortunately they did within 2-3 hours.

As evening came we ventured up on deck and had ‘dinner’ and a bottle of wine with Michael and Noemi (again, don’t get the wrong idea – everyone on the ship brought with them food and water for up to 4 days!) and enjoyed the cooler air and the sea breeze before turning in for the night but not before another shower and lying wet on the bed. We were woken at 7am the following morning by the deafening sound of the anchor being dropped (not difficult as we were about 5 metres from it!) which informed us that although we had reached Turkmenbashi, the crew were not yet happy with the amount of rolling stock currently sitting in port and so started a very long, very hot (it was 6 degrees warmer here than in Baku!), utterly windless day which generally involved us sitting in our cabin, trying to stay out of the sun and standing under the ‘shower’ every couple of hours. Not much fun!

At about 8pm the engines started and the ship started making its way into the harbour – this was, despite the long time we’d already spent on the boat, a bonus as it would mean we’d dock in the evening, do our documentation over night and get a couple of hours of sleep and then hit the road. By 9pm, the ship was trying to dock and we were all waiting on the deck ready for the customs officers to come on board to inspect our papers. Despite the fact that there was only a slight breeze in the harbour (it was a calm day by English channel standards!)  the crew seemed to be struggling to line up to the dock and after twenty minutes of farting about gave up and headed back out to sea saying they’d try again in the morning! We were gutted and as we headed back down below deck we were informed that ‘Helga’ had already taken all of our sheets and put them in the laundry so we’d have to sleep on the (really dirty) mattress for the night and make do! Several people had also run out of food and water so there was much sharing around and pleading with the crew, but for us it was the lost time that was the biggest worry, as with each passing day our Uzbek visa got closer to expiring and, of course, Bishkek, still over 3000km away, would get that much harder to reach in time for our scheduled crossing of China.

Once again, at 6am we were shocked awake by the sound of the anchor being raised and once again we got ready to meet the customs officials on the aft deck. This time the ship docked without incident and within 20 minutes 5 men in various ‘soviet’ looking uniforms came on deck and we were ushered into an office to answer some questions and have a ‘medical’ inspection (which simply  involved signing our name on a random bit of paper) before being sent down to the cargo deck to pack up the bikes. Finally, we were on the Asian side of the Caspian Sea and about to enter the ‘Stans…

Nb. A few pics added to the end of Azer gallery.

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!