Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Uzbekistan, nice but a little bit dull

On the road to Khiva we bumped into 3 French guys (Bernard, Jean- Marie and Dominic) and a Russian girl (Eva) travelling in 2 old Citroens. They are writing a book about environmental sustainability in the stans with Eva being their official photographer, we'd previously met them waiting for a boat to Kazakhstan at the ferry port in Bacu. Travelling together, we made our way to Khiva with a brief stop over to wild camp in the desert near an old ruined fort.

Wild Camp in the desert

Ollie forced to use a very public squat toilet


Khiva, formely the centre of the Uzbek slave trade, restored during the soviet era and turned into a city museum, is a beautiful place to spend a few relaxing days with some magnificent architecture. Despite being lovingly restored the old town is very quiet and lacks the life of a living breathing city with most of the original occupants moving to the near by new town.

Khiva City Walls

Khiva old town

After 4 days of recovery we headed off to Bukhara, another town famed for it's architecture.

Upon leaving Khiva I had the first of my crashes...

To get to the main road we needed to cross a floating pontoon bridge, previously crossed to get into Khiva. Half way across I lost the front end making a turn between two sections on the smooth, corrugated metal surface. After going down I ran to check out the state of the bike. No major damaged to me or the bike just a slightly dented right pannier, nothing my trusty hammer couldn't fix.

Crossing the floating bridge for the first time


Bukhara is a lovely town with striking mosques and medrassas. Less sterile than Khiva with a lot more people going about their daily activities.

More blue tiles in Bukhara

Needing to go to Tashkent to pick up a China visa, we decided to take a train rather than make a 1000km round trip in the searing 40 degree Uzbek heat. We went for the overnight sleeper train, with only third class available it turned out to be a noisy uncomfortable night with very little sleep had by all.


On arrival, it was straight to the Chinese Embassy to apply for our visas. We queue for 5 hours and still didn't get through the embassy gate. The system for queuing was unfathomable which seemed to revolve around young pretty dolled up girls getting let in by the Uzbek guard. One Polish guy had been there 3 times from 6.30 and only got in once he'd bribed the guard the night before. I felt very sorry for him when he came out visa-less due to the fact his flight to China was out of Kyrgyzstan rather than Uzbekistan. Bar donning a short skirt, high heels and make-up it wasn't going to happen at the embassy. A new approach was needed┘..

80 Euros of Uzbeks largest note

The change from a curry

We checked into a great hotel with a swimming pool and nice restaurant, a great place to chill out for the next 4 days. The hotel also pointed us in the direction of an agency that could help us with our visa problems. The agency gave us the green light, it would cost us twice the price of applying to the embassy direct┘.. It had to be done so we paid the money and headed back to the hotel to sit by the pool for a couple of days and wait for the phone call.

While at the hotel a couple of groups passed through. A dragoman truck carring 17 backpackers across Central Asia as far as Istanbul and a group of 15 bikers travelling from the UK to Vladivostok and then shipping round to the west coast of the US and finishing in New York, all in the space of 4 months!

The day of reckoning came to go and pick up the visas. We turned up at the office and the lady nipped out to fetch the passports from the embassy, hopefully with a shinny new china visa inside.
Luckily, Ollie checked the visa dates before we left which stated we had to enter China before the 10th August, this was a massive problem as all the Chinese permissions we'd obtained had our entry date as the 25th. After a bit of arguing the agency refused to give us our money back for an essentially worthless visa. Also, we wouldn't be able to apply for a new one until the 10th had passed!

The government in Uzbekistan are very protective of tourists after an incident a few years ago where some corrupt police stopped a van of tourists and extorted a few hundred dollars.
After this incident, all police harassing tourists instantly lose their jobs. Armed with this knowledge, Ollie made a fake phone call to the police and the money was quickly produced.
It was then back to Buhkara and a next day drive out to the boarder and the place I'd been dreaming about for over a year, Tajikistan....

Uzbekistan is all about the cities. Fantastic architecture abounds but you do tend to get a bit bored of similar blue tiled buildings. For me landscapes are the thing I love and with most of Uzbek being flat desert scrub -land, I found the country nice but not particularly inspiring.


The start of the real adventure..

Tajikistan is the poorest of all the counties in the stans with an annual budget less than a major hollywood film, 40% of which goes into the cost of the army primarly to secure the boarder with Afganistan. The country generally exists on credits and loans with Russian having half the shares in the Nurek hydroelectric plant. A Swiss based charity, Aga Khan Foundation, has pumped large amount of money and resources into the Pamir region (the most remote and poorest region) to help rebuild the infrastructure and stave off starvation during and after the civil war.

Tajikistan, originally of Persian identity was invaded by a succession of Turkic invaders who outnumbered the Tajik people to such an extent that the Tajiks adopted the Turkic culture creating a peaceful and balanced society. This was disrupted with conquest by the Mongols and later Tamerlane, known for his mass-murdering ways. Today, you will still see statues of Tamerlane in the cities all over the region.
During the 15 century the Russians pushed South giving them effect control over the North and West of Tajikistan with the East (modern day Pamir region) an effect no-man's-land. With no country making claim to the region it became a strategic duel, known as the 'great game', between Britain and Russia over control of an area that could potentionally open up trade routes to the then British controlled India. Finally, the Russians prevailed and kicked out the British leaving the whole of Tajikistan under Russian control.
During the early 90's Russia pulled out and Tajikistan decended into civil war as clan factions previously kept in line by the soviets exploded. A ceasefire was agreed in 1996 and the country has been slowly getting up from it's knees since then.

With only 180k's to go we thought we carry on to lake Iskander-Kul. The logical assumption was to push on and meet up with friends we met on the way, especially since we'd heard the main road was shut during the day due to road works and only open at nighttime to let the traffic pass from the north to Dushanbe, the capital. The road then desended into a bad dirt track, which was to be come the norm over the coming month in Tajikistan.

The road from Penjikent

Night started to fall so I started to look for a place to camp. Asking at petrol station if it was ok to put up my tent, I was shown the 100's of scorpions infesting the ground, I decided it was probably a good idea to push on.
I'd previously gone ahead of Ollie and Jenny, with bikes monentum is the key. It sometimes more tricky to ride on a dirt road when you're not travelling at a decent pace.

Finally I hit the main, tarmac road. It was only a 30K ride to the lake and with no places to camp it made sense to push on and wake up with a lovely view of a beautiful alpine lake. A decision I would come to regret....

It then happened....
An on-coming lorry pushed me into the side of the road where I hit a pile of sand (used for upgrading the road) at about 60kph. I was flung across the road and the bike and me went down on my left side then high-sided to the right throwing me off the bike landing on my right shoulder about 5 yards from the bike. The lorry driver didn't stop but just carried on going.

After picking myself and the bike up i assessed the damage.

The list of bike damage:
Destroyed windscreen
Broken headlamp glass and main bulb
Both wing mirrors snapped off
Bolt connecting the handle bars to the headstock was bent
Very scratched visor

And me:
Ligament strained in my right shoulder
Bruised forearm
9 friction burns to the hands and wrists

The damage

I'd been pretty lucky not too much damage to myself or the bike.

I had no choice now to carry on to the lake and try and do some running repairs in the morning.
I hit the lake at 12.30 after climbing over a final pass in the dark. I would have to hold up in a hut before rounding the lake to the campsite in the morning. Time to attend to the wounds and get some sleep......


Burnside said...

I am so glad you are having all these adventures good and bad it sounds like this is the best decision you've ever made. I feel very proud to have a friend who is doing such great things with their life. You do appear to have turned ginger though. Oh well, can't have everything...

Roj said...

Can't believe you took a train! Surely that's cheating! Thank god your accident wasn't worse, don't think I'd be able to ship out prosthetic limbs. No more riding at night! Get yourselves near a radio for the last Ashes Test...it promises to be a corker. Regards to Ollie & Jenny.