5, second part of Central Asia (5/5)27/03/2013 16:57
Before picking up the thread where I left it in my previous blog entry, I need to mention the fact that these “Stans” are horse-country. We see men riding them, herding large numbers of them and noticing horses in every patch of grass, in towns and, generally wherever you look. We became so much under their spell that, still in Kazakhstan and before we reached Almaty, we decided to rent horses for the day and go for a ride. That is what we did - and remembered it for days to come.
Our guide was s0 impressed!
We can sit on a horse, but we can not ride it. So we sat on those horses who sullenly followed the guy who had come with us, for a couple of hours and gladly slid off them long before the day was through. In Almaty we found a hotel just opposite the market place and were helped to find parking by a
robust Kazakh who, after a few days insisted on giving me a bear hug as he learned I was 76. He was such a nice guy!
Enfin, back to Kyrgyzstan.
After Bishkek, rounding the lake and having our little adventure in the mud, we drove for many days through the most beautiful mountainous area I ever saw. I could fill half of this blog entry with exclamations; how amazing, how incredible and how overwhelming is that landscape! The sheer mountainsides, spectacular roads and sparkling rivers, the magnificent views and camping places. There are few remarkable happenings to tell, but the drive through Kyrgyzstan will forever be one of my most favorable memories.
We met cyclists; one boy from Japan who had been on the road for 8 months, cycling all the way through China, and Kamaz truck drivers on the narrow track, relaxing next to a waterfall with a few bottles of Vodka we were not to see when we took a picture of the trio, and when we reached Osh, we were ready for a rest.
We found a hotel managed by Indians with only 5 rooms and were lucky to get one at a very reasonable price. The hotel was just down the street from the Souk, with a thousand shops dealing once again in everything from baby clothes to corrugated iron.
Our hotel was close to a popular hostel, mentioned in the Lonely Planet and it attracted a steady stream of tourists, most of which were (peddle)bikers. As I have pointed out, the route we had chosen was extremely scenic and although with many real bad patches (especially for bikes) and steep rises and declines, it was apparently still a welcome challenge for the Dutch, French and other nationals we met there. And now, sitting in the shade with a beer in front of our hotel, I met them again and others. One was a Frenchman who had been a professional clown for 30 years, but if he had been a tyre repair man I would have believed him as well. He had paired up with a Britisher who knew nothing much about motor bikes and traveled on a 125cc Suzuki scrambler I would not have trusted to go from Rotterdam to Amsterdam. Suzuki features in another episode still to come.
After Osh is was rather plain sailing south to the border and into Tajikistan, yet another of those wild and free countries. Distances are long in those “Stans” and in between the cities there are mountains. The roads are narrow and damaged by snow and ice, there is no traffic and you can easily imagine to be lost. It´s a lovely country for some target shooting. I did that a lot with the light air rifle I had bought on our way through Poland, made in Russia, about €80. It wasn´t very powerful, but reasonably accurate at 20 to 25 meter. I usually shoot at bottle tops and removing the yellow, blue, gray or red tops from the place you left them is like playing a remote control game.
And, I hear you ask, what happens if you lose a wheel, or bump your head against a lamp post? Yes, my friends, that is the question that demands an answer - or is it? What if . . . . will forever be a game of speculation, and we do not enter into that field of Q-and-A if we can avoid it. We have a good car. We are healthy. We like a challenge. We have been in situations where we needed inventiveness. We had it. We have also been in situations where urgent medical help was needed. It was there. What more can I say? We try to avoid problems. Like when we heard there was no diesel fuel in Uzbekistan, we took the train. For the Toyota we needed new - or used - tyres, but nowhere in central Asia do cars use 16 inch 285x75 tyres. We just kept asking and eventually found 2 used tyres, not “all terrain” but at least suitable for our rims. They served us well for over 2000 km. We needed an electric fuel pump but found a way to do without until I could buy one in South Africa. It´s all a matter of chance; you take what you can. Sometimes we meet people who even more than we do, like a challenge. Way before we entered the Pamir Highway, a lofty name for a narrow, winding road that derives its name from the fact it is classified as a tarred road and is 4000m high in the mountains; the highest highway in the world, we met a group of Hollanders traveling in two cars and some light motorbikes. Nothing strange, until you look closer and notice the cars are Suzuki´s, generally associated with the lowest form of taxi in the world. Who would have thought to take this kind of car on roads that run through the wildest, most isolated parts of the world?
They wanted the challenge, they told us - but they would not do it again!
One thing you eventually find out is that in virtually every town there is a market dedicated to motorcars. The cars that are locally available, that is. Don´t come with an Aston Martin to get a new fanbelt because chances are they haven´t got the right size. But most other generally exchangeble replacement parts are there.
We had reached the end of the “highway”, turned north and entered Eshkashem, a small village as we had seen many before. But this place soon gained special meaning when, about a kilometer past it, we were stopped by a hundred rifles leveled at us from behind walls and barricades. Wildly shouting and gesticulating soldiers indicated the road was closed; we had to turn back.
Ann would not take NO for an answer just yet and got out of the car. Brave as she is, she did not come far though and so we made a U-turn.
In the village we had just come through there appeared to be a hostel, already with a few others on their way to Khorog. They were all frustrated and mystified by the unexpected closure of the road. There was no explanation and no news other than it had happened suddenly earlier in the day. Later we were joined by two busloads of Austrian students on their way home and a small group of Frenchmen. Some other individuals filtered in later that day as well. It seemed to be a wonder that the management would be able to cope with the sudden influx of tourists, but they did. Food came on the table and places to sleep were allocated.
It was only the next morning that we learned from the student leaders who were in contact with their embassy that in Khorog, a hundred km up the road, a high ranking (Russian) military officer had been assassinated and fighting was going on in the town: army against civilians. The situation was very volatile and it was not known when the road would be reopened. News and opinions filtered in the rest of the day, but it was believed that it would be impossible to proceed along that road for the foreseeable time, and most all were preparing to turn round and make the round trip to Osh: a 400 km detour. On the third day it appeared the troops had disappeared but the embassy still advised to avoid the town and turn back.
With our contention that embassies will never suggest to take any risk whatsoever, we reasoned we had nothing to loose by going on. Al that could happen was to be turned back, we felt. And so we did. Of all the people who had stranded in that hostel it was just us who turned to the north to face the rebellion.
There was some unease in the air, underscored by groups of civilians and taxi drivers, congregating at various places along the road and about three military checkpoints where we were waved through after showing our passport. It was obviously not business as usual, but not threatening of any kind. That changed slightly when we entered the town, Khorog. We had to cross a bridge where a burned out armored car was left diagonally parked with just enough space left to pass. At the end of the bridge a few policemen formed a small group of bystanders, pointing helpfully in the direction we should take. It was a wide shady lane once, running parallel to the river, now with evidence of fighting visible and one or two trees hacked over to form a barricade. The sidewalk was still open so we could just squeeze past the obstruction, observed with curious interest by little groups of men who stayed well away from us. We never saw a firearm or anything threatening whatsoever.
The end of the town was marked by a huge truck-and-trailer positioned so it would block off the road completely. The truck had been pushed as far as possible between the two immovable obstructions on the side of the road, but a 45 degree rise at the back gave me hope. Ann had left the car to scout around, but I was impatient, mounted the rise and saw too late there was nothing on the other side. Too late indeed: miraculously prevented from toppling over, the car veered down and fell hard on a rock that bent the rear bumper S-wize.
But we were through and out of the town! No real damage done and on our way to Dushanbe. The capital of Tajikistan is a hot and leafy town. We registered temperatures of over 40 degrees. The hotel we found, at the outskirts, was old, neglected and made a tired impression. All the furniture was worn and/or broken. But we were given a 3-room apartment: bedroom, lounge and bathroom. There was nothing whole in these rooms though, and the couches were covered with blankets to hide the real state they were in. But we were happy. Shops and restaurants were around the corner. It took a week to get a letter of invitation before we could apply for the visa (for Uzbekistan). To get that only took half a day and soon we were on our way out of town.
We were warned about a tunnel we would have to drive through after Dushanbe: almost 5 km long without light, very badly pitted surface with huge water filled potholes, invisible obstructions and wildly sig-sagging oncoming cars and trucks.
We drove through the tunnel three times; the first time was scary, the second and third time we agreed it was not half as bad as described. Oh yes, we did do some damage to one of those vehicles that will always try to get a smooth ride, but is was a lot less serious than the car I wrecked in Volvograd. Anyway, that comes later.
Onwards to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. With some difficulty we found a hotel, but after 2 days we switched over to a much cheaper hotel with the same facilities, part of the Tashkent railway station. We stayed there quite a few days, because we needed to apply for Russian visa.
Soon we learned there was going to be trouble getting diesel fuel in Uzbekistan. As we planned to see two or three old cities of the silk route, of which Khiva was the furthest at 1000 km, we could not risk getting stuck in the desert on our way. We took the train.
In Khiva we found a hostel with the smallest room thinkable, opposite the massive clay wall of the old city. It wasn´t comfortable, but there was a large balcony upstairs and the weather was fine. It was the only room available and we did not complain. Although touristic, we loved the old town. Khiva definitely still has some of the vibes of an old, bustling and dusty trading town. It was here one day that we were invited by a couple of not very sober men to join them for lunch. We happily sat down at the table with them and watched the vodka, tea and deep fried fish being brought on. If ever you can, have a lunch like that instead of a braai or barbecue: it will change your ideas about world peace.
We skipped Bokhara on our way back and went to Samarkand.
The trip from Tashkent to Khiva takes 12 hours by car; 9 hours by train. We made the trip in a sleeper car, a lot less comfortable than the sleeper cars in China! The trip back from Khiva to Samarkand took some 6 or 7 hours and once again we arrived very early in the morning. Taxi drivers quoted exorbitant prices to take us to our hotel but eventually we arrived at, what looked like a number of buildings surrounding a lusty green and flowery garden with breakfast nook. Not withstanding the early hour, we were welcomed most friendly by the owner and shown to a room I haven´t seen the like of before. Large with king size bed, exquisite wooden furniture and old, pure silk garments on the wall. I didn´t see much of the town. I was tired and the ambience of the room was sufficient for me.
When we arrived back in Tashkent we found the car as we left it. A day or two later we entered Kazakhstan on our way to Russia. Our first stop was going to be Shimkent, 135 km on the road to Volvograd. After that there lay 1400 km of bad road without much to see other than flat land. We had left Tashkent with the diesel fuel we had; some in the main tank and about 40 liter in the long range tank. We filled up the main tank (85l) in Shimkent and expected to find a fuel station when we needed one. I was getting rather nervous about the distance we could expect to cover on 125 liter, when we had passed 2 or 3 stations that were closed. We had been under the impression that fuel would again be plentiful in Kazakhstan but although we were on a main road, there was no traffic and we felt rather isolated. Because the fuel pump was not working we had to drain the fuel from the long range tank and poor it in the main tank manually. A time consuming and dirty job! We must have done almost 1000 km when we finally were able to tank up and our worries were over.
In Volvograd I wanted to see the gigantic statue of Mother Russia, the memorial that gives tribute to the defenders of what was then Stalingrad to deny the Germans entry that was, in effect, the turning point in Hitler´s dream of a 1000-year Reich.
Every town has its characteristics: in Volvograd cars race from one traffic light to the next, only to screech to a halt when they see they can´t beat the red light. Coming into town we followed suit, when the car in front did the screeching - and we did the banging. With panicked blocked wheels we pushed him right over the intersection. But, nice guys as they are here, we made a deal and left him, close to crying. But for us police and paperwork is taboo. Of course he has insurance, I convinced myself rather successfully, and didn´t think of it again.
We saw the statue. I´m glad we made the effort to drive 600 extra kilometers to see it: it´s awesome! A hotel near it gave us a decent room and we visited the site a few times. From Volvograd we drove to Moscow and saw the sights. There is a lot more to tell about, but the blog is getting too long. Ann´s website “vrolijksontrek” gives you all the details. Here are just a few pictures:
Once again a long drive from Moscow to Poland where we arrived really bushed. We were lucky to find a campsite and, when inquiring if the owner knew a workshop where repair to our car could be done, the answer was “Yes! A friend of mine has an engineering workshop!” It proved to be an excellent workshop where welding was done on the chassis where a shock absorber had broken off, a broken leaf of the rear spring was replaced, the
bumper was straightened, 2 new shock absorbers were fitted and some smaller work was done. We were so relieved we did not have to have it done in Holland!
And that is where this “monster-blog” must end. Cheerio!