Route: (Kyrgystan) - Irkeshtam - Osh - Jalal Abad - Toktogul - Bishkek - (Kazakhstan) - Taraz - Shymkent - Tashkent(Uzbekistan)
Distance cycled: 20,400 kms
The first few days in a new county is always unnerving for us and infact it takes about 10 days to get into the swing of it. Our first 12 kms out of the checkpoint were on a beautiful bit of tarmac. We coasted along feeling free as birds. That feeling ended abruptly when the tarmac stopped and turned into this.............
|"Photo,photo, take,take" cried these young soldiers as they thrust two machine guns into our arms less than an hour after cycling into Kyrgystan.|
The road may have been a huge disappointment but the scenery almost made up for it. Kyrgystan is a very small, beautiful and mountainous country nestled in the heart of Central Asia. Once a transit point of the ancient Silk Road, it remained inaccessible to foreigners for many years when it was part of the USSR. Upon independence in 1991, Kyrgystan once again opened its doors to adventurous travellers seeking to traverse through Central Asia. Kyrgystan is an absolute dream for wild camping. You can put your tent almost anywhere and be guaranteed spectacular views of lush valleys, dramatic snow-capped mountains, rivers and alpine lakes, all in complete solitude. Kyrgystan also has unique cultural experiences and great hospitality for those who don't mind venturing off the beaten path.
In Kyrgystan we soon realised that the 3 main forms of transport are.................................................
|And Lada(in no particular order).|
Next morning we set off back up the hill of doom. The higher the altitude, the worse the weather and before long it was snowing and bitterly cold. We were keen to get onto the other side of the mountain and make our way down out of the bad weather. It was an epic struggle in the end and one we had not been expecting being that it was the middle of April. However, the high Kyrgyz mountains can remain an unforgiving place right up until the end of May. At last, I saw the familiar signal of Ben's two hands held up in the air meaning we had reached the top. A great feeling. Whatsmore, the road suddenly turned to asphalt and we coasted downhill at 40 km/h. The further we ascended, the warmer the temperature and before long, it was feeling like spring again. The road had gone from unbearable to absolutely perfect and we wondered why they couldn't just finish the job and tarmac the whole lot.
|The end is nigh ......... me at the summit.|
We were hungry but knew the town of Sari Tash was only 20 kms away so pushed on with empty bellies. As we rolled into town, we suddenly realised that we had been in China too long. The town we had expected would have streets, traffic lights, a hospital, schools etc. Sari Tash however was more like a hamlet, a small collection of rustic homes with no services other than a couple of small shops and restaurants operating from the front room of someone's home. We suddenly realised where we were. A little hole in the wall served as a supermarket and we stocked up on biscuits, pasta, tinned sardines and snickers bars. There wasn't much else on offer. We then found a one table restaurant doubling up as another 'magazin” where the friendly owners served us samsas and tea. We were hungry and put away 3 of the huge pasties each after polishing off all the biscuits we'd bought from the shop. It was a comical little place covered in garishly coloured posters of fruit bowls, waterfalls and tigers and blaring out the 80's hit “Brother Louie” on repeat.
|Fellow cyclist, Sari Tash|
|Seeing as you've worked so hard, have some tarmac|
|The Spar, Sari Tash|
We cycled off as night was falling feeling like we'd had our first Kyrgyz experience. We camped a few kms out of town on a hilltop, again able to put our tent just about anywhere. That night, the snow came in and we woke up to a complete whiteout. We resigned ourselves to being trapped in the tent all day but towards lunchtime the weather started to clear up and the snow began to melt. A horses head appeared from nowhere framed in the door of our tent soon followed by that of his owner, a nomadic Kyrgyz horseman. The man sat in our porch for some time watching us pack up our belongings. We get the impression that this type of Kyrgyz people as nomads respect our nomadic lifestyle albeit by choice on our part. Where the Kyrgyz people have a yurt we have a Vango tent. Where they have a horse, we have a bike. Maybe we're not so different. When his curiosity had been satified, he rode off into the distance looking very cool indeed without having to try.
The next part of the ride was again hellish. We had another steep pass to climb and the snow was coming in fast. Towards the top, the road turned into 2 foot of mud and that's without any exaggeration. It was at that point we realised just how bad the roads here could be as huge lorries skidded around diggging themselves a deeper and deeper hole with every wheelspin. The weather cleared up on the descent and the road condition improved. It was a long downhill stretch most of the way to Osh from this point and at one point even turned back to asphalt. We had a tough job finding a camp spot that night. There were many houses and most land was being used for livestock or agriculture, a sure sign that people will not be too far away. We dived up a little lane and Ben found us a great little hidden spot where we were spotted by only one person. We cooked some pasta then spent a peaceful night undisturbed.
Our impression so far of the Kyrgyz was that they were a rough race of people, no surprise given their history, lifestyle and environment. We also could see that they were a people with integrity, respect and kindness. It was clear we'd have to toughen up to travel in the Stans but could see that they had so much to offer. Kyrgyz people have a reputation for being hugely welcoming and friendly so we looked forward to experiencing this first hand. Islam hasn't caught on entirely in Kyrgystan and although some Kyrgyz follow the religion devoutly others are more interested in the national pasttime of vodka drinking. Every shop here has a full wall dedicated to different types of vodka and it's all cheap as hell. Many young men in these ex-soviet countries lead hard lives and can become angry about their situation especially after a drink. Having said that, pissed or sober, everyone we had met had been kind and friendly.
The following morning we had 80 kms left to Osh. It was, for the most part, plain sailing downhill on a tarmaced road expect for a 20 km climb. We arrived in Osh and met up with our first Kyrgyz Couch Surfing host, Oibek. We had no idea what to expect from Oibek as he had just joined CS and had very little info on his profile. However, when we arrived, he explained that he had a “spare” flat which we could have to ourselves for as many days as we liked. It was the last thing we had expected and we were obviously delighted.
|Welcome to Osh|
However Osh is not a normal city and it is important to tell you about the horrific tragedy that happened here last summer. When the Soviet Union broke up, some land near Osh/Fergana Valley which used to be on the Uzbek side became part of Kyrgystan as the borders were moved. So now essentially many Uzbeks are living in what used to be Uzbekistan and is now Kyrgystan. There was much resentment over this and clashes between the two sides have broken out regularly since the USSR breakup. However, only last summer an almighty riot broke out in Osh which escalated out of control and ended up in a massacre. 2000 people were killed over 2 days on the streets of Osh not even a year ago.Oibek and his father both lost just about everything when, due to being Uzbeks, their shops were firebombed and walking around Osh you can see hundreds of burned out buildings, a daily reminder for everyone of what went on here. It is still a hugely sensitive area and unfortunately the streets are not safe to walk at night, especially for Uzbek people. During the day though, Osh is a lovely city as people go about their business. It is a huge cultural mixing pot of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian, Indian, Afghan and many Pakistani medical students and to be honest we really loved it. It is an amazing place. The funny thing is as well, we presumed we would stand out like sore thumbs here. However, no one blinks an eye as we are taken for Russians.
It was amazing living in the flat, really getting to meet the people in this part of Osh. We got to be part of a real community for a few days and would certainly have had a completely different experience living in a hotel. We enjoyed meeting friendly people at the local bazaar who were always up for a chat or doing an impression of the bagpipes or just saying “Mel Gibson” when we said we were from “Schatlandia”. Osh is a city with a lot of soul that's for sure and we really hope it can get back on it's feet and move towards peaceful times.
|Oibek and family|
|This merry bunch were pissed as farts but gave us money, bread, spoon fed us soup and kissed us a lot.|
Again, most of the ride was in fairly built up farm areas with only a few short climbs. The Kyrgyz people seemed very friendly. Everyone wanted to talk to us and most cars give us a beep or a thumbs up out the window. People here also have kind, simple manners and are extremely respectful. Even the children offer you a handshake and an “Asalam Alekom”. One teenage lad said “Welcome to Kyrgystan”, bowing with his hand on his heart as we cycled past.
|Chris White who cycled from Devon..... on his way to meet Pip and Chris who we met in Osh!|
|"You put your right leg in......"|
In the middle of the night though we were awoken by a sound resembling a native American warcry. It was so loud and for half a minute or so we were really confused as to what could be making such a noise. As the howling got louder, we both suddenly realised it was a pack of wolves. We were in trouble.
We decided to pack up and go. It was only 1am, 6 hours before daybreak. My nerves couldn't handle 6 hours of this even if they didn't have a go at eating us. With the stuff packed up, we set off in the pitch black night down the hill, Ben dragging the empty but semi-erected tent behind him so we could put it up nearer the road. As soon as we set off, the howling came from right behind us and I'm not just saying that for dramatic effect. We bolted down the hill as the wolf howling got louder and more frantic. The noise was all around us. It felt like they had been waiting for us and were now closing in. On the dark moors and with our hearts racing we cycled towards the road about half a kilometre away as fast as we could. Still a fair way from the road, the tent cords got caught around Ben's wheel and he had to stop to unpick it all. I wondered what the hell he was doing and shouted for him to HTFU as the panic started to set in. Cords untangled we raced to the roadside, leaving the wolves behind. We set up the tent again at 2.20am right beside the main road where no wolf would dare to venture.
Next morning, we got up at 6.30 am due to our ridiculous campsite right at the edge of the busy road. My 2 nights of no sleep in a row had really caught up with me. We “wolfed” down some bread and cheese(Ben's joke of course) and set off cycling, me feeling like a zombie. After 12 kms we got some juice and water from a little shop and set off to look for a good place for a seriously long lunch break and siesta. We found the most perfect of places down off the road, out of sight of the cars in a beautiful forest clearing with a panoramic view across the valley. It was idyllic. We laid out the tarpaulin and slept, shaded by a tree and cooled by the breeze. We spent 6 hours there and made chilli on the stove for lunch. It was a real shame we hadn't come this far the night before, it was a beautiful campspot. We set off around 3pm, the warmest part of the day. I wasn't enjoying the heat or my leg and shoulder pain which was again slowing me down.
|And Ben had a merry old time to himself with a 70p bottle of Calvados|
Resigned to having to talk to each other all day instead of losing ourselves in music, we put the mishap behind us and carried on cycling. We pulled into a restaurant to fill our water bottles. I went in to the kitchen to do the honours and came out to find Ben drinking beer with a bunch of local Kyrgyz lads. They filled our glasses with beer and gave us a plate of kebab meat. They were extremely friendly but also extremely drunk. As soon as our glasses were empty, someone would fill them up again almost putting the glass to our lips to encourage us to drink. I seriously wasn't in the mood. Ben wisely bought a couple of beers to share out so we could then leave after drinking them without causing too much offence. In Central Asia, if you get involved in a drinking session it can be hard too get out of it and trying to get already drunk men to take no for an answer can be tricky. These guys were nice though but it was good to leave when we did.
|Another animal traffic jam|
We cycled a few more kms down the road and found a fairly decent campspot, near the road but hidden behind some rocks in the mountain foothills. I needed a good sleep and as I shut my eyes, hoping they would not open again till at least 8am the next morning.
It's always a nice feeling to wake up to the sound of birdsong and the first glimmers of sunlight hitting the tent walls. This means you have indeed slept the whole night through undisturbed. After a continental breakfast of a bowl of plain rice, we got on our merry way. We had left the populated areas and were heading into the mountains. The scenery became beautiful and we rode most of the day with the green blue waters of Lake Karakol on our left, reflecting like a mirror the mountains surrounding it. The riding was reasonably tough, constantly up and down the whole day like a roller coaster but we managed to keep a good speed going and power up the climbs. We stopped at Karakol for some snacks at 63 kms and had the same conversation over and over again with several people as we tried to relax. We carried on climbing and descending and called it a day at 90 kms pulling in off the road by a river hidden by the forest. We bathed and washed our socks and undies and Ben made carrot and coriander soup but forgot to put in the coriander. Tomorrow we're having beans and toast with no beans. Can't wait. Our campspot was nice but we were discovered by a young boy and a car that spotted us from a bit of banking further upstream. Ben couldn't care less but I don't like being spotted before we camp for the night. The less people aware of your presence, the better.
Next morning the same young lad came back to see us bringing with him a pal and a huge dog on a rope. We gave them a few dates each and they were made up. We carried on roller coastering up and down the hills reaching a nice muslim run restaurant after 23 kms. The friendly owner said “Welcome” in English, shaking our hands. His dog also came over to welcome us almost wetting herself with excitement at our arrival. However, dogs here are not usually that friendly where us and our bikes are concerned. Every day we are chased by dogs here, sometimes one at a time , sometimes a group of them. Most are just following their natural instinct to chase a moving object but others look ready to take a chunk out of your calf muscle if they catch you up. We deal with it by either speeding up if we know we can outcycle them, kicking them when they get too close to our ankles or stopping, picking up stones, throwing the stones and screaming in their faces. To be honest just stopping the bike usually brings the pursuit to an end. The dogs are always more scared of us and when you square up to them they usually retreat, tails between legs. The worry for us is though is that they will cause us an accident by running in front of our bikes unexpectedly at high speed. We've already had a few near misses.
This was our first real meal in a Kyrgyz restaurant and we really didn't even know what was on offer. We had heard “Pinmen” mentioned before and ordered two of these with bread and a huge pot of black tea. It turned out to be sort of mutton dumplings in a watery broth, not too appetising but not so bad either. As we set off, the owner pointed to our bikes and said “Michael Schumacher” with a smile.
We got our first view of the much wider section of Lake Karakol and it was breathtaking. At 48 kms and after a stunning ride and as much driver support as usual,we arrived at the village of Uch Terek where we bought our daily carton of fruit juice plus bottle of fizzy water as mixer. We looped round the end of the lake and carried on up the road on the other side. It wasn't quite so bonny on the other side but we had been treated to magnificent views all day. We hit a fairly big climb and Ben sped off ahead of me. I tried to grab on to a slow moving HGV to get a free lift to the top. I got hold of the handle, realised my bike and body were both in the completely wrong position and let go instantly, crashing onto the hard tarmac below. I instantly curled into the foetal position knowing that a car was approaching me from behind. Thankfully for me though the car was moving slowly due to the gradient and managed to stop in plenty time. I was pretty battered and bruised but came off better than my poor bike. I asked a passing driver to tell Ben at the top of the hill to come back for me. He got to work bodge fixing my snapped front rack with some of his trusty wire. My fantastic dynamo light was a gonner though. We made it to the top of the hill, through the friendly town of Torkent and then carried on as night was falling, trying to find a good camp spot. With only a few minutes of light remaining we pulled in off the road and camped on the moors, near the road but miles from anywhere or any potential passers-by. That night an almighty thunder storm raged around us the whole night with the most dramatic lightning we'd ever seen. We felt secure in the tent but just to be on the safe side Ben moved the bikes up the hill a bit away from us. Hopefully then if lightning did strike it would find the bikes before us.
|Didn't realise their were giraffes in Central Asia|
|Itš alright muggins here will fix it.|
|Friendly locals, Toktogul|
|Amadeus and another couple of CSers from Sweden|
In usual Couch Surfing style, Amadeus gave us a warm welcome and after having known us for only 10 mins entrusted us with his house telling us to make ourselves at home as he went out for a few hours. As we lay soaking in a steaming hot bath with a cup of tea, we pondered on the huge ups and downs of this trip, finding it incredible how our circumstances had changed from the previous day.
|Bishkek. Fountain mad.|
Canadian Amadeus and his Russian wife Masha are teachers in Bishkek and are having a baby in October. We had arrived on the Friday of a holiday weekend so couldn't get the Uzbek/Kazakh visa application started till the following Tuesday. Russians are one of the main minority groups(12%) here so we blended in well again. It was hard to get a feel for Bishkek but we were having a great time at Amadeus's. We enjoyed the multiculural feel of the many different ethnicities here and would just have to give it a few more days to get into it I guessed. Despite all it's problems, we found Osh by far the nicer of the two cities.
|Ben as a Kyrgyz man|
|Joanna and Jika|
|Beastie on Aikerim` s curtain|
|Daniel and Aikerim|
Aikerim's family were unbelievable. Both her mother and father are English-speaking doctors and were kind, intelligent and extremely relaxed people. I felt slightly ashamed to be so hungover in their company. I managed to come across as a normal human being however and we got on great, spending a fun evening together. Their hospitality was exceptional and Aikerim was constantly cooking for us and making us tea. We also tasted the most delicious plof courtesy of Gypar, Aikerim's Mum.
As soon as Gypar heard about my leg problems, she mentioned she was a qualified acupuncturist and was so keen to help me with the problem. The next day I had a treatment, my first ever. It was an interesting experience, completely different to shiatsu but I had faith in it's effectiveness. We did a follow-up treatment before we left and I gave Gypar a shiatsu in return. It undoubtedly helped. The Oskonbaeva family truly were our family for a few days and the time we spent with them will always have a special place in our hearts. Even after we left their house to go to Bishkek Couch Surfer number 4 , Daniel, we were still invited round like old friends even staying the night again after a late dinner.
Whilst in Bishkek I got in touch with Louise Parker, a physiotherapist in Queenstown, NZ who agreed to do a consultation with me via Skype regarding my leg and shoulder problems. I got settled in a wi-fi cafe near Daniel` s and waited for the call. Louise rang right on time and with a good Skype connection I got to explaining about the pain and numbness in my left leg and big toe, the inability to relax my left shoulder on the bike and my general lack of power. After taking a note of all my symptoms, Louise asked me to do a number of exercises. The first one was the slump test where I had to lean forward in a slump position on my chair and lift my leg up till it was straightened in front of me with the foot flexed. After doing this a few times I reported that this caused me pain in the calf muscle. After the slump test Louise got me to stand up and do 10 back extensions, resting my hands on my backside and leaning back as far as I could in standing position. She then got me to do the slump test again and I reported that after the back extensions, I felt much less pain. She concluded that it was certainly the sciatic nerve causing my problems. The test had been conclusive.
She then advised me on a few other exercises. As well as continuing with the slump exercise and back extensions she also advised the cobra yoga stretch and a piriformis stretch for the hip area. I needed to get some power back into my weak leg so she also suggested pedalling with one leg at a time for 20 or so pedal strokes. She also advised a tilting downwards of the saddle and a 7 day course of anti-inflammatories to reduce the swelling of the nerve. At last I felt I had some answers. Louise was so thorough and knowledgeable in her diagnosis of my problem and got to the source of the problem straight away through asking the right questions. It was clear she was a true profesional with years of experience. She asked me to get in touch soon to let her know how my riding had been after taking the anti-swelling drugs and carrying out the exercises. I was extremely grateful and felt hopeful that I could get over this problem that was jeopardising the completion of our trip. Her advice worked a treat and as soon as I set of from Daniel` s I felt a renewed power that I hadn't felt in so long. Thanks to Louise I also managed my longest day of the trip so far. Louise gave me all this help via a Skype call so imagine what she can do in person. Anyone in the Queenstown area in need of massage, pilates or physiotherapy can find her at:
The Studio, pilates and physiotherapy
A: Unit 13, Gorge Road Retail Centre, Queenstown
T: (03) 409 0078
Louise Parker is a:
DMA qualified Pilates Instructor
Breast Cancer Physiotherapist
We got settled at Daniel's with another 2 polish Couch Surfers who would be spending the night with us in Daniel's tiny but very homely bedsit. Jakub and Natalia left the next day after the 5 of us spent the night like a bunch of immigrant workers in the small space. We got our Uzbek visas, a surprisingly stress-free process and could now apply for our Kazakh visas. As we waited in a sort of queue outside the Kazakh embassy, I heard the familiar dulcet tones of a fellow Scot behind me. “Excuse me, do you work as a teacher in Glasgow?”. I couldn't believe my ears.
The Kazakh visa process was a total breeze and took only 1 day to process. On our second last night in Bishkek I got all our Couch Surfing hosts past and present together for a night out which ended in a visit to Bishkek's premier gay nightclub. “When you say premier I presume you mean only” I joked with Joanna. It turns out though that there's actually 3, amazing for a city full of homophobes. Ben entertained us but mainly himself poledancing on the stage and doing pull ups off a strut across the ceiling and we sauntered back to Daniel's at 5am as the sun was coming up. We couldn't face cycling the next day after our late night and spent the day chilling with Daniel and eating cheesy beans on baked potatoes. Daniel is such great company and we felt right at home with him. We spent our last few days together tittering over purile jokes that only we found funny, bursting into bouts of laughter and singing sporadically. Yet another new friend who we'd be sorry not to see again.
|Danny boy and Pierre|
|Happy to be over the border|
|These roadside honey sellers invited us in for tea and cake.|
Second time round the clock. 20,000 kms cycled since leaving NZ 19 months ago. A happy moment for us.
The landscape here is simple yet beautiful: poppyfields, long grass swaying in the wind, wide open spaces. On days 3 and 4 in Kazakhstan however we had a ferocious headwind to battle with. It was an almighty slog and we did well to reach almost 100 kms both days. Night 3 in Kazakhstan we spent in a fantastic campsite on some remote moorland. We made it to Taraz the following day with the wind behind us. The road got busier towards Taraz and was full of potholes. It was a dangerous ride and we were glad to reach our destination.
Daniel had put us in touch with his friend Erin in Taraz and we were pleased to have a couple of nights out of the tent. After dragging our bikes up 5 flights of stairs, we got to know Erin a bit before heading out to buy some food. Erin, 23 from the States is in Kazakhstan working for the peace corps. We should have only spent one night with her as our Uzbek visa time was ticking away but her great company and amazing welcome led to us staying another 2 nights. We needed a rest anyway after 4 100 km days on the trot and in the tent. We left Erin's again amazed by how many fantastic people we meet on this trip of ours and feeling very lucky indeed. Two men passed us some bread out of their van window and another guy gave us a bottle of organic peach juice meaning we left with a good opinion of Taraz.
I was excited at the prospect of smashing our previous longest day record of 155 kms which was set in the Australian outback but after a few kms still felt a hell of a long way from our destination. We powered on though up and down the climbs. At around 145 kms we hit another big climb just as night was falling. We donned our hi-viz vests and put on the lights in preparation for the darkness ahead. As soon as we started to really lose the light it became clear to us just how dangerous this undertaking could be. The road was in poor condition with many potholes, our lighting inadequate since I smashed up my dynamo, the road busy and the drivers as reckless as ever. At 150 kms we were in full darkness and the road became a terrifying place. We could hardly see a thing and were relying on luck and blind faith to get us to Shymkent safely. The traffic was still heavy and the street lighting something I no longer take for granted, non-existant. Pissed Kazakhs rolled up beside us shouting “Atcuda?”(where you from?) out the window, almost running us over simultaneously. At 155 kms we rung our bells to celebrate beating our longest day.
|The extent of our night vision during the last 30 kms or so into Shymkent|
The last 25 kms seemed to take forever and right up until around the 170 km mark we still couldn't see the city lights of Shymkent and were still in the dark. However, after weaving our way through a dark estate we found ourselves right in the city centre. After another few kms we arrived at our destination. It was midnight and we had cycled 180 kms. We felt exhausted but exhilarated. The endorphine and adrenalin rush we had got from such a tough and downright terrifying ride left us feeling high as kites, an amazing feeling. We were also feeling happy as we had yet another Couch Surfing house to stay at. Our host Eugenette was away for the night but her friend Maral came to meet us and took us round to the house. Our apologies and embarrassment for having arrived so late were met with a reassuring smile that all was well. We were so happy at that moment. Eugenette lived only 2 flights up this time which was an improvement on the 5 flights we had to climb at Erin's in Taraz. The flat was a clean, homely and welcoming haven. After thanking her profusely and probably apologising another 10 times, Maral left us to it and went back to her own house. Eugenette left us a note telling us to help ourselves to food, drinks, the internet, washing machine and the double bed which she had made up for us. After a shower and some food we slipped into bed, thinking with a smile and a nice warm feeling inside of the unforgettable day we had had. The Couch Surfing community has changed our trip in ways we could never have imagined.
As much as we have enjoyed Central Asia so far, there are some things about Kazakh and Kyrgyz culture that we don't like. The main thing is that both countries and no doubt the other Stans can treat their women pretty badly and the practice of bride kidnapping is still popular. If a man has his eye on a woman, he and a group of friends will attempt to kidnap her and take her back to his home. Once she is over the threshhold, the women of the groom's family will attempt to convince the distraught woman that he will be a good father, look after her etc. In theory the woman has the right to refuse the man's offer of marriage but in reality she has no choice anymore as in some cases her own family won't have her back after she has been taken as they are ashamed. So most of the time the woman accepts her fate and tries her best to settle into her new life as a slave for her new family. Many women in the Stans have little freedom and their role in life is to work tirelessly for their husband and his family with little thanks and to produce children. Of course not all families agree with this practice and bride kidnapping is becoming less common especially in the cities. Some families will demand their daughter back from the other family with her best interests at heart and sometimes the practice is a harmless courtship ritual organised between the bride and groom and their families.
|A cheery man enjoys a nice cold morning beer-ski|
Another thing which I find quite disturbing here is how the workings of Central Asia are basically founded on bribery and corruption. University exams are passed when the right amount of money is handed over to the professor and yes, that is also the case for medical students. A diploma or degree here is for the most part a meaningless piece of paper. Doctors and other professionals can therefore not really be trusted unless they are older people who were trained under the Soviets. Thank God Ben got his teeth out in China. Councillors, teachers and lawyers can all be bribed. It's also possible to buy your way out of many police charges rendering the justice system almost meaningless and the police themselves take bribes from passing motorists every day in a completely matter of fact way. Saying that, the police seem to be much better behaved nowadays than they were in the past so things are looking up.If you are in with the right people in Central Asia you can pretty much get away with anything it seems If you don't know the right people, you're screwed. This applies much more to people living in the country. Foreigners have more freedom.
|Car wash, Kazakh style|
Having said all this and not wanting to paint an unfairly negative picture of the Stans, the people are the friendliest you could meet and we have hardly seen anyone in Central Asia behave badly. On the contrary, people in Central Asia, like the rest of Asia have a respectful way of behaving and conducting themselves that sets them apart from Western countries.The men have always been extremely kind and friendly to us and will do anything to help us. Every day people make us feel welcome in their country and it's a really nice feeling. I just wouldn't want to be a woman living here that`s for sure and I feel so lucky to have the life I have, considering all the freedom and opportunities I enjoy that most Kazakh women could only dream about. Asia is still, in my opinion, a much safer, more relaxed continent to live on than ours although I do appreciate what we have back home. In Bishkek, a man asked us what was wrong with our country that Elton John was allowed to bring his husband to the Royal Wedding. I laughed when he said this and told him 'Yes it's great isn't it!” much to his disapproval suddenly realising how many things there are to admire about my own country. Before we left I also enjoyed telling him that we were staying at the house of a lesbian couple in his very own city.
The next day, Eugenette came into our lives. We spent a fun-filled day of wine, music, good food and hilarious conversation together getting to know a bit more about Quebecois(French canadian) culture. Eugenette is a real salt of the earth type woman with a heart of gold. She spoiled us rotten the whole day and cooked us lasagne for dinner. We felt like we were just getting to know her and almost stayed another day, which would have meant another day less in Uzbekistan. However, the following morning, we forced ourselves to get packed up and go sad at leaving Eugenette after only one day.
At around 7pm we arrived at the crossing at Chinevka and were a bit worried that it would be too late to get through. We were also feeling generally uneasy about this crossing finding it hard to dismiss the countless stories we had heard about bribery, corruption and unfriendly policeman. On the Kazakh side a security guard who spoke pretty much no English half-heartedly asked us for some money. We played it cool, looking confused and amused by his proposal as though it was some kind of hilarious joke. After 3 attempts he gave up and waved us on. We then had to get stamped out of immigration which was a painless process. Again, everyone was polite to us. So we had got out of Kazakhstan with no hassles. Would getting into Uzbekistan be this easy?
We counted all our money. $1240 and 23000 Uzbek sum. We had to declare it all on a form before we entered the country. The reason we were carrying such a princely sum of cash with us was because there were no ATMš until TURKEY so we had to withdraw enough money in Bishkek to last us through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran.However the form was in Russian with no English alternative and no-one in the building spoke our language. Thankfully a very kind Russian man stood with us patiently helping to transate our forms which had to then be written in duplicate. We stripped down the bikes and passed all our luggage through an x-ray machine. A slightly menacing guard said “Glasgow Rangers” to us but thankfully didn't ask us for a bribe. Infact no-one did and just like that we were told we were free to go. Was that it? Apparently so. The guards weren't the friendliest guys in the world but they did their job and gave us no trouble. We got our bikes together and cycled off into country number 12, Uzbekistan, waving, smiling and ringing our bells at everyone we passed.
And finally dear friends, have a look at this video someone shot in Yangon, Myanmar(Burma) of how passengers board the train there. Maybe Scotrail should consider this to make up time when the trains are running late.