Bishkek to Tashkent

2007-09-02

Turkish Airways 1346 arrives at Bishkek Airport a few minutes ahead of schedule at 01:00. Immigration procedures were very slow. A German family in front of me had one of their 4 passports with a Visa dated 2008. A not insignificant problem, . . . Eventually, after some help from another traveler who spoke some Russian, the border guard changed the date and they were told to put 10USD in the passport in case anyone looked at it. Infer from this what you will!

After successfully negotiating Immigration it was another long wait for bags and an even longer wait for the two others who were joining the Dragoman trip to appear. While waiting I thought I would take the opportunity to get some local currency, first problem arises! I use the ATM and it asks for my PIN, but will not accept the one I enter. Rather than take a risk on it not returning my card I give up and resolve to try another day. I change 50 United States Dollars (USD) into Kyrgyz Som (KGS) to keep me going (exchange rate was 1USD=38KGS).

Eventually the others appeared and the driver from our hotel Hotel Asia Mountains got us there at around 03:00. Several people from the group we were joining were having a quiet beer and a chat around a table in the garden. The room was quite nice with air-conditioning and TV though the water supply proved a little unreliable.

A fairly early start considering. Got up for breakfast at 09:00 so that I would be ready for the initial trip meeting that was scheduled to start at 10:00. Met a lot of the people I would be travelling with over breakfast. I had never been quite clear what would be involved in getting a Visa for Uzbekistan but that was cleared up and I realised that I had forgotten to bring passport photos with me to accompany the Visa application. New task, "find somewhere to get passport photos"! Briefing over and the rest of the day was free to do whatever I wanted. Weather was nice, sunny and around 30C.

I decided to join Stephen and Meredith for a walk into Bishkek. To be on the safe side I thought it might be an idea to get a local map to orient myself and to be able to find my way back to the hotel. Good idea, and I persuaded the hotel to give me one. Cyrillic, not seen since I was a teenager when I was helping a friend who was starting to learn Russian! I began to realise that I had not prepared myself very well for life in Kyrgyzstan. C'est la vie, I've managed to pick up enough of the language I need to survive in many other countries in the world.

I had no agenda in mind as we set off but the others were well organised and knew what sights they wanted to see. It only took us about 20 minutes to walk to the main thoroughfare running roughly East-West through the centre of Bishkek. There were lots of Soviet era "solid looking" buildings and parks with statues of local dignitaries and one of Marx and Engels. We stopped for a drink in the park, a beer and a water only cost me 55SOM.

We walked some more and then looked for a place to eat. We stopped at a Chaikhana called Jalal-Abad. It served Uzbek style food and I had bread and some sort of soup consisting of "vegetable and sheep", which I liked, and since it was a Moslem restaurant I had to make do with tea.

After eating I parted ways with Stephen and Meredith, they went to a museum and I continued wandering around and finally meandered back to the hotel. I joined a few of my fellow travellers for a beer before going out to a German style Beer House near our hotel for dinner. I wasn't very hungry and shared some salmon with sauerkraut and black tea. Then back to the hotel at about 23:30 and, for some reason, a not very good nights sleep.

2007-09-03

Monday morning! Up for breakfast at 7:30 then off to try and find somewhere to get passport photos. Manage to find somewhere to do my photos but no luck finding an ATM. We loaded up and departed on time at 11:00.

photo of entrance to Ala Archa
Ala Archa National Park

Our destination was Ala Archa National Park which was only around 40km from Bishkek though we did try to visit the President's Palace en route, needless to say, we were turned away.

For those us who had just joined the trip this was our first experience of setting up camp. Some had specific roles, mine was general dogsbody. We unpacked all the gear, set up for cooking and put up pretty simple two person tents. When this was done we went our various ways to explore the gorge. I set off up the gorge with Mike. We walked for about an hour until we came to a point where two rivers met and further progress became more difficult. There were lots of locals, many of which were extended families, out for a walk. Some were dressed very smartly and some women were even in high heels which must have been a bit of a challenge given the terrain. Near the farthest extremity of our walk we came across a couple of local "gents" who wanted a chat. Their English was much more proficient than our Kyrgyz or Russian but that isn't saying a lot. One was a sportsman, specifically a wrestler, and wanted to have a friendly wrestle -- we obliged for the briefest possible time! On our way back down the gorge we saw a family who had crossed a rickety bridge we'd seen on the way up and were posing for photos in a very precarious position though they seemed carefree about it.

Back at camp the cooks had prepared an evening meal which was very welcome and went down well. Jim got us a nice big fire going with his knowledge of bushcraft, i.e. no matches, and we sat around it talking and drinking beer as the evening got colder. Jim was training for a mountain leaders course and I taught him how do tie a sheepshank and he taught me a thief knot.

2007-09-04

It's Tuesday morning and we are up at 06:30. We pack the tents, have breakfast at 07:00 and then set off for the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Bishkek to make the visa applications. We eventually find the Embassy but then have to wait around while they decide if we have filled the forms in correctly, this takes a couple of hours. Some would be part of a group visa, and some of us had to get individual visas. Needless to say, we were not going to get our visas that easily. It would be several days before they would be ready, someone local would then deliver them, along with our passports that we had to leave behind, to a rendezvous point, to be determined, somewhere along our journey.

Early in the afternoon we set off for Lake Issyk-Kul and our overnight stop on the north side of the lake at an old Soviet-era holiday camp near Cholpon Ata. Along the way we passed some cemeteries beside the road. Our guide told me that Kyrgyz were nomads and that people were buried where they died, no family plots. No photos because the local people do not like any taken of their cemeteries.

We also travelled near the Chuy River (pronounced: "chewy") which our guide said was the second longest in Kyrgyzstan. In one respect this river was unlike any I had seen or heard of. I have always though of rivers as rising in high ground and eventually finding their way to the sea. However, the Chuy River flows into Kazakhstan where it eventually disappears in the steppe.

photo of 'chalets' at Cholpon Ata
"Holiday Camp"

After a journey of 325km we arrived in the early evening. The "Holiday Camp" is a pretty grim place in terms of its accommodation. The evening meal of stew, bread and tea satisfied my needs quite nicely. After eating some decide to take a swim in the lake, I just wander around and , unexpectedly, meet an English woman who is working at the camp looking after the kids who are orphans. She, and her boyfriend, had been making their way to China after finishing University when they happened upon the place and decided to stay on for a while and help out and at the same time teach them some English. A TEFL qualification can come in useful!

As the evening wore on most of us ended up in a room with a bar. This was my first opportunity to use the Kyrgyz I had started to learn. Unfortunately, the girl serving must have been about 10 years old and when I ordered a beer I had some difficulties, bir is the number 1, and bira is beer. I guess my pronunciation was lousy, but I did end up with a beer. It also became clear as time went by that both Kyrgyz and Russian were spoken. As the evening passed we got to playing some pub games, the first is not easy to describe but involves placing a bottle as far as possible from your feet without any other part of you body touching the floor. Another involves tossing a coin off your elbow and catching it. And finally, moving a coin up a bottle till it reaches the top. You have to try them before they make any sense! I left them too it at around 23:00 and went to get some sleep.

2007-09-05

Wednesday morning and no packing up or cooking to do so a lie in until 9:00. A quick breakfast and another wander around the camp when I come across some local kids, presumably the orphans, singing in what is presumably a classroom but the night before was the bar. We set off at 11:00 heading for Djety Oguz Valley at the eastern edge of Lake Issyk Kul. On the way our guide tells us the legend of how Lake Issyk Kul was created.

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photo of tomatoes in a car
Tomatoes

We set off travelling East with the Lake on our right and mountains on the left, at one stage we are passed by cars that appear to be full of tomatoes?! We stop along the journey at Karakol for the "bar committee" to stock up on drinks for the cooks to buy food. I was scheduled to cook later in the journey but like looking around markets so helped the cooks buy provisions. I found buying food in the market a fascinating experience given that none of us spoke the local language. We did find one shop where we could buy some other provisions and I was surprised to find that I could actually speak sensibly to the local shopkeeper but in German! While in market at Karakol I managed to confirm that people do carry tomatoes in their cars, and I do not mean in small quantities! [see photo] I spent so long exploring that I almost forgot to eat but managed to grab a large triangular something that looked like, and even tasted vaguely of, a large samosa at a cost of 12SOM.

photo of Broken Heart
Broken Heart

On our journey to Djety Oguz we passed a rock formation called "Broken Heart", and this being Kyrgyzstan, there is a legend about its formation.

A Kyrgyz khan stole another man's wife. The aggrieved man sought advice from a "wise man" about how he could reap his revenge. The wise man was reluctant to give advice but in the end he relented relenting, telling the khan that he should kill his wife and give the body to his rival - "Let him own a dead wife, not a living one". The Kahn made his plans and at a funeral feast arranged to sit next to his stolen wife and as the last of the nine bulls were being slaughtered as part of the ritual, he took out his knife and stabbed her. From her heart gushed blood and other fluids, which carried away the bulls down the valley and where they came to rest they became these cliffs.

photo of seven Bulls
seven Bulls

We carried of for several kilometres after "Broken Heart" along a gradually disappearing track. We crossed the river several times using the wooden bridges, sometimes we stopped and examined them carefully before proceeding. It must have been raining as the going was muddy and slippery. We eventually found a nice camping spot not far from the river at an altitude of about 2400m.

Shortly after we arrived, but luckily after we had set up camp, it started to rain. I helped out cook the evening meal, a rather nice curry was my contribution. After an hour it stopped raining and we had a nice evening with a few drinks, some music and pretty spectacular star gazing.

2007-09-06

It was a pretty cold night and there was a little ice on the ground at 7:00 when we got up. A nice bright sunny morning. After breakfast some our group planned to go horse riding, I opted for a walk further up the gorge with Mike and Monty. Got back from our walk about mid day and had a light lunch of sandwiches then packed everything ready to leave. Those who had intended to ride were just a little "miffed" as the horses had not tuned up on time or in sufficient quantity for all those who wanted to ride to do so.

Turns out that the truck had a flat battery and it took us quite a while to get going. Moved her a short way but before we could bump start we got stuck in a hole. Dug her out but then got stuck in a bigger hole! Managed a tow out of the hole by a passing 4x4 but got stuck yet again, luckily we'd managed to get just enough juice in the battery for her to start, a deep sigh of relief. We left the campground shortly after 16:00 when Tim and Bob got back late from a climb. It was only a short journey back to Karakol where we stayed at Hotel Amir, a very nice little hotel. We had hoped to stay two nights but they didn't have room for the second night. Out into Karakol with Sarah, Jenny, Tim and Bob for a meal, the main course seemed vaguely reminiscent of a fajita, then back to the hotel for a few drinks before retiring around midnight.

2007-09-07

Up again at 07:00 and an excellent breakfast at the hotel. We set off along the south shore of Lake Issyk Kul and travelled for about 4 hours before finding a suitable spot to rough camp beside the lake. Quite a few opted for a swim. Building the evening bonfire proved difficult as there was not much wood to be found, but we managed a small one.

2007-09-08

We set off at 09:30 continuing along the south shore of Lake Issyk Kul and headed for Kochkor which is about 60km South West of the lake. Here we dropped of two people who were ill, we left them at the homestay that we would being returning to in a couple of days time. We had a brief look around and set off at 13:15 for Song-Kul lake.

photo of children appearing out of nowhere
smartly dressed children
appearing out of nowhere

photo of bus with bonet up and moving
the bus is moving!

We set off in a southerly direction and started climbing up through the mountains. While we were stopped having a meal at the top of a pass, miles from anywhere, we were surprised to see a group of school boys appear over the rise and followed a short while later by a group of school girls. We were intrigued where they had come from and where they were headed. We could see a small settlement down in a valley to the south west, 5-10KM by road, that may have been their destination but we never found out if this was the case. About 20 minutes later an old school bus appeared over the same rise with its bonnet up, I do not know how the driver could see where he was going, and continued on in the same direction as the children. We assumed that the engine had overheated and they were attempting to keep it as cool as possible by driving with the bonnet up!

Some of the sections were very steep and as we neared the highest point, about 3600M, we had a flurry of snow. This was a cause for some excitement for a couple of Australians in the party who had never seen snow.

After crossing the pass we lost a little altitude as we approached the lake. The terrain changed from the rugged mountains to an almost steppe like appearance of grasslands and gently rolling hills with no trees. There were lots of livestock grazing with large herds of goats and horses as well as flocks of sheep.

We had arranged to stay in some yurta. I was aware that the Kyrgyz people were nomadic until they were incorporated into the Russian Empire and that after independence in 1991 some people had returned to this way of life.

photo of our yurtas
our yurtas

However, the implications became apparent as we tried to find the yurtas we planned to stay at. We did not have an address other than near the lake, and it is not a small lake (270 sq. KM!). Once the road [little more than a metalled track] approached the lake we turned off onto a dirt track and travelled along the eastern side of the lake. After about 15mins we stopped and asked directions at a yurta and they said the last time they had seen "our" yurtas they had been about 7KM further on. We travelled much more than 7KM without finding them and turned back. I do not know why, but we turned away from the lake and went a short way up a small valley and found our destination and after a bit of manoeuvring crossed the stream and arrived, after a total of 247KM driving, at 18:30.

photo of 'dining' yurta
'dining' yurta

We slept 4-5 people in each yurta and there was one for eating in. We had a nice dinner at 19:30, we sat on the floor on rugs at a low table. Consisted of a "stew" followed by meat and noodles.

. . . boil meat for several hours,
. . . remove meat, boil onions
. . . remove onions, boil noodles
. . . then recombine everything!

Salta told us a little about how a yurta is constructed and that they could last for 30-40years.

Got the trots! When I got up in the night it was cold, below freezing, but an amazingly clear and brilliant sky! At 6:00 the water tap had frozen and there was frost on the ground.

2007-09-09

I found that I tended to lose track of what day it is, but this was a Sunday. An nice, interesting, breakfast with some sort of porridge and other "stuff". Given my "condition" I decided against going riding and decided to hang around the yurtas. The owner of the yurta heard of my "indisposition" and said that it was the altitude and recommended a "treatment". I figured that she knew more about altitude than I do so accepted. The treatment was to take a glass of vodka 20 minutes before each meal. I took my first dose before lunch and afterwards decided to walk down to the lake and back. It was a 40 minute walk to the lake and when I got up close I noticed a fair amount of green algae. I turned around and walked back by a less direct route which left me on the wrong side of a stream that I had to cross. The water was not as cold as I had anticipated.

Another does of medicine before by another interesting meal which was followed by an evening of drinks and talking till "late".

2007-09-10

More medicine and another great breakfast. I'd not had any recurrence of my "problem" since the previous morning. I do not know if it was the "medicine" or if it had already sorted itself out, but I kept taking the medicine!

After breakfast we left, even though I had been somewhat indisposed, I really enjoyed my time staying in the yurta and exploring the area around the lake. It took us an hour travelling across the grassland to get back to what is known in the area as the "road". We returned along the route we had come back to the homestay in Kochkor, a trip of 111KM.

I was in luck, I had a room to myself! Most of the group went to the felt factory, this did not interest me much I decided to just take it easy and read and then take a hot, refreshing shower in peace. We ate dinner at the homestay in a covered patio -- covered by corrugated asbestos, something you never see at home any longer -- had just the one beer then an early night. Kochkor must be pretty civilised because I received a call from my wife so there must have been a decent signal for my mobile.

2007-09-11

photo of 'WMD' certificate
certificate

Up at 7:00, 6 pancakes with a bowl of jam and black tea for breakfast. In the room where we ate breakfast we reassured to appreciate the professionalism of our hosts when we noticed a certificate presented by the "US Customs and Border Protection" [see photo] awarded for completion of:

Weapons of Mass Destruction Training Course

The two people we had dropped of were feeling better and rejoined us for the rest of the trip. Pack up the truck then off to the market to buy provisions for two nights bush camping. We set then off west in the direction of Osh but it would take 3 days to get there. There are not many roads in Kyrgyzstan but this one (A361) was reasonable, at least to start with.

We stopped off for lunch in the middle of nowhere, but near to a cemetery providing my first opportunity to see one up close. No photos of course, but I did take a sketch of some of the plots, unfortunately I am not much of an artist but I did get a record of some of the common structures. When we saw a falcon, Salta talked a little about how Kyrgyz use falcons for hunting and also that they use an eagle large enough to kill a wolf! Learned a little more about the cemeteries, people will visit the grave of a relative each year, take food for the deceased and eat a meal with them. I have a note about "White dressed ghosts with white hair" but for the life of me cannot recall what it meant. Note: take better notes!

photo of painted hills
painted hills

photo of river at rough camp
rough camp

The road splits and we continue on the A361 as it heads North West. There are some spectacular rock formations along way. The further we travel the poorer the road becomes. Eventually we find a spot to camp for the night beside a fast flowing river, the Kekemeren I believe. I am not sure exactly where we stopped but it was near Kyzyl-oj in Cuy.

The river was too fast flowing for my meagre swimming ability but I did get in to cool off. Lots of our party did get in for a swim, but seeing how even strong swimmers had to work convinced me that I would not be able to cope with the power of the river. No one, especially me, wanted to be carried around the bend in the river and into the rapids. Sunset was spectacular as it lit up the mountain sides downstream from us.

I looked after tonight's fire, collecting wood, lighting, tending, and finally putting it out. It was another superb night for star gazing.

2007-09-12

photo of riverside lunch stop
riverside lunch

photo of flock of sheep
sharing the road

It is Wednesday morning and we are breakfasted, packed and off early again. The road continues to deteriorate, in some places there have been landslides that cover the road and have simply been driven over by trucks. A rugged vehicle is certainly necessary on this stretch of "road". After a couple of hours we reach the M41. This is a much better quality road, one of the few roads of its kind in Kyrgyzstan and connects Bishkek to Osh, and we covered a lot of ground quickly. We found a nice spot beside the Chychkan River for some lunch and to cool off. As we continued south down the valley towards Toktogul reservoir we passed several other groups that were making use of the good road conditions [see photo]. Neither the flocks of sheep or the shepherds tending them were in much of a hurry to make room for vehicles, some drivers were not of the same mindset and aggressively moved through the livestock. I saw one car go right over one sheep but it just got up and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Our stop for the night was on the south shore of Toktogul reservoir. We drove as close as we could but we were at the top of a 30M cliff. Someone found a way down to the water and we all enjoyed a swim. We enjoyed another meal and sat around a fire that I had prepared using wood we had brought with us, good planning as there wasn't any wood around.

photo of fire dancing
Rosie fire dancing

The evening started out like most when we were rough camping. Some were talking and drinking, others were playing chess and scrabble. We had some music on and as it began to get dark things began to change. Once it was dark Charlie bought out some "fire balls" and proceeded to do some fire dancing, then Rosie took a turn. The style of music changed as Ali started synthesising music in real time.

When we had stopped we had set up camp near an abandoned building, no doors or windows remained. Some of the party danced to the music and a couple of dancers moved into one of the rooms in the abandoned building and we watched through the missing windows. Bob set his head torch to intermittent and illuminated in the scene with a strobe like effect. The dancers them moved up on to the old window sills to dance, the whole thing was becoming increasingly surreal! It was a late night and many drank too much.

2007-09-13

Luckily, given the events of the previous night, we had planned a leisurely start with breakfast at 09:00. We were about to embark on our third consecutive day of bush camping but we had only bought two days worth of supplies in Kochkor. Today we would have to find somewhere to buy provisions, and this affected me since this was my day, along with Meredith and Kathy, to cook.

Finding somewhere to stop and shop did not prove easy, we hadn't passed anywhere suitable the day before there were only a few small places along the way on Thursday morning. Eventually we decided to stop at a place with a familiar sounding name, Kara-kul. There was not a lot of choice, a few street sellers with vegetables, one shop, and a guy in a small hut that had half a dozen pieces of meat. We under spent our budget (~50USD for 25 people for 3 meals) by 600SOM but had a strange mixture of provisions.

We drove on for about an hour then stopped for lunch near in a car park just after the dam. Not very salubrious surroundings to prepare a meal but we made a fish (no idea what kind) and sweetcorn salad, tomato and onion salad, cheese, sausage and lots of the local flat bread. Everyone sated, we cleared up and moved on a short distance to our overnight stop beside the River Naryn a few miles past the dam. Not as nice a spot as we'd managed the last couple of nights but most took the opportunity for another swim.

Evening meal is the big one of the day, and we called it "Karakol Surprise" on the basis that we had bought our goods at the third place called Karakol (or similar) that we had visited and because we had no idea what we could cook with the ingredients we had managed to buy. The meat was very fatty and came from an unspecified species of animal but turned out to be quite nice once browned with some spices plus 4kg of onions, 4kg of tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, chilli, Worcester sauce and potatoes. Mash and more flat bread to go with it and that was tea for 24. Not too bad as it turned out. Plus of course a veggie option for Rosie.

After clearing up we joined the others for a night of cold beer (chilled in the River) and star gazing. Saw what some claimed to be the International Space Station at 20:15 plus lots of satellites and several shooting stars. Bed at ~22:30, I have to be up at 06:00 to prepare breakfast by 07:00!

2007-09-14

It is 06:00 and still dark! Managed to prepare a breakfast of boiled eggs, scrambled eggs and semolina. Semolina was not a success. Our timing was not helped by running out of water, we had to get Jim to unload a jerrycan. Everything was running out as this was the last nights camping for several days and we did not want to overstock with perishables. We managed to feed everyone, clean up and get on the road by 08:00. Our destination was Osh. We could not follow the M41 all the way since this would have entailed crossing into Uzbekistan and that was not an option for us, so we had to take the long way around.

photo of entrance to market
entrance to market

We stopped for a while at Ozgon. I looked around the Karakhanid mausoleum and the Uzgen Minaret which are in the same area. Seen one mausoleum. seen 'em all! Time to take at look at the market and present day Ozgen life! I went to the large market with Salta for a good look around. Everything you need can be found in the market, the foodstuff was fascinating and it was great to have a companion who knew what everything was. We had lunch in a great little place in the market, dumplings, bread and chai, 26SOM for both of us. Then back to the truck for a 13:30 departure.

While in Ozgen I heard my first "call to prayer" since I had been in Kyrgyzstan, which when I noticed surprised me for a country with a majority of the population that are Muslim. Immediately prior to arriving in Kyrgyzstan I had spent time in the old town part of Istanbul where you are surrounded by the call to prayer Adhan several times a day and became used to it.

While travelling to Osh Salta told us legend of how Osh was founded, there are others from King Solomon (Suleyman) to Alexander the Great.

Adam and Eve marked out their land by driving a cattle plough and ended at Osh. "Osh" is the command to a cow to move forward.

photo of relaxing in Osh
relaxing in Osh

Osh, our destination! We are split between two very nice homestay properties. After three days on the road it is time to take a shower and spend a little time writing this journal. In the evening Mike, Monty and I take a taxi in to the city. Monty wants to visit an Internet cafe so Mike and I sit and have a quiet beer while we wait until he is finished and joins us. As we head back towards our homestay to find somewhere to eat we bump into some members of our party and join them for meal that lasts till "late".

Assuming that we get to the border as planned at 10:00 the rest of my journey to Tashkent should be an interesting one.

2007-09-15

photo of market
through the market

The day starts well, nice breakfast and we leave on time. After this things do not go so well. The route to the border goes right through the market, and it is Saturday, and it is very busy! Jim does an excellent job and negotiates the truck through the market getting us to the border on time. We arrange to do a joint exchange of our Kyrgyz Som (KGS) to the Uzbek Sum (UZS) only to discover that there were more than 1000 Sum to the US Dollar (USD) and that the largest note is 1000SOM meaning that we all end up with huge wads of cash. Getting through the Kyrgyzstan side was uneventful but took a couple of hours. When I say "uneventful" I mean for us passengers. Not so for our leaders and guide. It isn't clear what the holdup us was but what we understand is that "Inspectors" claim to have found some "illegal substance" in one of the lights and wanted a little something to clear the problem up. The leaders said that we had better get the embassy involved to resolve the problem but the problem was eventually "resolved" though I know not what actually transpired. This allowed us to leave Kyrgyzstan but only got us as far as "no mans land" between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. At this point Salta, our guide, left us to take a flight back to Bishkek.

photo Osh, Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border
Osh, Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border
by igor_alay

The second half was even worse and took longer still. First fill in two copies of a form and then wait in a queue for immigration. Some were on a group visa, some, like me, had individual visas. Eventually, we get through immigration and pick up our new guide and leave while the going is good. AS soon as we are through the border we stop to change money. While we are waiting an official comes along and says we have to go back and get everything X-rayed. We have no choice but to go back. We assured that it is a formality so to speed things up it is suggested we just grab a rucksack and get it over. I am first in like with someone's pack, it goes through the machine and . . . the guard doesn't like it and opens the pack and wants to know what everything is. It is a woman's rucksack and I do not know what all the items are, there are cosmetics, prescription drugs, vitamins etc. I find the owner and the local guide and they have to go through describing every single item [the owner was en route from Beijing to Capetown and had supplies for 8 months!]. The guards decide that every bag must be scanned and then fully searched in the same way as the first one.

A discussion, that I am not party to, takes place and the guard changes his mind and decides that it should be enough to just scan each bag. This happens and we finally get away at 14:30.

photo meal stop in Uzbekistan
meal stop in Uzbekistan

We leave the airport and set off into the Fergana Valley looking for a place to stop and eat. We had not gone far before I started to notice that the place was more colourful than Kyrgyzstan had been, and I do mean colourful in the literal sense, buildings, clothing, etc. Our new guide found us a pleasant restaurant to stop at and we sampled our first Uzbek food which was not really much different to what we had eaten in Kyrgyzstan, the price of a stew and a beer was 2000Sum. Our next objective was to get to a silk factory, before it closes, for a tour.

I believe that the silk factory was in Margilan and we arrived quite late in the afternoon. I found the tour interesting as it explained the process from the beginning. It explained how the pupae feed on the leaves of the Mulberry tree and spin a cocoon. How the cocoons are boiled, the spinning of the raw silk thread, followed by dying using natural dyes and then weaving. We finished by taking a look in the shop but nothing particularly appealed to me except possibly a shawl/pashmina but my wife had bought a couple in Istanbul just before I came on this trip.

We set off for our final destination for the day, Hotel Asia in Fergana City. The hotel is apparently owned by one of the daughters of the President, Islom Karimov and supposedly all rooms are bugged. Actually, it was quite a nice hotel but unfortunately the swimming pool was out of order, a dip would have been very pleasant after a long day. I didn't fancy eating in the hotel so went "walkabout" and eventually found a small bar that served pleasant snacks.

2007-09-16

photo of entrance to Khudoyarkhan Palace
Khudoyarkhan Palace

I'm not sure why I woke up at 6:00, but had a nice leisurely breakfast before we hit the road again. Our first port of call was the Khudoyarkhan Palace, Kokand which is now a museum. Heard how it is now just a small part of what was originally a much larger site and how the Russians had demolished much of it and used the rest as an armoury. The museum was quite interesting but the most memorable thing was that the shop was selling some of the artifacts! The lunch options were pretty much the same as yesterdays but our onward journey would be quite different.

There was apparently a bad crash involving a bus at the pass we were going to have to traverse to get us to Tashkent and the Government had banned all such passenger carrying vehicles from using the route. Out truck was covered by the restriction so Jim would have to take the truck on a huge detour through Tajikstan to get to Tashkent. The rest of us did not have visas for Tajikstan and would go directly to Tashkent by taxi. Our guide rustled up 8 taxis and we set off in convey for a 250km. The ride took about 2.5 hours with some lunatic driving. I was "fortunate" enough to sit in the from passenger seat and were heading down the hazardous pass at up to 150kph, on one bend marked with a 40kph speed limit we were doing 120kph! The road surface was poor and the convey taxis were driving extremely close to each other as well as to other vehicles, there was also livestock crossing the roads! We were all glad when we finally arrived at our destination, the Hotel Grand Orzu in Tashkent.

Today it is Mike's birthday, it is also Elizabeth and Ali's wedding anniversary and we go to a German Beerhaus style garden a short walk from the hotel for dinner. It was a nice lively place and we ate a shared meal that we were recommended consisting of chicken and salad plus of course, beer. There was dancing going on, but. . . , only men dancing. Apparently women do not dance in public. This custom did not deter some of the women in our group who danced anyway and became extremely popular with the local male dancers. After the meal we split up with one group going in to the city to a club while the rest of us made our way back to the hotel.

2007-09-17

The last day of this leg of the journey for some of us, Bob and Jenny were taking the Aeroflot flight back to London later in the day. Rosie and Reed were planning to make a quick trip to Samarkand before heading back to Australia via Seoul. Dennis was also hoping to take a quick trip to Samarkand before heading back to Ireland. We all had a lingering breakfast talking to lots of folks before departing. I had a reservation at the Radisson SAS though my taxi driver initially took me to the wrong hotel, one of the problems that arise when some many hotels are called "Tashkent Hotel"!

In some ways it was nice to back in a reasonably familiar set of surroundings. I have stayed in lots of Radisson SAS hotels in Europe and knew what to expect but was nonetheless relieved when it turned out to, largely, meet those expectations.

2007-09-18

A couple of weeks on the road seemed to get me into the habit of getting up early. The range and quality of food served in the hotel for breakfast was superb, I savoured the various tastes while reading and thinking about how to spend the day. I enjoy looking around markets and decided to start the day with a trip to Chorsu market which is an old district of Tashkent. It would be quite a walk from the hotel, and I could not find a map of the city, so it seemed like a good excuse to try the Tashkent Metro, though even finding a map of the metro was problematic.

Luckily the hotel could give me directions to the Bodomzor stop on the green (Yunusbod) line which is only a 500M walk North from the hotel. The platform was an amazing place [see photo] and, as I was to discover as I visited more stations, this was not a one off. All the stations I saw were equally, but uniquely, different! There is only the one photograph because something disturbing happened while I was on the platform waiting for my train. While taking the photo I heard someone say "do not let them see you taking a picture or they will take you away". I looked around and it took me a moment to realize that it must have been the person sitting a few seats away from me. I also started to take notice of the others around and realised that there were two uniformed men on the platform. I then vaguely recalled having heard someone, somewhere, sometime, say that taking pictures of public/government buildings was illegal. The more I thought about it the more I came to realise that I had seen a lot of Police/Security/Military, not sure exactly who, pretty much everywhere I'd been in Uzbekistan. I even remembered seeing them walking around the German Beerhaus we'd eaten at a couple of days prior. This really put a damper on my day.

I went to Chorsu Market and it was a huge affair in an interesting part of the City but I couldn't get the "warning" I had received out of my mind and didn't pay as much attention as I might have done. I wandered all over the market area and then ended up at the Kukeldash maddrasah to the South where I took my only picture of what should have been a fascinating place.

I took the metro to Oybek on the blue (Uzbekiston) line and decided to walk from Oybek back to the hotel, not necessarily the wisest decision with only a postcard sized map in Cyrillic script.

The Cyrillic script is widely used throughout Uzbekistan for the Uzbek language. Cyrillic was forcibly introduced in 1940 replacing the Latin script that itself had only a few decades earlier replaced the Arabic script. A decision has been taken by the Government to adopt the Latin script in place of the Cyrillic script. This change is starting to become apparent in the areas I visited.

I meandered my way north over a couple of hours and along the way passed the Amir Temur Monument and a little later Amir Temur the Museum both of which commemorate their namesake Amir Temur who was born in 1336CE and created an enormous empire that covered an area from the Indus and Ganges up to Syr-Darya and Zarafshan, and from Tien-Shan to the Bosphorus.

When I got back to the hotel I decided I had had enough wandering around and would take a dip in the pool. It was a lovely bordered by gardens and I had it all to myself. I was unable to shake off the "blue funk" that the morning experience had left me in and decided to eat in the Hotel since I had to be up early to catch my plane. Unfortunately, there was a private function in the restaurant and I had not sunk so low as to have room service. I wandered till I found a small restaurant and had a quiet meal before retiring early.

2007-09-19

Nothing seemed to be going right since getting to Tashkent, I have no trouble getting up on time, the Hotel has arranged a taxi to the airport and it is waiting for me. However, when it comes to pay it seems that this is the moment my bank decides that it will decline the hotel attempt to bill me! Several tries, no joy. However, I am fortunate enough to have another card which is accepted.

Procedures at Tashkent International Airport are painfully slow. Checkin takes an age, I have been travelling the World for more than 30 years and this was the first time I have received a hand written boarding pass! More forms to fill in before emigration and I was careful to make sure I had my hotel receipts for every night to be able to prove where I had stayed while in Uzbekistan. It was at this point that I bumped into Dennis who spent his time visiting Samarkand. He had also had experience of state security, though different in nature to mine, on his tortuous journey to Samarkand and back to Tashkent. We made our way, slowly, through to the departure area only to find that the local currency, Uzbek Sum (UZS), was not accepted, and there was also no currency exchange to get rid of what we had, which is my case was, still is, 15,400SOM! Still, this about sums up my overall impression of the Uzbek state!

My flight from Tashkent (TAS) to Istanbul (IST) on Turkish Airways 1369 leaves on time at 06:15 (UTC +5 hours) and arrives at 09:25EEST (UTC +3 hours). I still had a valid Turkish Visa so procedures in Istanbul were straightforward but I had been unable to check my bags through to my final destination since I had made separate reservations for the different legs of the journey. So I had to go through arrivals and then check in again for my flight with Swiss for my flight via Zurich (ZCH) to Birmingham (BHX). All was plain sailing now and I spent an uneventful couple hours in the Star Alliance lounge before departing at 14:25EEST (UTC +3 hours).

Afterword

The Good

A great way to see the country. I loved the informal nature of the travel. An interesting mix of people resulted in various topics of conversation. Camping anywhere that looks interesting is refreshing change. When considering this sort of trip I was apprehensive about motion sickness, but it was not a problem. While it could be chilly at night this was not a problem and afforded spectacular star gazing opportunities. I will do another trip of this kind again!

The Bad

Very little to criticise about the actual trip or the generic style. Sharing my sleeping arrangements is not something I particularly like. I do not find it easy to get to sleep and if the person I am sharing with snores it drives me to distraction!

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