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Lazy Day in Bukhara and Trouble with Tibet Permit

Today different people were up for different activities. Some of my fellow travelers, who have the ambition to see all the sights of the places we travel to, went to see more of Bukhara’s 4Ms (mosques, mausoleums, minarets and madrasahs). The more relaxed ones went to a hamam or wine tasting. They said the wine was pretty much sweet but nice. No wonder in the hot climate of the area.

Personally, I don’t fancy to go sightseeing on every single day of my 15 months journey. Especially when you travel for a long time you need to pace yourself otherwise your mind gets numb from tons of impressions and experiences. Therefore, I like to use some of my free days to relax, to communicate with family & friends, to follow up on my blog or to do arrangements for my upcoming travel.

The travel arrangement I had to deal with today was the Tibet permit which I will need for my travel from Xi’an to Kathmandu. Dragoman informed me yesterday their local China / Tibet agent advised them that Tibet tourist permits may effective immediately not be issued to all nationalities nor all travelling groups. There has been no official announcement made by the Chinese government yet which makes it kind of difficult to understand the situation and act accordingly. The clearest explanation Dragoman can gather by now is those travelling in a group with more than five other travelers of the same nationality will most likely be approved and granted a Tibetan permit. Individuals or groups with less than five people of the same nationality are likely to be denied a permit to visit Tibet. Unfortunately in the group of people I’m supposed to travel aren’t enough fellow German travelers which put me at risk of having my Tibet permit denied.

Until now I wasn’t aware there is a risk of not receiving a Tibet permit and I have already booked my flights to join the trip in Xi’an and leave it in Kathmandu. There is also only a very narrow time window in which you can travel this route since most of the year it’s simply to cold and roads are impassable due to heavy snowfall. Dragoman only offers two trips a year with the departure dates of July 1 and July 31 in 2012. Therefore, I have arranged all my travel in a way to make one of these departure dates work. I’m also very much excited to travel to Tibet since the roots of Buddhism lie here, I would like to experience the high altitude on the “Roof of the World” and wander around the Mt. Everest base camp. Not being able to travel to Tibet would be a huge disappointment for me.

In order to obtain a Tibet permit I was communicating with my friend Michael and a local visa service back home to check if there is anything they can do for me. Unfortunately they couldn’t help here since it needs a local China / Tibet agent to apply for the permit. I also was in touch with Dragoman and it turned out they booked me on the July 1 departure date while I wanted to go on the July 31one. Luckily they were able to change my booking to the other departure date and magically four more Germans appeared on this trip which I found very strange but nice. So far I haven’t traveled with any German on a Dragoman trip and suddenly there should be four of them. Well, when this helps me to get the permit I don’t mind them. So keep your fingers crossed I will finally get the permit.

In the evening some of us went to a small restaurant featuring a roof terrace overlooking Bukhara. The food here was excellent and not too pricy. The restaurant even featured a piano. Strangely it wasn’t in the dining area but in a separate room where a lady was sitting playing the piano for the guests in the restaurant. This reminded me of our driver Sam who is a passionate piano player. Sam always looks for opportunities to play the piano while travelling. Unfortunately he’s not with us but still in Iran to repair the truck or on his way through Turkmenistan to catch up with us. We haven’t heard from him since days and I hope he’s doing fine.

After dinner I went on a walk with my roommate Isabella. We mainly strolled around the main square with a fountain in the middle. Some of the buildings surrounding the square were illuminated by colorful lights which Isabella very much enjoyed and what was her main intention to ask me to go on a walk in the dark with her.

The 4Ms of Bukhara and Excursion to a local Nightclub

Bukhara is our second stop on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan. It used to be a very powerful Khanate controlling most of Turkmenistan and the surrounding area. The city has been a center of trade, culture and religion which left it with an interesting history and an architecture which is considered one of the finest in all of Uzbekistan. The historic center of Bukhara is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and features lots of what we call the 4Ms (mosques, mausoleums, minarets and madrasahs). Nowadays the Uzbek government invests a significant amount of money to preserve the cities sights and I could observe lots of restoration work in the city.

Exploring Bukhara gave us an excellent impression how Central Asia has been before the Soviet domination. We spent most of the day walking with Jelol, our local guide, around the city. It’s more touristy then Khiva, the last place we visited. There is hardly any sight which isn’t swamped by local people trying to sell souvenirs. They reach from carpets, clothes, books, postcards to Soviet pins and hats. There are also much more tourists around mainly from Germany and France. Uzbekistan seems to be a popular destination for pensioners who have been to many other parts of the world or who have a specific interest in the history of the area and the Silk Road.

The first stop of our walking tour was a carpet museum where we could see a number of historic carpets. Actually carpets are not only a popular souvenir from the Silk Road but also popular amongst the locals. Many of them own a number of carpets and do not only cover the floor with them but also the walls to protect their house from the cold in winter time.

The main sight of Bukhara is the Po-i-Kalyan Complex containing a number of historic structures. One of them is the Kalyan Minaret which was used by the muezzins to summon the Muslims to prayer. The Kalyan Minaret is 45m high and also known as Tower of Death since until the beginning of the twentieth century it was used to execute criminals by throwing them from the top of the tower. Certainly not a way I would prefer to die. Other historic buildings in the complex are the Kalân Mosque and the Mir-i Arab Madrassah at which we had a look at.

The next stop of our tour was the The Ark Fortress. Unfortunately it was closed for restoration so we could only see its wall and entrance. Jelol told us if we would like to visit the fortress we should come back in the evening and bribe the police. There seems to be nothing wrong with bribing in this country and sometimes we got even ask by the police if we would like to have a look at certain closed sights for some small money.

Only a few steps away from the fortress was a mosque which is called the Forty Pillar Mosque. Actually it only has twenty pillars but when you include the reflections in a pond nearby you can count forty pillars. The last stop of our walking tour around Bukhara was the Samanid Mausoleum which is the resting place of a powerful emir. The mausoleum is very well preserved because it used to be covered by soil for many years and therefore it was hard to spot by enemies.

When visiting sights in Uzbekistan we often not just get charged an entrance fee but they also try to sell us a photo permit costing 1-2 USD per sight. Not purchasing the permit, as I did, was never an issue since often you didn’t even receive a ticket proofing you purchased the permit. There is also no staff around checking who is taking pictures and who not so simply save the money.

Before heading back to the hotel some of us tried Pilaf which is a local rice dish. You can buy it everywhere on the street and also find it on the menu of many restaurants.

In the evening we went to a local nightclub which was an interesting cultural experience. The entry fee for women was about half the price of the one for men and after entering the nightclub I found out why this was the case. About 80 percent of the guests were male and not particularly handsome. On the dance floor I literally had to push a number of them away from me because they tried to touch me with their fat little hands or rub their sweaty body on me. Also the music was kind of interesting. It changed from electronic music to local pop songs and belly-dancing music. While the belly-dancing music was played, some of the local ladies where fighting with each other for the fame of the best dancer. It wasn’t really a joy to watch since also the women weren’t particularly beautiful and their dance performance was kind of embarrassing. Although I really enjoy spending the whole night dancing in a club I had enough of it after 1-2 hours so I went back to the hotel and the others were following me. Seems nobody really liked it.

Train Ride from Khiva to Bukhara

The main worry of our leader Jason was how we all will be travelling to Bukhara the next stop of our journey. Our truck is still in a workshop in Iran. The posh air-conditioned coach, who picked us up at the border and brought us to Khiva, isn’t available and there is no other coach which we could rent. While validating different options our local guide Jelol came up with the idea of us traveling by train to Bukhara. The train is only running every few days but luckily there was a train running overnight from May 17 to May 18. Travelling overnight means we will miss our second night in Khiva for which we will receive no refund from the hotel. Therefore, we at least stayed in the hotel until 8pm yesterday when we left for the train station by minibus.

We had reservations for sleeping cabins holding four people each. Unfortunately we couldn’t occupy each cabin with four people of our group and so we ended up sharing with strangers. I was sharing a cabin with a fellow traveler from the UK and two local guys who didn’t speak any word with me during the entire journey. Instead they were staring at my ass when I climbed up on the bunk bed since I was wearing a mini-dress only. My fellow traveler Chris from New Zealand was luckier with his cabin mates. He shared with a couple from Kazakhstan offering him some of their tea. Unfortunately they didn’t speak any English and so Jelol helped translating a basic conversation. Their first question was not what Chris’s name is or where he’s coming from but for what that big red plastic thing, he’s carrying with him, is good for. The thing is Chelsea, a red plastic sheep, which Chris received as a present from Alistair and Andrew in Ashgabat (see post of May 13). It’s of no specific use but we all love it by now and it has become the mascot of our journey through Central Asia.

During our train ride the main action was actually not in the cabins but in the dining car where we started a little party with the locals and the restaurant staff. It started off by us playing a card game called Asshole. It has very simple rules and determines a winner and a second place called “President” and “Vice President”. The looser and the second last place are called “Asshole” and “Secretary”. For some reason, which doesn’t include cheating, I was doing well and never ended up last or second last. So I could avoid drinking a shot of Vodka after each round which was the penalty for the “Asshole” and the “Secretary”. Jason and my fellow traveler Paul from Canada where the unluckily ones who had to drink a lot and ended up pretty much drunk after playing the game for an hour or so. In addition to the drinking penalty the “President” could determine another penalty for the looser and so I made Jason and Paul performing a catwalk show making use of the whole length of the dining car for our all entertainment.

After playing that drinking game for a while we started toasting to all kinds of things and so I couldn’t avoid any more drinking one shot of vodka after the other. Since I’m not a big drinker I switched into survival mode and started cheating. It wasn’t too hard since we were using tea bowls for drinking since no glasses were available. Nobody could see how much Vodka was in my bowl and how much of it I was actually drinking. Whenever no one was looking I used the opportunity to distribute parts of my Vodka to other bowls which avoided me getting totally pissed. With this strategy I even managed to survive Alex, a local guy drinking with us, who seems to drink Vodka like I’m drinking water. While his wife and baby were sleeping in the cabin he was up and partying with us. What a great intercultural exchange. When returning to my cabin in the middle of the night the restaurant staff thought I’m completely drunk and tried to charge me twice for some of the drinks we had. Nice try since I was still pretty much sober. After a ten min discussion I just walked off and they didn’t stop me.

Sleeping in the train was really comfortable. Luckily none of the three boys in my cabin was snoring and so I had a very deep sleep recovering from the drinking event. I got up around 9am and when I went to the dining car to check what’s for breakfast the staff recognized me and gave me high 5 for seeing me alive without any signs of a hangover.

After we arrived in Bukhara around 10am we took a minibus to our hotel. On the way to my room I was running into a guy hanging out in the lobby area and exchanged 2-3 sentences with him. Afterwards I went with my roommate Isabella to grab some lunch but we somehow got lost and ended up in a not so nice part of the town where we had not so tasty but cheap street food. There I also bought crisps with Shashlik flavor which had a very interesting taste.

Back at the hotel I received a phone call in my room from the guy I met in the lobby of the hotel inviting me to spend the evening with him. His name is Murat and he’s an engineer from Turkey. Since he was quite handsome and entertaining I followed his invitation.

The Inner Town of Khiva

Khiva is a major stop on the Silk Road and therefore a must see when visiting Uzbekistan. The town consists of an outer town which is nowadays the main residential area and an inner town where you can see lots of historic buildings. For simplicity reasons we started to call them the “4Ms” standing for mosques, mausoleums, minarets and madrasahs. Basically our whole journey in Uzbekistan consists of looking at the 4Ms of three key cities on the Silk Road which are Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Therefore, my blog entries for the next days will contain many 4M pictures and I hope you stay with me and don’t get bored of them.

Today’s activity was to visit the 4Ms of the inner town of Khiva which is recognized by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The inner town, also called Itchan Kala, is circled by a 10 meter high brick wall with four gates. Our hotel was only a five minute walk away from the West Gate through which we entered the town. Inside the walls the inner town features 250 old houses and 50 historic monuments so there’s a lot to see and you can easily spend a whole day walking around.

When entering the West Gate the first building which struck my eye was a large tower in blue, turquoise and white color. It’s supposed to be a minaret but when the Khan, who started to build the minaret, died his successor didn’t finish it. Nobody knows why this was the case but it’s said he might have realized the completed minaret will allow the muezzin, who is standing on top of the minaret to call for prayer, to overlook his harem. And you really don’t want a stranger to stare at your half naked women.

During our visit of the inner town our local guide Jelol was taking us around a number of buildings and I’m unable to recall them all. Many of them had beautiful tiles and when looking closer at them I spotted the technique they used to tile the walls. Each tile has a number which is the type of communication the tile maker used to tell the guy tiling the wall in which order he should put the tiles on the wall. Secondly each tile has a hole through which the tile was nailed on the wall which is very much different to the gluing today.

At one of the buildings we had the opportunity to climb on the roof from where we had a great overview of the town. I really love this town since the buildings and the wall surrounding them are very much intact and give an excellent impression how life on the Silk Road must have been hundreds of years ago.

We also had a look into a small museum featuring historic clothes, jewelry and money. Here I found a note particularly interesting. In contrast to our money today it wasn’t made out of paper but silk. What is also interesting to know about the museums and sights in Uzbekistan is there are some sights where you aren’t requested to pay an entrance fee. Instead the historic building or museum is turned into a shop and there a numerous local ladies trying to sell you scarfs, hats and other souvenirs. While I barely felt any tourism in Iran and Turkmenistan I’m now in the middle of it. Unfortunately some sights don’t look too nice when they are swamped by locals trying to sell you stuff which you don’t need.

I also felt the tourism in the area by specific tourist attractions being created and offered to us. One was an acrobatic show which some people in our group wanted to have a look at and so we did. There were two guys walking across a wire rope in all kinds of strange positions such as one guy making a handstand on the head of the other guy while he was crossing the wire rope.

I really enjoyed walking around in town and even remembered the location of the West Gate to make my way back to the hotel.

Border Crossing into Uzbekistan

I had a good sleep in the tent next to Helen. The only issue was I didn’t have a pillow and so my neck got somehow cracked because of me sleeping in a strange position. Now it’s a pain to move my head around and I’m unable to look over my shoulder so I always need to turn my whole body around. I’m afraid it will take a few days until I’m painless again.

Breakfast was at 7:00am but when I showed up at 7:05am all fruit and other eatable stuff was gone. The only thing left was the bread we purchased yesterday and some marmalade. Usually this isn’t an issue but what we didn’t know until now is the bread in Turkmenistan turns stone-hard in a couple of hours. So instead of eating it and losing all your teeth you can actually use it to kill someone. You might think I’m exaggerating here, but sadly it’s true. We ended-up playing Frisbee with the bread and threw it into the Amu-Darya River close by so the fishes can enjoy it.

From Konye-Urgench it was only a short drive to the border, maybe two hours or so. What‘s also interesting to know is upon entry of Turkmenistan you need to register in a government agency which we did during our stay in Ashgabat. For the registration you need two passport photos or when you don’t have them three US dollar and they take a picture from the photo in your passport. As proof you have registered, you receive a stamp in your passport and an “Entry Travel Pass” which you are supposed to carry with you at all times. The pass states the route you are allowed to travel and you shouldn’t head off in any other direction or you might get in trouble with the police.

At the border we said goodbye to our Turkmen guide Batsy and the drivers of the jeeps. Then we grabbed our backpacks and walked into the immigration office at the Turkmenistan side. Here we got stamped out of the country and they didn’t even check our “Entry Travel Pass”. Immigrations at the Uzbekistan side was a bit more complicated since the arrival forms, we needed to fill out, where in Russian language only and our local guide for Uzbekistan wasn’t there yet. So with the help of my roommate Isabella, who speaks a bit of Polish which is kind of similar to Russian, we managed to understand the form.

We were also requested to fill out two identical copies of the arrival form since carbon copy paper didn’t make it to this part of the world. On the form we needed to declare all money we carry with us in all kinds of different currencies. At least there wasn’t any restriction you cannot carry more than 10,000 USD with you as it’s the case in some countries. The reason for declaring your money upon entry is because the government wants to know how much money you have spent in the country. When leaving Uzbekistan you will be required to declare your money again on the exit form. It needs to be at least one USD less than the amount you entered the country with otherwise they won’t let you go.

After crossing the border we enjoyed some cold drinks in a small bar right behind the immigrations office which accepted small dollar notes as payment. After everybody crossed the border our local guide for Uzbekistan showed-up. His name is Jelol and he’s a very funny guy not just telling us lots of historical facts but also about the daily life and mindset of the people in Uzbekistan. Jelol arrived in a big modern air-conditioned coach which will bring us to Khiva where we will spend the next two days.

Upon arrival Isabella and I checked-out the local supermarket. There wasn’t much choice but the section selling vodka was about one third of the size of the supermarket. In the evening everybody met for a group dinner at the terrace of the hotel. We had a selection of different local dishes on small plates and really enjoyed the taste of it.

Konye-Urgench Site and Basic Cooking

I slept very well in the sand of the Karakum Desert. It wasn’t cold at all and I even had to take off clothes during nighttime. Unfortunately I couldn’t see as many stars as I usually see when sleeping in the desert since the burning gas of the Darvaza crater was lightening up the sky.

We continued our drive towards the border of Uzbekistan. The roads in this area of the country were in pretty bad condition. They weren’t covered in tarmac and had many potholes which made the ride somewhat bumpy. The drivers of our jeeps were quite funny and I started to call them “товарищ” in English “comrade”, another useful word I learned in my Russian class at Eastern Germany times. After a while the drivers made a laugh out of it to call me “товарищ” as well.

At lunch time we stopped at a little restaurant right next to the road. There was a choice of three dishes: a Turkmen type of pizza, dumplings and soup. I ordered the pizza and dumplings and shared them with Jason. The pizza looked very interesting. It was more a big piece of bread flavored with onions. Since I like warm bread I really much enjoyed it. The dumplings were very similar to Japanese Gyoza just the meat inside was a bit chewy.

While us having lunch a bridal couple showed up to celebrate their wedding in the restaurant. Since the restaurant was very small we were right in the middle of the action and the locals seemed not to care. The bride was very beautiful wearing a white wedding dress. The couple was supposed to sit down at the small table where my fellow travelers Paul and Mike were having their lunch. They quickly stood up so the bridal couple could have a seat. Afterwards the doors of the restaurant were closed, the light switched off and the whole restaurant received a nightclub type of atmosphere. They played loud dance music and everybody was dancing. I simply stood up and joined the people on the dance floor and a few others in my travel group were following.

In the afternoon we stopped at Konye-Urgench. I don’t know if this is just the name of the historical site in the area or the name of the small town next to it as well. However, I and a handful others volunteered to go shopping on the town’s market and cook tonight’s dinner. There wasn’t much choice and so we bought a bunch of vegetables and some bread to prepare a salad. We also bought some more bread, jam and fruits for breakfast.

After shopping we had a look at the historical site of Konye-Urgench which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the site of an ancient town featuring a number of ruins. First we had a look at the Törebeg Hanym Mausoleum with a colorful dome in blue tiles. Next was the Gutluk Temir Minaret which has a height of 60m and looked like a big chimney. Minarets are visual focus points and used for calls to prayer, so no chimney but a big loudspeaker. Also on the ground of the site was the Il-Arslan Mausoleum with the tomb of Mohammed II’s grandfather. It’s a holy place so we weren’t allowed to go inside but just relaxed a few minutes outside the building.  The last building we saw was the Soltan Tekes Mausoleum with a small blue dome covered in a scaffold.

Next to the mausoleums was a small hill. In front of it were two wooden sticks in the ground and it’s said if you walk through them three times in counterclockwise direction one of your wishes will come true. Just for fun I used this opportunity and made a wish. On top of the little hill was another place with special power. It was a round object on the ground consisting of small handmade baby cribs. It’s said you need to circle it three times for each baby you want to receive and since I still want a bunch of kids at some point in my live I circled it a few times as well to be on the safe side. I just wasn’t sure about the direction and thought counterclockwise will do. The last thing to see at the small hill were some old Russian graves.

Around 5pm we set up our camp at the Amu-Darya River. While some used the opportunity for a swim, I and a handful others prepared lunch. Same as last night we had no cooking equipment available. We reconstructed an old cardboard box and covered it with plastic bags from shopping to serve as a large salad bowl. Chopping the vegetables with a pocket knife to make a salad for 21 people was quite painful but we somehow managed it. Cooking tonight somehow felt like a teambuilding exercise and I really much enjoyed it since it was very much basic.

Since there were many mosquitos right next to the river I decided not to sleep under the stars tonight since I caught already a number of bites during dinner. Instead I shared a tent with Helen, a fellow traveler from Australia now living in Sweden.

Darvaza Gas Crater or Gate to Hell

After a long clubbing night I was still very much sleepy this morning. The first big smile I was running into was the one of the Turkmenistan president whose picture was decorating the wall of the lobby in the hotel, so my day was made. It’s actually quite hard to walk more than 20 meters in a public building without seeing the smile of the president so popular are pictures of him.

After breakfast my body was still in sleeping mode so I decided to use the free morning in Ashgabat to go for a run around the city’s station which was very close to our hotel. I quickly changed into some comfortable clothes, grabbed my iPod and went running for an hour. It was very hot and sunny so it didn’t take long until I started to sweat. Back in the hotel I showered and since the run made me even more tired than awake I went back to bed and slept until lunch time.

In the hotel I was also running into Kurt, one of the new people who joined our trip yesterday. He’s an American citizen and since the US embassy is situated on the fourth floor of our hotel he went there to have a look around. They even invited him to use the internet access of the embassy since the one in our hotel wasn’t working. Kurt offered me to introduce me as friend of the United Nations and so I might be able to use the internet as well. Since there wasn’t much time left until our departure and I had no desperate need to use the internet, I didn’t made use of his offer.

We all met in the lobby of our hotel at 1pm. Our leader Jason did actually manage to hire five jeeps for the cost of 150 USD per jeep and day as well as ten tents so we were able to continue our travel through Turkmenistan. Some people, including my roommate Isabella, had volunteered to go shopping this morning since we will be camping during the next two nights and therefore need to prepare our own food.

Each jeep had one Turkmen driver and so we just needed to take place in one of the vehicles and enjoy the ride. We headed east in the direction of the Karakum Desert and the border to Uzbekistan. The desert is pretty large and covers 70 percent of the country. Therefore, Turkmenistan isn’t a popular spot for tourists since despite from sand, bad roads and small villages there isn’t much to see in this country.

I chose to sit in the jeep right next to Kurt I’ve got to know closer this morning. He’s an accounting professor from the US and even when accounting isn’t my favorite, Kurt is a very nice guy and its fun talking to him. We even discovered a few similarities such as Kurt knowing my accounting professor from Fuqua and we both are members of BGS.

After driving for a couple of hours we stopped at a shop in a small village. The people there were very shy and not used to foreigners being around them so it was hard to start a conversation with them. Especially the women were beautiful and dressed in colorful clothes. The schoolgirls had a very special uniform consisting of a long green dress, a white apron and a small colorful hat.

During our travel through the Karakum Desert we also stopped at three gas craters. They are remains from the Soviet time when geologists where drilling for gas reserves. While the first crater we saw was just a massive hole in the ground the second one had some burning gas and bubbling mud at its ground. The highlight was the third crater we visited near Darvaza. Here geologists hit a cavern filled with natural gas. In order to avoid the gas to discharge the idea was to burn it off in a couple of days. This was already in 1971 but the crater is still burning today. It has about the size of a football field and you can come very close to feel the heat and smell the gas. Seeing this massive burning crater made me aware of me sleeping on a kind of massive gas bottle tonight.

We set up our camp approx. 200-300m away from the burning crater. Since there wasn’t enough space in the tents to have boys and girls separated, Jason proposed I’m sharing a tent with our local Turkmen guide Batsy since he saw me kissing him last night. I wasn’t keen on him why I decided to better sleep outside in the sand which I enjoy anyhow when being in a desert. There were only a few bugs crawling in the sand but probably they will not be walking over my face and I will be fine. At least there is no rain in the desert.

Preparing dinner was a kind of adventure too since we didn’t have any cooking equipment and therefore needed to use our pocket knives and cook over the open camp fire. Isabella did a fantastic job in guiding the people cooking and so we had some very delicious Shashlik consisting of meat and vegetables.

At nighttime the burning crater really appeared like the gate to hell. Kurt and I went down to have a closer look at it. The both of us stood with open eyes and mouth at the rim and enjoyed the natural spectacle.

Ashgabat City Tour and Party Night in the Hotel

After a delicious breakfast in the hotel we met at 10am to get introduced to the new people joining us on the next leg of the trip which is from Ashgabat to Tashkent. While all seven travelers, who have been on the trip from Istanbul to Ashgabat, will continue to Tashkent we will be joined by 12 new people bringing the total number to 19 travelers plus one leader and one local guide. The key reason while this leg is so crowded is because it has only a length of two weeks which also attracts people on a normal 2-3 week vacation and not just long-term travelers like us. There are also only two nights camping and Uzbekistan, where we will spend the most time on this trip, is the heart of the Silk Road with many historic sights to see.

At the group meeting our leader Jason briefly explained the situation of the truck to us. Basically after the truck got fixed, Sam drove only 10km before it broke down again. He and our local Iranian guide Mehdi needed to spend the night in the truck next to the road. Currently the truck is towed to Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran and the closest city to where our truck broke down. Towing the truck to Mashhad will take approx. two days. Sam is hoping to get the necessary spare parts there in order to repair the truck. The issue is not just a problem with one of the cylinders as we thought initially but a crack in the head of the engine. Fixing it will cost a few thousand dollars, at least one week time and is only possible in either Mashhad or Tehran. Sam will also need to extend his visa and find a translator in Mashhad since our local Iranian guide needed to leave him yesterday since he has new customers to take care of. Our leader Jason is already working on a contingency plan. His aim is to not interrupt the trip and he tries to hire jeeps and camping equipment so we can continue our journey through Turkmenistan.

After the group meeting, we went on a city tour with our local Turkmen guide Batsy. The weather was very hot and sunny and I was glad to exchange the fully covered Muslim outfit, I was wearing during the last two weeks, against a mini dress. Ashgabat has only 900,000 inhabitants and therefore it’s quite easy to get around. The city’s main attraction is supposed to be the Sunday market and so we went there to have a look at it. The market is really large and you can spend hours walking around. It’s said to be the largest market in all of Central Asia. The market consists of many buildings, each dedicated to a specific range of products such as fabrics, furniture or carpets. Here people bought different things: Alistair and Andrew bought a big red plastic sheep for Chris named Chelsea since Chris loves football but not this particular club, Lauren bought a pair of roller-skates which she will probably not be able to use much on this trip and I bought a silly hat as a birthday present for our driver Sam. The market also contains a special livestock section where all kinds of animals are traded, including cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, horses and camels.

After walking around for 1.5 hours at the large Sunday market we continued to another market called the Russian market where we spent the same amount of time. The Russian market was primarily dedicated to food products and I used the chance to purchase a watermelon which is one of my favorite fruits. I also bought a German / Russian phrasebook to be able to have some basic conversations with the locals. Since I grew up in Eastern Germany I actually had to study Russian for eight years but I can’t remember much since I never had the opportunity to speak the language. At least I’m still able to read Cyrillic script and remember a few words including “сельскохозяйственный производственный кооператив” which means “agricultural production cooperative” or so.

At the way back to the hotel we stopped at a couple of sights. There is actually not much left from the imperial Russian city of the past since nearly all buildings were destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1948. Today the center of Ashgabat appears very futuristic, modern but also sterile. Most buildings and monuments shine in white and golden color. Even the benches and lanterns in the park have golden color attached to them. It feels very weird to see the entire splendor concentrated here in the capital for representation purposes only while the remaining country hasn’t even proper roads.

Although we are staying in a four star hotel the internet isn’t working. My roommate Isabella and Jason even went to a five star hotel to use their internet but same story there. The internet café around the corner of our hotel is closed on weekends. Isabella and Jason even drove to a shopping mall with an open internet café but were also not able to use their services. The reason is they wanted to see their passports in order to allow them using the internet. The problem was we needed to hand in our passport and two passport photos in order to get registered in the country and therefore had no access to our passports, so no internet access for us in Turkmenistan.

The country also has a set of other rules which appear kind of weird. For instance smoking isn’t allowed on the street which I don’t care much since I don’t smoke. For some strange reason you are also not allowed to be out on the streets after 11pm otherwise you need to pay a penalty. Exceptions are only made for people who need to work during night time and can prove it. Therefore, nightclubs are located in hotels so people who go out clubbing can sleep there. It also happened yesterday that all nightclubs were not allowed to open since some foreign delegation was in the country.

Since the nightclub was closed yesterday, we needed to go out tonight. We started our nightlife excursion in the same beer garden we have been yesterday. There I had some chicken for dinner which very much tasted like minced lamb. It was also time to bring my bet with Jason to an end (see post of May 4). Back then he said: “I bet you I have your name tattooed on my ass” and now it was time he’s dropping his pants to prove it. Actually he was right since I couldn’t read “Katja” on his ass but “Your name” so the first round of drinks was on me. After we had a couple of vodkas we changed the location to the nightclub of our hotel. There my fellow traveler Lauren, who’s beginning of twenty, was rocking the dance floor in a flashy techno outfit and moves. She has lots of energy and probably spent all night dancing.

In the meanwhile I enjoyed a conversation with our local guide Batsy and somehow ended up kissing him. There were also a number of hookers around trying to make some business with Western tourists. They charge 150 USD per job but at least I could enjoy a free dance with them.

Border Crossing into Turkmenistan and Beer Garden in Ashgabat

We had to say goodbye to Iran and enter a new country, Turkmenistan. We were ready for departure in the lobby of our hotel in Shirvan at 8am. Unfortunately our truck didn’t arrive as expected. Our leader Jason found out the truck got actually repaired last night but after driving for 10km it broke down again. Sam and our local guide Mehdi, who was helping him translating to the mechanics in the workshop, needed to sleep in the truck on the road. The issue seems to be more severe and it will take a couple of more days to repair the truck.

Jason quickly arranged a minibus for us which was supposed to bring us to the Turkmenistan border. The minibus arrived at 8:30am and it took three hours to drive to the border. On the way we saw an accident.  A bus was completely burned out and smoking quite heavily. There was nothing what we could have done since the firefighters and police had already arrived and the situation seemed to be under control.

When leaving Iran we needed to follow a three step procedure. First our entire luggage was inspected. I have no clue what customs was searching for. They didn’t use an x-ray machine but everybody needed to open their luggage and an officer was searching it by hand. Next was a passport check where Jason collected all our passports and submitted them as a group. Unfortunately this didn’t speed up the process so we ended up waiting 1.5 hours for our passports getting processed and we getting stamped out of the country. While waiting Jason was standing right next to the counter hoping his presence will speed up the process and everybody else was sitting in the waiting zone watching some Iranian TV. The program wasn’t too exciting. We watched people praying in a mosque and after 1.5 hours I had enough of it and was glad to move on to the last check. It was a health check but strangely the officer was only checking my passport without having a look at me. I didn’t even saw the officer since the counter window was very high up so I had to stretch out my body in order to submit my passport.

Upon entry of Turkmenistan we went through a high fence and two meters after it an officer wanted to see our letters of invitation before we were allowed to proceed to the building. There we needed to wait from 1pm to 2pm since all officers went for lunch and the border was closed. As soon as the officers came back everybody except for me used their letter of invitation to obtain their Turkmenistan visa. I had already obtained mine with the help of my friend Michael and a visa service back home.

While people trying to get their visa Batsy, our local guide for Turkmenistan, showed up. He has never worked with Dragoman before and we hope he will prove himself helpful during our travel in Turkmenistan. His first task was to help translating so people manage to get their visa. It still ended up in some confusion since Chris from New Zealand needed to pay 225 USD for his visa and Emilie from Australia 195 USD. These amounts seemed extraordinary high but after a while we figured out Chris and Emilie both paid not just for their visa but for three visas each so other people in our group needed to pay them back. Payment needed to be done at a bank in the same building which charged a two dollar bank fee.

In addition to the visa and bank fee everybody needed to pay a 10 dollar immigration fee for the work of the immigration officers. So far I never had to pay an immigration fee at a border crossing and the services of immigration have always been free of charge. At least the information I provided with my visa application in Germany was enough and I didn’t need to fill out an arrival card upon entry of the country. Interesting to know is also Emilie tried to change her remaining Iranian Rials into Turkmenistan Manat but nobody, even the bank, wanted to change her money. So Jason ended up buying the Rials from her and changed them later on in Ashgabat on the best available rate which made him loosing 20 USD on the change of Rials worth 60 USD. The last step at immigration was an x-ray of our bags and then we were free to enter the country.

Ashgabat was only a short drive away from the border. According to Jason, driving into the city felt like driving into Las Vegas since there were many new and fancy buildings around. I would compare the drive into the city more with a drive into Brasilia. The modern part of the city seemed to be built from scratch in order to create a capital representing Turkmenistan to the world. Everything was in white, golden and very shiny. We stayed in a four star hotel named “Ak Altyn Hotel” which was situated in the heart of the city. Usually we stay in less posh hotels while overlanding but there is no real budget accommodation in the city. The only cheaper hotels are said to be very bad and dirty so we went for the more comfortable option.

Since this was our first night outside of Iran and we are actually allowed to drink alcohol and party, we went into a beer garden right next to the hotel which was recommended by our guide. There we had Shashlik which is the Russian version of the Kebab we had in Iran. The main difference between Shashlik and Kebab is the Shashlik has bigger and fattier pieces of meat than the Kebab. Also the Shashlik I know from home is a mix of meat and vegetables on the same stick but the version here had no vegetables but meat only.

While eating we saw many local people showing up with empty Coca-Cola bottles which they got filled with beer from the tap. Maybe the beer here is really good or cheaper than the one in the supermarket. We also had lots of beer and vodka with it. My roommate Isabella even went to the supermarket close by to purchase more vodka which we mixed with the one we bought in the beer garden. All of this ended up in us getting pretty drunk. Jason and Patricia even jumped on the table to dance on it but were stopped by the staff. Around 10:30pm everybody disappeared suddenly, probably because in Turkmenistan you are not allowed to be on the street after 11pm. Patricia and I were the only ones left from our group. While I was kind of tipsy, Patricia was very much drunk so I had to walk her back to the hotel, give her lots of water, find out her room number and deliver her there.

Breakdown of the Trucks Engine

We started driving very early at 6am since my fellow traveler Andrew read in his guidebook there is an Iranian version of the Great Chinese Wall in the area at which he wanted to have a look at. In order to see the wall we needed to make a detour and therefore start driving a couple of hours earlier.

After driving for two hours we heard a strange noise and stopped the truck. Our crew Sam and Jason needed half an hour to inspect the truck and find out what the actual problem is. It turned out there is an issue with one of the cylinders of the engine. It was nothing what we could repair straight away while being on the road, also because we don’t carry the required spare parts with us.

While Sam continued to inspect the truck in more detail our local guide Mehdi was on his phone to sort out alternative transportation for us so we could continue our travel while the truck is getting repaired. He also organized another truck which will tow our truck to the next Mercedes workshop.

While waiting for a minibus to bring us out of here we had the leftovers of Chris’s birthday cake and sorted out our luggage for the next days. Some of my fellow travelers were very pessimistic and thought we will not see this truck again. They were planning to take their entire luggage including all their valuables. I was rather optimistic and therefore decided to take only my backpack with my clothes but leave my camping equipment (tent, sleeping bag, mattress and pillow) behind. I thought we will probably not be camping when we don’t have our truck with us which contains tents for all people and the complete cooking equipment. I also decided to leave the majority of my valuables in the safe of the truck and only take some money for the next 2-3 weeks and my credit cards in case of an emergency. I felt better that way than carrying a large amount of cash with me.

Jason also collected some US dollar cash to give it to Sam who will stay behind with the truck while Jason will continue with us. Getting an engine repaired can cost serveral tousands of dollars why it’s handy to have them in cash in a country like Iran where international cards aren’t excepted.

Actually whenever you plan to travel to Central Asia don’t plan to use your debit card, credit card or traveler’s checks. It’s very hard or often even impossible to withdraw money. So you better take all money you will need in US dollar cash. Euros are partially fine as well and I changed them from time to time to avoid changing twice (Euro to USD to local currency). However, I noticed the exchange rate for Euro is often less favorable than the one for Dollar, so better take more Dollars than Euros.

While waiting, some of us had a look around in the little village of Rudbar Gheshlagh where our truck broke down and got some bread for breakfast. We also took a last group picture with our guide Mehdi because we might not see him again before crossing the border into Turkmenistan the day after tomorrow. Therefore, we also collected money to give him a tip. I personally found it distressing to see some people not making any contribution to it. How mean can somebody be to not give any tip to a guide who has been with us more or less 24 hours a day for two weeks? I probably will never understand this…

At 11am another truck arrived which was supposed to tow our truck to the next Mercedes workshop. Sam immediately got busy to attach our truck to it and get ready for departure. The driver of the other truck wanted to help him, went underneath our truck and started to drain off the oil. This drove Sam crazy since he didn’t saw the need to drain off all the oil and he started a big discussion with him. In the end he could stop him and got a smile back on his face when I complimented him for his greasy manly look.

At 11:30am the minibus arrived which is supposed to bring us to today’s destination Shirvan close to the Turkmenistan border. We all hopped into the minibus and enjoyed the ride with some Iranian pop music played by the driver. After driving for a few kilometers a local women joined us who seemed to be related to the driver and was sitting next to him. Some of us had a basic conversation with her and for some reason she was very keen on getting the contact details of all of us.

At lunch time we stopped at a hotel with a restaurant attached to it. Unfortunately the waiter didn’t speak any English. After two attempts to place our orders he was calling his English teacher and my fellow traveler Andrew placed our orders over the phone to the English teacher who was translating it back to the waiter. This worked out well since we all received what we ordered without anything being lost in translation.

We arrived in Shirvan in the late afternoon. The hotel was owned by the government why they have the requirement to hold the passports of all guests overnight. The reason seemed to be security since they don’t want anybody to leave without paying their bill. Andrew had a big discussion with the staff at the reception since he wasn’t comfortable leaving his passport with them and he at least wanted to have a receipt for it. I took it easy and just went to my room while Andrew spent 20-30 min of his lifetime to get a receipt and to be on the save side.

In the evening we went for a walk around in town. Isabella and I shared a pizza topped with sausages in a small little restaurant. While placing our order we figured out the owner of the restaurant is deaf-mute but with the help of pen and paper we were able to place our order and even to have a small conversation with him. He also wanted to get his picture taken with us and we did him the favor.

Back at the hotel a wedding party was going on but there wasn’t too much to see. People were just sitting around on tables without any music or dancing going on, probably because dancing in public isn’t allowed in Iran.

We also heard the truck arrived at a Mercedes workshop and should be repaired around midnight. Sam will then drive all night to catch up with us tomorrow morning. He is also pushing to get the truck repaired as quickly as possible since his visa and the truck permit will expire in two days.