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Visa Issues, Sauna and Poker Night

This morning Emilie and I met with a lady from a local travel agency to sort out our visa issues. Before joining the trip Emilie didn’t have time to obtain the visas which are required for the travel between Istanbul and Beijing. So she flew into Istanbul a couple of days earlier and obtained most of her visas there. However, she still doesn’t have a Chinese visa and need to apply for it here in Bishkek since China will be the next country we are visiting. My visa issue is slightly different. I have a Kyrgyz visa which will expire on June 13th but we will leave the country on June 14th so it’s one day short. The reason why my visa is a day short is the itinerary of the trip has changed after I had already obtained my visa.

During the discussion with the lady it turned out my issue is pretty easy to solve. I only need to give her my passport and a photo and she will apply for the extension on my behalf. In a couple of days we will be back in Bishkek and I will get my passport back. In the meanwhile I will just carry a photocopy of my passport (picture page and Kyrgyz visa page) with me in case a police officer wants to check it. Emilie’s issue appeared more difficult. She will not be able to continue with us to our next destination the Chong Kemin Valley because she will need to submit her visa application in person. The issue is the Chinese embassy does only open on specific days of the week and today on a Thursday it’s closed. So the plan is Emilie submits her application tomorrow and then gets a local bus to catch up with us.

We checked out of the hotel at lunch time. Before actually heading off to the Chong Kemin Valley we went to a small supermarket to shop for food. They actually didn’t have much choice and in addition my fellow traveler Andrew had set himself the target to spend as less money as possible. His idea was to cook some spaghetti in a mustard tuna sauce because we carry some tined tuna with us in the truck. Since I don’t know how to prepare this strange sounding dish I asked him to take the lead in shopping all the required ingredients.

We also used our stop in the supermarket to stock up on some supplies which we might want to consume during the next two nights camping such as vodka and snacks. I bought some crisps with flavors we don’t have at home such as mushroom or caviar. While the caviar ones had some strange fishy smell and taste, the mushroom ones were actually quite nice. My fellow traveler Alistair bought himself a strange looking ice-cream consisting of two sticks with ice-cream on it.

The drive to the Chong Kemin Valley National Park took only a couple of hours. Chong Kemin lies within the Tian Shan Mountains separating Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Here we will spend the next two nights on a nice campsite with facilities. They even have a sauna here. So after I have pitched up my tent I went to hang out a bit in the heat. Unfortunately the sauna wasn’t too hot, maybe 60 degree or so, since it was only operated by a wood fire. What also differentiates people of different nations is what they wear in a sauna. While people of most nations seem to go in a wet swimsuit and sit on the pure wooden bench, we in Germany go completely naked and sit on a large towel not touching the wood at all. Actually, when you wear anything in a German sauna you will be pulled out by the staff because it’s considered unhygienic. So while I was enjoying my German type of sauna, Andrew joined me and I covered myself with parts of the towel to not offend him in his British type of sauna.

After dinner I called out a poker night. I was basically teaching all my fellow travelers how to play poker and afterwards we played a small tournament with nine players on the table. Everybody seemed to enjoy it, especially those who had vodka with it. We also combined our Texas Hold’em No Limit game with strip poker. When somebody was running out of chips he/she could remove a part of their clothing and everybody else needed to donate chips for that. All in all it was a really entertaining night…

Goodbye Kazakhstan!

After only two days in Kazakhstan we have to say goodbye again and move on to Kyrgyzstan. You may ask why we spent only two days in Kazakhstan which is very short for such a big country. Well, originally we didn’t plan to go to Kazakhstan at all but enter Kyrgyzstan directly from Uzbekistan. However, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised against all but essential travel to the Kyrgyz oblasts (provinces) of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Therefore, we changed our plan to avoid the southern region of Kyrgyzstan and instead visit Kazakhstan for two nights en route to northern Kyrgyzstan, the region our travel will concentrate on. Safety always comes first and as much as we love to travel to remote places the less we would like to find us in danger.

I really enjoyed our short stay in Kazakhstan and definitely will come back one day. Ideally, I would like to do a self-drive tour for 2-3 weeks visiting a number of small villages and staying with the locals. I was also surprised how much truth about Kazakhstan is in the movie “Borat”. It’s not only our local guide Svetlana who has the same accent as Borat but there are also lots of jokes in the movie which are actually true. For instance when a boy likes a girl he’s not expressing this by saying “I love you” but by kidnapping her. Svetlana also told us after the release of the movie less Americans came to visit Kazakhstan. I’m wondering why this is the case since the “US and A”, as Borat calls the country, is treated as an example for the future development of Kazakhstan.

After a night in the house of our local guide Svetlana we got up around 7am. Breakfast was cornflakes, same as we had for dinner last night. Isabella also had a chat with Svetlana’s husband who has a deep knowledge in the fauna of the area. His main field of study is the snow leopard which is very rare to see and part of the endangered species list. He even published a book on this species which he proudly showed around.

Svetlana’s house is situated in a very scenic spot in the small village of Zhabagly. From there you have a nice view at the surrounding meadows and mountains. There is also a small river flowing through the garden which some of us used to clean our muddy shoes from yesterday’s hiking. Heating and cooking is done with gas delivered by yellow pipes which you can find in the whole village.

We started driving at 8am towards the Kyrgyzstan border. Svetlana joined us to support us with the border crossing procedures at the Kazakhstan side. We stopped around 12pm to prepare lunch from the truck. It always looks very funny when we set up our camping equipment right next to the road. It consists of tables, stools, grey boxes with cooking utensils and bowls for washing up. Everything has its place and it’s kind of a routine for us. One example is the bowls. Two of them are for hand-washing (one with soap and one with Dettol). The other three are for washing dishes (one with soap, one with Dettol and one with clear water). The usage of an antiseptic should avoid us from spreading germs and stay healthy.

While we preparing lunch our driver Sam spotted a crack on one of the tires. We probably damaged it during yesterday’s drive on the muddy road. So before it will flatten in a couple of miles, he and Jason quickly exchanged it. Our lunch and tire changing stop also attracted some visitors. For instance one of the big commercial trucks stopped, offered us help with the tire changing and had a curious look at our truck. He even asked us if we would mind posing with him for a photo.

Crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan was very painless and didn’t take much more than one hour. At the Kyrgyz side of the border we also met our new local guide named Radik. He will only be with us for the first few days of our journey in Kyrgyzstan since our actual guide is still busy with another group. Radik used to be a guide for heli-skiing on the Kamchatka Peninsula. He will spend the summer in Kyrgyzstan since his father moved here. Unfortunately Radik didn’t prove himself to be helpful. He didn’t even have an idea about the stuff guides are expected to know such as activities we can do in the area or how to extend a visa which I need to deal with during the next days.

After crossing the border I changed some money. I changed Euro for my personal spending money and also US Dollar for the kitty I’m taking care of during this leg of the trip. We arrived in Bishkek in the late afternoon where we stayed in an Asian style hotel named “Asia Mountains”. Just around the corner of the hotel was a German type of brewery named “Steinbräu” where most of us went for dinner. The items on the menu were pretty interesting especially because I haven’t seen them in Germany such as a Bavarian rice dish.

Hiking in the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve

Our host family had prepared a lovely breakfast for us consisting of fried eggs, cheese, bread, pastry, apricot jam and tea. The seven of us staying with this family were sitting around a big table enjoying the food and this very special atmosphere of a rural Kazakh home.

At 9am we left for a day trip to the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve close by. It’s the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia and located in the western part of the Tien Shan Mountains. Special about this nature reserve is its flora and fauna. There are more than 1,000 vascular plants in the reserve and our local guide Svetlana seemed to know them all (also see her website). She’s very enthusiastic about nature why she and her husband moved to the small village of Zhabagly which is very close to the reserve. In addition to Svetlana we needed to hire a ranger to comply with the rules for entering the nature reserve. Actually with our group size of 12 people we were supposed to hire three rangers but there was only one available. The area here is very rural and it’s not popular among young Kazakhs to live here.

The drive was supposed to take one hour but actually it took us 2.5 hours to drive approx. 25 km. The reason was the bad condition of the road. It had rained last night and the road was all wet and slippery. Our destination was a ranger station in the nature reserve from which we were supposed to go on a hike around the Aksu Canyon. It’s one of the deepest canyons in Central Asia and therefore it offers spectacular views. Unfortunately the truck didn’t make it to the ranger station because of the muddy road and it was also going slightly uphill. We even got stuck but our driver Sam managed to dig the truck out and we all helped pushing it forward.

Because we didn’t want to risk getting completely stuck here, we decided to walk the last meters to the ranger station which took about 30 min. As soon as we arrived there it started to rain but we found shelter in the ranger station. While waiting we had our lunch which we had taken with us in form of a packed lunch. It consisted of a ham and cheese sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a small cucumber, a piece of cake, some dried fruit and half a liter of water. The ranger station was quite cozy. It featured a couch, armchairs and even a painting on the wall. After 1.5 hours it stopped raining and we got ready to go.

We had the option of two different hikes. One option was to hike along the rim of the canyon and the other one going down to the bottom of the canyon and up again. Due to the bad weather condition the ranger suggested we just walk along the rim and we all followed his advice. Unfortunately neither the ranger nor Svetlana was able to guide us. Svetlana denied walking in front of us and showing us the way because she said otherwise people cannot come and ask her questions about the flowers. Actually this was all she seems to have an interest in and she was good for. Actually Isabella was the only one with an interest in the flowers and asking her a couple of questions. The ranger was also kind of useless. He didn’t even come on the hike but stayed in the ranger station. Svetlana said he doesn’t care if he has customers or not since he has a fixed salary independent from the number of people visiting the nature reserve. Actually there aren’t too many visitors since there isn’t much tourism in the area and the entrance fee to the nature reserve is too expensive for the local people. It’s a shame they cannot afford to see the beauty of their own country. Since Svetlana didn’t wanted to guide us, our leader Jason went back to get the ranger but he was also useless and didn’t even know the way.

After we hiked for about 1-2 hours Svetlana said we can take a shortcut back to the truck crossing the fields. She said we should see the truck after walking for 5 min or so. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case and I somehow got lost in high grass and muddy terrain. I walked for nearly two hours before it started to rain heavily. Luckily, I hit the road we were driving up to the ranger station but I still couldn’t see the truck thus didn’t know if to turn right or left. My gut feeling told me right, also because this was the way back to the village and not towards the ranger station. Now it started to rain cats and dogs, there was fog all around me so I couldn’t see more than 10 m. A thunderstorm was approaching and there was lightning around me which was pretty much scary. I just walked in my soaking wet clothes, shivering and hoping no lightning will hit me. After a while I could spot the truck and the others were already worried. They either could see the truck or walked with Svetlana and therefore had no difficulties to find the truck. Most of them were also soaking wet and had removed their clothes to not catch a cold. Paul, my fellow traveler from Canada, had wrapped himself into a sexy leopard print blanket. With his mustache he somehow looked like a Kazakh porn star. He also has given his mustache a name which is “Kazakhstache”. This name changes as we change the countries, so it used to be an “Uzbekistache” a couple of days ago and will next become a “Kyrgyzstache”.

When trying to drive back to Zhabagly, the truck was sliding on the muddy road and got stuck again. There seemed to be no way how we can bring it back on the road ourselves and therefore, Sam and Svetlana walked to the next village to get a tractor to pull us out. After a while they came back but without a tractor. Actually there was one but the driver wasn’t around. Since we didn’t know if we will need to spend the night here, we pitched up our tents and waited for help. After a while some kind of agriculture machine showed up and pulled us back on the road and through the muddy parts of it.

Back on the road again we drove to Zhabagly. We couldn’t afford to be stuck in the mountains since the Kazakhstan visa of some travelers in our group will expire tomorrow and we need to bring them over the border. Svetlana was so kind and invited us to sleep on the floor of two completely empty rooms in her house. We laid out our mattresses and sleeping bags, one next to the other, and had a nice dorm-style sleeping space. Since it was already 10pm nobody was keen on cooking dinner. Therefore, we just sat in Svetlana’s kitchen and had some cornflakes. Overlanding isn’t about comfort but about being in places and situations like this one and enjoying it. It’s all part of the adventure…

Five Hours at the Kazakhstan Border and Homestay in Zhabagly

Tashkent was only a short drive away from the Kazakhstan border which we crossed today. The immigration procedure at the Uzbekistan side was pretty quick. We needed to fill in a departure form which was very much identical to the one we submitted upon entry of the country. Again, we were required to declare all money we carry with us in all kinds of different currencies. This declaration was then compared to the one on the entry form so the government knows exactly how much money you have spent in the country. This was actually the reason why we needed to complete two forms upon entry, one to hand in and one to keep for the departure check. When filling in the departure form you should make sure you have spent a reasonable amount of money, at least on the paper. Put at least one USD less down as on the arrival form, otherwise this might cause confusion and potentially trouble which delays your departure. However, nobody wanted to physically see and count our money but I heard they sometime do. What they were also not too interested in were the hotel slips we have painfully collected during the last days but probably it’s better to have them than not to have them.

The procedure at the Kazakhstan side took significantly longer. Immigration itself went pretty smoothly. There was just one officer who had a closer look at my passport, complimenting me for looking younger than my actual age and asked me if I’m married. He did the same to two other women in our group. Less smooth was the truck paperwork where they were pushing our driver Sam around. First he was requested to line up with a bunch of commercial trucks. Usually we are allowed to line up with the coaches which is significantly quicker. So Sam waited about 1.5 hours in line. While standing there he wanted to start the paperwork but they didn’t allow it until the truck was right in front of them in line. When this was the case he received a piece of paper where he needed to collect the stamp and signature of six different people. He spent 2.5 hours running around to find these people. One of them looked at him as he never saw this kind of paper before and didn’t know what to do with it. Another one wanted a bribe in order to process the form. He was signaling this by folding a piece of paper and moving it to Sam’s side of the table so he could place money inside. Sam just took it and slowly ripped it into two pieces signaling he will not pay any bribe. After he collected all six stamps and signatures he returned to the guy who gave him the paper. He just took it without showing real interest and looking at it, how frustrating… The last challenge was to find the guy who’s responsible for opening the gate. He had somehow disappeared and it took a while to find him.

While Sam was busy with the paperwork we were hanging out at the Kazakhstan side of the village. Some of us had small US dollar notes and where able to buy a cold drink which we enjoyed in front of a small shop. Since its rare tourists entering the country it didn’t take long until we had half of the village around us, starring at us and trying to communicate with us using body gestures. After killing 2-3 hours here our local Kazakhstan guide showed up. Her name is Svetlana and she was primarily helping Sam with his paperwork. She showed us a little restaurant around the corner and helped us to order lunch before she disappeared again.

After we finished all border procedures we drove to Shymkent the third largest city in Kazakhstan. Here we stopped for an hour for the cook group to go shopping in the supermarket. I wasn’t up for cooking but since there wasn’t much too see, I also went for a stroll to the supermarket. In comparison to what we saw in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan we were amazed by the wide selection of products and much lower prices for some items. While you pay a little fortune for often unrefrigerated yoghurt in Uzbekistan, the yoghurt here was fresher and prices appeared much more reasonable.

After shopping we continued driving to Zhabagly which is a small farming village with 2,000 inhabitants located north of the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. Here our group got split and distributed to the houses of two local families with whom we spent the night. Unfortunately they weren’t too sociable since they didn’t speak any English. They were mainly sitting in the kitchen while we had a look at our lovely home style rooms and having dinner. Isabella’s and my room only featured one large bed which we needed to share. The whole interior of the house was kind of old fashioned and very much reminded me of the interior we had in the rural areas of the GDR. Dinner was prepared by our host mother and the kids. We had salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and yoghurt for starter, soup with vegetables, potatoes and goat meat for main and pastry with apricot jam as well as black tea for desert.

Human Rights and Bribery in Uzbekistan

Today is our last day in Uzbekistan. I spent it at the hotel pool, so it was pretty eventless. I tried to join forces with my new fellow traveler Martina to push Chris into the water, but he turned it around and we ended-up being chased by him. This was pretty much the highlight of the day, especially if you imagine Martina and me running around in our bikinis. Furthermore, we had to say good-bye to the people leaving us in Tashkent and had a last lunch or dinner with them while Sam was playing the piano for us.

I would like to summarize my visit to Uzbekistan with a few facts about the politics and culture which you might find interesting.

First is the registration of tourists in hotels. In Uzbekistan you are required to present your passport upon the check-in to a hotel. They are not accepting a photocopy and really want to see the original passport, mostly also holding it overnight. The hotel will then register you with the police and provide you with a slip confirming your stay in the hotel. This will prove you have spent the night in a hotel and not at the house of local people to teach them human rights. Upon exit of the country those slips will be checked and failing to present slips covering your entire stay in the country may cause trouble.

The Uzbek government also doesn’t want their people to become smart because otherwise they would start to question the current politics. Therefore, the US Peace Corps and foreign NGOs were requested to leave the country to avoid they educate the local people. For the same reason not many foreign investors are allowed in the country since they also could educate people to an extent which is not desired by the Uzbek government. However, this also has a positive site: Uzbekistan isn’t much globalized and therefore wasn’t really affected by the 2007–2012 Global Financial Crisis.

Examples how human rights are violated in Uzbekistan are the government running a secret program to sterilize women without their knowledge or consent (read more on BBC News: Uzbekistan’s policy of secretly sterilising women) or school classes of children are forced to pick cotton rather than attending school (read more on BBC News: Pressure on Uzbekistan to end child cotton labour). Also the people who are getting paid by the government (nurses, doctors, teachers …) need to pick cotton or perform any other type of stupid work when they are requested to do so. When travelling through Uzbekistan we could observe a number of people in white doctor’s overalls cleaning the streets or cutting grass.

This situation in the country depresses many young people and makes them want to leave the country. Primarily they want to go to Canada or Australia because they heard it’s most easy to migrate to those countries. During our stay in Samarkand the owner of the hotel told us his son disappeared a few weeks ago and nobody knows if he tried to leave the country, was kidnapped or killed.

People don’t trust the government. Instead of putting money in their bank account they hide it in their house (preferable changed into US dollar) or invest it in physical items. Popular are investments in cattle or golden teeth. When people hold too much money in the bank, the government might arbitrarily tax them, e.g. request a monetary contribution to the construction of a new road or a public building.

The Uzbek government is also said to strictly control the country’s cotton production. If you want to produce cotton, the government leases you a piece of land. It will also provide you with a quota how much cotton you need to produce which gives you very limited opportunity to grow vegetables or corn for you own need. The government will also sell you fertilizer and define the price it is buying the cotton from you. After the sales it will deposit the money in your bank account (less the cost of the expensive fertilizer) but you can only withdraw a certain amount of it. The rest will remain frozen in your bank account.

Bribery and corruption are also very common in Uzbekistan. As a tourist you can bribe the police to get access to parts of sights which are closed (e.g. for restoration). We also didn’t change money at the official rate of 1,850 Sum per USD at the bank but always with a safe black market source (to avoid fake notes) at 2,500 while the standard black market rate was 2,800. The delivery time for a new car is two years but when paying a bribe of 10,000 USD or so you can get it in a couple of weeks. Bribes are also paid for entrance into university and to obtain better grades (e.g. ~10 USD for a better test score or ~50-100 USD if you really struggle with a class and want to avoid complete failure). It’s said the official salary of many people (especially those working for the government) is less then 50% of their annual income – the rest comes from bribes and other sources.

Lastly, many things still remind of the Soviet times, e.g. there are many very wide roads in Tashkent which were planned to serve as runways just in case the airport is bombed. I found it very fascinating (and also frightening) to learn all the facts described above and I’m sure there’s much more to discover…

Tashkent Metro and other Sights

Tashkent is one of those cities where there isn’t much too see. So never take your girlfriend there on an extended weekend unless you plan to spend most of the time at the hotel pool or in bed. Better go to Khiva, Bukhara or Samarkand.

The city tour, our local guide Jelol took us on, lasted half a day and covered the main attractions. From our hotel we took a public bus that brought us to one of the metro stops. Believe it or not, going by metro is the city’s number one tourist attraction. There are two major reasons for this. One, the Tashkent metro system is one of only two in Central Asia (the other one is in Almaty). And two, the interior of the stations is very splendiferous and ornate. Unfortunately taking pictures in the metro isn’t allowed because it’s considered a military installation. Originally it was designed as a nuclear shelter however only one of the lines is actually capable to serve as a shelter and was build after the end of the cold war. Although I’m German I don’t always stick to the rules and took a few sneaky ones. There were lots of personnel and security cameras around watching what you are doing but they didn’t spot me.

I cannot remember the exact fare of a metro ticket but think it was around 400 Sum (0.16 USD) which you pay at a ticket counter. For that price you receive a blue plastic token which you put into one of the guard barriers. When entering the station you are overwhelmed by Soviet architecture at its best. Each of the three stations we visited looked very much different and centered on a specific cultural or historic theme. One of the stations was ”Космонавтлар” (in English cosmonaut). It was designed in a Soviet space theme and featured pictures of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first women in space. The station was very spacious and reminded me on a huge spaceship. There is also a big digital clock on each platform showing how much time has elapsed since the last train departed which is kind of confusing. Usually those displays show in how many minutes the next train is expected. Speaking of minutes, you never wait more than 5-10 min which is very convenient.

When coming out of the metro we found us at the Independence Square, also known as Mustakillik Square. It’s the political center of Uzbekistan and the senate is located here. You enter the square through a large archway decorated with a sculpture of storks taking flight. During Soviet times the Independence Square used to be the largest inner city square with the tallest Lenin statue in the middle of it. After the independence of Uzbekistan this statue got replaced by the Monument of Independence which is a large golden globe with the map of the country on it. Another monument on the square is the Happy Mother monument which is supposed to symbolize the homeland (mother) and the future (the child she is holding).

In a short walking distance to the Independence Square is the World War II Memorial. It consists of a park with a building holding names of fallen victims, the Crying Mother Monument and an eternal flame. The last building we saw was the Palace of Prince Romanov, now home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which we weren’t allowed to enter.

When we walked towards a square, with the statue of Amir Timur on the middle of it, we also ran into a small market. Locals were selling self-painted pictures and all kinds of Soviet stuff there. Afterwards we split and people went off to visit all kinds of museums. A few others and I went back to the hotel where I spent the afternoon at the pool.

Archie brings us to Tashkent and Tipping the Guide

It feels good to have our truck Archie back. She’s like home to us, especially for those who are on the road for a very long time. While we used alternative transportation during the last two weeks (minibuses, air-conditioned coaches, train), Archie will bring us today from Samarkand to Tashkent, the final destination of our current leg from Ashgabat to Tashkent.

At lunch time we stopped along the road to prepare sandwiches. We had quite some leftovers but neither wanted to throw them away nor store them in the fridge because it stops working when the engine of the truck isn’t running for a couple of days. Therefore, Alistair and I grabbed the stuff and walked over to a guy and his wife sitting next to the road selling cigarettes and sweats. They happily accepted our leftover food and put it into plastic bags for later consumption.

We arrived in Tashkent in the afternoon. Our hotel was a bit outside why there wasn’t an opportunity for a quick stroll around the city center. In the evening all of us went out for a group dinner to a nearby restaurant. My fellow traveler Lauren from Australia, who is beginning of 20, had already put on her fancy nightclub outfit consisting of an LED-flashing t-shirt, a colorful miniskirt, fluffy bright blue gaiters and tons of make-up. It somehow reminded me of my style at her age which was similar crazy.

In comparison to the prices we’ve paid during the last weeks, the ones here were four times as high which made a couple of people leave and go somewhere different. However, in comparison to the prices back home it was still very reasonable why the rest was staying. At dinner we also celebrated Sam’s, Chris’s and my birthday. For Chris and me it was after the celebration on the actual day in Iran and the belated celebration in Ashgabat the third time we celebrate our birthday and I hope it will be the last one too. Not that I don’t like celebrations, I just don’t like to get reminded I’m getting older. At this occasion I also gave Sam the silly hat I’ve purchased for him in Ashgabat. Guess he didn’t like it since it really looks silly and very traditional.

After dinner we were hanging out at the terrace of the hotel where Sam was playing the piano for us. It’s incredible how these hands can repair a truck and play a piano. He’s certainly gifted in many ways. We also had some beer and vodka which made it an entertaining evening. Around midnight Lauren and Andrew left to check-out the local nightlife. Nobody else was really up for it since we had made our experiences… (see post of May 19). The next morning it turned out the hottest nightclub in town, which was recommended by our local guide Jelol, was actually closed for a private party and they didn’t let them in. The whole nightclub excursion finally ended in a taxi odyssey through Tashkent and Lauren coming home at 6am the following morning.

Since the Ashgabat to Tashkent leg is ending here we will lose some people and gain new ones. Actually from the 19 people, who were travelling with us during the last two weeks, 11 will continue, 8 will leave us and one new traveler will join. This brings the total number of people on the next leg from Tashkent to Bishkek to 12 travelers plus two crew members plus a local guide. The new traveler joining us is Martina, a very funny woman with a big smile who was born in Slovakia but is living in London for many years.

Since people are leaving it’s also on them to tip the crew and the local guide. I heard one of the guys gave our local guide an old second-hand electric shaver as a tip. Jelol wasn’t very amused about it since he was fulfilling every special request of this guy during the last weeks, e.g. taking him on a private half-day tour etc. When discussing the topic of tipping in my blog entry on May 11, I received an email from Bob I travelled with in South America saying: “Tipping is a very cultural habit. People from US do it all the time, because the wages for the workers in certain jobs are very, very low, and tipping is expected. In Australia and many other countries the wage structure is quite different and all workers get a basic wage, and tipping is not done.” But this guy was from the US… I don’t understand the world anymore! Why are some people so mean? They spent more money on lunch than on the tip for a guide who has been with them for two weeks. I also heard Kurt, another traveler from the US, asked him why he didn’t give the guide a more appropriate tip. He responded he didn’t have change for a 100 USD note…

Samarkand Market and Money in Uzbekistan

Our second day in Samarkand was a free day and everybody was up for something different. Emilie stayed in bed suffering from food poisoning. Sam also stayed in bed suffering from alcohol poisoning. Jason was working on his accounts and cleaning the truck since Sam wasn’t able to do so. Isabella and Mike went to see a mausoleum out of town which was recommended by the Lonely Planet. Chris was strolling around in town trying to get in touch with local people. Paul was reading a book about Genghis Khan. Wayne was searching for an internet café which actually has internet access available. Alistair and the two brothers from the UK hired a private taxi for a trip to the nearby mountains.

I had a relaxing morning in the hotel and went to the food market in the afternoon. Most supermarkets in Uzbekistan do actually not sell vegetables and fruits. In order to buy fresh stuff you need to go to a market. They are split into different sections such as vegetables, fruit, dried fruit, bread, wheat, meat etc. In each section stall-owners sell products related to the section they are sitting in. Some of them sell a selection of products such as watermelons, bananas and cherries in the fruit section. Others are specialized in one product, e.g. only sell watermelons.

The fruit section of the market was pretty small and there wasn’t much choice. The only fruits available were watermelons, bananas, cherries, strawberries and apricots. Also each stall-owner had only a small amount for sale, maybe 5-10kg of cherries and 10 bananas. 1kg of cherries was 7,000 Sum (2.80 USD) and two bananas were 4,000 Sum (1.60 USD). Based on the available quantities and prices I guess fruits are probably considered a luxury item and mainly rich people and tourists buying them.

Speaking of supermarkets, most of them are rather small and have a limited choice of products available. They remind me of the shops we had in Eastern Germany. Probably people don’t miss the choice since they aren’t used to it and don’t know any better. Our local guide Jelol also told us there is one large Russian supermarket a bit outside of town which offers a greater selection of products but is more expensive too.

When I returned to the hotel a few people were just about to leave for the market to buy food for tomorrow’s truck lunch. Our guide changed them 40 USD into 100,000 Sum which is 2 USD per person for lunch. The largest denomination of Sum available is a 1,000 Sum note (equals 0.40 USD) so for 40 USD they got a package of 100 single notes which isn’t very handy to carry. Our guide told us when he bought a little TV they needed four bags to carry all the money to the shop.

Whenever we need to change money we do so with our guide. He’s always carrying a backpack which some local money with him just in case somebody needs to change. I haven’t seen many official money exchange places and I also heard it’s very hard to withdraw money from the bank since they often have no money available. The “black market” is offering a much better exchange rate than banks since people are keen on US Dollar cash. When Uzbek people want to travel they need US Dollar cash but they can’t really exchange their currency into Dollar with their local bank.

Many Uzbek people also don’t deposit their money in a bank since they don’t want the government to know how much money they have and once money is deposited at a bank they might have difficulties withdrawing it. It might also happen the government is confiscating deposited money when they building a new hospital or a new road and you as a citizen are expected to contribute to it. Uzbek people also fear inflation, especially overnight inflation as it was the case many years ago where millions of people lost nearly everything they had. Therefore, investments in tangible items such as houses or cows are very popular.

Samarkand City Tour and Re-joining of Sam & Archie

Breakfast was at the roof terrace of the hotel. Usually roof terraces are scenic spots but this one wasn’t. The hotel staff used the terrace as workshop for carving doors so I first thought I’m in the wrong spot. Then I spotted a table behind the doors, on which a craftsman was working, where my breakfast was waiting for me. It wasn’t very delicious and consisted of a bread-roll filled with plum marmalade, a hard-boiled egg, a chocolate bar, nuts and dried fruit.

At 9am our local guide Jelol took us on a tour of Samarkand. In the 14th century this city was the capital of the sultanate of Timur. Samarkand is centrally located on the Silk Road and can be seen as crossroad between East and West mixing different cultures and traditions. This mix can still be felt today which make the city an interesting place to visit from a cultural and historical point of view.

It was only a 5-10 min walk from our hotel to the first attraction the Registan Square which felt like the center of the city. On the way we crossed a park with two large golden tiger statues. They were erected because the president of Uzbekistan was born in the year of the tiger or so. It feels really strange to experience how a living being such as the current president is creating monuments for himself so people can admire him.

The Registan Square was very impressive to see. It’s surrounded by a group of beautiful madrasahs. They were built with the intension to make Samarkand the most beautiful city in the world. Therefore, also small villages in the surrounding area of Samarkand where named after large cities such as Madrid, Paris or Damaskus to show Samarkand is more shinier than those “villages”. It took us two hours to walk around the Registan Square. The madrasahs used to be a center of higher education for male Muslims to prepare them for their tasks as imam. In one of the madrasahs we could find a statue of the teachers which was interesting to see since nowadays you won’t find a statue of your professors at your local university.

In one of the madrasahs of the Registan Square there was also a small interesting museum showing the condition in which the Registan Square and other major buildings used to be at the beginning of the last century. Most of these building were damaged by seismic movements. Our guide told us during Soviet times no effort was put into the renovation of Muslim buildings. Only when the Olympics came to the Soviet Union and the government received requests of Western tourists to travel to this part of the country they made cosmetic improvements of inferior quality to the major sights of the city. Nowadays the restoration is done more carefully also involving results of historic research. The restoration of some places appears very time intensive for instance one of the madrasahs contains a very detailed golden mosaic consisting of 4×4 milimeter large mosaic stones.

At the end of our visit of the Registan Square we visited two shops. The first one was a shop were we received a demonstration of local Uzbek instruments. The second one was a clothes shop where they were selling traditional women dresses including a burqa made out of horsehair. Our guide pulled me out of the group and dressed me up in this traditional outfit for demonstration purposes. The burqa completely covered my face so nobody could see it while I was still able to see the people surrounding me. It’s hard to imagine this region used to be very much religious and women needed to cover to the same extend as in Afghanistan. It was also here at Registan Square where women were demonstrating against this dress code and burned their burqas in public.

The second stop of our tour was Timur’s Tomb. Timur, also known as Tamerlane, built this mausoleum but not for himself but for one of his sons who died in a battle. Timur wanted to be as Genghis Khan and since Genghis Khan had four sons Timur also needed to have four sons. I can only imagine what happed to the girls his wife(s) have given birth to. It’s also said the number of his children is actually much higher than four probably because he was quite powerful and they had no contraception at these times. Our guide also told us Timur wasn’t popular at all during Soviet times but once Uzbekistan has reached its independence he’s admired as the great ancient ruler of the nation. When we visited the inside of the mausoleum we were surprised by golden walls and not just one coffin but a number of them. The middle one in black belongs to Timur while the other ones belong to his sons and his spiritual leader. The coffins are pretty small but we learned the bodies aren’t kept in them but one level deeper which is closed to the public.

After a short stop in a tea house we visited the Ulugh Beg Observatory or better to say the place where the observatory used to be since it was destroyed completely. Nowadays you find a museum here explaining how the observatory was functioning and what made it the most accurate observatory of its time. The only part of the observatory which is still there is a part of the large sextant on which the measuring instruments were moved along.

The next stop was the Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum where family members of Timur are buried. It’s actually not just one big mausoleum as Timur’s one but a series of small mausoleums right next to each other all covered with beautiful mosaics. This spot seemed to be a popular destination for local people since there were many of them visiting the tombs, chilling out next to them or praying in silence. Just behind the mausoleum is a modern graveyard at which I had a quick look at. Compared to the graveyards back home this one had pictures of the dead people engraved on the tombstones which was interesting to see.

The last stop of today’s tour was the Bibi-Khanym Mosque which used to be the largest mosque at its time of construction. Also this mosque was very much destroyed but huge efforts were made to renovate it. The renovation is still ongoing today since no mosaics can be seen inside the mosque and some of the walls still look very much destroyed.

In the evening around 6pm Sam and our truck Archie arrived in Samarkand. We had last seen them on May 11th when our truck broke down in Iran. It took Sam nearly two weeks and more than 7,000 USD to repair the crack in the head of the engine and to catch up with us again crossing two borders. He also had to fight against expiring visas since originally the trip wasn’t planning to stay in Iran and Turkmenistan as long as Sam did due to the breakdown of the truck. During his time in Turkmenistan he more or less needed to drive the whole time since his visa was about to expire. Luckily he made it all the way but unluckily he forgot his passport in the hotel in Bukhara where he has spent last night. However, he will not need to drive back but tomorrow somebody will deliver the passport to him.

In the evening some people went out for dinner to an international restaurant but I heard it wasn’t good. The service was very slow, the food not very tasty and in the end the payment of the bill was 16,000 Sum (6.40 USD) short which is about the amount of a complete dinner for one person. It somehow happens on this leg of the trip that all our payments are short since people don’t put in enough money when paying for whatever they had. Probably it’s because of one or multiple of these reasons: 1) people don’t remember correctly how much their food was, 2) people are unable to add the prices of their foods and drinks and a 15% service charge / tax on top or 3) people try to sneak through on the cost of other people.

Since yesterday was Sam’s birthday we were planning to have a delayed celebration with him tonight. Therefore, a number of people were meeting after dinner in a Blues bar featuring a piano. We picked this spot because Sam is a passionate piano player and he very much enjoyed playing for us while we had a sing-along. While playing Sam also had a number of Vodkas and at one stage he wasn’t able to play anymore and needed to be carried home.

Swim in the Aydar Lake

I had a very good sleep in the yurt. When I got up at 8:15am everybody was already sitting at the breakfast table although there was more than one hour time until departure. Some people simple like to get up early but I’m definitely not one of them. Most mornings I need to fight myself out of bed after being woken up by either my alarm clock or fellow travelers. It’s rare I wake up by myself also because I’m usually one of the last ones going to bed. Therefore, I’m very efficient at breakfast and you often will find me arriving at the breakfast table 10min before departure quickly eating a tiny bit more because of rationality than of actual appetite.

At 9:30am we left for the Aydar Lake which is approx. 12 km away from the yurt camp. The lake was man-made during Soviet times when the Syr Darya River was dammed up. During the flooding it turned out the dam didn’t have a sufficient capacity and therefore the water flow was drained into lowlands and unintentionally formed the 250 km long and 15 km wide Aydar Lake, one of the largest in Uzbekistan. The country has no direct access to the sea and is dependent on crossing the territory of two countries on rivers before hitting the ocean. Therefore, seeing a huge lake and swimming in it is especially enjoyable.

For the drive to the lake we used the posh air-conditioned coach we hired for our journey from Bukhara to Samarkand. It feels really strange to see that huge coach in the middle of a basic yurt camp. While traveling overland I’m not used to so much comfort such as air-conditioning and spacious seats but in this heat it’s actually quite enjoyable. However, travelling by coach only works because we aren’t camping during our stay in Uzbekistan. But as soon as we enter Kyrgyzstan we will camp most of the nights for which we need our truck and its camping equipment. Therefore, we hope our driver / mechanic Sam and our truck are re-joining us no later than Tashkent.

Speaking of our truck named Archie, she used to be a 1983 cement mixer before being bought and re-constructed by the British overland company Dragoman I’m currently travelling with. The company operates approx. 30 of these trucks in Africa, South America and Asia. Each truck is equipped with camping gear, cooking equipment, a fridge, a large tank for drinking water which enables us to stay for a long time in the middle of nowhere. For me it’s the best choice when travelling large distances overland because we are independent from public transportation and can go to remote places.

When leaving the yurt camp this morning, I didn’t plan to go for a swim in the Aydar Lake since my neck is kind of cracked from sleeping without a pillow during our two nights camping in Turkmenistan. But when I saw the water and felt the heat of the day I couldn’t resist. Due to the change of plan I had no bikini with me so I walked a few meters to a more private beach where I went for a skinny-dip which was simply awesome. After returning from my swim I was chilling out with Kurt a fellow traveler from the US and our local guide Jelol. He and the bus driver had even set-up a sun-shield and so we could enjoy the heat without getting sunburned.

Around 12pm we returned to the yurt camp where we had fresh fish from the lake and rice for lunch. The fish, I think it was carp, was very delicious and only my mother can prepare it better. After lunch we continued our journey towards Samarkand where we arrived around 6pm. Our hotel was very centrally located not far away from the Registan Square, the heart of the city. Lauren, a fellow traveler from Australia, used the rare opportunity to go skating with the blinking roller-skates she has bought in Ashgabat which attracted the attention of the locals. My body was still fighting against the cracked neck so I had an early night to catch up on sleep.