Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Islamabad (Uzbekistan/Russia)

["I am smiling", Bukhara, Uzbekistan]

This blog entry will cover briefly our trip through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.
After Turkmenistan, the formalities in Uzbekistan were simple, and even after we were finished (30 min) we kept wondering if there was something else to take care of. The procedure consisted of filling out two customs declaration forms, getting the passport stamped, telling the doctor that there wasn't anything wrong with you. Driving 50 meters to customs and showing the paper to a clerk there who stamps it and you are done. Could hardly be simpler.
We then drove through wonderfully green fields full of melon to Bukhara. Where we were completely lost for a while, until a young man on a bicycle escorted us to the hotel we were looking for. The poor guy wanted to take shortcuts which we on the motorcycles couldn't do, so in the end he ended up going the "long" way around pedaling like furious followed by the two bikes. Pretty funny sight actually. The problem had been we had been very close to the hotel, but the area was a pedestrian zone, with a number of dead end streets all around. When we got to the hotel, the guy on the bicycle just continued pedaling, we didn't even get a chance to say thank you.
As we got off the bikes, a familiar face is staring at us from the rooftop terrace. Massimo was here! He had had an accident in northern Turkmenistan and had slightly hurt his foot, but otherwise had gotten here without incident. He was now headed to Tashkent to pick up his girlfriend who was going to be accompanying him back to Italy.

[Hats, Bukhara, Uzbekistan]

The following day after a leisurely breakfast and saying goodbye to Massimo we proceeded to visit some of the sights of Bukhara. My poor vocabulary can't really do justice to the sights here. They are simply incredible, from the Kalon Minaret, to the bazaars and various city quarters, your mouth is continually dropping with the grandeur and elegance of the various buildings. In particular the tile work here is some of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere. Some of the awe is surely inspired by our visit to Ashgabat, which had none of the charm or "soul" of what we witnessed here. There are justly many tourists here, but it doesn't feel overly touristy (at least outside of the bazaars!!), and as soon as you take a dip into some of the alleys and byways you are living history, as these alleys haven't changed in 400 years.

[Samarkand, Uzbekistan]

The following day we continued to Samarkand, the city build (OK made immortal) by Timur and his grandson Ulughbek. The sights here are even larger and more magnificent in scope than anything in Bukhara. Nevertheless I preferred Bukhara as being more compact and easier to traverse. Samarkand was one the greatest cities on the Silk Road, and the architecture shows this. The most spectacular sight is in the center of the city called The Registan, a collection of Medressas (Muslim schools) around a plaza. Tile work everywhere, on an unbelievable scale. I particularly enjoyed some of sloping walls, wondering when the whole thing would come crashing down. This is one of the single most impressive sights in Central Asia (says so in the Lonely Planet, and we agree). Of course there are a lot more sights all around, and the usual bazaars, markets and mausoleums. If I hadn't seen Bukhara first I would probably would have wanted to spend more time here. As it was sensory overload was already reaching critical.

Onward to Tashkent. Somewhere on the way to Tashkent, we passed Massimo going the opposite direction together with his passenger, unfortunately he didn't see us so we just continued. Tashkent, is a modern city with wide boulevards, very green, and large. We tend to try to avoid cities as a rule, and in Tashkent we only wanted to take care of a few minor errands before continuing. So after two days we moved on to Kazakhstan.

[Just outside Almaty, Kazakhstan]

Leaving Uzbekistan, and entering Kazakhstan were both fairly painless, the usual running around, but absolutely a breeze compared to Turkmenistan!! Something which will continue to be a mantra, "at least it isn't as bad Turkmenistan".
The main thing I noticed coming into Kazakhstan is that as soon as you get into the country the vistas change from the tended green fields in Uzbekistan, to huge flat golden plains something akin to what one sees in the Midwest of America or parts of south Australia. This image of Kazakhstan would remain the main memory of the Kazakhstan countryside. The bread basket of central Asia might be a good way to describe it.

[An Iranian, Motorcycle rider, in Kazakhstan]

We rode from the border to Taraz before settling for the night. As in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia our motorcycle evoked great curiosity and spontaneous gestures of friendship, not to mention some very dangerous traffic situations as cars passing us would suddenly slow down to get their cameras, or mobile phone cameras ready and then take pictures of us as they go by. At this rate maybe we will become famous somewhere! The following day we continued to Almaty.
In Almaty, we rented a small apartment for a few days so that I could do some maintenance on the bikes before heading to Mongolia. Almaty, or Alma Ata as it was called during Soviet times, turned out to be our first real culture shock. All signs were "only" in Cyrillic, so I spent a couple of days crash learning to read Cyrillic, which I managed. This meant we could at least read the signs, not necessarily understand what they meant, but it made things a lot easier. Almaty is also built on the "green" principle, lots of trees everywhere, business and housing behind leafy cover, often in blocks behind the cover of trees and sidewalks, and few signs at street level. Making finding anything a real challenge. A few other things also come to mind to describe Almaty, first, very very expensive. Many roads under construction (I hope), and some very interesting mix of old Soviet and new architecture. Some very unfriendly and unhelpful hotel staff, as in fulfilling every cliche about soviet area management. (I will write more about this when we get to Russia). Almaty is above all a business city, tourists have no reason to be here, for that matter, the whole country fails to achieve anything nearing a tourist destination. That is not to say that there are no tourist attractions here, simply that in my opinion it is not worth the effort or cost to come here to see them. Once here, we only wanted to leave. OK, but now I am starting to write too much already, so on we go. After getting the maintenance done on the bikes and stocking up on supplies (there are plenty of upscale supermarkets where you can get anything that you can anywhere else in the world), we start heading to the border of Russia, which we have to go through to get to Mongolia, as the Mongolian/Kazakhstan border is closed to foreigners.

[Reststop, Kazakhstan]

The route we took went through some of the places that during the soviet times was used to test nuclear weapons. The town of Emmey's major claim to fame is that just southwest of the city, the soviets exploded 467 (Lonely Planet) nuclear bombs. For me the more interesting history is that this is the town where Dostoevsky was exiled to for 5 years of forced military service and where he started the novel "The Brothers Karamazov". Other than the usual plains here, the thing that nearly killed us everyday was the road. These are by far the worst roads I have had the misfortune of having traversed. It was here that Cecilia broke the frame on her bike. The problem is that the road is for a the most part fine, and then suddenly without warning there is a dip, a hole, or just a chunk of road missing. So you are cruising about, nearly falling asleep because of the boring countryside, and suddenly BANG, your suspension just tried going through the seat, and you are hanging on to the handlebars for dear life!! In the end you start riding 40 km/h for a while but of course the road is fine, so then you speed up again and the process repeats. Very, very annoying, and dangerous. Getting the frame on Cecilia's bike fix wasn't too much of a problem. Every little town has a shop which has a welder (we did have to go around 100 km on the broken frame though!). After 10 minutes welding and 10$ later we were on our way again.

[Welding the frame on Cecilias bike, in Kazakhstan]

In due course we made it to the Kazakhstan/Russian border. The exit formalities for Kazakhstan were simple if a bit slow, as they only let a couple of people in at a time into the compound. The Russian side the same. Once inside everyone was friendly and moderately efficient. The procedure itself had some shades of Turkmenistan, but not nearly as bad. In about 1 1/2 hours we were through and into "Mother" Russia.


This was a major milestone for us.
We had decided to go to Novosibirsk to see about tires since we would be needing tires by the time we came back this way, and we were unable to get any in Almaty. So we proceeded with due haste to Novosibirsk. Russia continued the plains of Kazakhstan for the first 100 km or so and then became what we are used to from northern Europe, forest and hills, everything green and wonderfully warm. The roads were also in good condition (thank god).

[Novosibirsk train station, Russia]

In Novosibirsk, we were very frustrated trying to find a hotel. First, there are only a few of them, second they are very expensive. The only cheap place I found after talking to a cab driver wouldn't even talk to me. Which brings me to my diatribe on Russian service centered economy. The Russians for the most part (based on our limited experience) don't understand the concept. I encountered a number of, invariably, older ladies, who simply took one look at me and decided they did not wish to serve me or chose to make it so difficult that it simply wasn't worth the effort. This ranged from being turned away from a hotel, to not being able to get gasoline because my 1000 ruble note was folded!! We have been in enough countries that I can make myself understood everywhere, but these babushkas simply didn't want the hassle of trying to deal with someone whom they could not communicate with. If this happened once or twice no big deal, people have a bad day, etc. etc. But this turned out to be the case in many places and I was very surprised if not a bit vexed occasionally. OK, we move on and give our money to someone else. Market economy prevails!! (Nearly, as there are very few hotels, your choice is not great). This was the first time; that the fact that we did not speak the local language was an issue. Very interesting!!

We eventually got a hotel at the "Hotel Novosibirsk" which is across from the train station. The hotel has two wings, one renovated, and the other in classical intourist standard. Basically a dump. For the cheaper rooms they are still asking for 100$ and getting it, unfortunately. After two days here we moved on, there were no tires to be had, we had chosen a holiday weekend to visit and everything was closed. So onward toward Mongolia.

[Typical campsite in the Altai region, Russia]

[Altai Region, Russia]

More in the next blog......

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

NIce smile, shirt, camp