Friday, July 17, 2009
LOOKING BACK OVER UZBEKISTAN
Today I got a Uzbek exit stamp in my passport and I'm sitting in a cafe in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. I had a 30 day visa for Uzbekistan and it took the full 30 days to cross it at a lively but comfortable pace. Its a challenging country to cycle across but I imagine, it would be a interesting one to do a designated tour of. The architecture throughout the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are just incredible. The desert ships at Moynaq are unreal. Travelling through the nothingness on the edge of the Kyzylkum desert is surreal. And meeting the friendly locals in the markets is just an afternoon full of laughter. Looking back over the last month in Uzbekistan has been a fascinating, exciting and difficult adventure.Its a country I'm thankful I wasn't born into. Its harvest season in the Fergana valley and it seems you are not long walking before you are carrying something. And when you get too old and tired to walk, you can always direct a donkey and cart to the fields. But Ireland 50 years ago was probably a similar picture. I was really surprised by the levels of poverty I saw here. I can't even imagine the state of desperation someone must be in, to sweep the grain off the road as it falls off the passing trucks. Sweeping their breakfast up off the street in full view of their whole village to witness.Its very ironic how the country is a complete police state and yet I was offered heroin about 10 times during my months' stay here. Especially along the desert road between Nukus and Bukhara. I can only guess that the desert heat and my poor diet had me mistaken for a junkie in need of a fix. Every single day I had dealing with the police. I'd honestly stay, I've seen as many police in Uzbekistan in the last 30 days as I've seen in Ireland in the last 30 years. They are mostly traffic police and the cycle tourist is the perfect fodder to feed their amusement and boredom. Once a passing policeman even stopped to help me repair a puncture but generally its just friendly curiosity. I do my best not to look wasted on opium (or the desert heat/poor diet equivalent). But occasionally you met an awkward cop who has to telephone someone to check if my visa is valid, or he wants to see what photos I've taken, to ensure there is no sensitive material photographed. But that said, no officer ever attempted to extort a bribe from me. Although one full time policeman/part time pimp pitied my solo venture and suggested he could arrange for a "special lady friend" to visit my hotel later if I wished. Obviously in a complete police state, "fly-tenting" is illegal. Tourists are supposed to stay at designated tourist hotels instead of camping in the wilds. You must register with the hotel and each morning they will give you a registration slip. When you finally leave the country, the police may wish to check your registration slips. I was in the country 30 days but I was missing 27 slips. I had jumped in a canal earlier in the week and that morning I put on my cleanest (dirty) clothes, but I still anticipated the "Where have you been sleeping?" question. The border guard spoke perfect english. I just pretended not to understand him.Border guard:'Where did you sleep last night?'Wasted tourist:' Oh tonight I'll probably sleep in Osh'.But he kept questioning. A search of my bags revealed my tent, sleeping bag and stove. He wanted answers. I was afraid this might happen. But this is how I got out of the situation and it may be of interest to the cycle tourers coming behind me. My advice is, when you are filling out the declaration form only disclose that you have a few dollars and hide the rest well. I only found 1 working ATM in Uzbekistan and considering thats 400KMs away in Tashkent, the largest the police can fine you is the figure you disclose on your declaration form. I told the police a medical student invited me to his home for food and a spare bed and so he could practice his english with me. I continued talking about the great generosity of the Uzbek people and their helpfulness and the amazing architecture and the beautiful landscapes...etc etc. They are less likely to fine someone who is leaving the country and full of praise for Uzbekistan. And besides he is supposedly only got US$20 in his pocket. It worked for me but I've heard of tourists facing fines of hundreds of dollars upon leaving UzbekistanIf you are coming to Uzbekistan, make sure you pack a lunch. I didn't expect to get this far without an occasional dose of food poisoning, but its so frustrating when you see markets packed full of the finest fruits and tastiest vegetables and yet the road houses outside of the main cities serve such fatty, oily and greasy slop. I've ordered even the simplest dishes, such as soup, and I've gotten, what is best described as a bowl full of boiling oil with lumps of fat. And the crazy thing is you could be sitting at a table in the shade, under a tree full of the tastiest apricots. But even the top class hotels seem to have no understanding of food hygiene. In Tashkent, I was sitting under a tree in the car park of a 4 star hotel, using their unsecured wi-fi connection. A delivery guy arrives and takes a load of meat from the booth of his car and wheels it into the the kitchen. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ladas don't have a refrigerated boot, do they? I have a very strong stomach and have never got food poisoning before, but everyday in Uzbekistan has been testing on my system. Thankfully, I got my stove working again and I enjoy spending my evenings preparing the food I buy from the markets.And so by leaving Uzbekistan, we have pretty much completed stage 2 of GCR. I'm only 240KMs west of the Chinese border but I need a break from the bike. (We are starting to argue and its not good for the overall morale of the trip). Its been 6000KMs since Istanbul and I've lost over a stone in weight that I need to gain before I head into the deserts of Western China. The biggest desert of the global circuit is coming up,- The Taklamakan desert, which is Chinese for 'He who enters, does not leave'. And so the plan is to spend the next 2 months getting fat and lazy. Its time to take a holiday from this 'holiday(?)' and return to Osh after the 2 months and continue pedaling across China to the Pacific Ocean.My dad, Jim, recently retired from work and we are keen to do a 3 week tour Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. And my girlfriend, Genevieve, has an eye on a amazing island in south Thailand, which is full of white beaches and waterfalls. It should be two perfect weeks. So on the 16/7/09 I plan to fly from Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan to Bangkok, capital of Thailand. I return to Bishkek on the 1/9/09 with, hopefully, a Chinese visa in my passport and an extra layer of fat under my belt. I plan to continue cycling east from where I left off. By mid September the Taklamakan will start to cool down, which should make the ride around it (or possibly through it) more possible. I've staying a cheap comfortable central hotel in Osh. (Hotel Alay) and I'm presently happy just sitting in the shade, drinking tea and watching the world go by. I've just over 2 weeks to kill in Kyrgyzstan and I'm just weighting up my options. Kyrgyzstan offers some of the best mountain scenery in the world, but the first thing I need is rest and then I'll decide what direction to take.........Stage 2 complete. I think I'll order more tea.