Travelling makes every second special. For good times and bad, the routine of daily life at home is lost. One time in Bukhara, I was welcomed into random I’d met on the street’s home, drank chai, changed money and watched him play a taught skin drum; all over good conversation!
From Nukus, I travelled through the most ancient part of the world I’ve ever visited. Khiva, a city built out of sand, is almost a living museum while Samarkand and it’s position as the capital of the Timurid Empire in the 14th century is astounding in its beautiful architecture.
Khiva bought two great moments: one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen as I drove into the city and an introduction to the tasty treat of somsas (or comcas). Throughout these lands of rainbow sunsets, their filled pastries are a fantastic snack. Everywhere does them differently: sometimes with meat, sometimes with veg. The roadside sellers have giant bowl ovens and throw them in for a few minutes before serving them fresh and hot. I can’t count how many I had on my travels. The best ones I had came just before the Tajik border. Pumpkin definitely became my personal favourite.
Some of the sunsets I've enjoyed
One smell that won’t ever leave me is roasting pumpkin seeds. At least that’s what I think it is. Everywhere I went, from the streets of Nukus to Osh, Kyrgyzstan I could smell it. It’s that or the burning roadside waste was very flavoursome. If I ever catch this scent again, I know it will take me right back.
Driving in the dark in Central Asia was definitely not an experience for the faint-hearted. There’s never any courtesy when it comes to turning off main beams, cars often had few or no lights working and bicycles or horse carts would come at you on the wrong side of the road. At various points, paved roads would become dirt tracks, which in daylight wasn’t a problem but at night, travelling 80kmh, could totally scupper you.
For UK citizens, the visa situation around these parts is a fairly good deal. Kazakhstan’s current 15-day visa exemption is effective until 31st December 2017 so now is a great time to visit the country. Uzbekistan was the only country I had to get a proper visa for and I got that easily back in the UK. Of all the visas I got back home, it was the easiest! Tajikistan has just introduced a new e-visa system (June 2016), which was wonderfully easy, quick to be approved and offers 45 days travel. Kyrgyzstan has a similar policy to Kazakhstan with the added annoyance of registering at a local government office within 5 days of entry.
Unfortunately this regulation was only introduced days before I arrived (November 2016) so negotiating it was a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, Oibek, a Kyrgyz man assisting me with the documentation for Pico’s sale, helped out with translation over a couple of hours for the small price of 500 Som (~£6). With a couple of small bribes, we were whisked through the process and emerged successful, though slightly lighter in pocket.
Throughout Central Asia I found some fantastic markets; easily the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. From the everyman black markets of Uzbekistan to the Sultan Kariba in Dushanbe, Tajikistan they came in all shapes, sizes and locations. I’m fairly sure that the Sultan Kariba had everything under the sun for sale – from its wares you could have built and furnished whole towns or part-by-part created nearly all car models I’ve heard of. My favourite market was the river bankside in Osh. Almost shantytown like with its corrugated iron roofs and mix of products, it was a great place to weave in and out of. Getting in was easy, getting out was filled with mistakes you were glad to make.
Shopping for snow chains at the Sultan Kariba market in Dushanbe
The perfect lemon seller in Dushanbe's Green Market
Mr Meat and his wonderful produce - you might not guess from this photo, he was a very smily man
There’s a lot of love for their presidents in these countries. To the outsider they appear as confirmed dictatorships but in nearly all conversations with locals there was a lot of love for their supreme leaders. For the most part, I believe this was entirely genuine. The number of times Uzbeks mentioned their recently late president and his relationship with Putin in Russia was astonishing. When Islam Karimov died this year, Putin dropped everything to be at the funeral, shed a few tears and when interviewed called him the finest president on earth.
Other nuggets include the slow internet – it’s impossibly slow, everywhere you go. There are armies of women road sweepers cleaning the streets. The cities are some of the tidiest places I’ve ever been. Everywhere you stayed, breakfast was provided – a luxury after Europe. And power is used sparingly across all the countries: lights are always switched off.
Tourist activities in these countries were fairly sparse. Usually, it was more than enough to be able to walk and just soak up these different parts of the world. Dushanbe’s centre, for example, could certainly be toured in a day from visiting the world’s largest flagpole to the presidential palace. Portions of Uzbekistan were an exception with such strong historical pedigree in Khiva, Bukhara and the best, Samarkand. I feel the best activities were in the natural environment that countries like Tajikistan offered. The Pamir Mountains certainly offered plenty of adventure with potentially minus 40-degree temperatures, hot springs and outrageous landscapes.
Talking about the Pamir Mountains – that was an adventure. Having picked up 2 fellow adventurers, Abu from Singapore and Rebecca from Taiwan, we set off from Dushanbe into the mountains to drive over the second highest road in the world. The scenery as we entered the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province became surreal. Layered red rocks and dusty one lane tracks carved their way through the valleys with each kilometre bringing more snow as we rose. After hours or driving and passing through a small mountain village, we paused to put the snow chains on and disaster struck. With icy hands, we discovered another oil leak from Pico’s engine. It must have been more bad driving from me :( With black oil sinking through the crisp white snow, we were stuck in the mountains.
Our journey into the mountains began
The red earth of the road to the Pamirs
With the sump almost empty, we just about managed to roll back down to the small village. With a little magical snow dust, the first person we met was a Cristiano Ronaldo lookalike who knew a thing or two about bodging cars. With 8 villagers and us pushing Pico up hills through the snow and a quick tow into a local’s driveway with a sunken ramp, we got to work. A lot of epoxy resin, a heat torch and some gauze from my medical kit, my football god saviour managed to seal the engine :) It was late by this point and the townspeople kindly put us up for the night, fed us and kept us warm in the -10 degree temperatures. The next day, with a disbelieving look in our wide eyes, it was back to Dushanbe.
Rescuing Pico with epoxy resin, a heat torch and some medical gauze
Dima (aka Cristiano Ronaldo) - the saviour of the day
Dimas's completed (and intentionally temporary) repairs
Abu with the boys of the village
Our host for the night's youngest lad ready to help with the repairs
Our generous host for the night in the room we slept in
On speaking to Dilovar, an English-speaking mechanic, things did not look good or at least looked expensive. With a nervous days waiting, we discovered only one person in the city could fix the engine and he had the equipment at the airport. Cue some dodgy dealings and a blinder from Dilovar to keep the price low. Pico was fixed up in a day, the aluminium casing welded as if brand new and we were ready for round 2.
If you ever need a mechanic in Dushanbe, Dilovar is the man to go to – his number for Whatsapp is +992881111617 – he’s truly a legend and I look forward to visiting him and his vintage Soviet era car collection again.
Abu, Rebecca and I sent off once again from Dushanbe during a 5am snow flurry. It was dark and beautiful following the snow ploughs and gritters. From our discussions in the mountains we’d discovered the pass we’d previously tried was thigh high in snow and we wouldn’t have made it regardless. The second time we tried the southern route along the Afghanistan border. This bought a longer path but better roads. Unfortunately they weren’t good enough for my mediocre driving ability. At 7am, with the sun peering over mountaintops and exiting a long tunnel, we skidded on an ungritted road. Pico careered into a roadside ditch with body panels breaking off.
Pico - kerbed
It was disorientating moment as shock set in and the realisation of our predicament became apparent. We were buried in the snow, only able to exit by one door and with no apparent possibility of escape in Pico. As a team we came to the decision that it was time to say goodbye. We’d pack up and hopefully hitchhike our way out of the mountains. There was no way we’d manage it as a three plus our rucksacks so it was time to part ways. There wasn’t much traffic but Abu was first off, jumping in a car of 5 and requiring me to push to get them going again.
And then, with dawn fully broken, a dirty old tipper-gritter appeared round the snowy bend. It came with a blessing: a mounted crane. Seeing our situation as it was, 8 gritting men jumped out and within minutes we had Pico in a harness. Out the ditch she came with a bent chassis and crippled doors. It didn’t matter; Rebecca and I had a ride back to Dushanbe. The elation of these seconds will never leave me. Beaming, we re-entered the tunnel and reattached the snow chains to the buckled wheels on the other side. It took hours but our limping took us back to safety and warmth. We were just in time for a late breakfast in the hostel.
Our saviours for the second time in the week with the craning gritter-tipper disappearing in the distance
In unbelievable scenes, the Dilovar’s wonderful mechanics got all Pico's bodywork reattached, the bent steering strut welded and even new brake pads fitted! Good times for everyone. Pico ‘Lazarus’ Xsara Picasso was restored and the journey could continue. With two failed attempts at the Pamirs and time running short on my Chinese visa window, it was time to take the route north to Kyrgyzstan. Without a doubt, I will pursue a third attempt through the Pamirs on another adventure: just next time it will be in summer and with a 4x4!
Some of the damage to be repaired
Dilovar - a mechanic of fine repute - and me - a driver of disaster
A word should be mentioned about the hostel I stayed in while frequenting Dushanbe. Green House Hostel was a wonderfully homely place and I’d recommend it to everyone who passes through. Through the couple of Pamir failed attempts and catching up on all my life admin, it provided me with the place that I’ve felt most at home on my travels. The family who ran it were warm, went above and beyond in sourcing a mechanic and generally made everything wonderful as well as a good varied breakfast. Top marks to Green House.
Rebecca chilling on Green House's sofas
For our final journey together, Pico and I made it through the snowy mountains over the Kyrgyz border to Osh. It was time to say goodbye. It was always the plan to part ways around this point – driving in China requires registering the car there, a fully specified itinerary and a 24-hour guide at all points. This cost prohibitive option meant it was time to get the backpack out.
In Osh, I found a lovely Swiss man named Patrick: he runs the Muztoo Central Asian travel company and was willing to part with a few hundred dollars to continue Pico's adventure. All the tools and equipment I’d needed for my journey were included in the bundle. Considering I’d bought Pico for £100 + £20 for half a tank of fuel its rather unbelievable I made a profit on such an adventure.
At the Hostel Inn Osh, I made great friends with the owner and we both gave Pico a good scrubbing to say thank you for her hardships. Askar didn’t speak much English but he didn’t need to in order to understand the journey we’d been on together. As a thank you for his wonderful hospitality and warmth I gave him all the possessions I wouldn’t take with me to China in my backpack and hadn’t sold with Pico. He presented me with traditional Kyrgyz headwear, which I will treasure forever, and I’m assured I can stay for free whenever I’m next there!
Needless to say I was a little emotional when I dropped Pico off. In a cliché yet perfect moment, we played Sarah Brightman's Time to Say Goodbye on the final drive. I couldn’t have asked for more from our experiences and I loved every second of our exploits. Thank you Pico.
To Pico - a friend for life
So to wrap my central Asian escapades up, here’s my quick summary of my experiences in the countries.
They all share many similarities as predominantly Islamic countries who at many points have been part of the same countries or empires. I think it’s fair to say that its Islam-light compared to the orthodox middle eastern countries. Many people drink, 5 prayers aren’t always offered everyday and during recent times in Uzbekistan, Islam was definitely frowned upon. The populations’ racial demographics are mainly Turkish from the empire eras. Their languages, while distinguishable, are very similar and from the Soviet Union, Russian is spoken commonly. The weather is harsh in winter and hot in summer.
While on paper Uzbekistan has a far higher GDP per capita, it felt far poorer in the west than Tajikistan and even more so than Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan is undoubtedly the force of wealth in the region and features in the top 50 wealthiest countries worldwide by most accounts – surprisingly to me, it eclipses countries like Turkey and China. Agriculture is difficult due to the epic mountains or arid deserts but with irrigation, successes in crops like cotton exist as well as rice and wheat. Gas/oil, mining and minerals are also important aspects of their economies. Throughout all of them black markets exist and form parts of daily life.
In the west, Kazakhstan felt fairly wild. Nonetheless, I’m not sure that it’s reflective of the rest of the country having spoken to other travellers. According to those I met on the road, Almaty in the east is the place to be. As a prior capital, it’s where all the culture is, away from the current stale capital, Astana, in the north. The plains to the west were vast with mountain ridges occasionally breaking the horizon.
Uzbekistan - so backwards and remote in many ways, with history from an age before Christ and people who are wonderful, welcoming and will go beyond reason in anything to assist you. It was a repressed country of contradictions: net exporter of energy that prefers to sell than provide to its own citizens; crazy inflation fuelling black market currency dealing all while being richer on average than some of its neighbours.
In Tajikistan: where Dushanbe is structured and modern from its time in the Soviet Union, the countryside is epically poor. I saw people living in ruins barely fit for sheltering livestock. It’s a mountainous place compared to the Asian steppe with the Pamir highway of historical importance on the Silk Road. Its full beauty is still something I want to visit – I’m sure it’ll be third time lucky.
Kyrgyzstan is mountainous again with some excellent skiing apparently. My time there was brief as much was spent dealing with the admin of Pico. Some farmlands decorate the lowlands and although Bishkek, the capital, is reputably rather boring, there’s plenty to explore in the countryside and around Lake Issyk Kul.
All in all, I left with a love for Central Asia and its challenges. I feel like tourism is set to grow well in the next few years if managed correctly. For a sense of new adventure, it’s a fairly safe and secure part of the world to visit and expand your horizons. However, given the history and craziness of these countries, managed tourism may not come off for a while! I do know I’ll be going back and visiting these countries again sometime, if only for the warmth of the people and the friends I’ve made.
As for me, saying goodbye to Pico signaled a huge juncture in my journey. It was time to backpack :)
Backpack at the ready
This post and the last one cover all my time in Central Asia so here are all the dates and places from this time:
Sunday 6th November – A random hostel, Aktau, Kazakhstan
Monday 7th November – Near train tracks, Say-Otes, Kazakhstan
Tuesday 8th November – Desert track, western Uzbekistan
Wednesday 9th November – Hotel Jipek Joli, Nukus, Uzbekistan
Thursday 10th November – Hotel Lalipa, Khiva, Uzbekistan
Friday 11th November – Hostel Rumi, Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Saturday 12th November – Guesthouse Minora, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Sunday 13th November – Guesthouse Minora, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Monday 14th November – Desert track, southeastern Uzbekistan
Tuesday 15th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Wednesday 16th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Thursday 17th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Friday 18th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Saturday 19th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Sunday 20th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Monday 21st November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Tuesday 22nd November – Village south of Kalaykhusayen, en route to Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Wednesday 23rd November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Thursday 24th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Friday 25th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Saturday 26th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Sunday 27th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Monday 28th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Tuesday 29th November – Guest House Sebzor, Khujand, Tajikistan
Wednesday 30th November – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Thursday 1st December – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Friday 2nd December – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Saturday 3rd December – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Sunday 4th December – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan