(33) Khorog, Tajikistan: Tajikistan = mountain love

Wow. What a drive. Both in length and vistas.

The guesthouse manager had said the drive would be about 12-13 hours. That if I left about 9:30 (which I did) I would arrive by 10 (which I did not).

The drive probably is more like 18 hours, but when you figure in 1) waiting for a 10m section of road to be paved (literally waiting for the asphalt to be poured, raked flat, and rolled over) 2) a legitimately tired driver wanting to nap for 4 or 5 hours, 3) running out of gas in the middle of nowhere and waiting for one of the passengers to hitch to the next village and back with gas, the whole trip ended up taking 25 hours.

But, what a drive.

The first 6 hours were fairly boring. It started with, well not starting. It seems inevitable that when a vehicle is full and all passengers are set that it’s not actually time to depart. First gas. In this case, gas taken by glass jars from open barrels, poured into the vehicle through a funnel. We also were stopped by multiple traffic police, at which point our driver soon realized that the starter wasn’t working, and that in order to get going we were going to have to find a way to get a rolling start (which remained true for the rest of the 25 hours).

On a side note, while I didn’t see any money change hands when we were stopped repeatedly at the beginning of this trip, traffic police apparently squeeze a few somanis out of many stopped cars. Next to the president’s inner circle, I suspect traffic police are the next richest group of citizens in Tajikistan. They’re everywhere, and always out in full force.

But back to the actual drive. Again, the beginning was fairly unremarkable. Rolling hills and incredibly hazy sky. We stopped for lunch, where I ordered the only word I recognized – borsht – and the ladies were treated by the men. This is the first shared taxi that I’ve taken where a majority of passengers are women. The four of us were treated for dinner that evening too.

After lunch before we start our climb over a pass, we stop for fruit and get accosted. Little children asking for money. Little children trying to pull the windows down and open the doors to ask for money. An old man who really wants a ride, and won’t take “sorry, we’re full” as an answer. Those not buying fruit lock ourselves inside. One man comes back, sets his grapes down on the seat, and I soon find myself sitting in water. I spend the rest of the trip sitting on a towel. We take off, and one of the packages on the roof falls off. A comedy of errors.

Eventually, we crested the pass, and descended into an increasingly remarkable canyon. In the far distance through the canyon I could see snow-capped peaks. Was this Afghanistan?

Soon enough the canyon emptied into a broad river valley, were we met up with the Panj river, separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan. My first glimpse of an Afghan village was very exciting. I couldn’t believe that right there, across the river, was Afghanistan. Where as the Tajik side was serviced by road, the Afghan side wasn’t even serviced by electricity. Villages were few and far between, with narrow footpaths as their sole connections.

As the river valley narrowed to have steep rock faces line each side, my new pasttime became following the footpath on the Afghan side. The path was carved haphazardly yet thoughtfully into the most forgiving part of the sheer walls. Sometimes the paths dipped below the water line – the river was higher than usual. What happens in that case – are the villages completely cut off? At one point I spotted three men walking along the path. As we continued driving, it seemed like hours before we spotted any civilization. Where were the men coming from? Sometimes the rock wall became too vertical, and the path would have to climb high about the river. Sometimes I would lose the path, and find it again only to be dumbfounded as to how it would be possible to climb and descend it without falling.

At first I thought this would be a great place to come for a hiking trip. But as the paths got more and more extreme, I thought it would be a bit of a death wish.

At dinner I sat with the women. I asked the youngest one (20 years old) the usual third question after “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” and “Are you married?”

“No,” she responded with a smile. “I’m studying medicine.” Right on! I thought.

After dinner the ladies went to find a toilet. The public toilet was the first truly public toilet on this trip. No stalls. Just a huge line of holes with two foot high dividers between them. The only private one is the last one, as no one can walk by you.

About half an hour after dinner, the driver decided to stop for a rest. Completely reasonable considering he had been driving for over 12 hours and he still had at least another six to go.

The women lie out on a large platform bed outdoors. We’re there for 4 hours, but I swear I only sleep for less than 30 minutes. One problem is the bugs, or at least my imagination. They keep flying into me or crawling on me. And the cold that I developed in Dushanbe is in full swing. My nose won’t stop running. My head aches. I sneeze. And sneeze. And sneeze.

Once we’re back in the car I manage to nod off for a bit while it’s still dark, and skip breakfast for more napping.

And then it was light, and I noticed the valley had opened up. Still stunning. I was offered to go to the homes of two of the passengers, but seeing as I was sick and was arriving in Khorog at a decent hour, I wanted some privacy.

Khorog is a nice little town, set in a valley just up from the main valley that borders on Afghanistan. The streets are tree-lined, the air is fresh, and the mountain views are lovely.

I ended up at the main backpacker haunt in Khorog. Mainly because I was hoping to meet some other people interested in sharing a jeep up the Wakhan Valley over a few days. I did meet some interesting people. Lots of cyclists. A group of motorbikers heading over into Afghanistan, including a Calgarian. An English woman doing research with the local Ismailis. Had a good laugh when a German cyclist very seriously told a group of us that he was a warm doucher. It sounded funnier than it looks in print.

Through the information centre I was able to hook up with a young Texan and two older French women who were also interested in sharing a jeep. It worked out pretty perfectly, though I could tell early on that the French women, one in particular, might be a bit too assertive for my liking. But Nick, the Texan, spoke Russian, so he was going to be a great help. That night I also found one more traveller, Nic from Switzerland, looking to go, so we were 5 in total. Perfect.

Before we left Khorog, I achieved two important things. First was finding a place to eat a better variety of food than the standard Tajik fare. I was able to try an Indian restaurant (though while run by an actual Indian, does not compare to India or Vancouver), a kind of fancy cafe overlooking the water (which served decent tasting food in small portions and at high prices), and finally, my favourite, the Russian restaurant. The place looked like a Russian love dungeon. It was dark and furnished in dark wood and red satin. Apparently it was a night club later in the evening. But it served good food. I settled on mashed potatoes (yum!), vegetable ragout (yum!), and a main dish called “Perfume of Love” (huh!?). I had enquired about the “Canadian Steak” but it was described to me as “chopped up meat”. Perfume of Love, on the other hand, was a chicken breast, covered in chopped up green peppers and onions in some sort of cream, topped with slices of tomatoes and melted cheese.

The second thing was to inquire into some volunteering possibilities. I popped into the Aga Khan Foundation office to see a woman I had met briefly on the way to the tourist information office earlier in the day. I wanted to find out if any project work was available in Kyrgyzstan or possibly Tajikistan. I have quite a bit of time to spend in this area, and with visa extensions being much easier in Kyrgyzstan, the former seems like a better option. I met with Nuria and her colleague Azicha, explaining my interests and experiences, inquiring about contacts or projects they may be able to direct me to. They offered to make some inquiries and get back to me. Which would be difficult seeing as I was leaving the next morning, and I didn’t have a cell phone. Azicha was a bit surprised I wouldn’t have a mobile.

“A man without a mobile is, is like, …. like a border guard without a gun.”

An odd choice of simile.

On our way out of the office, I met of friend of Nuria’s who was selling a phone. He didn’t have it with him, but said he would bring it by in the morning, all set with a SIM card and some credit. 8am. When I was meeting the others at the PECTA office to leave in the jeep.

Yeah, that never happened. I’m not sure what it is, but as firm as you think plans, are, plans never seem to be plans here. Ah well.

Instead, it was Nick, Nic, Francoise, Mary Florence and I ready to take off for four days through the Wakhan Valley and east Pamir Highway. An eclectic bunch.

(32) Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Sick, tired, and sick and tired

I’m sure Dushanbe is a lovely city, but for me it was the place where I was still sick with diarrhea from Tashkent, and then also had a sore throat I was worried would be strep, and then intestines healed, but then turned out to have a bad cold.

When I arrived in Dushanbe, not into the home of a fellow CouchSurfer as I had originally planned, I checked into a pretty standard soviet hotel. I think it would have been grand back in the day, but it’s time as home to rebel fighters during the civil war here in the 90s, plus way too many coats of bad paint, leave a bit to be desired. I was in a shared room, meaning there are two beds, and I would be placed with another woman. My first night the other bed was occupied by a nice woman/young daughter duo on their way to Iran to visit the girl’s father. I also tried the first afternoon to explore the city in the hopes of getting a detailed Tajikistan map, mailing some things home, seeing small city life, but I didn’t get too far before an intestinal attack came on, so I spent the evening with bread, cheese, and a banana in bed.

Day two was much of the same. CouchSurfing host turned out to be a bit of a dud. I’m really not going to end up leaving a hotel. During the day I got as far as mailing a package home, and losing my wallet. The postal experience was entertaining, if nothing else. The office I went to was the main one in the capital, therefore the epitome of postal service in Tajikistan. Firstly, I couldn’t mail some of the things I have bought just before I left Iran. Basically, anything the woman couldn’t recognize, I couldn’t send. Dried berries, saffron, and saffron sugar crystals were a no go. So was a special travel bottle with suncreen remnants (and a few shells from Moynak I had shoved inside).

Once the package I was actually sending was determined, each item was individually weighed. I filled out forms in triplicate, twice, as I had mad small errors, and scratched out letters were not allowed.

Then was the issue of a box. In Canada (and Turkey and Iran so far on this trip), one can go to the post office and buy special envelopes and boxes to pack things in. Not so here. The woman tracked down an old box which didn’t quite fit one of the larger items I wanted to send, so she deconstructed and reconstructed it to fit. Badly.

She shook her head at the result, so I offered to try. My result was better, but I would have felt much more comfortable if it had had ten layers of packing tape around it. I suggested I could go by some “scotch” but she shook her head disapprovingly; not sure if this was because it wasn’t allowed or she wasn’t a believer in tape. Instead the “box” was fastened with twine, the corners barely stable with bent cardboard stuck in the wide gaps.

The next step is even more entertaining. She judges the size of the non-rectangular box, and goes into the back room to sew a cotton sack to fit over it. She comes out once to try the fit, and goes back to make alterations. The sack finally firmly over the box, she closes the end of the sack like wrapping paper and sews it shut with individual stitches by hand. She runs out of string at one point, and shakes her head as if she should be able to judge appropriate lengths of string needed by this point in her career. I agree.

Finally, the cotten sack firmly sewn shut, she dabs hot wax from a tin under the counter along the hand sewn seams, and seals each glob with a Tajik postal service stamp. I write the destination address in permanent marker on the cotton fabric.

I have no idea if this is going to get to Canada, but her and I high-five it anyway.

I then went a little bit further for a walk, before I decided my intestines couldn’t handle it. Then I realized my wallet was missing. Whether it had fallen out of my pocket/bag or someone helped it to fall, I don’t know. Luckily I was only out about $40 and a photocopy of my passport.

And then, my final bit of entertainment for the night was dinner with Sino, the alleged CouchSurfing host. He treated me to a traditional Central Asian dish of lagman (noodle soup) and a RC Cola, after I had waived away his interest in getting wine or beer. I think all my stomach could handle was broth. I apologized more than once for my lack of energy – it wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm, it was just that I wanted to curl up in a ball on a cool bathroom floor. He shared some opinions on the history of the Soviets in Tajikistan. How during Soviet occupation, Tajiks thought Russians were the hardest wokring people. The brought electricity to Tajikistan. Tajiks say that the Sun is the light from God. Electricity is the light from Lenin. Since Tajikistan reluctantly declared independence, apparently the Chinese are considered the hardest workers.

That night I shared a room with Russian business woman (I think). I only saw about 30 seconds of her, which probably suited us both.

The next morning I resolved to change hotels. It was pretty clear Sino wasn’t going to work out, I wanted to pamper myself and get better. I splurged on a bed and breakfast with a lovely room and private bath. It included wifi (yay!), laundry service, and even driver service. The manager freaked out as I accidentally unplugged her computer. This was obviously a tragedy for her, and she let me know over, and over. I got her back by asking to borrow paper scissors and using them to cut my toenails.

My first day there I only ventured outside once. I got as far as the main street before it was apparent that my intestines didn’t want me to do any exercise. Sino picked me up and drove me around the city in the late afternoon, showing me the main buildings and monuments. I retreated to the bed and breakfast, and ordered dinner in.

The next morning I resolved the day to be my last day in the city. I enjoyed breakfast with a US researcher staying in Dushanbe for a few weeks. When she found out I had been through Iran, she mentions she was originally from Iran and asked me how it was. She hadn’t been there since just before the revolution in 78. I asked why she hadn’t gone back. Her family is Jewish and is well known there, and her brother is still in Iran and is an active lawyer. Apparently going back isn’t an option. I answered her questions the best I could.

Sino had made plans to meet me at 11am, but he never materialized, and I gave up.

My final two tasks that I needed to complete before I left the city were to get some money out (while ATMs are common here, most are out of money, or only let you withdraw a paltry some of something like 300 somanis, or about $65. Not worth the $5 international transaction fee) AND get my camera lens fixed, as it was still stuck on full zoom. Sino had suggested going to a deparment store on the main street and asking around, which I was suprised to find actually worked. I was directed to a hole in the wall (literally, it was a 2 foot square hole in a wall to access the “fixer man”. We agreed I would pay him the equivalent of about $40 if he could fix it. For some reason I almost hesitated, then shook my head. Why would I pass on possibly my final chance to be able to take wide angle photos for a paultry $40? I watched him work for a while, then went to a hip cafe across the street and got iced tea and a raspberry cake that reminded me of summer in BC. When you imagine me in Central Asia, I’m sure you don’t have a picture of me sipping iced tea in an italian cafe with wifi, do you?

Later, back at the hole in the wall, I found that the zoom was now working, and he was slowly putting all the pieces back together. The camera reconstructed, he tested it and found the automatic focus was now not working. So I watched him take the whole thing apart again, and the back together. Success. I was thrilled, and took a photo of him and his friend, with a wide angle zoom. They kind of reminded me of a Tajik version of Flight of the Concords.

With my camera in tact, and happy that I had been out and about for a few hours with seemingly improved intestinal fortitude, I ventured out a bit longer and walked a bit around the main street before heading back to the guest house where I enjoyed my takeout leftovers, the BBC, and wifi until bed, at which point I knew my sore throat had turned into a full blown cold.

The next morning I took advantage of the guesthouse’s driver service, as the driver not only took me to the place where shared taxis to Khorog leave, but also found a vehicle and negotiated a price. Splurging for the guesthouse definitely paid off.

Overall Dushanbe seemed like a nice enough town, though I didn’t get to truly enjoy it. It is the last town for the next few weeks where the culinary options are plenty (Indian, Chinese, etc) so I’m sad to be sick and not be able to enjoy them. The abundance of treed streets were lovely after the barren scrub of most of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But the capital is not my reason for being in Tajikistan, the mountains are. I’m excited for what is to come.

(31) Penjikent, Tajikistan: A glimpse of what is to come

The trip from Tashkent was remarkably unremarkable. Taxi to the train station. Train left on time. First class actually had air conditioning this time. Buses through Samarkand to the minibus station. Minibus to the border (passing Tobi on his bike, agreeing to meet up in Penjikent). Cross the border. Minibus to Penjikent (I see mountains!!).

I suppose the remarkable thing was how unremarkable it was. I had heard rumours of horror stories of leaving Uzbekistan – confiscating money, searching every nook and cranny of your luggage – but all I got was a nice conversation with an Uzbek officer who had done an English degree back in 1984 and was eager to practice.

Unremarkable other than the diarrhea. I guess that was a bit of an annoyance. Thankfully it stays at bay when I’m not moving (ie sitting on the train) but when I have to walk (ie across the border) it acts up. Having had the privilege of using the toilet on both the Uzbek and Tajik sides of the border, I’d have to say the Tajik one is nicer, if only for having fewer flies. The kind of diarrhea I have sucks (I suppose diarrhea sucks in general though). I feel completely healthy, then BAM!, I have go to the washroom NOW OR ELSE! If this is anything like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I have a new appreciation for what life for those with it is like.

In Penjikent I settled into the guesthouse, convinced the local convenience store to take my Uzbek som for and hung out by the road so I could wave Tobi over. And I was no longer linguistically incompetent! Tajikistan has a language very similar to Farsi in Iran – 1,2,3 is Yak, Du, Se instead of Yek, Do, Se – so I could get by. Tajik e cam cam medonam – I speak a little bit of Tajik – is my new oft repeated phrase. It seems most people think that I might speak Russian (most travellers use it as it is common among all the Central Asia countries) so when I throw out some Tajik, they are pleasantly surprised. It just means I’ll be screwed again when/if I reach Kyrgyzstan, but I’m having fun for now.

I hung out by the road with a 15 year old boy who ran an ice cream machine. He treated me to an ice cream and turned on Snoop Dog when I asked if he liked any American music. Surprisingly (and I say this honestly) he didn’t like Enrique Iglesias.

I had asked the boy to be on the lookout for a tourist on a bike named Tobi, and to tell him to stop. This didn’t go so well, as when Tobi passed I was (once again) on the toilet, and apparently people asking you to stop is pretty common when you are a tourist on a bike. He passed by.

When I got out of the toilet, the boy was standing outside the guest house, frantically motioning to me that Tobi had passed and he didn’t stop! We tracked down Tobi soon enough.

Tobi and I took a wander through Penjikent. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a nondescript town. All through Uzbekistan, I only went to the main stops. It was nice to just wander down the main street, see people going at their usual lives which don’t involve selling trinkets to tourists.

Unfortunately, earlier in the day my camera lens (18-125mm) got locked in the 125mm position. I’m going to have to get this checked out in Dushanbe (hopefully), because it means that all my shots are going to be zoomed until then.

That evening at the guesthouse, I was chilly for the first time since Van, Turkey. I actually pulled out my microfleece. It was incredibly refreshing.

The next morning I headed out on my way to Dushanbe to meet my CouchSurfing host. I caught a shared taxi for the 5-6 hour drive. Once again I pulled out my limited Tajik with the driver. He shared pictures of his 3 children with me. One picture was of toddler twins, but he made a sleeping motion and it soon became clear that one of the twins had died. My heart sank.

The mountains heading out of Penjikent were spectacular. My first real mountains since Iran, and even then those mountains didn’t speak to me quite like these as they weren’t snow capped. I’m so happy to be in Tajikistan. The whole basis of this trip started with images of mountains in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and I’m finally here.

I soon settled into a comfortable state of wonder. I felt like I had never left the mountains, and that this where I was always meant to be.

The road shifted between potholed dirt roads, potholed paved roads, and smooth paved roads. The most interesting part was the “Tunnel” I had heard so much about when talking with cyclists in Samarkand. It’s a 5km tunnel (though it seemed like longer as we were going about 10-20km/h) with no ventilation, no lighting, and little evidence of road maintenance. Perhaps some of it was paved at one point, but it is filled with ridges and holes, and almost a foot of water in parts. I can’t imaging cycling through it. The shared taxi, with barely functioning headlights, made it through unscathed.

As we neared Dushanbe, we got pulled over and it seems the driver had to pay a “fine” for some reson.

I tried to reach my CouchSurfing host. No response. No response. No response. Finally, he called back. Turns out he’s in Penjikent, and is heading to Dushanbe tomorrow morning. Grr. He says if he had known I could have stayed with him in Penjikent and driven with him to Dushanbe.

I guess plans aren’t really plans. Hotel it is.

(30) Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Would you like to see my private minaret?

The shared taxi to Samakand was great until the point where we stopped for gas and one of the men wanted to show me something on his cell phone and it ended up being pictures of graphically naked women.

Arrived in Samarkand, dropped off at a local bus stop. Caught what I thought was a reasonable numbered local bus, and it got me vaguely into Samarkand. And then I walked a looong way to the guest house I planned to stay at. There were other, nicer, options, along the way but I was OK with seeing travellers at this point.

Got into the place, and saw….the Jorma and Aziza, the cycling couple I met in Mashhad (they hadn’t waited too long after her appendectomy!) and Tobias, too! Other characters included two Australian brothers who were motorbiking from South Africa to the farthest northeast in Russia they could get. And an older French man who like to talk about himself as though he is the only person in the world with intersesting travel stories, always had a better story than you about that place that you went, and if he hadn’t been there, it was because it was below him to visit such a place. Other than this man, there are quiet a few interesting travellers here. I’m impressed with all the bikers and cyclists.

I hang out with the Australian brothers during the day, exploring Samarkand. None of us are too bothered to go into paid sites. We circle the main site, the Registan. One of the guards at a side entrance encourages us to bribe him so that we can go up and see his special private minaret. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t meaning to be sexually suggestive, but it was funny all the same.

We enjoy lunch near a large covered but open air market. We explore an interesting cemetery with great tile work.

I run into Julica and her mom. She mentioned a conversation she had with an Uzbek couchsurfing host she met. The topic of religion came up, and when Julica describe how she didn’t believe in God, the young woman was dumbfounded. She described how before she understood that there are different ways to believe in God (e.g. Islam vs. Judeo-Christian) but had never considered that there might not be a God. “I’m going to have to think about this,” the young woman had said.

At the guest house I came across a travel diary in the book exchange. There’s no name in it front. I took it with me to try to unite it with it’s owner at some point in the future.

I went out for late night food with Aziza and Jorma. Had the most interesting looking hotdog ever. Grated carrots and mayonnaise topping. Watched the Netherlands lose in the World Cup. Jorma was devastated. Stayed up late chatting with the Australian brothers.

In the few notes I did make about this segment of my trip, I made reference to how long my toenails are at this point. I had lost my swiss army knife in Mary, Turkmenistan, and I guess they were getting pretty long.

And then, it was back to Tashkent to get my things in prep for getting to Tajikistan.

(29) Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Paper pushers pushing my buttons

With ticket in hand, I actually got on a train in the morning to Tashkent. Marta and Kuba and two other travellers were in a different car, so I was on my own in first class.

First class on these trains is a fairly meaningless term. I suppose there is tonnes of leg room, which I was thankful for, but the barely functioning air conditioning meant that the windows were closed and the car sweated and fans themselves the entire 8 hours. A young man going to Tashkent for a university entrance English test so we chatted off and on through out the trip as we also each tried to nap through the heat. The usual questions came up, including the question of my religion. “Muslim”, he says as he points to himself. “Christian?” He points to me. I shake my head. He holds up two fingers, looks at them, and says, “Muslim, Christian” as if he’s run out of fingers and there are only two possible religions. He tries again, and remains confused. “No Christian. But you have God,” he says, more of a statement than a question. OK, sure, I have god. I feel I might blow your mind if I try to explain atheism.

The scenery was more desert. Dust. Scrub. Did catch a glimpse of mountains as we went through Samarkand, even one with some remnants of winter snow. I’m bypassing Samarkand so as to sort out a Kyrgyz visa in Tashkent first. I’ll catch Samarkand on my way through to Tajikistan. While Kyrgyzstan is not definitely in my plans yet, I still hope to get there. I’ve been reading the forums on Lonely Planet’s website, and will base my decisions on what fellow travellers are saying. Considering Kyrgyzstan was the main reason for this trip in the first place, I would be incredibly disappointed not to go.

Arriving in Tashkent I took the metro to near my intended hotel, and walked the rest of the way. I’ve been impressed with accommodation so far in Uzbekistan – definitely the nicest for the lowest prices – but this was more like a (low) standard hotel. Clean and the BBC; I suppose I couldn’t ask for much more.

My main goal for my first afternoon was to get rid of my lovely (grumble grumble) painting I’ve been carrying around since Mary. Uzbek post wasn’t necessarily reliable, but Tashkent did have a DHL, so if I didn’t mind forking out some money, there was a more secure option for my painting to get home.

Instead however, I ended up heading out with Yoko, the non-sick half of a Japanese couple, to get something to eat and check out the wifi that was apparently available at a nearby mall. Yoko and her husband, Hiro, have been biking around the world since 2008. From what I gather they started in Turkey, went south all the way to South Africa, flew over to Central (and South?) America, and most recently through China and now in Central Asia. A few years ago they also spent a working holiday in Canada, where it turns out they spent 4 months in Vernon, just less that an hour away from my hometown of Salmon Arm. The world just got smaller.

I had no success connecting to wifi, but borrowed Yoko’s iPod Touch to find out that I was likely not in luck for a quick Kyrgyz visa as I could have swore I had read online a few days before in Buchara. The embassy is closed Thursdays, and it takes two days, meaning I would apply Friday, and not be able to pick up until Monday.

(insert string of expletives here)

Back at the hotel I fell into a slumber until 11pm, got up and showered, and went back to sleep with my mosquito net as my only cover. I planned to get up early the next morning to try the Kyrgyz visa anyway.

But I was not in luck. Friday it would have to be. There’s nothing worse than be excited to leave something and start something new only to find stupid details claw you back to where to don’t want to be anymore. If only I hadn’t been sick. If only I had been able to get on the train the first time I wanted to. But then I wouldn’t have been able to run into some of the friends I have met along the way, and I wouldn’t take the time to hang out in Samarkand, which is what I’ve decided to do.

So today, instead of hanging out at the Kyrgyz embassy, I went to the main bazaar in town, bought a lovely plate, took photos. With the help of many people, I tracked down the DHL office to enquire about sending my Turkmenistan painting home. It would cost over $100, which I’m OK with since I would prefer that it would actually arrive in Canada. But what I wasn’t expecting was the extra step of getting permission from the Ministry of Art and Culture or somethingorother. Which would cost another $20-$40 and unknown time. Even though I have a certificate from Turkmenistan, and I didn’t buy the damned thing here. The young man working there was very nice. He was originally from Tajikistan, but left during the civil war in the 90s. He points to a 3 inch scar above his left eye. “For my parents, this was the final straw,” he says.

I guess I’ll carry it to Tajikistan and try again their. I’m getting used to carrying it around anyway.

In the evening I meet up with Yoko and Hiro for dinner. Our server speaks no English but a series of chicken noises, chopping motions, and hand squeezing gestures, we wind up with the dinner we expected – a variety of kabobs and some salad. The temperature had become bearable.

Finally, the day to apply for my Kyrgyz visa comes. I arrive at 10:10. It’s still not open, and I’m 4th in the queue. I get my paperwork by 10:30, and rush to the bank to pay my visa fee. If all goes well, I should pay, and get back to the embassy by 11 so that I can drop off all my paperwork before they close between 11:30 and 2:30.

But of course it couldn’t be that easy. Step 1 at the bank – some unknown paperwork – was fine. But step 2, actually paying, was not. Step 2 only takes 2 minutes, but when you have two Korean business people trying to withdraw tens of thousands of US dollars and it takes an hour and a half, step 2 actual takes an hour and a half and two minutes. At least I was amused by the lack of personal space people have here. While the teller is handing over stacks of 100 dollar bills, an insistent old woman stands right between them, complaining about how long it’s taking (or so I assume). There are about 12 people waiting behind me, and eventually a guard tells most of them to go, as they will be closing for lunch soon after the Koreans are done. The 3 women working in the other nearby teller windows have been mostly chatting the last hour. I’m not a fan of the ridiculous paperwork and lack of service orientation. I suppose the bureaucracy provides jobs for a huge proportion of the population, but I’m over it.

I get back to the embassy at 12:30, and wait. I’m hungry, but I want to keep my place in line. Somehow, a woman that arrives after me gets to drop off her stuff first, but soon enough I, too, get to drop off my paperwork. Done.

I just have a small overnight bag with me – laptop, underwear, mosquito net, and toiletries – and head straight away on the metro to the bus station, where I quickly pick up a shared taxi to Tashkent. Get me out of here. I need a break from bureaucracy.

(28) Buchara, Uzbekistan: Toilet talk

As it seems to be everywhere in Uzbekistan so far, getting from Khiva to Buchara was a pain in the ass. Probably the least so far, but still. I hauled all my stuff to the shared taxi/marshrutka stand, and am offered a taxi to Urgench. While this is where I want to get to, I don’t want a taxi on my own.

I had asked the guesthouse owner earlier in the morning what the Russian or Uzbek word for shared taxi was. He said there wasn’t one as most taxis are shared taxis. However, when I want a taxi, the drivers look at me with dollar signs and try to get me to pay for the full taxi. Grr.

But I do get a shared taxi, and get to the aftovagsal (bus station) where I should be able to get a shared taxi to Buchara, though once again the vultures pounce and assume I want a taxi to myself. I spot a minibus, and opt to wait for it fill the remainder of the 15 spaces rather than trying to explain, once again, that I want a shared taxi, and where is one please?

We leave before completely full, which is nice, but a man crams in beside me, resulting in four sitting across when only two are sitting in the next row back. He smells in need of sleeping off the drink. As soon as I determine we are, in fact, on our way and not picking up passengers at another location in town, I hop over the bench seat to the relatively spacious luxury of the next row. At the next stop, the couple that was originally beside me in the front row changes places so that the man is in between his woman and the drunk man. They seem to have the same idea I had. The drunk man ends up spending most of the trip nodding off, often splaying himself on the shoulder of the man in the middle. I pat myself on the back for changing seats.

It seems that Uzbekistan is one big dessert. Other than the cities I stop in, one or two oasis villages, and the odd truck stop, there is nothing. Sand, scrub, flatness. It’s hard to imagine the vibrant civilizations here that were fought over by multiple tyrants over the past few millennia. It’s dry and hot. I do spot at least one flock of sheep, but wonder what they eat or drink? I can’t see anything that would sustain them.

I wish I could say the journey was lovely, as I often enjoy the journey as much or more than the destination, but this is not the case. While seeing straight roads and flatness is notable for me, I’m satisfied after about an hour of it. I love mountains, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen one. And it’s bloody hot here. Consistently above 40, and more usually 45.

We get within 100km of Buchara, and stop at an isolated, half abandoned truck stop. A dilapidated shack, a leaning outhouse. Apparently we are out of gas. The country ran out of gasoline/diesel stores within the past week, and apparently individuals are also running low on their personal stashes that usually last them through times like this. I’m not sure where we are expecting to get more from.

So we wait. My Lonely Planet gets passed around. People point out the words and place names in Cyrillic with pride. I expect we’ll be waiting for longer than we actually do – only about half an hour before a car pulls up with a jerry can in the trunk. We eventually get to Buchara after 7 hours.

I end up at the same guest house that Katarina and Christina are booked into. The room is absolutely lovely. Amazing decor, lovely common spaces, and a clean, comfortable bed. I head out for dinner, and get ripped off but enjoy the venue around a fountain pool with hundreds of Uzbek tourists. Was originally excited to eat borsht (yay! vaguely vegetarian!) and then am pleasantly surprised with meatballs at the bottom.

The next morning I have a lovely breakfast at the guest house (french toast and crepes!) and head out to get a visa cash advance (its been a month and a half since I’ve had easy access to money) and pay Katarina back. I explore the town, but I’m getting pretty bored of mosques, madressas, and markets. Give me mountains! (Thankfully, Tajikistan is about a week away). I stopped at a crowded jewelry market, chatted it up with some local women, changed money with them, and went on to explore more of the city.

The only site I made an effort to really check out is an old prison. Apparently a few centuries ago an important British man came to do something in Buchara, but offended the locals, and was put in a pit prison. Then a while later another British man came to check in after the first man, and was also put in prison. Obviously the whole story wasn’t that important to me, but it was a well kept little prison.

On the way back to the centre of the old town, I explored little lanes and alleys lined with homes. At one point I fell into conversation with an extended family on one street corner, and I enjoyed some tea and soup with bread, we took lots of photos and I got their address to mail photos later. This is now the third time in the past three days. I’ve tried to explain each time that it will be a while – probably October or November before they get them. I hope they understood and don’t give up hope after a few weeks. I also hope that when I send them they actually get to their destinations. I’m not sure I have complete faith in the Uzbek postal system.

By this point, it’s hot, and it’s time for a siesta. Back at the guesthouse I fall in and out of sleep. And then, I start to feel ill.

I won’t go into complete details, but I spent the next 8 hours either sitting on, puking in, or sleeping in front of the toilet. Thank god I had my own room and it was wonderfully clean. Everything in my digestive system, plus probably another few litres of water from elsewhere, left my body. By midnight I was feeling alright. I had a huge craving for a cold orange, but knew this wasn’t going to happen. I gave up on the idea of getting on a train in the morning. I also had missed dinner with Katarina and her mother.

I felt much better the day after, but I spent it resting. Sleeping, watching Al Jazeera or France 24 in English, just laying there. Katarina came by with some yogurt, water and juice, and I got some bread and cheese from the guesthouse. Since I was staying an extra day, I would be able to catch the same train as the Germans and prepared myself for leaving early the next morning.

We had an early breakfast and caught a taxi for the train station, but for me, it wasn’t meant to be. No tickets left. Katarina and Christina had got their tickets two days previous, so we said goodbye. I tried to plead with the station attendants, but got nowhere. I’m pretty sure bribing might have worked, but didn’t know what was appropriate. 50 cents? $5? Surely not $20. I picked up a ticket for the next day and went back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel I was made to switch rooms. Apparently my room had already be cleaned, but I suspect they just wanted to give my a lower grade room so that they could rent out the nicer one. No price cut for the new room either. “All the same price,” I’m told. Lots of little lies – these weren’t the first. I wish the rooms weren’t so damn nice, otherwise I would have left because of the vibe I got off the manager.

I went out to explore one last bit of the city, feeling like I should take some advantage of my extra day here. More lanes, a Jewish cemetery. Overall Uzbekistan has failed to really impress me so far. Great accommodation options, I’ll give the country that much. But lots of dry scrub dessert. Old towns and architecture that do not compare to Iran.

One nice thing about staying an extra day was running into Marta, Kuba and Julica again. It always happens by chance – no plans are involved – but that’s just the way Uzbekistan seems to roll. We made plans for dinner, and I spent most of the rest of the day scoping out embassies in Tashkent and napping – I’m still not feeling perfect. At dinner I had about 3 bites plus a half shot of vodka, then retired.

And finally, I’ve decided my final route on this trip. Not the day to day route, but at least how I plan to get back to Canada. I’m not going to share how or when, but I’m very content with my decision. Just hope it all works out. You can still vote for how I should spend my birthday, but as my mom said in a recent email, I’m not likely to be swayed.

Birthday wish list / Things I’ve lost so far on this trip

I think I’m getting a bit batty, because I’ve lost many more things on this trip that what I would have expected.

Please grieve the loss of these with me, and consider stocking up on them for my 30th birthday (September 9th), deliverable upon my return to Canada.

  • Ball point pen (RIP: Turkey)
  • Lobello SPF30 lip balm (RIP: Turkey)
  • Canon Powershot compact camera (S400?) and 2GB memory card. It would be even better to replace the few videos I had on it of dancing on a boat on Lake Van, the amusingly loud call to prayer in Göreme, windiness in the caldera of Nemrut Dagi, and a snapshot of the road towards Bahcesaray (RIP: near Bahcesaray, Turkey)
  • Sigma 18-125mm 62 lens cap (RIP: near Bahcesaray, Turkey, but replaced finally after much searching in Shiraz, Iran)
  • Nalgene bottle wrapped about 20 times in duct tape (RIP: taxi from Dohuk to Solimanieh, Iraq)
  • Sunglasses (RIP: in transit to Shiraz, Iran – replaced by $2 lookers in Shiraz, Iran)
  • Swiss army knife (RIP: hotel in Mary, Turkmenistan – replaced by a small paring knife in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan)
  • Small paring knife (RIP: hotel in Khiva, Uzbekistan – it’s sitting in my watermelon in the guest house fridge)
  • Sunglasses (RIP: homestay near Bebe Fatima hotsprings, Tajikistan – replaced by $2 crapolas in Murgab, Tajikistan)
  • Small kitchen knife (RIP: jeep in Langar, Tajikistan – replaced by small kitchen knife in Khorog, Tajikistan)

I’m especially feeling the loss of the Nalgene bottle and Swiss Army knife. I am in bad need of duct tape and nail clippers.

I wouldn’t mind a complete body scrub either (nothing to do with what I’ve lost, more to do with the bad skin I’ve gained) though I did stock up on a pumice stone in Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan.

Thank you!