G’day folks! We’ve done a lot of driving since our last update in Turkmenistan. This post is coming to you as a delayed live broadcast written on the road but posted from Russia, taking advantage an unsecured wireless access point in Belokurikha.
Our last entry ended on Friday night as we were in the outskirts of Turkmenabat. We found a hotel to stay there that night – what seemed like the biggest and presumably most expensive hotel in the city, and we got the fanciest room they had for $120 per night. It was perhaps quite typical of Turkmenistan: overblown and grandiose, with neon everywhere on the outside, pictures of the Turkmen President in the entrance, and yet understaffed and falling apart.
Turkmenistan, for whatever reason, seemed to be pretty much the country of massive buildings and neon lights (everywhere! even on the university!), obstructionate officials, creepy photogrpahs of the President everywhere and amazingly poor conditions for ordinary people. Driving through residential areas was a huge contrast to the money poured into the grandiose public buildings in infrastructure: just densely packed slums. There were obviously some who had money though – there were a fair few big BMWs and Mercedeses on the roads which I suspect would cost well over $100,000 in Australia. Adon also picked out a few Japanese sports sedans which were apparently twin-turbo V6s that he’d wished he could have got his hands on in Australia. But there were also plenty of people driving Soviet-era Ladas and older Toyotas in varying states of serious disrepair.
Turkmenabat is quite close to Uzbek border. We got a little bit lost trying to find the border crossing; it was actually this getting lost that let us see a bit of how the poorer folks in Turkemnistan lived. Fortunately, after a lot of confused gesturing trying to draw a map in the air, one of the locals suggested that we follow him out to the main road. So we did, and offered him a jar of vegemite for his troubles. Poor dude.
Arriving at the border crossing around 1pm, we discovered that it was closed. Because it was lunch time. There were a few other ralliers waiting at the border, who had heard that from 2pm until 5pm the border would be open again. So we sat around chatting and waited for the crossing to reopen. We also took the opportunity to get our Turkmen Menat changed into Uzbek Sum by a roadside moneychange dude. Unlike the previous couple of border crossings, the exchange rate offered was exactly what the handy reference page thing that I’d compiled before we left said it should be, and he didn’t try to pull a fast one with his arithmetic. Phew! At 2pm we once again went through the process of filling out forms (some labelled in Cyrillic, though English translations were on display) and waving lots of bits of paper under lots of people’s noses. The whole process took something like 3-4 hours and then we were in Uzbekistan.
The weather was still super-hot and after spending hours standing around as the wheels of bureaucracy turned we were rather dehydrated. At the town on the Uzbek side of the border we immediately bought some tasty snacks and something like 15 litres of water, 5 litres of fruit juice and a few glasses of chilled juice for immediate consumption. The shopkeepers were quite amused at the whole process, smiling and laughing between themselves at the strange foreigners who’d descended on their town.
Immediate thirst quenched, we pressed on to the small city of Bukhara, where we stopped for dinner. We stopped at a cafe, a bit uncertain as to whether it was open or serving food because it was empty. But we wandered in, indicated that we wanted a table for three and tried to ask for a menu. Which, like most of the small cafes we’ve stopped at, they didn’t have. But they did have a young boy named Sanja who was the cafe owner’s neighbour, and who spoke excellent English. So he managed to explain to what food was on offer, and soon we were feasting on fish, shishkebabs and a massive quantity of chicken. Way more than we could eat.
Sanja asked if he could join us while we ate, and we ended up having an interesting discussion about Australia (which he was interested in) and Uzbekistan (which we were interested in) and our crazy journey to Mongolia. It was interesting to discover that Uzbekistan seemed to be putting a pretty heavy emphasis on education; Sanja was in his final year of high school and was hoping to go to university next year. Our experience was that the younger Uzbeks we encountered spoke pretty good English – very different from Turkmenistan where we had to rely on gestures and a handful of Russian words.
In fact, the general impression we got of Uzbekistan was that it was quite progressive compared to Turkmenistan. We didn’t see any over-the-top public buildings, but nor did we see quite the same indications of poverty. Looking on Wikipedia later confirmed that Uzbekistan had been doing a pretty good job of economic reform in post-Soviet times, and that its GDP was expected to grow massively in the next few years. The story on the political side didn’t sound so great though – apparently a quite oppressive regime and a bad record of human rights abuses, which I was completely unaware of and wouldn’t have guessed at all from what we saw of the country.
After dinner, we pressed onwards and Saturday night we stayed in Samarqand. The roads in Uzbekistan were generally much better than Turkmenistan, with a dual carriageway connecting more or less one end of the country to the other. Country driving in the -stans was about as chaotic as city driving in Turkey and Iran, though. At night you needed to be very alert. There was too much traffic to be able to have our headlights on full beam very much, but the road was full of exciting obstacles. To start with there were no cat’s eyes or other reflectors on the road, so you could only see a short distance ahead where the road was. There wasn’t much room for error, though: on one side there was a concrete barrier, and on the other side usually a ditch. Lane markings were near-invisible if they were present at all, but that wasn’t an issue because nobody took any notice of them at all.
Other hazards on the road included homicidal trucks with broken lights or lights switched off. Broken taillights was a very common situation, broken taillights and only one working headlight was also something we saw quite a few times. Quite a contrast from the Australian “fairy land on wheels” road trains. We also encountered a large tractor doing about 20 km/h with no lights on. There were also a lot of suicidal cyclists with no lights, no reflectors anywhere and no helmets. These could be travelling in the same direction as you, in the opposite direction to you (i.e. wrong side of the road) or attempting to cross the road. Sometimes we also found cars travelling on the wrong side of the road, because, well, why not really? We also had a near miss with a Lada with broken brake lights that decided to drop from 100+ km/h to a complete standstill in the fast lane.
On top of all of this, the normally-smooth road surface occasionally turned to good-but-lumpy tarmac, or sometimes to a horrible mess of potholes and corrugations. Whatever. We were just happy to not be in Turkmenistan.
Every now and again, during the day, there’d be sections of road under repair. We’ve had an opportunity now to see how several different countries deal with roadwork zones. In Australia, of course, there’d usually be a speed limit sign well in advance dropping the road to 40 km/h while the workers stand around having a smoke and the machinery sits idle. In England it was similar: they’d block off maybe 30 miles of motorway at a time, drop the speed limit from 70 mph to 50 mph, install a lot of average speed check cameras, park heavy machinery by the side of the road and then … there would be nobody in sight working on the road. In Germany, the lanes on the Autobahn would narrow to maybe a few centimetres wider than the average car and everybody would continue driving at stupendous speeds while roadwork took place on the other side of the barrier. In Uzbekistan there’d be a sign warning you of roadworks maybe 20 metres in advance of the lane that you were in suddenly turning into hot, wet tyre-destroying asphalt with a steamroller driving over it.
Despite all of this, our most common speed was 100-120 km/h, even at night. Somehow, nobody died. At the time, it didn’t even seem that crazy – I think we’ve all got accustomed to expecting everybody on the road to act in ways that would seem completely mad in Australia or Europe, and just not worrying about it.
We spend Saturday night in Samarqand at a hotel recommended by a taxi driver we stopped to ask directions from. The hotel didn’t have any rooms with three beds, and was completely unwilling to let three blokes stay in a room with a double bed and a single bed – and looked incredibly uncomfortable at even contemplating this possibility. However, they gave us a very good price for two separate rooms.
One oddity of Uzbekistan was the petrol was quite hard to find. It took a while to find an open service station on Sunday morning, and we ended up waiting half an hour in a queue while cars filled up from the single petrol bowser.
Having fuelled up, it was time once again to hit the road, and forwards progress as quickly as possible to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. We arrived there by about 4pm. Our maps showed that the main road from Uzbekistan through to Kazakhstan headed north-east from the Tashkent ring road. We found a road that looked plausible – signed to “Almaty”, a major city in Kazakhstan – and drove across it. After a few minutes’ drive, we hit the border town and discovered that the border wasn’t open. Not now, not ever, unless we were locals. The gestures we received suggested we should go back to ring road, turn right and try the next border crossing. At which we discovered much the same thing. This time we got the name of the town where supposedly we could cross, about 90km away back towards Samarqand. We stopped for some dinner and set off back down the highway.
Once again the border crossing was straightforward but slow. The Uzbek side was highly bureaucratic as we’d come to expect – we needed to dig out the entry forms we’d filled out at the previous crossing, as well as put exactly the same information on brand new exit forms. On top of the usual documentation for the car, our passports, our customs papers for temporarily importing the car, etc. The Kazakh side was a bit more laid back. One visitor form to fill out which I don’t think wanted to know much more than our name and passport number, then waiting for the official to take down our car details and give us a customs declaration for the car. While one border dude was filling out this form, another was swatting mosquitos by hand. Patrick and Adon couldn’t help laughing, while I was trying very hard not to laugh while providing answers to the questions I was being asked about the car. When one of the mosquitos landed on me, the mosquito-swatting dude raised his hand in my general direction, looked as if he was about to bring it down on the mosquito (and me), then hesitated, looked a bit confused, and decided to not bother.
Incidentally, kudos to Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat for getting the Kazakh accent down pretty well.
The Kazakhs also managed to have the worst possible system for recording number plates of cars entering and exiting border control. The simple approach would have been to have the guards with walkie-talkies just read out the plate to whoever was manning the gate. The high-tech approach would have been to have a narrow lane with a camera that automatically recognised the plate, recorded it and opened the gate. The Kazakh system involved a guard instructing us to park in a very specific but hard to get right location on a wide expanse of tarmac so that the automated system could record our number plate. Then he’d get on his walkie-talkie, ask the dude in the control room if it was working yet and if not we’d have to move the car a few centimetres in the hope that the situation would improve.
Eventually through the border, we convoyed with a couple of Germans we met at the crossing – Roland and Wolfgang of the Splendid Spendobels – to Shymkent, the first major town on our route through Kazakhstan. Irritatingly, Shymkent was about 20km from the first border crossing we’d attempted but closer to 200km from the one that was actually open. We finally got there by about 2am, having lost an hour to daylight saving.
The roads through Kazakhstan to Shymkent were pretty good, though. I was expecting to hit dirt tracks pretty much immediately, but at least half of the distance was dual carriageway. The road surface wasn’t great, but better than the first half of our route through Turkmenistan.
After finding a bed to collapse in in Shymkent, we’re now hoping to reach Almaty by Monday night – a distance of 700km. So far the roads are still all paved and reasonable quality, so that seems pretty plausible.