Monthly Archives: August 2011

Uzbekistan

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.

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Turkmenistan

Hi all! Cameron here again, this time writing while bouncing up and down the, er, quality roads of Turkmenistan. [But posted a day and a half later from an internet cafe in Uzbekistan, which seems to be a much nicer place – shame it’s just a drive-through country for us on account of our time limit and it having a relatively good dual carriageway connecting one end of the country to the other.]

Our last update had us waking up in Tehran on Wednesday 3rd. Our plan was to spend the morning exploring the city, but after sleeping in, a late brunch in the hotel, cursing the heat and generally spending too long getting our act together, the only sightseeing we ended up doing was wandering through Tehran Bazaar. Nowhere near as impressive as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Tehran as a city seemed interesting through – very sprawly and a bit pedestrian-unfriendly but also a fascinating mix of old and new, and some very impressive “squares” and amazing colourful lights at night.

But we were keen to press on, so after posting some postcards and changing some US dollars into local Iranian rials, we once again pointed the car east. The route out of Tehran took us up and down a mountain range – absolutely spectacular but making for slow progress. As we heading further north-east into the Iranian desert, the rich-poor divide in Iran began to make itself clear: outside of the big cities, Iran felt a lot like it was stuck in a time warp. Dinner was at a kebab joint in a large town in north-east Iran. But what we got wasn’t just any old shishkebab: we were invited to select some cuts of meat – we got a mix of liver and heart as the dude seemed to be recommending – and it was cooked as we waited, then chopped up and served on skewers. Tasty but very much not vegetarian.

As we got further out, we got pulled over by police a few times. Every time, all they seemed to want was to satisfy their curiosity – who are these crazy-looking foreigners, why are they driving through Iran, how did they get here and where are they going. In one case we got done for speeding, but there was no attempt to fine us or extort money, just a polite “slow down a bit please”.

We were originally hoping to get close to the Turkmen border – about 900 km from Tehran – that evening, but between the late start and slow progress through mountains, we didn’t get anywhere near it. We set up camp around midnight in Golestan National Park. Just as we were about the leave on Thursday morning, a couple of carloads of curious Iranians stopped by our campsite to have to chat. As usual we tried to explain with a mix of gesturing, speaking words in a language that the other party didn’t speak and pointing at the list of countries on the car.

We finally reached the border crossing at Bajgiran around 3pm. We were informed when we got there that the border closed by 5pm so we’d better get a wriggle on. The process of crossing into Turkmenistan was fairly long and bureaucratic but fortunately quite straightforward – nobody wanted a bribe and nobody tried to stop us crossing, but a lot of forms had to be filled in, signed, stamped, signed and stamped by somebody else, carried around to another building, etc. As Patrick described it, it’s “Legend of Zelda, Customs Edition”: to pass through the gate you must collect a set of stamps, each of which seemed to require a minor sub-quest to obtain.

We were a bit nervous about this crossing because we didn’t actually have Turkmen visas. The rally organisers were trying to get us Letters of Invitation which allow us to purchase transit visas at the border, but this process wasn’t completed until the day we reached Iran. We had no physical documentation saying that we had an invite, just an email saying that all Turkmen border crossings had been issued with a list of Ralliers and that no physical invites or visas would be required, and a reference number to give to the officials. The general tone of the letter was quite pessimistic and contained phrases like “if there is a problem with your invitation, which there probably will be”. However, after we said “Mongol Rally” and “invitation” to enough people, eventually one of them found the list, ascertained that we were on the list, and told us that we could buy our three visas for 150 US dollars.

The border crossing was finally completed by about 6pm. Upon arrival into Turkmenistan, the scenery was absolutely stunning – the crossing is high up in the mountains, which we ascended in Iran and began to descend upon entry to Turkmenistan. It was also amazingly quiet and the air was clean, for the first time since before Romania. We stopped by the side of the road to make some dinner and attempt to fix the front passenger power window, which had decided to becvome permanently stuck in the “down” position shortly after the border crossing.

In the midst of this, a car carrying a couple of border guards gestured at us, told us we couldn’t stop here and that we had to leave within five minutes. We assured them that we would, and then proceeded to ignore them and continue making dinner. Five minutes later, a minibus full of border guards turned up and told us we had to leave right now, stopping was not allowed until a bit closer to Asgabat. So we packed up hastily, with me carrying a boiling hot pot of pasta wrapped in a towel on my lap and Adon holding the doro trim and winding/locking mechanism together with his hands as Patrick drove.

A few kilometres down the road, we came to the Turkmenistan passport control office. Whoops. Now it became a bit more clear to us why the guards hadn’t been keen on us parking by the side of the road, and why it had been so quiet where we’d stopped before. We went through the final border formalities and stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts of Asgabat to complete the repairs (i.e. bodging the window so it was permanently closed instead of permanently open) and consumption of dinner and cups of tea and Scotch whisky.

This incident also brings our count of car breakage to two: the first being a crack in the window that happened on our way out of Istanbul.

Asgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan and nicknamed by us “Aztkaban” (thank you Harry Potter) was a bit like Iranian cities – lots of very modern and very impressive buildings, modern-seeming infrastructure and people everywhere. Unlike Iran, the dress code was a bit more relaxed, and the driving a bit less crazy. It also seemed a little bit less sprawled, with a clearly observable centre and skyscrapers. Once again, people seemed crazily enthusiastic to see us weird foreigners on their roads. We received waves, honks, lights flashed. There was one car carrying a family that we kept overtaking and they kept overtaking us, where every time they passed us waving crazily and the probably-teenaged daughter blowing us kisses.

In short, we’ve become quite accustomed to the looks from everybody around us that mean: “look at those crazy foreigners! they’re being crazy! and foreign!”

We followed the signs out of Asgabat and towards Turkmenbasy. But after following this road fro a while, we were a bit confused: we wanted to be heading east or north-east, but the compass showed we’d been heading west for quite a while, and we passed through a town which our map showed being on a very different road from what we were hoping to be on. So we did a U-turn, returned to the outskirts of Asgabat and confirmed that the sign pointing on the road we’d gone out on did indeed lead to Turkmenbasy.

Unfortunately, a closer inspection of our map showed that the city we were aiming for was Turkmenabat, and Turkmenbasy was far from an alternative spelling for the same place, it was a completely different city on the opposite side of the country. Whoops!

We drove east for a bit and found signs pointing to Turkmenabat. Problem solvered! But just a few kilometres out of Asgabat the road turned to poo. It was still bitumen, but heavily pot-holed and corrugated. Our maximum speed was about 50-70 km/h: slow going when we had 600km to cross and had originally been expecting to do it in a single day. Around midnight our driving willpower turned into a pumpkin once again and we camped on a track a short way off the main road.

Friday morning we set off again after chowing down some muesli and Tesco-brand UHT milk. We were on the road a bit before 9am is something of a record for us on this trip. In the light of day we were able to observe that, perhaps even more so than Iran, Turkmenistan was amazingly poor and desolate outside the capital city. This morning also got us the first speeding fine of the trip: Adon was doing 70 km/h on the highway which we had no idea what the speed limit was. Apparently the limit was 50 km/h. After some hesitation we handed the policeman a mixed wad of Turkmen Menat and American Dollars which he didn’t even bother counting. We’re reasonably certain that this was an “unofficial” speeding fine that didn’t go anywhere beyond the cop’s own wallet.

No more than five minutes after paying the speeding fine, adventure struck again, this time in the form of a flat tyre. Fortunately we have lots of spares, and at the next town we arrived at we replaced the broken tyre and also got the dude to repair a puncture in one of the spare tyres we had in the roof that had been there since we bought it (second-hand). We also stopped for lunch, some tasty spiced chicken and what we think was a tonic water spider.

After passing the town of Mary, about half-way to Turkmenabat, the road improved dramatically and we were finally able to travel at 100 km/h most of the way to Turkmenabat, give or take the odd pot-holed section. On this nice smooth road we had our second tyre blow-out – another back tyre gone. It was changed as quickly as we could manage as the gritty, blinding dust of the Turkmen desert is not a pleasant place to be.

The heat and dust of the desert, combined with consecutive nights of camping with no shower, has been turning us slowly mad. Er, rapidly madder. We’ve been trying to come up with ways to keep ourselves cool in the un-airconditioned car. The temperature of the air coming out of the vents has been consistently warmer than outside, something which was never an issue in Europe but is quite unwelcome when the ambient temperature is 40+ degrees Celsius. Even late at night the outside air must be close to 30C. Our water bottles left in the hot car rapidly get warm enough to brew coffee with. Patrick has had his window down as much as possible despite the dust. I’ve taken the reverse approach, blocking up the windows with towels and pillows to reflect the sun. Adon has been experimenting with evaporative cooling. None of these approaches have been particularly successful.

The other thing that we’ve been unable to get since Turkey is coffee! Right now, I am seriously craving a nice cool Coffee Chill. There seems to be nobody in Turkmenistan selling bags of ice like every service station in Australia does, and in fact the petrol stations here sell nothing but petrol (in your choice of 80, 92 or 95 octane) and diesel.

And that’s pretty much where the story ends for now. It’s Friday night (5th August), we’re getting quite close to Turkmenabat and the first of the -stans is now almost crossed. Roll on Uzbekistan!

Peace,

Cameron

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I Ran

G’day all!

It’s Cameron here again, writing this from the comfort of my hotel room here on Tuesday night in Tehran. The Iranian border crossing was, er, interesting – but best to ask us about it in person when we get back home. Short version: Adon finally managed to achieve a story of motoring hilarity that trumps driving into a daycare centre, and Cameron got ripped off by roadside money changers.

After we left Istanbul on Saturday, we high-tailed it towards the city of Samsun on the coast of the Black Sea. At a petrol station along the way, we ended up explaining to the people there that we were Australians on a long drive. This got a response along the lines of “Australia? Ahhh, Gallipoli!” We all looked very embarassed and apologetic about this, but the Turkish dude said “no no, it’s fine, we win!”

Eventually we got to Samsun, found a parking spot by the rocky “beach” and were ready to go for a swim. Just before we found somewhere secluded to change, a couple of employees of the nearby restaurant were curious about the odd foreigners who’d parked in their carpark and came out to chat. Soon there were maybe half a dozen people from the restaurant talking to us – us speaking English, them speaking Turkish (which we didn’t understand) and fractured English – and bringing us tea, water and delicious pide.

After they left, a few locals also wanted to chat with us and invited us to swim with them. They spoke almost no English, we spoke no Turkish, but we all laughed and splashed around and threw an AFL ball together. Adon taught the Turks the words “wanking” and “wanker”, which they found most amusing.

But after the fun times were had, it was time to press on once again. Destination: Iranian border. We drove and drove and stopped for dinner of delicious pide in a small town around the Black Sea coast and drove and drove some more. Eventually we arrived at the Iranian border on Monday afternoon. After some wrangling, we made it through, drove a few hundred kilometres to the nearest city – Tibriz – and went looking for a hotel. Iranian cities seem to be incredibly low density and a little bit tricky to find the “centre” of if it’s 2am and you don’t read Farsi. Eventually we stopped at a service station and asked/gestured at a couple of guys filling up their motorcycle. They gestured for us to follow them and we did. The bikers were wearing no leathers or helmets, riding at insane speeds along city streets, and had their lights switched off. But sure enough, they took us to a hotel a few minutes drive away. Relying on the kindness of random strangers seems to work pretty well here.

Exhausted, we collapsed into our hotel beds and slept until about 1pm. Today (Tuesday) has been pretty much all driving to reach Tehran. Driving in Iran has been interesting. The main highway to Tehran has toll booths along it, where we were charged random amounts from zero (“From Australia? No problem, go on through!”), 5000 reals (about 50 cents) through to 15000 reals (about $1.50). There are also service stations along the highway. Some of them feel a lot like Australian roadhouses. But one which we stopped at just had a fuel tanker parked by the side of the road and a guy filling up people’s tanks and taking cash off them. Next to the tanker was a shack selling refreshments, where we purchased 18x 1.5L bottles of water, 3x delicious pineapple juice and cans of Coke for about $6 Aussie dollars.

Driving through Iranian cities has also been interesting. The road rules in practice appear to be: 1. Drive approximately on the right, where possible. 2. The road is just a large expanse of tarmac which you can drive on. Markings (e.g. lanes and often traffic lights) are completely irrelevant. The only rule is to make forwards progress as rapidly as possible, while avoiding being cut off by other people attempting to achieve the same.

We encountered a minor traffic jam in the way into Tehran as we drove past Azadi Stadium, where we assume there was a football (soccer) game on. As we were stopped, the cars on either side of us attempted to engage us in conversation, while we wildly gestured and yelled things like “Salaam! Australian!” back at them.

The hotel we’re staying at right now we found by accident after following a taxi doing a left turn … the wrong way down a one-way street. Um, whoops. But it’s worked out well in the end, we have internet and a place to sleep.

Tomorrow: looking around Tehran, then onwards to Turkmenistan! Which is about 900km away, so we probably won’t get there until Thursday.

But first, time to get off the internet and sleep.

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