Reflections on Central Asia

Lucy . We entered the 'Stans with high hopes to see beautiful mosques, rugs, architecture and eat interesting foods. We had been studying the Silk Road so we knew about the history. I was hoping to see some camels laden with goods trekking across the desert. I would have loved to see it in its former glory with merchants bargaining in the markets and buying jade, silk, turquoise and carpets. It's called the Silk Road because that was the thing mostly traded with China. We saw some caravanasis where they stayed at night and yurts the official houses of the travelling nomads. Mummy bought some blue tiles, just like they had on the buildings. They were very pretty, I liked bargaining like a real merchant. . We went to a tea shop where they served nuts, raisins, sweets and tea. I loved the solid crystals of sugar they crunched with a sweet delicious flavour in my mouth. To leave Central Asia we had to cross the sea, I was sad to leave but I always knew we would have new adventures in the next place. . Alisha . From mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to mausoleums in Uzbekistan and deserts in Kazakstan. Central Asia is a riot of culture and traditions that are mixed into their modern lives you see herders with cell phones, yurts with satellite dishes and ancient mosques with security cameras. I enjoyed Kyrgyzstan because it was a nice cool place with mountains and difficult roads and just the sort of place strange people like us like to hang out. Tajikistan was much the same, it was funny being a stone's throw from Afghanistan (well a daddy's stone throw I didn't quite make it). If I had to think of one word to describe Uzbekistan it would be HOT in the truck once it hit 54 degrees. If you want to feel 54 degrees then go into the hottest sauna ever and times the heat by a 100. If you haven't got a sauna then book a flight to Uzbekistan. Kazakstan wasn't so hot which was a relief but it was boring, landscape-wise, at least the bit we traveled through if you show me a picture of a bit we traveled through and a bit we didn't I wouldn't of been able to tell the difference. In Uzbekistan I saw a few too many mosques, they where all blue-tiled and had a dome if you seen ten you've seen them all there is absolutely no need to see five million more. . Gilly . Melons are everywhere in Central Asia. Delicious and refreshing and piled up high on every street corner. Flat light bread still warm from the tandoor oven and mutton kebabs, served with salads made for delicious meals, with melon, of course, for desert. The 'Stans' shared Russian heritage made Steve and I nostalgic for our time in Moscow. While I will never enjoy dill liberally sprinkled on every single meal, we did search out some of our old favourite foods. Steve and Alisha embarked on a multinational search for authentic pelmeni (steamed meat dumplings), a mutual passion after sharing many a bowlful when Alisha was little. Although there is a lot to choose from, I thing for me the highlight was the Pamirs and the Wakhan Valley. Dramatic scenery; snow capped peaks; uninhabited wilderness; right next to a fascinating rogue state (which sadly I am never likely to visit); swollen rivers of snowmelt; and challenging roads made it an unforgettable part of the adventure. . Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan: Samarkand; Bukhara and Khiva all enthralled us with their historical significance and amazing architecture. Whilst I couldn't get enough of turquoise domes and blue tiled arched entrance ways, I could have done without the 45°C heatwave we had whilst we were there. . An unexpected perk of the need to register in a hotel for most of your nights in Uzbekistan (something that was never checked when we left) was meeting other travellers. Since trekking in Nepal, we have met very few other travellers and no other overlanders. Central Asia in the summer is quite popular with independent travellers, motorcyclists and especially long distance cyclists. It was also great to hangout with another overlanding family, our first since Africa, in Samarkand. It was also fun to pair up across the desert with Cate and Michael. At least with the catalogue of minor mechanical problems both the truck and Cate's bike had were easily fixed with many hands. Steve . There was a lot of diversity in Central Asia; from the mountains to the desert, from the cold to the heat, from the unusual to the familiar. After living in Russia many things seemed comfortingly familiar and yet there were also some striking differences. The people were warm and friendly and yet we managed to enjoy lots of time in solitude in beautiful settings. Kyrgyzstan was so green after the starkness of Xinjiang in China. Everywhere we went there was green meadows with running rivers and often the nomads with their yurts and horses camped for the summer. Tajikistan was more stark and rugged but the Pamir Highway and Wakhan corridor were barrenly beautiful with a raging river and pockets of green between it and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan was all about the ancient Silk Road cities. Whilst these have now been spruced up for tourism and at times felt a little soulless there is no denying the eye catching timeless beauty of the monuments. Even in the baking heat we just had to go out and see them again and again. We did not see a lot of Kazakhstan, mainly desert, but got to to camp there with new friends which was wonderful and saw some amazing sunsets. It was slightly surreal arriving at the Caspian Sea, an oil town and beach resort all rolled into one but one which allowed us a welcome break before the ferry crossing across the Caspian Sea. . Central Asia is a beautiful area of the world rich in diversity. We have met many more overlanders and long term travellers here than in other parts of Asia but it is still largely untouched by mass tourism and you really can get away from it all into areas of natural beauty.

The Caspian Riviera

From Uzbekistan the Caspian Sea lay between us and our route back to Europe. We could either drive around it or take a 30 hour ferry across it. Driving around it would mean getting a Russian transit visit and driving through Chechnya and the Southern Caucuses. The ferry we had heard could involve a lot of waiting, bureaucracy and was a bit of an old rust bucket. After doing a bit of research we decided to go for the adventure of a cruise across the Caspian. We had had enough of going for visas and had heard that the ferry had become much easier. Our adventure was to start though well before we even boarded the ferry. From Nukus it was a thousand kilometres across the Uzbek and Kazak desert to Aktau, the port where the ferry left, with not a lot in between. We had met Michael and Cate at various stops as we traveled across Uzbekistan and they were going the same way. Michael had been riding a motor bike but the engine had given up and he had left it in Kazakhstan. Cate was still going strong on hers. As they were going the same way we decided to team up. Michael needed a lift and Cate's bike only had a seven litre tank. Petrol was scarce in Uzbekistan (diesel even scarcer) and there was not available for large parts of the desert crossing so we would carry a jerry can of petrol and refuel her along the way. As it was still very hot in Nukus, Cate left very early. We had the benefit of air conditioning in the cab so left at a much more civilised time after breakfast. Later that afternoon we met Cate as a small cafe on the dusty windswept desert steppe. She had been there a few hours waiting with the truck drivers and it looked like the sort of place that a few minutes was way too long. We decided to push on so that we could camp just short of the border with Kazakhstan which we were planning to cross the next day. "You go first" Cate said "I will be faster and catch you up." We had agreed that we would stop after 100kms to then travel together. So off we set. The scenery was flat and monotonous and whilst the road was quite good there were some bad pot holed sections. We happily drove the 100kms but Cate hadn't passed us. Maybe the wind had slowed her down? After half an hour waiting we decided she couldn't be that slow and turned around. After heading back 50kms we saw Cate. She was riding slowly but thankfully alright. The problem was her clutch was slipping. She had tried to adjust it but it was still slipping. What to do? It was 400kms back to Nukus. She decided she would ride slowly on and we would follow her. We set up camp that night in the desert. It was nice to be back wild camping after the ancient cities of Uzbekistan. The wind brought the temperature down and we were treated to a magnificent sunset. The next morning was a short drive/ride to the border. We were a bit early and it hadn't opened so had to queue. Fortunately tourists were given preference and at every step of the process we were told to go to the front of the queue. Exiting Uzbekistan was easy and Kazakhstan was also going well until it came to doing the temporary import for the truck. First I was sent to the commercial trucking desk. I tried to explain I was not a goods vehicle but initially to no avail. I was told to fill some forms in which made no sense so I kept protesting. Eventually surrounded by customs officers and after a few phone calls they agreed I should be treated the same as a car so I was sent to the car importing desk. Here the man first wanted to see the vehicle, on seeing it he said no you are not a car you are a truck and sent me back to where I had been before. Further calls ensued and yes I was a car. The only problem was the car processing guy still refused to process me despite been instructed to do so. One of the customs officers explained he was the longest serving member of the customs post and wouldn't listen to anyone. Don't worry he said it will all be sorted shortly. More calls were made and eventually the head of the customs office came over. Five minutes later I was back in front of the car processing desk. The man was now all friendly and happily processing my documents. It had taken over an hour of discussion but we were glad to be on our way. On entering Kazakhstan the road took a turn for the worse. It was 80kms to the small town of Beynau and that stretch of road was rough and badly potholed. About half way along we heard a big rattling in our front wheel. We knew what this was. The front disc brake cover had broken off yet again. Note to MAN: you need to redesign these as they really should last more than 10 to 20 thousand kilometres. Pulling to the side of the road we had to remove the front wheel and replace the cover with an old one we had had welded in Tajikistan.   The bad luck didn't stop there though. As Cate rode back to meet us she went over a nail and got a puncture in her back tyre. Not having the tyre levers it meant we would need to get it fixed in Beyneu. We took off her wheel but we could not carry her bike on the truck so we left her there on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. At least it was cooler. The plan was Michael would get the tyre fixed in town while we did some other jobs. Cate would try and get a lift into town from another vehicle that could take the bike and if all else failed we would drive back out into the desert with the repaired wheel. Fortunately Cate managed to get a lift and the tyre was quickly fixed so we all met up in Beyneu. Not wanting to spend the night there we drove out into the desert again. It was easy to pull off and drive away from the road. It was a lovely setting for the evening and again we had a magnificent sunset. There was only 400kms now to Aktau on mostly good roads with only the occasional rough section. After hitting one of these rough sections we heard a hissing coming from one of our rear tyres. We had a puncture and the tyre was going down fast. We were on a steep hill so I slowly guided the truck down to a level section where we could change the tyre. Having Michael and Cate was a big help as we managed to change the wheel in less than an hour. We hoped this was the end of the run of bad luck. At least Cate's clutch was holding up. As we approached Aktau the landscape became less impressive. Aktau is an oil town and we started seeing nodding donkeys and an industrial landscape. We decided to head straight to the port, as who knows we could be in luck and a ferry could be leaving that day. They don't run to any schedule so you can't plan in advance we were told they just go when they go. If you ask when it is going they say shortly after it arrives. Arriving at the ferry office we quickly found the "ticket" office. There was no ferry that day and the next one was in two or maybe three days. Fortunately we could register the vehicles on the ferry list but they would call us closer to the time for us to go back to do all the formalities and to buy the passenger tickets. With a few days to kill and Aktau not looking that attractive a prospect we found a nice little resort hotel on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Looking one way there was a pleasant sandy beach, looking the other way we were right next to the port! The Caspian Riviera. The most important feature though was it had a lovely pool which Alisha and Lucy had been fantasising about since the heat of Uzbekistan.   It meant we could spend a relaxing few days. On the second night it was Michael's birthday and he took us all out to a lovely restaurant for a local meal. The only challenge was deciphering the menu with my appalling Russian. At the end of the second full day we received a call, we had to go to the port immediately. We thought this was just to buy tickets but it was also to do the procedures for the vehicles to get on the ferry. The process was not straight forward and a combination of my bad Russian, unhelpful officials and no one understanding the process it took a while. There were a number of other travellers taking the ferry too. A couple of other motorbikes and some foot passengers so we eventually worked it out and started to amass a large collection of stamps on our forms.  I had left Gilly and the girls at the hotel as we knew the ferry would not be leaving until the next day so I was a bit concerned when I was told to take the truck into the port and I couldn't come back out. Eventually I ascertained that the ferry was not due to arrive until 11 the next morning so I could come back at 8am and complete the formalities. This meant we could have one more relaxing night at the hotel and I could pick up Gilly and the girls. Aktau may not be the most glamorous resort but we had quite enjoyed our short stay there. On waking up we could see from an App that the ferry was approaching Aktau so we duly arrived at the port at 8am as planned and within an hour we had the truck in the port. It turned out I didn't need to stay with the truck so I walked back out to Gilly and the other foot passengers to wait. The only question was how long was that going to be?

Boiling in Bukhara but Even Hotter in Khiva

"Danger for Outdoor Activity!" warned the app in red flashing writing. 45°C (113°F) is not an ideal temperature to be marvelling at some of the world's most beautiful Islamic architecture in fabled Silk Road cities. However, the draw of the ancient civilisations drew us out from the shadows in the early morning and evening, where we got caught up in the romance of being at the heart of the Central Asia. Hostel Rumi was an ideal parking spot in Bukhara, a quiet spot just on the edge of the old town with easy access. Uzbekistan requires visitors to produce a registration slip from a hotel for most of the nights when they leave. As most of the things we wanted to see in Uzbekistan are city based, it didn't alter our plans. It seems that there are a couple of hostels in each town have cottoned onto overlanders needs and provide registration and facilities for a few dollars. What was even better was that the common areas had air conditioning and lots of other travellers to chat to. Every street we turned into seemed to contain another arched madrassa or mausoleum decorated with intricately decorated tiles in all different shades of blues and whites. Looking up at the turquoise domes in the cloud free azure sky it was so beautiful it almost made you feel dizzy - or was it just the heat? We came across only one mosque that was still active, the rest were museums or, frustratingly for Steve, souvenir shops. However it didn't distract from their artistry and to the untrained eye the renovations were relatively sympathetic. DSC02876DSC02776DSC02779DSC02803DSC02769DSC02773DSC02788DSC02803 The whole region was the backdrop of a period of high drama and intrigue in the Victorian era between the British and the Russians. Dramatically named the "Great Game" in English or the "Tournament of Shadows" in Russian. This struggle for power by the two great empires, reads like something out of a historical adventure novel. Steve was keen to see the bug infested pit where two British officers, Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly were held by the Emir of Bukhara for 3 years before they were executed. I decided to skip that delight and sweat quietly in the shade. DSC02810DSC02822DSC02862DSC02873BukharaDSC02886DSC02827DSC02831DSC02839DSC02848 Our energy levels were much revived when we discovered a smart tea shop that served bowls of dried fruits, nuts, crystallised sugar and eastern sweets with their delicious spiced tea. Such a success we went back the following day when we were flagging. With such a sugar rush we were able to take in a few more blue tiled facades on the way home. Our parking spot in Khiva was even more impressive just outside the high mud walls of the citadel. In the late evening sunlight the whole city glowed orange from the west. We climbed up onto the walls to view the compact city below us. In the northern end people had emerged from their houses to tend their small gardens and chat to their neighbours. Whilst in the southern part the blue tile of mosques, madrassas and palaces contrasted beautifully with the surrounding cinnamon walls. DSC02895 The walled city was famous for its ancient slave market and, like Bukhara, Khiva seemed to be stuffed full of blue domes, amazingly blue tiled portals and palaces. It seemed more of museum than a living city, however the market just outside the citadel seemed to be bustling. DSC02973 The roof of Juma Mosque is held up by 218 intricately carved posts, a striking sight for the shadows they created. Climbing the minaret, patterned with alternative stripes of blue and green tiles, gave us an arresting view of the whole city. Especially the Kalta Minor Minaret which was only partially completed by 1855, when the Khan died. This truncated tower with its strikingly patterned facade was supposed to allow the Khan to see all the way to Bukhara. Already eye-catching it would have been breathtaking if it had been finished. Weirdly, as we climbed down the shin high steps made of twisted trunks but worn smooth by centuries of use, we all developed painful cramps in our legs. Although we were well hydrated I guess the extreme heat does strange things to your body, it was time to retreat to the shade. DSC03004KhivaKhivaDSC02900DSC02914 That afternoon the truck's internal thermometer hit 54°C! Even with all the windows open and the fans on, it was hard to dissipate the heat. We had all hoped to sleep in one of the hostel's air conditioned rooms that night but we were worried about getting the truck cool enough. Steve gallantly offered to sleep in the truck with all the windows open to cool it in the lower nighttime temperatures, a balmy 38° C. dsc03006 KhivaDSC03001KhivaDSC02975DSC02996DSC02981 Our last city in Uzbekistan, Nukus, was a Soviet created city with none of the romance of its Silk Road counterparts. It did have an art gallery with an interesting history, its founder, Igor Savitsky, saved thousands of Soviet era avant-garde paintings that were supposed to be destroyed. It was our first stop on what will be a long drive across the desert, into Kazakstan and towards the Caspian Sea.