Monthly Archives: June 2013

When you’re done waiting, you can wait some more

May 8, 2013

5:30 and I am up with the sunrise ready to cross the frontier into Tajikistan. My host was up as well and we shared tea and bread along with his son. I learned that the 1 year old is actually his second son, with the first son dying in circumstances not revealed to me.

As promised he helped me find the taxi stand where they go to the border. I, again, negotiated hard to make sure I have enough money to make the journey to the border post. I found a car and noticed that the hawker was more interested in chatting with his cabbie friends than filling up the car so we could go. So, I did what you do as local in these situations, which is get out of the car and start shopping around. This seemed to help get the process of filling the car going again. Once the car was full, another person arrived to drive the car and asked me, alone, for more than what was agreed. I scoffed as he started the car and drove off. At the border, as I expected, he continued to ask for more money, but I had already factored this in and gave him the rest of the Uzbek soom I owned. I showed him my empty wallet and he had no choice but to let it go.

Creating fresh tracks on the rain fluffed dirt, I was relieved to be done with the incessant haggling of Uzbekistan and the frustrating journey to get to Tajikistan. As I stepped inside the Uzbek checkpoint, I was pleased to see that there were less than 10 women waiting in line. I filled out my customs form and tried to figure out which woman was last in line when three of them pointed across the room to where a single man was standing. Apparently, there are separate lines for men and women. This was looking even better! Second in line! That optimism lasted as long as it took to realize that there was only one person processing people and she was female. This meant that she would only process females because luggage searches are standard. It wasn’t until 8:30 when any men showed up to work, more than half an hour after I got there. They didn’t like the way I filled out the customs form and made me wait before they decided they would tutor me on how to fill it out they way they liked.

The rest of the crossing went smoothly, which was a relief because I didn’t have any hotel registration to account for my whereabouts last night, and that could have been a problem had they decided. The folks on the Tajikstan side of the border were refreshingly pleasant and less bureaucratic. So, all told, 1-1.5 hours to cross the border. All I had to do now was exchange a bit of money and find a cab. As usual, finding a cab isn’t difficult, but waiting for it to fill can be. Because everyone gets the slow methodical approach to crossing, the trickle of people crossing meant this would take awhile. So, I took out my journal and sat on a bench under a tree to pass time. It was pleasantly peaceful there. The locals were all older and chatted in low tones next to me and I took breaks everytime a nearby thunderstorm rumbled to see if it was approaching. It did start to rain a bit, so I went into the cab for a deserved late morning nap. When I woke up after an hour or so, we still needed two more people to fill the car. After 2.5 hours we had our third passenger and I was offered the opportunity to pay 50% more so we could go. I welcomed this because I had business to take care of in Dushanbe. It was now 12PM

The roads to Dushabe were marginally better than those in Uzbekistan, which helped move the journey along. However, the driver had to go 30 minutes out of the way to drop off the first passenger. This and his agressive style of driving would become critical once we reached Dushanbe because we ran out of fuel. So, we waited another 15-20 minutes as he networked over the phone, which eventually resulted in another cab driver showing up with about 10-15L of gasoline so the second passenger could be dropped off. Having learned his lesson, he took no chances and I joined him for a trip to the gas station before I got my drop off at the travel agency.

It was about 2:30 and I was fairly certain that I would not get my GBAO permit to cross to the eastern half of Tajikistan before tomorrow’s holiday. Nevertheless, I went in to try anyway. As I have become accustomed, I asked a second time if there was any chance the permit could be processed that day. The pretty travel agent (Mehri), who I had corresponded several times previously, paused and then made a phone call. Her contact in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was apparently still willing to process a permit to see her pretty face and get a bribe, so I was in luck. I paid for the service and was told to come back at 4:30, which I was glad to do.

I found a place to stay, dropped my stuff, and promptly went back to get the permit, which was the most rewarding thing I had done in a few days. Dushanbe, while the nicest of the large Soviet cities so far with its surrounding hills and mountains and tree lined boulevards, doesn’t offer much for the tourist, so gaining the ability to leave Friday morning was a relief. I picked up food at the bazaar and went back to hang out with other backpackers for the evening.

There, I met a Korean that had been traveling by bicycle for the past 7 months, starting in Malaysia, and a German who had a month to get from Bishkek to Ashgabat in a month. Philip, who lives in Berlin, was a great conversationalist and we talked over beer until midnight or so. It was the perfect way to reward myself after a painfully drawn out journey to Dushanbe.

If you thought I had to wait a long time to cross the border...

If you thought I had to wait a long time to cross the border…

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The road less traveled

May 7, 2013

Since the guidebook was published in 2010 and unaware of the future border closure near Samarkand, it wasn’t clear how much it would cost to get to the next closest border crossing or how long the journey would be. Based on what I could figure, $20 would be enough, so I changed that amount at my guesthouse and set off to get a cab to Shakhrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane. Knowing that I was cutting it close on cash, I negotiated long and hard to get a price that would insure enough money to get to the border.

To be honest, the trip there wasn’t really worth the journey, when compared to Samarkand and Bukhara, so I was looking for a cab about 2 hours after arriving. While finishing the sightseeing, I ran into a tourist I had seen about in Samarkand. Alexander is a Russian engineer living outside of Moscow and he was headed the same direction as I, so we shared a cab to Guzor.

On the map, Guzor looks like a good place to switch cabs to get to your final destination. Alexander was headed to Termez and I to Denau, so we had to split. The reality, however, was that Guzor was the dustiest town I can remember and had few options for continuing further east. Initially, the forceful grandmother that ran the ad hoc taxi stand wanted to combine us in a cab to a town halfway to our destinations. My gut told me to hold off since I figured that getting a cab there would be hard, and therefore, expensive on my $20 budget. Alexander was then placed in a mashrutka to some place near Termez and I was left to wait indefinitely. Finally, after 1.5 hours, the woman received confirmation that a taxi heading to Denau had space for me. Of course, it would take another hour before he arrived, but a 4PM departure likely meant that we would beat sundown. Despite not getting an agreement on the price for the journey, he hurried me into the taxi. Inside were a husband and wife, the husband was obviously better off than most with the pressed button down and slacks he wore. We conversed as well as one can without a grasp of either Uzbek or Russian and had fun enjoying the local music with hands in the air accompanied with clapping and finger snapping. I was entertaining enough that the wife took out the cell phone to record myself and her husband having fun.

The ride, however, was anything but fun. The road was in terrible condition, forcing us to drive quite slow to avoid pot holes and other hazards. To further lengthen the journey, the husband had the cab driver stop several more times to buy food of various sorts (sunflower seeds, ayran, spring water, and the very hard and salty cheese ball, kurut). So, this meant that we missed sundown by about 45 minutes. For me, this meant that I would not be able to cross the border and refill my wallet with local currency in Tajikistan and would have to burn my limited number of small change dollar bills to pay for a room that night. Annoyed by this and the painfully long journey, considering the distance covered, I didn’t have any guilt in paying the man the fair price I had offered back in Guzor. He fussed a bit, but eventually accepted the fare knowing he had charged me a tourist price.

The hotel he dropped me in front of was full, so I was on my way to find the only other hotel I was aware of in this town. I wasn’t getting far asking the locals if I was walking the right direction when a drunk man approached me asking if he could be of help. I ignored him and darted into the street when he tried to grab my arm. On the other side, he found me again. This time I had forced him into open space to make sure it wasn’t a pickpocket scheme and realized that he spoke English reasonably well. Given my desperate situation, I decided that I needed to hear him out.

He told me that the other hotel was far and flagged down a cab to go there. That hotel was also full, so he offered his apartment for a price. We came to agreement and walked to his apartment. Inside, he offered a spot on the living room floor after placing a couple of cushions down for comfort. Turns out that he’s married with one child and has an elderly woman living there, though it wasn’t clear whose it was. What was clear was why he was drunk. The elderly woman (who I never saw) stays in another room and makes horrible noises out of pain from some terminal condition where she no longer speaks in sentences. I figured that once she was asleep that I would get some rest, but after two hour long naps, it was clear that she doesn’t sleep through the night and I needed earplugs.

Inside one of Sharisabz's Mausoleums.

Inside one of Sharisabz’s Mausoleums.

In Shakhrisabz

In Shakhrisabz

Soooo.... Timur the Great (Tamerlane was supposed to be here, but he's in Samarkand.

Soooo…. Timur the Great (Tamerlane was supposed to be here, but he’s in Samarkand.

The dustiest town I can remember, Guzor.

The dustiest town I can remember, Guzor.

The curious landscape of Uzbekistan as we approach Tajikistan.

The curious landscape of Uzbekistan as we approach Tajikistan.

Guilt. The cab driver slowed so I could speak with this cyclist. SHE is from England and older than me. I was humbled as she climbed the pass.

Guilt. The cab driver slowed so I could speak with this cyclist. SHE is from England and older than me. I was humbled as she climbed the pass.

A tilted mesa. New to me.

A tilted mesa. New to me.

The cab driver and his passengers bought dairy products from this Tajik road side vendor. She's single, lads! That's why she's covered up.... that and the ubiquitous dust.

The cab driver and his passengers bought dairy products from this Tajik road side vendor. She’s single, lads! That’s why she’s covered up…. that and the ubiquitous dust.

My cab driver

My cab driver

Had I known sooner….

May 6, 2013

It has been decided that today would regretfully be my last day in Samarkand. There was one primary reason for this. May 9th. May 9th is Victory Day (over the Nazi’s) and while it’s really a Soviet holiday, it’s still technically a national holiday in just about every former Soviet republic. It’s something that I had lost sight of because, before all of the visa hassles, I would have had plenty of time in Uzbekistan before crossing to Tajikistan. Well, my cushion of time for the rest of the trip was gone, and I had to hustle it to Tajikistan before the holiday for fear that the border would be closed May 9th.

I got out the door by 8:30 and started a long day of walking amongst old, dusty neighbourhoods finding the little gems hidden in them. When walking to the synagogue in the Old Jewish Quarter, and old man on bicycle rode up behind me and asked me if I was looking for it. I said yes, and followed him the rest of the way there. He was a caretaker and took me inside for a tour, including the synagogue, showed me old Torah (covered, of course) and prayer books they possessed, and shared a sprig of mint from the garden to put in my next tea. I then continued through the narrow streets observing adults going through their business and children playing and fighting in the streets. I, not surprisingly, put all of that on hold as I walk by, creating a diversion for all- usually with the children getting the most enjoyment by having a chance to come up to me and practice the two or three English phrases they know.

I came to the end of the neighborhood to find the most spectacular vantage to the Valley of Mausoleums which I would use later that day. While on my way to the ancient site of the city (Afrosiob), which was no longer used after Genghis Khan leveled it, I ran into my old friend, Max. To be honest, I was in my own world, as usual, when I heard someone shouting my name.

He never made it to the Aral Sea, in the end, but was still going to Tajikistan roughly the same time as I. We both had things to see, but we agreed to meet later on that evening at his hostel to sort out the details.

Since it was my last night, I figured how much local currency I needed to cross the border and went out to spend the rest. I decided that I would get a badly needed haircut. For about 3 dollars, I can’t complain about the results. Able to feel air on my neck and ears again, I went to meet Max.

I walked into the hostel and made my way to the back where the guest had congregated around a courtyard. I went to the first person I saw and asked if he knew Max. He did and informed me that he had just left for dinner, but he would be meeting him in about an hour to see the lights on the Registon. Alex is a Russian that doesn’t have a home. He works with telecom companies on contract in various countries helping them set up networks and is currently between contracts. The conversation led to travel plans and his were similar, but my plans had a flaw. The border crossing near Samarkand is closed. This means that I had to figure out a new itinerary to one of the two other border crossings, neither of which were close, and exchange more money.

We met with Max, as planned, and came to a consensus on the border crossing. I would go to the city where Tamerlane was born and continue to the border town of Denau and cross to Tajikistan Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

The market is CLOSED. Thought that was a picture of a morgue, didn't you?

The market is CLOSED. Thought that was a picture of a morgue, didn’t you?

In case you were wondering where the synagogue is....

In case you were wondering where the synagogue is….

The man with the keys to get me inside the synagogue.

The man with the keys to get me inside the synagogue.

Before restoration. After restoration. The colors seem a bit.... synthetic, don't you think?

Before restoration. After restoration. The colors seem a bit…. synthetic, don’t you think?

My very cheap and very young barber. Well done, young man!

My very cheap and very young barber. Well done, young man!

Dubbed the Avenue of Mausoleums.

Dubbed the Avenue of Mausoleums.

Wearing out the tourist trail

May 5, 2013

 

6AM. I’m up and feeling good. Good like normal, and ready for the train ride to Samarkand. However, when I went through my mental checklist of my belongings, I realized that I likely left my pocket knife was left in my previous room. I decide that if the door was open,  I would fetch it.

I open the door as quietly as possible, and I see that the person who slept in my position had gone to the bathroom. So, I seized this bit of good luck and stepped over the other occupant and noticed that my knife had been placed next to his cell phone. Before I could create any possible situation, I took it, cinched my bag, and left quietly.

I had time to spare before grabbing public transportation to the train station, so I used the morning light to create new photos. Satisfied with my effort, I made the train easily.

Uzbekistan is quite proud of it’s high speed train that runs from Tashkent tthrough Samarkand, ending in Bukhara. Besides being the most logical option for me, I wanted to try it. I have been on the TGV, the Talis, and the Acela. This was none of those. The engine of the train looked fairly new, but the compartments were simply renovated Soviet sleeper cars. That said, there were flat screens (that I couldn’t figure out how to operate) and nice pleather bucket seats for comfort. I should say now that because 2nd class was sold out, I paid for business class. End the end, the train top speed, that I saw was 170km/hr or so (just over 100mph). That was over a short section, so really, the train was just an express train.

In Samarkand, I found a nice enough place to stay and headed out to see the city. I made the mistake of going to the newer, Russified section of the city first. While it was quite clean and nice with it’s boutiques, parks, and tree-lined streets, it wasn’t very interesting as a tourist. After a pit stop in an internet cafe, I went back to the old city for photographs of the Registon- the square comprised of 3 of the world’s oldest medrassas- and one of the worlds largest mosques, the Bibi-Khanym.

I picked up some food and beer and went back to share and socialise with the other guests. First was an older Dutch couple and then there was the two Flemish guys. It was an enjoyable conversation of travel stories and world politics, fuelled by beer. Then it was time for a cold shower, literally, and bed.

Timur the Great's (Tamerlane's) Mausoleum

Timur the Great’s (Tamerlane’s) Mausoleum

The gilded ceiling (restored) of Timur the Great's Mausoleum
The gilded ceiling (restored) of Timur the Great’s Mausoleum

More decadence in the mausoleum.

More decadence in the mausoleum.

How great was Timur? Check out a map of his conquests.

How great was Timur? Check out a map of his conquests.

The high speed engine.
The high speed engine.

Business class on the 'high speed' train.

Business class on the ‘high speed’ train.

 

The Ulugbek Medrassa inside the Registan. Built in 1420.

The Ulugbek Medrassa inside the Registan. Built in 1420.

 

Strange dreams are made of these

May 4, 2013

Illness meant a disorienting combination of odd dreams,  hourly waking, and assortment of sleeping positions that fail to solve the problem of discomfort, as I listened to my bowels hiss, rumble, and squeal. Fortunately, by morning things were getting better.

Breakfast was a ginger and furtive affair where every swallow was then followed by listening for signs whether I should continue eating the greasy breakfast of fried eggs, green tea, bread, and Russian breakfast sausages. I decided that I would be okay, but I still waited some time before leaving the guesthouse for the days’ sightseeing and errands.

I managed to get around to the sights that I hadn’t seen the day before, but after a couple of hours, I was exhausted and just wanted a nap. The problem is that I needed to walk outside the walls for a train ticket the next day to Samarkand. So, I  carried on to the ticket office in the mid-day sun.

Given my state, I really hoped that the ticket office would be a more organized and timely affair, but it was the same game of protecting your place in line and waiting. The office was stuffy, which made me turn green a couple of times, but a mere 45 minutes later and I was free to buy food and on my way back before a glorious afternoon nap.

I continued to feel better when I woke up, but not enough for haggling with merchants for gifts, so I just ate the food I had bought at the convenience store for dinner and relaxed. I had the chance to meet Marius and Juliette. Yet another set of French backpackers, they were on extended holiday since both had contracts ended- Juliette a French teacher and Marius working construction.

Just as I was ready to turn in for the night, the guesthouse owner came in on her bicycle huffing and puffing. She had located five Russian motorcyclists to fill the place. That meant that I had to haul my belongings into the French couple’s room for the night. Then, it was lights out.

The underbelly of a dome.

The underbelly of a dome.

Fun with shapes

Fun with shapes

The Kalon Minaret. One of the few things Genghis Khan chose to spare on his rampage. The Bolsheviks, however, decided to bomb it.

The Kalon Minaret. One of the few things Genghis Khan chose to spare on his rampage. The Bolsheviks, however, decided to bomb it.

Lyabi-Hauz:  the plaza centered around the pool was built in the 17th century and surrounded by mulberry trees nearly as old.

Lyabi-Hauz: the plaza centered around the pool was built in the 17th century and surrounded by mulberry trees nearly as old.

Exploring the interior of a medrassa.

Exploring the interior of a medrassa.

Inspiration Overload

May 3, 2013

When I woke up that morning, the leg aches of the night before had gone away and I was ready to see the seat of one of the region’s great khanates, Bukhara.

The city was the capital of the Samanid (Persian) empire of the 9-10th centuries AD, sacked by Genghis Khan, and overshadowed by Samarkand when it became the capital of Tamerlane’s empire. It regained renewed religious and commercial importance under the Uzbek Shaybanids in the 16th century. It was more or less like this until the Russians came in the mid 19th century.

Probably the best (and worst) story from Bukhara is that of Stuart and Connoly. Before the Russians came, the English were pushing their empire from India towards Central Asia, via Afghanistan, to head off the Russians. In what might be called the worst diplomatic episode in history, Colonel Charles Stoddart showed up to assure the khan that Britain had no intentions on his territory but  rode all the way up to the palace on horse, brought no gifts, nor a letter from Queen Victoria. Pissed off, the khan had him thrown into the ‘bug pit’. To make matters worse, when Captain Arthur Connolly arrived to have Colonel Stoddart released, he was seen as a spy because he didn’t come with a response to his (the khan’s) letter to Queen Victoria. As a consequence, both were publicly beheaded and nothing more was ever done.

Before I could walk amongst the history, I had to find a place to stay. I did and what a treat it was. Like most places, it has little to do with the facilities and much more with those that are staying there. That day, I had the pleasure of meeting Ivan and Katia from France. They are both underwater videographers and photographers and sell their work to anyone willing to pay via their website. They have spent the past 2 years or so almost continuously traveling/adding material to their archives stringing together jobs when needed to preserve their savings. At one point, Katia was working on the Great Barrier Reef while Ivan welded large structures for the mining industry in Australia. The money allowed them to have a 4WD vehicle to explore the outback and sell it before leaving for France. Now, they bought a Land Cruiser that Ivan customized into a camper and have driven from France to Uzbekistan. Their plan is to get to North America by September after reaching Vladivostok, where they will ship their Land Cruiser to Vancouver to meet them there after seeing Alaska and the Yukon territory. They will then drive to Quebec to work and recharge their accounts and travel America before going home. Because of them, I think I have a plan for my retirement!

Robert was also staying there and he is originally from Norwalk, CT but has lived in Cologne for the past 7 years without any plans to move back, despite the likelihood that his company will fold in the near future.

Walking around Bukhara was much more fun since people still live inside the old walls and you don’t see everything in the first hour. There’s still souvenir sellers everywhere, but you still have space to walk and breath outside of the market areas. I shopped for a carpet for a while, went back to the guesthouse to meet up with Robert (a fellow American) to see if we could enjoy the whole Turkish bath experience, but they were either rather touristy or they were in converted apartment buildings. Neither were appealing, so we abandoned the idea.

By this time, I was getting exhausted to the point where I was starting to not feel well. Something I had eaten hadn’t processed well and the leg aches were coming back. So, I grab a small dinner and headed back to the guesthouse to fold my dry laundry and go to bed. It was going to be a long night of listening to my stomach make awful noises and I knew it.

You have figure that they will run out of space at some point.

You have figure that they will run out of space at some point.

The converted Land Cruiser.

The converted Land Cruiser.

Ivan and Katia

Ivan and Katia

This appears to be the unrestored quarters of the Imam in one of Bukhara's grand medrassas.

This appears to be the unrestored quarters of the Imam in one of Bukhara’s grand medrassas.

Got foundation problems? Details of the faded and cracked frescoes.

Got foundation problems? Details of the faded and cracked frescoes.

To fish or cut bait

May 2, 2013

It’s not often that one gets such good news first thing in the morning. But I did that day. Just as I was about to start trolling the streets looking for backpackers to share the taxi ride to 1000 year old fortresses, Max walked in. He explained when he met up with the Czech women, he felt very unwelcome and didn’t want to spend several days with them. So, rather than put his things in the taxi, he picked up his bags, said goodbye (to which there was no response), and came back. Having to people look for two other tourist, seemed much more likely now, so we went out and started looking. Nothing. We went to other hotels and the tourist office, nothing. It seemed that everyone had either already been, not interested, or planning on going tomorrow. Wasting another day in Khiva just to see the fortresses wasn’t worth it to me. The one fortunate outcome was that I met the first American backpackers on this trip. Boyfriend and girlfriend from NYC. Somehow, meeting them made me feel validated.

I also ended up having a conversation with Wendy, a Kiwi pushing 70 who lives and works part time in London doing financial advising. She had seen most of Central Asia in the late 60’s and 70’s, including Afghanistan in ’72, and was back to see the changes. Once a backpacker herself, she says that she has given over to the tour bus the pas

t few years. Who can blame her at that age? Backpacking is hard work, and I tip my hat to the fact that she did it for so long. Another inspirational figure.

With neither of us having success trying to network ourselves to a full taxi, we had lunch and went to Urgench to get transportation to our next cities. Max was headed to Nukus to see what little there is left of the Aral Sea. I had a terrible time getting a train ticket. I argued with the woman about the cost because the ticket to Bukhara was nearly as expensive as traveling twice the distance to get there. I went to another line, got quoted the same thing, went back to apologize to the woman, paid, and got out of there. I now had 4 hours to kill in a town with really nothing to offer, so I wandered into town and parked myself in an internet cafe until it was time to go.

This time, my cabin mates were a mother and her two small children. I had bought chocolate covered biscuits to share with them and they offered some summer sausage and bread in return. It was hot and stuffy in the cabin, but once the train started it felt better inside. Despite eating and drinking water my heart was still racing and I was exhausted, so I passed out before sundown. I woke up that night to go to the bathroom and realized that my legs were achy.

The beautiful, yet incomplete Kalon Minaret.

The beautiful, yet incomplete Kalon Minaret.

Wendy. Back to see the places she visited in the early 70's.

Wendy. Back to see the places she visited in the early 70’s.

One has to assume that the music is also read from right to left...

One has to assume that the music is also read from right to left…

Proof that nothing is sacred.

Proof that nothing is sacred.