Monday, September 17, 2012

Uzbekistan


We spent a day looking around the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, having lunch at the market - delicious shashlik lamb which is skewers of meat with raw onion on the side. The metro stations are incredible, huge wide open spaces with beautiful mosaics and marble work with chandeliers, looked like the inside of a palace rather than metro, especially after the London tube stations! Police patrolled and unfortunately you couldn't take photos (not sure why) and we were warned of police trying to take money off foreigners so were on our best behaviour! It's noticeable now that the people are starting to look more middle eastern/Turkish rather than Asian, compared to the people in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, especially as we travel west through Uzbekistan. The exchange rate into Uzbek 'som' is 2,500 to one US dollar, but the largest note is only 1000 so you need a very large bag to carry enough money for lunch! The black market is the way to change money for the best rates, with most shop owners wanting to get rid of large piles of local currency.
These men are carrying a massive bag of money from the bank to their car
We visited the earthquake memorial to the men and women who helped to rebuild the city after the 1966 quake which flattened most of the city. It was a massive statue of two people and a plaque with the date and time of the quake.
Earthquake memorial in Tashkent


The next morning we set off for Samarkand, via the Azerbaijan embassy to get visas for the people travelling on to Istanbul. Samarkand is a stunning place with the most beautiful mosques and medressas (Islamic colleges) with incredible mosaics and tiling. Its one of the key cities of the ancient Silk Route. At night we managed to bribe one of the guards to take us up to the top of one of the minarets, so much fun crawling through the roof space of the mosque in the pitch black darkness!

Shah-I-Zinda - Avenue of Mausoleums in Samarkand
Sunset in Samarkand from roof top of our B&B

I've been sampling the local food whenever I can, the local speciality here being plov (oily rice, fried vegetables and mutton) and the insides of apricot stones cooked in ash, which are very moreish. It's great going to the market and trying things, an amazing array of veges, fruit, seeds and dried fruits. The bread is delish, we stumbled across a traditional bakery where the make the bread in a kind of tandoori oven, and we were given some hot fresh bread to try, heaven!

Bread being baked in a tandoor-like oven

All the bread seems to come to market on old prams

Golden arches Uzbek style! Haven't seen McDonalds in Central Asia - nice change!
Shashlik - meat skewers, usually beef or lamb
You get to see so much fascinating stuff out the window whilst driving, its defiantly the best way to really get to see what a country is like. There are big queues at the petrol stations for fuel in this area as there are not many petrol stations around, and diesel is only 40c a litre, which is expensive given its 20c a litre in Turkmenistan! We have passed many cotton fields with people picking cotton. The cotton crops in this part of the world are the reason for the drying up of the Aral sea, due to using its water for irrigation.

Cardboard cut-out of a police car designed to get people to slow down, they also have cardboard police men!

No restrictions on loading here!

Cotton pickers

Uzbek lady moving sheep and goats
We spent a night camping in the desert in yurts, had camel rides at sunset and spent the morning by a near-by lake the next day swimming. We are currently in Bukhara, similar to Samarkand, but smaller. We hired hilarious old bikes, complete with spokey-dokeys, and explored the city which has some of the most beautiful old buildings. We only have two more nights in Uzbekistan before crossing the border into Turkmenistan where the Dragoman trip ends for me.

Camels hanging out beside our desert-yurt

Medressas and mosques in Bukhara

Kalon minaret, built in 1127

5th century inner city wall, and unfortunately rubbish bins are in short supply

Hilarious selection of hats (wigs?!) available for the cold winter months!

Bike adventures in Bukhara

Soviet-style sign at entrance to Bukhara

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kazakhstan

We had just three days in Kazakhstan en-route to Uzbekistan. The scenery changed and the mountains turned into the flat plains that run all the way north up to Siberia. It was a couple of long days driving with a day in the middle where we stayed in a homestay and camped near a national park. The camping spot was another gem with beautiful views out over the plains and an incredible sunset. It was my group's turn to cook and we made Moroccan tagine (the winning dish of course!), which was difficult in windy conditions with the gas constantly going out...so we ended up putting the cooker partially inside the truck's hold with a variety of cunningly positioned pot lids to act as wind barriers. It was a little late but totally delicious, even with millet (which we thought was cous-cous!).
Tents in the campsite with beautiful view and sunset
To break up the driving we had picnic lunches along the way with food from the local markets, which are always an absolute treat with so much amazing fresh fruit and veges on offer. Yesterday's lunch spot was in a hot and dusty village near the Uzbek border, where we had most of the children in the village come out to watch us eat. It's always fascinating being in those kind of small off the beaten track places where you get to see a small slice of how the locals live.
Loading up the lada with apples at the farmer's market
Donky and cart used by local villagers for transport
Local children enjoying the picnic lunch show
The border crossings were interesting, as we left the truck and walked through the check points, collecting stamps, filling out forms and through no-mans-land to the next country, all a bit of a novelty, but there were long waits as the truck had to clear customs, get x-rayed and have insurance purchased. We made friends with one of the Kazakh border guards at the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border, who was more interested in the Olympics than our passports and kept telling us how many medals Kazakhstan had won in London. We played a lot of cards waiting for the truck to come through at each crossing, and there were cheers when we finally saw our tour leader Al driving it through the border four hours after us! 
Playing cards at the local boarder crossing "cafe"(actually just a family home which sold bottles of drink)
The truck made it through at last!
After leaving our campsite in Kazakhstan at 6.45am we have just arrived in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, 14 hours later (its only 350km but some of the most crazy, bumpy roads I've ever experienced and the border made for slow going). Here we pick up a few new passengers and say goodbye to some others. We now spend two weeks travelling through Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mountain Kingdoms

The 31st of August is Independence Day in Kyrgyzstan, a day to celebrate independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. We were in the town of Karakol at the time and went to see the local parade and cultural demonstrations.
Independence Day parade - each group and industry has a float
This section of the trip is called Mountain Kingdoms of Kyrgyzstan, and in the past few days we have seen some of the most amazing and varied mountain scenery. On the weekend we camped in a spot called Jeti Ogyz, setting up our tents where the local farmers graze their animals (hazards included navigating fresh horse poo in the middle of the night to go to the toilet!). We decided to climb a nearby mountain and with no map or trail to follow and scaled the most ridiculously steep section to get the most incredible 360 degree view. On the way down we learned that had we gone the other way it would have been far easier (slight navigation error on my part, woops!). It was so worth the climb though as we could see 5500m peaks and glaciers on the mountain range bordering China, and the other way looked back to Lake Issyk-Kul, which is the world's second largest alpine lake (behind Titikaka in South America) at 180km long and 660m deep. We were wandering through farm land with shepherds sitting in the sun watching their flocks; the traditional method of farming is still used here with no fences or defined farm boundaries.

View from the top looking towards China
Camping Masterchef competition continues...

Horses grazing on our hike

Sheep being herded through our campsite

We fattys had to get out of the truck to lighten the load to cross rivers on the way to campsite













The next day we headed for Kochkor, where we stayed the night in a homestay. The locals have been taught by a Swiss company how to run homestays and we were treated to hot showers, flushing toilets and a banquet of local foods...such a treat after nights camping in the bush. Down the road from the homestay was the local "Olympic stadium" - a very run down soccer field and something resembling a concrete running track. Much of the infrastructure is pretty derelict, having little or no maintenance since the Soviet era. There are many abandoned buildings including houses and factories. The roads are also in terrible condition, although there is a lot of road works being carried out by Chinese firms to improve them.

Desert-like "Fairy" canyon en-route to Kochkor
Boys playing soccer at the entrance to the stadium




Stadium with the Olympic rings on the far slope
















Little boy at our homestay

The next day was a long drive to Song Kol, which is a lake at 3000m. On the way we were able to sit on the roof of the truck in purpose built roof seats, and although it was freezing it was a great view. Song Kol is one of the most stunning places I have ever been, the kind of scenery that just blows you away. Its a massive wide open plateau with mountains surrounding the lake. The land is used from June until September by farmers for grazing and in the winter the lake freezes over and there is snow permanently. The area is protected and there are no buildings, only yurts (the traditional tents used by the farmers).

We stayed in yurts and even though there was a frost on the ground in the morning we were super toasty with mattresses and two very heavy woolen duvets. We were treated to feasts breakfast, lunch and dinner, the highlights being an endless supply of homemade apricot jam with fresh cream, fresh bread and something that resembled donuts (athlete's diet is officially over!). The local farmers rented their horses to us and we did a trek down to the lake. Such an amazing way to see the area, despite the fact we were all slightly nervous going very slowly on horses used to being ridden flat out!
Sitting on the roof of the truck

Trying to squeeze past a Lada (popular Soviet car) over 3800m pass en-route to Son Kol

Star jumps at Song Kol (this took several attempts to get the timing, which was hard work at 3000m+!)

Horse trek to local hero's monument and lake

My horse (called "Farty" - so smelly!) and our Kyrgyz guide Billy leading the way back to camp

Pre-dinner drinks in the yurt camp









































































We headed back to Bishkek with a night in a rocky basin on the way to break up the journey. It was our first night of camping in the rain since we started the trip, but the rain was short-lived and we were then treated to beautiful stars with the sky being lit up every now and then by a thunder storm in the distance.

Camp en-route to Bishkek
Some of the group head to the Kazakh embassy in Bishkek this afternoon to collect their visas and tomorrow we drive into Kazakhstan for three nights there before heading to Uzbekistan. They did not get visas before they left as when they started the trip in Beijing we were originally supposed to travel through Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan and then into Uzbekistan, but have been advised that it is unsafe, so we are taking the long route, through Kazakhstan.

The people who are travelling all the way through to Istanbul also received the news a few days ago that Dragoman are now unable to take the truck through Iran because the British Foreign Office has issued a warning advising against all travel into Iran. This warning means that the truck would not be insured travelling through Iran, so the trip has had to be re-routed through Azerbaijan and Georgia, which is really sad for those looking forward to travelling to Iran.

Jakshy kalyngydzar from Kyrgyzstan...next "Stan" Kazahkstan!