Friday, September 21, 2007

Welcome to Uzbekistan 25/08/07
It was August 25'th. Our 30-day Uzbek visa has started, but more important, it was the last day of our Kyrgyz visa. James, the American cyclist, informed us we couldn't extend our Kyrgyz visa; the office is closed till the end of the month.
So we had no choice but to hitch most of the way back, down south, to the Uzbek border. We hitched till after the tunnel, to Tuz-Asuu pass (3,100m), cycled the 1,000m down hill, climbed to Ala-bel pass (3,184m) and enjoyed the fun 2,000m down hill and hitched again. The truck driver dropped us at a side road with a police checkpoint. I asked if he could wait a minute, we'd ask if it's possible to cross the border there, to Uchkurgon. They said it's o.k, so we thanked the truck driver and he left. The guard took his time in checking our passports and asking the same tiring questions, but after 5 minutes said "there is no stamp". A few vague minutes and they sent us to a different border, 15 km southeast. Frustrated we cycled quickly, but after less than 1 km we saw the truck driver, in a restaurant (Rami spotted the truck). We explained the situation, he invited us to sit and eat and then he took us to the other border, detouring from the highway.
This time it was a real border and it was full of action: cars horning, people all over pushing carts or carrying stuff, food-stalls everywhere - sort of a big market.
Crossing the Kyrgyz side was quick.
Then started the bureaucracy, but at least there was shade to hide from the 40 degrees. an English-speaking guard directed us to 'customs' - a table with no chairs. For about 1.5 hours we were filling forms, declaring our money (cash of all sorts and travel-cheques. We forgot to declare our credit cards, we were told to hide them when we leave) and valuables. Then we had to copy it all, so we'll have a copy with us, for cashing travel-cheques. Then, they searched our stuff, but were board in the middle of the first bag and gave up.
And they let us in. 50 m from the border, a friendly mob was waiting to exchange our Kyrgyz Som to their Uzbek Som. We now had ~130,000 Som (=$100) in notes of 1,000 & 500, another Kilo of luggage.

Fergana valley
The rout to Tashkent crossed the Fergana valley. Fertile fields all around us, small villages and a maze of small paved roads. We enjoyed getting lost in them, instead of fighting traffic on the highway. The scenery wasn't interesting, but the ride was peaceful and pleasant. We were amazed from the hospitality of the locals. People invited us for lunch and dinner, opened their houses for us to sleep, and gave us grapes, apples, walnuts, figs and more. One car stopped, asked the usual questions and then offered us 2,000 Som (=$1.5, about 2 simple meals), telling us to buy food with it. At first Gal thought it was Monopoly money. We thanked him and politely refused.

Our first Samsas, on the house.
Typical restaurant and beds.

At Irodas' house.

Its time to trash-mouth Tashkent. We (especially Rami) can't hold it any longer. We'll trash-mouth the whole of Central-Asia (and Russia, the mother of the USSR) in Goodbye Central-Asia, but meanwhile we'll release some steam...
Tashkent is famous, people have heard of it, as apposed to Bishkek, Ashgabad or Dushambe. So, for us, Tashkent was a target on our mission to relive the 'Silk-Road' (with Chinese hotels, wet tissues, a cell-phone and every now and then a Milky-way or Twix chocolate-bar). "If we'll reach Tashkent that would be cool" (in a geeky way).
and then we cycled into town... and it was another ex-Soviet town... 2,000,000 people, but a town, not a city!.
Where will we start? Nightlife? at 19:00, 5 minutes after sunset the town goes to sleep. Everything is dark-dead, except for sleazy cafes, with a few miserable drunks. We're sure there are 1-2 good places with ridiculous Russian Pop and Rap, but you'd expect to see people walking in the streets...
We left the market after sunset and decided to get off the Metro at the center, there will be restaurants there, for sure. Nothing! Only the casual drunks.
The city is extremely boring, like a big suburb. Many parks with ridiculous Soviet style fountains (which barbarian locals wash in), which are nice at first, but take forever to cross. When we are in a big city we want to feel we are in a big city. We want to see shops, not decaying government style buildings, a mile long making walking the city a nightmare!
The old area "Chorso", with the big market, is O.K. But that's about it.
At least we didn't see as many drunks as in Bishkek (which is sort of a smaller Tashkent); that's one good thing about the city.
Many other travelers (all? except David) shared the same feeling.
At least we had Ayelet and Danny that helped us pass the 5 boring days.

Visa problems 2
Last time on "Visa Problems": we were stuck in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, for 9 days, every 3 days sitting for hours on the steps of the Uzbek embassy and a few hours at the Kazakh embassy, just to change scenery.

Tashkent 2007
The only reason to stop at Tashkent is to get visas for onward travel. No other reason, seriously and objectively.
A fellow traveler, coming from Azerbaijan, through Kazakhstan (land of Borat), informed us that the only ferry between Baku (Azerbaijan) and Aktau (Kazakhstan) has broken down again and he took a plane after waiting 10 days in Baku. This left us with one option by land/sea: via Turkmenistan (Israelis are not allowed to enter Iran.
While searching for a hotel, we bumped into the Turkmen embassy. The guards told us that a transit visa is not given for continuing to Azerbaijan. A $200 tourist visa, including a guide and a Bureaucratical nightmare was out of the question.
Bar, from the Israeli embassy in Tashkent, called the Turkmen embassy and, speaking fluent Russian, understood we'd need to contact a government tourist agency in Turkmenistan in order to get a tourist visa.
So, the next morning, after waiting 1.5 hours in line (while the crooked guard let in people for 'benefits'). We got a list of 10 agencies. We took it back to the Israeli embassy and Sarbina took us under her custody and worked on calling the agency and figuring out what, how, when, where, etc. meanwhile, we were led to the conference room, to 'conference' with Ayelet and Danny, another couple traveling the region (with their own visa problems).
We left the embassy, towards the big market in the old quarter. Nothing to write home about.
The next morning we went to the main post office, to search for our package, which was supposed to be waiting for us at the Israeli embassy 5-6 days ago. Partly failure, we left with the post-EMS phone number.
Back in the Israeli embassy we asked Tal, Bar's wife, who knew about our package, if she can ask about it. Then we went to the Azerbaijan embassy, after Bar talked with their consul. After waiting an hour in line, the consul saw us. He was expecting us and offered the usual visa for $40 and the express, which we could pick up at 15:00 (it was 11:45), for $60. We asked for 5 minutes, to think about our situation. We wanted to call Sarbina, at the Israeli embassy, see what's new with Turkmenistan. If Turkmenistan is out of the question (and it seamed it would be) we have no options but to fly from Tashkent to Baku, and get a $40, 30 day visa on the spot.
Sarbina told us to be at the Turkmen embassy at 17:00, oh! And our package is in the EMS office, They close soon (independence day).
For a transit visa we'll need to show our onward traveling visa: Azerbaijan, so we asked for the express visa.
The consul helped us to fill the forms and asked for the money. He took our passports to the next room and came back after 2 minutes with the new visas: express! We never saw a receipt for the $120, but who cares ;-)
At 17:00 we were at the Turkmen embassy (already waiting for 30 minutes). At 18:00 we were seen, again by the same clerk, expecting us. He helped us fill the forms, took the passport pictures and then - "Azerbaijan?" he asked... "Impossible!".
We were back in step 1, confused, not knowing what to do, The Turkmen didn't speak English (no-one in Central-Asia bureaucracy speaks English), but he was nice, and called Bar, from the Israeli embassy. They decided that on Monday morning (it was Friday afternoon) the Israeli embassy will attach a formal request to our application.
We had a very long and boring weekend in Tashkent. Thank god Ayelet & Danny moved to our hotel and we all 'trash-mouthed' Central-Asia.
Monday morning, at the Israeli embassy, Bar took our details and said they'll ask for a 10-day transit visa. We said it's too much; normally it's 5 days, we've heard of 7 days, but why pull the string too much, we're gonna take a train anyway. Bar said they want to see us cycle Turkmenistan! We were truly moved by the enthusiasm of the guys there.
An embassy driver took the letter to the Turkmen embassy, we were informed. We quickly cycled to the Turkmen embassy, quickly waited another hour and were told to wait 5-6 days (typical).
Bar said he'll call them on Friday (4 days later), see what's up.
The next morning we finally left Tashkent.
Cycling stories...cycling stories...cycling stories...
On Friday, 11:30, we called Bar, to politely remind him, without being a pain in the ass. He surprised us by asking our exact location (10km after Zizzach), then telling us to be at the Turkmen embassy at 17:00.
Gal didn't want the pressure, but Rami insisted. In 1 minute we were back at the village we just passed. With our bits of Russian and hand-talking we managed to explain our plan. In another minute our bikes were at his house and we changed from our cycling gear. He wrote us is address, so we'll know how to return. We followed him out, to the road (obviously, the highway crosses the village. all the villages). In 1 minute he stopped a bus and we were on our way.
At 16:30 we were waiting in front of the Turkmen embassy. At 18:00 we entered. We got a 10-day transit visa, no entry or exit port specified and we were asked on what date we want to enter. We calculated - the 21'st. BIG MISTAKE! (You'll read about it later).
We took a bus back to the small village, according to the address, hoping we'll get 'home'.

This is a good time to mention 2 things:
1. Every traveler in Central-Asia encounters visa problems. At Bishkek, we had more than 10 Japanese stuck with us waiting for visas at Sakura guesthouse. We met the same travelers again and again at embassies and the talk of the day was "visas". In Uzbekistan the same thing. And more stories and rumors came from Kazakhstan ("Almati the expensive") and Azerbaijan. Everybody with his horror stories, many times ending with expensive flights – not much of traveling, seeing and tasting the area. So, we are not out of the ordinary, this is only our story.
P.S. – ordinary tourists are not aware of the bureaucracy involved in traveling the region (ex-soviet), and we didn't even mentioned "registration"!
2. We are talking about the Israeli embassy in such a natural way. But, there's nothing natural about it. No other embassy in the world treats her travelers the way we were treated. It was like visiting family (very typical Israeli feeling). It was Gal's first visit in an Israeli embassy. She didn't know what to expect or how we will be treated. Rami has been to a few embassies in South America, to collect mail (yes, in the days before Email), and was sent to the mail room (like an old attic, with 5 year old forgotten packages with "Bamba" snacks inside).
AS we arrived, after a quick security check, we were led inside. Everybody was interested, said hello and tended our needs. Bar, Segev and Avital, the fantastic consul, invited us to a traditional Uzbek lunch and told us about life in Tashkent. We were even invited to Turkish coffee ("El-Nahla" - green label, with Cardamon) with the ambassador, who showed great interest in our travels, and gave a few recommendations on our way west.
It was like a small break from the "independent traveling", where you must take care of everything.
The peek of it was the "letter" that saved the day!

With Avital, at the Israeli embassy.
Our package!

Good vibes bad vibes
We were looking for "Plof". Plof is THE local dish in Uzbekistan. It is fried rice with carrot and a funny yellow carrot + many flavors and grapes (when we are lucky). It is served all around the country at exactly 12:00 and is finished at around 12:05; depending on the speed the chef loads it on the plates. Today we were lucky. We reached a junction village and asked about plof. Everybody directed us to the bazaar. We parked at the plof restaurant and when the excitement (of both the cycle tourist and the plofers) cooled down, we ate a tasty plof. 5 later someone came with a big plastic bucket and bought the remaining 5 kg of plof. At the other table someone was eating white, soft cheese. Excited about all the dairy products, after the Orient, Rami was directed to the cheese stall. The cheese woman dismissed Rami when he came to pay. The opposite stall had all the spices one could ask to put on white cheese. The spice-girl (well spice-elder) spiced the cheese and sent Rami away.
Lunch was cheep, about $1.5. We mention that because since we left China, everything, especially food (important for cyclists), is not as cheep as it was. If we consider the fact that we eat the standard local food and an average monthly wager in Uzbekistan could be paid with a single US$ note + the fact that we sort of know the prices of things, it irritated us that on the next day, in a similar bazaar, for less food, we paid about $4. That's more than twice! Consider that in Israel, the cheapest Humus is around 12 NIS, and than you'll be asked for 30 NIS for the same dish, in the same style food stall in another no-where bazaar.
1 hour after the over charged plof, we called the Israeli embassy and Bar told us to be in Tashkent in 5 hours, for our Turkmen visa. Using our limited Russian vocabulary ("I Tashkent, I want bicycle here. Night I here!"), we asked the villager who's cellular we used where can we leave our bikes. His bus just arrived, so he directed us to the guy next to him. The guy took us across the road, to his house, with a typical inner courtyard, a cow, sheep and grapes. We parked our bikes, change clothes, packed our small backpack and followed our host to the main road. All this took less than 10 minutes. He put us on a bus.
From this moment we were conventional tourist for 8 hours. 3 hours later we were dropped off at Tashkent central bus station. The no-open-window, 1,000,000 people, 45 degrees bus ride was typical, so we've heard.
Then the tourist was started. Gal went to buy Fanta in a glass bottle. A second after she tasted it she realized it was fake - a bad fake! She asked for her money back, but the shop owner said it's "Namangan Fanta" (Namangan - a big city near Tashkent). Gal was tempted to throw the bottle on the fake fur coats at the shop, but then Rami arrived. For some reason, Rami actually tasted the orange-colored water. He shouted at the shop owner in Hebrew and immediately got the money back. Gal was very upset from the incident, while Rami laughed about it, thinking that this trick was probably done in Tel-Aviv central bus station 30 years ago.
A few hours later, having our Turkmen visa, we headed back to the central bus station. We caught a taxi and agreed on 1,000 Som for the ride. The driver took us to what look like the bus station, in the dark, but it was empty. He told us he could take us to another terminal or we can spend the night at the hotel and go the next morning. But, as he started driving and took a turn, we saw the real bus station, full with buses and very much alive! Gal shouted at him to stop and he had this stupid look at his face. People told us there are buses all night, no problem. Then the driver wanted 8,000 Som. We were so upset, he didn't even argue when we threw him 1,000.
We were quickly directed to a bus, according to a note we had, from the villager. The conductor said its 4,000 Som. Rami said it should be 2,000-3,000 (as we were told), but, then the people said it's 4,000. Rami felt a bit uncomfortable and explained that in Uzbekistan tourists are being ripped-off.
Soon the bus left and 2 young bus workers passes among the people and collected money. They asked 5,000 from us. We said we were told it's 4,000. They insisted, and only when Rami got up and told one of the kids to follow him to the conductor, did they accept.
We felt a bit ashamed for the locals, for not helping us out, but sitting quietly. We thought about a similar situation in Israel, probably all the locals will be interrupting and shouting on behalf of the tourists!
At around 11:30 we reached the village. Rami stood near the conductor and spotted the exact turn. The village (a few houses) was totally dark. We hesitantly knocked on the door. After a minute a light was turned on, and the door opened. A smiling face welcomed us and asked "How did you return? Big bus, or small bus?". He led us in, offered food, even though everybody was asleep for a long time, and showed us to 'our room': typical ma tresses and blankets on the floor. Our bikes and gear were untouched, of coarse!

Check out the local fashion.
A shower.
Getting drunk with the ladies.

No-flats 04/09/07
We forgot to write this at the time, in the Uzbekistan chapter, so better late than never:
We stopped for a short rest at the side of the road.
As we started to cycle, Gal heard a puncture (yes, every problem has its typical sound). We quickly stopped and, as the technique requires, we held the wheel so the puncture will be at the bottom and the No-Flats material, within the tube (for some time now, high-pressure pumps were hard to find and the local tires, which we've been using for some time, were not so helpful for building a tubeless) squirted out and immediately fixed the puncture.
We checked the wheel and counted at least 10 thorns stuck in the tire. Using a pare of tweezers, we quickly took them out, one by one, rotating the wheel so the material will do its job.
Then we checked our other 5 wheels. We had more than 40 thorns all together and we didn't have even one flat tire!
We only had to pump the tire a bit. Attempting that, we broke our good pump (the plastic 'catch' which catches the valve, if you insist) and our bad pump was bad, so we just cycled a few k"ms to the next mechanic and used his pump.
Since that day we had no doubts about No-Flats.

"Let's just fix this here..."
Our bus to Tashkent.
Where we left our bikes.
Puppies for sale.

Samarkand 08/09/07
It was a long day in the desert. An hour before sunset we were 10 km from Samarkand. Due to experience we were debating whether to sleep in out of town and arrive in the morning, or to enter the big city in the evening and have the headache of finding a cheep hotel (for a few days) in the dark.
So, we asked around, about pitching a tent, but we were sent to the big city. We reached a quiet, deserted café, surrounded by trees. The owner wanted money for pitching our tent; we understood we have reached a touristy area! We decided not to waste more precious time (sunset…) and headed to Bohadır guesthouse.
We entered the city from the north. In front of us, on a hill, were the Registan and a few other old buildings, illuminated by the setting sun. We felt like a small caravan who has crossed the desert mountains, on its way west, tiered, hungry, dirty and with a rash, reaching the biggest and most famous city on the Silk Road.
We reached the guesthouse and Bohadır and his family were ready for us helped us park our camels in the small courtyard (next to about 8 other bicycles), showed us the hot shower, and led us to the last vacant room. We had a shower and joined everybody for dinner.

Samarkand is a normal (Uzbek) city, with many historic “stuff” scattered around. The live market is in the center. This made the city not TOO touristy, with a relaxed neighborhood atmosphere.

The Silk Road!

Gal & Mary testing bikes.

Samarkand to Bukhara
We decided to make a detour, through the mountains, on the way to Bukhara. We had too many days to waste: our entry date to Turkmenistan was far away and Uzbekistan is not big enough. The mountain road is very different from the “flat” Uzbekistan. Small villages, spread along the narrow valley. The houses built of rock and not from standard, small mud bricks. It was getting late, towards the pass (which was not so high, but the 45 degrees made it almost unbearable). Before we had time to think, an old man walking towards us with his grandson, invited us to sleep in his house. We slept on the traditional table (as through all Central-Asia) on the porch, and the next morning descended to Shahrisabz.

The gang.

Our host in the mountain village.

Shahrisabz 12/09/07
Gal & Rami had a fight, so they kept their distance for the day.
The small city was relaxed and beautiful with almost no tourists. A woman invited us to sleep at here house, for a measly $10.
We made up in the evening, and ate dinner (mutton Kebabs, again) at a restaurant not knowing the dinner was waiting for us at the guesthouse. We didn’t want to heart the woman’s feeling, so we shoved some of the food (which was quite tasty).

We continued through small roads and endless cotton fields towards Bukhara. We were told that the students, who just started the semester, were sent for 2 months to pick the cotton. Rami asked if they don’t have in Uzbekistan any Niggers. As we were cycling, we were singing all the cotton songs we know (“Summer times….“)


Stung by a wasp in the toilets.

Bukhara 15/09/07
We entered the old city. As apposed to Samarkand and Shahrisabz, the old quarter of Bukhara is ALL old, full of impressive 500 year old buildings, squares, old houses, minarets, madrases, mosques and souvenir shops. The entire quarter is devoted to tourism. Big air-con buses, scattered around were pouring out groups of organized tours.
We were cycling, in search of a cheep hotel (“impossible”, as co-traveler said), admiring the old quarter – truly magnificent! But – not alive, old locals with typical souvenir shops.
We changed hotel after 2 nights (unfriendly stuff, if you ask), to a hotel with break fast that Rami will remember for the rest of his life (the fig confiture…). He understood why the caravans have decided to stop at Bukhara!
On our 3’rd evening, while strolling in the small alleys, we were invited to a house for dinner. We had a fantastic evening, a beautiful experience as apposes to “touristy” Bukhara. Just what we needed to survive the 4 long days there, waiting for 21/09, when our Turkmen visa begins.

Small cyclists.
Leaving Bukhara.
Old stuff on the way.

Safety first!

Near the border.

Good bye Uzbekistan
We were 25 days in Uzbekistan (of which we cycled less than 14, thanks to visa problems).
It was the first country, which gave a real ‘Silk Road’ atmosphere. If we ignored the soviet remnants, it fulfilled our expectations.
Our “hotel registrations” were briefly examined when we left the country (we had only a few) and our money was counted; part of the bureaucratical nightmare.