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Archive for August, 2013

Once a day, a lonely blue bus leaves Kashgar in China and travels south over the Kunjerab Pass to Sost in Northern Pakistan, but for the last three days that bus has remained idle. By sheer co-incidence or perhaps just rotten bad luck, we have been waiting three days in Kashgar for its departure. Each morning a phone call to the international depot has yielded frustrating results. It’s reluctance to move is based on a shortage of passengers, but today that will change.

It’s been an anxious and uncertain delay as we only have a few days left to enter Pakistan and the journey south takes two. Anticipated feelings of apprehension are dissolved. Today I feel nothing but a sense of calm. Maybe it’s because Greg and I have deliberated for weeks over Pakistan since the distressing murder of the climbers near Nanga Parbit took place. Maybe it’s because we have pushed so hard to get here that we simply can’t turn back now; we can’t break the peel. Whatever it is, I feel committed to cross this border and continue our journey.

The bus is full of joyful Pakistani’s. A mixture of students who’ve been studying medicine and businessmen returning home after trading in Kashgar. As always they shower their foreign guests with a generous dose of kindness and friendly curiosity.

Our fellow passengers

Our fellow passengers

I watch Kashgar fade into open fields with confidant satisfaction. Our big push that started 10 weeks ago in Kenya is almost over. The phone calls, the emails, the disappointments, the visas and hold ups all seem so trivial. Like pain forgotten all that is left is victory, nothing can stop us now.

Within a few hours we are among giants. They gather close to the road. Their huge rocky shoulders locked together. Their heads white with snow, lean over and peer down at our little bus from impossible heights. We Pass through the first of the Chinese checkpoints at Ghez and continue south to Tashkurgan. The steep stone walls retreat after another hour to reveal open pastures and distant mountains. The plains are scattered with yurts, yaks and large Asian camels. Long sandy hair hangs from their neck and shoulders.

The Karakorum Highway

The Karakorum Highway

The scenery is stunning, but up ahead it’s about to get better. The massive form of Muztagh Ata appears large in our windscreen. As we rise over a crest, its sheer size and height above the plains is revealed. A thick blanket of shiny ice lies ruffled across its flanks. Shadows from clouds rise and fall over its contours. A large lake fed by melting snow lies curled up by its base. Having made this same trip four years ago, I am still taken by surprise as to just how magnificent this land is.

Muztagh Ata

Muztagh Ata

Five hours after leaving Kashgar we stop in Tashkurgan for the night. We are now just over 3400m above sea level. Our bus tired from the journey sighs, hisses and opens the front door outside the Traffic Hotel. I ask its driver what time it will leave tomorrow. He holds up 10 fingers which I take to mean 10am Beijing time.

Beijing time? Nods yes.

The Traffic hotel is experiencing a sudden influx of guests but the price and general disinterest of the manager has the Pakistani’s looking for other options. A handsome man in his mid-50’s wearing an unmistakable black wig leads them and Greg away down the road. Thirty minutes later Greg returns but is keen to at least have a look inside for comparative purposes. The disinterested manager seems more attentive and shows us a room for 150 RNB or around 25 USD which is only 5 USD more and much closer to our sleeping bus… so we take it.

China to Pakistan incredible scenery

China to Pakistan incredible scenery

The next morning despite triple checking with its driver, our bus decides to leave 15 minutes early. Greg is paying the bill when I notice it driving out of the hotel compound. I run down the road yelling and waving my hands eventually bringing it to a stop. Four years ago the same thing happened and despite being forewarned it happens again. The driver and the hotel staff seem indifferent. The bus was on its way to Chinese immigration, 2km south of town where it will be stopped for at least an hour, while we all go through immigration. The Pakistani’s are waiting at the building when we arrive. This morning the number of passengers wanting to cross the pass has swollen. The total of which is too great to fit inside the bus. We are safe as we have confirmed tickets but a battle for the remaining seats is anticipated.

The giants at Ghez

The giants at Ghez

The processing through immigration is carried out with discipline and all the precision of an Olympic opening ceremony. The soldiers have us form 2 lines outside the bus and then enquire about WC. Volunteers are marched in a line. A low ranking solider ensures all our arms are swinging in unison, but I don’t complain as I recall the fiasco at the Uzbek border 2 weeks ago.

Asian Camels of the Silk Road

Asian Camels of the Silk Road

Two hours into the journey and my contemplative daydreaming is abruptly broken by the reluctance of our bus to move. We come to a grinding halt. It would seem that once again the travel gods have cursed us. I think back to Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Egypt and lose count. The art of patience is surely tested on such a journey. Greg sees this as an opportunity to take some photos and is almost the first one off the bus. He needn’t rush as he’s going to be taking more photos than he ever imagined.

It is almost certain that if a problem can’t be fixed in the first 30 minutes then it may never be fixed at all. Normally issues are resolved quickly, so after waiting for more than an hour, I begin to despair.

A few hours later and the sun is now starting to creep in through the right hand side of the bus. The flimsy curtains are no match for its fury. Our water supplies are dwindling and being stuck so high above sea level without acclimatisation has many suffering from fatigue and headache.

As always the local people are prepared for any eventuality and they start to cut open delicious water melon to share amongst the passengers. We sit on the ground devouring the juicy pieces whilst getting to know our new found friends better. I observe (as everyone sits and chats) what this picture might be like if I were at home. I certainly don’t think that people would be as well prepared and I doubt that they’d share what little they have in such a community spirited way.

The day alternates between lying in my seat and going outside for short walks. Sometimes I even peer under the bus in the hopes I will see productive activity. Despite the surrounding beauty I am getting bored. The driver has finally after many hours downed his tools and pronounced the bus dead. The sun is starting to get low and I put my fleece back on and go inside the bus. I manage an afternoon nap and resign myself to a very long wait.

Stuck for hours on the Kunjerab Pass

Stuck for hours on the Kunjerab Pass

I am surprised at just how relaxed I still am as the ninth hour approaches. But one of the group members crack. There is much shouting in Urdu. Greg and I exchange quizzical looks. It appears that one of the male passengers has had enough! He wants to know how much longer we’re expected to wait for a new bus. Based on the heated exchange and aggressive body language between himself and the Chinese solider it appears that the news is not what the gentleman wishes to hear.

He turns, snaps his heals, picks up his suitcase and begins to walk along the highway. Clearly he has decided that waiting nearly ten hours is more than enough time to resolve the issue and that at this rate he would be better off walking to Sost. I tend to agree! People of this region are very expressive. You don’t need to speak Urdu to know when there is a problem or indeed not.

Walking to Pakistan

Walking to Pakistan

The male passenger’s work together to persuade the man that maybe walking isn’t such a good idea. Back rubbing and soothing tones are administered bringing the man down from the metaphoric building that he’s about to jump from. The clenched teeth loosen and his responses become more cordial. He nods his head and flicks his wrist, which I take to mean he has been convinced for the moment to stay. No one seems to mind the dummy spit. Personally I have enjoyed the performance, it has certainly passed some time.

After over 12 hours of sitting, waiting and occasionally chewing on water melon, we are transferred to a new bus and once again on the move. A short while later we pass through the final Chinese checkpoint. A line of trucks is always a sign you are close to the border. The light is fading fast and the first stars are appearing. We pass under the Arch that separates China from Pakistan; the highest border crossing in the world at just under 5000m.

Day dreaming has been replaced with star gazing. I stare out the window marvelling at the majesty of the mountains that cradle the Karakorum Highway. I imagine what it must have been like when it was the old Silk Road; men of another time leading their camels, guided by the brilliant night sky. We descend quickly down a series of switch backs into warmer winds and large green trees. The sky is now a slither of stars squeezed between towering cliffs.

An hour after crossing the pass, we arrive at the dimly lit immigration post of Sost. Everyone scrambles of the bus to be first, it is nearly midnight. Luckily for me as a woman, I am allowed to go to the front of the queue, a convenient perk in this male dominated society. Even if there is a queue of men 100 deep, it doesn’t matter to the front you go. The man looks up at me and smiles “First Time in Pakistan?” “No, this is my second time. I love Pakistan” I respond “You are Welcome” he grins and my passport is stamped. If only all border crossings were such a pleasure. Even after a long day I feel a wave of exhilaration to be here……..

Sost has several hotels but locating them in complete darkness is not so easy. We follow close behind our fellow passengers and take a room for 400 PKR. Before retiring it is agreed that we will leave the next morning at 5am. The Hotel has basic rooms and a shower that is fed with glacial cold water. Despite fatigue I find it hard to sleep. I keep thinking that we’ll somehow sleep in and miss our onward connections. I decide to get up and have a cold shower to jump start me into action. I console myself with the promise of endless sleep when I get to Gilgit.

Towering Cliffs along the KKH

Towering Cliffs along the KKH

Getting to Gilgit will not be as easy as it once was. In 2010 a major landslide blocked the valley causing a huge lake to form and severing the Karakorum Highway. From Sost to the start of the lake is about 2 hours and we pay a fee of 200 PKR each for a seat in a shared minivan. Upon reaching the lake it’s an enjoyable hour long ride across the still turquoise waters. Two local ladies who are part of the bus group share apricots with me. The boat carries well over 50 passengers and 1 motorbike. The fee for crossing is 100 PKR each.

Attabad Lake cuts the KKH in two

Attabad Lake cuts the KKH in two

As we approach the head of the lake the full drama of the landslide is revealed. On the left hand side of the gorge high above the waters, Chinese and Pakistani crews are constructing a road and tunnel to eventually reconnect the KKH. Taking heavy bags off the boat is not easy but there are many willing men offering help. From the lake we trek up a small hill to a group of jeeps eagerly awaiting our arrival. We squeeze 6 people into each jeep and pay 125 PKR for the short hour long trip to Hunza. Signs of tectonic trauma are visible as far as the eye can see. Dramatic mud coloured cliffs and mountains protect peaks that still have snow atop. Lush green villages cling to the base showcasing the enormity of this natural phenomenon, it truly taxes the superlatives.

The landslide

The landslide

The road has been seriously upgraded since our last visit thanks to the partnership between China and Pakistan. It’s an engineering marvel how human labour has managed to make what was once a long and slow journey become smoother as well as shaving off a great deal of time. We make the final transfer from jeep to Minivan in Hunza and pay a further 225 PKR per seat. The journey from Hunza to Gilgit is covered in 2 short hours. In total the entire trip from Sost has cost 650 PKR or about $6.50 USD.

Welcome to Gilgit

Welcome to Gilgit

We pass under the “Welcome to Gilgit “sign in record time pulling into The Madina 2 hotel run by the perennial Mr Yacqoob. I feel instantly at home. It is reminiscent of an English country garden belonging in the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. The only thing that gives the gardens location away are the huge brown mountains surrounding us.

I sip my milky chai and breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve made it!

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Since departing Turkey 15 days ago, our rate of progress has been such, that we are experiencing the rare overland phenomenon of bus lag.  It would seem that every country in Central Asia must have its own unique time zone. We find ourselves going to bed well after midnight in spite of long days on the road.

There is some sense of relief when I wake in our room. I say some… as we no longer require the immediate issue of any visas, but we still have two border crossings over high mountain passes to consider before reaching Pakistan. Both are in sensitive areas and can be closed without warning. Transport is limited and soon the holy month of Ramadan will be ending, adding further complications.

Despite the curtains being drawn, our room is filled with sunlight. The small air-conditioner that sits in the corner has been fighting a losing battle with the heat all night. As if with anticipation of its failings, the manager of the hotel has also provided a fan which unlike the curtains is performing admirably. It creaks as it swivels from side to side. I lie in bed watching its pendulum journey with anticipation; offering respite every 10 seconds.

Osh bazaar

Osh bazaar

As far as I can see in our wonderings, the streets of Osh contain none of the central Asian gems found in Uzbekistan. The architecture is mainly limited to Soviet era apartment blocks. Only the central bazaar offers an echo of this once historical city along the Silk Route. While the buildings of Osh are a little bland, the same cannot be said of its inhabitants and the surrounding landscapes. Most of the men are adorned in traditional felt hats called Kalpaks and clasp onto strings of colourful worry beads.

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From a linguistic point of view travelling through central Asia is proving difficult. The Uzbeks were speaking Tajik. The Kyrgyz in Osh are speaking Uzbek. Some can speak Russian, none can speak English. Our enquiries for onward transport are limited to stating our destination and then writing the price on dusty taxi windows. Being two is also confusing as we never know if the agreed price is for one or both of us. This is normally resolved by holding up the number of fingers and placing it above each of our heads. I vow next time to learn Russian for… How much per person?

The road from Osh to Bishkek starts along patchwork hills of golden wheat and green corn. As we round a bend on a small crest, I get a glimpse of the Pamir Mountains to the south in Tajikistan but today we are heading north east to the Kyrgyz capital. The road continues past a series of dark emerald lakes trapped in deep canyons. The strata in the walls are twisted into psychedelic patterns by the movement of the earth.

Osh to Bishkek

Osh to Bishkek

Overtaking in precarious situations is something we have become accustomed to, but today we have the extra disadvantage of the steering wheel being on the wrong side of the car. Our driver is in the running as the worst we have encountered on our journey so far. His slows down to shout into his phone only to accelerate in short bursts between calls to compensate for his loss of speed.

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We eventually escape the canyons and drive along the shores of an ice blue lake framed by dry hills and fields of sun flowers. The road starts to climb, but our driver is trapped behind trucks unable to see if he can overtake. We develop an understanding where I hold up a finger to wait and then wave to overtake. At the top of the pass the mountains are turning green. We find ourselves on the edge of a vast broad valley. The road straightens and stretches out of sight. Rocky outcrops to our left and right still cling to winter snows. We pass by traditional yurts and fine looking horses of all colours running wild. This is a magical place. The sun is now low in the sky behind us, shining the way forward. Our driver has stopped taking calls and seems transformed by this beautiful setting. On such a long journey you encounter moments of special beauty, this is one of those moments.

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By the time we reach Bishkek and drop off the other passengers it is nearly 10pm. The journey has taken nearly 12 hours, but had we driven with consistency and not had such long food stops, it could have taken 8. Our driver has become exhausted by his many phone calls and lost the will to find our hotel. He passes us off (despite some feeble protests) to a local taxi who is better acquainted with the dark streets of Bishkek.

After a small struggle, we find the Alpinist hotel but the rooms are grossly overpriced at $75.00 USD. I try to negotiate with the girl at the desk but they won’t budge on the price. Despite being very tired we try up the road but the next hotel is over $200.00 USD. I don’t even bother to look at the room. I walk back to the taxi dejected and resigned to going back to the Alpinist. Our taxi driver is perplexed so I rub my fingers together to indicate money and then shake my head. The person from the second hotel who can speak some English offers assistance and translates for us. It would appear he can take us to some cheap lodgings, but it is made clear that it is not a hotel. I assume it’s a guesthouse. A phone call is made and we are driven around the corner, down a dark street and stop outside an apartment block. It sounds menacing but our driver is a kind and thoughtful soul and we feel no danger.

I am a little confused as it looks to be a private residence. I go up the stairs while Emma waits in the taxi. Our driver accompanies me into someone’s apartment. My confusion is now turning into intrigue. A lady is sitting on a chair watching TV. She stands up and shows me around, then commences negotiations with the aid of a pocket calculator. The unit only has one bedroom and I begin to wonder if we will be sleeping on the couch. Neither can speak English, so we all play a late night game of charades. I place my head on my hands and then point to the couch. She shakes her head and points to the bedroom. I now wonder if she knows I am married and wether the negotiations are for something else. I point at her and then point at the couch. They both laugh and point out the door indicating she will not be staying here. We agree to $25.00 USD. She then points at 10 on a clock and waves out the door, which I take to mean she wants us out by 10am. I nod my head in agreement and go down to get Emma. I feel a sense of adventure and fiscal achievement. An unusual ending to a wonderful day.

The apartment in Bishkek

The apartment in Bishkek

There is no time to linger in Bishkek and the next morning our taxi driver returns to collect us. We have by sheer luck found an upmarket café nearby and indulge in ice coffees and porridge with fruit for breakfast.

Central Asian transport seems restricted to share taxis and our journey to the resort town of Cholpan Ata on Lake Issyk Kol is no exception. The drivers in Kyrgyzstan are however more subdued than their Uzbek counterparts and normally with patience we manage to pay close to the correct amount. Most journeys of about 5 hours incurs a fee of around 6 to 8 USD per person.

The lake itself is vast and serene but the same cannot be said of the developments along it shores. The main strip is a collection of unattractive buildings with unreadable signs in Russian and Kyrgyz script. We look for the Angelina Guesthouse but it’s impossible to locate. Among this sea of unrecognisable words we spot a sign in English for the Green Pub and decide to rest and take lunch. The sign outside may be in English but the menus inside most certainly are not. Our meal is yet again restricted to pointing at what others diners are eating. In this case a tomato and cucumber salad accompanied by bread.

Lake Issk Kol

Lake Issk Kol

It’s easy to ask for Coca Cola but difficult to receive cold. Who drinks warm Coca Cola for heaven’s sake? We have become accustomed to holding the bottle and then wrapping our arms around ourselves and shivering in an imaginary blizzard to indicate cold. The message is understood and the cokes are taken away never to be replaced with chilled versions.

Further attempts at locating the Guesthouse Angelina are futile, but a friendly shop assistant directs me around a corner and up a street to a blue gate; behind which lies a lovely garden and rooms overlooking the mountains to the north. The room is elevated on the first floor and has the luxury of windows on both sides affording much needed cross ventilation. The garden below is filled with wild flowers and a rustic day bed. A single wire is strung between two trees and I instantly think about much needed washing. A large watermelon sits in a bath of cold water chilling.

The mountain peaks are obscured by dark gloomy clouds. We lie on our bed relaxing. The breeze is now strengthening and carries the cool fragrance of a storm. In the distance we hear the deep rumble of thunder. It is a welcome sound after so many weeks in hot dry conditions.

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Later that night we return to the Green Pub for another round of Guess that meal. Emma is relishing the opportunity to play more charades and orders a Laghman which is a stew made from meat and noodles. This can come in the form of Chicken, Beef or Horse. She holds up 1 finger and states Laghman. Our waitress nods. Emma then enquires about the choice of meat but our waitress is not familiar with chicken, cow or beef and looks confused. Emma holds two fingers to her head and moos while extending her neck in a bovine arc. It is a confidant and accurate representation. In between laughter and nods, she then holds her elbows to her side and flaps them while making unmistakable chicken noises. The waitress understands and replicates the flapping wings of a chicken. Needless to say the other diners are in fits of laughter but Emma has secured her meal with no chance of horse appearing in her stew.

The next day we drive around to the southern side of the lake to the town of Karakol. While the town itself is not overly attractive the mountains and valleys 10km to the south are of outstanding beauty. We are compelled (despite our short time left) to spend at least a couple of days trekking in Kyrgyzstan. The upper valleys of Altyn Arashan are filled with Pine forests, waterfalls and green meadows covered in alpine flowers. Our tent is unwrapped and still covered in dust from Kenya. It feels good to use it again… it reminds us of Africa.

Camping in Kyrgyzstan

Camping in Kyrgyzstan

The temperature drops rapidly as the sun sets. A cold wind is descending down the side of the valley. For the first time on our journey we unfold both sleeping bags. The lions and buffalo are gone but the Altyn Arashan area is apparently home to some 20 snow leopards. For a rare animal this seems an extraordinarily high number. Later that night I hear movement outside our tent. I peer cautiously outside but it’s only an inquisitive goat. Still the opportunity and the surroundings provide an exciting night.

It is time to cross the first of the mountain passes from Kyrgyzstan into China. The Torugart Pass is a restricted area, unless of course you pay for a special permit and are met by a driver at the top of the pass. We have travelled from Karakol to the town of Naryn which is the starting point in Kyrgyzstan when making the crossing to Kashgar in China. All foreigners must have registered and have paperwork in order with both Kyrgyz and Chinese drivers. The daily bus which costs a fraction of the price is strictly forbidden.

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Unlike the western side of the country the land here is a high altitude desert, but it is no less beautiful. Huge white mountains rise out of the brown landscape. We pass through the outer checkpoint without any issues. The inner checkpoint is where we are stamped out of Kyrgyzstan. The building is empty apart from ourselves, a French couple and a French family. For some reason the driver for the French feels there is a rush and pushes in front of us. It seems a pointless exercise, as we all have to wait for about an hour at the top of the pass before our Chinese drivers arrive.  I feel a sense of justice when the first vehicle appears and the driver calls out Australia. There are two checkpoints on the Chinese side to negotiate, the second is where we are stamped into China.

Torugart Pass

Torugart Pass

It feels so strange to be here. Two weeks ago it felt such a long way in front of us. I look out to the east. China is a massive land. The largest country we will encounter on our travels. Despite its size we are forced to move the clock forward by three hours to Beijing time. China is not interested in the curvature of the earth and time zones, but the local people in Kashgar still refer to local time which is now 1 hour ahead of Kyrgyzstan; all very confusing.

Crossing the Torugart Pass

Crossing the Torugart Pass

The last time we entered the city of Kashgar we had driven for 12 days across the Tibetan plateau from the east. Now 4 years later we are coming from the relative luxury of Kyrgyzstan in the west. We ask the driver to take us to the Sahar hotel where we stayed last time. When I inspect the room I am left with little doubt that the last time we travelled, we must have been much harder than we are today. The rooms are disgusting but cheap at 80 RNB about $12.00 USD. The sheets appear clean-ish, but the state of the floor has me considering how to pole vault into bed. I cross the road to the Seman hotel, and inspect a room which is grim, but relatively palatial when compared to the Sahar. The price is almost double at 150RNB but he takes it down to 100 and an easy choice is made.

All that stand between us now and Pakistan, is an irregular bus service over the Kunjerab Pass, the highest border crossing in the world…

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Having cleared customs in Turkmenistan we are confronted by a lone road and an empty desert. Our guide and driver are nowhere to be found. There are no taxis and touts, there is no help. The wind swirls dust into the air, it is a lonely place. We sit on our bags and wait. For now we have little choice. No one is going to assist us inside that much has been made clear.

Thirty long uncertain minutes pass before a large black Mercedes appears over the crest. I watch its approach with hope. A stout man dressed all in white and wearing reflective aviator glasses gets out. He introduces himself as Alan.

Ashgabat capital of Turkmenistan coming from Iran

Ashgabat capital of Turkmenistan coming from Iran

The drive from the border to Ashgabat is short and stark. The surrounding lands are desolate and devoid of character. The sky above is bleached white by an unforgiving sun. Rising out of this ordinary landscape is however a most extraordinary city. Oil revenue mixed with marble and gold have produced a truly bizarre but beautiful capital. It gleams white as far as one can see in all directions. The buildings are themed and spaced apart like Las Vegas casinos. The Squares and parks are tiered and watered with fountains and golden statues honouring the president. We drive past the Palace of Knowledge and the Ministry of Fairness both resplendent in crisp white. There is even a Ministry of Horses and a Museum of Carpets and no amount of white has been spared. The overall effect is truly amazing.

Ashgabat is city dedicated to the colour white

Ashgabat is city dedicated to the colour white

Our hotel is located in an old suburb where the soviet style of the 1950’s is still preserved. The swimming pool is filled with what appears to be the entire cast of Moscow Shore. Conservative Turkmen bring burgers and beers to Russian holiday makers. A broken speaker spews distorted dance music over the deckchairs. It all comes as a bit of a shock. This morning Emma was having breakfast in a head scarf and now she is eating lunch in a bikini.

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There are no taxis in Ashgabat. You simply hail any car and agree to a price. I am surprised that the president has not restricted the import of vehicles to being white. I contemplate a career in the Ministry of Cars.

Ashgabat goes from wedding gown white to neon colours at night

Ashgabat goes from wedding gown white to neon colours at night

While we are not permitted to travel between cities on our own, we are free to explore Ashgabat without our guide. I wonder lost through endless white structures. As night falls Ashgabat undergoes a colourful transformation. Fountains and building are illuminated with all the colours of the rainbow. It’s hard to judge this city as it is so unique. I would not want to live here but I am glad to know that such a place exists in the world.

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The next day we leave for the city of Mary on a slick black road better suited to billiards.  About 10km out of Ashgabat, the oil money runs out and we are travelling along infrastructure more imaginable to this part of the world. The southern plains of Turkmenistan are boring and bland, but necessary if crossing the globe. I can only marvel at its size and context within our journey. The city of Mary contains some of the… white way of thinking, but on a much smaller scale.

Turkmenistan is turning into a boring and expensive date. I am sure if one could afford to stay longer there would be much more to this country but it is certainly well hidden. Even the ancient silk route city of Merv is underwhelming. The mud brick structures are now little more than mounds of dirt. I find myself having to use ample amounts of imagination and appreciation of history to return any enjoyment. Perhaps we are distracted by the border crossing into Uzbekistan, we must make later today.

The Mosque at Mary, Turkmenistan

The Mosque at Mary, Turkmenistan

Fifty hours after entering Turkmenistan we depart. The cost has been exorbitant, the reward little, but it has allowed us to continue on our journey and into what is hopefully more interesting parts of Central Asia.

We miss the border by 10 minutes and are forced to wait an hour while lunch is taken. No one is permitted to wait inside the air conditioned building. The sun is angry and offers no mercy. It must be close to 50c and there is no shade on offer except that which is provided under the trucks. The border reopens and we are processed within a reasonable amount of time but ahead is 4km of baking hot no man’s land. The Turkmen minivan shuttles people halfway across before being picked up by an even smaller Uzbek van which completes the journey. We wait patiently for the first van while people pile up in numbers too great to transport. When it arrives it becomes apparent that no one is going to be polite and wait for those who were first. It is in ordinary terms a complete Shit Fight.

Our Turkmen Guide Alan in white and driver

Our Turkmen Guide Alan in white and driver

We had anticipated such a situation and are equal to the task but only just. At the halfway point we show our passports again and wait for the tiny Uzbek van to appear. The larger Turkmen van returns with a second load. When finally the Uzbek van stops the Shit Fight escalates and no one is taking any prisoners. The men who have come off the second van push past those (including us) who have been waiting. Emma gets a seat in the back but as I try to load our 2nd pack into the front, a man steals my place. I gesture to him to move but he ignores me. The van starts to move with Emma inside it, there is little time to think so instinct takes over. I grab the man by the arms and drag him out of the van and take the front seat. The door is closed and the van pulls away all in one swift movement. I can take some solace knowing that behind me another man has done the same and pats me on the shoulder and laughs.

The customs building for Uzbekistan is not air conditioned and has been designed purposefully to trap heat and roast inhabitants. Thirty to forty people are gathered around a tiny window in no particular order. We take our place at the back of the mob and prepare ourselves for the worse. Any forward progress is hindered by new arrivals who start to push in from the sides. The urgency and selfishness of the crowd is contagious. Shoulders and hips are used to good effect but we are no match for the locals who have years of experience and language on their side. An hour later and we have squeezed our way to the front of the window. We are handed forms to fill in, but the questions are in what I take to be Russian. No one can speak English at all, and why would they. In this part of the world Russian is the common language. We fill in the forms (as best we can) based on the spaces provided and cross our fingers.

The heat is draining and our situation feels bleak. The officers are amused by this strange foreign intrusion. Another man points at me and asks Ruski? No only English. More blank faces. They gesture to us to open our bags. This is good, we are making progress. I have come to learn that enthusiastic unpacking will often demonstrate a willingness to be searched and render the inspector satisfied but our officer is examining each item with fascination and excitement so I stop. He seems disappointed so I please him with a few more items. Eventually his cup runs full and we are permitted to repack our lives back into canvas bags.

Walking from the building and through the gates of Uzbekistan our relief is short lived. Lurking outside is a taxi wolf pack like no other we have experienced on our journey. Hard men with steely expressions and gold teeth are waiting to tear us apart. Its 35km from the border to Bukhara and the going rate for a taxi is supposed to be about $20.00 USD. One wolf starts the bidding at $80. We walk past him without even acknowledging his ridiculous offer.  Other members of the pack approach and we drop our bags and form a defensive ring. For a long time the rate hovers at $50.00 USD. One man offers $30.00 which we seize upon but then carries our bags to a minivan with other passengers. The rate is far too high for a share taxi so we try to retrieve our bags. He refuses to return Emma’s bag no matter how much she protests. He shouts and yells and pulls the bag from her hands. I approach him gently with a smile on my face until I have established a firm grip on the bag and then I spin my body and twist as hard as I can. One more yank and the bag is free.  A lone wolf breaks ranks and agrees to take us for $30.00 USD. We place our bags in the back, but this only serves to ignite a ferocious fight among the broken cartel. Men are pushing and shouting, a punch is thrown. Dust is rising into the air as the scuffle escalates. The police are amused and keen to see the result.

We take our seats and some of the men crowd in at the windows. Mr you pay 35 okay. No I pay 30. No you pay 35 okay. I never agree. The driver waits as more men with golden grins crowd the windows.  We go now… I say in broken English and a terrible Russian accent, but the driver is hoping for more. I open the door which now has the weight of two men leaning against it. I pretend to take our bags out of the back but the driver retreats and nods… okay 30 okay. The wheels spin in the dirt. He pulls an aggressive U turn and leans across me sticking his finger in the air at the other drivers. I feel a smile creep across my face. I never have to come back so I laugh and bravely offer a gesture of my own. We are now friends. I really hate feeling this way while travelling but sometimes it is necessitated by the actions of others. Borders always attract the worst kind of opportunists and are in no way a reflection of the general population.

Bukhara Uzbekistan

Bukhara Uzbekistan

Samarkand is a day’s travel by train from Bukhara. In the last two days I have come to discover that Uzbeks carry a good portion of the world’s gold reserves in their mouths. They are also very fast at counting money. The highest bank note is 1000 som which is valued at around 30 cents when using black market rates. No one changes US dollars in banks… including two Australian travellers. The city is pleasant and the streets are lined with large oak trees. The surrounding lands have just a tinge of green. After many days of travel we have left the deserts behind.

Bukhara Uzbekistan

Bukhara Uzbekistan

The city was founded sometime in the 5th century BC and has been for centuries an important juncture along the silk route between Europe, China, India and Persia. The people of Uzbekistan bare features belonging to all these great civilisations. The centrepiece of the city is the blue domed mosques and madrassas that were built almost 700 years ago. The facades and minarets are covered in intricate mosaics. Even in today’s world they are impressive both in size and beauty. The weary travellers and caravans of the past must have marvelled at their magnificence when approaching Samarkand.

Samarkand Uzbekistan

Samarkand Uzbekistan

The sun is setting and the sky is (for the first time since leaving Turkey) etched with clouds. A call to prayer erupts from the Bibi Khanym mosque. Swallows returning from an African summer fly around the domes and sing in duet. It is a peaceful and tranquil moment. I feel far from home.

Lots of Gold teeth in Uzbekistan

Lots of Gold teeth in Uzbekistan

Samarkand is now behind us as we head to the Uzbek capital Tashkent. For so long it was in our future and now it is in our past. I often think about our travel as being like a wave. The cities and people rise and crest before falling again as the wave passes through. Today we are here but tomorrow we are gone. Each moment is like sand running through your fingers. I want to squeeze harder and stop its flow… but I can’t. All I can do, is to enjoy each day and appreciate the next.

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From Tashkent we make our way by share taxis to the border with Kyrgyzstan via Andijon and Osh. Our negations are intense but civil and we actually manage to pay the local price of 25 USD each for the 5 hour journey. We pass through fields of Sun flowers, corn and wheat and over some large dry mountains. It is late afternoon when we arrive and having gained some altitude the temperature is forgiving. Our exit from Uzbekistan comes exactly 11 days after our visa was issued in Tehran. We have made it through, and now only Kyrgyzstan, China and the Kunjerab pass stands between us and Pakistan.

Our taxi men who took us from Tashkent to Andijon and to the Kyrgyzstan Border

Our taxi men who took us from Tashkent to Andijon and to the Kyrgyzstan Border

One by one our problems are resolving. I should be happy but I think about the grains of sand. I know now they are the ingredients of adventure and not really problems at all.

The shadows are gone and the crickets are singing as we walk into Kyrgyzstan. The first big mountains of Asia are glowing in the fading light. It is our 5th country in 15 days since leaving Turkey. For now all is well and we can look forward to seeing what promises to be a country rich in culture and natural beauty.

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