Baku to Tashkent…….

just a quick message from me (jack) before you get stuck into our belated update, to say a really big thank you for all the birthday messages, donations (to the charity) and donations to the keep me traveling fund. i really appreciated them all and felt pleased to know that i was being though of at home as much as i was thinking of home, thank you x

Well here i am again, playing catchup. Apologies for the delay, but unfortunately Uzbekistan doesn’t like blog sites, and thus our website was inaccessible, and China just hates freedom of information. Since the last blog a lot has changed, both in plans and finances! Baku was a pretty city, but in a strange plastic way, and it seemed quite false to us all after seeing the much poorer countryside. And it was extortionately expensive, almost like we were in London. Luckily as I said before, we had the flat of the immensely generous Ben and Phylis to stay at, saving us quite a lot of money! But after a week we felt we had taken advantage of them for too long so we spent the last few days in a hostel with the rest of the gang.

We met up with Keith, Chris Sara and Rob and spent our time together sorting out visas (or trying), drinking beer, and dossing about. So what with Keith having a head start of a few days, he was able to give us a few pointers, which helped a lot, but also meant that we were at the same stage as him because of his errors…so cheers Keith! We had no problem getting the Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan visas, although we were told we needed an LOI (letter of invitation) for Uz. We decided to blag it and apply anyway……and it worked out ok. The Ambassador was a really nice guy, so that probably helped. They both took a few days but were a lot simpler than expected.

Then onto the main course…….the Chinese Visa……what a load of bureaucracy “insert expletive” that was., even if we didn’t have to pay for it. Anyway the story goes as follows………Me and keith met a guy who worked at the British Embassy, who knew a guy who worked at the Chinese embassy, and who……somehow, could get you a visas in a few days, we weren’t sure if it was legit or not, but thought we try it anyway, as the Chinese embassy was full of grumpy, non English speaking Chinese who lookd really annoyed when we tried to get in the first time. So this guy took our passports for a few days, and we had all accepted that we were going to get a visas………as the saying goes, don’t count your chickens before thy hatch.

So on the day on judgement, we were all sitting on the step of the office he worked out of, with a smile on our faces, and money for a beer after in our pockets, when he pulled up, only 1 hour late,got out, and said “Big Problem…No Visa”,the words we had least expected. He gave the excuse that keith had been seen at the embassy at some point, but it probably had nothing to do with that.

Suffice to say we were all really disappointed, and went to the nearest pub to drown our sorrows. Rob left the next day, as he had managed to get an Iranian visa, so was heading around the Caspian, into Turkmenistan, and across, so good luck Rob. So now it was a waiting game for the ferry to Kazakhstan, checking 2 or 3 times a day with various contacts and at the ferry terminal itself. They day it went we started the day with a reply of “Not Today, for sure” or along those lines. The next check, a few hours later was more like “Maybe today but probably not”, and in the evening the reply we got was “Yes quickly the ferry is leaving soon!”……………..to give you an idea of the confusion and anarchy of the place. So we all piled down to the port, paying a ridiculous sum of $120, and being hustled to the entrance of the customs…………..where we waited for 6 hours before they even started letting people through.

In the meanwhile however, we were approached by a rather drunk….actually more like completely wasted, short, balding guy who ushered us into an office, claimed to be the port manager, and demanded, at first, $40 for each bike…….a “port” fee……or simply a greedy bastard trying to squeeze more money out of us. So eventually, after much arguing, shourting, and general discussions, with the help of a german guy who spoke Russian/azeri, we got him down to 10$ each, which we paid. The problem was, according to the German guy, that if we refused, he could tell his mates in the customs office to hold us up, make things difficult, or even stop us getting on this ferry. And none of us wanted to stay in baku for another week waiting for another ferry.

So eventually we got on the ferry, found our coffin like cabins, dumped our stuff, and sat out on deck with beer and vodka bought with everones leftover azeri cash. The vodka was bought by chris, and was for jacks bday, but it was nasty stuff, as we found out the next day. We were all in a state, but me and chris spent most of the day in our bunks, feeling like lukewarm death. The others were mostly ok, guess were just light weights. The sea was smooth, and we churned across the Caspian with the grace of a elephant, coughing out diesel fumes and more oil inot the already heavily contaminated sea/lake. On arrival in Kazakhstan, the changes in the faces was immediately apparent, intensifying the feeling of being a long way from home now……. And we had arrived at 10, with 3 hours of customs to weave through….resulting in us spending the night on the floor of the terminal, after singing Happy Birthday to jack at midnight, in the immigration office of Kazakhstan…..what a way to celebrate! The next day we cycled into the nearest town, Aktau, and found a cheap hotel to spend the night in, as jack had a few things to sort on his bike, and I was feeling like a badgers arse.

Emrys, an aussie cyclist whod been in baku with us, and keith set off immediately,so we said our fond farewells, and wished them luck……Emrys especially, as he was cycling the whole of Kazakhstan, as he couldn’t get an Uzbek visa. Me jack, chris and sara loiters in this rather crummy town, and ate a bit of a cake bought by us all for Jack, watched a Russian version of top gear (exact template used, Grumpy old guy, charming little guy, and smart boring guy) then passed out early in anticipation of the start of steppe cycling the next day.

We set off in the morning on our own, as C+S had decised to stay and register with the authorities the next day to avoid complications. The wind was immediately in out faces, and we spent hours trying to get out of the city. Eventually getting out, we found we were on the wrong road, but as it looked such a small distance on the map, we continues anyway. 2 Days of brutal headwinds later, and we were only 100 km out of aktau……this was going to be hard, and I seriously contemplated getting the train from one town.

We pushed on anyway, inot the wind….and the onto the worst road (if you can call it that) ive ever cycled on. This road we were to find out lasted for the next 400 km, to the border town of beyneu, with only 3 or 4 tea stops alkong the way, making food and water scarce. Luckily the wind dropped when we hit the bad section, and it continued to be still for the next few days, until we were on the approaches to beyneu. We had continual updates from truck drivers coming the other way of where Emrys was, as he was only 40 km in front of, probably having had as much difficulty finding the right road. We struggled for days across this demoralizing landscape, with nothing to divert ourselves from the awful road we were barely managing to do 8 mph on at times. However, the redeeming factor is the sunset and sunrises….which are incredible, as well as the stars. The night sky was so beautiful, and I saw some incredible shooting stars, with massive trails hanging in the air for a few seconds. It was also getting cold on the plains…….at night anyway. In the day it was still really warm, which made the drop in temperature later on even harder to bear. One day during this stretch, I found myself staring at a few rock away on the plain…..for a while I couldn`t figure what it was about them. Then I realised that it was the fact that it was something other than flat.

It took us about 5 days to get to Beyneu, near the uzbekistan border, where we had decided to skip along into the nearest town in Uzbekistan, Qongirat. This was mainly so that we didnt have to spend another 2 weeks with little food and water, over flat energy sapping landscapes as we went through the desertified region in between these 2 towns, all 1000km of it. As it turned out this was a really good idea.

The train ride was about 12 hours long, but it was interesting meeting the people, and being able to buy whatever you wanted, as there were people the whole time going up and down the train with their wares. The biggest surprise however was when we changed some money, having no idea what the exchange rate is, and for 10 dollars we got around 19000 sum, all in 500 and 1000 notes. As you can imagine it felt good to have so much cash that it wouldnt fit in your pocket.

When we arrived in Qongirat, we met a french cockney guy, who told us a cheap place to stay, and it was cheap, at 1 and a half dollars. We then went for some food and had our first taste or lagman, a staple that was to see us (or just me if it had meat) through many days. While chatting with this guy, we found out that the visa for Uzbekistan started on the exact date you enter on the application, which meant that we only had 25 days left on ours, as we had entered 5 days “late”. This meant we had to re-evaluate our plans, as we had to allow plenty of time to get our Chinese and Kyrgyzstan visas in Tashkent.

By the end of our debates, and a day lost due to Jack being ill, we had to skip going to the Aral sea, and Also skip Bukhara and Khiva. So the next day we got the Train all the way to Samarqand, which took around 21 hours, this time it was a sleeper though, so we got our own bunks.

As we were putting our bikes onto the train, we were told we had to buy a ticket for them aswell, in the 20 minutes left before the train left. So i went with money in hand, and followed a guy around frantically, banging doors and shouting at him, especially hen the whistle blew, and the clock struck 10. He meanwhile continued to take things casually, and only ran the last 10 metres when his boss was in view. Turns out he was the conductor, and the train didnt leave until hed blown HIS whistle…….but how was I to know? After this episode i was all hot and bothered, but glad not to have missed this, the weekly train. When we got off the train at 4 in the morning, we also had to go and pay another guy to fill out more forms, and then try and sleep in the massive soviet era station, with youngsters asking us questions and playing their favourite rap music in our ears.

Samarqand was a cool place, obviously very picturesque, even if it was refurbished by the soviets. We spent a couple of days there, looking around, and we found a really good bazaar, where i got excited and for some reason ended up paying 5 dollars for a kilo of almonds……they were nice though, in fact ive still got them, here in Pakistan! They realy had everything there though, some really nice salads, honey, fruit and breads, which we used for our lunches whilst in Uzbekistan.

Whilst we were wondering around near the Registan, the touristy part of town, who should we see cycling past but old papa Keith, who as it turned out had also cheated alot, but not quite as much as us. It was good to see him anyway, and we spent that evening exchanging information and stories, and promised to meet up in Tashkent in a few days, as we were leaving the next day.

On arrival to Tashkent. the weather was still glorious, if a little chilly, and we cycled through this, the peak of Soviet town planning……wide tree lined boulevards, massive roads, and all interspersed with grand government buildings. Its great for cycling though, if you have your wits about you anyway. We eventually found the predetermined guest house, only to find it was full. So we went looking for another hotel in the area, and ended up in the one described by Lying Planet as, i quote “The Darkest Dankest Hole in Central Asia”. And for once they were right. If seemed to be doubling as a brothel/ money laundering office, couldnt tell which. So after a night there we gratefully took out rooms at the guest house, which was a really nice place, run by a lovely old babuska, and went around trying to find out what we could about the visa application processes. We met some really nice people there as well, so the time we spent in Tashkent wasnt too boring, especially after our various encounters with the police, mostly in the metro, seemingly because they have nothing better to do. I got the metro 3 times, and each time was stopped. Unfortunately I only had my Passport with me on one occasion. This is a major no no in this regime, and resulted in us being held in an office for an hour on each occasion, trying to not get wound up. They let us go on both occasions, but only after signing a statement saying, and I quote, ” I have no problem with the Police, they did not hit me or steal my money”. It was definately an experience, and we later found out that the whole population have restricted movement, and have to obtain permits to move between the various cities within it.

Visa wise, the process was complicated, as we had to basically lie to the authorities, meaning we had to reserve flights to Beijing, and Book hostels there too. This is exactly what most people pay a visa :fixer” for, as it is time consuming and annoying, but as there were 3 of us, I think it helped out chances, as a group of travellers are less likely to stray into restricted areas. So bookings taken, we then had to get into the embassy…..a task in itself we`d heard. Basically there was a list of people each day the office was open, and that list was 10 persons long. To get on the list was paramount, but noone really knew how to do this, so we went every few hours the day/s before, and kept probing, until Keith managed to get his name on as number 1, after going on his own. He was told that we could give our forms to him and he could apply for us, so we turned up early the next morning, and got them in!

It took 5 days for the visas to process so we now had a bit of nail biting time to spare. During which we all became rather cultured, by going to the Ballet! It was definately an experience, and you could hear the, er, Heavier Ladies landing with a thump…..cruel arent I. We did try and go to the Opera aswell, but unfortunately I got the times wrong, so wanted to watch a fat man fill my ears with horrific sounds aswell……dang.

Eventually the day of judgment came, and we all headed with trepidation to the embassy………. and 1/2 an hour later and 60 dollars lighter we emerged with our visas! Now the task was to get to the border in the alloted time window of 1 month.

So after getting our Kyrgyzstan Visa without a hitch, we decided to head straight to the Uzbekistan border in a shared taxi, following in Keiths footsteps, as he`d left the day before. We were fed up with the beureaucratic bollocks (excuse my french) and the police in this annoyingly restrictive country. It was an fretful journey, constantly worrying whether the bikes would be ok……see attached picture.

So we entered Kyrgyzstan the next day, cycling in with Keith, who wed met the day before in the town just before the border. Oh and did i mention…..we foolishly tampered with our visas, changing the entry dates so that we could get in sooner. We had for some unknown reason, decided that a transit visa was enough to get across the country, but hadnt taken into account that they start and end on the dates specified. So by us changing our minds as to when we were going to arrive, we had made it impossible to get in when we wanted. Hence the decision by all 3 of us to adapt them, which was regretted after we saw what they looked like. We were banking on them not having computer records of when we were supposed to enter……how wrong we were. Luckily they let us through anyway, as there alot nicer than the Uzbek authorities, although Jack had a few moments of frantic worrying if we were walking into A Kyryz Jail. I reassured him by telling him that if we were arrested, Andy Mcnab and co would come to our rescue within hours.

Anyway on that bonbshell I leave you to digest this installment. The next will follow soon, as I am uploading this on the KKH in Pakistan. Give it a week or 2, and there will be pictures too, and another instalment.

Take Care all, thanks for all the encouragement and support!

Matt x

4 Comments »

  1. mum and marg said,

    one lesson learnt I hope NEVER tamper with legal documents would not have fancied visiting you both in a Krygyztan gaol!
    waiting for next instalments
    love mum and margxx

  2. VIVIEN said,

    well just caught up with your blog those visa places are are a law unto themselves you just have to be open minded and be prepared to wait all the best Matt xx

  3. han said,

    You are having such an amazing and interesting time, (there goes that word amazing again!) no wonder you keep changing the final destination plans, who could blame you for not wanting to come back home!
    Bet you cant wait to get to somewhere a bit warmer, hope its not too scary where you are at the min and cant wait for the next blog, its always a welcome break from my essay writting!
    Missing you loads, come home soon!!!!!!
    Lots of love from the 3 of us
    XxX

  4. polly said,

    well dont feel so jealous of you now actually while i am sitting in a nice warm house!!! sounds very dodgy!
    hope you both ok and being sensible!!!!
    jack will you please come back to this country – nathan is desperate to see ya and he has his first wobbly tooth a milestone i actually wish i could miss!! anyway take LOTS of care
    lots of love polly
    xxx


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