Passport, Hotel…Passport, Hotel…Passport, Hotel. I’ll come back to that later.
So I’ve made it to Osh in Kyrgyzstan after cycling 450km from Tashkent in Uzbekistan. What a crazy couple of weeks it has been. In 13 days, I’ve crossed the 2000km of Uzbekistan doing 1200 on the bike and 800 on the train. That 1200 is pretty good going considering it consisted of 450km in the desert, a 2200m pass and 43 degree heat whilst off the bike I managed some actual sight seeing and spent two days in bed with food poisoning. All of this with the aim of being in Kyrgyzstan on the 28th of May.
Since before Istanbul I’ve been in contact with an English cyclist, James Finnerty, who’s cycling London to Shanghai. He’s been ahead of me the whole time but since he went through Iran and I couldn’t get a visa, I was able to catch him up here in Kyrgyzstan. Our routes are identical from here until 1000km before the end, so it makes sense to buddy up, especially with the vast deserts of North-West China looming ahead of us. I met James yesterday at lunchtime, and within just a couple of hours we had good reason to be happy to have some company. I’ll come back to that later.
So. Uzbekistan. What can I say? Without a doubt it was one of the highlights of the trip and certainly a country I will never forget. I hope to return again some day and spend more time in the beautiful cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Despite the vast stretches of desert, Uzbekistan has also been home to some of the best scenery of the trip too. On the second day out of Tashkent I had to cycle over a 2200m pass, the highest I’ve ever been on a bike. The views up there were just breathtaking. The people have to be the nicest I’ve met so far, although the Kyrgzs are doing a mighty job in that department too.
The people in Uzbekistan are so friendly in fact, that I dare say they’re too nice at times. Pretty much every day I’m asked “Atkuda?!” 100 times. Atkuda is Russian for “where are you from?”. This is shouted at me from car windows, minibuses, shops, petrol stations, teahouses, and pretty much everwhere in between. The most common sight on the road is for a minibus, car or truck to pass by, slow down and someone (or sometimes multiple people) stick their head(s) out the window and shout “Atkuda?!”, and then the vehicle will drive alongside me trying to have a conversation. They then move on after a frustrating minute of no common language and the process repeats. Over and over and over. Stopping for a drink or a bite to eat is the same cycle of being asked “Atkuda?”.
The other thing is being shouted at. No words, just a loud “aaayyiiiyyyy!”, then you look over and you get a wave. Nice and all, but again at times you can have 5-10 people shouting at you in quick succession and you feel a bit like screaming back! They also follow the shout for attention with a loud whistle. Again, this happens maybe 100 times or more a day. Everyday. Everywhere. It’s tiresome!
It’s probably only irksome because of the exhaustion from the oppressive heat. It’s just so damn hot in Uzbekistan. 40 degrees pretty much every day and that makes everything hot. Your water, food, even toothpaste late at night still carries the heat of the day! Another odd thing I’ve noticed in the heat is the cleats of my cycling shoes conduct the heat to my feet making them burn sometimes!
So Uzbekistan is incredibly friendly, incredibly hot and has some spectacular scenery. What else? Well another memorable thing about the country is the money. $1 = about 3000 Uzbek Som. Soms come in 200, 500, 1000 and 5000 notes, the 500 and 1000 being the most common. So when you exchange $100, you get a stack of cash about 10cm thick if you’re lucky enough to get 1000UZS notes. Some guys I’ve met have been given 500 or even 200 denominations meaning they needed a bag to carry their money! Because of the sheer volume of notes you need to carry, there are no ATMs in the country really as you’d need a building on its own to hold all the currency. To get local money, all you need to do is stroll down to the bazaar and stand for five seconds. A black market money changer will approach you very openly and boom, you’ll have your money. The black market exchange rate is also about 40% better than the official rate, so it’s the only way you want to get your money here. Despite it being a black market, the police completely ignore it. It’s also incredibly safe to walk around with wads of cash on your person. Uzbekistan is very, very safe.
That brings me to another curiosity about Uzbekistan: The police! There are checkpoints everywhere. I’d say my passport has been checked five times per day on average. The police presence in Uzbekistan is the strongest of any of the 20 countries I’ve been to so far. Despite this, they are friendly, polite and often offer the weary cyclist food or tea. At the top of the mountain pass there were military checkpoints armed to the teeth with machine guns and full kit with bayonets, helmets, knee pads, and spare clips of ammunition around the belt. Then a hand gets thrust out for a handshake and you’re greeted with a mouth of shiny gold teeth and yet another “Atkuda?!”, then sent off with a salute of respect since you’d just cycled up 2200m and 8000km from “Irlandia” to Uzbekistan. Mad.
The gold teeth. That’s another curious thing that’s been present since Azerbaijan. It’s a symbol of wealth and extremely common. Some of the Uzbek women are absolutely beautiful, but then they smile and the beauty is gone, wiped out by a shiny set of golden knashers. Apparently a common wedding gift for a woman is gold tooth! It’s insane!
Other quirky things about Uzbekistan is that there are only about five models of cars there. The government taxes imported cars heavily to promote the local Daewoo/Chrysler manufacturing plant so you can have your pick of the five models of car, and have either a Daewoo or Chrysler badge. Same car, just a different badge. I was shocked to see a Toyota when I crossed into Kyrgyzstan. It’s funny how you become accustomed to these things.
I could go on and on, but I guess you get the idea – Uzbekistan is an odd, but fascinating country. I’d highly recommend going there, I’ll certainly return in the future.
So that brings me to Kyrgyzstan. I arrived in Osh yesterday afternoon and met up with James, my new cycling chum. After catching up we went out for food and a bit of a walk, stopping off at an ATM on the way. We’d discussed the whispers that the Kyrgyz police in Bishkek are notoriously corrupt and the various means of dealing with them that we’d read about on the web. Little did we know that we were about to try them out in imminently.
(Eh, Mam, if you’re reading this. Best stop here.)
As we walked back to the hotel I spotted a group of police at the side of the road and immediately noticed them noticing us. I whispered to James “I think we’re about to be shaken down.”. The police asked us for our passports, which were in the hostel. We tried to explain this (there’s no legal reason to carry it on you like in Uzbekistan) and although James speaks reasonable Russian, we played dumb and said “Nyet Rusky”, no Russian. There were eight police and one of them was particularly aggressive, not to mention about 6ft2 and a build to match it. They were trying to get us into the car, but we held our ground and refused, indicating we’d go to the hostel with them to show our passports. This went on for about 5 minutes, then the big one got out of the car and muscled me into the back seat. I tried to keep my feet out the door but then they shoved James in using a baton as an effective incentive to get him in. Shit.
The “Nyet Rusky” and “Passport, Hotel….Passport, Hotel” thing went on and on and on. Play dumb. Stay calm. Bore them. They wanted us to empty our pockets, but we were both keenly aware that we’d just visited an ATM and had $200 each on us, not to mention our smartphones. The phones are essential for navigation and not something you want to lose. The cops had shitty ancient Nokia bricks so we knew we’d lose ours if they got their hands on them. Seeing they were getting nowhere with us, they called a kid over who spoke English. He interpreted, and we once again played dumb. They tried to get James to leave to get the passports, but there was no way we were being separated. Had I been left alone with them I’d have handed over everything. No doubt.
They still got nowhere with the kid interpreting, and then an older local guy came over and clearly admonished the cops for harassing tourists. He was told to f*ck off and leave them alone. Jaysus. This is intense. Then they started scrutinising James’ tattoos (he has a huge tattoo on his arm, full length). The guy was twisting James’ arm, pointing and touching the tattoo. Then when he was done he wiped his hand on the seat as though he was disgusted at having touched him. Like I said, this was intense.
Two more kids were called over and the game played on. I say game now, but at the time it was in no way a game. It was terrifying. The angry guy shouted and shouted, and we persisted saying “Passport, Hotel…Passport, Hotel”. After maybe 20 minutes in the back of the car, our ignorance prevailed and they just dismissed us. Just like that. We walked away, briskly. We won. Up the street we ran into one of the kids and he just apologised profusely and was truly embarrassed.
We were high on adrenalin and delighted to have won our encounter, but it was terrifying. We both agreed that it was a lesson in how to travel in this country and to never leave the hostel without a copy of your passport and never carry more than $10 in your wallet. We also agreed that had we not been together it would have ruined this section of the route and probably left each of us hiding in the hostel for a few days to recover from the shock.
We got a couple of beers to celebrate and later on some locals joined us. They were so truly delighted to have foreigners in their country! They knew the capitals of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. They knew all about Europe and spoke pretty good English. They spoke about the English Premier League, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. They toasted several times to their new friends, and made it absolutely clear that they were delighted to have us in their country, honoured that we would choose to visit Kyrgyzstan and very curious if we’d had any “problems” since arriving. We declined to tell them of our difficulty with the police earlier because clearly they knew what the cops are like, and it was evidently a source of embarrassment.
But then. Then it happened. One of my happiest moments of the trip. One of the local guys takes out his phone and starts playing Irish music! Not only that, but he was singing all of the words. In fact, he knew songs I didn’t know, and put me to shame! What a moment. This little guy from Kyrgyzstan, 8000km from Ireland, with no cultural similarities, absolutely ADORES Irish music! Incredible! We sang Dirty Aul Town and Whiskey in the Jar, then I played 7 Drunken Nights and they went crazy for it. What a moment!
Our celebration went on until 1am and we woke up fairly hungover this morning. Today is a day off then we hit the road heading towards Bishkek. The route has now changed in order to try to get a 90 day Chinese visa in Bishkek. This means a return to Kazakhstan also, so I now need another Kazakh visa! Aarrghhh! More visa fun! The upside of this is I will get to see the countryside in Kyrgyzstan which is supposed to be absolutely stunning. The other upside is skipping a good section of desert in China, definitely a good thing. It will also add in some kilometers to make up some of those I skipped on the trains in Uzbekistan, bringing my tally back up to around 14000km to Beijing. I guess the only downside really is missing Kashgar in China, the hub of the Silk Road. I am a bit disappointed to miss it, but needs must.
So there you go. Another week on the road from Dublin to Beijing. Never a dull moment! Here’s hoping the next week will be fun, and trouble free!