Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Uzbekistan

When I got to the fringes of Tashkent I tried to change some money at a market, where there was a government exchange booth (1325 sum to $US1.) Unfortunately I was swamped by a horde of smartarse, aggressive young Uzbek men (black market traders) offering me 1330 - when I knew the rate was 1380. I told them to go away with no effect, then I turned my back on my bike for 15 seconds to express myself more firmly. One yelped, 'Hey! Your bike's gone!' and sure enough, it was. Laughter and heckling ringing in my ears, I ran around the booth and out into open space. No sign of my bike - and all my gear. Back to where it had been - just laughter. From the amusement I suspected a nasty joke but I was shaken. All of a sudden, after a few long minutes it reappeared. No clear culprit. I rode off using the best language I could muster, being abused in return with copycat trash from bad movies ('F- off motherf-er!!!'). Not a great start.

A lot of other things hadn't changed much in Tashkent. The broad leafy boulevards were the same. Still countless fountains and water features, as if they didn't know what else to do with all that water. Still excellent ice cream! As for the traffic - not too bad (though drivers predictably crap for a cyclist, cutting corners etc.). Still lots of flashy hotels which look empty. Still plenty of police around. Few foreigners/tourists. A hint of tedium.

What had changed since 1999? Mobile phones EVERYWHERE. Very soon I found people taking pics of me (or even filming me) - of course without asking. Lots of closed down internet cafes. Broadway, the pedestrian mall in the centre of town which used be be great value, was dead - apparently shut down by President Karimov.

Oh, and the police have been kitted out with spiffy new green uniforms.
Julie flew in to Tashkent airport in dry summer heat and was abandoned by ground staff for a while (left in an empty stairwell with locked doors) but at least the indifferent Uzbek staff didn't try to extort any money from her (this had already happened in Bangkok for 'excess weight'). Her bike got through unscathed, plus I only had to wait two and a half hours for her - bonus. We found a comfy hotel with a pool and next day checked out the Turkmen embassy, with its huddles of miserable victims and extremely grumpy neighbours. 10 days processing time for a 5 day transit visa – along a pre specified route.



Julie bought some galvanised iron (fashioned by my dad!) and some Bunnings clamps which seemed to sort out my busted frame good and proper!

At the Chorsu Bazaar we stocked up with sultanas, peanuts, dried apricots, apricot kernels, dried cheeseballs, and headed out of town to escape the heat while waiting for our visas.

150km east, snug up against the Kyrgyz border, were the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, a big azure blue reservoir and the ski resort of Chimgan. On the way up Julie began discovering the delights of Central Asian cuisine, including shurpa (clear soup with potato and a hunk of bone/meat) and pelmeni (Russian style ravioli, in a clear broth). First night was on a tapchan (elevated platform with cushions) in front of a wayside inn – after a feed they often won't charge you to roll out your sleeping bags and spend the night. Julie also soon discovered gastro and was pretty miserable as I dragged her (gently) up into the hills.



On a chairlift near Chimgan.

We checked out one of the Soviet relic sanatoria where Uzbeks buy 5-10 day passes to 'rest' and eat set menu cafeteria food 3 times a day for about $16 per person per day, all inclusive. Up in Chimgan some local Russians invited us back to their dacha, tucked away in a remote canyon down a 4WD track. On our way back down from the hills we ran into some junior road racing cyclists near Gazalkent. It turned out that this was an Uzbek junior development training camp, run by Lyudmila, a former road racing champion of the Soviet Union. The team was all staying at a school boarding house, and they dragged us back there for the evening meal. Next morning we rode with the peleton back down the road to Tashkent (50km) with coach Lyudmila escorting us in her minivan (and carrying our bags).





Lyudmila told us she was on a salary of $US300 a month as a senior development coach. Her son was road racing professionally in Italy and a lot of the bike gear she had was sourced from him - though there were always dramas trying to get it through customs, which of course want to 'tax' everything. The gear the kids rode was a bizarre mixture of ancient Soviet steel frames and top notch Colnago frames that had obviously been in huge stacks and had somehow been welded together... but they managed to ride vast Soviet style training distances on it.

Back in town Lyudmila offered us her son's flat to crash in for a few days while waiting for our visas – a great spot in the centre of town, just opposite the Alai Bazaar. This son was in Moscow but there was one other Russian woman living there, who was rarely home. This was Tamara, who turned out to be an obsessive fitness coach with no end of nasty bitching to do about Lyudmila, her husband and her three sons. At least she wasn't home much and the Olympics were on TV. But three days later Lyudmila's husband turned up unannounced and began berating me – should have guessed that the same kinds of things were being said about us - 'we are barbarians, never wash, never clean up' etc. He was also getting anxious about our need to register with the police. It was time to move on and when we left I made a little comment to Tamara about her personal attributes. Her response: 'Well, you shouldn't call our President a fascist then.' Ooops, I had forgotten all about that!

We dropped in on the Georgian restaurant in town where I used to take clients so regularly that I translated their menu for them. Just as we arrived a Georgian friend of theirs had won a wrestling gold medal and so we were invited straight in for celebrations which ended up lasting for the next three days (or at least that's when we left!) After three free feasts I had to insist on translating the new menu on our last night. I got it done by 9pm with Julie's help in time for a final feast and we rolled out of town at midnight on cool, empty roads - excellent - camping 25 km out of town.

3 comments:

zixodes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Otto said...

Well, thanks from all of us who thought your lengthy absence meant there was only very bad news to come.
A sensational journey so far.

ed-chuncks said...

Good to hear that you are safe and well, Rob, and that you and Julie have not slipped into a word of intrigue and coercion by traditional hospitality, sore joints and sunshine.

Stay well and keep in touch;

Ed.