I stocked up with a large bag of slightly soggy pistachio nuts, and two packets of cigarettes at a small market on route to the port, to prepare for the crossing.
On arriving at the passport and ticket control, the officials, who it appeared had not seen a tourist in some time, were most amused by the duo of Grettle, and Blue Flame. Blue Flame (Baptiste's bike) was massive, and appeared more massive still, due to the two spare wheels strapped to each side of it's engine, the large bags of all shapes and sizes, strung on to every spare inch of it, and the several litres of petrol, tucked inside the spare wheels, and under the outer netting. The result was really rather frightening, but when assessed next to Grettle, became in every sense, wonderfully ridiculous.
One man was fascinated by my bracelets. I reeled off a list of countries, demonstrating they had been collected over the journey. It then occurred to me that I had forgotten to pick one up from Azerbaijan. The patriotic army officer was horrified about this, and so the search began to find a bracelet before the ferry was boarded. After some time had passed, and nothing had been found, I pointed at his shoe lace, strung up to a smartly polished army boot. I think he thought I was joking, and laughed, before holding up his index finger, and disappearing into his little box once again. He soon appeared holding a pendant, with small studded diamonds placed in a circle around a large capital A, standing for Allah. Baptiste found this all most amusing, and was busy trying to photograph the officer, struggling to find the space on my wrist, to place his gift, but due to the strict rules against photos of the officers,was sadly unable to capture the moment. I was overjoyed that I had my Azerbaijan bracelet, the army officer was thrilled he still had both shoe laces intact, and so the two of us sped on from the passport control to the customs office in high spirits.
Here, spirits dwindled ever so slightly, in being informed there would now be a 6 or 7 hour wait until boarding the cargo ship. So we settled in for the wait, during which Baptiste found his tool kit amidst the many waterproof bags on Blue Fame, and kindly set to work, mending my leather panniers for me.
During this time, one other vehicle arrived. It was a stunning work of art; a bright cerulean blue van, named Blue Moustique (Blue Mosquito), dating back to the 1940's, with stickers from all of the many countries it had travelled through, a spare wheel strapped to the bonnet, and a bed squeezed into the open boot. The Swiss couple driving it were very jolly, and rather like an owner tends to resemble their dog, the mismatch bunch of us at the ferry port, appeared to resemble very much, our beloved vehicles.
Blue Moustique, Grettle and Blue Flame, looked most fabulous all lined up one behind the other at the port,and I got stuck into some sketches of the trio to pass the time. We all became wildly over excited every time one of us witnessed a small speck appear on the distant horizon, until at long last, 10 hours later, the speck turned ship, and as the clock struck midnight, it was ready to board, and we good to go.
Filled with excitement, the four of us sped over the bridge and into the midst of several trains, secured to the ship by large metal chains. Having brought no rope to secure Grettle with, I asked the captain if the sea got particularly rough over the two day crossing. He replied that the waves sometimes reached 30 foot in height, at which point my concerns for her security grew a little deeper, as I imagined tsunami sized waves knocking her relentlessly back and forth. She looked more vulnerable than ever tucked up beneath the cargo, and so the captain, who it appeared had taken a liking to the two of us, promised he would keep a special eye over her.
Unfortunately, it turned out that he had also set his mind to keeping a special eye over my self, and as soon as it was time to be shown our cabins, I was taken aside for a special word. 'These passenger cabins, very bad' he said, 'no windows, very smelly, not clean'. I began to wonder why on earth he was telling me this, but it was made crystal clear after a moments pause. 'If you like, you can sleep in my cabin' he said happily, opening the door onto a deluxe room, with an open window, large bed, and a clean shower. Assuring him I would be just fine on my own, I was lead back to rejoin the group, who it appeared had all made bets in my absence, that the captain would be pronouncing his proposal the moment he had whisked me away, all finding the whole thing marginally more amusing than myself, it has to be said.
I had hoped that I would have one of the smelly, dirty rooms to myself, desperate to collapse onto the moth eaten pillows, and sleep in peace. The number of cabins did not suffice for this luxury however, and so I was bundled up with Baptiste for the night. He apologised in advance for his snoring, at which point my heart sank slightly, and dreams of a good nights sleep in silence seeped out of mind. The captain was delighted to see this look of disappointment, hastily sidling up to me once again, 'so what will you do Emma?' he whispered into my ear; a tone of sickening seductiveness, etched into his rasping voice. Faced with either the creepy captain's cabin, or the French man's snoring, I settled for the snoring, and collapsed into the passenger cabin. I actually slept surprisingly well in the end; it was the first night in the entire trip, I had been submerged in total darkness, and I was surprised to wake up at 8.30 to Baptiste's breakfast alarm, as oppose to the usual 5 o'clock start, as the sun rises each morning, and the light seeps through the fabric of my tent.
Breakfast consisted of a type of feta cheese, butter, and bread. Lunch followed only a few hours later; a delicious vegetable soup to start, and chicken with rice to finish, washed down with some whisky from a jolly Georgian man sat next to me, and put to bed by some gaga, a highly alcoholic spirit, which sent me to sleep in seconds.
We watched the European games on television in the lounge area, I sat to sketch the ship out on deck during the day, and so despite the grimy cabins, the creepy captain, and the drunken Georgians, the crossing and its facilities exceeded expectations, and proved to be a nice, relaxing break from driving. I think it was also the first time I had looked out from a ship, and seen absolutely nothing but sea for several hundreds of miles. It was an exhilarating feeling, drifting further into the middle of the world, and It suddenly occurred to me how far Grettle and I had come....Kazakhstan! The idea of the cargo ship across the Caspian had always been a distant dream, and it filled me with a pleasant feeling somewhere inside, that we were living it that very second.
Dream turned nightmare all too quickly however, as we arrived at the port in Aktau, where we were to sit through another 7 hours of waiting, filling out forms, and receiving several stamps, from the customs office, the border control, and the military, before we were finally allowed to drive through those barriers, with 'HAVE A GOOD TRIP' written in large capital letters, marking freedom at long last! For a second, I thought I was going to be sent back to Baku, and my heart sank as the man said, 'no number, no travel', pointing back at the anchored ship. He was looking for the chassi number on Grettle. I had neither any idea what this was, nor any idea where it would be written, having never seen, or heard of it before. Finally, having unpacked all of my clothes once again, and panic starting to kick in, I lifted out the bucket under her seat, peered down into her engine, and found the small series of numbers, printed under a think layer of dust on a small piece of plastic. I whooped for joy, sailed through the gates, and back on the road at long last!I say road, but in hind sight, it would be best to replace this feeble description, with an erupted volcano, who's molten lava has since dried in wave-like formations, cracked severely over time, and seen the devastating effects of world war three; the catastrophic result, leaving nothing but craters so big, they could eat G and I alive!
Baptiste and I drove the first leg of the journey towards Beyneu together. The landscape was most definitely now desert, and my first sighting of a camel was all too exciting! We had planned to camp somewhere along the road that evening, and in sidling up to a small shop in one of the few villages we passed, asked the owner if there was anywhere decent to set up the tent. She pointed over our shoulders to a house behind us, and curious as to what this was, since there were certainly no hostels any where in sight, we scooted back along the road, and pulled up in front of the lodge. It turned out to be a fire station, where we were welcomed by big smiles, and many flustered fire men, who invited us to stay for the night. We accepted their offer, and absolutely filthy with dust from the desert, were led to a wooden shack in the corner of the yard, where one of the men, leapt up onto the roof, and began pouring cold buckets of water into the tank at the top. I never thought I would enjoy an icy bucket shower quite so much as I did, and after this moment of bliss, we were taken to the kitchens, to tuck into a feast of potato and veg for supper.
I was taken for several sight-seeing tours in the fire engines and around the station, during which I was given an army shirt as a souvenir, that I have now become rather fond of, and worn religiously ever since.
The chief fire man was due to arrive the following morning, and so we aimed to leave by six thirty. It was in fact a little later than this, by the time Baptiste had suited up in his leathers, packed and strapped up the hundreds of bags to Blue Flame, and I felt rather glad that G and I were travelling so light weight in comparison. Something I shall no doubt regret saying, when faced with the challenge of fixing a Vespa with paint tubes and Pritt-stick!
The road became nothing short of catastrophic, the further we scooted into the desert, so Grettle and I were forced to resort to snails pace. After a good few hours of waiting for me to meander around the many potholes, interspersed with desperate attempts to sketch every camel I passed, Baptiste sensibly decided to drive on ahead. Blue Flame could tackle the road with ease, and with it's sturdy tyres, cruise straight over the massive craters, and mounds of sand that made up the road.
After a good few exhausting hours of this god-awful track, unable to see any sign of the end to pot-holes, desperately needing some water in the strong heat, and beginning to realize I may never see signs of civilisation before dark at this rate, I flagged down a van pulling a trailer, and hitched a lift the next 20 kilometres to a small town. I was given a red neckerchief by one of the men in the van, in exchange for one of my bracelets, which I have become rather attached to since... what with that, and the new army shirt, my wardrobe was changing rapidly as I made my way through the desert. We all made firm friends by the time the truck ground to halt in Shetpe, and after a photo shoot of the team and I around G, I set off once again for Beyneu.
A few hours later, I came across a section of volcanic eruption, that was even more devastating that the last. Again, concerned for time, darkness drawing in, and lack of food or water for a night's camping, I flagged down yet another vehicle. This one was towing two cars with flat tyres already, and Grettle was secured behind the second. The kind man bought me a beer, kitted me out with cigarettes, and plenty of ice cold water, before beginning the drive to Beyneu, some Kazakh music was playing from the radio.
About twenty minutes after setting off, we stopped at a little shrine in the middle of absolutely no where, where he promptly put on his white cap, and prayed for about 5 minutes, along side two other truck drivers, who it later transpired were his chums, and the three of them had been driving in convoy.
One of the fellow truck drivers encountered some kind of problem that I never quite got to the bottom of, half way through the journey, at which point we all parked in the middle of the desert, stripped the truck to pieces, and began fiddling about with the gear-stick, until finally we were good to go once again. Not long after this, we stopped for supper where I was brought some kind of meet with onions, after which I decided it was time to relive G from the truck, beginning to feel it may well take longer with the truck driving rabble, than without. She had slipped down the side of the trailer, and looked horribly uncomfortable, her sides having been banged about something rotten, and the green paint work rapidly lifting from her bruises. So we drove in convoy after this, and Grettle had her own beefy, body-guard escorts, all the way to Beyneu...lucky Grettle!
Exhausted from the tiring drive, I stayed for two days to recuperate in a little hotel, before embarking on the next leg of my journey into Uzbekistan. My last map had stopped half way down the black sea coast line in Turkey, and Beyneu marked the beginning of my Central Asia map, so I was rather excited to be able to see where I was, for the first time in a few thousand miles! The border was as little as 100 kilometres away, and I had hoped to reach it an hour or two after setting off. This ride, took me 6 painful and exhausting hours. The challenge of weaving in and out of hazards and obstacles, reminded me of a certain play station game I used to play in the Villiers attic in Corscombe, back in the school days; it was a race across a colourful rainbow in the sky, with lots of jumps, steps, gold coins to grab, holes to hop over, hoops to jump through, beams to duck under, and strange creatures to avoid. When I thought about it like this, I began to rather enjoy the challenge, listening to mario cart type music, and trying to out pace the trucks kicking dust in my eyes as they bellowed past, honking furiously.
I made it to a small village called Jaslyk, where I spent the night in a small hostel. I had just set up my tent on a small patch of concrete outside the café, when the owner took pity on me, and gave me a deluxe air-con room for free. I woke in the morning, to a fabulous view of several families of camels, lounging around in front of a stunning, fiery orange sun rise, and sketched for a few hours before setting off for Nukus.
I was wildly overexcited about Nukus, for it was the first town in Uzbekistan, that had actually made an appearance, not only on my map, but also in my lonely planet guide book, so you can imagine the disappointment, when I looked it up to find, and I quote 'The isolated, Soviet creation of Nukus is definitely one of Uzbekistan's least appealing cities.....there is actually no reason to come here, other than taking in the general sense of hopelessness and desolation'!
I came across several camels, many herds of horses, scorpions, camel spiders, and three cyclists on my way to this hell hole. I had seen no tourists since leaving Baptiste on that god awful road in Kazakhstan, and so was thrilled to hear they too, were on route to hopelessness and desolation.
There was a couple from Switzerland, and a chap called John from Cardiff. We agreed to meet in a little chai spot they knew of, 15 kilometres up the road, and an hour or so later they turned up. What bliss it was to speak English at long last! We ate some food, and washed it down with a few shots of vodka offered to us by the adjacent table of jolly, red faced, and rather large bellied Uzbek men. The Swiss couple and John were due to arrive in Nukus after two nights of camping through the desert, so we all planned to reunite in Jipek Jolie Guest house a couple of days later.
So here I am, in a marvellous little yurt, set up in the courtyard of the guest house. Its a beautiful work of craftsmanship, built from long stretches of bamboo, that meet at the centre of a curved dome, pronouncing the ceiling, where light floods in through the embroidered fabric each morning. The bamboo is dressed with lots of finely woven tapestry, and colourful pieces of fabric, with plenty of tassels. The three beds, are covered in bright patchwork quilts, and wooden hobbit doors, behind a see through curtain, mark the opening to the yurt.
It even has Television and wifi inside it, and I have a large fan cooling me down....bliss! I have been waiting to find an idyllic little spot with space, such as this, to get some camel sketches polished off, and enter this post, so I may stay a couple more days here, and wait for a recent, and very uncomfortable bought of either food poisoning, or heat stroke, to pass, before setting off for Khiva. Waiting with much anticipation for the arrival of the cyclists, and a cold celebratory brew!
THE LOUNGE AND STARE POSITION- UZBEKISTAN- 10TH JULY 2015
The following entry was in fact written over a month ago, but due to lack of internet amongst other obstacles, I never quite got around to sending it, so here goes:
I am sitting in a small cafe somewhere between Bukhara and Samarkand, waiting for a kebab, and munching on some salad, while I wait for poor old G to be fixed next door. Exactly the same thing happened as about one month ago, in a little garage in Azerbaijan. I had been driving happily, and fast along the highway, pulled in to stop, in this case, for a cold bottle of water, and simply could not start again. Luckily there happened to be a small mechanics on the opposite side of the road....thank goodness that this had not happened in the desert, where I highly doubt I would have found a mechanic for good few hundred miles!
I am wearing a pair of highly uncomfortable, bright orange jelly shoes, with flowers on, brought for me by the cluster of curious bystanders at the water stall, because my already very worn flip flop, finally came to sticky end whilst trying to kick start Grettle.
A very large, loud, and slightly repulsive man, has just taken on a lounge and stare position from the opposite bench, so I am starin
g at this
screen rather harder than usual.
God I am fed up of eyes on me just all the time. I Suppose I only have myself to blame, for a single girl, riding a pistachio Green Vespa with Frog, is apparently something no one this far from home, has ever seen before, and so naturally, every time I stop, a mere minute ticks by, before the entire community has gathered around to observe this strange, and rare sighting,
Maybe it's because I'm feeling worn out, wishing I had company, and longing to understand or speak the Russian language, that I am no longer finding the constant stare, the urgent tapping on my shoulder, and the questions continuously yelled into my ear in Russian, funny anymore; they have become exhausting. The concept of personal space is not something that the locals appear to have grasped, or be in any way familiar with, in this part of the world. I think the heat of the desert has taken its toll over the past few days, the temperatures have been reaching 60+ Celsius, which probably makes matters a little worse, but it's the type of behavior, that with good company, or any company for that matter, that speaks your language, can be a manageable, and even an amusing challenge, but turns utterly exhausting when faced with alone.
Which brings me to how much I am missing my recently wed husband, and the team of cyclists I met in Nukus. If I remember rightly, I left you in my last post, waiting for them to arrive at Jipek Jolie Guest house, whilst taking refuge in my little yurt.
Well, my yurt was soon invaded by an old lady, who simply would not stop complaining about absolutely everything. She was furious because her book had told her the journey from Khiva would take an hour less than it did in reality. The constant whining in an awful Australian drawl, turned insufferable after about 10 minutes, and so John and I succeeded in drowning it out, and lightening the mood, over a few too many shots of vodka, and some more light-hearted conversation. We soon decided to take refuge in his spacious air-con room, and settle in for a movie.
Having just set up however, we heard a knock at the door. We answered, to find the hotel manager poised outside, looking nervous and rather flustered. He told me I must return to my yurt immediately. A bit boggled by this unwarranted and out of the blue behavior, we attempted to explain we wanted to watch a film, but to no avail, the man was adamant. When we protested, he asked us for our marriage certificate. I hastily began to scrawl out a makeshift certificate. It read, 'John and Emma married today', with many balloons blowing randomly over the page. This clearly tipped the balance, and I was escorted back to my yurt, where I was kept rather too close an eye on, from that moment forward. And so, having got rather excited about the first film session of the trip, John and I agreed, we would wait until Khiva, the next stop, where we would pronounce our marital status rather firmly on arrival, and settle in for the movie marathon there.
Khiva was a lovely city, with an ancient inner town, surrounded by high, sandy colored castle walls, inside which, were many mosques, mausoleums, and one very tall pillar, with the Uzbek traditional blue tile work, embedded into the roof tops and doors of many of the monuments.
We had left the Swiss couple cooking up a meal on a patch of grass outside the hostel, and John, myself, and a British chap called Gary, who talked for Great Britain, and was growing a ridiculous ginger beard, as a result of a bet with his mates back home, set off to explore. It was really rather magical by dusk; the shadows of the magnificent mosques, playing in the light of the moon, and the distant echoes of Uzbek melodic chants, from the odd cafe, bouncing off the walls of the illuminated buildings.
By the time we had all packed up to leave Khi
va, I was a little behind proposed schedule, having been travelling for the past week at cycle speed, and so sadly, I felt it time to move on, and bid farewell to fun bicycle bunch. I am now missing their company a great deal more than I thought I would, in particular, that of my husband, who I grew rather close to over our few happy days of marriage and movies.... he has those wonderful chimp-like ears that I have always been so fond of, a cheeky, witty and handsome look and manner, and life has suddenly became rather dull, and a little too quiet without him.
Anyway, vulgar man in lounge and stare position has now been joined by many fellow chums, following suit, and so I am hoping G will be good to go soon, and company will be found before too long...until then, adios....
ISKANDA KUL AND THE ROAD TO TAJIKISTAN- 20TH JULY 2015
I am sitting beside Grettle, perched at a height of 2195 meters, on the edge of a steep and rocky drop, descending into an opal blue lake, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, and blue sky. The fiery oranges, cadmium yellows, and deep reds, of the approaching sun set, play in the startlingly turquoise waters, and dance in the light of the early moon.
Iskanda Kul is the name of this mind-blowingly fabulous lake, and apart from the three Tajik men that took an entrance fee from me (cheeky bastards), there’s not a single soul in sight (tourist anyway). I’ve seen a couple of small shacks here and there, but other than that, it’s me, G, and travel frog, with this oasis to ourselves.
Having had a bit of a low period over the last few days, craving company, longing for cool air, and wishing I spoke Russian, I could not explain the rush of Tajikistan; the mountains; the lakes; the people; the air; the vast, wild, and crashing rivers, that snake their way beside the rugged mountain passes, spraying cool water over you, as you ride and swerve their serpent-like roads.
Having said this, it was a job to get in to, to say the least; I managed on my third border crossing attempt, somewhere near Tashkent in Uzbekistan, having tried and failed dismally, to pass two others, closer to Samarqand.
Not only that, but since I have been here, I have had nothing but problems with poor old G; I have seen her inside out, upside down, and well and truly, dissected part by part. The little mishap in my last post, marked the beginning of a long line of illnesses…
Having finally made it into Tajikistan, tiredness beginning to take its toll, and the idea of finding, and comprehending directions to a hostel, too daunting to face, I decided to find a spot to ca