Thursday, October 18, 2012

Almost Outfoxed

There have been a handful of nights on this trip where I hear creatures walking outside in the middle of the night.  Unfortunately I have never really known what has been out there, could be anything from a small bird to a four legged animal.  I usually just freak out a bit and hope whatever it is goes away.  That usually happens thankfully.  One night here in Kazakhstan we had another visitor snooping around our tents at around 1 am in the morning.  I didn’t move a muscle as I didn’t want to make a sound.  The creature came right up to our tents and was sniffing around.  It then left but returned later and came right up close to my tent.  I was a bit paranoid as I had a two pannier bags and my shoes peeking out from beneath my tent so they were there for the taking.  I opened up and had a look and noticed that one of my shoes was gone.  I quickly grabbed my flashlight and sure enough I had one shoe.  I then saw the culprit right in front of me: a fox, and a sly one at that as I think he was back for my other shoe.  I scared it away and the fox booked it.  I then jumped out of my tent and started scouring the area in the pitch black dark in my bare feet not worrying about the possible cow/sheep/donkey/horse/goat crap I could step in.  A few minutes later I luckily found my other shoe about 15 meters away.  That was a close call.  Had I lost that shoe would have caused me major grief.

We have been asked many times where we are from here in Central Asia and reply Canada.  They don’t get it at first most of the time, so I just keep saying Canada and stressing different syllables.  Usually they eventually get it and repeat Canada!  If they still don’t get it I usually show America and then on top Canada.  That has worked a couple of times.  On a few occasions though I have received blank stares even after trying all my tactics to explain our homeland.  It is clear they have no clue where or what Canada is.  So I give up and say we are North American with much greater emphasis on the American.  Everyone of course knows the USA.

Another question we have been asked by locals in Central Asia is our names.  Everyone can pronounce and understand my name fairly well when I say it to them but when Trevor says his name he gets a perplexed look from the person asking.  They try to pronounce it but struggle so Trevor keeps repeating.  They keep trying but fail to pronounce it correctly so Trevor just gives up and says they got it when they clearly haven’t.  I suggested he just make up a new name but he didn’t.      

Lots of the road here in Kazakhstan has been pretty bad.  Hopefully there will be a change for the better when we get into China.  As a result of the poor roads my bike has squealed.  Not liking that. 

We are now camped out just before Khorgos, the border town and Central Asia is pretty much complete!  China, which both Trevor and I believe will be a tough slog, is next…

I was such an idiot for drinking from my contaminated water bottle.  Since I fell ill in Samarkand I stopped drinking from my main bottles just in case they were contaminated with bacteria.  Well I risked it and started drinking from them again.  Bad call as I had another crappy night.  Same symptoms I had before.  I felt horrible that morning, so horrible that I slept in and rested most of the morning.  I was very weak but we trekked on albeit slow.  I took a few antibiotics and a couple of days later I was back to normal.  I have tossed the contaminated bottle and picked up a new, clean water bottle.  So hopefully I won’t have the same problem again. 

Trevor with his find from the road, some adapter device which can be of some use to us.  It looks like an Apple product but actually a rip off.  You’ll note Trevor has his eyes closed; he enjoys doing that when I take his pictures.  I get annoyed as it usually takes at least 2 shots to get him with his eyes open.  He blinks way too much.  I wasn’t bothered this time round to take another and so here he is looking like a doofus.  

Trevor ecstatic!  He couldn’t be happier with his brand new Garmin Edge 800.  He picked this up at Bassar Electronics in Almaty.  I think they are the only dealer in Kazakhstan.  We can see clearly again which is really great.  Having a GPS back has made things easy again.

Had a few errands in Almaty in addition to getting a GPS.  The first was to get registered by the migration police.  Fortunately that wasn’t too troublesome.  We had to return late in the day to pick up our passports and registration slips but it didn’t cost us anything.  The second was to pick up much needed chains, a pump and a few patch kits at a bike shop.  The remainder of the day we spent exploring Almaty although there wasn’t a whole lot to see.  Here I am in front of the colourful Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park. 

Trevor back doing what he has done so much of on this trip… head down and looking at his beloved GPS.  You can see he can’t even hold his smile down he is so happy.

Lots of barren land in Southeastern Kazakhstan with horses once again roaming about.  

These kind Uyghur people stopped and diced up this melon for sharing.  They offered vodka but that is something that wouldn’t go down well whilst cycling so I passed. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Breaking Down in the 'Stans

We had no problems at the Uzbek and Kazakh borders so that was relieving.  They were both quite painless.  Always was worried leaving Uzbekistan they may check those registration slips but they did not.  Phew!  There was a terrain change in Kazakhstan as we had rolling hills to contest with.  The temperatures are getting colder and Trevor is not liking that.  I worry about how cold it may get in China.  Also saw the awesome towering mountains in Kyrgyzstan to our right.  Pretty nice.  The roads were both very good and very bad.  Had some really bad tarmac but then all of a sudden it became really good.  I think the roads will only get better now so that is good. 

Must admit the first few days in Kazakhstan both Trevor and I were sore.  More so me though.  It was due to the long week off in Tashkent we had waiting for the Kazakh visas as we just sat around for the most part doing crap all.  I guess eating too many samsas and sweets didn’t really help the cause either.  I have become a fat cow.  So it was definitely nice getting back on the bikes and moving once again.

Unfortunately, some of our things are breaking down or have died.  Both our tents have only one zipper working and the second zippers seem like they are on their last heels.  I am of the thinking if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  So until it dies, I will keep riding it until the end.  Giddy up.  Trevor’s mp3 player is also dying.  Sometimes it works, but other times it just decides to break down.  Trevor gets frustrated with it as he gets bored senseless riding if he doesn’t have an audiobook or podcast to listen to en route.  One of the most important devices though that we have had on this trip has died.  The GPS.  May it rest in peace.  Although I do think it is still salvageable and can be resurrected.  However, probably not here in Central Asia.  On a break somewhere between Shymkent and Taraz in Kazakhstan, Trevor zoomed in and the GPS just froze on him.  He tried very hard to get it going again by using his laptop but got nowhere.  In the evening he tried a few more things but ended up really killing it.  So he has accepted that it is kaput, as he put it.  As a result, we are discombobulated.  We have only navigated through two big cities since the GPS broke down being Taraz and Bishkek.  The former is not that big but I had to get off the bike a few times and confirm with locals how to get out.  The latter was kind of easy though as the road we took just went straight into the center of the city.  Anyway, it is vital we get another one as that device has really saved us a lot of time and hassle for obvious reasons.  Try getting through Tehran or Istanbul on a bicycle without one and you’ll know what I mean. 

We are now leaving Bishkek, a city both Trevor and I enjoyed.  Back to Kazakhstan we go to hopefully pick up a new (and improved!) GPS in Almaty.  Fingers crossed because we certainly will need it.

Nice terrain change. 

Trevor scarfing down a samsa in Shymkent.  Shortly before this Trevor successfully used something we both haven’t been able to use in some time… an ATM.  He was thrilled that our plastic cards are useable again.  Last time we could do that was in Turkey!

Cycling out of Shymkent a bus stopped beside me and the attendant handed me this flag.  At the time I didn’t know what flag it was but quickly assumed it had to be their national flag.  So here I am representing for all the Kazakhs. 

Taking in a beautiful Kazakh sunrise cycling down some crappy road.  

The moment the GPS passed away.  Trevor tried with all his might to revive it but just couldn’t get the job done.  He sincerely has missed it and has been depressed about its passing.  No joke.  That device had been a huge part of his life in the last half year.  He would go to sleep with it and constantly consulted it for information throughout the day.  It was tough for me too as it provided lots of helpful information which allowed me to make decisions much easier. 

We had only been in Kazakhstan for 4 days but one thing we noticed fairly early on is the people enjoy getting their photos taken.  I was snapping a few shots of Trevor in Taraz when this man approached him wanting to get in on the action.  Trevor said okay, but on one condition, that he let him wear his pimping hat.  The man obliged.  Trevor then explained to him he has aspirations of entering the rap game one day. 

As we neared Kyrgyzstan the scenery was superb.  To our right we constantly had the pleasure of looking at the Kyrgyz Alatau range.  All the while, many horses galloped about, or at least tried to.  Lots of them had their two front legs tied together so they couldn’t get very far.  These ones, however, could do as they pleased. 

Every so often Trevor reluctantly gets out his electronic shaver to have a shave.  He never likes doing it as it is a long, arduous job without any mirrors around.  As we neared Bishkek he decided it was time so he got the shaver out and did what he needed to do.  Unfortunately the battery died half way through and he was left with this hack job.  I think he had a Vladimir Lenin thing going on.  This shot was taken at the Ala-Too square in Bishkek and once we got to the Nomad Home shortly after, he finished what he had started.       

We have seen some Kyrgyz men sporting this hat.  Don’t think I will pick one up myself but I really like it.  

Trevor standing in front of a yurt and many tents at the Nomad Home in Bishkek.  So many other cyclists go here it seems as they allow travellers to set up tents in their yard.  Most of the cyclists and travellers here were waiting for a visa or two.  I had pondered doing a side trip to stay in a yurt and experience the nomadic life whilst in Kyrgyzstan but after peering into this one, I decided not to give that a miss.  Besides, as Trevor pointed out, we have been living the nomadic life for quite some time now.

The interior of the yurt.  Just some beds really inside a big, strong tent.  

Had a walk-a-bout around the Osh bazaar in Bishkek.  It was a lively, happening bazaar.  I liked it.  

We had to wait a good 5 days for our Chinese visas so we decided to hop off the bikes and jump on a minibus to Cholpon-Ata which lies on Lake Issyk-Kol.  Most of the day we spent in the minibus as one way was around 4 hours.  We only spent a few hours on the lake but I think that was enough.  Only a few people were basking in the sun and that was quite surprising given it is now October and getting much colder.  I took the liberty of jumping in the cold water and taking a quick dunk.  Mainly to wash my dirty clothes, not that it helps much.  It was refreshing but as you guessed it, quite cold.  Much like the Ogopogo monster of Okanagan Lake and Nessie of Loch Ness, this lake too is said to have a monster-like creature lurking under its waters.  The jekai.  I get a little paranoid about these things so I didn’t go in too deep.

Trevor pondered for days if he should go with me on the day trip to Lake Issyk-Kol as he is not a fan of sight-seeing.  I tried to sell him on the fact that this is the second largest alpine lake in the world next to Lake Titicaca.  That didn’t quite work as he really disliked going to Lake Titicaca earlier this year.  But in the end, he decided he would be bored senseless at the Nomad Home in his tent so he joined along.  Here he is on the deserted beach thinking about life.

YAY!  We have the Chinese visas.  No more visa crap to deal with for a long time to come.  Sweet deal and a major relief.  It wasn’t too difficult but that was because we had an agent get them for us as doing it on our own would have proved very tough.  It didn’t come cheap though… $150USD for a single entry 30 day visa.  Gotta do what you gotta do though to get where you want to go.  We will of course have to extend them in China but that shouldn’t be too difficult. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Unwell in Uzbekistan

We ended up having a lot more than expected down time in Uzbekistan.  When we arrived in Samarkand we stopped in front of the Registan for some pictures and were approached by some German tourists.  They asked us about our trip and wondered if we had been sick thus far because one of them in the group was just recovering from a week of being ill.  I said we had been alright so far and if we were feeling a bit under the weather, we would just buck up and cycle onward.  Well, ironically hours later after we checked into the Bed & Breakfast I suddenly became ill.  I am still not sure what caused it or what exactly I got but I had the fever and felt like crap.  I was weak and kept crapping liquid around the clock.  My guess is it was either Giardia or just some bacterial diarrhea.  The next day I went out to exchange some money at the Siob bazaar nearby and right in the middle of the exchange as I was counting the money I became dizzy and felt another fever coming on.  I quickly left but it was too late as I blacked out and face planted the pavement.  The stacks of Uzbek som I just exchanged were scattered everywhere around me as were the other items I was carrying.  I was out like a light.  Next thing I know I wake up with cold water being splashed on my face and I am surrounded by many locals trying to help.  Two of them kindly lifted me up off the ground and moved me to a seat so I could regain my composure.  Then they called an English speaking guide over to assist and she told me to see a doctor and to drink a bit of vodka with salt.  I passed on her drink suggestion and at the time wasn’t planning on seeing a doctor but the next day I did just that.  It was a bit difficult trying to explain to the doctor my symptoms but the doctor got someone on the phone who spoke some English and he translated.  They were all very nice at the hospital and didn’t charge me anything.  They prescribed me some antibiotics and said to rest up.  After a few days of taking the antibiotics I didn’t feel any better so I consulted my aunt back home.  All the while Trevor was restless and wanted to get a move on.  However, the all mighty Trevor who feels invincible would join me in my misery as he fell ill with the same thing.  As a result we both took some Tinidazole and began to feel better the next day.  In total, we were in Samarkand for six days, which was five days more than we originally planned.

Overall the roads in Uzbekistan are not all that great as there are lots of bumps.  We were also met with lots of headwind early on.  We managed to luck out and find some stealth camping spots but it has been a bit trickier here as there is lots and lots of farmland. 

To avoid any trouble when we exit the country we have stayed at a proper hotel at least every three days so we can officially register.  Apparently they may check this when we leave the country and if we don’t have the proper slips they can fine us or ask us for a bribe.  All in all it can get a bit messy but from the cyclists we have passed earlier they had no trouble here and it seems it is a ‘luck of the draw’ type deal if the border guards do in fact check our registration slips.  Fingers crossed we don’t run into any trouble leaving the country tomorrow.   

When we made it to Tashkent we immediately applied for the double entry Kazakh visas.  Not sure why but me being the obvious foreigner I was told to go in first without signing up to wait in line.  The process was quite straightforward but unfortunately it has taken a week to process.  As such, we had a lot of waiting around in the capital.  It was a shame we couldn’t hit two birds with one stone and get the Chinese visas as well but the consulate has been closed this week.  So now that we have the Kazakh visas we will finally be back on the road tomorrow and head for Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan via Kazakhstan.  Hopefully we will get the Chinese visas there. 

Our first rest stop in Uzbekistan we are greeted by this nice man who gives us some bread with yogurt dip and two pomegranates he picked from a bush nearby.  I really love pomegranates so it was neat to see the bush they are grown on.  Unfortunately these had the white arils and I like the red ones much better.  But beggars can’t be choosers.

The cotton pickers were out and about and we saw many of them doing their thing in the fields.  Saw cotton being transported by the truck loads just like this one. 

Our first night in Uzbekistan was spent in Bukhara at this traditional house.  The room we stayed in here was pretty unique but the picture of that girl above me creeped both of us out a bit.  

I had a nice morning stroll in Bukhara and would probably place it as my favourite Uzbek city we visited.  

The more reason to use other means of transport like the bicycle for getting around.  We saw a few horrendous lines of vehicles whilst cycling through the country waiting to fill up at the pump.  This was the worst of the bunch.   

A mountain of melons. 

Trevor delighted as ever for making it to the famous Registan in Samarkand. 

Trevor was so kind to snap a photo of me just after I fell ill and feeling like crap.  

Here is me at the Siob bazaar shortly after I got up close and personal with the pavement.  This was my first time fainting so it was pretty neat.  I have had a couple of close calls in the past but had always managed to control my drop to the ground and regain my composure before blacking out.  I hit the ground pretty hard here and my chin still hurts. 

There have been very, very few days like this one but here is Trevor very pale and exhausted.  I felt okay after we left Samarkand but Trevor still wasn’t his normal self.  He had no appetite so he went the day without eating.  At the end of the day he was out of it and couldn’t think straight but after a good night’s rest he was better the next morning. 

Very happy to have finally found a pomegranate with red arils!  And this was probably one of the best pomegranates I have ever had.  Very sweet and delicious.  We purchased a couple of delicious pomegranates on the roadside around Gulistan.  In Tashkent I bought some more and they all had red arils so I have been very pleased about that. 

The hardships of our time in El Salvador came back to haunt us.  We have been running low on US dollars and will need more to pay for our Chinese visas.  As such, we cycled to an Asaka bank branch that according to my Lonely Planet dispenses US dollars.  Trevor proceeded to use the ATM to get some US dollars but the machine ate his card.   This was the second time Trevor has had his card eaten by an ATM.  Luckily a nice woman helped him out and said to return at 9am that morning to get his card back.  So we waited an hour or so and sure enough, Trevor got his card back.  This thing seems to happen a lot as the woman who gave Trevor his card back also held a stack of them ready to return to their respectful owners. 

The Amir Timur statue in the center of Tashkent.

Khast Imom… quite nice.

One thing that gets me excited is going into supermarkets.  We haven’t really been in one since Turkey so I was happy to see them all over Tashkent.  Although I continued to shop in bazaars as the supermarkets weren’t all that better.  Still walking up and down the aisles was a joy for me. 

I have never seen so many police officers in one city.  They are all over the city.  In every street corner, every metro exit, in the metro, every corner of an intersection.  Not sure they are actually doing much good as they seem to just annoy the people they check on.  I had been checked on twice: when I took the metro and when I entered the train station area.  And both times were annoying.

A former work colleague of mine who is from Uzbekistan was kind enough to put me in contact with her cousin, Komila, who lives in Tashkent.  Komila was super nice and took me out for an afternoon to show me around town.  We had a nice lunch at a restaurant before going to the Old Town and walking around Chorsu bazaar.  I enjoy wandering around bazaars and Chorsu was definitely a lively bazaar so it was pretty sweet. 

I checked out the TV Tower and planned to go up it until I found out the price tag to go up is $15USD for foreigners.  A far miss from the $1USD entrance fee quoted in my guidebook.  As such I gave that a miss.  The tower kind of reminds me of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. 

I enjoy food so I walked to the Central Asian Plov Centre north of the city and sampled some plov.  It was quite delicious and I gobbled it up fairly quickly.  That said, I still prefer the samsas which are much cheaper.  Trevor is a huge fan of them too and we have both been on a diet of samsas here in Tashkent.   

Here is Trevor outside for the first time in literally a week.  And once again his eyes are closed when I snap photos of him.  Seems every time I take a shot of him his eyes are closed… I think he blinks too much.  Anyway, while I was out exploring Tashkent, Trevor lay on his bed chilling out and eating samsas in the hotel the whole week.  He had no interest of exploring around town but to give him credit, he did cycle around the first day we were here.  But then again that was mainly because we were scouring the city trying to find where we were going to stay.  We ended up staying in a dormitory at a hotel inside the train station. 

The Kazakh visa… our final visa for the ‘Stans.  We packed up this morning raring to get a move on again as the guy at the Kazakh consulate told me to return in the morning with our passports.  We did just that thinking we would get the visas slapped on and be off but the guy then told me to return at 6pm.  Both Trevor and I were frustrated as we are both quite impatient when it comes to bureaucratic things like this.  That delay obviously put a damper on our planned immediate departure so we ended up going back to the train station hotel.  We are now spending our final night in Uzbekistan and tomorrow will finally leave for Kazakhstan!  

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