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Cycling Central Asia

Posted September 20th, 2008

A Kyrgyz familyCentral Asia is one of the few places in the world still firmly off the backpacker trail.

On a bicycle, you’ll feel even more as if you’re a great explorer, tackling uncharted waters and exploring an area caught between a host of cultures – Soviet, Middle Eastern and Asian. If you’re a history buff, tracing the ancient Silk Road will be a real highlight.

Let’s be honest. To get there, you’ll probably have to get out a map first. The whole region is a blank space in many people’s minds but the countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan offer an incredible chance for cultural immersion. And that’s not all; don’t forget quiet Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as western China.

The only cluster of tourists is around the Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarqand, and the market in Kashgar, China. Elsewhere, you’re more likely to be the only foreigner in town than see a tour group walk by.

Andrew in front of the mosqueYou’ll relish the solitude when you’re taking in incredible mountain views. You may find it less endearing when spending the night in a crumbling hotel. The breakup of the Soviet Union and low visitor numbers means that most infrastructure in Central Asia is in desperate need of repair. Don’t come here if you need those little luxuries like a hot shower.

Need to know more? Read on…

Podcast 18: More on Central Asia

Posted August 3rd, 2008

Greg cooking us breakfastIn the Cambodian beach resort of Sihanoukville, we put together our latest podcast. This time we talk more about Central Asia – the amazing Lake Song Kol in Kyrgyzstan, our favourite and not-so-favourite parts of the region and what to bring. Plus we have an interview with Greg, a Hungarian cycling the Silk Road who made us a great vegetarian breakfast. And we tell you why it’s important to know how to say ‘I am a carrot’ in Russian. Or you could read the blog of Hirsch, the cyclist who introduced us to this important phrase!


Welcome to Kazakhstan

Posted April 27th, 2008

125km Tashkent-Shymkent

Evening chatter around the campfireWhat a fantastic view to cycle alongsideKazakhstan greeted us with the sound of the Beatles playing from a speaker outside a slick new shopping centre. Inside its air conditioned walls were all the big clothing names, an Apple computer store and a thoroughly modern supermarket. We were back in the land of vegetables wrapped in plastic and whole rows devoted to olive oil. Returning outside, it took us a moment to recover from the shock of seeing our first real supermarket since Turkey. As we rested in the shade we watched brand new SUVs roll down the streets of Shymkent and young women parading in high heels down the newly cobbled and tree-lined sidewalks.

Was this really Kazakhstan? It felt more like a middle-class London suburb. Up the road from the shopping centre was a restaurant with wireless internet access where Kazakhs were surfing the net on their laptops. Around the corner, a night club had just opened charging 3,000 Tenge for admission – about $25 U.S. – for admission, no drinks included.

By now we’d realised that Kazakhstan was the most prosperous country in the region by a long way and the prices reflected its riches. Everywhere in Shymkent, one of Kazakhstan’s largest cities, people seemed to be pursuing Western standards of wealth and for the first time in quite a while we felt like the poor cousins.

It was different in the countryside, of course. There we found people still in traditional dress, the women with their colourful headscarves, the men in felt hats. To the east we were treated to a stunning view of blue skies and snow-capped mountains and all around horses grazed in green fields, newly born foals at their sides. But even far from Shymkent, the new cars rolled by us regularly. There were far fewer Ladas here than in Uzbekistan and many more people wearing dark glasses and dressed impeccably in tailored suits. (more…)

More spring cleaning… watch a video!

Posted April 22nd, 2008

dsc_9357dsc07926With some time in Tashkent and surprisingly decent internet access (although communicating to staff is always fun with our limited Russian) we’ve managed to continue our spring cleaning and get more than a few videos up that have been lurking in the depths of our computer for ages. You can watch them by going to the video category, where we’ve put the videos on the relevant posts for each day.

Since we first arrived in the city we haven’t been out very much, rather put off by the hassle of being checked by the police every time we step out of our front door. Our main excursions have been to the markets, picking up spices like cinnamon, coriander and pepper for a snip and of course we’ve sampled a few of the Uzbek dishes on offer in the ever-humble and reasonably priced cafes. We also popped by one of the more popular hotels here, looking for a friend, and managed to end up drinking vodka with the owner well before 10am. Ouch. Check that one off our Central Asian “to do” list.

Tomorrow we’ll go to pick up our Kyrgyzstan visa and on Friday we’re going to make a beeline for the Kazakh border. We’ve heard Kazakhstan is more expensive than Uzbekistan and we still have a couple weeks left on our Uzbek visa but the hassle of always having to be registered makes wild camping more a worry than a pleasure and we just want to be relatively free again. Uzbekistan is a nice country but the bureaucracy dates from another age and it’s doing our heads in.

Tashkent Shenanigans

Posted April 16th, 2008

Rolling through green hills near JizzaxIt took us less than an hour to be stopped by the police in Tashkent. “Documents,” the young man in his tall hat and turquoise uniform said in a Russian accent, looking us up and down with a serious expression. We’d been warned to expect this. Every corner in Tashkent is full of police, or so we were told by a friend who arrived a month earlier. We managed to fit in all of one beer and an evening meal before being apprehended.

“Where are your documents?” we asked, trying to prompt him into handing over some identification. We’d been told to use this tactic to use to put off crooked officials and it seemed a smart move generally before handing over our passports to some unknown person. It didn’t work. The man either played dumb or didn’t understand and before long a second official appeared on the scene with the same demand.

We quickly weakened. We didn’t feel like playing the game so we gave our passports over to the police who, like officers everywhere between here and Turkey, couldn’t tell where we were from, what our names were or what an Uzbek visa looked like. In a humourous twist, we ended up assuring them that our documents were order and with that settled they let us go on our way.

Welcome to Tashkent. Although we weren’t asked for a bribe, being stopped was annoying and we wondered how many more times we’d be checked during our stay in the city. We resolved to use our bicycles to get around, making it harder for the police to catch us. Travelling by bicycle has some advantages and during our trip between Samarqand and Tashkent we certainly worked on improving our speed and stamina. We covered the 360km over three days, pushing hard so we could get started on the next round of visas as soon as possible.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are all on our shopping list. Until a week ago China was there too but now it seems that’s impossible. The shutters are coming down on embassies everywhere ahead of the Olympics and we were told by a French woman who spent a frustrating day at the embassy in Tashkent yesterday that a visa was now impossible without a return plane ticket. (more…)