15 The Stans
An area the size of Australia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, 5 new nations were created, bordering on Russia, China, Afghanistan & Iran.
KAZAKSTAN August 2000
We felt somehow “at home “ on the treeless steppes of vast Kazakstan. The birds were familiar too: Rollers and Hoopoe. In Semey we visited a house where Dostoyevski had lived while in exile. We passed not too far from the area where the USSR had exploded about 470 nuclear bombs. We swam in a very clear stream that evening but did wonder about radioactive contamination…
There has been a tremendous exodus of Russians from the CIS states back to Russia, since the demise of the Soviet Union. Villages we passed through had abandoned factory and farm buildings, derelict military camps and rows of empty crumbling apartment blocks. We have read that Kazakstan (the world’s 9th largest country) is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It has oil, coal, gas, iron and other mineral resources and exports agricultural products. There are signs of affluence in Almaty: expensive vehicles and a busy modern new shopping centre; where we parked while waiting for 6 visas. However, people there, and many individuals in Russia, told us that they were better off under the Communist system when housing, education, medical and other services were free.
There were always many policemen on the streets. One was absolutely furious with us. The roads had to be cleared for the president’s convoy. He very suddenly stopped us and frantically tried to gesture one large Diplodocus into a tiny space between two trees. We could not do this and nearly ran him over when pulling off the road. While he was ranting, with much mention of ‘straf’ (a fine), he was luckily called away on his radio. We were fortunate in evading any other fines or enforced bribes that all Central Asian countries’ police are notorious for.
Turkish owned Ramstor Supermarket had lots of luxuries; even lettuce! (Only time in 4 months that we found it). In it’s parking lot, (where we stayed for 10 days) Jan had to perform an intricate operation on Dipli’s leaking injection pump. (To replace the spindle o-rings without removing the pump, still required removal of the intake manifold, which in turn meant extensive dismantling). A New Zealander came by, invited us to a pub and lent us a guidebook to the Caucasus.
The South of an otherwise flat Kazakstan is mountainous. Frostbite in these high mountains had caused our good looking visa agent (and mountaineer) to loose the tip of his nose. We went west, parallel to the Tian Shan range. Along the way Jan had to replace a steel brake pipe, cracked by the incredibly bumpy ex-Soviet roads on which we had by now done 20 000km.
From the easy going border officials to the waving children along the way, to the taxi driver and parking lot owner who would take no money, people were exceptionally friendly.
Bishkek was rather run down but we enjoyed watching a students’ parade, with many multi-coloured flags, passing beneath one of the few remaining prominent Lenin statues. (In Semey we had found a whole troop of Lenin statues which had been re-erected in an obscure side street as a reminder of the totalitarian past.)
Lake Issyk Kul, with a backdrop of mountains, was as blue and as beautiful as we had heard. There we shared vodka and a traditional noodle dish, prepared by their Kyrgys camp cook, with a group of seismologists, who spoke English.
From Alpinesque Lake Son Kol, we followed rugged mountain gorges and valleys dotted with brown hide tents. In such a “yurt” we were invited to have tea from a “samovar” with a family, all seated on colourful handmade appliqué quilts. Men in traditional, uniquely shaped, white felt hats were herding horses, goats and sheep. The other autumn activity was the gathering and threshing of golden hay.
We enjoyed “plov” (rice with mutton) and tried small balls of salted dried cottage cheese at Osh’s colourful market. Also had our 2nd flat tyre and repaired a leaking wheel cylinder in Osh. The locals gathered and crowded around where Jan was working. Leoné had to watch the tools and prevent the town from gathering inside the camper!
A very strange sight for us, was the way petrol was being sold all along the roadsides
in small, very small, containers: motorists even bought half a litre at a time! Mostly it was in 1 or 2 litre plastic cooldrink bottles. One could also buy used motor oil in jars! A secluded spot next to a river was a welcome relief. The next morning, however, about 20 children, who had brought gifts of fresh and dried fruit, surrounded us.
Since 1992 the country has been embroiled in a bloody civil war. We were grateful to obtain a visa and were glad to eventually get though the 8 checkpoints at the border.
Tajikistan: Pamir mountains
The snow-covered peaks were soon towering above us. The high Pamir Mountains had heavily armed soldiers, so young; guarding the arid and desolate mountain passes. The very effective security fence next to the road demarcated the stretch of no-mans’ land (probably mined) along the Chinese border. We enjoyed the scenery of the moonscape around Lake Karakul, in spite of some altitude sickness due to sleeping at 3920m after a quick ascent. The road reaches 4280m on the border. That’s 1000m higher than the highest point in Southern Africa! One customs official, who had a full set of gold capped teeth (a sign of social standing here), had heard of Mandela and spoke some English. He was grateful for a “Getaway” magazine, so the search for drugs was rather superficial. Note that this is one of the main smuggling routes for heroin produced in Afghanistan.
UZBEKISTAN (УЗВЕКИСТАН) September 2000
Due to Uzbek-Kyrgyz conflict, the border post we attempted was blockaded. On the detour stretch to another post, there were 8 police control points in 170km. The actual border procedure was quick.
It was 38°C in the Ferghana valley. We stopped at a “chaykana”(teahouse) to sip tea from small bowls, lounging on a bed-like frame with colourful mattresses and a low table, under shady trees. Within the irrigated areas of the scrubby desert, stalls were laden with produce. Leoné bought grapes, apricots, peppers & tomatoes; for a few Sum; more than she could carry. The nuts for sale included salted apricot pip kernels.
Uzbek women wear long brightly coloured silk dresses. Silk worms are raised in individual’s homes. Next to all the roads are lanes of mulberry trees. The initial 20g of grubs handed out by the Government eventually consume 300kg of leaves a day. Exhausted farmers then sell the cocoons back to silk factories.
To the detriment of the environment, Uzbekistan is also famous for cotton. Plump ripe cotton balls were being collected. Tractors moved trailers of “snow” to where hillocks of cotton wool were heaped in front of mills. Cotton pickers were wearing the ultimate sunscreen: Cloth wrapped tightly around the head – eye slits only.
After the earthquake in 1966 major streets in Tashkent were widened. As in other Central Asian capitals, all the street names like Lenin, Marx, Engels, etc. have been changed. The new names did not match those on our map but we were used to getting lost. It was a rare treat for us later, to be shown the city by chauffeured car. We had met these friends in Russia and were invited to their palace-like home: marble and inlaid-wood floors, silk brocade-covered walls, chandeliers and intricately carved pillars and doors. The beautifully tiled bathrooms could only be partially utilised, due to an inadequate municipal sewage system; so the palace had a long drop! Between the Sauna and the plunge pool in the courtyard we shared a meal and vodka lounging on their Uzbek platform. The cook had prepared “manti”(dumplings) and sour cream, schnitzels, salads and fruit. ‘Hers’ is a rare, exclusive Mercedes convertible coupe. The next day Dipli decided it was time for a new power steering hydraulic cylinder assembly. Fortunately Dipli chose the place well: next to a shady park, near an Internet café, restaurants, Folk art museum, supermarket with ATF, and cheap photo development shop. So Leoné was not bored while Jan did the repair in the street. (Fortunately all spares needed for repairs, so far, Jan had brought with, as finding anything not for the ubiquitous Russian ‘Fiats’, is impossible in this part of the world.)
Cities of the Ancient Silk Road:
We were awed by these romantic places.
Samarkand built by the Timurs in the 14th & 15th centuries was an ensemble of majestic mosques, medressas, azure mosaics, fluted domes, minarets and mausolea. Some are decorated with majolica tiles and alcoves with gold leaf décor.
Bukhara’s best is the 47m high minaret, 850 years old. It has 14 different ornamental bands.
Between two medressas is an ancient pool, shaded by mulberry trees as old as itself; under which a cold beer, while watching the ancient buildings’ shadows stretch, went down well.
Khiva’s historic heart is preserved in its entirety. It has densely packed mosques, tombs, palaces, caravanserai and alleys and at least 16 medressas. (Muslim schools). Our favourite site was a palace with sumptuous interior decoration. The walls are bedecked with gorgeous geometric-motive tiles and the ceilings brightly patterned. We parked next to the high old brown city walls. In a historic Muslim school converted to hotel, we enjoyed a shashlyk-meal, and traditional music and dance.