A Travellerspoint blog

Parading Legs in Astrakhan

Maurice's brush with the law and their daylight 'robbery'

Girls, let me tell you the latest fashion news from Russia. Its legs, legs and more legs. Yes, if you are young and beautiful, tall and slender, you can show off as much of your legs as you like, and all your other assets. Your shorts or skirt can finish at the top of your legs and all you need add to the legs is a pair of high heel shoes, I mean really high, like 5 inches high. As an alternative, you can sport very, very tight jeans, with the heels, of course. You can then parade up and down the fine new promenade along the Volga River in Astrakhan with your friends and be admired by all the young men. Unfortunately many of them find it necessary to carry as a badge of manhood a bottle of vodka. If you are the active type, you can swap the heels for roller blades and swoosh along at great speed between the children on bikes, the horses and ponies giving rides and the middle aged strollers like us.
Restaurants line the promenade, some in boats on the river edge, like the one we dined in one night. Fishermen, women too, lean over the railing with their fishing lines and successfully haul in catches, some up to 400mm in length. Fountains play, adding to the ambience, and parents hire little electric cars for their children’s entertainment.
Walk back a few streets from the river and you come to a very different city – unpainted wooden buildings, broken window panes, potholed roads, unhinged doors, crumbling brick work, uneven footpaths or none at all, empty vodka bottles piled in corners. The old city of Astrakhan is a crumbling derelict assortment of buildings surrounding several mosques and churches that congregate together. We had decided to walk to see some, but as the streets deteriorated, we thought better of it and retraced our steps.
The Kremlin is lovely though. It was Sunday morning when we visited, and worshippers were gathered in several churches with wonderful steeples and domes inside the Kremlin. A lady took me in tow and had me doing the sign of the cross and nodding to one of the icons, all well meant though she couldn’t speak English nor I Russian. In the wall of the Kremlin an unadorned room opened to show a gathering of people singing beautifully as they worshipped. The priest then threw water over the crowd as a form of blessing.
Astrakhan is on the Silk Road, though the days of the Silk Road were largely over by the time Astrakhan was founded in the time of Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1558. Two earlier cities in a similar location, Sarai and Itil, were the ones which flourished with the through traffic of the trading caravans.
Before reaching Astrakhan we had crossed the Kazakhstan-Russia border. Another trying border crossing, taking about 4 hours, mostly in Kazakhstan. As we sat in our cars waiting to go in the gate, we watched in horror as a huge truck munched the front left corner of a small Lada ahead of us in his effort to get passed. Shouting followed and then the problem seemed to solved by the handing over of some money. Inside the gate our men were kept with the cars, while Anne and I went through passport control. It seemed there were problems with both our passports and so we waited. Then the officials all decided it was lunch time and off they went, leaving everyone to wait some more. They returned and we waited a bit more. Then Martin turned up to the rescue. They were ready to go and why were we being detained? So our passports were stamped and we were allowed to go. The Russian pass port control took very little time after that.
On the way from Astrakhan to Volgograd we had two ‘incidents’ which make for good blog-story material, but probably weren’t so good at the time. In the country side Maurice got pulled over by a police on trumped up charges – he accused Maurice of passing 3 other cars in front of him, the communication done by drawing on a piece of paper. It was a blatant lie. He wanted $300US ‘payment’, I think. When Maurice said he didn’t have it, he suggested he drive to the next town and get the money with his credit card. The cop obviously knew about tourists. By this stage he had Maurice’s driving licence in his pocket. Maurice said his credit card wouldn’t work there and he would have to go to Volgograd. In the end he took 1000 roubles, handed over with Maurice back in the car and done below the dashboard so the hand over couldn’t be seen. No doubt Maurice will tell the story with much more relish in his blog. See www.wheelspin.travellerspoint.com
Sometime after this, we were nearly collected by a small yellow Lada that came tearing out onto the main road from a right side road, straight towards us at top speed. Martin swerved into the middle of the wide empty road, wheels spinning and hearts beating. The guy realised his predicament and swerved away at the last moment. We breathed a sigh of relief!
I haven’t mentioned Bilbo’s problems – next blog, but all is well now.

Posted by Silkspin 21:03 Comments (1)

Silk Road through Kazakhstan

The New Synthetic Road

Our road now takes us north from Uzbekistan across the Kazak steppe and desert between the Aral and Caspian Seas and westward towards the Russian border near Astrakhan. Over the last 8 weeks we have followed the Silk Road from Xian in China (having first driven north from Shenzhen), around the Taklamakan Desert to Kashgar, and across Central Asia via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the heart of the old trade route. From here, the major routes turned south west into modern day Iran, Turkey and the Middle East. However, other routes travelled south into India and Afghanistan, and north into Russia and on into Europe. Our branch of the Silk Road runs through the deserts of Western Kazakhstan, where ruins of former caravanserais and trade towns give witness to the area’s former activities.
Little remains today, unlike the wonderful cities of Kokand, Samarqand and Bukhara. Vast areas of desert are empty, save for small scattered villages, the odd larger town and one or two cities. Oil has become the new silk of the 21th century, with Kazakhstan, the 9th largest country in the world, in the top five nations for oil reserves. Huge oil fields are being developed under and around the Caspian Sea and await further expansion. Perhaps the route in this area should now be termed the Synthetic Road.
Back in NZ we had allotted 7 nights to Kazakhstan, believing that the journey through the desert would be very slow with just tracks through the sand. As it has turned out, the main road north is very good, taking only a day to travel. But we are unable to enter Russia any earlier because of the dates on our visas and hotels. Unlike Uzbekistan and Russia, Kazakhstan is comparatively freer and does not require pre-bookings for hotels.
So we decide to go west from Beyneu to the Caspian Sea for 3 nights and then back to Beyneu and north Atyrau for the trip across the border with Russia. Beyneu, north of the Uzbek border is a sad unfriendly little town, with poor hotel service (except for the Jasmine restaurant), best avoided if you can help it.
To get to the holiday resort and oil city of Aktay on the Caspian requires a journey of 470 kilometres – yes, Kazakhstan is a huge country – of which only just under half is tar sealed. The rest is a very rough road across the desert, alongside of which run various tracks through the scrubby sand, made by the many trucks that travel the route. The journey takes us 9 or 10 hours each time, at about 40 kph on the mud roads. Martin valiantly tries to find the smoothest track, while we rattle and shake slowly across the miles. Our coffee plunger is a casualty; one large jolt must have been too much for it, for next day we find it broken.
You might think the desert is dull and boring, but there is much of interest to see and even photograph. First there are the scattered domestic herds mainly near the infrequent villages – camels, cows, sheep, goats, horses. Some of the flocks would have numbered into the thousands, tendered by several locals on horseback. Once 2 children wanted to sell us some camel milk; I’m afraid we weren’t a good prospect.
Then there is the wildlife. The desert gophers (we don’t know their real name) sit up on their hind legs and peer at us before running for cover; a tortoise slowly crosses the road in front of the car and we encourage him into the herbs at the side of the road before he becomes road-kill. Birds sing in the undergrowth and once we come across a flock of colourful little birds taking great delight washing themselves in a puddle of water.
The town of Aktay on the Caspian Sea is a good place to blob out for two days from the rigours of travel. We walk and read and eat and sleep. Until Kazakhstan we have found food very cheap, but here prices are approaching NZ levels. Fuel, on the other hand, is inexpensive with a litre of diesel costing about $1NZ.
Our last stop in Kazakhstan is in the city of Atyrau straddling the Ural River, the official border between Asia and Europe. Martin and Maurice spend most of the day with the vehicles. Bilbo is causing a few concerns – more about that in the next blog – and the guys seek a diagnosis. Anne and I go site seeing with Australian Sally, whose husband works for Chevron in the oil industry. How did that come about, you ask. On the previous evening our restaurant table is next to an American with his son and we get talking to him, English being our common language. We tell of our trip and he speaks of his work for Chevron. It is he who provides a contact to discuss Bilbo’s problems and also a colleague in the Chevron village to take us around the city. A very propitious meeting at dinner.
A friend of ours has been following both Maurice’s blog and mine. He wrote recently saying that after reading our stories, if he didn’t know better, he would think that we were travelling in different countries; he also wondered that seeing Anne was called Flypaper, why I too wasn’t given a pseudonym - he suggested Flyswat! I think I will give that one a miss.

Posted by Silkspin 10:27 Comments (2)

Exit from Uzbekistan

Diesel,Dollars, Donkeys and Places of Devotion

We arrive at the Uzbek – Kazakhstan border about 8.30am on Sunday 15 May, a scruffier and more bedraggled group of Western tourists you would have trouble finding. For the last three nights we have slept either on wooden floors or the sand of the Aral Sea shore, admittedly with a thin carpet mat. Our clothes are very grubby with the dust of the desert and we haven’t washed much more than our face and hands for the last four days. Perhaps our hair has seen a hair brush, but if not, a sun hat hides the bird’s nest.
Yet we are privileged Westerns, allowed to go up near the front of the queue, ahead of the 100s of Uzbeks and their cars lining the road before the border gates. Why are they waiting, how long have they been there, when will they be attended to? We don’t know the answer to our silent questions. Chaos reigns supreme. Lines of cars and trucks everywhere, with no organised system or obvious processing plan. People with piles of gear, the roofs of their cars laden with bags and bedding, proof of at least their intention to enter Kazakhstan.
Next time you Kiwis are standing in line at the Brisbane airport waiting to have your passport stamped and be off to your holiday in the sun, lift a prayer of gratitude that you live in a culture of reasonable efficiency. Much of the world has no idea of how to be organised. It takes us three hours to leave Uzbekistan and enter Kazakhstan. Our guide Rashid helps with translation on the Uzbek side but after that we are on our own. A kind hearted Russian truck driver aids us to fill in the forms, all a mystery to us, as they are all in Russian or Kazak and no official seems particularly interested in assisting. We notice some other truck drivers include some money with their forms and passport when they hand them over and the money goes swiftly into the official’s pocket. Is this a form of bribe to speed the process? We can only guess, but no one asks us for ‘payment’. Eventually we are through and the Uzbek part of our journey is over.
It has been a most enjoyable experience. Most of our fears and concerns have been proved wrong. The pit toilets were an unavoidable reality (not in the hotels) but we were not stopped once by any police looking for monetary hand outs, as we had heard was prevalent. Perhaps the word has gone out to leave tourists alone; certainly we saw instances money being handed over by locals, for example, at a bridge crossing, but no money was expected from us. No bed bugs either! No political unrest – all the things you think about in the night hours as you plan your trip back home.
Our most urgent problem was the poor supply of diesel. In the 18 days we were there, we purchased diesel from a farmer, a truck driver and at least two city dwellers with entrepreneurial bents, doing business in their back yards, as well as from service stations if we could find them. For the Aral Sea trip we carried a 60 litre tank of diesel as well as our normal emergency 5 litre can. We learnt the Russian word for diesel so we could spot any sign of it for sale – pronounced salyarka, but written with Cyrillic lettering!
There have been many little pleasures in Uzbekistan. In Samarqand one afternoon we visited the Russian Orthodox Church, Pokrov Cathedral, with its blue spire and wooden icons inside. I purchase 4 prayer cards to give to our Russian nieces and nephews and the women give me 2 eggs; the first is a real egg with the shell dyed brown and obviously I can’t bring it home; the second is larger than an actual egg and enclosed with a crocheted cover. The woman who gave it to me spoke in Russian but we could understand her words: Christos is risen, she said.
In Bukhara our guide took us to visit a Jewish synagogue, the only time we have entered one. A friend in Omokoroa had lent us a book to read about small minority groups still living in Central Asia. One of these was the Jews of Bukhara, once numbering some thousands, but today a group of only about 200. They had lived in Bukhara since the 12th or 13th century and contributed much to the commercial wellbeing of the city, in spite of difficulties in a Moslem and later a Soviet environment. Many have now immigrated to Israel.
Just a comment on Uzbek money. I have included a photo of a wad of money that has the value of about $150US. One NZ$ equalled about 1220 Uzbek soms when we left NZ. So when you exchange money, you get a wad so fat that it won’t fit in your wallet. Once when we paid for a taxi we had just used, we noted the driver just threw the cash into his glove box which was already stuffed full of other notes. And a modest meal for four may cost thousands of soms – the Uzbeks seem to live comfortably with their money.
The final comment for Uzbekistan goes to the donkey. He is a ubiquitous creature - he is everywhere, pulling every conceivable type of transportation, working in the fields, giving rides to many a human being. Uzbekistan may be coming into the modern age, but the donkey is still a popular beast of burden. One of our guides told us a donkey is worth about $1000US, so he is valuable too, and my guess is that he will here for a while longer. My problem is that I want to photograph them all.
Farewell to Uzbekistan!

Posted by Silkspin 09:02 Comments (0)

Chasing the Aral

Outback Experience in Uzbekistan

I pick up the radio hand piece in our Nissan to speak to Maurice and Anne in their car: ‘I have an idea for my next blog,’ I say. ‘It goes like this: two testosterone charged males in their mid 60s race across the desert, dust billowing behind, in an effort to outrun the driver of the guide’s car. Two rows of telegraph poles mark the edges of their desert vegetation-strewn race track.’ ‘Power poles’ says Anne. At that point the guide’s driver picks up the challenge and passes Maurice and Martin to take what he considers his rightful place at the head of the cavalcade.
We have taken a three day side trip to the Aral Sea. It has proven very interesting, made more so by the politics and personalities in the guide car, whose occupants number four – a guide, his wife, a driver and the driver’s helper; we had expected just two, the guide and driver. The day before, we had gone to the market with the guide to buy food for the trip for the six we thought were coming. Once on the trip, the driver seems to think he is in charge instead of the guide (the English speaker), and the guide’s young wife insists on doing all the cooking for all 8 of us with no help from Anne and I; and we remain unclear of the purpose of the driver’s helper, as he does no driving on the trip. However, in spite of a few stresses and strains, the expedition is a great experience.
The first day we go from Nukus up to Moynaq, which until the 1960s was a prosperous little fishing and holiday town on the shores of the Aral Sea. Today the sea has receded 150 kilometres north, and Moynaq is no longer a fishing village, with the silent witness of its ships’ graveyard a poignant symbol of its former status. For nearly a century, particularly under Soviet governance, the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers have been syphoned off to irrigate the cotton industry and other agriculture, resulting in a decreasing flow of water into the sea, so that today no river water actually reaches the Aral Sea at all.
It is probably the world’s greatest ecological tragedy, robbing people of their livelihood and turning millions of hectares into a toxic wasteland. That said, I was surprised that Moynaq looked as clean and cheerful as it did in the bright May sunshine, yard fences painted white, their gates blue, and children playing noisily and care free in the streets. Tom Bissett in his book about the Aral Sea, which I had read, had given a very sombre picture of life there, strengthened by a description, I remember, of a sad pot plant refusing to grow in the ‘guest house’ where he stayed – a symbol of the death that had come to the town.
The term ‘guest house’ really means a private home that takes in visitors. Our guest house belongs to a family of 7 who have moved out for us, and into an adjacent smaller building. One pit toilet outside and one basin of running water inside, no furniture and rolled-out mats for beds, but lovely carpets on the walls and floors, and luxurious curtains on some to the windows. Different priorities, I think. Trees in the yard are planted each in a six inch depression so that the water given to them would get to the roots. The rest of the yard is bare dirt as hard as concrete. We eat very well - afternoon tea, dinner and breakfast are all provided. In the evening we walk the dark streets to the abandoned airport, a relic of Soviet days.
The following day we drive up to the Aral Sea, a journey of over 300 kilometres, as we have first to return south to the main road before going north to the shores of the sea. There is no formed road, but a choice of wheel tracks across the desert to chart, the guide car generally going first. Slow, bumpy, dusty dirt tracks, fanning out across the desert. Don’t have an image of endless rolling sand dunes but rather a very flat plateau sparsely covered with desert vegetation about 6-12 inches high, over which it is easy to drive, if rather slowly.
Martin and I take our shoes off and paddle in the Aral Sea, then we camp for the night close by, in three small two-man tents, not quite long enough for Martin and Maurice to stretch out, with thin mats under our sleeping bags. Surprisingly we sleep quite well, waking up with the sun about 5.40am. The drivers sleep in their car. Though the starlit night ends fine and clear, morning brings a shower of rain, throwing our Uzbek companions into real concern. If the rain continues, our vehicles may not get up the steep escarpment above the sea shore; with no gravel on the track, it can very quickly become a quagmire and we could stranded for days! We break camp, drive up to the plateau and have breakfast. From there we backtrack for several hours and then go west across the desert (where the race mentioned above takes place) to the town of Jaslyk on the main road north.
The plan is to camp again near Jaslyk, but rain again threatens, and it is decided to drive further north to the town of Karakalpakstan and find a ‘guest house’ for the night. So again it is a hard floor and a pit toilet. So here you have four Kiwis beyond their middle years, living it up in the outback of Uzbekistan!

Posted by Silkspin 10:25 Comments (1)

Silk Road Cities

Bazaars and Bumpy Boulevards

Tashkent, Samarqand, Bukhara, Khiva – the main Uzbekistan centres of the ancient Silk Road. The senses are bombarded with so many new experiences, images, sounds and impressions that one has to struggle to keep the cities separate in the mind. Tashkent – where the 7th century Quran resides in the Khast Imom and Tamerlane’s grand statue reminds one that he is now ‘the new good guy’ of Central Asian history. Samarqand – city of blue domes above madrassas, mausoleums and mosques, built up by the conqueror Tamerlane and his philosopher grandson, Ulughbeg.
Bukhara – the restored old city, with its lovely madrassas, caravanserai and domed bazaars is easy for tourists like us to walk around in a day’s site seeing with a guide, but we think it is just a bit too pristine and immaculate in its rebuilding. However it is still very interesting to hear the history of Bukhara’s heyday in both the 9-10th centuries and the 16th century, interrupted by the widespread destruction of Genghis Khan who nevertheless was so impressed by the Kalon Minaret that he ordered it to be spared the sacking of the city. It is indeed an incredible piece of workmanship at 47 metres in height, surviving wars and earthquakes for nearly 900 years.
Genghis Khan did benefit the Silk Road trade in that subsequent to his campaigns, there was a period of nearly 200 years when the Mongol Pax reigned and people like Marco Polo were able to explore beyond Europe.
Our accommodation in the old city was a restored small madrassa, dating back to 1861, very conveniently situated for visiting the sights. One night the lady of the house cooked us plov in the central courtyard on a wood fired belly stove. It is a traditional Central Asian rice dish with added vegetables, spices and meat, and varies according to the district. You need to order it well in advance, for it takes about two hours to cook. We enjoyed the plov in the company of a young Finnish couple and their baby, also staying in the madrassa. They live and work in Moscow and have the added advantage of speaking Russian well (also English) as it is widely spoken in Uzbekistan. I am glad to say we enjoyed the plov, for we agreed somewhat hesitantly to share in the meal - we had eaten the Kyrgyzstan version some days before and had found it rather fatty and not too our liking. ‘Amulet’ (our hotel) plov was delicious.
Old Khiva, the 4th major Silk Road city in Uzbekistan, is completely ringed around by mud walls mainly from the 17th century, and within are palaces, mosques and caravanserai. Its 19th century history centres on the rather barbaric local khans and Russian and English spies and speculators who played ‘the Great Game’ (google for more info) if they were lucky enough to survive the khan’s executioner for long enough.
We haven’t bought much on our travels in the way of mementos as we have little extra room in the vehicle. However the other deterrent in the bazaars is the way shopping is done. If you don’t want to buy anything, you have to look straight ahead, avoid the seller’s eyes, run the gauntlet and march doggedly past. Glance at the post cards, or handle a scarf or show any sort of interest in the needle work, and the seller is eagerly at your side, inviting - no, pressing, imploring you to go into her little shop, and expecting a sale. Once you have decided to make a purchase, there is the task of arriving a price via the bartering process. So you have to consider how low you think the seller will go, how much you really want the article, what you are prepared to pay and also the inquisition to which your husband will put you concerning the sale price, once the deal is made. Not really worth it, except you do want something to place on the dresser at home to remind you of your Silk Road adventure.
I am reminded of T.S. Eliott’s (spelling?) poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ which begins something like: ‘A hard coming we had of it’ and speaks of ‘camels recalcitrant’ and other difficulties of the trip taken by the wise men to the stable in Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child. I wish I had a copy of the poem here to read, for I am sure much of it would be applicable to the problems of the camel caravans on the Silk Road. But modern day travellers also have their difficulties.
The roads in Uzbekistan have to be experienced to be believed. Usually the city centres are fine, but beyond that they can vary from reasonable to atrocious. Probably the worst section has been from Bukhara to Khiva, a distance of 450 odd kilometres, taking about 9½ hours. We bumped and bounced, rattled and shook all day on the uneven road, avoiding potholes, dodging broken tar seal, and skirting furrows parallel in the road and corrugations across the road. A new road was under construction alongside the old route for many, many miles, adding to the problems. It was a long day!
Crossing the Amu Daria River (of Aral Sea fame – more on that later) near Khiva was an interesting experience. Again, a new bridge was under construction alongside the old river crossing, which consisted of a track through piles of sand, followed by a series of connecting old barges over which the motorist gingerly made his way. NZ’s OSH would not have been impressed.

Posted by Silkspin 00:34 Comments (0)

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