Thursday, July 31, 2008

Down to Dushanbe

Got to Dushanbe yesterday after 6 days of pretty heavy riding, despite the altitude drop from 2100m to 700m. Plenty of ups and downs and the roads were worse than I'd expected. At least the last 100km were perfect tarmac and a pleasant cruise down into the heat of the lowlands.
I had a dip in the last hot spring (in Obigarm) before heading down.

Touchwood, my bike frame weld has been very well behaved so far...

Dushanbe is very Soviet, with broad leafy boulevards = excellent shade! It's much quieter and more pleasant, if more boring, than Almaty.

Last night I stayed with an 81 year old Russian babushka who came here from Siberia 54 years ago. It was in fact her son (a truck driver) who had invited me, but he hadn't turned up yet. She insisted that I stay anyway. She is amazingly healthy and robust but feels her way around the house - she's blind from glaucoma and whatever else.

My Iran visa invitation letter hasn't turned up at the embassy. It was closed yesterday (Wednesday) due to a public holiday in Iran. Now I hear that Thursday and Friday are the WEEKEND in Iran (??? what is that all about? first time I've heard that) though apparently the Iranian visa/travel agency and the embassy work on Saturday.

The agency I went through in Almaty (Stantours) tells me now that 1 in 5 invitations go missing, and that they can't contact Key2Persia (the Iranian agency that issued the visa) until Saturday. Great.

In a park I tried some draft beer and met an Iranian tourist, who said that the agency should be open today anyway. That's a thought - why not ring them? Sure enough, I got onto the manager, who had the reassuring news that they never actually get hold of the invitations - that they are sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Iranian embassies, which commonly lose them.

My Tajik visa finishes on Sunday, and theoretically I can extend it, but it sounds like a real hassle. I'll try to avoid this at all costs.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Pamirs - to Khorog

Heading out of Osh and gradually uphill towards the Irkeshtam Pass and China, the highway was being rebuilt - everything was trucks, cars, dust and fist sized rocks. Hot, dry, late afternoon. Not the very worst, but relatively awful. Xavier's voice back in Osh (he had just ridden in the opposite direction) was ringing in my ears: 'Over zose last 80 kilometres I was askeeng myself: Why do I bozer?'

Next thing I knew, I was riding past a Kamaz truck with a Kyrgyz standing in the back of the open container beckoning to me to put my bike inside. 50 metres on I stopped and thought, 'That's GOT to be a good idea.' Sure enough, they were going to Irkeshtam to China and were very happy to give me a lift across the worst of the highway repairs to Sary Tash.

The workings of the Kyrgyz GAI (traffic police) were soon revealed. Our 3 truck convoy was stopped and my driver pulled out roadworthy (out of date), driver's licence (valid) and permission from truck owner to drive this particular truck (in somebody else's name).
As it happened, each of the 3 drivers was missing at least one of these three.
Soon I was watching one of the other drivers trying to force 20 som ($0.60) into the cop's hand, with him pushing it away. There was a brief detente and my driver told me a bit anxiously, 'He won't take the bribe.' 20 som is the going rate, which you pay 3-4 times before Irkeshtam.

I couldn't believe it. Surely not an honourable traffic cop?

In the end it turned out he wanted 200 som for each truck but the guys bargained him down to 150! The cop hadn't noticed the owner's permit for my driver being in the wrong name - would it have made any difference?

We stopped frequently for the driver to do his regular Kamaz brake checks (no complaints there) and tinkerings, and from 11pm-1am stopped in a roadhouse for a relaxed feast of mutton, noodles, tea and flat bread. I dozed propped up on the wall. Then we headed on till 2.30am, when the driver decided on a nap. I rolled my sleeping bag out in the back. At 5.30am he woke me and we headed on (they prefer driving at night as the engines overheat less.) By 9 we were over a second pass and in Sary Tash. I jumped out.

From Sary Tash I went south across a sparsely grassed plateau towards Tajikistan. Virtually zero traffic. Yurts were dotted across the landscape still, with plenty of kymyz. Up over a barren, rocky pass, and down past the Tajik border post with lots of young Tajik boys strutting around in cammo gear, sun hats or balaclavas, and AK 47s. They delighted in making me wait at three separate checkpoints and didn't even look at my GBAO permit.

Down in the first valley, the only visible human life was a Swiss cyclist, Martin, who had just camped, so I joined him. He was going the other way.

Up onto the vast arid high Pamiri plateau, over the 4500m Ak-Baital Pass, and a long - 70 km - descent to Murghab, the very low key regional centre of Eastern Pamir, with a mixed Kyrgyz/Tajik population. By now there were no more horses - and no more kymyz. Not enough pasture, I was told. Damn. I went to OVIR to register (compulsory within 72 hours of arrival) and was sent to the bank to pay $15 plus 20 somoni. The friendly Pamiri boys at the bank immediately invited me back to their place.

It was fascinating running into the first Pamiris. Physically, you'd think you were somewhere in southeastern Europe. They are often fair, with blue eyes, generally dark haired but sometimes red/blonde. Sometimes they have strikingly aquiline (or just huge!) noses. They're also extremely warm and friendly, and tend to greet you with a hand on the heart, indicating respect.
Along with this, Pamiri people are generally the most hospitable I've ever moved amongst, despite being very poor. They'd share their last crust with you. On most days I am offered tea and a place to stay about 3-4 times from mid afternoon. Their staple is bread, which they bake themselves in little electric ovens, or in fuel- stoked ovens, if there's fuel. In the mornings everybody drinks 'shir chai', slightly salted milk tea, into which you break bread. This is good for old stale bread, none of which gets thrown out. They like meat, but eat very little, as it's too expensive. People have little garden plots but can't grow enough to be completely self sufficient.

Looking south into Afghanistan.

See the foot (or goat?) tracks on the Afghan side?

I also found out that Pamiris are proud of their individuality and keen to distinguish themselves from Tajiks. I found out that they are very poor. And I found out that they universally revere 'their Aga Khan', the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, whom I didn't know much about. This was soon to be corrected. The Aga Khan Foundation is very active in Tajikistan and does all kinds of good deeds, from building basic hydroelectric setups to bigger projects - which might be why they love him so much.

From Murghab I headed south. I met my last (the southernmost) Kyrgyz in Alichur, and got to try airan (tasty yak kefir). Off the Pamir highway and over a pass to the Wakhan valley, where the Pamir, and then the Pyanj rivers form the border with Afghanistan. Over a few hundred km, through Langar and Ishkashim, I was looking across 20-30m of grey glacial river at Afghanistan. Everything seems very peaceful over there.

Amongst other things there were two excellent hot springs to bathe in and also lots of good roadside mineral water springs, including the famous Narzan spring. Delicious apricots were just ripening in the Wakhan so I got to gorge on them in most villages! You can also split the seeds open to get to the delicious kernels.

You can't catch vitiligo or psoriasis, can you? This spring is famous over the former Soviet union for its curative properties...

Here in Khorog I'm staying with a Pamiri friend my age whom I met in Murghab. He makes a living - amongst other things - from smuggling rubies to Afghanistan (which, of course, is illegal.)

I went over my bike and found a snapped steel bracket which attaches to my front pack rack - luckily my host had a reasonable replacement. Everything else seemed fine. But looking again I found a crack 2cm long at the bottom of my seat tube (the near vertical one in which the seat post sits), across a dent caused by kids in Alice Springs who stole my bike and damaged the frame. BUGGER. (I only got to keep the bike cos they'd wrecked the rear wheel and weren't able to ride off on it.) It seemed to be holding up fine, so I had decided to just keep an eye on it. Clever Rob. If only I had got through the hassle of replacing the frame.

The ideal repair would be to replace the tube but it's the hardest one to get at - it'd have to be a professional job, and amongst other things I'd have to get the right diameter so that the seat post fits.

After quite a bit of hanging around I got my frame electric arc welded at the Pamir hydroelectric power station but it's one of the more primitive, dodgy jobs you can imagine - just have to pray that it holds up. No TIG welding (or whatever is best) here. I'm not sure that I'd find much better in Dushanbe or Tashkent. Bikes here tend to be very disposable Chinese or extremely rough Soviet single speeds, nothing any Western bike mechanic would want to go near. The nearest 'professional' bike mechanic? I might be looking at heading back to Sasha's in Almaty!
Anyway, rather a crack in the frame than a schmack in the cranium. Plus, 3700km so far touch wood and NO PUNCTURE!

Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all... where will I find another frame? India maybe?

Above the friendly Pamiri welder ('best in town') who refused payment and gifts for the repair.
525km left to Dushanbe.

Pamirs - the roof of the world

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

From Osh up into the Pamirs

If I get my passport back today I'll leave with Michael, a nutty 21 year old bike tourer, towards Sary Tash. He has a Chinese visa (having promised to FLY in) - funnily enough he is the only person I've met who has managed this. He should still get over the Irkeshtam pass as his visa doesn't specify that he must fly...

Unfortunately I can't download any of the best photos so far - very slow connections, plus the anti virus programs create havoc for USB's. So they will have to wait.

Most of my pics up to Almaty are here:

The Tajik visa story (see earlier, in Almaty) finished up today. I didn't get my Pamir permit by email on Friday but the big boss at Munduz Travel here in Osh made a big fuss and then told me that due to his excellent connections with the Tajik Embassy in Bishkek, he could get it to me by Monday night (last night).

His travel agency was classic Central Asian. Lots of young people hanging around the office (they said they were work experience students from the International Relations faculty, with about 10-15 hanging around in an office on one side and the big boss in an office the same size, just opposite. One female manager who did mostly admin work had to consult him for everything. Everything required his approval and in the meantime people just stood/sat around.

Big Boss was big, expansive, well dressed in lemon shirt and white linen pants, loud, and smelt of cigarettes. His modus operandi was classically Soviet. When the grand theatre of his explanation of how he would get the permit finished, I asked how much it would cost. The answer - $70 - $50 for the permit and $20 admin. When I questioned this he went into semi attack mode: 'Fine, if you don't want it I won't do it, you won't get it any other way, nobody has the connections I have, and I wouldn't send my worst enemy to the Pamir without a permit.' I could smell vodka on his breath now. I backpedalled and played contrite Rob.

On Monday I rang and said I wanted a receipt from the embassy in Bishkek. Big Boss refused and told me straight out that this money was a 'tip'. He then again threatened to cancel the whole thing. Again I backpedalled.

Meanwhile, one of the Tajik agencies had sent me a scan of the permit after all, out of the blue! So all I needed now was my passport.

Throughout the afternoon I had to call to see what was happening. If I got onto the female manager I always had to call back because she never knew anything, or had no licence to talk to me. 6pm last night - Big Boss told me they'd refused the permit and rambled something about 'bandits' and 'contraband'.

I wonder whether he got the jitters when I talked about going to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dushanbe to complain - that could disrupt a neat little arrangement for him and the Tajiks in Bishkek. Yes, I'm a troublemaker.

I only got my passport - and money - back on Tuesday at midday after waiting at his office for almost 2 hours. At long last Big Boss received me -completely unapologetically, as you expect - leaned back in his chair, flipped open a white packet and proffered a cigarette. Is this a movie?? No thanks. I accepted the cup of tea instead. He rambled a bit more and then I had my hands on what I wanted.

I'm out of here. Michael from UK has the runs and is resting up.

The Pamirs promise to be hard. Next internet is two or so weeks away in Khorog.

About 3000km by bike so far.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Karakol to Osh

I left Karakol and headed along the southern coast of Lake Issyk-Kol. The shore is quiet, with pebbly beaches, azure-clear waters and rugged spurs shrouded in cloud to the south. Much better than the resort dominated northern shore. I passed a girl running in Russian colours and slowed for a chat. She was a marathon runner from Omsk, training at altitude for the Omsk marathon. At a little village called Tosor I picked up supplies and headed into the mountains. At the top of the first gorge a herder family (2100m up) invited me to stay in a spare room and fed me with home made bread, jam, cheese, kymyz (sour horse milk, like kefir) and joghurt. The next morning Mum fed me up again, I bought cheese from her, then I was on my way.

Up a gravel/4WD road round constant switchbacks more kymyz was on offer in another 2 yurts. Further up into foul weather, then over a spectacular 3800m pass. Horses and cattle were grazing right up to 3700m or so, until the country was just rocky scree.

Half way up this pass I noticed my first theft - two bolts from the right side of my rear pack rack were missing. Very lucky I noticed. I check them regularly -though not as often as I did when I had crappier racks - and they have never come loose over 4 years, so I'm 99% sure they were nicked. Maybe the thief was one of the people I was telling about my big list of spares?

Over the next 2 days I wound down the lush Naryn valley, green meadows lined with jagged snowy peaks, to the south west, with occasional river crossings and detours over escarpments. Even high up they're not quite Heidi meadows - they are pretty heavily grazed. I soon passed my first chabani (herdsmen), these ones living in white old style tents, like our ancient canvas Scout tents. There had once been bridges on this road, but they were virtually all washed out. The road was rubble, gravel, not good. Even descending you can't go more than 15 km/h. Much more kymyz was around, and in one yurt I swear I had 8 cups. They kept insisting, swearing that it's extremely healthy and completely fat free. More home made bread and jam. Also more promises to send photos from home (making more of these than I should, I have a very bad track record.) For the first time my emergency shelter (a tarp) got a bit of a test in a stormy and rainy night. The sky was crystal clear before I went to bed - very rapid weather changes here.

By Naryn I was pretty tired and found a 'CBT' (community based tourism) flat with a well educated Kyrgyz hostess who spoke very good Russian. So I decided to have a rest day.
We had a good talk over dinner - she belongs to the generation that owes everything to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately things degenerated the next day after they all stayed up and watched Russia lose in the Euro football semis. She was very disappointed but I said I was glad because I was sick of rabid Russian nationalism. She got very angry and we had a big argument. I made her late for work. As she left I was thinking of saying, 'By the way, do you know how many Kyrgyz I hear skinheads kill in Moscow every year?' - but thought better of it.

From Naryn a good asphalt road led 100 km further west, running between two east-west ridges, uncannily like the Larapinta west of Alice Springs in places. The country dried out dramatically, and started to resemble huge rolling sandy hills of mine tailings.

The road wound up over two more big passes before reaching the Ferghana valley: the first 2800m, the second 2900m high. On the first I was invited to stay the night with a chabani family in their yurt. They were very happy to tell me all about how they live.

Generally they rent the high country meadows from the local government, and it seems that certain families have a long standing claim on certain areas. They take their yurts up high in May and stay there until September. If the kids go to school or Mum works, they come up for the long summer holidays. The husband/older sons stay the whole time.

Chabani often have a mix of their own and other peoples' stock, who pay them. The family I was with had about 50 horses, 5 cows, and 150 sheep and goats. I noticed many families lower down didn't have horses. I would stop and ask if I could buy kymyz and they would often say, 'No, you see, we're poor, we don't have horses.'

Mares are valued most of all as they produce milk for kymyz (only in summer though) which they sell for $US 0.70 per litre to passersby or at markets, a good earner. A good mare sells for $1500. They milk the mares every 2 hours from 6am to 8pm! This family said they got about 35 litres of kymyz per day.

There is a special process for kymyz production: you line a wooden barrel with a coat of cream, then smoke the barrel with pine cone smoke (or other if not available). Then you just stir the milk and within an hour or two you have kymyz.

The cows are milked twice a day and every family has a 'separator' (same word in Russian) to make cream. Some make cheese too. Many families now have small Chinese solar panels to run a light and a radio at night - not sure if they can power a separator!

Sheep are only sold for meat, at maybe $150 each. The fattier the rump, the better. They use the wool to cover the yurts but otherwise they can't really sell it - no market. Shashliks in towns are mostly mutton, with less beef.

The families make their own bread often using flour which they grind using their own wheat from the valley below. The dough goes into a deep pizza pan and bakes like a fat pizza/heavy Turkish style bread. Then the bread is eaten with green tea (+ cream), cream, and home made jam (there is a berry called 'oblipikha' which is like a powerful apricot which everybody gathers in the forests for jam.)

The little stove (inside/outside the yurt) runs on dried manure gathered after the winter from the sarais (stables) down in the village. Water is boiled in a samovar (which has a hollow core for fuel).

Child labour isn't much of an issue here!

On the second pass I found a NZ and Scottish cyclist coming the other way, up from the Ferghana Valley - golden fields way below to the west. They had come from Europe and the Kiwi wins the prize for cheapest bike to travel across Central Asia so far... but these roads will test it.

Down towards Jalalabad into the heat of the valley and I spent my last night before Osh with a retired Kyrgyz Russian language teacher.

From Jalalabad it was a hilly 100km loop on good roads around a bit of Uzbekistan to Osh.

In Osh I found that my GBAO (Pamir) permit hadn't come by email and desperate measures were needed...

The bazaar in Osh was a real treat, though, with lovely friendly people, no haggling needed, and no massive hordes to negotiate. I spent most of the weekend with Xavier (a French bike tourer, down from the Pamir) and also met up with 3 Swiss riders - then 1 British.

Most of the people working the bazaar are Uzbek rather that Kyrgyz; the woman often conservatively dressed in Uzbek patterns with a monobrow painted on, and henna stained hands.

I bought a whole stack of supplies here for the Pamirs: 1kg sultanas, 1 kg peanuts, 5oog dried apricots, 500g lollies for gifts, excellent mountain honey...

Odile and Olivier, French bike tourers I met in Kyrgyzstan, took some great pics in this area. Sadly, I lost most of mine (memory card died).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Out of Almaty to the Kyrgyz border

Escape from Almaty to the east, sticking close to the mountains on local roads to evade traffic – almost impossible on a Saturday. Lots of booming restaurants and wedding reception centres, shashlik mixed with diesel fumes, blaring Turkic pop. How many weddings can there be? First night - slept in the garden of a florist who I had got cafĂ© advice from on the way through. On the next day I found some company in a young Kazakh tobacco picker who had just brought himself a new ‘Ukraina’ single speed roadster the week before and was getting into riding. Made in Kharkov, exactly the same as the ancient Soviet ones, most likely in the same ancient Soviet factories. Funny that in some areas they stick to these, and in others they’re importing rubbish Chinese bikes. After 25km one of his pedals was clunking. I had a look and found a loose crank AND pedal. For that effort I got the nickname ‘diamond–eyes’. We had a feed in a market chaikhana (teahouse) and then a local Russian invited me back to his place to try his home made kvas and meet his Korean wife, who he rescued from Kyzyl-Orda (godforsaken town in the northern wastelands of KZ, on the Moscow-Central Asia train route – dust, crumbling buildings, camels). I asked him about the scars on his arms. He said, ‘I told you, I had to spend almost a year in Kyzyl-Orda’. He also had some shocking army service stories. The modern day Kazakh army gets mixed review from the local men – about half say that the old Russian practices of ‘dedovshina’ (officers constantly beating, humiliating and robbing new recruits) still persist. I’ve been reading Anna Politovskaya’s ‘My country’s army’ which has damning accounts of the army’s utter legal immunity, and indifference to soldiers’ lives. The second Chechen war from 2000-2002 was especially horrible. It’s hard to imagine a more inhumane culture. Even worse is the fact that many of the commanders seem to have built themselves political careers on the basis of their supposed hero status. That’s all about Russia, but the cultural influence is extremely strong in Kazakhstan.

The road swung around to the south up a dry rocky canyon and up onto a series of plateaus. Late in the evening, at a roadhouse, I caught up with a pair of lovely truck drivers who I had passed while they were fixing their Kamaz. The elder – Russian, blonde, the younger – Uighur, neighbours from Zharkent, near the Chinese border. The Russian one had a charming old fashioned way of apologizing when he used a mild expletive, not wanting to offend the guest. We said goodbye and straight away I was bailed up by some Russian long haul truckies from Bishkek, 2 men and one 21 year old son, who were just as friendly but stereotypically ‘rude’ – I can’t find the words – they swore in the most crude Russian ‘mat’ virtually every second word. (‘Mat’ is the extremely crude slang of prisons and army.) Funnily enough the son didn’t swear at all, although his dad was going for it.

Heading further south across dry plains, across the Charyn River canyon, and up another long valley to Kegen, the country got dryer and the traffic sparser. I found my first wayside kymyz (fermented horse milk) salesmen. Past Karkara the valley became lush and fertile again, but the road towards Kyrgyzstan petered out into a gravel track.

At the border I was prepared to speak only English, as I hadn’t registered (though you don’t need to.) The Kazakh guards were funny and completely un-hostile. One was a ruddy, jolly redhead called Max who told me what a dog specialist he was, said he wanted to come and work in Australia, but was then confused when I told him we have no land borders. His offsider, an earnest young Kazakh, told him, ‘it’s a separate continent, silly!’ Duh. Max proudly told me that they had internet, satellite TV and earnt $US 500 per month. Then he asked, ‘So how much do you earn?’ I came up with, ‘More than $US 1000 a month.’ (I’ve decided this isn’t bad- they normally don’t probe further.) Then he added, ‘Even the commander over there’- pointing at the Kyrgyz side – only earns half of that.’

Over at the Kyrgyz side the very young guards tried to be stern and strict. They said, ‘Wait there!’ while one went into a decrepit shack with a Soviet radio set visible. Then ‘Enter!’ after a bit. The young guy mucked around and eventually found a key for a safe in which there was nothing but a stamp with a date. I got my stamp and he painstakingly wrote my details in a book, struggling with English letters. I asked, ‘Can I go?’ He said, ‘Yes.’

Just beyond was a rather more grand house. I heard, ‘Stop!’ The Kyrgyz commander came out. I said, ‘But the soldier said I could go.’ Answer, ‘He was drunk. You haven’t been through Customs yet.’

He took me into the house. Paper shuffling. Lit a candle. Questions about what I was doing. Then he produced a customs declaration, A4 size. ‘Fill this out.’ I said, ‘Why?’ (‘Zachem’ in Russian can express a bit of disdain, more like ‘Why bother?’) ‘Hmm, OK.’ He put it away and got out another, smaller form which he gave to me. 'Fill it out.'

I looked at it. The title read 'Quick questionnaire for foreign tourists who enter Kyrgyzstan'.
I started filling it out. After a bit he got bored and said, 'Give it here'.

'Why did you tick "Tourism on Great Silk Road" AND "ecological tourism"?
'Well, I'm kind of doing both.'
'Where are you going on the Silk Road?'
'That's not on the Silk Road.'
'Umm, yes it is.'

'So, do you want the form?'
'No, you keep it.'
'Can I go now?'

And I was free to go.
My favourite bit: ‘He was drunk’. (He wasn’t!)

Around Almaty

A few hundred km’s before Almaty the headset on my bike (the steering) started playing up and catching. This was a worry as it’s one thing I can’t fix. I found the biggest/best bike shop in Almaty, but the mechanics didn’t have many clues. Luckily I found out about Sasha, a bike mechanic who due to clashes with bosses had gone his own way and had a tiny workshop hidden behind an apartment block in a basement. He had the right bearings and got me sorted.

If anybody needs him:
Sasha (Aleksandr)
Head east along ul. Gogolya past Panfilov Park, towards Central Park
Just past Interfoods supermarket on the north side there’s an arch – behind arch on right.

In Sasha’s workshop there’s this good collegial atmosphere you get in this part of the world where everybody who comes in shakes hands, with strangers especially. People turn up with beers and snacks for everybody. It feels more like a friendly club than a workshop.

While waiting for visas I headed up to Taldy Kurgan, where the relatives of my friend Mika live in a small village. They are originally from Azerbaijan and were deported here in 1936. Some returned to Baku after 1991, some are in Russia, but most have stayed. Only Mika’s mum (a mathematician) made it as far as Australia – via Petersburg, Baku and Israel. Mika’s grandma had 11 children and here I stayed with one of his aunts, who lives with her family right next door to another aunt. It’s a very closely knit setup and people wander to and forth between homes. Out the back of each house is a big vegetable patch with spring onions, tomatoes, potatoes, red peppers, eggplant, dill, coriander, radishes and lettuce, fertilized with manure from the sarai (stable), which has cattle and chooks. Food on the table is mostly home produce: milk, yoghourt, cottage cheese, lavash, dolmi and salad. Delicious.

Back in Almaty headed off into the mountains towards the south for a 2 day walk. Walking through town with my pack an older Russian man greeted me enthusiastically. ‘Great, you’re heading for the mountains!’ Funnily enough bushwalkers/hikers are still almost a secret society, and you still have, again, this special collegial atmosphere when somebody on your wavelength sees you. The Russians say, ‘Rybak rybaka uznayot izdaleka.’ (A fisherman can tell a fisherman from a long way off).

As it turned out, there was nobody in the mountains beyond a rugged 4WD track up to Bolshoe Almatinskoe lake at about 2000m up. I wandered up and camped in a beautiful alpine valley, then up over a 3600m pass the next day next to the Kyrgyz border (south of the Almaty-Alatiri mountains) and back down, down, down towards the city to the north. All the way there was minimal evidence of humans and the path was often patchy. If this was Switzerland there would be hundreds of people up there even on weekdays.

Towards the bottom I came to a barricaded old sanatorium – ‘Alma-Arashan’ with signs ‘Closed for renovations until 2010’. This place was famous in Soviet times, served as a military hospital in WWII, and is famous for curative sulphur waters. The canyon was very steep with little room to move so I found a gap and snuck through, only to be ‘arrested’ by shocked security guards. They told me, ‘This is private property.’ I asked, ‘Whose?’ They said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

Further down an understandably bitter local Uyghur taxi driver told me that a Nazarbaev relative or crony owned it now and was making it into a luxury resort. He was one of the few who expressed their anger and complete despair very openly. Sad. Most people avoid getting emotionally entangled – they know it’s just not worth it. Much better off staying deliberately disengaged.

I went to the Tajik consulate for the 3rd time (mid afternoon) to get my visa. The secretary said, ‘No, you can only pick documents up in the mornings.’ Annoying enough – but next morning I turned up at 10.15 am. Nobody there. The builders reckoned somebody should turn up by 12.00 at the latest. I settled in, then after an hour went for a little walk. I found a luxury estate with Uighur guards at the gates. They said, ‘You can’t go in.’ I put on my old socialist hat and said, ‘well where did they get their money from? Why don’t we break in and steal it all back?’ As an unexpected reward I was then allowed to wander around the estate at my leisure and was then offered tea and biscuits on my return. Ha ha. Back at the consulate people drifted in, waited for a bit, had a sleep, then drifted off. 2pm – still nobody. A young Czech hippy who wanted to travel through Afghanistan turned up. I wasn’t in the mood. At 4.30pm the secretary turned up, completely unapologetic. He gave me the visa but not the border zone (Pamir) permit I needed, saying I should get it from a travel agent.


By the time I got to Osh, 3 day’s ride from the Tajik border and 3-4 weeks after my first email contact with Tajik agencies about this bloody permit, having sent scans a few times, nothing had happened. I went to a local agency and they said I was the 5th this month and that they couldn’t arrange the permit for a KZ-issued visa. After hours of mucking around I was told I could pay $US 70 to send the passport to Bishkek and get the permit, which would take till Monday night (3 days). It also turned out that people getting their Tajik visas in Bishkek were getting the permit included for $US50.

If I have the energy when I get to Dushanbe I’ll go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to (vainly)demand my money back. I know what they’ll say, ‘Take it up with the consulate in Almaty, it’s got nothing to do with us.’ They will most likely be shameless and even amused. It’s always your problem. The complete lack of accountability is all pervasive. There are few or no rules you have to follow, everything depends on contacts, and people in positions of power can make personal exceptions whenever they see fit. For a while, when I realized that as a Russian speaking foreigner I could make things work for me, I liked the arbitrary thing in some ways. Now, I just see it as evidence that there is no functional system – especially when I see that there is no way out (or around) for locals without connections. I must be becoming more German.