Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

23 July 2007

Khorog - Pamir Highway

Hello Readers

Just a quick update from here as we are at a very slow internet cafe, in the town of Khorog in Tajikistan. We made it safely from Bukhara to Dushanbe with a relatively painless and friendly border crossing. We then managed to sort out our registration with the 'authorities' (to be done on pain of death round here) and collect our permits for the Pamir region from a dodgy guy called Dilshod. After a nice curry - probably our last restaurant for a while - we set off for the Pamir mountains; both excited about the fantastic scenery to come. The road soon heads into the mountains from Dushanbe and we found ourselves following a convoy of trucks over a 3250m pass, along a terrible road before dropping down into the Panj valley. The river Panj runs along the Tajik-Afghan border and we have been following it for 3 days now.

It is very interesting (and slighty scary) to see Afghanistan just the other side of the river and it is easy to see a massive difference between the Tajik housing and way of life spaced out along the Soviet-built tarmac road in contrast to the Afghan mud huts which are only accessible from a mountain path, which must be 100km long. Needless to say there are many, many Afghans patiently trekking from village to village on the other side with their donkeys in tow - vey odd to observe from the comfort of our Volkswagen.

We were delayed for a day at Wanch. We were about half way along the valley when we were told of a land slide up ahead. We had to sit out a day whilst they tried to sort it out. When we got there, it was less of a landslide and more of a 'Road falls into the river' situation, but the ingenious locals had managed to craft a route over the rocks which our van was (just) able to get over - accompanied by the cheers of many bemused locals.

We have been staying overnight with incredibly generous locals - we ask politely if we can park on their land to sleep and end up being invited in for dinner, music, local dancing etc. We have already been adopted by at least 3 Tajik families.

From here we now have to stock up with water and diesel before deciding whether to follow the main Pamir Highway up to Murghab or to take the longer route - continuing along the Afghan border down the Wakhan corridor which everyone has recommended to us as being fantastic (don't worry Mums - we are not going across the border and it is all very peaceful on the Afghan side - not much more than farmers and donkeys). Our main concern being that our visa dictates that we must leave on 30th June into Kyrgyzstan and it is very hard to get an accurate picture from anyone of what the road is actually like. We shall see.....

17 July 2007

Medressas, Mosques and Mausoleums

Samarkand Mosque
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Judging from our email inboxes, we are slightly concerned that people don’t think that we are enjoying ourselves after the last few postings. We are: it’s just that Central Asia isn’t the easiest place to travel in… the paperwork requirements and constant police presence around here get more than a little trying (and the bottom of the van falling out didn’t help!). But it is very exciting to be in Central Asia at last.

We have seen a real change over the last few days as we have re-entered a relatively (at least in Central Asian terms) touristy area. The centre of Uzbekistan is in the middle of the ancient Silk Route, so we have visited the old Islamic towns of Samarkand and Bukhara, which were key stops on that route. It is strange to suddenly meet lots of other travellers (mainly Europeans) after not seeing tourists for so long, and to hear about their journeys across Asia – by train; by bus; or by bike (hi to Andy and Jared cycling from Southport to Bangkok). We were the only ones with a campervan though!

Samarkand is the bustling second city of Uzbekistan – although strangely everyone here speaks Tajik, as well as the ubiquitous Russian. The highlight is the sublime Registan Square, where the immense, high, tiled doorways of three Medressas (Islamic schools) face off against each other. We managed to find a B&B located only a stones throw away from the square, where the owner allowed us to park and sleep in his courtyard. He also provided a huge dinner for only a dollar each. We have found the food here to be quite good – we are living on big, round local flat-breads and copious amounts of chai (which here is either black or green tea), plus some shashlik (meat skewers); plov (rice with vegetables and meat); and manty (dumplings filled with boiled meat and onions).

By slipping one of the local policemen in Samarkand a small ‘donation’, we were able to climb the highest minaret of one of the medressas at dawn on our second day in the town. This gave us a great view over the square, deserted of tourists at five in the morning. We watched the sunrise over the mountains that run around the horizon of the town. The other highlight of the city was Shahr-i-Zindah; a very impressive avenue of heavily decorated mausoleums. Each one is fronted by an impressive blue tiled and patterned archway that goes through to the cool room inside containing plain stone tombs. This is a serious pilgrim destination as it also contains the (reputed) tomb of one of the more active cousins of the Prophet Mohammed, who spread Islam around Central Asia.

From Samarkand it is a further 250km or so west to the old city of Bukhara. Unfortunately this drive involved following a river down to lower elevations which means even hotter temperatures. Even in the late evening, the temperature here is still in the high thirties, so we have had to bail out of sleeping in the van and have opted instead for some air conditioning so that we can get some sleep. Bukhara is smaller and more compact than Samarkand; with dusty old streets in the old town, which is fantastic for wandering around. There are countless more decorated medressas, along with some well restored mosques. Our favourite was the Kalon Mosque which stands at the base of the intricately decorated Kalon Minaret – a tower that we were told Genghis Khan thought was so beautiful that he let it stand. The Mosque has a wide open courtyard that is surrounded by repeated patterns of arched doorways and a knarled ancient tree in the centre. It is very quiet and peaceful – not for the first time we have been struck on how different things would be (ie very well known and overrun with tourists) if this area of the world were more accessible to the ‘Western’ world.

From here we will head back east towards Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains. We are following a more southern route than we had originally planned in order to avoid a potentially difficult border crossing at Penjikent. So hopefully we should be able to update you from Dushanbe in a few days. We can’t add any more photos to the website at the moment (or even update the pages), as all of the internet connections for the past couple of weeks have been dog slow. We’ll add some more pics as soon as we find somewhere with a connection faster than snail’s pace….

11 July 2007

54 degrees hot

Having recovered from our waster water tank disaster, we drove south to Turkistan and visited the amazing Kozha Ahkmed Yassaui Mausoleum. This Kozha chap is a big dog (our guide book says “revered Sufi teacher and first great Turkic holy man”, but “big dog” is easier to remember) in both Kazakhstan and Turkey. He lived in Turkistan about 900 years ago. The Turkish government has paid for his mausoleum to be restored and it looks fantastic – huge fortress walls and an enormous mausoleum building with bright green domes and walls covered in intricate turquoise mosaic. It is an important Muslim pilgrimage site and there were lots of pilgrims walking around the building touching the walls; praying; and buying souvenirs such as mosque shaped alarm clocks, as any good pilgrim would. All very impressive and atmospheric (well, perhaps not the souvenirs). It really does feel like we are fully immersed in Central Asia now. All very exciting.

Our arrival into Uzbekistan was marked by five hours at the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, waiting for not very much at all except for repeated questions about whether we are carrying a bazooka (we kid you not); whether we drive along shooting at people out of the window; and whether we are carrying heroin in our van. Oh, and we also had the unpleasant spectacle of watching an Uzbek border official beating up a perfectly innocent-looking man with a stick. Very civilised.

We proceeded down the road for the usual 500 metres before being stopped by the police for registration (which we had already done at the border…. twice). Another two kilometres or so later, we were stopped again, this time by a policeman who tried to “arrest” our vehicle and insisted that we would drive no further. His reasons were threefold. Firstly, we have a right hand drive vehicle. This is not allowed in Uzbekistan, he said. We pointed out that we had just had our vehicle inspected at Customs by several officials, who had issued an importation licence and hadn’t mentioned anything about this. So he changed tack. His second attempt was to say that we are not allowed tinted windows in Uzbekistan. We pointed out that none of our front windows are tinted and that other cars on the road had rear tinting. He didn’t seem to care and insisted that he was keeping the vehicle there. We laughed in despair. Michael showed him the map of where we have driven so far, which distracted and threw him completely off the trail of tinted windows. Instead, he tried to get his mate to fine us USD20 for not having an “ecological permit”. We had already been told earlier in the day that we didn’t need an ecological permit, whatever one of those might be. We pointed this out; said that we wouldn’t pay USD20; and eventually his mate got bored enough that we were waved on. The fact that we are in a right hand drive, tinted, ecological permit-less vehicle suddenly seemed to have become irrelevant.

On arrival in Tashkent, we opted out of sleeping in the van (which is currently displaying an internal temperature of 54 degrees – it was mid-40s outside yesterday) and instead found an air-cooled hotel room, where we plan to spend the next couple of days whilst we apply for Tajik and Kyrgyz visas. Directly opposite our hotel is the Caravan Café, which is a bit of a traveller haunt, but has very good food and a big terrace with traditional Uzbek seating platforms covered in bright cushions – perfect for lazing around and relaxing over the next few days.

Uzbekistan so far seems incredibly cheap. The currency system is insane – the largest denomination note they have here is 1000 Uzbek Som, which is worth only about 40 pence, so everyone walks around with enormous thick rolls of banknotes and we get to feel vaguely Mafioso without actually having any cash. The real beauty of the whole system is that there aren’t actually enough Som to go round – banks are made redundant as none of them actually have any money; just bored bank clerks sitting around with nothing to do. It took three visits this afternoon to find a bank that would let us change $25 – grudgingly.

We had a hot, fresh lunch today from just around the corner, in a courtyard outside someone’s house – local noodles, plov (meat and rice), Uzbek flat-bread and drinks - served by very friendly people and all the for bargain price of £1.20. Now all we need is to get our visas; do the vast amounts of laundry which we have accumulated whilst on the road; and find someone who just happens to stock exactly the right spare parts to reattach a waste water tank to a VW camper van…..

08 July 2007

Crisis update

We seem to be lurching from one crisis to another at the moment. Having survived the horrendous roads a couple of days ago (see below), we were today plodding merrily along to Turkistan in Southern Kazakhstan when we heard a very loud crash, followed by a horrible grinding noise from the back of the van. We stopped, looked underneath the rear of the van, and noticed that the back rear section of the underside of the van had completely fallen out. It was lying on the tarmac under the van, with a long strip of metal trailing out behind it at the back. Needless to say, this did not make our day, particularly given that we were in the middle of the Kazakh desert at the time.

It turned out that the large waste water tank, which was supposed to be strapped to the underside of our van, is no longer living where it should. The metal bracket which held it in place has completely sheared in two, as has the water pipe which went into the tank. Queue major panic from Helen and some remarkably sensible mechanic work from Michael, who spent the next 45 minutes under the van trying to detach the water tank, before jacking up the van to remove the tank from its new home on the road. All under the watchful eye of the usual curious locals, of course.

So, we now have a large waste water tank wrapped in black bin liners sitting in the back of our van, taking up all the space where we are meant to eat and sleep; a large sheared metal bracket which we have no hope of replacing around here; and a whacking great hole in the bottom of our van where water will presumably gush out if/when we dare to run any water.

Though the bigger crisis is that Michael couldn't find anywhere to watch the start of the Tour de France…..

Two weeks in Ibiza would have been so much easier.

The “Short” Way Round: Off-Roading on the M32

We are writing this whilst sitting in the van, in the middle of the Kazakh desert, surrounded by donkeys, chickens, goats, camels and lots of sand. Oh, and the Russian Space centre. Bizarrely, Baygonqir Cosmodrome (from where all of the USSR and Russian space flights have launched) is just on the horizon. We have just had the pleasure of watching the guy whose back garden we are camped in slaughter a rather helpless goat for dinner using a not-quite-sharp-enough knife. Unsurprisingly we’re not feeling too hungry now.

Since the dilemmas in our last blog, we decided to heed the advice of the locals in Atyrau and took the long route to Aqtobe in the north. This looked like being the correct decision on day 1, with 500km of perfect tarmac combined with views of the wide open steppe and camels aplenty. However, on day 2 we were given a ‘sneak preview’ of what the future might hold with a very rough 40km or so (25 miles for those of you still in the ‘60s) which had us crawling at 10km/h around potholes and took almost 2 hours to cover.

We opted to ignore the second piece of advice from the locals; which was a 3000km route via the capital, Astana, in the east. We instead took the direct (330km on our map) ‘M32’ route towards Aralsk in the south. Please note that, as you would expect, ‘M’ stands for Motorway. We started out with some trepidation given the extremely negative local advice and given that there are no villages or even petrol stations marked on the map to break the journey. The first hour lulled us into a false sense of security as the roads were fine, but then we reached the ominous ‘bumpy roads’ sign and the bad stuff began. That was the last decent stretch of road or even road sign for the next 9 hours, during which we covered a mere 220km (average speed over those 9 hours: 24km/h = 16 mph).

The road condition was so bad that even calling it a road is generous. We had pot-holes which weren’t just the size of cars, but the size of VW T5 campervans. Well, almost. The potholes weren’t too bad as you could drive around them. That is we could drive around them, until the flooding started. The flooding wasn’t too bad, though, until the storms started. And the storms weren’t too bad until the mud-slides started. At one point, slewed at 90 degrees to the road; ankle deep in mud in the pouring rain; 250km from the nearest town; and with two Kazakhs shouting at us, we were beginning to wonder whether this whole trip was a good idea.

Luckily (very luckily) our guardian angels appeared in the unlikely form of a heavy articulated Kazakh logging truck. The slightly deranged co-driver wound down his window, shouted at us and indicated that we should follow in his heavily rutted tyre tracks. This we did, for two hours, fearing for our future when watching an articulated truck slewing uncontrollably across the road in front. Our tactics proved to be the right ones, though, as we passed many other vehicles whose drivers were stuck in the mud or who had given up completely. When we emerged at the end of the road in the town of Aralsk, we were both knackered after 14 hours on the worst roads that either of us has ever seen. The fact that the M36 is marked as a major motorway and through route across Asia on signposts and maps is unbelievable (though we are still convinced that it was better than a 3000km diversion – we might not have said that if we hadn’t got through, of course…..).

As a result, what we were looking for in Aralsk was a quiet, peaceful spot to rest our weary heads. Instead what we found was our ‘Kazakh Family’ and a huge dose of Kazakh hospitality. This started when we asked to camp around the back of a shop on the main street (that might sound odd, but in Kazakhstan it seems like a perfectly normal thing to do). The lady who ran the shop agreed, but we were immediately besieged by curious onlookers. An hour later, the shopkeeper’s family turned up and insisted that we drive down the road to park the van in their yard, hidden away behind some heavy gates. We spent the rest of the evening and the next morning entertaining (and being entertained by) their four children. We woke up to find that as well as the six family members, five other people from the village had turned up during the night and slept outside on the family sleeping platform. As you do.

The hospitality here is phenomenal. The family we stayed with all helped to wash the van and offered us food, beds and tea, only hours after having met us. We were in Aralsk for less than 24 hours and were invited to three different family homes. The Kazakhs are almost all, at least in the smaller towns and the countryside (which is almost the whole country), just really curious, very friendly and extremely welcoming.

The next day we left Aralsk via a look at the slightly eerie old harbour, which used to be on the Aral Sea before the Soviets dried it up as part of a grand but fatally flawed scheme to irrigate Turkmenistan. This is a massive ecological disaster: the sea has shrunk incredibly and the local fishing industry as been completely killed off, because what was once sea is now desert. In the port now are rusting ships, abandoned cranes and dilapidated warehouses – as well as a vast grassy, empty flood basin that used to be the sea.

Tune in next time for more Kazakh adventures in a camper van. That’s all for now, folks!

02 July 2007

The Long Way Round?

We have spent a frustrating couple of days hanging around in Atyrau waiting to be registered with the Kazakh authorities. We had understood that this would take 24 hours, but we have in fact only got our little blue stamp three days after arriving. This despite the fact that on day one we were registered both at the border and at a police check 800 metres later. How many official registrations can be required?

Whilst waiting in Atyrau, we have discovered more than a few issues with our proposed route. Basically, we had anticipated some very long drives, with a distance of about 2500km to be covered in Kazakhstan (a country roughly the size of the whole of Western Europe). But several people have told us that the road north of here is appalling (even by Kazakh standards), such that we have to add 450km to the first two days of our route. But that is nothing compared to the next issue. A 335km stretch of road heading back south is supposedly so bad that we will be down to 10km/hour at times and driving on sand (which our van doesn’t like one little bit). We have since read that the 335km stretch can take three days to complete. The locals are seriously proposing that we instead do a loop of almost the whole of the enormous country (which would amount to around 3,000km), rather than tackle that 335km stretch of road. This seems to us insane, particularly as we had been labouring under the misapprehension that the stretch of road in question was quite good, given that it is labelled as Motorway on our map. How wrong you can be?

So now we just don’t know what to do – if we go the long way then we will have to change our trip plans very significantly and apply for new visas, as our current paperwork will run out of date. But dare we risk the short route against local advice? Apparently, the Chinese are so fed up of there being no decent road from there to Russia that they are building a new road for the Kazakhs, but sadly for us, not in the next three days

Thank you very much to Arnoldo for sending us 35 new, post-RTW departure tracks for our iPod, which should at least help to keep us half sane as we trek around this enormous country….

Entering Central Asia

Roadside Camel, Kazakhstan
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
We left Volgograd having successfully fixed our water system with the vital red right angle, so we headed south with a lot more confidence given that we now can now access our drinking water tank again. Volgograd was the last realistic point at which we could choose to bail out of this trip and turn back: anywhere after that would require us to get new visas and lots of paperwork for the van to retrace our steps. Suddenly the lack of options seems quite scary, but it is now full steam ahead.

The road south from Volgograd was the easiest road in Russia so far: really quiet and a decent road surface. We were, though, stopped by the traffic police three times in one day, which gets quite trying, though thankfully we didn’t have to pay any bribes this time. The first time we were pulled over, the policeman waved us in with his stripy baton just so that he could ask us to give “Pavel” a lift to work. Pavel the mystery man spoke no English, so we still have no idea who he was, but he sat in our van for 80km, before quietly pointing at the roadside and getting out. All very random.

After a long drive, we rolled into the Caspian Sea port of Astrakhan and found our hotel on the river front of the Volga. It looked like a building site on the outside and inside our room was the usual tired Soviet affair. We explored the town, including yet another Lenin Square (the last of out trip, perhaps?) and the Kremlin, which is a beautiful white washed walled castle with a couple of impressive churches. We spent the evening in the stifling heat at a bar drinking cold beer and eating hot Shashlik kebab. The population in Astrakhan looks a lot more Kazakh – having seen nothing but white skin for most of this trip, it was really noticeable in Volgograd and Astrakhan that we are now at last moving towards different ethnic groups in Central Asia.

After the usual rubbish signposting, which meant that we struggled to find our way out of Astrakhan, we eventually got onto the right road. This may as well have been called “the road to nowhere”, with few vehicles; few buildings; and a slightly scary floating pontoon bridge across the river. When we eventually arrived at the Russian border post, we exited the country relatively easily and mistakenly thought that this meant that we were near to entering Kazakhstan. However, after 8km of dirt roads, we came across a queue for a rickety ferry crossing in the shadow of a new bridge construction. We paid our roubles and nervously drove our van onto a floating raft with no sides, before being towed precariously by a Kazakh tug along a chain to the other side of the river and into our next new country (and our first ‘Stan).

Entering Kazakhstan proved to be far more long-winded than exiting Russia. We were sent from hut to hut to hand in documents, collect forms and get things stamped. All without any English-speaking officials and without anyone having much idea of how to deal with strange foreign tourists. After exiting the compound a couple of hours later, we then had to sit in a café to wait for a large, fat man with gold teeth wearing a white string vest to finish his lunch, so that he could then come out to his sweltering hut to sell us a $7 insurance policy. Which he promptly dripped sweat all over, thus smudging the official stamp. Lovely.

Having secured all the necessary documents, we headed off across the steppe and into the great unknown…… well almost; there was of course the compulsory police checkpoint, vehicle search and half-hearted request for a bribe just 800m up the road to deal with first (ie less than five minutes after everything had already been checked 3 times at the border).

The contrast as we started our journey was huge, from "normal-looking" breeze block houses in Russia to mud-huts and single storey wattle and daub houses in Kazakhstan. There were lots of camels wandering by the roadside; horses wading in the river delta; and cows standing nonchalantly in the middle of the road, oblivious to the occasional passing car. The driving wasn’t too bad, though, and after a few hours of bumping along and swerving around the odd pot-hole or ten, we rolled into Atyrau – "Oil Town Kazakhstan".

Atyrau is like a cross between Milton Keynes and Houston, which looks like it has just been dropped right in the middle of the Kazakh steppe. It is full of Western businessmen and big cars – all rather incongruous with the previous 250km of deserted prairie. The town straddles the Volga river, which is the division between Europe and Asia, so on our first night we wandered across the river (via the irritatingly unromantic concrete road bridge) and enjoyed dinner and a couple of beers in Asia – all before popping back into Europe to sleep. It’s tiring, this inter-continental travel lark!!