Archive for August, 2008

I’m a Millionaire!

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

I have a million–Uzbek sum, that is. But since there are 1300 sum to the dollar, I’m afraid I am still a pauper.

Yes, I crossed the border into Uzbekistan the other day. But it wasn’t easy.

Before I continue, two things: Thanks to my sister Katrina for uploading all my posts while I was in China. I am no longer censored so I can do my own posts again.

Also, August 18 was my one year anniversary on this bike trip. I remember riding out of Montevideo, Uruguay last August on a cold blustery spring day watching my odometer change from 00000 to 00001 and thinking, “OK, this is it.” My odometer now reads 14,288 km, about 9000 miles.  It has been an amazing trip so far, and the most challenging and thrilling is yet to come: Africa.

Here is my current location in Uzbekistan.

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I left Bishkek headed west and south, through a rough but scenic area called the Chatkal valley. My intention was to reach the town of Ala Buka, which is close to the Uzbekistan border. I needed to get out of Kyrgyzstan by Aug. 31 when my visa would expire.

In the town of Talas I met these nice people. Asian, her friend Mekpula, and Hassan. Mekpula, spoke Turkish, Kyrgyz, Russian and German, and I speak English, Spanish, French and German, so we found a common language and could actually have a decent conversation in German.

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The road south from Talas was a rough one and took me over the 3200 m (10,000 foot) Kara Boura pass. This took me all day, mostly pushing my bike up the steep rough road. Here are some pics of that road.

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I had to ford a few streams on the way. This required taking off my socks and shoes and walking my bike through the swift freezing water. Thankfully I did not trip or it would have been a disaster.

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I reached the pass at sunset, then disaster struck: my rear tire blew out and destroyed the valve. I put in my last spare tube and continued down to this campsite.

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The next morning the tire was again low and as I added air the unthinkable happened: the valve blew out again. I will never, ever, ever travel with presta valves again. I have had so many problems with them. I felt like screaming out in frustration. With my last tube gone I was dead in the water.

Worse, I was in a very sparsely populated area. Only a couple vehicles passed me the previous day so sitting and waiting for a ride was not an option. I had to walk. Twenty km and six hours later a car finally came by and I was able to get a lift to the small town of Kanysh Kyya and got dinner and a small room for the night. I made friends with this little girl who worked in the cafe.

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The next day I got the bus to Ala Buka. While waiting for the bus I took this photo of two old Kyrgyz boys. The guy on the left is wearing a kolpak, the traditional Kyrgyz hat.

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The bus ride was torture. A six hour, cramped bumpy ride that I would never repeat. Here is a shot of my bike all mashed up on the floor of the bus.

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In Ala Buka I was informed that the border with Uzbekistan was not open to foreigners. apparently it is a rudimentary crossing with no international immigration stamps. I could not believe it. That meant another four hour ride to Jalalabad where there is a formal border crossing.

While in Ala Buka I met this group of guys. We drank a lot of beer and had a great time. One of them could speak English and another German so we were able to communicate. They were all muslim but obviously not strict ones.

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Here is a girl in the Ala Buka market. I liked her eyes.

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I made it to Jalalabat where I needed to change my Kyrgyz som to Uzbek sum. This where I ended up with a million sum. I wanted the cash before I got in because the black market rate is better than the official rate. Here I am with my million sum, about $600.

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Kyrgyzstan gets a big thumbs up from me. It is a beautiful country, with soaring mountains, pleasant valleys, hospitable people, interesting culture and nice cities. Except for the odd corrupt policeman, I can’t say anything bad about it. It’s a poor country and in the middle of an energy shortage at the moment. So outside of Bishkek most hotels seem to have electricity or water, but rarely both at the same time, and sometimes neither.

But I would love to return and do some horse trekking out in the wilderness. Camping is a delight there. Plenty of places to pitch a tent by a clear mountain river. You should go if you get a chance.

The border crossing to Uzbekistan, however, was a bit stressful. At first the Kyrgyz guards said the border was closed on the Uzbek side and that I could not pass. I stared at them. “When will it open?”, I asked. They indicated in three days. I felt panic rising in me. “But my Kyrgyz visa expires in two days. I have to get out!” They shrugged and said some things in Russian. I could not believe it. I stood there trying to asses my options. I HAD to get out of Kyrgyzstan before my visa expired. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare otherwise. Finally they said “maybe” I could get through. They indicated they would stamp my passport and I could try my luck on the Uzbek side. But… they wanted 500 som (about $15). I gladly paid them. I was beginning to see a glimmer of hope.

As I walked the 100 m between the two borders I was thinking, “what if the Uzbek authorities don’t let me in? I am technically out of Kyrgyzstan and have only a one entry visa. Will I be stuck in no man’s land until whenever?”

The Uzbek guards were all friendly, smiling and joking. They shook my hand and asked me all sorts of questions. Where do you live? Miami Beach. Oh! Good! Beach! Girls! Meanwhile they took my passport and said the border was closed. “Why?”, I asked. The guard shrugged and said he didn’t know, but he would talk to the supervisor. So we sat there for 15 minutes or so. I thought, well maybe a bribe will help. I pulled out my wallet and pointed to it. “Sum?”, I asked. He snorted, “nyet, dollars.” He seemed to indicate that $100 would do the trick. I winced. That was a lot. I said, “I have no dollars, only sum.” He said 2000 Kyrgyz som would work. I didn’t have that much but eventually I gave him $35 in som and dollars, He smiled, shook my hand, and waved me through.

I was sweating as I went to the next guy, but he stamped my passport and sent me to customs, where I filled out the forms and was on my way without any further requests for cash. Whew. I was in Uzbekistan.

As I wrote in a previous post, I try to avoid giving bribes, even small ones, since that just encourages the practice. But in this case, if the border really was closed then they were doing me a favor by letting me through, and payment for that was justified. It seemed the border was indeed closed to vehicles, but I did see a number of pedestrians crossing, although they seemed to be all locals.

When I finally got through I asked my taxi driver why the border was closed. “A celebration,” he answered. What they were celebrating was not clear.

Anyone reading this have experiences with bribing officials? What do you think: when is it justified or prudent to give a bribe? Should you hold your ground or help the poor guys out with a little gift? Are you encouraging corruption by doing this? Is it worth the hassle to you if you resist?

As for riding again, I will get a bus to the capital Tashkent, where I had my sister send over several spare tubes, a new headset bearing and a few other items I need. So if all that showed up I should be back on the road again in a few days.