I’m a Millionaire!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

8 thoughts on “I’m a Millionaire!

  1. Bernard August 31, 2008 / 2:14 pm

    Hi Kevin,
    This continues to be a fascinating adventure, engrossing reading. I/we often think about you, and I’ve told of your adventure to many friends and given them the website address. Congratulations on the one-year anniversary, wishing you luck for the rest of the trip.
    Speaking of, I can’t help but notice on your map that your future trek takes you to Georgia. Are you aware of the war going on there, and Russia’s invasion of part of the country? Since you did not know about the plane crash in Bishkek, it occurs to me that you might not know about Georgia.
    Beyond the wonderful pictures and stories, what I appreciate most about your blog is your ability to connect with people. This renews my belief that the vast majority of people are fundamentally decent, honest, and willing to help, a fact which transcends traditions, boundaries and political systems. I am pleased to see how often you have benefited from the generosity of strangers. Yes, there are bad apples, but it seems that we spend most of our time and energy dealing with the bad apples, rather than enjoying our commonality and the fact that things go well between people most of the time. You seem to be doing the latter very well. I kind of assume that’s what keeps you going, yes?
    Be safe, Bernard

  2. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. August 31, 2008 / 4:17 pm

    Once, when entering Tortola to transfer my ship’s documents (it was registered in Tortola and flew the BVI flag) I passed through customs and there was a little old lady all dressed up. Just before I got to the customs officer, the little old lady said, “A little something for the church?” I was happy to help out the church.

    When we had our business in Curacao and Bonaire, I saw many instances of bribery but of the subtler kind; nothing so crass as passing cash. For example, the captain of a Holland-American ship had an “old, used up” refrigerator sent over the the Lloyd’s ship inspector’s house instead of throwing it away. Of course the thing was in a new crate. I bribed the Antilian ship inspector by keeping his daughter, Lisa’s friend, in Copper Harbor for the summer. I also offered the ship inspector a commission if he found a buyer for the ship. Bribes? Of course. It’s done all the time here in America too; they call it political contribution or lobbying. Who’s kidding who?

    A travel writer of the Washington Post pretty much agreed with your assessment of China and also of Kyrgyzstan. You have a lot of borders to cross in the future so I guess you’ll have to break out your wallet on occasion. Too bad.

    Congratulations on your first year. Did it go by as quickly as I think it did? Seems like you just left a month ago. I love the blog, Kevin, so keep it up. Don

  3. DAD September 1, 2008 / 1:02 am

    I rejected a bribe and was sent back to my jail cell. You will need another bike bag for that million.

  4. Kevin Koski September 1, 2008 / 4:55 am

    HI Kev!
    Are you sure that’s not your long lost Kyrgyz family in that first photo? You’re fitting in there like a fine, loving dad/hubby. And yes, your 5 tubes complete with those trusty *presta* valves should be waiting for you in Tashkent as I type this. For $297.00 shipping they dang well better be!
    Got the package you sent.
    You didn’t talk about the Kyrgyz food. Is it much different from China? Have you surpassed your noodle quota?
    Happy and safe riding bro….

  5. Sarvar September 1, 2008 / 8:00 am


    Are you gonna pass by Tashkent Province, place called Iyk ota(in Bektemir Region). Try restaurant “U Gavrosha”. Nice food! Good luck.

  6. Kevin Koski September 1, 2008 / 2:38 pm

    Thanks for the comment. I have been following the Georgia business every few days, usually via the internet. But I finally found a hotel in Tashkent that has the BBC. The first time since Japan that I have watched international news in English.

    My route takes me through southern Georgia, not the breakaway areas so I don’t anticipate problems. But you never know. I do intend to stay in Tbilisi though where there have been demonstrations. But who knows, I may not even be able to get in the country. Fortunately Americans do not need a visa to visit there so getting in should be a little easier.

    As far as the people, the more I travel the more I think that on a basic level humans are all the same. We work, we try to make a living, we try to do the best for our family, we socialize with friends. Sure there are cultural differences but fundamentally we go through life with the same goals, desires, fears and worries.

  7. Kevin Koski September 1, 2008 / 2:42 pm

    Kat, yes I checked with DHL and my tubes should be in Tashkent. I will find out soon.

    the Kyrgyz food was pretty good. Not as good as Chinese though. More beef dishes like kielbasa which was a nice change. Also a lot more lamb kabobs and pilmeni, a soup with dumplings. Part of my problem is that again I cannot read the menu so I try to ask for their specialty or just order something that I know I already like. But who knows what I am missing.

  8. Almaz September 3, 2008 / 1:37 pm

    Hi Kevin, how is your trip going on? so, I was right advising you to cross the border through Jalalabat, at our region you’ll never be over of it. at least you bribbed i see, yeah. wish you not to meet such a situation further

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