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Uzbekistan: Bukhara, the black market and goodbye to Jamie and Wardlaw

Posted by on Aug 5, 2013 in blog | 4 comments

Uzbekistan: Bukhara, the black market and goodbye to Jamie and Wardlaw

Friday July 26 With a few hours to spare and a broken power-steering line, we made it to the Turkmenistan border at Dasoguz. There, customs tore our car apart. A team of three, including a pretty pregnant women with excellent English she learned in a “special course,” opened my laptop and went through my files. They looked at every photo on my camera. Checked the tires for drugs. Unzipped every pocket in my bag. Laid everything from the car out on the pavement. They were very friendly, even when they told us to pour out our diesel. Uzbekistan has a diesel shortage so we filled up two jerry cans in Turkmenistan. Instead of pouring the 40 liters of diesel into the ground, Jamie and Wardlaw carried it over to a group of taxi drivers loitering outside the gate. They returned with no cans and excited over a haul of 10,000 Uzbekistan som. The pregnant woman looked at us with sympathy. Later we tried to buy two cokes and a water with the money, but had to give back one of the cokes because we didn’t have enough. The official exchange rate for Uzbekistan som to the US dollar is about 2,100. But no one uses that. In Bukhara, we exchanged money in a carpet shop on the black market where the dollar goes for 2,700. Since the largest denomination is 1,000, exchanging money results in a huge wad of cash that doesn’t fit in my wallet. I stuffed it in my waistband. Owen’s money stash. The Bandits, who we are now caravaning with.  After hours clearing the border, we headed towards Bukhara on an Uzbek road almost as potholed as Turkmenistan.  A man on a battered bicycle held on to a trotting donkey by a leash. Two men rolled the burned-out shell of a car down the road. There are regular police checkpoints with policemen waving sticks in vague directions. I spent an hour buying car insurance from a gangly man inside a roadside shack, a vivacious young Uzbek woman pouring me shots of Coke. After a long drive through another desert that smelled like natural gas, we arrived in Bukhara. Bukhara is beautiful. It is also more than 2,000 years old.  Seventeenth century madrasas with blue mosaic, the bright carpets and hand-embroidered suzaini hung in the dry desert heat. We slept, showered, found the internet and the Bandits, picked up Dean and said goodbye to Jamie and Wardlaw. Hand-drawn police car on the side of the road, 17th century madrasa in the historic old town of Bukhara And so begins another leg of the journey. I will miss Jamie throwing rocks at everything he can find and Wardlaw pointing out all the roadside storage tanks. The two of them constantly eat giant snickers bars and sour cream and onion Pringles. Wardlaw asks everyone he meets if they know Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. (So far, to his disappointment, no one has said yes.) Jamie wore a Team Rocinante shirt nearly every day, giving away the dirty ones to people we meet on the road. The two of them are on an Uzbekistan Airways flight to Istanbul to try and get home. Thanks Jamie and Wardlaw for making the trip so much fun! Wardlaw this photo is for you! ...

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Turkmenistan: white marble, camel milking and the Door to Hell

Posted by on Jul 31, 2013 in blog | 9 comments

Turkmenistan: white marble, camel milking and the Door to Hell

With the internet few and far between, I’m behind on posts! We are currently in Osh, Kyrgystan and headed towards Bishkek today. I will get an Uzbekistan post up soon. What an interesting and friendly country Wednesday, July 24 We have 42 hours to cross Turkmenistan or risk fines, interrogation and a lifetime ban. We will take the only road from Turkmenbashi to the capital Ashgabat and then head directly north to the Darvaza gas craters and exit into Uzbekistan. It’s midnight, we’re exhausted and have more than 350 miles to Ashgabat on roads so bad they don’t deserve to be called roads. We’ve lost the Bandits (they have their own extraordinary Turkmenistan experience but that’s another story…) and potholes the size of kiddie pools keep us at about 20 mph for hours. Illuminated by the full moon, the landscape is barren, stretching out flat and dark, mountains in the distance. Occasionally, we pass mysterious compounds lit like small cities and surrounded by razor wire. Small animals, maybe foxes or wild dogs, lope by, their eyes glowing green. We see no one. Jamie and Wardlaw sleep in the back and I drive in silence, watching herds of grazing camels in the dawn light. A woman in a long dress with a patterned scarf wound around her face sweeps the dust from the highway with an old broom, more dust billowing around her. It seems the most Sisyphean task in the world. I stop at a lonely gas station and fill up the car for less than $20. Ashgabat rises from the desert and suddenly we are navigating the bizarre capital. Expansive white-marble buildings with gold and blue domes fill entire square blocks, and elaborate white streetlights frame gold bridges and gold statues. Needle-like gold monuments rise up from the broad streets. The thermostat is already at 40C/104F. It’s surreal in the early morning haze of no sleep. I look for the 40-foot gold statue of the late President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov that revolves with the sun. Later, I hear it has been torn down. At a market, a man with thick arms and a fitted shirt silently appears and grabs Jamie by the elbow. No photos he says in a deep voice. A little later, Jamie and Wardlaw ignore the warning. Suddenly they are surrounded by a group of aggressive men who jostle with Jamie for his camera and delete the photos. A woman looks at me and points to her eyes. I am being watched. I feel like I’m in a spy movie. We head out of the city and into the Karakum Desert, rolling sand dunes, wayward camels and dim, battered shacks filled with crouching silhouettes . The temperature climbs to 51C/124F. We are looking for the Darvesa gas crater, also called the “Door to Hell” (and sometimes “Hell’s Gate”). The door to hell is a giant, burning hole accidentally created by the Soviets in 1971. When a cavern of natural gas collapsed creating a 230-foot wide crater, geologists thought they could burn off the poisonous gas by setting it on fire. It is still burning. It is also very hard to find. Nine years ago Niyazov said the town of Darvesa was ugly so it was demolished. Now, only a few ragged tea stands set among some...

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Turkmenistan Immigration, a kitten and some cookies

Posted by on Jul 27, 2013 in blog | 5 comments

Turkmenistan Immigration, a kitten and some cookies

Tuesday, July 23 About 1pm the boat raised anchor and excitement rippled through the ferry as we chugged into the stark Turkmenbashi port. Six hours later, we were still on the boat. A few gregarious dock workers used an English dictionary to shout garbled questions up at us, such as “How old are you,” “What did you study in school” and “Will you marry me.” One said he had seen Jennifer Lopez when she sang Happy Birthday to President Berdymukhamedov (and later apologized saying she didn’t know he was a repressive cult-of-personality dictator. That’s probably true as she apparently tweeted to her Turkmen followers, who most likely number zero as social media is banned.). I’m guessing the dock worker saw her on TV, considering the concert was in a $2 billion resort and organized by the Chinese. Around 7pm we were allowed off the boat and into Turkmenistan immigration. Narmy had to put on a shirt with sleeves before he was allowed to enter. The convoluted process took 4.5 hours and 20 steps, many involving carrying a form into a small room where a lone man sat quietly at an empty desk with only a stamp. We talked to a veterinarian. There was a “bank” with a tiny window and an even tinier woman working behind it. Jamie kneeled to talk to her through the gap. There was a $1.40 bridge tax (I never saw a bridge) and I paid $140 for something I still don’t understood. Wardlaw sat on the floor in the center of the room and played with a kitten. An officer brought us cookies on a plate. A man who spoke excellent English came out to rifle through our car and wrote “Best Wishes from Turkmenistan” on the map sticker on the hood of the van. Here’s a sketch of my route through immigration. I wonder if JLo went through...

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The ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan

Posted by on Jul 26, 2013 in blog | 11 comments

The ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan

I am now in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, having survived the ferry and visa race across Turkmenistan. This is the first internet connection since I left Baku (also my first restaurant). I did write some posts while offline, so I will post these in stages.-Robin  Monday, July 22.  I am sitting on an Azerbaijan cargo ferry in the Caspian Sea anchored off the coast of Turkmenistan waiting for the port to open. The port is closed because the Turkmenistan president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, has come to Turkmanbashi, where our ship is supposed to dock, and like all good dictators has ordered everything shut. We are on day two and have run out of vodka. The captain says maybe we can dock tomorrow night. Maybe. Even though I’ve never been to prison, I imagine it to be like this boat. There is no phone service, no internet and Ramin the Captain has confiscated our passports. It’s unbearably sweltering, the men are all shirtless, and I’m sleeping in a cabin of bunk beds with five men, all of us sharing the one communal squat toilet with a ferry full of truck drivers (and two women cooks who don’t seem to leave the kitchen). Communal toilet. Six bunk cabin.It was surprisingly comfortable until we anchored, lost the breeze and the flies arrived. There is also camaraderie, again like I imagine in prison. The ten of us in the three rally teams on the ferry hang out on the deck with a group of friendly, if occasionally lecherous, Turkish truck drivers who make concerted efforts to pantomime questions and share with us everything they have: tea, food and cigarettes. We take photos of each other, pass around water bottles filled with vodka and Fanta (tastes like musty cough syrup) and use the phrase “no problem” a lot. The truck drivers are a lively lot. I’ve nicknamed one “Gropey” because he loves to sling his arm around me, intimately feel my face with his thick hands and give me sloppy kisses on the check. Apparently, he does this to everyone. He wears a small white undershirt that rides up on his impressive belly and has a thick mustache under which is a big, toothless grin. “Gropey II” is less boisterous, but loves to dole out mustached kisses whenever he can. The gang. Me and Gropey I.  Yesterday morning, Gropey I and Gropey II and friends shared an amazing breakfast cooked on the stove under a semi-truck. We dipped thick Turkish bread in a pot of warm tomatoes, onions, garlic and egg with a side bucket of chocolate and honey and sweet Turkish chai all while crouching on the deck. The truckers drive a loop, from Turkey to Baku, then from Turkmenistan into Iran and back to Turkey. One is driving on to London, in seven days doing the same route that took me two weeks. During the day, we all wander around the boat, finding solitary spots over the emerald green of the Caspian, nap, read and then drift back to play cards and drinking games and spread the rumor that a truck driver told someone that we are stuck on this boat for five more days. Five more days is a problem. Our Turkmenistan five-day transit visa expires in two days and our single-entry Azerbaijan visa...

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Crossing Georgia

Posted by on Jul 20, 2013 in blog | 14 comments

Crossing Georgia

By Robin Ewing One new Renault clutch and quite a few dollars later, we crossed the border into Georgia. Immediately gone were the shiny, silver domes of the small roadside Turkish mosques, the headscarves and the occasional black flowing abaya. Instead, everyone looked like they were going to the beach. Blonde women in short dresses and shirtless men in flip-flops with towels thrown over their shoulders strolled through traffic. A man with a cardboard box wrapped around his chest stood on the side of the road. It felt like Europe again. We were hard pressed to find alcohol in Turkey, but at the Georgian gas station, there was an entire wall of vodka and the largest beer I’ve ever seen.   Perhaps giant beer explains the driving. It seems to escalate in each country, making the one before it seem tame.  In Georgia, the highways are two lanes but Georgians have collectively decided to make them three. The imaginary middle lane is for passing at excessive speeds from both sides. The entire country is one big game of Chicken. Want to get an idea of what it’s like to drive in Georiga? Watch this video that was posted from Tbilisi and is called “street drag.” What that video doesn’t show are all the cows, dogs and people milling about. After dark, entire villages come out and loiter in the road. If I were crazy enough to walk down a Georgian highway, I certainly wouldn’t do it at night, wearing all black, in the middle of the road while looking at the ground. But apparently, I’m in the minority. If you nudge the cow with your car, it will move faster.   Just before midnight, we’d had enough. We stopped at a roadside hotel with sprawling vacant halls and a second floor reception with one kind woman who spoke only Russian to us. Hungry, we wandered out to the only restaurant to be seen, on the highway across from a gas station. A lively woman named Marta jumped up, grabbed us by the arms and swept us around the empty room, pointing out all the food she could make while chattering away in Russian. Then she poured me a pale glass of homemade Georgian wine from an unmarked plastic bottle. It tasted like watery, two-month old apple juice. Wardlaw said it tasted like Chardonnay. We sat outside and the picnic table filled up with fresh tomato and cucumber salad, fresh Georgian cheese, pan-fried bread with melted goat cheese and a sizzling pot of chicken and onions. Whenever we asked for beer, another woman disappeared into the dark to return a few minutes later with a bag of bottles. It was one of the best meals we’ve had yet.   A few extremely drunk men sitting near us finished their board game and walked over to their tiny car. It didn’t start. They rolled it backwards into the street. Still didn’t start. They conferred and then left it jutting out into the road, the car door open and the radio blaring, to walk over to the station to fill up a water bottle with gasoline. Didn’t work. Then another man stumbled over and messed with the engine and suddenly the car was running and another man suddenly appeared, they all jumped in and...

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Dinnertime in Turkey during Ramadan

Posted by on Jul 17, 2013 in blog | 3 comments

Dinnertime in Turkey during Ramadan

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. As dusk starts to arrive, tables all over Trabzon fill up with soon-to-be patrons. The restaurants all serve either buffets or set menus. Sitting on the tables are bottles of water, a basket of bread, salad covered in plastic wrap and sometimes a soup. Everyone claims their spot and silently stares at the food waiting for the signal to eat. I saw one woman salt her soup and slowly stir it, just staring at it. Another man uncapped his water bottle and placed it right in front of him. Another man removed the plastic wrap and tore his bread into tiny pieces. No one talks. Wardlaw broke all the rules and starting loudly slurping his soup while all the hungry Muslims tried not to look at him. Then came the signal. A surprisingly loud blast like a canon shot rocked the quiet and dinner was on. Most people chugged their entire water bottle first but the man with the tiny bread pieces shoved them all in his mouth at once. All the waiters appeared carrying set dinners of beef stew with rice and potatoes. The restaurant was quiet as everyone frantically ate while watching the top 10 music-video countdown on the wall television.  Most of the videos involved a man in a tight t-shirt and sunglasses singing on a motorcycle. One sang while he aggressively adjusted his Ferrari engine with a wrench. The whole thing was over in 15 minutes. Jamie and Wardlaw said it was just like the Hunger...

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Turkey and a burned up clutch

Posted by on Jul 16, 2013 in blog | 7 comments

Turkey and a burned up clutch

By Robin Ewing Istanbul traffic is chaos. I had to navigate at a crawl the narrow, nearly vertical, cobblestone streets of the old city (there was one tense moment starting in first on a hill), constant honking, a jumble of cars with no discernable lanes, parking in the middle of the road, and just overall bedlam all under the shadow of the minarets reaching up like spikes from the almost 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia and the younger Blue Mosque that dominate the skyline.     I don’t have a photo of the traffic, because I was driving, but here is a photo of the human traffic outside the Hagia Sophia mosque     Jamie & Wardlaw arrive in Istanbul But the fairly empty, six-lane highways in and out of the city are luxurious compared to the single, potholed roads of Bulgaria and Romania. Or at least the toll roads are. I haven’t yet figured out how to pay the toll as the booths are unmanned with incomprehensible signs, so I just pick a lane and drive through, setting off a loud alarm and flashing lights each time. No one even glances in my direction. Turkish drivers are hot-blooded. They honk constantly and are impatient, aggressive speed demons. On the way to Amasya, an ancient city colonized by the Greeks, Jamie, claiming ignorance of the law of the road, got a few double-handed fist shakes from drivers who had to pass him on the right. One angry driver passed, then slowed down and violently waved for us to pull over, presumably for a duel,  and then when, of course we didn’t, passed again just to slow down and drive on the shoulder next to us. Eventually, he disappeared, perhaps after noticing the odd stickers and German plates. Amasya, built in a narrow river valley, is small and beautiful. The five Pontic kings, who ruled from 281-180 BC, are buried in the cliffs overlooking the white 14th-century Ottoman houses lining the river, in one of which was our small hotel. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come every year and the locals have thoughtfully installed colored lights under the rock tombs and white houses that cast the city and  cliffs in glow of changing colors. I particularly liked red. The 1300s Ottoman houses and rock tombs from 2nd century BC.   Apparently, the legendary Amazon tribe of female warriors are said to have lived in this area, after whom Amasya is named. Homer first wrote about the Amazons in the Iliad and they were further gossiped about by the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines for a millennium with all kinds of rumours circulating about how they kept men slaves, killed boy children and cut off a breast to better use a bow and arrow. Nowadays, Amasya is famous for its apples and producing soccer players. Yesterday as we drove into the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon, the clutch went out. So we parked our sadly smoking van, and went in search of beer to drown our sorrows. Turkey makes good beer. In particular, I like Efes, a 5 percent pilsner. I’ve heard about a darker one that is made with coffee, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to try it because no one sells beer. This month happens to be Ramadan, when Muslims fast during...

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Burned out clutch

Posted by on Jul 16, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

I’d like to think it’s not my driving that did it but instead blame it on the previous owner and the windy mountain roads, but we’ve lost the clutch. Working on finding a mechanic in Trabzon, Turkey now. Updates to come!

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Part 1: From London to Istanbul

Posted by on Jul 15, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

Part 1: From London to Istanbul

Sweden, Germany,Holland, Belgium, France, England, France, Belgium,Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey! These photos can’t capture all of the change I’ve seen through the van window. The landscape has gone from manicured green fields, spindly planted trees and the Rhine river of Bavarian Germany to Europe’s last wild forests and Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, from the rolling sunflower fields and Black Sea coast of of Bulgaria to the dry rocky mountains of central Turkey. The clothes, attitudes and food change with each border crossing – Germany’s sausages and dark bread; Bryndzové halušky, the dense potato dumplings with sheep’s milk cheese in Slovakia; the goulash and grilled cheese in Budapest; the cabbage salad and peasant soup in Romania; the mezzes and thick bread in Turkey.  I’ve seen German dirndls, Romanian head scarfs pulled tight and knotted on women, small brimmed Romanian felt hats on men, men’s Turkish caps pleated trousers and the Turkish women fulled covered in hijab and jilbab . Languages, streets signs (Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet), driving mannerisms, smiles and scowls, currency, prices, toilets, weather…. everything changes. And there is still so much more to come! P.S. I have just discovered that Facebook has changed it so you must have an account to view these photos. You dont need to be my friend as I’ve made them public, but you have to sign in. Sorry about that. I will post them here soon for those of you not on facebook. Click here for the photos!  ...

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Romania to Turkey via Bulgaria

Posted by on Jul 13, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

Romania to Turkey via Bulgaria

by Robin Ewing On the way to the Bulgarian border, I was pulled over by another Romanian policeman. He just wanted to know how much my car cost.  After inspecting my license, he didn’t ask me, like the last policeman, if JR Ewing was really dead. We drove straight across Bulgaria yesterday, only stopping for lunch on the Black Sea. Bulgaria doesn’t have the medieval charm of Romania, or the stray dogs, but it does have the countryside roadside prostitutes who do little dances for passing cars. The landscape is stunning. Sprawling sunflower fields and thick forest and straw-colored fields. We even saw a rainbow. The empty, potholed road to Istanbul winds up a mountain and after an hour of wondering if we were even on the right road, the border crossing suddenly appeared. It is one big building in the forest where you have to figure things out for yourself. 1) visa 2)passport 2) insurance 4) car registration and 5) baggage control.  Baggage control was a jolly man who made me open all the boxes in the back of my car and then tried to take one of the notebooks we are donating to the school in Mongolia. I told him he was stealing from poor children and he reluctantly gave it back. Almost made it to Istanbul but after 12 hours of driving, I had to pull over and get a hotel about 200km before. I am now having breakfast on the hotel roof overlooking the terracotta houses and the domed mosque, while listening to the call to prayer and thinking about all the great Turkish food to come. Jamie and Wardlaw arrive at 4pm so have to figure out how to get to the airport before then. Can’t wait for them to arrive.  I’m sad to see Helen go today to return to London. She has been a great travelling companion, despite having forgot her driver’s license, and has kept me laughing. Thanks Helen! Adventures in Turkey with my brother and cousin to come!   Driver’s info for Bulgaria: You need to buy road tax, called vignette, in both Romania and Bulgaria when you cross the border. They have stands just at the border and you can also buy it in petrol stations. In Bulgaria, I bought it in a petrol station and they only had one month for US$17 (I cant remember the Bulgarian price). I forgot to get it at the border but I’m guessing its cheaper there. You don’t need it until you leave the country, when you have to show it to get out. If you don’t have it, you get fined Varna was a dump. Keep going. Sozopol was recommended but I didn’t have time to...

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