Archive for the 'Uzbekistan' Category

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Let’s get Kazakh

We woke up our last morning in Uzbekistan and walked sadly over to our last meal of wonderful home cooked Uzbek food. Shoney’s mother had gotten a large ice cold bottle of Kvas and some Somsas from down the street. I found myself tempted to eat some of the leftover Plov from the night before.

That breakfast turned out, however, to only be a minor precursor to the main meal, which was Laghman, the noodle dish we had so fallen in love with while in Kashgar and Urumqi, the Central Asian part of China. Along with the Laghman were some more of those amazing Manty. It was all just too delicious and in too vast of quantities for us to resist eating beyond the normal limits. AsiaWheeling was being spoiled rotten here in Uzbekistan, so before we got soft, we figured we’d better split.

It was time to go.  But, before we hit the road, we paused to take a few Uzbek style (no smiles allowed) group shots, and even a few portraits of the Yabukjanov team.

In honor of his great contributions to the AsiaWheeling team, and our unending love for all that is Uzbek, we would like to, upon our departure from this great land, announce yet another tee-shirt, titled “The Uzual Suspect.”

Feeling like we could not say thank you enough times, we finally climbed on the bikes and headed toward the Kazakh border. It was less than a 10 km wheel and we made short work of it, stopping once to ask for directions from a fantastic trio of gentleman, who were in true Uzbek style, delighted to give us directions and eager to engage for as long a conversation afterward as we could spare time.

When we finally apologized, explaining we had a Kazakhstan to get to, they asked us to autograph one of their 1000 cym bills, which, being what I believe is the first autograph request of the entire trip (outside of legal documents), we were more than happy to do.

And off we went, pounding through the Uzbek countryside, growing ever closer to our next post-Soviet country.

When we reached the border, cab drivers clustered around us, warning us that foreigners would not be able to cross here, explaining that we would need to drive to another border crossing 50 km away. We thanked them for their advice, and explained that we would like first to hear it from the border officials, and then we would come back and talk cabs.

Sure enough, it was corroborated by the officials, who were, while delivering negative news, generally very upbeat and positive guys, already laughing out loud at our bizarre bicycles, and doubly so at my Russian. I began to realize that I must sound like the American version of Borat to these people. And they loved it.

So after some thorough bargaining and some calling of Shoney on the Beeline, we climbed into a cab and headed for the next border crossing.  As we drove, I made good friends with the fellow who drove us. When we arrived, he hustled to make sure all was in order and to shoo away any con artists and beggars who appeared out of the woodwork.

We had changed the rest of our сум back to USD with Shoney, so we had to pay the fellow in a few thousand sun and a couple US dollars. He seemed happy enough.

Here too the officials were delighted to see us, and confirmed that indeed “Inestranetz” could pass through. And so we wheeled the bikes on, towards the Uzbek customs station, which was no small walk from the road.

When we arrived, we found the entire thing to be a maddening cluster bomb of people and screaming. By trial and error, we were able to figure out the system, which for any of you who would like to, in the future, cross between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the area of Khodzha-Khan, here is how it goes:

Proceed past the long line of people and enter the central area, underneath the rusty gas station-style overhang, where all the broken and upside-down tables are, and proceed to the edge of the metal barrier. Make like the locals and scream at the top of your lungs at the official who paces just three meters away from you and eyes the queue. He will pretend not to notice. That’s fine. He actually is registering your screams. Continue the screaming narrative, emulating the people around you, and state your name and the country that issued your passport. If you are an American, this will interest him and he will make a vague hand gesture at you. This gesture will mean “is your friend over there an American too?” You may tell the truth or not here, I believe.

He will then flag down a short heavyset woman, who will be rushing by carrying a giant stack of papers in one hand and a billy club in the other. She will give you six copies of a form.  Luckily, they are bilingual: in Russian and Uzbek. Divvy them up with your friend. Fill out all three using the upside-down tables with the pens that you forgot to bring. Good luck — the forms will not be easy.

Now get in line with all the other people, and watch as newcomers to the line blatantly cut you, climbing over your folding bicycles and getting in front of you, sometimes actually pushing you backward a bit to make room for themselves. The recommended strategy here is to position the folding bicycles as a kind of crowd barrier, and to fend off people with nasty looks and seemingly inadvertent knocks with your pack.

Listen for the screaming at the front of the line, because this means another group is being let into the main inspection  room. Keep your wits about you. Right after the screaming is when you’ll be cut the most, usually by old women carrying hundreds of shopping bags, who gain temporary superhero agility and spring like tree frogs over you and your bicycle.

Finally you’ll get into the room. It will be hot inside. Everyone will need to get their luggage scanned, except for you. This is normal for Americans. Everyone else will need to wait in line, but not you. Those who cut you previous in line will look upon you with equal parts distaste and confidence that they will complete the process before you.  Smile.  You will get a special officer dedicated to your case, and he will very diligently not check any of your paperwork or luggage and flag you through with all politeness. Meanwhile others will be pushing each other in line and the same woman who gave you the paperwork will be beating a fellow mercilessly for pushing an old lady ’til she fell down.

It will be raw, but soon you’ll be in Kazakhstan.  As many an ex-Soviet spin class instructor has shouted over thumping music:  ”You’re not yet halfway there.”

Kazakh customs will be much cleaner, whiter, fancier, and with more hawks all over everything. The hats on the heads of the boarder guards will grow threefold.

The line will be very short, the forms will be small and in English, and the Kazakh border official will stamp your passport, underlining that you must register with the Kazakh OVIR office within five days to avoid a $100 fine.

As official literature has indicated, he should be able to register you upon entry.  However, he will not do so.  If you ask him whether or not the registration office will be open on Friday, he will look at you as if you are suffering from some terrible abnormality and dismiss you with “of course.”  This is, in fact, false.  None of this concerns him.  It only concerns you.  He will then sneeze magnificently all over your passport and send you on.

Nursultan Nazarbayev - Нұрсұлтан Назарба

Now that was easy; this next part will be hard. Pass through the green channel, marked “nothing to declare” then proceed over to the scanning station. Put your things on the conveyor and begin chatting about Kazakhstan in Russian with the guards. The men working the customs desk will teach you the name of the Kazakh president. Remember it. They will test your memory at the end of the conversation.

They will also request you to take a picture of them.

Do not do so.  The picture is part of an entrapment scheme. For when you leave, another armed guard will refuse to let you out of the immigration complex until he’s scrutinized your camera to see if you took any pictures of the interior of the customs hall.

Luckily, we did not fall for the trick.

They will also ask you if you’ve seen the movie.  The answer is: “What movie?”

Everyone had described Kazakhstan to us as the Europe of Central Asia, as the richer, fancier, more cosmopolitan place. We were about to see how much water that theory held. All we really hoped was that the Internet would be a little faster.

Outside the customs hall, it looked basically like Uzbekistan, women were hounding us to change money and cab drivers were asking astronomical prices to drive us into Shymkent. We finally managed to bargain a decent price to share a black VW station wagon with a bunch of Kazakh women into the city.

However, after driving for some time, the driver of our cab attempted to pull the old Jordanian switch on us (which we might from now on just as rightly call the Kazakh switch). He was suddenly doubling the price! And as I attempted to bargain with him, he simply began muttering and shaking his head, blinking long and hard in a way that seemed unsafe while driving. Yap as I would, I couldn’t get him to respond. Then suddenly I realized that the muttering was some kind of prayer that he was saying in Arabic. So I shut up and let him finish. Later, after silence had reigned for a while, when I started to re-enter the negotiation, he just started again muttering over my talking.

It was, of course, ridiculous childish behavior, but we were in his car now, and so I looked back at the women we were sharing the ride with and asked them in Russian if he was overcharging us. They grinned very large grins and said no. Fair Enough.  I grumpily agreed to pay the new inflated price.

Once we arrived in Shymkent, we were happy to be rid of the driver, who had after we agreed to pay him double. attempted to repair the relationship through uncomfortable conversation about sexist and racist topics. We had him drop us off at one of the budget hotels listed in the Lonely Planet, but in classic Lonely Planet style, the hotel turned out to be none too cheap, and also lacking in rooms with windows. So we wheeled on.

We stopped to ask a group of young men about hotels, and while they were unable to help us find a cheap place, they did speak a little English, which gave Scott a chance to talk, and when we parted, they gave him a white Kazakh Muslim skullcap as a gift. Shymkent was racking up points.

The wheel turned out to be a long and hungry one. We continued to go from hotel to hotel, but each one was more expensive than the last. We stopped to ask some men crouching under a street light about where we might stay, and they offered to let us stay in their home for about $20 per night. Something about them felt untrustworthy, though, so we just took a group picture and left.

Finally, we found a place. It was a hotel known as the Ordabassy Hotel. We were able to get a room there for a very reasonable rate, and the lady at the front desk was most friendly and wearing very tight leather. As we were about to haul our things upstairs and find some food, a couple of fellows walked by us on their way into their office, which was in the same building as the Ordabassy. They called out to us and insisted that we come back to their office with them.

They turned out to be members of the Kazakh film industry and invited us to sit down and drink orange soda with them and to learn more about their work and to take some glam shots with us in the Maui Jims.

It was quite late by then, and we were tired and hungry, so we excused ourselves after a few cups of orange soda and headed out to find the nearest place that was open. It ended up being a large beer hall and restaurant down the street. We ordered a couple of glasses of the local Shymkentskoye beer, and before we knew it a blond woman had walked over to us and invited us to join her and her friends at their table.

We looked at each other for a moment and agreed. We stood up and wandered over to their table to find five Russian Kazakh women laughing and drinking beer.  We introduced ourselves, and told them a little about AsiaWheeling. They introduced themselves and told us about their lives. One of them was a gas station attendant, a little ways out of town, another was a an office manager at an office (with computers, she underlined), another was a student in St. Petersburg who had some experience in Finland.

The ladies spoke essentially no English, and I very little Russian, but we more or less struck it off, and we parted that evening with plans for them to meet up again the next evening, for we were the first Americans they’d ever met and they wanted to show us around town.

Kazakhstan was shaping up to be an interesting chapter.

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