Thursday, 19 February 2009

Kyrgyzstan Pt.9 China Crisis

he Walkabout Blog

China Crisis ...

The Torgorat Pass had remained closed following political problems in China, and because this was where we'd planned to cross into that country, it had been the main topic of conversation for some weeks between Bjorn and I. We would usually discuss it from the standpoint of the Chinese seemingly using the Olympics as an excuse to do whatever they bloody well wanted irrespective of what the world thought. And ended by cussing every slope-eyed f*ckin' politician ... Well, you get the idea, I'm sure. But apart from speculating on the parenthood of those in authority in China, it usually turned to the question about what we would do if we were unable to get through that country and down into Pakistan. Our general consensus was to wear the cost involved to fly us and the bikes out of Central Asia. And to give a brief overview on this, there were really very few alternatives. We'd tried to find out if it was possible to change the paperwork for the bikes to another point of entry, but were told “NO WAY”. Then we considered riding to Irkeshstam (sic) Pass and put our bikes onto a truck ... because evidently we could still get in there on our visa, but wouldn't be allowed to ride our bikes while we were in the country because the paperwork only allowed us to take them in at the designated entry point (I.e Torgurat Pass). The truck option sounded good in principle until we started getting quotes on how much it would cost. I don't remember the exact figure, but it was in the order of $2000. For a grand each, we might as well fly us and the bike 1st class! Anyway, rest assured we looked at every possibility and from all angles, but as each week came and went, the time ticked by and it looked very much as we'd be flying out of there in due course.

I for one was not happy about this situation, as a quick survey of my finances showed that I would hit a financial crisis long before I reached Indonesia. I'd always known there would be costs for shipping from India to Thailand because Burma (Myanmar) is closed to independent travellers, then along with a short flight to Darwin from Timor that was pricey with proportionate costs to transport the bike to Australia, so had budgeted accordingly. But in adding this 3rd and extra lot of shipping, meant I simply didn't have enough money to complete my travels as planned. Something had to go ... If we had to fly out of this dead-end, then would likely have to kiss goodbye to riding through Pakistan and India. So any air-cargo from Bishkek that had our bikes on it, would be going straight to Bangkok.

Things weren't all bad in Bishkek. After having my illusions shattered so brutally about what appeared to be a city full of intelligent and cultured females, contented myself at being lucky enough to have a good place to rest my head. Bjorn had been in contact with a fellow biker who was working out of both Dushanbe and Bishkek. Through sponsorship from his 'seed' project organisation Arne had an apartment in Bishkek and was kind enough to share it with us ... Arne was a lovely man who's generous spirit allowed us weather what in truth was a difficult time. We trudged our way around numerous shipping and cargo handling offices, but mostly were being quoted figures that served to put more nails into the coffin of any ride across Pakistan or India. There was one vague possibility through an air-freight company we'd been told had previously allowed a biker to travel with his bike in an ancient plane to Islamabad for very little money. We knew this was a very long-shot, but even so harangued the guy who's planes plied this route, and held grimly onto our fantasy of an adventuresome flight over some of the highest mountains in the world in order to complete the trip as per original plan.

The highs and lows of each day were moderated by the knowledge that we had a comfortable place to go each night and took full advantage by preparing cheap and nutritious meals then spending what money we saved on a cold beer each night. Our time at Arne's was peppered with ups and downs, and found the some of 'highs' came in the oddest ways.

Back in Osh, Bjorn had a bit of disaster after spilling some beer over and into the keyboard of his lap-top. Apple do some good 'kit' I know, but to my knowledge have yet to produce a beer-proof note-book. In desperation he'd removed the keyboard and tried for all his worth the dry it out and clean whatever contacts he could find, using high-grade alcohol. Not not best scotch you dim-wit ... as bought from the local pharmacy for sterilising things! Anyway, his lap-top didn't work properly after that, and eventually wouldn't even start up. And with Bjorn being a semi-pro' photographer it was something of serious problem for him. Switching this tale quickly back to Bishkek ... and after bidding on an eBay auction for a 2nd hand keyboard and winning it. The item was subsequently shipped across to Arne's office. While trying for all my worth to be supportive, in truth was pessimistic and didn't think it was likely to work. After it arrived the package was taken back to the apartment and with barely hidden excitement Bjorn set about fitting it and ceremoniously hit the start button. We waited with baited breath and after a few seconds ... nothing. The blank screen stared back us. I was getting ready to commiserate and at the same time trying to think of other suggestions for what he could do now ... when the screen suddenly flickered into life. It took a minute or so to settle down, but after a few simple checks it looked like it was working again. I think I was nearly as delighted as Bjorn. Time to celebrate! We cooked up a lentil curry, with a side dish of spicy aubergines and shared a small bottle of vodka with apple juice. I was surprised at how nice that drink was too ... no really, it was! And as always I managed to munch my way through a whole round-loaf of Kyrgyz' bread. But to put the icing on the cake we sat and watched a film on Bjorn's newly fixed lap-top, which after seeing little more than BBC World News and CNN for months, was luxury to be able to watch something that was pure fantasy. Mind you, some of the political diatribe that's reported on the World-news takes some believing ...

Before finishing on the Bishkek chapters here, do have to mention the markets. The Lonely Planet always seemed to have the same generic description when mentioning the markets of Central Asia, that went something like, “a lively and colourful market where you can buy ...'. But I suppose it's hard to come up with new ideas when talking about a collection of stalls where you can buy food, clothing and household sundries. There was one market local to Nomad's guest-house, which reminds me ... I haven't had anything to say about that hostelry yet. Maybe later ...

Anyway, the local market was a busy and bustling place of commerce where you could buy all manner of things. It was a lively and colourful market where you ... Doh!!! Hmmm .., perhaps not.

But to get to the point, I enjoyed shopping there and on one occasion took Bjorn along with me. He wanted to get some images to add to his growing collection of travel pictures, and so did my best to distract the meat vendors while he photographed their big lumps of offal and assorted slabs of meat in the ... meat-hall, I guess you'd call it. While meat didn't feature much on our menu, this particular market would turn out to be one of my regular haunts, and as I gradually found my way around and learned the real prices, was able to prepare more interesting and varied meals to sustain us each evening.

I recall one shopping trip while we were still staying at Normad's, when I had decided to stock up on some provisions in readiness for a cook-up in the evening. So taking myself off to the market had a quick dash about for veggies, some rice and a handful of lentils. After half an hour felt that I had enough to carry, as I'd neglected to bring my back-pack and so gradually wandered in the direction of the entrance. In deciding I'd finished, made my way towards the road. Busy as always with not only thro' traffic, but also cars maneuvering to try and find a space to park, or alternatively had finished their shopping and were trying to head off home. I was about to step out in front of an aging Mercedes that was slowing to pull out of the flow, when I heard a shout from behind. I turned and there 2/3 metres away was a police-man beckoning me to come over. Tall and with a big gut he was standing feet astride, and as his beckoning hand came back down it was planted arrogantly onto his hip to match his other hand that was already resting in the same place on the other side. He had an air of expectancy and was clearly waiting for me to do as I was bid. He was frowning which did nothing to encourage my compliance, and so did little more than hesitate and let the Merc' go by in front of me. After his initial shout, he again barked and waved at me with more enthusiasm. After months of travelling felt that I could detect what was right and wrong with a now robust and well-honed street-wise 6th sense. And this didn't feel right at all. I'd not done anything wrong so far as I was aware, and with his third call inferring a sense of urgency, chose to ignore him and continued my way across the road. I thought to myself, that as I've done nothing wrong, he's going to have to come after me. Negotiating carefully through the snarl of traffic, glanced back as soon as a clear line to the opposite side allowed and could see him staring across, a furrow on his rather heavy brow. He looked somewhat brutish to me, so felt I'd done the right thing and just carried on walking. I was probably too far away by then for him to hear me, but turned and waved back making a clear effort to smile in his direction. He was clearly put-out and so got a dismissive wave from me in return, and at the same time called out “Sorry mate, got things to do ... So if whatever you want's that important, you're gonna have to come and get me”. In turning the corner was fairly certain he wouldn't do anything to further the pursuit, though I still kept an ear-out for sirens, half-expecting to hear the sound of a car revving hard as it tried to catch up with me. It never came and managed to get back to the guest-house unhindered.

It was there that I saw a French guy, who was also resident at Nomad's and had told me about an alarming experience where he'd recently got mugged ... by the police! I'd listened as he was clearly distraught and was evidently recovering from the trauma. I wonder? In speaking to him again, asked him where this incident happened, and yes ... it was at the same market. His tale related a group of police who took his passport and pretty much demanded money with menaces on some vague and flimsy excuse of not being allowed to take photographs. After pushing him around and keeping him waiting, he foolishly gave them most of his money along with his camera. Eventually he got his passport back and they kindly let him go on his way, with ... and get this ... a warning not to do it again! He didn't know what he was supposed to have done apart from take a few pictures, but had been frightened by these ugly brutes who were supposed to represent the law. It was clear from what he told me and from what I had seen too, they only represented themselves. After that I kept an eye out for these dodgy cops each time I returned to that market, and was firm minded that if they stopped me, would give them a bloody hard-time of it. But they didn't, so there was not chance to redress the balance of indignant-outraged tourist versus bent-cops. Bastards!

Time passed in Bishkek and we were working our way through the air-freight options. We'd pretty well narrowed it down to one guy who seemed keen, and who had a straightforward approach to his business. The other agencies didn't seem that confident and there was talk of other fees held against import duties, that we'd likely get back seeing as the bikes were our personal transport and not 'goods'. Neither me nor Bjorn were very impressed by this ad-hoc approach. Besides which, Mr Habib had come up with a round figure, that while not cheap was competitive against the other agents. At the same time we continued to harry a Mr. Malik of Galaxy-air, on the off-chance there would be a freight plane going to Islamabad that we could bundle both us and the bikes onto in order to get to Pakistan, as this appeared to be the only way we would ever get into the Indian sub-continent.

Then one day Bjorn came back from the Internet cafe all excited, quoting a mail from one of the Chinese travel agents. “Torgurat was going to open very soon and could we get to the Pass within 3 days?” This agent could evidently take us through for a straight 700 US. bucks each. Are you jokin? We can leave right now!

Of course, when you come out with throw-away statements like that, you don't really expect to have to do that thing. But in this case, we did ... I'd planned such a nice tea too! But instead of a nice relaxing evening eating good food and sampling more Kyrgyz' cocktails while watching old film re-runs, it was a mad scrabble to get ourselves organised and leave Bishkek. In what seemed a whirlwind of activity we packed and left the city, sights set east for the mountains once more ...

Kyrgyzstan Pt.8 Bishkek Ladies

he Walkabout Blog

Bishkek ladies ...

Bishkek ladies, wear high-heels. Do dah, do dah.
Bishkek ladies, wear high-heels. All the do dah day ...

I do hope I'll be forgiven the following contribution to chauvinism ... But being a fairly normal red-blooded male, couldn't help but notice the women during our time in Bishkek. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of attractive and well-dressed women each time we went out walking the city streets. We'd been in town for a couple of days before discussing the point, but Bjorn and I agreed on one thing. And that was the average Bishkek female took great pride and probably not a little time and money, in order to display her wares ... While not always graced with classic features, they were nevertheless as with their Osh counterparts a pleasing mix of Eurasian and Oriental. But where they really scored, was in keeping themselves in trim. It wasn't obvious whether there was a local culture as seems to be the case in France, where many young ladies appear to take their weight-watching to obsessive levels. Or whether indeed, they were genetically gifted with good bone structure and a metabolism that resisted corpulence. But in all my time didn't see one spare-tyre poking out, trying for all it's worth to ooze it's way between waist-line and t-shirt, as it all too familiar a sight on Brit' streets.

It happened as it does, that I was out walking one day in the warmth of the autumnal Bishkek air. I don't recall where I was going at the time, but found myself following a lady (no, no, not like that!) who was marginally portly and likely heading towards middle aged. While no longer likely to turn many heads with a perfect hour-glass figure, she had nevertheless appeared to have made considerable effort in choosing a very distinctive and well-tailored trouser-suit. You know the kind of thing I'm sure ... I've heard them dubbed 'power-suits' as an attempt at neutralising some of the inherent chauvinism of the male dominated office environment. My mind wandered back to considering the average local female and what drove her, bearing in mind the equivalent male here seemed to put as much effort into his appearance as Compo' from Last of the Summer Wine. It was then that it happened ... Just as the thought went through my head, about how elegant the Bishkek women could be, she stepped to one side near to edge of the path, put one finger over her right nostril and blew hard to empty the contents onto the grass. I was dumbfounded and quickly sought a new word, as elegant no longer applied and my half-formed opinion veered off in a completely new direction. In one moment this lady had totally shattered my illusions and prevented any further thoughts of beatifying 'yer average Bishkek bird ... It was a bit like seeing a stunning blonde in the pub turning every male head in sight. Until that is, she opens her mouth to say “Aw ma Gawd!” Followed by a string of profanity enough to make Alf Garnet blush. The pub-full of males once again turn their attention back to their pints, as did my mind turn once more to the problem of Bishkek fast becoming a dead-end for this part of the journey.

Kyrgyzstan Pt.7 Movin on ...

he Walkabout Blog

Movin' on ... A wimp in high places.

Bjorn's leaky rear-shock' still seemed to be holding up okay, with no further symptoms evident that were serious enough to bring us to a grinding halt. The main concern was that the whole back-end was much lower, but the expected bouncing from an un-damped spring never really made itself apparent, and the bike therefore continued to be ride-able. Bjorn's decision after some hand-wringing over cost, was to order a new unit from Europe. Oddly enough after giving the forwarding address as clearly marked for our Hotel in Osh, the courier company chose to ignore this with the package terminating it's journey in Kyrgyzstan at their nearest office. Which just happened to be in Bishkek, the country's capital city some hundreds of Kilometres to the north and east.

This then was the trigger to head further into Kyrgyzstan, and after having enjoyed a week's stay in Osh packed up and got ourselves onto the road that would take us in the direction of Bishkek. Sadly I don't have any photographs to illustrate the point but there was some quite startling scenery along the road between these two main Kyrgyz' centres of habitation. The reason for this bit of the trip remaining picture-less, was because I'd lost my camera during our stay in Osh. There was little drama in its passing, such as being stolen at knife-point, or dropping it into the foaming waters of a spectacular mountain torrent. Nothing so exciting I'm afraid ... The evening was wearing on, and we were late leaving to find somewhere to eat. It was during a stumbling night walk along ill-lit roads to one of the local restaurants, that the camera was last seen. A day later and in going to transfer the images from from the SD card onto one of my memory sticks for safe-keeping, the camera simply wasn't anywhere to be found. The discovery came about following a quick rummage in my bag, and after the usual search high & low to the accompaniment of that horrible sinking feeling, the realisation dawned that it had joined the ever growing list of things left by the wayside of this trip. It was initially heartbreaking to lose that camera, as it had been an unexpectedly intuitive present from my old Mum on my 50th birthday. But apart from that surprised myself in how philosophical I was in finding that it was missing, thinking it was a shame so many of my photo's from Tajikistan had gone forever. But even then it was later found that I had already transferred most of those at an earlier date, so in truth didn't lose as much as I'd first thought. There was however the fact that I wouldn't have a visual record of my travels until I'd found a replacement. A scout around the local shops turned up very few camera outlets, and those that existed in Osh had a limited selection that were relatively expensive. Little choice then, but to address this at some later date, and live with something of a photographic black-hole for the foreseeable future.

In preparation for our forthcoming ride to Bishkek, we made note of the fact that the map showed the road passing across some dark-brown areas where the surrounding lands were various hues of green. Instead of contours interspersed with altitude values 'a la' ordnance survey maps, it could be assumed these dark patches on my general purpose map of Central Asia indicated high altitude regions. If so it looked very much like we were going to have to wrap up warm for part of the ride at least. I couldn't see any spot-heights, so it wasn't certain if there were any really high mountain-passes. But rather than take away all the surprises chose instead to get as far as we could on the first day, and then if it became necessary we could always pick a good place to stay for a night of camping to break the journey. This was okay with me, so long as it wasn't half-way up a remote and desolate mountain and had to freeze my nuts off during the night!

Finally and at last ... We discovered the good roads of Kyrgyzstan we'd heard about back in Tajikistan. But in truth and from the remainder of our time in that country, sadly this was to turn out to be the one and only really good road in all of Kyrgyzstan. The Osh to Bishkek road is generally outstanding, parts of which were a genuine joy to ride on. The highlands were a surprise too, because they were not only high, but were extensive as well. They also had one thing in common with the other high passes and mountainous regions we'd been through, in that it became very cold even though we were crossing it during the warmest part of a late-summers day of settled weather. There was one notable difference however. Unlike other high passes we'd been over, on this road we didn't encounter a no-man's land where the road turned into a difficult to negotiate pile of rubble. Even over the highest pass, the surface remained in good condition with few if any pot-holes becoming evident, so we were able to press on and eat up the Kilometres by keeping our speeds close to Euro-averages. This wasn't a brief encounter with altitude though, because we climbed steadily to something like 2000 plus metres, and afterwards didn't drop below that for something like 2 hours or more of continuously hard-motoring. We climbed yet higher, then after dropping 500 or so metres, again start another ascent up to a plateau sat on an even higher level. Eventually the highest pass was breached, but not before one memorable 'pass that was a seemingly endless series of S-bends connected by short straights that wound it's way up and over a ridge in between two enormous peaks. That pass seemed to be a long time coming, as the road took us across one plateau where the road did a disappearing-act amongst the distant mountain peaks. When we got nearer the road could once again be seen with tiny trucks and cars wending their way impossibly up the side of of a huge wall of rock. This was another one of those days when we dwindled into insignificance, as the scale of nature grew to become a land where only giants would feel at home. I'm not sure of the highest altitude of the day, but am certain it was well over 3000 metres at one point. Just as I was beginning to wonder how much higher this road would take us the land levelled onto another enormous plateau, but this time it had an imperceptible downward grade. Had I not had a GPS, may well have pulled over to get every last bit of warm clothing on, because the heated grips were beginning to fight a losing battle. My previously toasty-warm palms were starting to lose feeling as the cold bit deeper, but the gradually reducing altitude and along with our position on the map told me we were finally going back down. The air temperature therefore should start rising.

It took a long time though, and my hands stayed cold for the better part of another hour before the air became detectably warmer. The Bishkek side of the highland road was routed along a very gradual descent, so that getting below a 1000 metres came as a blessed relief where the accompanying rise in temperature allowed dead-fingered hands to get some feeling back into them once again.

Just to reassure what many of you are probably thinking, for how much of a wimp I am in whinging about being cold up at altitude. I'm not really sure of the exact effect that sustained high altitudes have on the human body, though do know that up to a given point Homo Sapiens can acclimatise. For the duration of the ride across the Kyrgyz' highlands nearly every part showed signs of habitation of one kind or another. Mostly these were yurt-like abodes set back from the road, with a few shacks around for I'd guess storage or animal shelter during the nights. There were stalls set-up close to the road, where honey could be bought and remembered being surprised at this because I didn't think that honey-bees would be happy up there. But who knows? Maybe bee-keeping was just a brief summertime activity, and only after bringing their swarms with them. I'm certain too that a good percentage of nights would see the thermometer dropping well below zero, with some sharp and piercingly cold winds most days, which advertised that once again these people I was passing were a breed tougher than myself.

As with so many places I'd passed through on my trip so far, it was nice to see the Kyrgyz' highlands, but was most certainly pleased when I came back down on the other side. Barren landscapes are one thing, but barrenness along with sustained and biting cold is quite something else ...

We chose our campsite by a lake. A big lake too and without the map in front of me can't remember it's name. It might've been another Issy Kol as there seemed to be quite a few of these so-named lakes all over this part of Central Asia. After things warmed up following the trek across the highlands we were nevertheless still expecting the evening to cool down, but instead the heat of the afternoon seemed to hang about. The breeze that blew to whip up waves on the lake increased gradually and our evenings chill-out near the edge of the lake was brought to an end by a dust-storm shrilling through the camp. Bjorn was intent on having a cook-up, but I was too tired to eat much, so nibbled furtively on a bit of stale bread before heading into my tent. Morning came and dug myself out from under a fine layer of dust that had migrated inside the tent. We brushed ourselves off, packed up and got ourselves on the move again with intentions of grabbing some brekkie on the road.

This was another of those fantasies dispelled, as earlier planning had shown a number of lakes along our route in this region of the world. Months before leaving the UK dreamt of spending time along the forested shores of these Coniston sized lakes. But this was not to be so, because for the most part they were all inhospitable places and this one was no exception. There were a few signs of buildings where people lived, dotted along the lake above the high-water mark. But they mostly appeared desolate and treeless places where as a home they seemed to have little going for them visually to act as a warm welcome for their inhabitants.

A light shower accompanied our first half an hours riding along the southern shore-line, then we left the single dark cloud behind as we rounded the end of the lake. A further 5 Kms or so, and the road we wanted took us north away from that giant body of water. Bjorn and I finally arrived at the outskirts of Bishkek and promptly lost each other. In hitting some dense traffic I decided to pull over to get a street-map of the city printed out in an internet cafe, on the basis that it would give us some chance of finding one of the guest-houses. We managed to meet up again, when I doubled back and saw his bike parked outside of another netcafe which i'd spied on the main road into town.

Not learning from our lesson of 30 minutes earlier, we lost each other again while searching for the elusive Sakura guest-house. We'd been riding back and forth in blistering heat and traffic and during one of the about-turns Bjorn was no longer to be seen. 'The Sakura' was supposedly situated close to a main-road junction, so spent some time waiting for him there in the hope he'd happen-by in his continued search. He didn't ... and so i eventually gave up and started to once more go looking for the hostelry in question. With renewed energy it was found secreted down a small lane from the one and only tiny sign nailed high up on lamp-post, which gave a vague clue to it's location. But in my arrival discovered that Bjorn had already been there and had now gone again. Evidently he wanted to try and get to the DHL office to pick up his new shock-absorber before it closed. I was greeted with a smile from the owners, but was told there were no beds available. But rather than a flat refusal we'd been invited to camp in the building site of a new guest-wing still under construction. The cement covered floor of the new building didn't look at all inviting, but heat and tiredness disinclined further guest-house hunts that day and so decided to go with it for the moment. A souring mood soon turned to delight when I spotted an overland cyclist I'd first met in Samarqand, who was sat talking to another guest. It turned out my good friend Salva' was staying there and so instead of a dour evening bemoaning the poor sleeping conditions, it would be a chance to catch up on his travel anecdotes. But first, as befits all good blokey mo'bike travellers ... beer!

Kyrgyzstan Pt6. A Wanker in Osh

he Walkabout Blog

A Wanker in Osh ...

One day I decided to be a good-boy and walk across to the market using the subway rather than weave in front of the passing traffic to get across the road. I'd guess it was around mid-morning and the day was beginning to warm. My mind was partly taken up with it's usual combination of white-noise and people-watching as I passed many interesting looking individuals out on the streets. And again as was usual, each step closer to the market would see an increase in the numbers of people I passed. Another of the reasons that I'd taken a liking to Osh, was that for the most part I would be ignored when I was out and about during the day. While on the road and dressed in our bike gear, we'd gotten used to attracting stares, or on the odd occasions looks of something between suspicion or maybe even alarm burgeoning on fear. So it was refreshing to walk down the streets largely ignored and unaccosted. If anyone looked at me they would look away showing little surprise to continue minding their own business, and here in Osh never recollect getting any negative reactions that made me feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. We obviously weren't local, but neither were we being treated as if we were aliens with two-heads (this was yet to come in India).

I walked past a lady who was squatting in the shade with an open-suitcase selling small torches, lighters and the suchlike. Another lady was selling something equally innocuous and only glanced at me to see if I was a likely customer before attending to her wares again. Off to my right were some shops set back from the street that led to a covered market of some kind, and stretched alongside the river that cut through the city. Maybe I'd have a look in there another time, though reflected that it would probably sell the usual non-descript tat. I glanced across the parapet of the bridge as I passed to assure myself the water was still as uninviting as ever. More people became apparent as I neared the top of the pedestrian under-pass and had to weave around a couple of passers-by to make sure I was in front of the under-pass steps ready to descend. Once more the women were attracting my attention in their gaily coloured clothing and spotted one lady who was wearing a particularly bright colour-contrasted full-length dress. She appeared slim and had a turban-like wrap on her head made from the same material.

She continued on her way as I took my first steps down towards the under-pass. As I made my way down was in the middle of choosing my direction that would hopefully avoid the other people coming up and allow me an unchecked walk down the remainder of the steps into the tunnel. In doing so, had to move to one side to walk around a guy who was stood over by the hand-rail looking through the safety railings at something. Initially didn't take too much notice as part of my brain was put over to considering whether to get my camera out ready to take some photographs when I eventually reached the market, which by now was only minutes away.

I took another couple of steps down, turned my head slightly and saw something that caught my attention. The guy stood by the hand-rail and who was looking out onto the street above was doing something with his left-hand in front of him. There wasn't anything particularly different about this man that set him apart from any of the other people who were out and about, apart from the fact that he was standing on the steps, when everybody else was going either up or down. From the corner of my eye I could detect a distinct movement that was enough to attract my curiosity. What was this guy doing I wondered? In the first instance went to follow his gaze in order to find out what he was looking at, but it was just too late as in taking one more step down had dropped below street-level and so wouldn't find out what the focus of his curiosity was unless I stopped and went back up. Now, I'm mostly interested in what makes people tick, but do like to think I'm sensitive enough not step over boundaries that thrust me into being a full-on sticky-beak. Under the circumstances, to stop and turn around and go back up this chap to ask what he was looking at I'd guess would be outright bloody rude, so chose instead to continue on my way. But not without a backward glance to see his penis was thrust out from his trousers and his hand firmly grasping it in mid-wank!

My head snapped forward once more to make sure I didn't blunder into anyone coming up, and at the same time took account of the fact that nobody was taking any notice of him whatsoever. In a couple more seconds found myself at the bottom of the steps, and as I strode into the darkness of the tunnel took one more look, to see that he was not only still there but was still indeed intent on his activity of self gratification ... I thought about this afterwards and reflected that it wasn't so much his odd behaviour that startled me, but for the fact that he just continued doing what he was doing in broad-daylight for anyone to see ... and yet nobody seemed to notice. If anybody else saw what he was doing, there was no indication that they were the in the least bit interested. When I think back to that scene, it seemed to me that public masturbation was a most normal thing in that part of world.

Before closing the door on the chapter of Osh and the minus 5-starred Alysh Hotel must relate another encounter with their inept staff. It was after we'd been there for a couple of days, and had been in the habit of paying as we went. Paying for everything in cash remained a constant source of annoyance. It meant it was hard to estimate how much cash to get out each time, because there was no option to pay by credit-card to fill in any errors of miscalculation. In that regard the Alysh was little different to almost every other place we'd stayed in since leaving Europe. There was yet another difference to the European way of asking for late-payment too, in that they waited until we'd gone to bed before hammering on the door to remind us.

I'd imagine if you've been following the story so far, will recall two other Hoteliers who thought it was okay to wake me up during the night. The result of which was not a pleasant experience for the people involved on both occasions. This time however managed to keep my patience enough to get agreement that it could be sorted out first thing the next morning. And here's where it starts to go wrong ...

When the lady knocked the night previous I thought her way of reminding us we'd not paid for that night was rather abrupt, but guessed that at the time I conveyed to her the idea it wasn't appropriate for me to drop everything (if you'll excuse the pun) in the light of me standing there wearing nothing more than a pair of skivvies. The same scenario was played out in part as a repeat first thing the next morning, but after sending a 2nd lady off with a flea in her ear because I was neither showered nor dressed, imagined she would be waiting hand out when I finally got myself down into the lobby. But no, once again was to be proven way-wrong when it came to predicting hotel staff outside of the Euro-zone. Barely five minutes had passed and was about to step into the bath-room with the full intention of getting ready to go down and pay our overdue account, when another loud bang on the door announced yet another unwelcome visitor. This time it was a young man with a frown ... They'd sent in the heavies! «Money!» came the demand after which the young man simply stood and glared at me. Seeing as it was his first encounter with me, I thought it was only right to give him some chance and so explained I was about to get showered before coming down to pay. His retort was a rather blunt «Money, now!» that said he expected me to drop everything and pay him right there and then.

He'd crossed a line ... So simply told him to "Fuck Off" and shut the door in his face to see if that would deter him. But no, I'd not taken one step nearer to the bathroom when the insistent knocking told me he wasn't going away. Opening it again, I gave him a round bit of Ozlander explaining with clear reference to my limited apparel that I was not about to walk down to the lobby as I was, and if he persisted in haranguing me it would most definitely end in tears ... and my quickly deteriorating mood told me it wouldn't be me who was crying at the end of this! With that he turned his head to one side ... and spat on the floor. I was appalled! So appalled in fact that it had the effect of bringing my incipient anger to an abrupt stop and said to him. "What the bloody hell do you think you are doing? Did you just spit on the carpet? How dare you ... that's right outside of my door you uncouth man" I think he finally realised he'd crossed over a line with me and so retreated a step. I was no longer getting angry, but was most definitely upset at this uncivilised behaviour and pointed my finger at him saying ... "You ... can leave now, and I'll be down to see the manager directly" and closed the door. Not worrying whether he was going to continue battering the door, went off into the bathroom. I was determined to end this once and for all.

Whatever that young man saw or thought of my behaviour, he did indeed call a halt allowing me to get myself ready to interview the manager ... who as it turned was the woman who'd hammered on the door the previous night.

Not surprisingly she was waiting for me at the desk, with a heavy-weight frown that said "Don't mess with me!" Which interestingly, was exactly what I had in mind. Striding purposefully across the lobby made damned sure I engaged her before she could say anything. Taking care to keep a determined expression, held her stare until I was within suitable range to begin reading the riot act to her about banging on my door just to remind me we'd not paid for one night. And further explaining their stone-aged business methods of not having a facility to pay using a credit card. With suitable arrogance I actually took one of my visa cards out and pointing to it with my other hand explained that "This bit of plastic is worth something like $6000 and could therefore probably afford to pay a local demolition company to pull this bloody hotel down, just out of spite" And continued with several other equally gruff complaints. During my tongue lashing she did her level best to show she wasn't intimidated in the slightest. She struck me as a fairly hard-nosed type, so I didn't pull any punches and maintained a supremely confident front from start to finish. After some minutes a downward glance said she'd had enough. I felt inclined to carry on, seeing as I had at the upper-hand. So continued my tirade at the same time pulling out a fist-full of money ready to pay. In clear concise English (I was to think afterwards. What an arrogant Bastard I had been ... to expect her to take a bolloking, in anything but her native tongue) said "So exactly how much do I owe you for one night's stay in this ... anything but 5-star international hotel then?" Again she looked away, so I simply stood there until she decided to engage me again. I was thinking "You started this ..." Of course she understood me and after a few seconds mumbled the amount and at the same time reached for the register ready to record the payment. To continue punishing her then said "May I have a receipt please?" I didn't know whether she would understand and so was preparing to have to explain further but holding out the money with no intention of letting it go until I was sure of getting a receipt. But she then said something to the bored-looking receptionist, who rummaged about under the counter for a moment or two before bringing up a pad. So she did understand! I'd delivered the Coup de Grace and hadn't realised it ...

In suitably conciliatory mood then picked up my wallet and credit card that was resting on the top of the counter and again waved the card in front of their faces but in a much softer voice said "Why on earth don't you find some way for your guests to pay by credit card eh? If you did, it would prevent situations like this in the future ... because you will have a guarantee against non-payment and wouldn't need to upset people (like me)" But the four-glazed eyes on the other side of the desk told me I was now wasting my time. I'd won, I supposed. For whatever it was worth. And as it turned out we were able to pay late on two successive occasions after that, without having to endure any more midnight reminders.

Strangely enough, even though these two incidents took place in that tatty Hotel I still have fond memories of my stay there for some reason. Maybe it was the quaintness of the ex-soviet experience, or the simple fact we had our own apartment. Whatever it was it had a unique atmosphere the like of which Basil Fawlty could be proud of. And as a kind of thought for the future to finish on this, wouldn't be at all surprised if I returned five years or more from now to find everything is exactly the same. If so, maybe I should forget to pay just for the hell of it ...

Kyrgyzstan Pt.5 A bit about Osh

he Walkabout Blog

I've got a little bit more to say about Osh ...

I know I've made the statement about liking some places before, but I did like Osh. I could wax lyrical about many things, but do think it was all pretty simple stuff, so will list a few of the more obvious reasons. Beer, women, food and weather. That might even be the order of preference too.

I will now go on to enlarge on each of these as headings here ... though before that will add one more to the list. People. I quite liked the people too, who were generally friendly. In comparison to the population of Bishkek, I did feel a few more degrees of warmth from the Osh'ites. Maybe they reflected the climate at the time we were visiting this city, where each day the weather crept up the thermometer into the red-zone marked hot. The temperature would hit mid to late thirties Celcius by late morning, with few clouds ever being spotted in those clear blue skies above the city for the duration of our stay.

A few upbeat words about item no. 3, the food ... With us eating out around half the time in one of the numerous local restaurants, we also opted to save a few bucks by using our make-shift apartment kitchen as much as possible. The market was close, providing us with a good choice of fresh fruit and veggies, and enough other ingredients for a variable menu to feed me n' my travel buddy Bjorn. The market was a bustling place, though was a fairly haphazard layout where you needed to hunt out the best or cheapest produce. A routine was soon established and we found we could usually pick up most of our daily needs in 20 minutes or so. As was often the case in most parts of Central Asia, the tomatoes here were always delightful, giving us a choice of eating them as a salad ingredient, or with a bit of preparation in removing skins were also good for tomato-sauce based meals.

Then we come to the Women, who feature as no. 2 in the hit parade above, and who's facial features were largely pleasing to my eyes. Those light-coffee coloured ladies would frequently wear bright colours to reflect their generally outgoing nature. I will add though, that I'm talking about the ordinary women as seen in the streets or working in shops and restaurants. There were other girls too ... who worked in quite a different way, but found they mostly spoiled their appearance by wearing just a little too much make-up and showing just a little too much cleavage ... Central Asia as with many parts of the world is a melting pot of tribes and here is evidenced from a mix of Eurasian and Oriental. The result is people with soft round faces, and most especially many of the women I encountered, who had a predisposition to smile. A pleasant change from the frowning hardness and folded arms of many Brit-bird's, that sends a clear message. 'Keep out'.

Not every lady caught my attention in a positive way though, and here will say a little about the hospitality service in our hostelry of choice while resident in Osh, the Alysh Hotel. In not being able to find a good enough internet connection so that I could have a Skyped conversation with any of my friends or family, made arrangements to have a chat with my bro. in law on the land-line of the hotel one afternoon. In his last email he assured me it shouldn't be too expensive, so long as we didn't lose track of time. From that took myself down into the lobby and made enquiries about the land-line number of the hotel, after which I directly SMS'ed it to the UK and settled down to await a phone-call. Within a minute or so the phone rang and I watched as the girl behind the desk answered it. This was the same girl that gave me the number only moments before. Upon picking up the receiver she spoke a couple of words, then hesitated and looked across at me. Seeing as she looked across I guessed that it was probably my brother in law and so was expecting to be called over. This however didn't happen and she replaced the receiver onto it's cradle and went back to staring off into blank space. I reflected that I was wrong and that it must have been someone else on the line. Perhaps it was a wrong number? But something told me, this was not so and was in fact the call I was expecting.

With a further fact that the telephone in the Alysh wasn't exactly a hot-line of potential guests trying to book one of hotels luxurious 5-star apartments, and along with the timing of this call, I speculated that to get a wrong-number call come in at that particular moment, was spectacularly coincidental. Two minutes go by and my moby vibrates. An SMS message. And it's my bro. in law Norman. It says he's just called ... and got a lady talking Russian or some equally indecipherable tongue, who put the phone down on him.

Oh well, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and so go up to the desk and tell her I'm expecting a phone call. In texting back to say 'try-again', actually stand waiting at the desk to make sure there is no mistake that the next time it rings, it's for me. The phone rings. She answers. Again, the brief pause ... she frowns, but gives no sign of passing over the phone and so ask her directly "Is it for me?" I don't know why, but get the distinct impression she's going to put the phone down again, and so I put my hand out expectantly. Again, a moment's hesitation, but eventually the receiver is given over to me. And yes ... it's my call. Perplexed at such odd behaviour, briefly mention it to my bro in law. Nevertheless we go on to have our conversation without wasting too much time wondering what that was all about, choosing instead to pass each others news back and forth.

Ten minutes go by and am conscious of the time. But might add it's from the point of view of not wishing to lumber my Sis & with a hefty phone-bill, not because I'm using what appears to be the one and only hotel phone. In the past few days, the turnover of guests along with other time spent in the lobby told me the phone didn't get too much use anyway ... But it mattered not, as the lady behind the desk took it on herself to begin staring at me. Once I realised this was what she was doing, initially felt I should finish soon. Then while I continued to talk or alternatively listen, occasionally checked to see if she was still looking. She was. Part of my mind was stolen to note her expression was devoid of any emotion. There was no way of telling what was going behind those cold eyes, so chose to ignore her and selfishly carry on with what I was doing. More minutes passed and it was evident that by ignoring her, it meant she was going to become more persistent. She moved closer ... I looked back at her while at the same time continuing my conversation. She now had more of my attention and told my brother-in-law a little of what was happening. Was she going to say anything? Not yet apparently ... She continued to stare, but now the expression had the slightest hint of malevolence. She broke off eye-contact for a moment to look down at the main body of the phone. Was she going to put her hand out and cut me off I wondered? She looked intent on something mischievous, so asked my bro. in law to hold, and I then asked her if she wanted something? The direct approach seemed to work and she backed off, but not for long as she soon resumed the evil stare once more.

Because of her inept methods of trying to get the phone back, decided to ignore her totally and would finish the conversation in our own time. I could tell from her demeanour this didn't go down well at all. I'd upset her, though you'd be hard-pushed to tell by that blank expression. It was subtle but there were enough signs to see she was angry. That Contrary inside me was quite happy at her ire and continued to wind-up my phone call in my own good time and finally said my goodbyes.

Once I'd finished I could have just walked away, but chose instead to give her some Oz-lip and told her how bloody rude she was to try and interrupt my conversation. I don't think she understood a fraction of what I said, but it mattered little as I said what I did purely for my own self-satisfaction. She tried to respond, but it was too little and too late, as I was already leaving. She'd spent too many years practicing her blank expression that sent out a message to anyone watching that she didn't care about anything, so was inhibited at reacting appropriately to reflect her true feelings. Nevertheless she was furious and even though my parting was with some light hearted banter and a smiling face, I could see that I left her fuming.

I'd not taken too much notice of her before, but afterwards watched her since whenever I was walking through the lobby. In measuring my earlier comments about the aesthetics of the ladies of Osh, she wasn't unattractive. But that dull emotionless gaze exuded ugliness. Rarely have I seen such energetic apathy. Every movement, every expression seemed to be one of extreme boredom. There wasn't the slightest hint of a smile or anything upbeat going on in her brain judging by the blank facial expression. It's hard not to think derisively, that people like that are going nowhere and will achieve little in their lives. At least the people outside in the local markets are engaging in life, and doing something active. From what I was able to observe this girl did absolutely nothing positive with her day. Something like 99% of her time at work seemed to be spent moping behind the hotel desk or slouched in front of the TV watching Rusky based soap-operas. To me it was bloody depressing and initially thought of it as waste of life. But then further thinking led me to consider this is likely to be one of the left-over symptoms from the Soviet era. Back then there were no incentives. No reward for hard-work or doing a good job. She would get the same whether she was a good receptionist or not. I fear it's too late for her, but maybe successive generations will discover something called job-satisfaction. When that happens The Alysh will either be a pile of rubble, or it's dingy interior renovated into luxury apartments ... Maybe the most important thing though, is that there's someone on the desk who knows how to smile occasionally.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Kyrgyzstan Pt.4 Osh

e Walkabout Blog Where in the world am I?

The link above should open google-maps to show my latest position ...


Osh. Now there's an odd sounding name. In fact it sounds more like an exclamation to my ears. But in truth it's quite a nice place. After weeks of relative wilderness and often cool to cold conditions while up in the mountainous areas of Central Asia this place boasted a warm to hot climate and had all the usual creature comforts to offer us travel weary bike touro's. Until that is, it came to our accommodation ...

We'd opted for one of the Lonely Planet recommended guest-houses, as it was as good a start as any. But when we finally found it down a side-street, it had a full-house sign posted to show we were out of luck. We were then directed to their 2nd property, which was only a five minute walk away. Duly following the lead of the resident house-minder we arrived at the back of a dingy looking apartment block. Entering in past curious local residents gave it a border-line thumbs-up after which we installed ourselves into the dorm', as it seemed to be the best value against the relative expense of a separate room. In any case it appeared there was more space available in the dorm' as there were only two other guys in there at the time of our arrival. The guest-house itself was very basic, but really didn't expect too much because as was the norm, we generally went straight for the budget end of the accommodation market.

We ended up staying 2 nights only in this our first place of residence, as it was discovered we had to share the down-beat bathroom with a shop out the front. I tried to explain to the manager that this wasn't really acceptable as each time I went in there the floor was swimming with water and further, because the people from the shop wore their outside shoes, it soon took on the appearance of a muddy puddle. Not nice, because a big sign on the back-entrance to the guest-house compelled us to remove our shoes when we came in ... Further again, was the fact that the floor of the dorm' hadn't been washed in a very long time. In the interests of improving my living space took on this service and after only 10 or so minutes work, threw away a bucket of water that was the colour of soy sauce. The second bucketful was still the hue of thin gravy, and soon became clear this could finish up a never ending task so finally gave up ...

We gave the proprietor one day to do something about the unsatisfactory state of cleanliness, by either giving us a discount or getting the place cleaner. But he was reluctant to let us stay for less than the originally agreed price, and not unexpectedly after one single occasion of cleaning the tatty little bathroom, we were soon back to paddling in dirty water from the shop assistants foot-wear again. The last straw was someone trying to get in to empty their tea-pot into the sink, while i was still under the shower. The next day we left.

Pre-empting the fact that the dirty conditions would continue, we'd already had a reccy' in a couple of other places, with the main enquiry being “How much?” There weren't too many cheap hotels around, but we found another one a five minute ride down through the market and across an adjacent bridge. The Alysh Hotel was to be our home for the next week or so ...

In all honesty it wasn't that much better because a quick scan of the walls and floors showed it was subject to little more than a cursory clean following each occupancy. I'd doubt very much if it had seen renovation of any kind in a couple of decades or perhaps more. The beds were as hard as ... and the towel was made from a material that was as absorbent as a supermarket carrier-bag. But we had heaps more space and with two rooms branching off of a small entrance hall, the addition of the bathroom meant it was in actual fact a small apartment. All for the princely sum of 5 US dollars. I don't recall how much we paid for the first dirt-encrusted place, but do remember thinking we'd got double the value for our money by moving. And better still, was that it was close to the market, so we could get our provisions quickly and easily ...

Now cooking in a hotel room isn't something I'd normally consider for many reasons. The first of which is that it's usually simply not allowed, both because of the fire-hazard as well as the fact that many establishments have a cafe or resto' attached. The Alysh couldn't claim we were taking custom from their own caterers, neither was I too worried about things from the safety aspect. While fire was of course something to stay alert to, the fumes from our camp-stoves were well ventilated by the ill-fitting windows. Along with letting in the ever present noise from the nearby road junction, these rattly fitments of glass and wood let out all the cooking fumes exchanging them for plenty of noxious gases from the traffic below.

At one time I did examine the windows in my room, to see if I could improve things, but gave up quickly as I get the distinct impression that if I fiddled with them too much the whole frame would fall out, tumbling down into the street below. I wasn't so much worried about being accused of malicious damage, but didn't want to hurt any innocent passers-by. Besides which, it would put an instant end to our money saving activity of self-catering in the apartment.

After a day Bjorn gave up fighting the ill fitting single-glazed windows and simply left his open all the time. At least it gave an impression of living out in the open. The noise of the traffic was shut out each night, by stuffing ear-plugs in, but did note that one morning when I took him in some coffee, that he'd added to noise-insulation by pulling the pillow over his head too.

To conclude the description of our apartment and my rudimentary kitchen, the flaky-painted window-sill had been pressed into service to act as a work-top and though it picked up numerous splashes and marks from the cooking, it was probably left cleaner than when we first arrived. That was because in tidying up after each meal I slowly removed what was left of the aging dark cream paintwork. When we finally moved on, that window-sill may not have had much paint left on it, but the dirt and grime that was evident on our arrival had long since gone.

Whatever else is going on in post-Soviet countries of Central Asia there is still much evidence of the old ways. One shining example of which was the service in the Alysh Hotel ...

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Kyrgyzstan Pt3. Goat's, drunks and local kids

he Walkabout Blog

Goat's, drunks and local kids ...

We'd gone through a handful of villages and had numerous encounters with dogs. The day was wearing on and it would be getting dark in an hour, so we stopped in one village to stock up with provisions for an expected night of camping. In asking some locals hanging over a fence the whereabouts of a store, were pointed back along the road on the opposite side. Riding back there was nothing obvious to be seen, so circled till a guy starting waving and then gestured for us to go in between a tumbly-down stone wall. I pulled over and wandered up this path that looked more like it was a run-off from a nearby stream. I speculated whether it was run-off waste water from the houses instead ...

I went to walk further up the track, but the helpful local again called out and pointed the way to let me know I was about to pass the shop. Looking for some kind of entrance or sign to show it was something other than just another house, was confronted by nothing more than a small window, half of which was open. Looking through the gap were some small cucumbers, apples in a box and little else to be seen from where I was standing apart from the wide-eyed girl who was minding the store. Peering further in could just about make out something round and red. These were tomatoes and they were on my shopping list of items too, but try as I might the girl would not sell me any. From what I gathered, they were past their sell-by date. I didn't mind over-ripe tom's as they often made for a good sauce to accompany pasta dishes. But no ... she was persistently insistent. I wasn't going to get them and that was that!. Eventually I accepted it was going to be a a tomato-less shopping foray, then asked about vodka. To which my helper who was stood nearby suddenly took a lot more interest. His eyes lit-up and pressed closer and a smell of alcohol suddenly assailed my nostrils. It was then that I noticed he was drunk. A shout then went up as another of his comrades wobbled unsteadily down the uneven path. He was drunk too, but was in a decidedly worse state as he attempted to stumble his way closer. Once the bottle of vodka appeared through the open window and the transaction for the other items was completed, the 2nd drunkard who'd reached us by now and was wavering in front of me, started pointing to the bottle with a sly grin on his face. He went on to mumble something incoherent in either Russian or Kyrgyz', but suspected I wouldn't have understood even if he was speaking English. Evidently he wanted me to open it then and there, and presumably share it with him and his mate. He wanted to continue his party and thought that I was his host!

Sorry boys”, I returned in my best Oz accented English. “Gotta move on and find a campsite before it starts getting dark”. This didn't satisfy the 2nd drunk who became more urgent in his demands, so I squared up to him momentarily. The first guy, took him by the shoulders and was evidently placating him, nodding for me to go. I took the hint and rejoined Bjorn who'd been looking after the bikes.

We moved off and followed the road where it led. In it's turn the road was following alongside a river. The one which was responsible for creating the valley we were in. A couple more villages came and went after which we slowed our progress and stopped for a couple of reccy's, in the hope of finding a suitable spot for the night. The first one we looked at was rather close to the river. I didn't fancy the proximity to the river as there was also some big puddles of standing water nearby that would likely be a breeding ground for mozzy's. Besides there was constant background roar from some white-water a short way downstream. So we then looked at another spot along a bit further that was tucked away behind a wall and in front of a cliff-face. A field-sized patch of regularly grazed grass made for a flat enough spot to pitch our tents that was some 20 or so metres away from the road. If not perfect, was sure good enough for a one-nighter.

Rather than risk the chance of our neighbours taking umbrage at our presence and visiting us in the middle of the night with loaded shotguns and a pack of their not too friendly hounds, it seemed a good idea to walk along and introduce ourselves. A lady appeared from the door of the house as I walked in through the gate. Imagining she already knew of our presence from some children that had dropped by shortly after we'd stopped. She seemed a little perplexed, but didn't seem to mind when I told her we were camping nearby, by saying 'palatca' (the Rusky word for tent) and pointing back to where I'd left Bjorn collecting fire-wood. Going on to mime a tent as an upside down vee and following up with my head to one side on clasped hands, as what I hoped was the international sign for sleep. I still wasn't too sure if she understood me and so pointed back along the road, saying “Tajikistan”, then the other way and said “Osh”, trying to convey the idea we'd be gone tomorrow. Eventually she managed a smile, though was as likely at my inane behaviour as any kind of understanding. But taking this as my cue waved goodbye to her and her two young children and went back to finish making camp and getting some tucker going.

The same children returned later in the evening to retrieve the goats that were grazing high up on the cliff. I'd not noticed the goats, but had heard the sound of stones falling so guessed there was something up there ... It was fascinating to watch these children scampering up what little path existed before encouraging their stock back down for the night. The goats clambered down over steepness that seemed impossible from where we were stood. One or two seemed to be surfing on the tracts of loose shale in the half-light, before hopping across onto something more solid. The mini avalanches continued after they'd gone, but could only be heard as a gentle skittering of stones. Darkness was complete as Bjorn lit the camp fire, which was as much to deter the insect-life as warmth or for cooking purposes. The early part of the night was still warm from the heat of the day, but it was cooling rapidly ...

We ate some bland rice or pasta based food. I don't remember which staple was on the menu that night, but really can't complain because what I do recall is that I cooked it myself. One thing I didn't forget is that we had some Kyrgyz' vodka to look forward to, a couple of nips of which warmed us against the cooling air. An hour or so later had pretty much finished cleaning and tidying the camp kitchen and was feeling tired enough for my mind to turn towards getting some sleep. In getting ready for bed cast around with my torch and could see some eyes reflecting the beam of light over behind Bjorn's tent. It was a pretty eerie sight and so walked across to investigate. There was something bulky in the shadows, but wasn't distinct enough to see exactly what it was. I had to get closer ... It turned out to be a donkey, which had wandered across onto our side of the road and was standing sentinel-like. It looked bored, so left him undisturbed and walked away to clean my teeth in the darkness. It was still fairly early but by now was most definitely tired enough for sleep and wearily took myself off into my tent, leaving Bjorn to watch the fire burn out ...

I was up at first-light with Bjorn getting up a little after me. He grumbled out of his sleeping bag and tent, complaining that the flames from the fire had mesmerised him into finishing off the bottle of vodka. In telling me he was a bit on the groggy side it reminded me to get the kettle went on for tea, with Bjorn opting for a caffeine filled coffee to chase away his cobwebs. A handful of the children we met the evening before came back in the morning to watch us pack up. I spent some time with them and asked them their names in turn, and after doing so found that three of their number seemed quite amenable. There was a fourth one that was a bit older who seemed just a little too interested in my knife, and cynically guessed he had designs on filching it given half a chance. When he made a stabbing movement with it towards one of the smaller kids, I lost patience with him and took it back. With the knife confiscated he soon got bored and wandered off, leaving the younger one's alone with me and Bjorn. I encouraged them to help rather than just dumbly watch and they became more and more relaxed. It seemed important to make an effort as there could be few westerners who came along this road, and those that did would simply hurtle by in rented 4 wheel-drives towards their next destination. These 3 young 'uns who stayed with it, were each rewarded with a pen and seemed happy with their gift. I do hope they saw this as payment for their help ... rather than a straight hand-out from stupid rich tourists.

The road eventually got better. These then were the good roads we'd heard about! On the map it still appeared to be the biggest part of a days ride to Osh, but with good roads, we'd be there in a couple of hours. Maybe less? Huh! 10 minutes of good stuff and it reverted to pot-holes and uneven surface again. Back down came the speed, back up went the day's travel times ...

It continued like this until just before Osh. In fact I'd say we were within something like 10 Kms of the city before the pot-holes and rough ungraded surface disappeared completely. The last 50 Kms or more, was a tease of new road and partially levelled road-works awaiting surfacing, that choked us with our own dust as well as that of the passing traffic. I was glad to ride into town when it came. After weeks out in the wilderness with little more than small towns and villages in between, it was a novelty to see lines of shops again. We passed a market and turned right into a main street. Nooooo! No way? Was that a pizza shop? Good god, we've must've arrived back in civilisation!