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 ...