Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Borat has managed to spark an immense interest of the whole world in Kazakhstan—something our authorities could not do during the years of independence. If state officials completely lack a sense of humor, their country becomes a laughing stock.” — Sapabek Asipuly

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world by land area, equivalent to the size of Western Europe, populated by less than 17 million inhabitants, and nowadays an independent nation (the last Soviet republic to declare independence). The Kazakh Steppe, the world’s largest dry steppe region, occupies one-third of the country’s territory. I can not believe that there is any other country on this planet that has more empty space than Kazakhstan has. We drove some 2,000 km through Kazakhstan, and I have never seen such enormous amounts of nothing before.

Almaty, the nation’s largest city (formerly known as Alma-Ata, capital of the Kazakh SSR), is just a few hours’ drive from Bishkek and we arrived early in the afternoon. Crossing the border didn’t take any mention-worthy amount of time, but it was an extraordinarily busy border crossing where large groups of people were herded like cattle through metal-fenced walkways by rude and aggressive border guards. Seeing how other cars were forced through DDR style vehicle inspections, unloading absolutely everything for customs inspections, we feared the worst but were saved by a guard officer recognizing the Mongol Rally stickers on our ambulance and realizing that it would be a waste of time to search us.

Also in Almaty, just like in Bishkek, Baku and Tbilisi before, there were people here who knew Ihar, who knows everybody everywhere. So we parked the ambulance in the city center and sat down at a café with free Wi-Fi internet access to eat lunch and send out messages that we had now arrived. First to show up was Kasya Shahovskaya, to whom Ihar had sent a mail telling her about us and our journey. A while later we were also joined by Bota, who didn’t know Ihar (!), but who had found our itinerary on CouchSurfing and offered her hospitality. Then Kasya told an acquaintance of hers, Nikita Galiyev, whom she had never before actually met face-to-face, and he showed up as well.

After the locals had discussed for a while about where would be the best place for us to stay the night, Nikita put an end to the discussion by deciding that we should sleep in his apartment, while he himself would stay the night at his mother’s place to make space for us. End of discussion.

Bota now had to leave us for work reasons while Nikita proceeded to stuff us all into his car for some downtown Almaty sight-seeing. First stop was the Independence Monument, crowned by a statue of the Issyk kurgan Golden Man. On a more pop cultural note, we also visited the construction site of the Timur Bekmambetov movie theatre being built close by. When talking about movies in Kazakhstan, Borat is obviously an unavoidable topic (Amazon UK has reported significant numbers of orders of Borat on DVD from Kazakhstan) and Kasya told an anecdote from when she was vacationing in Italy last year and some Italian guys demanded to know where she was from. When they didn’t take her reply “Kazakhstan!” as a valid answer, she ended up showing them her passport to their great surprise: “Does that country exist for real?”

After sightseeing downtown, we picked up the ambulance and drove it to the outskirts of town to park it at Nikita’s apartment before being joined by Kasya’s friend Sabina Dairbaeva and taking the beautifully Soviet antique cable car up the Kok Tobe mountain to enjoy the views, sights and restaurants up there.

The next destination on our journey was to be the Kazakh capital of Astana, connected to Almaty by a 1,200 km road across vast expanses of emptiness. Accounts differed on the quality of this road and on whether it would be realistic to drive all the way in one day. The most optimistic claimed that it was possible to drive the entire distance in 10 hours in a good car, and the most pessimistic claimed that it wasn’t possible at all. So we left Nikita’s apartment early in the morning to find out for ourselves how far it would be possible to drive and have ample time to find a suitable place to stay the night if the drive turned out to be too long.

Volvo dealership on our way out of Almaty

Road quality was actually quite good, and became better closer to the capital. But keeping high speed on this road did require a lot of concentration and the distance was murderously long. For most of the drive, there was absolutely nothing to see on either side of the road. Early in the evening, we reached the city of Karaganda, in Soviet times the preferred city used to signify in the middle of nowhere in Russian and the punchline of a popular joke built on this (“Где?” — “В Караганде!”). Here we made what was supposed to be a quick stop for dinner, but after stuffing ourselves with shashlik we came back to a car that wouldn’t start.

This was a tricky one to figure out. The ambulance had worked flawlessly for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres during the day, and now, all of a sudden, it just wouldn’t start, wouldn’t do anything. Luckily we were parked in a good spot and despite darkness falling upon us could start investigating. It seemed to be some kind of electrical problem. But the battery delivered electricity just fine to the on-board electronics and everything seemed to be just fine until the ignition key was turned and all went black. Repeatable. Nothing visible seemed to be broken either. No loose or damaged cables. Mysterious. The negative terminal of the battery was mysteriously warm. Could we have a short-circuit somewhere? This would be hard to sort out.

Some passers-by saw our predicament and being unable to help themselves, offered to bring some help. This help arrived in the form of two guys from the Karaganda Rescue Service dressed in matching coveralls, who immediately started to examine our car. At first they were also dumbfounded, but then began some more methodical fault finding. Connecting jumper cables to the battery of another car with running engine didn’t change anything and all other similar theories turned out to be useless. Then one of the guys had the idea to fully disconnect the existing battery, in case this was some sort of electronics problem, to force a reset of all on-board electronics. The problem had really nothing to do with on-board electronics, but disconnecting the battery finally revealed the source of the problem with utmost clarity:

The electrical cable connecting the battery negative terminal to the car was broken, inside of its protective covering. It’s a very stiff cable which had corroded over the years, and the vibrations during the past weeks and the past day had finally torn it apart. Held together by the protective covering this cable breakage had not only been impossible to see, but the proximity of the cable ends had also been sufficient to power the on-board electronics and this also explained the mysterious warming of the cable when trying to suck enough power for the starter motor through the now very thin connection.

The existing terminal connector on the cable had been cramped on and it wouldn’t be possible for us to remove the old cable end from it and reattach it to the rest of the cable. So the Rescue Service guys went away to find a new connector instead. They returned shortly with a Russian manufactured connector of simple and straightforward construction, which for us had the main disadvantage of being designed for much thinner cables than the ones in our car. It took a lot of fiddling to manage to fit the new connector to the rest of our cable, but it eventually worked out and the engine started like a charm.

Joy and celebration! The Rescue Service guys were proud of having been able to help us and refused any form of payment for their help. I insisted on at least paying for the new connector they had brought us, but they sternly refused even this. Absolutely incredible. We posed and took a lot of photos, with a lot of hand-shaking and profound thanks.

Now it was late at night and driving on towards Astana would have been ridiculous. One of Ihar’s friends in Astana, Alexander Danilov, had been awaiting us that night, but upon hearing of our breakdown he instead involved one of his friends in Karaganda, who contacted us and directed us to a suitable hotel there where we could stay the night instead. All’s well that ends well.

The next day we finally reached Astana, in time to have lunch (at a Bavarian theme restaurant!) with Alex and his friend Aidos Kapanov. They also gave us a fascinating tourist tour of this newly built capital of Kazakhstan, which has a lot of the insanity of Ashgabat in it (marble palaces, fountains, flagpoles, etc.), but also contains real people and life. Quite an experience.

Late afternoon we continued driving towards the Russian border, to stay the night in the city of Pavlodar. Here we had been invited by Alex Mans, who had found our itinerary on CouchSurfing, to stay the night in his home. When we arrived, he had prepared dinner for us (and excellent rice dish a bit similar to paella and a Russian style salad), with fruit juice, tea and vodka. Alex works with computers and was proud of his unlimited internet access, so we could do some final planning and send some mail to people along the future route, before attempting to cross the border into Russia. In the morning, Alex saw us off by offering a real power breakfast, rich in meat, really making sure that we would remember Kazakhstan most fondly, before we drove off towards the Russian border to enter the great mysterious Siberia.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mountains and Friends in Kyrgyzstan

Leaving Khujand in the morning for the relatively short drive to the border crossing between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at Isfara soon brought us into a little adventure. It turned out that the road shown on our map was not the road we needed to find, and that the road we needed to find was not on our map.

We were pointed by friendly locals in the direction of the border and eventually found a small group of Tajik soldiers who stopped us and asked us what we were up to. We explained that we were going to Kyrgyzstan and asked if this indeed was the road to Kyrgyzstan. They tried explaining something to us that we couldn’t understand, but it seemed quite clear that the road we were on indeed led to Kyrgyzstan (as the villagers had previously told us) but that there seemed to be some kind of problem with us going there. We could never figure out what that problem was, and eventually the commanding officer tired of trying to explain it and just waved us away, drive, go, go to Kyrgyzstan if you really want to. So we drove away.

Eventually, a suspicious number of vehicles on the road had Kyrgyz license plates and the people along the road did all suddenly look very different from the Tajiks. Rico got out of the car and walked up to a group of teenagers, pointing to the ground asking “Kyrgyzstan?”. They looked at each other, looked at Rico, and answered in the affirmative, “Kyrgyzstan!”.

Shit. Apparently the Kyrgyz had not felt it necessary to have any guards at this border crossing, so we had now entered their country illegally, by mistake. This was what the Tajik soldiers had tried to tell us: That they didn’t really have anything against letting us out of their country right there, but that we wouldn’t be able to get our paperwork inspected and stamped if crossing the border here. The locals themselves obviously prefer this border crossing, as it is hassle free, and had just pointed us in the direction of the closest and easiest crossing without knowing or realizing that it for us would be necessary to get all the paperwork done properly.

Backtracking. The little group of Tajik soldiers waved and smiled, lying in the shade at the side of the road, when we passed them again on the way back into Tajikistan. Eventually we found the fully staffed border crossing (not on the map) and got all the proper paperwork done for exiting Tajikistan and entering Kyrgyzstan legally. The full and proper procedure for entering Kyrgyzstan was really quick and easy, but considering that we had already been in their country once before earlier that same day it felt a little bit ridiculous that they bothered to double-check our passports here …

The drive from the border to Osh was essentially pretty uneventful, but made unnecessarily complicated by the existence of Uzbek enclaves within Kyrgyzstan. The main road to Osh goes through these enclaves, but we could not (for that would have required having multiple entry visas and doing the emigration and immigration procedures at the borders of each enclave). At the first enclave we encountered, the only possible route was to drive back again to the last town we had passed and there pay a taxi driver to drive ahead of us until we were on the correct road leading around the enclave. This road started out as a dirt track but eventually transformed into the first segment of a new trans-Kyrgyzstan highway of absolutely excellent quality.

Our hopes of arriving in Osh at a reasonable time grew the longer we drove on this highway, but were eventually crushed at the police checkpoint before yet another enclave. To not enter the enclave, we were directed to a “road” that we could never have believed to be the correct one unless four different people had independently of each other insisted on it. It was a dirt track of Shakristan Pass quality, passing through some kind of wasteland along the Uzbekistan border, with almost no traffic and by this time in complete darkness.

When we finally reached the main road again it was late in the evening. We had a quick and simple dinner at a roadside eatery before continuing the laborious drive on a highway of doubtful quality. (Even though, compared to the dirt track, any highway at all was a blessing.) It was well past midnight when we finally reached Osh and checked in to one of these by now very familiar Soviet era hotels.

The next day, the set out to drive across the mountains all the way to Bishkek. Most of the road was of absolutely excellent quality, most of the drivers were both very skilled and also very helpful so traffic was flowing extraordinarily smoothly and we made very good speed northwards.

The mountains here are just spectacularly beautiful. Sometimes it looks like Switzerland, sometimes it looks like Scotland, and sometimes it looks like something from out of this world. Martian landscapes with magically blue mountain lakes, thousands of metres above sea level. I have never seen anything like it before.

Kyrgyzstan is nowadays working hard on attracting foreign tourists. With these marvellous landscapes together with a lot of good roads and no unnecessarily complicated bureaucracy, they should be in a very good position to become a major tourist destination. The girls are remarkably pretty too. If you want a mountain vacation and are tired of Switzerland, or want to spend more money on getting there than on staying there, consider Kyrgyzstan next time. It’ll be worth it.

Despite the good roads, it was still a very long drive and once again well past midnight before we arrived in Bishkek. Here the hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet was fully booked, but the friendly receptionist called around and soon found us a place with free rooms, not very far away.

The next day it was time to meet some friends. Also in this city, just like in Baku and Tbilisi before, there were people here who knew Ihar and had received his mail about our journey, so we had Konstantin ZolotarevSabina Reingold and Tolkun Umaraliev awaiting our arrival. They had in their turn also told their friend Michael Ivashchenko about us and after we we had changed hotels to a better and more charming one of their suggestion, we took a long lunch at a nice café in the city center and then waited for Michael to come and pick us up.

Michael picked us up in his car, a Japanese edition Honda directly imported from Japan (thus having all the on-board electronics in Japanese and the steering wheel on the right hand side of the car). He explained that this was popular practice, as Kyrgyzstan is pretty close to Japan and buying Japanese edition cars is much cheaper. Later we would find this practice also in Kazakhstan and Siberia. Having the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car in relation to which side of the road you drive on (in all these countries, one drives on the right hand side of the road, as opposed to in Japan) is pretty weird, but it used to be that way in Sweden too, not further back than my parents’ generation (who had the steering wheel on the left hand side of the car while driving on the left hand side of the road).

We first did some sightseeing in downtown Bishkek, got a short summary of the different revolutions and presidents since independence from the Soviet union, and then were joined by Konstantin. We proceeded to shopping electronics (Rico needed much more storage space for all photos) and souvenirs (Kyrgyz traditional kalpak hats are absolutely awesome) before meeting the rest of Ihar’s friends for dinner.

The dinner party in the garden of a fancy restaurant, with traditional food from the region, was absolutely great. The longer we sat and ate and drank, the more people joined us, and everyone was enjoying themselves immensely. Sabina is a journalist, and made an interview with me about our journey. One of the people to join later, Nuraika, turned out to have received the Best Personal Twitter Account Award and provided her fan following with live updates of our party from her mobile phone. We immediately renamed her Twitter Girl. (A week later, she would suddenly and unexpectedly be of great importance to us.)

After dinner, Konstantin asked whether we were in a hurry for else he would like to show us the mountains. We gladly accepted, and he drove us up increasingly bad roads, ending in horrible dirt tracks, up the mountains outside of the city. Bishkek is the only city within a great distance and the night in the mountains is very dark and the air is very clear. The starry night sky here was surreal in its intenseness and number of visible stars. I have before only seen such a night sky in very remote places, far from any cities, but here it was possible to see the lights of Bishkek in one direction but the vastness of space in the other direction. Magical. It was a number of days too late, but we still saw many shooting stars (and Rico took a thousand photos).

The major disadvantage of travelling like this is that we can never afford to stay longer anywhere, no matter how wonderful it would be, or else we would need many more months, or years, to ever reach Mongolia. So the next day, after promising our new friends to return to Kyrgyzstan, we drove on to cross the border into Kazakhstan.

Goodbye gifts from Konstantin: Towing Cable and Teddy Bear

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Weekend in Dushanbe

After our adventurous mountain crossing, we arrived in Dushanbe. Here we were met by Jonas Zachrisson (from Sweden), who works here as the Country Director for the Central Asia Region for Norwegian People’s Aid and their mine clearing efforts here. (If you have not done so already, this is an opportune moment for you to donate money to their work. <> Mark your donation NPA to clearly show that you intend it for them.) Thomas had been introduced to Jonas by NPA people in Norway, and with Jonas’ wife not yet having returned from Europe with their children this weekend, he proceeded to take extraordinarily good care of us.

He complained for a while about how useless all hotels in Dushanbe were, ridiculously expensive but not offering very much value for money, and made a few phone calls to check whether there was some lodging option that he had not already thought of. But he quickly grew restless with the futility of this and decided to instead invite us to stay in his house, the childrens’ playroom was not used now when they were away and we brought up some mattresses from the basement and made guest beds between toys and cute decorations, and we were welcome to stay as long as it would take to get our ambulance fixed.

On the assumption that we had already had quite enough of the local grilled meat and bread, Jonas took us to a late lunch at a nice Lebanese restaurant and later on a sightseeing tour of Dushanbe, where we saw such sights as the world’s tallest flagpole (165 m, ordered built by the dictator to show the greatness of his country) and the new American embassy outside of town, isolated and fortified like a military base.

Jonas has an assistant called Abdul, who is born and raised in Dushanbe and knows everything and everyone. He was tasked with finding a suitable mechanic to take care of our ambulance, and in the late afternoon we got the message that the right man had been found and that we could drive it to him the day after.

With such excellent lodging and the promise of a competent mechanic, we were in good spirits when we followed Jonas to a popular expats’ watering hole to have some drinks and talk for a few hours. Jonas turned out to have led quite an adventurous life, including many years in different places in Africa (he met his English wife when they both were working in Ethiopia) and had a wealth of stories to tell. I’m, for example, now inspired to visit Namibia, a country that I hadn’t before ever thought much about.

The next morning, I drove the ambulance following Abdul to a small workshop outside of town, in the Rudaki district. There a man named Rustan worked, and he was said to have twenty years of experience repairing automatic transmissions. He was almost offended when I insisted on showing him what was wrong, for he had immediately understood what had happened and what needed to be done.

With the help of his two sons (his apprentices), he lifted up the car in the workshop and with the oldest son using the small and the huge sledgehammer bent everything, that had been damaged under the car, into shape again so that he could dismantle the transmission. The fluid that had leaked out upon impact (which had the colour of motor oil, but not really the right thickness for actually being motor oil) had been automatic transmission fluid. It just has a very different colour when it comes out than what it has when it goes in, which now became obvious when Rustan emptied all the old fluid from the transmission system. Then Abdul drove me to the mechanics’ bazaar to buy some litres of new automatic transmission fluid, and Abdul (of course) knowing exactly where to go, we found authentic Toyota automatic transmission fluid, imported from Japan, while Rico stayed in the workshop in case there were any questions to be answered and to take some photos.

With the transmission repaired and various loose parts (radiator, etc.) screwed firmly into place again, Rustan proudly encouraged me to take a test drive. The car started flawlessly, there was no noise that shouldn’t be there, the gear selector worked perfectly again, and it was a triumphant test drive.

It was now early Sunday afternoon, so we decided to use Jonas’ hospitality to stay the night in Dushanbe (using the afternoon for doing laundry, relaxing, uploading photos on the internet, etc.) and then drive on again in the morning. Jonas took us for dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant, well hidden in one of the big business hotels in town, which’s existence shouldn’t be surprising considering the considerable amount of Chinese working in Tajikistan, building roads, tunnels, houses, and whatnot. (There were even a few road signs printed only in Tajik and Chinese, without any Russian or English.)

Rico had spent some time researching the status of the border crossing at Karamyk, which we had hoped would be open or maybe be opened while we waited in Dushanbe, and which the border guards on the way in had emphatically claimed to be open (even if we didn’t believe them too much, considering all the other things they also claimed). In the end, however, it stood clear that it wouldn’t be possible for us to cross the border at Karamyk in the foreseeable future. (To hope that it would be opened was not foolish, though, for when I write this we have learned that the border there indeed has now been opened again.)

This meant that the only possible way out of Kyrgyzstan for us now would be to return through The Tunnel of Death and across the Shakristan Pass again, to then turn eastwards at Khujand and drive into Kyrgyzstan through the border crossing at Isfara.

So we set off in the morning, stopping to refuel before the mountains at a small petrol station run by a man named Iskandar who was bemused by us admiring his original 1969 vintage petrol pump, still working flawlessly, and proudly showing the new modern Chinese built petrol pumps being installed now.

Both the tunnel and the pass were considerably easier to drive when having driven them before, when having a fully working car and during daytime. But it still took somewhere around seven hours of driving very slowly on full alert to arrive at the other side of the mountains again without any damage.

We spent the night at Hotel Leninabad in Khujand again, to drive into Kyrgyzstan the next day.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mountain Adventures in Tajikistan

When we started planning our route in January, we wanted to enter Mongolia from the south by driving through the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Uyghuristan) of the People’s Republic of China. Then it would have been sensible to enter Xinjiang from the south by driving from Uzbekistan through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Unfortunately, with all the other preparations and paperwork taking as much time as they did, we ended up with far too little time to get the necessary paperwork done for driving through the People’s Republic of China. We would have needed several more months of preparations to have managed to get that as well done in time. Instead we re-routed our planning to drive through Kazakhstan and Russia.

That left a now quite illogical detour through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the planning, but the prospect of driving across the Pamir Mountains on the Pamirsky Trakt was far too tempting and we decided to keep this part of the route even though it had now become a significant detour on the way to Mongolia. We got visas for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan plus special transit permits for the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan, necessary to drive the Pamirsky Trakt which goes straight through this region.

Gorno-Badakhshan had been quite peaceful for years now, so it came as a shock when we, before arriving in Tajikistan, started to receive reports from international media and from friends’ friends in Tajikistan about violence and unrest in the GBAO. As always with such conflicts, the different reports of what had really happened and what was really going on ranged from “normal police procedure” to “full-scale military invasion”. In the end, however, there was no need for us to take any decision based on this information, as all previously issued GBAO transit permits were revoked. Driving the Pamirsky Trakt will have to wait.

By the time we had reached Samarkand, it was clear that the Pamirsky Trakt was out of the question but also that the situation seemed to have stabilized and that whatever really was going on was unlikely to spread to the rest of Tajikistan (or spark a civil war or anything like that). So considering that the Tajikistan border was less than a day’s drive away, we decided to use our still valid Tajikistan visas.

The border crossing was generally uneventful, but when we finally had gotten as far through as Tajikistan customs inspections it was late enough for our arrival to coincide with the evening’s breaking of the fast for Ramadan. So while darkness grew around us, we had to sit down and wait for half and hour while the customs officials took their evening tea.

Afterwards, they were in great spirits and took active interest in our travel plans. Rico was sent to fetch our big maps and show our plans in detail. They noticed the GBAO transit permits in our passports and urged us to drive the Pamirsky Trakt after all, claiming that the revocation of the permits had been revoked. This sounded far too much like the official version for us to take it at face value. (And even if it had been true, the situation was definitely not stable and the revocation of the revocation could certainly be revoked as well without advance warning.) But they also claimed, with particular insistence and some level of believability, that the border crossing at Karamyk would be open. Had that been true, it would have made it possible for us to drive north-east from Dushanbe into Kyrgyzstan, a very nice replacement for going across the Pamir.

So after staying the night at Hotel Leninabad (which looked exactly as you might expect a hotel with that name to look like) in Khujand (former Leninabad), we proceeded to drive southwards towards Dushanbe (former Stalinabad). That would get us to see quite a bit of Tajikistan and its dramatic landscape, compensating a little for not being able to drive across the Pamir.

The fist unexpected thing worth mentioning from that day was overtaking a man on a bicycle with a big Swiss flag. We stopped and waited for him to catch up. He turned out to be Philippe from Neuchâtel and he was on his way back home to Tbilisi, Georgia, via Afghanistan. Rico enjoyed meeting both a fellow countryman and a fellow biker.

After that, I sat leisurely in the patient-care compartment of the ambulance, glancing out at the rising mountains around us, writing a blog post about our experiences in Turkmenistan. Shortly before I saw the first snow-capped mountain top, the good paved road ended abruptly and the way across the Shakristan Pass (3,378 m above sea level) continued as a dirt track.

This is the main transport route between northern and southern Tajikistan, and the winters are hard here, biting cold with several metres of snow. The dirt track showed all of this clearly. The dirt, a fine dirty dust (getting in everywhere) when dry, and a soft slippery paste when wet, loosely held assorted pebbles, stones and boulders together into something that even the huge and powerful Kamaz trucks with their experienced drivers had serious problems navigating.

Our climb up the mountain came to an abrupt halt when Thomas drove the ambulance straight onto a rock. The shock of the impact and the resulting full stop was scary enough, but rushing out of the vehicle to see unidentified liquid on the ground and dripping from somewhere in the engine compartment was even scarier. Thomas managed to reverse the ambulance back a little bit from the rock so that we could take a closer look at both it and at the underside of the car. On the uneven ground it was neigh impossible to see anything useful under the car and the fine dirt dust had effectively sucked up everything that had leaked out to make it unidentifiable.

We managed to collect a little bit of what was still dripping, even though we couldn’t manage to see where it was coming from. The liquid had the colour of motor oil, but not really the right thickness for actually being motor oil. We also noticed that very little had actually leaked out and that the dripping was rapidly dwindling off. This wasn’t giving any useful clues.

The map showed that we were pretty close to the pass and therefore would have a long way to go down on the same dirt track we came on, which wouldn’t really take us anywhere useful, so we decided that it would be worth a try to instead cross the pass and find help on the other side. If the dropping liquid indeed would be motor oil and continue dripping, we had enough spare oil to refill continuously in case the dripping would increase. Otherwise, driving further would also give more leads to what was broken and how.

The first piece of information that this decision gave us was that the engine no longer would start. Not because of a broken starter motor, as in Turkmenistan, but this time there would not even be any attempt at starting. Some clicking in the electrical relays when the ignition key was turned, but nothing else. Not good. We were on a dirt track a few thousand metres above sea level, in the afternoon, and the weather was rapidly getting worse.

We checked what we could check, but nothing that could be seen from above was obviously broken and it was not possible to get any useful view from below. I walked over to the other side of the dirt track to hitch a ride back to the last town we had passed before reaching the mountains, Istarawshan, and find help there.

A nice, but silent, man picked me up in a big cheap Korean SUV to ride down the mountain together with his grown-up son (wearing an Islam Victorious t-shirt), son’s wife and small child, and another passenger. The cheap Korean SUV had infinitely better ground clearance than our ambulance, but it was still hard work for the nice but silent man, and a very rocky and bumpy ride for us passengers, to get down the dirt track and it took nearly two hours to reach Istarawshan. There he dropped of the other passenger, who paid for his ride, and me, from whom he refused any payment after seeing my predicament with the broken car. I thanked him gratefully, and walked into Istarawshan in search for help.

What I needed was a car mechanic who knew инномарка (“imported cars”, ie. not Soviet or Russian), so I looked for people who looked as if they were ready to help and who drove older Opel or other European cars. They would know who knew how to repair their cars.

Outside of the bazaar were a number of guys loitering around with their Opel cars and I started trying to explain my problem. I had taken a series of photos with my compact camera to explain the accident, and while showing these a guy named Sohib quickly showed himself to be a facilitator. He took me into his old Opel (which definitely had seen better days) and drove to a car mechanic he knew at the outskirts of town.

There, the explanation circus with photos, some Russian words (“махина”, “масло”), some sound effects (“broom, wroom”, ”bang”, “click, click, click”) and connecting gestures, got going again. The mechanic understood the problem, but needed more information in order to make any useful decisions. Someone managed to call someone who spoke both English and Tajik, to interpret. I filled in the details. The car mechanic was very interested in the oil on the ground. I offered my opinion that there was far too little oil dripping for this to be the reason for the engine not starting. Lots of discussion. I realized just how little Tajik I understand. Not a single word. The language is supposedly very close to Persian, but I don’t speak any Persian either. (I also got the feeling that these guys really hadn’t paid too much attention in Russian class in school either.)

Eventually the mechanic came to the conclusion that he could do nothing unless the ambulance was somehow brought to his garage. Someone suggested towing it. I pointed out that it was a big vehicle (“мой махина: болшои”), and showed the photo of it once again. (3 tonnes heavy, 6 m long, little ground clearance.) The gigantic Toyota Hilux had been able to tow it in Turkmenistan, but on this mountain dirt track nothing short of a proper tow truck (non-existent in Tajikistan) would be able to do anything useful. Everybody present seemed to now realize this.

Sohib the facilitator then came up with a new idea: Load the entire vehicle on one of the huge and powerful Kamaz trucks. We drove off to a truck stop to see if it was possible to find a suitable truck and driver. We found one, but the facilitator now became greedy. He suggested that this would cost 500 USD. A ridiculous sum in rural Tajikistan, and money that I definitely didn’t have in cash. I protested that I couldn’t believe this to be the real price. He tried to claim that the road tolls and fuel costs alone. for driving back and forth to the mountain pass, would add up to 350 USD. This was obviously a lie, and the then proposed 150 USD salary for himself and (maybe) the truck driver was preposterous. No way.

New idea: Sohib drove to the other end of town to where a guy named Alisher lived with his grandparents. Alisher, who was really nice and friendly, had paid attention in school, and learned to speak both Russian and quite decent English. (He claimed that both Russian and English are taught in schools in Tajikistan, but that most people just don’t pay any attention in school.) We now had an interpreter!

Rico and I were in touch through text messages, and I could now give him Sohib’s mobile phone number so that anyone up on the mountain could call down and have Sohib explain the situation and me talk through Alisher the interpreter. Progress!

The next idea was to try to flag down an empty Kamaz truck driving past on the mountain, heading towards Istarawshan, and convince the driver to load the ambulance and take it down to the car mechanic. If it would work, this would have the obvious advantage of not requiring the truck to make a round trip from Istarawshan and back, saving precious time, and also only having to pay road tolls once. Unfortunately, the number of unloaded trucks crossing the mountain was zero.

But seeing the ambulance with the bonnet open was a signal to other passers-by on the mountain and through the interpreter I eventually got the message that someone who had showed up was now investigating the vehicle and thought that he had identified the problem as being in the electrical system and that it would require a skilled car electrician to be sent up the mountain. (Sohib started calling people to find such a man.) I didn’t believe much in this explanation. As far as had been possible for us to check, the electrical system had been just fine. The battery delivering current, all warning and indicator lamps working as expected, headlamps dimming when current got switched over to the starter motor, etc. I tried to get Alisher to convey my opinion to get people away from this distraction, with little success.

But all of a sudden, the message from the mountain came that someone had managed to start the engine. The Haynes Service and Repair Manual has the explanation to what had happened: The starter inhibitor switch will, when it detects that the gear selector is in the wrong gear, prohibit starting the engine (with exactly the symptoms we had). The impact when hitting the rock had, however, damaged the gear selector. The helpful man on the mountain had eventually gotten the idea to repeatedly try starting the engine while pushing the gear selector back and forth until it eventually started to select some gears, and then finding a gear which the gear inhibitor switch wouldn’t detect as illegal. It was now possible to start the engine with the gear selector in “reverse”, which now selected “neutral”.

Nothing left to do in Istarawshan and time for me to get back up on the mountain. I asked Sohib the facilitator if he might be willing to drive me up there, but that would be far too much work for him. In the end, he organized a ride up the mountain for me and demanded 50 USD for this and his services during the day. Considering that he most definitely wasn’t going to share a cent of this money with the people who had actually done any work, the price was beyond outrageous, but considering that I had been utterly dependent on him for several hours it was an OK price to pay. Through Alisher the interpreter I learned that Sohib was surprised and suspicious both that I had been given a ride down the mountain for free and that I was paying for everything out of my own pocket and not from some company or government expense account. Well, well.

Sohib, me and Alisher

The ride back up on the mountain was with a guy named Sobir, who transported melons in a worn-out cheap Korean SUV. He had 1,200 kg (he proudly corrected me when I guessed 1,000 kg) of melons stuffed in the car, but still room for one passenger, albeit barely. I never figured out why it’s profitable to transport melons from the north to the south (to me the rumours of the world’s best melons being grown in Afghanistan made this seem to be the wrong direction), but he was by far not the only melon transporter on this road.

Sobir was a great guy, very social and chatting constantly in Russian (it was obvious that he, as a driver, was used to meeting people from all over) from which I struggled to pick out a narrative from random comprehensible words. He shared the Tajik version of Swedish moist snuff (the Tajik version is something like a hundred times more potent than the Swedish version) and gave good advice on how to successfully navigate the dirt track across the mountain.

The entire business of leaving Istarawshan had taken far too long time, and the sun set rapidly as we drove uphill. Shortly after nightfall, we reached the dirt track but soon after, Sobir pulled over and parked his car roadside. It had so happened that he had run into a friend driving in the opposite direction, and this had to be celebrated. He now showed me an ingenious contraption below the gear selector, where he not only could access a little valve to cut off the fuel supply to feign an engine failure but also kept a secret stash of hashish. Under the pretence of examining a broken engine (for despite the rich and powerful of Tajikistan making fortunes on the drug trade from Afghanistan, all narcotics are highly illegal for the man in the street), Sobir and his friend then proceeded to share a hashish cigarette in protection of the now thick darkness and the explanation that the open bonnet provided for anyone passing by.

Strengthened by this short break, Sobir then proceeded to navigate his overloaded SUV uphill and showed me how to successfully round corners on this dirt track when they were so sharp and steep that it wasn’t possible to see where they were going. And after not long, we arrived at the ambulance. With the gear selector in “reverse”, the engine started (not happily, but with the evil cough of a long-time smoker accompanied by the angry rattle of pretty much everything that can rattle in the engine compartment of a car) and Sobir urged us to not spend any time on drawn-out goodbyes but to drive across the pass as quickly as possible. So with a quick handshake we parted, he drove ahead with his 1,200 kg of melons and I started moving slowly uphill, gearbox locked in second gear, through the fine dirty dust and across the pebbles, stones and boulders, with a car that was protesting loudly at being forced to move, but that did move.

Rico had used the wait on the mountain to fasten the radiator and other loose components with cable ties and after a while the rattling diminished as components shook into more stable position. The noises were still alarming, but at least they where not getting worse, and the ambulance seemed to drive steadily if unhappily. I used all Sobir’s driving advice and managed to clear all the sharp and steep corners, often stopping to let the huge and powerful Kamaz trucks pass by, for we were now by far the slowest vehicle on the mountain, slower even than the old Soviet era relics that were struggling to climb with their lack of engine power.

After not too long, we reached the pass and could begin the long and exhausting climb downwards. The dirt track was, if possible, in even worse condition on this side of the peak and zigzagging across the track to keep the wheels on top of ridges and boulders, to not have them hit the underside of the car again, was hard work. Luckily, our trusty Volvo has exceptionally good headlights, and compared to the worn-out cheap Korean SUV of Sobir, I had the advantage of being able to much better see what lay ahead of me than he had. There were still, however, sharp and steep curves where it wasn’t possible to see anything when driving through in the pitch dark night, which were necessary to study in advance from above and then drive through very carefully and slowly from memory.

With a final tour through a tunnel construction site (this dirt track will be abandoned in the future), where the dirty dust had been replaced by flowing water and a greasy black slippery mud, we finally reached the paved road again on the other side. I was exhausted. We were still far up in the mountains but reaching a paved road gave hope and the burst of energy that comes with it.

Shortly before the mountain village of Ayni, we at last reached a place to stop for the night. A parking lot, a few houses and one chaikhana on each side of the narrow road. The damaged gearbox had been unable to engine break going steep downhill and while the breaks still had breaking power, they were now literally smoking hot when I parked the ambulance here.

We walked up to the chaikhana next to the parking lot. A teenage boy named Erkin welcomed us and offered to serve us good tea and food. We happily accepted and sank down in some chairs padded with blankets in the cool mountain night air. With tea, bread, grilled meat and onions we also got some bottles of beer and a very good melon. Seldom has food and drink been this appreciated. Erkin was a curious boy, spoke much more English than expected, and wanted to know a lot of things. He was born in the village of Ayni down the road, but now worked here. He translated our story for the old men sitting next to us, and insisted on getting my home address and telephone number, for the future. One never knows when one might need a connection in Switzerland. If he just manages to avoid the pitfalls of life in Tajikistan, I see the potential for a successful businessman here in the future.

But soon the joy of having successfully made it across faded away and tiredness took over. I nearly fell asleep where I sat. There were, of course, no places for guests to sleep in this tiny rest stop in the mountains, but after nearly falling asleep in the chair once more, I asked Erkin if it wouldn’t be OK with him if I just slept on the wooden planks on the patio of the chaikhana, right there. He took pity on us and even brought pillows and blankets, so within minutes I was sleeping deeply in the fresh mountain night air to the comforting noise of Kamaz trucks passing by on the road next to this improvised bed.

The next morning I woke up to find Rico sleeping next to me and Thomas asleep sitting in the passenger seat of the ambulance. It was early and we were all still tired, but I was anxious to find out if the neigh indestructible Volvo would still run today and if so to reach Dushanbe where a really good mechanic to take care of the gearbox should be possible to find.

The ambulance started with angry protest and evil noise, but it did start and after cooling off during the night, the breaks were fine again as well. We soon reached the village of Ayni, in the shallow valley between the two mountain peaks, and pulled over at a roadside eatery where the size of the gravel parking lot at the opposite side of the road signalled that this was a favourite place for truckers crossing these mountains.

We got a real power breakfast with both tea and instant coffee, enough sugar to live off for a month, kefir, fried sausages, deep fried fish and bread. When we had finished and were washing our hands, a horde of truckers arrived and confirmed that we had indeed found the right place for breakfast. A good start of the day. Now just one more mountain pass and then Dushanbe.

The Anzob Pass has paved roads of quite good quality leading to and from it, but instead of the dirt track across the peak of the Shakristan Pass, it has a tunnel which on our map only is labelled as Dangerous Tunnel.

The Anzob Tunnel is known by many nicknames, all of them accurately describing it: “The Dangerous Tunnel”, “The Tunnel of Death”, “The Evil Tunnel”, “The Scary Tunnel”. It’s only a mere 5 km in length, but in our broken car and not knowing what lay ahead in the darkness, those were the longest 5 km I’ve ever driven. The tunnel is dark, very dark. There are, obviously, no lights in the tunnel itself and a thick smoke of engine exhausts, dust and water vapour severely limits the power of vehicle headlights. Despite being under construction for years on end, the tunnel is still far from finished and only parts of it have a ceiling to seal off the naked rock and prevent water from dripping through the mountain above. This rain from the naked rock above, together with the smoke and the incredible noise bouncing between the rock walls is what mostly makes the tunnel so scary.

Most of the tunnel has pavement, which legions of Kamaz trucks and freezing winter upon even more freezing winter has beaten and broken into black ragged ridges which would have served well for the land of Mordor. The water raining down from above fills the deeper rifts and the potholes with water, making it impossible to judge how deep they are. In many places, the underlying concrete has been broken so that its steel rods now poke out of it, threatening to puncture tyres or get stuck somewhere where it can tear your vehicle apart. In two areas of the tunnel, the bottom is deep enough to have amassed small lakes of water which are necessary to drive through without being able to see what’s below the surface, trying to guess a passable way across by observing vehicle in front of you. (Piece of advice: If you find yourself alone in front of such a body of water, wait for a Kamaz truck to come and drive before you, and then the way it sinks and rises out of the water and the waves created by its wake will give a usable idea about what hides below the surface.) There were loads of men working with heavy machinery to repair and improve the tunnel, making the already narrow tunnel even more crowded, but they were hopelessly outnumbered against the upcoming winter and the number of heavy trucks, breaking the tunnel apart again faster than they could ever repair it.

Eventually, we cleared the tunnel without incidents and on the way downhill on the other side we could stop at small roadside автомойка (”car wash”) to get rid of the filth of the tunnel (which easily had doubled the filth already amassed during nearly 10,000 km of driving). The автомойка man made a living off the vehicles coming out of the tunnel and had serious experience with filthy vehicles and liberal amounts of clean water flowing down from the mountain. He still had to work hard for a long time, while we enjoyed the break in the beautiful mountains with cute kids playing around and “helping” to wash the car. The result was spectacular, and we paid the man a handsome tip for he had asked for far too little money for his work. Now it would be possible to drive the ambulance into a mechanic’s garage in the city without him refusing to touch it.

Further downhill and close to Dushanbe, we drove through Varzob, where the luxury villas of the rich and powerful, paid for with riches from the drug trade, line both banks of the river as it thunders majestically down into the valley.

With that, we arrived in Dushanbe.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Uzbekistan and the Jewels of the Silk Road

There is not really very much for me to write about Uzbekistan. Any book ever written about Central Asia, from Marco Polo to the Lonely Planet, will tell you about those marvellous ancient cities along the Silk Road, such as Bukhara and Samarkand, and their treasures of history, culture and architecture. What could I possibly add to what has already been written about places such as the Kalyan minaret and mosque, the Mir-i-Arab medressa and the Ark in Bukhara or the Registan, the Shah-i-Zinda and the Gur-e-Amir in Samarkand? All I can tell you is that all you’ve ever read about how marvellous, otherworldly, majestic, awe-inspiring and beautiful these places are, all of that is true,

Instead I will just tell a little bit about the practicalities of travelling.

After arriving in Bukhara and attempting to navigate the narrow streets of the old neighbourhoods, our ambulance emitted a strange and unsettling noise from the rear right wheel. Driving seemed to work well enough, but this was certainly a thing that should not be left unexamined. Luckily, a detour when driving out of the old neighbourhoods lead us straight past a car mechanic’s garage. I stopped the car in front of the garage and tried to interest the people there in taking a look at the problem. But they already had customers and were not very interested in any annoying foreigners interrupting the normal flow of their day. And from a quick glance, there seemed to be nothing wrong with our car either. (We had managed to drive it all the way up to the garage, hadn’t we?) So we waited them out. If we didn’t leave, they would eventually have to take some interest in us in order to get rid of us blocking the entrance to their garage. Not a very subtle or civilized mode of communication from our side, but a very efficient one when the necessary language skills are lacking.

So eventually one of the mechanics went out to take a look and with a stroke of luck an especially nasty noise was heard just when I tried to follow his hand gestures to reverse away from blocking his garage. Then he realized that we indeed had a problem for which we needed his professional help, and suddenly took a real interest in us. He also seemed to have a good idea about what could be wrong.

The problem turned out to be that the actual break disc for the hand brake had disintegrated and now mostly resembled a jigsaw puzzle of broken shards, which randomly reorganized themselves during movement, breaking the wheel and emitting the nasty noise. (Please use the comments section to speculate about what could have caused this.)

The ambulance has an automatic gearbox and the hand break is not essential for normal operation, so the mechanic swiftly proceeded to just remove everything that was broken and then verified that this breakage hadn’t damaged anything else. So not much later we again had a fully working car, save for lacking hand brake on the rear right wheel now.

With the ambulance fit again, we managed to successfully navigate into the old neighbourhoods to park it there and then proceed on foot.

Thomas was exhausted and parked himself at a shady café with internet access, while Rico and I walked on to find a suitable place to spend the night. Bukhara is quite the tourist destination and all of the many guest houses in the old neighbourhoods seemed to be fully occupied. When we’re finally at one of the last and hardest-to-find ones and get the answer that all beds are already taken, luck strikes again:

The lady who runs this guest house walks in through the door behind us and upon hearing the words “no beds” promptly suggests that we might sleep on the roof if we like.

It could not have been better. In this climate, at this time of year, sleeping on the roof is the most sensible thing to do, and indeed exactly what the owner does herself. We heartily agree to this suggestion and she promises to get some good mattresses, pillows and blankets up on the roof for us. And at night, the view of the Kalyan minaret above the roofs of the old neighbourhoods of Bukhara under a clear and starry sky is indeed a sight to be tucked in by.

With the problem of where to stay thus solved, Rico and I go out for sightseeing while Thomas chooses to remain at the café and the internet. Rico takes a million photos, but not a single one of them will ever be able to convey the full marvel of this place, for that is impossible.

Eventually we arrive at the Ark, the old city-within-the-city complex that once was the home and workplace of the emir but now lies largely in ruins after being bombed by the Bolsheviks when they crushed the power of the last emir. But Uzbekistan is independent now and getting prosperous again, so restoration works have begun to excavate the bombed buildings and renovate the entire complex to its former glory. Unfortunately, this means that it’s all sealed off by police for any visitors.

While contemplating this dilemma, a man shows up, asks us whether we speak German, and then promptly offers to help us bribe a police officer to be let in anyway. This seems like a very good offer, we gladly accept his help, and he calls someone on his mobile phone. A short while later, one of the police officers on guard duty lets us in and behind a dark corner gets 30.000 Uzbekistani sum (with a value of around 15 USD) in cash from us and we’re free to walk around the excavation site.

The view, from atop the pile of rubble left from the bombings, is simply breathtaking and we spent a long time overlooking Bukhara at late sunset before we walked down to take a closer look at the buildings still standing. When we came down, the facilitator was there together with a German couple he had found just like he found us and he then proceeded to give us all a guided tour of those buildings in the Ark that survived the bombings. He was a good guide and spoke German well, and being totally alone at the place added to the ambiance. Being received by the emir here in the olden days must have been the experience of a lifetime.

With Bukhara giving us such a welcome to Uzbekistan, it wasn’t easy for Samarkand to impress when we arrived there the next day. Following the enthusiastic recommendations of Ivan Dervišević, we checked in at famous and popular Furkat guest house (in the old neighbourhoods just next to the Registan), a lovely and familiar place that could have been taken directly out of a movie by either Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Emir Kusturica (depending on which angle they filmed from), and had a great stay in this ancient city from fairytales and legends.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Two Faces of Turkmenistan

After seeing the grim totalitarian face of Turkmenistan, while crossing the border and visiting the capital, we were quite unprepared for what would come next. There had been signs, I can see that now, at the border crossing in the form of the friendly soldiers, the jovial chief of police, the helpful immigrations officer, the nice lady who offered us grapes while waiting, and in the capital in the form of the talkative döner kebab boys or the girl who together with her mother walked up to us to do some polite conversation in excellent school English. But even if we would have immediately noticed every single one of these signs, there had been nothing that could have prepared us for exactly how Janus-faced Turkmenistan would show itself to be.

As soon as we had left the capital, Turkmenistan turned its head around completely, hid the grim totalitarian face from our view and showed instead its other face, one of such exceptional friendliness, helpfulness and hospitality as I have ever encountered before.

The byzantine bureaucracy ensures that very few tourists ever come to Turkmenistan, so that alone made us a novelty item wherever we walked, and as if that would not have been enough, driving a 6 m long bright yellow ambulance (the only yellow vehicle in the entire country) guaranteed us to also attract attention wherever we drove. Wherever we walked, people walked up to us to greet us, shake our hands and ask permission to take photos with us, and wherever we drove, people would honk and wave and smile. This is the first time I’ve encountered the locals taking more photos of the tourists than vice versa.

Driving out of Ashgabat towards the city of Mary was easy on good roads, and after half the distance we stopped at a road-side chaikhana to celebrate the good progress with some tea and snacks. There we met some other cars from the Mongol Rally and chatted a bit with the other ralliers, exchanging stories about the journey so far and rumors about what might lay ahead. Then we sat down and were immediately surrounded by the boys working at the chaikhana and all their friends, who wanted to know everything about who we were, where we came from, about our ambulance, and everything else. They were also very curious to know whether Turkmen tea is the best in the world (it might well be) and whether we now felt welcome in Turkmenistan (as welcome as it’s possible to feel).

So we spent far too much time there (it’s easier to both drive and navigate if arriving at the destination before sunset) before we got back on the road again. The next unexpected thing to happen then came a couple of hours later when we were overtaken by a car in which the front passenger through his open window signalled with impossible-to-misunderstand hand gestures that he wanted us to pull over so that we could shake hands and take photos together. With such an invitation, we obviously had to pull over.

The driver of that car turned out to be Хыдыров Аман (sounds kind of like Jedirovaman; an awesome name, like Batman), who runs a furniture retail shop in Ashgabat and handed over his business card on which he had written his own title in English, in capital bold letters, as: BOSS. A short message, sent through our SPOT satellite transceiver, that we had “met The Boss” created much confusion and a discussion on Facebook about whether Bruce Springsteen was on tour in Turkmenistan. The Boss introduced us to all his minions (his large Japanese car was full of them), we shook hands, took photos, and conversed as much as our limited shared vocabulary of English and Russian would allow us.

After nightfall, we eventually reached the city of Mary and checked in at an old Soviet era hotel, not far from the railway station. Thomas was not feeling well and fell asleep as soon as he reached his bed, while Rico and I went out to get something to eat. After the sterile night streets of Ashgabat we didn’t really hope to find anything, but we were most pleasantly surprised to find the area around the railway station bustling with life; drivers of shared taxicabs shouting out destinations, vendors hawking food and drinks, people walking, talking, eating and drinking.

Three guys were grilling the local version of şişkebab over a large open wood fire and the scent was irresistible. We bought two plates of kebabs, bread and salad and two large bottles of the good local beer, Zip. A man at a standing table made space for us at his table, and despite us not having any spoken language in common he wished us welcome to his city by sharing the last of his small bottle of the local vodka with us.

Without further delays, we arrived in Turkmenabat (the last city before the border) in the afternoon the next day and checked in at an old Soviet era hotel (this time newly renovated to look exactly like before, but kind of newer, in a strange and most charming way) and walked out to eat and see the town.

Passing by a large statue of the dictator, painted in brownish “gold” paint, reminded us temporarily of that other face of Turkmenistan, but when walking further that was quickly forgotten. We got a good meal at a Russian restaurant. Some girls selling vodka and Russian champagne at the closing bazaar were greatly amused to take photos with us when we walked through. I bought new sunglasses. A nice afternoon stroll.

Then once again a guy stops us to ask to shake hands and take photos, but this time it’s different: Ylham Akbajev turns out to be studying the German language, and is overjoyed to be able to practice his language skills with us. Together with his friend, we walk a few blocks away to a bar to drink some beers and chat more. There, Rico’s impressive camera equipment provides the next connection: Ylham, together with his brother Rozik, runs a small photography studio here in Turkmenabat!

We walk to the photography studio, meet the brother and their friends, and then spend the next hours playing around in the studio. The Akbajev brothers are true masters of kitsch and in their studio they have all accessories one might possibly need for a really good portrait, everything from a guitar to nicely bound books with classic Russian poetry.

After posing for various portraits, Rozik realizes that this is a golden opportunity for advertising, the big professional video camera appears and all of a sudden I find myself the main character of a video advertisement, heartily endorsing this photography studio, in Swedish. Everybody is greatly entertained and we drink innumerable cups of tea together.

Now the next surprise walks through the door. The brothers have made new posters for a local pop singer, and with impeccable timing she walks in to collect them right when we are there. The pop singer is greatly embarrassed to have her picture taken without wearing make-up, but lets herself be persuaded to do it anyway and poses with us. Embarrassed without make-up she, of course, is cuter than ever.

This is a thing that should be told about the women in Turkmenistan: I have rarely seen so beautiful and so beautifully dressed women, both younger and older, anywhere else in the world. Those ethereal beauties from mysterious deserts in the east, that always appear in fairy tales, we now know where they come from in real life.

When the pop singer has left with her new posters, Ylham talks about his desire to find any kind of job in Germany, in order to learn the German language properly. Organizing such a thing is, however, far from easy when living in Turkmenistan. If anyone who reads this has any potential leads or connections that might help him out, please get in touch. His friend tells us that he himself has managed to get admitted as a foreign student at university in The Netherlands. From the döner kebab boys who went to Turkey to these guys, most young people we meet seem to have a desire to get out of Turkmenistan; not for the rest of their lives, but definitely to get to know the outside world.

The photography studio needs to work the next morning, but we don’t, so we wish each other good night and good bye and when they go home we go back to that bar where we were before.

Rustan is the owner of this bar and nightclub. He is delighted to have us as his guests, and in this small bar in a side-street in Turkmenabat we are quite certainly the first European guests ever. He smiles with all his gold teeth and explains how his parents once opened the place that he now has modernized and runs quite successfully.

Some of the other guests are at first quite apprehensive of our presence. They believe that we might be Germans, and the last time anyone they know of met Germans was when their ancestors were sent by Stalin to fight the second World War. But as soon as it has been cleared up who we are and where we come from, the ice is broken, beer and vodka starts flowing and Rustan’s new and powerful sound system pumps out Turkish and Indian hits. Soon we’re at the dance floor, and after a few songs we’re joined by the girls as well, who after a short initial shyness form a group dancing next to us guys.

This is another thing that should be told about the women in Turkmenistan: While the country officially is Muslim, women take part in daily life as they would in a modern secular city like Istanbul, and not as I would have pictured a provincial town in a backwater country. This journey is not good for my prejudices, they die faster than I can count them,

The partying continues until the closing hour prescribed by the police, at which the music is turned off, the lights on, and the partying continues longer still. When we finally leave, Rustan refuses to accept any money for what we’ve drunk during the night. In the end, we pay with hearty handshakes and a pack of exotic Swiss Parisienne cigarettes.

The next morning we got a quite extraordinary demonstration of Turkmen helpfulness: At a petrol station, I had tried to ask if they had any equipment for checking and adjusting tyre pressure. While doing this, I had imitated the sound of a compressor and for that been shown to the shop next door. The guy in there did indeed have several compressors, but not for pressurizing tyres but for spray-painting cars. He did however understand what we were looking for and volunteered his help to find not only a tyre shop but also the way out of the city onto the right road towards Turkmenabat.

(Our tyres turned out to be perfectly fine, but had just felt unusually soggy in the unusual heat.)

Getting out of the city and onto the right road would indeed have been difficult without help, but sitting in the passenger seat our new guardian angel gives me turn-by-turn directions and when we‘ve eventually reached the city limits he takes a taxicab back to his shop while a nice lady who’s heading towards the same road as we need to find instructs me to follow her car.

Close to the border, at a desolate road through the desert, we take a break to study the map and after that break the car is impossible to start again. (7,185 km after leaving Zürich, a pretty decent distance until the first break-down, I’d say.) We have brought both the Haynes and Chilton repair manuals, but after a while it becomes pretty clear that whatever’s wrong, it’s nothing that we’ll be able to repair road-side in the middle of the desert.

Eventually, help arrives in the form of Dmitry, a Russian war veteran from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, nowadays a petroleum man working for the Chinese (who import enormous amounts of natural gas through a pipeline that begins in Turkmenabat), who drives up to us in his gigantic Toyota Hilux (turbo diesel, 4×4, crew cab, last year’s model, shining white), together with his son and the son’s friend.

Dmitry, born and raised in Turkmenistan, is a man of action, he solves problems and gets things done. He investigates our engine, electrical system and starter motor at length, but must eventually draw the sad conclusion that is isn’t as easy as us being useless but that there indeed is a problem that can’t be repaired road-side in the middle of the desert.

The ambulance needs to be towed. When outfitting the ambulance earlier this year, we bought a tow cable of such excellent quality and clever design that it now when we desperately need to use it, is utterly impossible to find. We start unloading and unpacking our cargo, and the amazing tow cable hides itself even further away. Dmitry drives off together with Thomas to find a tow cable somewhere else, while leaving his son and the son’s friend with Rico and me in the desert.

We never found the amazing tow cable, we packed and loaded our cargo again, took some photos showing us stranded on this desolate road in this desolate desert, and waited. Before leaving Turkmenabat that morning, we stocked up on supplies at the bazaar and then also bought a big melon. The melons of Turkmenistan are said to be the best in the world, second only to the melons of Afghanistan. So together with the two Russian boys, we feasted on the melon (which indeed was absolutely fantastic), in what little shade the ambulance provided us in the scorching desert sun, until Dmitry returned with Thomas and a borrowed tow cable.

Really wanting to avoid towing, Dmitry made one final attempt at finding the problem himself and while he was digging around the engine an old Opel Vectra suddenly appeared out of the desert and pulled over next to us. Inside it were four (maybe five; I couldn’t see the driver) very drunk Turkmen men, all of them in an excellent mood. They shouted a question to me about whether we were Russians and I pointed to Dmitry who shouted some Russian greeting back to them. This seemed to make them immensely happy and they shouted something back about how much they loved Russians, pushed an unopened bottle of locally produced vodka into my hand, and then disappeared into the desert again as suddenly as they had appeared. Surreal.

The desolate desert road goes through a hilly landscape, with slopes as steep as 12%, and the ambulance is around 3 tonnes heavy when fully loaded. With Dmitry driving the Hilux and me steering the ambulance at the other end of the tow cable, I get a wholly new appreciation for power steering and power brakes. This thing is seriously heavy. The Hilux, however, has enormous power reserves and never even hesitates when pulling its new cargo up the steepest slopes.

In the first village we reached, we stopped outside of a small convenience store and a car was sent to fetch a man explained to be “махина мастер” (“car master”), a description that soon came to be used as a name, as if Master had been this man’s proper name.

Master arrived, together with his assistant, and showed himself to be that kind of man who is so good at what he does that one can feel it in the air and everybody around him immediately trusts that he knows exactly what he’s doing. It took him less than a minute to figure out what was wrong and what needed to be done, and then he proceeded with the strenuous work to remove the starter motor from its exceedingly inaccessible location behind the engine on the Volvo 965.

When removed, he disassembled the starter motor and could show us the gears that were supposed to transfer power from the starter motor to the engine, but now were utterly broken. A complicated contraption, made in Germany, that needed to be replaced. Master went away in search for spare parts.

The guy who had fetched Master in his car, an Opel Astra, proudly pointed out that his car was of German quality, implying that such a thing as our problem wouldn’t happen to him. I could not help retorting that our starter motor had been built by Bosch and it therefore wasn’t unlikely that Opel used the same one. Hilarity ensued when Master returned with the spare part, explaining that he had been able to find it because it’s also used by Opel.

Dmitry’s wife had been calling him, wondering why father and son hadn’t come home for dinner yet, so they now left us with a promise to drive by again later at night to verify that we were still not there then. We thanked them profoundly, they waved it away as being nothing, and then drove off in the gigantic Toyota.

With the spare part at hand, Master and his assistant pretty quickly put everything together again and with proud confidence he urged me to try starting the engine. It started flawlessly, of course. I did a few more stops and starts. Everything perfect. Master asked for 30 USD for his work and for the spare part. We happily paid, said goodbye to everyone who by this time had become involved and then drove away towards the border.

Shortly before the border, shortly before sunset, we met another Mongol Rally car, heading in the opposite direction. They could tell us that the border had been closed for the night but that they and yet another Rally car had decided to camp along the canal (part of the large irrigation system through the desert for the Turkmenistan cotton fields) near the border, and that they were now just going for supplies. We gave them directions to the small convenience store we had just left and decided to camp with them to cross the border in the morning.

At the border the next morning, Turkmenistan once again turned its head around to show the face of the totalitarian state with its byzantine bureaucracy. When entering the country, the official who filled out the document known as the big green form had for some unexplained reason in this document entered our last day in the country five days before our visas expired. Not understanding this document (in Turkmen) anyway, I had not noticed this, but now it became apparent that this document had been used to calculate the road tax and vehicle insurance fees. Because of this, the approximately 800 m we had driven on Turkmenistan public roads this morning, from our camping site to the border crossing, had been illegal, as they had been driven without paid road tax and without valid vehicle insurance.

The man wearing the uniform of the totalitarian state and given the task to execute its orders was however a very nice person, and explained that if we would just fill out a new form, valid from this morning, and pay taxes and fees, we could then just pretend as if we had never driven those 800 m illegally. So some paperwork and 35 USD in cash for taxes and fees later, we were ready to exit Turkmenistan legally and with all papers in order.

While doing this paperwork, I met an Englishman named Mark Wright ( who was about to cross the border on his bicycle. He had been cycling from London and was heading for Hong Kong. I exclaimed that this was a fun coincidence, as I have a friend in Hong Kong, Aron Åkesson, who is really into cycling. Cards were exchanged and Mark and Aron were put in touch with each other. (Let’s see if they actually get to cycle together in Hong Kong.)

The Turkmenistan border officials then did more paperwork and vehicle inspections (but, luckily for our sanity, not anywhere near as much for exiting as for entering the country) and as we now had learnt to know some Turkmens, we noticed that most of them here were wearing uniforms that required them to do stupid and annoying things, but that most of them were really nice people under the uniforms, trying to make jokes and small talk to make the ridiculous procedures pass more pleasantly.

With that, Turkmenistan showed a smiling face when we were waved goodbye and after a friendly handshake and wishes for a pleasant journey from the last border guard, drove on into Uzbekistan.