Monthly Archives: October 2016

Bishkek to Osh

Early in the morning I took trolleybus number 4 to Osh bazaar and found the place where the shared taxis leave for Osh. Mentally I had prepared for a tough fight with the assembled taxi drivers over the price, so it came a bit at a surprise that there was a taxi that would take me for 1500 som. The day before I had enquired at a fast food place where a chatty woman spoke English. She had asked her colleagues and the consensus was that it should be around 2000 som. Without much haggling, I accepted the price and got a nice front seat. A bit later two women got in the back and we were off. It was too easy to be true, but it worked like a dream. At a junction west of Bishkek there was a big sign to the left which read Osh, but the driver hesitated and I pointed left and said Osh. After that the road was easy to follow. At the high pass there was a bit of snow but nothing difficult.

We had lunch at Karakol. The driver went out to say his prayers (just as well) and we had manti, the ubiquitous dumplings with mutton, and a pot of tea.

bishkek_osh_small

With the last of daylight we arrived in Osh which was nice, because the environment of my hostel was dark, muddy and the hostel itself wasn’t easy to find. It was in one of those ugly Soviet era apartment buildings.
Osh is an old city and traditionally seen as the midpoint of the Silk Road. It is known for the Suleyman Mountain where Babur, the founder of the Moghul dynasty, built a small mosque. It was nice to clamber around and explore the graffiti covered caves that were once places of worship.

selfie_osh_small

Osh was nice but I didn’t spend much time there. In the hostel I met three Japanese who were preparing for Tajikistan and even though I had no idea I decided to jump at the opportunity and see if I could make it work. The Japanese told me that I could get an e-visa for Tajikistan online. So I fired up my laptop and filled out the form. It was more difficult than expected because of the fickle internet connection. Several times I was nearly ready when the session timed out or something else happened and I could start all over again. Then, for some time, my credit card payment was refused, but in the end I was done. Forty minutes later I received an email with my Tajikistan electronic visa attached.

 

tajik_evisa

It didn’t look very fancy or official, but apparently it does the trick. The GBAO permit was included and it was a permit I needed because I had to travel through the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region, a place I had never even heard of before that day.

Before I set off, I wondered around the market and bought some bread and grapes.

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Bishkek

The Kyrgyz money was pretty. The notes were small with exotic faces printed on them. Peculiarly, there were coins of 3 som, which I found fascinating. I had always assumed that the 1-2-5 systems for coins was the most economical, but when I looked at the minimal number of coins needed for sums up to 10, it didn’t seem to matter: only 2 and 7 are easier to pay in the 1-2-5 system, that is, with fewer coins, but conversely, 3 and 8 are easier to pay in the 1-3-5 system. The only other reason for preferring the 1-2-5 system I could found is that they are all factors of ten, what makes for simpler calculations.

kyrgyz_money

My second day in the city I had walked to the Uzbek embassy to apply for my visa.

Do you have an appointment?
Er… no.
You need an appointment.
Well, I got the invitation and…
Documents.
Excuse me?
Documents.
Yes… of course

Complying with the fine tradition of embassies the world over, they had made it nearly impossible to find the Uzbek embassy. It was in some godforsaken residential area on the outskirts of town, far from the civilised world. A very small shield next to the door showed that it was indeed the embassy of the proud nation of Uzbekistan. There was a small waiting room outside which I thought must be awful in the midst of winter. Inside there was a tiny office with one counter and a woman taking care of business.
The payment had to be conducted at a bank a few kilometres away. It involved another hike across some wasteland along a wide road. After paying 75 dollars, I received a slip and walked back to the embassy where I got my passport with the visa straight away. Very happy, I walked back to the hostel. After stopping for some lunch, it started to rain. I put on my rain jacket, but got wet and very cold nevertheless.

uzbek_visa

According to Wikipedia, the average high temperature for October in Bishkek should be 17.8 degrees Celsius. The day after my trek to the Uzbek embassy, it was just above zero and the snow on the roofs didn’t melt until noon. A persistent drizzle kept me indoors.

In the hostel I met a Japanese who’d been here for 3 months. A little incredulous I asked him what had kept him here for so long: he had been in the mountains he explained. He wanted to go back to Japan by train but couldn’t get the Russian visa. Later I met him when he came out of the shower. It was hard not to notice that both his feet were bandaged and so I asked what ailed him. He said he had lost his toes. All of them. It was his own fault, he said, staring at his feet, he had had the wrong shoes. It happened on the way down… I am sorry, I said. I didn’t know what else to say…

The shoemaker was sitting in a tiny shack at the roadside. He was surrounded by a pile of shoes. When I asked him how much it would cost to patch up my shoes, I was proud to understand his answer: sto. I remembered somehow that it was Russian for one hundred. That seemed a fair price.

The hostel had a tiny kitchen and local produce was very cheap, so I baked some potatoes with onions and aubergine. After that I had apples and pears for dessert. All that for half a dollar.

To Central Asia

I listened to the safety instructions.

Put the mask over your mouse…
the emergency exit are there, there and there…
thank you for attention…

Most Russians on the plane to Novosibirsk looked like actors from an early James Bond movie. Men all seemed to have the same hair dresser. Or the same clippers at least. Ruddy faces. Women were either young and stunningly beautiful or old headmasters with bleached hair.

That morning, very early, a scooter had picked me up at my hotel in Bangkok. We stopped next to a van that was waiting for the traffic lights. The door slid open. Airport, my driver said, motioning me inside. Fast.

At the airport all my anxiety proved to be for nothing. Of course no transit visa for Russia was needed. The English website of the airport of Novosibirsk where I had an eight hour layover, had suggested that I had to go through customs at layovers longer than 4 hours, but that must have been 24 hours. Another website had listed ‘the only cities that have international transit areas’ and Novosibirsk wasn’t on that list. And I had also worried about the size of my backpack that I intended to take as hand luggage as my cheap ticket didn’t allow me checked in baggage. But even though my small backpack was too big, nobody ever even looked at it. So that was okay. Everything was okay.

Relics of the Soviet Union in Bishkek.

The flight to Novosibirsk was much more pleasant than I had anticipated. There were not many passengers and I had ample legroom. The Russians were sleeping. No screaming children, no tattering smartphones. Just the hum of the jet and high above the clouds I was reading Paul Theroux’ Ghost to the Eastern Star.

He wrote: A  national crisis is an opportunity, a gift to the traveller. The Thai king had died just days before I left Thailand and hundreds and then thousands had walked the streets of Bangkok, dressed in black and white. Many shops were closed and all televisions in restaurants, including the ones that catered to the farang, showed the procession of the kings body to the National Palace. Many people were watching. Nobody said a word. Some had red eyes, others carried portraits of their king.

The haircut I had on my last day in Bangkok was surreal. The salon was white, but the hairdressers were all dressed in black. It felt like some sort of purgatory.

I have often rebuked flying, but of course it has its advantages. It can offer a culture shock that can be invigorating. In the past I had flown from India to South Africa and at the time it had helped me finding back the joy of travel. Now I was hopeful. I had been way to long in South East Asia.

We were getting ready for landing. Important message for transit passengers: nzdrl nazr… drazka… thank you for attention. In the last daylight I saw snowy patches, Novosibirsk looked dreary, the river Ob, some Soviet era apartment buildings.
I followed the signs for transit passengers. It seemed I was the only one. It led to a small booth where a man in uniform checked my passport. Follow me, he said. He went up a flight of stairs and unlocked a door. Please… He then locked the door behind me. If felt very much like a prison. A white tiled floor. No decorations. Bright white lights.

bishkek_selfie

I must have fallen asleep because I was woken by my alarm that I had set for my connecting flight to Bishkek. The flight was uneventful and I arrived at 4.30 in the morning at my destination. Immigration was a simple stamp in my passport and in the small arrival hall I found a machine that served coffee. Outside the arrival hall I noticed somebody had arranged a neat row of pots with flowers. Some pictures of airplanes decorated the walls, though I must admit I found it difficult to get excited about a Turkish Airlines cargo plane….

When it got light I toke a mashrutka into the city.

Thai bugs

On Saturday there was a night market in Nong Khai with all kinds of food. At one stand a woman sold deep fried bugs and I ordered a mix of four different species. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak much English, so I couldn’t figure out which insects exactly were on offer.
– Cicadas? I asked.
She didn’t understand.
– Are they iiiiiiii, I tried, mimicking the high pitched sound of cicadas.
The woman looked bewildered.
– Twenty baht, she said.
– Right, I said, handing her the money.

food

Later, in my hotel room, I had a good look, but was not able to identify them all. The ones in the middle are silk worms, which are technically not worms, but the larvae of the silk moth. The big ones are grasshoppers, but the others, I had no idea. They tasted good though. I wasn’t so fond of the silk worms, but I ate them anyway because they’re supposed to be really healthy. And I paid 20 baht for them.

food2

More food

Eating insects is frowned upon in the West, but thinking about it, they are not all that different from lobster or shrimp, both readily accepted delicacies. Look at a shrimp up close and you see what I mean. Biologically, these are all arthropods and, given enough brains, would easily enough be scripted into a scary science fiction movie.

Vientiane

I woke up at four in the morning to the sound of rain beating on the roof of my hotel and I cringed because in an hour or so I had to get up and walk to the bus station. I tried to sleep again, but I couldn’t. The rain had stopped and around a quarter to six I left the hotel. It was just getting light and the monks were walking through the streets to collect their alms. It is an old tradition and while I walked to the bus station I passed many women that were sitting on their knees on the pavement with baskets of rice to give the monks their due. Every now and then the monks stopped and chanted during which the women kept their heads demurely bowed.

natmuslpgimp

Van Gogh in Laos…

 

The bus to Vientiane was a classic chicken bus, only there were no chickens on board. To compensate this we had children that were vomiting all the time, so that was alright. I was sitting close to the door which was the only reasonable seat for me because my legs wouldn’t fit anywhere else. The only thing was that every time the door opened it knocked against my knees which the Laotians thought was exceedingly funny.
I sat next to Jacky, the only Laotian who spoke a few words English.
I go to Vientiane, he said.
I go to Vientiane too, I said. The whole bus was going to Vientiane, I thought.
Then to Bangkok by flight, he said.
To Bangkok? I asked.
Yes, and then to Ho Chi Minh City. This seemed odd.
Really? I said.
He said something to the driver and then he turned back to  me.
I smoke? he asked.
No, I don’t smoke,  I said, you smoke?
No… he laughed as if I had made a joke.
Then we stopped and the door knocked against my knee. That sent the whole bus in a laughing fit, except for the children who were busy vomiting on their parents.
To my surprise Jacky got up to leave. He gave me a hand an jumped out of the bus. Bye…. The only person who spoke any English had left the bus. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference though.
The door closed and it hit my knee again. The other passengers were rolling with laughter.

Vientiane had changed a lot since I last visited the city and much of the charm was gone. Its quiet streets had changed into three lanes of traffic and the sleepy banks of the Mekong river were turned into a modern promenade. The ramshackle food stalls that once lined the mighty river had disappeared and had made place for a soulless night market that sold mainly Chinese junk.

 

english-is-wildy-spoken

English is wildly spoken…

vientiane

Big important building