The Great Turkmenbashi

After almost 4 successful unforgettable weeks in Central Asia, the destination with most doubts and open questions about was yet to come: Turkmenistan – the region’s own version of North Korea. We had heard many horror stories from people being controlled or observed all the time, who were not allowed to move freely or always had the feeling to be spied upon, or even who were denied the entrance. In fact, the only “official” way to visit the country is via a fully organized tour, where you are accompanied by a guide 24/7. Regarding the price of a pre-booked all-inclusive trip, and also because of our aim to travel independently without the help of an operating company, such a tourist visa was no option for us. Luckily, there is the possibility to obtain a cheaper five days transit visa, which besides enables you going to wherever you want and doing whatever you like alone. Just a little problem: the use-case of a transit visa clearly states that you have to leave Turkmenistan towards a third country other than your homeland …. but we intended to fly back to Germany from the capital city Ashgabat! Fortunately, thanks to the super friendly Turkmen Consulate in Francfort, we were anyhow issued a five days transit visa which in reality we should not have received (we guess he rather made a mistake and was not very well informed).

So while being quite nervous overall, we took a taxi from Nukus to the Turkmen border post of Konye-Urgench nearby and hoped for the best. Then came the first big surprise: entering our last country was astonishingly uncomplicated and nothing compared to the Uzbek struggles we had experienced previously. Of course the officials checked our passports and bags, but they stayed friendly all the time and asked us a few interested questions about Europe and our journey. After perhaps 30 minutes we were stamped in with a nice and warm “Welcome to Turkmenistan”. Continue reading

World’s Saddest Ecological Disaster

Lonesome in the country’s western part was our last destination in Uzbekistan, the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. The first place we arrived to was the Karakalpak capital Nukus, a more or less empty city with wide tree-lined avenues and a few remaining buildings with typical Soviet architecture. Except an apparently remarkable art museum, there is not much to see or do here, but fortunately we met Ruslan, a well-educated sixteen-years-old schoolboy who wanted to practice his English. So we spent the whole afternoon with him, talking about pretty much everything (differences between Uzbek and Karakalpak, Putin’s role in the Ukrainian conflict, problems if Scotland or Catalonia indeed separated, ….). And we found another positive aspect of Nukus: at last it was easy to find a nice little cheap local restaurant to have some bites and a beer! Continue reading

1001 Nights along the Silk Road

At least partly thanks to Uzbekistan’s quite well-maintained train network, it was surprisingly comfortable to visit the Big Three – Central Asia’s probably most-famous highlights: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva. Indeed there is not so much to tell and write about all marvellous sites you can see there. Although often having been reconstructed, they truly testify of former glorious wealthy times, thanks to trade between Europe and China or to some powerful rulers like Timur. Unfortunately, most sites are completely overcrowded with souvenir shops, and we could hardly find a place without artificial commerce, but a more calm and authentic atmosphere to let the madrassas and mausoleums have a better effect on us. Also finding a nice little cheap place to have dinner turned out to be an almost impossible quest, and we soon missed Kyrgyzstan numerous local restaurants, food stalls and cook shops. Slightly disappointed overall but yet worthy, we’ll just let some pictures speak for themselves, even if they can only give a small glimpse at their real sumptuous appearance. Continue reading

Police Control, Let Us Check Your Bags and Passports Please!

Regarding the immigration and customs regulations so far, entering both countries we had visited was totally hassle-free: visa-on-arrival, nothing to declare, few police controls, fast and effective procedures. With respect to their political situation and the tedious work we had needed before obtaining a visa, we were expecting things at the frontiers to change drastically for the two countries that still lay ahead of us. And indeed, we should not be disappointed ….

While leaving Kyrgyzstan was as simple and uncomplicated as travelling through this region during the past weeks, entering Uzbekistan was a completely different challenge. Our visas seemed to be in order, but we had been warned about their pettiness at the customs. First we were asked what kind of “special goods” (books, electronic devices, medicine) we carried with us, which we answered honestly. Thereafter the officials nonetheless wanted to check everything explicitly. So we were ordered to put out literally everything out of our backpacks such that they could verify that we were not smuggling any kind of drugs (with sleeping pills being a serious issue), books about religion (whereas we had to explain them ourselves the content of the book and could have told anything we wanted) or images containing offensive material. Especially the last one was thoroughly examined by the border-post officers. Even if we know that Google or the NSA read all our emails and already know everything about us, we soon realized that in Uzbekistan privacy is simply nonexistent and that Facebook is a prime example of anonymity compared to that. We were told to hand in our smartphones and ipads to let them look at the stored pictures. I for myself was quite lucky because rapidly the male official became much more interested in my 350 world-trip photos from 2012. He took his time and contemplated attentively my impressions from all around the world, asked me many questions about the people, the landscapes, the monuments or the political situation, and was very impressed by my craziness (“You really jumped down from this bridge?”). On the other side of the desk, Michael was not as lucky with the female official, who was taking her authority seriously. She navigated through his whole whatsapp-history and inspected every single crappy file she could find. And when she unfortunately encountered a photoshopped caricature of a topless Angela Merkel, which of course was considered as highly pornographic material, her aversion towards Michael increased and she desperately searched for something more compromising. Nevertheless, after almost 40 minutes of inspection and the deletion of some “inappropriate media”, we were eventually released and were allowed to enter the country – also to the delight of the persons behind us waiting for their turn to be taken apart. Continue reading

Yurt Sweet Home

Okay, enough relaxing lazy times at the beach, finally it was time for us to move on and do something more adventurous again. So we took a marshrutka to the little town of Kochkor (and survived its tire blowout which in the end did not harm anyone except the frightening loud “BANG”) from where we organized a tour to Song-Kol lake. One great thing about Kyrgyzstan which is particularly popular and useful in its central region are the “Community Based Tourism” organizations. They successfully try to promote tourism in the country and at the same time to integrate and involve locals and preserve their culture and traditions. Our operator “Sheperd’s Life” also follows this aim and thanks to the very competent, friendly and English speaking office staff and guide we had a wonderful 3 days trek to one of the most beautiful lakes of the area. Together with a Belgian couple, we hiked over dry prairies and high mountains, through short hail storms, surrounded by thousands of sheep, cows and horses (the number one mean of transport), whom hundreds of nomads let graze there during the summer. Especially interesting and a nice experience to get a better understanding of their everyday life were the two yurtstays, where we spent the nights and had lunch, dinner and breakfast. Some nomad families in fact offer one of their yurts to visitors, without having them depraved to an artificial tourist attraction as most of the time they still continue to take care of their main tasks related to the cattle breeding. We realized how comfortable living in yurt can be in otherwise such harsh conditions and enjoyed sleeping under tons of blankets while outside an extremely cold wind was blowing. Even if Song-Kol is really lovely and worth a visit, in this case the way and yurtstays were the actual aim where we learned a lot about the Kyrgyz culture. Of course I could not have left the place without swimming in the lake, indeed I completely dived into it but could not swim longer than 10 seconds before going out again, since the water was freezingly cold :P Continue reading