The Long Road East (or: How to Average 24km/hr)

Our alarms woke us up at 4:30 a.m. and we were out of our Dushanbe appartment before sunrise on our way to the Badakhshan bus stand. The bus stand is basically a parking lot where jeep and minibus drivers assemble every morning to collect passengers. We arrived just after 6 a.m. (after a long walk, because it was too early for our public bus), and after much negotiation and a car switch we ended up in a Russian mini-bus, squeezed in with 14 other people for the day long, 527km journey. Day long? 527km? Oh yes, and here's how...

07:51 Leave bus station (after almost two hours of being there)
07:53 Get stopped by police for 'random checking of papers'
08:01 End of police check
08:24 Stop to buy snacks onthe side of the road
08:38 Police road block, papers checked
09:30 Get stopped by police for 'random checking of papers'
09:39 Get stopped by police for 'random checking of papers'
09:44 Construction road block
10:04 Start moving through construction site, oh no wait, false start
10:14 Start moving through construction site
10:42 Stop to eat at roadside tea house
11:17 Leave tea house
13:30 Stop to eat at tea house
13:44 Leave quickly because there isn't any food, only tea
14:54 Stop to eat at tea house
15:51 Leave tea house
16:01 Stop for gas (one tank on each side of the bus, gas is poured out of big buckets through a funnel)
16:12 Finish filling up gas
16:34 Stop at security check point
16:36 Leave security check point
16:53 A stop, possible engine trouble?
17:00 Engine seems fine, we can go
17:35 Tea break right before a mountain pass, the scenery was beautiful and Yann and I strolled around only to notice an abandoned tank left over from the civil war. As we crossed the pass a few minutes later, signs warned of landmines covering the whole area. I first thought that they were signs warning of forest fires (yes I know, we're above the tree line) until Yann pointed out the stick figure above the flames with his leg being blown off.
18:09 End of tea break in land mine territory 19:41 Stop at military check point
19:48 Leave military check point
20:06 Stop in a town to make inquiries about something
20:18 Leave after making inquiries about something

So that's the first 12 hours or so, the next 12 hours are more of a blur, and our note taking was now being done in the complete darkness, so accuracy cannot be guaranteed, but we can definetely confirm that it was a way worse 12 hours than can possibly be described in this time line...

20:30 Stop at cafe for dinner, Yann and I ate an entire pack of hot dogs along with some stale bread. The next part of the stop was by far the most frustrating part of the trip. First our driver announced to us that he was exhausted and needed a few hours of sleep before driving again, fair enough. We tried to figure out how long we would be stopped for, debating whether or not we should one of the (over-priced) tea house beds. No one, including the driver seems to know. After at least an hour of sitting around and eating, we are told that the driver will be sleeping for 2-3 hours, so, since we are also exhausted we settle into dorm beds. Ten minutes later we are woken up and told that we are leaving, heading straight to Khorog (our final destination). The rest of the passengers (annoying and now drunk) have bullied the driver into continuing the drive, because they do not want to pay. Not only was this annoying because we thought we would get a rest, it was annoying because we didn't think it was very safe. We didn't even bother voicing our opinion, even the driver wasn't being listened to.
22:11 Leave the dinner stop
22:13 Stop at police check point
22:25 Leave police check point
23:15 Stop for the drunks to pee
23:18 Pee break ends
23:37 Stop to help broken down car
23:44 Leave broken down car
00:57 Stop for a break

For the next 4 hours there might have been a few stops, but most passengers were drifting in and out of sleep, including me and probably the driver. The only person who seemed to be in an uncomfortable a position was Yann, who pretty much didn't sleep a wink. During this time we picked up 2 extra passengers, we were now 18 people in a mini-bus that was designed for 11. The minibuses are transformed by reducing trunk space and bringing the benches closer together, an additional bench is added, but facing in the wrong direction. So Yann and I sat across from each other, sharing the leg space for one person (which the lady beside us decided she would crowd with two watermelons). We were sweaty and overheated, with only a few small windows, the woman beside us didn't like the wind blowing in her face and we almost came to blows over keeping the window open, not to mention her ridiculous watermelons rolling around at our feet.

05:10 Stop, possible engine trouble
05:15 Leave, problem fixed
05:23 Stop in village outside Khorog to drop off passenger, argument ensues when driver will not drive her to her home up the hill, we have almost no more gas left, the first attempt up the hill has failed
05:27 We leave the disgruntled passenger behind, rolling down hill with the engine off
05:41 Arrival in Khorog, capital of the Badakhshan region

And that, is how you average 24km/hr, we paid 40$ each for the pleasure. The 45 minute flight would have cost us 65$ each.

Quiet and Peaceful Dushanbe

Our appartment in Dushanbe was such a luxury, we cooked dinner most nights in our own kitchen. After a night alone in the appartment, the second room became occupied by Myriam and Mathieu, two Parisians living in Uzbekistan, vacationing in Tajikistan. They quickly introduced us to the Central Asian vodka consumption habits. The city markets were full of fresh local produce, 1kg of tomatoes sold for about 30 cents, so we made huge pots of spaghetti a few times. Other market favourites included red pepper, eggplant, pistacchios, red basil, homemade cheese and gigantic egg-shaped cantaloupes. Dushanbe's city centre is very pleasant, with tree-lined streets, functioning fountains and colonial architecture. Our appartment was down the street from the Presidential Palace on a six-laned boulevard, ready for Soviet style military parades but occupied only by a handful of taxis and trolley buses. There isn't much evidence of the civil war, that ended less than a decade ago and saw Dushanbe controlled by armed street gangs. It is only in 2002 that the dawn-to dusk curfew was lifted in the city. There is a heavy police presence on the streets, hundreds of militsia standing around, stopping cars and blatantly taking money from drivers, it's a strange sight, but one that locals seem to have accepted as part of daily life (our landlady told us explictly not to let militsia into the appartment no matter what they say).

We had a week waiting for our Chinese visas and honestly there isn't too much to do in Dushanbe. We of course visited the Museum of National Antiquities (to see Central Asia's largest Buddha, miniscule in comparaison to its South East Asian counterparts) and the Bekhzod National Museum with a fine collection of stuffed animals and formaldehyde suspended creatures. Not to mention an entire floor dedicated to the greatness of President Rakhman(ov) (he removed the 'ov' to de-Russify his name). We spent a morning in Hissar village, the site of a ruined fort, some 30km from Dushanbe. When we arrived in Hissar, a passenger in our minibus wouldn't leave our side. I made the symbol of an arch (I knew there was one at the site of the ruins), and he immediately flagged down a taxi, paid the driver and waved us goodbye. We were dropped off at the ruins on the outskirts of town. Actually they aren't so much ruins as a big pile of rocks on a hill, but the reconstructed arch is picturesque as are the two nearby medressahs across from it, and the attendants seemed happy to collect our 30 cent entrance fees. After a couple of days in Dushanbe, we ran into Lee, a Korean man looking to stay in the same appartment as we were. We told him that it was already full and we tried to direct him to a cheap hotel that we knew of, but he seemed utterly dejected that he wouldn't have a kitchen where he could cook his Korean noodles (he mentioned these noodles many times during our brief encounter). In sympathy, we made a deal with him that he could sleep on the floor of the bedroom in exchange for a Korean dinner, he was overjoyed and referred to me as his 'angel' for the rest of the week. Lee ended up cooking for us more than once, and buying us lots of beer and snacks. We exchanged life stories, his a bit more interesting than ours. He was a retired dentist who had quit his job in his thirties and had been travelling for 13 years with only a few month breaks in Korea in between voyages.

Myriam and Mathieu were the first to leave the comfort of the appartment, heading east into the mountains. Yann and I were heading to the same place, but were still waiting for our visas, we hoped they would be able to send us an e-mail describing the 24 hour journey, but knew that this was highly unlikely. Two days later, we hadn't heard from them, we set our alarms for 4 a.m. so that we could get to the bus station and bargain for a ride east, we didn't have much information to go on, we just knew it wasn't going to be a particularly pleasant journey.

The M34 Highway

From Istaravshan, we had a 5-6 hour drive planned along the main highway towards Dushanbe (the country's capital). We planned to be dropped off at the intersection with a small mountain road leading up to an alpine lake, where we would be able to stay in a former Soviet holiday camp. As most dealings for transportation go, we were quoted wildly high prices for the drive, three or four times the local price. It was quite unexpected, considering the relatively light volume of tourists passing through the country, we aren't safe anywhere it seems. We finally agreed to take spots in a mini-van who would drop us off, then continue all the way to Dushanbe with the other passengers. We found out later that we paid the same price as that of the whole trip to Dushanbe.

We drive started with about three kilometers of what could generously be described as 'paved' road. The rest of the highway was pretty much a pile of loose rocks. Sometimes it wasn't even clear where the road actually was, we had to turn around after following the wrong rock pile a few times, and we drove on a river bed (not a dry one). The road was terrible, but it could have been a tolerable drive, if we hadn't been trapped in a vehicle with the most reckless asshole of a driver in Tajikistan. The minivan was fairly new and could not possibly have belonged to the driver because he didn't seem to care if it arrived to Dushanbe in pieces. He didn't slow down for anything, even the large rocks that were ripping through the bottom of the van. Despite obviously not being familiar with the road he drove faster than the rest of the traffic, including all-terrain vehicles. After the van took a particularly bad hit (despite paying more than everyone else, we had been relegated to the back of the van, and were feeling the pain of the drive more than others), I asked our driver to slow down, he thought I was very funny.

The problem with our driver was that the minute there was a patch of 'good' road he would accelerate like crazy, only to slam on the breaks 30 seconds later when the road sharply curved, or we met a giant pile of rocks, or a 3 foot 'speed bump'. On one of his speed binges, we hit an unexpected curve and we didn't have time to slow down, the driver struggled to keep the car from flipping and as we rounded the curve we met a huge dip in the road, the van went plunging down the pile of rocks and came to a stop, miraculously still standing. During the incident I was screaming at the driver to slow down (very useful for his steering, but I was so angry it was out of my control), everyone else in the car let out a collective gasp as we tumbled down the rocks.

Yann and I then demanded exit from the car. We were seriously in the middle of nowhere, but we hadn't even gotten to the mountain passes yet. I had actually yelled out "I don't want to die in Tajikistan", the other passengers seemed very interested to know what I had said (they had recognized their country's name), I wonder what the driver told them. The driver didn't find the situation funny anymore, I told him he was the "worst driver I had every seen in my life" and that he was "crazy" oh yes, and that "I would rather sleep on the side of the highway than get back in his car". He begged us to get back in the minivan, promising to drive "normal" this time, AHA! you admit it you were NOT driving normally! He finally managed to get us back in the van with the promise of not exceeding 20km/h.

We tackled the first pass extremely slowly, which was good, the road was dusty and visibility was poor. We got to the top of the pass at about 1:30PM, we had been on the road for about three hours. There was a small makeshift barrier blocking the road, and a little Chinese worker sitting beside it surrounded by angry Tajiks. The road was blocked for dynamiting, it wouldn't open until 7pm. I got out my Chinese phrasebook, and confirmed the great news, 5 hour wait at the top of a pass. I was actually not too unhappy about the situation, because it gave me a break from the driver from hell. Ridiculously I became the 'Chinese' expert, and as the cars started accumulating behind us, people were approaching me asking me to convince the driver to let us through. Even our own driver made a bid to get Yann and I to help:
A-I don't speak Chinese
B-I don't want to drive on a mountain road when DYNAMITING is going on
C-I hate you

The locals didn't seem to comprehend why they couldn't bribe their way through the road. To make matters worse, traffic was coming through from the other direction, totally undermining the Chinese man's statement that the road was unsafe (which I am quite convinced was, we could hear, and feel, the dynamiting at one point). He cursed the Tajik corruption but held his ground, for almost five hours. He was eager to discuss with me in Mandarin, but I only managed to tell him that I liked Chinese food, and to list off the names of Chinese places I had visited. He seemed happy enough with that. A few minutes later we watched him as he ran away from a raging Tajik woman (huge) who was chasing him down, probably the most physical activity she had done in years. The ridiculous thing about the situation was that the road closure had been announced, people just show up expecting to be able to get through, because that's the way it works in the country. But when the Chinese are controlling the construction site things are different.

An hour early, the gate opened and we were able to continue the trip. Despite the 5 hour wait, our driver felt that it was time to take a break at a tea house at the bottom of the pass (about 10km from where we had been waiting all day). He knew that Yann and I were attempting to get to the lake, and that it would be difficult to do so in the dark, but he sat himself down and ordered a plate of food, while most of the passengers sat perplexed in the van.

Two cars pulled over across the street from the tea house and when I saw that there was room in one of the cars, I ran across the street to beg for a ride to the lake. Yann described the driver as big and scary but I just loathed our driver too much. The new driver, Ashraf, didn't speak any English, but his friend Azziz, driving the other car, did. They were heading all the way to Dushanbe, so obviously didn't want to do a 50km detour to the lake, but were happy to drop us off at the road to the lake. We quickly transfered our things from the van into the car and drove away (we did pay our other driver, despite his shittiness).

We realised quickly that Ashraf was a much better driver than the last one (not that that was very difficult). It turns out, he and his partner Azziz (who was following in the car behind us) drive the awful road every week. They fly to Khojand, buy two used cars, drive them back to Dushanbe and sell them at a profit. By the time we got to the mining town where the road branches off to Iskander Kul Lake it was dark and there was exactly one taxi around willing to do the drive. He wanted the same price for the 48km trip (return) as a place in a taxi from Khojand to Dushanbe (12 hours on horrible road, including two 3000m+ passes). We felt tired, and ripped-off. When Ashraf and Azziz offered to take us all the way to Dushanbe we accepted.

We stopped soon after to have dinner, of course Yann and I were treated. Ashraf is Uzbek and was frustrated to be the only person at the table who couldn't understand a bit of English. At one point we talked about Ottawa being the capital of Canada and he eagerly jumped in, frowning "ooooooh... capitalisma!" (when we had passed a Lenin statue earlier he had given us the "ooooooh...Leneen, commoonisma, socialisma"). We ate a road side tea house, Azziz had two other passengers in his car, his friends, who also ate with us. A giant Tajik matriarch and her beautiful daughter for whom she had already turned down many suitors. The three of us went to the bathroom later, Asian styles, all right next to each other, a bonding experience. The big momma was apparently retaining alot of water, it was like witnessing an elephant (and yes, I've seen many peeing elephants). It was almost 11pm by the time we finished dinner and we still had one mountain pass separating us from Dushanbe. We were given the choice of arriving in Dushanbe at 2am "if we took the too-nelle" or at 5am if we didn't. We didn't exactly know what we were being asked, so we left the choice up to our drivers. This led us to a security checkpoint, where we were told to stay in the car as Ashraf and Azziz went to speak to the police/military. Money was paid, and we blazed through the security gates into the mountains. After crisscrossing the mountain on switchbacks we arrived at a construction site, where a few other cars were waiting amidst the huge piles of dirt and rock. We didn't wait very long before getting the wave-through from a worker. We drove into a dark, damp worksite and a few minutes later we arrived at the 'too-nelle', the unfinished tunnel being built to bypass the snowy mountain pass and allow winter travel.

What was the number one indicator that the tunnel was not quite finished? Possibly the fact that it was submerged in three feet of water. As we entered the tunnel, water actually came rolling over the windshield. Further along, enormous jets of water crashed out of the tunnel wall and water dripped onto the top of the car. Ashraf began eating his sunflower seeds at a furious pace and I calculated how many minutes we would be in the tunnel. Six kilometers, rolling at under 15km/hr we had almost half an hour in the pitch black, flooded, claustorphobics nightmare. Meanwhile Yann thought the whole thing was awesome. Tajik road safety can pretty much be summed up by the phrase 'insha Allah' (if it is God's will)... wonderful. I was happy when we spotted workers, it was a possible indication of the tunnel's structural integrity, then again, they were probably just happily inshaallah-ing away. It took 26 minutes to get to the end of the tunnel.

We arrived in Dushanbe at 2am, as precited, with very few incidents (aside the tunnel), other than Ashraf falling asleep and Yann and I trying to keep him awake with our riveting conversation "sleep, nyet nyet nyet, no good". Ashraf had us stay at his appartment for the night. When we arrived, his adorable (and young) wife Sitora was waiting for us. She had prepared a large tub of hot water for washing up (by boiling water kettle by kettle) and she had a full dinner waiting: chicken lentil soup, bread, salad, nuts, dried fruits, tea, apples. You know the feeling when you are so exhausted that you feel like you are going to throw up? Well, that's pretty much how we felt. Ashraf and Sitora didn't eat with us, but they sat and watched us eat, as we attempted to finish our second dinner of the evening, at three o'clock in the morning.

We slept well with piles of blankets and mattresses set up for us on the floor. When we woke up, breakfast was waiting. Sitora proudly showed us the package of Maple Lodge 100% Canadian chicken wieners purchased especially for us. Ashraf spent a good part of the morning driving us around the city looking for a cheap hotel. After a ticket from a crooked Dushanbe policeman he seemed to be a bit exasperated and we insisted that we could continue the search on foot. We parted with us promising to call him if we had any problems. After a walk across the city centre we struck gold: a fully-furnished, air-conditioned apartment for less than the cheapest dorm beds we could find. The little Russian landlady ran off the rules, in Russian, while her son translated them to English as best he could. A few minutes later we had the keys and were on our own. For dinner we cooked boiled potatoes and carrots and covered them in butter, savouring our quiet Dushanbe apartment.

Signing Autographs in Tajikistan

From Khojand we travelled a few hours south to the town of Istaravshan. Its 'Old Town' is purported to be one of the best preserved in the country. Under normal circumstances we would have found our room at Hotel Istarvshan pretty grotty, but after Hotel Leninabad most of its grotesqueness went by somewhat unnoticed. After check in we set out to find Istaravshan's 'famed' alleys of mud-walled homes and its turquoise domed medressah. It didn't take us very long to find, pretty much everything west of the main street seemed to qualify as old town. The beginning of our walk was peaceful, with people peeping out of their doorways to watch us walk by. All hell broke loose when we arrived at a small water tank. Our cameras were spotted and we were immediately stormed by a crowd of wet, extremely excited young boys.

They began wrestling with each other to get as close to the cameras as possible, I couldn't get them to stand back so that I could get them in a photo. I would place my camera down, set the boys in place, but the minute I pulled up the camera to take a shot the race was on and the boys would come toppling towards me at full speed. I finally managed to get a relatively organized photo when a fearsome band of moo-moo clad, gold-toothed, unibrowed Tajik mamas yelled the boys into place. The ladies then hugged me and attempted, unsuccessfully to dialogue with me in Tajik, then Russian. The rest of our visit we were escorted by our army of tiny boys, begging to be photographed. Even older men and women stopped with requests to be photographed. We didn't exactly get to view the daily activities of the quiet old town, we just generated too much excitement among the locals. We had to cut our visit short, it was just too draining to deal with so many people around us. The town elders managed to pry away the children for our brief visit inside the medressah, but they were all waiting for us right outside the door. And, in a Tajik original request, a group of girls got us to autograph the back of handfulls of family photos. For our second activity of the afternoon, we hiked up to the top of a hill over-looking the city, here once stood a Sogdian fortress, destroyed by the armies of the one and only Alexander the Great (this is about as far as they got, Khojand was founded by Alexander, his eastern-most outpost). There is nothing left of the fortress, but we got nice views of the town and a statue and gate have been constructed on the hill. There seems to be pride over the former presence of Macedonians in the region.

Our dinner felt very Tajik (not that we really know what a Tajik dinner is), we settled at a chaikhana (a traditional tea house). Usually you eat on a tea bed, lounging on a pile of pillows without any shoes on. We opted for a small table shaded by grape vines. Locals bring their own food, including raw meat for kebabs, and pay a small fee for the use of the tea beds and of course tea and bread. We ordered tea, bread, kebabs and salad. Shortly after we began eating, the men at the table next to us brought us a huge plate of palov a plate of watermelon and a plate of honeymelon. This melon is really extraordinary, it actually tastes like it's been injected with honey. We had been warned of Tajik hospitality, and we savoured it until our bellies were full.

Best (and Worst) of Kyrgyzstan

This is our choices for the best and worst moments of our 26 days Kyrgyzstan. We've also put together a gallery of our favourite photos which you can visit here here.

Our FAVOURITE Cities/Towns
According to Yann:
1- Bishkek
2- Karakol
According to Emilie:
1- Cholpon-Ata
2- Bishkek

Our FAVOURITE Activities
According to Yann:
1- Doing nothing at Song Kol Lake
2- The museum scene (especially in Bishkek)
3- Dodging militsia (police)
According to Emilie:
1- Hanging out with other travellers in Bishkek
2- Bishkek museum hopping
3- Searching for petroglyphs at the outdoor museum in Cholpon-Ata

According to Yann:
1- Pelmeni in a pot (raviolis baked with cheese, cream and garlic)
2- Cheese-stuffed samosas
3- Beef 'burgers' from Bishkek street stands
4- Cheap vodka
According to Emilie:
1- Smoked fish from Issyk Kul Lake
2- Pelmeni in a pot (from Zarina's Cafe, Karakol)
3- Ice cream in Bishkek, dipped in peanuts and walnuts and squirted with chocolate syrup

Honourable Mention: We have baptised it 'Kyrgyz Poutine': marinated beef and onions, topped with french fries, tomatoes, mayonnaise and cheese and cooked in a pot. Hilariously it was called 'beef a la Francaise' in the menu, apparently anything containing french fries and mayonnaise in Central Asia is 'a la Francaise'.

According to Yann and Emilie:
1- 'Fat' soup (broth with big chunks of fat floating in it)
2- 'Fat' dumplings (dumplings containing some meat, but mostly fat)
3- Animal fat in general
Note: Most things that might have appeared on this list we generally were not courageous enough to try, such as Kymyz (fermented mare's milk) or dried yogurt balls, a very popular snack.

Biggest Rip-Offs
According to Yann and Emilie:
1- Taxis, to anywhere where there isn't much local transportation
2- Homestays, over-priced and not too 'homey"
3- Internet by the 'MB' used, impossible to determine your usage and at least three times more expensive than when you pay by the hour

Kyrgyz Travel Trademarks
According to Yann and Emilie:
- White beards (elders)
- Tall Kyrgyz hats warn by men mostly on the countryside
- Horseback riding and donkey riding by the little guys
- Livestock on roads
- Cheap vodka
- Corrupt militsia

For those interested in our expenses, we have updated our homepage with our financial information for Kyrgyzstan, it is available here

Into Tajikistan

Since we dragged out our time in Bishkek to 12 days, we had only 4 days left on our Kyrgyz visa. We had to get to Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan and cross the border into Tajikistan. The main route used by travellers into Tajikistan, is via a remote highway in Eastern Tajikistan, through the Pamir mountain range. Since there isn't alot of local traffic (because not alot of people live there), the tour companies have really exploited this area, and the only local transport seems to be well hidden from non-Russian speaking tourists. With more time in Osh, we might have teamed up with other travellers and shared transport costs, instead we made plans to take an alternate route.

The information in our guidebook is about 5 years old, and there are exactly 34 pages about Tajikistan. We had very little information to go on, other than the name of the border town that we had to get to. To make matters even more complicated, the main highway to the border town runs through Uzbekistan on two separate occasions. Two small Uzbek 'Islands' sit completely surrounded by Kyrgyz territory. Since Kyrgyz locals don't need a visa to travel through Uzbekistan, we had to pay for a private taxi to take the longer 'detour' road, a large portion of it a dirt track around the Uzbek territory. We got to the town of Batken five hours later, with only the address and name of a woman who runs a guesthouse in town, luckily our driver knew where she lived (he didn't recognize the street name, but he knew where to go when we mentioned the family name). The guest house was spotless and extremely well-equipped (and consequently expensive), which seemed strange, considering the town isn't listed in any guestbook and probably only receives a handful of travellers a month (we guessed that it was probably set up to house NGO workers in the past). We watched about five hours straight of Russian music videos (on Yann's insistence), played cards and ate the last of our meager supplies, the guest house had cost us the last of our Kyrgyz money, save our taxi fare for the next day. Crossing the border into Tajikistan wasn't any trouble the next morning, other than the grumpy old man occupying a space in our shared taxi. He was really angry with Yann and I for holding up the taxi, as if it had anything to do with us. Kyrgyz and Tajiks move freely across the border but Yann and I had our passports scrutinized by both border guards and our bags checked on the Tajik side. I had some trouble convincing the Tajik border guard to stamp us in, because our visas didn't have the mandatory embassy stamp on them (we assume this was an accident). I managed to convince him that the stamp on the next page of our passports, accompanying our permit for travel to restricted Tajik zones, was the official stamp. A crisis averted by Emilie's unbelievable charm.

We stopped briefly in the town of Isfara, the time to notice the distinct change from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, including Pepsi and Coca-Cola replaced by RC Cola. We then took another taxi to prosperous Khojand (formerly Leninabad), Tajikistan's second largest city (140,000 people). We got dropped off at the beastly Hotel Leninabad (later that day a tour operator we met, joked that the Hotel Leninabad was a zero-star hotel, we couldn't agree more). The thought that we paid more than 10$ for our room is traumatizing. The sheets were filthy and had holes in them, a absolutly ghastly bathroom, which, once used, filled the room with the smell of a 30 year old outhouse (there probably hasn't been running water there for that long). We were covered in flies, mosquitoes and what we think were bed bugs all night, probably all attracted by the smell. Other than the sheer disgustingness of the room, the hotel was fine, the staff extremely friendly and it had a central location, with a view of the giant Lenin statue across the river. Being in Khojand was like stepping back in time, from the buildings and the statues, to the bank where we made our official registration payment to the Tajik government, scarily resembling an unfinished basement. We visited the city's two museums, one brand new (inaugurated by President Emomali Rahmonov less than a year ago with special guest Amadhjinehad from Iran) and one not so new. Tajikistan's president's face scarily/hilariously adorns huge billboards and posters all over town (he's is from Khojand, but something told us that we wouldn't only be seeing his face here). We had our first taste of delicious palov (rice pilaf) served from a huge vat at an outdoor cafe and even risked the local ice cream, also delicious. We loved the tree-lined streets and the outdoor restaurants, we might have stayed longer in Khojand had it not been for our hotel room.

Lazing in Bishkek

We left Karakol early in the morning, hoping to get to Cholpon Ata for a festival of traditional horse games. We waited over an hour for our minibus to fill up, and as luck would have it, we had the slowest minibus in Kyrgyzstan. Not only was our driver slow as hell, he also picked up everyone who waved him down, no matter how full we already were and how small a distance his new passenger was travelling. I decided I would strangle the driver but Yann had me boxed in against the window. In the back of the minibus two rowdy elderly ladies were swigging vodka out of a 40 oz bottle (it was 8 a.m.) and I should have joined them. We got to the games almost two hours late, were charged full admission fee, even though there was only one act left. Thankfully it was kok-boru, also known as goat carcass polo. We arrived in Bishkek and checked into a budget guesthouse on the outskirts of the city centre. We were happy to find a crowd of travellers, many whom we had already met, many who had been lazing around for days. We thought we would take beds in the 12-bed dorms for the night and try to find something closer to the city centre for the rest of our stay, instead we stayed there for almost two weeks. Most nights were late ones, with lots of cheap beer and vodka being consumed (it's about 1$ for a 20 oz bottle). Travellers exchanged stories about some not-so-hospitable Kyrgyz, including a few more serious incidents and crooked police officers demanding passport checks and bag searches. We laughed about the impossible visa applications in Central Asia and joined the laziness while attempting to organize our own visa applications.

Apparently Uzbekistan isn't really all that interested in having any visitors, or it might seem that way by its embassy in Bishkek. Here's how it works
1-Call to make an APPOINTMENT to apply for your visa (need a Russian speaker to do this, we called on Monday morning before the visa office opens and were granted a meeting for Wednesday)
2-Show up at the embassy and wait OUTSIDE, the security guards have a small piece of paper with the names of the people with appointments, Yann and I were known as Canada 1 & 2 thankfully German 1 (who shared a bunk with me), spoke Russian.
3-The security guard assigns a waiting order, unrelated to what time you arrived at the embassy, maybe it has to do with the time you made your appointment, but I doubt that it's that fair.
4-Each applicant is called in one at a time to face the Visa Lady, a fat, unfriendly, foreigner hating, obviously disgruntled, Uzbek visa officer.
5-Foreigners are greeted with the following sign : "Foreigners, if you do not speak Russian then get a translator" (this, despite the fact that all the foreigner has to do is hand over the visa application and get a date of passport pickup)
6-If you haven't filled out your application ahead of time (by downloading a form from the internet), then you can pick one up inside the office, but Visa Lady might not let you fill it out inside, and she might even make you come back the next day to hand it in (we had filled ours out prior to our appointment, as had our friend German 1, she accepted ours, but she made him fill out a new one?!?)
7-Once Visa Lady has scrutinized your application long enough, she will give you a date to come back, usually 7 days later (in Russian of course), on that day, you have to wait outside on the sidewalk again until you're allowed into the office, you then hand in your passport and can pick it up in the late afternoon of the same day (after having waited outside on the sidewalk for a while). Oh, but before you get the pickup date, you have an 'interview' where another officer asks you the exact same questions that are on your visa application form (but in Russian this time)
8-A 30 day tourist visa costs 72 USD.
9-You have to make sure your 72 US dollars are nice and crisp, ours were rejected because they had creases, yes that's right, creases, the bills came straight from the BANK MACHINE, about 10 minutes before we went to pick up our visas.

Actually, we were lucky in some ways, we didn't have to wait a week and return with our passports, ours were taken that very same day and we picked them up in the afternoon. Why were we so lucky? Well, Canadians can't even apply for an Uzbek visa without a letter of invitation issued by a registered company within Uzbekistan. We had already applied for the letter via the internet, more than two weeks earlier, they cost us 35USD each, but, they guaranteed us one day visa processing time. So our interactions with the Uzbek embassy were brief and we were happy about that. It gave us time to get our Kazakh visa applications in order and delivered to the chaotic embassy.

For tourists, Bishkek doesn't exactly warrant an eleven day stay, but there are still a few gems that we took the time to visit.

State Historical Museum:
Probably the most bizarre of Bishkek's main attractions is the State Historical Museum, with an entire floor dedicated to Lenin and the revolution. The Kyrgyz don't identify to this monumental shrine too much, and apparently it is set to be relegated to the basement vaults. The ceiling frescos are fantastic, complete with shackled workers, the angel of communism destroying the fascist nazi devil and best of all the skeleton faced American riding a nuclear missile. Best of all, a special display was being prepared for important international visitors, it was off limits to us, but we did get a glimpse at a large Stalin carpet. State Museum of Fine Arts:
An impressively large collection of Kyrgyz art. The most interesting are the caretakers, tiny little old ladies so eager to share their knowledge (unfortunately in Russian) to the few visitors they get.
Ala-Too Square:
A big central square in downtown Bishkek. Formerly called Lenin Square, its big, its made of concrete but the Kyrgyz come to cool down in the fountains or watch the changing of the guards. Panfilov Park:
A few old rusty rides, arcade games and lots of snack food. We rode the awesome ferris wheel and got some nice views of Ala-Too Square and the city of Bishkek.
The White House:
Home of the Kyrgyz parliament, it's surrounded by gates, but you can sneak a glimpse of it and pose for a picture with the guards. Big Lenin Statue:
A big Lenin Statue, after independance they didn't take him down, they just moved him to the back of Ala-Too square, a slightly less high profile location. Victory Square:
A big park with a big statue that's supposed to look like a yurt, it does.
Dordoy Bazaar:
It's listed as a flea market, most of the stuff for sale is new though. Alot of granny clothes, Russian bootleg DVDs and not too much tourist stuff, but fun for that reason.

There are some pretty good cheap eats in Bishkek, the best being cheese stuffed samosas and ice cream dipped in nuts and chocolate sauce. Yann pretty much survived on an all-vodka-and-cheese-samosa diet and I survived on an all-pepsi-and-icecream diet. The streets of Bishkek are apparently not too safe at night, Phillipe, a Montrealer at our guest house woke up in a hospital after being jumped outside a bar in Osh, and we heard of a French guy who had been so badly beaten in Karakol that his insurance company repatriated him back to France to repair his broken jaw. The one night we stayed our late, I noticed that a popular nighttime activity is testing your punching strength on a type of portable arcade game, Phillipe sporting remnants of a black eye and a permanent scar on his cheek didn't find it very amusing. Drinking and punching, pretty much sums up the Kyrgyz nightlife.

Crooked Cops:
We managed to escape any encounters with the Bishkek Police force, mainly because we crossed the street any time we saw them. Most backpackers in our guesthouse weren't so lucky, but all managed to escape after asking to make a phone call to their consulate. Their usual ploy is to get you to a secluded place and tell you something's wrong with your passport, or that they have to search your bag etc etc, then they ask for money. On our last day at the guesthouse, we had a visit from two policemen who had been nosing around trying to figure out why there were so many foreigners around the East Bus Station. I'm not sure why the owner let them in, but I suppose that's how it's done in Kyrgyzstan, I'm also not sure how much she had to pay to get them to leave, but the words 'corruption' were heard coming from the kitchen. Their pretext for visiting was to give the tourists 'security tips', do those include 'How to escape from crooked cops'? It's pretty frustrating to be stopped on the street and asked for your passport, but it's even more violating having crooked police rummaging around your guesthouse.

It was actually quite difficult to leave Bishkek (although we got two extra days there courtesy of the Kazakh visa officials), we had become accustomed to our routine of waking up late, having a long breakfast with all the other travellers, taking a mini bus downtown, hanging around all day before returning for a long night of more talking at the guesthouse. We also realised that the hot shower, running water, short skirts and internet connections wouldn't be awaiting us in Tajikistan.