We woke at 6.30am to the same Uzbek pop playing full blast. We had the standard sausage and eggs boiled in oil with chai. We bought fuel from the truck stop owner, served in the traditional Uzbek way (from plastic 2 litre bottles) and set off towards Bukhara and Samarkand.
Bhukara was the only city in Uzbekistan where there was even a single petrol station purporting to sell petrol. However, the only petrol station in Uzbekistan with petrol did not have any petrol. The 150m long queue had formed to wait a full 6 hours for fuel to arrive later that day. In that queue, we found several Mongol Rally teams, including our friends in the trusty Ford Escort. Bathed and fed in Bhukara, they looked significantly cleaner than us at this point. Abandonning the queue, the next couple of hours was spent in convoy searching for fuel in the standard way; finding someone’s garage, haggling and squeezing old Fanta bottles full of an unknown liquid into our petrol tank. We made sure to fill a jerry can this time, enough to get us out of Uzbekistan, before we set off for Samarkand.
Samarkand contained, undoubtedly, the best value hostel we saw on the trip. Our $10 per person bought us unlimited tea and watermelon, breakfast and en suite double rooms. It bought us relaxation in the vine-shaded, cushion-filled courtyard and the company of long-distance travellers of a similar kind to Mongol Ralliers; cyclists travelling from Spain to China, hitchhikers travelling from China to Italy and so forth. It was here too that we were reunited with Just Add Water, reforming the core of the fateful Turkmen convoy.
Samarkand is a beautiful city, but it is not quite set up for tourism. The nearest bar/restaurant was an (admittedly very pleasant) 45 minute walk away (our hostel was situated in the centre of Samakand, 5 minutes from the Registan). The Blues Café, Lonely Planet’s sole recommendation, was a highly idiosyncratic pastiche of what you might find in London under a similar name. They played Joss Stone tracks, served cold beer and had pictures of Michael Jackson on the walls. It was a comfortable, reasonably priced evening nevertheless. They did have a power cut and run out of vegetables (despite almost every menu item containing vegetables) but we made our own fun, provoking Jack into telling long lies and playing “No More Women”; a parlour game that is not as sexist as it sounds.
We took a taxi back to the hostel and drank the whiskey that we had gifted the Ford Escort for helping us escape hell. Dom went to sleep fully dressed, spread eagled and diagonal across the bed. When Steve tried to move him, Dom gripped the bed tightly and held his positon without waking. The limo suffered drunken damage, losing one flagpole, misplacing the air from its tires and carelessly mislaying some of its paint. The absent paint spelt out a pair of unfortunate words. The first word was “limo”. The second rhymes with “acrobatic stunts”. We suspected the Escort team, it closely matched their Modus Operandi (childish pranks. The bastards.)
Overnight, someone had nicked our other flagpole. We also realised that both the basil and the bonsai were no more. They had wilted irreparably. Their leaves were shrivelled and brown like the papery testicle-skin of an aged cyclist (note: if you are an aged cyclist, check testicles to render image more vivid). The stems looked like the stems of a dead plant. The basil probably would not have made a Bolognese even slightly more aromatic. The bonsai was dead. Its leaves had all fallen off, leaving it benuded and claw-like. No amount of mouth-to-mouth would revive either plant. “Frere bread” said Jack, with a mouth full of dry soil. Wiring the plants up to the battery and jump-starting them proved inefficacious “it’s not the battery” said Ollie, scratching his head. Dom: “Leaf ‘em alone. This is part of their root-ine.” Dom looked over at Steve for support “sorry, I only do political and nautical puns. Plus, I don’t think they’re just depressed. I can sea from here that you’ve gone way overboard, sailed too close to the wind; they just needed a vote of confidence, coup-dn’t you Just elect a suitable method of deposing of them?” replied Steve. Yes, the plants were deceased. We decided that a burial seemed somehow inappropriate. “If anything we ought to do the opposite!” After collecting the scattered plants, we concluded that throwing them into the air was far too undignified a way for them to go.
We offloaded the bonsai onto the owner of the hostel by convincing him that it was “just resting” and chucked the Basil in a nearby bush.
To mourn our loss, we decided to revenge ourselves upon the Ford Escort. Sun cream on every surface upon which a hand might unwittingly rest. A roll of toilet paper unreeled inside the vehicle. A grinning portrait of Dom in permanent marker on the driver’s side wing mirror. A cigarette glued to the rubber Donkey, Hendrix, which had straddled their roof for several thousand miles. We also stole Hendrix’s voice, glued their windscreen wipers to their windscreen, pried the word “flight” from their car (and glued it onto ours). But we did not piss in their tent. Then, as they left, we egged the bastards. That’s what friends are for. One of the eggs sailed in through the window and hit Elsie in the face without breaking. It came back at us. The circle of life.
We also gave Just Add Water the front badge from the Rover; with its Viking longboat it fitted more closely with the theme of their trip (boats and stuff). They in turn gave their Skoda badge to Sam the motorcyclist. They all left that morning for the Pamir highway.
With everyone gone, we chose to stay in Samarkand an extra night. We used the time to source a new drive shaft for the Rover, postulating that the bodge would not last the remaining several thousand miles. Ollie’s brother Alex co-ordinated from home and we were confident we could time the part to arrive to Almaty just as we arrived. Parcels2Go was the reliable household name we chose to stake the success of our trip upon.
That afternoon, Dom and Jack headed over to the bazaar. Jack had been searching since Istanbul for a long flowing “ethnic garb” to cover his supple form. When he returned, his form remain exposed to piercing sun from which he desired respite. The garb would need to wait another day. They were more successful in the search for sandals. The hardest part was finding anything that would fit Jack’s massive feet. In the whole of Samarkand’s largest bazaar, there were only two sets that fit Jack. The pair we settled on did not fit Jack. But the men who sold them to us repeatedly pointed to one among their number, shouting
“We’ll take them” decided Dom, in spite of the tremendous absence of style in the black, silver and red fake Adidas slippers. Jim Carey is one of Dom’s favourite actors.
To celebrate our success, Jack went for a shave. “I want to be shaved with a cut throat razor. By another man.” This had been Jack’s mantra since well before Turkey.
Walking back towards the hostel we met a straggly group of white men with beards and “traditional” shirts. It was, of course, a Mongol Rally team. But we had seen this particular team 3 times previously during the rally, despite taking a route that deviated from theirs by several thousand miles. It was one of the Nissan Micra teams from Baku, from the Turkey-Georgia order, from a Romanian petrol station. They were the saints who lightened our luggage to the score of two camping chairs. Jack and Dom, temporarily brain damaged by the astounding coincidence of the situation, failed to reclaim the chairs. Our Mongol Rally is littered with heart-rending tragedies and devastating regrets.
Back at the hostel, we relaxed with yet another Mongol Rally team. These guys had been at the hostel for 5 days already with water in the engine of their car. They were getting pretty good at chess by the time we met them.
Rice pudding for breakfast. The stuff that dreams (and probably also clouds) are made of. We used our morning to collect Ollie’s bag from a hotel a short distance from our hostel, send postcards and see some of the sites. This was the second time on the trip so far that we had chosen to engage in such activities. In much the same fashion as our attempt to see the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we got round to seeing a small chunk of the magnificent Registan before we got into the car and left. We put $5 into the shirt pocket of the guard and walked into a fairly attractive square. There was a partially restored mosque on one side, cordoned off from the public. We walked around the cordon and had a look inside – it was OK. Dom picked up a bit of the mosque that had fallen off and attached it to the car. Steve tried to get up one of the minarets but just ended up in the staffroom, drinking coffee and laughing uproariously at jokes the staff made in Uzbek. We did try to sit and take it in. “This,” said Steve gazing around, eyes shining, “is shit”. Then we went to Tashkent, with a view to getting to Kazakhstan that evening.
The roads in Samarkand are really awful. There are no road markings, very, very large potholes. There are alleys wide enough to allow a single car to pass that are bordered by deep gullies – somehow, the traffic flows in both directions along them whilst weddings merrily go on in amidst the struggling cars. These elements form an essential part of getting around Samarkand.
The road to Tashkent was uneventful but for frequent police checks. Once we arrived on the outskirts of Tashkent, our engine over-heated. The fuse protecting our fans had melted, calling for an impromptu bout of roadside rewiring. With very little spare wire and only a few scraps of tape left, this was a bit of a struggle. The limo, as always, had also pulled in a small crowd, who thronged Steve and Ollie as they attempted to move around the car. Overcoming even these harsh realities (strangers removing parts from their hands in an attempt to help, rapping Russian at the disconsolate duo, cheerfully engaging them in conversation), the pair were able to rewire the fuse in front of the radiator, a move they had been planning for some time, in order to facilitate better air flow.
We made it to the border before dark. It was a 24 hour border for pedestrians, but appeared permanently closed to cars. We did try to drive through it anyway, from a couple of different angles, but the concrete blockade and armed guards eventually bettered our mild invasion. We then took an 80km detour to Yallama, the nearest border-crossing for cars. The border was quiet and the crossing simple. We did enjoy befriending the guards, several of who scribbled what we can only guess to be wishes of good luck onto our roof. Meanwhile, a sniffer dog sat down in the driver’s seat of the car. He gazed longingly through the windscreen. We are convinced that the dog was temporarily intoxicated by the spirit of adventure that must have been in strong in the cockpit of our machine.
While Ollie did his paperwork, Jack, Steve and Dom witnessed an unsettling event in the office. A border guard confronted a lady selling beer. Then, a person attempting to cross the border foolishly stood toe to toe with the same border guard and yelled into his face. This lead to that person being escorted from the building. Steve thought that this looked fun and was tempted to give it a go, but we pacified him with a Gameboy that had Tetris inserted. The trials and tribulations of that tempestuous game caused such a commotion from us that the border guards moved to confiscate the offending item. We hurriedly a little further moved away but were periodically pestered by the border guards until we left the country.
Later, we were in Kazakhstan. The other side of the border-crossing into Kazakhstan is a fine sight. The reception area is with resplendent with dust-soaked gravel that rises gracefully with every footstep. Two fourteen year olds with truly remarkable sales skills, perched precariously on a fence will attempt to sell you insurance. The corrugated metal fences and absence of any tacky “Welcome to Kazakhstan” type signs create an immersive experience – it really feels like you have entered Kazakhstan.
So there we were, in Kazakhstan, at night. We tried to find somewhere to camp. Our usual strategy is to drive down lanes and tracks that we hope will go nowhere in particular. Upon one such excursion in obfuscating darkness, we stumbled into, and sharply reversed back out of, what appeared to be a back-of-the-lorry, counterfeit fruit deal. We kept on into the night until we reached a small village.
There is a certain type of café/restaurant that also doubles as a ‘guesthouse’. You can tell these by the tables, which are like beds with a removable wooden rectangular central piece. Most of these places will allow you to sleep outside, providing blankets and pillows. It’s actually pretty comfortable, is always outstandingly cheap and makes it easy to get breakfast in the morning. We found such a place in the village. Upon arrival, Jack and I walked into reception to try and find the owner. She strenuously ignored us for as long as possible, returning after a few minutes to answer each of our questions in turn. Later, we drank with the locals. They only knew one word in English; “OK”. They drunkenly only referred to us as “Brad”. We later discovered that this meant “brother”. At the time, we just thought they were confused. The owners eventually kicked the locals out and waited outside the restaurant until everyone was out of sight. Dogs barked nearby. Welcome to Kazakhstan, we said to ourselves as we drifted off. Welcome to Kazakhstan.