Monday 29 June 2015

The 'Stans and the Great Patriotic War.

As the Bondi to the Baltic Silk Road journey enters Russia it is interesting to remember the many memorials commemorating the sacrifices made by the ‘Stans and Southern Caucasus in The Great Patriotic War against Germany in WWII. We also saw many banners and signs commemorating the 70 years since the end of the war. Exact death numbers are difficult to ascertain with accuracy but the following will give some indication of the deaths in these countries; Kazakhstan 490,000, Kyrgyzstan 90,000, Uzbekistan 330,000, Turkmenistan 70,000, Tajikistan 50,000, Armenia 150,000, Azerbaijan 210,000 and Georgia 190,000 (Source: Wikipedia).

Combatants from these countries were involved right from the start of the German offensive in June 1941 and in all the major battles including the defence of Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad and the capture of Berlin in may 1945. Hero of the Soviet Union was the highest award for bravery and 497 were awarded to combatants from Kazakhstan, 73 to people from Kyrgyzstan and many to those from the other countries. It was not only with combatants that the ‘Stans contributed. Industries and factories were relocated from war zones in the east to the safer areas in the ‘Stans and many people were exiled to the ‘Stans, such as Tatars from Crimea and Chechens, as Moscow saw these people as potentially subversive to the interests of Russia.

On my first day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I was amazed to see in picturesque Panfilov Park the massive sculptured monument about 15 metres high of oversized soldiers and the eternal flame. This commemorates 28 soldiers who died in the defence of Moscow. During our trip we saw many monuments including a beautiful memorial next to Independence Square in Tashkent, a huge one in Ashgabat and many smaller ones in local communities. The photos will give some idea of these memorials which very much reminded me of the many memorials across Australia.

Michael Noyce

Sunday 28 June 2015

Living history - from the Bolsheviks to the iPhone. Michael Noyce

I am writing this blog from the city of Mary in Turkmenistan where a really lovely Turkman was born in 1919, ninety six years ago and the year the Bolsheviks took over the area. This man has experienced all the historic events in Central Asia over the last 100 years and his story is, to me, simply remarkable, as is this wonderful old guy.

His ancestors were Turkmen and always lived in the Mary area. For over 200 years the family built up a very successful carpet making business and when the Bolsheviks arrived were very wealthy. The Bolsheviks introduced collective farming and demanded that the family's successful business become State owned. The 96 year old's father, as head of the family, resisted but the pressure continued from the Bolsheviks and the persecutions increased. In 1931 the father decided to leave Mary and escape to Afghanistan which was a free country.

They arrived in Afghanistan with virtually nothing, except their skill and hard work ethic and over the next 40 plus years again built a very successful carpet making business, with, by this stage, the 96yo as head of the family. He had only 1 wife and together they produced 11 children of which 9 are alive today with a 30 year age spread. Much of the labour making the carpets were Afghan orphans in Kabul which the old man employed to take them off the streets and give them a home and life skill.

In the early '70s the old man went to the US to a university in Pennsylvania and lectured for a few years on textiles and dyes and associated topics.

And then came the Russians when they invaded Afghanistan. The old man and his family tried to stay away from politics and when he wanted labour he would arrange with the Russians for more orphans. He said it was hard with the Russians there but they got through these times relatively OK. Most of his kids went to university in Kabul and are now spread between the Stans, Canada and the US and are very successful as doctors, scientists and in other professions.

After a few years the Russians retreated and Afghanistan became more 'normal' again.

The third tumultuous event for the old man was the breaking up of the Soviet Union and the independence for the various countries in the ‘’Stans. The old man chose Uzbekistan and in 1991 moved to Samarkand and set up the family carpet making business. Over the next few years most of the family came to Samarkand and today the family's carpet making business is the biggest in Uzbekistan while still maintaining the Afghanistan side.

They employ over 1200 people around Samarkand and their approach to people management is almost worlds best practice; quite remarkable given where they are and where they have all come from over the last 100 years. One example is that women are given long term paid maternity leave and if they want to stay home and look after the kids, looms are set up at home. The old man's 23 year old grandson gave us a tour of the main factory and warehouse and over the next few days we became quite friendly with the family. This culminated in the old man's son coming to Bukhara when we were there and hosting us on our last night at a magnificent private dinner on the eve of Ramadan which started the following day.

At exactly 9.19pm we heard a kind of wailing sound coming from the old man's pocket. He smiles, puts his hand in his pocket and out comes his iPhone. He has a Ramadan app and it's the call to prayer. And he is still wearing his Hugo Boss jumper under his designer suit, which he always wears.

So, here is absolutely living history; a man born into free Turkistan, overwhelmed by the Bolsheviks, then experiences the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, embraces the breakup of the USSR and the independence of the Stans and now is part of the iPhone world and modern Western fashion.

He was an engaging and delightful man with reasonable English and always wore a special Afghan cap. ‘It was made from the wool from around the neck of a just born and slaughtered lamb and I think is called qorakol wool. We felt somewhat humble in his presence and almost overwhelmed being with a man who has lived through the incredible history of the Stans over the last 100 years and is still embracing the emerging new world of today.

And finally, the story of a wealthy family resisting the Bolsheviks and then escaping to Afghanistan is not unique. ‘The story of our guide in Turkmenistan was similar. They were wealthy Turkmen and his great grandfather resisted giving all his livestock to a collective farm. He was taken by the Russians and never seem again. The family escaped to Afghanistan.

3 generations in the Dodge with. His 46yo son, a doctor and now managing the business, 2 of this US educated grandsons and his 69yo brother (between the grandsons) who managed quality control.

Saturday 27 June 2015

The mounds of Turkmenistan, by Michael Noyce

Driving through Turkmenistan we would see from time to time large earth mounds of varying sizes. They could be 20m high, 100m long and quite wide and even bigger. These mounds are progressively but slowly being excavated by archaeologists and are very ancient. On the way back from visiting the Bronze Age archaeological site of Gonur Depe we stopped way off the beaten track and saw a partially excavated mound that revealed a 5th century Christian church. It is believed that many mounds cover 'caravans' which were stopping places for the camel trains on the Silk Road, as camels could only go about 25km a day.

Just outside Ashgabat we made a slight detour to see the remains of an old mosque that was destroyed in the 1948 earthquake that destroyed all old Ashgabat and killed 90% of its people. From there we could see two large mounds; one from the Stone Age and one from the Bronze Age. Excavations of the Stone Age mound in 1904 by a US archaeologist revealed wheat that was at least 8000 years old; the oldest wheat yet discovered we were told.

And that is only one of the remarkable things about Turkmenistan. There is so much history here and still even more waiting to be uncovered; a truly fascinating country.

The horses of Turkmenistan, Michael Noyce

A day or so into Turkmenistan our guide Jabbar told us that horse racing is the national sport, even without betting allowed. From what we have since learnt from him, this is quite understandable.

The horses for which Turkmenistan is famous are the Akhalteke horses. They go back to at least the Bronze Age and the Turkmen are legendary horseman. Traditionally, every family owned at least one and basically treated them as a family member. In 1879 the Turkmen defeated Russian Czarist troops in a battle near Ashgabat. The Czarist General escaped back to Moscow and reported that it was the Turkmen horseman that gave the Turkmen the edge.

The following year Czarist soldiers returned and in revenge for their defeat the previous year slaughtered 20,000 Turkmen on the site where they were defeated earlier. The Russians thereafter controlled the country and we were told that no Turkman was permitted to own a horse. The Czarist Russians killed many thousands which only further upset the locals. Apparently after that, both the Czarist and the subsequent Communist governments maintained about 1000 of the horses in a government stud farm, so the breed was continued. The Turkmen were proud of their horse heritage and in 1935 they were able to obtain about 30 of the Akhalteke horses and ride them from Ashgabat to Moscow in a journey of about 4,300km in 84 days.

This brought the Akhalteke horses to the attention of the Russian leadership and in 1945 Marshal Zhukov who led the Russians in the capture of Berlin (and the Battle of Stalingrad), rode a black Akhalteke stallion in the victory parade in Red Square. In 1956 President Nikita Khrushchev presented a golden one to Queen Elizabeth.

The Turkmenistan national emblem includes an image of an Akhalteke horse. The last Sunday in April each year is National Horse Day in recognition of the breed. Paintings and pictures of Akhalteke horses are in many places including most of the hotels where we have stayed. The only photos and paintings on the 2 floors in our hotel in Serdar were of these horses including a very lifelike painting of the current President wearing a large white fur cap riding one.

So what do mosques have to do with horse? Heaps, because the first mosque built after independence was on the site of the 1880 massacre of the 20,000 Turkmen by the Czarists and this mosque was built in their memory. In the 1880s there were about 440 mosques in Turkmenistan. At the time of independence in 1991 following the communists there were only 5 mosques remaining.

Jabbar took Gerry and I to see the Akhalteke horses at stables in Ashgabat which was part of a large racing and training complex next to a racecourse. We met the head trainer and he told us whilst the horses are not always as fast as European horses they do very well in distance races and particularly well in long endurance races of which there are many in Australia. The guy showed us around the stables and we saw a really beautiful golden stallion which seems to be the 'signature' colour.

You don't need to be a horsey person to appreciate these magnificent Akhalteke horses and their part in Turkman history and the national identity.

Friday 26 June 2015

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan - fantasy city or what? Michael Noyce

Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan and was virtually destroyed in 1948 in an earthquake that killed 90% of its people. It has to be seen to be believed. The modern Ashgabat has been built since independence in 1991 and is a cross between Las Vegas, Dubai and Disneyland. There are wide open six lane streets, massive monuments to the last President and the present one, huge buildings but no real high rise. All the building are basically white marble from Carrara, Italy, and this has kept the Italian economy afloat for years. We did a tour around Ashgabat before we went to the hotel and it was quite amazing, but with no people on the streets, understandable due to the 50c heat.

Although it's hard to describe individual buildings many have something symbolical on the top. For example, a beautiful building of a bank has a huge gold coin glistening on the top and I think it is the Ministry of Gas which has a symbolical gas flame on the top. The Arch of Neutrality is at the end of a long, wide boulevard. The whole thing is 40m or more high and on the top is a 12m gold statute of the former President that used to rotate once every 24 hours.

Many people have suggested to us, as do some guide books, that the new Ashgabat is totally over the top and lacks taste. I actually think it's magnificent but the final test is what the locals think. After all it's not up to us to judge. The locals love and are very proud of Ashgabat. Let the case rest.

And let our readers make up their own minds from the photos with this blog.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Wine, the international currency. Michael Noyce

On the drive to Khiva John proved that wine really is a universal currency and can overcome even the most challenging situation. He was driving the Toyota and came to a police checkpoint. The protocol is that the vehicle must pull up at the stop sign and can then drive on, unless the policeman indicates otherwise. John stopped but the policeman then signalled him to drive to the side and stop. He did this and the policeman walked up to the car. He showed John his license, indicating that John should do the same which he did. He then wanted to inspect the back of the Toyota which was full of luggage, boxes, a fridge and a case of mixed red wine.

John opened the back and the guy saw the box of wine. "Ah, vodka, vodka" he says and John replies "Nyet, vino, vino". The copper then beckons John to the police station and John starts to think about what this is going to cost and does he have enough $US? He asked to see John's license again and the Toyota registration papers which John gave him. At this stage John is seriously concerned, as are Ian, Gerry, and Bill in the Toyota. The guy then beckoned John to go back with him to the Toyota. The policeman opened the back again and says "Vino, vino". John looks at him in a confused way, not quite realising that the guy wanted some wine. Then it dawned on John and he responded "Da, vino" and lifts up a bottle and points to the guy. The copper says "Da, Da" and with that John hands him the bottle, they shake hands, Johns gets back in and the journey to Khiva re-commences.

The sequel is that the bottle was one of six we bought for about A$1 each, as part of a mixed case of reds with an overall average price of about A$1.40. It was the cheapest we could find and was not the best. So John's 'indiscretion' at not stopping properly cost us the huge sum of about A$1 and proved that wine really is a universal currency. Now we carry a bottle of the Bagizagan wine (pictured), not necessarily to drink but because it might come in handy at the next police checkpoint.

Samsas on the Road, by Ian Neuss

On the road we tend to eat when and where we can and whatever we can. So far that has not led to any disasters mostly due to the build up over the years of a wide variety of bacteria in our systems and having kept clear of these new antibacterial hand-washes to protect our natural resistance. But that’s another scientific experiment blog brewing.

I have found samsas to be delightful and a good road food. In Samarkand Bill and I were off early to service the cars and passed the corner samsa maker and picked up four samsas made from puff pastry. These, straight from the oven, were the best we have had so far. This fact is supported by the constant occupiers of the four roadside tables outside the oven. We also found a lunch spot in Bukhara that made alat samsas and went back there a couple of times and got vegetable-only ones as well as the usual mutton ones. A great flavoursome snack. In Nukus we had round fitchi that were not enjoyed by all as they are very rich in mutton fat. Bill needed a stomach pump and a coke to kill the fat.

On the way out to Gunup on the edge of the desert, after an early start to beat the heat, we stopped for bread and were lucky enough to find the ladies were making samsas. We got a demonstration on filling them with mutton, onion and mixed herbs, folding and putting them in the oven. Then of course we had to wait ‘til they were cooked and try them. We bought 10 straight from the oven to take with us plus a loaf of bread with mutton in it which surfaced from beneath a huge pile of clean, well worn blankets keeping the loaves warm.

We took the samsas with us to Gunup and shared them with the caretaker who had not eaten for a week. We thought they were good and delicious but he thought they were from heaven and the way they were wolfed down left me for dead and that’s worth noting. (He’s dressed in an overcoat and fur hat and it’s 40 degrees in the sun, but it’s probably not as hot as it gets and he can take them off and feel cool when it does get hot).

Bill's dog story. Bill Amann

On the way to dinner the other night, at a truck stop half way across the desert, I met a nice dog, a nice big dog, nice big very friendly dog with a huge head which counter balanced the you-know-what knots at the other end. The head was big and flat with blue specks in the white patches, something like a heeler with big feet, with the same markings, and a particularly large muzzle full of teeth, slightly out of proportion with his huge body. He looked pretty interesting: no ears, no tail, pretty mangy and very unkempt. I stopped to have a word: “You’re a particularly ugly dog” I said in a strong voice and used the universal dog sit signal taught to me by a special dog whisperer, an upturned hand not too close to get bitten.

He sat down to put me at ease as he was a very big chap of possibly 50kg and quite scary looking, more so if you haven’t had rabies shots which were recommended for this part of the world. He held out a paw to shake hands (which is very important here as a proper greeting) and he told me his story – a pretty impressive story for a dog in the middle of the desert but pretty representative of the Turkmen.

He was born somewhere between Russia and Afghanistan, and Iran to the south, on the Silk Road actually, flat lands which are basically deserts that run goats, sheep (now only 3million) and half a million camels, not too dissimilar to the outback Oz, but ironically we have a lot more camels of course. I thought a reasonably short straw for a dog in a country that doesn’t really like dogs and cutting his ears off is a bit over the top I thought. He explains in a diplomatic way that jumping to unfounded conclusions about their customs isn’t quite right. This became clear later, he didn’t really care about his ears, he didn’t really care too much about the superficial.

He was bred for a tough life, but some overall purpose. The tough bit started young, not too long after he was born they cut his ears and then his tail. Not a real good day. He thought that was pretty good because they left the other bits and he had heard what they do to little boys in some parts of the world. I will take the ears any day, he thought. His first job was actually child labour but he worked with his family and basically had a good time and got fed too. They all worked together in looking after sheep and goats, a nomadic type of life like all the early Turkmen prior to Soviets. He and his brothers had to fight off jackals, wolves and foxes to protect the sheep and his owners who actually like him and loved the horses. The lack of ears and tail was quite handy as the wolves cannot get hold of them. Same with the tail, and he can’t remember it happening anyway, so why sweat the small stuff. Fewer grass seeds too.

Plov is a Turkmen dish made with rice vegetables and meat certainly good in winter where it may get to minus 40C, generally made with lots of oil. These sheep can withstand pretty tough conditions, similar to Australia but much colder in winter, they have the daggiest looking coats but are not grown for wool. This dog can certainly see the positives and is very friendly and content with his position.

His best job has been with the fabulous Turkmen horses, certainly the best looking horses in the world with golden shiny coats and incredible stamina, not dissimilar to the Arabian horses in looks. The Turkmen respect and value the horse far more than they do in Kazakhstan where the horse is raised for the lean meat. These horses, as history goes, helped them defeat the Russian expedition of 1879 where the fast moving cavalry did over 10,000 Cossacks. Pity the Russians paid the penalty the next year and killed most horses in the country not to mention the Turkmen. This dog’s got a long memory.

Since independence and his secure position with sheep has finished he has split up from his family and has to grub (bad pun by dog as this is a name for rice soup) a living from looking after the yurts and occasional vintage car at the truck stop. I think he was happier under Soviet rule with security, a good education and strict rules to work, but he’s not a capitalist dog. By the way he says don’t worry about the car as none are stolen because up to five years ago car thieves were hung and people have not got out of the habit, as he ate the chicken from dinner

He reckons he is related to an Italian type of dog that came through here in the thirteenth century called Marco but I think he may be related to Chengis like everyone else in this part of the world. He also tells a good story like the lion, witch and wardrobe that comes from here. He never told me his name but it could be Ashlan. The cars were still there in the morning.

International diplomacy

Ian is shown here working on the rehabilitation of Australia’s international reputation for selfish, paranoid, jingoistic cruelty to the most wretched refugees of the earth arriving in leaky boats. He is wisely starting with the next generation of Uzbekis.

Impressions of Uzbekistan, Michael Noyce

A visit to any country generally requires a visa and entry through a border. Many visas are simple formalities and entering a country quite easy. The opposite is our experience here. Obtaining our visa necessitated a number of visits to the Uzbekistan Consul in Almaty, Kazakistan, and with quite a bureaucratic process to follow. Entering the country from Kyrgyzstan was a 5 1/2 hour experience of bureaucracy, patience and photos opportunities of the old cars for the customs people and police. All the people were nice and polite, but nothing was simple

The people of Uzbekistan are wonderful, very friendly, helpful and always welcoming. We had many delightful experiences of the people offering accommodation in their homes, sharing food and drink and generally being warm and hospitable. Despite the warnings by DFAT we always felt safe and secure. We spent 3 days travelling around the beautiful Fergana Valley which has been the scene of considerable unrest in prior years. Security was tight with many checkpoints with armed police, but these were fewer and fewer the more we travelled throughout the country. In fact the police are not even armed in many cities. We were told in Samarkand by two different sources that it's completely safe to leave your car open on the streets and that car theft is virtually unknown.

We all like to keep in contact with home and this was sometimes not easy with wifi very, very slow in many places. But the good news is that there was free wifi wherever we stayed, though often with insufficient bandwidth to download newspapers or conduct a Skype conversation. Nevertheless, we could always email, even if a little slow.

The history of Uzbekistan and it's part in the Silk Road story is terrific. It's a very ancient country and this can be appreciated in the history museum in Tashkent and from visiting the wonderful Silk Road Cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and many others. Even the small ceramics town of Ristran in the Fergana Valley is ancient and we met a family whose ancestors have been in the ceramics game on the same site for over 1000 years; great succession planning. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane conquered the country. In Tamerlane’s Mausoleum (photo) in Samarkand, the Gur-e-Amir (Tomb of the King), we saw a map showing the extent of his conquests in the late 14th century; from Delhi in India, all of Turkey, most of Central Asia and west into Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Pretty amazing and unknown to me. And we should not forget the Tsarist Russians from the 1860s and then the Bolsheviks from the 1920s.

Nukus, a town about 100 kms north of Khiva, is the gateway to the Aral Sea and has the outstanding Savitsky Museum of Soviet Art. Ian, Gerry and Bill toured the museum and thought it was wonderful with over 90,000 works of art, mostly avant-garde, but only a small proportion at any one time on display.

One of the great blights on Uzbekistan is the draining of the Aral Sea during Soviet times for cotton irrigation, and the decimation of many communities that depended on the Aral Sea for their livelihood. Whilst we did not go as far as the Aral Sea we saw huge areas growing cotton, all flood irrigated by water from rivers draining into the Aral Sea. A real negative on the one hand, but cotton is important for the economy on the other hand.

It's pretty easy driving around the country and the roads are generally quite good, except for much of the road from between Bukhara and Khiva. There is a great 4 lane concrete highway being built and about 150kms is finished. But much of the rest is pretty bad, with driving difficult in parts as it seems little or no maintenance is being done, pending the construction of the new concrete road. But whilst car travel is nice, it's another experience to travel on the excellent train system as John and I did between Samarkand and Bukhara.

We loved the food, with Uzbek salads of tomato and cucumber, and shaslicks of lamb, beef, chicken and vegetables—all very nice. We had the lovely rice based national dish, Plov (Russian), or Palow (Usbek) a number of times and enjoyed seeing how it is slow cooked in large pots.

We have generally experienced a hot dry climate with temperatures up to 45c in Khiva and then the next day a very comfortable low twenties as a storm came from the desert; but no rain anywhere. As expected, the further north and west we travelled the hotter it became, and we can expect even hotter weather in Turkmenistan

Politics. Islam Karimov has been President since Independence in 1991. Whilst he may be sometimes criticised by the west, the people seem to like him, and particularly, because he has made the country safe, or so people tell us. We met a pretty good cross section of people and I heard no criticism of Russia, except from some Russian hitchhikers. On the train to Samarkand, John George and I conducted a straw poll of 4 Uzbeks in our 6 person compartment; thumbs up for Karimov, Putin, Gorbachev, President Kennedy and the Clintons. Thumbs down for Stalin, the Bushes, and a big boo for Obama. Not scientific but interesting.

One final point; despite my own assumptions, most if not all we spoke to remembered Soviet times with some degree of fondness; everyone had a job, education and medical treatment were free.

All in all, a lovely, fascinating, friendly and safe country, and I do hope to return in the not too distant future.

Monday 22 June 2015

Football wins at the border, by Michael Noyce

The border crossing out of Osh from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan was a five and a half hour nightmare of bureaucracy, patience and frustration. For John George and me, walking through, it was easy compared with the boys with the vehicles. For them there were multiple checks of the cars and paperwork, and even police sniffer dogs.

But it was easier still, for an unexpected reason. After filling out multiple forms we lined up before a customs guy. When our turn came he looked at our passports. "Ah, Orstrala" he says,"Mark Cahill". What's he talking about, we think, but naturally we say "Da" in our very best Russian. His face brightens. Maybe we will be OK. Then he says "Mark, Mark Mark" with a questioning look on his face. Then the penny drops – Soccer – and we are instant experts. A very 'informed' conversation somehow takes place with gesturing, smiles, hand waving and whatever it takes and he waves us through.

If only we could have recalled the Asian Cup played in Australia in January. The Uzbekistan White Wolves held Asian powerhouse Korea to 0-0 for 90 minutes only to go down 2-0 in extra time. He would have thought we were geniuses.

Meanwhile the boys are still waiting and posing before their cars. It's almost 5 hours before they are through.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Samarkand, Then and Now, by Ian Neuss

My first trip to Samarkand was in 1975. I was on the Trans Siberian Railway and taking side trips to various places, all organised by the Russian Intourist agency, and paid for in advance in US$, right down to every meal. You got a book of tickets for breakfast, another for lunch and another for dinner, for every day of my trip.

It was December 1975 and cold all the way. I had been working in Indonesia and had to buy a coat in Japan for the trip. I had flown to Samarkand via Tashkent from Novosibirsk, where I had got off the train. I remember it well as I was met off the plane by a lovely dark haired Uzbek Russian guide, and I was the only one travelling at that time of year.

We went to Tamerlane’s Mausoleum and the local bazaar, and a city tour. I got the state-approved tour. The mausoleum was huge, in a bare area with the famous blue tiles on the roof, but little else. Today it’s been restored, polished, paved and decorated, and there are lots of domestic and foreign tourists plus people everything nearby. I stayed close by in a Soviet hotel, on a floor with a babushka who logged your entry and exit and took your key. After a day tour I think I ditched the guide saying I had a cold (which I did) and would stay in the hotel. I remember roaming about the bazaar and the mausoleum later by myself and being taken underground to see the tomb by local kids. That is not possible today. The bazaar was great and full of locals who all looked like Genghis Khan.

It’s changed today, lots of colourful women selling goods in stalls, much more organised and a greater variety of goods. Everything is new and bright and restored. There are shops full of goods lights everywhere. Cars, taxis, buses and people on the streets, domestic tourists in abundance. Colourful clothes on both sexes, smiling faces, and restaurants full with people enjoying themselves.

Update on the cars. Ian Neuss

The 3 cars were left in warehouse of Kazakhstan - Australia LLC, on the outskirts of Almaty, under the supervision of Sansybai, the warehouse supervisor. Sansybai was like a steel fence and let no one near them for the six months under his care.

We took off the rear wheels and soaked them in linseed oil and turps to try to get the wood to swell and thus tighten the spokes. That went OK but at sometime the linseed solidified and deposited itself on the wheels. We covered the cars, put them on blocks, disconnected the batteries, drained the radiators and hoped they would be there on our return.

And they were, better than ever. We spent a few days cleaning the wheels and putting them back on to drive them into the sun. The Dodge started first go, as all Dodges do. The Whippet had run out of fuel so that took some adjustments and a bit of the copper hammer (Bill’s all-purpose favourite precision tool) before it got going. The wheels and the brakes got the most attention as we were planning to drive back into the hills of Kyrgyzstan. We gave them a good service, grease and oil change, did the points and tightened a few bolts. Overall the cars had fared well on the 12000 kms from Bangkok.

On the trip we have been fortunate to be able to find good places to store the vehicles if we are unable to get them into our hotel. In Samarkand they got to stay in an abandoned hotel and we got to service them next to a pool currently still in use by some enterprising locals. In Bukhara we were allowed to park them in a security car park of a larger hotel. A crowd usually gathers to view the maintenance being carried out.
They have required continuous maintenance on the road. The brakes and the rear wheels of the Dodge are taking a hammering with some of the rough roads, pot holes and steep mountains. They are surviving and the roads are getting flatter, but with more pot holes and the weather getting hotter. They are running very well in the cold morning air but, like their drivers, are starting to gasp and heat up by the time it reaches 40. Cutting the speed drops the car temperature to manageable levels but does little for the drivers. Swims in the irrigation canals help.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

A wallet or a backpack? Michael Noyce

In Uzbekistan you need a backpack rather than a wallet to carry your money. After changing some $US on the black market in Samarkand we could hardly carry the great wads of cash. We were instant millionaires. Later that night we had dinner and the bill came to 195,000 SOM (local currency). We only had 1000 SOM notes, so what do we do? The only thing possible; divide all of our SOM up between us and count out 195,000. It took almost as long as dinner.

The wines of Samarkand, by Michael Noyce

Who would think that grapes have been grown in the mystical city of Samarkand since before the time when Alexander the Great captured the city in 326BC? We enjoyed a delightful hour or so tasting wines in the oldest winery in Samarkand, and they were all pretty good and very drinkable.

The winery dates back to 1868 when Russian Tzarist soldiers captured the city and installed a Russian winemaker. The business is owned by the State and has 35,000 hectares under vine; a hellava lot! Half the grapes are used for the wine with the other half becoming raisins. Most of the wine is exported to Russia. We tasted 12 different wines: reds, one white, fortifieds, almost Muscat or port, two cognacs and something I can't really describe but the others seemed to like it.

The tasting was very well organised. Tasting glasses were already set up when we arrived (photo). The explanation was in Russian which our guide translated. Each glass had about 150ml in it and if we drank all the wine, instead of tasting, we would have been certainly over the limit. Someone asked if anyone ever drinks all the tasting wine and the man replied "Only the Russians"!

A nice finish to another fascinating day.

A night at the Opera, by Michael Noyce

Tashkent is quite a sophisticated city with a vibrant arts scene. There’s a number of concert halls and the lovely Opera House was built by Japanese POWs in WW11 and finished in 1947. The Opera House was being renovated when we were in Tashkent but we were fortunate to see an Opera in the Tashkent Concert Hall. It is a large soviet style white building from the 1970s; very heavy looking and imposing with heaps of marble. Overall, I think the building is actually quite nice, soviet style aside.

We saw an Uzbek version of what we think was something like Madame Butterfly with lots of colour and movement and very enjoyable, even if the dialogue was beyond our comprehension. Like all good love stories, it seemed to us that the heroine got her man. A very enjoyable night with a walk back to the hotel through the wonderful Independence Square and a short metro ride.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

A Black Market tale on the road to Samarkand, Michael Noyce

Despite the clear lesson from the 2014 leg of this journey that, when driving in unknown regions you always fill up with fuel at any opportunity, we left Tashkent at 5.30am for the 320km drive to Samarkand without filling the Toyota with diesel the night before.

After about 100km and many fruitless servo stops we were down to the reserve tank with the needle on empty. We agree by radio that Jon, our guide, would try to find a black market source at the next town, Gulistan. Jon’s estimate of a 5km drive turns into more than double that, with the fuel gauge stuck on empty.

Over a breakfast of lovely warm, fresh bread, honey and fruit, under a tree in a carpark, next to carpet and furniture shops, and adjacent to traffic flying past on a busy 4 lane road, Jon gets on the phone to track down diesel. No luck, until he talks with one of the ubiquitous crowd gathered around the vintage cars. More phone calls and he and the new friend are off by taxi, returning with two full 20 litre cans. The price is pure extortion but what choice do we have? We agree and into the tank it goes.

Then a loud arguments starts, with a growing audience, between our guide and the fuel supplier. Jon claims it’s a rip off, at double the correct price. The blue is interrupted by the intervention of a tall, distinguished looking man who lectures the combatants on the need for hospitality towards guests in their country, especially travellers in trouble, and that there should be no charge at all!
Pretty amazing but we do pay and off we go. The Uzbeks are really nice people.

Fifteen kilometres later we come across a service station selling diesel!

We catch up with the classic cars, where Ian has stripped down to red knickers and taken a swim in an irrigation channel. In the middle of ancient Uzbekistan, a country that did not exist by name when our German ancestors came to Australia. What would our great grandpa Neuss say?

Monday 8 June 2015

Government spying on it's own citizens!

In the team's escape from Kazakhstan, the Fixer used WhatsApp to communicate as he said that emails and phone messages are captured and recorded in Kazakhstan.

Imagine that. What sort of creepy, authoritarian government collects the phone and email records of its own citizens?


Tashkent is a modern soviet city that was almost destroyed in an earthquake in 1966. Following the earthquake and Independence in 1991 the city has undergone a 'building revival' with many lovely buildings throughout. Most buildings are 3-4 stories with few highrise. Our hotel, the Uzbekistan, is an example of the heavy soviet style and there are many other examples in Tashkent including the History Museum.

History Museum

Government Offices

Museum of Fashion (green dome)

By Michael Noyce

A nice drop of red, by Michael Noyce

On our first night in Uzbekistan, at our Farg'ona City hotel, we were celebrating our six hour border crossing ordeal with a bottle or two of nice Italian red wine. Or was it? The label said Classico and then Vini Italia, so it must be Italian. But then we saw lots of Russian writing on the front and back labels. So, we asked our Uzbek guide and he replied "No, this is our wine. It's a joint venture with an Italian company".

The second bottle was just as nice.

Hitchhikers, by Michael Noyce

Crossing from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan we were approached by a group of young backpackers. We actually found space for 5 more adventurers and their luggage. Ian put 3 large backpacks in the Dodge, Bill took 2 young Muscovites in the Whippet and the Toyota had the balance of the luggage and 4 in the backseat including our guide.

Some really interesting young people; 3 from Moscow, 1 from the part of The Ukraine where the fighting is happening and a really sweet 19yo Yakutai from the Republic of Sakha which I learnt is part of Russia in the far north east of Siberia where she said it can get to -80 F in winter. One of the girls from Moscow is a pharmacist, another a Moscow Uni graduate now working with Syrian and Ukrainian refuges, against the wishes of the government and a young man about 28 who was an independent freelance opposition journalist who needed to leave as it was too dangerous for him to stay in Moscow.

Back into the Kyrgyz mountains

The cars rolled out of the Asia Mountain Hotel in Bishkek (highly recommended) on Wednesday 27 May, heading south towards Osh and the Fergana Valley across two mountain ranges. Bill had put a fuel regulator in the Whippet but it still wasn’t pulling properly, using a lot of fuel. Large snow-capped mountains loomed. The Otmok Pass is at 3326m, and it’s not quite Spring in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. We found out last year that Kyrgyzstan, at that altitude, has only 3 seasons and Summer isn’t one of them. We climbed slowly for a few hours through the occasional herd of horses being driven up the high pastures for summer.
At the top of the climb was a tunnel. It was cold and windy so we kept on towards Otmok, suggested to us for overnight accommodation. The trip down the mountain was steeeeep. The Whippet with its hydraulic brakes tears down the hills. The Dodge with its band brakes goes very slowly varying from 1st and 2nd gear to try and keep the brakes cool.
Regardless they were smoking at the bottom and needed some water to put out the fire. The local herders were erecting yurts for the summer in the chilly winds blowing off the snowcaps on either side of the valley. We considered camping. Five of us in a tent might be warm and there were plenty of camping spots available. A No vote.

Otmok village is at a windswept 2700m with a few wooden and brick houses. Ian, Bill and Gerry are veterans of the 2014 leg of the trip. Warm, friendly yurts and homestays had endeared the Kyrgyz people to us then. Michael and John joined the trip in 2015 from Sydney’s North Shore. Outside long drops, no wifi, sharing a room of double bunks and eating what the locals eat came as a shock. Mutton stew (many of us grew up on it), cucumber, great bread and local beer filled us all, except poor John who abstained and wanted to go home. A drop or two of duty-free whiskey and any imagined discomforts faded. The nearby mountain stream provided an alternative melody to the snoring.

The next day dawned bright and chilly, not a cloud to be seen but lots of snow on the high hills and passes and no sign of summer. We started with an easy steady climb in 3rd gear for the Dodge to the Ala-Bel Pass at 3175m followed by the inevitable steep descent. Another slow descent for the Dodge, using each of the three gears, depending on the slope, trying not to use the brakes at all, miles behind the Whippet. Brakes alone would not stop the heavy, well-loaded Dodge, and there are only the occasional safety ramps. So it was a very slow and very steady descent.  We got there safely, into a valley of wildflowers, habitation, honey then fish sellers as the river got wider and the land was less steep.  We reached Toktogul and another homestay (Trip Advisor recommended, $AUS70 for 5 beds and 2 meals) near the huge Toktogul reservoir. Only a few more steep descents until we get to Uzbekistan and hopefully we can forget the brakes till we get to Georgia.

By Mr John McCombe, who alone is responsible for all comments and editorial content of this publication and no one else.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Little Kazak capitalists, by Michael Noyce

It was fascinating walking around the streets in Almaty in Kazakhstan and getting a feel for how a 'market' economy can appear to transform a society. Small businesses are everywhere but not necessarily in a designated area or zone as we might expect in Australia, with all it's often bureaucratic planning controls. 
Shops of all sizes and varieties can be literally anywhere and often on the ground floor of old soviet era residential buildings in lovely tree lined streets, just where you would not expect to see a shop or small business. They just pop up. Even the markets which we were told in soviet times really only sold fruit and vegetables and the like have been transformed. You can now buy pretty well any type of small consumer items and small white goods.

I asked one of our guides if all these little shops were there in soviet times and he replied "Nyet, not possible, now good". He went on to tell how he clearly remembers lining up with his father to buy bread.
So all you little Kazak capitalists, If you want to start a small business; go for it, and reap the benefits, as will your country**.

**  Editors note:  Mr Noyce is an occasional speechwriter for Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey and an economic consultant to developing economies.  

Almaty taxis

The taxi system in Almaty is like an out of control Uber. But it does work. With no really obvious taxis on the streets the first thoughts are "where are the taxis?", "how do I get one?". Pretty easily actually; just stand on the side of the road, hold up your hand as if you were hitch hiking and wait for offers. Of course, it helps to know where you want to go, or at least in our case, to have a hotel card to show.

Pretty well straight away cars will stop, you tell them where you want to go or hold up the hotel card and they will then work out if they are going in that direction and can take you. If not, try again and someone will soon stop who is happy to take you.

Then the price negotiations start. Naturally, the driver is usually higher and you lower but you soon agree on a price and away you go.

There is also a more formal system of booking and the guys on this system seem to be linked by mobile phones.

Taxi can be in all shapes, sizes, models and makes. We have all heard of the legendary Russian LADA and they are still well and truly still around and in a big way. One of the taxis we took was a LADA, 4 of us squeezed in and it came with religious icons on the dashboard. Were these to make the driver safer in sometimes chaotic traffic, or to reassure otherwise uncertain passengers?

Our taxi experiences were generally very good and one of us even took one to the Krygyzstan border and had a terrific history and cultural lesson on the way.

So UBER beware, you may be taking over the taxi world but there is always another system out there that also works just as well, if seemingly uncontrolled. 

By Michael Noyce

Monday 1 June 2015

Escape from Kazakhstan, Part 2. Michael Noyce's version.

Michael adds to Ian's post, describing the drama of the border crossing.

We arrived at the border at midnight. We followed Mr Fixer (a nom de guerre) into the 'cafe' as he said we had to wait an hour. This is good. We’ll be in bed in Bishkek by 2am. Wrong.

A terrific meal in the cafe; chips, chocolate, water and tea. Then Mr F said we should go back to the cars and wait a bit more. The wind is really cold. We 'bed down' in the cars with Mr F in the Toyota with me behind him. About 1am a tap on the window and Mr F jumps out and embraces a very rough looking guy wearing a camouflage cap, Adidas trackies and a tight leather jacket. They talk awhile and Mr F gets back in and I asked him who the guy was and what's happening. He replies "our local contact and all is good; just have to wait".

And wait we do with Mr F away now. At 2.20am Mr F comes back and he brings 4 bags of hot chips and you can imagine; Mr F and Gerry in the front, the cop, still wearing my Gortex, and me in the back, feasting on hot chips. But they tasted pretty good. Then Mr F tells us we need to wait ‘til 4am and then we can cross straight through. And wait we do.

It's 3.45am, the tension is mounting (really). Ian has by now paid the appropriate 'fee for service'. Will we get across or are we being dudded? We are out of the cars, walking around trying to keep warm, too anxious to be tired. Now 3.55am, we get into the cars, start the engines and line up at the car yard entrance behind the Toyota with Mr F outside on the fence holding his phone. 4am, nothing and then at 4.07am Mr F holds up his phone, starts talking and then comes back into the Toyota.

"Let's go" he says and directs us around a few barriers into an outside lane leading up to the checkpoint. The old cars follow and around we go. We stop and he tells me "you get out here. You are not part of the cars and you go through there" pointing to a door for pedestrians which leads into the customs hall. Out I go and the cars move up to the checkpoint. Mr F is with me and we see guys in camouflage uniform checking the cars. The back of the Toyota opens and someone else has a torch and is looking under the car. I ask Mr F "what's going on, what are they trying to find?" He says "don't worry, there are cameras all around. They are inspectors and they must be seen by the cameras to be doing their job".

With those words of reassurance I walk into the customs hall, line up behind about 25 workers or something and after about 20 minutes I am through, past the 3 cars still being processed, into no-mans land, walk about 200 metres and I am in Krygyzstan. And then through their immigration in about 2 minutes. Incredible.

My job now is to find a taxi who will lead the 3 cars to our hotel at Bishkek. In the east towards Kazakastan dawn is starting with just a bit of light emerging. I look back and see no sign of the 2 old cars. I walk through the dark towards where I am told are taxis. I keep calling out "taxi, English, taxi, English" ***. A few guys run out to me but none speak English. How do you explain when you don't speak Russian that you want a taxi for me, to lead 3 cars that are still, I think, to come out of Kazakhstan, to a hotel in Bishkek? Pretty difficult, but with a map showing our hotel and after much gesturing I find someone who thinks he knows what I want and who will travel in the Toyota.

All this has taken about 1/2 hour and I see the cars in the distant 1/2 light coming into Krygyzstan, but they still need to go through their Customs. They get through after about another 1/2 hour. Unbelievable, after all the dramas.

We start the drive to Bishkek with the 2 old cars behind and the 'guide' in the back seat of Toyota. It's getting lighter all the time and we see beautiful snow capped mountains in the distance. Quite lovely. Beautiful Kyrgyzstan.

*** Mr Noyce graduated in a one week course in Russian at Sydney University in January.

Escape from Kazakhstan, Part 1, by Ian Neuss

Escape from Kazakhstan. Sounds like an old Cold War radio serial, doesn't it? "Two Roads to Samarra" with Major G.G.A. Keen of MI5. Except that this is a story from modern day, post-Soviet (though still bureaucratic), free market entrepreneurship.

Kazakhstan is the largest (bigger than all of western Europe) and richest of all the ‘Stans. Caspian Sea oil and gas is behind most of it. They have built a brand new, futuristic capital city, Astana, to replace former capital Almaty, a charming European–style town itself, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and perpetual views of the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains to the south. The Kazakh professional cycling team, Astana, won the 2014 Tour de France, led by Italian Vincenzo Nibali. Forget Borat, Kazakhstan is on the up.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union free markets have flourished. Our Bondi to the Baltic crew experienced some of the effects. Read on.

The plan was to set out from Almaty on Monday 25 May on the 2015 leg of our drive from Bondi to the Baltic. We had arrived a couple of weeks earlier to start clearing the paperwork to drive the cars out of Kazakhstan. We were then planning to take the Toyota for a tour in Kyrgyzstan. Liz Amann’s blog post here (“WAGs on tour in Kyrgyzstan”) tells what happened to that plan.

Back in Almaty the Kazakh authorities weren’t satisfied with our papers. They wanted originals, registration papers, and a TAX FILE number. Our contact man was working on it. Then we were taken to their tax office to PAY a FINE. After a 4 hour wait it was too late, we again didn’t have the right papers, and there was no procedure for payment! Come back tomorrow.

The next day, Gerry’s birthday, after another long wait, we learned it wasn’t possible to pay a fine, instead we would have to pay registration fees, about $20,000 for each car! Their concern is that cheap cars are smuggled in from Kyrgyzstan. Cheap cars!! Horace, my beautiful 1920 Dodge! Bill’s Whippet maybe, but not Horace.

Plan B, it was suggested to us, was to get someone (familiar with the Kyrgyzstan car trade?), to take us to the border and help us across. Plan C was to drive to the border, show our documents and see what happened.

At 4pm we heard that things were in place for us to get across the border at midnight. Plan B. Naturally there was a “considerable cost” for the organisation. Considering that our top speed is 60 km/hr and the border is over 200km away, we bade a quick but emotional farewell to Sansibay who had looked after the cars like a steel wall keeping people out for the last 8 months, and set out through peak hour traffic.

The sun was going down on the beautiful snow capped hills so it was a lovely evening. The Dodge went perfectly, the Whippet not so. Bill took off fuel control so it used all its petrol in 50km instead of 150. Neither was it pulling well, with the timing out. 2014 revisited.

With our very weak headlights we have always avoided driving at night. Even tunnels cause anxiety. We eventually cleared the city, and city lights, and hit cruising speed, 60 kph, among countless buses passing at 100. We had the side curtains on in the wind, further reducing vision but all went well, except for the Whippet running out of fuel and having to call on us every 50km.

We managed to reach the border at midnight and our man went off, with the money, and we waited. “You can cross the border at 4am”. So back to cars in a side park for some rest, as best we could in the cold wind. Tea in the café, with Russian porn films, provided some sustenance. The tea that is.

At 4am things started moving. More stamps, more photos, and copies of documents. You never quite have enough. Our contact did his job, along with the off-duty policeman who rode with us from Almaty, smoothing the way with traffic police who only stopped us once. I doubt they will forget the experience of travelling in the slow moving vintage cars, pushed by buses and in the dark.

We got through the border using 2014 registration papers without a drama. I’ll put the 2015 ones on when I get a chance. Correctness is not a problem, just complete the process. Got to our Bishkek hotel at 6am in time for breakfast. Good hotel, big rooms, parking, clean, and wifi.

Goodbye Kazakhstan.

Motto for the road

Ти́ше е́дешь - да́льше бу́дешь (Tíshe yédesh' - dál'she búdesh')

Roughly translates to: Slow and steady wins, or The slower you go the further you get.