Thursday 16 July 2015

Final (pre-Russia) words from Michael Noyce

Now that I am back in Sydney and with the old cars presently driving through Russia I have been reflecting on the wonderful memories when traveling from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Tbilisi in Georgia.

But where to start; probably with the blog about our journey through Uzbekistan as in many ways that blog captured so much of what we experienced generally; wonderful food, people and scenery, great history, 'interesting' border crossings, the black markets and so much more.

For one with no mechanical ability or understanding, the old cars continued to amaze me. Two punctures for the Dodge (plus one for the Toyota) and continuous 'servicing' for the Whippet seemed to me to be the only so called problems, although work was being done on the cars when I left Tbilisi. Ian seemed to tweak the Dodge quite regularly and a DHL package from Perth with something to do with the Whippet's clutch unsuccessfully chased Bill from one city and country to another. The ingenuity of Ian and Bill to maintain the cars really was fascinating; not just to me but to many of the locals we met.

Most of the scenery was quite spectacular. We saw the extremes of the beautiful towering snow capped mountains in Kyrgyzstan to the featureless desert when driving the 450km between Bukhara and Khiva in Uzbekistan. The starkness of the brown, rock like landscape around the ancient pilgrim site of Paraw Bibi in western Turkmenistan was very interesting as was the very extensive irrigation of the cotton growing areas. The 'fantasy' city of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan with his white marble buildings, wide multi lane avenues, fascinating public buildings and monuments was almost too much to believe. But we saw the city and it was most certainly real and in many ways, beautiful and unforgettable. In Georgia we stayed at the beautiful hilltop town of Sighnaghi that looked out over the Georgian farmland, over 500 metres below. Surely this lovely town is the equal to many of the better known Italian hill towns. More importantly, the Georgian wine was as nice as a good Tuscan red.

At our stops we often met fellow travelers which was a surprise to me as I had previously thought that travel through the areas was too difficult for most. Not so it seems. We came across a number of Australians undertaking similar travels but in more modern vehicles. One couple from Sydney had been on the road for four years and shipped a Toyota Land Cruiser to England and were taking their time driving home. We were stopped at a checkpoint in Uzbekistan one day when a guy rode up on a motorcycle, put his head in the Toyota window and introduced himself. He was Pete from Victoria and was riding to Germany. We ran into him again a week later in an ancient mosque in Khiva. In Turkmenistan we met a number of people riding motorcycles all decked out with extra fuel tanks, big panniers, extra wheels and more. Because of the up to 50c heat, these folk would start out about 4am each day, ride to about 10am and then rest during the heat of the day.

John George and I were invited to an Uzbek wedding in Samarkand attended by about 800 people. The grandeur, extravagance, movement and color was quite spectacular and the music and entertainment continued basically without a break throughout the night. There were male and female singers, bands, huge audio visual displays with the music being a blend of Arab style music, rap dancing music, straight out western pop stuff and much more. All very loud but enjoyable and with more food and vodka than was possible to consume. Where was the red wine?

Border crossings were were both a joy as when entering Georgia to extreme frustration when entering most other countries which really did challenge our patience. But the crossings were without exception a great photo opportunity with the old cars for the many officials loitering around. It was funny when we were exiting Azerbaijan in the Toyota. Just before entering Georgia a soldier stopped us, checked our passports (the 4th such check) and then said "Cigarettes". Naturally we said "Nyet". He then pointed at some hand sanitizer on the consul, moved his hands together and then rubbed his face. He held out his hands for some which I sprayed on his hands, whereupon he proceeded to rub the liquid all over his face and around his eyes. He thought it was moisturizer and we made a quick escape into the sanctuary of Georgia immigration before his eyes stung and the guy realized he had been 'had'.

The soviet era and the Stalin purges and victims are well known and are a matter of history. But to speak to people whose families were personally affected bought this history alive. In Turkmenistan we heard of families forced to flee by the soviets into Afghanistan. An example was the family of our guide who 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 and the family escaped to Afghanistan. The grandfather of Nick our guide in Bishkek was shot by the Russians because he was one of the intellectual leaders and there is a statute of Nick's grandfather in a park.

As I was about to check out of the hotel in Tbilisi on the way back to Sydney Ian introduced me to a man who was going to help with some work on the old cars. We had a fascinating few minutes together and he told me about his grandfather who was executed on the orders of Stalin. But more than just any old order. Stalin actually signed the order and the grandson recently found the signed order in the KGB archives. The man's crime was that he was 'an agent of the west'. His real crime was that he was one of Georgia's so called 'intelligentsia' which in Stalin's mind were a threat.

Very few people have the opportunity to cross the Caspian Sea on a railway freight ship. We did and what an experience. We slept in a tiny cabin with 3 double wooden bunks, ate the crew's 'food' in the crew's mess, wandered the decks looking at the freight cars loaded with sulfur and building materials, gazed across the sea at the massive oil rigs and passing ships. We were certainly fascinated and somewhat bewildered as the huge 154 metre long ship backed slowly into its berth at the new port of Alat, some 75km south of Baku where we thought we would be berthing.

The whole journey was an eye opener for me, but perhaps the most surprising was Turkmenistan. We had been warned about 'little North Korea", however, that was not really our experience. The 'Stans are full of history and Turkmenistan is no exception. The history there is amazing from the recently discovered Bronze Age city of Gonur Depe, the ancient city of Merv, the un-excavated mounds on the sides of many roads, the more modern history of the czarist and soviet eras, the earthquake destroyed and rebuilt Ashgabat and so much more. And we were in a broad sense following the footsteps of such names as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. In 2017 the Asia Indoor Games will be held in Ashgabat and we saw lots of infrastructure including new roads being built. It's nice that Australia will be participating.

And so concluded a most wonderful journey of unforgettable experiences in diverse and historical areas. Perhaps almost the last word should come from one of my fellow adventurers who said that ".....everyone has been friendly and helpful. Isn't it amazing that the people are just like everyone else?"

Yes, travel certainly broadens the mind.

Michael Noyce

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