Bit of an easy start this morning as we decided not to do the museum or silk factory tours, preferring instead to have a lie-in and later departure. Breakfast was served by the same delightfully friendly crew who looked after us so well during dinner last night and we set off at 1000 for the border crossing to country number 6 on our mammoth journey, Kyrgyzstan. We stopped for an early lunch at Andijon, birthplace of Babur, the kahn who settled in India and started the Mogul era, before heading off for the remaining few kilometres of our journey.
When approaching the Uzbek check point, one normally has to unload everything from your car, transfer it to a waiting taxi, drive to the next check-point, pay for the privilege, and unload everything again. Trusty Rusty (I just made that up and quite like it), played his ADB card, smiled congenially at the guard, produced all of his 'I'm a tourist guide paperwork' and sweet-talked the policeman into letting us drive to the next check-point a few kilometres down the road. We're not sure if any money changed hands as we were told to remain in the car. The military presence was, understandably, quite strong here but we got to the gate without incident, said goodbye to our new friend and unloaded our bags.
The guard checked our passports and visas and waved us forward so we gave Rusty a heartfelt farewell, even receiving a couple of Uzbek male cheek kisses in the process, and began to load ourselves with our worldly possessions when a Russian couple who had been waiting at the gate spoke to Rusty and gave him a form. 'Can you hand this to the guy in glasses when you get there?' he asked me. 'What is it' I quizzed, not knowing what on earth was going on. 'Just a medical insurance form, give it to the guy in glasses' he replied. I took the form, stuck it in my pocket and Maria and I headed 100m or so down the muddy track to border control departures.
I arrived to find 2 uniformed officials; one a policeman and the other a soldier. Neither of them were wearing glasses. w***, I thought. Who the hell am I supposed to give this Russian form saying goodness knows what to? 'I am an English spy seeking defection to the glorious East' went through my mind as I viewed the photocopied paper completed in Cyrillic scrawl! I went outside to see if I could communicate with the Russians who'd given it to me but the guard asked where I was going so I promptly went back in to the check point.
Despite being the only ones there, travel for Uzbek and Kyrg nationals between the countries has been stopped, it took 45 minutes to process us. We had to transfer the arrivals paperwork details from the English forms it took so long to find at the airport to Russian ones , in duplicate, using pen. We'd also taken out some US dollars in Samarkand so had to amend the currency section of the forms. Rusty had assured us that the money would be no problem if we were up front about it.
All was seemingly going well, albeit slowly, when the official spotted the 'financial irregularity'. Pointing at the different amounts inserted at the money declaration part of the form on the one filled out at Uzbekistan arrivals and the amended figure on the new forms he looked at me and demanded 'money, where is money'. I took out my wallet and handed it to him, expecting to get it back a few bucks lighter. He counted the dollars and confirmed it agreed with the amount on the new form. He then went through every single credit card holder, pocket and photo holder to make sure I hadn't secreted away thousands of pounds worth of Uzbek Sum, no mean feat considering that $20 worth is about 10 feet high! He gave me my wallet, and all of my money, then wanted to know why I had more money now than when I entered the country. Fortunately, I kept the ATM receipt proving the bank withdrawal and, after scrutinising it thoroughly, and me playing charades by miming taking out money using my Visa Debit card, he nodded and asked if he could staple it to the forms. 'No problem, no problem' I readily agreed.
Next to Maria's paperwork. She conscientiously annotated £10 and 1 Jordanian Dinar for money that was still hanging around, as well as the USD that she'd also taken out of the ATM. The official gave us both a chunk of chocolate, which was very nice, curiously looked at the Dinar and £10 note. 'What's this' he asked. '£10 British pounds' replied Maria. 'English Money, GBP' she added. He continued looking quizzically at the picture of the Queen. 'Sterling', he said. 'Yes, Sterling, GBP' she replied again. The light bulb was clearly incandescent now as he nodded his approval, quickly went through Maria's wallet, stamped her forms and handed back her money without even counting it!
During this encounter, another man of unknown nationality had entered the checkpoint and emptied the contents of his pockets on the desk. Wallet, money, lighter, packet of cigarettes. The official interrupted dealing with Maria, asked the man a few questions then set him on his way, minus the packet of cigarettes!
Still conscious that I had this unknown form in my pocket I managed to SMS Rusty asking him what I needed to do with it. The reply telling me to hand it in on the Kyrg side reassured me that I was not about to sentence them both to life in a Syberian labour camp by handing the form over to the wrong side so I went outside to pass on the good news. I could still see them standing 100m away at the first check point so I waved, gave them the thumbs up and motioned that I was going to hand the form in on the other side of the border crossing. They seemed to understand as they just kept motioning me forwards, ie not yet, not yet. I went back inside and a few minutes later a medic in a white lab coat asked me for the form, which I gave him. Pleased as punch I then went back outside to pass on the good news. I first thought about taking a declaration form, waving it at them then throwing it away and making 'no problem' motions with my hands but thought that it was probably too easy for the mime to be misinterpreted. Instead, I just pointed to my empty pockets, gave them lots of thumbs up and goodbye waves and went back to Maria to continue to the Kyrg checkpoint. I have no idea if they're still there waiting, wondering if I dobbed them in!!
The next checkpoint was another 100m or so along a muddy path but once there the formalities took no time at all and we were soon ushered on our way. Maria immediately tried to walk back from where we had come before the guard pointed her in the right direction ie Kyrgyzstan and not Uzbekistan. We left the building and walked another 50m until we finally arrived at our new destination.
Our guide, Ulan, and driver were waiting for us so off we set for our home stay in Osh. Some good news for us at last. Ulan told us that there had been so much heavy rain last night that a power transformer had been taken out meaning that we would have no electricity at the home stay; he had checked us into a hotel instead. He also told us that there had been a small earthquake in Osh this morning too. So much for the good news!
We checked in to a massive suite, sorted ourselves out with complimentary tea and set off at 1500 to the local market. Ulan arrived at 1600; Kyrgyzstan is one hour ahead of Uzbekisan!
Before heading out we asked Ulan if it would be possible to repair Maria's years old rucksack that was tearing at the top zip. I explained that I wanted it patched from inside with a suitably sturdy piece of material and, after a lengthy discussion involving all of the hotel staff, they took it away to see what could be done.
The local market was really no different from all the rest we have seen so far, with respect to the goods being sold at least. The people, however, are markedly different and despite the fact that we are only about 30km from Uzbekistan, the locals here look decidedly more Mongol. They are, though, equally as friendly and accommodating as their brethren across the border.
A quick look at an Orthodox church that was gutted for renovation, and the icons therein that were in safe storage whilst said work was ongoing, then we were lead to a typically Soviet memorial garden with statues of large fists in bronze. Across the road was a large square, with incredibly wide roads, complete with a huge bronze statue of Lenin, with outstretched arm, and the country's second largest Kyrgyzstan flag. The largest is flying in Bishkek up north. Ulam pointed out Solomon's Throne, a rock formation on the distant mountain side and site of tomorrow morning's tour.
Dinner was a very pleasant affair and it was interesting to note the different take on things between guides. We had been told in Uzbekistan that everyone loved and admired their leader who was wise, gave people freedom and was doing great things for the country. 'Everybody loves him', we were told. Now, a mere stone's throw away, we were being told how much of a tyrant he is and that the country Uzbekistan was ruled by fear, not least because in 2005 some 2000 citizens in the Fergana Valley were allegedly shot, their bodies never to be seen again! Moreover, the Uzbek President also allegedly announced publicly that anyone found enquiring about missing relatives would meet the same fate!!
We got 'home' to find the rucksack waiting and on inspection we found that they had decided to replace the ripped section instead of reinforcing it by adding some backing fabric. The job looked pretty competent and the material was sensibly chosen as it has plenty of give in it and it seems hard wearing. My only concern is that they have in fact weakened the whole bag now by introducing the potential for 3 additional rip points instead of the existing one. Time will tell if it holds up!
News Flash! Osh is the very same place that is home to the recent violence resulting from ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek groups and has resulted in the deaths of at least 45 people. It seems our timing was spot on to avoid the dreadful violence.