Dealing with Delhi

Traveling across Europe into central Asia, we thought, would be a gradual adjustment in terms of cultural differences, road traffic conditions, food etc. and I guess that’s been the case. But, arriving in Delhi has been a whole new ball game. From the start, in the shuttle from the airport, we were dicing with death. Our driver must be on a reward for fast delivery, as on the crowded road he weaves for side to side, our battered Suzuki micro van was rolling alarmingly; Clare’s bike box threatening to fly off the roofrack. Vehicles weave across the road trying to fill the smallest of gaps in the blocked solid traffic. Bicycles, scooters and motor bikes (women usually side saddle on the back), a selection of motor vehicles, all palm wedged on the horn, accelerate in every direction regardless of any perceivable traffic regulations such as, travel in the direction of the traffic or pavements for pedestrians. Certainly, the ‘Look left, look right , look left again, use your eyes and ears before you use your feet’ applies on both sides of a dual-carriageway as much as anywhere else.

 

Stark evidence of poverty is very present in the city. There are not only beggars, as in many countries, but also shanty towns along the streets just off main highways together with debris piled high. Loads of people bedding down in the street (where do they go during monsoon?). Dirt and litter is almost everywhere.

There are so many warnings in the media, on tourist/hotel notices, and in guide books about the ingenuity of Indian people to rob, one way or another, unsuspecting tourists that it has made us uncomfortable talking to the locals, especially when we recognize some of the opening gambits or stock phrases such as, ‘I don’t want any money but …’ or ‘I just want to practise my English …’ . After a week we knew the pick up points and phrases but still got gulled a couple of times; not so badly though, as these fellows were just trying to steer us into their favoured establishments.  An auto-rickshaw driver (tally: 3 ok, 1 maniac) told us that some of the big tourist shops reward drivers with a 1L fuel voucher (about $0.70) for each tourist delivered.

The general atmosphere is one of hectic bustle and over crowdedness. If there is a space someone or something will fill it rapidly. Amusingly, dogs have cracked the system. Whilst we’ve already seen a starving horse who had a broken or deformed leg and just enough flesh to stretch over it’s bone structure, the dogs look fine and seem to find a safe place to hangout or kip. Cows roam about, apparently eating garbage. Some folk keep a few goats. In Delhi, ox carts aren’t uncommon; later in more open country, horses were preferred. A few donkeys seem to be used for riding or carrying loads. But small motorbikes and scooters dominate the transport sector, at least, numerically.

This is good fun…

http://m.driving-tests.in/learners-licence-practice-test-3/

I got 26 out of 30, a pass. But some of the questions seem a bit unrelated to real road practices here.

Delhi has been a place of many firsts:

-first time we’ve seen oxen pulling carts in the centre of a city,

-first time we’ve had to call reception to get our water heater turned on for a shower,

-first time I’ve watched people washing their clothes on the ground in the streets (a few had bowls most didn’t),

-first time I’ve seen ladders up to dwellings on the first and second floors above shops,

-first time I’ve watched a man tapping off the drips in one of the many recessed ‘toilets’ along the streets, which leave an ever present stink of urine,

-first time I’ve watched a man spit three metres out onto the street (I wonder what the world record is?),

-first time I’ve seen so many electric cables draped along outside of the buildings and spewing out of a sub station.

Gradually we have got used to the chaotic nature of Delhi. Like chrysalis slowly emerging from our hotel room, we have now been out and about seeing the sights and still have all limbs intact, despite a few close shaves.

Cycling out of Delhi still fills us with fear and trepidation. To conquer this one we took a cycle tour of old Delhi – their bikes, our helmets and gloves. A definite plus was that I lowered the saddle so that I could comfortably touch the ground. A real plus when constantly stopping in the many tight, crowded situations. The tour itself was fantastic. We frequently ‘whizzed’ along streets and passages wiggling in and out of traffic, people and other obstacles, initially waking people from their slumbers. Nerves of steel were required for the ‘Russian roulette’  or ‘balletic’ interactions between traffic. We soon cracked the rapidly repeating bell manoeuvre to add to the constant cacophony. The main tip, though, was “start at dawn”. And later on, going out of Delhi, it worked well.

At times, modern sky scrapers graced the sky while at ground level they seemed precariously close to the decay, detritus and dirt of the old town, despite, we were told, that the government having cleaned up the area by removing the slums.

Our tour took us round the back streets, starting with a visit to Jama Masjid, on to Delhi’s traditional bread making industry, next to a lofty view of both the Shah Jahan’s wife’s mosque and the spice center of the world, inside a Sis Ganj Sihk Temple, further on to one of the four remaining city gates and a number of other notable land marks and sights. All jigsawed in and around a four kilometre radius.

Deteriorating pockets of ornate architecture amidst the hotch-potch of cables, crumbling brickwork, faded signs, patched repairs, mark, we were told, India’s rich heritage and are left over from the Mugal society, dating back to 1857 or earlier.

Under our own guidance, and mostly in search of cash (India’s government having just invalidated all the currency over about $1 value, causing something of a nationwide crisis), we visited Connaught Place and other parts of New Delhi, built towards the end of the British period, and travelled on the shiny new metro out to some new malls, at Noida, to get some bike parts at the big Decathlon store (note to other cycle-tourists: Don’t expect much in terms of spares, we took the only 9 speed chain).

Bye bye Bishkek, Farewell Central Asia

Tomorrow morning we fly to India. Here’s a final mini-blog for Bishkek.

At the AtHouse

Where we’ve been so wonderfully put up, and put up with. And met so many other travellers.

Between the snowfalls

With today’s and yesterday’s snow

That’s 16th and 17th November, for posterity.

By Bus Around Lake Issy Kul

Sight seeing is fairly limited in Bishkek: a few statues, the tourist shop, the square, the goose step guards who are currently ‘off’ due to the building being under repair, and the bazaar. We’d done the lot, with many visits to the bazaar and needed another diversion.  Ysyk-Kol Lake did the trick: not too far away, public transport so it’s cheap, a nature reserve and local holiday spot.  Angie, our hostess at the AtHouse, sorted out our first nights accommodation; a second outing for Nathan’s old rucksack and we we’re off.

Tamara, our hostess at Tamga, booked her ‘cowboy’; we were all set for a morning’s horse ride. 10 she said and the deed was done.  At 10 we we’re ready: togged up, breakfasted up, camera sorted or so we thought. 10 came and went. Tamar’s cowboy couldn’t find his horses.  Once he arrived it was easy to see why as they must have been deeply submerged in a briar patch. Both manes and tails were matted to a lump with burs.  The ubiquitous padded sleeping mats came in handy again as they we’re draped over the saddles for our comfort and under the wooden runners to protect the horse.  Plaited string reins were given, together with the usual instructions: left, right, stop & fast ahead with the use of a birch twig whip, and we were off. The first hiccup occurred as our horses headed off the track, down a small bank into a stream for a drink. Eider, our guide, already had the measure of our riding skills coming quickly across to chivvy the horses back on track. My horse was keen to be the leader of the pack. It frequently broke into a trot and occasionally a canter, much to my alarm,  to make sure it’s nose was ahead. Gid was less fortunate and had the opposite problem, it wouldn’t budge. Eider soon sorted the problem. Along we went; down steep banks, across mountain streams, along mountain side sheep trails, all of which I would have baulked at on foot, until we reached an open meadow where Eider eagerly suggested we could canter. I firmly declined the offer. I’d grown quite fond of my saddle and didn’t wish to part with it.
It was a superb day, not a cloud in the sky, and a light dusting of snow visible on the sharp-edged mountains behind the foothills we climb. The dusty track rose straight from the village, up the valley. It wiggled and dipped through scrubby, hilly, grassland and a few streams. About ten times we saw a vehicle lurch up the bigger track up the valley. We greeted a couple of farmers. The two dogs were annoying; otherwise, outside the village it was just us.
We ambled back down, once I’d managed to convince my horse we weren’t going to canter for home the whole way. That was until a rare occasion when we’d dropped behind and watched three dogs aggressively worrying the two horses ahead; one hanging off the tail of Eider’s horse. It didn’t seem such a bad idea when my beast took flight and delivered me some 30 metres up the track to the front of our group again, with Eider brandishing his whip at the dogs as I flew by.

Fairytale Canyon

Barskoon Valley Waterfall

Around Tamga

Moving on from Tamga was entertaining in itself. Tamara had warned us that the bus timetable was approximate, not deterring an ambitious driver from speeding away early despite the bus having a schedule. True enough, 15 mins early we were chased up the road by the bus that did a quick flit round and was off again.
Being already full didn’t deter a further four of us piling on. I  was given a seat as usual, with Kyrgyz politeness showing deference to age. On this occasion it may have been the short straw. Gid clung to the single roof rail in a throng of people who surged forward when someone want to depart, until one burst out, whereupon, a ripple of people retreated in a backwash. I was perched on an upturned metal, bottle crate; one leg slowly going numb. My face was approximately at arse height as I sat amongst the throng. One pair of legs squeezed mine in a pincer gripe as I tried to casually glance away. Gradually, as we passed through the villages, space became available. I moved to a comfy seat to admire my former perch and truly admire the view.  My admiration sank as a man near us repeatedly rasped up a mouthful of spit ready to gob. Inhibited, perhaps, by the enclosed space the final deed was unfinished, much to our relief.

Karakol Valley – Walk up to the Ski Resort

Karakol Museum

Karakol Animal Market

The animal market, Angie from the AtHouse in Bishkek had said, was quite a spectacle. The biggest in the region the Lonely Planet guide claims.  For once we were in the right place at the right time. I woke at 5:50 my internal alarm well tuned in and was instantly absorbed by thoughts of the animal market. Early in the morning, all over by 10 were phrases ringing in my head.

I got a groan or two out of Gid, who mentioned something about 01:30 bed time;  6am wasn’t going to happen for him.  I lay there trying to content myself with thoughts such as; we’d seen animals at Kumtepa Bazaar in Margilon so presumably it would be similar but bigger.  We’d also seen herds of animals spilling out onto the dual carriageway way-back-when so I had conjured up something in the middle: loads of wild fowl, loads of herds and maybe a pen or two like our now discontinued sheep fair, in Sussex. But my thoughts were running wild.  I’m here, I’m awake, my only chance.

I bounded out of bed and shortly after was ready to leave. Our windowless room gave no hint of the pitch black outside. Gid, now awake, agreed to come and let me out.  Through one locked door, on to the next, but the final door was locked and we couldn’t find the key. Our efforts had woken the receptionist who came to investigate.  By now Gid was fully sort of awake and agreed to join me.  The receptionist phoned a taxi, a whole 70 som, to save us the 30min walk.

I became apprehensive sitting in the taxi waiting for Gid. I’d dragged him out and it was still pitch black.  What on earth would we be able to see?  Nearing the venue the roads were becoming more and more  blocked by lorries whose loads were nowhere to be seen.

Spilling out of the taxi into the dark, we followed the throng; many people had torches but ours were tucked up in bags at the hostel.  Most people were leading small flocks of sheep, the odd single one or cows, through copious amounts of ‘mud’.  All were either lining the edge of the road together with the vehicles or squeezing along it.  We went with the flow bearing left into a large opening stuffed full of cows and horses.  As there was barely anywhere to stand we tried to tuck in at the edge, finding a couple of rocks raised us up to get a better view.  Traffic passed backwards and forwards; all squeezing through.  The occasional beast refusing to budge. The huge area was absolutely filled.  As the sun rose the spectacle opened out before us; deals started to take place, animals were inspected and some exchanged hands.

Cholpon-Ata

Petroglyph park dated 8th century BC – 5th century AD

From the bus on the homeward journey

I shall miss the ‘Stans’ as we move on into India. I have grown quite fond of the vast plains dotted with numerous herds of horses, cows, sheep & goats as they mooch across from one side to the other in search of a mouthful to eat. Especially here where the plains span right across to the foothills of the snow capped mountains. Herdsmen, frequently on horseback grace the scene. Their former nomadic lifestyle is evident with ‘sheep’s people’ high up on the mountains together with the occasional sight of a yurt.
Passing along the lakeside highway idly admiring the view, with vast expanses of golden ‘fields’ has been delightful. Hay stacks piled high in gardens nestling between fruit trees, on roof tops or jammed up beside the house. The houses, no frills, working machinery sits amid the ancient relics,  museum piece tractors splutter along with over filled trailers, donkeys dwarfed as they trudge along with the last of the seasons crops. All add to the atmosphere that for me captures rural Kyrgyzstan.

 

Pamirs Take Two – Gideon’s Pictures

As explained in the previous post, we took too many pictures on our Pamir trip to fit in one post. So the previous post has the Pamir text and Clare’s pictures. This post separates out Gideon’s pictures.

Best Shots

Phone Snaps

This little collection shows some of the character of the trip, but doesn’t quite measure up to the quality standards we’d like to set. There’s a limit to time when shooting from a moving car, especially on bumpy roads. But thanks to both drivers for keeping the windows clean!

Road Trip

Mountain Textures

Landscape

Around Town

The Pamirs by Toyota Land Cruiser

The Pamirs, a highway across the ‘roof tops’ of the world, a dream destination for well ‘ard cyclists that had been on my wish list since Gid gave me a 501 must do trips book for Christmas 2013 and there, together with the Karakorum Highway, it was. Then he gave me the Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook for Christmas 2014 – was there a plot?

We took far too many pictures! The area is both photogenic and varied, and, we had loads of time for photography. Even half of our pics is blog-bursting, slow to edit and view. So all the pictures below are Clare’s. Gid will make a separate posting for his photos.

I had nurtured my dream, but Gid was more in touch with reality and had realised we wouldn’t be able to do it quite early on in our trip.   Something to do with my groaning and state of depression when faced with endless mountains.  I had kept on trying to convince myself that I would miraculously: shed half the weight on my bike, toughen up both mentally and physically, and fit large mountain bike tyres to cope with the dirt road conditions, by the time we reached Dushanbe.  Not to mention the further difficulties such as the likelihood that there would be snow and very few places to get drink, food or shelter along the way. The advice, also, was to take two to three weeks to acclimatize before attempting any strenuous exercise at high altitudes and time was running out.
As mentioned in an earlier blog, we went to visit the CBT office to see what was on offer as a possible excursion around the Bishkek area having been told that the Pamirs were off the cards – this is Kyrgyzstan, they wouldn’t be organising or promoting trips in Tajikistan.  A three day hunting trip with eagles was very attractive, well, to me at least, but nothing really hit the spot so I thought I’d drop the Pamirs into the conversation.  At that point there was no looking back. Eye wateringly expensive with just two of us in a 4×4, it could all be organised from Bishkek.  At least we already had Tajikistan visas…
A flurry of activity ended up with us in a shared taxi – 11 hrs, two snow covered passes and numerous dodgy overtaking manoeuvres later we were in Osh, the starting point for the Pamirs from the eastern end.
In Osh we met Baktir, our driver, who made us very comfortable from the start. His broken English was enough to make some conversation and he ablely informed us of the sights and some historical information 0nroute .   Equally, he readily stopped for us to visit and take photos at major sites, and whenever we asked, although we frequently snapped away as we went along.  It was only when snaking down a mountain road into the Wakhan Valley with Baktir peering out across his left shoulder that I started to panic about cliff edges.
The central plateau of the Eastern Pamirs is classified as desert due to the lack of rain. Temperatures, Baktir told us, can drop as low as -40/50C but generally it will only snow in January or February – true enough it was brown mud/rock mountains unlike the snow covered passes and mountains we’d seen earlier, especially north of Osh.  This didn’t stop the ‘sheeps people’ who live in the mountains and have permits to cross into China to access ‘pastures’ for their sheep and goats, from being there.  Together with the ‘sheeps people’ were the yak people.  Some yaks wandering freely; others were vaguely linked to a village while some, miles from anywhere, were with a herdsman. Cattle, chickens, horses and donkeys also roamed freely or at times with a herdsman. Sometimes the herdsman was on foot, sometimes on a horse, sometimes on his mobile. The prized Marco Polo wild sheep, although occasionally near the road side we were told, where nowhere to be seen.  This, to me, wasn’t surprising; despite being a listed endangered species they are still hunted in the area by wealthy tourists – and probably hungry locals.
The Pamir area is huge, but has a tiny population. Down in the deep river valleys on the Afgan border,  the climate is mild; grain, vegetables and fruit all grow, as well as keeping livestock. These areas looked more prosperous, although large numbers of working age men at the roadside testified to a significant employment problem. Up on the higher plains everything looks much worse, and indeed, Murghab is about the poorest place in Tajikistan, which is itself a very poor country. Wikipedia’s Tajikistan entry is not up to date but reported, in droughty 2015, imminent famine conditions in the Murghab area.  This would have greatly  affected the population of 4,000; probably the largest town in the eastern Pamirs.

Murghab

Our route was a bit of a whistle stop tour, Osh – Karakul, Murghab, Langar, Khorog, Murghab, Osh.

Wakhan Valley

There were many highlights along the trip.  The numerous snow covered mountains were truly breath taking but for me the sight of a caravan, all be it of horses, was truly awesome.  As always, yesterday, we were later told,  it had been 15 camels.  But, we were close enough to chat across the River Panj to the Afghan riders who were on their way down the river to sell produce at a bazaar.

Way Home

Baktir decided his Land Cruiser need a wheel bearing fixed before it moved from Khorog. But guess what – his cousin Kusbai has a Land Cruiser too.

 

The Fergana valley

Ferghana is a watered, fertile and temperate valley in this dry and mountainous region. It’s been the centre of ancient empires, and fought over many times. Now it is mostly part of Uzbekistan, spilling into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with very complex borders that don’t match the (mostly old Soviet) road and rail networks. Until a month before, travelling from Tashkent into the Ferghana Valley meant going via Tajikistan, which involves two border crossings and significant wasted time – and for the round trip we’d needed a double entry Tajik visa and a triple entry on our Uzbek!  But only three weeks before we embarked, a new rail line was opened, which stays entirely on Uzbek territory, albeit pretty winding, and thus slow, for a significant part. The carriages were new, and by UK standards, extremely roomy and comfortable. One suspects a UK operator would put twice as many seats in the space, and charge at least double. The line was built with Chinese help, and includes a substantial tunnel. Which we never saw. Because, it’s secret! As the train approaches it, the staff draw the curtains, and then, one stands at each end of the carriage to ensure nobody peeps. Goodness knows what they keep in there – the world’s only plov mine, perhaps? Anyway, it does translate to a splendidly attentive train crew for the rest of the journey.

Margilon, being roughly in the centre of the valley, was a great place from which to explored by bus and shared taxi, with Al Cave, another travelling retired teacher from the UK.

Yodgorlik  silk factory Margilon – Clare

 Yodgorlik  silk factory Margilon – Gideon

 

Rishton ceramics museum

Where the clay is so pure that they only need to add water before putting it on the potters wheel.

_ctf3020

 

Kumtepa Bazaar, Margilon

Kokand / Qo’qon – Khan’s Palace

And, in case anyone thinks the entire Ferghana Valley is only full of old things, here’s a photo of downtown Ferghana itself:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Aral Sea, or rather Not the Aral Sea

Sorry folks: This posting from the beginning of our time in Uzbekistan is published out of order, after some ‘later’ ones. We went on this taxi trip during a rest day at Kungrad.

Kungrad (also transliterated as Kongirot/Qo‘ng‘irot, all of which seem an improvement on an old name of Zheleznodorozhny) is not a major, or even minor, tourist town, but for a road traveller entering Uzbekistan from the west, it’s the first town of any size (see end of the last posting).

This western area of Uzbekistan is also known as Karakalpakstan, which in some senses can be regarded as a different country, with its own language, Karakalpakstani. We realised, too late to take much of a photo, it has its own hats, too – giant fuzzy wool ones, making the wearer resemble Michael Jackson circa 1975, if not usually so cute. As discussed in earlier postings from Georgia or Azerbaijan, in this part of the world there’s a complex overlap, or often difference, between the citizenship of the states, and the identity of individuals. There’s significantly more edge to being, for example, a Tajik in Uzbekistan (thus an Uzbekistani, but not an Uzbek), than being, say, a Scot in England, assuming you can work out who is such (Sorry Nicola). We were told by one local that Kyrgyz and Tajiks can be distinguished by nose size, and it is true that in the four ‘stans we visited, one can roughly distinguish different numerically dominant facial types. But just in case this doesn’t work, each ethnicity has its own hat as well.

Kungrad is about the nearest place on the main west-east road to the Aral Sea. The owner of the place where we stayed was happy to arrange a taxi excursion to Muynak, previously a significant port on the Aral Sea, now a desert town. To actually set toe in the remains of the sea involves a much longer road trip, substantially off road (If I remember correctly), we couldn’t face the hours in a car to see not much, so we settled for Muynak.

It’s rather a sad place, as you might expect. The town has helpfully lined up the abandoned hulks near the war memorial.


After Kungrad, we cycled on to Nukus, capital of Karakalpakstan. It has one tourist attraction – an outstanding modern art gallery. Where, naturally, we didn’t take pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

A night to remember

Our one month visa in Uzbekistan was always going to be stretched. We were both very aware of the blue tiled silk route cities that adorn the country with spectacular minarets, domes and madrassas which have to be high on any tourists agenda but throw in yurt camps in off the beaten track desert areas and Margilon, the centre of silk production in Asia, plus days lost with travellers tummy, it was looking pretty impossible. The obvious answer was to short cut the cycling to get us quickly from one place to another. It feels like cheating; we’re on a bike trip and want to be able to hold our heads up, once we get home, and say, ‘Yes, we cycled’.
We’d spoken a few times about catching a train across the desert between Khiva and Bukhara but we hadn’t booked a ticket. Dropping further behind our travel itinerary due to tummy problems, and wanting to avoid staying in teahouses for the same reason, we decided, after a day cycling, to try hitching the remaining 100km to Bukhara. We put our thumbs out as we coasted to a stop: The very first truck picked us up. We had to ride into town to a pre-chosen hostel in the dark, but that was a small price to pay for a day saved.
On leaving Bukhara, we decided to cycle out of town and once again hitch, but our luck had run out. Having wasted several hours waving a thumb around at various locations over about 70km, we cut our loses & diverted to the next train station. The train left at 2115 leaving us a couple of hours to munch some supper and fret over our 0130 arrival time in Samarkand. The station policeman was very helpful both while buying the ticket and by assigning us a platform helper.
As the train ground to a halt we sped along the now gravel ‘platform’ to the designated carriage. The train guard immediately started ranting along the lines of: no space, too big, won’t fit, but our platform helper was quite insistent –  yes, the bikes were coming. Some further gesticulating resulted in them being quickly stripped and shoved up the steps all but blocking everybody’s passage. Bags followed. Gid & I, plus other passengers, we’re still on the platform as the train started to pull away with a grinding of metal on metal. Some 20 odd carriages from the driver, the outburst of protestations had no impact.  A mad scramble ensued: the platform helper off, a throng of people on, as I was anxiously climbing the steps & looking back for Gid.
We’d boarded on carriage 5, our cabin was in 3. As the train rumbled on we made our way along; pigeon steps, straps caught, doors swung, passengers waiting.
We finally reached our cabin eager to dump the bags. Tucking them under the bed was obvious except there was no under the bed. Once all in we stacked them up as best we could. Thankfully, the other passenger was traveling empty handed and the fourth bed wasn’t taken yet.
Settling down, having made the bed, the peace was shattered as the train guard was back, once again, gesticulating wildly.  ‘Bikes, bikes. Move the bikes’. He had to be joking! There was nowhere to move them to. Not only did they have to be moved but they had to be moved NOW!  He wasn’t prepared to wait for Gid who had popped out for a pee break. Back I went to carriage 5 in a state of disbelief.  Where did he think I was going to put them? There was barely room for two people to pass along the passageway and now we had to leave our bikes outside our cabin. Even this guard didn’t suggest we should get them in it.
With the train rolling, people in the corridor, flapping metal doors, intersections between carriageways and bikes swerving – barely maneuverable around the tight corners – it was quite some task. Once outside our cabin the guard flapped his hand suggesting we took them to the next carriageway access point. They blocked most of the space and limited the use of the connecting door. More wild gesticulations, ‘Can’t I fold them!’ Nope.
Violent jerking on the four hour journey resulted in a tangled heap of bikes, but thankfully nothing broken.
As we approached our station it all started again – move the bikes. They were at the wrong doorway. But this guard was perfectly friendly and kept trying to reassure us that there’d be plenty of time to disembark.
Finally, we left the platform, with the staff wheeling my bike across the tracks. Once through the gates we were greeted by a huddle of taxi drivers eager to take us to poor unsuspecting hoteliers, even at this unearthly hour.  Encouraged by this we made our way to our chosen hostel. The metal doors were firmly locked but rattled outlandishly against the still of the night. The bleary eyed proprietor opened up, the expression on his face said it all. One brief flicker of forgiveness flashed across his face with the words, ‘2 nights?’.

All Aboard

Deciding early on we didn’t like the hassle of Turkmenistan’s visas and conditions, left us the route options of a northern route via Russia, or taking the “ferry” from Baku, Azerbaijan to Aktau (Aqtau), Kazakhstan. The “ferry” is not arranged like a scheduled public ferry, it’s more that tourists can have spare space on a rail/truck shuttle. That was what we chose.
Cycle touring blogs abound with tales of the hassle, faff, and hardship involved. A lot of it is probably due to language issues and Soviet approach to service: Although most individuals are helpful, the system isn’t. The operators publish no user information, so the web is full of garbled advice, from everyone’s individual experience, but perhaps too often folk assume their example shows what the system is, when really it’s quite variable and ad-hoc. So here’s our experience:
Following online advice, we went to find the Baku ticket office. The directions on welovemountains were helpful, although Baku changes fast and the last bit differed: the rough road and grey tatty building are gone. The new port entrance is smart. To the left of it, the port’s electricity substation is stone or marble clad and lettered in gold. Right and just inside the port entrance barrier (and its helpful guard) is an old shipping container, painted white and turned into the ticket kiosk. The recommended lady, Vika, inside from 11am on our days, does indeed speak English. So far so good.
It took me a while to fully grasp what Vika was saying: “Call tomorrow to find out if there’s a ship tomorrow. Yes, on the same day. We open at 11am. The ship will go from Alat, 80km away.” So depending on sailing time, it may be impossible or a terrible scramble to actually catch the boat.
I asked, “Can we only buy tickets here”: Answer, “Yes, here”. It sounds clear, but three English lads in a car bought theirs in Alat, so clearly incorrect. Probably Vika didn’t get the “only”. Or meant that she didn’t sell anything but tickets (my bad English!). But I believed it, so with a day or two in hand, we checked out travel options to Alat:
Cycle: Allow 6 hours, dual carriageway, not too hilly. Ok if getting to port at 6pm is acceptible. Actually, on the day, it pissed down, so just as well we didn’t.
Coach: Station is about an hour’s crap ride from the ticket office. Bus ticket sales staff not able to help, I couldn’t find timetable. Not even sure if a full size coach goes that way. Small coaches can’t take bikes.
Bus: Service 195 apparently, from 20-ci. But getting bikes on buses is not easy.
Minibus: (from coach station, services for Sabirabad). No fixed schedule or tickets, drivers helpful about the bikes “no problem”. Probably best cheap option, but cycling cross town, then waiting for it to go could make it little faster than riding.
Train: English no use at train station, couldn’t even get times. Staff told us bikes not allowed on Azeri trains, although other Azeris say that’s not true.
Taxi: Almost all are saloons & can’t carry bikes. We wandered about the day before until we saw a big estate taxi, flagged it down and got a number. Got the hotel to call driver, agree a price and times. This worked well, and was quick, although at the end there was a disagreement about the fare. No idea if genuine or if driver was trying it on. We took responsibility for the last stage of navigating, driver wasn’t familiar with Alat Port.
Anyway, next day at 11, I call, and wooooo, there’s a ship: Be at Alat at 17:00. Rushed over to ticket office with both passports (needed), and cash. Prices were quoted in USD, but Vika said we could be paid in Manat or USD. $110 each, bike free, including cabin, bedding, food. I took Manat, using the typical exchange rate, and had a pleasant surprise that the exchange rate used worked out significantly cheaper. There was some delay finding the cashier person, but really it was smooth enough.  I did, however, get entangled in Baku’s one-way system on the way home. Anyway, we got tickets for Merkuri 1.
Again advice was confusing, we saw stuff online that cars and trucks can be loaded at Baku, whereas rail and foot passengers board at Alat, or occasionally vice versa. We boarded at Alat, where we cycled on, via vehicle ramp, noting the presence of rail tracks from inside the port onto the boat, so they could have loaded rail cars. But in fact we were followed by trucks, and finally a Ford Fiesta containing three English lads, Ivor, Martin, Andy on a post college jolly. I suspect that, as the entire fleet has the same dimensions, any of them can load anything at either port, but perhaps they don’t mix road and rail cargoes – another ship alongside was filling up with railcars. I don’t think trucks were part of these ship’s or docks original design, as the artics and dolly towers alike all had to reverse off.
The whole paperwork and loading process, both our personal bit and the whole ship, was way slower than a European car ferry. We’d been told to arrive 17:00 and were early, waited to be called up about 17:15, and were on-board about 18:15, bikes tucked in a corner before loading trucks. The three lads in a car, waiting before us, boarded last, car filling last gap, after 21:00 when the canteen had closed. Actual departure was about 22:30.
On boarding, and lashing down, we carried all our bags up (groan) to our room, including the heavy provisions we’d bought for the journey, after terrible online warnings about the food.
There’s no announcements on ship, but it’s easy enough to stroll along to the bridge and ask the current plan. I was originally told we’d dock about 22:30 (having departed almost exactly 24 hours before). But at 22:00 we heard the anchor going down, and I strolled f’ward to be told it’d be the morning (the dock was occupied). That was good for us – a comfy bed for the night, instead of dumped ashore at midnight. In fact it was about midday when we docked. And the crew were correct in predicting about an hour for Kazakhstan customs. All passengers had to leave the ship (and bulky luggage), do the paperwork (ok), reembark, and roll off. Customs then did a moderately thorough search, and in my case, had a go on the bike. I guess we were rolling by about 13:30. In our case just into Aqtau, to stock up for the long empty roads of Western Kazakhstan.
As for the ferry and voyage, it was fine, nothing matching the dreadful online reports. The sea was calm. Merkuri 1 was showing her 31 years, but everything important worked. The 2 bed cabin was rather tatty, but spacious, with an opening porthole, shower (sometimes hot, sometimes not), desk, loads of storage, and really comfy new mattresses. The 3 meals a day were basic but ok. It took me a while to find it, but there was always cay available. There didn’t seem any way to spend money on the ship, except for using phone data while near land.
Clare was violently ill in the first night. It must’ve been food poisoning.  But the timing makes it difficult to pin it on the ship’s cook. Just as likely to be the dodgy supermarket sausage sandwich she had while we waited to board. However we did thereafter both avoid the salad at mealtimes, as raw, unpeeled, fruit is generally a known risk.
Crew were friendly and helpful, but mostly without English. But in a fix, make for the bridge – I guess English is mandatory for marine VHF on international waters. Special mention for the stewardess who bangs on the doors at mealtimes, actually she more or less dragged us out of the cabin to the dining room. Below, she is putting out the laundry.
Other passengers mostly Turkish truckers, all friendly, the 3 English, and 3 folk from Aqtau, 2 ladies and a little pickle, who was spoilt rotten by everyone. I’m sure P&O wouldn’t have been keen on the round-the-ship-chase, climbing the mast at night, and steering-the-ship-even-though-you-can’t-see-over-the-console (tho’ I suspect the autopilot was on).
So yes, we had to be a bit flexible on timing, but apart from needlessly rushing from ticket sale in Baku, and Clare’s tummy, it was a walk in the park.
We celebrated passing this milestone with a dip in the Caspian (much cleaner looking in Aqtau than in downwind Baku). As it started to patter with rain.
img_0408

Baku

Baku was a curious place. Rural Azerbaijan was a very natural feeling synthesis of what we’d seen in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia, plus more apparently rich people, and a tendency to build ornate walls around scruffy areas. Baku was thus, writ large.
We came into Baku on a big busy highway, amongst increasingly smart, and large, cars & SUVs, generally driven quite soberly. They and the trucks must have been newish, too, as the air quality wasn’t so bad for a city. Buildings got smarter and newer, until in the centre, it felt very developed. There were gleaning new public buildings, malls, loads of swanky shops, and innumerable little phone shops. There were gleaming limousines, a Bentley showroom, and in the car park also serving the hotel, I spotted two cars fitted with the pricey option of the Valeo Surround View system I used to work on: Never seen so many in Europe!
We spent an unnecessarily long time in Baku, because we took a while to be ready to buy our ferry tickets. There were things to see and do, but to a lesser extent than Tbilisi. Here we are seeing and doing old Baku: