Hookers, hitching, and holidays

Sunday 27 December

Christmas came and went pretty much as it always did – getting pissed up on Christmas Eve and cry-singing Fairytale of New York alone on a street somewhere in Almaty, Kazakhstan, while planting my face on ice.  The hitchhike to India was on a brief hiatus for the festive period.  I’d been venturing to a load of ex-pat bars, which sometimes I can stand and other times I’m just met with a load of middle-aged business wankers who think the sun shines out their collective arses and they know everything about everything.  Thankfully my experience here is more the former, and is nothing like that of Baku.  The same can’t be said about the hookers.

Now most people who know me – and maybe a few who don’t – understand my stance on prostitutes.  Perhaps I’ve mentioned it before:  Never have, never will.  I used to work with them – the desperate end of the game, trying to feed a child, get off heroin and back into society.  I swore I would never pay for it.  Not even so much as a happy ending.  I wouldn’t be my father’s son if I did.  The only times I frequent strip bars is to try and convince beautiful strippers to come with me as I can save them from this insalubrious life.

That last part isn’t strictly true.

HOWEVER.

Recently this staunchly unwavering stance has begun wavering, and there’s a number of reasons why.  A large percentage of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever seen are in this part of the world, and a large percentage are for sale – and it’s not out of desperation or a final straw.  These women actually enjoy it.  Many of them are just adding a bit of extra pocket money.  Some are paying college tuition.  All of them are stunningly beautiful.

Added to that, ever since I began traveling, men of all ages, colours and creeds have been talking about their experiences with ladies of the night, and it has to be said, they make a lot of sense.  It’s no different here.  I’ve been told it’s just a matter of time by wiser men than I.  One friend in particular (a good-looking 51 year old business owner) talks a good game.  He tells me he doesn’t chase girls.  He claims he doesn’t date in the conventional manner of going out drinking, splashing out on dinner, buying a girl this and that, spending wildly in order to take a girl home.  He sits and he does his work, then when he feels horny, out he goes, pays less than $100 for an Aphrodite or two, then goes home to continue working or something equally as productive, and is consequently very successful.  I quote: “I sell my brain, they’re just selling a different part of their bodies.”

Of course maybe there’s something to be said for youth, but you have to admire the simplicity.

Now when I think about the amount of money I’ve “spent on women” it beggars belief.  And by “spent on women” I mean spent entirely on myself at the bar hoping to drink myself attractive.  Oh sure I’ve parted with dollars on the occasional meal/round/flights/all expenses paid weekend away to further my chances of getting lucky, but haven’t we all? A friend once said that if I pursued an acting career as much as I pursued girls I’d be a superstar.  Imagine if I’d put into practice my hostel friend’s logic and just popped off to do the deed, then back to focusing on work?  The amount of time, money, energy and effort I would have saved?!  Not to mention how thankful my lungs and liver would be?!  Think how much Lego I could have built?!

Butter wouldn't melt

Butter wouldn’t melt

So one night my concupiscence is abnormally rabid and I find myself in a hooker bar.   I say a hooker bar, it was just a bar where every girl was a hooker – which is pretty much standard in many places in central Asia.  To be honest the only real reason I was there was the late licence and I can drink until dawn, and get a kick out of ignoring a hot girl’s attention in favour of booze.  Actually I’ve got delusions of grandeur some smoking babe will feel my pain and drag me home for a freebie but, if you’re good at something, never do it for free.  Every goddess in this place has a price.

Now there’s this one leggy femme fatale, schmoozing at my arm, with either a deadly shade of lipstick or a pistol in her purse.  She’s mesmerising in a movie star figure-hugging red dress, with blonde hair and that Slavic look I adore.  An extra from Lord of the Rings.  And no, not an Orc.  Eyes like a wolf, cheekbones like razors, skin like fine China, she’s nursing a coffee and trying to get my attention by swinging her incredible pins suggestively in my direction from the bar stool.  She’s pivoting her (one imagines) perfect arse back and forth, but I’m intent on not being sucked in.  Until I decide to ask her a question.

“Why do you do this?”

She glides over and we fall into a brief conversation, but I can see the glazed expression that comes over her eyes when she realises I’m probably wasting her time.  It’s the same look an actor gives you when not talking about themselves.  Anyway I’m drunk enough to play the “I’m interested” card in order to keep her talking, because I so desperately want to understand more about “them”.  She’s a 23 year old medical student, charging $100 an hour to cover her student fees.  I ask “what would that get me?”  “Anything you want except for anal”, comes the reply.  I take a massive swig of my gin while I weigh up the proposition.  For a first timer, you couldn’t do better.  100 bucks for a ten out of ten, then I could stop boozing and go home.  But at that precise moment a group of excited business men with money to burn bustle in and I lose her.  She knows a real paying customer when she sees one.  Looks matter not.

Since I’m the only guy at the bar, she’s replaced with two of the same calibre who swoop in.  One has breasts I can only dream of, the other looks like Lauren Bacall Mark II.  $200 for the two of them to take me home.  My first ever threesome for less than it would cost me for my usual night of frivolous hedonism, hunting and smashing back liquor.  In the UK at least.  Apparently this is quite expensive for here.

OK, think about one of your heroes Stuart.  What would Charles Bukowski do..?

Something that my father wouldn’t.  And so I up and leave, swaying into the taxi-rank and slurring at a driver to find me “real” girls, only on arrival to once again fend off chicks turning tricks and mainline vodka, while bizarrely being shown a load of baby pictures by a proud new Kazak dad.  Finally I call it a day sometime when there is actually day in the sky, and return for a crying wank in the shower.  Except I can’t get it up, so the whole night would’ve been wasted regardless.

Obviously not all of this is so “glamorous.”  The Dickensian side exists too.  While returning from a night out with a friend in Shymkent, I ask a taxi driver to take me to a sauna.  Now I’m not about to do anything – it’s just out of curiousity.  He leads me to a darkened ally, and a door slightly ajar.  Urging me in, I’m greeted by two old women, who spring up, and hastily make their way through to another room, crone fingers beckoning.  There, on the sofa, are two young girls being ushered and poked awake by elderly hands and voices.   I honestly couldn’t tell you their ages and I didn’t stop to find out.  In that moment I was disgusted by everyone in the room – including myself.  I made my excuses (as always intended) to the driver, using charades to explain that there’s been a mistake and all I wanted was another beer.  I beat a hasty retreat, shuddering in the cold as I left those two poor wretches behind.

Never have, never will.  It still stands.

To sum up dearest readers, in spite of hearing some cogent, persuasive arguments while traveling, I’m not going to give up my resolution just yet.  Plus mum and dad would be turning like tornadoes in their graves if I did and cause an earthquake on the west coast of Scotland.  After having survived already through many parts of the world with the most gorgeous prostitutes (I’m looking at you Colombia) this side of Valhalla, I feel pretty pleased with myself I’m still a hooker virgin.  However my toughest test is yet to come if I make it alive to South East Asia.  They don’t call it Bangkok for nothing.

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Hitchhike to India leg 52: Shymkent to Almaty

Wednesday 23 December

OK so as ever over the festive period I’m way behind on current events.  Here’s the hitch to Almaty before Christmas, and I promise to get up to date soon.  If you’re wondering why there are no pictures (because I know some of you like that) it’s because I’ve left all my camera gear to be picked up later and I’m writing this in Bishkek with a skeletal backpack.  I’m on a holiday from my holiday.  I will add them and re-post sometime in the future.  I also promise tales of prostitution, New Year benders and debauchery.  Patience my young Padawans.

Shymkent was never going to hold me long.  I had one night out with an interesting US dude where we did our best to save each others souls with drams of Macallan, but it was in my best interests to get to Almaty as soon as possible.  This wasn’t going to be easy.  Almaty was some 700 km away, through bad weather and ice and snow on the road.  I also never like hitching in the dark and try to avoid it, so I set my alarm for early morning in the hope of getting off to a good start.

My festive Almaty sign

My festive Almaty sign

Except I’m barely out the door when I realise I’ve royally fucked up already.  At some point I’ve crossed a couple of time zones, and I’ve not changed or checked my mobile.  Consequently it isn’t 8 am by the time I’m in the first hitch spot, but 10 am.  I’ve already lost two hours of daylight and I’m barely out the city.  This does not bode well.

I’m lucky that one of the hostel owners drives me to the first spot though, and before long I’m hiking along an exit highway trying to stay on my feet, aiming for the crest of the hill.  The sun is glorious and shines bright and blinding off the snow, the ice is hard packed and unforgiving, but it’s better than the blizzard I’d anticipated.  If it holds, and if I can make good time, I won’t be in the dark for too long.

Apart from the time-zone blip, I do get off to a good start albeit with the aid of a grubby looking dude in a shitty motor.  But appearances can be deceiving and although he can’t take me far, he transports me to a much better spot, well out of the city, and then offers ME money!  At first I think he’s going back on his word of a free ride, and I’m ready for an argument, but then he’s thrusting a bundle of notes through the window towards my hands.  I politely decline, but I’m walking on air and full of confidence as he skids away.  People here are good.

And it doesn’t stop there.  I’ve barely walked a kilometre on the decent road surface, surrounded by fields and farms, goats and cows, when a young guy in a saloon pulls in.  I’ve already fended off a couple of offers who wanted payment, so I’m not holding out hope yet that someone will take me for free this early into the day.  In my experience it takes a good few cars before someone agrees to no payment.  But at a little after 10 am, I’ve snagged a ride ALL THE WAY to my destination.  For free.  I honestly can’t believe my luck.

Yet it continues.  Although my new companion doesn’t speak a word of English, he takes me to a road side cafe.  Now this kind of place you’d never know existed if you didn’t already.  It’s basically a shack, but once inside, it’s a warm, farmhouse kitchen, and the clientele are insatiably curious.  They’ve never seen the likes of me in their restaurant, and staff come out from the woodwork and in through every door to inspect the stranger.  Women in the kitchen are grafting with rolling pastry, and I’m treated to a delicious meal of beef and…um…something.  Sorry I’ve never been much of a travel foodie – remembering all the names of international grub isn’t easy.  It was just good ok?

The toilets out the back were not.  I’m directed through a stables with various filthy animals baying and mewing, trying not to go arse-over-tit on a combination of snow and poo.  I’m lucky I manage to keep my food down, hacking my guts up with the stench.  Of course my driver friend in the rotten cubicle beside me isn’t phased at all and is chuckling to himself as I emerge with streaming red eyes.  I suppose it’s more good practice for India.

Refreshed, we’re underway in no time and eating up the kilometres.  I’m literally about to attempt a charade for “you’re a good driver” (and he was – best I’ve ridden with in a long time), when we hit black ice and come off the road.

Now I’ve spun off the road once before in Scotland.  I thought I was going off a cliff too but the crash barrier saved me.  In the process I killed a sheep.  But if there’s one thing that the experience taught me is how to corner properly and that ‘turning into a skid’ doesn’t really work.  And it’s no different here.  Once the car decides what it wants to do, it does it, and there is little or nothing you can do about it.  It’s damage limitation.

And so it starts to go as we’re going a little too fast over ice, and there’s the dreaded moment when you realise control has been lost.  Of course this was the first time it’s happened to me with someone else driving, and as a result the fear factor escalates.  Turning into the skid, he over-compensates, and we smash the side of the vehicle into the central crash barrier.  Then we spin 180 facing on-coming traffic, before careening backwards for some distance and at some speed into a ditch.  Eventually we come to a stop. I realise my left hand is squeezing the shit out of his right forearm.

Aside from being a little shaken up, we’re both ok, and it could have been a lot worse.  We’re so lucky there wasn’t another vehicle too close and the road was quiet.  The only other thing to note, is that I was astounded just how many times I can shout the word “fuck” while going backwards into a ditch.  You learn something about yourself when you’re in an accident.  I learned I like to say – “fuck.”

We’re back on the road soon enough but the driver’s side is a mess.  Still, once again we’re (I’m) counting my lucky stars that it’s still roadworthy and drives fine.  Again, that could have been a lot worse.  Yet there’s a deathly silence from the front seats.  A cloud of humiliation descends.   Not that we were talking much before, but there’s a tension in the air purely developed from the embarrassment you can feel from my pilot.  There’s nothing I can do to help him and he’s clearly upset.  I was driving alone when I spun off the road – nobody I knew was there to see me – and I thank heaven for small mercies.  He was clearly falling out with himself.

He manages to explain that he blames tiredness while purchasing red-bulls at the next gas station, and I give him the benefit and buy the story, agreeing eagerly.  “Ahhhh yes that’s what it was aye!”  We’re still a hell of a long way from home, it’s getting dark and in spite of smashing back a couple of energy drinks, there’s still that nervous tension.  When you’ve come off the road once, you’re petrified you’re going to do it again.  As a result, sometimes I’ve freaked out as a passenger when I think the driver is taking the corner too fast – only to realise it’s just me being a massive witless bellend.  But it’s astounding to think I’ve come all this way, through all these countries that can’t drive for shit, and this is the first time an accident has occurred.  I hope that it’s the last.

It’s pitch black soon enough, and we’re just on straight road for what seems like an eternity.  At one point I pass out, but even that doesn’t break the journey up that much.  Of course my driver doesn’t have the luxury, and he presses on.  We arrive on the outskirts of Almaty mid-evening.

Unsure where to take me, I try to explain the word ‘metro’.  Although it’s the same in both Russian and English, it takes another game of charades to convince him.  It’s an Oscar winning turn in pretending to walk underground and get on a “CHOO-CHOO!”  I then make train wheel motions with my arms, and the unmistakable “TUTUDUHDUH-TUTUDUHDUH” noise of the tracks.  It took me an age to figure out how to spell it for inclusion in the story, but by god can I impersonate a train.

We drive down dark streets in the outskirts.  Nothing is looking like a metro station.  Eventually the car pulls up and he makes eating motions with his hands.  I’m then invited into his home, where I’m fed a second time and I meet his wife.  It’s a tiny little place barely fit for one, but they insist I eat and drink my weight in pasta and tea.  His wife joins us for the trip into town.

Take a bow Kazakhstan

Take a bow Kazakhstan

And what a trip it was.  I feel so bad for them with his wife in her dressing gown in the back seat as it takes maybe another hour into the city centre – with a massive traffic jam in the other direction!  The direction they of course have to return.  I feel ashamed, and we gesture and try to break the language barrier again, but soon enough he’s swung the car round, pulls to a stop, points a finger and turns to me:

“METRO!”  He beams.

Sure enough, there’s the welcoming sign of the Almaty metro, and I’m two stops away from home.

It’s certainly times like this that words fail me.  I grasp his hand and shake it almost aggressively, uttering heartfelt thanks in 17-ish languages.  Or just gushing my appreciation anyway I know how.  I’m fighting a glassy eye as I step on the underground and locate my hostel with ease. What a hero.  Only two rides, twelve hours, 737 KM and I’m in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Now let the festivities begin!

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Hitchhike to India leg 51: Tashkent to Shymkent

Monday 21 December

Right balls to this I’m off.  I had originally planned on sticking it out in Tashkent until after New Year, then popping off down to Tajikistan to attempt to hitchhike the Pamir Highway.  I mentioned that place to you before.  You know; avalanches, earthquakes, drug runners, altitude sickness, wolves, sub-zero temperatures and the Taliban?  Well I’d been advised against it, and the fact that I was simply feeling miserable enough being ill, having shocking wifi and meeting TEFL wankers, 15 days visa free in the more developed country of Kazakhstan sounded very appealing.  That and the border was half an hour away, and Christ knows what I would have done in Dushanbe using dial-up.

Shymkent was a lazy 130 km up the road, with most of that being on the Kazak side.  This afforded me a late start and taking a marshrutka to the border, which was so close a hitch would have made me look much more of a cheap bastard than usual.  Granted it’s understandable over long distances, but trying to cadge a free ride when the ride is 20p is taking the piss.  Rammed in a rattling soviet transport with large women on shopping trips and screaming kids, I’m doing my best to entertain one inquisitive child who wants to play my guitar, while simultaneously trying not to fall into the enormous bosoms that surround.  A stern military type with a flat face utterly devoid of humour barks arrival at my stop, and I hand a disintegrating paper note up the chain of passengers to pay the driver, before taking several passengers with me as I clatter out into the cold.

My heart sinks as I approach the border and realise it’s just as chaotic as the autobus.  It’s a foot crossing only, and there’s a throng of people shouting, screaming, pushing and pulling.  A large percentage of people are carrying checkered tarpaulin bags, like the ones you get in Ikea, laden with goods.  I battle through a number of aggressive taxi drivers, and for the love of god I can’t understand why they would think I wanted a taxi when I’m leaving the country.  I eventually force my way to the front of the queue and thrust my passport into the hands of a helmeted guard brandishing a Kalashnikov.

In Uzbekistan customs I run into a little bit of a problem.  Upon entering the country I had to declare how much money I was bringing in, and on exiting how much was going out.  However I was supposed to have kept the stamped sheet from the border back with Turkmenistan.  This I don’t have for some reason and I’m soliciting the wrath of some thirty Uzbeks as I hold up the line.  Eventually I’m escorted to see an officer through a side door.

He speaks enough English to ask a number of questions while I play the dumb tourist card.  I honestly don’t know what’s happened to that bit of paper, but at the rate these guards are just stamping them and throwing them onto a pile, I don’t really understand the need for it.  I’m always wary that declarations of how much cash you have on you at borders are purely a way for the guards to see how much of a “bribe” they could rob you of.  I’ve stretched the truth a few times.

Luckily this guy seems to be in a good mood and he just tells me to fill out a new form, and I’m on my merry way out of the country.  With most of the foot traffic local (in fact I’m clearly the only one out of hundreds of people not from either side of the border) I do feel a little sorry for the raw deal you get from standing behind me at passport control.  This is especially if I’ve somehow manged to wedge myself between a family, as everyone else goes through leaving some poor waif stranded behind while I’m getting the third degree.  Hat off, glasses off, look at the camera, look back at the customs official and have him stare unromantically into your very soul, working out if you’re indeed the owner of this passport or wanted by Interpol.  I’ve thought about giving them a little wink but it might not be the best idea.  Then they leaf through the book for an age examining each stamp and visa in turn, more out of curiosity than bureaucratic necessity.  Finally, devastatingly, moronically, they will bring their little inked rubber power-trip down on a fucking blank page.

Then I lose my shit.

Obviously not in front of the guard, but more a little way off to the left, out of the way of creating any serious international incident.  And obviously not that loud for the exact same reason.  But nonetheless I turn the air blue with profanities as this imbecile with a cap and badge has just voided a blank potential visa page.  With visas taking up a whole page,  I now only have four left, with maybe two or three pages sporting only one stamp each.  The wasted space beggars belief!  I’m incensed!  They’ve got one fucking job! ONE JOB!  Well they’ve probably got to stop drug trafficking and people smuggling too but that’s not your average day is it?  PUT A STAMP IN A SPACE ON A PAGE WITH OTHER STAMPS!  DON’T STAMP A BLANK PAGE!

“BASTARD!”

“I DON’T FUCKING BELIEVE THIS?!”

“HOW CAN YOU BE SO FUCKING DENSE?!”

“YOU MOTHERFU…”

These are phrases I may of may not have uttered in my toned down PG-13 fit of angry border rage.  Folk are rightly watching me like I’m a psychotic weirdo.  Perhaps my outburst is somewhat superfluous, but basically because of such stupidity I can’t reach India unless I get a new passport.

Ahhhh.  And there’s the rub.  I’m going to have to fork out a stack of cash and sit somewhere close to an embassy while the UK government takes its own sweet time to rip me off and send me a new book.  I was going to have to get one anyway but that’s not the point.

There’s no come back for this.  There’s no retribution.  Nothing you can do but scream bloody murder to let off steam and walk away.  You can’t complain.  You can’t yell at the idiot behind the glass because you’ll be in the back of a van in minutes with a cosh bump on your head.  But stamping in the wrong place on a passport can cost the holder a lot of time and money, and when that’s pretty much all you do all day, you surely need to understand this.

To add insult to injury an older guard chances his arm inquiring if I’m carrying dollars and if he can have any of them.  My unflinchingly irate demeanor is enough to tell him he can fuck right off.

I’m heavily fleeced in a money exchange a few feet from the door, mainly because of my inability to count.  I panic, and so by the time I’m holding my sign out to hitch I’m in a stinking mood with light pockets.  An aging, ragged faced Kazak with his wife swing in ahead with their BMW, then angrily skid away kicking mud and snow in my face when I inquired if the ride was for free.  I thought I was going to leave all the crap experience behind in Tashkent.  But then, just when I’m feeling excessively sorry for myself (first world problems), I catch a break.

A window lowers and in Russian I think the driver explains he can take me to the highway.  He wants no payment, and drops me far from the border traffic in a great spot near a gas station.  I’ve been there less than a minute, barely putting out my sign, when I’m picked up by Victor.  Victor can take me all the way to my hostel door.  Things are looking up.

Me and Victor.  Happy he was looking at the road

Me and Victor. Happy he was looking at the road

Victor speaks little English, but somehow the ride rarely falls silent.  He’s a police detective in Taraz, he loves Game of Thrones, and follows Real Madrid.  He’s very interested in meeting other people from other countries, and it’s clear he is passionate about popular culture from around the world.  Occasionally his English extends to only enthusiastically bellowing the famous catchphrases and lines.

“THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE! DA?!”

“FREEEEEDOOOOOOMMMM!”

“JON SNOW ISN’T DEAD DA?”

Although I was pissed he didn’t like Star Wars.

For a couple of hours we drive through ice and snow, but the weather is bright and Victor’s enthusiasm is lifting my spirits.  The sun is a glorious gold in a pale blue sky as he goes out of his way to locate and drop me at my hostel door.  Shaking his hand warmly we part, and in two rides, six hours and 130 km I’m in Shymkent, Kazakhstan.  I finally find a working ATM, fast wifi, good exchange rate and new marker pens to make my hitch signs; all in one place not five minutes from my bed.  You’d be surprised how happy the small things can make you when you’ve been starved of them.  Isn’t it wonderful when things just work?

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A nightmare in Tashkent

Sunday 20 December

As ever during the festive period I’m a little behind, so maybe it’s time (as I know many bloggers do) to employ a skivvy.  Honestly some of these entries takes hours and at the end of it I’m expected to try and promote the damn thing?  You’re all just going to have to wait.  Anyway this is a crap experience I had a few weeks back.

I wasn’t enjoying Tashkent for a number of reasons.  I was sick as a dog (which may or may not have been as a direct result of discovering and frequenting an Irish bar in town, living off communal free eggs in the hostel or just being in Uzbekistan) but nonetheless I had one of the worst nights on record with cold sweats, soaking sheets, hallucinogenic dreams and frequently sneaking into the (western) lady’s toilet do horrific things to Armitage Shanks because there was no way I was standing up for that.  It was like the recent flooding of northern England.

Great hostel, horrible bowels

Great hostel, horrible bowels

I’d also been having a shocker when it came to lifting money.  Visa machines in Tashkent are few and far between – most located in hotel foyers.  But they don’t work.  In the cold and rain, I traipsed all across the city to discover each ATM had broken down.  It was only after the 5th hotel that a manager said they were going to be out of action for days.  You can imagine my discontent.  I managed to make it to the one bank that could provide me with the ability to feed myself, only to discover that I needed to also provide my accommodation registration slip.  Couchsurfing is illegal in Uzbekistan, and everywhere you stay you have to be “registered.”  If you can’t prove where you’ve been living when you exit the country you could be in for a rough ride and a hefty fine.  You can play it fast and loose but I decided not to risk it.  Anyway apparently I needed this slip when lifting money too, but my hostel doesn’t provide it because I’ve not paid for the full stay.  I was ready to go postal.

So back I went on the underground (which incidentally is the number one sight on tripadvisor – that should tell you all you need to know about Tashkent) all the way across town to force the hostel worker to give me the slip so I could lift money.  He got a bit uppity about it, but eventually relented when I started losing the plot a little.  With time running out, the only way I could make the bank would be to take a cab.  Flagging a shared taxi down I thrust the (very clear) map into the hands of the driver, he nods agreement and off we scoot.  The clock is ticking.

But of COURSE he doesn’t know where the fuck he’s going.  Nobody does.  Nobody anywhere in this part of the world can read a map or knows where anything is.  This is no exaggeration for comic effect – they simply can’t understand maps.  You’ll get into a car with them, show them a perfectly clear, professionally produced tourist map, and they will stare at the fucking thing for an eon.  They will stare it is as if they’ve been handed their own death sentence, and if there’s someone else in the vehicle, a discussion will take place for the length of a bible.  Then the driver will nod his head, which you assume means either he or fellow passengers have come to some agreement as to where this mystery location is.  And then, after all of this, he will still stop and ask every Tom, Dick and Harry he drives past for directions, and none of THEM will know where the fucking place is either.  This includes other taxi drivers, street sign makers, people who built the town, urban explorers, the army, the fire service, the paramedics, and the police.

And then comes the real kicker.  I’m jabbing my finger at the location and repeating the place-name “Amir Temur!  Amir Temur!”  Which is a famous square in the city, and within distance of the only bank I can use.  My driver looks like I’ve asked him the square root of infinity.  “Amir Temur! Amir Temur!  Amir Temur!” I repeat in earnest and with increasing urgency, with the bank closing in 5 minutes.  Suddenly the penny drops:

“AAAhhhhh!  Da! Da! Da!  Amir Temur!”

Words, dearest readers, failed me.

I throw the money I’ve borrowed from a former Russian sniper into the driver’s hand and don’t wait for the change, making the bank with moments to spare.  Handing over my documents, I can only lift $300, and its going to cost me a further $10 for the privilege.  In total thanks to the downed visa machines, inept transport and utter stupidity, it’s cost me a full day of running all over a city in shit weather, and 25 bucks expenses.  I’m not a happy bunny.

The final straw comes after I recover from my man flu and (as ever) when I meet a beautiful American girl.  She’s working in one of the embassies here and long story short, we hit it off but I lose her the first night only to find her again randomly another night.  Things are looking up.  She offers to take me home in a taxi, and after a few drinks we depart the club together.  Not a few miles from home, I turn to ask a question, raising my hand to hers.

“DON’T FUCKING TOUCH ME!!”

Such was my astounded incredulity at her scream that when the cab stopped at the next lights without a word I simply got out and walked away.  I think it’s time to leave.

Tashkent you might be better when the sun is shining, your visa machines are working, and women I meet aren’t psychotic, but for now my experience of you leaves a lot to be desired – perceptions echoed – you will notice – by the distinct lack of photos.  I originally planned on spending Christmas and New Year here, but based on recent events, the fact that I can get 15 days visa free in Kazakhstan, and here in the hostel streaming porn is restricted, I’m going to Almaty instead.  Not to end as dull as the weather, I have met some nice English lads driving around central Asia, so a couple of easy hitches could be on the cards.  Perhaps my luck is about to change.

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Hitchhike to India leg 50: Samarkand to Tashkent and other stuff

Friday 11 December

It’s cold.  The skies are drab and grey, and the wind is whipping through empty streets.  Streets that are thrust into darkness come half past four, presumably to save money on the leccy bill.  Uzbekistan feels like someone forgot to turn on the lights.  I’m sure in summer the sweeping silk road sunsets capture the imagination of Arabian nights and caravansaries, but in December in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it’s one long duvet month.  And for the most part, that is where you’ll find me.

Silk road sun.  It was the last time I saw it

Silk road sun. It was the last time I saw it

I force myself through the motions to do the tourist thing, but for all its hype, Samarkand doesn’t grab me like Bukhara did.  Yes it’s beautiful and it has its charm, and maybe it’s the aforementioned dullness that’s taking the shine off, but I just don’t see it.  Entrance to all the Mosques and sights require a tourist tax, and I decide to save my money and take some hurried shots, before attempting to get warm, alone in my freezing orphanage dorm room.  I resolve to move on post, post-haste.

Even the buildings are cold

Even the buildings are cold

Traveling for four years you’re always going to spend winter somewhere, and I don’t think the season does anywhere any favours – except for maybe Vienna.  Vienna was the only city I’ve visited that suits winter.  It wears it like a crisp, regal gown of frost white, warming you with mulled wine and charming you into bed even though you promised you wouldn’t cheat on Budapest.  It isn’t Uzbekistan’s fault I’m here under cloudy skies, and the icy wind takes my bones with it as I hike to find a hitching spot to get to the capital.

Taxi dodging

Taxi dodging

And yet if there’s one thing the climate can’t change, it’s the warmth of the people.  Fending off the usual local taxi chancers with “besplatno? Besplatno?!” (for free?!), I eventually hit the jack-pot, and the soul reason this leg of the hitch was so easy.  An English-speaking dentist and his companion agree to take me all the way to Tashkent, stopping only to feed me delicious food in a roadside cafe.  One ride, five hours 305 km.  Simples.

And so as Christmas fast approaches I’m in a comfortable hostel planning my next move.  As it stands I’m going to ride out the festive period and hit up Tajikistan early in the new year.  My plan?  To attempt to hitchhike the Pamir highway.  The 2nd highest road in the world.  Altitude sickness, earthquakes, avalanches, five cars a day if you’re lucky, wolves, opium runners, freezing temperatures and the Taliban.  Difficult in summer, suicidal in winter – and that’s exactly the reason I want to attempt it.

But right now I’m going to brew a pot of tea, fire up a game of online chess, sneak into the ladies so I can finally sit down on a western toilet, and warm my bare feet on the heated bathroom floors.

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