Dangerous drives, dodgy coppers, devil dogs and dead goat polo

Sunday 20 March

With the Chinese government being the capricious bastards that they are, there was little else to do but go off exploring this beautiful country, so partner in crime Alex and I loaded the wagon to trek part of the roof of the world to Kyrgyzstan’s second city.  620 KM away and taking TEN HOURS to get there – we set off on our road trip to Osh.

Car advert

Car advert

Accompanying us on this perilous journey is none other than Margot – ankle biting scourge of the Krygyz, feared near and far by the heartiest of men, the hammer of Central Asia.  No bigger than a mutated rat, this harmless pooch nonetheless instills the deepest dread in all who cross her path, so much so that it’s getting utterly hilarious.  You see dogs aren’t kept as pets here.  Nobody has a dog.  So when you take little Margot out for a trundle, I’ve seen large, grown men literally leap to get out of her way, yelping with fright.  Girls have heart attacks if they catch sight of her as she nonchalantly skips past, unaware of the distress she’s causing.  I’ve watched boys ten yards ahead spy the K9 catastrophe and run and hide behind a tree until she’s a safe distance away.  They are mortally terrified of a tiny little thing with four legs.

Margot - scaring the shit out of locals since 2014

Margot – scaring the shit out of locals since 2014

Yet not so a bigger thing with four legs.  Finally I’m lucky enough to catch a game of Kok-boru, a violently aggressive team sport played on horseback, and certainly one you won’t find at the Olympics anytime soon.  Two teams of five players battle to drag a goat carcass into the opposing teams goal, with few rules to say how you manage to do it.  Players punch and kick their opponents, riding horses hard, with the beasts seen to mount each other in the ensuing melee.  Not surprisingly both rider and horse fall regularly, in a chaotic free-for-all dance kicking up dirt and dust, blood sweat and tears.  The carcass itself weighs around 20 kg (apparently filled with rocks).

Goats wanted.  Apply within

Goats wanted. Apply within

Going for goal

Going for goal

Utter chaos

Utter chaos

Meaning “blue wolf” in the Kyrgyz language, Kok-boru has its roots somewhere with shepherds chasing ravenous lupines from their helpless flocks.  It’s been played for centuries in pretty much every Central Asian country, with top players hailing from countries like Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, where it goes by the name of Buzkashi (literally “goat dragging” in Persian).  Players are significantly weathered, with hands like tree roots often sporting more than a few missing fingers.  Games can last for days, and the festivities also include wrestling, arm wrestling, and chasing women on horseback to get a kiss.  With barely a member of the fairer sex in sight, it’s basically a day of men proving how fucking hard they are.

Until they meet Margot…

As entertaining as the sports are, it appears Alex and myself are something of an attraction too.  We’re in a backwater town called Kara Kol around halfway between Bishkek and Osh, through the stunningly beautiful Naryn river valley, and it’s impossible to escape the attentions of the locals.  We stick out like sore thumbs regardless of our cameras and killer mutt, and to be perfectly honest it grows a little uncomfortable.  In particular this can be said for yours truly, who, obviously partnering Alex, is expecting any minute to be challenged to some kind of brawl for her affections.  At one point indeed I feel the “playful” bounce of small stones hitting my back, accompanied by a gaggle of giggling.  Mounted Kok-boru players awaiting their game stare inquisitively, grimy faces accentuate gold teeth flashing in the sunlight, while Alex has no fear in snapping portraits candidly and stealing souls.  That’s because she’s not the one going to get pounded into the dirt in a murderous show of testosterone.  I’ll take anyone in a thumb war.

Men

Men

Also taking an interest are the police.  Or “cunts” as I like to call them.  This is one of the three main reasons I do miss the UK, as apart from our health and postal service, our police are the best in the world.  Of course my parents met in the force, so I use the word “cunts” specifically for those corrupt badges that seem to darken law enforcement all over the world.  Not least here in former Soviet states, where it’s an art form to avoid getting stopped by them.  Alex has already been collared for barely doing a tickle over the speed limit, and here again we’re hauled in front of some uniformed jobsworth to be given a grilling.  Lucky enough these guys are just curious more than anything else – but it’s the slimy, lazy ass traffic cops  you’ve got to watch out for.  They linger at the side of a road waving a fluorescent traffic stick like it’s a mini lightsaber or an extension of their cock.  Swinging it willy nilly and pointing at random, drivers have to pull over and pay a fine regardless of the offence.  There’s no regulation, rhyme or reason – it’s just a cop cash machine.

The stunning drive

The stunning drive

On our return trip, I’m caught (well under the speed limit) and the officer shows me a still camera image of our car way back in the distance apparently doing 78 in a 60 zone.  I was not a whisker over 55.  Lying, cheating, scheming, chancing, dirty, filthy, corrupt fucking cunts.  We stick hard to our guns this time however and he backs down, the two of us shaking our heads in utter disgust.  Alex speaks to his commanding officer in her fluent Russian, and I’m just incredulously grinning and repeating “Nyet!” into the face of the scumbag that pulled me over.  We get lucky this time though, as more often than not you don’t have leg to stand on however right you are.  This is the way of life for people here – you just accept it, pay the fine, take it up the arse, and maintain the status quo.  The powers that be rub their hands in glee.

Breathtaking

Breathtaking

Police abuse aside, the road to Osh is just beautiful and is a pleasure to drive, and cannot be spoiled by the occasional arsehole try as they might.  It winds through rocky canyon and gorge, with rolling hills, brilliant snowfields, stunning turquoise rivers, epic vistas and cows.  Oh the cows.  Dodging them becomes as difficult as dodging the police.  But the ever changing backdrop of incredible scenery is more than enough to make up for it.  From mountain to glen, snow to grass, sea to shining…no wait…we’re landlocked.   Anyway it’s like being on another planet, and it’s gorgeous.

Another gorgeous vista

Another gorgeous vista

Osh, much like Bishkek, is nothing to write home about.  The Kyrgyz don’t do cities well – they are people from the wilds of the steppe.  They are people that use the horse as their ally and nature their comrade, and concrete and cars are not so competent.  Seriously – nobody here can drive for shit.  This is mainly due to the fact that they buy their licence – AND – they can’t drive for shit.  After having driven on the most dangerous roads in the world in Iran, I’m semi used to the lawlessness here.  But much like Tehran – inner city driving isn’t for the faint of heart.

Dodgy Osh museum taxidermy

Dodgy Osh museum taxidermy

We visit a dodgy museum situated in “Solomon’s Throne”, Osh’s overlooking mountain that they’re pretty proud of.  it includes a rocky outcrop shaped like a pregnant woman that superstitious local ladies come to slide down to improve fertility.  The museum itself contains some outstandingly bad taxidermy my sister would adore.  Margot terrorises residents once again, and we attend an interesting evening of karaoke, singing along to midi backing tracks that sound like a 2 year old playing their ‘my-first-keyboard’ they got for Christmas in 1985.  We don’t sound much better while drinking a bottle of red at 6 in the morning.

Osh mosque

Osh mosque

Our adventure winds down with being the first to stay in a wonderful new guest-house one night, followed by roughing it on the way home in the back of the motor on a windswept hillside as we could drive no further.  Driving at night is also extremely dangerous – and the reason for this might surprise you as much as it did me – it’s because they don’t have cats eyes.  Trying to see the road without reflectors is a nightmare – especially snaking through steep passes with hairpin turns and sheer drops into blackness.  As fun and educational as our adventure is, it was with a sigh of relief when I turned the engine off after pulling into home.  It’s lovely to go, but it’s wonderful to return.  And it’s astounding to return alive.  Although I can’t say the same for my hair, as somewhere in the interim I’ve allowed a Kyrgyz village barber to shave it for less than 70 cents.

This is a dreadful mistake

This is a dreadful mistake

Alex doesn't know I'm throttling Margot behind her

Alex doesn’t know I’m throttling Margot behind her

Safe and tucked up in familiar surroundings with nearest and dearest is a comforting feeling, and the memories of our adventure will live long.  But solo adventures must continue, and continue they shall.  Yet at the time of writing, China still isn’t issuing visas to anyone crossing land borders and you can get bent if you think I’m flying.  If the situation doesn’t change in the next few weeks, I’m going to have to punt for plan B.  Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I wonder what their roads are like this time of year…?

Please enjoy the pictures from our adventures below dear readers, including more Kok-Boru madness, and shots from the remote village of Arslanbob.  We will talk again soon.

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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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