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24th May – 2nd June 2011: Tashkent visa stop and drinking with The Belgium

August 15, 2011
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Visas were the name of the game for our excursion to Tashkent, meaning we were prepared to sacrifice the road once again and bundle all our gear onto a very early departing train from Samarkand. Uzbek trains are not equipped to take substantial luggage, particularly bicycles, which proved a pain when dealing with the unhappy train staff who didn’t want us clogging up the gangways, but there was little option. With three bikes successfully crammed into three separate carraiges, we were on our way, politely refusing the half hearted attempt of a bribe demand from one of the attendants for the bikes.

We arrived in Tashkent around midday, and set about finding a hotel. There were few options. Tashkent isn’t much of a tourist destination as such; its more of a transport hub for tourists to the other sites of the country, therefore cheap hotels were very few and far between. We spent the whole day trying to negotiate a decent deal in a homestay, and nearly took up the offer of free use of an empty flat by a guy on the street who heard of our predicament – but the fear of no registration and danger with the police forced us to concede defeat to a rather expensive and poorly located homestay on the edge of town.

Our mission was Chinese and Indian visas – first port of call would be the Chinese Embassy, through apprehension that it may not be so easy to obtain the visa. In actual fact it was a doddle – next day collection for an express fee of $100. Its expensive, but we had little option, as they would retain our passports for the duration of the process, making a longer application impossible if we were to make the other visas in the coming week.

Indian visa was straightforward aswell – the console looked at us kindly as we were Brits (his attitude to Uzbeks was less than helpful however – one woman was point blank refused a visa because her father was dead and she wasn’t married – not so easy for women in India it seems) and our application would take four days, and we could hold on to our passports. So far so good – next stop was the Tajik Embassy to try and negotiate a GBAO permit for cycling in the Pamirs – again we were given preferential treatment and put to the front of the queue, and had the permits in the passports in one day, free of charge aswell (mostly down to our blagging credentials). By the weekend it was time to relax, as all applications were either complete or in process.

We spent thenext 4 or 5 days a the Tashkent Aqua Park, getting bad scrape marks on the rather poorly constructed slides, and stealing wifi from the Grand Mir five star hotel, aswell as negotiating trying to draw out dollars from two of the only international ATM’s in central Asia.

We moved to a new hotel, which was actually inside the Tashkent Central station. Here we met Ciryl and his girlfriend, two French hitchhikers who had hitched all the way from France, and Quentin, Gibet, Emmerique, Francois and Gautier, the Belgian drinking troop.

We had met the Belgians briefly before in Bokhara, and I got on really well with them as they were all architects. It was our great surprise when we were woken early in the morning in the train station hotel by a cacphone of loud singing drunks rumbling wildly in the corridor – having just come back from a rather large night in Tashkent, hanging out with prositutes and horny call girls, before getting in a taxi to Fergana valley and leaving Quentin to head to the Kyrgyz embassy drunk out of his mind to apply for a visa.

Upon their return we all united at the Tashkent Plov Centre (which is what it sounds, a giant building dedicated to Plov) which was where we met two British cyclists Margo and Ben heading to Iran. I offered to donate to them my Iran Lonely Planet, so we agreed to meet at VM Bar (The Belgians favourite haunt) that night for a beer and to hand over the book, and also to see off the Belgians, as it was their last night before heading back to Brussels. It would also be our last night, with all visas successfully in our passports, we had booked a train for early the next morning. Maybe a big night out was not a good idea, but it was hard to refuse the Belgians.

The night was a wild one – we were the last to leave the club, with large amounts of very cheap vodka flowing far too freely and bad singing to Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park – seemingly very popular in Tashkent. We got back to the hotel with an hour to spare before our train, and 3 hours before the Belgian’s flight. Gibet drunkenly agreed to swap shoes with Julian, leaving him with a nice spanky new pair of vans and a drunk Gibet to contend with a hangover in a stinky, decrepit and tattered pair of sneakers. Bad move on his part!

We planned ahead, and packed before we went out. It was to no avail however, as the idea of a cheeky 20 minute snooze turned into 4 hours, meaning we missed our train by a substantial amount. We managed to rebook for later that day, but we were starting to generate some real pressure on the visa – 5 days to cycle 500km over mountains, starting on a hangover. We used the rest of the day to recover and gingerly got on the train that evening, arriving back in Samarkand exhausted and beaten, late at night trying to negotiate our way out of the city and find somewhere to camp, which is no easy feat in Uzbekistan. Anything would do in that state, and we ended up pitching rather exposed next to a warehouse on a concrete driveway just outside the city at 2am, and got our heads down for 4 hours of hot, intermittent sleep.

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