Saturday, August 14, 2010

Turkmenistan or Bust

This trip started some nine years ago, when I first got it into my head to go to the five former Soviet Republic Central Asian countries. The 'Stans. The idea was to land in Turkey, go overland through the Caucausus, take the rustbucket ferry across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, loop around Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrghyzstan to Kazakhstan, and out through China, ending up around the world and back home.

Only problem was that you can't go through Turkmenistan without prepaying a tour and having a guide with you the whole way. Yes, you can do it with a transit visa, but for that you'd have to go to the Turkmenistan embassy in a neighboring country and wait up to two weeks while they processed it. And at the time they didn't even have an embassy in Baku.

So I gave up in '04 and just went to Turkey and the Caucausus. But every year I've kept re-examining the situation, looking for some way to get around the damn Turkmenistan problem. And it always ended up being intractably impossible. So this year I finally cried 'uncle' and contacted a Canadian guy in Kazakhstan who specializes in 'tours'. And in exchange for a whole lot of money he booked me with two other guys for a five day, four night Turkmenaganza. Starting September 2 (in sh'allah) I'll get to see the almost non-existent ruins of the grand city of Merv, the truly bizarre (North Korea meets Las Vegas) capital of Ashgabat, and a giant hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere that spouts an even more giant spume of natural gas permanently on fire.

But that's not all. Because I've also signed up for the other four 'Stans. And since I've waited so long, the visa process for the other four--which used to be an insanely complicated Soviet process of letters of introduction, prepaid this and that, and embassies which never answer their telephones--is now modernized to the extent of only being really annoying and time consuming.

But I've done the work and gotten the dang things, so on Monday, August 16, I take a cheapo flight to Dubai, and then an even cheaper flight to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. After a few days there I go to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrghyzstan, and from there... Well, I was going to go over the mountains to Osh, and from there to Uzbekistan. But a couple of month ago Osh had riots that killed a thousand or so Uzbeks, so the border between the two countries is closed. Which means that I'll have to go back to Kazakhstan and from there to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.

Then it's to the fabled cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, with giant turquoise mosques courtesy of Timurlane, grandson or so of Genghiz Khan. Who was the guy who a hundred years before had totally destroyed all the fabled cities which used to be in the area. And then on into Turkmenistan and out again in northern Uzbekistan, where there there is the fabled city of Khiva. Plus the ecological ruins of the Aral Sea, which used to be the fifth largest lake in the world, but is now almost totally dried up because of the irrigation plans of the former Soviet Union.

Down south and east again towards Tajikistan. Here it gets a little hazy, since there are three different ways to go. The wife doesn't want me to take the Afghanistan option. But the idea is to somehow get to the Pamir Highway, which goes along at 12,000 foot for several hundred miles.

Then it's back into a corner of Kyrghyzstan, and hitchhiking bright and early on a Chinese truck that is going over Ishketran Pass into extreme southwestern China and the city of Kashgar. And a couple of days later I take the bus that goes down the Karakoram Highway (or KKH) over and through the Karakorams, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas on into Pakistan. Which is supposed to be the most majesticest mountain scenery in the world.

Although here it gets tricky. First of all, there was a massive landslide in January in Hunzaland, creating a twenty mile long lake. On good days there are little boats ferrying people and stuff back and forth, and for a while the Pakistani army was giving free helicopter rides across. But they're not there any more.

Because for the last couple of weeks Pakistan has had its worst floods in history. And said floods and rains have pretty much wiped out the KKH at too many places. So right now the people of Hunza and their mountain neighbors are completely cut off from the rest of the world.

Now you would think that would mean that in five weeks time (when I was hoping to arrive) they could get some sort of road happening, especially with their Chinese freinds sending down road crews. But China has been having landslides of its own. And the Pakistani government, which is pretty much dysfunctional in the best of times, is having to deal with literally millions of washed out people downstream.

So I probably won't know until two days before I head over to China whether I can even do it or not. And if I can't, then that entails hanging out in Tajikistan and Kyghyzstan that much longer. Which would be great, except that this entails getting a new round of visas. Which is so friggin' complicated that I won't even try to get into it here.

And even if I do make it into Pakistan, I still have to find my way to Peshawar. Which probably isn't the smartest city to be flying from. But that's the only place in Pakistan from which to get back to Dubai cheaply.

Unless I went to Karachi. But that's probably even more dangerous. And flooded.

Whoa. Just writing down the short form is exhausting me.

And now I have to go and do it.

So off I go.


At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's about time we heard from you...(tapping feet)....Where are you?


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