We were full of woe like Wednesday’s child when we woke up and had both spent the fretful early hours lying in shock and disbelief that we had yet again been so unfortunate. We should have been on a flight to Bishkek (from where we were heading up to stay in a lovely hotel in Cholpon-Ata near Issyk-Kul – a supposedly breathtakingly gorgeous mountain lake that we were so, SO excited about visiting) but alas, the theft of Jill’s precious passport the previous evening had made this completely impossible. We nursed our hangovers and hopelessness for a bit until Susan sneaked out to the shop to buy some beer and something for breakfast to cheer us up – she’d only had about £3 worth of Kyrgyz soms left but still managed to get a big bottle of beer, a packet of cigarettes, a lighter and two sandwiches with change to spare!
We sat with our beers on the balcony, giving our heads a shake and putting things into perspective. It really wasn’t the end of the world – no one got hurt, Susan still had plenty of money to get us by, and thinking about it we have been lucky not to have something similar happen to us in ANY of the places we’ve been over the last few years! Most people you meet who have travelled any considerable amount of time will have had some similar experience – hell, people get mugged in our home towns! We decided not to let the bastards get us down – Kyrgyzstan had been for the most part really lovely and we weren’t going to let a couple of bad eggs make us think badly about it. Our back up plan (we joked that we were onto about “Plan Q” by now, having deviated from the itinerary so many times already) was that we could go to Bishkek to sort out Jill’s emergency passport for the journey home, and then spend the next two weeks exploring Kyrgyzstan. We were getting quite excited about the concept of having a luxury two weeks in one place and we both had tons of ideas of what to do – we would have a few days in Issyk-Kul, maybe get some horses and trek up to Song-Kul (a smaller, more remote and allegedly more beautiful lake), maybe find somewhere to go skiing, maybe have a few days in a nice spa getting covered in mud and hit with sticks, we could investigate the far east side next to the Chinese border – Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful place with tons to do and everything costs so little that we’d be able to do tons of stuff! We thanked our lucky stars that we had got stranded somewhere really, REALLY CHEAP!
We were up bright and early (well, about 9am – that is very bright and early for us) to start our journey from Khojand to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. We had a quick look at Alexander the Great’s first settlement, the 10th century citadel, and enjoyed a little sunny morning hustle and bustle with the locals while lamenting that we couldn’t stay longer and had missed most of our planned stops in Tajikistan because of all of our mishaps. We had enjoyed our brief time here immensely and promised ourselves we would be back to do the country justice at some point.
Khojand Opera House
Used to it by now we shook it off and then jumped on a marshrutka to Istaravshan bus station. There we were TAXITAXITAXI-ed from all angles. We’d planned on getting the marshrutka (which involved changing in Bakan near the border) but we ended up finding a shared taxi with a few other people all the way to Osh for a very reasonable price. It took an hour or so to get to the border, by which time we’d polished off the leftover vodka and sock from the night before, so we were pleased when the driver stopped to refuel at the first garage we got to in Kyrgyzstan and although we didn’t have any Kyrgz money yet – lo! It had a visa sign! So we headed in there for some beers and snacks. We were very impressed by the entire fridge dedicated to vodka, including a shelf full of little plastic shot glasses covered with foil lids (perfect for the thirsty motorist!) and then were gutted when neither of our cards would work in their machine. Susan took a long shot and asked if she could pay in dollars, and amazingly they said we could!
Surprise, surprise…we missed yet another hotel breakfast due to sleeping in! We were up and packed a good half hour before the driver was due to collect us so we managed to get a couple of coffees in us before hitting the road. Today’s plan was to taxi from Termiz to the Tajikistan border, walk across the border, get a taxi/marshrutka from the other side to Dushanbe, have some lunch and a few beers in Dushanbe then catch a flight to Khojand early evening (we had been planning on staying the night then taking a car over the beautiful and scary Pamir mountains but due to all of the mishaps we needed to make up some time). We’d booked the taxi for 10:30am and reasoned that that would give us plenty of time.
It ended up taking about an hour longer than it should have to get to the border as we were stuck in hideous roadworks/cows were crossing the road, but for the most part it was a nice drive with interesting scenery, our driver was a bit grumpy but he still accommodated our needs of regular beer and toilet stops.
The border itself was a complete nightmare – mainly on the Uzbekistan side. We’d had to fill out some customs forms on arrival from Turkmenistan (basically listing all your money and valuables) and as we’d had NO money then and did have money now (having been to the bank) – it blew their tiny minds!
“How do you have more money than you came in with?”
“We WENT TO THE BANK!!!”
We think they were convinced that we’d made it by flogging all those Turkmen carpets that they were convinced we’d brought with us on the way in, and made us fill in new forms giving the same amount of money as we’d entered with.
We dragged ourselves reluctantly out of the lovely comfy beds in the Hotel Sharq the next day and headed straight to the airport in a taxi. We went back to the ticket desk where the same miserable woman with inch thick make up on told us she couldn’t sell us tickets as the flight was full. “What? But we wanted to buy tickets last night and you said we couldn’t and had to come back today!!”
“You have to see the airport manager”.
So we wandered off to locate the airport manager who was a) hard to find, b) equally as miserable and c) the Pickwick Papers, but seemed to understand that we wanted to be put on stand-by for the Termiz flight and told us to take a seat in the waiting area. After a while he came back and said there were some seats and told us to go back to the ticket desk. Susan grabbed the passports and dashed over to the desk only to find that foreigners are only allowed to purchase flights in DOLLARS for some bizarre reason! We had enough Uzbek Sommes for the flights, but only enough dollars for one! AND the card machine was broken so we couldn’t even pay by visa! There was no way we would have had time to find an ATM (the banks we could use in Uzbekistan were very limited and tended to only be in the big five-star hotels back in the city centre) and make it back for the flight. Gutted!
There was another flight to Termiz that evening, so we had to resign ourselves to getting on that one instead (the other option being to head down from Tashkent to Khojand in Tajikistan but that would have meant missing out Dunshanbe and we really wanted to go there! Even if we only had time to have lunch and a beer on it!), and since we couldn’t buy the tickets for THAT one due to the ridiculous currency situation we would have to come back later once we’d managed to get some dollars from somewhere. It was only 6am, we’d had next to no sleep and we’d left our amazing comfy beds well in advance of the 12 o’clock check out time so we reckoned that if we went back to the hotel, and told the lovely girl on reception (she was still there – they work some crazy 24 hour shifts in these parts!) what had happened she would probably let us back in the room until then. Then we would head to the airport via an ATM for dollars and if there were no seats left on the plane and we couldn’t get stand-by seats, there were still marshrutkas leaving for Khojand that we could catch instead. As predicted the receptionist was lovely and said of course we could get back in our rooms for a few more hours sleep!
We had intended to be up and about early to catch a daytime train to Samarkand to get back on track, but the previous night’s vodka session had taken its toll and neither of us wanted to get out of bed, despite our friend the receptionist continually knocking on the door telling us we needed to get up if we wanted to get the train. We had told him the previous night that this was our plan, so bless him, he reminded us shouting “Girls you will be late!!!” (followed later by “Girls! You will be VERY LATE!!”) through the door. When we finally emerged it was around lunchtime, and upon paying the bill we found that the cheeky “what is your opinion on sex?” birthday vodka gifter room invader of the previous evening had actually charged it to our bill! And it was Uzbekistans best vodka! But then OK it was only less than a fiver so we just laughed it off but ee, that’s a shan birthday vodka that like dude. After a breakfast beer or two in the room we packed up and headed out to the nearest internet café (that was located upstairs in someone’s house and had to be accessed via a rubbish tip) to check out trains and flights as the hotel wifi wasn’t working and neither of us had any 3G signal. After having no luck with trains (and a lot of our go to rail websites being blocked by Uzbekistan!) we’d come to the conclusion that our best option was to get a flight to Tashkent (the Uzbek capital), where hopefully there would be more transport opportunities available. We could see that there was a flight that evening at around 9pm but he Uzbek airlines website wouldn’t let us book online – we put this down to the ancient browser on the pc at the internet café and decided we’d head to one of the posh hotels in the centre to have a beer and use their wifi.
Ever upwards to The Intermnet
Totally where you would expect to find The Internet
So, we were rudely awakened by the dustmen aka Mr Dima at about 6am the next morning, just when the sun was starting to come up and we could actually get some sleep. It had been so cold in our desert tent that we’d all just spent the night shivering and hoping that we wouldn’t get hypothermia. Susan, who isn’t too fond of being dragged out of bed at the best of times, was in a horrendous mood so Jill and Vita helped Dima pack the tents up and load the stuff into the jeep while she took her cup of cowboy coffee (made by Dima on the camp fire) down to the gas crater to warm herself up, since it was her birthday after all. There was only 1 other person around the crater so watching the light creep over the desert while DJ Gas Crater hissed and spat was a fine way to spend her first morning as a 40 year old. As magnificent as the sunrise was, it was still DJ Gas Crater who turtelly sturl the shurr and even with lots of attempts it was impossible to catch just how stunning it all was on camera. When she wandered back up again everything was packed up and Susan was in a lot finer fettle so we all piled into the jeep, said a tearful yet fond farewell to the new guest DJ for Marijuana Fuelled Murders and set off for the Uzbekistan border.
We dragged ourselves out of bed after our lovely relaxing two hours sleep and on going out to the balcony with a breakfast lager bottom, we discovered the beautiful snow-capped mountain view that the darkness had hidden from us last night (from Susan and Vita’s room that is – Jill’s just had a view of a corrugated iron hut with bins of potato peelings and some cats). We headed down to the lobby, thinking we were already late, but Dima was nowhere to be seen. After giving him half an hour we decided to give him a ring to see where he was, only for him to inform us that it was only 9am – it turned out that Jill and Susan’s phones had both updated to Pakistan time instead of Turkmenistan and we were an hour early! Aye, like we REALLY couldn’t have done with that extra hour in bed!! We bought some beers for the journey from the shop at the hotel (for an exorbitant $1 each) and once Dima turned up (on time) we headed off in the car towards Alaja farm. The ride through Ashgabat was interesting and Dima took us on a quick tour in the car since we had lost a day due to our flight mishaps so we wouldn’t get to go wander around and go to the amazing sounding crap theme park, Turkmenbashi Tales which we were the most gutted about! Ashgabat is a very rapidly developing city with lots of the country’s huge oil and gas profits being poured into building the grandiose, white marble fronted buildings with seemingly no purpose, or people. Even the multi storey car parks, bus stops and traffic lights were intricate wrought iron patterns, painted white and gold. For anyone interested in seeing some better pictures of the place than ours from a moving car, here’s a good article with some great photographs.
Well, we don’t even know where to start on this one. Just as Susan and Vita were panicking and running through Dublin airport as they had heard a gate closed tannoy for their flight to Gatwick , a message arrived from Jill saying she had boarded the wrong plane and almost flown to Belfast ! Resulting in her missing her Gatwick flight and having to pay a fortune to detour through Heathrow with British Airways instead.
After a few hours in the No. 1 lounge in Gatwick of Susan trying to teach Vita how to play playstation, and Vita throwing a variety of pastries around, Jill finally made it to Gatwick and we were reunited as a shark with 3 privvy legs. We celebrated it in style with Bloody Marys and some nice relaxing episodes of Charmed, which made us realise that as we had the power of three we may also possess witchy powers, which we used to refill the porridge kettle with chilli – coincidence? We think not!
On top form and with joy in our hearts we merrily skipped to the gate to catch our flight to Moscow, from where we had a harrowing 6 hour wait in the lounge with free bar and food to catch another flight to Ashgabat. Upon proudly displaying our boarding passes to the gate keepers we were asked where our visas for Moscow were, well we don’t need any as we are only transiting and not leaving the airport (we had done much research on the subject and found that this was all fine and dandy so were certain of our status), to which they replied “Easyjet is a point to point airline and as such we don’t do transit”. A phrase which was about to be burned into our brains from hearing it repeatedly during the next few hours. Whilst on the phone to the manager, Phillipe, we sadly watched our flight to Moscow depart down the runway, so close and yet so far away. An emotion to which we were about to become very accustomed. Heads still held high and refusing to be cowed by The Man we defiantly strode back to the obvious next outpost, Wetherspoons, to weigh up our options.
The Pinge & Wang (and friend!) news team will assemble at Gatwick Airport (Susan and Vita flying over from Dublin and Jill getting the train down from Sunderland) to catch the 13:10 Easyjet flight to Moscow, arriving at 20:00 Moscow time. There we have a long eight hour wait before our flight to Ashgabat (at 01:30) so will check ourselves into the lounge to enjoy the complimentary drinks and snacks for a bit, while we use the time wisely trying to get Vita to teach us Russian (she’s fluent – score!).
7th March: Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)
We land in the Turkmen capital at 07.15 and will be met by our tour guide who will be taking care of us during our time in Turkmenistan. We were reluctant at first to book a proper “tour” package as we always pride ourselves in being able to organise and implement our own logistical plans without any outside help, but in Turkmenistan an organised tour is a necessary evil that you need in order to get a visa. We specified our own itinerary though and the price was quite reasonable, so it didn’t end up too much of a hardship. We are staying in the Hotel Paytagt – the cheapest, most central hotel we could find (accommodation in Ashgabat is surprisingly expensive and there are next to no hostels!) – so hopefully we can dump our stuff, freshen up and head out to explore the city. We don’t need the guide to accompany us in Ashgabat, so we’ll probably have a leisurely wander (interspersed with taking in some local booze) as we head to the main attraction for the day, the Turkmenbashi Tales – a theme park based on Turkmen fairytales! We’ll probably be knackered after the lack of sleep (hopefully we’ll catch a few hours on the Moscow-Ashgabat flight If we’re not too hyper and excited) but we will soldier on and attempt a shot at the night life.
8th March: Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)
We will spend the morning horse riding at Alaja farm (just outside of Ashgabat), who are famous for their strong and graceful Akhal Teke horses (the Turkmen people love their horses even more than their vodka!). Susan, who was a horsey child, is really looking forward to this but Jill has serious reservations as her only horse based encounters have involved falling off them, usually into something spiky. In the afternoon we will visit Kow Ata – an underground lake in a cave (also just outside of Ashgabat) that is always around 30 degrees (due to sulphuric gases from the rocks) for a nice swim and to see Central Asia’s largest colony of bats that also live in the cave! Another evening and night in Ashgabat.
9th March: Erbent Oasis, Gas Crater (Turkmenistan)
We have a driver for this part of the tour (luxury!) and will be leaving Ashgabat by car and travelling into the Karakum desert, stopping at the Erbent Oasis where we will hopefully see some nomads, milk some camels and touch some of their beautiful Tazys (traditional Turkmen hunting dogs that are quite similar to Afghans). . From there we will continue North via the mud and water craters then spend the night camping next to the Gates of Hell gas crater in a yurt, celebrating Susan’s birthday at midnight and hopefully avoiding getting bitten by Caspian Cobras. We really can’t wait for this – it’s going to be epic!
You all may be thinking that it’s been a bit quiet on the Pinge and Wang front recently (we admit it and we’re sorry – we’re never going to get on Ellen at this rate with this lack of commitment to our social media outlets and with our knees at our time of life!!!) but behind the scenes it has been a hive of activity, working away to finalise the itinerary for this year’s amazing trip: The Stannering. We’ve come up against a lot of obstacles – closed borders, routes, visas etc… It’s been a logistical nightmare, but now we are basking in the warm glow of having proposed another fabulous trajectory that would make Peter Powell proud!
We’ve also had no end of bother with bureaucracy, involving Jill having to get a new passport (because Uzbekistan refused her visa with the scruffy, beef sauce covered, guilty-stamped one that has been with us on all our previous adventures), Susan having to take a day trip to Northern Ireland to buy return UK postage for her Uzbek and Tajikstan visas (but getting a fun evening in dubious bars in Newry being fought over by old men out of it) and being concerned about Turkmenistan’s fear of good for nothing Latvians.
Oh yes! We forgot to tell you! We have a companion for the first (and maybe second) leg of this trip – our lovely friend Vita will be joining us as we rock the shit out of Turkmenistan! You know that usually we’re partners in crime and don’t want anyone else along for the ride (and no one else could put up with us to be honest), but this year is kind of special as it’s Susan’s 40th birthday! She had wanted to spend it on the moon, but budget tourist space flights aren’t a thing quite yet so she’s settled for camping at the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan as the next best thing (“Turkmenistan – the next best thing to the moon” – Turkmen Tourist Board, you can use that if you like!) and invited a few close friends along for that leg of the trip. BUT, our Turkmen tour organiser (you can’t get a visa without an organised tour – booo) has warned us that it is unlikely that Vita will be issued a visa as Turkmenistan think that “people from all ex-soviet countries are trouble makers”! The cheek! Of course, Vita is no trouble maker and we’re hoping that he’s talking bollocks (the Turkmen Embassy in London seemed to think when we asked!) and that the consul will be won over by her very angelic-looking visa photos!
So the progress report for the day is so far we have: finished the trajectory, booked the tour in Turkmenistan, booked the Almaty- Yerevan flights and applied for Uzbekistan visas (Jill for the 2nd time!). Shit’s starting to get reeeeeal!!!
Coming soon – the moment you have all been waiting for… OUR 2015 ROUTE MAP!!!!
Wandering in search of a nice loose egg, your favourite idiot broads abroad embarking on an yet another enchanting voyage of self-discovery (not the kind that's in those arty french films with subtitles and hairy biffs). Join us in our journey!