This must be the most incredibly naff ship I’ve been on so far; all dirty floors, peeling fake wood wallpaper, murky corridors, broken lights, stained matress, rusty bulkheads, dripping plumbing, doors that don’t close properly… Lovely! BUT AT LEAST THE TEA WAS FREE. And that makes ALL the difference in my book. I would suffer any kind of hardship as long as there was free tea on offer. And, in it’s favour, The Naxçivan was incredibly quiet and smooth… so much so that I didn’t notice for the best part of an hour that we had left port.
Maybe there was no engine… maybe it was powered by the 1984 Soviet Olympic Rowing Team, chained and manacled to the Naxçivan’s hull, their anguished cries for help stifled by the fact that they had their tongues removed before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why the ship could only have eleven passengers was beyond me, it was massive, a great big train transporter. Okay, there may not be enough cabins, but there was a room with flilthy ripped airline seats, about thirty of them – it was only an overnight trip, what gives? I guess I’ll never know.
Tell you what though – I’d take the grotty Naxçivan over that ****ing Grimaldi Ferry to Tunisia ANY DAY. I’d taked the damn Shissiwani II over a Grimaldi Ferry, and that’s saying something.
Anyway, we got to within a couple of miles offshore of Aktau, Kazakhstan by early afternoon, but then we had to wait. A good dozen oil tankers were sharing a similar fate. This is always a worry – how long will we be stuck here? If we were offshore from an African country, I could quite imagine us waiting for days, but I was sure we’d get to dry land before midnight. Even so, I had to laugh when my friendly barman/passenger organiser said we would be one hour. It was more like ten.
At sunset, we started inching towards the port. We were going so slowly I didn’t really believe we were moving until I made a point of watching one of the oil tankers go from one side of my porthole to the other. It was dark before we were allowed to disembark. I had been warned that customs takes an age in Central Asia, but even so it took until midnight to get all eleven(!) of us through passport control. Maybe that’s why they only allowed eleven passengers. Any more and we would have been there all week. Eventually I took a shared taxi with some of the other passengers into town, something that end up costing me $10, which can’t be right in a country in which petrol costs less than water. I hate hate hate taxi drivers.
I was kicked out in a hotel that was $15 to share a room with an incredibly annoying drunken Kazakh tosser who insisted on repeating the only two English words he knew over and over and over again. Those words were “English?” and “okay?”. I gave up on having a meaningful conversation after about five seconds, but he kept plugging away at it for a good half hour, maybe longer, I don’t know, I fell asleep.
But, sod it, it’s Sunday 21 March and I’m in Kazakhstan. This time last month I was still in the UK. Happy Days!
DID YOU KNOW? Every country that borders the Caspian Sea requires difficult-to-obtain visas off Europeans.
I gave up all hope of a schedule months ago. When people ask me (and they do) when I think I’ll be finished I just shrug and change the subject. If I can get to India by May I will be one happy ginger galavanter, but I’ve got a long way to go until then, and Eritrea and The Seychelles still hang over this whole challenge like a sword of Damocles. I tell you what though, when I was getting the knock back from the border with Algeria three weeks ago, if you had told me that I’d be here in Kazahkstan today, I’d have given you a big kiss. Even if you thought Apple made good computers and everything.
As all good Lost fans know, time seems to have a way of ‘course correcting’ and The Odyssey is not immune to this. Imagine if I had got to Libya on 21st February as I had originally intended and not had the disaster with my Algerian visa… I would have been in Istanbul for the subsequent Friday night, but I still would have presumably had to wait until the following Thursday to pick up my Iranian visa, left Thursday night, done everything the same and got to Azerbaijan one week earlier… in short it would have made NO difference – I would have just been stuck in (lovely, but expensive) Baku for an extra week… the boat goes every 10 days remember? Ahh, it all works out in the wash.
So today I got up as bright and eager as I can these days. Honestly, sometimes I feel like my body is mounting a mutiny against me – since the UK I’ve been completely KNACKERED every morning without fail. I’m not moving fast enough to blame jet-lag, I just seem to have lost the ability to spring out of bed in the morning. My snooze alarm is my new best friend. I didn’t bother with a shower (it was skank), slung my bags on my shoulders and went in search of a way out out of this berg. In fact, where the hell am I? Oh yeah, a little place called Aktau. A pleasant sea-side town, if your idea of pleasant is Chernobyl. It was purpose-built by the Soviets to get at the oil in the Caspian Sea, it’s a bazzilion miles from anywhere, the beach is yucky, all the drinking water is desalinated (and hopefully destalinated) and the buildings are concrete nightmares.
But plucky old Aktau has one saving grace – The Guns and Roses bar! Oh yeah baby WOO!! Well, if it actually played G n’ R instead of 80s female power ballads and the beer wasn’t $5 it would have been AWESOME. I found out the train for the next town left at 7.30pm (it takes 10 hours to get there!) and sorted out my train tickets to Uzbekistan. This time tomorrow I will hopefully be in nation 149. Hopefully. After a stroll around the town (and a nice chat with a couple of teenage girls who both looked liked they had stumbled off the side of a Flaming Lips gig – one was dressed as a horse, the other as bunny rabbit, don’t ask) I decided it wasn’t for me and set up camp in the G&R (not to be confused with G n’ R, which is a completely separate copyrighted entity). The barman, Adam, was from Antalaya in Turkey and let me while away the afternoon using the free Wi-Fi to chat to Mandy (in Australia), Lindsey (in China) and Anna (in Liverpool) all at the same time through the wonders of Skype.
At 6pm it was time to head to the train station. I’m a bit anxious about this. Journalism is banned in Uzbekistan, and while I’m by no means a professional journalist (I c’ant rite 4 toffie), I’m loaded down with stuff (camera, laptop, tapes) that might make it look like I’m a journo when I’m not. The penalty is deportation ON A PLANE. This would be an utter disaster for The Odyssey. I’m worried that they might take my tapes away from me – I wanted to post them back to the UK today, but the post office is closed (it’s a public holiday here too). Well, if it happens it happens, there’s nothing I can do about it.
It may be a relic of the Soviet era, but the train is great – I’ve got a table to write up my blog upon, I’ve been given free cups of tea by the other passengers (and a ton of food I couldn’t eat even if I was hungry) and everybody’s been wonderfully friendly. We’re currently ploughing through the desert, (I presume – it’s dark and I can’t see a damn thing out of the window) my only concern is where I’m going to sleep. People more on the ball than me seem to have bagsied all the beds and I’ve found myself sitting on what could be a bed if it didn’t have two other people sitting on it too. It’s half past midnight and I have to be up at 4am.
SWORD OF ALMONDS, GIVE ME SLEEP BEYOND SLEEP!!
DID YOU KNOW? Once at a festival I rewatched the previous night’s G n’ R gig on the little screen of my video camera with none other than Kim Deal from the Pixies (and Breeders).
The train arrived at the town of Beyneu at about ten minutes to five in the morning, enjoyed a cup of tea in the little station cafe and after about an hour, I clambered on board the train for a place called Kungrad in Uzbekistan. We got to the border about midday, and the border process was quite alarmingly swift and painless. The stamp guys got on the train, grabbed everyone’s passports and after half an hour, gave them all back – I didn’t even need to get up from my seat.
Which means…. I’M IN UZBEKISTAN! Wooooo! 149! 149! 149!
Soon enough, I found myself snoozing as the pitiful remnants of the Aral Sea sped by far to the east. The Aral Sea disaster. I have to admit, before I read about it in the Lonely Planet I had never even heard of the Aral Sea, I guess compared with global climate change it’s not a top priority, but it’s one hell of depressing tale about the consequences of humans toying with nature.
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union in all its wisdom (and, let’s face it wisdom in those days was in short supply) decided to exploit the dry arid near-deserts of North-Western Uzbekistan and South West Kazakhstan to grow cotton. People always need clothes to wear eh? Now to do this, they needed to divert a considerable amount of water – water from the mountains that was destined for the Aral Sea. In fact, it would divert so much water that the sea would dry up. Yes you read that right – the SEA would dry up. They knew this would happen, but justified it on the grounds that the Aral Sea was ‘nature’s mistake’. Now I can see nature making mistakes… the Elephant Man, I suppose… Sarah Jessica Parker’s face, Michael Jackson being born black and Pete Doherty being born at all. But a SEA?
I mean, once you take the sea away, what can you do with what’s left over? You know, the muddy salty mess which is prone to flooding? Not great real estate, I have to say. There are beached ships scattered about the landscape (apparently, I was too far away to see) because the poor old Aral Sea is (was) not connected with any other body of water – no place to escape…
Sad isn’t it? But that’s what you get when you have lunatics in charge, and they didn’t come much more loony than the Communist Party of the USSR – with the possible exception of David Ike and every African government ever.
Anyway, the train is the BEST way to enter forbidden Uzbekistan – easy as pie. I got to the town of Kungrad at about 7pm, but because the borders around here as mad as Rasputin trying to eat his own head, everybody has to take road transport to the next town, Nukus – the railway line passes in and out of Turkmenistan and the Turkmen have a nasty habit of boarding the train and fining anyone without a visa.
Nukus is the capital of this region of Uzbekistan, which I’ve just been informed is not only a region, but a nation-within-a-nation called Karakalpakstan. Honestly, I not making this up! Maybe Durka-Durkastan really exists after all. Karakalpakstan has it’s own regional government and language, but is internationally recognised as a part of Uzbekistan. That’s probably for the best – this region has suffered massively from the loss of the Aral Sea, and I doubt that it could survive on it’s own.
Talking of survival, it’s my sad duty to inform you that Al, my plucky little camcorder that’s stuck with me through thick and thin, has joined my Amstrad PCW8256 in Silicon Heaven.
I’ll miss you, little pal.
Javier, his twin brother, is being Fed-Exed over to me as be speak. However, like Karr and Lore, Javier is the cranky older model that only works when he feels like it and has machinations for taking the world. He keeps going on about himself being the prototype and all others being cheap production models. But as long as I keep him from hooking up with the Crystalline Entity or Sebastian from Blade Runner, I’ll should be fine.
I got to Nukus around 9pm, checked into the Nukus hotel and crashed out for the night in a dorm that I was sharing with two Uzbek guys.