While in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan we were interviewed on WJR 760 Radio’s Warren Pierce Show. This is the fourth time we have been a guest on his show. Warren, born and raised in Detroit, hosts a morning talk show every Saturday from 6:00AM to 9:00AM. Thanks to both Warren and producer Rachel Nevada for having us on the show.
We were lucky enough to be in the capital of Kyrgyzstan during their 18th annual independence day celebration on August 31st. This day sees the major cities, Bishkek in particular, erupt in a mass of celebration. There are bazaars selling everything imaginable; games of tug-of-war, arm wrestling, and Kyrgyz-style wrestling in the park; exhibitions of gymnastics, karate, and karaoke; and a big main stage laid out in the center of the city with various musical performances happening all day long.
The next day we packed up our stuff and walked to the nearest bus stop to board a shuttle to the long distance bus station. Arriving there it was a bit difficult to find out where exactly you purchase tickets to get to Bishkek–the only window that was open was exclusively for destinations within Kazakhstan. I was wondering outside looking lost when a man approached me and asked if I was going to Bishkek. I replied that I was and asked how much he would charge to take us there. He said he’d take us for 2,000 tenge each (about $13)–not bad considering it was a four hour journey! We were still wary of taxi drivers and I triple-confirmed that the price was actually 2,000 tenge per person for the entire trip–not 2,000 dollars, not 2,000 per kilometer, etc. etc. Seemed legit. Satisfied, we accepted and threw our stuff in his trunk. Getting into his car he explained that we could either pay 8,000 tenge to book the car for ourselves or he could go and try another two passengers. It would be a tight fit, but we told him to find some more passengers so that we could save some cash. He returned a bit later with a cute girl, about our age, who got in the back seat and greeted us in English. The driver said she had agreed to pay a bit more if we would as well so that we wouldn’t have to cram another person in the middle seat. I knew it would get more expensive! But it wasn’t much, so we paid 1,000 extra per person and got on the road.
We were interviewed by Prague-based American reporter Kristin Deasy at the Mongol Rally Launch Party held at Klenova Castle in the Czech Republic on the 20th of July, 2009. Here’s a link to the full article on the Radio Free Europe/Liberty Radio web site.
The next day our first mission was the find a travel agency. I found one close to the hotel through our Lonely Planet travel bible and proceeded in that direction. However, like half the information in the guide this info was outdated and the travel agency no longer existed, at least in the location listed in the book. No worries though as we passed another travel agency while looking for the first one. We walked into Daphne Travel and asked about available train and flight schedules. Luckily some of the staff there spoke good English, which always makes things a bit easier for us that don’t speak such great Russian/Kazakh. They checked the train schedules online but came up with no additional information that could help us out. As far as flights, there were a number of flights outbound for Almaty but no direct flights to the capital of Mongolia. Apparently nobody ever went to Mongolia, because it was darn hard trying to get from anywhere to there! Our only option was to fly from Almaty to Moscow or Beijing and then take another flight from there to Ulaanbaatar. The cost of these flights would be in the $700-$800 range and they weren’t available anytime soon. Alternately, they had a sub-$500 ticket available on the 4th of September back to London.
We slept in on Monday and set off about the city in the early afternoon. We needed to develop a plan of action–we were running out of money and time. We needed to find a way to get to Ulaanbaatar soon. I figured that our best option from here would be to take a train to Russia and then hitch a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express towards Irkutsk and then south to Mongolia. It would take a bit of time, and wouldn’t be inexpensive, but it seemed like a good way to see the scenery in a similar way to what we had hoped to do (and it was less of a cop-out than flying). The problem was that our Russian visas, which still had an additional unused entry on them, expired in two days. We had to head to the Russian Consulate, on the other side of town, to extend our visas.
We were at the airport, it was late, and we were planning on taking a bus for the 12km ride to where our hotel was located. Unfortunately all of the buses had ended as it was near midnight. After coming out of customs we were immediately greeted by a man who shook our hand and expected us to follow him. Warning signals immediately went off in my head and I stopped to assess the situation. We changed some money at the currency office and asked the man if there were any buses running. Nope. He and his friend would be happy to drive us to our hotel for s small fee though! Of course. I had read in our Guide to Central Asia book that a taxi to the city center should cost around 2000 tenge or so but private car operators would frequently try and extort 4,000-5,000. I asked him how much it would be to get to where we were going and he replied that it would be 500 tenge (a bit over $3). Having been taken advantage of before and learned a lesson or two about how to deal with cab drivers I reasserted that it was indeed 500 tenge, not dollars, and even typed it on my phone for him to make sure. Sounded like a pretty good deal–who knows, maybe they just needed the money and were undercutting the competition!
Ah yes, Hotel Dushanbe: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
That’s the way we felt, coming back to the same hotel in the same city that we had waited in for a few days the week before. We had a few priorities to take care of, the first being finding a way to get out of the country before our visas expired yet again in four days time. What we wanted to do was get a flight from Dushanbe to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, explore the northern part of the country, take a taxi from Bishkek to Almaty, Kazakhstan, explore that city, and then take a train across the country, into Russia, and then eventually reach a Siberian Express stop where we could take that train all the way to Irkutsk and then Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, our final destination. Unfortunately it was Friday and we weren’t expecting to be able to get much done during the weekend, especially as it was the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Time was of the essence.
The house phone rang at 5:20AM. Imomdad’s uncle was moving up the time yet again (it was originally 7:00AM)–we have fifteen minutes to pack everything, eat, and get ready. We jumped out of our futons and set about getting everything ready. We were still packing up by the time he arrived and had to skip breakfast in order to not keep the driver and other passengers waiting. Imomdad and his father helped get all of our bags outside to the driver so that he could put them in and on top of the vehicle. We said thanks and goodbye to Imomdad and his family and jumped in the vehicle, a Pajero 4X4, which was already occupied by a woman and her two daughters in the middle row of seats (along with the driver’s helper in the passenger seat). We got in the back but they could not put the seat back up because my legs stretched out too far. The woman and her children were kind enough to switch seats with us and we got in the middle row. We were thinking we’d be lucky and get the row to ourselves, but we stopped just a couple minutes outside of Imomdad’s house to pick up a young guy in his 20’s, who sat in our row. I got pushed into the middle. It was going to be a long ride.
In the summer of 2009, two guys from Metro Detroit traveled 10,000 miles from London to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in an effort to raise money to assist underprivileged Mongolian families in becoming self-sufficient.