Silk Road Adventure

May 23-29

More about Turkmenistan

In Turkmenistan, one can fill up their gas tank for about $1.00. I believe gasoline costs a little less than 10 cents per gallon, compared to $8 or $9 a gallon in Turkey. All trucks were filling up at the border before passing into Uzbekistan, and diesel fuel flows all over the road, making it slippery. This is one of the deals that Turkmenbashi (the company's former leader) made with the people – they will essentially have free fuel until about 2030.

There are 26,000 manat to each dollar in Turkmenistan, and some of the bills are only 100 manat, which means that when you get $50, you have a wad of bills that is 3 inches thick and barely fits in your pocket.

The common man (the person you meet on the street) has a positive opinion about America. I don't know why because in general the people do not approve of the US activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think they like the image that in America anything can happen, anyone can grab the golden ring and go from poverty to wealth, that very few people are hungry, and that Americans are happy, positive people.

In Georgia, the peace corps has helped the US image tremendously, even though many of the peace corps volunteers are not particularly skilled in their advisory subject. The positive attitude is infectious. This image of America is like a brand, it's something that we should struggle to maintain and to enhance. It may be more perception than reality. Either way, it helps sell the notion of our model being a successful one.

The Police

The army and the police don't carry firearms, which is either due to low crime or an indication that the government doesn't trust these people with weapons. But it is rather nice to see the old London bobby style officer armed with only a small stick, painted red at one end, used mainly for traffic signaling.

The Phones

The cell phone coverage is spotty at best. The road through Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan travels along the Iranian border, literally only a few feet from the border in some cases. Some members of our group were getting text messages from the Iranian phone carrier because the Uzbekistan carrier was not text or email compatible.

Uzbekistan

The first thing that jumps out about Uzbekistan is that we were not allowed to travel without an escort, which means that a police car was in front of us and behind us at all times (sporting flashers and occasional sirens). A policeman was posted to halt traffic at every intersection we passed. Stops only occurred when a police car broke down (twice) or when we changed police escort as we moved through a different jurisdiction. One person suggested that there are not too many policemen in Uzbekistan, there are only too few intersections!!

We started out our trip through Uzbekistan in Bukhara and then went on to Samarkand, the birthplace of Tamalane and then onto Tashkent, a city of about 2.5 million people in a country of 26 million. Uzbekistan has the largest population in Central Asia. Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the old Soviet Union. The only larger cities were Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. Uzbekistan, like most of the Southeast/Central Asian Republics, is run by a former Communist Party leader named Islam Karimov. He is said to run a ruthless authoritarian government with tough treatment for any form of opposition. He grew up in the Samarkand area and is an economist, by profession. The United States was recently thrown out of Uzbekistan, and we lost the base that we were using for our Afghan campaign.

Uzbekistan's biggest claim to fame is Tamalane who died about 1400 AD (his family dynasty lasted an additional 200 years). Unlike Genghis Khan who was just a vicious killer, Tamalane was a vicious killer (they say he killed 14M people) who made up for it by supporting the arts and through his interest in astronomy and mathematics. Uzbekistan has harnessed the tourist industry. The sites are quite spectacular. Pictures of the Madrasses and the large Mosques from early in the century (before the Russians took the nation over in approximately 1925) show these buildings in complete ruin, hardly distinguishable as buildings. But today they are restored, the mosaics are in place, there are fancy enamel tile roofs, and they truly look spectacular. The number of tourists in Samarkand was very impressive - mostly French and German with a spattering of English, and not many Americans.

Friends Along the Way

We ran into a couple of Canadians from Vancouver who were traveling from Beijing to Munich on their motorcycles – very much like what we're doing, but with much less rose-smelling and a little more of the "get-there-quick" disease. One of them was a classic Alpha male, he couldn't stop talking and had difficulty NOT talking. But he was quite articulate on the value of a long motorcycle ride. His internal voice is constantly talking, and can only be quieted by drugs (I believe the illegal kind), meditation or riding a motorcycle. He gave up the drugs years ago and now calms himself by taking long motorcycle rides. He values religion for its relaxation qualities and for usefulness in gaining inner strength. He suggested that the Madrasses who practiced religious teachings in Central Asia, had as much effect on an individual as meditation. Repeating a meditation mantra or repeating phrases of the Koran are much the same, and riding a motorcycle has the same relaxing effect. I must admit, tying long distance motorcycling, meditation and religion together in one concept is an interesting approach.

Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, the police are quick to shake people down whenever possible, and it is difficult to travel on your own. And because we are traveling with police escort and close monitoring, we have not had a chance to meet "the man on the street." We have had less opportunity for casual conversation in Uzbekistan than anywhere else. The average person earns approximately $100 per month and many of the jobs are with the government. One disturbing issue is that poverty has created a significant prostitution problem in Uzbekistan (as well as the other Central Asian republics). The country has the same problem that Cuba faces; a prostitute can earn more than a well paid manager.

Although there has been a lot of press about Muslim militants in Uzbekistan, the religious influence in Uzbekistan is much less than the religious influence in Turkey. There are only 150 mosques in Tashkent (versus 1,200 in Istanbul) and only 2,000 in the entire country (versus 80,000 in Turkey). It doesn't appear that religion is sweeping the country. The Russians, when they were in power, did all that they could to eliminate religion.

Tashkent and Samarkand are beautiful cities with wide boulevards and large public squares, spaces, buildings. All of these civic properties were built by the Russians during the period when Uzbekistan was part of Russia. In my opinion, there is more public space in Tashkent, as a percentage of total space, than there is in Washington DC. The people we were able to meet in Uzbekistan are service-oriented and interested in helping. This is probably because at least in Samarkand, the tourist industry is alive, well and growing.

The country is big – 5 times bigger than Turkmenistan. It clearly has a very strong central government that does not tolerate dissidents. All email is monitored, and I imagine cell phone conversations are as well. This report is being sent over a cell phone into my dictation system. I wish I could report more on Uzbekistan, but even though we have spent a number of days here, I know much less about this nation than the others we have visited. I will try to be more diligent when we reach Kyrgyzstan tomorrow.

Marge and Mary Crawford met us in Bukhara, they are on a separate schedule. The group is delighted to have additional feminine companionship. Linda has been the lone female on the entire trip, riding with her boyfriend. Three riders are so ill that they may not be able to ride their motorcycles tomorrow. This may be a difficult situation because we travel through Kazakhstan and face three border crossings. I don't know what we'll do, but it may mean renting some extra trucks and driving the bikes across the border.

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