Central Asia is fast becoming one of the ‘go to’ destinations for many overlanders, more specifically overlanders are heading east to drive the infamous Pamir Highway and it’s slightly bigger brother the Karakoram Highway in China.
For us the holy grail of Central Asia was the notorious Pamir Highway. The M41, as it is officially known, is the world’s second highest international highway and travels through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan reaching an altitude of 4,655 metres. Just to put that into context the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis ‘peaks’ at a mere 1,344 metres.
The area is notorious for landslides, rock-falls, earthquakes, floods, high winds and frequent political unrest; all these factors rate it quite highly on the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ list. Traditionally the road formed part of the ancient Silk Road route linking trade routes from China to Europe.
The area is stunning and remote, so remote in fact that buying and carrying enough diesel for the entire route can be problematic. The beautiful Wakhan Corridor offers 220-miles of spectacular driving along the bank of the Pamir River, literally a stones throw across the water is Afghanistan.
During our 2 weeks on the Pamir Highway we heard machine gun fire, experienced an earthquake and narrowly missed mudslides and flash flooding. Just two days after leaving the M41 behind us the Tajikistan government declared the whole area a natural disaster zone after glacial snow melt had flooded 3 villages, many valleys and destroyed large sections of the road leaving the local population without electricity. A truly wild place.
Getting stopped by ‘The Fuzz’ has become part of our daily routine as we travel east. Our running total has now reached more than 40 times in the last 12 months alone.
In most Eastern European countries the police have a bad reputation for stopping tourists and collecting bribes. This can be incredibly frustrating when so much bad driving is going on around you unpunished. Emma and I have a strict rule that we will never pay a bribe, and up until now we have stuck to this and not parted with a penny! This kind of low-level corruption should never be encouraged; paying backhanders only makes the police expect subsequent payments from your fellow overlanders. Obviously this is for ‘made-up’ charges and false accusations, if you actually do the crime you should pay the legal fine.
Surprisingly Russia wasn’t the worst offender, as we’d heard, we were pulled over at least 10 times but never actually asked for any money. On the one occasion they actually stopped us legitimately, I was made to sit in the back of the smokey police Lada, and much to my surprise the officer showed me a photograph on a laptop of our car travelling at 72kph in an apparent 50kph zone 5km back down the road. Once he learnt we were heading to Mongolia he called us crazy and sent us on our way.
Checkpoints are a fairly regular occurrence in foreign countries; we had them in Morocco, Russia, Ukraine and all the ‘Stans. Most of the time they have police control buildings at the side of the road, normally located just after a succession of decreasing speed limit signs crammed into a 50m stretch, making it virtually impossible to slow down in time. In the Ukraine we got stopped by a rather over-zealous speed gun operator stood next to the speed limit sign (90km down to 30km). He wanted to see all my original documents and took me into his little room where he placed his gun on the table and basically tried to get me to pay $200. After playing the dumb tourist (which Emma thinks I’ve mastered), a long wait and a refusal to get into his police car to take us to the nearest ATM, we left without paying a thing!
The secret to avoid getting stopped at checkpoints is to avoid making eye contact, helped enormously by a right-hand drive vehicle! That tactic worked up until Kazakhstan where the police stopped us a whopping 17 times. On one occasion I apparently broke 4 laws in the space of about 30 metres when I pulled out from a petrol station. Most of the time the police, waving large orange sticks and whistle blowing excessively, are generally just curious about Bee-bee and her number plate. Again, this discrimination is incredibly frustrating when complete lunacy is going on all around you in cars that are totally unfit for the road.
In the former Soviet countries the police are generally pretty useless at patrolling bad driving, ironically the ‘sleeping policemen’ are more effective at controlling the traffic. The permanent farcical wooden police car cut-outs are also a poor deterrent to discourage bad driving. The police do however like inspecting paperwork. Being tourists you do have the advantage that most of the officers have no idea what they are looking at when you hand over documents. Give them colour photocopies in the first instance unless they strongly insist otherwise- once they have the originals the bribing ball’s in their court!
Much to our amusement most of the police we encountered looked like the comical sculpture we spotted in Finland 4 years earlier, only the police in the ‘Stans having disproportionately larger hats. We soon learnt that if we stopped far enough down the road past the typically portly police in their elasticated-waist uniforms, their laziness would prompt them to wave us on rather than walk to our car.
On the few occasions they did make it to the window (normally the passenger side) we used our over-the-top, non-stop friendly English accents and diversion tactics like showing them the shower and solar panel to charm them/confuse them into letting us go. If you are calm, polite, patient and show them you have all the time in the world to wait they normally get bored of you and can’t be bothered with the hassle of continuing to extort money from you. Even if you can speak the local language, stick to your own because they don’t have the patience for this either.
Since their independence one thing most of the post-Soviet countries have in common is a desire to out-do each other whilst proving to the rest of the world that they are worthy of competing on an international stage.
To announce their arrival many of the larger cities have been busy constructing exceedingly tall flagpoles and Dubai-esq ostentatious and often kitsch architectural projects. We first encountered this in Batumi, Georgia. For a relatively small city it had a disproportionately large amount of ‘interesting’ architecture.
The 180m tall Batumi Tower is probably one of the most eccentric. In an effort to attract attention and aiming for classy prestige, it is intersected 100m from the ground by a 20 metre diameter golden Ferris wheel.
Equally as insane is the White Restaurant, basically an upside down mini White House. Initially designed as a joke by a 24 year-old architect it was spotted and built within a year.
Thankfully Batumi has one redeeming piece of architecture that makes up for these tacky abominations. Ironically McDonalds isn’t usually associated with good design. Luckily the branch in Batumi is a stunning piece of glass-clad, cantilevered, sculptural goodness. Designed by Khmaladze Architects, the building incorporates a McDonalds and a fuel station in one.
The Armenian capital, Yerevan also has an unusual building. The Cascade was originally completed in 1980 but has since undergone an extensive make over. Essentially a five-storey building incorporated into a ginormous staircase, the Cascade now houses a contemporary art collection.
Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is the realisation of a 1950’s Sci-Fi vision of the future. It’s self appointed ‘Home of Futuristic Architecture’ title is well deserved with glass pyramids, golden eggs and giant tents dominating the skyline.
Astana’s city plan is driven by the President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s vision. Often criticized as a vanity project the city has sprung from nothing since the President moved the capital city in 1997 from Almaty.
Astana’s buildings have been designed by many international architects, including British Architect Norman Foster who designed The King’s Tent, the world’s largest tent and The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a glass pyramid.
Some of the most brash and showy buildings can be found in Turkmenistan where President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s obsession with gold statues and white marble is dominating the capital city, Ashgabat. Unfortunately/thankfully we weren’t allowed to visit the capital where the tasteless opulence is turned up to 11, we did however visit The National History and Ethnology Museum in Mary, Turkmenistan where the museum was displaying a rather impressive collection of badly photoshopped photographs of the supreme leader all housed in a lavish white marble building.
Seemingly each country in Central Asia is keen to out-do each other, this competitive spirit has manifested itself in a ‘which country has the largest flagpole competition’.
For a short time Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, held the world record with their 165 metre tall pole costing a whopping $3.5 million trumping Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan who also have pretty impressive poles.