It’s not me, it’s ‘Uze

Great. Now I have possible baby pee on my dress. Seriously, Uzbekistan I don’t understand you. Troy says about this country, “The people are awesome, the country is beautiful, but the system is f#%@ed.” I think he’s right.

We boarded our Uzbekistan Airways flight, eager to get back to Tashkent. After our usual banter over who would get the window seat (Troy always lets me have it), and excited that D and E seats were in pairs on one side of the plane, we approached Row 10. There was a woman and baby in our seats, that is, she was in my window seat, and the baby was on the isle. We showed her our tickets, but she was not going anywhere. We couldn’t kick a young mother out of a seat (although in hindsight, I should have), so we found a hostess to help (and hopefully do the kicking out for) us.

Instead of asking the woman to go to her designated seat, the hostess sits us down in two empty seats in Row 5, no longer in our separate paired seating, and I no longer have my precious window seat.

Not more than two minutes later, two massive guys board (Russian wrestler types), and want to sit in our seats, which are their seats. We search around for the hostess that had planted us there, and she proceeds to seat the two men in the empty seats behind us. Now as this chain reaction of changes to the seating arrangements snow balls, has anyone thought that just maybe, the one daily flight out of Urgench airport might just be booked to capacity, and this pointless altering of seats will just continue to screw up the entire throng of passengers?

Then the angry screaming starts. There was another mother and small child, at least two and a half, sitting behind us, now squished into the window seat with the two guys next to her. She is clearly unhappy, and it seems that she should have two seats, one for her, and one for her child – which makes sense as the baby is way too big to sit on her lap for the flight. The confronted hostess, the same one who seated us, deals with this new outburst by calling upon her superior, who comes out from behind the curtain, and they have a fiery debate over the situation in the isle – very professional. The superior then enters into an even angrier interchange with the mother, eventually just pointing at her watch and saying something like “deal with it, we’re taking off” – once again, very professional.

Meanwhile the two big blokes start up as well, about how they should be in the seats in front – where we are. Now who is going to look to be the problem in all of this? Clearly, the two foreigners who cannot defend themselves in the local tongue. The surrounding rows of passengers are all speaking animatedly, looking at us, gesturing at us, whilst all the while the mother behind us is screaming angrily, her baby in tears.

Did I mention that now the plane is taking off? The hostesses have pissed off behind the curtain to avoid the commotion, and return when we are in the air, but still climbing. The negotiations start, and the guys behind us ask to see our tickets. We show them, and gesture down the plane, “Yeah we know – we’re meant to be down in Row 10!”

The mother behind us is still yelling, her baby crying, the two guys protesting, and everyone in the near vicinity looking at us as if we have caused this entire issue.

All this because the woman five rows back decided to just sit wherever she wanted to, and happened to choose our seats, and then one hostess decided that instead of doing the right, professional thing, i.e. remove the lady in the wrong seat, and then deal with the problem, has just let her stay there, and then began to screw up the entire plane – with the consent of her superior.

The aeroplane still climbing – seat belt light on – the hostesses decide to send us back to our proper seats. WHERE WE SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE WHOLE TIME. The mother who stole our seats (I understand that having a baby on a plane would not be easy – you need space, but just taking any seats you want is not right!) is finally relocated to where her ticket says she should be; the two guys have their proper seats; and the screaming mother and toddler have their seats. As we sit down, the people around us are looking at us, clearly thinking that we have either a) tried to sneak to the front of the plane and have now been duly punished, b) have kicked a young mother and baby out of their seats, or c) are at least responsible for the noise they were hearing coming from the front of the plane during lift off.

Troy has his very rare angry face on and is not talking. I sit down, sighing, profanities spilling out under my breath, and in the commotion, Troy has claimed the window. Dammit!

Then I feel the wetness under my leg. The f-words continue, (sorry Mum) and I cross my leg over the other to escape it. I obtain a towel from the hostess who started this entire f-up by moving us instead of the lady, and tell her that the seat is wet. Ooh yeah, she’s feeling bad now, but I’m too angry to find pleasure in the fact.

I try to put the towel under Troy’s wet leg, “It’s already wet anyway, don’t worry.” Oh dear. This will be a long hour flight. At least it’s only an hour. We sit in silence for most of it, until we both have the energy and the calmness to bitch about what just happened.

When we leave the plane, the passenger who started the whole thing offers me a smile as I pass. I give her nothing (very rare for me).

Troy saw her smile too. “Did you just smile at her?!”

“Hell no.”

One day this comedy of errors will be so amusing. Oh yes. One day.

“No problem!” my driver’s connected

The police man has approached my window to find out why our car is parked illegally in the middle of the road. It’s about 10:30pm, and Troy has run into a store, followed closely by our driver, Marat, who accompanies us to make sure we get a close to local price for things.

I tell the officer (redundantly, in English) that my driver is inside the market shop. He doesn’t look impressed, but when Marat exits the store and walks towards the car, the officer very quickly leaves us and returns to his police car.

We’re fairly certain our driver, Marat, uses driving tourists around as a cover for some sort of underworld, Russian Mafia type business. His blackberry ear piece is constantly in his ear as he drives, and he regularly connects with people about something or other, sometimes in heated exchanges, but they always end with him smiling. He wears classy sunglasses and is always well groomed, and he knows a lot of people along the routes we travel for our tour; we sometimes glimpse a quick hand over of a note to a guard at a checkpoint (okay, so that could be paying a legitimate toll or something), and as mentioned in the previous blog, he carries around with him copious amounts of cash (but granted, $20 in this currency is a wad of 44 notes).

I feel safe with Marat. He never fails to open my door for me, with a genuine “Please!”, and he buys us pots of tea, and shares with us Russian sweets, and bread baked by his wife – whom we assume does exist. His mouth is framed by a very impressive, impeccably kept, handle bar moustache and goatee, which is black except for two small grey patches on either side of the ‘flavour savour’ below his bottom lip. The hair on his head is grey, and on top of the fact that the morning after we met him we thought something had changed about his facial hair, it is impossible that his goatee is naturally coloured that way.

Everything for Marat is “No problem!” He always shrugs and puts out his hands when he replies this way – be it when we ask if we can stop at a place to buy beer, or ask if he will go and illegally change money for us. Marat has made our travel through Uzbekistan extremely enjoyable, and Mafia or no, it’s good knowing that anyone thinking of messing with you, sees your driver and thinks otherwise.

It was hard to get a picture of Marat – you’d think he was a wanted man or something.

Som currency!

Aah, Uzbekistan, your currency is infuriating me. Infuriating factor number 1: We were unable to exchange our Kazakh Tenge into Som in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a country that borders the length of Uzbekistan. So, without any idea of how much Som we would need, we crossed the border into Uzbekistan with no local currency. All we knew, having been briefed by our Almaty driver, was that Black Market money exchange is rampant in the country. Basically – you can get a 30% better rate by visiting (or getting a local to visit) an illegal exchange place, but if you go, and get arrested, you’ll be facing 15 years in prison. (Morat explains, laughing, “If you are from Uzbekistan, you’ll be fine, but you, no. And me, I’ll go to jail, because I am ex-Soviet!”)

Infuriating factor number 2 and 3: It is so hard to withdraw, and exchange money in Uzbekistan, and the highest note is 1000 Som (less than 50c). Tashkent, the capital, offers us hardly any options, but we are able to get $100 US from a hotel ATM, and we exchange $50 into Som. We receive 85,000 Som. That is 85 x 1000 Som notes. (A reason for wanting US dollars here – why carry 85 notes when you can have one?) Our wad of notes is almost an inch thick, and we struggle to put it anywhere – that many notes do not bend! Note – an illegal exchange of US $50, will get you 110,000 Som.

The pile of notes in the following photo is the equivalent of $50 US.

Infuriating factor number 4: It is hard to judge what is expensive and cheap, and you find yourself getting upset over a tub of yoghurt that has cost you 5000 Som, which is a meagre $2.50. (I understand this is not Uzbekistan’s fault, it is just confusing!)

After today’s tour where we had to unexpectedly pay entry fees to visit the glorious sights of Samarkand, we are out of money. Number 5: We can see that some people (locals, we assume) are paying a few hundred Som to enter these attractions, while we are being charged 6000 Som, a figure that is not written anywhere, our guide just tells us, and we believe him (still – not enough to cry about). Mid-way through the day we visit an illegal exchange place (a jewellery/souvenir store) and swap our last American dollars for a new wad of Som. (My heart was beating fast, but no police jumped out from behind a rug to nab us shonky foreigners.)

By the end of the day (okay, so I bought a $20 tea pot), we owed our hotel money for last night’s dinner and drinks – 30,000 Som, and we have no money. Today is Saturday. Infuriating factor number 6: No banks, no ATMs, nowhere to withdraw money is open on a Saturday or Sunday. (Factor number 6: spiffy hotel has no EFTPOS or Credit option.) Our driver has foreseen this problem occurring, and offers to lend us $100 to get us through to Monday when the banks will be open again. Our driver, is lending us money. We are embarrassed, but so grateful.

One more infuriating factor: you will be quoted a price in Euro or US dollars, but a vendor might not have change for you in that currency. To a girl, over a beautiful piece of Uzbek silk, “How much?” She said “10 dollars”. “Okay, I will give you a $50, and you give me change.” “Oh, no I can’t do that. How much Som do you have?” “No, I don’t want to spend my Som…” etc etc. Why quote a price in a currency in which you can’t give change?

If you come to Uzbekistan, bring US dollars. Don’t go into illegal exchange places alone, and never do money exchanges on the street, or on the border. However, get a local to change money for you (they’ll take a small cut) and you can get an extremely good rate on your dollars. Just be prepared to spend, the entry fees to monuments, and a beautiful souvenir, might see you borrowing money off your driver – who thankfully seems to always carry around a few inch thick wads of cash under his car seat.

And don’t forget to take a similar photo to the one below.

Bordering on Sanity

I peed in a softdrink bottle. An empty Sprite bottle to be more specific. 1.25 litres. And, before all you ladies marvel at my remarkable aiming skills, it was a Sprite bottle with the top quarter cut open. But did I mention I was on a train? I’ll start at the beginning of this somewhat too much information story.

The trains that run along the old Silk Road route, from China, through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and up to Russia, have their toilets locked when approaching, and for a while after, a stop at a station. This is because the waste is ‘flushed’ directly onto the train tracks. We had left Urumqi at midnight, and were almost at the China/Kazakhstan border after waking from as good a sleep as you can get in a bed that’s about 70cm wide, and alas – it was 8am, and we had reached the Chinese border, and the toilets were locked.

We alighted (scary at any time when you are unsure of how long your train will be stationary for), hoping for a toilet, and got waved back onto the train by a railway guard. Chinese border patrol dudes in their classy hats and red arm bands jumped on board, went through everyone’s luggage and took our passports for processing, whilst their colleagues manned the doors to prevent any passengers from doing runners. I answered the questions, opened my bags, and watched the man check my laptop for some sort of anti-communist information or photos, all the while holding my legs together – god my bladder was so full.

The whole process was still going at 11am, and I asked the conductor to use the toilet, not needing to fake the pained look on my face as I held my stomach. He gave me a sympathetic look and said something, I assume, as he pointed to the Chinese guards, that while they we there, no one was getting to pee. Not until, pointing at the 6 on my watch, half past 11. Feck.

I lay on my bed. I tried to think about something else. I couldn’t move. I was in pain.

“Pee in the bottle.” Troy says, reading my mind.

“I’m a girl, it’s not that easy to just pee into small spaces.” I say.

The rest, you don’t need to know about, but I was impressed with my aim, and shocked at how much my bladder held. It got dangerous, but we were ok. I would never have been able to hold it. And, especially as after the ‘leaving China’ border, we went 5 minutes down the track before spending another 2 and a half hours at the ‘entering Kazakhstan’ border.

Moral of the story? Wake up before a stop to get to the toilet before the opportunity has gone. And sometimes, you might just have to pee in a bottle.