The sky is completely clear, the full moon and the stars are reflected like tiny diamonds in the snow, illuminating the night. I can see the outlines of the snow covered mountains around me, the warm light of a small mountain village on the other side of the valley and in the distance the lights of Tashkent casting a faint glow in the night sky. There is no wind at all and it is absolutely silent, except the crispy sound of my own footsteps in the fresh snow as I am walking through the night.
It is day 57 of our journey to Brazil, I am in Beldersoy in the Alatau Mountain Range in Uzbekistan where I have come to experience skiing in Central Asia. I am positively surprised - great snow, friendly people, excellent free-riding even though ancient ski lifts! Compared to the ski lifts here, even the tattered lifts in Iran were high technology. After dinner, I decided to go for a walk and what I intended to be a short stroll turned into a 2 hour walk under the stars. Surrounded by this serene nature and silence, I feel a deep sense of peace – the last time I felt like this was during my night drive from Djibouti to Ethiopia which seems and actually is a world away.
Yesterday, I explored Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital and Central Asia's largest city, a peculiar place – megalomaniac futuristic buildings standing empty, taxi drivers racing down broad Soviet-style avenues, men wearing long quilted coats cart vegetables through a maze of mud-walled houses towards a vibrant bazaar where young and old women and men sell just about everything you can imagine while displaying their impressive gold teeth. These appear to be a status symbol in Uzbekistan and they flash them at me whenever they can. As I am wandering through the market, every second stall owner offers me something to eat – nuts, fruits, spicy local cheese, fermented milk, oriental sweets – after an hour roaming around here, I no longer need dinner!
Some things here in Uzbekistan are just like in Kenya – in the evenings, people gather in bars to watch British Premier League – I watched the Chelsea-ManU match in a crowd of mainly Uzbek men who were just about as passionate about their favorite team as their Kenyan counterparts would be in Nairobi's CBD. When talking about the football World Cup, they all get excited - they support either the Spanish, Brazilian or – surprise – German team.
After another day of skiing, I embark on what I believe should be a 7-8 hour journey from Tashkent to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. What I have utterly ignored – even though I should have known better - is the fact that the road to Bishkek passes for a stretch of 500km through Kazakhstan. This means that I have to cross two borders on this journey which as it turns out this is totally unrealistic in one day. The border crossing from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan is the most challenging I have had so far – the immigration and customs staff don't speak any English at all and all forms are written only in Cyrillic alphabet. I am trying to fill them with the help of my Russian self-teach phrase book and the results make the border staff exclaim their frustration with this illiterate foreigner!
The ex-Soviet mentality comes through here very visibly as border staff are incredibly slow and indifferent – at one point, I am standing at the only immigration counter and in spite of the long queue, the border official decides to close his counter and has a cigarette break in the face of all the people waiting in the cold. After 4 hours at the border and another thorough check of all my bags which include the repeated emphatically acted out questions whether I carry any arms or drugs, I am finally through and enter Kazakhstan – to a slight shock: Kazakhstan is the first country on our journey so far where all street signs are written only in Cyrillic! To read street signs, I have to stop and consult my Russian phrase book as for example the Russian word for hotel – "Gastinitsa" in Cyrillic letter reads "ГОСТИНИЦА" – my mind is swirling as I am trying to convert each word from Cyrillic to Latin letters and then translate from Russian to English!
The roads in Kazakhstan compete with Kenyan roads 6-8 years ago – even with a Landcruiser, the potholes at times take my breath away and by the time I reach the first town it is 9pm and I am exhausted. Andreas, my travel companion, is due to arrive in Bishkek, another 450km away, early the next morning but I am too tired to continue and decide to look for a hotel, not an easy task in itself given the Cyrillic alphabet!
After 3 hours of sleep, my alarm clock rings at 2am and I continue the journey through the night, initially through dreadful rain which eventually turns into a snow storm. There are hardly any other cars on the road and I am driving through virgin snow on the potholed highway - after the short night I am extremely tired and struggle to stay awake, visibility is very poor and to add insult to injury, Pele's windscreen wiper fluid has frozen. I am relieved when finally the sky turns from black to grey and the new day dawns. At the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border, there are thankfully some English speaking people and when I explain our route from Africa to Brazil to the customs official, he just shakes his head in disbelief ...
Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country which consists almost entirely of high mountains and of course we try out skiing here as well. The Kyrgyz equivalent to the Iranian Shesha on the ski slopes are shashlyk (delicious meat skewers) and of course vodka. At Orlovka ski resort, some locals spontaneously invite us to their barbeque during the lunch break from skiing – after 4 shots of vodka, we understand why the local men chase down the slopes as if they were participating in a win or die ski racing competition, a hilarious but also scary sight given their very limited skiing abilities!
A surprise in Kyrgyzstan are the ever-present Kenya tea adverts on huge billboards on the side of the road.
This is why people in Kyrgyzstan all are aware of Kenya. When they ask us where we come from and we respond with "Kenya", they are baffled and tend to mimic a giraffe, elephant or rhino to check if they have understood correctly.
After 4 days in Kyrgyzstan, we leave north for Kazakhstan, with some anxiety on our mind – temperatures in Central Asia have been bearable but the weather forecast predicts a cold front and -35°C in Kazakhstan and Russia. What do -35°C feel like? Will diesel fuel freeze below -25°C as we are told it does? Will Pele make it through these temperatures? We are heading into the cold!