A Travellerspoint blog

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Guesthouse Warning

Life on the roads is lived with strangers and no on the safe, familiar surroundings of your close friends. So sometimes, just sometimes, does bad thing happens.


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Sakura Guesthouse is the most popular guesthouse in Bishkek, and probably the best too, was unfortunately shaken by a rather disgusting event when I visited.

Thus is this a warning against staying there, or at least to stay alert when there.

During a Monday night of my stay there, the male owner of the guesthouse got very drunk with a group of guest on the roof terrace. While everybody else was down stairs, he soaked one female guest in vodka to a degree that she passed out. Having more sober friends around she was taken to her room and put to bed.
This, however, did not stop the owner from suddenly finding himself back on the roof terrace with her a little later. Locking the door from the outside, refusing to open, claiming he 'lost the key' when guests knocked, he proceeded rape (sexual assaulted seems too mild a term here) the passed out girl eventually leaving her on the roof.

I don't have all the details and most people had been drinking that night, but meeting the next afternoon everybody’s view of the event fitted surprising nicely together. Note that the there's windows next to the door and that guest could actually witness what was going on.

Both the guesthouse owner and the girl said they didn't remember anything from the night, so reporting this to the police didn't seem fruitful (and I doubt that the Kyrgyz police would have cared much)... Instead did the rest of us guest decided to write out warnings to out fellow travellers. Both through Lonely Planet and other guidebooks, and if we had any other means of communication - like this one.
After agreeing on that most of us left the guesthouse.

So this is my warning to my fellow travellers, especially female: Don't stay at Sakura Guesthouse, and if you do - don't go drinking with the owner!!

Posted by askgudmundsen 23:11 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged guesthouse bishkek sakura assualt Comments (0)

Climbing a Mountain

Battling altitude sickness, exhaustion and myself to reach a mountain top 5129 meters above sea level.

sunny 15 °C
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It feels like someone is standing on my chest and that my scull is suddenly too small, putting some heavy pressure on my brain. My ears are hurting because the air inside them is denser than on the outside and I can barely breathe. Every time I try to fill my lungs the thin air at 5100m height doesn’t suffice. The air is simply too thin to fill up my lungs. The only other feeling I can compare this to, is the feeling you have as a scuba diver when you’re running out of air.

The summit

The summit

But I can’t give up now! I’m just 30 meters from the peak; I just passed 20 meters of glacier and having seen the disappointment in my climbing buddy’s eyes when he had to halt before the glacier. I simply got to push on!

The day before had we left Osh (in Kyrgyzstan) and entered the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, passing 2500 meters above sea level, where the risk of altitude sickness sets in, on the way. From there our shared taxi made a rapid ascend over the 4282m Kyzyl-Art Pass coursing altitude sickness among two Americans in the car, before Mark and I got off at a guesthouse in the village of Karakul at a height of 3914m.
Insomnia is another altitude sickness symptom and after a bad night with little sleep we arrange for a four wheel drive to the village of Jalang. That village are a few hundred meters above Karakul and Mark and I was already struggling on the drive there.

Driving towards Mount Jalang

Driving towards Mount Jalang

The highest peak around the valley of Jalang reaches 5129m, but doesn’t officially have a name so we simply dubbed it Mount Jalang. We did the climb unassisted, leaving our driver waiting in the valley. Which, given our rapid ascent from Osh below 2500m, might have been a mistake as we didn’t have time to acclimatise (get used till the height and it’s thin air).

The climb itself is easy. No equipment is required and with some sturdy hiking shoes it’s possible to do it without myth trouble. Most difficult for us was to find our way around all the ice-covered and glacier-like parts of the mountain. Most of it was avoided though, by spending a couple of minutes assessing and planning our route up from below the mountain.

Melting glaciers

Melting glaciers

Climbing the first 800 (vertical) meters was absolutely exhausting. It took around three hours, but without the usual intake of oxygen the strength which had to be used for every step was multiplied. The difficulty of climbing in those conditions and using us out inner reserves also accelerated the symptoms of altitude sickness. And though I didn’t feel it before, all the symptoms set in during the clime.
Shortly before the peak we are met by an unforeseen stretch of icy, ½ meter thick, glacier blocking our path to the summit. There’s no way around it, and it continues up the mountain side for the next 20 meters. We have to go through it. But it is simply too cold, too steep and too hard for Mark, who already fought bravely to get this far. He’s gonna stay put while I take on the ice.

Mark struggling in the snow

Mark struggling in the snow

The spring sun has weakened the ice and for the first 10 meters am I simply stepping right through it. Nice and safe, even if I slip I’m gonna land in soft snowy ice. The last 10 meters are another story. Solid and at a 25 degree angle, a wrongly placed step could potentially send me tumbling down the slope. Easily for the next 50 meters. “If I’m unlucky,” I tell myself.
I get passed the ice, to more solid rocks, but the effort has taken away all, but my last reserves of physical power. Share determination is all that’s left. I came to conquer a +5000 mountain, and damn me if I’m gonna turn around 30 meters from the summit!

On the mountain's top

On the mountain's top

The summit is a flat rock, about a square meter in size. The winds up here are almost knocking me over, threatening to send me right down the slopes I just spend so must effort to climb. I manage to keep myself upright for just long enough to send a triumphant shout down towards Mark, before I, exhausted, collapses on the rock.

The altitude sickness have, luckily, not made me dizzy, so I’m fortunately enough to be able to enjoy one of the most impressive sights of my life. Deep in the Pamir Mountains, on the highest peak in the near vicinity, I can glace at minimum two rows of snow-covered peaks along the horizon all around me.
The view, the achievement, everything seems to suddenly energize me. After a short rest, the obligatory pictures and ‘Ask was here – 18.05.13’ carving in the rock (forgot a Danish flag, sorry), I fly down across the slope, slides over the glacier and reach Mark within minutes. He has moved a bit on to the main ridge of the mountain, where he has been treated an equally impressive view of the Pamirs on most of his horizon.

View from the summit

View from the summit

Given that our ascent was very steep, we decide to look for an easier path down. Still struggling in the thin air every step down feels like a blessing: symptoms fading; breathing becomes easier; and more refreshing oxygen reach our lungs.

Glaciers

Glaciers

But our troubles weren’t over yet. Every time we think we’d found a way down the mountain we are stopped by a thick, impenetrable layer of ice, forcing us to backtrack up the mountain. Having already passed the top, we don’t want to go all the way back over the mountain. So we start to go around the top – much with the same result. Just as I was beginning to think we were never going to get down we’d pass a glacier reaching no further than 15 meters down the mountain. Ploughing our way through, while hoping it’s not just another dead end, we’d finally found our way down.

Having spent longer that planned the driver had begun to look for us. Great was his relief when he saw us and great was ours when we finally was able to collapse in the back seats if his car!

Finally towards a bed

Finally towards a bed

It wasn’t as much fun as I’d thought climbing a mountain, but finally reaching the top was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done, making it all worth it. I climbed a mountain!

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:29 Archived in Tajikistan Tagged mountain climbing pamir karakul jalang Comments (3)

A Stroll on the Afghan Border

I admit it – I’m a travelling nerd: And I would gladly go out of my way just to step in Marco Polo’s footstep, get a glance of the Hindu Kush and wave across a river to some Afghans. So I did.

all seasons in one day 15 °C
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For the adventure the Wakhan Valley is a Tajikistan must-do. The valley marks the border between the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains and is by its own standard absolutely stunning. And there’s exiting in knowing that there; 50 meters away, across the Panj River, is Afghanistan – that big no-go that automatically draws the adventure.

Wakhan Valley

Wakhan Valley

So following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, who travelled through the valley in 1284, I set out for a stroll along the border.

The entry to the valley is through the main village of Ishkashim. Here is, on every Saturday, a trans-border market. And what is a ‘trans-border market’ you might ask. It’s just that: a market across, or rather, between the border posts of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A fairly unique kind of market with a unique location too: Situated on an island in the middle of the Panj River, with a bridge leading to each border.
The border post open at 9 am when hordes of traders gather outside (well, inside I guess) the gates, waiting to go out into no-man’s land. On each side border guards collect foreigner’s passports, so to actually cross the border is impossible. Adding to the market’s pull is the fact that this is probably the closest you can get to Afghanistan without actually crossing into the country. Complete with plenty of busy Afghan traders traditionally dressed in turbans and chapan.

Afghan carpet seller

Afghan carpet seller

From Ishkashim the Wakhan valley is dotted with scenic villages every few kilometers, with a few exceptions where the road has to climb parts of mountains stretching all the way down to the river. In all I made it about half way through the valley, partly on foot, partly by hitching, in a day’s time. Going back I had the change to visit castle ruins set on the mountains high above the valley floor and to soak in hot springs hiding between the rocks.

Afghan trader

Afghan trader

Having left most of my luggage behind, walking 25-30 km a day should be an easy achievement. However, when you keep getting stopped and invited for tea by the local inhabitants, it is hard to keep up the pace. What a luxurious problem! And it’s even a struggle to only stay around for tea. Accept the invitation for tea and that will soon be followed by an invitation for entire meals. Not being able to eat five lunches in a day, I usually managed a compromise, accepting some yogurt or sour milk instead of real food.
Finding a spot to sleep wasn’t much of a problem either. At dusk, walking through a village, someone would always come out and ask about my sleeping arrangements, and when I shrug my shoulders as in ‘I don’t know’ they would always offer me a bed to sleep in and a hot meal for dinner.

Homestay

Homestay

All in all it was an easy walk to do, and calling it a stroll seems right. But for the third day weather took a turn for the worse. Strong winds were blowing at me straight on and soon after noon started a pouring rain. Combine this with it being a Sunday – when all public transportation rests. To add to my bad luck I had hit one of those stretches without villages any villages to seek shelter in. All in I ended up walking, uphill and soaked to my bones for about 20 km.

Kids inviting for tea

Kids inviting for tea

Little traffic rolled by this day, with only four cars passing me in the morning when the weather was sound. Finally, after the heaviest of the raining had stopped an old Soviet truck rolled passed giving me a lift. Wet and cold, and with the truck heading all the way to Ishkashim I decided to call it a walk and finished my adventures for the time being – or so I thought.
Obvious grateful that I paid the gas for the trip (5 liters for about 6 dollars) the trucker invited me for dinner in his home in Ishkashim. As occasions often decree in these parts of the world, guests are celebrated with vodka. So with a little help from his wife (the first woman I’ve seen drinking in Central Asia) we killed off two 1.5 US$ bottles of vodka within a few hours. An easy task when shots come in 8 cl.

Homestay dinner

Homestay dinner

Not surprisingly we pretty much passed out after this. Somehow the wife still manages to get me some blankets before settling me for the night.

I was woken the next morning at 6 am – normal by local standards – with tea, coffee and fresh bread. The small family even arranged for my shared taxi to my next destination to come and pick me up.

Morning vodka

Morning vodka

But while waiting a friend of the family dropped by – and even though it wasn’t more than 8 in the morning yet another bottle of Russian spirit was put on the table. And by the time the driver picked me up we had finished most of it.

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:07 Archived in Tajikistan Tagged valley bazaar homestay ishkashim wakhan afghanistan Comments (0)

What if You had been Born Tajik?

Probably the most genuine hospitable people I’ve ever met. With so many invitations inside their houses it’s been impossible not to get a decent understanding of life in Tajikistan.


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Obviously there’s no such thing that a typical Tajik person, but how would your life have looked if you had been born as an average Tajik and not as you – sitting there confidently reading a blog?

Kids inviting me for tea

Kids inviting me for tea

If I learn one lesson during my time in Tajikistan it has been never to actually check in when arriving in a new town. Instead just visit the bazaar or one of the other sights – and wait for someone to invite you to spend the night with them in their home. That is if the driver or somebody else in the shared taxi I arrived in had already taken care of the invitation. I learn this the hard way – having to return to my hotel just to retrieve my backpack.
And if this is too much work are there plenty of formal homestays around to give you a thorough peak inside daily life. But back to the topic in question:

Homevisit - group photo

Homevisit - group photo

If you’re born as anything else than the youngest boy of the family are chances decent that you will get some kind of formal education. There are obvious differences between the big cities and the rural towns, but basics are the same. That is unless you’re born on a secluded farm, where you would grow up to help out on the farm – probably ending up marrying someone from a farm nearby.

If you’re a girl you would have spent your youngest years helping out in the house leaning all the skills of a mother and wife. From here it looks up and Central Asian women are genially educated better than the men. After ground school would you probably get some form of secondary education and maybe even get to attend university for a few years. Though most students outside of the cities can only afford attending a few months every year, as a position as a fulltime student will be around 2000 US$ a year (compare this with the average wage when we get there in the end).

Yurt-visit

Yurt-visit

If everything goes right – there’s a big risk that devoice, miscarriage, abusive husband, etc. will step in your way – you’ll probably have a job in the service sector (anything from banking to cleaning) or teaching. And you would by all changes have become married and a mom in your early twenties.

It’s a bit more complicated for boys. Most of your childhood have been fun, playing around, only doing choirs when your father needed something (often vodka). That is if your father doesn’t work abroad in Moscow or somewhere else in Russia. When finishing ground school you’d probably be sick of school and, with your fathers blessing, look for a job in trade or construction, as a merchant or a driver or join the armed forces.

Sneaky kids

Sneaky kids

If you get any further higher education changes are good that you’ll end up in administration or the police (where you’ll have to pay for your own education as well). And you will definitely be a dad by your mid-twenties!

Coming back to that unlucky last born boy now: Most families get one (of if it’s a girl two) children about ten years after the last of their other children. If that is you, here’s the reason:
This matches nicely with you being old enough to take over your fathers business and support your parents when they retire. As the last born son you’ll grow up with this expectation watching over your every move. There will be no hope – don’t even dream about it – of going further than ground school. Your father will take you under his wing and take care of your education from here on.

Afghan trader

Afghan trader

For the heroic deed of supporting your parents in their retirement you will be avoided the family house. While your brothers will struggle to find a new home and your sisters will move in with their husbands, your wife will settle with you in a room next to your parents – so they better get along!

No matter whom you are arranged – or at least agreed marriages – are by far the norm. No way you’ll be able to marriage someone your family doesn’t approve of, the family ties are simply to strung, and if you cut these ties you’ll lose your social security netting for life. So better fall in love with someone from the right family, with the right job and education (sometimes that is ‘none’) to be able to married them.

Local wedding party

Local wedding party

In a country where 40 % of the population officially lives for less than 2 dollars a day is reality a little different. Many have big herds that do not count in the official statistics, children’s income (it’s there!) do not count, neither do family related income earned abroad and sent back home. And illegal income, most in drug-money from transiting opium and heroin from Afghanistan (about half of the country’s GDP) is not recorded anywhere.

Pamir grandma/-son

Pamir grandma/-son

The real poverty here, when we take the cheap living conditions into account, is the lack of choices. Too many Tajiks can’t afford to take a day off, let alone a vacation. Too many have never left their region and few will ever be able to afford to move out of the house they currently life in, which is often inherited.
Poverty in Tajikistan is not so much in going hungry to bed, it’s eating the same three dishes day in and day out. Without any change, year after year, unless there’s a wedding or a birthday. It’s the low, low living standards that most people will never have the possibility to get out off.

A job getting water

A job getting water

It’s the knowledge that your life will probably not improve over the 400 dollars an average public employee earns in a month…

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:16 Archived in Tajikistan Tagged life poverty local-life average_wage tadjikistan Comments (1)

What to Wear in Central Asia

Going abroad, on travel or vacation, the clothes you choose to wear can have a severe impact on your time. Everything, from haggling over prices to dealing with embassies, even your personal safety.


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It’s not just because I, as an independent traveller, feel superior to the charter tourist with their spoiled attitude, cluelessness to where they are and the fact that they let themselves be herded around like sheep by a guide. Both tourists and travellers, ignorant to how they present themselves, do not only show how out of place they are, they also might anger the local population and could even put themselves at risk unnecessarily.

Shirt and trousers

Shirt and trousers

Central Asia might not be as dangerous as, say, Central America, or as conservative as the rest of the Islamic world, but it is still far from what we’re used to in the West.
You just need to look at the local population to get an idea about how you are supposed to look and dress. Nobody, except capital-based teenagers and kids, would be wearing shorts, a dirty and holed t-shirt or crocs. Not in Central Asia and not in a lot of other places you might be more likely to find yourself. So neither should you (and no one should wear crocs anywhere)!

Let me break it down in steps. First: most cultures around the world, Central Asia included, tend to be more conservative than the West. Thus are flashing (too much) skin in public frowned upon as something that belongs indoors at home. Second: People outside the West is just as concerned about how they look as people from the West. Thus even the poorest guy will find some nice trousers and a decent shit when he leaves home. Thirdly: Many religious sanctuaries mosques and mausoleums in Central Asia, but also plenty of churches and temples in the rest of the world, demands that their visitors cover up and hide their body shapes.

Watch the locals!

Watch the locals!

But should you as an intelligent, modern person bow down to these primitive ideas? If you’re truly are intelligent; yes! Though you might think so, the western culture (with its sex-sells attitude and nude magazines in child-height) can’t claim any moral high ground to cultures that frown upon sexuality. But more importantly; you are a guest in a foreign country! Try not to upset you hosts by playing with their rules, just a little… Lastly, it will actually improve your experience of the place your visiting if you trying to fit in.
Just like learning the local greetings of where you’re going, dressing respectfully will get you are friendlier attitude from the locals, who won’t be ashamed inviting you for tea or a meal. Looking respectfully will also help you at embassies and religious sanctuaries and might even get sellers at locals bazaars (in un-touristic towns) to set their starting prices closer to local standards.

So dressing conservatively might open the local hearts and get you in to mosques, but how can I claim that you dress can put your personal safety at risk? Because looking like a tourist makes you stand out, not only as a rich foreigners, but also as a person who don’t have many local connections or know where the police station where the police probably wouldn’t care anyway. A tourist is thus an easy target, who probably got a lot of cash and valuables on them.

Making friends

Making friends

How can dressing conservatively help you? I’ll hereby give some tips from a former Guatemalan inmate I chatted about this with a few years ago in Guatemala City.
Beside make you stand less out, what good will it do you? Dressing respectfully, like everybody else, will not cover up the fact that you are a foreigner, but it can help you avoid troubles like muggins and armed robberies. Dressing like you know the local standards might just mean you’re a foreign student or working in the country, not tourist. The differences for a potential mugger are that you might then stay around just long enough to make the police look around for your stuff. Even worse you could have some powerful local connections.
And if you clearly illustrate that you have thought about, or know, how to dress you would definitely know not to bring huge stacks of cash on you out into town. You will come off clearer as somebody who knows what they are doing and who is in control of the situation – even though you might not be. So why would they rob you, when the person in shorts and crocs behind you might be a safer and better target…?

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:39 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged travel clothes dress Comments (0)

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