money

Back in the (Former) USSR

I’ve been off the bike for a whole week.

I’m feeling a little bit chubby, and a little bit lazy.  Especially lazy, as I watch from my warm room as yet another band of cold rain strafes Tashkent.

It’s been worth the time off, I think.  A few days to recharge, and to ready myself for a lot of long, hard miles to come.  And a little time to adjust to the cultural and meteorological differences between India and Uzbekistan makes the change less stressful.

And it really is a different world on this side of the Hindu Kush.

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I was a little nervous flying over Afghanistan on the way here (above).  Not because I was worried about flying over Afghanistan, but because of some of the stories I’d read about Uzbekistan.

It’s apparently impossible to get hold of dollars here, as the handful of cash machines in the country are always empty.  And I wasn’t sure I’d managed to collect enough in India to get across Uzbekistan.  Customs apparently take your bags apart, searching for prescription drugs, undeclared cash and pornography.  And the currency is apparently so shot that you have to take your money around in carrier bags (due to the fact that the highest note here is only 1000 Soms).

All very dramatic and a bit worrying.  And mostly not quite right (dollar cash machine working, customs polite, bags scanned but unsearched).  Although the currency is definitely shot, and my Uzbek Som are, indeed, in a carrier bag…

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As it turns out (so far, at least), I feel surprisingly at home here.  Yes, it took a few minutes to get India out of my system.  I got in the wrong side of the taxi at the airport.  I gawped at the cleanliness and quietness of the streets on the way into town.  And I thought I might have gone deaf for a moment, due to the almost total lack of honking.  We even stopped at a pedestrian crossing to allow people to cross.  It was all a bit disorientating.  Disconcerting, even.

But, fairly shortly after arriving at my magnificently old-school Soviet hotel (above), I realised that I actually knew how things worked here, and that I was probably going to enjoy myself.  Not that the relatively posh hotels will last for long, mind you…

I was lucky enough to spend many months in the former Soviet Union when I was (a lot) younger, as countries crashed, recovered and crashed again in the 1990s and the noughties.  And I speak enough Russian to get by (it’s the common language here).  By the time I’d had my second conversation about unofficial money changing (with the second person I spoke to – it’s a national sport over here), things were starting to come into focus for me.

The currency here is, indeed, something of a mess.  The government sets the official rate (currently just under 2900 Som to the dollar).  The market sets a more realistic rate (currently around 6600).  Although you’re unlikely to get quite the market rate as a foreigner, you can get close with a bit of haggling (another national sport).  You can see both rates here.

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The dual exchange rate basically halves the cost of anything which is priced in dollars.  Which means that dollar prices initially appear really expensive.  For example, my SIM card and internet package, which was outrageously priced up at $35, actually cost more like $17.  Still very pricey, compared to South East Asia and India, but not too bad.  And, unlike India, it worked as soon as I bought it.

While it’s no longer true that the biggest Uzbek note is 1000 Som (less than 20 cents), things have not changed that much.  The biggest note is now 5000 Som, which is still less than $1 at the ‘real’ rate.  The picture above is a million Som, or less than $200.  And it’s still pretty bulky.

Apart from readjusting to life in the 1990s, I’ve spent my two days in Tashkent generally staring at driving rain.  I managed a couple of little strolls, to inspect the impressive city centre buildings, but the weather has been woeful here since I arrived.

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I’ve also been enjoying the widespread availability of proper cheese, which is an immense step forward.  And I unpacked and rebuilt the bike today, alleviating the last of the major concerns that were bothering me over Afghanistan.  As always (so far!), the bike survived the flight with no obvious problems, and is ready to hit the road tomorrow (Friday).

And it’s hitting the road in a big way over here.  Most riding days will be over 100 km, as I head south-west for a long, long way, before turning to head north-west to Kazakhstan (for another long, long way).  Ancient cities, camels, and long desert days should be in the offing.

There are likely to be some tough days ahead.  But for now, I’m fed, rested, and raring to go.  The Silk Road is calling, and I’m excited to see what it brings.  As long as the rain stops, I’ll be happy…

Plan B

Five nights in the San Diego area so far, and one more to come.  I’m hitting the road again tomorrow morning (Monday).  But there’s been a bit of reflection, thinking, reality-checking and re-planning going on.  If you’ve read the ‘About’ page, you know I never made any promises about sticking to the original plan.

There’s also been a bit of ‘rest and relaxation’ at a busy travellers’ hostel, which has led to me needing some rest and relaxation.  It’s hard work keeping up with the youngsters nowadays.  Especially when you discover that you genuinely are older than some of their parents.  Ouch!

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I’ve learned a few things along the way on this trip.  Not entirely surprising, as this is my first long bike ride.  I knew I could manage my target mileage, at least in the short term.  I knew that I’d be happy travelling by myself most of the time.  And I knew that other tourers can complete long-term, intercontinental touring on miniscule budgets.  It only made sense that I could do the same, so I planned accordingly.

But here are a few of the more relevant pieces of knowledge I’ve attained over the last few months:

1.  While I can maintain a 50-mile-a-day average, it’s a little too athletic for my liking (this might be a roundabout way of saying that I’m a bit lazy).

2.  If I’ve spent a day straining and sweating on a bike, I really need a shower if there’s one available.  And I’m willing to spend money to have one.  I tried the wild camping thing, and after due consideration, have decided that it’s generally best left for dire emergencies, or places where there is nowhere at all to stay (this might be a roundabout way of saying that I’m getting too old to be filthy for days on end).

3.  If you add together the first two points, you still get a cheap (in terms of daily cost) trip.  But you don’t get one that’s going to cover all six rideable continents and three years.  Or at least, not without a much, much bigger budget.

So… Reality bites.

I really wanted to ride central and south America.  I also really wanted to ride around the world, from London to London.  But it’s very clear that I can’t (realistically) do both in one go.  I’ve had to work out what the priority is, and focus.

Going around the world generally involves moving in one direction.  Going to south America in the way I intended would take around a year, and cost a year’s worth of money.  And it would take me backwards in terms of moving around the world.  Heading directly around the world by heading to New Zealand would take 13 hours, and cost £600.  And it would take me a long way (a very long way) forward in terms of moving around the world.

There’s only one answer here.  South America will have to wait.  I’m flying to Auckland from LA on Saturday evening.  This is a bit gutting.  I was really looking forward to south America, as I’ve never been.  But it’ll probably still be there for a while.

On the other hand, there are some pluses.  I can keep a realistic daily budget for the trip.  I won’t have to live in hedges and eat earth all the way home.  And it’s probably only about 18 months from New Zealand, so people at home can buy me congratulatory pints sooner.  And I will circumnavigate the world on a bike, which is important.

So, it’s hobbits instead of tequila (a choice I never thought I’d have to make).

I tipped my hat to latin America yesterday, with an evening in Tijuana, Mexico.  It was very chilled out, clean and safe feeling despite the dire predictions of various people I’ve spoken to (and chunks of the international media).  And at least I can say that I’ve been to Mexico.  For a couple of hours.

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The frustration of knowing that ‘TJ’ would be as far as I got in latin America was offset a bit by some delicious beer, and a pile of tasty quesadillas with slightly alarming chilli sauce.  I think I could have got used to that sort of diet…

San Diego seems like a really nice town too.  No obvious ‘no-go’ areas, and easy access to the ocean, the mountains, and Mexico.  And some interesting buildings as well.  But I’ve been still and procrastinating for too long.  It’s time to head on.

20141017RTW_9I never intended to go anywhere near LA, but it’s where the flight is.  I’ll be meandering up the southern Californian coast over the next few days, and then repeating the ‘find a box, pack the bike, cross your fingers that the baggage handlers are real human beings’ process that I perfected in Lisbon.  It should be early summer in NZ, and I can take it fairly easy through there before hitting Australia to start the long ride home.

Still sounds like quite a good trip, actually…