Day 6 – The Inaccessibility of Tashkent

Has it really been more than a week since the 7 and a half hour flight back to London Heathrow, how time flies when you are having fun (or working!).

Anyway, let’s delve back into the sixth day of my Central Asia adventure. As it was our last full day in Uzbekistan, we remained in Tashkent and, after a lazy morning i.e. me catching up on work enquiries, it was time to trek up to the TV tower for a majestic view of the city. Now, as the Tashkent metro is completely inaccessible i.e. down flights of steps, we decided to walk for which trusty Google Maps informed us would take 52 minutes down one straight road, simple! However, as we were in no rush, we agreed to take the scenic route and zigzag our way to the tower through the suburbs (as that is where you see the real city i.e. not the commercial hubbub) and its ‘lifestyle’, needless to say, we ended up a little lost.

If you thought the city centre was a little inaccessible, try walking through the suburbs with massive water gullies dissecting the pavement…(even an able bodied individual would have to watch out for these!):

It must have been a good 2 hours before we reached the majestic tower weaving our way through the streets (and up and down steps) until we discovered the entrance to the structure…

During my travels, I have come to realise that observation decks are generally well equipped for wheelchairs (even if it does mean going through the rear) but this is Uzbekistan we are talking about hence you can guess what the first obstacle was…

It seemed rather strange though as there was a perfectly good ramp up to the entrance. Anyway, the tower presented some great views of the city…

We were all delighted to have discovered the road which we should have walked up afterwards hence it was a straight 52 minute road back to the Hotel Uzbekistan (stopping at ‘Chesters’ restaurant to sample the Uzbeks version of the British cuisine…not a bad attempt) for our final night!

Day 5 – The Madness of Kazakhstan

It was another 6am start as our driver took us to the Kazakhstan border with the vision of having a day tour in and around Shymkent, the third largest city in the country. I did have some expectations that the border would be tricky to cross due to the nature of the two countries but I think nothing could prepare you for the absolute madness. You see these mad border crossings on TV full of people selling tat with stray dogs hanging around but it’s not until you experience it yourself that you realise the craziness of it all (oh and about 6 passport checks!)…

After 30ish minutes of walking through various passport buildings (with some of my furry friends flying around inside!), we stepped into Kazakhstan where our guide, his English translator (Bob) and driver met us. This is when it starts getting a little confusing, we had been driving through the Kazakhstan countryside/desert for approximately 3 hours when we discovered that the tour company wished to take us to the ‘Ancient City’ which would be another hour (bear in mind that we only had a day!). We were all getting slightly bored so it was at this point that Bob took control and asked if we could scrap that idea and just visit the Arystan Bab Mausoleum before heading back to Shymkent. For the next 30 minutes, we took some ‘country’ roads through the desert passing all kinds of animals including camels strolling along the road…

The Arystan Bab Mausoleum is basically what it says but contains a mosque also. When I travel to countries that have strong religious beliefs, I always seem to create some reaction and this is was exactly what happened. Whilst walking around the mosque area, I was approached by a local asking for a selfie with us all whilst thanking us for visiting. The woman then proceeded to introduce us to her family i.e. her husband, son and daughter which is apparently a Kazakh tradition.

After our encounter with the locals, we took yet another 90 minute drive back to Shymkent (by this time it was 4pm and we had to be over the border by 8pm!) for a traditional feast…

One thing to note in Kazakhstan is that ‘holes’ are present in many areas instead of toilets and even when you have actual loos, they may not be the most accessible! This resulted in a short drive to Shymkent Plaza, a shiny new shopping mall complete with a cinema etc (basically your average mail in the UK) which is a prime example of Kazakhstan’s increasing wealth…

The plan thereafter was to visit Independence Square until was discovered that the border was another 90 minutes from the city (it was 6:15pm) thus this idea was scrapped and we headed straight back and into Tashkent.

Although we spent most of the day stuck in the van on Kazakh motorways, there seems to be a stark difference surrounding accessibility and the general attitude towards disability. Bob explained that, in several cities, there are community projects aiming to get disabled people ‘out and about’ which may explain why the Kazakh society seem to be more comfortable around them. Oh and there are plenty of ramps (well compared to Uzbekistan).

Definitely need to go back!

Situation Outside The Hotel Uzbekistan

As Saturday was our first rest day, there is little to report bar eating and drinking thus I thought it would be appropriate to explain the situation outside the hotel.

Now, the hotel is situated on a circular road system, however, instead of an actual circle, it has rather straight bits, perfect for Uzbek boy racers to whizz around hence in the middle of the night, all you can hear is tyres screeching, what a wonderful sound it is!

Day 3 – The Road (Or Bullet Train) To Samarkand

It was a 5:30am start yesterday as we headed to Tashkent railway station to catch the Uzbeks version of the bullet train two hours down to Samarkand for a city tour. As with most places in Uzbekistan, the station consisted of a flight of stairs up to the concourse with no lift to be seen. As a result, we were escorted around the rear by security and into the business lounge whilst we waited for this majestic train. Slightly concerning was the fact that a song bird was locked up in a cage in the lounge with a microphone sounding the actual bird song into the area, isn’t that animal cruelty?

Soon the magnificent train awaited…

Now, the train was actually built in Spain and therefore has to comply with Spanish access legislation so I was a little confused when the train staff decided to lift the wheelchair themselves onto the train! It turns out that there is a ramp onboard in plain sight but when we questioned the staff whether we could use it, the responses were either ‘maybe’ or ‘not possible’…shows how many wheelchair users use the trains in Uzbekistan!

Anyway, Samarkand, after meeting our tour guide and driver at the station, we were escorted around the city stopping at notable sights such as Ulugh Beg Observatory which was one of the first places where time was observed…

When wandering around this architectural marvel of a city, one thing I noted, especially in Registan Square was the amount of ramps in place (albeit some made out of marble so rather slippy!). It seems that Samarkand are much more (well in Uzbek standards anyway!) geared up for wheelchair users, maybe it gains more tourists than the nations capital…

Another thing that I have noticed since being in Uzbekistan is how cheap everything is i.e. you can easily have a three course meal (with three people) for approximately £30…certainly not breaking the bank on this trip?

Today is a chill day in and around the hotel before we travel over the border (and a time zone) to Shymkent in Kazakhstan 🙂

Day 2 – Tashkent City

When you think of a disabled travelers bucket list, let alone one of an able bodied traveler, it is unlikely that a visit to the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent appears on there. However this is me we are talking about and we all know that the more obscure a country is, the better!

Anyway, today we were delighted to be taken on a private tour of the city. Tashkent fools you a little as the city centre is pretty small yet it does sprawl out over a considerable area. The first stop on this tour was the Tillya Sheikh Mosque which possesses magnificent architecture (which I believe we will see more of tomorrow when we head down to Samarkand)…

The second stop on our wonderful tour was the Chorsu Market which I think is the largest fresh food and drink market in Tashkent, think of London’s Market but on a massive scale…

Now, the traffic in Tashkent is OK (you still take your life in ones hands when crossing roads), however, it’s just a freefall surrounding the market area which is slightly hair raising to say the least (I now have Uzbekistans version of a pidgin at the window…odd looking birds)…

Next was Tashkent’s Independence Square (formerly Red Square when under the Soviet regime) surrounded by various governmental buildings, one of the things that has struck me since being here is the cleanliness of the city akin to Belarus and China thanks to the amount of street cleaners scattered all over…

Finally, it was the Museum of Fine Arts which was formerly a Russian officials house and contains over 11, 000 artifacts from various cultures (mainly Persian) and eras…

I should really discuss the citys accessibility…well it is a good job Superbunny didn’t come along as I think that the majority of our time would be spent either looking for drop curbs or on busy roads as the pavements look flat and then a flight of steps confronts you…Also, there aren’t any wheelchair accessible vehicles which is a stumbling block before you even start! Akin to China, there are ramps but it takes a while to actually find them and many are very steep hence there is a chance that you may end up killing yourself!

It’s a 5am start tomorrow as we head to the railway station to catch the Uzbeks version of a ‘bullet’ train (basically a Spanish TGV) 2 hours to Samarkand situated in the south where another city tour will happen 🙂

Days 0/1 – Death Days

Some may say just even getting to Uzbekistan is an achievement, however, visiting the ‘Stans’ has been on the bucket list for quite a while and here I am!

Now, before I start blabbing about the exciting stuff, I must say that Heathrow really needs to sort it’s Terminal 4 car park structure with regards to its entrance and exit. The reason being that, whilst hunting for Purple Parking, we visited various car parking levels, once we reached the bottom level, we were still unable to find it. Now, common sense suggests that you gradually make your way back up searching the levels once again but no, the car park at T4 requires you to exit and re enter said car park at higher levels paying £4.90 each time!

Anyway, back to the Heathrow airport experience, I think that I have discussed this to death in previous posts so I will spare the boredom this time (bar the fact that it went without a hitch!). It has recently occurred to me that traveling this way around the world i.e. moving forward through time zones is much harder than going back in time i.e. London to America, especially when it is a night flight hence today feels very much like a death day!

As I mentioned previously, we are staying at the Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent, one of the reasons being that it is one of the only accessible hotels in the city. Bar from looking a little outdated, it offers all the usual features i.e. roll in shower, seat plus a massive room…

As I booked my Uzbekistan trip through Exodus Travels, all the itinerary has been taken care of thus tomorrow we are having a private tour of this magnificent city 🙂

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan Itinerary

The sudden realisation that I’m traveling over to Central Asia this coming Tuesday terrifies me, not because of the actual places but the thought that we are just over 75% of the way through 2019…almost 2020!

Anyway, yes, you are probably thinking exactly why is one traveling to Uzbekistan of all places? That’s a very good question to ponder upon, one of which I do not have a detailed answer for, Central Asia seems an intriguing place to explore (bar Afghanistan?). For this week long trip, we are basing ourselves in the capital of Uzbekistan and the largest city in Central Asia, Tashkent staying in the Hotel Uzbekistan which is famous for its Soviet architecture.

During the trip, we have excursions planned to Samarkand (traveling on the almost new ‘bullet train’, yes, you heard that correct, Uzbekistan has a ‘bullet train’ which, rather embarrassingly reaches higher speeds than our IETs in the UK!) in addition to a day trip over the border in Shymkent.

Samarkand is situated along the old silk road which used to bring trade including silk and ceramics from China to Europe hence possesses magnificent architecture which has stood for many generations.

Why Shymkent? I have always wanted to visit Kazakhstan (not because of Borat may I add) and, as the city lies just a hour or twos drive from Tashkent, it seems the perfect opportunity to tick this country of the bucket list. I don’t quite know what is in Kazakhstans third largest city but the travel company has reassured me that a day can be made of the place!

Should be a fun adventure stepping into the unknown once again 🙂

Day 7 – 24 Hours in Minsk

We arrived at our Minsk hotel, Hampton by Hilton late yesterday evening where luxurious rooms (well compared to the Ibis) awaited us! The rooms are much more spacious along with all the usual accessibility features i.e. shower seats. However, the pinnacle of this is that my room overlooks the main train station meaning that trains are arriving/departing as I type!

As today was our only day in the city, we headed out to search for the centre passing Soviet built structures along the way…

The centre itself isn’t overly big in size meaning that you can see the majority of landmarks in a matter of hours such as Victory Square…

When walking around the city, I noted that the majority of shops and restaurants have steps at some stage (indoors even when a ramp is outside). Another thing to note is that the main avenues adopt a similar underpass system as China complete with steps meaning that you may end up walking quite a while to reach an over ground crossing point!

Our plan after lunch was to simply have a wander back along Prospekt Nezavisimosti (the main street/avenue in Minsk) back to the hotel via an observation tower when we were pleasantly diverted. Whilst attempting to figure which tower was the correct one, we were approached by a guy in a wheelchair plus a ‘social worker’ (who had apparently seen us wandering around earlier) asking the PAs if they were volunteers for a Belarusian charity who provides summer camps for the disabled. After chatting for a while, they invited us to hop onto the metro with them (at an inaccessible station but it was clear that they were pros at the steps business!) out of the centre to a ‘hipster’ neighborhood complete with street art and quirky cafés/restaurants. It is probable that we would never have found it without them..

Regarding the Minsk metro accessibility, once you are down on to platform level, the gap between the edge and the train is minimal (Superbunny would of definitely cleared it). At our destination station, there was a series of ‘platform lifts’ to street level.

Tomorrow, we head back out to Minsk Airport to catch our flight back to the UK hence concluding this trip! Watch out for the itinerary of my next adventure to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in September…

Day 6 – The Vilnius Airport Experience

Our strategy for today was simple, GET INTO BELARUS! As our flight wasn’t until the evening, we had plenty of time to visit the Old Town one last time. After spending 5 days in Vilnius, I think we came to know the lay of the land far too well!

Our short Uber experience out to the airport was rather…unhelpful? The best bet if you are a wheelchair user is to contact the ‘Maltieciai’ service (who we transferred with when we arrived in Lithuania) as it is unknown what size vehicle to expect (even for a manual wheelchair!).

Now, when I think of airports i.e. Bristol or Heathrow, I envisage them being surrounded by hotels, car parks etc, not an airfield literally around the back of a conventional industrial estate, oh, and an IKEA to peruse whilst waiting for check-in! Vilnius airport with its Soviet styled exterior isn’t the biggest airport in the world but it has all you need plus a number of disabled toilets!

We flew to Minsk National Airport (or airfield as the hostess put it!) with Belavia (a Belarusian airline) and had a flight time of just 35 minutes. As a result, our plane wasn’t the biggest and I have noted that small aircraft and wind do not mix thus the PAs had a very exciting flight…or perhaps not!

Seeing the airport from the air did confirm my expectations of it being an ‘end of the motorway’ structure surrounded by fields and trees…the air quality was pleasantly nice stepping out from the marble and pristine terminal! As I mentioned originally, there are no publicly known wheelchair taxi services in Belarus so your opinions are to catch an accessible bus OR to catch a conventional taxi. We opted for the latter taking 40 minutes and costing a mere 150 Belarusian Rubles!

Tomorrow is our only day in Minsk so let’s see how that goes…

Day 5 – Oh Visas, Visas, Visas

Well it wouldn’t be a trip without a hiccup would it now? When planning this trip originally, I was going to fly from Vilnius to Minsk rather than catching the train but soon opted for the latter simply for ease. During the train booking, I completely forgot (until this morning when I was checking everything) that in order to enter Belarus without a visa, you must fly in and out of Minsk National Airport. If you wish to travel over the international borders via any other means, you still need to obtain a visa prior to your trip otherwise face deportation, little contradictory to the word ‘visa free’, don’t you think?

Annoyingly, I discovered this a hour or two after todays flight to Minsk had departed (it had to be the day that the flight departure time was 09:25am instead of 6:40pm) hence we have another night in Vilnius before catching a 35 MINUTE FLIGHT tomorrow evening simply to cross the Belarusian ‘checkpoint’! One positive of this situation is that tomorrows flight cost less than £190 for all 4 of us!

As a result, we only have 1 day to explore Minsk so a strategic plan has been devised to make the most of it hence you may not hear from muggins for a while (well until I return to the UK and sort my life out!) but we will still be Instagramming/Tweeting until home time on Wednesday…

(Definite lesson learnt here that if a country says it is ‘visa free’, it may not mean that you can travel over any old section of the border!)