Habibi, my Mellow Yellow Chariot

The start of the expedition with Oasis Overland. Some details about the truck and journey.

When I returned from the World Nomad Games to Bishkek, I saw a notice pinned to the front desk of the hostel inviting those joining the Oasis Overland expedition to meet the next day at 6pm, for an introductory meeting. The hostel was the Kyrgyzstan meeting point for people wishing to join the trip. Some people would leave at this point and others would join. The truck is almost in permanent motion, I think, travelling between London and Beijing and back again. People join at various points. The trip before me was a two week circuit of Kyrgyzstan. My part stops at Istanbul on 6 November while the truck continues onto London to start out on a new circuit. I didn’t know how many were joining, what the existing travellers were like, how many were leaving etc. A complete mystery.

I must confess to some apprehension about this. I let some ‘what ifs’ roost in my little old brain. What if there’s some gobshite who has no boundaries and invades everybody else’s and gets aggressive when challenged. What if there’s some narcissistic or borderline personality type who recruits others to their clique and the group splits into opposing factions. What if we all have very different needs and the group just becomes a collection of people sharing an intimate space without any of the responsibilities necessary to promote intimacy and, from this, trust. What if it’s full of tweaked-out twinkies getting high all the time. What if I’m three times older than the 2nd oldest person on the trip. What if there’s somebody who plays shite music all the time, loudly. What if the whole trip was hyped up by the proprietor and is nothing like advertised. And, the big one, what if nobody likes me and I’m all on my own.

Warding off Clusterfecks
I caught this last one and recognised what was going on and what I needed to do. I practiced an ancient and deep spiritual and clinical technique and told these thoughts to feck off. I didn’t even have to use the bad f-word, you know, the one with a ‘u’. The thoughts were so undeveloped that I could deal with them effortlessly. And they went back into the shadows, nursing their bruises and plotting revenge. I reflected that most things in my life turn out OK so long as I’m being reasonably. honest, authentic and congruent. I felt I was being all of these, more or less, most of the time, so there was no reason a clusterfuck should arise. Not even a clusterfeck. Moving onwards.

Bishkek Hostel
The hostel itself was really nice and friendly. It had a range of rooms from mattresses on pallets in the hallway to double rooms with en suite. I went for one of those as I wanted space to rearrange all my stuff and also because I thought this would be the last time I’d have privacy for months. It was pricey by Central Asia standards but I didn’t care.

It was run by women as all the hostels I have stayed in so far in Astana and Almaty were. All of the women, without exception, were young, friendly, smart and bright as buttons. This really enhanced the experience of staying there as they were very willing to share information with the guests.

Soldier, Soldier
I had one of those interesting observations as I noticed a few women working at a task while two guys, an older and a younger, were doing a maintenance task with the electrics. I noticed that the women cooperated a lot and were doing the task simultaneously and smiling a lot at each other while the older man was grabbing the tools from the younger man and not really relating to him. I thought that this probably stemmed from our hunter-gatherer past. I thought what might happen if one of the men did something wrong in his task. It might result in conflict. Of course, it mightn’t, if the men were mature men. And soldiers are young men trained not to think as individuals.

I wondered how the women might react if one of them made a mistake and then one of them did something incorrect. I don’t know what they were doing except that it was on a computer and related to hostel administration. They smiled and seemed to sort it out amicably. This seems how women solve problems.

I worked for many years in construction, as an electrician. I saw on innumerable occasions how men can relate to each other quite harshly. As a sparks, I was insulated from this as we were on top of the food chain and labourers generally wouldn’t mess with tradesmen. But I saw what they did amongst themselves. Not nice.

I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if it was run by women and men’s role was to support them. I suspect it would be more harmonious and soldiers would choose what orders to obey or not.

What triggered this thinking was seeing some nomadic men at the World Nomad Games during a game of Kok-Boru. They were seated just one tier down from me so I could observe them well. There were five or six of them and they were unmistakably not from Bishkek or any of the Silk Road cities I have visited so far. They seemed from another time and place and being nomadic people they lived an outdoor life. Their faces really reflected this and they were worn and weather-beaten. They sat together with a solidity I have rarely seen and looked very solid and timeless. They wore those tall Kyrgyz white hats and sat with their arms folded and wore a sportscoat-like coat. I could imagine them as elders of some nomadic group who were The Law. I could also imagine them as the gatekeepers of their tradition who would punish transgression from their rules. I wondered what it would be like for a woman who had her own ideas or a gay person or indeed anyone who questioned the status quo. Maybe I was reading something in to this that wasn’t there but I have read enough about tribal and indigenous cultures, especially Islamic, to know that these things happen.

Then the Kok-Boru game started and we were all united in our awe of that magnificent sport.

Introducing Habibi
The truck is called Habibi. I’m not sure why. I must ask one of the team later. It’s a mellow yellow trusty trojan of a truck. It’s a Scania commercial vehicle and sturdy as anything . So far, we forded a few rivers, clambered over railway tracks, climbed up the side of a mountain and it took it in all its stride, with pride.

It was built as an expedition vehicle in the UK and was constructed from the frame up. The first section is about 120cm deep and is used for storage. The habitation section is built on top of this.

Here is some info on the truck taken from oasis website for those of a techie nature.

Trucks are equipped with a mixture of 24 inward, forward and rear facing coach seats with head rests, providing more storage space for souvenirs and luggage, as well as extra leg room to stretch out on the longer journeys (thus avoiding the typical ‘bus’ type layout of all forward facing seats with narrow aisles and cramped leg room with less storage).

‘The Beach’ is a unique feature of Oasis Overland vehicles which enables several people at a time to be up and out in the open at the front of the truck with panoramic views on Central Asia trips.

Here are some other qualities of Habibi.
 Under-seat storage for backpacks to provide easy access easy access – even when driving
 A mixture of sliding and/or roll-up side and rear windows, providing extensive all round viewing
 All trucks are equipped with sand mats and, where necessary tyre chains
 12V charging points for Video and Mobile phone batteries
 A comprehensive range of spare parts and tools
 Large dried and fresh food storage capacities
 On-board truck safe for valuables and money
 Overhead lockers for cameras & daybags
 On board stereo with MP3 & iPod adaptor
 Large water carrying capacity
 Internal truck buzzer system
 Internal & external lighting
 Long range fuel tanks
 Fitted Seatbelts

Accessory equipment carried:
 Spacious ‘Dome’ style two-person tents with in-built ground sheets and mosquito netting
 Cooler boxes (for storage of fresh food and drinks)
 All weather awnings for wet weather and shade
 Professionally compiled expedition medical kit
 All cooking and cutlery equipment
 Well stocked on-board library
 Gas cooker & fire grate
 Campstools

And so on…

Anyway, back to the meeting. The purpose of it was to make payments in US$ for local food and supplies and other purchases in bazaars and markets along the road as well as travelling expenses for the van such as diesel, propane etc. It was also to check we had insurance cover and an emergency phone number so we could be evacuated in case of accident. Our passports and visas were checked to make sure all our paperwork was in order so any last minute problems would be avoided at border crossings. All was grand.

Then the team gave an overview of our trip and what to expect and not expect. The content was pretty much as you would expect and most of it was already on Oasis Overland website and pre-departure documents they sent out earlier. What was far more interesting for me was getting a sense of the people I was about to travel with and, importantly, the team. I was really impressed by them and felt safe and in good hands.

There were about 15 or so people joining the trip at that point. I think it started months ago in Beijing and is winding its way to Istanbul with people getting on and off along the way. Some do a week or two while others do a few months. Of all the people on my trip, only two others, an Australian couple around my own age, are going all the way to Istanbul. Most are getting off at Ashgabat in Turkmenistan where others will join.

There are no Americans on our trip, just one Canadian and a few UK people who will be leaving before we get to Iran. Iran has a recent rule the we cannot go bushcamping if an UK passport holder is on board; we must stay in hotels. Because they will be all gone by the time we reach Iran, we can bushcamping. Politics schmolitics!

I’m writing this but a week or so into the trip so I have a better idea of what the group dynamic is like. I’m impressed by the friendliness of tolerance of everyone on board. The group is very harmonious for such a diverse group of people of different ages and from different backgrounds. The youngest are in their twenties, I think, and the oldest is over seventy. There are six of us in our sixties or seventies , several in their fifties, forties and thirties. A good mix. Some are groupie type people while others, like myself, are more solitary. There are extraverts and introverts, talkers and listeners, those who like to do and those who like to be, readers and chatters. And everything in between. The younger ones tend to hang out together while we older ones do similar and a few prefer their own company. I’m surprised at the absence of tension or snarkiness given that we share a very small space and there is really is nowhere to escape to. There is no pressure to join any clique or change what you are doing.

In group therapy, they talk about groups forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning and mourning. This is a functional and positive group with very little of the interpersonal or intrapersonal tensions present in a therapy group. Therefore, the storming bit hasn’t arisen, it never blew in, as it were. For someone like myself with a dysfunction family and personal history, now largely in the past, this is a blessed bonus.

Shadows in the Sunshine
I made up my mind before I even left Ireland about people of the trip. I might have negative thoughts or feelings about people on the trip but I would refuse to harbour them. Anything negative I felt, I would interpret as a reflection of my own shadow and was my responsibility to not feed them. That’s not to say that I didn’t and don’t have grumbling or irritable thoughts, I’m not a bleedin’ saint , but they go nowhere. This means that I can enjoy being in and of the group, on my terms

Introducing Tom
My middle name is Thomas or Tomás, in Irish. All my life, I’ve seen my name written as Brian Thomas Harrington or Brian Tomás Ó’hÚrdail, the Irish language or Gaeilge, translation. I generally call myself Brian and, oddly enough, so do others. Poor old Thomas never got a word in, not even edgeways, was never recognised, was born silent and remained so. Until a few years ago when I met an Irish guy in a train traveling from Saigon or Ho Chi Ming City to Hanoi. For some reason, we got to talking about names. He told me that he used his middle name when travelling because this gives him a sense of dislocation from his everyday life back in Ireland and helped him be more located in his travelling. Like myself, he saw himself as an independent traveller and not a tourist. I thought about this for a while and decided to do the same. I have done this a few times now and it’s very interesting how it subtly alters the experience. Especially now that I am travelling with a group and we are beginning to get to know each other quite well.

On the other hand, there is really no difference between Tom and Brian anymore and I’m considering dropping the habit in future.

One huge advantage is that, like most people with a stutter, I struggle with my own name. It contains all the feared sounds I avoid. I hate having to introduce myself and my autonomic nervous system see this as a major threat and causes hyper- and hypoarrousal. Try as I might, and believe me, I have tried, I cannot shake this or even dent it. So I accept it for the time being.

The sound Tom is neutral and just flows out of my lips like warm honey. The feeling of being able to say my name without terror is exquisite. But it sometimes feels a little bit dishonest and I feel less and less ok about hiding something that’s actually not really hidden at all. Another reason, I suppose, to consider reverting to my Brian. I haven’t made up my mind on this yet though. Its Tom for the time being!

Bushcamping in Mountains of S Kazakhstan
Our first night of camping out was our first night out in the truck. We left Bishkek at around 8.30 in the morning following breakfast and headed towards the south of Kazakhstan. It was an opportunity to get to know the others in the truck as we were mostly all facing each other. The truck engine had a powerful throaty roar and felt more than capable of pulling us all and out luggage up any steep hill. Soon we were out of Bishkek and rolling towards the border and then mountains of South Kazakhstan.

The border crossing from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan was perfectly smooth. We were in and out, quick as a fiddler’s elbow.

This was my first time to experience life on an expedition truck and I was impressed at how organised everything was. Not in an obsessive or obstructive way but something which had evolved over the years through necessity and experience. Nothing was superfluous and nothing really was missing. Sure, there was no inboard jacuzzi or butlers to serve us canapés on silver platters but, hey, we were bushcamping after all. Once I made that mental adjustment, everything was grand.

The seats are aircraft type ones and very comfortable, no backache at all. Underneath each seat is a storage area for luggage and this is huge, cavernous almost. It easily swallowed up my big pack with room enough for souvenirs. There’s an overhead shelf with a retaining mesh for stuff like water bottles, tech stuff, food, books etc. Seatbelts hold us in nice and snug in the event of a sudden stop. This occurs frequently, given the ‘let no man give way’ style of driving here.

The suspension on the truck is surprisingly good for such a huge vehicle and the inevitable pothole and cracks in the road bumps are evened out smoothly. We climbed up a few mountains and although we were bounced out of our seats frequently, the start and end of the bumps seemed smooth and controlled. You had to be prepared for this though. If you were standing up or moving around when we hit a bump you might fly out the open window, never to be seen again.

You can see from the photo that the sides are open with a roll down plastic cover if it rains or is very cold. Bouncing along at 50 or 60 km/h on an almost empty road with the sides down and the warm wind blowing in your face is a great experience. So long as you accept that a lot more than wind comes in, such as dust, smells, diesel fumes and the occasional biting or stinging insect, though these are rare. Sometimes, you get the whiff of a lavatorial nature and this can be impressive for its olfactory effect.

A Lavatorial Experience
Talking about things of a lavatorial nature, this aspect of personal biology can be challenging at best. Probably the most challenging thing is describing it without being crude or vulgar and letting the imagination do the work.

The porcelain throne does not exist here yet except in expensive hotels and places where there are tourists. Instead, you have the hole in the ground jobbie. Some of these can be quite ok while others can be totally gross. Most are somewhere in between. The ok ones have paper, a lockable full-size door, and a flushing mechanism. The not so ok ones have no door, no loo roll and no flush; you bring your own water to multitask the various functions carried out there, if you get my meaning.

And then there’s the toilet paper. Plumbing here, and in a lot of ex-soviet countries, cannot handle toilet paper so instead of flushing it down the loo you are asked to deposit it in a little bucket or bin placed nearby. Imagine a busy loo, lots of paper deposited there, hot, hot, hot weather and no ventilation. Imagined it? Want to move on? OK, moving on…

How I rate a loo depends on my FRA score. When I’m at home in Dublin, my FRA scale is usually zero, the lowest. The further east, or sometimes south, I travel, the higher my FRA score. If my FRA is low, I’m very picky about what jacks I use but the higher it is, the less discriminating I am.

A few days ago, in Tashkent, my FRA was five, the highest ever. The battle between the need to evacuate and my will to hold tight and not have an embarrasing accident was beginning to tip to the advantages of immediate evacuation and need was beginning to triumph over will. I hobbled around, kneecaps velcroed together, managing to carry off a passable impression of an arthritic duck, looking for Shangri-la, Valhalla, the golder temple or, at a pinch, a working loo. And then, like a gift from the gods, I came across a restaurant with a WC sign. Rainbows and shooting stars radiated outwards from it, a celestial choir sang in the background accompanied by a full orchestra, a phantasmagorical orgasm, of sorts, was immanent. I gratefully, crossed-leggedly, made my way towards it wondering what I would find when I arrived. Would the gods smile favourably on me and would I find a gleaming porcelain throne with a crushed velvet seat, white fluffy towels and scented warm water to wash my hands with afterwards or would it be a ‘long drop’ one, a tottering plank on the ground over a pit. You do the business and the resulting offerings, falling at various rates of descent depending on the force of the propellant, is deposited ploppingly into an open pit a meter or two below. The smell is indescribable so I won’t attempt to describe it. However, when the FRA score is five, desperation overcomes the revulsion.

Anyway, it wasn’t an open pit. Instead it was just like a western loo from a cleanliness point of view. It was still a squat type one but with toilet paper and a lockable door. I gave full grateful expression to my EBS which soon became a thing of the past with a lingering olfactory presence in the present. Phew. Whew.

By the way, I’m sure you know this but FRA stands for Flatulence Risk Assessment. It’s when you feel an internal pressure and where you have to gauge if the resultant prospective action is gaseous, liquid or solid. A miscalculation could be embarrassing, to say the least.

EBS is an Australianism and stands for Exploding Bum Syndrome.

Nuff said about all that kind of thing. If you think what I said makes no sense at all and is a load of old shite, then I’ve succeeded….

Bush-camping Part II
Anyway, I digress, back to bush-camping.

After a few stops along the way following our entry into Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan for diesel, water, wee breaks and grub, the truck suddenly lurched off road and began climbing up the side of a mountain. This was about 6pm. Shortly afterwards and after many experiences of levitation we arrived at a flat spot. This was our camp site for the night.

This is where Habibi turned into the Tardis. All the panels along both sides were opened and tents, stoves, chairs, tables, cutlery and everything necessary for a comfortable existence off-road suddenly materialised.

Generally, we shop for ingredients at local markets and come our own meals when camping. This greatly cuts down on cost and is much more fun anyway. These are five cook groups of four or five people each and we do dinner as well as breakfast and lunch the next day. It’s really easy and good craic. Because this was our first cooking session, the team, Joy and Nick, cooked a meal for us to demonstrate how everything worked. It was tasty.

Next job was to put up our tents. They have a floor space of about 2m by 2m and are about the same height but domed. There is an internal structure holding the supporting poles. The groundsheet is attached. There’s a loose flysheet to drape over the inner section to make the whole tent waterproof and warm. The whole lot is secured to the ground by 4 hammer-in pegs. It’s easy to erect and indeed is the easiest erection I’ve had in years.

The entry side is a mosquitos and insect screen and let’s light in as well. It is velcroed to the main body of the tent to make the whole tent insect proof. Provided you close the front panel, that is. One of the guys erected his tent it forgot to velcro the panel shut before he went for his dinner. He returned to find an enormous spider under his sleeping bag. The thing was huge, about 15 cm across and with a scaly body. He dumped it twice outside the tent but is headed straight back. That happened a few times so the tent must have been smack bang in the middle of its territory. I don’t know what he did with it eventually but he said that he didn’t sleep well that night. He is mildly arachnophobic,  like myself.

After dinner, we all wash up our dishes and pack everything away. Then we light a fire. Yes, the truck even has a wood store. Then we sit around in ever-changing concentric circles of affability. The younger ones drink beer or get mildly jarred. All good fun. As it gets cold in the mountains when the sun goes down, we go to bed early.

I share with a tent with a sweet Australian lad who is very genial and good natured. I slept well. I woke up once at around 4am and it was pitch black and the stars were incredibly vivid. Wow, I said to myself and went back asleep.

The next few days followed a similar pattern but we were in different places on the mountain most nights as we headed towards the Uzbekistan border. But more about Uzbekistan in my next blog in a week or so.

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