We were making good time as we sped across the desert towards the Dashoguz border, only interrupted by stopping to take pity on three hitchhikers who appeared out of nowhere from the desert. They announced that they too wanted to go to Dashoguz, so this meant we had three men perched on our two bench seats in the rear for 200 kms. They were Russian workers and they knew the roads, which although often dual carriageway, rarely had two carriageways open. Plus the one carriageway that was open was largely heavily potted, so they were in for a bumpy ride there!
The countryside was still desert and largely flat with an increasing number of camels, so the car coped with its extra baggage with good grace.
When we arrived at the border (having left our Hitchers in town) we had smugly filled up with diesel as we knew that it was difficult to fill up in Uzbekistan, so we had been told. But on arrival at the border it was pointed out to us that the car had a severe leak from one of the diesel tanks. Bad enough to put a bowl underneath to catch the escaping fuel. Imagine, a 4-5 hour border crossing and fuel pouring out and no idea where help might be to hand and no language in common. Crumbs.
However, somehow we put this to the back of our mind to concentrate on leaving Turkmenistan. Although there was only one empty car in front of us alongside the modern customs and border control building, endeavouring to cross the border, there was a massive pedestrian queue of people with sack trucks loaded full of goods. The line was being supervised by a couple of smart young soldiers. We assumed that we should just saunter to the front because of the car and once again it worked and we were positively ushered through.
However a preliminary check of the car papers resulted in us having to wait about 1.5 hours before anything else happened. The empty car in front rested defiantly unsearched for an exasperating length of time while diesel continued escape perilously. (I eventually went in to chase them up and explained our dilemma). They told me we were next, but as nothing had moved for over an hour, it did not really raise our spirits. When things did start, they were as efficient as before. The search was minimal and we were asked if we had enjoyed our stay and we handed back the government issued GPS, visited the various desks and off we went over to the other side, with our plastic bowl full of sloshing diesel at Jim’s feet.
Inevitably the lines of people with their sack trucks had now walked across no man’s land and were waiting to be allowed in the other side.
Here we were welcomed at the border and treated well. Even better there were no fees or charges. The Ukbeks had a couple of dogs to help search the car and as customary Jim went through one door and me and Landy through another. When it came to searching the car, a senior guard came out and explained to us both that their normal practice was for occupants to totally empty their vehicle and to trundle the contents through detectors like in an airport. Our faces fell and he then smiled and said as that might take a little while we should just choose a couple of boxes and then we could scan them. As soon as we had pulled a couple of random boxes out he just lifted the lids and peered inside and told us to repack them. He then looked casually at me and asked if I was carrying any psychotropic drugs. I smiled sweetly and said I was much too old for all that. After which we patted the sniffer dog that had become Jim’s new best friend, and we were waved through.
Now we could contend with the pouring fuel at 5pm. We were both slightly worried about the severity of the problem, the urgency and the closeness of our approaching rendezvous with Nora in Bukhara. We had already made light of a failed gearbox and now we had a problem with again no solution in sight and light fading. What I had not mentioned also, was that our reserve tank
was permanently transferring fuel into the leaking tank, so our fuel gauge was no longer working as it was constantly full, so it was the secondary tank that was draining, where we had over 200 litres of fuel.
One of the first towns we drove through seemed quite sizeable. So we pulled in at a small garage. Within seconds we were taken a few hundred yards down the road to meet Marcus. He was both a garage mechanic but also a welder. Before we knew it half a dozen cans appeared and we started siphoning out the main fuel tank. Half a dozen cans became a dozen which appeared from neighbouring houses. We then drove the car over a pit just off the road.
Whilst this was going on, someone drove Jim to a money changer in town to get some cash to pay for works. He came back about 30 minutes later bearing armfuls of notes. It was horrific. I thought he had changed everything we had. However, it was only 200$ which we needed for our stay in Uzbekistan and to pay for the car repair!
We were still fretting. Should we have driven further, found a bigger outfit. Would Marcus manage to remove the tank on his own? Would he realise there were two tanks and that the second one needed clamping off? Were there enough bottles for syphoning. Jim had visions of him welding under the car and blowing us all up etc.
We did fret and we simply had no words in common. But as 6pm became 7pm and then 8pm, more men arrived in their overalls and eventually there were three or four cursing away under the car illuminated by portable lights and a small crowd had gathered around us in the dark.
Then young Mohammed arrived with some English. He knew nothing about cars and struggled to translate our queries and spent most of the time pressing us into his house opposite for tea or food. Jim was still worrying about the big blow up so I eventually went in to Mohammed’s family home for tea alone.
The request to take tea turned into a request to eat dinner. The car was going to take hours if not days! So Jim and I eventually went in and sat on the floor around a massive raised dais with an ever increasing number of family members arriving from hereabouts to see the visitors.
Eventually there must have been 20 cousins and aunts and uncles all related to the elderly couple. (I should mention that Marcus’s wife was also disappointed not to take us in, but Mohammed had the English!)
We were given Pillah which was rice, veg and meat and we were served on one plate with two forks, local bread and a simple salad. When we finished we went back out into the night and they were still heaving away at the tank. When it came out there was sounds of triumph from
Under Landy. We were shown a fairly large hole near the top and side of the tank. Because the tank was perpetually full, the leak would have been worse as no amount of driving was emptying it below the leak.
The filthy tank coated in thick mud and compacted sand was then bundled onto the roof of a small car for repairs to be sub-contracted elsewhere. Maybe his son’s workshop nearby? It came back about half an hour later and the job of reassembly started. It was now nearly 11pm and it was clear they were not going to stop until we were up and running again. At midnight the tank was back, the bash plates reinstalled and the fuel was funnelled back into the car.
After much enquiry as to the cost, we eventually ascertained that 50$ would be about the right amount for this massive effort.
We were invited to park the car outside Mohammed’s grandparents house for the night and much as we tried to resist, we were required to take breakfast with the family in the morning before leaving. We were showered in gifts and regretted having nothing to reciprocate.
We found a very large jar of ginger conserve in the car which we duly handed over, but came away with a scarf and prayer beads from Mecca and a large quantity of sugar crystals and home baked bread.
Mohammed then accompanied us into town where he used his grandfather’s passport to acquire us a couple of SIM cards which we had failed to procure on our own on the previous day. So we felt momentarily relieved that we were back on our way thanks to Marcus and family and the family of Mohammad and the friendly town of Shabat.