Jul 09 2008
40 years ago Aral used to be a port on the Aral sea but the Soviet irrigitation plans further North have left the sea to dry up. It is now less than half the size of what it used to be and split into a large and small sea. The large sea in the South (most of it in Uzbekistan) is doomed but there is a new dam that should preserve the North sea and even maybe bring the shore closer to Aral. At the moment it is still 30km away and the Aral port has turned into a dump.
Aral is an ecological and economical disaster. The fishermen are unemployed and there isn’t much else to do in this town lost in the steppe. The locals are used to see foreigners: journalists often come here as well as some tourists like us. We meet a lot of European motorcyclists at the hotel as well as a British couple in a land rover who have been on the road for more than two years. They come from China and tell us that there are a lot of police control points on the way. They don’t even stop anymore when the police flags them because they’ve had enough of paying bribes.
When we leave Aral we decide to do the same thing at the control checkpoint a few kilometres outside the city. I am cycling at 40km/h behind Olivier (recumbent bike) when a policeman flags him just before a speedbump. I didn’t see the policeman and the speedbump and when Olivier suddenly brakes I can’t avoid him. I fall off at high speed on my left side and my arm takes most of the impact. I feel a sharp pain and quickly realise that something is very wrong: I have dislocated my left shoulder. The last time it happened was a few years ago and I know that if I don’t relocate the bone quickly my muscles will tense up and the procedure will be extremely painful. Olivier fell off too but without any injury and our bikes are ok. I ask both Oliviers to try to pull my arm as much as they can but it doesn’t work. The policemen at the control checkpoint look at us without offering any help and instead start tinkering with our bikes like the children we meet in villages. Eventually I ask them to call an ambulance.
The ambulance quickly arrives but has minimal equipment. Inside it there is a spare wheel, a wooden stretcher dating from the first World War, and a basic first aid kit. There are also two nurses but they don’t even give me a sling or help me climbing into the ambulance. I take a wooden spoon to bite, in the expectation of the pain that is to come. Olivier (rouk) comes with me in the ambulance whilst the other Olivier stays with our bikes at the police checkpoint. It takes 30 minutes to drive back to town and the driver doesn’t seem to care much for potholes. I’m glad I have the wooden spoon whilst my arm swings like a broken doll. We first drive to a local doctor who fails to reduce the dislocation and after 5 or 6 painful attemps we drive to the hospital (more potholes) where I hope they’ll quickly sort this out.
The hospital is also very basic and some of its dark corridors would have made a great set for a horror film. I wait a few hours and get an x-ray with an old Russian machine which confirms the dislocation. During that time a policeman in civilian clothes asks me annoying questions and behaves like a bored teenager: he plays with my phone, asks me to write his name in latin script (good thing that I’m right-handed!), points at the anatomy chart on the wall and asks me how to say penis in English… I wonder what use is the police in all these ex-Soviet states besides harassing people.
After more waiting a beefy doctor tries to relocate my shoulder again without anesthetics but it (painfully) doesn’t work. A few years ago when I dislocated my shoulder in France it took 5 people to do it so I know he doesn’t have much of a chance. At last they decide to put me to sleep and when I look at the ceiling in the reanimation room I wonder briefly if this is the last thing I’ll ever see. I have weird nightmares and wake up with a massive hangover a couple of hours later. My shoulder is still painful but at least in the right place and I am very happy to see both Oliviers shortly afterwards! Whilst I was asleep they ferried the bikes back to the hotel and I can’t thank them enough for their support, it would have been very tough if I had been on my own all along!
It’s 1am and the doctors want me to stay at the hospital for the night. I ask my friends to help me to escape as I’d rather sleep in the hotel room rather than in this place. The doctor catches up with us outside the hospital and tells me that I should come back tomorrow morning.
The next morning I wake up still a bit weak when we hear a knock on the door. The doctor who gave me the x-ray is there along with the beefy one. The briefly ask me if I’m ok and ask me how much money I have. I tell them 5000 Tenge (£20) and they’re happy to take that. They deserved the bribe but I wish it had been asked in a more official way. Now I was expecting the policeman to come and ask for a bribe too, and unsurprisingly he came later to ask me to see him in the police station the next day.
We managed to avoid him for one more day and leave Aral without any more police encounter. The same police checkpoint flagged us again but this time we slowly cycled front of them without stopping. They are so lazy that they couldn’t even be bothered to chase us anyway.
The muscles in my shoulder are still very weak but I can cycle and both Oliviers give me a hand when I need to push the bike or set up camp.