The only official BMW dealer in Uzbekistan was unlike the other ones I had found in other countries. There are about 2000 BMWs in the country, 1300 of these “new”. The overwhelming majority drive around in Tashkent. I didn’t see a single Mini around here. But a lot of the BMWs I had seen in Uzbekistan, I encountered at this dealer. It felt like the best place to check the Mini around here. The first mechanic I ran into spoke Portuguese (that I understand and speak a little) so there was basic communication. He had fixed cars for six years in Porto. The second mechanic, a tall, athletic blond guy with Tintin hair, light cream pants and a pastel green shirt, spoke very decent German. And the boss spoke good English. Between the four of us we managed to communicate. Checking the Mini, the mechanics found a series of things that needed attention. Leaking engine cooling liquid, two front dampers KO, the part BMW Astana had already flagged as critical on the front right wheel now needed replacement, on both front wheels. All in all a list of nine parts, four critical ones among them, mostly cheap stuff. ETA 7-10 days from a warehouse in Germany! None of them was available in Uzbekistan as they were all specific to a 13 year old car nobody knew around here. I didn’t see myself sweating in the Tashkent hotel at 40C for 10 days. I needed to get these parts myself.
Back at the hotel I started to think about options. I whatsapped Egor, the friendly guy at BMW Moscow. He sent me back prices and delivery times – 3 days to 5 weeks from a warehouse in Germany, depending on the part, paid cash in advance. Several friends back in Europe tried to help, until one said “I can go to BMW in Berlin when I’m back from vacation, get them and send them to you.” Facepalm, why didn’t I think about this myself? Hardy Guenther the genius! 😉
I tried to get in touch with BMW Berlin to find out if they had the parts I needed. Online they only advertise the general phone number of the reception. I called again and again through Skype, but the power at the hotel went down continuously, and with it the WiFi. And usually at the point where I had made it through the waiting music, and had just started to ask the receptionist for the direct line to the spare parts team. Some hours later I finally succeeded to get through somehow. A very friendly young man took all the part numbers, I confirmed they were what the mechanic needed and for my exact model of Mini. “I can have them here ready for pickup in 36h, all of them.” I checked shipping rates with DHL and other carriers, they cost more than the parts. Then I remembered the issues with the spare parts that arrived late in Barcelona in May, delaying my departure. DHL had also lost my passport in customs for four weeks back in April, preventing me to get visas to Turkmenistan and Iran. I didn’t trust these carriers.
In parallel I had been whatsapping with a friend from Munich, the closest city to the BMW spare parts warehouse that everybody would order parts from. He knew somebody and from his last day of vacation in Greece tried to help. Danke Ben! In the end, BMW Berlin was the fastest. So I packed my stuff, checked out from the hotel at 03:30 and left for the airport. The next afternoon I arrived in Berlin, tired and freezing. 20C Berlin v 40C Tashkent was quite a change. Dinner with sister and friends was a short and sweet flashback to a few weeks back, when I had stopped over in Berlin headed for Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Just seven weeks had passed, but it seemed an eternity away. On the plane I realized Tashkent is closer to New Delhi than Moscow. My mind was very far from Europe by now.
The next morning I picked up all parts at BMW, packed and left for the airport again. I knew Aeroflot was loosing bags in transfer in Moscow and tried to carry them all as hand luggage in two bags. I almost made it through security, but then a very friendly German police officer explained me that I could use the dampers or metal wheel sticks as weapons and kill the pilot, so he couldn’t let me through. I had to check in some parts. Long story short, 48h after leaving Tashkent at night I was back with all parts at 04:00. A few hours sleep later I dropped them off at the BMW service center, and they went on to replace them. It took them a bit longer than they anticipated, and when I arrived 1h late for pickup the Mini was still without wheels. Since I hadn’t eaten except a quick breakfast, I took to the streets to find something to eat in the brutal heat, on a major motorway at the outskirts of Tashkent, surrounded by chaotic traffic, markets, car repair shops, dust. At a small but relatively clean kiosk I saw a guy ordering what looked like two oversized croquetas. I signalled the lady behind the counter, in a colorful dress and headscarf, that I also wanted two. My question of what was inside, she answered by imitating two horns on her head – mutton. I was a bit scared, but they were so delicious that I ordered another two, to her great satisfaction.
About an hour later I drove the Mini out of the garage, after saluting the crew at BMW Tashkent and thanking them for the quick turnaround. I needed to straighten the wheels, as their machine didn’t work. They had recommended a place on the main road into town, and I found Dima’s workshop behind a gas station shortly after. He did the job before closing for the day. At this point it was time to celebrate, and I got the Mini a wash across the street. They friendly young guy with the pressure cleaner had to go over the Mini again and again, it kept spitting sand from all slots. About half an hour later a new car was standing in front of me, all shiny and ready for the road. I looked up the Lukoil gas station on Google maps, calculated the road and mentally was already packing for the Pamirs as I drove out of the car wash. But somehow the rear gear didn’t get off easily and the Mini turned off. I turned it back on, pushed the gear pedal, but the stick didn’t move, and the pedal didn’t come back. Cold sweat! I tried and tried, no chance.
The next morning at 0900 I was back at the car wash, where I had left the Mini for the night. About 45 mins later a gentleman from BMW service showed up, I had texted them on Telegram the night before that the car was KO again, describing the issue. He called a tow truck, and by 1100 we were back at the service station. “What did you do to your car?” “What did I do to it? I wanted to ask you.” They quickly found a part at the very front under the engine that was leaking oil. “There was a puddle under the car tonight, half the size of my foot, here’s a pic.” “We’ll disassemble the broken part and try to fix it, as these parts have to come from Germany.” Half an hour later the culprit was found, a 3cm wide rubber sealing that had a very tiny crack of about 1cm, through which brake oil leaked. “Old car, parts start breaking. We have an idea how to fix it.” I couldn’t believe a slightly cracked 3cm rubber ring was killing the Mini. I waited almost all day, alternating between the 40C workshop and the waiting area where an aircon was giving its best effort to lower the temperature by a few degrees. At lunchtime Tintin came in and said “time for lunch, come with me please.” In a tiny room in front of the workshop a lady in a colorful Uzbek dress and headscarf had prepared a warm rice and vegetable soup with a bit of meat and coriander, sliced tomatoes, bread and tea. As we ate, Tintin explained how he had learnt German at school, and studied mechanical engineering in German in Tashkent. Due to lack of practice his German was rusty. It’s always interesting to hear the service teams’ version of cars that look so shiny in the sales showroom. During Eurasia2013 I had had the same experience with Land Rover. Luxury cars costing what around here are outrageous multiples of an average man’s yearly salary, giving problems a few months after purchasing them. Mercedes and Toyota were Tintin’s favorites. “Engines made of metal, not plastic. They run and run and run forever.”
Later that afternoon I had to get back to the hotel and extend my stay, cancel my hotel in Dushanbe I had reserved for the night. I also called BMW Berlin again to check on the parts needed to fix the gear. “Tuesday morning they’re ready for pickup here with us in Berlin.” Great, four more days lost, another wildly expensive flight on my credit card, and a lot more CO2 burnt. What could I do this weekend while waiting. Google maps and Skyscanner found a solution: Istanbul!
Landing at the brand new Istanbul airport the next day, the first thing that welcomed me was the chilly weather. I got out my phone, that roams in Turkey, and life changed. I got a clean cab through an app avoiding the usual airport taxi scams, and 45 mins later checked into a lovely hotel in Ortaköy, directly on the Bosphorus, with an amazing view. Warm shower, stable internet, power that doesn’t break down every 10 mins, Nespresso instead of instant coffee sachets – all these things seemed like a luxury. In the evening my friend Hakan picked me up, and a weekend around the Bosphorus on both the European and Asian sides started. Lots of delicious Turkish food, fresh fish and seafood, and to my great surprise very decent Turkish wines. Sunday brunch we spent with his sister Burcak at an Anatolian place with not just a lot of food, but a lot of different small plates with cheeses, eggs, honey, salad, jams, bread and pastry, one more delicious than the other. In the evening we started to talk about wines, as Burcak works in the industry, and ended up with a tasting of Turkish wines and a lot of new pins on my map for the way back through Georgia, Turkey and Greece. Wonderful! Monday we kept chilling, eating, drinking and just having a good time. After so many weeks in hot Central Asia, Istanbul was a very welcome change. European yet Oriental, a sort of soft landing in Europe coming from the Stans. Dropping the heat by 15 degrees also did very well. And then comes the Istanbul vibe in the posh districts along the Bosphorus, that has its own magic. Dolce far niente, recharging batteries.
On Tuesday morning an early flight took me to Berlin. The sun had just come up, while I silently ate my simit in the taxi to the airport, half asleep. A few hours late I landed in Tegel, the old, tiny Berlin airport, and to my surprise my friend Timo was waiting to pick me up! We got the Mini parts at BMW Berlin (I’m a regular there by now!) and went for a coffee close to his new office, that is around the corner where over 19 years ago he got me into my our tech startup. My life had changed from there on, and I’ve always been grateful for that phone call I had gotten from him back in 2000, asking me to come over to speak to “some guys that are opening an internet company in an office with no walls and a meeting room made of computer boxes.”
As the plane landed in Tashkent early this morning, Central Asian reality hit hard. Back to 44C, no internet, taxi scams, bad roads, chaotic traffic, broken cars, WiFi everywhere but it’s not working right now, bankomats everywhere just not for foreigners, the “animal in the zoo” effect, diesel but no diesel. I was tired, and somehow worried what surprises the Mini would have ready for me next. I had planned the route back to Europe a thousand times by now. I needed to move now. Standstill freaks me out after a while. 11 days had past without driving, without moving on. Too much. I picked up the Mini later in the day. It seemed too good to be true driving out of the BMW service center into Tashkent traffic after saying farewell to the entire crew there. To test the car I drove around town a bit, to get diesel, food and drinks for the road. Temperature hit 43, 44 or 47C, depending on what thermometer I looked at while driving around. I fled to the hotel and packed. Early to bed today.