Unwinding in Uzbekistan
23rd May – 4th June
The supposedly difficult and often closed border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at Oybek turned out to be open, which pleased us greatly, arriving there at two in the afternoon after a slower than expected drive through northern Tajikistan.
Things were really looking up when we were through the Tajik side within 45 minutes, almost without mishap. As we advanced slowly towards the huge, metal (and shut) gates of Uzbekistan, we started to wonder if the Uzbeks would make up for all this ease.
They do, in spades. Having inched through the disinfectant trough and up to the gates, a bored looking Uzbek official walks up to the gates and without even considering opening them, informs us with raised, crossed forearms that because we have a right hand drive car, we’re not coming in. End of story.
Before we have a chance to even respond, he’s walking back to his hut; the gates between us remain steadfastly shut.
Patience is a virtue
Hmm. Not an ideal situation, given that we’ve just been stamped out of Tajikistan on our single entry visa. We sit tight, enjoy the sunshine, casually inform another border guard of our predicament (and the fact that we’re prepared to just sit here and wait until they let us in) and wonder what time we’ll arrive in Tashkent tonight.
Twenty minutes later, there’s action: another guard drives off to speak to a superior somewhere. Ten minutes later, he’s back; all is OK and we’re waved through to begin the arduous formalities. Five hours and thirty minutes later, after another round of inexplicable bureaucracy and a sniffer-dog (literally) through the car for the first time (he takes quite an interest in the contents of our fridge!) we’re through and wearily on our way to Tashkent.
Tashkent is a busy, sprawling city – the largest in Central Asia and the 4th largest in the former USSR. Over the past 2000 years it has enjoyed numerous eras of prosperity as a major Silk Road city and has been seized by Arabs, razed by Genghis Khan, rebuilt by Timur, conquered by the Tsarists and flattened by a massive earthquake in 1966.
As a result not much of its rich history remains in physical form and much of the new building serves to glorify the current regime under President Karimov, a paranoid totalitarian even by Central Asian standards.
We were expecting to find another ex-Soviet conglomeration of decaying concrete; in fact we drove into a lively, cosmopolitan city of shady avenues, plush new squares, blossoming private hotels and surprisingly varied districts. We were only staying a day or two to get an Azerbaijan visa, but could have stayed longer.
As soon as we’d crossed the border at Oybek, it became apparent that getting diesel in Uzbekistan might be tricky. Most of the country’s buses and trucks now run on propane gas, whilst most of the country’s diesel is exported to Russia and Kazakhstan.
We needed to fill up in Tashkent before heading south, 300km, to Samarkand. Despite two hours of searching, it proved totally impossible: Tashkent had not had diesel for months. Our two jerry cans were full, giving us 40 litres of diesel; coupled with the eight or so litres left in our tank we had a range of about 230km.
Luckily, these wonderful diesel engines run very happily on vegetable oil, so giving up our search for diesel, we find a small supermarket on the outskirts of the city and clean the totally bemused shopkeepers out of vegetable oil: 30 litres in small plastic bottles and enough to reach Samarkand!
The road to Samarkand
Relieved to be on the way, we set off south, following a dog-leg detour away from the main highway which runs straight through 30km of Kazakhstan (such are the Stalinist-era jigsaw piece borders in this region that you can drive in a straight line north-east from Tajikistan and cross four countries in 50 kilometres).
Samarkand is a long awaited destination – one of our most eagerly anticipated stops of the whole trip. Charlie’s also been hit with a decent dose of food poisoning (the first of our entire trip) so we’re hoping it’ll serve as a good convalescing spot too. We’re both exhausted, the rigours of four weeks of difficult travel through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan finally catching up with us. Five days in one spot is definitely needed.
Despite our weary states, we couldn’t not be bowled over by Samarkand’s extraordinary monuments, built during the 14th century by Timur (Tamerlane) and financed by the spoils of war. Timur was arguably the world’s most barbaric warlord, but his love of architectural beauty has left a far longer lasting impression on the world.
Samarkand’s Registan, a three sided ensemble of vast archways covered in exquisite geometric patterns of azure, cobalt and yellow glazed tile work (majolica) must be one of the world’s finest pieces of architecture.
Silk Road sterility
Five days here gives us plenty of opportunity to recover and take in the city’s sights. Many of Samarkand’s mosques, madrassas and mausoleums have recently been restored, somewhat controversially, although having never seen them previously it’s hard to find fault with the restoration work.
The city’s centre has also undergone a huge Karimov-style beautification process too, involving the forced demolition of large swathes of the old town with its mud brick houses and dusty narrow lanes. These areas have been replaced by heavily manicured and irrigated parks, fountains and pedestrianised streets full of boutique souvenir shops aimed at the numerous tour groups that now pass through.
Whilst pleasant enough, it’s all rather sterile. Samarkand feels a bit like a theme park, its glorious monuments rising out of the immaculate parks without a hair out of place. There’s none of the bustle, the dust, the mystery or the squalor that you might expect from such a historic Silk Road city.
Some things never change
Perhaps the most genuine, untouched part of the city revolves around the police who patrol the sights, checking tickets. Uzbek police are notoriously corrupt but in recent years have been told to be nice to foreigners (we don’t get a single fine in the country, despite having a right hand drive car and tinted windows).
The green uniformed militzia who patrol the Registan are far more interested in offering us clandestine tours up the minarets for a 2,000 sum (70p) backhander; amazingly they even offer to change money on the black market rate (2,200 sum as opposed to 1,550 sum to the dollar) – wonders will never cease!
Before we entered Samarkand we’d managed to find a solitary fuel station with diesel, meaning we’ve now got enough to exit the country, provided we drive straight to Bukhara and on to the border with no diversions.
Bukhara is another 260km west, through nothing but semi-desert and irrigated prairies of cotton seedlings disappearing over the horizon. There’s very little in the Uzbek countryside to hold us up; no photo opportunities apart from an ominously decrepit looking Soviet nuclear power plant half way, where we don’t linger.
Bukhara is refreshingly different from Samarkand. A former independent khanate and important Silk Road city of its own, Bukhara still has a ‘lived in’ feel; its ancient alleyways still wind through the centre, its principle sights are enjoyed and used by locals and tourists alike. Much of it has still had a facelift recently but it is definitely still a living city.
We spend two days here, enjoying the ambience and socialising – we meet our first British tourists for months, including Ed and Hattie, two Londoners who are just setting off to cycle through Central Asia for two months – literally the only other British overlanders we’ve met on the whole trip. It seems like the days of intrepid British adventurers are over – we’ve met numerous French, Swiss, German, Austrian and even Italians driving, biking or cycling through remote corners of the world, but till now, not a single Brit…
The final khanate
It’s inconceivable to leave Uzbekistan without a detour to Khiva, the most remote of the Central Asia’s independent khanates, 400km to the north in the depths of the Karakum desert. We agree with our friendly guesthouse owner to leave the car on the street outside (where it’s causing quite a stir amongst locals and tourists alike) and hop in a local share-taxi for the seven hour journey north.
The road follows the Amu-Darya (Oxus) River on its path north to the Aral Sea. We cross this mighty river at Urgench, just short of Khiva – here it is still half a mile wide and flowing fast – it’s inconceivable that so much water is bled from the river over its final 400 or so kilometres to the Aral Sea that when it finally reaches the Sea it is little more than a trickle. But then, with the amount of cotton we’ve seen growing beside the road from Bukhara, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Khiva is an ancient walled city, fully intact. Once again it's in immaculate condition; critics say almost too much so and that is has a film set feel. Yet we fell in love with the place, wandering through its ancient mud brick alleyways and admiring the breathtaking turquoise majolica of its palaces, madrassas and minarets. Whilst we’re here, its National Children’s Day – a major public holiday – and the city is teeming with locals; the women dressed in the multicoloured velvet shawls and the men wearing their ubiquitous black patterned skull caps. They’re ambling, drinking, socialising, admiring their heritage – and generally giving the place some welcome vitality.
After two days we find another share-taxi to deliver us back to Buhkara, where we find our car, safely where we left her, untouched apart from the removal of all of the dust caps on our tyres (this is a regular occurrence, the sort of petty theft we are more than happy to put up with!).
We spend our final few days in Bukhara wandering the bazaars, admiring the amazingly skillful Uzbek handiwork - and refreshingly - the embroiderers, copper beaters and painters all still producing their creations next to their stalls. For once, it seems, traditional skills haven’t been lost to China.
We’re sorry to leave Uzbekistan behind – it’s arguably the easiest and most rewarding of the Central Asian countries to travel in – notwithstanding the almost complete lack of scenery. Sure enough, the tour groups have already begun to cotton onto this, but don’t let that put you off…