Uzbekistan – land of vast deserts and emerald oases; of exquisite architecture from the height of the Islamic enlightenment; home to the legendary Persian poet, philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Omar Khayyam; the birthplace of modern algebra – al-jibr; source of the Mughal Empire which swept all the way to India bringing Islam and naan bread in its wake.
And, Uzbekistan – a paranoid and corrupt totalitarian state with a fake democracy, bloated military, endless police check points, citizen spies, restrictions on the movements of foreigners, a dysfunctional banking system and some serious plumbing issues (which could be instantly solved by retraining half the police force as water engineers and redirecting a fraction of the budget spent on tracking people’s movements into providing running water and sewage systems).
But on balance, the inconvenience and frustrations of the latter points were all rendered tolerable by the delights of the former – most of which we had not an inkling of before we crossed the border – and, of course, the great kindness and generosity of the people, particularly in the melon department. Indeed, it was often hard to get through a day without free melon, even if we were trying to buy one.
The contrast between the intimidating heavy-handedness of the state and the fun to be had the rest of the time was eloquently illustrated even before we’d disembarked from the train. If you recall, we opted to skip 300km of bog all…
… and travel from Beyneu to Kungrad by rail. The midnight train was very jolly and our fellow-passengers (mostly Karakalpaks, a local ethnic minority whose families seem to span the border) were very kind, as was the train guard who took us under his wing, got the bikes on (he had a trick for standing them up on their front wheels in the vestibule) and made sure we had berths to ourselves, chasing off any other poor souls who tried to crowd our patch, even though we had no reservations.
Despite being the wee small hours, the first part of the journey was spent filling out reams of documentation for the Uzbek border, including a declaration of all our foreign currency (hefty fines for taking more foreign currency out of Uzbekistan than you bring in, for reasons which would soon become clear). This took a while, since we were carrying smatterings of eight different currencies. The train guards gathered up everyone’s passports and forms, and we drifted finally to sleep.
The atmosphere changed dramatically a couple of hours later, just before dawn, when the guards marched through the carriage banging on the walls to rouse everyone. Passengers sprang instantly and solemnly to life, folded up their sleeping berths and sat stiffly, like nervous children sent to the headmaster for punishment. Before long, the train filled with Uzbek soldiers, marching up and down, asking questions, performing spot searches, taking passengers (including mothers with weeping children) off for interrogation. They demanded to see all our medicines (codeine is illegal) and any photos we had on our laptop. I dissembled, opening my official Windows ‘Photos’ folder which has about 20 random jpegs in it, so luckily we didn’t have to go through the thousands of pics from our trip thus far (including the one featuring John’s bum from Italy) which would have probably delayed the train by a day. The many photos, that is, not John’s bum (well, who knows…?)
Finally they stomped off (apart from the one female guard, who wore black sequined ballet shoes with her camouflage fatigues instead of boots and was thus unable to stomp). The train guards smiled once again and the party atmosphere returned, along with a tidal wave of hawkers who burst past the departing soldiers and traipsed up and down the carriages for the rest of the journey advertising their wares – drinks, hot pies, flatbreads, cigarettes, smoked fish, perfume, kids’ toys and t-shirts – in singsong voices.
I got a lesson in Uzbek (another Turkic language) from a friendly primary-school teacher, who told me that she and all the family and friends in the surrounding seats, and the people in other seats in the carriage, and the hawkers buzzing up and down the train, were Karakalpak. The Karakalpak people were once mostly nomads and fishermen, but traditional livelihoods were devastated by the draining of the Aral Sea – one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history – when the Soviet state decided that the Uzbek desert was a fantastic place to grow cotton and diverted the rivers that fed the sea to irrigate the fields. Many joined collective farms or moved to the cities, but we found a fierce pride in Karakalpak identity across the wild, westernmost desert state of Karakalpakistan.
We’d heard that there were money-changing hawkers on the train, and having researched the Kazakh-Uzbek exchange rate on Google and carefully memorised the Uzbek for “Too expensive – cut me a deal!”, thought ourselves fully prepared to haggle for the best rate. But when the first money changer who came along offered almost twice what we were expecting, it was all I could do to pick my jaw up off the ground and agree, feeling slightly worried that we were somehow ripping her off.
In fact, the government’s official exchange rate – about 2,500 Som to the dollar – is a fiction, while the black market rate of 4,500 Som accurately reflects the cost of living. Hence you can’t take foreign currency out of the country, lest you walk in with $100, exchange it for 450,000 Som on the black market, then change your Som back to dollars at the official rate, walking away with $180.
Why the government perpetuates this situation proved a little hard to fathom. A holidaying British diplomat we met in a yurt (see below) thought it was probably a kind of propaganda, to make the economy look better than it was as the Som steadily plummeted in value. A sharp young Uzbek economics graduate we met in a restaurant hinted, in very hushed tones, that it allowed corrupt officials to siphon off a cut of any aid money granted based on the official rate.
Whatever the reason, it means banks won’t exchange money or issue it to foreign cardholders through ATMs. As we would discover, the only way to withdraw cash was to visit a large city, find a branch of Aksaka Bank (the only Uzbek bank that accepts MasterCard), put on a long pair of trousers or skirt (no shorts allowed), turn up between 10 and 4pm – but not during the siesta from 1 to 3pm, or on the first day of the month because the internet for the ENTIRE COUNTRY will be switched off, or after 3:30pm on the last day of the month because the bank system will go down in preparation for the first of the month, or on a day when there are university exams BECAUSE THE INTERNET FOR THE ENTIRE COUNTRY WILL BE SWITCHED OFF (to prevent cheating?) as well as any roads which have universities on them being closed to traffic (deep breath) – figure out how to get into the bank (probably around the back, not the front which may be sealed with a big iron gate), show your passport to security and submit to a body search, locate the unmarked office that deals with foreign currency, wait while an apologetic official digs through a pile of card machines to find the MasterCard one, wait some more while he figures out how to use it, make the payment, take the receipt to the busy cashier’s window, work out where the amorphous queue ends, fight to keep your place in it, and finally fill in another form before being issued a maximum of $500.
THEN, you take your dollars to the central bazaar and find the black market dealers – in some cities men swinging carrier bags stuffed with cash will accost you as soon as you approach; in other less touristy spots with more heavy-handed police, locals are very cagey about where you might find a dealer, and you may have to rely on your hotel or a taxi driver to ‘call a friend’. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a big bag – your money will come in notes worth about $0.2 if you’re lucky (I usually managed to avoid being palmed off with a wadge of 10 cent notes).
Combined with the bulky Uzbek toilet role – similar in appearance, texture and thickness to tree bark – this made for a tightly packed handlebar bag.
On the other hand, you get to go around with gangster-sized fistfuls of cash.
Anyway, on arriving in Kungrad, we were directed to a friendly little tea/guest house, where we met two stranded foreign motorbikers. Ricardo from Spain had been in a crash and damaged his ribs, so was holed up while he recovered. But providing a more worrying reminder of the dangers of travelling in Uzbekistan, Paul from St Petersburg was under house arrest, having failed at the border to present the requisite number of ‘registration slips’, which every foreign tourist must present to prove that you’ve stayed at a hotel every three nights. An attempt to smooth things over with the offer of an unofficial “fine” went down badly: the soldiers at the border sent him back to Kungrad and ordered the police to imprison him while his documents were sent to Tashkent for an official decision. Since Kungrad police station had no cells, and he refused to sleep on the ground outside the station, the cops let him stay at the local hotel as long as he registered with them every morning.
Anxious to retain any new companionship, Paul bought copious quantities of fruit from the market and begged us to stay a few more days and help him eat it. But with only a month to get from one side of the country to the other, even this gentle form of blackmail (who wants to waste fruit?) couldn’t persuade us to linger. Leaving our stranded friends with a selection of films to keep them entertained we set off, on a deliciously rainy morning, back into the desert.
The tea house in Kungrad was not licensed to issue these stupid registration slips, and we spent the next night with a lovely family who owned a farm in the middle of a park where we were trying to camp:
So on the third night, we had to stop in the provincial capital, Nukus, to pick up our essential first hotel slip. Though frustrating – our travels through Uzbekistan proved extremely expensive thanks to the need to stay in a $30+ hotel every three or so nights – we did get to visit Nukus’s amazing museum, which houses a collection of works by dissident Soviet artists.
An attempt to skip a few day’s desert riding and purchase train tickets to Bukhara failed, on account of it being the university entrance exam day, therefore the internet – including the rail booking system – was down. So after a wasted and frustrating morning at the train station, we hit the road once again. Wherever it touched the waters of the Amudarya Delta (which once fed the Aral Sea) the desert gave way to lush greens – a narrow strip of oasis that stretched over a thousand miles. The sight of trees and rivers was a delight for dusty eyes, but a combination of the intense humidity (scalding in the desert heat) and difficulty in finding camp spots in such a densely farmed region made for a sense of relief when the road headed back into the Kizilkum Desert.
Since we were being forced to spend money on hotels anyway, we decided to make the most of it and take a more touristy approach to Uzbekistan. First on the itinerary was the Fifty Fortresses of Khorezem. We stumbled across our first fort while looking for a campsite – unfortunately it was on the wrong side of a canal.
A diversion north to stay at a yurt camp by Ayaz Kala fort proved well worth the effort. But an effort it was – the yurt camp was up a steep hill, and somewhere in the deep desert to the north, a dragon was breathing fire in our faces, blasting us with a headwind that would have had the demons of hell reach for the air conditioning controls. We hauled ourselves up to the camp and were duly assigned a yurt, which offered shade but little respite from the heat, which blew in on the wind, heating every surface it touched.
Ayaz Kala was stupendous – and amazing that you can just scramble about on the ruins. Made of mud bricks, a lot of it seemed to have simply dissolved, though some architectural features such as arches and windows had miraculously remained intact.
We also made a new friend:
Next stop was Khiva, which one legend suggests was founded by Noah’s son Shem. It does have an Ark (the Khan’s palace), not that that proves anything. The brutality of the Khivan Khanate is cheerfully recounted by the lady who keeps a stall in the dungeons, and who insists on giving you a guided tour of various torture instruments before trying to sell you a silk scarf or a pair of knitted socks. This was another pattern to be repeated throughout Uzbekistan – fantastic UNESCO world heritage sites, beautifully restored, with stall holders – whose wares fill every cell of every madrassa, crowd the bottom of every minaret, and adorn the walls of every former dungeon – filling in the role of curators.
Then a bit more desert…
At our final teahouse before hitting Bukhara, the petrol pump attendant next door came over to chat – in fluent English – and insisted we accept the services of his fiancée, Adiba, a trainee English teacher, as our personal guide to the city. In fact, he was also a trainee teacher, pumping petrol to save up to buy a house and marry his girl. This is what 21-year-old Uzbeks do instead of going on gap years. Parental expectations are strong in this part of the world.
Our first day in Bukhara was a day off to rest tired legs and, especially, John’s back, which was suffering from hauling our bikes on and off various stretches of roadworks, where we got to ride on brand new car-free tarmac, at the price of having to drag our bikes through rubble where it faltered. We met up with Adiba in the evening. Although we felt concerned we might be taking advantage (and indeed some local tourist industry workers seemed miffed that we were getting a freebee) she seemed genuinely keen to practice her English, and having a local guide was a fantastic boon.
We saw lots of madrasas and caravansarais and stuff (I’d make a great guidebook writer, huh?). To be fair, at least one of the madrasas was originally built as a caravansarai, but the official making the formal dedication called it a ‘madrasa’ by mistake, so the poor (well actually very rich) bloke who built it had to donate it to the imams and build ANOTHER caravansarai opposite. Oops.
Next on the itinerary was Samarkand. We took an indirect route from Bukhara to camp by a beautiful, but fly-ridden lake – the buzz of the night swarm that seemed fixated on the airspace directly above our tent was of an industrial scale.
The next day was slow progress, thanks to John’s bad back and a headwind. Luckily, we found a shady spot under a bridge, occupied by friendly fishermen who plied us with watermelon, to siesta.
But by the following day, we’d both succumbed to Bukhara belly. John had been a little unwell for a couple of days, but it hit me suddenly and hard that morning. A dose of Imodium got us on the road but worsened the cramps until I was nearly falling off my bike with each wave. We limped to the nearest town – the provincial capital Navoi. Mightly miffed that we had to spend our sparse reserves staying in a hotel in a dump like Navoi – home to endless industrial chemical plants and police checkpoints – we nevertheless appreciated the clean cotton sheets, air conditioning, satellite TV (it was a Grand Prix weekend) and functioning bathroom with limitless hot water. The pond in the foyer was also diverting.
Indeed, it was in the foyer that I came across a coffee table book describing (to my initial incredulity) the delights of Navoi. It turned out that among other things, we were a mere 25km away from Sarmish-say, a gorge engraved with over 10,000 Neolithic petroglyphs from 4000–6000 BC. Upset stomachs or not, this was not a sight to miss.
Behind schedule and with John’s back and my stomach still in spasms, we took a taxi on to Samarkand. Despite physical and touristic burnout, we still managed to snap a few more photos.
And then, a day or so’s ride from Samarkand, we realised the landscape had changed. Though we’d encountered abundant greenery around the Amudarya delta, the desert bloomed reluctantly, desperately dependent on irrigation – as soon as the canals stopped, the sand began. This was, at long last, a broader, stabler, deeper green. The air was cooler and the trees taller and grass and wildflowers volunteered their delights freely by the sides of the road. We had crossed the desert.
Skipping Tashkent, we headed for the Fergana Valley, which runs into Kyrgyzstan. Just as I was thinking wistfully of autumn back home and how I was going to miss biting into juicy, tart European apples, we discovered:
Having had my desire for apples unexpectedly and abundantly met (people were actually flagging us down and forcing bags of free apples into our hands) I had to find something else to be wistfully nostalgic about. How I miss, I thought, lying in the green grass under a shady tree, on a gently warm, late summer’s day with a gentle breeze playing in the leaves. Lo and behold, that very lunchtime:
Our fourth day out from Samarkand, despite covering an incredible 153km (annoyingly, just 7km short of 100 miles), didn’t quite bring us to a city with a hotel where we could register. We stopped in a tiny hamlet to look for a shop to buy water and were directed – as we’d now come to expect in Central Asia – to an unmarked compound behind a high wall. As it turned out, it was also an unmarked restaurant and guest house.
After a quick negotiation ($8 to stay the night) we were led to a splendid function room with funky lighting and a low table with cushions. The lady of the house whipped off the lace cloth that covered the already-set table, to reveal bowls full of fruits and nuts and a 3-tier cake stand full of chocolates! Tea and watermelon were soon forthcoming.
The neighbours who’d directed us to the place popped round with meat pies for a natter (well, lots of gesturing and pointing at the map and looking at photos and a bit of fiddle-playing), and left in a timely manner as conversation topics (and we) were exhausted. We made a bed of long cushions – more comfy than any hotel mattress – and slept like babies.
The Fergana Valley lay on the far side of a tough mountain pass. My initial excitement at having made it through the desert, and at heading once more for the mountains…
… evaporated as the nature of the pass became apparent. There were three hair-pin-ridden peaks in quick succession, with the road dropping hundreds of meters in-between. To rub salt in the wound, there was a truck route that we weren’t allowed to take which maintained its height all the way across. Cursing loudly with frustration at the pointless descents, I must have looked distressed, because a truck of Tajik road workers stopped to offer me a lift to the final peak. John, of course, looked scandalized – he’s never quite believed I really mean it when I say I HATE hill climbs – and rode on to the top under his own steam. Me, I couldn’t have been happier.
Camp sites on the narrow descent were not obvious, and we ended up back in farmland at dusk. A nice family let us camp on the edge of their field, and insisted on feeding us the following morning.
Our final stop, the city of Namangan, was almost a disaster, as none of the hotels would accept us because we were (dun, dun DAAAAAAH!) missing a registration slip. In other words, because we hadn’t stayed in a hotel for 6 nights, we weren’t allowed to, erm, stay in a hotel. “How do we know where you’ve been for the last six days?” asked one horrified receptionist. One hotel called the local Minister of the Interior at home (it was gone 6pm) and was instructed not to allow us to stay. The next hotel probably called the same guy, who must have been getting sick of hearing about us by this point, because they said we could stay. However, as well as filling out reams of paper, the staff had to call out the police, who politely interrogated us about where we’d been and demanded to see our maps and photos. What a bloody faff!
And so, after a final day’s rest, we headed to the border, pausing only to try (unsuccessfuly) to get rid of our final wodge of Som.
Luckily, the officers at the tiny, little-used Shamaldy-say border crossing were more concerned about whether we had any dollars than how many registration slips we’d amassed, and let us pass with relatively little fuss. And so, with some fantastic memories – and a strong sense of relief – we entered Kyrgyzstan.