Nukus, Uzbekistan, Bukhara and Samarqand, Uzbekistan
8th – 10th August 2014
We have now decided to partake in Vogan Poetry and JP and Rich wrote a poem about Tashkent:
In the Ancient City of Tashkent
It’s illegal to sleep in a tent
The cops go out of their way
To stop you ten times a day
And that’s exactly how it went
With four rally teams staying in the classy $12 per person per night Nukus Hotel, we had a chance to connect with our brothers and sisters in cars. We first wandered the streets in search of cash, and then in search of food. We passed a wedding function and were aided by an English-speaking businessman (an HR manager for Samsung) who left the wedding to walk us around town looking for a place that would serve us a meal. He helped us order food and chatted with us whilst we ate local fare. We closed off the evening with beers on the steps of the hotel with the other teams.
Packing the cars the next morning was a jovial affair with much discussion on the various levels of success that was had with showering – 4 minutes hot water, 4 minutes no water. Rich, Carl and JP were blissfully unaware that there had been problems – not because they hadn’t showered, but their shower was apparently the sole operational shower in this Soviet-era hotel.
Donkey carts were common on the roads and everyone was super stoked to see us and always quick with a smile and a wave and we had oodles of fun driving along soliciting smiles and waves. Yeah, but we’re always doing that!
Now our account in Uzbekistan would not be complete if we didn’t mention the police. In fact, our account would be quite thin as our interactions with the police probably made up a significant portion of our passage. But this is not to slate them, it is something of an inspiration to see people so passionate and dedicated to their charge. They’re so vigilant that, in fact, when they are away they put up cardboard effigies of their cars (which we’ve dubbed Scare Cops, you know, like scarecrows) to promote safe and civil behavior. It worked on us too …for a while. To paraphrase a Bush-ism – “Scare cop me once, shame on you. Scare cop me twice …well, you just can’t fool me twice.” Sometimes the cutouts included a cutout policeman standing by his car, but it must’ve been a bank holiday, because we only ever saw one (and DIDN’T get a pic L)
But there is much to be admired about their magic light wands, beeeg hats, and beeg epaulettes! In truth, the cops were always friendly, they enjoyed our buffalo. Only one policeman made us take the buffalo down – which we remounted 2 km down the road (it is covered in bugs! There’s no way Jessica was going to tolerate that on her lap for the next 4,000 km.
SOUTH AFRISTANS GUIDE TO NAVIGATING POLICE CHECKPOINTS
The routine with the police checkpoints went nearly to script every time;
1) Approach town and go through a police check point; as sure as camels stink, a magic light wand will indicate we are to pull over. (It’s like a tractor beam – you must obey. It IS magic after all!)
2) We are asked for our passports – two South African, one German and one American.
3) Passports are inspected thoroughly, Richard attempts to explain in Russian, Farsi, English or an unintelligible combination of the three depending on which he is feeling most courageous in, why he, being from Africa, isn’t black!
4) The girls asked if they are married and why not?
5) We are asked for “masheen passport”. Susanne to explain in Russian, Farsi, English or an unintelligible combination of the three depending on which he is feeling most courageous in, why the car was Swiss and she was German. ….AND why she isn’t married.
6) Policeman ignores entire discourse and inspects tin African Buffalo hood ornament/figurehead on the front of the car instead of listening to Susanne’s fascinating story. Susanne continues story.
7) Other policemen will now be called over to also inspect the buffalo, chatter a bit, sometimes take a photo, give the horn or ear a squeeze.
8) JP to explain in fluent Russian how the buffalo came to be. The policemen asks about the unicorn shlashlik…. JP ay have exaggerated his ability to speak Russian.
9) Bemused or befuddled, realizing that we were having more fun than the cops at the checkpoint, the Afristans are waved through, having distracted the police from apprehending the true offenders such as purveyors of fireworks and the cotton smugglers.
10) Peel off with fan belt squealing and hope that the police do not notice our rear indicator was not working. …or our reverse lights.
11) Repeat entire at the checkpoint on the other side of the town!
The one time the police did actually ask for money, we simply played dumb and pretended not to understand. When he made the universal money sign of rubbing his forefinger and thumb together, Rich eagerly offered him a crisp South African 20 Rand, and pointed out the picture of Nelson Mandela on the note. When the cop realized that it was not 20 Euro, Rich took the note back, offended at his lack of respect for our currency. We won’t share our money to those that revere it in the same way we do. And it’s worth mentioning that at this stage the police had already given us our documents back he had lost his leverage, so we felt no obligation whatsoever to hand over one red cent. Or a CYM as the case may be. Amateurs!
Stan looked remarkably similar to the locally produced “Damas” car, and the locals were fascinated by Stan. The conversation typically proceed as follows:
Us: “Nyet. Subaru!”
Local: “Ooooh, you Subaru!”
Us: “Da! Da! You Damas!” Which sounded dangerously close to “you dumbass!” but in all honesty we couldn’t help ourselves…
Getting hold of petrol in Uzbekistan also seemed to be problematic. Reminding us of the Zimbabwean fuel shortages of the noughties. Garages were everywhere, there were no shortages of those and there are separate garages for Benzine, Methane and Propane. We queued about 30 minutes for some “METAN” then realized our faux-pas. It was certainly good training for the zombie apocalypse running from abandoned to derelict garages across the country. The only stations with fuel had long queues just to get gas but we had no time for that. We quickly figured out that petrol was sold on the black market in containers, and could be purchased at certain spots on the side of the road. Once refueled we chugged and sputtered of with a smokey trail of black then white then blue then green. It reminded me of an airshow I had been to as a child…
At this stage we parted ways with our good travel comrades in Four Swedes One Horsepower; they were off to Tajikistan to do the Pamir highway; our time constraints would not allow us to include this amazing stretch of road in our adventure. Guess there’s always next time!
Uzbekistan is host to three of Central Asia’s Silk Road gems; Bukhara, Samarqand and Tashkent (…and Khiva …but we can’t count so good). And we were not disappointed at all when we finally found our accommodation in Old-Town Bukhara. All the hotels in the area were competitively priced, well located and fitted in perfectly with the feel of Bukhara; think of the scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indie shoots the blade wielding baddie whilst the girl is carted away in the basket. That’s Bukhara! But no, neither Jessica nor Susanne were kidnap-married in this way. And no, we didn’t shoot anybody. And that movie was set in the Holy Land. So in fact, it was NOTHING like Raiders of the Lost Ark…
Bukhara is central Asia’s holiest city, and is described by Lonely Planet as a thoroughly lived-in old centre that probably hasn’t changed much in two centuries. Noted as one of the best places in Central Asia for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan; we certainly got this impression and felt like we were thoroughly on the Silk Road!
We also managed to find an ATM that dispensed nice crisp new US dollar bills and we stocked up on these. Probably a bad idea before we went curio shopping in one of the city’s vibrant market streets! JP and Rich stocked up on practical “fox” (dog) skin winter hats for the journey ahead, whilst the girls busied themselves with browsing the various paintings, scissors, silks and other Middle Eastern crafts. Next stop: Samarqand, jewel number II of Uzbekistan! And then we got stopped by the police.
As we approached Samarqand central (after getting stopped by the police), we were immediately struck the by the awesome appearance of the towering blue domes and minarets, and some pictures with Stan were in order! The Registon is the centerpiece of the city, and rightfully so! We fumbled our way to a backpackers located close by, and was clear that this was a place favoured by past ralliers, as evidenced by the host of Mongol Rally stickers plastered all over the entrance.
Staying the backpackers was Jeroen, from The Netherlands, who was partaking in the Mongol Charity rally, an alternative to The Adventurists’ Mongol Rally, which had less restrictions on car or bike size, and they still donate their cars at the end of their rally. Jeroen was doing the rally on a 650 cc bike, which looked suitably equipped for the task, as opposed to the chaps doing the rally on the little 125 cc bikes; which we have not seen or heard from since Istanbul. Finishing the rally on a 125 cc is an impressive feat, given how tough it’s been in a car!
Jess’s Uzbek visa expiring on the third day (due to a visa application error), so the race was on to make it to the border to cross into Kyrgyzstan, about 600 km away. All we had to do was make the border before midnight, and we had 14 hours to do it in; simple right? Leaving Samarqand, disappointed that we could not spend more time walking around and absorbing the sights and sounds of the city, we headed northeast towards Kyrgyzstan (after getting stopped by the police) and would have to skip Tashkent.
Bumping and squealing along, we made good-ish time in Stan-style, but the frequent police checkpoints were slowing us down. We figured out that we had to register when crossing provinces; Stalin had demarcated areas back in the fifties based on Moscow’s understanding of ethnic boundaries and not with the intention of these boundaries becoming international borders after the break-up of the USSR in 1991, so it’s all rather messy.
Only 250 km away with 5 hours to spare, we were confident that we would make the border. Rich managed to get pulled over for driving suspiciously when he saw a police car approaching and stopping about 30 m in front of a red traffic light primarily as a result of the rest of the car yelling “Stop! Stop! Stop!”
As 12 am loomed we realized that we were not 100% certain where the border actually was, and we arrived at a rather closed border crossing a little after 12. After explaining the situation to a friendly border guard, he assured that us that the now expired visa would be “neh problem” and we were to camp right outside the gates until the border opened again at 9 am.
Sure enough, after a decent night’s sleep, and a nice cup of tea with some local Uzbek bread for breakfast, the guard strolled over just before 9 to collect our passports and we duly carried on packing up, until we were instructed to enter the compound to clear customs and immigration. Much to our disappointment, we did not find out if it was quicker for Jessica to get deported rather than leave the country, and we were all allowed to leave after the by now customary search of our pharmaceuticals (top tip: don’t smuggle drugs into or out of a country in your toiletry bags!) and we squealed off across no man’s land towards Kyrgyzstan.