Uzbekistan – Heart of the Glorious Silk Road

by Jan 6, 2017Blogs, Overland, Silk road, Stories, Uzbekistan

After the transit of only five days in Turkmenistan, we arrive at the border of our next -Stan: Uzbekistan. A country known for its important position on the crossroads of the ancient Silk Roads. With oasis cities like Samarkand and Bukhara, it speaks to our imagination. Uzbekistan is by travelers also known for its severe border checks and we hope we prepared ourselves well enough to get through it without paying a lot of bribes… We are curious: what will the culture be like? What remained of the old Silk Road cities? Join us on our journey through Uzbekistan!

Smiling our way through

We arrive at the Uzbek border at midday and it is scorching hot: the air trembles above the empty tarmac. We prepare ourselves as we always do: we practice our first words of the local language and Roderick wears his best shirt. When we enter the lonely building, we are just in time to find out that they are closing for lunch: great! We have to wait 1,5 hour before we can move on. But we are lucky: right after us an old purple and green Hymer camper arrives and a German man gets out. He is in his 70’s and is currently driving a “short route” around Central Asia, respect. Great to use our time and exchange stories with him!

When the snoring in the room next to us stops, the lunch break is apparently over and it is time to get to work again for the border guard. With sleepy eyes the guard asks for our documents. He severely checks our passports and keeps looking up and down to see if it is really us. Then we are ready to go to the next room. The lady in there asks us to bring all our baggage to this room. “Eehhhhh…. are you sure? We are travelling with our own vehicle and it is a lot!”, we say. But she keeps on insisting to bring our bags and take out all the medicines we have with us. Ok, so 10 minutes later we come back with two bags – those are our actual “bags”, haha – and a box full of all the medicines. Everything is checked thoroughly. The woman asks stringent: “You didn’t bring anything that might harm our country?” She checks every single thing in our medicine box. Makes me a little nervous… “Eeehh… I don’t think so?” I say. We stay calm and cooperative and they are relatively polite to us. But the German man has a different strategy. “No, I don’t have any bags with me!” he shouts. He keeps on grumbling in German. The border guards get annoyed and shouts back at him.

In the meantime the lady decides we are no harm to Uzbekistan and we can move on to the vehicle control. The border guards are already waiting for us. Roderick gives them a huge smile and starts trying to say some Uzbek words. It breaks the ice: they start smiling too and teach him more words. Than they have a look in our bus, but only a brief one. They see one photo of Roderick and me together and ask: “How many times a day you do “it”?” WHAT? Serious? The only fast answer Roderick has to this rather personal question is: “Inshallah”. Apparently this was a satisfying answer to them. “Welcome to Uzbekistan!” they say. We are ready to go!

Silk Road grandeur

We drive off in the direction of Bukhara. The first 80 kilometers in Uzbekistan we notice that the landscape is a lot greener: most fields are used for agriculture. And the white plastered clay houses of the villages we pass by have a friendly look. Then we see heavenly blue domes peeking out of a sand colored city: this is Bukhara! With our Abi we drive along the old minarets and we see the first blue tiled facades. It feels great that we made it all the way here! When we walk around the ancient city we can feel the history: the traders from all over the world that must have walked on these bazars, the mosques – with their beautifully detailed artworks in all shades of blue – that stood still in time. And the city is very well preserved. We are surprised!

Uzbekistan peculiarities

Uzbekistan still is very much controlled by their government. They have a big influence on their money system for example. When it is time to get some local money, we find out what the consequences are. Due to a huge inflation and the unwillingness of the Uzbek government to recognize this, there is a huge difference between the official rate and the black market rate. But the good thing for us: many Uzbek are happy to change their instable currency into euros or dollars. We go to a small shop to change 50 euro and they get out a big stack of money.  The largest bill is 1.000 som which equals around 0,25 euro. So you can imagine… And because counting takes quite some time, they put the stacks of 1.000 bills on the scale and measure the “som” for our euros by the gram. With a bag full of money we head off. We are millionaires!

Another thing is that the government likes to keep track of tourists. That means we have to get registered at least every third night. And the way to do this is to go to a hotel and let them check you in. But… we are travelling in our bus and never sleep in hotels. So what to do? Unfortunately it means we have to sleep every third night at the premises of a hotel: sometimes they let us sleep in our bus and we pay them some money for our registration. But other times we have to take a room to get registered. Quite annoying, because it means we have to stay on the tourist track! But on the other hand this means we have the opportunity to meet other travelers. Most of them are travelling on two wheels: we met some motor bikers, and really a lot of cyclist. Crazy people that drove off from Europe and cycled the same route as we did. Respect! Apparently Central Asia is one of the main destination and July and August are the months to do this.

City missions

Before we leave Bukhara, we have to arrange insurance for our bus. But that seems not easy to find. After some talks with local people, walking around, we finally find out where to get car insurance. Hidden in a small room in an old Soviet building, we find three people working. It is hot in the small office, but the white curtains are softly moved by the wind which brings in some cool air. The three of them speak no English, but “Sigurta Machine” – the two words of Russian we just learned – does the trick. They understand we need car insurance and one of the employees starts to fill in forms on her computer. But, what will it cost? We keep on asking by using gesture language. It leads to a lot of laughing and they seem to say that it will be no problem… After a while the prints get out of the printer and then we have to pay 7.500 Som. Do we hear that correctly? That would mean 2 euro. Or is it only for the print? But no, this is it! Insurance for 2 weeks. Unbelievable. We have no idea what it will cover in case of an accident, but at least we have the paper to show to the corrupt police. Hopefully we don’t need it, inshallah. And after a warm goodbye we are ready to hit the road. We love those missions in a city!

Lake time

Out of the city, into nature! But in this part of Uzbekistan nature is not really impressive. We find a lake on our map and we decide to go there.  Over bad roads we arrive at the lake in the middle of the dessert. Not the most picture perfect place, but a good place to spend a few days to relax, catch up with our blog and photos and make plans for the coming weeks.

Up till now we have the experience that Uzbek people are a little hard to approach: they don’t seem very open and even a little grumpy at first side. But maybe we are spoiled by the overwhelming warm welcome of the Iranians… When we try to find a place to buy a beer around the lake, we hear music and something that looks like a restaurant. But soon we find out that this is a private house. When we approach a man who is walking around, he opens up and welcomes us to come in. The women are dancing, the man are grilling the meat. A few minutes later I am forced to join them, while Roderick is joining the man in the grilling of the meat. We are invited to join the meal. We try to talk with them with the few words of Turkish we know – the language that is related to Uzbek. Again we experience great hospitality, like in Iran.  But there are two major differences: the women are much more open and tough and… there is vodka! Off course we have to drink. We get a huge glass, the head of the table speaks a toast – we don’t understand a word off course – and then we have to drink the glass in one go… pfoo!

After the dinner the party comes to an end, but not before the head of the family performs a prayer or as they call it: Amin. He fold his hands together like a bowl and the rest of the family does the same. He thanks a lot of people personally. And then he moves his hands over his face from top to bottom. A beautiful gesture and a great way to end this evening together with this welcoming family. When we return to our bus, it is dark but still warm. Even in the night it doesn’t cool down below 30 degrees. And there are mosquitos.., many of them. Aaarrghh, does is the annoying part of travelling! Sometimes it makes you dream of home for a moment…

The golden road to Samarkand

After the time at the lake it is time to head to the next oasis city on the Silk Road: Samarkand! The roads are burning hot, the tarmac is almost melting. Around us mostly desert. And while we drive I keep on thinking of the poem written by James Elroy Flecker:

We travel not for trafficking alone:

By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:

For lust of knowing what should not be known

We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

And the city is amazingly beautiful: the Registan, a square surrounded by beautiful madrassas and mosques that captures everybody’s imagination. What can I say more?

Getting ready for Tajikistan

The time limits on our visa for Tajikistan, the heat and the annoyance of having to register every third night, makes us move a little faster through Uzbekistan than we are used to. After a bit more than two weeks we get ready to drive to the next border: we are very excited to make our way towards Tajikistan.

In the three days it takes us to get to there, we meet the hospitable Uzbek people: inviting us to their house to have a cup of tea, treating us on somsa (a meaty Central Asian version of the Indian samosa) on an amazing Sunday bazaar, where you can by everything from fruits and vegetables to materials to build your house.

And every now and then we meet our cyclist-friends again: since we like to travel slowly we seem to have the same speed. Most of them left home around the same date as we did. And while it is close to 40 degrees, we provide them with water and juicy melon. Great that we can be their support-car!

On the 7th of August we arrive at the border at Denau in Uzbekistan. Let’s get ready for the third difficult border crossing in three weeks! We practice our first words of Tajik, Roderick wears his special border clothes again. The first guard checks our registration slips to check if we registered every third night. He is giving us some hard time that we didn’t register the last 2 days, but after some time we are good to go! Next step: vehicle control. First they ask for all our photos and videos and checks every single USB device and memory card thoroughly. In the meantime a guard checks the whole inside of the bus: every drawer, box, the glove department, etc. What are they looking for? We are leaving the country right? We are surprised how he finds things we didn’t even realized we brought with us! For example: the small Rubik’s cube that we are apparently taking with us on our drive around the world. One guard starts to solve it. We wait… and wait… but after 15 minutes he succeeds, and he is very proud of it. Something he wants to show his colleagues too. So…we wait another time … For us this is a little frustrating but mostly funny and Roderick takes a picture with his phone… WRONG. They now want to go through all the phone pictures as well…  But then, everything is all right and we are ready to go to the Tajik side of the border.

We read about the scams at the Tajik side of the border. We are asked to check our temperature by the veterinary doctor?! We know it is bullshit and refuse to pay and use the excuse we don’t have money. Then we continue to the main building. There we have to make a temporary import registration for our bus and we have to pay a road tax. We didn’t read anything about this, and Roderick tries his best to not pay the 45 dollar fee (or should we say bribe). While Roderick is negotiating, I am invited at the office of the chief and he insists that I eat a lot of grapes. They are good, but I feel very uncomfortable sitting in a room while he watches me eating grapes and keeps speaking in Russian to me. Is this OK? In the meantime Roderick is insisting that we don’t have to pay the road tax and that we will call the embassy. The guards are not impressed: “Please do so, we are not in a hurry” they say. They show a lot of official looking documents and it seems that the fee might be legit. Finally we agree on 25 dollars – the official fee for a car instead of a mini-bus. After that, Roderick is invited to the office of the chief too. And there are more grapes, people are friendly and after they are finished stamping, it is our time. We put a Circumbendibus stamp on a paper, under their glass table. Approved! We are ready to enter Tajikistan, a country very high on our wish list! Read about our adventures in this amazing country soon.