We were really excited to visit Uzbekistan, the altitude and heat had got to us while exploring the mountains so the idea of leisurely strolls around Silk Road cities sounded like a rather appealing change. We crossed the border from near Panjikent in Tajikistan, the border only reopened this year after a long time being closed so we were very lucky.
The Uzbekistan border control were really jolly and it was an easy and quick crossing. Sadly as soon as we exited the border we were swarmed by men offering us a ride to Samarkand. Uzbekistan’s currency is suffering from major inflation, things have improved since a few years back when it was probably cheaper to wipe your arse with money than buy paper. So now we were dealing with massive figures, a taxi man offered us a ride for 6000Sum, writing the amount on my phone. Once we’d exchanged some money with an irritating man that kept calling me babe, our taxi driver said the price was 60000 and he was really rude, laughing when we exited the car. It wasn’t a good start to Uzbekistan. We managed to get a minivan which was cheaper but even still the man charged us extra, whether it was for us being tourists or for our bags to have a seat, I don’t know. But when we left the vehicle he even tried to ask for more money and I was so close to sticking my middle finger up at him. Our hotel was brand new but way south of the city which meant we had to get taxis everywhere. On the plus side it only cost 30p per person and almost every public car acted as a taxi so we never had to wait more than a minute. The heat was intense at 39 degrees, it was a dry heat with a hot wind, like when you open the oven door, so it was nice to escape in a taxi.
We spent the afternoon exploring Samarkand which is one of the most recognisable names along the Silk Road. Our first stop was Registan, the cities top sight, probably even the countries and it’s among the worlds oldest preserved madrassas (Arabic schools). We walked alongside one of the buildings and were surprised that it was free to look at from the outside. There were three huge, mosaic madrassas with leaning minarets which desperately tried to stay erect after years of earthquakes shaking the ground. The sun was low and while some buildings were shaded, others were glowing in the golden light. We were ready to pay our entrance fee as we stepped inside but there was no one there and we soon realised that we accidentally got in for free. The area where we’d entered now had a guard standing by the building.
Anyway, there were huge courtyards with dozens of arches around doorways and the walls were all decorated with mosaics. Huge turquoise domes topped the madrassas and the view from the inside was equally as spectacular with intricate gold detailing. We returned at night to see the buildings lit up and the locals in a very holiday spirit.
The next morning we visited Shah-I-Zinda which was even more beautiful than Registan. It’s a sort of avenue of mausoleums, which is said to contain some of the richest tilework in the Muslim world. The mosaic patterns were on another level with every shade of blue imaginable.
Bibi-Khanym Mosque was nearby and was once one of the Islamic world’s biggest mosques. The main mosque was 41m high and new techniques were used for construction but that led to the dome crumbling before the build was complete. The building also collapsed in an earthquake and even though it was heavily renovated in the 1970’s, the interior of the main building was unrestored. In fact it was very rustic and we poked our heads through a crumbling doorway. Inside were two men renovating the building, tediously chipping away at mosaic pieces. We walked inside the empty shell of what I’m sure will be a majestic sight once restoration is complete but with only two men working on it, I don’t even know if their grandchildren will see it finished. We couldn’t believe how bad the condition was and what an unsafe place it was to work. The walls had huge cracks through them and it looked like the next earthquake to hit would be enough to wobble it all out of place.
I think some 40 cent beers from a beer garden may have been watered down as Craig came down with a very iffy belly and soon after so did I. We’d seen all the sights we wanted to see so the next morning we got a train to Bukhara. All of the cheap tickets had sold out so we sat in a very spacious business class carriage. The train was really modern and a staff member checked tickets at each carriage. When we checked into our hotel we were met by a huge double decker bus from England. It was a group from Australia, England and Canada driving the Mongol Rally and then onto Australia! What an insane trip and it’s the first double decker to do the rally, I sure hope they make it!
Our bellies were feeling very sensitive still but we needed to arrange some things like a night train and a flight which we couldn’t book online. We had to pay for the flight in cash but it was too much money to get from an atm so we needed a cash advance from a bank. They only give US dollars so then we were sent to various rooms in the bank for processing, money collection and currency exchange, it was a very tedious process. Just to give an idea of what the inflation is like here, we exchanged five American bills worth $420 for 5 massive stacks of Sum which we piled into our backpack.
Bukhara was much more chilled than Samarkand, a large section of the old town was pedestrianised and it was a very pleasant place to wander around. Sadly, to us everything else looked just like the sights we’d seen in Samarkand. The buildings were all made of the same beige stones and decorated with turquoise domes and blue mosaics. Bukhara did have some touristy bazaars housed in a building with big mounds all over the roof, it sort of looked like a giant mole lived inside and kept trying to get out.
Our next destination was Khiva which was a well preserved walled town. It was a 6 hour journey in a shared taxi with slanted seats and a local chap man-spreading next to me the whole way. Our Gueshouse was down a back alley behind a massive minaret which looked like a lighthouse. It was nice to see local life around the area, in the day time it was very quiet but as the sun went down and the temperature became more bearable, everyone would come outside and socialise. Most houses had metal bed frames with springs beside their front doors and we saw kids bouncing on them like they were trampolines. In the evenings families put futons onto the beds and lounged outside sipping tea.
It was a very small place to explore, we walked along the thick protective walls with castle style tops. From the walls we got a vantage point down to the sea of beige buildings, mosques and domes. We climbed up one of the minarets which definitely wasn’t designed for claustrophobic people. A spiral staircase led up the tower, it was almost pitch black and we had to be careful with each step, not to fall and not to hit our heads. The view from the top wasn’t as good as we’d hoped, metal bars sort of got in the way but we did get a view across the whole walled town and some turquoise domes. I think the sights would all be more appealing for a person that has a big interest in history. For us they all looked the same and we became a bit bored. Also I think if there was a variety of things to do like in Kyrgyzstan we’d of enjoyed it more, a day exploring the architecture and then a day in the mountains for example. Uzbekistan does have mountains but they’re not as big as it’s neighbours and the yurts are expensive and purely for tourists. So it was time for us to leave on a night train to Tashkent.
To enter the train station we had to walk through a security machine which beeped for everyone yet the guard didn’t do any searches. It seemed to just be a very fancy people counting machine. The train we were catching had travelled all the way from Russia so it was already pretty busy with people. There were four beds and then two more along the aisle, we didn’t pay the extra money for one of the compartments with a door and air conditioning. There wasn’t even fans so when the train stopped at stations it was stinking hot, but we were pretty lucky as today the weather had dropped from 39 degrees right down to 31 and that felt pretty cool to us. The people in our area were all very smiley though, there was a lady who you could instantly tell was Russian before she even spoke and she kindly offered us tea. The others were from Uzbekistan but they all work in Russia where the money is good and they send it home. They were on the train for over a day to visit their family. A student who spoke amazing English sat with us for a long time asking us lots of questions. When we asked him where the restaurant carriage was he looked a bit sorry for us, “oh, did you not bring some food with you? No one really eats in the restaurant as it’s expensive and not fresh”. Brilliant! We had 17 hours on this train and a tiny bag of nuts to eat. We decided to walk there anyway and it was literally about 1km away. The train was massive and we were the first carriage. I hated going through the gap of each carriage, one door swinging behind me, the wind howling and the loud sound of clanking metal bouncing beneath my feet. There were four people eating in the ‘restaurant’ and it was a very basic place. Hard to imagine the Russians also have the Siberian express as this train was very tatty.
The lady didn’t speak English but she seemed to understand that we wanted to eat but we didn’t know what she had so she did a clucking noise – they had chicken. I’m a vegetarian so we got our Point It book out and pointed to bread, “niet” she said – no. The men were eating bread so I knew they had it so I tried to take the book back and instead point to the food on their table but she rudely snatched the book off me and spent five minutes flicking through it until she found a chicken and pointed to that. She then went into a back room and showed us a supermarket bag with some round bread and cold, fried chicken on top of it. God knows when it was cooked but the chicken juices had all spoilt the bread. She also had some incredibly dry looking manty dumplings which looked like they were made during the Cold War. So we left with empty bellies, shocked that the train didn’t serve proper food. Most of the locals had pot noodles and bread while we sat there looking like squirrels, eating our nuts and seeds and wandering if we needed to ration them for breakfast. Plastic bags with freshly laundered bed sheets were handed out and our new friends insisted on helping us make our beds. I actually managed to get some sleep which is a rarity but Craig didn’t so when the train stopped at a station at 5am he got off and bought some noodles and cupcakes for breakfast.
Once in Tashkent we got a vintage Larda taxi to a brand new hostel that had already been neglected. It was like a student house filled with locals, the cleaner didn’t actually clean anything and we were given dirty towels. We headed out to see some of the cities sights and escape the filth. It was a Muslim holiday and we witnessed three men slaughtering a goat on a dusty patch right beside the pathway. I asked if it was for the holiday, “no it’s for our restaurant” and the chap pointed with bloody hands to the logo of a Greek restaurant on his chef coat. It seemed so bizarre that they didn’t buy the meat pre-cut from the market and also that they were slaughtering it beside the road and pedestrians.
I don’t know why we didn’t love Uzbekistan like everyone else we met. I guess it was a combination of the intense heat, repetitive food (plov, more plov and bread) and the fact that it was the end of our Central Asian adventures…we desperately wanted to swim in the sea and eat good food. It’s a shame we didn’t enjoy the country more, the people were delightful and the sights very impressive – but it was too much of the same thing and as we’ve said before, variety is the spice of life…it’s time fo us to fly to South East Asia!