When? July/August 2014, A Steppe too Far, coming from Seoul, beginning and ending at Tashkent, going on to Dubai
How? Overland in buses and local planes
Who? Group Tour
I spend most of the day at airports and on planes, trying not to dwell on the number of planes that have gone down lately. However, the journey is without incident, except that there is a family with three young children across the plane aisle from me. They cry in concert, if not in harmony, the whole trip.
Uzbekistan airport is just like a bad spy novel. It’s very grey, cables hang from the ceiling and the immigration booths are ramshackle. The baggage takes an age to arrive and the handlers alternate haphazardly between two ancient creaky belts, just to keep us on our toes. Customs try to appear to be doing a thorough job, but in essence the little guy just puts rings round everything on my form. The officers mumble in strongly accented English. I am warned that there will be dire consequences if I leave the country with more money than I take in. Unlikely that I will become an oligarch in two weeks, though as they don’t actually inspect my money they won’t know. The arrivals hall is in the open air outside the airport and although it’s seven in the evening (I’m back in time four hours again) it’s 100 degrees. And I’m immediately surrounded by taxi drivers touting for business and trying to grab my bag. Fortunately, after taking a deep breath I spot a little Sundowners notice waving at the back.
The hotel (ostensibly three star) is very basic and everywhere reeks of cigarette smoke. This is going to be a very different three weeks.
I seem to be on a sort of ANZAC tour. Three couples, one from Australia, one from New Zealand, one from Canada. (Well the acronym still works.) And me. The spare part. One of the kiwis is also called Sue so it has been ordained that I will be known as Susie for the duration of the trip. The guide is called Surat and he’s a bewildered little man from Tashkent.
Breakfast – I consume rice pudding, cauliflower cheese and a peach.
The capital of Uzbekistan is a pleasant city with several green parks and a very modern centre. There’s the usual Soviet reconstruction. There are new mosques and very little that seems to predate 1970. The people are friendly but seem to regard us with a great deal of curiosity. They all stare unashamedly, especially the young men, and several groups want to include me in their photos. Blonde, curly hair is a real novelty. The women mostly wear headscarves (not hijabs) and longish floral floaty dresses. The men wear jeans and T shirts. Like the women they are dark haired and olive skinned and tend towards thick set and squat in build. Some of them would do well in auditions for King Kong. It’s Eidh today and many have their holiday/visit the city gear on. It also means that most of the bazaar and all the museums are shut.
It’s not been a great day for me. My rear lens cap has jammed on my main, very expensive camera lens and no-one, not one of these muscly men, can get it to budge. I’ve got blisters all over my fingers, where I’ve tried to unscrew it. And of course all the shops are shut. Tomorrow we are off into the mountain wilderness. I’ve lost the key to the safe deposit box in my room, my passport and my wodges of thousands of sum notes are in there (4000 to the pound). And something has bitten my foot. It’s swollen and I can’t walk very far.
We take three smallish cars into the Fergana Valley. The three cars drive strictly in convoy, speeding along the highway weaving in and out of the other traffic, too close together. It’s a little traumatic squashed in the front. My brake doesn’t work. It was like lucky dip – which couple do I get in with? Today I’m Canadian. None of the drivers speak English and Surat isn’t with us, as only foreigners are allowed through the land border into Kyrgyzstan. Mini vans aren’t allowed over the mountains either, hence the Italian Job style operation. There are umpteen army posts with men toting very large guns and passport checkpoints before we get anywhere near the border. Photos are banned in numerous areas. It’s all very KGB.
There don’t seem to be any actual taxis here – Surat says that every car in Uzbekistan is a taxi. Most of the cars are white Chevrolets. White because they are cooler and Chevrolets because there is a big manufacturing plant here. We’re speeding so fast that the scenery is a blur. At one point I spot a herd of goats with a driver on a donkey in the opposite fast lane. We cross a range of mountains with the mandatory ex communist bloc smoke belching factory or row of marching pylons marring every potentially beautiful spot. There are headscarved women selling melons and wheels of bread from roadside booths, interspersed with clunky unsympathetic restaurants and filling stations. It’s a curious mix of soviet and the east. The language and appearance of the people is definitely more oriental.
Once in the Fergana Valley we visit a khan’s reconstructed palace, a mausoleum and two more reconstructed mosques, one of which is now a museum. I’m already very familiar with mosaic tiling and turquoise blue domes. Though it’s interesting to know that this is where the Mogul Empire originated from. The valley is very flat, and supplies a large proportion of the world’s cotton, though we can see snow tipped mountains in the distance.
Today’s hotel room smells strongly of drains rather than tobacco. There’s a sign in my room that tells me I will be fined if I use the towels to clean my shoes. In the restaurant I have to gear myself up to navigate the menu. These are typically long with odd sprinklings of excruciatingly unhelpful English. Top billing tonight goes to ‘sloppy veal’. I thought beef stroganoff might be safe, but it comes with tomato, onion and fries instead of the rice I ordered. The next door table gets that and no fries. The food is pretty bad everywhere we’ve eaten so far, mostly meat in different stews and really heavily salted. I cant complain about the bill though – just over two quid.
And things are getting better. One of the drivers has managed to get the cap off my camera lens, a screwdriver was involved.
It’s not easy getting ready in the morning when you have to hold your breath every time you go into the bathroom. Every action takes careful advance planning.Today we have a minibus. All the drivers are very law abiding. There are 2D police cars along the road reminding them to behave. As we are travelling The Silk Road a visit to a silk factory is obligatory. This one is at Margilan. It is very traditional and the silkworm cocoons are boiled in vats over wood fuelled fires. Then onward through the valley to Kyrgystan.
An early flight back to Tashkent. Thankfully, we are flying with Uzbekistan Airways and not any Kyrgyz airlines as they have all been banned from flying into EU airspace. It’s amazing how high tech and developed Uzbekistan looks after Kyrgyzstan. Our Shodlik Palace really does seem palatial. Hot water, electricity and clean sheets.
We had to take a very early flight and we are therefore experiencing considerably more time in Tashkent than was envisaged. Although it is his home town Surat seems to be at the peak of his indecisiveness. He is poor at consulting and communicating what we are going to do on a good da,y but today he seems to be improvising wildly and strangely at a loss when it comes to navigation. In the end we accomplish a tour of metro stations (ornate like Moscow but no photos allowed), a visit to the opera house ( which is being refurbished so we can only look from a distance) and a bus trip out to the memorial park (for the thousands of Uzbeks massacred by Stalin) next to the TV Tower. There is a very large police presence , especially on the Metro. I suppose that’s reassuring. Lunch is a point-at-what-you-want-self-service cafe. Surat doesn’t seem to be able to recommend dishes or know what anything is. All very odd. ( I would say that perhaps he is taking after his namesake and going dotty, but that would be a terrible joke.)
Now I’ve been cast adrift for the afternoon. We are not leaving till midday tomorrow, when we are going to a mountain holiday resort on a reservoir, which Surat has mournfully announced will be very crowded. I’m a little surprised – this wasn’t on my itinerary. Anyway, I have nearly twenty four hours to kill. It’s still sizzling outside – 43 degrees – and the couples are all doing their own thing. After going backwards and forwards through so many time zones and missing so much sleep my body doesn’t know where my head is. Even if I wasn’t frazzled and knew where to go, travel for a lone female is not for the faint hearted. The few signs are in Uzbek and not many people speak English. Moreover, Lonely Planet is vociferous in warning about the dangers of taxis and checking to make sure that no one ishiding in the back seat. Bed seems the most sensible option.
Today I feel even worse, despite sleeping far longer than usual, so I have to conclude that I have picked up a bug. I trot off to the chemist, down a lethal looking cocktail and return to bed. I contemplate passing on the diversion to the reservoir, but decide it would cause more aggravation than I could cope with both explaining and signing off the trip. It’s still baking hot and hazy. We are skirting the edge of the desert so the hills are arid, baked brown, whilst the rivers trickling alongside the roads are a dazzling turquoise. Yet another example of nature painting the perfect palette. The stalls pointing the way are festooned with plastic swimming rings; clearly there is a seaside in Uzbekistan too.
Except that we don’t get to experience it. The glacier blue reservoir is revealed in tantalising glimpses as we climb the mountain roads above the huge dam, but our hotel has been changed at the last moment. We are in the mountains still, now five kilometres from the lake. The guest house is pleasant (especially when benchmarked against recent experiences), except for the shared bathrooms, but I don’t understand the logic of driving out from Tashkent – surely there are hotels there with swimming pools? I’m still very lethargic, but it’s impossible to sleep with the incessant stream of English muzak that is belted out. Ironic when no one here speaks the language.
We detour to Charvak itself, by group request on the way back to Tashkent. I’m happily feeling better but opt for a sleep on a shady bench rather than joining the masses doing their thing on the uncomfortable looking concrete and rock perches by the water. There is every type of water sport imaginable on offer and more music churns out over the funfair.
Others in the group are looking a bit green around the gills too. No one is anticipating the trip on the train tonight with any great enthusiasm except Australian Margaret. She is one of these larger than life women whose opinion is the only one that counts. However, she is very positive and everything (it seems to me) is graded on a four point scale (good, lovely, beautiful or sensational). I suppose the train trip is included to add variety, though the cynic in me would point out that the fare is a lot cheaper than a hotel night. And those who choose to travel to Uzbekistan tend to have experienced over night trains already. It just seems like another privation, especially when we climb on our old Russian carriage and look across to the modern Shark bullet train on the next platform that does the journey in not much more than half the time.
The wooden four berth compartment is stifling and there are some evil smells wafting around. Drifting through the window or emanating from suffering fellow passengers? I’m unsure and I’m not going to ask. Both the window and the door have to remain open or the heat is unbearable.
I was wrong about having got rid of my bug. Either it metamorphosed or I picked up another one. I am sleeping reasonably well, but I just about fall out of my top bunk at 3 a.m. in the rush to get to the toilet before disaster strikes. I monopolise that part of the train for the next two hours. Enough detail on that I think, except to say that I am once again tired and spaced out. I seem to be in the habit of grading things lately so I need also to mention that the heat here is at incinerator level.
Other than that things are looking up. I’m now at the western most point of my Silk Road journey. The hotel is clean and prettily arranged round a courtyard in traditional style. Bukhara, a city that’s over two thousand years old, is definitely worth seeing. My Lonely Planet Bible describes it as enchanting and I’m not going to argue with that. It’s certainly like being on a different planet. Little alleys tip you out onto squares with cool cafés arranged around little green lakes with fountains. Atmospheric caravanserai pop up round every corner stuffed with trinkets. Suddenly every bazaar caters for tourists, beautiful embroidery flutters everywhere, tastefully bright bags abound, silver earrings beckon invitingly and hats of every description proliferate; a different style for every day of the year, let alone enough to supply a party. I’m drawn to the jaunty silk numbers with tassels. Every oriental cliche from Aladdin to Ali Baba, to Sherezade to Omar Kayam is utilised. We’ve also gone considerably up market. Nothing is cheap and everything is priced in dollars.
Today it’s only sizzling again, which is helpful as we have a tour of the five Moslem Ms: minarets, mosques, mausoleums, madrassas (courtyard schools) and museums. Bukhara is, in the main, beautifully kept, if over restored. (The Bolshevik army had a field day here demolishing buildings.) The Ms are arranged in a variety of appealing combinations. The more complex arrangements are known as ensembles, the ubiquitous blue tiles and soaring gates, surmounted by turquoise domes. There’s also a minaret that towers over the city in such an incredible fashion that Ghengis decided to spare it when he came conquering. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for the Russians, but at least it’s been rebuilt. The amazing tower also causes problems for my Margaret Scale. When she sees it she says ‘Aw it’s awesome’, so now I will have to expedite a revision.
A cultural show in the evening, which means folk dancing and a poor dinner. Then there is a power cut. It’s not easy finding your way back to the hotel in pitch black alleys. I try not go think about who or what might be lurking in the shadows.
AAAARGH the lurgy has returned yet again. Today I’ve been throwing up. Well at least there is variety in the way the bugs make themselves known. Flecker’s Golden Road to Samarkand is a misnomer. It’s dirty brown semi desert with tufts of grass that are yellow or green. Though to be fair it does get more yellow as Samarkand approaches and the land becomes even drier. These are much poorer areas with the usual flocks of goats and sheep, mud brick farmhouses and little wells. The hay that can be scratched from the scraps of pasture stands in little green stooks and patient donkeys (when not tugging huge carts) find ingenious ways, stretching leashes and standing on three legs, to reach the most succulent remaining leaves and blades of grass. Any gaps with fertile soil are plugged with cotton fields; the Soviets turned the country into the world’s fourth biggest producer. Rocky mountain ranges create a backdrop to the tableau.
We don’t go straight to Samarkand, but make a diversion to the great Emir Timur (Tamerlane)’s home town of Shahrisabz. Here, the fifteenth century palaces and mausoleums are still in ruins. LPB says they give an authentic flavour of what Samarkand was like before the restoration mob moved in. Unfortunately, the mob are already in town and vast swathes of shops and houses have been bulldozed in readiness for the tourist hordes. They haven’t yet got round to restoring most of the monuments and at one point I am advised to move to avoid tiles falling on my head.
Although Uzbekistan is virtually a totalitarian state the people on the whole seem content with Islam Karimov’s rule. Or so they say. It’s a Moslem country, but not a Moslem state, so whilst the people tend to dress conservatively there are very few burkas or face coverings in evidence. The fashion is for more colourful garb and tied scarf headdresses. In the evening and for formal occasions both men and women opt for the golden edged pork pie hats. They look very elegant in these matched with flowing gowns. In Shahrisabz the everyday dresses are matched with long pantaloons. Equality between the sexes, as we know it, is embryonic. Women are expected to be obedient to their husbands and most wives take on the role of cook- housekeeper within the extended family. The vast majority of marriages are still arranged.
Our current Russian driver isn’t doing very well today. We have been stopped by policemen angling for a premium on their salary. Later, everyone complains to Surat about the quality of the driving itself. The driver has been specialising in white knuckle rides. The roads in the south of the country aren’t great anyway and there are huge ruts. Coupled with this the minivan of the moment doesn’t seem to have much in the way of suspension, so it’s like being on a bucking bronco. Surat passes the comments on to the driver, whilst we are sightseeing, but possibly not in the most tactful way. We spend the next two hours driving at exactly 45 kph, so doubling the time of our journey.
Our hotel for the last part of our trip appears incredibly ostentatious. It’s a vast package tourist establishment that we assume has been included to try and persuade us to forget previous tribulations. As always first impressions are deceiving. It’s The Hotel in the Land That Time Forgot. There’s no food on offer, no one knows when the swimming pool will open or how t get to it, (ask the swimming pool manager), there’s no hot water until 6pm and the lights operate according to their own whim. More mysteriously, it does not appear to have a name. There are no information documents available and no embroidered tags on linen. So I go outside to try and solve the puzzle. The sign on top says simply ‘Hotel’.
I’ve decided to drown my bugs with vodka. Only time will tell if this is a good idea.
All the food here gets served at room temperature, whether it’s ostensibly a hot dish or a cold one. If you’re not here when the breakfast buffet is set out out then you get your eggs at room temperature. Few of the shops, especially in the villages and small towns, have fridges, and drinks too are served at room temperature, which is pretty high as the day wears on.
Samarkand is the jewel in the crown, Timur’s capital. Some say if Bukhara is a beautiful woman then Samarkand is a beautiful lady with make up. Samarkand’s certainly much bigger, with the sights more spread out than in Bukhara. I can see all this from from my sixth floor balcony, where there is a great view of the fabled Registon ensemble of three madrassas. This hotel does have its redeeming features. No terrace seats provided, but I drag the desk chair outside to stand on and take photos.
Off to visit the 5 Ms of Samarkand. They have had a great deal of make up plastered on, but are undoubtedly impressive. The same style as seen previously, but grander and more opulent; the turquoise domes are now patterned rather than plain, for example. Much of the city has been rebuilt. Some of the new bazaars resemble Bond Street, rather than having an oriental flavour and souvenirs are expensive. There are ceramics with gorgeous intricate arts and crafts patterns. I’m worried that if the Registon lives up to its billing close up I may well have to revise my Margaret Scale once more. However, she declares that she is lost for words, so all is well.
Today the really ancient Samarkand, known as Afrosiob (or Marikanda depending on which guide you believe). There are earthworks and reconstructed frescoes. In this area are also a fifteenth century observatory and the tomb of Daniel (he of lion fame). Daniel also has tombs in other parts of the world, most notably Iran. One story says that his body keeps growing so they have to keep enlarging the already very large sarcophagus. Another, that only his arm is buried here. No-one can check as Islam forbids the opening of tombs. The finale is the sublime Avenue of Mausoleums, a whole stepped street of (heavily renovated) richly tiled tombs of assorted designs from the Tamerlane era.
Samarkand ladies seem to be keen on striped ankle socks with bear motifs. They are especially common on the older women.
We are back in our palace in Tashkent after a long hot drive across flat desert. There’s a sign on my hotel window that says ‘No Photography’. It might have something to do with all the satellite dishes on the tall cuboid building opposite.
A last quick excursion to Chorsu Bazaar, the granddaddy of them all. A frenetic sprawling old style bazaar in domed and tiered new style surroundings. If you want it they’ve got it.
My three week tour to Central Asia has been a very mixed experience with some amazing sights, a feast of colour. In fact an assault on all the senses. But I’m not sure I would do it again. Privations, discomforts and bureaucracy aside, being a Spare Part has not been easy. Australians Margaret and Murray do what Margaret says (though he looks after the money); that is when the whole group is not doing what Margaret says. The Canadians are fitness freaks, a little smug and abrasive, and keep to themselves. Dennis is very tanned and has prominent slightly buck teeth so I can’t help thinking of him as Mr Beaver. The Kiwis, Sue and Owen, not a couple strictly, but travelling together, are both slightly dotty. She gets really exasperated with him, but still likes to monopolise his time. He’s not short of a bob or two. Surat handles the whole thing with a melancholy incompetence. Information handed out is so often wrong or changed without warning, that it would be more accurate to call him Mr Disinformation.
What’s the difference between the Middle East and Central Asia I wonder? The Middle East sounds as if it ought to be further away to me. Departing Central Asia is a feat in itself. I don’t recommend Tashkent airport at 5 in the morning. In fact I’m nominating this place for worst airport in the world:
1 Queue (throughout I use the word queue loosely – substitute shoving, jostling throng) to get in the airport entrance gate and have passport checked
2 Subsidiary queue to have ticket checked
3 Long queue to get in departures door
4 Queue to get all baggage scanned
5 Discover my flight time has been changed and no one has told me. Fortunately put back rather than forward. Wait for check in to open.
6 Queue at check in. Arrive at desk to be told my visa needs to be checked at immigration service. I say I don’t need a visa. He says I still need to go.
7 Eventually find immigration desk and queue. When I get to the front the man looks at my passport and says I don’t need a check
8 Back to desk and get checked in
9 Queue for custom control where I again have to fill in a form to say I have less money than I arrived with. Hand bags are screened again.
10 Queue for passport check where I have to show the receipts for all the hotels I have stayed in (hotels also have to see these as you go along or they won’t let you stay).
11 Queue to have passport and ticket checked by security control
12 Queue to have hand baggage screened for the third time
‘ The Wonderful World of Entertainment’ on Uzbekistan Airlines only shows movies in Uzbek. There are about three of them, circa 1976.
When? October 2017, coming from Turkmenistan, going on (surprisingly) to Tajikistan
How? Train, bus
Who? Group tour on train
My phone tells me I’min now in Uzbekistan – I have a signal again, but we’re still sitting in the train on the border. Our sightseeing in Khiva is due to start at 11a.m. but as it’s now 10.55 and we’re not yet in Urgench, our first stop in Uzbekistan, I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Uzbekistan is immediately distinguished by mud walls, thatched outhouses, donkey carts and a girl in a miniskirt. As I noted before, and as has been the case all through central Asia, the women generally wear long floral skirts and headscarves. The men sport jeans, tee shorts and windcheaters. Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR and Uzbekistan the cotton basket. Fields of fluffy bushes are already visible.
I’ve been to Uzbekistan before, but not to Khiva, so this will be the key point of my journey here. Finally, we make it to the most westerly of the great Uzbek Silk Road cities. The 5 Ms of mosques, minarets, madrassas, mausoleums and museums remain the highlights. There’s a fortress Ark here, which contains all the sights.
The contrast with Turkmenistan is stark. The people are incredibly friendly, queuing up to have their photos taken in long strings across the main square. TC Ted, like a baby in his harness, (fashioned out of my listening device lanyard), attracts constant attention and greetings. He attends a wedding too. There are streams of brides incongruously wearing white European wedding dresses entering one mausoleum in various elaborate processions. I have a good conversation about cameras with the wedding photographers, who abandon their task to try out my telephoto lens.
We eat afternoon tea of overly sweet pastries ,Arab style, on a raised carpeted platform with a low table. Then Tino insists that we climb a 100 step narrow tower, despite the fact that the guide has told us it is really difficult, as there is a dark and steep spiral staircase going up and it’s even worse coming down. There is an alternative 40 step wider tower too. The guide was right.
Today, a return to Bukhara. Fortunately, we begin with two sites I didn’t see last time. First, the emir’s summer palace, somewhat ironically, styled after the winter palace in St Petersburg. Here, he indicated which lucky lady he had chosen for the night by throwing her an apple.
Next, the hole in the ground prison at Zindon where Stoddart (and Connelly who foolishly went to look for him) were imprisoned when trying to undermine Russian influence in Bukhara. The emir was not impressed and eventually executed them both in Samarkand. It’s all fascinatingly explained in Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game.
More 5 Ms revisited: The fortress Ark, crenellations framed beautifully against a blue sky, the sultan’s (Ismael Soltany) ancient mausoleum in the park with the swan boats, the Chor Minor -a madrassa with four minarets that features on the cover of LPB, the carved mosque pillars, the oldest minaret (this time we’re told its all original), the fanciest bazaar and the elegant cafes in the squares and round the ornamental lakes. And another house, the Mickey House, so that’s the sixth M.
Ginger and cinnamon tea in a traditional tea house and a productive and lucky day. I have bought a Christmas tree decoration to match the dozen, now eleven, I bought in Samarkand (and some spares). I have lost an earring, my laptop, my passport and a bracelet, and had them all returned (I found my passport under my bed). Dinner is a barbeque on the platform at the station, surrounded by freight trains. It’s a little bizarre.
Now the 5 Ms of Samarkand again. A return to Tamerlane’s Tomb and a wave to the Hotel Asia, across the park, and the balcony with the view in Part I. it’s all still very gorgeous, very restored and very upmarket. The Islamic architecture is in stark contrast to the art nouveau and realist architecture of the apartments and shops in the adjacent ‘new’ town constructed by the soviets.
Shane and I noticed that Tajikistan was tantalisingly close, so we have planned a last minute escape, with Farida, over the border. This involves a four hour taxi ride through the cotton harvest. There are cotton bales by the sides of the highway (as well as the usual flocks of goats and meandering along it) and minivans stacked to the gunwales with cotton pickers and/or heaps of the fleecy white stuff itself, while wisps of cotton float all across the road. As dusk approaches the darkness is enhanced by the pall of smoke from the burning of the cotton bushes.
.I’m riding in front of the van to try and ward off motion sickness. As always, being front seat passenger is a little stressful. The drivers here have no sense of lane awareness at all. We are continually within millimetres of other vehicles. At one point, when it is now dark, our driver careers down a bank, as he realises he has taken the wrong turning and then overtakes on a road that is rough stone on one side, as it is being repaired. We veer hurriedly back to the carriageway as a mammoth unlit farm truck appears out of the gloom in front of us. But it’s six o’clock and we’ve made the Tajik border.
There is one customs man. He scans my form, groans and instructs me to re-do it and lie. I have written that I am taking out more U.S. dollars than I brought in. That’s because I paid my train bill in euros but got my change in dollars. Uzbek bureaucracy can’t cope with that. ‘Have a good journey’, he says.