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Postby TaurusTheBull » April 10th, 2019, 4:03 pm


Along with Liechstenstein, UZBEKISTAN is a double-landlocked country, every neighbouring country itself being landlocked.

Five years ago, in Kyrgyzstan, I looked into getting an Uzbek visa, a process so tortuous that just reading about it gave me a headache. Then Islam Karimov, leader since independence in 1991, died in 2016, and things began to change. Since February many nationals now get stamped in for thirty days, without drama.

A marshrutka ride from the border 25 km to Samarkand was 10,000 Uzbek soms (1$ = 8,400). After being dropped at the famous "Registan Ensemble", I found a hostel and went out to change some money. That's when things went awry...

The bank was closed for lunch and so, knowing the rate, and recognising the notes, I went to change some money on a street corner. It makes me squirm to even write that now, with all its implied naïvity and dodginess.

There were two men changing money, with no office. WARNING 1: I was ripped off this way in a Budapest park many years ago.

For $100 I was due 840,000 som. The notes were denominations of 10,000 som. WARNING 2: Someone tried giving me small notes in Bali once and I refused to deal as the amount was less than quoted, but in my haste, this time I didn't think. I prefer smaller notes, but anything that takes more than a few seconds to count out should raise a big red flag.

I counted out 81 notes, twice, and told the bloke it was 3 short. WARNING 3: if I couldn't trust him to give me the right money the first time, I should've backed out.

He duly counted them out himself, and it was 81. So he added 3 more. WARNING 4: anything abnormal, giving a chance to switch, should ring alarm bells. Back out or re-count before handing over money.

I carried on sleep-walking my way to disaster, ignoring all the warnings, and duly handed over my $100. When I got back to the hostel and re-counted my notes, there were just 63, so I'd been taken for 21 notes, or $25.

The last time I was ripped off it was jostling to get on a 5 a.m. bus in Lalibela, Ethiopia, six years ago, when I had left my wallet in my trouser pocket. I tightened up after that; just as well as I was heading towards South Africa.

Central Samarkand has some neatly laid-out parks, such that it is possible to walk most of the half-hour from "Amir Hostel", where I stayed, to the Registan by avoiding roads. That afternoon, I stopped to walk around the impressive (re-constructed) 15th century Gur Emir (aka Amir Temur) Mausoleum, containing the tomb of Tamerlane, revered as a local hero, but not a lot less bloodthirsty than Genghis Khan a century before. I was about to go inside when I spotted a "Tourist Police" booth...

Not expecting anything, I popped over to mention my earlier travails, and they were very sympathetic, to the extent of calling in a couple of plainclothes colleagues to drive me to the location of the incident. Four hours after it happened, the culprit was still there, I pointed him out and my new friends took him to task. I got 210,000 soms returned, the $25 shortfall on my sour transaction. My luck had changed and I saw Uzbekistan in a new light at the end of that first day.

Samarkand is a fabled Silk Road city, so I spent the next day exploring the Registan area, wandering around the three M's: mosques, madrasas and mausoleums. It's amazing what can be done with a few million turquoise and blue tiles.

Entrance fees for foreigners are 2-3 quid (25-40,000 som) at most sites, more than ten times what locals pay, though the Registan seems more lax about letting folk in free during quieter weekdays, when locals just wander in, so I discretely followed. The madrasa courtyards are these days lined with souvenir shops.

Samarkand was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, by the Arabs in the 8th century and by Genghis Khan in 1220. The classic buildings of today date from the 15th to 17th centuries, though nearly all have had their tiled facades restored in the past fifty years. Most visitors are from Central Asia, and it bustles at weekends, but with the advent of visa-free access, it seems just a matter of time before foreign hordes descend. It's too hot in summer, so March to May is ideal for experiencing the manicured gardens in front of the UNESCO edifices.

Tashkent ka'chosi is a pedestrianised street lined with souvenir shops, leading from the three madrasas of the Registan to the impressive Bibi-Khanym Mosque, named after Tamerlane's wife. Adjacent to the mosque is the large "Siyab Bozori", a good lunch stop. Shashlik, plov, lagman, samsa or, in my case, a hot crusty lavash flatbread filled with veggies, for 5,000 som.

Samarkand is an iconic city because of its historical buildings, but the suburbs are rather nondescript. The railway station is 5 km south of the centre, and requires ID and ticket to get in, followed by a luggage scan.

The ticket is collected at the carriage door and returned an hour later, so it helps to remember your seat number, because the trains are usually full. I'd bought my ticket the day before at the office in town.

As part of the inevitable tourist circuit, my next stop was Bukhara, ninety minutes and 97,000 som by the "Afrosiyab", travelling up to 231 km per hour, and rarely under 150, according to the display panel. On exitting Bukhara station passengers are confronted with a gaggle of taxi drivers, the city being 12 km away. Marshrutkas ply the route for 1,000 som.

I stayed at the family-run "Payraviy Guest House", $10 for bed and a hearty breakfast. It's several minutes walk from the main mosques, madrasas and the massive 45.6 metre Kalyan Minaret, sometimes known as the "Tower Of Death" due to the historic practise of allegedly throwing undesirables from the top.

The Ark Fortress, thought to have originated in the 5th century, and decimated several times since, including by our old friend Genghis Khan, is a few minutes further. Although heavily restored, part of the upper wall has been left to show what it was like before - in a sorry state.

Bukhara is less visited than Samarkand, and hasn't seen as much investment. Fewer facades have been re-tiled. Many streets and alleyways in the old town are un-surfaced and potholed, creating muddy pools after rain. Souvenir shops and carpet emporia were largely empty on wet weekdays in early April, though the plethora of hotels and guest houses attest to busier times.

The lack of visitors made Bukhara a lovely place to relax and soak up a more authentic olde worlde atmosphere. The 16th century Mir-i Arab Madrasa still functions, and in the evening, as the towering Kalyan Minaret lights up, the few people around are mostly locals, whilst boys play football against old walls.

The next morning I visited the unusual, four-towered Char Minar mosque, with model storks on the flatter-topped tower, presumably to prevent the real thing taking nest. On a damp morning I spent half an hour there and saw just half a dozen visitors.

One morning I jumped on a number nine bus, marked "Karvon Bozor", to check out share taxis to Khiva. It then proceeded to drive out of the city in the opposite direction, ending up at the end of a muddy track near the small airport. I sat and waited for the return trip, finally reaching my destination after an hour. Buses are just 1,000 som per trip, payable to the driver on exit.

Karvon Bazaar is a sprawling market, not somewhere I wanted to return to, and so I organised a share-taxi through my guest house. When settling the accommodation bill each establishment issues a registration receipt, which may or may not be required when leaving Uzbekistan.

My share-taxi turned up after breakfast the next day for the 450 km drive to Khiva, costing 100,000 som, door-to-door. Two Spanish women were in the car, and had apparently paid 45 US dollars between them, or 185,000 som each. I kept schtum about my price. We picked up an Uzbek lady from Karvon Bazaar, and we were off.

The road was potholed for the first 60 km or so, but then came good. The landscape degrades to treeless scrub. The Kyzylkum Desert occupies the region between the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, and was historically known as Transoxania or Sogdiana.

Half-way to Khiva we passed a few camels, and the Amu Darya (formerly, the Oxus) river could be seen, marking the border with Turkmenistan. Trees re-appeared after crossing the Amu Darya and entering Urganch, after which, a dozen km before the Turkmenistan border, is the historic town of Khiva.

Khiva is different to Samarkand and Bukhara in that it's crenellated 17th century city walls are intact. It was the first site to receive UNESCO recognition, in the 1990s, and has benefitted from more funding. It marks the former resting place for caravans heading across the Karakum Desert, in present-day Turkmenistan, to Persia.

Although the original inner city (Itchan Kala) dates from at least the 10th century, most houses date from the 18th or 19th centuries. There are about 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses.

One criticism is that although extensive restoration has been done, faithful to the old style, many of the monuments look new. There are more than a dozen madrasas within the old city, some converted to museums, along with hundreds of souvenir stalls. This is a popular place, especially at weekends. Women were out planting flowers, nearly three weeks after the women of Dushanbe.

The central area is dominated by Kalta Minor, a massive tiled blue tower that remained incomplete after one Khan died and his successor abandoned it. It's the biggest unfinished minaret in the World.

Outside Khiva's main gate is a big billboard with a map of "The Silk Road Project", which stretched from Spain to China, with routes north (via Russia) and south (via Persia) of the Caspian Sea. Uzbekistan forms a central link in this route, emphasing the once strategic importance of its old cities.

I walked north to the railway station, linked to the old city by a deserted new pedestrian concourse. The station building, as in Samarkand (but not yet Bukhara), was obviously built recently, and looks like an anonymous Orwellian transplant from "1984" rather than a place to meet or farewell family and friends. Passengers will disembark from the "Afrosiyab", get scooped up by battery-powered golf buggies and transported down the runway to old Khiva.

With all this nascent infrastructure in place, accompanied by new, as yet non-functioning, turnstiles into the old town, the granting of free visas to many foreigners looks like the coup de grace in the plan for an imminent tourist explosion. Samarkand may be the jewel in the Uzbek crown, and Bukhara the dark horse, but Khiva looks like the banker.

After three restful nights at "Lali-opa Hostel", where I met the Scottish cyclist I last saw in Khujand, I decided to push on, and jumped on a bus going into the nearby city of Urganch. On the road adjacent to the Olympia stadium share-taxis run the two hours north to Nukus for 50,000 som.

When travelling across the largely barren rocky plateau that constitutes Karakalpakstan, the autonomous region covering the western half of Uzbekistan, it's hard to imagine that, within this relative emptiness, lies a city of over 300,000 people. Nukus was formerly a centre for making and testing chemical weapons by the Soviet Union.

The subsequent decline after independence, and the cessation of fishing from the dried-up Aral Sea, has led to the region becoming the poorest in Uzbekistan. The Amu Darya flows through the city, more akin to a big stream these days, since much of its water is siphoned off well before it gets to Nukus.

There are a couple of museums, the famous one being the "Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan", featuring the eclectic collection put together by Igor Savitsky, a Russian painter, archeologist and avid collector of avant-garde art. This was at a time when he ran considerable risk of being denounced as an "enemy of the people" under Stalin's regime, but the collection was largely ignored, being so far from Moscow.

The Savitsky museum closes on Mondays, and my $12 room at "NIKA" was booked for the next night (probably by a Scottish cyclist), so it went on my to-do list for the return trip towards Tashkent. I walked to the Railway Station (mirror image of those in Khiva and Samarkand) and took a share-taxi an hour to Kungrad, and then another to Moynaq, 20,000 som for each.

Moynaq is the end of the road. Fifty years ago this was still a bustling fishing port, Uzbekistan's port on the Aral Sea, the fourth largest inland sea in the World. With Soviet cotton production already draining water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, the sea began to recede in the 1960s, and it has continued to do so.

Today the Aral Sea is less than a tenth of it's former size, and the shoreline is now about 170 km north of Moynaq. Thousands of people involved in the fishing and canning industries lost their jobs, many leaving the town. The salinity of the remaining patches of sea has increased more than ten-fold, devastating fish stocks. In the 1990s the Aral Sea split in two, and the Kazakhs have done a better job of stabilising the shrinkage of their northern sea, into which drains the Syr Darya, than the Uzbeks have done in the south.

The heavy use of pesticides exacerbated this environmental disaster, such that many long-term residents apparently suffer from poor health resulting from toxic dust storms. Without the tempering effect of water, the weather has become more extreme in summer and winter. All in all, a sad tale, and hopefully a lesson, of the unfortunate human tendency to wreck the environment.

I stayed at a local guest house and visited the old shoreline, where eleven rusting hulks inhabit the (sic) "cemetry of ships", overlooked by a 5-yurt camp, lighthouse and memorial. This is an atmospheric place for visitors, but Moynaq is not a ghost town. New buildings continue to go up, and for young people the fishing industry existed here before they were born. The town has moved on, helped, ironically, by gas and oil finds in the dried-up Aral Sea, now known as the Aralkum Desert. Looking from the memorial past the ship graveyard, thick plumes of black smoke rise from the horizon...

Next morning I visited the museum. It's a simple affair in a new building, with an upper gallery of paintings of old Moynaq. I'd finished looking at the displays when the power went, and so returned later to be see a film, poorly narrated in Russian-accented English, about efforts to stabilise the ecology and remaining wildlife (including saiga antelope and musk rats). It's an uphill battle, unfortunately left far too late.

It's been an interesting trip, educational and inspiring; and only half done. Not many Uzbeks speak English but, aside from the occasional dodgy money-changer, their amiability is what stands out.


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Re: Uzbekistan


Postby JuanDB » April 10th, 2019, 11:12 pm

A lovely read. Thanks for sharing Taurus.

Many of the cities you mention featured in the recent BBC2 series “Race across the world” (episode 3 I think), worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

Thanks again,


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