Tag Archives: Uzbekistan

Back into the desert

So, I was already having a bad day. Francesco and Romina, an adorable Swiss Italian couple were sharing my exasperation at having no escape route from Uzbekistan – they too had come a cropper on the Iran and Turkmonster visa trail, and their path back to Switzerland was equally as uncertain. At this point I felt marginally less hard done by – Francesco and Romina had cycled here from Bangkok ON A TANDEM BICYCLE.

“No tickets next week. Business class only on 9 July” was the only answer we’d managed to extract from largely disinterested travel agents in Bukhara. At times, in Uzbekistan, if you’re not a French tour group, nobody wants to know.

We sat somewhat shell-shocked in a dusty street in the old town outside the old synagogue trying to work out how we’d manage to make it back to Europe before mid-July – and without haemorraging too many hundred dollar bills.

“Helllooooo!!!!” shouted two young boys in our general direction, chasing a large, meaty grasshopper that flew inches away from their threatening clutches. We began to hatch plans about flying to Istanbul and back to Baku, others suggested Baltic Air via Riga, and another suggesting we just call it a day and head to the Med for sea, sand and no visa hassles.

I felt compelled to make it to the Turkmen border, at least. If Turkmonster bureaucracy meant that I wasn’t allowed to trudge on their hallowed sands, I could at least peer over the border from the other side of the Amu Dariya, and take the odd photo of their lifeless hectares of lifeless soil. Leaving my Caucasus guidebook as collateral, I fled to the nearest bazaar to try and find a shared taxi heading north to Urgench, where I aimed to transfer to the next stop, in Khiva.

“40,000 som” the driver said, spying my backpack in the back seat of the mashrutka. “To Urgench only” added his hate-worthy younger brother, who had clearly come along to the bazaar to make life unpleasant for everybody.

They clearly had no idea what kind of a black mood I had fallen into that day. You’ll be lucky to get half that, pal – I countered, in English (now was not the time to test the boundaries of my Uzbek).  Some rather sour bargaining and a disproportionate amount of pouting on my part, and I had managed to secure a trip for 25,000 all the way to my hotel. Even more importantly, I had won the FRONT SEAT.

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Salut from Samarkand

Rhubarb Trader: “Open the gate, O watchman of the early-morn train departures from Tashkent”
Watchman: “Ho, bearded traveller, I open. For what land leave you the dim-moon city of $3 operas and flash metro stations?”
Rhubarb Trader: “I take the golden road to Samarkand”
Watchman: (consoling the ladies) “What would ye, chickens? It was ever thus. Men are unwise and curiously planned.”
Woman (Unspecified): “They have their dreams, and do not think of us. They leave us with warm, flat sparkling water and plov-stained trousers for a-washing” (exit, stage left)
Rhubarb Trader: (with new mates in the distance) “We take the golden road to Samarkand!”

(with thanks to James Elroy Fletcher)

Yes, I’ve battled through broken down Ladas, visa disappointments and an aggressive case of Montezuma’s revenge, but rolled into town on the Sharq train from Tashkent.

Samarkand. Even the name sends shivers down the spine, non?

No? well, this certainly does:

It’s all quite humbling really. Right here in the middle of the desert is this incredibly beautiful city, azure domes rising from all sides, boasting hostels with working showers. This is exquisite luxury, indeed.

There also appears to be an unusual preponderance of French tour groups. Generally this is fine – they’re in, clique clique, and out again within ten minutes so you generally have all the sights to yourself – but being greeted with a ‘Bonjour monsieur!’ by a seven year old down a dusty backstreet of the old town is somewhat unexpected, as is being quoted three times the price for a bottle of water, payable in Euros. Zut alors.

This afternoon I’m off to check out Tamerlane‘s tomb, shop-til-I-think-about-dropping in GUM, state-owned department store, and try and confirm rumours of a WATER PARK west of town. NOW you’re jealous.

UPDATE: Votes for next steps are still being counted. Phone lines close tonight!

The Registan: Resplendent

The Registan: Resplendent

Margilon Japes 2: Plovtastic

So after a general mauling at the hands of the bazaar women, Aziz’s extraordinarily loud phone rang again, and it was his father. We were invited to a Sunday afternoon picnic. How incredibly civilised. Not only do Central Asians stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings and drink copious amounts of tea, they also have picnics in the countryside on Sunday afternoons. I love this country.

Caste, Papa Aziz and friends. Plov front and centre. No need for cutlery.

Caste, Papa Aziz and friends. Plov front and centre. No need for cutlery.

The second day, and I’m already meeting the family. Papa Aziz and his buddies – a right motley crew getting stuck in to the tea and peaches – welcomed me with humbling generosity, sat me down in the seat of honour next to Aziz’s father and plied me with fantastically sweet apricots, plums and pomegranites. Thankfully Aziz and his elder brother were on hand to translate their chat, although the real jester of the group needed no simultaneous translation. Caste, as they called him, hailed from proper top-class Uzbek stock (apparently Uzbeks have something akin to a caste system as well), but was deaf as a post.

It’s a curious thing communicating with a deaf person from a completely different country. You’re painfully aware of your linguistic limits when attempting to pass the time of day with everyone else – but so what if you don’t speak Uzbek with Caste? It doesn’t matter – he wouldn’t be able to understand you anyway!

Thankfully, the international language of ridiculous gestures came into its own and we were soon best of pals, passing each other the choice pieces of mutton fat in the rice pilaf, or plov.

“So how often would you eat plov?” I asked Aziz, in slight disbelief since all I had eaten since arriving in Uzbekistan was this very tasty meal of rice, mutton and carrots, swimming in mutton fat. (it tastes a lot better than I make it sound)
“On all special occasions, of course, but at least twice a week”
“Why twice a week?”

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This is a sad day.

Of course, this lil’ bit of feel good had to come to an end at some point – it’s not all apricots in the sun – and now the disastrous Central Asian visa situation turns out to have something of a sting in the tail.

I have been rejected – not once, but TWICE, my people. Not only do the Iranians not want me cruising into town this summer, but now the Turkmen have also decided they can do without my snarky comments about their national cuisine and everyday standards of dress. Iran off the menu, so too Turkmenistan. After over two months of waiting, the esteemed embassies have decided there’ll be none of my sort, thanks awfully – but not entirely helpful to wait until I’m practically next door.

This poses a problem – how on earth am I going to make it back to the European Rhubarb Trading Centres with my way West blocked by diplomatic nonsense?

A few options:

  • Option 1: Re-apply for the Turkmonsters – involving a wait of another fortnight, and no guarantee of success
  • Option 2: Head North – boats also leave from Aktau in Kazakhstan to Baku in Azerbaijan. However, they leave roughly every seven to ten days, and Aktau is hardly PARTY ZENTRAAL there on the edge of the steppes. It’s also damn expensivo. And I’ll need another Kazakhstan visa.
  • Option 3:Head South – Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and boat bound for the Gulf from where to re-assess and sniff out what traces of rhubarb remain. Fraught with hassle, and, indeed, a fair amount of conflict.
  • Option 4: – at least in China I can order a ferocious gongbao jiding and get a cold beer without butchering too many of the local languages. Not exactly commensurate with the ‘Heading West’ theme.
  • Option 5: Get the Uzbek shenanigans out my system, then fly to Baku from Tashkent. I know, I know. It means getting on a plane, thereby disappointing all you rhubarb purists.

Bit of audience participation here, folks, so:

  • If you want Option 1, text message GO RHUBARB 1 to 35469
  • If you want Option 2, text message PARTY ON STEPPES Y’ALL to 35469
  • If you want Option 3, text message HEEEEELL YEEEEAAH to 35469
  • If you want Option 4, text message ZAI LAI YI FENRRR to 35469
  • If you want Option 5, text message A PLANE, SERIOUSLY? to 35469

I’ll let you know the results by Friday, when I should be somewhere in the desert snapping photos of medressas and speaking dispicable things about Turkmonsters.

There is the strong smell of rejection in the air, people. Small packets of lurve and ‘high fives’ may be left in the comments whilst I mull over my options.

Kebabs in Fergana

“Crossing from Tajikistan was no problem at all”, remarked a fellow backpacker as he slung his ancient backpack on the rock-hard beds in Osh Guesthouse. “This is Kyrgyzstan. It’s nothing like the hassle we had getting into Uzbekistan”.

A helpful warning from this Antipodean. At least I wasn’t being turned back though. A few weeks ago the border was closed to all those heading west to Uzbekistan, and nobody had been able to give me a straight answer over the past two weeks as to whether I’d be able to make it or not. It seems ludicruous and all blamed on Kyrgyz muslim extremists. For those who have ever been to Kyrgyzstan, the whole concept seems ridiculous. Most Kyrgyz i had met were more than happy to chill around the yurt all day and too much organised religion simply made them nervous.

The cab drivers in the bazaar were convinced I’d be able to make it through however – of course – and all ‘actively encouraged’ me to sling my bag in the back of their Lada and whizz off to the border. Fine.

Except the first taxi driver was clearly on auto-pilot, and took me to the airport instead.

“Bishkek, da?”
“Nyet, pal” I countered. “Now take me to the border right now, my man, and don’t think you’re getting any more som out of me than we’d already discussed” was what I would have said had my command of the local lingo been a little more than the first two words. Instead I went for the more direct “Uzbekistan! Granitsa! Davai!” which seemed to do the trick.

The Kyrgyz seemed genuinely sorry to see me go through the gates at Dostyk. “Send dollars!” the driver (half-) joked as I turned and perfected my Central Asian semi-bow with right hand on heart by means of a farewell. Continue reading

Best laid plans, eh?

Well, after a flying start in the way of preparations, things seem to have hit a sticky patch. I am now subject to the various whims of Central Asian and Middle Eastern consulate bureaucracy, which I had tried my hardest to avoid.

I did my homework, dammit, I worked out where all the embassies were located, when they were open, how much things cost, how long they’d take to do. I came armed with officious-looking headed letters with red chops and everything, several hundred passport photos in various poses (smiling, non-smiling, blue back ground, white background, straight-on, off-to-one-side eyebrow-slightly raised etc.) and wads of red 100 RMB notes.

I smiled. I oozed charm. I befriended the dudes on crowd control. I even made friends with others in the (interminable) queues.

But now, it appears, the Uzbeks have run off with my passport and the Iranians are still in two minds whether to let me in altogether. Could it be that they are not fans of the rhubarb, my friends??

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Spring in Sanlitun

The Sanlitun embassy district in Beijing is really quite an attractive place. Generally I only wander around these streets on the way to another night of ridiculousness on Sanlitun bar street, long after the sun has gone down, and only bump into the odd crocodile of soldiers guarding the embassies, or the lone Uighur selling slices of that strange nutty cake-like thing on the back of an ancient three-wheeler. It tastes fairly average but it’s always fun to have a natter with the guy and give my pitiful Uighur language skills an airing.

Anyhow, the embassies of many countries are located in this leafy world of diplomatic-ness, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both on The Rhoute. Most keep fairly strict (and somewhat erratic) hours of business – but it is quite amusing how you can tell immediately whether a place is open for processing or not.

The first time I went to check on the Kyrgyz situation, I was pretty sure I’d got the address wrong – nobody was around, aside from the grumpy old woman upstairs. The next day, however, it’s a real bunfight with thousands of chaps vying position outside the frosted glass door. Madness.

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