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Archive for the ‘Uzbekistan’ Category

Having cleared customs in Turkmenistan we are confronted by a lone road and an empty desert. Our guide and driver are nowhere to be found. There are no taxis and touts, there is no help. The wind swirls dust into the air, it is a lonely place. We sit on our bags and wait. For now we have little choice. No one is going to assist us inside that much has been made clear.

Thirty long uncertain minutes pass before a large black Mercedes appears over the crest. I watch its approach with hope. A stout man dressed all in white and wearing reflective aviator glasses gets out. He introduces himself as Alan.

Ashgabat capital of Turkmenistan coming from Iran

Ashgabat capital of Turkmenistan coming from Iran

The drive from the border to Ashgabat is short and stark. The surrounding lands are desolate and devoid of character. The sky above is bleached white by an unforgiving sun. Rising out of this ordinary landscape is however a most extraordinary city. Oil revenue mixed with marble and gold have produced a truly bizarre but beautiful capital. It gleams white as far as one can see in all directions. The buildings are themed and spaced apart like Las Vegas casinos. The Squares and parks are tiered and watered with fountains and golden statues honouring the president. We drive past the Palace of Knowledge and the Ministry of Fairness both resplendent in crisp white. There is even a Ministry of Horses and a Museum of Carpets and no amount of white has been spared. The overall effect is truly amazing.

Ashgabat is city dedicated to the colour white

Ashgabat is city dedicated to the colour white

Our hotel is located in an old suburb where the soviet style of the 1950’s is still preserved. The swimming pool is filled with what appears to be the entire cast of Moscow Shore. Conservative Turkmen bring burgers and beers to Russian holiday makers. A broken speaker spews distorted dance music over the deckchairs. It all comes as a bit of a shock. This morning Emma was having breakfast in a head scarf and now she is eating lunch in a bikini.

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There are no taxis in Ashgabat. You simply hail any car and agree to a price. I am surprised that the president has not restricted the import of vehicles to being white. I contemplate a career in the Ministry of Cars.

Ashgabat goes from wedding gown white to neon colours at night

Ashgabat goes from wedding gown white to neon colours at night

While we are not permitted to travel between cities on our own, we are free to explore Ashgabat without our guide. I wonder lost through endless white structures. As night falls Ashgabat undergoes a colourful transformation. Fountains and building are illuminated with all the colours of the rainbow. It’s hard to judge this city as it is so unique. I would not want to live here but I am glad to know that such a place exists in the world.

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The next day we leave for the city of Mary on a slick black road better suited to billiards.  About 10km out of Ashgabat, the oil money runs out and we are travelling along infrastructure more imaginable to this part of the world. The southern plains of Turkmenistan are boring and bland, but necessary if crossing the globe. I can only marvel at its size and context within our journey. The city of Mary contains some of the… white way of thinking, but on a much smaller scale.

Turkmenistan is turning into a boring and expensive date. I am sure if one could afford to stay longer there would be much more to this country but it is certainly well hidden. Even the ancient silk route city of Merv is underwhelming. The mud brick structures are now little more than mounds of dirt. I find myself having to use ample amounts of imagination and appreciation of history to return any enjoyment. Perhaps we are distracted by the border crossing into Uzbekistan, we must make later today.

The Mosque at Mary, Turkmenistan

The Mosque at Mary, Turkmenistan

Fifty hours after entering Turkmenistan we depart. The cost has been exorbitant, the reward little, but it has allowed us to continue on our journey and into what is hopefully more interesting parts of Central Asia.

We miss the border by 10 minutes and are forced to wait an hour while lunch is taken. No one is permitted to wait inside the air conditioned building. The sun is angry and offers no mercy. It must be close to 50c and there is no shade on offer except that which is provided under the trucks. The border reopens and we are processed within a reasonable amount of time but ahead is 4km of baking hot no man’s land. The Turkmen minivan shuttles people halfway across before being picked up by an even smaller Uzbek van which completes the journey. We wait patiently for the first van while people pile up in numbers too great to transport. When it arrives it becomes apparent that no one is going to be polite and wait for those who were first. It is in ordinary terms a complete Shit Fight.

Our Turkmen Guide Alan in white and driver

Our Turkmen Guide Alan in white and driver

We had anticipated such a situation and are equal to the task but only just. At the halfway point we show our passports again and wait for the tiny Uzbek van to appear. The larger Turkmen van returns with a second load. When finally the Uzbek van stops the Shit Fight escalates and no one is taking any prisoners. The men who have come off the second van push past those (including us) who have been waiting. Emma gets a seat in the back but as I try to load our 2nd pack into the front, a man steals my place. I gesture to him to move but he ignores me. The van starts to move with Emma inside it, there is little time to think so instinct takes over. I grab the man by the arms and drag him out of the van and take the front seat. The door is closed and the van pulls away all in one swift movement. I can take some solace knowing that behind me another man has done the same and pats me on the shoulder and laughs.

The customs building for Uzbekistan is not air conditioned and has been designed purposefully to trap heat and roast inhabitants. Thirty to forty people are gathered around a tiny window in no particular order. We take our place at the back of the mob and prepare ourselves for the worse. Any forward progress is hindered by new arrivals who start to push in from the sides. The urgency and selfishness of the crowd is contagious. Shoulders and hips are used to good effect but we are no match for the locals who have years of experience and language on their side. An hour later and we have squeezed our way to the front of the window. We are handed forms to fill in, but the questions are in what I take to be Russian. No one can speak English at all, and why would they. In this part of the world Russian is the common language. We fill in the forms (as best we can) based on the spaces provided and cross our fingers.

The heat is draining and our situation feels bleak. The officers are amused by this strange foreign intrusion. Another man points at me and asks Ruski? No only English. More blank faces. They gesture to us to open our bags. This is good, we are making progress. I have come to learn that enthusiastic unpacking will often demonstrate a willingness to be searched and render the inspector satisfied but our officer is examining each item with fascination and excitement so I stop. He seems disappointed so I please him with a few more items. Eventually his cup runs full and we are permitted to repack our lives back into canvas bags.

Walking from the building and through the gates of Uzbekistan our relief is short lived. Lurking outside is a taxi wolf pack like no other we have experienced on our journey. Hard men with steely expressions and gold teeth are waiting to tear us apart. Its 35km from the border to Bukhara and the going rate for a taxi is supposed to be about $20.00 USD. One wolf starts the bidding at $80. We walk past him without even acknowledging his ridiculous offer.  Other members of the pack approach and we drop our bags and form a defensive ring. For a long time the rate hovers at $50.00 USD. One man offers $30.00 which we seize upon but then carries our bags to a minivan with other passengers. The rate is far too high for a share taxi so we try to retrieve our bags. He refuses to return Emma’s bag no matter how much she protests. He shouts and yells and pulls the bag from her hands. I approach him gently with a smile on my face until I have established a firm grip on the bag and then I spin my body and twist as hard as I can. One more yank and the bag is free.  A lone wolf breaks ranks and agrees to take us for $30.00 USD. We place our bags in the back, but this only serves to ignite a ferocious fight among the broken cartel. Men are pushing and shouting, a punch is thrown. Dust is rising into the air as the scuffle escalates. The police are amused and keen to see the result.

We take our seats and some of the men crowd in at the windows. Mr you pay 35 okay. No I pay 30. No you pay 35 okay. I never agree. The driver waits as more men with golden grins crowd the windows.  We go now… I say in broken English and a terrible Russian accent, but the driver is hoping for more. I open the door which now has the weight of two men leaning against it. I pretend to take our bags out of the back but the driver retreats and nods… okay 30 okay. The wheels spin in the dirt. He pulls an aggressive U turn and leans across me sticking his finger in the air at the other drivers. I feel a smile creep across my face. I never have to come back so I laugh and bravely offer a gesture of my own. We are now friends. I really hate feeling this way while travelling but sometimes it is necessitated by the actions of others. Borders always attract the worst kind of opportunists and are in no way a reflection of the general population.

Bukhara Uzbekistan

Bukhara Uzbekistan

Samarkand is a day’s travel by train from Bukhara. In the last two days I have come to discover that Uzbeks carry a good portion of the world’s gold reserves in their mouths. They are also very fast at counting money. The highest bank note is 1000 som which is valued at around 30 cents when using black market rates. No one changes US dollars in banks… including two Australian travellers. The city is pleasant and the streets are lined with large oak trees. The surrounding lands have just a tinge of green. After many days of travel we have left the deserts behind.

Bukhara Uzbekistan

Bukhara Uzbekistan

The city was founded sometime in the 5th century BC and has been for centuries an important juncture along the silk route between Europe, China, India and Persia. The people of Uzbekistan bare features belonging to all these great civilisations. The centrepiece of the city is the blue domed mosques and madrassas that were built almost 700 years ago. The facades and minarets are covered in intricate mosaics. Even in today’s world they are impressive both in size and beauty. The weary travellers and caravans of the past must have marvelled at their magnificence when approaching Samarkand.

Samarkand Uzbekistan

Samarkand Uzbekistan

The sun is setting and the sky is (for the first time since leaving Turkey) etched with clouds. A call to prayer erupts from the Bibi Khanym mosque. Swallows returning from an African summer fly around the domes and sing in duet. It is a peaceful and tranquil moment. I feel far from home.

Lots of Gold teeth in Uzbekistan

Lots of Gold teeth in Uzbekistan

Samarkand is now behind us as we head to the Uzbek capital Tashkent. For so long it was in our future and now it is in our past. I often think about our travel as being like a wave. The cities and people rise and crest before falling again as the wave passes through. Today we are here but tomorrow we are gone. Each moment is like sand running through your fingers. I want to squeeze harder and stop its flow… but I can’t. All I can do, is to enjoy each day and appreciate the next.

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From Tashkent we make our way by share taxis to the border with Kyrgyzstan via Andijon and Osh. Our negations are intense but civil and we actually manage to pay the local price of 25 USD each for the 5 hour journey. We pass through fields of Sun flowers, corn and wheat and over some large dry mountains. It is late afternoon when we arrive and having gained some altitude the temperature is forgiving. Our exit from Uzbekistan comes exactly 11 days after our visa was issued in Tehran. We have made it through, and now only Kyrgyzstan, China and the Kunjerab pass stands between us and Pakistan.

Our taxi men who took us from Tashkent to Andijon and to the Kyrgyzstan Border

Our taxi men who took us from Tashkent to Andijon and to the Kyrgyzstan Border

One by one our problems are resolving. I should be happy but I think about the grains of sand. I know now they are the ingredients of adventure and not really problems at all.

The shadows are gone and the crickets are singing as we walk into Kyrgyzstan. The first big mountains of Asia are glowing in the fading light. It is our 5th country in 15 days since leaving Turkey. For now all is well and we can look forward to seeing what promises to be a country rich in culture and natural beauty.

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