Uzbekistan – The Silk Road Cities and near-death in Bukhara
How we found the Aral Sea, ate Camel meat and got ourselves in a spot of trouble.
I will just start this post by apologising if it unfairly puts Uzbekistan in a bad light. It was probably not Uzbekistan’s fault that we had such a rough time of it, but we have blamed the country purely on circumstantial evidence – we were fine before and have been since! This doesn’t encompass the Uzbeks themselves, as they were warm and friendly. And there’s more than likely a massive part we ourselves played in making things difficult for ourselves, as will become clear.
It started with a seven-hour border crossing, which in the burning midday sun was not one of the finer moments we’ve had on the trip, it must be said. But it was made infinitely better by the locals who not only pushed us to the front of the queue ahead of themselves (who had in turn been there for three days!) but also made us laugh and patiently conversed with us while we practised our Russian. We came away (eventually) quite late in the day but feeling warm-hearted.
We spent the first night wild camping not far from the border due to the lateness, then drove out to the Aral Sea the next day. We followed the GPS tracks carefully, as there were many criss-crossing over the desert in vaguely similar directions, but eventually the Aral Sea came into view after over 100km of nothing, accompanied by jubilant whoops in the cab!
Formerly one of the largest lakes in the world with an area of 68,000 square kilometres (26,300 sq mi), the Aral Sea has been shrinking since the 60’s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. By 2007, it had declined to 10% of its original size, splitting it into four lakes. The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters”. The region’s once prosperous fishing industry has been destroyed, causing mass unemployment. The region is also heavily polluted. The retreat of the sea has reportedly also caused local climate change, with summers becoming hotter and drier, and winters colder and longer.
We reached the former coastline, which is up to 160 km from the new one in places, overlooking the incredible formations and collapsed cliffs. It was obvious the effect the Soviets have had on the sea, shrinking it beyond belief.
We ‘raced’ down to the shore, looking forward to a nice paddle to wash away the stifling heat and sand clogging up our pores, but we were sorely disappointed when we reached it. The white “sand” was like grey concrete rubble, and the water had horrible red foam bubbling on the surface. Not very inviting! We played it safe and turned away to find a camp spot further up the track where we cooked our camel stew that night (It wasn’t great and we don’t recommend buying camel meat).
On our way back to the main road the following morning we passed through Moynaq, a former fishing port and the site of a boat graveyard in memorial to the town’s lost fishing heritage. It seems the irrigation projects had little regard for the industries already established around the sea itself. A little depressing but worth the visit. After a brief stop at the regional capital of Nukus to get ourselves registered (you have to within three days of arrival) we set our sights on the famous cities along the Old Silk Road: Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.
Our first stop was the living museum city of Khiva, the former Khorezm capital. What a beautiful place! The city has been preserved as an architectural wonder by UNESCO, and well worth staying for a night, or four in our case! The Ichon-Qala, or inner city, is contained within a 2.5km mud-wall, with stunning minarets and medressas resplendant with green, red and turquoise tilework. Beautifully carved wooden doors and columns are everywhere, and are still being crafted in the back alley workshops, along with carpets and silk scarves. One such place was the UNESCO-sponsored Khiva Carpet Workshop (www.khiva.info), a project which produces high quality carpets for tourists to buy whilst providing fair working conditions for its employees. To find out more you need to read A Carpet Ride To Khiva by Christopher Aslan Alexander. You can follow his recent exploits here: www.carpetridetokhiva.wordpress.com
The large blue Kalta Minor minaret in the central city square (photo above) was supposed to be the largest built, but the khan died and the succeeding khan did not complete it; it is said he realised that if completed, the minaret would overlook his harem and the muezzin would be able to see the khan’s wives. Construction was thus halted and the minaret remains unfinished to this day.
The old town retains more than 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses, mostly dating from the 18th or the 19th centuries.
After a relaxed few days in Khiva, we drove towards another former capital, Bukhara, the “Pillar of Islam”. Unfortunately Griff getting food poisoning (projectile vomiting from the roof tent) en-route marred our arrival, and when we arrived the 1000-year old architecture was to be the last thing on our minds. But after a good rest things were almost back to normal just in time for us to get a phone call from reception – Pete and Alice McNeil had spotted our Landy and were downstairs waiting! We followed them to a hotel across the road swarming with fellow overland travellers. We went out for dinner and got to know several of them which has been great, as we are all following similar routes. Amongst these were a group of Austrians who we were to bump into now and again and Adam Lewis from the UK (www.shortwayround.co.uk). There was also Francesco, an Italian cyclist, and Noah, an American on another motorbike. Then Kiwi Jon arrived a couple of days later, adding to our little community of foreigners!
Sickness continued to dog us for the next few days. First I contracted Giardia and needed antibiotics, then both of us suffered some type of heat illness on consecutive days. Griff’s core temperature reached 39.5 degrees resulting in an injection in his backside! Extremes in temperature were partly to blame (aircon inside, scorching outside) along with dehydration and not eating enough food containing salts and sugars (I put this down to the crap choice of food, plov, shashlik and then some plov – Griff). We don’t really do hot weather it seems! As a result we barely saw much of Bukhara, although I managed to make it to the Zindon (Old Jail) where Victorian Brits Stoddart and Conolly were held captive for three years before being executed by the Khan. The Kalon Minaret was impressive but I thought it paled in comparison to the beauty of the Khivan equivalents. Genghis Khan obviously disagreed, as he was so impressed by the Kalon Minaret he spared it while destroying everything around it! On the odd occasion that one of us was feeling well enough to walk around, Bukhara proved to be a great city with plenty to see.
After four nights in Bukhara we decided to head to Samarkand, Timur’s capital. We weren’t really feeling up to it, but we couldn’t miss out the third jewel in the Uzbek crown! Not to mention we still had several days to kill before our Tajik visas were activated. So we said a final farewell to Pete and Alice, as we were now going to be ahead of them for the remainder of our trip and unlikely to see them again before we finish. Good luck with the rest of your trip Mr and Mrs McNeil. We hope to see you down under!
We struggled through our few days in Samarkand to be honest, but it was made infinitely better by the Antica B&B where we stayed. It has a lovely courtyard full of flowers and apricot trees providing much needed shade – our little oasis in the stifling heat. The owners spoke good English, excited to have English speakers from England to practice on! They even provide afternoon tea with home-made jam, a welcome treat when you’re feeling a bit under the weather. We couldn’t visit the city without going to see the Registan, comprising three huge medressas facing each other, completely covered in beautiful mosaics. They are among the world’s oldest, and well worth the effort even if we had to wait until the cool of the evening. We also managed to find Guri Amir Mausoleum where Timur himself is interred, along with several of his family. A massive statue of Timur sits at the end of the same avenue, presiding over the old town. It’s a lovely city, but again we weren’t feeling up to seeing most of it.
Our poor health record in Uzbekistan gave our experience a pretty negative spin, but it was compounded a great deal by a few in the tourist industry who insist on going all out to rip people off. On many occasions we were ridiculously overcharged or given a service charge of over 20% for a lukewarm meal, in the hope we wouldn’t notice or mind. And maybe we wouldn’t if we weren’t forced to stay in accommodation rather than camp, costing us up to $50 a night, for ‘registration’ purposes. There are those who will say that it’s only a few dollars here and there, and on a two-week holiday I might say the same. But for us, and some of our fellow travellers, it can make the difference to where you stay at night, and what you eat the next day. We don’t mind paying for good service, and will always tip anyway, but we don’t appreciate a sly charge for extras or music (as we had a couple of days ago!) just because we’re westerners.
On our way to the Uzbek-Tajik border, our dire Uzbek experience took a turn for the better. A roadside baker had just handed Griff a red-hot non (flat loaf), the freshest yet, and shortly after we came across a beekeeper tending to his hives. While Griff was photographing him, he proudly offered us some honey straight from the hive. Nothing had ever tasted so good! And to top off our final morning with positive vibes, a fuel station manager handed me a beautiful bunch of roses he’d just picked, even after Griff had knocked him down on price for fuel. So we ended our poor Uzbek road trip on a high after all! With better health and a more relaxed country across the border things were looking up.
Next stop… Tajikistan!