18TH October The Border
We pass from Turkmenistan very quickly to the Uzbekistan border. As we arrive we notice the border gate is closed. We stop behind another car in anticipation of them opening the gate. 30mins later there is no sign of any movement, so I jump out to have a look around. I find the customs office but they say we have to wait for the border guard to come back and they are not sure where he is. An hour later the border guard appears, and says he’ll let us through in five minutes. After 30minutes we’re let into the compound.
The process for the border is quite easy; passports are stamped by the border guards, we fill out customs declarations, car forms and obtain insurance, all quite smooth. The customs officer kindly calls his superior to find out about the border crossing from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan, confirming it is shut and that we will have to travel via Kazakhstan.
As we’re about to leave, we are asked by the guards to drop a lady into the nearest town which we agree to.
Our itinerary is based on the top three locations in the region; Khiva, Bhukhara and Samarkand.
After dropping the lady off we head to Khiva, quite a trek. As we drive through the small towns we notice large queues of cars at the petrol stations. Luckily we had a full tank and an additional 40L spare.
We arrive in Khiva around 8pm, entering via the South gate and try to find a cheap place to stay. After driving round and round the walled town, we finally find somewhere to stay with the help of a local boy.
Arriving late we are told that all the restaurants in the town are now closed however the hotel will prepare us something. We have soup and rice then retire to bed.
19th October Khiva
We awake to find ourselves right in the middle of the main tourist pedestrian area, and go for a stroll around the town. We head to the market in the hope of getting some cash changed. The banks are offering 1600 for $1 however we have heard that you could get anything between 2000 and 2500 on the black market. We stroll into the bazaar and find a man carrying a large shopping bag full of money. We change $100 @ 2260, which equates to 226,000 in local currency; as their biggest note is only 1000, we end up with huge wads of cash.
We buy various necessities at the market, underwear, batteries etc. and find a café to try out some local food. I have some meat and Nicole has a vegetable dish, paying just $2 each with drinks.
Within the walled city, there are lots of stalls selling scarves and fluffy Russian hats, but all very neat and orderly; there is none of the hustle and bustle experienced in other places.
After lunch we head to Bukhara, driving around town looking for diesel but to no avail. Queues for petrol are huge and most have no diesel anyway. We finally buy some on the side of the road from street vendors for 1500 per litre, with the help of a local man who translates for us and directs us.
We pass long strips of cotton fields on our route. Arriving in Bukhara we try to find a hotel, but the first few we try want around $90 per night. This is way over our budget, so we try to find something cheaper.
We stroll to the main plaza for dinner, where there is loud Russian dancing and music, and young boys dancing in the square.
20th October Bukhara
We wake up to our best central Asian breakfast so far; pancakes, apricots, eggs, cheese, sausages, salami, bread, melon and more. There are few banks and ATM’s to draw cash. More time is spent searching for diesel. A kind taxi driver shows to us to a station with diesel and this time we pay 1200 per litre.
We visit the Ark, an ancient fortress dating from the 5th century, and are shown around by a guide (Ark means centre). It was bombed by the Russian Red Army in 1920 leaving some of it in ruins, but still remains an impressive site today. The guide tells us that less English speaking tourists are coming here each year.
Bukhara is one the holiest cities in Central Asia but our time is limited so we have lunch with great views of the palace, before making our way towards Samarkand.
In Samarkand we find a small B&B, down a maze of alleyways near the Registan. Venturing out for dinner down the dark alleys, we find a local restaurant where we have vegetables, dumplings and shashlyk.
21st October Samarkand
We wake up to a very large breakfast of pancakes, jam, potato frittas, cakes and tea. Each time we finish a plate the owners bring us another. The food is very nice and we find it hard to get away. The restaurant is outside, and with the temperature at about 2C it is freezing. In the morning, we visit the Registan, a huge monument made up of several beautifully decorated medressas and a Golden Mosque. The medressas are covered in blue tiles amid peaceful gardens and courtyards. The gold-covered ceiling of the mosque is flat but is designed to look as though it is domed. The Registan was the cities medieval commercial centre and location of the bazaar. The medressas were finished in the early 15th century, and are some of the oldest in the world, Jenghiz Khan destroying anything earlier in his path of destruction.
We find the Uzbek national bank where we draw out more dollars; the bank charging 2.5% commission on visa withdrawals.
In the afternoon we drive to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city, where we will need to apply for our Kazakhstan & Chinese visas. Buying more diesel on the way, there appears to be more fuel just outside of the towns.
We arrive in Tashkent around 5pm, but find that all the hotels are fully booked for the next few days due to a conference in the city. After a couple of hours driving around we finally find a hotel within our budget.
22nd October Tashkent
We wake up to a nice buffet breakfast, but it’s rushed as we have to obtain our visa’s. We head firstly to the Kazakhstan embassy to find it is closed on Friday’s, which meant that we would now have to wait till Monday before applying. Lonely Planet had stated the embassy would be open Mon to Fri.
We then head to the Chinese embassy, where we find it straight forward to obtain our visa’s in half a day, paying $100 each for a 10 day visa.
After applying for our visas we head to the bazaar, which is very busy with stalls selling everything from electronics to clothing and lots of food. We change some more money on the black market, keeping an eye out for opportunist policemen. We find a shop where we buy a small kettle, so that we can make tea and coffee in our hotel room. In the store, we meet a friendly English speaking lady, who tells us she studied in India.
We try a fast food joint in the local shopping mall, but they just don’t have it right; both our burgers are stone cold.
We find a Toyota garage where we get an oil change and have the handbrake fixed.
We decide to go to the Old Chelsea pub for dinner, as they have free fast internet. Our dinner consists of the smallest jacket potato and omelette we have ever had! Although a nice pub and free internet, the beer price in the pub is three times that of anywhere else.
Not being satisfied with the tiny jackets, we order a portion of chips. After about 30mins we enquire as to where they are. It seems the waiter has given them to another table for free!! To make up for his mistake he gives us two discount cards for all the Caravan group restaurants, which on certain days gives you 50% off food and drink.
We try to draw out money but find all the banks closed and try to look for another cheaper hotel but all are full or not to our taste.
We go for dinner at a local restaurant called Dervish, where the prices are very reasonable, and the food relatively nice. After dinner we head back to the Old Chelsea for some drinks and to use the internet.
We leave early- 8am, to get to the Kazakhstan embassy. We put our name on the list a policeman is holding but this seems to make no difference as the he seems to be letting through locals and not foreigners today. The police guards have a list of people of which we were number 70. Three hours later, after being squashed and pushed around, we were at number 12, yet …about 100 other people had already been let through.
The crowd are getting angrier as some, especially the foreigners, have been left waiting for so long, whilst others are allowed in. Just before the embassy is due to close I manage to slip through, past the huge guard, leaving Martin behind with the group of infuriated people.
I manage to get both our visas processed along with a German guy’s visa who also wasn’t allowed in, and had to leave the country the next day as his visa had run out.
We wake up and head for the local market to pick up some cold weather supplies and to change some money. Drawing out money is difficult without our passports, but luckily there is a man who speaks good English helping us through.
We head back to pick up our visas, assuming we will just go in and collect them at 5. But the lady has the dreaded list again. We put our names down and wait, whilst day is slowly turning into night… The marauding mob is gathering again and people try to push their way to the front. We hear Brittania and Germana called and are hopeful we won’t have to wait too much longer. We go in leaving a large, by now, angry group behind, albeit 2 hours later.
We pay $30 each for tourist visas and decide we need pizza so head for Pizza Italia! This was by far definitely the hardest visa to obtain!
On the way, we are flagged down by a policeman. But instead of asking for any of our documents, he starts rambling the names of English football players and stadiums for about 10 minutes. Not sure of his intentions (some of our experiences with police have not been positive) we play along and realise he just wants to chat or have a rant!
We leave at 9 to head for the Kazak border. We wait for registration forms from the hotel as proof of where we have stayed. There is virtually a policeman on the road every few hundred metres. We are greeted with a handshake and a ‘salam aleikum’.
We are stopped at a police checkpoint and told that the border is closed and will have to drive to another via Chimoz.
When we arrive, the border guard asks for whiskey! As we have none, we offer him 5000 instead which he gladly accepts!
At customs there is more commotion and a lot of shouting as lines of people wait impatiently, with one guard trying to control them all. We exit Uzbekistan easily.
Martin & Nicole