Can I borrow your wheelbarrow to carry my money?
Osh – Tashkent – Samarkand - Bukhara
When warned by well meaning worriers that Uzbekistan would be our greatest challenge on this journey; we consulted the ‘font of all knowledge’ (the Internet) to become prepared for our fate. Almost universally the information advised that the Uzbeks were descendant from bloodthirsty warmongers who had similar aspirations to Helen Clark – start with a small country then rule the world. We were told that that the police would hassle us for bribes and those in any form of authority from the room maid up would take pleasure in making our life miserable. I was even warned that all in unquestioned authority still practiced the ancient art of making money purses from careless travelers’ genitalia. Evidently the Prime Minister has a very good collection. As I write, I’m pleased to confirm that my underwear elastic has not been stretched beyond normal tolerance and there has been no suggestion of any surgical procedures. I do speak for myself but Flypaper and the other 2 have not shown any sign of distress which would surely be evident in the event they were requested to contribute to the cultural heritage in this way. To the contrary, all of our experiences here in Uzbekistan have been without extreme duress – although there have been a couple of mentionable events. I would even go so far as to say we like the place.
In spite of fearful expectations, our entry at the boarder was little more than an exercise in time mismanagement. The armed solders had welcoming smiles and were proud of their ability to say, “Hello Passport”. (Note to NZ control room : I would like a talking passport that could respond) Their Komandant was a tall, bespectacled, young gentleman with what appeared to be a lot of bird droppings on his shoulders. Given it was his 4th language (and he probably knew a couple more) he softly spoke reasonable English and patiently helped us fill out our multipage entry forms - before sadly apologizing that transposing all this information onto numerous other forms would cause us some delay but it was his duty to undertake this important work. He did seem genuinely shocked when I declared I had absolutely no money but relied on my wife to provide for me. The look in his eyes flickered between disbelief, sympathy and a suspicion that I may be in need of psychiatric care. He did accept our arrangement however, which was fortunate given I had forgotten that Flypaper had stashed all our US currency in my bag and discovery of this may have ignited some of his ancestral tendencies. After a further hour we were summonsed into a tiny office and asked to sign a couple of forms in Russian that the Kid Komandant told us were our declarations saying we understood all their laws and would abide by them … and that we must leave their country 4 days latter than we intended. Perhaps there will be an unexpected delay that we are as yet unaware of. His final act was to inspect the contents of our cars. This was proceeding without much effort on his behalf or concern on ours – until he discovered a small device used by our ‘partners’ to theoretically use men’s urinals. (Please don’t ask me for further explanation.) The Kid K and Jeanette both exhibited equal measure of flustered embarrassment while I ran to hide behind the shed for fear that my mirth would spoil the occasion. After that, he lost enthusiasm to ask about various undeclared items and we were soon wished a happy journey. There was no form to fill out in regard to our cars, no bonds, insurance fees or any suggestion of interest in our mode of travel whatsoever. This was quite contrary to what we expected.
Between the large cities, all vehicles are regularly stopped by the police at Passport Controls. There is obviously some measure of paranoia between the neighbouring local bodies that possibly goes back to the days when they snuck over and stole a few goats and women to bolster the insulation on cold winters nights. I was interested to note that while back in the queue, drivers would toot in annoyance at the holdup but as they drew closer became amazingly quiet and compliant. We are always singled out for special treatment and have to trot over to a small hut where various details of our identities and intentions are copied into large books. Perhaps we’ll get ‘fan mail’ in the future.
The cities in general are large, beautiful with huge trees lining the roadways, have impressive buildings, lots of large monuments, enormous markets, Mosques and places of historic interest. In my own opinion, the Mosques tend to vary only in size or name and the historic stuff and monuments are all pretty similar given they feature a couple of hero’s that were particularly ruthless. I wonder at the psychology at work here. The adage, ‘When you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all” keeps flashing in my mind. In Tashkent they have removed Lenin’s monument and replaced it with a globe showing Uzbekistan as the centre of the world – which for us at present, it is. There are police and military personnel at every intersection and at every place of potential interest – as well as in the beautifully presented underground Metro stations to ensure sneaky travelers don’t take photos. It’s all a bit bizarre. Given the locals are all pretty compliant, it probably came as a shock for 2 policemen to observe us turning left illegally and through a red light – 3 times. (You do that when you’re lost) They simply stood in amazement thinking … “It’s them again”. To date there has not been any suggestion of a bribe although the locals tell us that corruption is the No 1 industry.
The roads in Uzbekistan are all similar … potholes connected by badly made and crumbling tarseal. Road maintenance is not a high priority and it seems that when the Russians abandoned the place back in the early ‘90’s they took the entire road fixing paraphernalia with them together with the knowledge that tarseal doesn’t last forever. There are various posted speed limits in town but not in the country. This becomes understandable when one discovers that it’s almost impossible to drive above 80kph without trashing ones car. We did discover a place where the road was reasonable so Martin bet a bottle of local wine (his largess knows no bounds – the wine is about $4) that it wouldn’t last 30km. His rash wager was safe enough and he was able to relax again after about 4km.
An interesting feature of the dual carriageways is a center divide that have regular gaps to enable U-turns. I believe I know why. The ‘not so smart’ people who are lost or looking for a shortcut speed along in the fast lane then stop suddenly to turn. Inattentive drivers, those going too fast or those driving without brakes crash into them. It’s cheaper than building a university but has the same result – improving the net IQ of the country.
The older cars are various unidentified Russian machines that we study in disbelief. Especially when they have very agricultural roof racks carrying enormous loads. Moving house in 1 trip is normal. They are used as utility vehicles and occasionally have an equally overloaded trailer. It’s frightening to be near them if they are moving. The newer cars are generally very small and all Daewoo (who have a factory here in Uzbekistan). The trucks are all Russian and have the appearance of being of 1950’s vintage, although we are assured some were manufactured since then. It’s difficult to tell which ones. All run on petrol or ‘Gaz’. I understand this is CNG given we see big bottles bolted to the roof of vans and buses – they look as though they are rocket powered. The universal use of “Gaz” and petrol has given us an unexpected problem. There is no diesel available at service stations. We survived on Kyrgyzstan fuels as far as Tashkent but when we tried to buy more to continue our journey it became evident that none of the regular Service Stations had any ‘Dizel’ in their tanks. The problem was solved in Tashkent by a shifty character who suggested we follow his beaten up red Lada to a backstreet where we were told to wait. After 20 minutes he returned with 240 litres of ‘Dizel’ in 20 litre containers – in the back of his Lada. We filled our vehicles with this and paid the black market price – grateful that he proved helpful but unsure if we were breaking one of those laws we had promised to uphold at the boarder. (We hadn’t) This fuel took us to Samarkand where we were assured there would be fuel. After our local guide took us to 8 service stations it became apparent there was no ‘Dizel’. Fortunately a group of truck drivers parked next door had seen a commercial opportunity. One of them had a diesel powered truck and offered to siphon fuel from it for us. Martin bargained the price back from US$1 to NZ$1 (not a bad price) and we spent the next hour waiting for the fuel to piddle out of a thin hose into our jerry can that was sitting in a flowing drain to get some siphon fall. I suspect the generously helpful driver will forget to tell his boss why the truck has recently experienced very poor economy.
Interestingly, anyone can operate as a Taxi whenever they wish but some take it seriously by having a magnetic sign on the roof. Astonishingly they have no meter and rely on the generosity of the passengers to determine the price. Our hotel ‘madam’ pantomimed 1,000 SOM per person for virtually any trip in the city. It’s a pittance. There is also no law specifying the number of passengers per car. We’ve managed 6 in an 800cc Getz. (It’s fortunate we were already married or, given the squeeze, we may have felt obliged to do the honorable thing.)
We are visiting in spring. The highly productive country that we have seen looks beautiful. (The deserts bits look like deserts everywhere at any time.) The temperature has hovered around 35-40C most days – we are grateful that we are not here in mid summer when it gets much hotter. The local mature women are resplendent in long colourful gowns that appear hot but are obviously comfortable for them. Young people are all dressed in modern western dress and look very chic – while the mature men are typically nondescript and unremarkable – as they are the world over. I fit in very well.
The food throughout Central Asia is similar and we have no difficulty finding plenty to retain full pressure on our belts. Both here and in Kyrgyzstan we are urged to try the National Dish – Plov. We did … and swore to be very hungry before we do so again. The Kyrgyzac dish we tried was rice soaked in mutton fat that features some suspect spices and meager bits of meat. However, the Uzbek stuff does look much better. By coincidence we are staying at a small family hotel in an old restored historic Madressa (religious school). The Matriarch just happens to have an unsurpassed reputation for Bukharan Plov, which she whips up in the courtyard below our room. We’re an easy touch whenever a reputation is flaunted and, just like the sheep that will be a principal ingredient, we have again been led to the Plov pot.
Uzbekistan has a currency problem. US$1 buys around 2,400 Uzbek SOM on the black market. (The ‘official’ rate is quite a bit less – about 1,600.) If you change (say) US$200 you need a wheelbarrow to carry the cash. Everyone is flaunting enormous bundles of money, usually in 500 or 1,000 SOM notes and to begin with, we were quite worried about displaying our ‘wealth’ … until we realized that neither we nor anyone else were wealthy at all. Buying an ice-cream requires fumbling out three 1,000 SOM from your wad of 4,800 notes - it seems like a big deal. Buying a tank of fuel is like buying a car for cash at home. To change money we hand over a couple of large denomination US$ notes and the delighted black-marketeer delves into a large sack of pre-counted SOM. It’s simply not practical to sit in his little office (that’s usually full of interested yapping locals) to check it’s correct - but we haven’t been swindled yet. Obtaining the money is not difficult as the black-market moneychangers are common and easy to find – just ask anyone who isn’t wearing a police hat.
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