Uzbekistan Part 1: The Silk Road by Train (18/08/15-01/09/15)

I normally start these blogs with a screenshot of my cycling route for the relevant dates. Not much point in that on this occasion – I’ve cycled about 100km during my first fortnight in this country thanks to Tajikistan pissing me about as much as possible. So, if you’re only interested in bicycle blogging – skip this post now. If you’re a train enthusiast, enjoy.

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The next three capitals on my tour…

My arrival into Uzbekistan was a frustrating ordeal. After having spent what felt like a record-breaking hour to get across the Turkmenistan border, the Uzbeks clearly reckoned they could do one better – and managed to make the process take more than two hours.

There was a lot of checking involved. As you’ll discover in this blog, ‘checking’ seems to be a national pastime in this country. Looking through bags at a border? I get that. But they didn’t even bother with that here! Instead they wanted to rummage through my toiletries bag writing down the names of every bog-standard painkiller packet. Then I had to show my books, and they carefully leafed through Inferno (Dan Brown’s latest novel) and Pride and Prejudice. (In case you were wondering what I read on tour – basically anything I can find in English).

But most entertaining was their eagerness to look through every single photo and video on my phone. It took ages. What were they looking for? Pornography? Pictures of me hanging out with the Taliban in bomb making class? Instead they found lots of snaps of my bicycle and a few videos of my friends drunk. I pretended not to speak English (usually that works, but I’d forgotten I was back on my UK passport), but soon he got bored trying to get me to help him navigate through my phone (which fortunately has a broken home-screen button – making it a challenge if you don’t know how to get around that). It was a bit amusing watching him get confused by the stuff on it, but mostly it felt like a real invasion of something quite private. I have nothing to hide on my phone – but it is my phone and I really didn’t like someone I don’t know nosying their way through my life.

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Still stuck in the desert…

At the border I met a couple of Mongol Rally drivers. A few of these cars have driven past me recently but these were the first team I actually spoke to. I really don’t get the Mongol Rally. It’s basically a race from UK to Mongolia (actually the finish is just over the border in Russia now). The appeal of sitting in a car driving for weeks and weeks racing across continents sounds awful to me. The best part is that it’s for charity! Their main partner is an environmental charity. So, you raise money/awareness for this charity while you drive a car around the world pumping nasty stuff out into the air… Am I the only one who seems the irony there? I don’t get this obsession with going on holiday for charity. Bicycle tourers are some of the worst offenders on this one. How does you cycling around the world save the planet, ‘fix’ poverty or build schools? Brits do this really often I think. It’s like we have to feel guilty for sacking off work and having too much fun in life and so we have to pretend it’s for a greater cause. It doesn’t offend me, of course. I just don’t get it. I’m just cycling for a laugh – that’s all it ever will be. I smile and trick people into thinking that not all Londoners are miserable and rude. I guess that’s a good cause. Maybe Boris will sponsor me.

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First morning in Uzbekistan

Anyway, these ‘Ralliers’ weren’t actually doing it officially and they were taking ages over it which then makes it quite a cool trip. We had a quick beer past the border to celebrate having finally made it across. We said goodbye and they drove off, but half an hour later light was fading and I was about to stop for the day when I saw them again setting up camp, apparently as tired as I was from our hours wasted at the border. I was happy to have some camping company again – haven’t had any of that for a while!

My bike started looking more rubbish by the minute. Their car had all the luxuries I could never afford on my ‘whip’. First the deck chairs out, drink cooler, they even had a sheesha pipe we lit up! Then a quick drive back to the border shop for more beers (and we could drive back in the morning for eggs). I was beyond jealous…

 

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Shepherd showing off his little lamb

But I didn’t get the lie-in I’d dreamed off. At dawn I woke to a barking dog and someone shouting. I peaked my head out to find just what I expected – another nosy shepherd and lots of goats. I have no idea why he had to march them exactly through our camp – but I don’t bother asking these questions anymore.

It was a pretty unexciting day to Bukhara, but it was nice to actually have some civilisation around. Even if the wind was still causing me trouble (yep, still coming) I was really excited about being in Uzbekistan. Mostly I was just happy to be out of Turkmenistan – but I got a ‘good vibe’ from Uzbekistan from the start.

In one town I met a border staff member again who helped me find a phone shop to activate my sim and everyone seemed generally pleased to see me. People waved and kids came running out to say hello. No one seemed too amazed by me, which was also nice. In Iran people’s head seemed to explode sometimes when I cycled past. They suffered the worst verbal diarrhea sometimes. Like when I moth sees a lamp it has to fly towards it, the Iranians just had to come and say hello or scream something from their motorbike as they passed. The Uzbeks seem a little more chilled.

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Road side pals working on bicycle. Everyone is cycling here!

I stopped in one bus stop for shade and a couple of road workers invited me over for tea. Green – what a nice change. It was just a big coke bottle filled with cay, about the same temperature as my water. One of them had this weird pouch of mushy green herbs which he fingered out and into his gums. He offered me some and then they both started laughing, doing a mime about it making me dizzy or tired – so probably not the best for a cyclist, whatever it was…

When I said I was from England they asked me what football team I supported (the usual follow-up question). When I told them I was a Chelsea fan they held their fingers up to show that we’d lost to Man City. I think I like not being able to check football scores these days – thanks for the good news!

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Bukhara – a Silk Road icon

Arriving into Bukhara was a magical moment. For me, Bukhara is the Silk Road. I actually know nothing about the Silk Road – other than I’m cycling it. But I remember seeing photos from Bukhara years ago that made a big impression on me – and since then those monuments have been icons for me on this old trading route and as a result the town has become one of my big personal milestones. And here I am!

 

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Ridiculous tile work

As I cycled in there was still some light left in the day so I just headed for the biggest minaret in the old town. Wow! I hadn’t read anything about Bukhara yet and those photos I’d seen years ago had faded in my memory. The square was like nothing I’ve ever seen before – breathtaking.

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Great Minaret of the Kalon

I let a tout take me to his hotel. It was pretty cheap and I wanted to treat myself. I haven’t paid for accommodation in 5 weeks now! I rammed the air con up and didn’t leave for a whole day…

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Kids playing in a courtyard

When I did, I was in for a treat. Bukhara is stunning – huge monuments everywhere and in a style like I’ve never seen before.

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Photo-worthy buildings at every corner

It was a really touristy place – but I didn’t mind that too much. I was happy to see so many white people around and not have all the attention on myself! They were mostly French and German I reckon. All oldies – I guess it’s a little to expensive/complicated to reach here for the average backpacker and the main attractions are the historical sights.

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Stalls for tourists

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Great Minaret of the Kalon

My plan was to take the sleeper train after a night to get to the Tajikistan embassy in Tashkent before the weekend but I heard from another cyclist that they were still not issuing visas. I say still, because they’ve not been printing them for a week now. It wasn’t the end of the world for me – I was happy to chill a couple days and then head up for Monday.

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Bazaar

I discovered a really great bazaar when I was buying my train tickets. The beer stall inside sold a pint for 2,000som. That’s less than 30p. I made some friends and spent my afternoon there – walking home drunk for what would have cost about three gulps in a London pub.

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Pivo and ‘somsa’ – my favourite food here. Basically the Uzbek version of a Cornish pasty.
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Urinals are back! But apparently the guys here need reminding that your supposed to wee into them rather than on the floor? For some reason there were no urinals in Iran, which I didn’t get. In public loos there was always piss all over the floor and huge queues for the squat cubicles.

A word on money here – it’s confusing. I’ve never been somewhere where the black market is so strong. Officially $1 is 2,600 Uzbek som. But actually the black market rate is more like 4,500. That’s a huge difference! The money changers are pretty easy to find if you ask in guesthouses or walk around a bazaar looking like a lost tourist. Be prepared to haggle though – they’ve tried to give me a rate as low as 4,000 at times, and the highest rate I’ve wrangled is 4,700. I haven’t seen a note higher than 5,000 (about 60p) so you end up with huge stacks of money. Annoyingly, the money changers mostly give you 1,000s which means you’ll end up with stacks of notes if you change $50 (there are no coins here). They’re never changing money in an official office (because it’s obviously not the legal rate) and so it’s impossible to sit down and count through hundreds of notes accurately. Maybe that’s why they like giving us 1,000 notes…

Everywhere I’ve been uses the black market rate. But official companies have to use the ‘proper’ one. The only time I’ve seen this is when I went to charge my new sim card. The internet pack that cost $7 was actually about half when I paid in Uzbek som.

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Registan

The next day I took the train to Samarkand. My original plan was to cycle there and then across to Dushanbe – that was the most obvious route. But the Mongol drivers told me that the border was closed. I didn’t believe them – it looked like the main road connecting the two countries, but they were correct. So I figured I’d make a little day trip to Samarkand before heading up to the Tajik embassy on Monday.

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Registan

Samarkand was also incredible. Some serious heavyweight sights in that town and I was happy to be a camera snapping foot tourist again.

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The stage being set up for the music festival happening there the following week.

First I visited the Registan complex. That was awe inspiring. The guard told me to slip in past the ticket office and pay him a cheaper price (straight into his pocket of course) but when I left he didn’t even recognise me so I just walked past.

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Main bazaar

I then walked over to Bibi Khanym mosque. Again, awesome. The tourist sights are a little more developed here – clearly renovated but that doesn’t detract too much from the experience. Having to pay for all the spots is a bit annoying though. No more corrupt guards lurking the entrances.

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Bibi Khanym

Next stop was Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum. This one maybe my favourite. Sublime tile work surrounding a corridor through different rooms of tombs.

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Shah-i-Zinda
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One of the many tomb entrances

There was a sign at the entrance warning pilgrims that it is a sin to leave money on the tombs, but clearly not everyone shares that view – there were loads of notes chucked on.

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Offerings from pilgrims
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Shah-i-Zinda
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Gur Emir Mausoleum

I had time the following morning for last of the ‘big four’ sights – the Gur Emir Mausoleum.

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Original and renovated sections

There was plenty more to see in Samarkand, but I was sure I’d get ‘blue-tiled-out’ if I saw any more ornate buildings.

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Mausoleum interior. One of those tombs is Timur’s himself

So after that I caught the train to Tashkent. I’d forgotten how much fun train travel can be. This time I was in a compartment with two women and their daughters and a Russian/Uzbek guy who worked in the tourism industry. Between them they spoke decent English and we had pretty good conversations throughout the journey. The women asked me loads of ‘girly questions’, told me they were all single with a wink and wanted to look through my camera for ages. The guy dragged me off for a cig with him to escape the feminine carriage. I occasionally humour someone who wants me to smoke with them, usually regretting it immediately but this time I felt the regret before a single drag – the smoking ‘box’ at the end of the carriage was a claustrophobic cloudy box filled with wheezy old men. I apologised to my lungs and went back the kupe, where my camera had been returned to my seat. When I looked through my photos the next day I saw it was full of a zillion photos the women had taken of each other posing!

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Compartment companions

I arrived Tashkent in the evening and took the metro into town – that was really impressive. Huge marble slabs lining the walls, ornate chandeliers and large pieces of artwork in the stations. I wanted to take a picture but I figured that would probably be a bad idea. There are police everywhere here.

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Uzbekistan wins the prize for most un-attractive souveneirs

As I entered the station my bags were searched. I did say they love checking bags in this country. Then I got to the actual undrground entance and I was checked again – bags and passport. Unbelievable! I’d now been searched four times in a day. The first was when I entered Gur-e-Amir and the second time when I got the train (they always seach you at least once or twice when you get the train and then you have to show your passport about 5 times to various people between the station entrance and your carriage attendant who check your details against those on the ticket). It’s crazy – a real police state.

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The scrum outside the Tajikistan consulate

Quickly prepared my documents and headed to the consulate in the morning. I’d been warned that it’s a bit of a scrum outside but this was crazy. I arrived shorty before official opening time (although I’ve learnt that that means absolutely nothing here) and already there was a huge crowd of locals. They had a sheet out where people could write down their names in order of arrival – I winced when I saw the number at 75. Time to play the privileged/ignorant tourist card!

I befriended a local business men who was clearly there regularly processing truck driver paperwork and he helped me slip in at the front. Bad news – still no visas being issued. ‘System problem’ – whatever that means. But, I’d been prepared for rejection so the next bit of news was good. ‘Come back in three days’ I was told. Two more nights in the capital, get my visa and then back on the night train south. Easy, right?

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Tashkent

So I had some time to kill in the capital. A pleasant city but very little to do as a tourist. The next mourning I went to my Couchsurfing host’s English school (where she taught). I was dragged into another classroom to force conversatin with a bunch of nervous kids aged 14-17. It was fun – I’ve been in so many situations similar to this that I know how to force English conversations out of students. I think I’d make a good teacher – looking at the picture, you’d agree surely?

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English teacher for the day

We held a Q&A and I had to answer loads of strange questions like ‘what do you eat in England’? I also had to politely answer my least favourite request ‘tell us about your country’. What do you want to know? How we brush our teeth in the morning? How many cups of tea we drink in a day? What our favourite colour is? Surely you can do better than that…

On this occasion I asked exactly that – ‘what do you want to know?’ ‘Your country is developed, ours is not. What is the difference?’ An equally impossible question. Actually, Uzbekistan is not underdeveloped. At least, not in my books. I’ve seen many less developed and far poorer countries. Everything works pretty much the same – similar transport, shops, markets, hospitals, schools. Most of the world is basically the same apart from a few tiny differences.

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Me and the class

Luckily the next question was the bog-standard ‘are you married’? Then I could talk about the one thing that I think is the most significant difference between our cultures – marriage and family relationships. I’m so sick of these questions that I normally lie now for my own amusement. Sometimes I’m married with 8 children when people ask. My job varies from banker to builder and my age also switches between 16 and 30 depending on how much I want to confuse people.

But today I was being serious. Marriage is a huge deal in Uzbekistan. No doubt one of the most important days of your life here. I told the class that I’m not married and that I’m not that fussed if I ever do. That raised eyebrows. I’d love to have a ‘proper’ family and that – but needing to put a title on it and spend loads of money on a wedding isn’t important to me. I tell them proudly that my parents never married (but leave out the part where they broke up to not spoil my point). In Uzbekistan, like many of the last countries I’ve visited, marriage is a formal arrangement. You don’t go dating for ages before popping the question. You don’t sleep around, you most definitely don’t live with someone before you ‘put a ring on it’. Maybe if a boy likes someone he can approach her family with his. If the girl’s parents reckon he comes from a decent family then maybe they’ll have dinner together and then maybe the potential couple go for a walk round the park together. That’s normally enough courting before a date is set.

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Timur and his horse

I spoke to one girl who told me she’d been seeing this guy in secret for 5 years (secret because their parents wouldn’t approve of casual dating, even if it’s completely innocent). Then the boy’s mother discovered their relationship so she went to ‘check out’ the girl at her job without saying who she was. Apparently unimpressed by the look of her, she went back and told me her son that he wasn’t allowed to see her anymore and that was that. They never saw each other again. How sad is that? I like our system better…

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Khast Imom Mosque

Another of the teachers accompanied me around town. We visited Khast Imam Mosque, and although was impressive, having just come from Samarkand it just looked like another big mosque with blue tiles all over. It was amusing that me, the non-Muslim was allowed to enter but not her (not being dressed appropriately).

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Me and queenie!

Then we went to a shopping center. God knows why. Girls are girls all round the world. It’s not the first city I’ve been in where someone’s enthusiastically taken me to see the local mall. I hate them. But there was one gem inside this place – Queen Elizabeth! Of all the people I’d bump into in Uzbekistan… Very surprised to see a BHS in Tashkent and it made me very happy. The shop worker must think all English people are bit weird after I posed for a dozen photos by the entrance.

To round up my very English day I attended an English speaking debate at the main library in town. I met a young girl on bus the day before who invited me. The library itself was a very grand building – a typical Central Asian piece of shiny white imperial architecture, as were the other official-looking buildings in the area. On the way in my bags were put through the X-ray machine once again and I had to walk through the scanner. Despite being ‘bomb-clear’ I had to leave my stuff in a cloakroom. I tried to protest (all my important stuff is in that rucksack) but they weren’t having it. This constant searching and checking is getting crazy. It’s a library for God’s sake.

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Me and the debate team

I’ve asked loads of Uzbeks what they think of all this police checking and there answers have surprised me. In England we’re terrified of being part of a ‘big brother’ Inanny state, but here I’m always told something along these lines: ‘It’s good – better to be safe than sorry. It’s a dangerous world these days and there are lots of bad people out there’. But surely Tashkent library wouldn’t be a hot target for terrorists? I know Uzbekistan has had problems with militants in the past, but unless I’m mistaken they’ve had no proper attacks for more than a decade.

What bothers me is that they hardly ever check properly. When I take the metro they just halfheartedly glance into my bags and give them a little poke from the side. I wonder if any terrorist plot has ever been foiled with such useless checking? If I wanted to blow a train up I’d at least stick the bomb in the bottom of my bag rolled up in some socks. What’s the point in checking if you don’t do it properly? It feels to me like someone’s constantly leaning over your shoulder saying – ‘don’t forget – we’re watching you. Always’.

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What a spread!

I went back to my host family to find the most elaborate banquet laid out. The mother had invited a bunch of her friends over for ‘ladies night’ – a tradition they do often here, maybe once a month. Everyone who comes gives a (pretty large) donation to the host in cash who then suddenly gets rich from the event. But they all take it in turns, so you get back what you lost attending the others.

In the morning I went back to the embassy. The usual chaos outside. Waited around a couple hours again and finally wrangled my way in. Bad news again. ‘System still not working, come back September 2nd’. Fuck! I did some begging but he wasn’t having any of it. Tajikistan – you’re really messing me around here. I left feeling pretty angry  – mainly because he’d made me sit around waiting in Tashkent two days. Actually though, I was mostly feeling lucky – because my Uzbekistan visa still has a fortnight left on it. It’s impossible to extend an Uzbek visa (I think) so if I was cutting it any closer I’d have to skip Tajikistan – a country that is probably the most important to my whole tour. I guessed the dates for my Uzbek visa months ago when I was Istanbul after a quick glance at Google maps – so I’m feeling very lucky to have this time to play with.

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Sleeper train

So, back on the night train empty handed. The sleeper train was cheap – about £6, so actually a pretty good deal for a 10 hour ride and a night’s accommodation. I bought a bunk in the ‘platskart’ compartment – 38 beds crammed into one door-less carriage. Tiny beds (even for me – and I’m short) and one bumpy ride.

I liked it – a few years ago I took the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian from Moscow to Belijing. It reminded me of that – exactly the same Soviet train layout. Actually the last sleeper train I ever took was just after that, from Beijing to Xi’an. After that journey no train will ever seem bad again. It was a national holiday when I left so for three days straight there were no beds or seats available. ‘No worries’, I thought, ‘just give me a standing ticket’ – thinking it would be like in England when you just stand until there’s a free seat and play musical chairs as people get on and off at their stops. Not in China! When I arrived at the platform I saw a sight similar to the London underground in rush hour. I crammed into the carriage and found myself standing upright like a squashed sardine for the duration of the journey – a mere 14 hours. Hell!

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Leaving the train in the morning, back in Bukhara.

Back in Bukhara I made some new friends. A couple of Uzbek guys invited me for lunch one day and we headed to a cafe nearby. As food came so did a few suspect looking shot glasses as well as a tea pot. What kind of tea drinking tradition is this? It turned out to be vodka, not tea – they just served it like that because they didn’t have the license to sell alcohol! I’m back in the ex-Soviet vodka chugging world again.

After two bottles we stumbled out and continued boozing in a couple of other places. Actually my memory slowly disappears at this point. When I woke up – I felt the most hungover I’ve been in months. I could barely move and I was feeling extremely sorry for myself. But I was dragged out with them again, this time with a couple of other Uzbeks and another English tourist we’d (apparently) met last night. We went for lunch and again a bottle of vodka was ordered. Then another. And another. I tried to refuse but eventually I was bullied into joining. I hate this day-time vodka drinking. Having a few slow beers I don’t mind, but I never ever shot vodka and it just gets you pissed so quickly.

After lunch they wanted to go to a sheesha place to smoke hash in the pipe. That must be quite illegal but the cafe didn’t seem to care and they whipped out a very ornate loaded pipe. I had a couple of puffs to see what all the fuss was about but I decided to be a good boy and stop after that – I could feel my head prepare for take off into space after the lunch time drinking and so I stuck to the liquids.

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Getting the shots in for lunch

I got back to my hostel and saw another bicycle had arrived – it turned out to be Taneli’s, the Finn I’d met back in Tehran! It’s a small world… He didn’t want to risk the Turkmenistan rejection so had cycled back to Baku in Azerbaijan, taken the boat to Kazakhstan and then raced across the deserts of Uzbekistan all the way here. Rather you than me pal!

Independence day meant the Tajik embassy was closed for two days and after that it was time to take the train back up to Tashkent. Fingers crossed this time!

 

 

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