The Last Stand

Last week, Yugyeong and I observed Afghanistan (from a distance), left the arduous Pamir Mountains far behind, and entered the dry expanse of the Uzbek desert. This week, we take a tour around our new country: visiting a vibrant capital in the East, and the stunning historic towns and mosques of the West.

Day 50 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan to Tashkent, Uzbekistan

So, we have stumbled backwards into day fifty. Oh, how I wish we could take our time exploring our new surroundings – for Samarkand has always been on the top of my list of Silk Road destinations. Unfortunately, it will have to wait as we still need our Turkmen visas, and have only seven days in Uzbekistan to obtain them AND drive the whole width of a surprisingly wide country. Straight back on the road to the capital: Tashkent.

On the way, we obtained some local currency, and had a jolly good time doing so. Hyperinflation has hit Uzbekistan hard in recent times, and a single U.S. $100 note returned us around 750,000 Uzbek Som, all in bills of 1,000. A 5,000 Som note does exist, but it is like gold-dust, so people generally carry small black bags of cash around whenever they leave the house. Whilst it was highly enjoyable counting our wads at first, it soon became a right pain in the arse – especially when paying for lunch…

The road to Tashkent was flat and dull. Whilst there are police checkpoints everywhere, they are only interested in catching members of the Taliban trying to sneak up from the Afghan border (and they don’t tend to brazenly drive large SUV’s along the main road in broad daylight). However, for Uzbek ‘registration’ purposes, we are required to sleep in licensed hotels for the length of our stay in the country. A fantastic excuse to book a hotel with a bath, free breakfast, and yes, even a nine-foot-square swimming pool! I never knew such luxury existed in the world.

Day 51 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan

The pain of a 6:00am alarm call to get to the Turkmen embassy, was only trumped by the pain of arriving, and finding it closed for the day. After another snooze, we had a look around Tashkent. First, we headed to the largest indoor market in the city, and attempted the charade required in order to change some more money.

The Uzbek government have artificially fixed the value of the Som, making it far stronger against other currencies than the real market rate. As a result, nobody in their right mind exchanges money at a bank or an official currency exchange. Instead, you must slink around a busy area, and wait for someone to whisper “dollar” or “money” in your ear, and the transaction can begin. After a brief haggle, you will receive double the amount you would get from any legal source – extraordinary – and, apparently, everyone (including members of law enforcement) does the same.

We then visited our first Uzbek mosque, and quickly discovered why they are famous the world over. They are decorated in what must be millions of intricately-designed coloured tiles, primarily of blues and golds, that adorn the many domes and giant arched-entrances. We were thoroughly impressed, and the mosques of Tashkent aren’t even close to the most elaborate in the country (so we hear). On our return to the hostel, we made use of the swimming facilities, before setting the alarm once more for 6:00am…

Day 52 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Same routine as yesterday, same bloody outcome. Embassy closed, cannot wait any longer, goodbye Turkmenistan. If there is one thing we have learned, it’s that consuls are a fickle and lazy bunch. Even on the rare occasions they do decide to open their precious gates for a couple of hours, they are usually rude, unhelpful, and generally don’t care if you leave with a visa or not (there are some rare exceptions).

Some of you may say “well why on earth have you left it this late to get your visas, you silly so-and-sos?”. The short answer is we really didn’t want to. Back in Korea, we were promised our Iranian visas (which we needed before applying for Turkmenistan) would take three weeks to issue and we could collect them in Seoul, well before we started our trip. They took three months, meaning collecting them in Dushanbe, and leaving no time for Turkmenistan. Ashgabat will have to wait!

Logistically, not being able to transit Turkmenistan presents us with a large, blue problem: the Caspian Sea. As we can’t drive around it anti-clockwise (too late to obtain another Russian visa) or clockwise (Turkmenistan or Afghanistan guard the way), we must now cross over it. One ferry exists that does such a crossing, leaving from a remote Kazakh town, and arriving in Azerbaijan thirty (yes 30) hours later. That is now our path!

Anyway, with our fate decided, we could now head back to Samarkand, an altogether far more interesting part of the country, and savour our time in Amur Temur’s once-great kingdom. Although the city is very charming and picturesque, the maze of old narrow streets and dead-ends make it a nightmare to drive around. Our sat nav has committed suicide, leaving us to rely on Uzbek signage and good luck alone. Eventually, we found Uzbekistan’s (and Central Asia’s) main attraction: the Registan. With only thirty minutes until it closed, we had a quick glance around but saved most our awe for tomorrow, when we will return.

Day 53 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan to Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Now we can be awe-struck. It is an astonishing complex! Comprising three giant mosques built in the seventeenth century, and set around a square of the same name, the Registan is quite unlike anything we have ever witnessed. Having undergone massive recent renovation (some voices say too much), they have created buildings that are far more ornately-decorated than they ever were in their past. Imagine if the Italian’s took the Colosseum, and repaired it to modern-day standards? Would that go down well?

Frankly though, I don’t care. Even though it’s not ‘true-to-history’, they have created something absurdly attractive. Moreover, there’s hardly any irritating tourists here (like ourselves) to get in the way of photographs, or to decapitate you with a selfie-stick – the beauty of making your visa almost impossible to obtain. We spent all morning wandering through the courtyards and alleyways, and would have liked to have stayed longer, but thought we really ought to see the other notable sites of Samarkand before needing to head West to another historic Uzbek city: Bukhara.

After a shockingly-poor drive, we arrived in the city at sunset, but had no problem finding a restaurant with a roof-top terrace that overlooked the walled ‘old town’. More signs of renovation and beautification everywhere we looked – almost overly perfect. We will have to find some flaws to have a good moan about tomorrow.

Day 54 – Bukhara, Uzbekistan to Nukus, Uzbekistan

We have found something! Not so much as a flaw in the city of Bukhara, but of the time-keeping of its locals. So, (in brief) Uzbekistan has hardly any diesel, and the small supply it does have is situated in the East of the country. We are quickly running out, so we asked the manager of the hostel if he could source some – he said, “no problem my friend, come back in one hour”. Given that we must drive five hundred kilometres on questionable roads to Nukus today, or risk being deported, we were pretty indignant when (a full three and a half hours later) our dribble of diesel finally arrived. We threw the filthy jerry cans in the back of the car and sped off. It was going to be a long day.

The city was lovely though, and the road leaving it was superb, for a while. It slowly deteriorated, and with the pungent aroma of diesel wafting from the two containers behind our seats, we hallucinated our way through the Uzbek desert – passing twelve-humped-camels and dunes the size of houses along the way. For safety’s sake, we poured the surplus diesel into Toby as soon as he has enough space to hold it, and disposed of the fragrant vessels. We eventually slunk into Nukus in the dead of night, and instantly passed out on our hard-hostel beds.

Day 55 – Nukus, Uzbekistan to Beyneu, Kazakhstan

Another five-hundred-and-something kilometres needed to be covered today, four hundred of them in Uzbekistan, in order to cross the border back into Kazakhstan before our visas expired at midnight. Actually, the border closed at ‘sun-down’, so we weren’t exactly sure how much time we had, or if the road would allow us to complete such a mission. We set off early, and the surface was favourable.

This part of the country has very little going for it. The landscape is entirely flat, and contains little vegetation beyond small shrubs and cacti – even our faithful camel companions have deemed it too desolate to live. Yet, in the middle of nothingness, appeared a border-post, and all manner of pandemonium surrounding it. The long queue to the gate was lined with a jumbled assortment of persons: market-traders, taxi-drivers, families, currency-exchangers, the army and many more, all shouting at the very top of their voices. We eventually fought our way to Uzbek border-control, and with the sun setting, got our much-longed-for leaving stamps in our passports. I thoroughly relished our week there, although the strain of having to race the width of the country in just a few days was a major challenge, and we made it by minutes.

After the Kazakh border guards pushed us to the front of the queue in no-man’s-land, moving every car and truck out of our path, we were given more of the preferential ‘tourist treatment’ in a chaotic customs. They were superb. Only downside was discovering a slow-puncture on our front-left tyre as we got back into the car, whilst our fuel light was now flashing red, and we had absolutely no local currency. Can’t make it too easy for ourselves – deep sigh! Eighty kilometres to the nearest settlement.

Day 56 – Beyneu, Kazakhstan to Aktau, Kazakhstan

Last night, along with trying to save every drop of fuel and look after our perforated tyre, we survived another god-awful road to the nearest Kazakh town: Beyneu. Not a smidgen of asphalt was to be found, and we fully expected to hear a loud pop at any moment, as our tyre exploded into a thousand pieces. Mercifully, it did not happen, and we were able to replace it with our spare in the town – with a free lesson on how to do so from the locals (they were far more cheerful than the photo suggests). After setting-off and quickly discovering the weight of the wheel wasn’t equal on both sides (Toby started rattling to pieces), they even corrected the wheel balance, again, free-of-charge.

So, after curing our tyre situation, washing Toby and filling him with some desperately-needed diesel, changing some dollars into Kazakh Tenge, and discovering the road to Aktau (the location of our ferry) was all newly-paved, we were as content as two road-trippers could be. All of the past week’s pressures were washing away, and we were heading towards a brand-new adventure across the Caspian Sea. A new chapter is on the horizon.

Distance Travelled: 15,461km


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2 Responses to “The Last Stand

  • Fascinating! I looked at the map to try and work out what was the alternative to Iran and saw it was Russia and wondered why there was an issue but now I understand. I also looked as the Caspian Sea and did wonder . . . So I look forward to the next installment.

    • Jack Noah Rees
      4 years ago

      Yes, the only visa that almost took as long as Iran was Russia – so the Caspian ferry was the only alternative. Rather fortunate they run a ferry at all really – otherwise it would be a very long wait!

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