I visited Uzbekistan in 2003 on a three-month trip travelling back to Germany from China overland that also brought me to Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia before ending in a Mad Dash Home to make it back in time for Christmas.
A word of warning. The quality of my pictures from this trip is bad, I was a bad photographer and I had an early digital 3,3 MP camera. Due to a shortage of memory cards I set the resolution down to 1 MP, what a mistake. Taken as memories from this trip, they are still quite enjoyable.
I visited Uzbekistan again in 2008, for Samarkand and Termez I have much better pictures from that trip.
As in Kyrgyzstan the break-up of the Soviet Union was a traumatic event for Uzbekistan. As I was visiting in 2003 the country was still finding its feet. Being the country of Samarkand and Bukhara, the must-see sights of Central Asia certainly helped.
My first stop was Tashkent, I stayed a week and I did not like it. The trouble was of a bureaucratic nature. My original plan was to visit Turkmenistan on this trip. Getting a tourist visa for Turkmenistan involved (and involves) booking a tour and specifying a date and time of arrival. Because of that, I made a detailed plan of my trip that contained stupid ideas like 6 days in China (I stayed 15) and 4 days in Kyrgyzstan (stayed 10). I later stopped pursuing the expensive tourist visa for Turkmenistan but when organizing some visas before leaving home I stuck to this timetable. Most of the visas in this region are only valid for a short amount of time. When I entered Uzbekistan, I had only one week left on my visa so I need to extend it as soon as possible. There is no way that I will arrive in Iran in time for my visa so I need another one. A second Georgian visa is also necessary. Considering all this, I do not have enough pages in my passport so I need a new one. The German embassy is annoying. The guard is just busy angrily sending a bunch of people away telling them that there will be no more appointments today. As he sees me, his behaviour changes and he becomes super friendly, he lets me in and tells me to wait at a small table until the next consular officer will be available. The waiting room is full of people, the five minutes I have to wait are enough time to familiarize myself with a German visa application. I’d never seen one before, just heard stories in Russia (some of them quite shocking) how hard it is. I’m embarrassed, I find visas annoying but compared to what you have to do to get a German visa I get my visas very easily. The next day, I am handed a new passport but told to give up my old one. I tell the lady no way, I have a valid visa in this one and cannot give it away just like that. She needs to speak with her superior and soon I leave with two passports. After that, I visit the embassy of Iran. It is the first day of Ramadan and one of the diplomats of the Islamic Republic of Iran is standing outside and having a smoke, I love people who break unnecessary rules. I still need an Azerbaijani visa as well. It takes me a week to get all that organized. I am glad that I found a cheap hotel that charges only 3€ per night and for that you even get your own room. Hotel Tara, recommended by other travellers, doesn’t have a sign outside but they give out proper police registrations (you need to show them at the border when leaving). When I asked why there is no sign, I was told that it is a secret hotel. A while later I realized it was in fact doubling as a brothel, with that information everything else that seemed weird before makes sense. It explains why the two girls, one always in her miniskirt, the other most often just in a dressing gown were always around and chatty. It also explains why, when asking about how to get to Samarkand, one of them just offered me to go together.
For the week-end I head to Kokand in the Ferghana valley. The valley mostly belongs to Uzbekistan but is more easily reached from Kyrgyzstan, in fact Osh, that I had just visited two weeks earlier, is part of it. It is one of the main examples for border troubles related to the breakup of the Soviet Union. People who had always been close suddenly found themselves on different sides of sometimes even closed borders. At the time of my trip the Ferghana valley had a reputation for unruliness and Islamic extremism (In May 2005 things would boil over and the heavy-handed security forces of Uzbekistan would kill hundreds of people). From Tashkent you have to cross the mountains to get there. Kokand has an old palace but is otherwise fairly unremarkable. Still it was interesting, but the most interesting and also scary part was the shared taxi to get there. These shared taxis are not organized, there is a place in Tashkent where they leave but in bad economic times there are many drivers and few passengers. That leads to a situation where the moment you arrive at the departure point you will be swarmed by drivers trying to convince you that you should go with them. The only arguments for choosing a driver are the state of his car and the number of people he already has as this raises the chances of the vehicle leaving quickly. Best is to wait a bit and see how things develop, to check if there are other passengers around. The drivers will all tell you that only one person is missing, that might be correct or might not be correct, usually these people have just gone somewhere else, sometimes that is true. I have waited for hours for cars of four to fill up. On the way to Kokand I agreed with a driver of a new Lada to go with him but after some time of waiting he basically sold me to another car, an old Lada this time. Imagine it that way, I’m sitting there, waiting and suddenly he comes, telling me I need to take another car that will leave right now, I get into that car, we leave but first there is a big argument (involving banging against the car) about how much money my new driver has to give my old driver. I never understood the dynamics of the car I was in. It was the driver, two guys and a lady sitting in the front seat. The driver and one of the guys seemed to be good friends. It started all the usual way with the one guy telling me that he served in the GDR during his military service. They always think they know Germany but in fact they hardly ever got out of their bases and the GDR is long gone. He tries to enlist me to work together bringing old German cars to Central Asia, a business idea many people had in this time. The weird part begins when the lady starts to address me, she claims not to speak Russian (possible) so one of the guys always has to translate. She tells me how much she likes me, how fascinated she is by me and after some time she tells me to touch her. And not just somewhere but at her breasts. I react extremely reserved. I have no clue who she is and what her motives are, is she nymphomaniac? Is she trying to get me into a relationship with her? Is she a prostitute looking for customers? Is this her way to pay for the ride? The guy next to me does not have such qualms, after some time he starts massaging her breasts. How weird is all that? And a bit scary, as I am alone in a car with four unknown people that behave strangely. As we suddenly turn right, leaving the main road for a dirt road, I am getting seriously scared. After 200m we stop to take some petrol, false alarm. They are friendly, we have some good food along the way but periodically the lady keeps telling me how much she likes me. I am on guard all the trip but it all ends well.
The final piece in my visa puzzle is the transit visa for Turkmenistan. Although tourist visas are very hard to get and you will be accompanied by a guide all the time, I learned on the road that transit visas are comparatively easy and allow you to travel on your own. They just need ten days to process. I give them my papers and leave Tashkent.
With Samarkand and Bukhara, Uzbekistan has two outstanding monuments of Islamic architecture, Khiva is not on the same level but still an excellent place to visit. Each of these cities has its own flair. Samarkand is a modern city with the monuments in one area, Bukhara is a lot smaller and the monuments are woven into the fabric of the historic town, Khiva is mostly a museum, the old town being near dead during the day and absolutely dead at night. A beautiful town like Shakhrisabz which would be a major attraction in other countries, falls by the wayside. The places I stay in reflect the differences. In Samarkand it is a big hotel with little business (massage girls available I am told), in Bukhara they have numerous small (you could call them boutique) guest houses inside and around the old town. In Khiva, I stayed at the family home of the lady from the natural history museum (another traveller recommendation). Back from Khiva, I get scared on the bus, they take a route that briefly crosses into Turkmenistan (because of the Amudarja bridges), despite the driver reassuring me that there will be no border control I’m still scared there might be visa trouble in the end. I am so glad when the guard opens the border gate and we are back in Uzbekistan. The availability of money is sometimes an issue in Uzbekistan, there is a shortage of Uzbek cash and you need to change money wherever you can. I vividly remember an American tourist exclaiming in shock “what, there is no money here?” after being told by her guide that the exchange desk can’t change her greenbacks. Yes, things like that happen.
Another problem is the police, individual tourists make a nice target for a stop, to talk about some “problems” and to try to get them to pay some money. In Tashkent I try to avoid the metro as policemen are lingering at every entrance. I am used to resisting their attempts. The most annoying thing happens in Bukhara, I arrive late at night on the bus from Khiva and we get dropped in the outskirts. I am well organized, having agreed with other passengers to share a taxi, I do not want to be out on the street alone in this area at this time of the day. Then a police car stops. They want to see my passport and tell me to have a seat in the car, they will bring me to the centre but as a taxi of course. Allright, what’s the price? I propose a thousand som, one of them turns around and tells me that a litre of petrol would cost 1000 som, I dryly reply that a litre of petrol is fixed at the government-mandated 255 som. The people from my bus are gone, and I am standing alone on the street in the middle of the night having to find another taxi, thank you guys.
To pick up my visa I have to go back to Tashkent, in the middle of the night the train stops in Samarkand and we are swarmed by an army of vendors running through the train all loudly selling, water, beer and bread for the whole 25 minutes we stop there, very annoying and so useless.
Samarkand & Shakhrisabz