After dealing with the exit formalities of Turkmenistan, the next task for the guys on 3 June was to get themselves and their bikes officially into Uzbekistan. The process was time consuming but simple enough, with no fees to pay at the border which made a refreshing change after the expense of Turkmenistan. There was one issue however – the visas which had been obtained in London before departure (so they were safely in hand for the Turkmenistan transit visa application in Istanbul or Tehran) were valid for 29 days, but the dates were fixed – not 29 days from entry. Having left the UK a little behind schedule, the guys now had just ten days to do what they wanted to in Uzbekistan, not the couple of weeks they had planned. This was probably going to restrict their itinerary somewhat, as a fair few days needed to be set aside to be spent hunting visas in Tashkent.
First up was the requirement to change some currency, for which Dan and Ed headed for the nearest likely settlement in the GPS, Nukus. On the way into the town a bank was advertising currency exchange – Bingo. What followed was not the swift exchange of money, handing over dollars did not result in a neat envelope full of Uzbek Som, Travellex style, but instead a wait of indeterminate duration. During the course of the waiting, the policeman stationed inside the bank branch had been chatting to the guys in a mixture of broken English and Russian, and was offering to change money at a better rate than the bank. Not knowing the legality of black market currency trading in Uzbekistan, the guys initially sat tight and waiting for the bank to do its thing. The minutes ticked by into hours with the guys’ passports and dollars still hidden behind the little hatch in the wall, where an increasing number of bank staff and IT support guys were trying to get the bank systems to work. After an hour and three quarters, the bank staff said it’d be another ten minutes. Fifteen minutes after that, two irate British customers demanded their passports and money back and instead changed their money with the policeman – figuring if there were a clamp down on illegal money trading, the policeman was more likely to get it in the neck than a couple travellers. Whilst Dan spent a few minutes counting a massive wad of Som in the policeman’s Chevrolet Spark, Ed stood guard and did his best to distract the growing crowd of onlookers by fielding questions about how far England was from Uzbekistan and how many litres of fuel his bike needed to go 100 kilometres. There are approximately 2400 Som to the US dollar on the black market, (the bank’s rate had been 1750) and the largest note is 1000 Som (about 27 pence) so the 50 dollar bill the guys had opted to change at this stage now would not fit in the pocket of Dan’s riding kit. The policeman (whose uniform was equipped with cavernous pockets probably for this very reason) was probably a little disappointed that the attention grabbing westerner was now wandering away from his car towards the crowd around his bike with such an un-subtle wad of notes in his hand, but there was nothing Dan could do about it.
Having spent all morning at the border and wasted much of the afternoon in the bank, the guys were now leaving Nukus for Moynak in the full heat of the desert afternoon. The ride itself was unremarkable, the road being mostly half-reasonable tarmac. The destination however was a singularly poignant place. Sixty years ago, Moynak was a very ordinary little fishing village on the edge of the Aral Sea. The 1960’s Soviet desire to turn Uzbekistan into a cotton-producing powerhouse however had diverted the rivers feeding the sea into irrigation projects and the sea had shrunk – fast. In the space of 25 years, the shoreline had receded northwards a hundred kilometres or so, leaving the residents of Moynak looking out not onto a rich ocean, but instead a salty, sandy dust bowl. A couple of fishing boats remain beached on the sand as a poignant memorial to the ocean that once was. The Aral Sea now is massively reduced in size and massively increased in salinity – unable to support aquatic life. The fishing industry of the region is now dead. As with so many ecological disasters, humans are naturally somewhat self-centred – it is the human story that seems particularly sad. By what used to be the shoreline stands a recent concrete memorial, and a display of a few maps to show the retreat of the sea over the course of 50 years.
The night was spent at Hotel Oybek, which like the rest of the town, used to have running water. Now water arrives in buckets from elsewhere and the shower (as with the others in the town) consists of an oil barrel or truck fuel tank on top of a shed, heated by the sun during the day. The rule in Uzbekistan is that all travellers must register with a hotel in a town if staying for three days or more, however it is not unusual for border staff on exit to demand fees be paid if registration slips are not produced for all nights stayed in the country. In the case of Moynak, camping may well have been a better option as the place offered neither running water nor a registration slip. There clearly isn’t much of a demand for hotel services in Moynak, seemingly the only other tourists around were a Russian lass travelling with a French bloke, also staying at Oybek for one night only.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the inhabitants of Moynak, the threat of a new ecological disaster was growing mostly silently inside Ed and it would not be until later that evening that its full force would make itself known. By the time the sun came back up, Ed was almost in a fit state to ride a motorcycle again but having missed many hours of sleep, he knew that he was not going to have a pleasant time that day.
The guys had planned to spend a day or two travelling up to see what remains of the Aral (and perhaps bob about in it enjoying the increased buoyancy offered by the massive salt content of the water), but the visa duration issue put paid to that plan. Saturday 4 June was instead spent riding South through the desert to Khiva, a historic silk-route trading post and dramatic mud-walled city. On arriving in the town, the guys were seeking a Lonely Planet recommended place, but stumbled into a lovely clean new hotel at the right price. A bird in the hand is worth two in the guide book. The hotel you see before you is the only certainty you have as a traveller – the en-suite WiFi equipped palace in the guide may well be $5 cheaper per night, but it doesn’t exist until you’ve found it.
Sunday saw more progress across the country, and Ed spotted a shop selling oil at the side of the road. Both bikes were due a change, and whilst the plan had been to search out some oil in the capital, Tashkent, the guys would have enough to do chasing Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh visas without also searching for oil. The shopkeeper seemed keen to sell the local hot-brand of “GS Oil Kixx – Made in Korea” (as proudly emblazoned across the rear windows of most of the local taxi fleet). Hiding up on the shelf however he also had some Total Quartz 7000 made in the UAE. The guys bought 4 litres of their favourite brand and Dan lashed it loosely to his steed.
Frustratingly, the Uzbeks are in the process of upgrading their road network to give good smooth dual carriageways throughout the North of the country. However, to improve, first you have to destroy and this is about as far as they’d got as Dan and Ed passed through. The bit you are allowed to drive on is potholed and dusty, and any riders attempting to make satisfactory progress are rewarded with a hidden pothole or two to manage their expectations and force them to join the rest of the traffic bumping along together. The going wasn’t difficult, just trying – particularly for Dan for whom it initially seemed impossible to restrain the new can of oil for more than a few minutes at a time. Forced to stop again by the flailing oil can at a point where the camber of the road made the bike particularly unsteady on it’s sidestand, Dan managed to complete two interesting experiments. It turns out that an Uzbek truck driver will do his best to avoid running over an Arai motorcycle helmet launched from the seat of a DRZ 400 and rolled into the path of his oncoming 44 tonner. It also turns out that it is possible to strap a can of oil so tightly to the luggage at the rear of the motorcycle that the bike actually falls over. Seeing Dan struggling to right his bike at the side of the road (the wheels kept sliding away from him in the dust and sand) another truck driver stopped to offer assistance, but by this stage Dan had the bike rubber side down again and was dusting down his jacket and what little was left of his dignity.
On a rare smooth section, the guys saw two large BMW bikes coming the other way – an F800GS and an R1200GS. Both were on italian plates and two-up with astonishing amounts of luggage. The italian guys were on a mini-tour of Central Asia and would be riding back to Italy, their wives would be flying home from Tashkent in a few days time. These were the first motorcycle travellers Ed and Dan had encountered since Turkey. The route through Iran is deemed by many to be beset with problems, expenses or just too much hassle so most motorcycle travellers opt for either a boat across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to either Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan or accept the longer drive and multi-entry visa requirements that go with driving around the north of the Caspian, through Russia and Kazakhstan. It was here in Uzbekistan that the various routes eastwards from Europe would start to converge. Sure enough, the Italians had taken the northern route and they were interested in the guys experiences in Iran, as well as fascinated by the little bikes and the GPS maps built from Open Street Map data and loaded into the Garmins. The Italians were also travelling with Garmin GPS units, but having been unable to buy relevant maps for them were navigating solely by paper map in Central Asia.
After a chat at the side of the road, the four bikes went off in opposite directions, the Brits heading for Bukhara, another historic silk-route city. On arriving and starting to look for a hotel, the guys were initially mobbed by children employed by various establishments, but then also approached by a friendly german chap called Bernd, who explained that he and his wife were also travelling on motorcycles, and that they were staying about 50 yards away in Hotel Rustam-Zukhra. They also had another British biker with them and the prices seemed reasonable, so the decision was easy. Why look for something that others have already found? Sure enough, on entering the courtyard, the matching KTM 640 Adventures of Bernd and Heidi were there, along with the Honda Dominator of Alistair, the lone Brit. The guys could join Alistair in the shared room for $15 a night, so the courtyard soon had the motorcycle equivalent of a full house with the DRZ and WR in it.
The courtyard was then shortly the scene of a double oil change, the DRZ and WR both being treated to fresh new lube. By the time the guys had finished, cleaned up and got themselves set up in the room it was getting late and a bit too late to photograph the sights of Bukhara – but a stroll into the centre to find an internet cafe to catch up with folks back home also provided a chance to get a feel for another historic Central Asian city.
On Monday 6 June, the bikes were once again loaded up and pointed towards Samarkand, the largest and final Silk-route city the guys would pass through on the way to Tashkent. Whilst stopped at a roadside cafe for a cold drink, the guys were approached by a familiar face – the Australian couple they’d met at Darvaza in Turkmenistan a few days before were hot on their trail and dashing about the place in another tour-guide’s car. They’d already seen Khiva and Bukhara and were also on their way to Samarkand – perhaps they’d meet again there…
Worries about fuel station distances and sore earplugs had plagued most of the journey that day so it was with ecstatic joy by the side of the desert road in the scorching afternoon heat that Ed discovered his second puncture of the project so far. Luckily residual energy levels were sufficiently high to prop up the bike, remove and patch the tube, and finally reassemble before anyone lost their sense of humour and with this modicum of efficiency it was still only late afternoon by the time the bikes rolled into the town.
In Samarkand, the guys were once again looking for a lonely planet recommended hotel when the B2S mantra of “a bird in the hand is worth two in the guide book” was once again called into play. A hotel proprietor had seen them stop in the road on seeing a British registered Land Rover Discovery, and wandered over to confirm that yes, a British family were staying at his hotel. The price however was a bit more than these Brits had in mind, so they were on the point of leaving when the price made the final drop into the acceptable band – a clean, tidy air conditioned room for $25 for the night. In the courtyard was parked an even more serious-looking overland machine – a Polish Toyota Land Cruiser fully equipped with a couple of spare wheels on hinged racks at the back, shovels, roof tent, sand ladders – the full works.
With accommodation sorted and freshly hand-washed laundry hung out to dry in the air-conditioned room, the guys set off on foot to check out the sights of Samarkand. On approaching the Registan (a group of three Medressas in the city centre) the guys spotted more familiar faces – the Russian/French couple from Moynak who explained that the local police had a well established money making scheme – charging tourists an unofficial entry fee to climb one of the medressa minarets to take in the view from the top. They’d paid 10,000 Som each, and when the policeman they’d paid spotted them talking to Dan and Ed, he popped over to make his sales pitch. The deal was struck at 5,000 Som each, and the guys duly followed their uniformed unofficial guide to the medressa. First stop was the second floor balcony, with views across the square to the other two medressas, then on up the minaret for more pictures of the view across Samarkand.
The journey on Tuesday 7 June to Tashkent was notable for two things. Bumpy roads, and an ailing Dan. Dan’s insides had been taken over by single cell terrorists somewhere in Turkmenistan, and Dan had been holding them under siege by barely eating ever since. Whilst the guys had stopped at the roadside on numerous occasions for Ed to try and get his earplugs comfortable, Dan had not had the energy to get off and walk around his bike even once. Consequently, he’d not noticed that the luggage that he’d absent mindedly strapped to the back of his bike that morning had started to move about a bit on the bumpy roads. The first he knew about it was when cars overtaking him were blowing their horns and gesturing that something had fallen off the back. Slowing down from 70 to 50 mph and glancing round, Dan could see that his red Ortlieb dry-bag had been victim of the jettison rig. This was bad news. The bag itself was probably no longer waterproof, and amongst other things it contained the one item he’d been most deliberately trying to protect from vibrations – the natty little Samsung netbook used for backing up photos, writing this blog and managing GPS maps. If the bag had been run over by a following vehicle, the prognosis for the netbook was not good.
Dan’s mind racing, he tightened the straps around the remaining luggage, quickly turned his bike round and sped back up the dual carriageway the wrong way. It’s not unusual to see vehicles going the wrong way up dual carriageways in this part of the world, and Dan had good reason to do so. As it happened, the bag had been picked up by a passing truck – the headlamps of which were being flashed at him as he rode back towards it with the passenger dangling the bag out of the window. Dan drew up level with the cab, and the bag was passed down to its very thankful owner.
Dan was in no fit state to check the contents of the bag. In fact it was some time before he could even muster the energy to strap it back on – choosing instead to slump over the concrete crash barriers feeling sick for a while instead. After 20 minutes or so, and realising that the bike wasn’t going to get him to a cold drink without him making some effort towards the same goal, Dan got the luggage securely back on the bike, fired up the bike and span it round to go and join Ed who had stopped a couple of miles up the road.
A few miles further up the road the required cold drink was easily located in a freezer under a less than picturesque fly-over. Whilst Dan poured a litre of Fanta down his neck, the usual crowd of onlookers gathered, Ed doing his best to fend them off and let Dan rest in peace. The local police were taking an interest, but in a good way, offering medication to the stricken traveller. A packet of antibiotics appeared from the pocket of one policeman accompanied by a graphic mime of the symptoms they would relieve. Willing to try anything at this stage, Dan gratefully accepted the offer and sent one down to dissolve in the waiting Fanta before getting back on the bike and continuing towards Tashkent.
A number of The Lonely Planet accommodation options had been transcribed into Ed’s GPS for Tashkent and this time the Mirzo Guesthouse was offered up as one of the budget options. It’s proximity to the required embassies and position on price being the key factors. On the way, the guys spotted a familiar red bike coming the other way and pulled over to chat to Alistair who they’d met in Bukhara a couple of days before. He was staying with a local family but was keen to meet up and get instructions on how to check his motorcycle’s valve clearances, which was the one maintenance task he’d been recommended to do and was unsure about. Dan promised he’d be able to talk him through the process or maybe even help him do them if time and illness allowed, and the guys explained their movements for the next few days to allow Alistair to meet up with them. Sure enough, when the guys arrived at Mirzo, the price for a shared room was acceptable and the guys signed up for at least three nights to allow for the visa hunt they were there for.
The proprietor could see that all was not well with Dan, and offered a traditional Uzbek remedy for such ailments, which was duly downed to add to the Fanta and antibiotic lunch that had been consumed earlier that day. Ed was left to scour the vicinity for eating options that night and eventually returned carrying western-style fast food from a stall near the market. This option turned out to be perfectly palatable and came with the added benefit of a musical soundtrack provided by the host and his dutar, a two-stringed guitar with the historical footnote of having been passed down from father to son for many generations. The quality of the sound it produced is initially rather unsatisfying in its simplicity but you soon find yourself warming to it especially with the accompanying vocals and begin to hear a wonderful depth in the combination of rhythm and notes that turned Ed into a new fan.
On Wednesday morning, Dan still wasn’t feeling great, but the Tajikistan visa mission could not wait. The guys headed off on the bikes into Tashkent rush hour traffic with Ed leading the way to the Tajik embassy. There, confronted by a large crowd of people trying to get into the embassy, the process was not at all clear but after a while Alistair arrived and explained how he’d got it done the previous day. A nearby processing office seemed to cater for tourists’ needs with an express service – at a price. On the face of it, the guys were looking at their simplest visa process yet. With passports, photos and money dropped off in expectation of a same-day turn-around for visas and the GBAO permits required to visit the Pamir region of Tajikistan, it was time to go and investigate the Kyrgyz process, which was also happened to be the next visa on Alistair’s list.
The process at the Kyrgyz embassy was completely confusing with a small huddle of visa hunters sitting in a subdued line under the trees opposite the embassy gates. It was not immediately clear who was queuing for what. The police outside appeared to have implemented a numbered queuing system, and by noon the guys had not witnessed a single individual move from the queue ‘pool’ into the embassy itself and the guys were advised by the police that the place would now be closed until 2pm. After an authentic plov (rice) lunch for Ed and Alistair and a couple of cups of tea for Dan the group returned to the embassy to carry on waiting. By 3pm, the fourth applicant of the day had been let in to begin the process. As it got closer to 4pm, it was time for Ed and Dan to head back to the Tajik embassy to collect their passports, giving up on the Kyrgyz mission – rumour had it that the two day process would actually take four so they’d probably only get their passports back from there on Monday, by which time they’d have to be out of Uzbekistan anyway.
The following day proved a similarly disappointing experience at the Kazakh embassy – the queuing system outside was loosely controlled by the police, who did eventually show a bit of favouritism towards the foreigners, allowing them to jump the queue ahead of their own people to go in and enquire. The response was not favourable. It was a two day process, and today was Thursday, but as Friday was a public holiday in Uzbekistan, the visas could not be collected until Monday. Ed explained that by then they had to be out of Uzbekistan so they’d be willing to pay extra for an express service, but no such option existed – there was nothing they could do. The only glimmer of hope was the vague promise of the same two-day service in a different city en route, such as Dushanbe, which would free the two travellers from wasting time waiting around in Tashkent for the bureaucratic wheels to turn.
A plan was formulated. Facing a weekend in Tashkent or the lure of the open road, the travellers opted to take their chances with visa applications in Tajikistan. With the wheels turning in a south-easterly direction they made their way towards the Fergana valley, hoping to spend an evening in Fergana itself before applying themselves to a border crossing the following day. Leaving Tashkent behind the countryside opened up and soon the bikes were through the flatter plains and up into a higher pass that separates the disputed Fergana valley region from the rest of Uzbekistan. Police checkpoints became more common and at either end of the longer tunnels stood soldiers on guard. Twice the bikers had to dismount to handover passports while their key details were handwritten into a ledger before they were allowed to continue but by late afternoon they had covered the 335km to Fergana.
The lack of modestly priced accommodation was evident in the guidebook so the pair stopped at a smart hotel to enquire the price on the off chance they were not extortionate but sure enough the tourist tax was running at 400% of what the locals pay for a room so Ed checked his netbook and located a homestay which was hidden behind a house number a couple of blocks from where they were. The friendly, leathery proprietor set the starting price rather higher than Dan and Ed were thinking and by the run down nature of the place and lack of any other travellers, a deal was there to be made. Breakfast was removed from the price and a lower amount of $20 for the pair for a very basic but smart ex-dining room with access to two different showers was agreed. This was later sweetened by intervention from the boss – his wife – who kindly decided we could have the room with some furniture in for the same price. The customary tea which often appears to tired travellers did appear and a couple of hours were spent relaxing and chatting to the proprietor’s middle aged son. Azim had recently returned to Uzbekistan on a holiday from his adopted home in the USA and was keen to talk about the UK, the progress of his American dream and his conspiracy theories about Diana Princess of Wales’ tragic demise.
Cockroaches do not lock the door. That morning Ed opted to leave the three of them to their morning ablutions and went in search of the other shower. This was located nearby in the laundry room/box room, the unit itself balanced on strange raisers half a metre off the ground, with a shower curtain outside of the plan of the shower base, but otherwise the water was warm and the amateur welding of the shower curtain rail to the ceiling lasted both travellers’ showers without falling and injuring anyone. Breakfast had been rescheduled to be picked-up en route and once the bikes were packed, the pair set off to partially retrace their steps to Kokand and then on to the border with Tajikistan, 225km away.
It has become a B2S theme to undertake border crossings at the hottest time of the day thereby experiencing with exquisite intensity the delays and frustrations which our travellers can then relay to an expectant readership. Rumour has it the Uzbeks and the Tajiks are not seeing eye to eye at the moment so it was not to be unexpected that both sides would be playing the delay game that day. Having waited in the scorching sun for a hour, they were allowed to progress through the process only to find themselves sat in an office while a senior border official used the two bikers as an example of formal customs processing which was then undertaken by-the-book. At one point a break was taken and small apples from a tree outside the office were distributed to everyone including the bored travellers before formalities continued. With the end in sight (of the process), all that remained was for a cage to swing open to release the border drug dog. A rather playful, wayward Labrador that showed the travellers were clean of any prohibited articles by sniffing the flowerbeds, weeing a lot, chasing its ball and generally ignoring the attempts made to focus its attention on the two bikes. The guys were finally allowed to leave the country.