Uzbekistan. The Silk Road. (August 23rd – 28th)

On the map it looked just 5km to the Uzbek border. The road wound around so much though that it was over 25 by the time I got there. I got a taste for how it must’ve been crossing the Turkmenistan by bike: hard, and boring as hell. I bumped a Spanish couple who I had met back in Tehran. They recommended me a place to stay in Buxoro – the next big town. I changed 10dollars worth of menat at the border and got 17000sum in exchange which seemed fair enough according to my app which stated $10 = 18000. At the border were scenes of total desperation – a scrum of about 150 people with old women literally getting into fights with young men who were pushing in front of them. Presumably the locals here can cross from one country to the next without the need for expensive visas, but it doesn’t look like an easy process. As a tourist I got front-of-the-queue priority at nearly every point which felt a bit cheeky but I wasn’t complaining. There must have been 10 passport checks. I got my filled out a declaration form for the Turkmen side, and then moved on to the Uzbek side. I won’t bore you with the details but basically I made got through multiple check points without getting my passport stamped despite my saying ‘Don’t I need to get my passport stamped??’ What I did get stamped was my declaration form which thankfully I still have.

On the other side I changed a further $20 into Uzbek sum and got a far better deal of over 40000. A headwind, hot sun, and more punctures made for hard work. No punctures for over 7000km and then 5 all in the space of a few days. The first night I stayed at a carbonated water/Fanta seller’s big square raised bench thing. He got progressively more smashed on booze and Nasvoi (a chewing tobacco cut with spices) and by the end of it was talking less and less sense, more and more loudly. it was all a bit testing, but thankfully he left not too long after dark…

The next morning I rolled into Buxoro. What a laid back atmosphere this place had. I had no idea it had that many madrasas and minarets and all. Indeed I would learn that many people rate this place higher than Samarkand. I ended up bumping into the Spanish, the English people I had travelled with back in Iran, and Matze who had smashed it across the desert in Turkmenistan making it to the border crossing with only 10minutes to spare before they closed on the final day of his transit visa. It sounded like a ridiculously hardcore week + for him. He had done 900km in 6 days, against a strong headwind where he struggled to get much quicker than 15kph. We caught up and exchanged stories. His plan was now to head directly to Tajikistan, and to fly out from Dushanbe directly to India in 2 weeks from now so he won’t be tackling much of the Pamirs… I needed to get to Tashkent as quickly as possible and Dan Jess and Pat kindly let me jump in the back of their ambulance again…

It is such a different feeling driving (or being driven) somewhere and travelling there by bike. From Buxoro to Samarkand would take two days to cycle and in that period you have a lot of time to contemplate it and look forward to it, and after all the effort of getting there it feels like you’ve earned it . Driving is a different kind of effort with its own stress and hassles but the time difference is what really changes things. When we arrived in Samarkand we discovered a lot of the roads in the centre had been blocked off. The city was winding up for the Uzbek independence celebration where the President would be attending. We had heard about a hostel where you could sleep out on the roof with really good breakfast included for $12.

We checked in and this would be where the not having the visa stamped would become a problem. The owner brought me up on it and I explained the situation showing her my stamped declaration form and explaining to her that if I got the Turkmen exit stamp then by default I had crossed the border Uzbek border on the same day. She did not want to register me but she allowed me to stay there. In Uzbekistan you have three days to register with the police and you need to able to show proof of where you have stayed every night, in theory at least. The registration process is automatic when you check in to a hotel. The hostel back in Buxoro didn’t pick up on the whole missing stamp thing. What a paranoid system needing to know the whereabouts of every foreigner everywhere every night. The owner of the place in Samarkand insisted my not having a stamp could cause massive problems (not least for them as I was effectively staying there illegally and they risked heavy fines for this) so it was best to sort it out ASAP.

The next day I went with an English speaking worker from the hostel to the OVIR registration office to try to find a solution. 2 of the 4 police and the gate said this was no problem, but the chief officer would have the final word. I could tell as soon as she stepped out of her office that she would be a penis. She said that without the stamp I was a criminal, and that I had to return the ~400km to the border with my bike in order to get the stamp, and that there was no guarantee I could “re-enter” the country because I only had single entry visa, and that I had to get a taxi there now!! I spoke with many people back at the hostel, including a French diplomat guy, and the general consensus was that I should make my way to Tashkent and try to sort it there. I was of the same opinion and the lack of certainty in her answers (e.g. about the re-entrance thing) made me feel her analysis was less than absolute. That night a police officer came to check up on something in the hostel. I was playing cards with the Rallyers when the owner came and told me to hide. Left me feeling like some sort of fugitive…

Samarkand was beautiful but very business minded it felt. You had to pay to visit all the madrasas, and because of the concert/celebration thing, tourists were limited to a three hour window in the afternoon to visit the famous Registan complex.It would have been nice to see the madrasas by night. I found a police officer taking bribes off people to let them climb a secret staircase up a minaret. I haggled him down from $20 to $3, and it was just about worth it. All in all Samarkand was nice but I much preferred Buxoro because of the vibe and the proximity of the buildings in the old city.

The next day it was back in the ambulance (where’s the Noz in this thing?) along more terrible roads en route to Tashkent, where an uncertain hotel registration process awaited me.

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