After a painless border crossing (against expectation only took 3 hours) we arrived in Uzbekistan! Over the next 2 weeks we travelled the famous cities along Silk Road. These cities were once bustling with merchants and travellers from all over the world. Nowadays you can still see beautiful old minarets, mosques, mausoleums forts and more. It gives you the feeling that you are walking around in a fairy tale. Our first stop was Tashkent (one of the oldest and largest cities in Central Asia, dating back from the 2nd century BC), then we went to Samarkand (a UNESCO world heritage city), Bukara (it hosts over 140 historic sites and buildings which date back mostly to the middle ages), Muynak (once was a fishing village before the Russians diverted rivers that used to drain into the Aral Sea, causing perhaps the world’s worst ecological disaster. The fishing village is now 100km from the ever retreating Aral Sea) and our final stop in Uzbekistan was Khiva (beautiful town with 100s of minarets).
We arrived in Tashkent in the early afternoon and after checking into the hotel (almost no bushcamps in Uzbekistan, but proper hotels. Nice change 🙂 ), we took the metro to the Chagatay Bazaar in the old Town. We went to the bazaar to change money on the black market, as the money rate on the streets is much higher than from the official banks ($1USD = 2500 som at the bank and $1USD = 4500-4800 som on the street). So everyone in Uzbekistan exchanges their money on black market. The notes are not worth that much. The biggest note is 5000 and that is worth less than 1 euro, so you can’t store the money in your wallet, you need a bag instead 😉
The metro stops in Tashkent were just like smaller versions of the Moscow metro (read about it here), really beautiful, each station having distinctive art. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take any photos in and around the metro, so we can’t show you what they look like.
When we went back to the hotel we walked pass an ice-cream shop and we bought some incredibly good and cheap ice cream. David had grapefruit as one of his flavours, regretting his choice immediately. Shouldn’t exist as an ice cream flavour to tempt foolish people. In the evening we treated ourselves to even greater heights of luxury. It was time for date night again! We dressed up and looked up a fancy restaurant. We had a wonderful meal (zucchini carpaccio, steak, roasted potatoes, a bottle of yummy red Uzbek wine. Tamar had ice cream for desert and David had a shot of local vodka) with tip top service for only €30, in total 🙂
We ended nice and tipsy and we had a great 2 km stroll back to the hotel (although with the state of the sidewalk and the road means you really need to keep your wits about you).
The next day turned into a long day of walking in the sun (10 km). The museum that we wanted to visit we couldn’t find, the TV Tower we wanted to enter up was very expensive and you couldn’t take your photo camera with you.
But we stopped at an amazing coffee bar,
we had a yummy lunch near a bazaar we stumbled on (for Tamar’s girlfriends as this was an assignment from them: we also gave some food to a very mentally ill man that was walking backwards all the time. And we have been buying food for other poor people too in the last weeks) and we took some photo’s at the Amir Temur square where hotel Uzbekistan is located.
David had a little sunstroke at the end of the day though, so we took an early night.
In Samarkand we stayed in a quiet little hotel with an inner garden with grapes and very nice rooms. It was only a 5 minute stroll from the Registan, a stunning square faced with two madrasas and a mosque (built in different periods, but all complementary). The middle madrassah had a beautifully decorated hall:
In the evening there is light show at the Registan, with amazing 3D effects and colours. Although light show isn’t really the right term, propaganda would be much more accurate. We only saw the showing in Uzbek language, but from that we gathered that the centre of the universe is Uzbekistan and 1991 (the year of independence) was the result of the strong and clever Uzbek people. The atmosphere was very strongly patriotic, which did make us a little uncomfortable.
Onto happier topics, we saw a lot of weddings in Samarkand and wedding music, a very happy atmosphere.
During our full day in Samarkand we had a guided walk and learned more about the history (a lot of violence and death, all the interesting parts) and around 5 pm we left with a small group to a wine tasting. Next to cotton (Uzbekistan biggest income resource is cotton, at the expense of the aforementioned Aral Sea), Uzbekistan also makes their own wines. They have even won some prizes with their wines. So we were all very curious about the wines and the wine tasting only costed €6,- pp.
The wine tasting lasted 55 minutes in which we drank 10 wines (1 white, 2 red, 4 dessert wines (16%) and 3 cognacs (all above 40%), so you understand that we walked out drunk. We decided to walk back together while the others went for dinner. On our way to the hotel, we heard people cheering. As others of our tour group went to a local soccer match, we knew what the cheers was about. We walked to the soccer stadium and with only 20 minutes to go, the guards let us in for free (otherwise we would have had to pay the staggering entry cost of 50 cents). We saw the last 2 goals and got a good feeling of what the local soccer matches are like (let us say that whilst no one is going to head hunted for the premier league, they do play with a lot of enthusiasm).
When we almost reached the hotel we bought some nice bread (they sell this type of bread everywhere in Russia and former USSR countries) and shashlik (one of the national dishes. meat on a stick, always a crowd pleaser) and had a yummy cheap meal.
After a day of driving we arrived in Bukara. We checked in at a fancy 4* hotel with a swimming pool and a big buffet for breakfast (luxury). After exploring the city a bit we had a nice drink and something to eat with our truck driver Colin on a balcony in the evening sun.
David got up at 5 am for the 3rd time in a row for morning photography while Tamar stayed in bed for 2 more hours (foolishly in David’s opinion).
The old city of Bukara is beautiful and gives you a feeling of walking in an ancient city. The local people live in the new part of town though, so you almost only see souvenir sellers and tourists in the old town. So we walked to the new town and had some lunch at the Bazaar and afterward we found a liquor store and bought 4 bottles of red wine for €6,- in total :-. IN TOTAL! 🙂
We ended the day at the swimming pool and visiting the Chor-Minur which is posted on the front page of the lonely planet of Central Asia.
After that we went out for dinner with Marianna and Colin after showing them the liquor store and drinking some of that booze in the restaurant.
The road to the Aral Sea
Bush camping the badlands, we had two full driving days to bring us the former edge of the Aral Sea. It had been described in everything that we could find online as a totally toxic waste land. You can therefore imagine our surprise when we arrived to a scene of greenery and water.
But the main reason we were here was to see the ship graveyard, something of an out of the way tourist attraction. These ships used to be involved in the fishing industry, but now have been left as a monument to the folly of humans. They rust way on the sand, a sad testament to the pursuit of money, in place of a sustainable environmental future.
David decided that this sad place could do with some happiness, so he setup his slackline, and brought some laughter (in Holland, the most well known slackline spot is at the scene of a WWII battle. Slacklining can help bring light to dark places) into the mix, teaching David and Tony from our tour group how to slackline.
After dinner David also headed down for his highlight of Uzbekistan, photographing the stars through the bones of the rusting ships.
One more bush camp lay between us and Khiva. So naturally we stayed in the most picturesque one of Uzbekistan, spending the night beside an old fort Ayoz Qala. We had time to explore it fully before sunset, there is no entry and no one to stop you climbing all over the place, which was awesome and also sad that such a structure is left to rot. David got out of bed again for sunrise, which was again completely worth it. Although Tamar says that about staying in bed 😉
In Khiva we stayed for 3 nights. Khiva is also an UNESCO world heritage side. The old city is one big museum with old mausoleums, minarets etc and restaurants and hotels. But just outside the city wall, you will find a big bazaar and where the inhabitants of Khiva live themselves. We explored the town during the day and had most lunches at the same cheap restaurant at the bazaar.
Most of the pictures we took in the morning with sunrise or in the evening around sunset. We relaxed at the hotel, were also a lot of card games were played. On the last days, we both had to go shopping for our cook group for camping the following days in Turkmenistan, which was fun. On Monday the 21st of September we left Khiva early in the morning for the border crossing for Turkmenistan. Excited for what would be waiting for us in that very strange land…
Ps. As we get so many compliments about our blog, we decided to enter a Dutch competition for the best travel blog (http://www.wereldwijzer.nl/showthread.php?t=191823&p=1105029#post1105029). Wish us luck 🙂