On a bright and sunny day, we loaded the car and set out for Uzbekistan, crossing the Kyrgyzstan border. I was very worried about crossing the Uzbekistan Nazorati Customs Border, from my previous, ghastly experience of 2013, on my Enfield motorcycle cycle tour to London, where I encountered very unfriendly officials. After an hour of checking this time, staff was surprisingly super friendly and spoke softly. Within two hours, we were out. I learnt later from locals that their newly appointed president has transformed Uzbekistan, for citizens as well as tourists.
In 2013, I paid a border crossing fee, but these are now waived off for tourists, a wonderful, welcoming gesture. Locals however, have to pay heavy fees. Also back then, officials had confiscated my motorcycle for two long days, and questioned me for endless hours for reasons I still do not know. This was a reformed Uzbekistan we were entering.
My car was checked by an Alsatian and a security guard. He asked me with actions whether I was carrying any weapon, drugs, or drone for photography, which are banned here. Each medicine and first aid box were carefully checked. Bags were checked at random. Vehicle Insurance, a must, is available as you cross the Uzbekistan border. It’s very cheap too.
It was about 1 pm by the time we crossed into Uzbekistan, and after feasting on some watermelon, we set out for Tashkent, some 400 km away. Fearing the petrol crisis in Uzbekistan, we got petrol at 260 km at a gas station. Here, almost all heavy vehicles run on CNG. Diesel is not easily available. The drive was good and the roads have transformed from broken single lane streets to cemented four-lane paths.
Many cars overtaking us waved and greeted us with ‘Namaste’. A driver in one of the cars kept waving to us with a thumbs up in appreciation. After some time, he pulled over as we passed him. He appeared again after a while and was driving parallel to our car and asked us to roll down our windows, holding a packet in his hand. As we rolled down the window, at a speed of 70 km, he chucked in the packet—a big slab of ice cream. What a wonderful gesture and welcome to Uzbekistan. I know of motorcyclists stopping, meeting, greeting, sharing on the road, but not cars.
We checked into Minor Hotel in Tashkent late that day, a nice place with many Chinese tourists, who seemed to be having a great time. Since it was a Saturday, we ventured out to the nearby pubs, but they were all booked solid, with live bands that were very good indeed. Next time, we’ll remember to book a table in advance.
The next morning, I got myself a UMS (Universal Mobile SIM) SIM card for 45,000 Uzbek Som, an 8GB package with 150 local calls and SMS. We visited the popular and much talked about Charso Bazar in Tashkent. I was shocked at the sheer size of the market that had street food, and sold almost anything you need for daily use. It is situated behind the huge building of the Uzbekistan Bank.
The afternoon was very hot, just like in India. We then visited the Amir Timur (heroes of Uzbekistan) Square, recommended by the hotel owner.
That Sunday, there happened to be an international go-karting competition on the main streets of Tashkent, and thousands of people came out to watch the races. We were lucky to watch them whoosh past. We paid our respects at the statue of the late Lal Bahadur Shastri, India’s second prime minister who mysteriously passed away in Tashkent. This was followed by a sumptuous lunch at the Pakistani Shalimar restaurant, the most satisfying meal we had on this trip thus far. Shalimar serves Pakistani, Afghani and Indian cuisines, with very good Indian vegetarian food. We must have put on a few pounds after this big lunch! At the restaurant, we met three businessmen from Mumbai, a team exploring the market of agriculture products here. It was a pleasure to interact with them in Hindi, after a long time.
Next came a wild goose chase for diesel in Tashkent. Seven pumps all told me no diesel was available, in the local language. Finally, I called Shahajahan, our hotel owner, for help. He made some calls, and 45 minutes later, found diesel that would cost me 2,500 Uzbek Som per litre more than the original price. After an hour, he sat in my car and drove me 8 km out of Tashkent to a closed gas station that sold eco-diesel, meant for tractors here. The staff was very secretive, and did not allow me to use my mobile phone or take a photo.
I had not used eco-diesel before, but went on their assurance of quality. In all, I coughed up 80,000 Uzbek Som more for the diesel, bought on the black market. This was going to be a daily issue.
In the evening, the Chinese guests invited me to join them for a drink. We all sang together like old buddies, which was great fun. A wireless speaker kept the party going till 11 am. This is what I enjoy most about travel—meeting people from different countries and spending time together. I had not expected the Chinese to be so friendly.
Next stop: Samarkand, Bukhara Time flew by in Tashkent, and soon, it was time to make our way to Samarkand, a city in south-east Uzbekistan. The route went from Bukhara (or Buxoro) to Khiva, a distance of 377 km.
About 30 km out of Tashkent, I found a diesel pump—but at this point, my tank was still full. Tashkent to Samarkand is along one highway, but from Samarkand, one highway leads to Karachi, and the other to Bukhara, which can extend to Bandar Abbas, Iran and the other highway to Astrakhan, Russia. So from Tashkent, you can drive to Pakistan, Iran and Russia.
At Samarkand, we checked into Ideal Hotel, where the manager, Shakhboz, was very helpful. He drove with me to try and get diesel, saying a German tourist had located it the previous day. He bargained and got me the black market diesel at 5,700 Uzbek Som—which had cost me 8,000 in Tashkent. The actual price should be 4,500 Uzbek Som per litre. I filled up the tank and also bought 30 extra litres to carry in a container, learning my lesson.
We had little time to sight-see, but managed to visit Registan, a magnificent monument in one of the world’s oldest cities. It was partly under renovation, but we could still see the stunning turquoise blue stones they use on minarets. It’s a massive monument that can’t be captured in a single frame. Most of the locals called out to us Indians happily, with names such as ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ and ‘Shah Rukh Khan’.
I learned from Omar, the owner of Laliopa Hostel in Khiva, that the new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made remarkable changes in three years. He said it was as though 30 years worth of changes were made. Now, the infrastructure is good, locals have business opportunities, and money exchange is no longer an issue. The police don’t harass you as they did with me in 2013. There’s special tourist police now to coordinate and ensure that tourists are comfortable within the country’s military rule. I appreciate these changes as a world traveller.
The next day we started off for Bukhara via Navoi. In Navoi, I have a special friend, Jasur Bekhov. He is the owner of Parvoz Hotel on the outskirts. I had not told him that I was coming there. I landed up at his hotel and asked for him. He was away on a construction project, but asked his brother Jonny to look after us. I felt at home here, reminiscing the time I spent here enroute London on my Enfield in 2013.
I plucked some grapes growing in the back yard, played with his new dog, asked about his 6’8” tall and handsome cook, and learnt that he had got married in Tashkent. Honey Desai, our auto technician, also doubles as a cook, and got down to cutting the vegetables. Two riders helped out and played some Hindi Bollywood songs on their mobile, and the atmosphere in the kitchen became festive, as we were to eat Indian food. On the menu was a potato-eggplant gravy with hot puri, and we enjoyed a full home-cooked meal after days.
Jasur came a while later, and greeted me with a tight hug. I was so happy to meet him after six long years. He immediately pointed to the sticker on the refrigerator, of my 2013 motorcycle ride to London. I gave him the 2019 motorcycle tour sticker, which he promptly stuck next it. We exchanged stories and I learned that he had two children by now. Jasur is not on social media so it’s difficult to keep in touch.
With blessings from his Jasur’s father and after saying our goodbyes, we moved on towards Bukhara city. Bukhara is an ancient and an important city on the silk route, a popular and must-visit city in Uzbekistan. I had booked a hotel at the city tourist centre. From when I visited in 2013, there seemed to be a new part of city built all around; hundreds of tourist shops and hotels have cropped up. Bukhara is a quiet, grand city and I felt a stark change in the poverty here.
I also visited the Ark of Bukhara, a 5th century fortress, Kalyan Minaret, Samanid Mausoleum and Bolo Haouz Mosque, known as the 32-pillar mosque. Its 16 wooden pillars use pastel colours at the top, a rarity, reflected in the small water enclosure that is opposite. There are more locals on the street than before. There is a hustle and bustle at tourist places, and children are seen playing and cycling on the street, unlike earlier.
My car sported two sashes, like the ones trucks in India hang behind to keep the evil eye away. One of them sported the colours of the Indian flag. Flying three foot long, they would cruise alongside the car in a soothing way, and amuse many locals who asked about it, and smiled when I said they represented the Indian flag. Sadly, it was in Bukhara that someone stole them at night from a public parking lot.
Bukhara to Khiva
The next day, we drove from Bukhara to Khiva, halting at Gazli village that was 100 km enroute. I personally like home stays. We stayed at a traditional house, not far from the grand Khiva fort, located in the main city on the silk route. The owner family comprised a father, mother, two sons and their wives, and five small children. They have four rooms, and are very hospitable and try to accommodate your requests. We met tourists from China, South Korea, Canada and Australia.
I spent a lot of time with the home stay family; Umar and Nadir, the sons, were the only two who spoke understandable English. I learned that Omar’s wife’s father had been to Delhi for heart treatment. We sat on the ground together for our meals—I ate their home food, of roast chicken and coloured sticky rice. The fruit here is a treat, especially juicy apricots and watermelon. They offered lavish portions.
Here, too, the hunt for diesel lasted three hours. It was only after I visited some gas stations that Nadir took me to the black market. I topped up the tank at an excess of 1,500 Uzbek Som per litre. Nadir’s mother does not speak a word of English, but spoke to me so lovingly that I recorded the conversation—she was so happy to receive guests. She said she would love to see us again, and I felt lucky to have received her blessings.
Final stop in Uzbekistan: Nukus
The next morning, we set out for Nukus, 195 km away and our final stop in Uzbekistan. The many landmarks I had visited earlier were all coming to life again. I stopped at a cemetery, which looks like a town from a distance away. It’s huge and as per tradition here, the wealthier the person, the bigger his or her mansion-like grave. At one place, we saw a Taj Mahal-like structure over a grave, in stark white. We saw similar graveyards in Kazakhstan and in the first few kilometres of Russia too. Death here was bigger than life, a tradition I didn’t quite understand.
We had an unusual meeting with a group of students and their English teacher at our hotel as we checked in. They greeted us in English, prompted by their teacher, Simon. We learned that they had come to spend time with us to improve their spoken English skills, as they don’t get to do that with locals. It was very welcome for us to be accompanied by English-speaking locals. Simon has contacted many hotels and requested them to call him when foreigners arrive.
After I checked in, I spoke to the students, two girls and a small boy. They were very eager to interact. I requested them to show me around. We visited the huge, white house of justice, the local market, where I treated them to a local drink called Kbac, ice cream and somsa, or samosa. I remembered this market from a previous visit, but it’s so large that I had not been to this section before. It was lovely to see how these students were taught—they would mumble first in the local Kazaki language, and fumble for words, which their teacher would help them fill in. This is a wonderful way for students to sharpen their skills. I learned that Simon’s salary was only 40 USD per month, after working for 19 years as an English teacher in a private school. He did not have enough money for a bottle of water or a taxi. Simon teaches English and French, and has six students under him. He lives with his mother and takes private tuitions to make ends meet. I bought him some cigarettes on request and invited him for a beer. It’s a tough life here.
We also visited the city square, which has a huge garden with 10-ft statues, all wearing traditional Kazakhstan dresses. One of the girls, Alina, taught us that ladies wear red tops during their wedding, as do their mothers-in-law. The bride’s mother wears a blue full-length skirt, as a symbol of sadness as the bride leaves the family. Alina wants to become a surgeon, and the other girl, Rosaline, an architect. The boy, Alex, was in Class 6 and undecided.
The next morning, we would head for the border of Uzbekistan and cross into Kazakhstan.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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