Cars and cotton – an Uzbek roadtrip

Some time ago, I’ve been to Uzbekistan. It’s an amazing country, full of beautiful mosques, madrassahs and mosaics. I’ve been there for ten days but traveled five cities. That’s usually not my style of traveling, as I like to have more time to get into the atmosphere and lifestyle of a city. Nevertheless, it was very interesting to do this one time and I saw a lot of amazing buildings and got an impression of the huge differences in architecture and culture in this big country.

But, because of our ambitious travel planning and the size of the country (see box), we spent a long time in cars, trains, marshrutkas and even a propeller-driven plane. So, before talking about the amazing buildings and history of this fascinating country, I want to give you an impression of our “roadtrip”, and some lessons we learned. A somewhat sarcastic “road”-experience:2013-09-10 14.42.45

Border to Tashkent:

We did the trip from the border to the capital by taxi. Actually there’s no choice. After we got finally out of the border administration buildings we were surrounded by taxi drivers, shouting numbers and places at us. I had already experienced that at the airport in Bishkek and Osh, but there is no way to compare this. As we soon learned:

Lesson 1 : There is much more bargaining in Uzbekistan than in Kyrgyzstan. You can usually get half the price they name or less! It’s all about playing the game!

The drive from the border to Tashkent took us around 6 hours. We (a German friend I was traveling with and I) had a shared taxi with an Uzbek taxidriver, an Uzbek woman and a Japanese girl whose only word in Russian was “прямо” (straight). During the trip we learned about Uzbek prejudices against Europeans (“they are completely different from us! We Asians have to stick together, you know!” – “прямо”), and got used to the scorching heat in the car, that we learned can be alleviated by sticking scarfs and towels in front of the window which turns the shared, warm, tiny taxi into a shared, warm, tiny cave.

Infobox Uzbekistan

Infobox about Uzbekistan Click to enlarge!

2013-09-10 15.35.44-2The road leads through the mountains that come behind the border and look completely different from Kyrgyz mountains in that there is less vegetation and more dust! We also had to show our passports frequently whenever we crossed a border post between two provinces.

Tashkent to Samarkand to Buchara:

We did these two parts of our journey by train. There are quite a few railroads in Central Asia (although not in mountainous Kyrgyzstan) but there are also quite a few obstacles to using them. Actually the main hindrance for using the trains more often is that many railroads are crossing borders and therefore require transit- or other visa. Such for example the train from Bishkek to Tashkent which crosses Kazakhstan. The railroads were constructed during Soviet Union when this whole border trouble was still a less challenging issue. It was therefore our first train experience in CA and we got on quite new trains which were comfortable sitting in and did not go overnight.  Nevertheless there are some things to be mentioned:

1. Paranoia
Although you can read about it everywhere I was really surprised by the security measures of Uzbek administration everywhere. It’s highly linked to the overarching bureaucracy. You need your passport to buy tickets, you are not allowed to enter the train station unless you do have tickets for that day and are about to leave, you are not allowed to take pictures of the station or inside the train, you should be at the station an hour in advance (half an hour is fine though) because the luggage check might take a while. Enough? Not yet: we also got a nice brochure showing a prisoner being escorted to jail – meaning: that’s what happens if you don’t follow the rules!

2. Propaganda
although it was all in Uzbek it was quite clear that the movie they showed in extemely high volume on the train was about the great Uzbek military engaged in whatever glorious battles. Due to the crappy sound system and our gap in Uzbek language education we failed at both: either watch and enjoy this glamourous piece of art or just sleep. Instead we were engaged in talks with our neighbours about the purpose of us being here, our natural beauty and our marital status.

But, despite the two Ps above, overall it was a nice ride, comfortable and quite quick. Unfortunately, although I tried, bargaining was not an option there!


Samarkand to Shakrisabz and vice versa

This was certainly the most frightening taxi drive I ever had. Not only we grabbed a taxi driver who didn’t know any Russian so we could not talk to him at all, he was also young and driving like a fool. To be clear about that:

Lesson 2: it’s totally normal to drive in the middle of the road or even at the left side for most of the timeDSC09968

but he rode the mountains like a roller-coaster and speeded up to 200. Also he did weird slalom drives, the purpose of which never became clear to us. At the end of the ride, for the last kilometer or so, he took another passenger, who, out of gender respect or whatever, did not dare to squeeze into the rear of the car with three girls but rather shared the driver’s seat with our driver. I still don’t know how they made this happen but they drove the car (still high-speed) one sitting on the others lab.
However, for the ride back we got the calmest taxi driver ever, who listened to the calmest, almost esoteric, music ever, stopped several times for pictures and toilet and thus helped us regain our “inner peace”.

Nukus to Tashkent

Another means of transport we took was a propeller-driven plane that we were warned about but which was extremely impressing. We felt bad about the environmental aspects of taking it, but there was no other opportunity because the train only goes on particular dates which didn’t fit our tight schedule. Plus it saved us 20 hours of traveling, because instead of 22 train hours the flight just took 2.
The sound of the plane required getting used to it but the view was simply amazing. Since those planes always stay quite low and don’t go above the clouds we had clear view to the bottom – let’s be more specific: the desert. This way was all over the Kyzyl Kum desert, white hills after white hills, rare bushes flying around, that was it. It might not be too spectaculous depending on where you come from but for people from green, cold Northern Europe like me, the desert will always be something fascinating, oppressing and incredibly vast and repetitive at the same time.

Buchara to Nukus, Nukus to Muynaq and vice versa

We had hoped to get a ticket for the overnight train, that we were told had bedbugs but was a nice travel alternative. I actually like going by overnight trains. In my experience it is the most peaceful way of sleeping you can ever get due to the soporific effect of rattling wheels and slightly shaking beds. Unfortunately the train was sold out and we had to rely on a taxi once more. We had to stop several times to get our gas refilled.

Lesson 3: If they can afford it, people in Uzbekistan try to re-equip their cars from petrol to gas, because petrol is extremely expensive and difficult to purchase (although you can buy it in bottles at stands next to the road sometimes)

which means that:

Lesson 4: You either stand in line to get your car filled with petrol for about half an hour up to an hour (which we did in Buchara when we were driving with a friend)

Lesson 5: Or all passengers have to get off the car when the driver enters the special gas station because the procedure of filling the cars with gas is dangerous. There are special benches for the fellow passengers of the car (mostly women) so they can wait for their car to leave the station and pick them up again.

Once on our way to Muynaq, I lit a cigarette while I was squatting next to the car to be under the lee of the car. Later I realized that this might have been dangerous considering that our driver was driving with gas. I asked him about it and the logical but a bit fatalistic reply was: “Everything about driving with gas is dangerous”.

Another interesting road experience were the military trucks and buses, engaged in the cotton harvest. The buses collect the workers, a compository of all Uzbek people active in public institutions (students (there was a new minimum age introduced but noone knows whether it is followed), teachers, administrators, and other civil servants) and bring them to their assigned working place/cotton field for the harvest. This system very much resembles Soviet “kolkhoz” traditions and has been criticized – especially due to repeated reports on child labour – by various organizations. But the Uzbek economy highly depends on it and for some Uzbeks it’s also a “fun summer camp”, like someone told us. We were also told that you can always buy your way out of the harvest duty. In general, there is cotton fields all over and when we arrived, the harvest was just about to begin, so on our journeys we could see tons of fields with workers of all age and origin.

One last episode of our trip has to be mentioned: on our way to Muynaq we met the most friendly and interested taxi driver we ever had, who did detours with us, who even went to a museum with us and whom I could ask every single stupid “culture question” that came to my mind. On that way we learned for example that triangles are supposed to protect against the evil eye, which explains why many of our drivers had triangle-shaped decoration somewhere in their cars.

We were also driving a long way through the desert together. In the desert my thoughts always do get kind of oppressing and I couldn’t help thinking that it would be so easy to stop the car, kick us two small girls out and drive away with all the things we had and all the money we carried around.  But he didn’t.
And in general: All these taxi drivers we had, all the people we asked for the way, all the people I fought about prices with, all the people we talked to or who started speaking to us randomly on the streets, all those we asked for places where we could (illegally) exchange money on the black market, could have screwed us. Noone did. I think, not even the people who definitely did not like us at all (“Europeans are stupid”), did even consider it. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe we were just lucky. Nevertheless, I like to believe that and for me this is one of the most amazing things that we came across during the trip:

Lesson 6: People are always better than you might think they are.


2 thoughts on “Cars and cotton – an Uzbek roadtrip

  1. Pingback: Climate change and human error – water problems in Central Asia | dictmókus

  2. Pingback: New York, New York – impressions | dictmókus

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