Sunday, August 28, 2016

Tales from Uzbekistan

I'm happy to report that we are safe and sound and completely happy back in Munich! It was the trip of a lifetime, but goodness do I love living in Germany! I hope to fit in sharing tales of our journey here on the blog amidst the busy-ness of beginning my brand new exciting job on Monday.  So without further ado...Uzbekistan!

Once again the taxi drivers had the special foreigner price for us at the train station, but having been told by our train neighbors what the real price for the ride to Khiva from Urgench is, Mario struck a deal with his favorite line ''Двадцать тысяч или до свидания!'' When we arrived at our guesthouse in Khiva the wife showed us to our room and explained a bit about the city and how we could best get to Samarkand the next day.  She spoke in such a soft and delicate voice, but with nearly perfect English, as baby Zuleyha rested on her hip and stared at the newest arrivals with her big brown eyes. The guesthouse has two locations and we were staying at the one a bit outside the city.  Therefore, the guesthouse owners drive guests into the city and then guests can simply stop by the more central branch when they're ready to go home and catch a ride back out.  Our first impressions of Khiva - seeing those ancient colorful buildings under the golden light of the setting sun - really stunned us! Add to that a delicious dinner in a lovely restaurant and we had the perfect evening in Khiva.

Local bread

Just look at those colors!
The next morning we were up early to buy our tickets to Samarkand.  It took a little bit of elbowing (do you seriously think shoving your passports through the ticket window while she's already looking for tickets for us is going to accomplish anything?!) but we got our tickets.  The roads between Khiva and Samarkand are atrocious, leaving train the only viable option.  Unfortunately the train schedule is rather stupid inconvenient and has passengers leaving at 4 PM and arriving at 5 AM.  The train ride itself, however, was one of the best we had.  As usual we were the only foreigners in a train full of locals and had to answer all of the standard questions about who we are and what we are up to.  We sat by a woman who turned out to be an English teacher and her two young sons. The woman and I did word searches together from the book I had brought along for a little bit before Mario and I escaped to the restaurant wagon.  There we made friends with the restaurant workers who introduced us to Uzbek wine, gave us a discount because we are guests in the country, and offered to let us sleep in the restaurant wagon if our spots in platskart were too uncomfortable for us.  In the end we decided to return our beds since all of our stuff was there and, in the end, what could have been a miserable train trip turned into something quite enjoyable afterall.

Samarkand boasts somewhat similar ancient architecture to Khiva, but instead of being all within the ancient city walls, it is spread out a little bit more around the city.

Love the colorful tapchan

To be honest we had a bit more time in Samarkand than we needed, so we took a day trip up through the mountains over to Shakhrizabz. The claim to fame in Shakhrizabz is that it is the hometown of Timur, founder of the Timurid Empire and Uzbekistan's favorite hero. To be honest I found the whole thing a bit strange.  The ruins, mosques, and ancient buildings are impressive and worth seeing, but the entire area around it has been constructed into a meticulously landscaped park which is nearly completed abandoned save for the gardeners and a few foreign tourists.  The outer boundary of the area is lined with storefronts, which remain largely empty except for a few women selling cold drinks and ice cream.  Honestly it all felt just a bit too fake.  Apparently it wasn't always like this, according to our ''guide', but I'm not sure how long ago the government completed this massive project.  Speaking of our 'guide''.  In fact, he wasn't a guide at all, but rather just a random old man who happened upon us and decided that he would impart all of his knowledge about Timur and Shakhrisabz upon us.  He didn't always understand us and couldn't always get his point across in Russian, but we had a wonderful time together nonetheless.  It honestly made our day. He wrote down his address and asked us to send him copies of the photos we took together, but he was convinced that the KGB would call him in for questioning when he received mail from Germany. He assured us it would be fine though.  He would just tell them that he had had us in Uzbekistan as his guests to show off the beautiful country.  And as any good host, he made sure that we got safely back on the road to Samarkand.  I'm pretty sure that the price he had us pay for the minibus wasn't enough, but he told the driver that we're guests and it's rude to try to make money off of guests. The same was when he told off the people at the public toilets who asked for money only after we had used them, although they were in a public park and had no signage that indicated that they weren't for free.  In any case, he was a jolly little old man and I can't imagine our trip to Shakhrisabz without him.

Can't get enough of those mountains

In Shakhrisabz 

Our new friend

Having fun in the mnibus

Our taxi driver suggested this shot in the mountains

Back in Samarkand, we had one final night before heading off to Tashkent on a morning express train.  Tashkent is very Russified, but as they say ''столицу надо посмотреть'' (you have to see the capital).  And the hostel had a pool, so that was awesome.

Tashkent plov - the very best we had on the trip!

Hotel Uzbekistan.  All of the former Soviet capitals have such a hotel.  Once where all important guests stayed, most of these hotels are now falling into disrepair.

Hostel pool!

Sunset in Tashkent

Fountains, fountains everywhere!

In the morning we needed to go to Tajikistan, which meant a taxi to the border, border crossing by foot, and then another taxi to Khujand, our destination in Tajikistan.  The reason that there aren't any minibuses driving this route or a direct taxi to Khujand is that any Tajik vehicles entering Uzbekistan, as well as the other way around, are subject to absurd taxation.  If you didn't already guess, relationships between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan aren't the greatest.  Anyway, this taxi ride was the ultimate end to our Uzbekistan experience, as our driver quickly declared us his friends and guests in his country and stopped along the way to let us try homemade juice and special Uzbek ayran, as well as to take photos by the Tashmore.

Special ayran with salt and red pepper


When you enter and leave Uzbekistan you must fill out a lengthy and detailed customs forms and one of the stipulations is that you aren't allowed to take any currency out of the country which you didn't bring into the country.  Well, considering that the border crossing is in the middle of nowhere and we definitely needed Tajik Sumoni to pay for a taxi to Khujand, we had exchanged some euros for Sumoni with some other guests in our hostel in Tashkent.  We decided to put the Sumoni on my customs declaration and when the officer asked with a scowl where the money had come from, I put on my cutest smile and rattled off a sweet little story about the ohsokind new friends we made who just couldn't accept that we would enter Tajikistan without any local currency at all and insisted that we take it with us as a gift.  Seeing as it was only about $15 worth of Sumoni, they bought my story and sent us on our way.  As we were leaving the border post, some other western tourists (they turned out to be Canadians) we coming from Tajikistan and the border guard insisted that we get to know each other, ''since they're foreigners too, afterall'' ;)

Uzbekistan is a place that I have been dreaming of visiting ever since high school and I now know that it is somewhere I'd like to return to someday.  

1 comment:

  1. Wow, such a cool place, Chelsea!! Now I really want to visit Uzbekistan too :D And your tour guide friend, you guys really lucked out with him!