A Travellerspoint blog

Big City Life - Tashkent

Corrupt Cops and Money Machines

We were warned about going to Tashkent. It was apparently full of militsaya (police) that shake traveller's down for cash, there was nothing to do and that it was dirty, sprawling and dangerous. Well, we're rebels without a pause (thanks Chuck D). So, we decided to go.

That was part of the reason, we needed cash, and the only ATMs in Uzbekistan are in Tashkent. Also, it was in our way, since we needed to go to the Fergana Valley, and there is no way of getting there without going through Tashkent.

So, we arrived and quickly got ripped off for a taxi to a nice hotel (we decided to treat ourselves in Tashkent after 2 months of roughing it), but we were turned away, because they were apparently full. I think I'll call Amnesty International about discrimination to dirty backpackers. On second thoughts, they probably have something better to worry about, we went to another decent hotel.

We actually had a daily routine in Tashkent. Wake up, waste a little time, go to the bank, eat (usually in the same place), change money, waste more time, then eat again.

Withdrawing money is a pain. There are ATM's, but they never have money, and eat your card (actually, Alex's card was eaten and the slip said "YOUR CARD HAS BEEN ARRESTED BY THE NATIONAL BANK OF UZBEKISTAN!!!", but he got it back). So the only way to get money out of your account was to go to a bank and go through some beurocracy.

If you think it's that easy, not all banks have money. Eventually we found a small room (room 211) in the main branch of the National Bank of Uzbekistan, where they could help us (after we got the forms signed by someone else, then take these forms to the cashier for our money). Eventually, after two days, we managed to withdraw a decent amount of money that should last us to China. Job done.

Everything else in Tashkent was a bit of a dissapointment. We didn't get accosted by corrupt cops, the museum was crap and we weren't even mugged, despite walking through a few dimly lit parks at night.

The main roundabout of Tashkent is Amir Timur Maydoni, with it's massive statue of Timur on horseback. Right next to it was the Amir Timur museum, which has nothing interesting in it, but is quite funny. It portrays Timur (who is estimated to have killed about one million people) as a really nice and generous Uzbek, a pious patron of the arts (he did make Samarkand nice, but only by abducting artisans). It had modern paintings of his many children, with description's of how pious and well educated they were, with little bits at the end that they were murdered (about 4/5 were murdered, the rest died in battle, nice). It also showe the cheap crap that foreign countries give Uzbekistan as diplomatic gifts. They are generally cheapo books, plates, small medals, or sometimes carpets that depict Amir Timur (It looked so cheap, it was probably about 10 dollars, but it's the thought tha counts, right?)

Anyway, after the fun we had in Tashkent (there really wasn't much to do, even nightlife wise everything was closed), we hopped into a shared taxi to Fergana.

Posted by Nomadics 03:48 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Uzbekistan - Pictures

Samarkand's Registan
Registan.jpg

Samarkand's Bazaar
Bazaar.jpg

Bukhara
Bukhara_from_above.jpg

Bukhara Bug Pit
Bukhara_Death_Pit.jpg

Khiva
Khiva.jpg

Posted by ameurice 03:47 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged photography

Samarkand

sunny 30 °C

Thanks to the Kyrgyzstan national electricity company, the full and unabridged Samarkand entry is lost in cyberspace... so until I find the time/courage to start again here is a brief outline:

We stayed in a homely hostel full of great travelling advice and where we met our Dutch friends again, an entreprising Japanese girl travelling through the Middle-East and Central Asia on her own (!) and some cyclists travelling round the world in seven years...

Samarkand generally disappointed - both the ancient and the modern - the Registan was considerably more impressive in my imagination, and the other sights were few and far between; these included Amir Timur's tomb, the imposing Bibi Khanim mausoleum, the "City of the Dead" and the vast archeological dig area of ancient Marakanda (visited by Alexander the Great). Having said this, Samarkand was the most worthwhile Silk Road site in Uzbekistan...

The highlight of our visit was meeting a man called Dilshod - a local Tajik - who took us round the sights and proceeded to invite us to his home. There his wife (married only 3 months previously and so following a strange and elaborate protocol) prepared us a delicious dinner followed by showing us their marriage photos; we were somewhat embarassed to notice that noboby was smiling... Then we visited the local bar which presented a great snapshot of Uzbek district life, with all generations represented. Here I was convincingly beaten by a 12-year old boy in a game of chess...

The following day I contracted some very serious food poisoning with high fever, cold sweats, headaches, etc. which made the long bus journey to Tashkent less than entertaining...

Posted by ameurice 03:44 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Bukhara

Pure Silk Roadness

After a rather expensive shared taxi through the dry Kyzylkum Desert, we arrived to the fabled city of Bukhara, the classic silk road city.
We were dumped in the centre and soon found some cheap accomodation in a traditional house.

Bukhara is clean, nice and yellow (from the bricks). Lots more tiled timurid mosques, medrassas and a half restored castle (Red Army blew it up). Most of the old courtyards have been turned into bazaar-shopping malls for tourists, selling overpriced 'traditional goods', which included everything from shoes and hats to animal skins.

Bukhara does have a gruesome past though. During the age of the Great Game (Russia vs Britian imperialist maneuverings in Central Asia), the Emirs were known to be especially depraved. Two British men, accused of being spies, were thrown in the Emir's special bug pit (a large hole in the prison 5 meters deep that was filled with all sorts of nasties, now filled with small change), which, according to the sign (understatement of the century), it was reserved for the "least favourite jail inhabitants". The prison was surprisingly small, but apparently thats because 50 to 100 people are meant to be crammed into each cell.

There is also a beautiful minaret that may have been Bukhara's famous "tower of death" from where those sentenced to death were thrown from to splatter onto the pavement below.

Central Bukhara seems orientated solely towards tourists, and was completely dead at night, but fortunately we managed to find a hotel with some old Europeans who up for the Champions League final, incluging an Italian engineer who worked on particle accelerators in CERN...

In all, Bukhara was fairly touristic, but not as fake as Khiva. It still retains some of it's mystique and charm, and on a nice sunset evening, you can really feel the magic...

Posted by Nomadics 05:07 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Khiva

Long Shadows of the Silk Road

sunny 30 °C

Crossing over the monumental Oxus of old, now renamed the Amu-Darya river, we entered Khorezm and arrived in Khiva at sunset. Having been one of the pivotal trading posts on the old Silk Road, its wealth eventually waned until it was reduced to a petty khanate reliant on brutal intimidation to rule over its people. Yet it was the last independent power in the region to fall into the hands of the Russians, after which the last of its vibrant spirit finally disappeared.

In the 1970s Khiva was entirely rebuilt as a large tourist attraction. This involved moving out the indigenous population wholesale, abolishing all commerce except for souvenirs/restaurants/hotels, and charging a stupendous amount ($10 each) to even enter the city. There was no choice, however, and having paid at the gate we entered as the minarets and madressehs cast dramatic long shadows over the city. Shadows which reminded us how little of the Silk Road's previous wealth, culture and excitement remains today.

We did find a friendly B&B, with great food (not that I would enjoy, still being ill from Nukus...) and some enthusiastic young Khivans. Here we met a couple of Dutch students who were on a very similar journey to ours and had crossed the Turkmen border at Nukus the same day as we had - this would not be our last encounter...

Sights in Khiva consist of little more than a procession of medressahs, minarets and museums none of which are remarkable but they form quite a comprehensive ensemble.

We expected more from Bukhara....

Posted by ameurice 05:00 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Nukus

Karakalpakstan and Deviant Soviet Art

sunny 34 °C

If one still subscribed to the idea that the earth was flat, Nukus would certainly be placed on its remotest edge. The capital of the little-known Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan suffers from a staggering variety of ecological, social and political disasters and limps along on subsidies from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, itself not the most prosperous place in the world...

First there is the shrinking Aral Sea, or Seas to be more precise - it is predicted to break up into some five tiny individual lakes by 2015 or so - which has resulted in huge amounts of wind-borne salts and pesticides. To illustrate the problem the once-thriving Aral fishing port of Moynaq is now 150km from water! Once fertile floodplains have been reduced to salty wasteland, and the population is severely affected by respiratory disorders, cancers, birth defects and deformities. The latter was sadly evident in many of the people we met there... Furthermore after the collapse of the USSR the local economy was annihilated and the rampant unemployment has driven many locals to numb the pain with heroin - every street was littered with used syringes. Ironically what used to support the local economy happens to have been the Red Army's Chemical and Biological Weapons Research Centre. Now disused, the toxins (including Anthrax, Smallpox etc.) are leaking into the water supplies and adding insult to injury for the already desperate local population.

The Soviet insistence on the homogeneity of its peoples has also eradicated all culture and identity of the Karakalpak people; indeed Karakalpak means 'Black Hat' but the people have been so estranged from their traditions that they have had to set up a research initiative to find out what exactly this black hat, after which they are named, looks like.

The one highlight in the town was a mildly interesting museum where a certain Igor Savitsky had hidden away a huge amount of art which had been considered "Un-Soviet" during Stalin's rule. Unfortunately, the works on display were few, misteriously organised, and more interesting for what they represented then for any intrinsic artistic appeal.

I was able to leave Nukus with two things. One was an appreciation of how badly things can go wrong economically, socially and ecologically. The other was some really bad food poisoning, complementary with dodgy Plov from a Soviet-era canteen.

After our short stay we hurried on to Khiva....

Posted by ameurice 04:42 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Minaret of Kone-Urgench

The largest in Central Asia - survivor of earthquakes as well as Mongol and Timurid hordes

sunny 39 °C

Kone-Urgench_Minaret.jpg

Posted by ameurice 04:36 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged photography

Darvaza, then to Uzbekistan

Burning Craters and Giant Spiders

From Ashgabat we drove north on the lonely road that goes through the Karakum Desert, which actually had a fairly decent surface, but only for half the road. The drove in Dima's Soviet UAZ Jeep (apparently it was better as his Nissan was 'stupid'), which was big, loud, and had no seat belts. On the way we stopped at possibly the most depressing place ever. A village in the middle of nowhere in some bushy dunes, which was empty save some trash, a few kids and two immobile camels, crying loudly, who were tied very firmly to wooden posts. Apparently all the water in the village is driven here from the nearest source. What are people doing there?

Halfway across Turkmenistan, we turned off the road, into the desert, and after about 10 minuites, we reached our destination.

In the desert, on a flat sandy plain ringed by hills, there was a large crater, which was on fire. It has a diameter of about 50 meters, and a depth of about 20, and looking inside, it seems that the rocks are on fire...

Apparently, when the Soviets were exploring for gas here in the 50s, "something happened", which left a massive burning hole in the ground, and it's been burning ever since. No-one really cares about it now, since the transportation of the gas would be too costly (it is in the middle of nowhere). But the crater is definitely man made, as there are twisted pipes on one side of the crater, which is also why it's not a Zoroastrian pilgrimmage site.

The crater is most impressive at night (but you can still see the flames in the day), you can see the smoke and bright orange-red light from miles around. When you're just on the edge, and the wind blows in your direction, the heat unbearable. You can also hear the flames and the wind it causes from a considerable distance.
(We have some good pictures).

After a good, fresh shashlyk (barbeque), we camped out next to the crater. Not too close though, I didn't want to be barbequed myself. The Karakum is crawling with all sorts of nasty things. Snakes, scorpions, and giant spiders (se saw one running around devouring moths, it was about 10cm across...), Dima slept in the car, whilst we had to brave it outside. Ok, we're not really such heroes, our tent was pretty secure.

Next morning (after 2 hours sleep...) we head off north to the border with Uzbekistan along a 'stupid' (Dima loved that word) road. The road was stupid. It was the bumpiest ride I have ever had in my life.

After 5 hours of bone-jarring ride, we got to Konye-Urgench, another aincient city. Again, it was trashed by the Mongols and Timurids, so there's not much left. There are a few restored mausoleums, and a huge conical minaret (largest in Central Asia), but they look pretty new.
One interesting thing we spotted was a large tattered overcoat for rent. The locals kept on taking it, then rolling down the hill in it. Apparently it wards off evil, but it looked really fun (but the overcoat was so dirty we didn't participate).

After that, we drove the remaining distance and emotionally (not really) parted ways with Dima at the border.

The Turkmen border was very friendly (Dima knew the guards well), and they waved us through (not without some beurocracy, of course). The Uzbek border was a completely empty, not even ay flags (we found out the guards had to go and fetch water), save for a few people watiching TV inside the main building. There we had a good chat about life in the west, and they let us fo free.
There some soldiers made camera signals at us, could they have wanted to check our cameras, as we had been warned might happen in Turkmenistan? No, they wanted to take a photo with us. Awesome, and strange since it is illegal to take photos near borders, but it didn't seem they cared about much here.

After another successful crossing, we drove into the post-industrial wasteland of Karakalpakstan...

Posted by Nomadics 07:35 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged backpacking

Darvaza Gas Crater

sunny 37 °C

Darvaza.jpg
DSC01728.jpg
Karakum.jpg

Posted by ameurice 07:17 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged photography

Ashgabat - Pictures

sunny 27 °C

Neutrality.jpg
Plunger.jpg
Ashgabat_Disneyland.jpg
Ashgabat_Towers.jpg

Posted by ameurice 07:10 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged photography

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