The third “stan” – Uzbekistan
Day 1,856 since October 10th 2013: 162 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
“Stan” is Farsi and means country or region
I wish, I wish, I wish that I was able to traverse the “stans” hundreds of years ago when there were no phones, trains or cars and when we didn’t really know what our world contained. Oh well, it’s not like I do know everything yet. However there is a little less “wow” today compared to seeing a giraffe for the first time in your life having traveled for months across deserts.
The saga is on a roll these days but that does not mean I do not have my concerns. I’m slightly concerned that I’ll struggle getting the Chinese visa for overland travel in the upcoming countries. I am slightly concerned that I’ll run out of free passport pages before I reached another country with a Danish embassy. And most of all I’m concerned that the Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan might close do to snow before I get there. So I am pushing hard. It’s forward, forward, forward.
The Saga has been included on MovieHustle.com as one of the top travel blogs of 2018 (click here to see the list).
Meanwhile I just want to say a few things about Turkmenistan which I didn’t get around to last week. I think comparisons stating that Turkmenistan is a cross between North Korea and Las Vegas are ridiculous. Mainly because I believe that most people’s thoughts will go straight to the negative. Applying for a Turkmenistan tourist visa is not an easy thing to do. However a lot of people get transit visas which offer five days inside Turkmenistan so that offers an easy fix. Also it can surely be said that Ashgabat is a spectacular city and that the amount of money which has been spent on getting it to look like it does is mind boggling! However it is an actual city with actual people and real lives. It does seem kind of empty but I think that is in part due to how large everything is. If you only have a hundred people at a stadium then it will look empty too. It’s actually refreshing to visit a capital which does not suffer from the same problems which other overcrowded cities do. Mind you that most cities are well over the capacity that they were built for – Ashgabat is not. Turkmenistan provides free gas and electricity to all its citizens and even provides Afghanistan with free electricity as aid. The country was once the poorest of the Soviet states and they are in a rapid recovery. Who is to say how it should be done? And yes…you cannot take photos of government buildings and military establishments. However that is not unusual for a very large portion of our world. You are perfectly fine to take photos most places. And yes…an amount of internet sites and online applications have been censored and blocked by government. However that is also not quite uncommon around our globe and it doesn’t matter anyway because everyone just downloads a VPN. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network which comes in the form of a program or application which you switch on and fool the system to think that you are somewhere else than where you really are. Let’s say that you are in Iran and run into a blocked website. With your VPN on it may appear as if you are in Germany or the Netherlands and you can now access the site. And I do wonder why the governments even bother to block anything since the locals always know which VPN is currently working best. If the government blocks a VPN then ten new ones usually appear to replace it. Ah…people and governments…
Walking across the border.
And then I left Turkmenistan. It was actually Bairam and Vepa from last week’s blog picked me up at the hotel and drove me to the border with Uzbekistan. That border was in the middle of absolutely nowhere. A real desert border with long fences running through the landscape. Bairam and Vepa could only drive me so far before I had to say farewell and walk. But a minibus which taxis people to and from immigration shortly arrived and I was given a seat. Clearing immigration was no issue and neither was customs. Then I walked the rather long distance across no man’s land and reached the Uzbek immigration which was also straight forward. And so were the customs procedures. Uzbekistan and a lot of the other “stans” have taken steps toward becoming more visitor friendly and easing up on restrictions and visa procedures. For me and many other nationalities the Uzbek visa is now available online as an E-visa for just $20 USD. And it took less than 48 hours for me to have it confirmed as an email with a PDF I had to print out. Easy.
Imagine weeks of this and then a city.
Uzbekistan is another wonderful country for a curious visitor. And I am still kicking myself for not spending any time in Bukhara. Bukhara was yet another prosperous and very important city on the ancient Silk Road. However I’m on the clock so I bypassed it. Literally! A shared taxi got me from the border to Alat and from there I joined a shared taxi to Bukhara. Bargaining skills come in handy in some parts of the world. The price for a seat between Alat and Bukhara started at $120 USD and landed at $5 USD. The driver was somewhat displeased but polite and I figure he wouldn’t have taken me at all if he wasn’t still earning something. Left and right there were lots of fields and lots of space. The landscape was flat all the way around us. Just imagine traversing these wide open spaces on a horse, a camel or on foot. And meeting people from all over the world who were doing the same. And being at risk from bandits but being royally rewarded when reaching your destination. What a life that must have been.
This was my second meal in Uzbekistan. MUCH better :)
In the outskirts of Bukhara I waited a few hours for a shared taxi to fill up with passengers. I had my first Uzbek meal which wasn’t impressive and consisted of a piece of bread with a sausage baked into it. I had decided to spend a few nights in Samarkand which is another legendary Silk Road city. And it has a nice ring to it too. Samarkand…I find that the name is up there with Aqaba, Timbuktu and Ulaanbaatar. That shared taxi cost $10 USD for a four hour drive. And we did not move slow!! Ali who was the driver seemed to think he was in a race with all the other drivers. He was quite skillful but also slightly reckless which nearly ended the Saga when a tractor suddenly changed lanes right in front of us!!! However a quick maneuver ensured our safety and we were soon ahead of the tractor while the radio was roaring Boney M’s 1978 hit: “Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine!!” that song came on a few times during our four our ride but Ali mostly played Spanish music in his race car across this former USSR state.
It has become freezing COLD for me lately. Keep in mind that I am a man who has spent most of the year in the Middle East during the warm season and I’m now heading across the “stans” in the early winter months. I might be a Viking from the kingdom of Denmark in the high north of Europe. But I haven’t seen that kingdom for the past five years and my body has acclimatized to my new surroundings. Now I need to acclimatize again because the +3 degrees (37.4 F) is far too cold for me. Especially within the shade. However the sun in this part of the world and at this time of the year is relentlessly sharp. So I’m either cold or hot. Fortunately Berghaus in Norway has outfitted me with some high quality jackets so I’ll be fine. I just need to acclimatize. Come on old body…acclimatize NOW! Did you know that Uzbekistan has an extreme climate? It is generally warmest in the south and coldest in the north. Temperatures in December average -8 degrees (18 F) in the north and 0 degrees (32 F) in the south. However, extreme fluctuations can take temperatures as low as -35 degrees (-31 F). During the summer temperatures can reach 45 degrees (113 F) and above and the humidity is low. These temperatures go for the neighboring countries as well and I’m crossing my finders that I will avoid the extremes because I’m frankly not in the mood for any extra challenges right now.
My room at Hotel Legende.
The taxi pulled into Samarkand late in the evening and I found a taxi driver who could bring me to a guesthouse I had reserved a room at. I decided to splurge a bit on two night in Samarkand to give myself a chance to catch up a bit. And this particular guesthouse had a nice location and the main building was from 1828, which I personally think is pretty cool. It is operated by the family who also lives there and that turned out to give it much more of a home feeling than guesthouse usually does. If you’re curious then it is called Hotel Legende and I highly recommend it. The family’s son greeted me on arrival and was surprised that I took my shoes off before entering the room as he said: “foreigners usually do not do that”. But it is common practice around this part of the world so of course I did. As soon as I had dropped my bags he invited me to join him for dinner and “a little vodka”. I might have said yes if it wasn’t for the vodka. So I excused with being tired which was an understatement. Breakfast was served the next morning at 09:00am and I slept like a baby.
In front of the unbelievable Registan complex!
In recent years the Uzbek government has cracked down on the black market for money exchange which is a good thing. It might be fun for a visitor to get far more value for their USD than what the official rate offers – however it is a slippery slope for a countries economy. At least I think so? Because I have pondered before if it might be good for a countries economy when tourist get more money between their hands because they tend to spend them, which in turn benefits more people and potentially grows the economy – or? Anyway, on my first day I was on a mission to take a “welcome to Uzbekistan” photo and have some USD exchanged which you can only do at banks. It took me a while but I managed to find a bank in which I could draw USD on my MasterCard. It is good to have some USD in this part of the world. EUR will do too but around here they tend to favor USD. I ended up walking about in a great deal of Samarkand’s streets and seeing a lot of the areas where I doubt that most tourists would ever venture. The inner city area of Samarkand is simply spectacular and boasts a ton of impressive architecture. The Registan is the main attraction though, which used to be the heart of the ancient city during the Timurid dynasty. The name itself means “sandy place” or “desert: in Farsi. Looking at the awe inspiring Registan sent my imagination toward large caravans of camels and foreighn goods finally arriving to lay their tired eyes upon a structure which rivals Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia or the Notre Dame in Paris. The effect of standing across from this impressive architectural achievement in 2018 is one thing. However imagine coming from a village 400 years ago and seeing such an impressive structure for the first time?!? I bet those people could hardly believe their eyes. The Registan used to be a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and witness public executions. The open area is framed by three beautifully ornamented madrasahs which are Islamic schools. What a place to behold! And obviously a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I also had to secure myself a train ticket from Samarkand to Tashkent which is the capital city of Uzbekistan. I was on the outlook for a bus line which turns out has been replaced by a tram made in the Czech Republic. And it ran about slow enough for me to make the same time by running. However it was a welcome pause in a day where I had already walked quite a lot. At one point I just kind of let my feet carry me away and ended far from where I intended and in the midst of a massive Jewish graveyard. You never know where your feet might take you… Samarkand is a great city for walking and I looked up what kind of perishables it might be famous for. One of the things Samarkand is famous for turned out to be really small pistachio nuts. So I purchased some at the Siab Bazaar near the impressive Bibi-Khanym Mosque. It was sort of inspiring to walk about eating pistachio’s while thinking that someone could have done the same hundreds of years ago. At the train station getting the train ticket was easy enough and I was set for traveling to Tashkent.
Possibly the worlds slowest tram? But it got me there.
The following day I did some more sightseeing in Samarkand before heading to the train. I was walking down a narrow street when I heard a terrified child scream and then giggle. That repeated itself several times as I approached an old man holding a toddlers hand while walking towards me. On the other side next to the toddler there was a young boy of around seven years of age. The boy had a set of florescent plastic vampire teeth in his mouth and would switch between smiling at the toddler and closing his mouth. This had the old man and the boy laughing along with the toddler in between the cries of horror. First of all it’s funny how quickly a toddler can change its mood from happy to scared. However what struck me more than anything was that it could have taken place anywhere in the world. That is the kind of thing most young boys would do to a younger sibling. And the old man could have been a grandfather and he was amused by it too. He looked up at me and smiled as we passed each other and I smiled back.
Arriving in Tashkent.
It was a quick four hour train ride to Tashkent and I reached my hostel around 11pm. It was a proper hostel!! I didn’t quite expect that because I haven’t seen any for a while. However three guys who had been hosting couch surfers for a long while decided to open up a hostel with all the experience they carried as hosts but also from traveling and staying at hostels themselves. I really liked their hostel which they named Topchan. A “topchan” is sort of a raised floor attached to a very low table which is commonly used for meals and chilling at in this part of the world. Their original idea was to have the hostel consists only of topchan’s but they thankfully abandoned that idea and I got to sleep in a bed. There were three Nigerian’s there too which I found odd as I didn’t expect to run into Nigerians in Uzbekistan? And anyone who has met me within the last few years knows that I am really fond of Nigeria. It turned out that they were professional footballers looking to advance their careers. Good guys.
This sweet old lady thought I was lost and insisted on walking me to the door of the Uzbekistan Red Crescent Society (URCS). I was in fact just hanging around in the neighborhood while waiting for it to be time for my meeting. Anyway, the URCS was founded in 1925 and they do a great job! I had the pleasure of entertaining and interacting with staff and volunteers for a few hours. Good people. Check them out HERE :)
I also met two of the owners of the hostel who both remembered hosting Graham Hughes a long time ago. Graham is a Britt for Liverpool who completed a project several years ago which he called the Odyssey Expedition. His aim was to reach every country in the world all without flying. Does that sound familiar? ;) Well, I met Graham when he invited me to come and stay at his island (Jinja Island) off the Panamanian coasts back in 2014. Graham is a great guy and did something amazing with his Odyssey. However we disagree on some of the fundamentals on what it means to reach every country in the world without flying. We essentially come from two different angles. Graham was on an “80 days around the world” kind of race, where he sprinted through countries and did not have a problem with flying as long as he would return to the same place. I think a flightless journey to every country should be exactly that. Anyway, when Johnny Ward (One Step 4Ward) and I met up in Chad back in 2015 he said that there isn’t much debate until I have completed the Saga. Until then Graham is the closest thing the world has got. And there is some truth to that. It is the second time I meet someone who has met Graham before. The first time was on Saint Vincent in the Caribbean when I was looking for a boat.
At the Emir Timur Meydani statue with the locally famous Uzbekistan Hotel in the background. Great people those Britts ;)
Emily is a teacher at the British School of Tashkent and she has been on to the Saga for about a year. So when I reached Tashkent she invited me out for dinner and brought her colleague Tristan along. We had a great night out talking and debating and the food was good too. I might just add that the Uzbeks are like the Afghans and the Turkmen very fond of horses and meat. But not horse meat. I had some kebab and Tristan and Emily went kind of vegan which is always a good conversation starter for a Viking like me. It’s not that they don’t eat meat…they just eat less meat. That is unfortunately the direction I see the world taking and I say unfortunate because I like to eat meat. However I will one day be married to a doctor and she might tell me that I’m not at all as dependent on meat as I would like to think ;) One thing lead to the next and I was soon invited to join Emily’s students for a little session the following day. She just needed to have it approved as the school she works at is pretty high security. I was game and we broke up to meet again the next day.
The view from the top of Uzbekistan Hotel. Had a chat with Tristan up there.
The next day came. They always seem to do so. This was also the day I was gunning for crossing the border into Tajikistan. However my bus was wasn’t until 4pm so I had time. I made it to the school and joined Emily for lunch at the cantina which is always a good start. Chicken and pasta for me. Then I was asked to do three sessions with children from several classes and that was a lot of fun.
You can just imagine! :)
The questions were great and ranged from how can I document that I’ve been to all these countries to “have you been to Paris?” I’ve said it before and I’m not shy to say it again: I often find that I get the best and most interesting questions from children as they are not boxed in to the standard questions just yet. The mind of a child is free and relieved of conformity. For much in life; that is a good thing.
Until recently it was forbidden to take photos of the legendary metro stations beneath Tashkent. But now it is free game :)
I ran a lot of practical errands in Tashkent while I was there. You guys sometimes ask me where I do my laundry so here’s a treat for you: I did it at Topchan Hostel. I also broke the zipper on my pants (again) and found a seamstress who fixed them to be as good as new. Throughout the Middle East all such repairs have been done by men but around here it’s a woman’s job. I like being in countries where they are accustomed to repairing stuff and not just replacing it. It probably wouldn’t have been worthwhile repairing them in Denmark but in Tashkent it was a matter of a few hours and very affordable. And a very good job too. Anyway, I did a detour from the school to the Ko’kaldosh Madrasasi in Tashkent before making to the bus terminal where my bus was going to take me across to Tajikistan and to Khujand near the border. And to tell you that story would require several pages because that turned into an eventful 36 hours :)
Heading across the border into Tajikistan.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - unhappy with poor internet!! (this blog took 9 hours)
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Once Upon A Saga