Central Asia (2/3)
This post is part 2 of the "central-asia-2019" series:
I recently returned from a trip to central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan & Kazakhstan). It was a fascinating corner of the world, that sees relatively little foreign tourism.
Up at 1am to head to the airport for my flight to Uzbekistan. The taxi rolled up on time, and the driver creepily asked me "you are alone?" As he was driving me to the airport he had the radio playing, and this bizarre song came on that was not in English except for the chorus "all we need is 1 night in Dubai". This day is off to a weird start.
I got to the airport at 2am, and it was a circus. I found the ticket counter for Uzbekistan Air, and there were dozens of people waiting, split across 3 lines. For reasons, 95% of the people in line were Indians flying to Mumbai via Tashkent. A non-trivial number of people were walking away from the counter without a boarding pass. After 20 minutes i got my boarding pass, although not before a gruff guy demanded to see my e-visa print out. Then it was time for passport control. Somehow they found a way to make getting stamped out slow & inefficient. Each person took over 5 minutes. Maybe its something about the Indians, as mine only took a minute. Next was security, where an angry guard berated me in broken english for not removing my shoes first. And just to make the process more painful, there was yet another person checking passports & boarding passes. I think my russian is improving. i was able to sound out all the destination cities on the board without needing the english version.
Shockingly, they started boarding on time. but it was utter chaos, with everyone rushing the gate at once, then pushing. We pushed back nearly on time. All the announcements were in Russian, Uzbek & English (although i barely understood the English). They handed out cups of water before we pushed back, then did a full drink service during the 50 minute flight.
We landed just as the sun was rising, and ended up at a bus gate. They took forever to start deplaning. The terminal was both awesome and awful. It looks like its a few years old. They had clean, bright fully supplied restrooms in the immigration area. Also, the currency exchange booth was before immigration, which seems weird. They were super picky about 'damaged bills and rejected 2/3 of what u had because it had a tiny tear, or writing on it. I managed to exchange about \$200 worth.
They had 15 working immigration lines, yet it still took a good 20 minutes to get through. While i was waiting, i saw multiple Indians from my flight get deported for using false passports. It was a bunch of guys, and the women with them (who apparently had valid passports) started shrieking. Once i got stamped in, i got a sim card (8GB data for \$10, valid 30 days), then attempted to use the 3 janky ATMs, and they all refused to take the 2 cards that i had. After all that, i finally exited the terminal, and had to walk a gauntlet of scary looking mafia hitmen posing as taxi drivers. I used the Yandex app to get a ride into the city, for about \$1.
I went to the Lotte Palace Hotel to drop off my bags. It looked pretty swank, but there were no other guests in the lobby, which was weird. They actually had an ATM that worked, and i got out some more cash. Then i checked my bags, and headed back out.
Uzbek (the language) is kinda odd. They use the latin alphabet, and lots of words are super long, with apostrophes. most signs are in russian and/or uzbek, which is confusing me to no end. I have to search for Cyrillic to figure out which language i'm dealing with, before i can begin to sound it out. I'm actually getting fairly good with russian, and can read maybe 75% of all words.
The city has a western/european feel with lots of stately buildings, trees and real sidewalks. I had a bit of a hike to the nearest subway/metro station. Up until about 2 years ago, it was forbidden to take photographs inside the stations. They all look incredibly ornate, with huge marble columns, chandeliers and other art. They kinda look similar to moscow or pyeong yang's subway stations. However, they are also antiquated. You have to buy & use a plastic token to enter the station. But the only way that i've noticed to buy the tokens is from a booth with some grouchy old lady. I don't get how that can scale during rush hour. Also, when i attempted to exit the station, i foolishly assumed that i needed to go through the turnstyle, but nope. I had guards and token booth ladies screaming at me as if i was over throwing the govt. Apparently the exit is a separate area with doors, because that is intuitive.
my first stop was Chorsu Bazaar. This place was massive. Half was food, and the other half was just about everything else you could imagine. So much summer fruit for sale, the air was fragrant with peaches, apricots, and plumbs. I wandered into a dining hall, trying to find something for breakfast (it was around 8am). But i couldn't figure out how or where to order food. Lots of people were eating, and had plates of food brought to them. Eventually this guy noticed how confused i was, and got me to understand how if worked. I needed to order the food at the counter outside, and then they would bring it to me at a table. I ended up with plov, which was really good. I also ended up buying 2 meat filled samsas after that.
Afterwards, i walked over to a nearby old madrassa. There were a few people there, but i mostly had it to myself to explore. lots of small rooms around a pretty courtyard, with arabic script on the walls. At this point it was starting to warm up, and i ended up walking nearly 2 miles to an old mosque. The mosque was gorgeous, with 2 huge Minettes. I was also able to go inside. They were in the process of restoring one of the prayer halls, but the rest was open and looked amazing.
It was oved 80f outside now, and i finished the water that i was carrying. Thankfully there was a small market across the road from the mosque, and i bought 1.5L. The walk back to the metro was hot and noisy. I ended up getting on the wrong direction, mostly because i misread the sign. It was only 3 stops to the end of the line, so not a huge deal. once i was moving in the right direction, i had to transferred lines twice to get to the National Plov Center. Its basically this huge banquet hall (it could easily seat several hundred people) where all they serve is the 'plov of the day', and accompaniments (salad, bread, drinks). It sounds super touristy, but if so, most of the tourists spoke russian. The plov that i got had rice, raisins, carrots, a hard boiled chicken egg,a hard boiled quail egg, a slice of lamb, and some mystery berries. It was pretty good.
After that i spent much of the afternoon trying to stay out of the heat, riding the metro to all the stations. Each one is different and a few are really unique and weird or pretty. The airport here is weird. The domestic terminal is on the opposite side of the airport from the international terminal. To travel between the terminals you literally have to exit the airport, and drive around it. Also, its impossible to get dropped off at the terminal. I had to be dropped off on the street, walk up a driveway, clear a security checkpoint, and then enter the terminal. At which point, they put me through another security screening. It seems that every flight is a bus gate. We drove all the way back around the airport to the plane. Then oddly boarded from the front & rear for maximum chaos. The flight was uneventful, and we landed about 10 minutes early. Down the steps, and a short walk through the empty terminal. I found the guy holding my name and we drove 35km from Urgench to Khiva. It was 85F at nearly 10pm.
I slept until just after 6am. Its already 85f at 8am. I had breakfast and then headed out to explore khiva. The breakfast was rather elaborate. they served hot tea, sliced watermelon, 2 kinds of cheese (smoked & holey), 2 sunny-side eggs, 2 kinds of bread (brown & flat), a mostly tasteless pinkish colored drink, lumpy yogurt, apricot jam.
I'm guessing its the heat at this time of year, but there's not many tourists here. Despite that, the architecture is amazing. So many gorgeous mosques and Minettes in a small area. The wall around the city is really cool looking too. At one point i came around a corner and interrupted 2 teenagers making out. They ran off in opposite directions. Later i happened to wander past an ATM with a line of 20+ locals. Seemed kinda odd.
There are over a dozen museums scattered about, all of which are covered under a single ticket. When i bought the ticket from these 2 old ladies they asked where I was from, and they struggled to enter it into the laptop they were using to process sales. I was tempted to tell them i was german if it was easier for them. I don't think they see many Americans out here. Some of the museums are interesting, like one that occupied the home of a prominent figure from about 100 years ago. They had artifacts and tons of photos of the family. Then there was 'museum of nature', which had some of the most unintentionally bad taxidermy i've ever seen. It might rival what you saw in N korea. There was a cat that was stretched out to nearly twice its normal length, birds with eyes dangling from the sockets, and a snake that looked like a squashed turd. Oh plus they had wax fruits and vegetables that had long ago melted in the heat. The tomato looked like a red pancake. I finished up at about 2:30pm when it was 100F.
For dinner tonight, I went to the highest ranked place on tripadvisor, which has most of the tables on the roof (3rd floor), making it one of the tallest places in the town (excluding the minarets). I could see much of the old town. I ordered a ginger lemonade, lamb shashlik and bread (google 'uzbek bread' to get an idea). The lemonade might be the best i've ever had. It had very little sugar, and a ton of ginger. The rest of the food was ok.
A few bits of random `stans trivia:
* the toilet paper looks like rolled up party streamers, and often has random wood chips in it. Don't ask how i figured that out.
* everyone serving food feels compelled to exclaim 'bon appetite!'
* every place that i've slept requires everyone to remove their shoes
The bed here is asia hard, and i had trouble sleeping after 3am. I'm not sure if its this part of the country or Uzbekistan in general, but the internet is slow. Its thankfully not anywhere as bad as West Africa.
I switched to wearing sandals yesterday. The sandal tan will come back strong soon.
I just remembered that when i was at the token both in the Tashkent metro, they had a rotary dial phone. I cannot recall the last time i saw one of those that wasnt a hipster joke.
I checked out at 8:30am and was handed the official receipt for my stay. Uzbekistan used to require that foreigners register every place they stay and show the receipts when leaving the country. That requirement is no longer being enforced as much but people still occasionally report being demanded to show their receipts. My driver for the day was waiting for me and we headed out on a tour of 6 khorezm fortresses. When we started off it was partly cloudy and not yet hot. By the afternoon the sky had cleared and it was a blast furnace once again.
After driving for 20 minutes we pulled into a gas station and i had to get out of the car. Apparently Uzbekistan has this requirement that only the driver can be present at the pump and all passengers must exit and wait outside a gate that runs the perimeter of the station.
My driver today was the same guy who picked me up at the airport 2 days ago. He has been great. He drives safely, speaks enough english to carry on a conversation, and knows where stuff is. The 6 forts that I visited today date back to the 2nd & 3rd century BC. For most, there's not much left but sections of the mud brick perimeter walls. Even so they are impressive, some larger than a football field. I could make out the original mud bricks on most of them. Some had battlements & turrets, or narrow windows. For lunch we stopped in the town of Bo'ston. Yes, its pronounced like the city in Massachusetts. We went to a small restaurant, and i had hot green tea, a samsa, a cold coke, semi-spicy red sauce, 2 beef shashlik and 'russian' bread (it seemed like normal white bread to me). All for about \$3.25. It was good.
i finished the forts by 2:30pm, and then had nearly 2 hours of driving across a mostly barren wasteland of short shrubs and grasses. The road wasn't in the best condition either. I got to the hotel at 4pm thoroughly exhausted by having hot air blasted in my face from the open windows. While the car had an AC button it was never used.
At the rate that i am spending the uzbek currency, i was going to need more in a few days. Yesterday, i tried to use 2 different atm's, and both refused to dispense money for mystery reasons. Before dinner today, i walked to the nearest atm (according to google), and it only took visa cards, so i used the BofA card. Thankfully it worked, but wouldn't give me more than \$75 in a single transaction. So i had to make 3 transactions. After that, i walked to the nearest restaurant that google reviews claimed had good food, and english on the menu. The place gas 20 tables, and only 1 was occupied when i arrived, but they had working ac to seal the deal. The menu is a mixture of uzbek, russian and european foods, plus a ridiculously long list of salads (although in fairness nearly half are variations of the same uzbek tomato/cucumber salad). I ordered borsch, something with chicken (the english was kinda vague), and a 'russian' salad (which has goat cheese), and a pepsi (because i was desperately craving something cold to drink that wasn't water). i considered beef, but the alcohol section of the menu was not in english, and vodka was the only Russian word on the list that i could confidently read.
On the walk back to the hotel, i passed a bunch of low rise appt blocks that looked like they dated back to communist times. They all had these huge elevated pipes running between them. Eventually it occurred to me what was going on there. In the winter its so cold that the pipes would freeze underground. So they had heating units for the above ground pipes.
I slept until 7am. When i attempted to take a shower, the knob to switch the water to the shower didn't work. I ended up having to sit in the tub, and splash water from the faucet on myself. Fun times. Breakfast was rather mediocre.
I relaxed in my room until 10:30am, then checked out, leaving my bags to pickup in the afternoon. I was planning to get lunch at a place near the museum that had a lot of good reviews. But when i get there i found that it was closed on sundays. I was annoyed as there are few options in the area. I ended up going to a cafe where no one spoke english and the menu was only in russian. I got 2 samsa and pomegranate juice. It was ok.
Then i walked to the Sivitsky museum, which was really nice. Its about 75% paintings from obscure Russian artists, with the rest being sculptures and historic artifacts. I spent nearly 3 hours at the museum, despite feeling crappy. I had no energy, muscle & stomach cramps and diahrea. I have no clue what caused this, but clearly i consumed something contaminated.
After the museum, i had a miserable 30 minute walk back to the hotel in the blazing sun. I stopped to buy water on the way, but it didn't help much. Once back at the hotel, i used the toilet, got my bags, and had them call the driver. Thankfully the driver knew how to use the AC, and drove ok. We made good time and got to Urgench airport after 2.5 hours.
Thankfully, they permitted me to enter the terminal more than 3 hours early, and i sat and tried to rest until closer to my flight time. We boarded and departed late, but managed to land on time. It was 34C at 10pm in Bukhara.
Overall, i slept ok. I feel not awful this morning, which i guess is a good sign. Breakfast was crazy huge. They served me a slice of pizza (wtf?), a plate of fresh fruit, green tea, tomatoes & cucumbers, bread, 2 sunny eggs, yogurt, jam, sliced cheese & ham.
I headed out to explore just after 8am, hoping to get ahead of the worst heat. Not that it helped much as it was already quite warm. My hotel is situated in this narrow alley that runs for maybe a full kilometer. The alley is literally lined with nothing but hotels and guesthouses today, all in restored old buildings. My walking route took me through the center of the old city. There are so many mosques, minerets, bazaars and madrasas. But i didn't stop at any of them, as i wanted to go to the farthest point first, then work back.
I stopped first at the massive citidel ark, which is an impressive fortress with distinctive 4 story tall rounded walls. unfortunately 8jside is a bunch of rather mediocre small museums which basically just threw artifacts in display cases, often only in Uzbek or Russian. If they're going to charge about \$9 for foreigners, they should have at least made it more accessible. Also this guy who was trying to be my 'free' guide attempted to strike up a conversation by asking where i was from, and then commented how Arnold Shwarzenegger was the 'ruler' of California.
After that i wandered up a narrow road, and passed a lonely market with an ice cream case out front. For about 25 cents i got this lime green popsicle which tasted sorta like mint & lime artificial flavoring. It really didn't matter though, it was cold goodness.
I started to retrace my steps, stopping at the major points of interest. But after 2 places with a jacked up foreigner admission fee and crappy exhibits, i opted out of paying to go inside most of them. The mosques were impressive enough from the outside anyway. My final stop was this 4 mineret gatehouse that used to sit in front of a madrasa which no longer exists. When i wanted to go inside to explore, the entire accessible area was a small souvenir shop.
At this point it was late morning, and i had basically finished everything on my list for today anyway. I decided to head back to the hotel to cool down and rest. I passed another market, and got a chocolate covered ice cream bar which, again, was so cold and amazing. I ended up taking a 3 hour nap.
One thing that keeps catching my eye are the number of older adults with gold and silver teeth. I'm guessing that it dates back to the communist era, when modern dentistry wasn't a thing. But jebus, there are so many adults where half the teeth in their mouth are shiny metal.
It seems like Japanese retiree group tours are the big thing in uzbekistan. I don't recall ever seeing so many Japanese all at once outside of Japan anywhere before. Other than that its a tiny trickle of random foreigners, and mostly domestic tourists.
Dinner was a disappointment. I wanted to go to a place that was highly rated on tripadvisor, but when i got there it was closed. The other TA options were all kinds dull, and the one that i chose was mediocre and expensive.
I slept until 7am, but i had issues with my guts for much of the night. I got a shower , had breakfast, and then rested in my room until i checked out at 11am.
I attempted to go to the restaurant that I wanted for dinner last night (Ayvan), and it was open. I got orange lemonade, borsch, and pasta carbonara. It was yummy.
After that i picked up my bags and took a taxi to the train station, which was about 20 minutes outside the city. It was 42C outside.
The train station is a bit convoluted. There is a separate building to purchase tickets. You cannot enter the actual station without a ticket. But even once you enter, you have to clear security and get your ticket approved & stamped. Also there was nothing indicating when the train was ready to board. I just watched for a mass exodus out of the station. My car was fairly nice with comfy seats and even AC.
When the train arrived, i walked past the throngs of rabid taxi mobsters until i was nearly out of the station parking lot. I found a few lazy, older taxi drivers sitting around, and went with one of them when they both knew where my hotel was (at least convincingly), and quoted me a price that seemed reasonable for a 30 minute drive (about \$3.25). The guy did fine even if his attempts at broken english were really sad. The hotel looks nice enough, down an alley in a residential neighborhood. Of course this meant that there was basically no where to eat nearby, and i had to walk 20+ minutes for dinner. I decided that if i had to walk that far, i was getting a pizza. Jebus, this city has very few pizza places. Tripadvisor listed 3 total. One would have taken 45 minutes to walk to. The 2nd wasn't even reviewed. The 3rd had very mixed reviews. I started searching for american and burger places, and found a cafe that supposedly did decent pizzas, which was roughly 25 minutes walk.
The walk was actually kinda pleasant. Its not quite as insanely hot in Samarkand, and there are lots of trees everywhere. It almost looks like a vaguely european city. The cafe was semi busy when i arrived. The big surprise was the menu was only in russian, but they had labeled pictures of everything. The word pepperoni in russian looks absolutely ridiculous. Anyway, ordered a 'pepperoni deluxe' with a 'mint lemonade' (which was actually sprite with fresh mint added). I don't hate the drink, but its kinda weird. The pizza itself was surprisingly much better than i expected. Possibly one of the better pizzas that i've had in asia.
After dinner it was starting to get dark, so i figured that i would take a slightly longer route back, and stop at the Registan ensemble, 2 mosques and a madrasa on 3 sides of a huge courtyard. I'd heard that they are lit up at night. Holy crap. First, they are easily the most visually stunning buildings that i've seen on the trip thus far, and equal to the best that i saw in Iran. Second, what no one ever mentions is that, not only are they illuminated at night, but there's a fancy synchronized music and light show. The observation area could likely hold a few thousand people. There were maybe a few hundred tonight. It was all quite impressive. I watched for about a half hour, and then returned to the hotel.
I slept until 7:45am, which is a record for me. I started to feel noticably better late yesterday. I took the 2nd dose of azythrmyacin this morning, so hopefully i have this thing under control now. I got breakfast (they had a buffet, first of the trip!), then relaxed in the glorious AC of my room until i checked out just before noon. I left my bags behind, and headed out to explore.
My first stop was Ishratkhana, the ruins of a mosque. Its in quite poor condition, with the entire roof gone (replaced with corrugated metal sheets), and nearly all the art and ornamentation worn away. There was also a basement crypt, but i opted not to go down there. I saw 2 boys who climbed the crumbling stone spiral stairway, and were playing in the rafters.
Following that i made the foolish decision to walk (what should gave been) an hour north to the Ulegh Beg observatory site. In reality it took nearly 2 hours to get there because i was walking extra slow in the mid-day sun, and google's route turned out to be based on some older version of the city's roads. Along the way, i passed through a poor village where i saw multiple small children running around naked, and people with donkey carts. Eventually i did find my way to the observatory, which was built in the 15th century. It looked kinda cool, but prolly wasn't worth all the effort to get there. Plus, when i used the toilet, it had no running water, was filthy, and the attendant had the audacity to demand money. As i was leaving i ran into the first Chinese tour group of the trip.
Next i walked a half hour to the Shah-i-Zinda ensemble. It was mostly a large collection of mausoleums from the 15th century. Some had pretty domes and art, but others were rather ordinary. At this point i was starving, as i skipped lunch (foolishly thinking that i would find food while walking). I hiked a good 40 minutes across the city to the same area where i had pizza the previous night. I went to a burger place with the creative name, BBQ Burger Club. it was not bad.
I hung out back at the hotel until 9pm, then took a taxi to the train station. The train departing before mine was going to Moscow. Once my train pulled in, i boarded found my cabin. And thus begun 24 hours of hell...
When i first boarded the train, it was an oven even in the corridors. all the windows are those tiny, swing inward that have like 1 inch of actual opening. I found my cabin, i open the door, and find some old dude snoring, with the window *closed*. It must have been over 100f in there. Immediately i opened the tiny window, for all the good it Would do. the train was still in the station, so there was no air flow. Plus it was still 31C outside, so not like it was cool enough to make things better even once the train started moving. So the dude woke up when i opened the window, and started mumbling something in uzbek, and then got up and left, and i never saw him again. I kinda suspect that he didn't even belong there, and was squatting hoping for a bed to sleep on.
At this point, i am dripping sweat and i keep teling myself, once the train is moving air will flow, and it won't be so bad. i run to the toilet to splash some water on my face, and it has no water. Nothing. As i get bAck to my cabin, the conductor shoved a plastic bag with a sheet and pillow case in my hands, and walks away. I make my bed, still super hot. Finally we pull out of the station. There is no air moving. I have the door to my cabin completely open, and its doing nothing to move the air. I took off my shirt for all the good its going to do. And that's when it hits me, i have to do another train just like this the following night to get back to tashkent, except that one is 14 hours instead of the 9 that have on the current train. I am still dripping with sweat, and i am starting to panic. Just laying there, my mouth is super dry every couple minutes, despite me drinking water. I'm not even sure i brought enough water for this fiasco. The air is so hot and still, i feel like i can't breath it in fast enoigh. I get up and stand in the corridor, and there is a little air moving there, but i obviously can't sleep if i'm standing there.
At that point, i decided that i need to abort. I start thinking of how to best deal with all this. Should i get to termez, then pay a driver to drive me 6 hours all the way back to samarkand. Or not waste all that time, and just get off at the next stop, and wing it. A bit after 1am we pulled into Qarsha, and i am still debating what to do. I decided, enough, put my shirt on, grab my stuff, and get off the train. I am afraid someone is going to refuse to let me leave since my ticket is for Termez, but thankfully, no one gives a damn. I walk out of the station, and into the gauntlet of taxi drivers. As soon as i said 'samarkand' they had dollar signs floating in the air, and they were literally laughing and joking about how they are going to be rich tonight. the taxi goons are making so much noise that a station agent wandered over to see what's going on. I ask how much to samarkand, and they originally say \$100, which i flatly refused. Its less than 3 hours of driving, and that is insane based on what i paid other drivers earlier in the trip. The station agent spoke a little english, and asked why i needed to go to samarkand right now. I tried to explain, but clearly a sweltering train is perfectly normal, and i'm just some crazy spoiled american who can't handle the heat. He suggests that i wait until morning when it'll cost less, but i don't want to spend the rest of the night sitting there. The taxi guy then quotes me \$50 (this is all on their phone, since they speak just about zero english). I counter with \$40, and he seems to agree. We wander off towards his car.
as we start driving away from the station, a few other taxis pull up beside us, and they are hooting and yelling, presumably about how they are ripping me off. Then the driver says something about passport and police. He drvives down this dark street and parks, and gets out. I'm starting to freak out. After a few minutes he returns, and apparently he needed his passport in case police pulled us over. We start driving for real. After that it was mostly uneventful. As we're driving i'm researching train & flight options to get to tashkent. I keep trying to book the flight, but all 3 cards are refusing payment. the driver was blasting the weirdest assortment of music, Enya and 50 Cent. We got into samarkand a little after 4am. I hand him \$40, and he freaks out, demanding \$50. I stand firm, and keep saying that we agreed on \$40, but i don't think he even understands me. I grab my bags, and walk away to the hotel gate. He keep screaming at me in the darkness, but eventually gave up and drove off. I got a room, and collapse into bed to get some rest.
I spent a large chunk of the day sleeping. This may have been the best dinner that i had in uzbekistan, and it was literally the first place that i passed. I had a coke, salad (cucumber, tomato, onion, dill bits) & 2 shashlik (beef, peppers, tomatoes & onions). The shashlik onions had some kind of citrus marinade which was so yummy. When i went to pay, they screwed up and didn't charge me for the drink or salad, so i ended up paying just under \$2 for everything. Now I get to look forward to at 4AM flight to Tashkent.
Hundreds of other photos from the trip are posted HERE.
This post is part 2 of the "central-asia-2019" series: