|Samarkand by night|
|Look at the cool lions on top|
|Kids and watermelons|
|Another that's been scared off by Abs|
|Samarkand by dusk|
|Bukhara at dusk|
|Indian Indiana Jones|
|The best bread of all of Central Asia|
|Our guesthouse in Bukhara|
|Train from Samarkand to Bukhara|
|When people close to go shower??|
|Over night train to Tashkent|
|Meat Porridge at the National Food Centre|
|Meetball and potato dish|
|Abs charming the bread lady|
Uzbekistan wasn’t much better. Our hand luggage was minutely searched and even the paper napkins were under scrutiny. Trying to explain to the border guards that we still had a 6hr journey that day was of little use. And thus we were introduced to the police state of Uzbekistan.
Little did we know that this would only be the start of our multiple encounters with the Uzbek police and that our 6hr drive to Samarkand would in the end take 10hrs due to the ridiculous number of police checkpoints on the road over the next leg of our journey. Every hour or so we were forced to pull over and have every passengers’ documents checked and scrutinised. Some were asked to go through metal detectors and all baggage was put through airport style security scanners. Despite this being a relatively remote road it was one that unfortunately led straight to the opium fields of Afghanistan. Whether the police actually stopped any drugs getting through or simply asked for their cut we don’t know but it made for a frustrating journey.
The only positive was that we were fortunate to sit through yet more spectacular views as we rapidly snaked our way through valleys lying beneath sediment-layered mountains. But night soon approached and brought with it a view that consisted simply of the large over ground pipes that hugged our road and carried the country’s ubiquitous amounts of oil and gas to other parts of the country.
We finally arrived at Samarkand well after midnight. Our taxi driver struggled to find our pre-booked lodging for the night, but our saviour came in the form of an elderly gentleman who happened to be just outside his house at 1am and gave us directions to our final destination. Despite speaking no English he also invited us to his house the next evening for a cup of tea. And we duly obliged. Unfortunately he had failed to mention this invitation to his family, no doubt surprised when a man, starting to resemble Bob Marley, and his girlfriend turned up that evening. Nonetheless Timur (the son) and his family were the perfect hosts. Conversation and tea flowed easily, and we were able to sample some fine Uzbek cooking prepared by Timur’s wife and his mother. As if their remarkable hospitality was not enough Timur’s mum also proffered gifts to Diana in the shape of a silk scarf and a beautiful local ikat textile. Meeting Timur and his family was definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far.
We spent a few days in Samarkand, taking in what remains (and has been restored) of this fabled Silk Road City. And it was mesmerising. Beautiful mausoleums commemorating the great leaders of the past dominated the Eastern skyline. Madrassas lay interspersed throughout the city, glittered with the ever-present turquoise mosaics, somehow kindling one’s imagination that it was here that travelling caravans stopped and traded their wares amongst each other in the bustling bazaars. And perhaps most importantly we savoured what was possibly the best ice cream in all of Central Asia, no doubt a recipe passed down over the years from family to family until it finally ended up in that one supermarket situated next to the main tourist attraction.
And to fuel our love of this ice cream we needed money. Lots of it. And Uzbekistan turned out to be the most apt place. With the smallest note in circulation being worth approximately £0.30 / $0.50, changing simply $100 (£60) resulted in us being handed a wad of cash made up of approximately 250 separate notes. It took endless time to count and recount and was so volumous that we ended up having to stuff most of it into our bags.
To complicate matters we also had to change all our money on the black market, where rates were approximately 40% better than the official bank rate. Why there is a black market and why the rate is so different never really became clear to us but it seemed common practice. In any case if you are as baffled as Abs (an accountant at heart) and it is of any interest to you, you can find more information here.
After spending a few days in Samarkand we moved onto the next Silk Road City, Bukhara, home to some of the brightest minds to have ever lived…about 1,200 years ago (it was here, for example, that the algorithm was invented - by Mr Algauizin no less).
It was without a doubt also another smart man that decided to call the focal point of the old city “Lab-i Hauz”, a reasonably small pond, which, whilst beautiful, created confusion for us on arrival at the train station. We thought we were being heckled by all the taxi drivers asking if we wanted to go the “Love House” and it was only later that we realised that this was not the name of some red-light district establishment, but rather the city centre.
Bukhara, like Samarkand, was beautiful and rightly deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage Status. However, it seemed almost like the sole source of income for most its inhabitants was tourism. With the highest concentration of hotels and guesthouses that we encountered in central Asia, artisans, wood carvers and photo galleries spread liberally around the historical centre it was a tourist heaven. German, French & Swiss tourist groups rummaged through the many tourist shops scattered around the main sites making Abs immediately flee to the outskirts of the city. Abs was also extremely upset when rummaging for souvenirs we came upon a shop that was being run by a 14 year old girl, simply because she spoke good English. We never did see her parents.
Having seen most of the city in half a day we stayed just one night before catching an overnight sleeper train to the capital Tashkent. Our intention on reaching Tashkent was to catch the same day train into Kazakhstan but the runs got the best of Diana and we decided to instead stay the night. Abs as always was immune to these intestinal disorders and quickly took advantage of our unexpected stay to visit the National Food Centre filled with vat upon vat of locally made “yummy” (“yummy” being largely debatable and dependant on whether horse meat and meat porridge are enjoyable to the vegetarian or in fact any non-British-Indian palate) delicacies. Whilst there is no accord on whether the food was appetizing we are now in agreement and firmly believe that every country should have a National Food Centre by law. And so after a day of repose and eating (at least for Abs) we moved onto our final Central Asian country, Kazakhstan, which we heard from an unnamed source, was the greatest country in the world.