Central Asia is a little off your typical backpacker routes. That’s not to say it’s undiscovered, just that it’s an unpolished experience. Compared to the countries I’d visited so far, the development of tourism and the mix of travellers were quite different.
Outside of the yearly Mongol Rally, westerners are few. I found mainly Asians looking for adventure: these travels bought Japanese, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Singaporean and Iranian friends. As I journeyed forth many locals questioned why I wasn’t visiting during the summer months and maybe if I had the backpacking demographic would have been different. It would have certainly meant more people: I can genuinely count the number of tourists I conversed with on two hands! This was a new experience in itself and I wouldn’t have changed my adventures one bit.
I'm now beginning to understand what it means to come from a developed country. It's not just about the wealth; it's that the land is more settled, built on, each square foot carefully pedicured. In this modern day I’m sure someone owns the many uncultivated lands of Central Asia but it was clear no one was caring for or developing them.
In west Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there was endless empty land; even in the towns, great dusty scrub-filled gaps existed between buildings. Towns rose out of the continuous desert landscape. Each one had the same with low-slung buildings; many half finished with piles of bricks and fences up; empty bottles smashed into the dirt surrounded all.
Pico in West Kazakhstan
Arriving in Say-Otes, a small highway town, to rest up for the evening and change a punctured wheel, 3 boys greeted me with smiles and curiosity: we took photos. A tramp approached and tried to distract me: he turned to punching me in jest. Night came and bought a few visitors: one drunken man attempted to enter Pico and steal my blanket. Twas a strange evening.
The three schoolboys who didn't try to punch me or get in Pico in Say-Otes
It was clear that Central Asia was a different world to where I’d come from. Wild camels roamed the sandy blonde western deserts. There were even road kill cows to navigate. Copious extravagant stone-cut mausoleums showed deathly remembrance was clearly observed.
To begin with I thought Kazakh roads were left deliberately poor in the towns I crossed through. What better way to slow traffic down than let the tarmac fall into disrepair while maintaining the trunk roads? Two days in, when I plugged the Uzbek border in the satnav, I was rather disheartened by the suggestion that 80km would take over 2 hours. I was tired from the poor nights sleep in Say-Otes and with a headache brewing the estimated time of arrival was unfortunately accurate. The road was awful!
This desolation was as incredible as it comes; the feeling of true remoteness was both invigorating and sobering. Standing on Pico’s roof gave 360-degree views over the desert plains. It’s fair to say that navigation was the easiest it’s ever been: there was only one road to take.
The barren flatlands on Western Uzbekistan
Across Central Asia I had 6 punctures: they were testament to the road quality at points. Some sections would be brand new tarmac and in other sections it was safer to be off the road. The Kazakh/Uzbek border bought a wheel change in no-mans land having had the problem pointed out during customs inspection. At one point I even wrapped a tyre in duct tape to try and aid the air retention. Another time I ended up with two punctures and a hitchhiker very kindly paid for the repairs. I picked him up 100km from any civilisation – how he got there I’ve no idea! Fortunately there were no big blowouts – I never thought I’d consider slow punctures a blessing.
Many punctures to repair
The kindest of hitchhikers - dropping him off having paid for two tyres to be repaired :)
Crossing into Uzbekistan was an interesting one. Without a doubt it was the most thorough search I’ve had on the road. Every single possession in Pico was removed from the vehicle, my phone photos were checked for half an hour and my medical kit was checked for banned items such as the common western painkiller Codeine. With several friends in compromising positions, my phone photos certainly provided some merriment for the border officials. Mercifully, the curious memes passed inspection with only a few confused looks and general joviality.
Other borders like the one between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were strangely quiet. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are the worst in Central Asia. Tajikistan is entirely reliant on gas imports from Uzbekistan for energy and the Uzbeks limit their exports to them significantly while charging a very high price. It means the Tajiks are only able to run one power plant for the whole country and this brings huge shortages and constant blackouts. The Tajiks plan to build the world’s biggest dam to rectify this. The potential consequences are a dramatically reduced water supply to downstream countries and this might damage Uzbekistan’s lucrative cotton production. Unsurprisingly tensions are high and it’s been reported that it may even be enough for war. A simple demonstration of this is that no Uzbek and Tajik cars are allowed to cross into the other’s land. It made things very simple for me – I was the only car there!
At points I’m not sure I have ever been as remote as I was in the deserts of west Uzbekistan. There was not a light to been seen other than Pico’s dash. Temperatures were nearly always below freezing on drifting off to sleep and on waking up. Who knows how low it went: my many layers only just kept me thawed.
Wild camping at its remotest - I didn't see another vehicle or person for hours
Another cold wakeup in Pico
Nukus was my first proper town in Uzbekistan. It’s where my smiling hitchhiker paid for Pico’s tyre repairs. Arrival in the city bought the need for sustenance for Pico and me. My food requirement was easily solved: a trip to the Cinnamon bakery off the main square bought a strange western café culture and some exquisite cakes. Pico’s fuel requirement was somewhat more of a challenge.
Fuel in Uzbekistan is very difficult to get hold of. Petrol stations sell out in hours and diesel is almost unheard of. There are many locations available: it’s just that they are all empty and many are abandoned. I haven’t been able to extract the exact reason for this: Uzbekistan is an oil producing country! My simple explanation is that the Uzbek state prefers to export its petroleum at a higher price than sell it to its population. As a result, nearly all Uzbek cars run on LPG these days.
In one interesting game of chicken, I arrived in Bukhara with 0 on the fuel meter. It had been this way for many kilometres. Purchasing fuel on the black market saved me – it was this way during my whole time in Uzbekistan. My favourite experience of buying such fuel was my first.
Another queue outside a petrol station - I never succeeded in buying any fuel from one...
... fortunately I could find it roadside from guys like these
I rested in the Jipek Joli hotel in Nukus. Hostels just don’t really exist in many of the towns and cities in Central Asia. Far more common are guesthouses, homestays and hotels that would never succeed anywhere else. In Khujand, I stayed in the coldest room I’ve ever encountered – I was the first person to stay as a paying guest and how they managed to make the room cooler than the minus temperatures outside I’m not sure. One place that I did find a hostel of a more common variety was the Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan – I’ll come onto that wonderful place in my next post. In Nukus, staying in the Jipek Joli was a huge stroke of fortune.
Dinner was a very pleasurable spicy 'Chinese' meat dish and I had the pleasure of an Englishman's company for dinner. Al was a perfect person to converse with over an Uzbek local brew. As often happens, he came from Andover: just down the road from where I'm from. He told me a great many stories with advice for the countries I was due to visit next and we lamented Trump's presidential victory. We met for breakfast the next day and what a day that was.
I had three objectives: get a local SIM, change some money and get some fuel. These may sound like easy tasks but in Uzbekistan it's not that simple. To get a SIM you must present your passport at a central telecoms office with your confirmed hotel reservation. To get local currency you must change dollars on the black market: there are almost no ATMs (or banks seemingly!). To get petrol (benzine) you must also deal in the black market.
Fortunately one of the hotel staff came to my rescue. Dili was a godsend. She walked me to her family home where her father Dushstam greeted me warmly and sat me down for more breakfast. Copious volumes of chai flowed. And then out came the brandy - huh! 2 shots later and we were ready to do some dealing.
He was able to change money for me. Having checked my currency app I should have got 3127 Som for each dollar. I had $75 to change and he rolled out 500,000 Som. I couldn't understand – I thought I should have been getting 235,000. And then he spotted I was after far less and offered 300,000. Having realised the potential for black market currency dealings and that he knew I was originally after less, we settled on 375,000 Som. He got a great deal and I got more than I expected. Such is the demand for dollars that I walked away with a wedge of 375 notes!
On to the SIM and Dushstam walked me round to his brother-in-law’s where we set off to get a SIM card. Thankfully, all was relatively simple once we knew the process and it all got sorted fairly swiftly.
Getting hold of the petrol, however, was a shady affair. We picked up some containers from one place and arrived at an unmarked door to fill them up. 4000 Som per litre later and my guides were shocked at the cost. Somehow I managed to get across that it was still cheaper than the UK but only just!
We filled up Pico with a funnel that was fortunately gauze covered. Black market fuel can be of varying dubious qualities (octane 60-80 compared to the UK standard of 92) and gauze stops any of the other unsavoury ingredients making their way in. I didn’t use one but many people recommend an octane booster when in Uzbekistan.
Filling Pico roadside with black market fuel and Dushstam's brother-in-law
After our adventures, Dushstam took a look at Pico and immediately said we had to drive her back to his. I couldn't understand why but when we arrived it all became clear when he got out the hosepipe. Pico got clean! For the first time in ages, you could once again see the glory of the stickers. It may have been the great currency deal he'd made but I couldn't have rejoiced more.
Dushstam giving Pico a good clean :)
I was about to set off and once again I was pulled inside. Time for lunch and a most fantastic spread was provided. Walnuts, hazelnuts, pickles, kimchi, meat with potatoes, chocolates and obviously lots more chai plus a shot of vodka and much more were all laid out to feast on. The warmth of the family home I found myself in was a very special moment.
Tucking in to my second meal of the day with my hosts
The chef - Dili's mum having prepared a wonderful lunch
Nukus’ one other point of interest is the Savitsky art museum located in the central square of the city. Although its full name is The State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, it really deserves to be named after its proponent and initial curator. During the Soviet Union’s ban of certain art, particularly modern, Igor Savitsky – a Russian by birth – fought to assemble a magnificent collection of Russian and Central Asian fine art and avant-garde artists. He hid this collection in the remote town of Nukus far away from the inquisitive eyes of the Communist elite.
His achievements in orchestrating this project should not be underestimated. Today the assemblage is over 82,000 pieces and without it, much of the 20th century’s art from this region would have been lost. Due to the closed doors of the Soviet Union, the museum’s pieces were barely recognised until its curator’s death in 1985 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. I must say that some of the artwork inside was truly awesome (and some of it not so great ;). I loved discovering inside with pieces crammed together from many different artists I’d never heard of, in many different styles and mediums.
Unsurprisingly with so much in the collection, a lot of it is not on display. Fortunately, the current building is in the process of being tripled in size and if I ever get the opportunity to revisit I will jump at it. I have much admiration for Igor Savitsky’s life’s work, if not his particular brand of art itself. The story, if nothing else, is pretty special.
I also had a rather funny moment outside. Pico was parked up across the road and as I exited the museum I noticed two lads taking a very strong interest in him. I’m not sure quite how I knew but immediately I guessed stickers were disappearing. On approaching them, many protestations said they hadn’t touched Pico. The patches of missing stickers revealed otherwise and I caught a glimpse inside one of the boy’s jackets. Caught red-handed, they were quite apologetic and I traded the stickers for the picture below. Fortunately I’d found some stickers on the streets of Berlin so had replacements ready. However, this moment and the settled snow in Tajikistan meant I lost a fair few more stickers throughout my time in Central Asia!
Pico's sticker thief
Other than a few borrowed stickers, I found crime to be very low throughout the region. The streets were very safe at night and at all points I felt I was secure. However, where there was little crime, there was a whole lot of corruption. For many, working as a government official allows them to supplement their incomes. I often got stopped at the regular police checkpoints and usually they were just inquisitive about the British plates or right hand drive steering. Nevertheless, there were a fair few occasions that bribes had to be paid.
A passenger in Pico got stung for not wearing his seatbelt. I got stopped for speeding coming out of a town although I’m fairly sure they made the speed limit up! On one night in Dushanbe, the police pulled over and bundled me into a car for having a drink and walking back to my hostel. I was driven to a portacabin outside the national opera house and guessing where it might be going, I had a moment of clarity and requested to go to the toilet.
Worryingly, I was told to urinate against the opera house and did so expecting them to cuff me for it. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case and I had the opportunity to take most of my freshly withdrawn cash out my wallet and deposit it between my bum cheeks. 90 minutes of conversation later, some bumbled attempts from them to extract a bribe and a wallet inspection, they realised I had very little on me and kindly gave me a lift back to my hostel. This all came with many smiles and some light-hearted naming of Premier League football heroes.
Throughout my time in Central Asia, I avoided quite a few bribes by claiming ignorance, playing dumb and opening an empty wallet. Playing the long game and trying to waste time nearly always worked as any more time spent with me meant less time extracting beer money from others. If the bribe really had to be paid, it was always worth negotiating: the seatbelt situation started at 120 Som and ended at 20 Som – bargain :) The only people I didn’t mess with were border officials as they held the power to restrict my entry and I had to get Pico to the Chinese border! That comes next time out.
Me outside one of the beautiful buildings on Bukhara
Saying goodbye to another hitchhiker I picked up from nowhere
More of Uzbekistan's desolate highways: this one is excellent condition on the way to Khiva
This post and the next cover all my time in Central Asia so here are all the dates and places from this time:
Sunday 6th November – A random hostel, Aktau, Kazakhstan
Monday 7th November – Near train tracks, Say-Otes, Kazakhstan
Tuesday 8th November – Desert track, western Uzbekistan
Wednesday 9th November – Hotel Jipek Joli, Nukus, Uzbekistan
Thursday 10th November – Hotel Lalipa, Khiva, Uzbekistan
Friday 11th November – Hostel Rumi, Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Saturday 12th November – Guesthouse Minora, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Sunday 13th November – Guesthouse Minora, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Monday 14th November – Desert track, southeastern Uzbekistan
Tuesday 15th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Wednesday 16th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Thursday 17th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Friday 18th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Saturday 19th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Sunday 20th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Monday 21st November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Tuesday 22nd November – Village south of Kalaykhusayen, en route to Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Wednesday 23rd November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Thursday 24th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Friday 25th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Saturday 26th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Sunday 27th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Monday 28th November – Green House Hostel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Tuesday 29th November – Guest House Sebzor, Khujand, Tajikistan
Wednesday 30th November – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Thursday 1st December – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Friday 2nd December – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Saturday 3rd December – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Sunday 4th December – Osh Hostel Inn, Osh, Kyrgyzstan