Through the Gates of Hell, into Uzbekistan!
I planned to continue North, then East to Konye-Urgench and to exit Turkmenistan and enter Uzbekistan on the same day. I needed to be in Samarkand on 25th. This plan would mean that I would have a day in hand, even if it meant I would be spending a day less in Turkmenistan.
But I will be heading back there to transit back across the Caspian in any case.
I was in my car at about 07:30 in the morning. The road, initially at least was pretty good. It is obviously being upgraded as I found myself sometimes rather suddenly being switched onto a contraflow system. However, the final 100kms were a nightmare of deep potholes, 30cm tall ridges in the tarmac and sometimes just dirt tracks. It was extremely uncomfortable and I felt like I was going to pop a shock absorber or blow a tyre at any minute. At one point, a can of tyre repair solution bounced its way off the roof of the car and exploded in the road behind in a large puff of CO2 and latex!
You may know that a GPS system normally has the name of the road you may be on – Like M1 or so-and-so street. The journey started with it being clearly displayed. But after I’d hit the bumpy bits it changed to display just ‘road’, which was being more than a little generous. I had to slow down to about 30kms/hr, sometimes to a crawl. On occasion, I followed the tracks of offroad vehicles, away from the road, in order to pass the worst sections. The GPS has a feature that takes photographs when it thinks there has been an accident (like a bump or sudden braking). Well it was saying ‘!Incident! every few minutes, so I needed to turn it off. Poor Kerrching took a bit of a beating.
Konye-Urgench is a very old (400BC) city, and a major junction to the Silk road to Russia in the West, and China to the East. It was once the capital of the ancient Khwarezem and part of the Persian empire. It became known as the heart of the Islamic world and was particularly famed for its scholars. It was fought over by infamous characters such as Timor and Genghis Khan who had its populations slaughtered and every building, bar a single mosque destroyed. But since then, it was rebuilt, albeit in a different location.
It also has a very vibrant bazaar through its dusty, mud streets. Hugely noisy. I stuck out like a sore thumb and as I walked through all I could hear was “Dollar, dollar” from people wanting to change money. I bought one thing – a steel ‘tea’ strainer for the fresh coffee I’d brought in the car. Cost? 50p. I couldn’t bring myself to haggle that down.
A small girl, maybe aged about 8, and pretty as pretty could be, was helping her mum at a stall selling drinks. I saw the cold bottle of Fanta-ish and pointed at it. She fetched it from the cooler and I handed her a 10 manat note. She said, politely “no, sixteen”. I was surprised that an 8 year old was able to speak English and rather impressed by her ability to ask an inflated price for some orangeade! It was a slightly disconcerting luminous orange in colour and tasted of Redoxon!
By chance, I met up with a Dutch couple and the Guide who were my neighbours at the Yurt. We all had a quick lunch together. Then I went on to the border. It was 2pm so I had plenty of time before it (and that of Uzbekistan) closed at 6. Or so I thought.
There was lots of faffing about completing customs forms, where valuables were meant to be listed. But the officer wasn’t really interested in them – just in the money and currencies I was exporting. Then an Officer at another section asked for my GPS. Ooh, I thought, they are going to use the history capability of my GPS to check I’d not strayed from the route? I had to go back to the car and fetch it. When I handed it over, they looked at me like I was mad “No! GPS”. They wanted a tracker and I wasn’t handed one on entry to the country. I explained it to them. Unfortunately, I had signed something which said I’d paid $10 for ‘GPS’. I explained that I had to make so many payments and get some many things stamped that after 26 hours on the ferry, I would have signed anything. They appeared to believe me but at least 3 departments and 8 or so people, one by one, looked at my passport, my car registration documents, my transit route papers etc. Apparently, every car on a transit visa must have a tracker fitted. Here I was, johnnie foreigner, coming into a country, following a prescribed route dutifully but making it impossible to monitor me. The staff were all decent and friendly and soon realised it wasn’t my fault at all. But it took another 3 and a half hours waiting about, during cross departmental conferences, for me to be released. It was the rulebook, not the people. I’ve not had a conversation with any Turkman (or woman) that wasn’t completely friendly and reasonable.
By the time I got to the Uzbek side, it was 5:50 and they were plainly keen on going off duty. Lots of smiles, cursory checks on the car, paperwork stamped and away!
The difference visually and aurally with Uzbekistan was immediate. Here was a dusty, untidy place with cars revving, loud music playing and oh, shops that looked like they were shops because they had signage above their doors. My kinda place!
I stayed the night in a big ex-Soviet style hotel. But it had been done up and my room was huge and comfortable too.
Sorry about the lack of pics. a whole day spent in the car and the rest of it at a (photos banned) border post, meant opportunities were scant.