Uzbekistan: Land of the blue houses

We are a little bit worried about the border crossing. Apparently you have to register, if you stay more than 30 days in Tajikistan – and beside that, our bikes only got an absurd stay permit for 14 days. We didn’t know about that register fuss and simply ignored the permit circumstances with the motorcycles, since we got told to do so.

As we have arrived at the customs, the officers are quite friendly and relaxed. They probably have noticed, that we haven’t registered, but they just seem to overlook it and bend the rules. On the Uzbek side everything goes straightforward and quickly, too. So shortly after we can already continue to Samarkand.

Samarkand feels very modern compared to e.g. Dushanbe. However we also have trouble to find a working ATM. The banks either don’t have one at all, or it is out of order. Locals send us to a high priced hotel, but the ATM at this place only gives US Dollars. Finally we manage to get some Uzbek Soms (local currency) in a fancy restaurant. It took us more than two hours to get some cash. Exchanging US Dollars would have been much easier though.

Right next to our guest house is a funeral happening for several days and dozens of people are sitting there all day. They tell us to leave breakfast the next morning, since they want to provide us with “mourning”-dinner. We have to agree several times and it seems to be very important for them. At 10 o’clock sharp the next day they bring us a huge plate with Plov, rice, meat and vegetables – indeed a bit heavy for breakfast, but super tasty.

Samarkands highlight is Registan with its three beautiful Madrasahs (schools for islamic sciences). Although it is quite crowded, this is a very impressive site. Unfortunately the interior mainly consists of countless souvenir shops, that have settled themselves in the former student rooms. We continue roaming through the old town for a while, allow ourselves some beer and finally visit the Rukhobod mausoleum on our way back to the guest house.

The next day we start riding to Bukhara. Bukhara is a modern city, but it has kept its oriental flair in the old town. We need some more cash and are facing the same issues like in Samarkand – ATMs are not present or out of order. On the way back to our rooms we find a lovely little bar – 0,40 € for half a litre of beer, that’s definitely nothing to complain about.

Our Czech friend Pavel is leaving us the next morning. He already got his Turkmenistan visa and is running out of time. Miri and me are staying another day to explore the city unhurriedly. Moreover we are still waiting to receive our Turkmenistan visas anyway.

The route to Khiva leads though quite unspectacular deserted waste land. The distances between the cities also increase the more westwards you travel – there is also no reason to settle in the middle of the desert. Petrol stations become rare and only sell 80 octane fuel. Usually we wouldn’t use it for our bikes and some other travellers told us, that they also had serious trouble with clogged fuel filters due to filthy petrol. Therefore we rather start riding with a three-quater filled tank. However the distance to Khiva is almost 400km (250mi) and the petrol stations there only sell LPG. Many local vehicles in Uzbekistan have adventurous LPG conversions installed. That doesn’t help us though and that’s why we only reach a petrol station that sells any petrol at the last moment. Of course they only sell 80 octane, so we have to give it a try. Luckily our Hondas don’t seem to care about the bad petrol at all. They might sound a little bit louder, but otherwise we can’t notice any difference.

Approximately 50 kilometers before Khiva we decide to camp at the Amu Darya river. The last meters to the stream are deep sand and there is a construction site. We try to pass the workers until one of the guys tries to explain to us, that we can’t continue this way. We try to mime, that we are looking for a place to pitch our tent and are actually quite sure, that he is going to kick us out of this place. Surprisingly he asks us to follow him to their chillout area next to the river instead. Before he leaves again, he even starts cleaning the spot for us. A little later he returns and invites us for dinner in the next village with his friend. They fill the whole table with different delicious meals and vodka. We are also not allowed to pay the bill in the end. It is a very cool evening, but the conversation in Russian-Uzbek is quite difficult once again. When we return to our camp, it is already occupied. A cheeky pack of dogs is chilling everywhere. The next morning they are very busy to help with our breakfast.

Khiva is the most touristic place we have seen on our tour through Uzbekistan. The old city is surrounded by a massive wall. Many houses are made of mud and lots of places are adorned with bluish mosaics. A famous site is Kalta Minor, a massive turquoise minaret stump, that never has been completely finalised due to static issues. In the evening we climb Islom-Hoja, the highest minaret of Uzbekistan. You have a quite cool city overview up there.

We are still waiting for our Turkmenistan visas. Therefore we decide to visit the Uzbek side of the Aral lake, too. In contrast to the Kazakh side, they have some ship wrecks left from a time, when the Aral lake still had plenty of water. The little village Moynak is nothing special. However just outside the village, you find the rusty wrecks in the middle of a deserted landscape. You still can identify the former shore line and a herd of cows is hiding in the shades of the wrecks to escape the searing heat. The whole place is quite bizarre in a cool way. We meet two other travellers, Andreas and Balazs, and decide to pitch our night camp right between the wrecks. The stars in night time are unbelievable and the ships glow in the moonlight – a truely mystical place.

Unfortunately there is nothing really else to do in western Uzbekistan. It is quite comparable to western Kazakhstan. We are still waiting for the visas. So our only option is to ride to Kungrad, which is situated in the middle between the Turkmenian and the Kazakh border. Like that, we can reach both borders easily.

Kungrad is a real hicktown. Even in our weird guest house, that is run by two kids, since their parents are working in a nearby restaurant, we have a power breakdown and sit in darkness the next evening. We carefully ask the next day, when we will have power again, because we need to check the status of our visas in the internet. They tell us, that there won’t be any power anymore for a start. After some protest, we are allowed to move in a room of the restaurant, where the parents are working. It is not nice, but we can check our mails at least.

Another day later we still haven’t received our visas. Our Uzbekistan visas are going to expire the day after tomorrow and we cannot extend them either. So the only option we have is “Plan B” – re-enter Kazakhstan (the only surrounding country, where we can get a visa on arrival) and take a ferry over the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. The visa for Azerbaijan you luckily can get with an express option in less than 3 hours – even on weekends and holidays. We actually wanted to avoid this option, since we have heard terrible stories about this ferry connection. They follow no schedule, people got stranded on the ferries for several days due to bad weather conditions, apparently the food supply is bad etc. – but we have no choice anyway.

The ride to the border is just terrible. 300 kilometers of flat, deserted nothingness. Right in front of the border is a small village, where we want to buy some food. They have a festival going on and the whole village is gathered. It is a very remote place and people are usually not stopping here at all. No wonder, that we are suddenly the main attraction of the festival. After a few seconds we are already surrounded by a crowd and everybody tries to talk to us. We almost need a full hour and 100 selfies, until a police officer tells the people to make an “escape” lane and we finally can continue. We feel tired and pitch our tent right at the border buildings.

We will never receive an Turkmenian visa or a message concerning our application. Luckily we haven’t paid anything in advance – muppets!
Uzbekistans cities are very nice. Every person that likes city tours, would enjoy it a lot. The landscapes were nothing really special though. Apparently there are more interesting parts in the eastern mountain areas. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit them anymore.

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