a vegetable vendor in one of Khiva's markets.

Stranger Stories: The People of Uzbekistan

tajikistan mountains

Broken Rules, Broken Roads, and Broken Spirits (Stans #7)

March 14, 2016 Comments (0) Asia, Experiences

Escape Velocity (Stans #6)

Not the taximan in the next story

Not the taximan in this story

I was finally able to eat again. It had been a longer than usual bout of travel sickness. Thirty-six hours straight, either unconscious in bed or dragging myself to the bathroom.

I hadn’t eaten a crumb in two days. A Danish doctor on a RTW motorbike trip had confirmed that my strategy – namely, “starving it out” – was a wise one, so I started carefully as per his advice: Crackers, no dairy. He offered me a few rehydration tablets. They tasted much better than my homemade Salt&Sugar-ade.

While bedridden, I’d left my sandals in the direct sun – or as I call it, the hellish Uzbek sky-inferno. The sandals had permanently deformed from the heat.

I was definitely ready to leave this country.

The Tajik border was 5 hours away by shared taxi, and after a public bus adventure to reach the meeting point, I got into the usual aggro haggling battle. Once I decided that the taximan was ripping me off by an acceptable amount, I hopped into the old Chevrolet (in these parts, pronounced with a hard ‘t’).

Beside me, the smug, golden-toothed taximan. Behind me, a couple, with their two children piled atop them. The woman possessed a voice of remarkable shrillness – almost painful to listen to. And she never. Stopped. Talking. I do feel bad saying this, because she seemed otherwise pleasant.

In a country with an abundant resource of policemen, I was pretty amazed that my driver consistently cruised 50 km/hr over the posted limit. Most countries I visit require a whole-hearted embracing of Hakuna Matata mentality – so my thoughts were not on personal safety, but appreciation for how this man was helping expedite my exit from this country. I just hoped the border would be open when I arrived.

The only times we stopped were for police checkpoints (gliding through, strangely, with only a handshake and a smile); to refill water bottles at a natural spring in the desert (a common stop when sharing taxis across Central Asia); and to refill our fuel tank.

When I had arrived in Uzbekistan three weeks earlier, I noticed something I’d never seen anywhere in the world: Men at the petrol (aka gasoline) station standing beside their cars during refuelling, and rocking them. I asked why and was told: “It’s because the tanks have dents and small corners in them. The old fuel gets stuck. Rocking the car mixes in the new fuel.”

Riiiight. Mystery solved.

Our steed for this sojourn was converted to run on natural gas, like many in Uzbekistan. When we pulled into a gas station (not gasoline, but gas – which I remind you is a gas). There I found hoses attached to the cars, and men standing beside them. Rocking.

I asked someone why and was told , “Our tanks have dents and corners where the old gas gets stuck. Rocking the car mixes in the new gas.”

Mmm hmm. Mystery solved?

Before I would reach the border, my taximan helped me figure something else out. After 4 hours travelling at near light-speeds, we got pulled over by some police, unsurprisingly. But once again no money changed hands – I had to ask him why, in my busted-ass Russian.

He pulled something out – it was a badge.

“Policeman,” he said. “Retired.”

Mystery solved.

Equally Unpleasant on the Way Out

You might recall my interesting experience entering Uzbekistan in Stans #5. You might have even assumed, if you’d thought about it like I did, that a country which makes entering so painful to foreigners would make exiting effortless.

How wrong you’d be.

Exiting was baffingly similar to entering. Perhaps they didn’t want to confuse their staff by training them in two different workflows? Like deja vu, there were forms declaring all my electronics and exact quantities of all currencies; bag searches for books and photos; demands to view all electronic devices and memory cards.

The whole time I thought, “Why are you searching for these same contraband materials? In case you missed them on my way in? But if so, shouldn’t you be happy I’m removing them?”

An hour later I was stamped out, and couldn’t be happier. Stifling heat, bribed cops, higher costs, insane bureaucracy – I’d really had a gut-full of the country.

As I walked into no man’s land, the sun was low. The foothills of the sparkling Fann mountains glowed in the distance (just behind that alumina refinery): A glorious site. In minutes I arrived at the Tajik border. There wasn’t anyone with a machine-gun checking my passport. There wasn’t anyone handing out infuriating forms.

There wasn’t anyone at all, actually.

“Hello?,” I called into the building, unsure if they were even open. Would I need to sleep here until morning? Suddenly, a head poked out from an unlit office. A border guard, half-dressed in his military-green undershirt.

He handed me a form, which I completed in one minute and handed back to him. He glanced at it, stamped my passport, then leaned back and put his feet on the desk.

“Welcome to Tajikistan!” 

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rusted ships in the Aral Sea

Onward I go, into the unknown. The adventure continues… (photo credit Alex Khimushin)

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Just when you thought there was only two brothers Stan, I cross another border! Now seems an apt time to review where this journey has already taken us. Through Central Asian history, geography, psychology, photography and even geology:

A rainy sheep outside a lonely hut in the mountain valleys of Jeti Oghuz, near Karakol.

IMG_5256_3 alpine

An avalanche and landslide Oreo cookie

I told this man I was making portraits of all the amazing faces in Kyrgyzstan. He said, "The reason for such beautiful faces is because we have clean air from the high mountains, and fresh water from the many rivers. If it wasn't for the car pollution we would live to be 200!" Every morning at 5am, he walks to the mosque, 3km return, to pray.

I told this man I was making portraits of all the amazing faces in Kyrgyzstan. He said, “The reason for our beautiful faces is that we have clean air from the high mountains, and fresh water from the many rivers. If it wasn’t for the car pollution we would live to be 200!”

DSC_6040_23 lada

Arslanbob has been a crossroads for millenia - a settled town of farmers amongst a sea of nomads, not far from the Silk Road. Centuries of mixing cultures has created so many faces you'd struggle to place on a map.

Arslanbob has been a crossroads for millennia – a settled town of farmers amongst a sea of nomads, not far from the Silk Road. Centuries of mixing cultures has created so many faces you’d struggle to place on a map.

The streets of Bukhara.

The streets of Bukhara.

Beautiful, colourful women sell produce in a Khiva market.

Just a couple of the beautiful people of Uzbekistan.

 

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