June 26, 2012
When building our Trekking the Planet itinerary we chose to include Central Asia for several reasons. First, this area is filled with fascinating history, conjuring up images of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the Silk Road. A stop here also broke up our journey between China and Europe, making for a nice transition as we continue our way west. At the time we mentioned to our families that we planned to visit Central Asia we received some concerned looks and a few raised eyebrows. So we performed some extra due diligence to ensure that our visit would be safe and enjoyable. And are we glad we did! We have been in Uzbekistan for about a week now and are amazed at what we have seen and at the warm welcome we have received from the local people.
Uzbekistan is another former Soviet state and a newly independent nation, gaining independence in 1991. It could not be more different than Kyrgyzstan, our previous stop in Central Asia. It is far more populous, with about 27 million people, compared to Kyrgyzstan’s 5 million. Uzbekistan is big too. It is the 56th largest country in the world and about the size of Spain or the U.S. state of California. Uzbekistan is also one of only two doubly landlocked nations (countries with other landlocked countries surrounding it) in the world. If you are in a doubly landlocked country, you would need to cross two borders to reach a coastline. In case you were wondering, Liechtenstein is the other doubly landlocked country.
During our 2 1/2 weeks in Uzbekistan, we wanted to travel independently and visit several remote places. Because we chose to travel independently, we made some conscious decisions to be more vigilant when moving around. We decided to book our hotels and transportation through a local travel agency. This way, we would get the benefit of their knowledge and have someone to turn to if we had a problem while traveling on our own.
Our first stop was in the capital city of Tashkent, with a population of about two million people. Here, we stayed away from the metro and took taxis more than we normally would, as we read and were told that police may stop foreigners and expect bribes. We ate in some delightful restaurants among the locals and found people to be friendly and spoke more English than expected. We found the prices to be quite inexpensive (lunch for about $2 and dinner for about $5 each). The food was more European than Asian, which was a nice change. The weather was also warmer than we had experienced during the past few weeks, with temperatures well above 86 F / 30 C during the day.
Converting money has become commonplace to us as we travel from country to country. However, the currency situation in Uzbekistan is unlike anything else we have seen so far. The official exchange rate is about 1,880 Uzbekistan som to one US dollar. There are no ATMs that distribute som here (in fact, they only dispense US dollars!). The accepted way to exchange money is on the black market, although it is technically illegal. Here, the conversion is much more advantageous and we consistently received a rate of 2,600 som to a dollar.
Exchanging money this way has its own process. The best place to make the transaction is in the bazaar market. When one arrives it does not take long for storekeepers to peak out of their doors saying “Exchange Money?”. If you nod, you are quickly whisked into their store and negotiations take place to agree on the som exchange rate per dollar. Once that is complete, a cell phone call is made and about five minutes later another person arrives, usually carrying a small bag or backpack containing the funds. Then money quickly changes hands. The largest bill is 1000 som (about 40 cents USD) so when the money comes it is in large stacks. We change $100 to $200 at a time, meaning that we receive up to 520 bills (520,000 som for $200 at a rate of 2,600 to 1). After making these transactions, we divide the stacks up between us and return directly back to the hotel room to place them in strategic places elsewhere.
After Tashkent, our next stop was the historic city of Samarkand. We booked a train as part of our transportation package so we needed to get ourselves from our hotel to the train station. We felt pretty confident that we would not have any issues getting to the station and the train on our own. It turned out that this was much more difficult than we expected. We asked the hotel to call us a taxi to drive us the two miles to the station. When we got into the car we verified the quoted price (4,500 som or less than $2) and destination with the driver. After we started driving he kept on insisting in his broken English that he was taking us to the airport. Sandy had to get out her communication card and point to the train symbol to help him understand where we needed to go. When we arrived at the train station, the price suddenly changed to 10,000 som. We good-naturedly told him “no way”, paid the 4,500 som and went into the train station.
At the entrance there were many people all pushing to get through the airport-style luggage scanners. In front of us were two men with huge boxes that looked like they contained flat screen TVs. They were trying to cram them on the conveyer belt. We, and several people behind us, were all straining to get our luggage on the belt right behind them. As soon as those large boxes began to go through the machine, 20 bags thumped down on the belt from all directions. We had to be aggressive to keep up with the others or risk becoming separated from our bags.
Once past security we looked everywhere for a sign designating our train and track number. There were none. We eventually found one employee and showed him our ticket. He held up two fingers and pointed to the right. We surmised that he met Track 2 as a staircase in that direction had a Track 2 to Track 4 sign above it. When we descended the stairs and came back up to the track we walked over to another employee and showed him our tickets again. He pointed to the train next to him and we boarded. The train was hot and had a narrow aisle. We had to lift and turn our bags sideways to navigate them halfway down the car to our compartment.
There were already other people and luggage inside it. As we mulled over where to store our bags, a young woman in the compartment indicated that we had the same seats as she did. She motioned that we should go talk to the employee outside the train so we went to find him again. He looked at both our tickets and then realized that he had told us to get on the wrong train. The train we were on was the slower train to Samarkand and we were booked on the fast train on the next track over. There was a mad scramble to get us and our luggage back down the narrow aisle and off the slow train as it was leaving in five minutes! Finally, we boarded the correct train and enjoyed an uneventful 3 1/2 hour ride to Samarkand, accompanied by videos of national music concerts being shown on screens above our seats.
Samarkand is over 2,000 years old and was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Because it sat on the crossroads of China, India and Persia, it was an important Silk Road destination. From the 6th to 13th centuries, Samarkand had a population in the hundreds of thousands. This ended in 1220 when Genghis Khan destroyed the city.
Samarkand rose again as a capital city in 1370. The architectural sites that we saw were built after this date. Our first stop in Samarkand was the Registan, a public square and complex of buildings which probably functioned as bazaars and madrassas (Islamic schools). The three main structures were built in the 15th and 17th centuries. The courtyards and buildings were impressive and great to explore.
Although the Registan is Samarkand’s premier attraction, we were also amazed by some of the other sites in the city. These include the Bibi-Khanym Mosque that was built in the early 15th century and was one of the Islamic world’s largest structures at the time. Shah-i-Zinda is an amazing series of mausoleums (monument or burial chambers) which, to us, represented a small city with narrow walkways, containing building after building of vivid blue tile work. More than 20 buildings make up the complex. We were told that Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of Muhammad, is buried here.
Shah-i-Zinda is an important pilgrimage site for people so we saw many locals. Here, as in other parts of Samarkand, people greeted us and asked our nationality. When told we were Americans, people were pleasantly surprised and many seemed honored to meet us. We had several requests for photos and, more than once, as we were taking pictures of people, we caught them with their cameras taking pictures of us at the same time! In several cases, older people approached us, welcoming us in Uzbek or Russian with big smiles. We saw very few other tourists, and those we did see were all Europeans.
With our time in Samarkand at an end, we will take a break from large cities and head to the even warmer Kyzyl Kum desert. Here we will spend one night in a mountain village home stay and then camp for two nights at a desert yurt close to Lake Aidarkul. After the warm welcome we have received in Uzbekistan thus far, we are looking forward to meeting more local people in these places before picking up the Silk Road trail again in the cities of Bukhara and Khiva.