The Third Lane: Bukhara to Khiva (Uzbekistan)

The Third Lane refers to an imaginary path in the center of a road between the two directions of opposing traffic. It is used by impatient drivers to pass cars even though they are overtaking vehicles on narrow mountain roads or blind corners.

Darren writes about some of our most memorable road experiences while in Asia.

We are traveling at about 85 miles / 135 kilometers per hour. The windows are wide open in hopes of bringing some relief from the heat as we drive across the Kyzyl Kum Desert (Kyzyl Kum means Red Sand in the Turkic language). Our driver rests his hand on the center of the steering wheel just in case he needed to blast the horn. We were making the A380 run in Uzbekistan between the old Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Khiva – a journey of 275 miles (or 440 kilometers). We had heard from several sources that the road was very bad – especially the last few hours.

Because there is no train service from Bukhara to Khiva, we had only three choices. We could have flown. However, we had made a commitment before we started our around-the-world journey to limit our air travel. The two remaining options were a shared taxi mini-van or a private driver. Since the idea of playing the part of a sardine in a sweaty mini-van for 11 hours did not appeal to us, we arranged for a private car. Our driver’s name was Islam. He was “all business” and spoke just a little English. But, we could tell he had driven this route many times.

Soon after we left Bukhara, the dunes overtook the road in places making for a single sandy lane down the middle of the two-lane highway. Later, we saw a rusty tractor parked on the top of a sand dune. We pointed to it and asked our driver if its purpose was to clear sand after a storm. He confirmed our theory with a nod.

After a few hours, Islam told us that the Uzbek government had selected a German contractor to make repairs to the road. When we reached this part of the journey, we could see that the road was being widened from two lanes to four. Though only two lanes had been completed, traffic was allowed on the new portion while the contractor actively worked on the second half. The road was constructed using concrete rather than asphalt because of the heat.

The new slabs were easily 8 inches (20 centimeters) thick. Driving on this portion of the route was smooth as silk. Our driver made good time during this part of the trip while at the same time, looking out for police. We both looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders saying, as if to say “This was not so bad.”

After a few more hours, the portion of the road that was being reconstructed by the German contactor ended. Islam told us that the last section was being rebuilt by a South Korean firm. Just like the previous German section, this one was to be widened to four lanes with two lanes completed.

However, unlike the German section, the South Korean portion was not open to traffic. Instead, huge rocks (or dirt when rocks were not readily available) had been used to temporarily block the road every so often to prevent anyone from driving on it. We could not understand Islam’s exact meaning, but it was clear that he cursed the South Koreans several times during this section of the drive. We joked to ourselves that the firm had blocked the road because they had not yet been paid.

During this final section, we were forced to drive on the part of the road that had been torn up. Our speed was reduced to about 12 miles (20 kilometers) per hour. There were severe potholes and other hazards through this, the worst stretch of our trip. Indeed, we were not able to drive in a straight line. Instead, Islam slithered back and forth, using the entire width of the two-land dirt road.

The problem was that the oncoming traffic did the same. Several times, we found ourselves on the left-hand side, passing a car from the other direction our right-hand side (in Uzbekistan, they drive on the right). Late in the day, we could see several cars coming our way swerving randomly to the left or the right. We were doing the same thing. It was as if all of the drivers were intoxicated (which is ironic since Uzbekistan is 90% Muslim).

During this section, we stopped to gape at the mighty Amu Darya, or the Amu River, which marks the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the south. It was easily over a mile (1.6 kilometers) across at this point. We later learned that the Amu flows 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan all the way to the Aral Sea (though today, the river is instead lost to the desert on the way). It was a strange sight to see such a large river in the middle of the 11th largest desert in the world.

Finally, after nine hours, we arrived in Khiva. Our driver drove us directly to our hotel in the Ichon-Qala – the old part of the city. We stayed at the Hotel Orient Star, which was once named the Mohammed Amin Khan – a converted madrassah (an Islamic school) from the 1850’s. Two-hundred and fifty students once resided and studied here until it was closed in the early part of the 20th century.

Our hotel is surrounded by old buildings, some of which began construction in the 12th century. The Kahn’s (or ruler’s) residence was right across the road from our hotel, complete with space for his harem, a mint, stables, an arsenal, barracks, a mosque and a jail. We had been looking forward to our trip to Khiva. We were exhausted but happy to finally arrive. We quickly checked in to the hotel and then went outside to explore as the sun was setting.

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