Just to recap my Uzbek adventures so far; I had a super weird experience in Andijon which ended with some guy I didn’t know paying for my hotel room, then a lady paid for my taxi to Tashkent and put me up in her house for a few days because she was worried about my safety. The awesomeness of Uzbek hospitality didn’t stop there and I was now about to find out more about life in Tashkent, the capital.
I met my pre-organised host, Alina, at a metro station in Tashkent. Before I get further into the story, I need to tell you about the Tashkent Metro system. It is the oldest metro system in Central Asia and until last summer, it was illegal to take photos of the stations in the system. Why? Because they double as nuclear bunkers for military purposes.
As Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union in 1970s when the designs were commissioned, artists from all around the USSR created these masterpieces. Each station in the system has a different design and the designs are amazingly intricate and definitely stare-worthy.
There’s a station devoted to Cosmonauts
A station with grand mosque-like ceilings
A station with huge light fixtures
I don’t want to give too much away, because they are really something you should see for yourself. You could easily spend a day or two in the metro system just checking out the different station designs. The variations are actually useful for recognising where you are because signage in the stations is quite terrible.
Once you do find the signage on the wall across the platform, it will be obscured by the next train that comes in, so it’s almost impossible to see at most stations if you are on the train. Aside from all the eye-catching details, another great thing about the Tashkent Metro is the price. It’s only 1200 Som/US$0.14 for a little blue token that you use to enter the gates. Once you’ve entered, you could conceivably spend the whole day on the system with that one token, as there is no time limit.
The Life of Uzbeks
Back to the story, Alina and I walked to a restaurant for food. I can not put into words how awesome Alina was for my stay with her. She did more than everything for me but then apologised for not doing enough! That’s pretty much Uzbek hospitality in a nutshell, they will do everything in their power to make you comfortable.
Alina and I chatted over dinner and she was eager to hear stories of my travels. Alina is also keen to travel, but is a lot more limited by visas than I am, being on an Uzbek passport. She has lived in an impressive array of countries though. Alina’s boyfriend Nazim, who was also lovely, joined us at the restaurant and then we all went to a pub with live music! In English!
Nazim and Alina told me a lot about how people live in Tashkent and why it’s so hard for them to leave Uzbekistan. There are the obvious annoyances of requiring visas for almost every country, but the average monthly pay in Uzbekistan is around $300. Airfares out of Uzbekistan are more expensive than that. So most people would need to save for a lifetime to leave the country. In addition to that, there’s a strong chance of their visa getting denied because of a stereotype that people from former Soviet states are likely to never leave if they are allowed to enter a country.
Most adults in Tashkent still live with their parents into their 20s and 30s, for economic reasons. Alina lives with her mum, who I think was trying to secretly make me fat. She cooked at least 2 meals for me a day, no matter what time I left in the morning or came back at night. The few days that I had to get up really early, she made my breakfast the night before, to make sure that I wouldn’t go hungry. Even when I got back late, there was a meal made for me. And of course there was always tea ready for me.
Many Uzbeks live in simple dwellings and don’t have much to give, but they have big hearts and will give you everything they have to make sure that you’re fed and safe.
Getting to Khazhikent (ходжикент)
Alina had recommended a day trip to a lake northeast of Tashkent, that was accessible by train. I got myself going at ridiculous-o’clock so I could get to the Tashkent station for the 8am train to Khazhikent. The Tashkent Station was interesting for 2 reasons. The platform was only about a step higher than the tracks and one of the entrances to the station was under a bridge. There were a lot of people crowded onto the platform, waiting for the train. The train to Khazhikent only runs twice a day, at 6:45 and 8am.
When I boarded the train, I realised that getting a seat was going to be difficult, but I didn’t like the idea of standing for the 2 hour trip. I managed to find one near the front of a carriage. Two guys that came in after me weren’t so lucky and ended up sitting down on the floor in front of me. I paid for the fare on the train. The ticket guy charged me 3500 Som/$US0.40, even though the ticket he gave me only had 2000 Som/$US0.23 on it.
There were people walking through the train selling drinks like water and some local milky drink that appeared to have coloured bits in it. They were also selling small chocolates and other sugary snacks. The train wasn’t airconditioned, and all the seats were wooden, so it wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but I still managed to have a bit of a nap.
The Kazhikent station was similar to the Tashkent station, in that the platform was only a step above the tracks. It was the end of the line, so everyone has to disembark. I first walked down to snap a picture of the Chirchiq River, which could be seen from the station.
After that, I crossed the road to get a Mashrutka to Lake Charvak. A driver named Zhuman (жуман) picked me up outside the train station then when he stopped a little bit down the road, found someone who knew someone who spoke English. I spoke to this person on the phone and bartered the price through him. It ended up being 20,000 Som/$US2.30 for a 20 minute drive. When we got to the hotel area that had access to the lake, Zhuman gave me his phone number, plus the number of the English speaker and told me to call him when I wanted to go back to Khazhikent.
He had dropped me off in a carpark of a huge hotel called Pirimida, which offered an entry point to Lake Charvak. It was crazy busy with people swimming and sitting round in huts on the beach. Aside from locals charging people to hop on their boat for a joyride, there were also people hiring out jet skis, paddle boats and ATVs.
It was all a bit much, so I decided to hike to a nearby waterfall. My map was showing me a trail that was only 5km long, but after doing about half of it, I was blocked on several sides by a recent landslide, a gated resort and a fence. It wasn’t really a fence that allowed for climbing, so I followed it for a bit. It seemed it wasn’t ending any time soon, so I just circled back around to the hotel and grabbed some lunch. But not before getting some great views of the lake.
I got the hotel restaurant I’d eaten at to call Zhuman and he was already in the car park. He had passengers ready to go, so I was able to leave straight away. We got back to the Khazhikent station just as the train was pulling in, so I was able to get a seat easily. The problem with that was that I had to wait about 30 minutes for it to leave.
On to Tajikistan
My Plans had changed slighlty, so instead of heading to Southern Uzbekistan, I moved on to Tajikistan. All I had to do was get myself to the Qo’liq Bazaar to find a shared taxi to the Oylek Border control point. Easy, right? Haha, no.
First I had to find a bus stop that had a bus to Qo’liq passing through it. That required a bit of a walk. When the bus came it was very crowded, but I was lucky that a nice lady saw me with my backpack and offered me a seat. There was a lot of traffic on the road, so the going was slow, but I did get a nice view of this lovely mosque.
After that, things took a dark turn. The bus I was in stopped suddenly and there was an almighty bang. I wondered if we’d hit a car, but it didn’t sound like a bus on car sound. Everyone rushed out of the bus to see a middle-aged man stumbling around with blood on his head. Having a bit of first aid knowledge, I tried to help and tell them that they needed to start compressions after the man passed out and was unresponsive. The problem was that no one understood me and there were too many people standing around for me to push through and do them myself.
By the time the ambulance arrived, there was nothing they could do. I’d decided that walking the rest of the way to Qo’liq was the best option for me. I was happy when I finally made it to Qo’liq, only to find out that Qo’liq was a big place and my map had taken me to the Qo’liq Market instead of the Qo’liq Bazaar. Whoops.
I enlisted the help of some locals in a shop and I was soon on my way to the border.. or was I? The taxi driver has misunderstood Oybek Border for Oybek Metro, which was back in Tashkent. The place I’d just spend hours getting out of! I finally got the taxi driver to understand that he was going the wrong way, so he dropped me back where he had picked me up.
I went back to the shop with the locals that had helped before and this time they made sure the taxi driver understood. He was really great actually. He took me to the Qo’liq Bazaar, where I could get a shared taxi to the border. He even found the border taxi and helped me negotiate my new driver down to 20,000 Som/$US2.30 from 25,000 Som/$US2.90. I knew this was still about 5000/$US0.60 above what I should be paying, but after what I’d just seen, I wasn’t too keen on playing the barter game.
The people in this taxi weren’t as talkative as other people in other taxis had been in. That didn’t worry me though. As soon as we got out of town, the driver wound up the windows and put on the aircon. At that point, I was happy to stick my earphones in and have some micro naps on the way. It didn’t seem like long at all before the driver stopped on the side of the road and pointed to a building a few hundred metres away which was the border. Besides a bit of a wait in line, Immigration on the Uzbek side was relatively painless and I was on my way to Tajikistan!
Keep an eye out for my next post on my adventures in Tajikistan.