Never heard of Uzbekistan? Well, put it on your ‘must see’ list right now! It’s an amazing Central Asian country that could just capture your heart. Before you head there, check out this list of 9 things to know about Uzbekistan, to give you a head start when it comes to navigating the country.
3 Important Things to Know About Uzbekistan
It is a government requirement that tourists register within 3 days of entering the country. That doesn’t mean that immigration checks this too closely when you exit though. There are 2 ways that this registration can be carried out. The first way is to stay at a hotel/hostel and they will do the registration for you and give you a small white piece of paper to keep in your passport. The idea is that you show that paper to immigration officials upon exit.
The second way is to register online. This way involves registering at this site. Once you’ve input all the details, the site will calculate a daily tax that you need to pay, but it can only be paid with an Uzbek card.
Drivers Be Crazy
Travelling by road in Uzbekistan can feel more like a rollercoaster ride in a theme park than an intercity drive. From what I could tell, red lights and line markings are for indicative purposes only. People don’t seem inclined to follow them most of the time. By people, I mean just about every driver on the road. A lot of roads don’t even have lane markings, I presume because they figure that drivers would ignore them anyway.
Being a pedestrian in Uzbekistan can often feel like playing a game of cat and mouse. While stopping at crosswalks is legally mandated, it’s far from practiced. It’s probably safest to cross where there are traffic lights combined with a crosswalk. A lot more cars will stop in that situation. But if it’s a crosswalk by itself, the best advice is to look for a break in the traffic and run.
Super Hospitable Locals
Uzbek hospitality is really something else! Uzbeks will always try to help a stranger out in any way they can. That could mean simply helping them find a place they’re looking for. Or it could mean inviting them to stay at their house and force-feeding them tea and sweets at 1 am.
On the subject of tea, there are two main varieties available in Uzbekistan. Green and black. Every good host will always have both on hand and will offer you a choice. I prefer the black variety, as it’s stronger, but the green one is also nice.
3 Handy Things to Know About Uzbekistan
Uzbeks speak the Uzbek language alongside Russian. A little Rusian can get you a long way in Uzbekistan. Younger people tend to speak at least basic English, as do a lot of people working in customer service, so it is also possible to get by with just English. Most road signs and a lot of businesses use Latin transliterations of the Uzbek language, rather than Cyrillic.
Uzbekistan has the cheapest transport in Central Asia at just 1200 Som/$US0.15 for city buses and trains. When taking buses, the fare is paid to a ticket person on the bus. If there is no ticket person, then you pay the fare to the driver as you exit. Intercity trains are also available at varying fares, depending on the destination. You can find out more on the Uzbek Railway site.
Mashrutkas (minivans) are common forms of inner and intercity transport, although they seem to be a little more compact than their counterparts in other Central Asian countries. Their prices vary depending on where you are going. They normally cost between 5000 Som/US$0.58 and 10,000 Som/US$1.16 within cities and 10,000 Som/US$1.16 to 30,000 Som/US$3.50 for intercity routes. They do not run on longer intercity routes.
For intercity routes, the main option is shared taxis. They can cost between 20,000 Som/US$2.50 and 150,000 Som/US$16 depending on the city you want to get to. You would pay 20,000 Som for a 1-2 hour drive and 100,000 Som/US$11 for a 12-14 hour drive. Some taxis will charge up to 150,000 for an overnight drive between Termez and Tashkent, but from Tashkent to Termez you may only have to pay 100,000 Som. In the city, taxis will cost between 3000 Som/US$0.34 and 7000 Som/US$0.81. As in other central Asian countries, you can flag down an unoffcial taxi by standing on the side of the road with your hand out. Or you can use the Yandex Taxi-hailing app, if you have internet.
Despite what the internet says, the water in many places in Uzbekistan is drinkable. Some say that if your body is not used to it, you may have problems. I didn’t encounter any issues. Locals will generally boil tap water before they drink it.
3 Quirky Things to Know About Uzbekistan
If you’re from North America, you’re probably wondering, ‘why mention gas stations, they’re everywhere’. That’s true, but there are special stations in Uzbekistan that only sell gas, as in liquid gas. You can’t fill up cars that run on petrol or diesel at these stations. These stations don’t really look like your average filing station either.
Crisps/Chips in Shwarmas
While Shwarmas can vary from region to region, perhaps the strangest variation occurs in Uzbekistan. The standard composition of a Schwarma there is meat, salad, sauce and crisps/chips. But they’ll look at you weirdly if you ask them to leave the crisps/chips out.
Airconditioning is Not Standard
Most people will not have airconditioning in their homes, but a lot of places offering accommodation will also be without airconditioning. You’re probably thinking that not having airconditioning is not really that much of a weird thing, right? Would you still think that if you were in an area where temperatures edge towards 50 degrees Celcius in the summer? If you find it hard to handle hot temperatures, ensure that you carefully check that your accommodation has airconditioning before you finalise your booking.
Want to know more about Uzbekistan? Have a look here and here.
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Turkmenistan is a strange country in many respects. It is completely different to its Central Asian neighbours in that it has tried to close itself off from the world. This means that it can be a confusing and frustrating country to travel in. If you’re planning a trip there, the following list of things to know about Turkmenistan could come in very handy for you.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan, No 1 – Currency
Of all the things to know about Turkmenistan, this one is probably the most important as it could affect how much money you’ll have available to you. The local currency is the Turkmenistan Manat. You cannot exchange Turkmenistan Manat outside of the country as the official government stance is that the currency must stay in the country. There are 2 exchange rates for the currency. The official exchange rate is 3.5 Manat to US$1. This is the rate at which the banks sell the currency. The black market exchange rate however can range from 15-20 Manat to US$1. Yes, you read that right. The black market rate can be 5 to 6 times more than the official rate.
As you can imagine, the rate you change your cash at will influence how much you spend in Turkmenistan. Obviously, the black market rate is much better and would allow you to eat like a king while only spending a small amount of money, comparatively. The problem with exchanging at the black market rate is that it is forever fluctuating. If you change to Manat when the rate is 15 to 1, but the rate goes up to 20 to 1 when you want to change back, you stand to lose a fair amount of money.
Blackmarket or Official?
If you want to play it safe, you can exchange at the bank rate of 3.5, but that means things will end up being much more expensive and you will spend a lot more money. Another disadvantage of changing at the bank rate is that you may not be able to change any leftover money back to US Dollars at the bank, because the laws of the country only allow Turkmenistan citizens to exchange into US Dollars. This means you’ll be forced to change back at the black market rate, which could see you lose more than half of your money.
The best course of action is to only exchange a small amount, say $20 at the black market rate, to minimise the chances of losing money with exchanges. Hotels will generally exchange US Dollars for you. Some bazaars are also known for their black market exchanges. Locals always know where the best place to exchange is.
The Mashrutkas (minivans) that are prevalent in other central Asian countries are not as common in Turkmenistan. I only saw a few operating and only within Ashgabat.
Shared taxis are readily available for intercity journeys and normally cost 50-100 Manat (US$3.30-6.60 at the black market rate). Taxis around the city in Ashgabat should cost between 10-20 Manat (US$0.60-1.30). Bear in mind that drivers will try to double the price for foreigners and they sometimes negotiate hard to get you to pay more. You can always walk away from them and find another, more cooperative driver.
As Turkmenistan only consists of a few cities, it’s easy to travel between them by train. Train tickets are cheaper than shared taxis, but can take up to twice as long. Some trains will get to their destinations at inconvenient times as well. Train tickets to Turkmanbashi and Turkmenabat are 31 Manat/US$2 for a 12 hour journey on a sleeper train. Train tickets to Mary are around 34 Manat/US$2.20 for a 12 hour journey on a sleeper train.
By far the cheapest form of transportation in Turkmenistan is the public bus system in Ashgabat. It is quite well developed and each ride only costs 0.50 Manat, or 1 Manat if the bus driver doesn’t have any change. The buses are not airconditioned, but as long as they’re moving, there’s generally enough airflow to keep you from overheating in the summer.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 3 – Tourist Traps and Money Makers
Even though Turkmenistan isn’t all that open to tourism, locals still seem to find ways to put tourists in situations where they have to spend more money than they should. This starts before you even enter the country. Want to get a tourist visa to travel to Turkmenistan? You need to pay for a guide to accompany you for your entire stay in Turkmenistan, which of course does not come cheap. Want to opt for the cheaper option of a Transit visa? You’ll need to pay a US$14 entrance fee to the country at the border.
Perhaps you want to spend a night in a yurt with no amenities near the infamous Darvaza Gas Crater? That’ll be US$20. You want to get a taxi somewhere? You’re guaranteed to be quoted double the price as a foreigner. Even visiting a smelly underground lake in a sauna-like cavern can set you back up to US$20. In Turkmenistan, they know what tourists want to see and they’re prepared to charge you extra for the privilege of seeing those places.
There are some even more nefarious ways that locals will try to make money off visitors. Even though it’s illegal, locals will often try to force tourists to pay in US dollars, so they can take the money and make a profit by exchanging it on the black market. Always try to pay in Turkmenistan Manat where you can.
4) Social Media and Internet
All social media, from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to WhatsApp and WeChat are blocked in Turkmenistan. That can make it very hard to keep in contact with the outside world without a VPN. In truth, it can still be impossible to connect, even with a VPN. Many VPNs have been blocked by the Turkmenistan government, as I found out.
As you can imagine, when a government starts screwing with the internet, things get very slow and annoying to use. I was only able to connect to WiFi twice during my visit and each time connectivity waxed and waned, to the point where it was just easier to give up and do something else.
Weird Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 5 – Presidential Pictures
Of all the things to know about Turkmenistan, this is possibly the weirdest. A ridiculous amount of pictures of the current Turkmenistan president can be seen around Ashgabat. You can’t walk more than 500 metres without seeing him. He’s everywhere.
You’ll see him in parks, at train stations, on government buildings and even in buses. I’m not quite sure of the purpose of all these obviously photoshopped pictures of the president. Or if there is some law in the country about his pictures being displayed everywhere.
Whatever the deal is, it just seems odd to have photos of the country’s leader in so many places. I suspect it’s because the leader somehow expects that the people of his country should idolise him, but that just seems a bit arrogant and narcissistic. I guess that’s just about what you would expect from a guy that does donuts around the Darvaza Gas Crater to quell rumours that he’s in poor health.
6) Police State
There is a huge and noticeable police presence in Turkmenistan, on the roads and in the capital city, Ashgabat. Police Checkpoints are set up at intervals along the country highways in Turkmenistan. They may or may not stop cars that are going through and check that their paperwork is in order, especially if they’re carrying tourists. I personally was never stopped at any of these checkpoints, but I definitely noticed that they were there.
In the Ashgabat city centre, police are ever-present, normally standing on the side of roads in front of buildings. For the most part, they don’t interact with people passing by, although they do seem to use their extra curious ‘WTF are you doing’ stare when a foreigner happens to be walking past their building. Most of them always look stoic and often menacing, whereas others are a little more friendly and willing to answer questions.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 7 – Agressive Drivers
When compiling this list of things to know about Turkmenistan, I was reticent to include this one, but eventually decided it should be included because cars outnumber pedestrians substantially in Turkmenistan. Turkmen drivers seem to believe that they are the only ones that have the right to use the road. They do not take kindly to pedestrians being on roads, even at pedestrian crossings. Do not expect them to stop if they see you crossing. In fact, they are more likely to speed up and honk their horn at you. Be prepared to run at intersections, if you want to live.
Hostels don’t really exist in Turkmenistan and hotels are quite expensive, especially when you take into account what you get for your money. In Ashgabat, US$15 will get you what would be considered a super budget room anywhere else in the world. You will have to share a bathroom and there won’t be any WiFi. Or perhaps you could take the next step up and get a budget room for US$22 at a hotel that has WiFi, although there won’t be WiFi in your room. Also, expect room configurations to be weird.
One of the more quirky things to know about Turkmenistan is that accommodation generally can’t be booked from outside of the country, unless you go through a tour agency. Luckily, it seems to be easy to get accommodation sorted by just walking into a hotel. At $15, the Kuwwat Hotel seems to be the cheapest in Ashgabat, but it doesn’t have WiFi. It’s also in a pretty good location. Syyhat Hotel has WiFi in the reception area only, but their price is $22 and the location isn’t as good. Hotels generally expect payment in US Dollars as well. If they do take payment in Manat, they will use the black market exchange rate to jack up the price. Apparently, the accommodation in other Turkmenistan towns outside of Ashgabat is even more expensive.
In South Turkmenistan, the country’s capital city, Ashgabat is a strange, impressive and confusing place. The first odd thing about it is that the government has absolutely mad licensing rules for cars that carry passengers for hire. Cars are either licensed to drive passengers in the capital city or in the rest of the country, not both. Cars licenced to carry passengers in the rest of Turkmenistan cannot enter Ashgabat with their passengers. Because of this, there is a change-over station about 15 kilometres outside of the city. Country taxis drop passengers off there and city taxis can pick them up. I presume they have the same rules for intercity buses, as the Ashgabat bus station is relatively close to the change-over station.
First Impressions of the South Turkmenistan Capital, Ashgabat (Aşgabat)
As I had entered the city from northern Turkmenistan, the first thing I saw was the Ashgabat International Airport. Someone was definitely trying to make a big impression there. It was like the city was going all-out for some gala show. There were massive statues and fountains of water shooting high into the air. I was, unfortunately, unable to capture the grandness of it all from the car, so you’ll just have to imagine.
City of White
As I moved further into Ashgabat, I realised that every building was white. Every single one. They all looked fairly new as well. Once the novelty of seeing shiny, new, white buildings everywhere wore off, it seemed that the Turkmenistan capital had no soul. It was almost like Ashgabat was the unpopular kid who had suddenly become popular and was trying too hard to impress, but offered nothing of real value.
Furthermore, it seemed that all the cars and buses in Ashgabat were either white or grey. I heard a rumour that it was illegal to own black cars in the city. I can’t really confirm if it’s true or not, but I can say for sure that I didn’t see one single black car during my time there. Only grey and white cars.
Ashgabat continued to try to make huge impressions with many green spaces, monuments and fountains within the city centre. What it seemed to lack was the openness and friendliness of other Central Asian cities. In fact, the ever-present contingent of police officers stationed strategically around the city felt kind of ominous.
Some of these officers were intent on telling you off for stupid stuff. Like having the audacity to take your phone out of your pocket, to look at your map, near some buildings they didn’t want people to take photos of. Others were a little more friendly and willing to help with directions. One park even had men dressed in plain clothes stationed there. Why? To stop people taking pictures of the huge screen featured in the middle of the park. The screen played a loop of the president, looking all presidential and photoshopped in the middle of 2 digitally produced Turkmenistan flags.
Another quirk of Ashgabat is the pictures of the president everywhere. You couldn’t walk more than 500 metres within the city without seeing his picture. Maybe you could go to a sports centre to escape his watchful eyes? Nope, he’s front and centre there too. Surely you could catch a bus to get away from him. Nope, he’s watching you from above the windscreen. The point is, the dude is everywhere.
I’m not sure of the reason for having these pictures everywhere in Ashgabat. Is it to remind people that the president does actually exist, even though he rarely goes out in public? There weren’t really that many pictures of him in the north of Turkmenistan though. Or maybe it’s done to illicit an undying love and admiration for him. If you are Turkmen you must love your fearless leader? Who knows, but it seems kinda weird and narcissistic. Especially seeing as rumour has it that he is ill and not even in Turkmenistan at the moment.
As an aside, I found out a few weeks after left Turkmenistan that the president was getting annoyed with all the gossip surrounding his health. So what’s a healthy president to do? How could he dispell such vicious rumours? By grabbing a car and doing donuts near the Darvaza Gas Crater. So yeah, the country is apparently being run by an insecure teenager.
Ashgabat in South Turkmenistan at Night
For all the weird things about the city of Ashgabat, it was much nicer at night. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that nightfall brought a drop from 45 degrees plus to a much more bearable temperature. You could walk around more comfortably at night. The lights of the night also added a dash of colour to break up the monotony of everything being white.
I had heard rumours of an 11pm curfew for foreigners in Ashgabat. Locals seem to think that it is enforced. When I went to visit a local friend, they told me I might have problems when walking back to my accommodation after leaving their place at 10:30pm. I did not have any problems. I was out past 11pm for both the nights I spent in Ashgabat. As I walked around there were several police officers standing guard outside buildings or near roads. They gave no indication that I shouldn’t be there. In fact, they barely even acknowledged I was there. So I was either lucky, or there is no curfew in effect now.
Sights Near Ashgabat, South Turkmenistan
There are a few interesting sights that can be easily accessed from Ashgabat, but you can expect to part with more money than you should have to if you want to see them. First, there is Old Nisa, or Konenusay. You can hop on the #50 bus from the Teke Bazaar Bus Terminus to get there. The bus takes about 30 minutes and only costs 0.5 Turkmen Manat. The entrance to Old Nisa is about a 20 minute walk from where the bus route terminates. There is a small shop there if you’re short on supplies.
Old Nisa Ruins – (Konenusay)
To enter the Old Nisa Ruins area, you need to pay 21 Manat. Considering that half of the ruins are not accessible and the other half seem to be barely maintained, it really doesn’t seem worth it. It could be worth it if you’re really super passionate about ruins though.
To be honest, the town surrounding the ruins, Nusay was much more interesting to walk around.
Kow Ata Underground Lake in Ahal
Another site in South Turkmenistan that seems like it would be fun to visit is the Kow Ata underground lake in Ahal. It is less than an hour from the Ashgabat city centre, or a 30 Manat taxi ride. What might blow your mind about this one is the 50 Manat entrance fee. The less than warm reviews of the place might also make you want to think twice. But I guess if you have money and time to burn, you might want to check it out; just keep your expectations low.
Turkmenbashy Monument and Mosque
The Turkmenbashy Mosque, Mausoleum and Monument may prove to be the three best value for money sights in South Turkmenistan. You can hop on a bus from the Teke Bazaar Bus Terminal to Kipchak/Qipchak and all three sites are within 500 metres of each other.
Train to Turkmenbashi (Türkmenbaşy)
I’d decided to take the overnight train to Turkmenbashi in western Turkmenistan, which would be my exit point from the country. Trains in Turkmenistan are a very economical option for travelling between cities, but they are quite slow. There is an online ticketing system, but it requires a Turkmenistan card to purchase tickets and often shows that there are no tickets, even when they are available at the train station.
Buying Train Tickets
The best option for tourists in Turkmenistan is to go to the building next to the train station, with ‘Kassalar’ written on the top of it in big yellow letters. Some say you should purchase your ticket at least 2 days in advance, but I purchased on the same day with no problems. Ticket counters open at 7am. Counters 4-7 sell tickets for Turkmenbashi in western Turkmenistan and Turkmenabat, in eastern Turkmenistan. It is pretty much chaos at the ticket counters as people don’t seem to know how to line up straight and people like to try to push through to get to the counter before you.
After waiting for about 20 minutes, I was finally at the counter and let the lady behind the window know that I was going to Turkmenbashi in the west of South Turkmenistan. She told me that the departure time and asked for 31 Manat. The departure time she gave me was different to what I thought it would be, but then I figured that there might be more than one train. It wasn’t until I looked at the ticket that I realised that she’d somehow mistaken Turkmenbashi for Turkmenibat, which was literally at the other end of the country.
I alerted her to her mistake but instead of giving me back 31 Manat, she only gave me 22 Manat, then made me pay another 31 Manat for the correct ticket. I was annoyed that she’d charged me for her mistake and indicated that I wanted the 9 Manat back. She said I could come back later to get my money back. That was probably something she said just to try to get rid of me, as there was no one at the counter later. So a 31 Manat train ticket ended up costing me 40 Manat.
The train takes a fairly straight route to the most western part of South Turkmenistan; the port of Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea. It was quite comfortable, but each cabin had 6 beds, in the form of 2 triple bunks. That meant that the person on the top bunk wouldn’t be able to sit up without hitting the roof of the cabin. The people in my cabin were eager to share their food with me. They tried to chat with me, but it was hard because we couldn’t really understand each other.
Turkmenbashi, South Turkmenistan – Gateway to the Caspian Sea
The train arrived in the western Turkmenistan city of Turkmenbashi at 05:50, about an hour later than scheduled. The city of Turkmenbashi seemed a lot nicer than Ashgabat. For a start, it was a lot more modest and there were buildings that weren’t white. As an added bonus, it was surrounded by mountains.
I had figured that the port wouldn’t open until 8 or 9am, so I decided to have a bit of a look around Turkmenbashi. The early hour made it quite pleasant to walk around as there weren’t many people out and the sun wasn’t yet in full force.
The Turkmenbashi Port looked shiny, new and of course, white. There were a few huge buildings, but there didn’t seem to be much going on in the area. I entered the port area just before 8am, only to find out that tickets for the boat wouldn’t go on sale until 11am. Luckily, I found some people to talk to, who were also taking the ferry to Baku. Little did we know, that we would be spending a lot more time together than we’d originally thought.
Keep an eye out for my upcoming post to find out how an estimated 12 hours on the Caspian Sea turned into 3 days.
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With a fresh visa for travel to Turkmenistan in my passport, I made my way to the Nukus border to cross over and see the historic Turkmenistan city of Kunya-Urgench. But first I had to contend with some border chaos. From the outside, the immigration building was possibly one of the cutest I’ve ever seen. It was a lovely white building with a golden, mosque-like domed roof. The red, green and white Turkmenistan flag was flying freely on a pole shooting up from the centre of the dome.
That interesting vision gave way to a picture of an unorganised mob crowding around a luggage scanning machine as soon as I opened the door to the building. I had absolutely no idea where to go. The immigration desk wasn’t marked, or even findable from where I was. I tried to have a peak in the next room, where everyone was gathered. Then I heard a man calling me from behind. There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it room to the left of the entrance, where the man was seated. Upon entering the room, the man looked at my passport and gave me a customs form to fill out. He then gestured for me to head to towards the crowd.
Where To Now?
I still had no idea where the immigration desk was, as I couldn’t see anything with the crowd in the way. Luckily the crowd dispersed as the immigration officers slowly scanned and checked everyone’s luggage. I finally noticed a small window tucked away on the lefthand side of the room and figured it must have been where I needed to go. It was indeed. The officer perused the stamps in my passport for a bit, then said I had to go to the next window to pay the US$14 entrance tax. Paying the fee was quick of course, but I had to wait a while for the guy to write out 2 receipts.
Back at the first window, the officer asked me for my detailed itinerary, then took issue with one of the cities I had indicated that I would visit. He told me that I was only allowed to continue in one direction towards my exit port in the southwest and I wasn’t allowed to visit any cities to the east. I told him that I had indicated that I would visit that town in my application, so there shouldn’t be a problem. He repeated himself a few more times and I did the same until he eventually said, “Okay” and stamped me in.
Searches and Small Talk at the Luggage Scanner
By the time I got to the luggage scanner, there was no line. The staff were busy checking every small article in the bags of the Belgian guy who had passed through in front of me. They spent at least 30 minutes going through his luggage. All the while, I stood there thinking that I would be subjected to that next. I was pleasantly surprised when the officers on the other side of the machine didn’t really seem too interested in looking too closely at my bag.
Instead, after asking if I had any weapons or medications, one of the officers asked me why I wanted to travel to Turkmenistan what I planned to do and see. He did this in a friend chatting kind of way, not an immigration officer kind of way. He also asserted that I would like Turkmenistan a lot. The other officers half-heartedly looked at my bag while this guy chatted to me for several minutes. I ended up leaving the building at the same time as people that had arrived 2 hours earlier than me. The guide that was with two of those people, organised a car. That car took us all from the immigration area to an area 500 metres down the road. That’s where the people on tourist visas could meet their drivers and I could get a taxi onto Kunya-Urgench.
Travel to Turkmenistan – Historical Kunya-Urgench (Köneürgench)
Before crossing the border to travel to Turkmenistan, I knew that the taxi to the northern town of Kunya-Urgench should only be US$1. It’s only a 10 minute drive. The waiting taxi drivers were intent on charging me $4. They negotiated hard and it seemed like they weren’t going to budge from $2, but finally, they relented. I got the ride for US$1.
Before we reached Kunya-Urgench, my driver stopped on the side of the road. Another driver approached us. He wanted to take me on to Darvaza from Kunya-Urgench. That driver initially wanted to charge me US$50 for the 3 hour ride. Of course, my reply was a firm no. The lowest he was willing to go was US$30, so I told him no thanks and got the current driver to continue on to Kunya-Urgench.
The driver dropped me off at a UNESCO site that comprised of the Piryarvali, Nedjmeddin Kubra, Sultan Ali and Matkerim Ishan Mausoleums, as well as the Dash Mosque Museum. It was a fairly interesting site that I spent quite a while walking around and admiring. The Nedjmeddin Kubra Mausoleum had a very interesting front. It was built on an angle away from the rest of the building.
Near the Sultan Ali Mausoleum, there was a small tree trunk with coloured bits of cloth wrapped around the end of it. It seemed to have some significance. I saw locals walk around it several times while making some gestures, like it was some kind of ritual.
Making New Friends
While wandering around, I bumped into the Belgian guy that I’d met at the border. We chatted for a bit about the history of the area. It was at that point that our presence started generating some interest among the locals at the site. That’s when the standard, “Where are you from?”, “Why did you travel to Turkmenistan?” and “Where will you go in Turkmenistan?” questions started. Then came the requests for photos with us. So much for blending in.
I then continued onto the town mosque, which I could easily see from the mausoleum area. Meanwhile, Martin, the Belgian guy, headed off to check out some more historical sites with his guide. He was a bit of a history buff, you see. That wasn’t the last time on my trip that I would bump into him though.
Negotiating Passage to Darvaza
I managed to sneak in one more monument before I made my way back to the mausoleum area. I’d noticed that some taxi drivers had gathered near there. These drivers started negotiations at more reasonable prices than previous drivers. They also seemed to be having fun interacting with me. At one stage there were even 2 drivers fighting over who was going to take me. Then someone put me on the phone to a man who spoke English. He said he would be there soon to help me out.
That man was Murad, a tour guide based in Kunya-Urgench. He said that he was heading to Ashgabat to pick up a tourist. He suggested that I could join him in a taxi and he would ask the driver to drop me off at the Darvaza Gas Crater, then I could hitchhike to Ashgabat the next day. Murad was very interested in my motivation for travel to Turkmenistan.
Darvaza Gas Crater – The Gate to Hell
When we arrived at Darvaza, which is towards the centre of the Karakun desert in Turkmenistan, I didn’t realise that the taxi had pulled up right next to the crater. It’s not all that impressive during the day. I did, however, notice that it was hot as hell when I got out of the car. I actually felt like my face was going to melt. As much as I wanted to get a closer look, it just wasn’t humanly possible at that time. I guess that’s why they call it the Gate to Hell.
Murad introduced me to his friend who works near the crater and said he would look after me. Murad then left me his number to call if I needed any help while I was in Turkmenistan. I was then whisked away on a motorbike to an area near a yurt. There were tents set up there for a tourist group that was coming in later that day. While still warm, it was much cooler than it was near the crater.
To be honest, I was pretty excited about being there. This crater was the main reason I wanted to travel to Turkmenistan. Ever since I heard about it many moons ago, it had been very high on my to-do list. It’s a perfect example of how the human lack of foresight can showcase the power of nature.
Nature’s Fury Brought By Scientific Blunder
If you don’t know how the crater came to be, it happened around the mid 70’s in what was then part of the USSR. Soviet scientists accidentally collapsed an underground cavern full of natural gas. The natural gas started flowing freely into the surrounding desert. The scientists decided that the best way to deal with the escaping gas was by adding fire. They had expected the natural supply would be exhausted within a few weeks, but 45 years later, it’s still going strong.
Just after sunset, I bumped into some young guys close to the edge of the crater. They were trying to get the perfect ‘look, I’m breathing fire’ shot. For Instagram, I presume. That would be ironic considering that social media is blocked in Turkmenistan. While I was chatting to them, Martin, the Belgian guy from earlier, joined us. There were many pictures and videos taken. Just after sunset is the best time to capture the essence of the crater.
The people working near the crater offered for me to sleep in a yurt, but it was quite stuffy inside. There was a nice breeze outside, so I decided to sleep under the stars. It was lovely. The next morning, they wanted to charge me US$25 for eating some food and sleeping outside. I got them down to $10, but this was only the first example I encountered of how Turkmenistan is geared towards parting travellers with their money. It wasn’t the last time.
I decided to walk out to the main road, but barely 5 minutes into my walk, a car leaving the crater stopped for me. It was Martin and his guide and they were heading for the other 2 craters in the area. The first one was much smaller than the main crater, with only one little fire burning in a more shallow, rounded crater. There were a few muddy patches not far from the little fire where bubbling gas could be seen and heard.
The second one was probably about the same size as the first, but had a bit of a lake happening at the bottom. It looked quite lovely, until you walked around the crater a bit and saw a ridiculous amount of plastic bottles floating in it. Just like the first crater, there was a section where you could see and hear gas bubbling through, but obviously there was no fire there.
As the rules regarding tour guiding are very strict in Turkmenistan, guides are only allowed to have the tourists whose names are on their paperwork in their vehicles. Martin’s guide said he would take me all the way to the capital, Ashgabat if that wasn’t the case. Instead, he would take me to a service station just before the next police checkpoint, about 100km down the road. Once we got to the service station, he found someone to drive me the rest of the way to Ashgabat.
Stay tuned for more Turkmenistan adventures in my next post.
Rumours about the difficulty of getting a visa for travel to Turkmenistan and the low approval rate are abundant on the internet. But it’s really not as hard to acquire as some people would have you believe. Below are accounts of the visa application process from the recent experiences of 10 travellers that were granted both tourist and transit visas in July 2019.
Tourist Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan
As stated above, there are 2 visa options for travel to Turkmenistan; a tourist visa and a transit visa. The tourist visa is issued for up to 30 days but comes with a huge caveat. A certified guide must accompany for your whole trip. As you can imagine, that will get expensive. Three of the ten people, who coincidentally happened to be European, went for this option. They paid around US$150-200 a day for their guide, including the guide’s accommodation, food and fuel. That was without their own food and accommodation expenses. Applicants must state their entry and exit point when applying.
All 3 chose a 6 day itinerary, as that was about the limit of what they could afford to spend. One of them chose to take flights between some cities, to maximise their time. That meant that they met different guides in different cities. While guides are being hired by tourists, they can’t officially have anyone else in the car with them. All their paperwork shows the name of the tourist/s allowed in their car and the dates they can carry them. There are many police checkpoints along Turkmen roads and they often check, so guides will always err on the side of caution.
Documents Required and Payment
For this visa, you need proof that you’ve hired a local guide or joined a local tour. Normally the travel agent would take care of the visa application for you as they would be the ones with the documents. From what I can gather, this visa can be picked up at the border upon presentation of an invitation letter and US$50. This letter is either emailed to you or given to you by the travel agent. There may be delays at the border and you may have to hand over more money. The 3 people I met on tourist visas spent around 3 hours at the border waiting for paperwork. That could’ve possibly been because the travel companies they booked through missed something.
Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenmistan
The second option, the transit visa, is said to be one of the hardest visas to attain. Seven people managed to get this visa from both the Bishkek and Tashkent Turkmenistan Embassies in the first 3 weeks of July 2019 with no problems. This visa is issued for 5 days. It is valid for transit through any Turkmenistan border with Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea or Iran via Artyk. No other exit points, ie: Afghanistan or Kazakhstan, are accepted. Entry and exit points must be listed on your application and will be stated on the visa placed in your passport.
Getting the Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan in Tashkent at the Embassy of Turkmenistan in the Republic of Uzbekistan
Discussions online indicate that you need to get to the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Tashkent, (found at Afrosiyob Street, 19, about a 400m walk from the Kosmonavtlar Metro station), at 7am. Then put your name on a waiting list and wait for the embassy to open at 9am. This actually isn’t necessary. As long as you arrive at any time before 1pm, they will see you and let you submit your application. Even if you end up leaving after 1pm. Some waiting outside the embassy could be required. No more than 20 minutes worth. The processing officer will come out to guide you in. You can wait in a nice shaded area across from the embassy so that you don’t melt in the Uzbek heat.
Once the officer comes out, you must leave your mobile phone with security. You’ll get a numbered tile so you can claim your phone back on the way out. They will also ask if you have any other cameras, but they won’t check. There’s a big sign out the front saying that no photos are allowed. I guess they want to make sure you don’t have the chance to break their rules. This Turkmenistan embassy only requires you to fill out 2 one page forms. The first form is the application form, in English and Uzbek. You need to attach a passport-sized photo to the top right-hand corner of it. The second form is completely in Uzbek, but the staff will guide you. Both forms are available at the embassy.
Documents Required and Payment
The documents required for submitting your application for a transit visa for travel to Turkmenistan in Tashkent are –
* Colour copy of the information page of your passport
* 2 passport size photos with a white background
* Copy of visa for country of transit, ie: Azerbaijan or Iran
Upon submission of your documents, you need to pay a US$10 fee to the embassy. Staff will give you a receipt. They will tell you that you will need to bring that receipt with you when you pick up the visa. I wasn’t asked for it when I returned though. Staff initially told me to come back in 10 working days. I managed to convince them to have it ready in 10 days/a week and a half.
I had heard that they can email the visa approval letter to you so that you don’t have to physically attend the embassy again. The first staff member I spoke to said that they could email the visa approval letter to me and I could pay the visa fee at the border. The officer who took my application said that wasn’t possible anymore, so I would have to attend the office. Three other people were given similar information by the embassy in Tashkent.
Picking Up the Visa
When you pick up the visa, you’ll need to pay the US$45 visa fee directly to the embassy. They will ask you what your exact entry date is. That is the date that they will put on the visa. The visa is valid for five days including the day of entry and exit. Make sure you’ve allowed enough time to get yourself to the border you want to use to enter Turkmenistan. Keep in mind that the closest Uzbek/Turkmen border to Tashkent is about 10 hours away by car, with the most popular entry point, Nukus, being a 16-20 hour drive from Tashkent. The Tashkent Turkmenistan Embassy website is here
Getting the Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan in Bishkek at the Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Kyrgyz Republic
The Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek, located on Baytik Baatyr Street, opens at 10am. It is a lot quieter than it’s counterpart in Tashkent. Do take note that it appears to be closed on Wednesdays. There’s no need to rush as you will most likely be the only one there at the time of application.
Like the embassy in Tashkent, there’s a big sign saying that no photography is allowed, but they do allow you to keep your phone on you when you enter the building. There’s no waiting at this embassy, you can just go straight to the window and submit your application. This Turkmenistan embassy requires you to fill out 2 application forms, one with 2 pages and one with 1 page. Both forms are in Russian and English. They also require a hand-written letter stating the visa you’re applying for and a detailed itinerary. A sample letter for you to follow is available at the embassy. The application forms can be downloaded from the embassy website, or are available at the embassy.
Documents Required and Payment
The documents required for submitting your application for the visa to travel to Turkmenistan in Bishkek are –
* Colour copy of the information page of your passport
* 2 passport size photos with a white background
* Copy of your visa for the country you’re transiting to, ie: Azerbaijan or Iran
Before you can lodge the forms with the embassy, you will have to go to the KICB bank to pay the US$10 application fee. It’s a 3km Mashrutka (minivan) ride from the embassy. When done, take the receipt for the transaction back to the embassy, as proof of payment. The processing time for the visa at this embassy is one month, unless you write ‘urgent’ on your hand-written letter. In that case, the processing time will be 10 working days. They will email the invitation letter for the visa to you on the 10th working day.
This invitation letter will be valid for entry for up to 3 months, but you still only have 5 days, inclusive of your entry and exit dates, once you enter. When you present the letter at the border, you will need to pay a US$55 visa fee and they will place the visa in your passport with a validity of 5 days, including your entry and exit dates.
Pros and Cons of Getting the Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan at Each Location
Acquiring the visa for travel to Turkmenistan at the Turkmenistan Embassy in Tashkent is US$10 cheaper. That could be negated by the fact that you will either have to wait in Tashkent for 10 days or re-enter Uzbekistan later to collect the visa. Getting the visa through the Turkmenistan Embassy in Bishkek is US$10 more expensive, but not having to return to the embassy later could save some time.
Now that you know that the application process for the visa for travel to Turkmenistan is relatively painless, what are you waiting for?
Check out my next post to see what the north of Turkmenistan had to offer.
Travels in Tajikistan – Crossing Over from Uzbekistan
Around an hour drive from Tashkent, you’ll find the Oybek border control point in Uzbekistan. After passing relatively painlessly through the Uzbek side, I found myself walking through a dimly lit no man’s land. After a few minutes of walking, I had made it to Fotekhobod border control point on the Tajikistan side. The first stop was a gate that marked the start of my travels in Tajikistan. There, a friendly officer asked to see my passport. He thanked me and motioned for me to move forward.
Then after a breezy walk, I came to another gate where another friendly officer checked my passport. While he was doing so, his partner inside a little booth started talking to me in broken English. We were all laughing by the time I made my way to the building where I’d get my entry stamp.
Inside the building, the guy behind the desk was really friendly and smiley. He even asked how I was! After stamping me in, he said “Welcome to my country”. This is definitely one of the friendlier borders I’ve passed through. Although I was tired, given the late hour, I was feeling good after such a painless border crossing. I was also a little confused about where I should be going. There was no signage and I couldn’t see any buildings in front of me. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who was a little confused.
A local man behind me said, “I guess we go here”, pointing to a passage on the right. The nearby officers told us we had to use the walkway to the left. Then that was it, I was officially in Tajikistan! The man who had tried to lead me down the wrong path then started chatting to me. His name was Malik and he was a paediatric doctor from Dushanbe, the Tajikistan capital. He was returning from a conference and was eager to practice his English.
As there was very little chance of getting a car all the way to Dushanbe at that time of night, we decided to go to the northern Tajikistan town of Khujand, which was less than 2 hours away. Malik found us a taxi and we chatted all the way. Upon arrival in Khujand, he found a hotel for us to stay in and paid for my room. It wasn’t the best hotel I’d ever come across and it didn’t have WiFi, but it was somewhere to rest and have a cold shower.
Travels in Tajikistan – Khujand
In the morning, Malik informed me that a notorious part of the road to Dushanbe would be closed until 3pm. That meant we wouldn’t be able to get a car until then. I wondered if that was a regular occurrence in Tajikistan? I wouldn’t be surprised it was. It did give me a bit of time to explore Khujand though.
Malik took me to the local market, where it seemed most people were selling bread and seeds. We walked to a large section at the back of the market which looked like it’d be a great place to do some shady black market deals. Or buy seeds. Malik bought a huge amount of seeds. I figured he’d bought them for himself. It wasn’t until we got to the mosque across the square from the market that I found out they had a different purpose. The people of Khujand go to the grounds of this Mosque to feed the pigeons.
This is a tradition that has been followed for a very long time in Khujand. Locals mainly do it when they have health issues that are affecting their lives. It is believed that by giving something important, like food, to the birds, you put yourself in god’s favour. God will, in turn, heal your ailments and make you better.
Mosque and Motorised toys
Between the market and the Mosque was a huge square where locals seem to love hanging out and having fun. There were people there hiring out motorised toy cars. I guess it’s a nice way to keep the kids occupied while feeding the birds. There were also scooters available for the older kids.
Khujand is actually a pretty small place and fairly easy to walk around. Although, with the summer heat, most people opt to take taxis. I prefer to walk, so I walked the 3 kilometres to the shared taxi station. I wanted to continue my travels in Tajikistan by heading to the capital, Dushanbe. Drivers wanting to take me to Dushanbe had surrounded me before I knew it. Most initially wanted to charge me 120 Somoni/US$12, but after some hard negotiating, a driver agreed to take me for 70 Somoni/US$7.40.
To be honest, the treacherous mountains roads combined with crazy Tajikistan drivers meant the ride wasn’t all that enjoyable, despite the awesome scenery.
Travels in Tajikistan – Dushanbe
Owing to the fact that I’d left Khujand in the afternoon, I got into Dushanbe just after 10pm. The taxi dropped me about 8km from the town centre, where I needed to go. I noticed electric buses were still running and went to the nearest stop. When I checked the schedule at the stop, there was a bus due in a few minutes. That brought me great relief, until it didn’t show up. Neither did the next one.
Finally, after 20 minutes of waiting, a bus that wasn’t even on the timetable at the bus stop showed up. I figured it followed the road I was on, so I got on. The ticket man took money from all the people in front of me but when it was my turn to pay, he turned away before I could give him my money.
That free ride reduced the distance I need to walk by more than half. When walking the last little bit to my accommodation, I noticed that there were a lot of white red and green lights. Those are also the 3 colours on the Tajikistan flag. Coincidence? I think not!
The next morning, I decided to do some web surfing during breakfast, because I finally had internet in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, it was absolutely terrible. Every webpage took a ridiculously long time to load, so I gave up and went walking. On the way out I met an English guy and Scottish guy who were heading to the nearby Bazaar. I walked along with them for a bit, then headed off to get some food. It seems that the Tajik government is trying hard to make the Dushanbe city centre look very pretty.
There was also a lot of construction going on. Roads, bridges and buildings seemed to be in the process of construction in many areas. There was definitely an aesthetic difference between the city centre and the areas just outside of the city centre.
Travels in Tajikistan – Meeting Locals
As I was walking around, a local named Iso started walking and chatting with me. He was eager to practice his English and invited me to stay with him. I graciously accepted his offer, because I couldn’t think of a better way to see how locals live. He was also happy to share information about life in Tajikistan.
Iso’s house was quite simple, with no airconditioning. He told me about how he dreamed of upgrading his flat when he gets some money. He also dreams of travelling, but of course, needs money for that too! I would guess that the area he lived in was a poorer area of town, but it seemed like some locals had found interesting ways of having fun and making money. I noticed that several kids in the complex were sharing the same bicycle, so that everyone had a chance to have a ride. There were also some women in the complex cleaning things, including glass jars and cars, to make some extra cash.
I did get some curious looks from people, as I guess they don’t see foreigners walking around their complex too often. At many different times, one or two kids would come up to me and try to chat. They would be really confused when I replied to them in English, which they obviously didn’t understand. It was kinda cute watching them try to work out what was going on.
Iso was immensely helpful. He was always looking out for me. He was always worried if I had eaten enough. I offered to cook my own food due to my special dietary needs, but he wouldn’t have it. His sister would happily cook for me instead. If I wanted anything, he would go to the local market to buy whatever I wanted. Then he would refuse to take my money for it.
Aside from practicing his English, Iso was also keen to have a Shisha partner. Whenever I wanted to go somewhere, he would usually come with me to make sure that I didn’t get lost. If he was busy and unable to join me, he would take me to a Mashrutka (mini van) and explain to the driver where to drop me off. It was such a wonderful way to experience some Tajik culture and hospitality.
If you ever make it to Dushanbe in Tajikistan, you might want to visit MagDoner which is most definitely not a copy of a well known American fast food chain!
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Just to recap my Underrated Uzbekistan adventures so far; I had a super weird experience in Andijon. It 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. I was now about to find out more about life in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
Underrated Uzbekistan’s Capital, Tashkent
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.
Intricately Decorated Metro Stations in Underrated Uzbekistan
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. Each design is amazingly intricate and definitely stare-worthy.
There’s a station devoted to Cosmonauts
A station with grand mosque-like ceilings
As well as a station with huge light fixtures
I don’t want to give too much away, because you really need to get to Uzbekistan and see them for yourself. You could easily spend a day or two in the metro system just checking out the different station designs. The variations in decor have another purpose too. They can help you recognise where you’re at because in-station signage 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. That makes it 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.
Life in Underrated Uzbekistan
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. This is 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. That doesn’t stop them from giving though! One of the things that makes Uzbekistan so underrated, is the heart of Uzbeks. They have big hearts and will give you everything they have to make sure that you’re fed and safe.
Getting to Khazhikent (ходжикент) in Underrated Uzbekistan
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/$US0.23 on it.
There were people walking through the train selling drinks like water and some local milky drink that appeared to have coloured bits in it. They were also selling small chocolates and other sugary snacks. The train wasn’t airconditioned, and all the seats were wooden, so it wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but I still managed to have a bit of a nap.
The Kazhikent station was similar to the Tashkent station, in that the platform was only a step above the tracks. It was the end of the line, so everyone has to disembark. I first walked down to snap a picture of the Chirchiq River, which could be seen from the station.
After that, I crossed the road to get a Mashrutka to Lake Charvak. A driver named Zhuman (жуман) picked me up outside the train station then when he stopped a little bit down the road. There he found someone who knew someone who spoke English. I spoke to this person on the phone and bartered the price through him. It ended up being 20,000 Som/$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. Then be gave me the number of the English speaker. He told me to call him when I wanted to go back to Khazhikent.
The Lake Area
Zhuman 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 showed 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. 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.
From Underrated Uzbekistan On To Tajikistan
My Plans had changed slightly, so instead of heading to Southern Uzbekistan, I had decided to move 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. I’d tried to tell the people closest to the man that they needed to start compressions after the man passed out and was unresponsive. The problem was that no one understood. There 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.
A Long Journey to the Border
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. He turned around and dropped me back where he had picked me up.
I went back to the shop with the locals that had helped before. This time they made sure the taxi driver understood. Mr taxi driver was really great actually. He took me to the Qo’liq Bazaar, where I could get a shared taxi to the border. Then 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. After what I’d just seen, I wasn’t too keen on playing the barter game.
Quiet Taxi Ride
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. He pointed to a building a few hundred metres away. It was the immigration clearance area. Besides a bit of a wait in line, Immigration was relatively painless. I was on my way from underrated Uzbekistan to Tajikistan!
Keep an eye out for my next post on my adventures in Tajikistan.
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My entry into unbelievable Uzbekistan, via the Dostyk border, was off to a great start. It was quick and hassle-free. Even getting a taxi for the right price was easy. The scenery was also pretty amazing, although it’s kind of hard to capture after sunset. One thing I noticed on my way to Fergana in the unbelievable Uzbekistan Fergana Valley, was that the roads were immaculate. The drivers, on the other hand, were not. Many close calls were had. Apparently, red traffic lights are just a suggestion. Or maybe the drivers were distracted by all the pretty Uzbekistan national-coloured lights adorning almost every lamp post on the way.
Getting to Fergana in the Unbelievable Uzbekistan Fergana Valley
The ride onto Fergana was fairly quick and uneventful. The other 3 people in the taxi jumped out just before the town so it was just me left. I was guiding the driver to my accommodation when he started to ignore my directions and made a wrong turn. He must’ve decided that it was too much trouble and stopped in front of a hotel and told me to go there. That wasn’t going to work for me, so he stopped 2 young boys walking along the footpath to see if they spoke English. They did.
I showed them the map. All the driver had to do was make a u-turn, but for some reason, he was reluctant. The boys ended up finding the phone number for my accommodation online and gave it to the driver so he could get directions straight from the source. That conversation lasted for a strangely long amount of time, considering that the place was only one main road away from where we were. The boys and I joked that the driver must have smoked something because it shouldn’t have taken that long to explain to him how to get to the next road.
Everything was finally sorted and the young boys went on their merry way, but not before saying, “Welcome to Uzbekistan”. After finally arriving at my accommodation, I met Sardar, the owner of Status House, the place I was staying at. Sardar was an absolutely lovely man, who of course welcomed me to Uzbekistan. He then gave me a heap of useful information about the area. He even offered to ask his wife to patch up a few small holes in my small bag.
Sardar advised me that I was the only guest booked in, so had the whole place to myself. Sweet! If you head to Fergana, I’d definitely recommend that you stay there. When I booked he was the cheapest place in town.
Fergana is a fairly nice town without much too much traffic or noise. It also has a lot of green areas and parks where you can sit down under the shade of large trees to escape the heat.
Uzbekistan is bloody hot! The temperature got up to 38 degrees in the middle of the day in Fergana. It gets even hotter in other places! Thankfully the bar that I stopped at for lunch had Uzbek music and misting taps above to keep customers cool.
Slowly Onto to Andijon in Unbelievable Uzbekistan
A local from Andijon, in northeastern Uzbekistan, contacted me through Couchsurfing and said that they would like to host me. I agreed and started heading back to Andijon, even though I’d already passed through there on the way to Fergana. Sardar organised a taxi to take me to the station where I could get a Mashrutka (minivan) to Andijon. And that’s where things started getting weird.
The taxi drivers at the station were saying that the Mashrutkas to Andijon stopped running at 6pm. I was very dubious of that claim and kept reiterating that I wanted to take a Mashrutka, not a taxi. The taxi drivers wouldn’t back down on their claim but did eventually agree to take me for only a fraction more than the Mashrutka price.
Strangely, this taxi didn’t leave full. There was only a woman with a baby in the back seat with me and a man in the front seat. We left before 7pm for a drive that should have taken about an hour. It took over 2 hours because we stopped several times. The first stop was only about 10km out of Fergana in the unbelievable Uzbekistan Fergana Valley. There were a lot of fruit sellers set up on the side of the road. The driver and the male passenger went off to buy some fruit. I admired the sunset.
Pray, Drink, Play
The second stop was only about another 10km down the road, just before we hit Quva. That stop was for the male passenger to pray. While he was praying, the driver suggested I try a strange concoction of horse milk and hot sauce from a roadside seller. He was not taking no for an answer so I had a sip. Somehow the sauce offset the sourness of the milk and made it almost bearable to drink. At the same time, it was pretty gross.
Back in the car, the baby seemed to be fascinated by me and I was able to not only stop him from crying but also make him smile. It was a way to pass the time until we got closer to Andijon. The driver stopped just before we entered the town to give a guy waiting on the side of the road a big wad of cash. That seems completely normal.
Unbelievable Uzbekistan – Andijon
Once we had made it to Andijon, the driver put me on the phone to his daughter who spoke a little bit of English. She said that my host had lied to me and wasn’t meeting me, as had been arranged and reconfirmed when I’d spoken to him on the phone just 15 minutes prior. I was a bit taken aback by this and super skeptical of what had been said. What made it even worse was that I was asking them to call to my host and they weren’t letting that happen.
They then decided, without consulting me, that they were going to take me to the station. From there I could get a shared taxi to Taskent, which was 5 hours away. At 10 o’clock at night. As I was telling them that wasn’t what I wanted, my host called the driver’s phone. He informed me that something had come up and he couldn’t meet me, so he would pay for me to stay in a hotel. Umm, okay.
The driver took me to the hotel that my host and suggested. It turned out to be the most terrible hotel I’d ever come across. No WiFi. Smelly and mouldy bathroom. Rickety looking single bed with stained sheets. But at least the nice lady at reception served me some tea and snacks.
Unusual Interactions in Unbelievable Uzbekistan
I ended up speaking to one of my host’s friends, Azuz, who said that he would come and meet me at the hotel and sort things out. The driver had been hanging around to make sure that I got checked in okay, but had to go. Azuz met me in the hotel lobby about 10 minutes later and helped me check in. He told me not to worry, that everything was sorted out. He added that my host would meet me at the hotel at 11am the next morning.
When 11am came around, my host was nowhere to be found, but a creepy guy who took pictures of me as I walked towards reception was. After insisting that he delete my photo from his phone, I made a hasty exit. I wanted to find WiFi so I could plan my escape from that town. With the help of some friendly locals, I found a cafe with decent food, WiFi and airconditioning. The last one was what I need the most after walking in the unbelievable Uzbekistan heat for half an hour and witnessing some crazy traffic scenes.
Unbelivable Uzbekistan – Can, Cannot, Can
With a concerted group effort, involving 2 staff members and 2 diners in the cafe, I was able to place my order. I started to relax and browse the ‘net. Just a few minutes later, the staff member who took my order to came back. What I’d ordered wasn’t available, so I changed my order. Amusingly, the same staff member came back another 5 minutes later and said that my original order was now available. Maybe it had been available all along and he’d just wanted an excuse to talk to me?
After bingeing on WiFi for a while, I was ready to pay for my meal and leave. That should’ve been simple enough, right? Well, not quite. When I got to the counter, I only had a large note. They said that they didn’t have change so I offered to pay by credit card. They took my card to some magical place out the back. A short while later, my card came back and they said they couldn’t take credit card. I think they had a problem with their machine at the time. That created a bit of a dilemma as they wouldn’t take my cash or credit card, I couldn’t think of any other options.
I waited at the counter while the staff spoke amongst themselves. It was quite amusing as different staff would come and join the conversation for a bit, then go off and do some work while others joined in. I suspect every staff member was a part of the conversation at some stage. Eventually, after about 15 minutes of deliberations, the one worker in the place that spoke a small amount of English gave me my card back. He then said they were giving me the meal as a welcome to Uzbekistan. How pleasantly unexpected.
My phone was was playing up, which meant I couldn’t get any useful directions from my map app. I stopped a local walking by and asked him how to get a Mashrutka to Tashkent. He was lovely and spoke to the driver of a passing Mashrutka. That Mashrutka would take me to the station where I could get a Mashrutka to Tashkent. The ladies in the Mashrutka were trying to ask where I was from by making a roof over their head with hands. I didn’t get the reference until one of them pointed to herself and said “Uzbek”. It was an amusing exchange. Especially when they thought Hong Kong was in Japan.
At the station, the driver of the Mashrutka I was in, let’s call him driver number 1, took me to the Mashrutka I needed to take. He explained to the driver of that Mashrutka, let’s call him driver number 2, where I needed to go. When I tried to give driver number 1 money for the ride, he refused to take it and wished me a safe journey. The generosity of Uzbeks, who may not have much themselves, is amazing!
Getting to the Unbelievable Uzbekistan Capital of Tashkent
A lady already in the Mashrutka said she was going to Tashkent too. Next thing I know, we’d stopped somewhere and men were crowding around the Mashrutka. One of them grabbed my bag, but I quickly grabbed it back. Then the lady motioned for me to follow her. We ended up in a taxi and she called her neighbour Islam who could speak English. He told me that she was paying for my taxi ride to Tashkent because she thought that taking a Mashrutka all the way was too dangerous. I was starting to wonder why people didn’t want my money that day!
The lady and I got to chatting, as much as you can chat when you don’t speak the same language. I found out her name was Najiya and she was 60 years old. She had to show me her ID for me to believe that last one. She also found out all about my trip and told me that her son lives with her in Chirchiq, a small town about 30 minutes from Tashkent.
Due to several unscheduled stops and a dinner break, we ended up getting to Tashkent much later than expected. Najiya was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find WiFi to contact my host at that hour, so she invited me to stay with her in Chirchiq. It was nearly midnight by the time we got to Nadjiya’s house. I figured we would just go to sleep. Najiya wanted to make sure that I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. She placed a whole pile of food and tea in front of me. Uzbeks take hospitality to a whole new level!
Hospitality Level = 1000
I could barely keep my eyes open. But I didn’t want to be rude to this wonderful person who had just done so much for me. I tried to stay alert so we could talk for a bit. Shortly after, Najiya’s son, Sheruz came home. He was able to speak a bit of English and said I was welcome to stay with them as long as liked.
In the morning, Najiya had to leave early in the morning to do something, so Sheruz made me breakfast and told me about his studies and his girlfriend that he is keeping a secret from his mother. Hospitality and intrigue; what’s not to love about Uzbekistan?!
When it was time for me to leave, Sheruz gave me his phone number, in case I needed anything while I was in Tashkent. He then walked down the road and waited with me to make sure that I had no problems getting on the Mashrutka to Tashkent. I really don’t have the words to describe how awesome and overwhelming Uzbekistan has been so far.
Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll head into Tajikistan.
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Hitchin’ A Ride Along the Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan
My friend Argen in Bishkek had suggested that I should try hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan. He told me it would be easy. As I was a foreigner, I would get picked up in no time. I’m always up for new experiences, so why not? What better place to try than the Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan?
Kadji-Sai to Balykchy
It was only about a minute before the first car driving through the small town of Kadji-Sai stopped. The driver’s name was Asmut and his English was excellent. I have a knack for finding the English speakers in places where other people can’t, apparently. Asmut was probably the first decent driver I’d come across in Kyrgyzstan. He slowed down for towns, which I hadn’t seen any other drivers do. I found out he was on a business trip and lived in Bishkek. He took me to Balykchy, the town at end of the Lake Issyk-Kul.
I noticed a lot of stalls along the side of the road in Balykchy selling dried fish. I was told by a local in Kadji-Sai that there was no fishing allowed at the lake, so I really had to wonder where these fish came from!
My good luck with finding English speakers continued when I decided to check if a local service station in Balykchy had a toilet. It did! There was also WiFi and the staff spoke some basic English. It seemed like a good place to rest and refresh. As I walked out of the service station, I saw a huge Kyrgyz flag in the middle of an intersection and stopped to take a photo. It was then that my second ride stopped and asked if I needed a lift.
Balykchy to Tokmok
In the car was a family of four and a grandmother. None of them spoke English, except the primary school-aged son, but he only really knew a few words. They took me to the town they lived in. It was called Tokmok and it was quite small. But there was plenty happening on the side of the road on the way.
There were a few cars stopped with flat tyres. Other cars had stopped to help them out! How nice of them. Locals apparently love to make word or picture formations on the sides of hills, out of stones. I’m not sure why, but someone had gone to the trouble of making the FedEx logo on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess?
I also saw quite a few people with small barrel barbecues on the side of the road selling cooked corn. They waved their corn-grabbing tongs above their heads to get the attention of passing motorists.
One of the most interesting things I saw on the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan was the unique domes of mosques in the area. In every other place that I’ve seen mosques, the roofs have been smooth domes. The domes in Eastern Kyrgyzstan have raised bits on them that almost make them look quilt-like. I actually think they look pretty cool!
When we got to Tokmok, the driver dropped his family off then said, “I’m taxi, give me money”. I said, “Take me to Bishkek”, then he said, “Haha, okay goodbye”. Cheeky git. As he’d dropped me in the middle of town, I had to walk a bit to get to the outskirts.
Tokmok to Bishkek
My next ride along the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan came from Jazmek, a security guard at service station in Ivanovka. Ivanovka is actually only about 10 minutes from Tokmok. It started to get difficult to get a ride there. I don’t know if it was because I was getting closer to Bishkek, or because it was getting late.
While I was on the side of the road, a local boy called Hazhik came to my rescue and waved a car down for me. It was a relief to finally be on the road again. I soon noticed that the driver and the other woman in the car weren’t talking to each other. Furthermore, they had angry looking faces. Had I just interrupted a fight?
The woman actually spoke to me, via a translation app when the driver stopped to get some fuel. She was really nice, but as soon as the driver got back into the car, her angry face reappeared and she didn’t say another word all the way to Bishkek. So that was probably the most awkward things got on the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan.
Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek to Osh
Argen had told me that I would only have to go just outside the city centre in Bishkek to pick up a ride. So that’s what I did and it did not work out as I would’ve hoped. I figured that I needed to get further out of town, so I jumped in a Mashrutka (van) to a town called Kara-Balta at the intersection of the Osh-Bishkek Highway.
That did the trick and I was on the move along the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan within minutes. The first car that picked me up was only going to a small town about 20 kilometres down the road. From there, I flagged down a van with a very excited driver motioning for me to get in.
My new friend, Ulan was eager to chat and knew a small amount of English. He gave me some курут or Kurut, a local hard, salty milk snack often eaten when taking long trips. He advised me that it goes well with beer.
Waterfalls and Horse Milk on the Silk Road
After several hours on the road, I’d been drifting in and out of a sleep state, until Ulan stopped on the side of the road. He pointed to my right and encouraged me to get out of the car. I thought he meant for a stretch, but there was a cute little waterfall in front of me! The waterfall ran into the Kara-Balta River. The Pamir Highway (Silk Road) follows this river for several hundred kilometres.