“Welcome to Uzbekistan” sarcastically sneered by a telecoms employee was not the way I imagined being received in Uzbekistan. However the circumstances did fit the odd greeting perfectly in a humorous way. It had started when trying to buy SIM cards and data at a phone shop. After having our passports photocopied, filled in numerous forms (which were all obviously stamped three times) and watched the shop attendant as she completed our number allocation on her screen, she waved us away with a code each and a cursory “You pay cashier”. Slightly confused we turned the corner where there were three cashier desks all with their shutters closed. There was a machine in the corner, so we headed to that. I prodded the screen with no luck and had turned back and walked up to another attendant who was dealing with a large man and his wife. Body language and voice volume told me they were a tad annoyed. I announced “Sorry but the machine is not working?”. The shop assistant smirked and half laughing said “Welcome to Uzbekistan”. The angry large customer turned and laughed before he relaxed and stated “Nothing works in Uzbekistan!”. They both laughed heartily before big angry man asked how I was. “I am good thank you” I replied before repeating the question to him. He replied with a half smile and half sneer at the attendant opposite him while shouting “Always a problem. I am just trying to fix!”. I wished him a good day and found another attendant who was not about to be murdered.
A night flight from Heathrow to Tashkent saw us emerging from the airport groggy eyed and cranky (me not Amy). The first obstacle was bartering for a taxi into town. This is always the place you get ripped off in a new country as you have no idea what the cost should be. Fortunately I had read on a very old blog that mentioned that to the city centre it should cost $3. Adding on the fact that the country had re-floated it’s currency in 2017, and that prices had risen, I opted to be fair and pay $6 for the ride. The English speaking driver first asked me what I would like to pay. I responded that were not going to be playing that game today, and told him to name his price. He said $15…I told him $6…he countered at $8…I re-iterated $6…and he folded. Half way to the hotel and he was trying to gain future business from us with the following line- “For other trips I can do good price. Not like this one; this is expensive because your first taxi and from airport!” At that moment I knew I had been screwed over. And he realised there would be no further business for him! It turns out that the fair should have been $1.20.
Arriving at our hotel we checked in and decided to head straight to bed at 11am. At 3pm we ventured into the heart of the city and learned that Tashkent has very wide roads, millions of Chevrolet cars, is remarkably clean, and has tons of parks and open spaces. There are the huge and typically Russian looking buildings intermingled with interesting examples of Uzbek architecture too. It was warm, friendly and relaxed.
Taking a seat in the sunshine of a park I noticed an extraordinary sight. A hummingbird nearly flew into my knee before hovering and poking it’s long thin beak into each flower of the flowerbed next to me. I excitedly watched this and gave Amy running commentary on the moment..until she pointed out that birds do not have antenna, and it was in fact a weird type of moth. I recoiled in alarm at this freak of nature and backed several feet away before suggesting it was time to move on. After this we drank some lovely local beer in an Irish bar (that obviously did not sell Guinness and resembled an Austrian castle built of wood). I also managed to demolish a half kilo steak with chips for the prickly sum of $7. We queued for an hour and a half to obtain a SIM card each (as mentioned earlier) and ate expensive food at an expensive restaurant. We then vowed to return to Tashkent, and on day two we flew to the West of the country to a town called Urgench.
The hotel we had booked into in Urgench (this ugly dusty Russian version of a concrete Las Vegas strip) was utterly ostentatious. It was resplendent with its fake marble, sweeping staircases, pillars, heavy wood doors, masses of curtains and love of anything found in a brothel. It was revolting and expensive too! The room was actually not too bad (spacious and quiet at least). The waiter however was surprised and perplexed when we asked if we could see the menu. Instead he replied with “No. There is no menu. You will have grilled meat with vegetables and rice. You can have fruit too?”. We accepted the only offer of the main course but declined the dessert. We also requested two bottles of local beer (and having no menu meant no clue as to the price). After the first beer we requested a second, to which the waiter of the year responded with “No more local beer, only German beer”. We agreed to the German option and quickly regretted it. It was disgusting. It may have been called “Munchen”, however it had clearly been brewed outside of Germany and was infused with the sickeningly overpowering flavour and odour of cloves and cinnamon. To add insult to our spasming mouths, we also found out when the bill arrived that each beer cost $4 each! A bit annoyed we stomped off to bed and passed out.
The following morning we had arranged for a taxi to drive us out to the Khorezm Forts. They are sandwiched between the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts. The first stop was the Ayaz Qala. Built in the 4th Century BC, it is an enormous complex on the top of a hill surrounded by plains. Some sections of the wall still stand at the original 10 meters high. It was an amazing structure built out of mud and straw and blows the mind to think it is still standing after 2400 years! It is also guarded from below by a garrison fort. After spending an hour tramping about in the sun we regretted only taking a small bottle of water and a coke with us. We were used to dehydration though! We have managed it on every continent we have ever visited! Next we went on to see the Toprak Qala which once housed 2500 people as both a city and a fortress. It’s scale and complexity amazed us.
To end the day, we went to a fort that is being rebuilt to it’s former glory using the original techniques. The Qazim Qala is imposing and impressive, yet to both Amy and I, it felt slightly fake. We were pleased we got to see it, but it didn’t hold a torch to the other two. The day had been a long, very dusty and very hot affair. The temperature hit 32C as we arrived at our next hotel (and destination). We had arrived in the fabled city of Khiva. It had been so dusty that I managed to leave footprints all over the immaculately clean rug in the reception area. We were sunburnt, dehydrated and utterly shattered, but we had to get straight out to see this amazing 2500 year old city with a history of slave trade, UNESCO status and fabulously beautiful city walls.