Bukhara to the Border with 35,000 so’m
December 13, 2009 Leave a comment
By Rob Packer
When I left Bukhara, I had 35,000 so’m in my pocket. I went over the maths carefully in my mind to work out whether this would be enough and checked with my Bukhara guesthouse owner, Abdu, and yes, we decided it would be enough. In the end it wasn’t, but as I sit in Osh, Kyrgyzstan after 1,000km of Uzbek rail and road over the course of the last 24 hours, it seems time to reflect on my journey.
My train journey back from Bukhara to Tashkent, at 12 hours, was a minnow compared with the 3-day Moscow-Tashkent trip or the 7-day Trans-Siberian, but I think that’s pretty respectable in a seven-day trip. I shared my compartment with Shohrux, which is the Uzbek spelling of Shahrukh, who was naturally a famous Uzbek; he was a man of few words, but some of his first were “Vy budete uzhinat?” (“Are you going to have supper?”). Before I could answer, there was a lepyoshka and eggs on the table, green tea on its way and Central Asian hospitality was on display once again. As soon as I saw the eggs, I suddenly remembered that you’re supposed to bring things on CIS sleeper trains to share them around, felt terrible at coming aboard empty handed, but felt I was experiencing one of those moments that makes Central Asia such an amazing place. It’s been ten years, so I’ve become a bit rusty.
One of the other things I’d forgotten about overnight train journeys in the CIS is how interrupted your sleep becomes. I dozed for about ten hours, but every time you’re moving fast, it’s almost impossible to sleep and it felt like we were moving fast a lot. Added to that, you’re normally woken up about an hour before you arrive at your destination by the dezhurnaya (the female attendant, who’s been replaced by men in Uzbekistan). This is ostensibly to make sure you don’t miss your stop, but I’ve been convinced by my friend Aurelie, that far more important is to make sure you give all your sheets and towels back.
When I arrived in Tashkent, I went straight to the part of the city where the shared taxis wait to take people to the Fergana Valley. The basic principal of shared taxis is, obviously, sharing. And when no-one else shows up to share a taxi, you end up just taking a taxi. I’d seen this before in Samarkand where the guy who was already in the taxi when I arrived tried to talk me into sharing the price of the remaining seats to Bukhara and leaving immediately. And in Tashkent, it happened again: no-one wants to travel from Tashkent to Andijon on a Sunday morning, so I was taking a shared taxi to the Kyrgyz border.
The drive from Tashkent into the Fergana Valley, the tongue of land that slips over the Tian Shan between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is stunning and goes over the 2267m Kamchik Pass. At that height, the fog of Tashkent gave way to clear blue skies, stunning snow-covered mountains and the feeling that at the moment I am in love with Central Asia.
Every moment of elation in Central Asia has its surreal side that makes it seem strangely real. At one point, we were pulled over by the police who didn’t want to see a licence or money, but just wanted a ride for the next 10km. Soon after that we stopped to fill up with petrol and I was told to get out just before we drove onto the forecourt and wait there. After waiting and seeing every other car doing the same, I asked the driver as I got back in why you do it there and nowhere else in the world, including further west in Uzbekistan, to which he gave me the same confused look I’d just given him and told me the gas made it dangerous.
After the mountains we continued to the Kyrgyz border across the flat and smoggy Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan’s agricultural and industrial heartland and home to a third of the population. I left the car at the border and continued on foot back into Kyrgyzstan until my jaw hit the floor when I saw a crush of thirty people crowding around the closed door to the immigration booth. I put on my best London Underground and Lo Wu border crossing frame of mind and marched on in. I was easily outmatched because I’m more used to flowing crowds rather than a crowd outside a door that opens once every ten minutes and only lets one or two people through each time. And then it came, the other feeling: I hate you, Central Asia.
Eventually I got through the border with some help from the border guards after they realised that my passport wasn’t a turquoise Kyrgyz or deep green Uzbek passport, and so would probably need special handling: this seemed to involve writing my name in a big book. With a stamp in the passport, I was back in Kyrgyzstan and my childhood dream of travelling to Uzbekistan was fulfilled and replaced with a more adult dream to return. In my 24 hours to leave Uzbekistan, I’d cycled through awe, love and momentary hatred for the region, but in the end the awe and love won out.