Friday, 17 April 2015

Daft tourists on tour across Uzbekistan

The Easter holidays arrived, as did our friends from university who work in Moscow. After twelve weeks of hard work, it was time to finally leave Tashkent and go on an adventure.

The first stop was Khiva, a city near the border with Turkmenistan. To get there, we had to fly to Urgench and get two taxis the rest of the way. It should have been fairly uneventful, but the most intelligent member of our group left her passport in the seat pocket of the plane. Luckily, our taxi driver was fairly proactive; he called the airport, verified the passport’s location and drove us back there. I learnt my lesson about putting things in the seat pocket on aeroplanes, and the only bad part of the experience (aside from a small extra expenditure) ended up being that the other taxi beat us to Khiva.

We stayed in a hostel in the old town, or the Itchan Kala. Around the whole town is a wall which dates back to the 17th century, although the foundations are much older. We spent the early evening on our balcony, admiring the windy streets and flat roofs with a couple of beers, and then went out for plov. Little did we know that it would be the first of five servings of plov that would occur in the next four days.



During our first day in Khiva, we explored the markets and wandered the city walls looking for a good view. Children came running along the streets after us, shouting, “hello! Hello! Bye bye!” I have never felt so exotic.

In the afternoon, we left the city for the Kyzylkum Desert, where we were to spend the night in a yurt. Our taxi driver played music by my favourite Uzbek popstar, Shahzoda, the whole way there, which was fabulous. We had plans to ride camels, but when we arrived, the lady who ran the camp told us that the camels generally roam the wilderness but sometimes come back for a drink. At the time of our arrival, the camels were having a bit of space. So we decided to take a stroll in the desert.

Some unfinished yurts. They are usually covered in lots of animal skin.

 The desert was a lot greener than I expected: very sandy but decorated with spiky grass and sporadic shrubs. We even found a plant could be described as ‘desert broccoli’. But even vegetables in the wild were not as exciting as what we saw next. While posing for a dramatic photo, my friend and I looked down and saw a luminous creature scuttling next to our feet. Of course, we reacted really maturely by screaming, “scorpion!” and running away. And then standing around it taking photos like the daft tourists we are. Once back in a Wi-Fi zone, one of our group found out that the little arthropod we’d been pestering was actually the most dangerous scorpion in the world, and the third most venomous.

I'm not sure how something can be the 'most dangerous' but only the 'third most venomous', but apparently that's how it works.

However, the best part of the desert was seeing the ancient fortresses, some of which are about 2400 years old. According to our (borrowed) guidebook, the desert is home to at least 50 fortresses which have yet to be excavated. We visited three of them, which were mostly deserted, but had background stories worthy of George R.R. Martin. Who wouldn’t want to see the place where a king killed 31 of his relatives to ensure that he was first in line to the throne? What about the one in which a king killed his daughter’s lover in front of her? Not bloodthirsty enough? There was one in which a soldier seduced a woman to gain access to the fortress, and then slaughtered everyone in sight once inside.


Not pictured: slaughter.

After a few battle re-enactments and a game of Fortress-Fortress 1-2-3 (or 1-2-3 Out, 40-40, Blocker, Tracker, whatever you want to call it), we went back to Khiva to get some lunch. The waiter was rather animated about how delicious the fried fish was, so we all ordered it, looking forward to trying some kind of Khivan speciality dish. It turned out to be fish and chips.

However, we became cultural once more by climbing a minaret. After this experience, I have a lot more respect for people who have to climb minarets every day, as the stairs were about as steep as those in student houses in Sheffield, with no banister or light to aid climbing. With my phone torch in my teeth, I scaled the spiral staircase and tried not to think about how far I had to fall were I to lean back accidentally. The view was fantastic, and we even managed to squeeze all eight of us onto the platform at the top of the stairs for a band photo. But it wasn’t all so idyllic; the worst was yet to come. Descending that minaret was the single most terrifying thing in the world, ever. The stairs became darker and steeper and the ceiling edged further and further away, making it impossible to find any kind of handhold. Eventually, I climbed down sideways, clinging to the steps above and below. My thighs are still hurting, four days later. However, I think this has less to do with the minaret, and more to do with my need for regular exercise.

We climbed this!

Next, we flew to Bukhara, keeping our passports as far away from seat pockets as possible. The first thing we did once we landed was eat plov, of course. We looked around the old town, the Registan and the markets. Bukhara was saturated with tourists compared to Khiva and Tashkent; we saw people from France, Germany, America and Sweden. We barely stood out, which meant that we felt more at ease, but everything was a lot more expensive.



On the last day in Bukhara, we visited the Ark Fortress, and accidentally bought a guided tour. We found out a lot of interesting facts about where the King sat, and how they had built a wall for people to back into and slide around so that they would never turn their back on him. There were some beautiful buildings, but the majority of the tour seemed to take place in tourist shops.

The no-back-turning wall.

After lunch, we visited the Summer Palace. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of battery at this point, about three minutes after I spent an extra 3000 sum on a ticket that would allow me to take photos. The palace itself was shabbier than it perhaps once was, but it was beautiful nonetheless. There were peacocks, ravens and even (apparently) a snake. Inside the palace, the d├ęcor was inventive and opulent. The first room was completely decorated in white woodwork that looked like patterned lace. In others, there were rooms entirely covered in mirrored and brightly coloured tiles, with windows in blue and red glass. It was so disco. We finished our visit in true ‘British people visiting a stately home’ fashion: with coffee and cake.



So, the holiday had gone (mostly) without a hitch. But there was one thing that we had not considered: our own foolishness. We got to the station, running a little late but otherwise unharmed. We showed the tickets to the guy for registration. He pointed to the date. Actually, we weren’t late for the train. We were a whole month early. Somehow, despite the fact that two of us had confirmed with the woman at the ticket office that we wanted tickets for April, we had managed to obtain tickets for May. And not one of the eight of us in our group had noticed.

Everyone in the station laughed at us for a little while, but then we were rescued by a man on the phone who only spoke Uzbek. He took one of the members of our group away for about ten minutes while we waited, our stress levels gradually increasing. The registration chap really enjoyed telling us that we would not get on the train, waving his arms and shouting, “NYET”. Eventually, after a tense wait, our friend reappeared, waving us through to the train. But it was almost not to be. A policeman came running after us shouting for us to stop. There was a huge argument in Uzbek, but eventually we were shown to the platform, where we all inexplicably ran to the train. We were put in the guard’s cabin, which consisted of a bunkbed with a bedside table. Four of us in one, four of us in the other. For six hours. Honestly, we were just happy to be on the train. And everyone’s mood lightened further when the guards opened our door to offer us plov and wine. I have a feeling we were slightly overcharged, but if I really have to become a victim of extortion for being foreign and stupid, I’d rather there were a bowl of plov and a bottle of wine involved.


Finally back in Tashkent, we went for a celebratory meal which was accompanied by a band playing traditional music, Russian folk songs and 80s classics on drums, violin and guitar. It was a lovely end to an adventure which taught us all about the dangers of scorpions, aeroplane seat pockets and not checking the date on your train ticket.

Here's a song from our taxi drive into the desert.