It was with a heavy heart that I made farewell plans and inquiries for onward travels. No one had been to Uzbekistan and there was dispute as to which border posts were open (there are frequent spats between the two countries which often ends in tit for tat political games and the sudden shutting of border posts). I’d ideally wanted to enter Uzbekistan via the norther Penjikent border, but the snowfall inthe Fan mountains had closed up most northern roads. I settled for the southern border crossing via Tursanzade. Emily who is pretty fluent in Farsi made some inquiries and help me plot my course out of Dushanbe. I was to take an early morning taxi from Zarnisar bizarre to the border. Well sounds good on paper, a nightmare in reality. At such an early time, no buses were running only taxis. Despite that, LEAVE AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE. Long queues at either side of the border can end up being a time waster and frustrating. I took a taxi out to a place where a friend of the taxi driver told him to drop me off at the side of the road like an orphan. I waited in the freezing cold when a bright red car pulled up and I tried to ask whether he was a shared taxi to Tursanzader. He seemed to think so and off we drove. Yup, again I found myself alone (eek) in a car with a stranger. At one stage he suggested we pull over for some hanky panky and he could see by the look on my horrified face that he’d crossed the line. I wasn’t amused and started panicking. It was a long was to the border, (55kms on a dreadful road with a stranger who wants to jump into your knickers was quite frankly too long). We passed lots of cotton fields and sheep and I stayed mute until we hit the border. The driver accepted my money and tried to wangle more out of me when we arrived. I got out of the panic mobile and in to the pouring rain when I was very quickly swarmed by scores of black market traders. An umbrella was placed over my shoulders and we started to talk bizniz.. I knew the official exchange rate at the time and the black market rate which promised figures of up to 30% savings. I got rid of my remaining tajik somani and was handed wods and wods of uzbek som. I’m sure I was scaled but I wanted to get out ASAP and get into Uzbekistan.
The border crossing was an adventure in itself. I left Tajikistan where the border guards were bamboozled by my passport and struggled to believe I was African. Very little English was spoken, but enough to be understood. I had to remind the guard to change the date on the stamp, he laughed and was pretty harmless. I then took the great trek to the Uzbek side. I love being in no mans land, it’s like wading through twilight. I waddled along, through the lanes of trucks and parked vehicles. I was a bit nervous with the site of so many armed men loping about. I walked for quite a while before I set into the concentration camp post at the Uzbek side. Not one smile was cracked and the tone was set at gloom and doom. I filled out a form nervously and got through to the check point. They stripped me down and searched everything. I had to unpack my backpacks, they wanted to know every pill and medicine I had on me. I was warned about having my cameras, I had to show them my memory cards and they asked me what books I had. I got away with “just tour guides and maps” which wasn’t all true. I was really afraid as I’d collected quite a few antiques on my travels and no antiques are permitted in or out of the country. I had visions of them taking away my collection! The lady who frisked me wasn’t nice and kept barking orders at me and asking me to sign several forms. The man who cross questioned me was pleasant enough and wanted to practice his English. I told him I was an English teacher and that I’d be delighted to help him. He reassured me all they wanted to search for was contraband and books. He helped me carry my bags to the scanner. The new modern scanner seemed so out of place in the soviet style prison of a border post. I just about got out unscathed and made a mad dash for the taxi stand.
My god, twenty men surrounded me and started screaming and shouting prices to Bukhara, Samarkand,Denau and Termiz. One guy wanted 100 dollars! I was petrified. I’d decided earlier that I’d go to Termiz and stay there. John had done Dushanbe-Bukhara in one go and was shattered, well he didn’t make it in one go. All I wanted was a share taxi to Denau and then another one to Termiz. All these vultures were private taxis waiting to leap on any unsuspecting tourist who comes their way. A dear old man joined the screaming mob and coaxed me out of the madness. His eyes were trusting and I knew immediately that he was concerned about me and decided to take me under his protective fatherly wing. His eyes were so kind and a source of blissful relief for a rather shaken tourista. I followed him to the minibus taxi and we waited for it to fill up before we set off to Denau. He also paid for my ticket (bless him). It wasn’t long till we got to Denau. The sudden change in scenery en route and the rampant busy-ness in and around Denau struck me. There is major unemployment in Uzbekistan which leaves hundreds of men in black leather jackets milling about town huddled in groups. The women adorn beautiful and brightly coloured scarfs and dresses and sell what little they can on the side of the road in makeshift stalls. The old man instructed the driver to look after me and find me a shared taxi to Termiz. The driver seemed quite taken aback but obeyed the old man’s orders and I smiled and thanked him before he suddenly disappeared. In no time at all the driver happily showed me to the Termiz minibus and off I went. The drive to Termiz wasn’t long, just over a hour and I arrived after and long and exhausting day at my destination around dusk. I got a taxi to drop me off at the Surkhon ( a bloody bargain and helluva comfortable). The staff took my passport ( a bizarre soviet trait that still lingers). They would return it when I left a with registration slip. Yes, one does have to register in Uzbekistan, in fact every night in the country must be accounted for. I freaked out and wanted to know if I’d need to register with the police but if you stay in an accredited hotel you qualify for registration and you’ll receive little slips. KEEP THE ALL. And I’ll say it again KEEP ALL OF THEM. Uzbekistan is a police state, I was constantly dogged by police at checkpoints (of which there are hundreds along the road networks) and you must provide proof of stay. This makes couch surfing and camping tricky, but if so you can try register at the police. I heard of a tourist who was caught at the airport with a few slips missing. He was fined and grounded. The cops will look for any excuse for a bribe so be prepared to take them on.
Termiz was a great little find. I liked that it wasn’t mainstream touristy Uzbekistan. I didn’t realize how close we were to the Afghan border. There seems to be conflict in this zone and constant negotiation as to whether US troops are permitted to cross into Afghanistan from Termiz. I’d recommend staying away from the border zone, Mazar-e-Sharif really caught my imagination but there were several outbreaks of violence and bloodshed just across the border. Termiz itself is fine but a mere 10 km further South, you’re risking your life.
I really enjoyed my time in Termiz. I felt it was a great balance of former soviet glory and current Uzbek national resurgence. I bought loads of Alpin Gold chocolate and slept a blissful sleep after a crazy day of travel. The next morning it was raining, but the rain gave Termiz a certain warmth. I chose Termiz simply for the stunning archaeological museum. I had a great afternoon drifting about this gorgeous place and didn’t want to leave. The artifacts were presented in a friendly and almost tangible manner. The Buddhist artifacts dating from the 3rd-4th century are stunning. They reminded me of the beautiful Buddhist temple remains I saw in the Wakhan Valley and my heart bled for the Buddhist artifacts that were so brutally destroyed by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Some lovely ladies decided to approach me and wanted to chat and take photos. That made my day. The staff were really friendly and really interested that a tourist was coming to visit their little museum. I did promise them I’d return and visit them 🙂
From the museum I crossed over to the lovely Dostlyk park. There is an eerie gloom that I find infectious and contagious when I walk through old Soviet parks. Nostalgia overcomes me and I love the benches, concrete, paths, fountains, garish slides and leafy trees. Some guys wanted their picture taken.
I ate out that night. I first got lost and ended up in a dodgy Russian bar that catered for the male populace of the city. I scampered off in the disappearing light to ‘restoran asson’ at the Asson Hotel. Well did I receive some spectacular service. I was fussed over and got my own VIP dining room. I had several men come up to me and one guy surprisingly spoke some English. Naturally sashlik and a proposal followed.