Tag Archives: samarkand

…To the End of the World – Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure – Uzbekistan Part 3/3

September 2017

As I woke up on my last day in Nukus, a wave of sadness came over me. I had made friends, integrated into the community and started to get comfortable. I knew I wouldn’t be back again, as is the case for almost all of the places I pass through. I didn’t think too much as I packed my bag, knowing that as soon as I got picked up, this city would be in the past.

As I followed the road beyond the city, the usual stream of traffic flew past; the staring locals who slowed down to have a good stare at the white, blonde tourist bearing the biggest bag they’ve ever seen, the small motorbikes with engines like hair clippers, and the occasional taxi driver or public minibus beeping for my attention.

As the sun began to fall, a small boy (left) ran up to me asking if I wanted to come for tea.

Why not? I thought.

He told me to take off my shoes and walk in, but I wasn’t so sure I’d be welcome – A strange, bearded man that your child has taken in? What would the adults think? I waited nervously at the door before the grandmother waved me in frantically, as if I was standing in the pouring rain.

She laid out some nuts, sweets and a pot of tea, with some small square pastry things which they call ‘ball sack’, with emphasis on the double ‘l’ and the ‘a’ pronounced like ‘ah’. I thought they were have a joke with me.

The rest of the family arrived one after the other, amazed to see a real English person not only in their house, but in their city. The father took a particular interest in me; I don’t think the smile left his face all evening. He and the son spent the our time together trying to give me items from their house which I took a slightly prolonged look at – Such things as a large, metal teapot, a frying pan and a wooden plate ornament were handed to me. They did give me a taxidermied wolf’s claw, to protect me against what they translated as ‘infiltration’.

The father showed me around the house, which evidenced that they were a richer-than-most family.

Despite its earlier days, Google Translate now works between English and Russian extremely well and we had a substantial conversation over the course of the evening. It did make a mistake though, at least I hope it did. As I was being shown around, the father leaned into a dark closet and the app said ‘I love you’. As this happened, he turned around with a glimmer in his eyes.

They are very hospitable people in this country; anything you need, even if you don’t know it yourself, they will give. When I needed the toilet, the son would take me by the arm like I was a blind man. I felt a bit uncomfortable during the evening because they were so far in my personal space, they were almost sitting on me.

If you ever visit Uzbekistan, know that it’s okay to leave food on your plate. In the UK it’s rude, but here it means you’re still hungry, and I was about one mouthful away from hospital.

This was the last family I met here and a great last memory. They even filled my backpack with food – sweets, pasta sauce, crisps and a big bag of ‘ballsack’.

Ahead of me now was a 400km stretch of dry, uninhabited emptiness that runs to the border with Kazakhstan. Beyond that would be more desert, until I reached the city of Aktua, the first and last in the country.

I was worried about hitchhiking through this, because traffic was very sparse and you have to put a lot of trust into your driver and their vehicle. Other hitchhikers have often taken the inexpensive train. But, as I was walking out of the city the following morning, a lone trucker was pulled in drinking his morning cup of tea. He saw me walking and called me over, without thinking it seemed.

‘Where are you going?’ he asked.

‘Kazakhstan’ I replied.

‘Come with me, then!’

And as easily as that, I had a lift to the border!

The long, straight, dry and lifeless road out of Uzbekistan seemed at first glance to have snow around it, but it was actually salt. The Caspian sea, which continues to dry daily, used to be three times the size it is now.

I didn’t have much of a conversation with the driver and the ride seemed to be over very quickly, probably because of the lack of stimuli around the road.

I crossed back into Kazakhstan and was picked up by a taxi driver who had already been paid for. He took me 200km to Beyneu – the junction that goes either to Aktau or to Russia. I was still in the middle of nothing, and very tired, so, with nothing and no one around me, except the occasional herd of horses kicking up sand or or group of camels nodding along, I decided to take a couple of days off.

It was a chilly couple of nights. Winter was definitely sweeping in and I was glad to be almost in Georgia. When I did wake up from the cold, I could hear no vehicles on the road. I experienced the best night sky I’ve ever seen, too.

The emptiness glistened, which I thought was strange seeing as it was all sand. On closer inspection, I found that parts of it were being used as a rubbish dump. Just as every negative has a positive attached, I found some wood to make a fire. This attracted the attention of two wild dogs. There was a different bark coming from them, one I had never heard before. The thunderous sound shook my bones and I realised that they were not simply warning me away from their land. They wanted to hurt me. But if I was to run, they would take me down, so all I could do was remain standing, make myself look big and fearless. I stood for about 30 minutes until their barks became hoarse before they gave up and walked off. The fire was what kept me safe that night. Without it, who knows what would’ve happened.

I took the this as a hint to leave. The next morning, another truck driver had pulled in to take a break and called me over to ask where I was going. I got taken all the way to Aktau.

There were four of them traveling in convoy with some kind of construction vehicle on the back. We went terribly slowly, and it took 3 days to make the 500km to Aktau.
For hundreds of kilometers, apart from the occasional shop and gas station, there were no buildings, not even small huts or shacks. I saw the world for what it really is; a huge round rock shaped by the winds of fate, with a few relatively recent, small and temporary clusters of concrete that we call cities.

This part of the world was undisturbed by us. It was still free. The wind had its own voice. Phone signal didn’t even reach out there! We are all so very temporary and we do not own this earth, we merely inhabit it.

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We rolled in after dark and I found somewhere to camp on the outskirts. There was grass again, so I had no issues in putting my pegs in. I’d given up trying to hide my tent, because nobody seems to mind here.

As I got out of my lovely green home the following morning, a man was approaching me from the distance. ‘This is it’. I thought. ‘I’m going to die’. But as he got closer, I could see the neutrality and harmlessness of his facial expression; all he wanted to do was ask where I was from and where I was going. He was a perfectly friendly man and I gifted him with some instant coffee. He didn’t speak Russian, so we had to get by with hand movements. It was strange, finding a Kazakh who doesn’t speak Russian is like someone from the Netherlands not speaking English.

Aktau, the first and last city of Kazakhstan, was dead on the outside – like most people in the UK. There was an ominous end-of-the-world atmosphere as I walked in, with the heavy clouds looming menacingly overhead. The outskirts felt like a ghost town – the remains of Soviet times. But centrally, it was as full of life as a major European city. The city seemed to be like a plant that had been starved of water; once full of life, it had slowly receded into itself, leaving behind once healthy leaves to wither away.

My task was now to get across the Caspian sea to Baku in Azerbaijan, 200km away. From there I would get to Georgia, find a job over winter and get the visa to China. I wanted to try and hitchhike the boat across, but I’d spoken to hitchhikers and other travelers before arriving about getting across for free and they all seemed to believe it wasn’t possible.

I still gave it a go. I made it to the port and began asking truck drivers, one of whom agreed to take me. The only problem was the port authorities with their very strict security rules wouldn’t allow it.

The only other thing I came up with was to bribe my was past the ticket check, which kind of defeated the object of not paying for transport. I was very anxious to try this, but I got some cash out and proceeded to the waiting room. They asked to see my ticket there and then, in front of police officers and other travelers, so I took it as a sign and asked to buy one. They wouldn’t even let me buy a ticket, and a flight cost around the same, so I went for that option.

I was disappointed at the time, but I realized that I’m paying to go backwards, not forwards. Also, I’d return to the same spot in a few months, so I hadn’t broken my rules.

Just before leaving, I went to change my money into USD. I put my passport down in the bank as I waited and managed to leave it there. I walked away in a tired daze before checking my pockets. My backpack is heavy, but I managed to sprint.

Luckily, they had it waiting for me. It could’ve been the end of the adventure. After all I’d been through since leaving the UK, a few tears broke out when I realised I was able to continue. With this, I realised how much it meant to me and all of the doubts around whether or not I wanted to continue this journey disappeared.

The Second Time I Almost Got Married – Uzbekistan Part 2/3 – Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure

September 2017

On the roadside on the outskirts of Samarkand after walking out early morning, a car pulled in. I did the usual ‘I cannot pay’ mime and the man did not drive off. Thinking he had agreed to take me for free, I got in. But things felt different; There were no questions about me or my trip and he looked like a man doing business. He then told me he wanted me to pay him.

‘No, I can’t pay you.’

‘Then how do you expect to get to Bukhara? No one will take you for free’.

I told him to just let me out, but he wouldn’t. I began to get angry, and when he stopped at the traffic lights, I just took my bag and left.

I had no problems getting there for free, none that I didn’t bring on myself anyway. After managing to hitch a ride with a truck driver for a few dozen kilometers, I got picked up by two brothers. They were in their ealry forties and set on making me feel very welcome in their country. They took me most of the way and, overwhelmed with excitement to have met a real English person, they took me to a restaurant and ordered copious amounts of meat and vodka.

I learned a very valuable lesson with these men – if you don’t want another vodka shot, don’t finish the one in front of you and say ‘no more’. Just leave it. Half a pint of Samarkand vodka later, I had to follow the waiter to the bathroom. I kept it all in, but the next thing I knew I was in a ditch with the early morning sun forcing my aching eyelids open. All of my organs were still in my body, but they were experiencing the hardest day of my life.

I was amazed how, blackout drunk, I had still managed to find a well-hidden camping spot.

I walked in autopilot mode to the road and sat in a bus stop for 20 minutes to recompose myself. A man came up to me and told me that I was on the wrong side of the road to get to Bukhara. I had completely lost my bearings, and on that morning, I thought the sun rose in the West.

It was really warming up, and I didn’t want to be on the long harsh road when the alcohol wore off.

I was picked up quickly by a man who thankful didn’t want to talk a lot. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a man who looked like he had died and come back to life. Maybe I had. ‘I’m never drinking again, I told myself, as I have before and will again.

Before I knew it, we were on the outskirts of Bukhara. It was only a 4km walk to the center. Normally, that distance takes me under an hour to walk, but today, it took be at least 3. I needed to sweat out the vodka anyway.

Reeking of stale alcohol, I walked into a supermarket to get some sugary snacks and water. The assistant followed me closely around the shop, probably thinking I was a homeless man.

I felt like I had floated into the city center. After checking-in to a hostel, I peeled my sodden t-shirt off my skin and very nearly threw up from the smell exasperated by the action. I considered throwing it away because after two hand washes, the smell stuck to it like gonorrhea.

I took a walk with the last hour of daylight and the realization hit me of why I have been getting so many stares. I saw another white person and he looked terribly out of place against the background of this Asian country – like a badly photoshopped image; even I stared a bit.

I do not think the stares are rude, they are just interested, and a friendly wave always seems to break their trance-like state. However, hearing the repetitive phrase ‘Otkuda?’ (Where are you from?) over and over like a broken CD player was getting on my tits a bit.

I felt terrible the following morning and thoughts of going home had returned. I had been feeling this a lot recently and despite knowing I was just hungover, I began to spiral. My mind was put to ease though when I walked in to the kitchen to find an open map of Georgia out on the work surface. ‘Get to Georgia, get the visa to China, and carry on’, I heard a voice in my head tell me.

I could not wait to rest over winter. I was having days where I would wake up with sore muscles and a sick feeling others where I felt like I had endless energy and motivation. My body was now running on reserve energy and some days it ran out.

Uzbekistan has not yet been ruined by tourism, as many countries have (especially in Southeast Asia); nobody tries to sell you anything you aren’t interested in and shop and cafe owners do not attempt to rip you off. Once I even gave more than I had been asked because I felt guilty. Visit as soon as you can, before it is too late.

I walked out of Bukhara before the sun came up to avoid the heat. Traffic was thin now as I headed further West into the desert. I enjoyed the beginning of this serenity as I continued to walk.

I hopelessly put my thumb out to a truck with both of the seats occupied, but they stopped for me anyway.

They took me all the way to Nukus – a 12 hour ride on surprisingly good road. We talked for about 7 minutes during the ride, which was fine by me because it meant I could read and sleep on their bed.

I watched the gradual progression in landscape as the road went from civilized desert to sandy blankness.

They left me on the outside of the city where I got my sleeping bag and roll mat out and slept on the sand. This was a new feeling for me and I managed to keep my equipment relatively sand-free.

Nukus was the last city before entering the vast, open desert, meeting settlement again in Aktau on the Caspian Sea.. There were two tasks I had here – get an e-visa for Azerbaijan and print it, and register my stay in Nukus, since it had been almost the maximum 3 nights since I last did it.

For these tasks I would need a print shop and Wi-Fi. I walked for hours seemingly hopelessly to the other side of the city in the humid, sandy and windy streets. I had to wear my face scarf to stop myself sneezing every few seconds.

Finally, like an oasis, a printing shop emerged. I used their Wi-Fi to submit the application for the e-visa, which, it turned out, would take up to 3 days to be issued. At first, I didn’t like this, but I was glad because I would have to rest. I walked back out of the city to a a spot among the dry desert vegetation and looked forward to the coming days of having nothing to do but read, eat, sleep and write.

The next morning, I navigated from memory to the Wi-Fi spot to find that the visa hadn’t been issued yet. I got some lunch in a small café where I hung out for a few hours.

A very attractive girl, about my age, called to me. ‘You’re from England?’ she asked, as if I were a celebrity. I mistook Gulbahkar’s enthusiasm for attraction.

‘It is my dream to go to London’, she told me; as was every Uzbek’s dream. What did we do to them?

I considered marrying her, just to get around my visa problem by getting free entry into Russia. After a bit of research, it turned out I would have to give up my Irish and British citizenships to obtain Uzbek. Oh well.

She took me to the school where she taught English and the students were even more excited than she was. They couldn’t ask any more than what my name was, where I was from, and how old I was, and I went between 4 classes and got asked those questions more times than I can remember. I spoke a bit about my adventure, told them where I had slept and travelled to. The shining looks of excitement and inspiration on their faces really inspired me to start public speaking and that evening, the email to send to potential hosts was written in a few minutes.

After another night in the shrubs, I spent most of the day doing nothing but reading and drinking tea. My visa had finally been issued and I checked in to the only Hotel in Nukus to get the final registration slip; there would be no more on the way to the border with Kazakhstan.

Tom’s Big Hitchhiking Adventure: Uzbekistan Part 1/3: Tashkent to Samarkand

September 2017

From my train-track-side camping spot, I rose with the sun and jumped over the fence back to the road into the city.

I had slept there because I couldn’t find an open Wi-Fi signal to find a hostel, as I do whenever I enter a new city. But I had finally found one outside a hotel, so I sat there looking homeless (again) and arranged to meet my next host, Igor, in the evening.

Tashkent seemed like a clean, recently modernized city. On the center anyway. It was terribly hot, and so dry that my sweat dried instantly. I was very quickly out of water and had no local currency.

Economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that banks and ATMs had no money. It is not possible to leave the country with more money than you entered it with. The only way to get local currency was to exchange US Dollars. Luckily, I had $100 with me, as I do everywhere I go. 800,000 somoni were handed to me, I was almost a millionaire.

I met Igor outside his local supermarket. He was Russian-born, but living here. He had the typical cold demeaner, but of course the warm heart too. He let me stay in his room while he slept on the sofa for two nights.

He showed me two of his favorite cafes, which produced excellent variations on plov – the rice, beef and carrot national food. The bill came to $1.50 for the both of us, so I paid for everything, feeling even more like a rich man; I was one in Uzbekistan.

The hot weather had got to me and I was suffering from mild heat exhaustion, so I decided to make the 14km walk out of the city after dark.

I found out four nights too late that I was supposed to register with a hotel every third night of my stay. I came to the police checkpoint at the outskirts of the city and didn’t want to risk going any further. Igor told me I could have problems when I leave the border. Best case, I get a week in prison.

I found some half-built houses, which I thought looked fine, but as I walked in with my headtorch, a man called out to me in a groggy voice. I turned around almost out of reflex and walked away. His voice grew angrier and my legs moved faster.

Across the road, I found a field with trash scattered and some concrete pillars that had been dumped there. I didn’t bother getting any camping equipment out, I just put all of my warm layers on and curled into a ball. I slept surprisingly well, and the starry night was one of the clearest I’d ever seen.

The next day I woke naturally with the sunrise and as I emerged from the scattered blocks, I saw a man doing some kind of work in the field. I was lucky I didn’t get everything out of my backpack! I shoved my layers in as tidily as I could and waited until his back was turned for me to escape. I made it about 100 meters before he began calling to me, but I ignored him and sped up. He could well have just been curious, maybe he wanted to invite me for tea, but I didn’t want to take the risk because I probably wasn’t allowed in this space.

The first ride I caught on the way to Samarkand was from a man delivering some wooden panels to a house. While he was unloading I met the family’s children.

‘Have you ever seen an English person?’ asked the driver, interrogating the children who were staring at me as if I had two heads.

One of them shook his head while the other remained in a confused trance. After a while they regained their normal expressions again and could look at something other than me. I taught them the ‘fist bump’ and ‘high-five’ and gave them some London Underground tickets (I had no sweets or anything better to give them).

The truck driver took me most of the way, but there was still another 80km to go. I stood for about 20 minutes with my thumb out when the two men pulled in and said they could take me all the way there.

They invited me to stay the night at their house in the small village just before it. They took me for a meal and made sure I was more than full before we left the restaurant.

Back at their house I found myself running around the place with the 6-year-old son, both of us holding bits of wood we used as guns. It was great to be a kid again.

Just before bed, my hosts asked if I could help them to get a visa to visit the UK. I thought they wanted help with the form or a letter of invitation, but they asked me to send them the physical visa in the post. I don’t have that power!

The next morning, I was given some bread and jam for breakfast, which would be condoments for a grueling show. I’d never seen a chicken being slaughtered before, but I couldn’t look away. It is true that the head and body remain able to move independent of each other after separation.

They paid for a taxi to the city, refusing to let me hitchhike.

My first task on arrival was to find a place to stay. As I walked through the late-summer heat with everything stuck my back and sweat waterfalling from my forehead, I caught my first sight of the ancient buildings. I have never quite understood the phrase ‘take my breath away’, but seeing them today, I experienced this for the first time.