Tagged: Uzbekistan

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Train from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan

After a bit too much partying the previous night at Sabit’s house (our taxi driver form Kungrad to Moynaq), we get to the train station two minutes before my train takes off, talk about cutting it close.

I have a ten hour train trip, and have run out of cym, and as such am faced with a long day with no lunch. My plan is to walk down the carriage until I find a group of people to befriend and hope their natural Uzbek hospitality kicks in when it comes to lunch time and they notice I’m not eating anything.

I find a good group, a couple, a mother and daughter, and a husband and wife and spend the first few hours showing them photos and telling them about my trip. They reward me with tea, lunch and a bunk bed to sleep on.

I decide to wander up and down the train to see if I can find some foreigners to travel with. Big mistake. As I reach the guard for the next carriage, he asks me where I’m going, I give him some story about looking for my friends and do this for the next few guards also. Coming back, I stumble upon some of Uzbekistan’s finest (most crooked) cops (менты – slang term, pronounced Mentee).

Cops: Documents.

Me: *Giving them passport* Here you go.

Cops: Where are you sitting?

Me: The fifth carriage.

Cops: What, you think you can just wander around the train, where’s your registration?

Me: Here it is for the last night, the rest are in my bag. – Foreigners are supposed to have an OVIR registration slip from their hotel for every night they’re in Uzbekistan. I start to get the feeling that the rules are different for Russians and former USSR republics, similar to how it was in Kazakhstan, and start to think I could be in some trouble.

Cops: This isn’t the registration, you’re going to have problems at the border, the fine at the border is 1.5million cym ($1000AUD), you should come with us and answer some questions *cough* bribe us *cough*, and we’ll take care of the registration for you.

At this point their boss shows up:

Head cop: Ivan Alexandrovich ey, where’s your registration?

Me: I have all of the registration slips from my hotels in my bag, I can show them now. – I’m lying, I’ve gone close to five days unregistered.

Head cop: Where’s your OVIR registration that all former USSR citizens need to have?

Me: No one mentioned that to me, they just said hotel registration will be fine.

Head cop: Your Russian is strongly accented, where are you from?

Me: Australia.

Head cop *cracking a smile*: Get out of here son. *to the other cops* his registration is fine.

I head back to my seat and spend the rest of the trip to the border thinking about how to talk my way out of this fine.

We reach the Uzbekistan side of the border and everyone’s passports are collected. After an hour or so of waiting, we’re allowed to go outside for a smoke/stretch. After a few minutes, I hear my name called, turn to find a couple of border police, the guards from my carriage and a couple of other guys. I start to recite my story, I was told that a registration from hotel would do… BLAH BLAH.

Immigration Officer: It says in your passport that you’re from Australia, is that right?

Me: Yeah.

Immigration Officer: You live there?

Me: No, I’m homeless.

Everyone laughs, I notice that they’re all a tad drunk. We talk about seeing the world, and they keep telling me how cool I am. Happy to have befriended the Immigration Officers, I now stop worrying about the fine and as we chat, I don’t notice that everyone from the other carriages has hopped back onto our train. Our guards don’t notice it either.

The whistle blows and the train starts to leave, the guard realises and swears, back on the train he shouts and runs in front of the other passengers to get back on the train. We run alongside the train jumping on the train before it takes off, thankfully leaving no-one behind.

As I walk past the guards cabin, the guard comes out, Ivan, we need to talk. You will sit with us and eat melon and tell us about your trip. I sit down with them as they cut up a melon and the guard leaves presumably to do work. When he comes back, one of his friends turns to me.

Friend: Have you ever tried heroin?

Me: No.

Friend: Why not?

Me: It can do some scary things to you.

I shoot at a glance at the guard who’s just returned, eyes wide open, with an expression as if he’s not altogether with us. He doesn’t react. We go back to eating melon and chatting, when the friend excuses himself to the bathroom.

A minute later, the guard excuses himself and the friend returns, syringe visible in his shirt pocket, same expression as the guard. He pulls out a small bag with a couple of grams of heroin.

Friend: Man you want to try some of this heroin, it’s unreal.

Me: No thanks, but you might want to put away the syringe in your pocket before we reach the Kazak border.

Friend: Oh f*ck man I can’t believe I forgot about it.

He puts the syringe into his jeans pocket and thanks me for telling him, offering to give me the heroin as a present. I politely decline, thinking there’s no way I want to be accepting drugs as I’m crossing borders between two of the countries with the most corrupt police forces and worst laws against drug crimes. He tries to insist by putting it into my pants pocket. I firmly grab his hand before he’s able to put it in my pocket and shake it and sternly tell him that I don’t want any now, maybe later.

Shortly after, I find an excuse to leave the group and return to my seat, where the other passengers thought I’d been arrested and taken off at the Uzbek border. The friend walks past me, clearly high, winks to me and goes to his carriage.

An hour later, after we’ve passed through the Kazakh border, a group of soldiers come onto the train and make their way for me ignoring the other passengers. They look through my passport, and tell me to open my bag. They search through my bag and have me empty my pockets. I look to the end of the carriage to see the train guard talking with the head of the soldiers. I realise that he’d purposely had his friend offer me narcotics in order to be caught by the military, presumably to get a portion of the very big bribe they’d demand. Convinced that I’m not carrying any heroin, they let me pack my bags, and to show that they weren’t targeting me, they casually look into the bags of two other passengers nearby.

The soldiers leave the train shortly after and a few hours later we arrive in Beyneu with no further dramas.

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The Aral Sea, Moynaq fishing village and the Trip to the Sea

While en-route to Moynaq, we stop to change cars at Kungrad and decide to organise a car to the Aral Sea. If we go through a tour agency, the car will cost $600USD, our plan, in true Russian style, is to approach any driver with a suitable vehicle and offer them money to take us.

Remembering how good a driver Yura (Inylchek Geology Expedition) was, Gianluca and I negotiate with the driver and friend of a Vassick and head off to Moynaq.

Old Soviet Uaz Van near the Aral Sea

Welcome to Moynaq, a former fishing town on the coast of the Aral Sea. In 1978, this place was a huge resort town in the USSR, the beaches were filled with holiday makers in a bigger version of Issyl-Kol in Kyrgyzstan.

Fishing village of Moynaq near the Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

Now, all that remains is a shell of its former self. A desert of abandoned fishing ships, rusting away, abandoned buildings and the new coast of the Aral Sea over 150km away.

Rusting ship in the dried up Aral Sea

Rusted ship in the Sea of Aral

Aral Sea rusting fishing boat, Moynaq Uzbekistan

Fishing trawler, Aral Sea

A man approaches us as we’re taking photos of the ships in the desert. Sayvul used to work in one of the tugs currently rusting away (second one pictured with skeleton visible). He now looks after the monument and the ships and gives some background on the area to incoming tourists.

Karakalpak man talking about the Aral Sea

Sayvul, the Karakalpak groundskeeper (Photo taken by Gianluca)

WW2 Memorial dedicated to the Aral Sea

The story of the memorial is incredibly infuriating. President Karimov ordered a monument dedicated to the Aral Sea be built in Moynaq. One side shows the 1960 map of the Aral Sea, the other from 2008. The winning bidder for the contract, in order to cut costs, decided not to build a new monument. Instead, they painted over the Moynaq WWII monument, repurposing it as the Aral Sea monument. All of the soldiers that were sent from this town to the front lines in World War 2 were listed on the memorial and have now been removed by a fresh coat of paint.

Our river show up to take us to the new Shore of the Aral Sea, some 150km away. We make a stop at a spot just ten kilometres from the town, a small pond of the former sea, so incredibly saline, its similar to the dead sea experience.

Small salt lake from former Aral Sea

A small pool of the former Aral Sea.

Floating in salty Aral Sea

Swiming in the former Aral Sea, an extremely salty pool. The salinity increases your buoyancy to let you play superman in the water.

Karakalpak covered in dried salt from Aral Sea

One of our friends after a swim in the Aral Sea. The white on his skin is dried salt.

Pushing our van after getting stuck in the Aral Sea

After we finish the Aral Sea teaser experience, we head off to the new shores of the Aral Sea, only to find our car stuck in the sand. After pushing it out, we all hop back in and start driving. Two minutes later, the drivers say they don’t know the way (obviously, we figured that we could find it as we went, hence the load of food and water we bought prior to the trip), they’re too scared to try and risk driving out in the desert without directions (pansies) so they give up and turn back. I am fuming that this incompetent pair would agree to taking us to the sea for a sum three times the average salary, only to turn back and quit the first moment there are problems.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to organise another car and driver, and thus are unable to drive out to the Aral Sea.

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Art in the Uzbek backwaters, traveling in Karakalpakstan!

On the way from Khiva to Moynaq, we stop by Nukus, a middle of nowhere type city with nothing of real interest, except…

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… the Stravinsky Art Museum, the third largest Art Gallery in the former USSR (after the Hermitage and Moscow’s Art Gallery). Thanks to the founder and collector, Stravinsky, a lot of works banned in Soviet times ended up in this backwater town where they’re now on display. Unfortunately the price for photography was over ten times the entrance price for the museum and as such I have no photos of the amazing works found inside. If you happen to be travelling between Khiva and Moynaq, or west from Bukhara/Khiva (Uzbekistan) to Beyneu/Aktau (Kazakhstan) make a stop here to see some of the works on display.

The city of Nukus, is located in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, and for those wanting to travel to Karakalpakstan, it’s not that hard to do, there are no additional visa requirements apart from the Uzbek visa. The people here speak Karakalpak, a Turkic language similar to Kazakh, Tatar and Uzbek.

Karakalpakstan is one of the poorest regions of Uzbekistan, as the industry once thrived on fishing from the Aral Sea, however since that source of income dried up, it has failed to recover.

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Khiva

Since the girls are on a limited time schedule, they leave for Khiva (Хива pronounced Hiva) a day earlier than I do. I share a car to Khiva with an Italian guy Gianluca who’s planning to travel Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucuses. We get talking and decide to one day buy a Lada 1400 or Uaz (former military jeep) and drive around Russia.

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Can you spot the foreigners?

Along the way, the bridge just out of Urgench (not far from Khiva) is interesting for one special reason.

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The bridge is made out of old ships parked and welded next to each other.

We stay in the same guesthouse and later in the day bump into the only other guests there, Alice and Georgie and make plans to go to the Aral Sea with them.

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The day we show up to Khiva happens to be a national holiday, Independence Day and everyone comes out to celebrate. They celebrate by walking around town, for the whole day, doing pretty much nothing, there’s no big party no drinks, no music, just people spending the day out with their families and friends.

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Inside the mosque at Khiva old town.

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Khiva old town.

Khiva seems to be the one town in Uzbekistan where almost everyone is clued in on my I’m a Tashkent local scam.

Me: How much is the local price?

Ticket seller: Do you have any documents?

Me: They’re in my hotel, this isn’t a passport regime, I don’t need to show you anything.

Ticket seller: then you pay the full price, 11,000

Me: I’m from Tashkent, Chilonzor, opposite the bazaar (My friend Igor Supertramp lives here)

Ticket seller: Fine 5,500.

Me: No way is the local price 5,500, give me the proper local rate.

Ticket seller: Come back tomorrow with your passport.

Even sweet talking one of the old ladies at one of the museums doesn’t work.

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A Khiva sunset.

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Khiva at night. Tacky or tasteful?

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Bukhara

Walking around Bukhara (бухара pronounced Buhara), I stumble upon the Photo Studio of Shavkat Boltaev a photographer with some amazing works. I chat with the man for a couple of hours and leave inspired to take more photos. If you come to Bukhara, make sure you pop by his gallery. From the Nasruddin Navruz guesthouse walk towards the pool at Lyabi Haus, turn left and keep walking until you see a sign saying free photo exhibition.

Also, if you get a chance, come into Anzor Salidjanov’s gallery, between Nasruddin Navruz guesthouse and Lyabi Haus.

Bukhara sunset.

Taking a break after walking around, I sit down to chat with Tahir, a local hat maker who tells me his son speaks great English and will meet with us the following day to show us around.

Tahir’s son Ahad is a former tour guide and exceptional story teller, he spends the following day walking around the sights with us telling us stories about Timur, Islam and the history of Uzbekistan.

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The Emir’s summer residence.

One night as the girls and I are getting dinner, a group of middle aged gentlemen sitting next to our table offer us a round (or three) of vodka and two of the guys decide they’ve fallen in love with Alice and Georgie. Baha, a forty something slightly balding Uzbek spends the night calling Alice his honey, mermaid, sunshine, princess and what not. He says that he already has three wives but she will make a great fourth one. He has all of the creature comforts a girl could want, a pool, big screen TV and 32 channels (watch out ladies). He invites us to stay with him for the night, or a month, I will live as a king and one of his wives will cook and look after me, only Alice has to marry him.

Rahat, the Uzbek with gold caps replacing most of his teeth decides he will marry Georgie. His entire selling point is that he doesn’t have a wife yet. Wow ladies, don’t all rush him at once.

Another night, while searching for wireless internet, I come across the Karavan cafe, where, contrary to the sign the internet is not working. I’m offered beers by one of the customers sitting waiting for his mates. As they show up, I start showing photos of my journey. One of the guys is so impressed he tells me he will pay for my prostitute for the night.