Silk Road by MGB – Days 63 to 71 in Uzbekistan

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Kyrgyzstan was a case of continuous culture shock, not what I had expected of the ex-Soviet Central Asian ‘stans when it came to the geography or the culture. The surprises continued in Uzbekistan, when we reached Samarkand and Bukhara with their wonderful Islamic art and architecture the picture was rather more what I had been expecting and we’ve also had the desert geography which I had in my mind, but there were plenty of other surprises.

▲ Starting with the money, Uzbekistan has a big black market although it’s so relaxed you could hardly describe it as black. The biggest note is 10,000 som, about US$1.25 at the black market rate of 8000 to the dollar, but you’re equally likely to get 1000 som notes, about 12.5 US cents. Which means if you change US$100 into the local currency you’ll need a daypack to carry your money around, it’s certainly not going in your wallet. The cars have also changed, in Kyrgyzstan the car of choice seemed to be an ‘80s Audi 100. In Uzbekistan it was a new Chevy. There’s a Chevrolet assembly plant in the country and it feels like three quarters of the cars you see are new Chevies.

▲ Ferghana was our first stop in Uzbekistan and dinner at the Tractor Restaurant was another reminder that the ‘stans seemed to be more European than Asian or Middle Eastern. Even before we arrived in Ferghana we’d discovered another surprise about the country. All through China and into the ‘stans everybody has been interested in our cars, those elderly MGBs. In Uzbekistan the interest seemed to ramp up to an even higher level, every overtaking car had smartphone photographers hanging out a window and the friendliness we’re experienced everywhere also ramped up a few notches. Big notches, driving towards Ferghana a minibus pulled alongside us and one of the passengers proceeded to pass a handful of apricots (very good apricots) across to my co-driver Simon. Well that had never happened to either of us before!

▲ From Ferghana we continued to Rishtan (noted ceramics town) and Kokand (or Qoqand, the fine old Khan’s Palace) before climbing up and over the Kamchik Pass and descending to Tashkent. This is the view from the top.

▲ Tashkent was a fine place to stay with lots to see including the Chorsu Bazaar.

◄ The ‘which country are we driving through’ puzzle continued on the drive from Tashkent to Samarkand. Stork nests on top of poles or, in this case, perched on a powerline tower, always remind me of Spain.

▲ The Islamic architecture around the Registan is one of Samarkand’s (indeed the country’s) major attractions. This is the Sher Dor Medressa with its tiger-like lions on the façade, ignoring the Islamic rules against depictions of humans or animals.

▲ The stunning interior of the Ulugbeg Medressa, also on the Registan, underlines how eye-wateringly beautiful this architecture and decoration can be.

▲ On our last morning in Samarkand Simon (of The Independent in London, my co-driver on this section of the trip) and I got up very early and walked back to the Registan. Before it opens for the day you can get one of the night guards to let you in to the Sher Dor Medressa and climb the extremely narrow and very dark stairway up one of the minarets for the fantastic view out over the Registan and the city.

▲ Between Samarkand and Bukhara we made a desert detour to spend a day at the Qizilqum Safari Camp and to ride camels, amongst other activities. My camel is the really good looking one nearer the camera.

▲ Finally, for Uzbekistan, we reached Bukhara a city packed with interesting and beautiful Islamic buildings. My favourite was the small and slightly off the trampled tourist trail Char Minar which doesn’t really have four (char) minarets (minar) because they’re solid structures, not hollow towers. From here we continue into Turkmenistan, but my co-driver departs, Simon couldn’t get a visa to enter the country. We’ve only got a short stay there so I’ll be driving solo until we reach Mashhad in Iran, where my daughter Tashi will meet me and take over the co-driving position again. She’s already driven with me from Bangkok in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos, right at the beginning of this trip.