We could hardly wait to get to Uzbekistan! For weeks now we were traveling through countries with amazing nature, now we felt a growing need for some culture and architecture too. And Uzbekistan definitely offered us both. We wanted to sense the atmosphere of the Silk Road and explore its most magical sites. We wanted to see the bazaars full of life and colours and we wanted to meet the people.
It was still quite early when we reached the border in Osh. We wanted to stay a day in the city first, but decided we wanted to get to Uzbekistan more, so we headed directly for the crossing. The line wasn't long, so we thought we will be ready in no time. Unfortunately we were mistaken. For the first 4 hours nothing happened. Not one car was let inside. We even started thinking that the crossing is simply closed, but we were informed that this is a standard procedure here, so we should just wait and relax. And so we did. As always while staying in the queue we met some friendly people and had quite a nice time, but it was getting late and nothing was happening, so we were already getting used to the thought of sleeping at the border. One car was let in and the other gave up waiting and drove back home, so suddenly there was just us and the gate. We waited another hour, but things didn't really change much. We tried talking with the guards again, but they were only telling us it's not their fault and the Uzbek side is working too slowly and if they let us in we would only stay in line a few meters further. We kindly asked them to open the gate for us anyway and let us deal with the Uzbek side on our own. And so they did, but still telling us we will sleep at the border and never get through to the other side in one day. We took the challenge!
The other side of the border really looked bad. People waiting in a huge line (obviously broader than long as seems to be the custody ever since we crossed the Ural), some with small babies, others with heavy luggage. A similar picture on the vehicle side, cars and trucks all mixed together crosswhise, gathering closely in front of the heavily guarded gate, some waiting for more than 15 hours already. We quickly made some new friends and since we were tourists and guests in their country they decided they will let us pass and make sure we leave the border today. Not all people in line were happy about it, but it worked anyway. Some cars were shifted, the officials were informed and after an hour or so we were driving to the Uzbek customs. It took some time and a lot of paperwork, bur we made it just before the border was closed. Only one more car was let in that evening and it was already late when we were all ready. The border crossing took us 9 hours! We knew our plan to get to the hotel in Fergana was not going to work, but before we could even think what to do, one of the guys we met in the line, Azmat invited us to spend a night at his house. The house was splendid! It was a huge one with a garden inside and more rooms than we could count. We got some food and tea of course and spent an amazing evening using all our Russian skills to have a proper conversation. And it worked. The day after Azmat showed us the nearest city Andijon. We were surprised to discover how modern and new the city was. It was prettier than any we saw since our first weeks in Russia. We were already sure we're gonna like Uzbekistan a lot.
Our first stop was Fergana Valley, famous for its cotton fields and silk production. We did the mandatory tourist attraction, the silk fabric in Margilon, but we decided to do shopping at the local market rather than at the tourist shop of the manufacture. But first we needed to change some money. We already knew it was no good to do it in a bank or any other official institution to do so, since the official rate was over 30% worse then the black market one. It felt kind of weird to change money somewhere between the shops, but we decided to give it a try and soon got quite a huge pile of money for our 200 USD. The problem is the highest bill in Uzbekistan is 1000 Uzbek Som, which is less then 50 Cent and barely enough to buy a bottle of Cola. So every time you go shopping you need to carry a bag full of money around. And shopping in this part of the world is not a trivial thing anyway. Uzbeks are lovely and honest people, but this won't stop them to rip you off when you're buying something if you give them a chance. The key to success is to know the real price, which is quite hard to find out. But it's definitely between 2 and 10 times less then what you're being told, depending if they take you for a local or a naive tourist. The first time we wanted to buy some silk I asked in my best Russian what the price for a scarf was. The man who was looking at me and the guys said 50.000 Som and at the same time the one who had his back to us and only heard the question in Russian said 15.000 Som. We knew even the second price was to high, but we still found it amusing, how big the difference was.
We were done with camping for some time. Uzbekistan is not a very nice camping location anyway and we wanted to have our registrations done properly to avoid any problems. We soon found out no one really knows the registration rules. Some officials told us it's enough to register once, some said we should do it every 3 days and some said it is obligatory to register in a hotel every single day. It seemed that every time we asked we got a different answer. But since the Swiss embassy told us they are just dealing with a family, who was kept in Uzbekistan for 8 weeks not being able to get out, because they missed some registrations, we decided it's just not worth taking the risk. Especially when Uzbekistan is full of really nice guesthouses, offering a very good quality for less then 10 Euro (including breakfast!).
But finding a hotel in Tashkent was not an easy thing. We were told the government has just closed a few private run hotels in the city, so all the other ones were full. We called quite a few and got the same answer every time: no rooms available. We were loosing hope, but decided to call one more place called Mirzo Guesthouse, though the description in Lonely Planet was far from promising. Share squat toilets and no breakfast... Well we didn't really have much choice anyway. They had a room for three and you can't imagine how surprised we were when we discovered it is a newly renovated one with a perfectly normal private bathroom and reliable hot showers. And we got a nice breakfast too! Once again we noticed that Lonely Planet guidebooks are not as reliable and up-to-date as we'd like them to be. It was the nicest guesthouse we had in weeks!
Tashkent is a very nice city, green and tidy, with lots of modern buildings. The only problem is it is totally empty. We read there are over 2 million people in there, but it didn't feel even half as much. It is quite spooky, that all the nicely done parks and streets were so empty and totally lifeless. No open-air cafes, no people trying to sell you something at the side of a street. Nothing. And all the newly built modern buildings seemed empty too. Empty offices with empty rooms. The city was really missing some atmosphere. And after sunset, which was around 6 in the evening the place was simply dead.
The biggest attraction in Tashkent is the metro. Every station is unique and beautiful in its own way. Wall paintings, mosaics and sculptures make each of it a piece of art. Unfortunately it's forbidden to take photos inside. We were planning to try anyway, but since each station was packed with police officers we gave up the idea and focused on admiring the views. Uzbekistan is a police country and in Tashkent you feel it more than anywhere else. The officers are everywhere, checking your bag and passport every time you enter metro. They are always nice and friendly, but it gets annoying with time anyway. The locals seem not to mind them, even though they get checked as often as we were, if they only are carrying any bags. Some actually told us, that they liked it, because in this way they can feel safe and be sure there won't be any terrorist attacks in their city. That was also their way to explain why tourists should register in a hotel every day. The data is forwarded daily to the local police, which enables the government to track down every terrorist travelling the country in no time. That makes total sense to us, as we all know, that a respected terrorist would look like a regular backpacker, carrying bombs in big bags, waiving his European passport at each metro station and registering every day as the government expects him to...
Anyway I believe the locals got used to the way things are and often do not notice them much anymore. They were telling us each hotel gets a yearly plan from the government saying how much people they should have and how much money should be earned. The room prices are often fixed too! But they were telling us about it as if it was the most natural thing. I guess they simply try to live their lives making the best of their present situation, without getting in trouble with the police or other officials. And many of them have quite a nice comfortable life. They also do not really have much to compare to, apart from soviet times, which make the modern Uzbek Republic look like a paradise and a land of total freedom. Even if it bothers some spoiled European tourists like ourselves...