The Silk Road. The magical words that made us travel through half of Asia. We wanted to see its cities with all their magnificent buildings and feel the atmosphere of the old trade routes. We were traveling along it for some time now, but we knew the best was yet to come and we were expecting to see it in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. The names alone are enough to make the travelers blood run faster.
Armed with newly bought fuel we headed towards Samarkand. We decided to drive directly, as there was not much to see on the way. Driving through Uzbekistan is not really thrilling, it's either one village after another or just one big desert, with not as much as a house to see for hours, so we decided we won't be missing much. The roads are always a bit of a surprise, you can get anything from proper highway to earth roads full of holes in all sizes. The only thing you can be sure of are the police checkpoints. You can hardly drive for half an hour without seeing one. Normally you just have to slow down and drive through, but from time to time without an obvious reason you may be asked to stop and register (you could be a terrorist after all!). Registration means that some officer will take your passport and write your data down in his copybook. He will not always get the data right, but I guess it's all the same, the important thing is he managed to fill another line in his precious book.
It was already dark when we were getting to Samarkand. And we were really lucky, as shortly before entering the city we managed to find a gas station that was open and yet with only a few cars waiting around. And they actually had 91 octane fuel! The wanted us to pay the price for 98 though, but we agreed without hesitation, as the difference was not that big. Our full jerrycans remained untouched. We also didn't have to worry about finding a place to stay. It is common in Uzbekistan that the hostel you're staying in recommends you another one in the city you are heading to, booking a room for you if you wish. It worked perfectly for us.
The best word to describe Samarkand is “impressive”. It is packed with magnificent, richly decorated buildings. You can choose between countless mosques, madrasas (traditional Islamic schools) or mausoleums and the entrance prices are reasonable too, though as a foreigner you are often expected to pay up to 5 time more than the locals. But at least in Samarkand we have found the tickets worth paying for, as the atrium and the insides were often even more splendid than the buildings themselves. The only drawback was, that they were all a bit too well renovated. Some of them were really looking brand new, so that we found it hard to imagine, that they have really been there for hundreds of years now. The modern soviet streets between them were not making things easier. But we still liked it a lot. Unfortunately we didn't have much luck with the weather. It started raining on our second day in town and we were told it won't stop for at least another day, so we decided to head to Bukhara.
We fell in love with Bukhara instantly. The buildings were as magnificent as the ones in Samarkand, but instead of wide modern streets we found narrow downtown passages and covered bazaars. The right atmosphere was definitely there. The place just seemed real and it seemed old. It was exactly what we were looking for. We instantly decided to spend a few more days there. When we found a restaurant offering a perfect view on the main square we knew we are at the right place.
Bukhara is packed with tourists, but it's a common problem in most Uzbek cities. No matter where you go or which restaurant you choose you can be sure some bus full of French or German tourists got there before you. But then again, seeing all those places you can not really blame other tourists for wanting to visit them too. But for us it was still a bit of a shock and something we had to get used to first. Especially that we were hearing German everywhere we went. The only really bad thing was, that all those tourists were spoiling the prices! We were planning to buy some more souvenirs and a few presents, but we soon discovered it would have been a better idea to buy it all in Tashkent or Fergana or even Samarkand, where the prices were far more reasonable. In Bukhara we had to fight hard to get down to a price that was somewhere near to what we paid before. But it's no wonder if you see that two minutes later some other tourists takes the same thing without even complaining about the price, paying 20 EUR for a thing that is not even worth 5. But then again, one of the things I managed to learn at my university was, that the real value is not important, a thing is worth as much as you're ready to pay. And we were definitely not ready to pay 20 EUR.
With so many tourists around somehow Bukhara still didn't manage to develop proper restaurants. In most places the food costs a fortune and we never really found it live up to the price. And some places, like the restaurant near the small lake in the city center have menu in English too, only that somehow magically the prices are 3-4 times higher than in the Russian one! So I guess Lonely Planet was right when they wrote “ you don't go to Bukhara for food”. Unless you like to pay a fortune for cold overcooked rice and meat without much spices.
For food and few other things too you can definitely go to Khiva. The city is tiny, but full of wonderful buildings and monuments. Surely, it is very touristic, but it still has a nice atmosphere. It feels great to walk inside the old town or on the top of the city walls. But most buildings are really not worth getting into. As lovely as they are from the outside, there is hardly anything they can offer once you enter. We made a mistake of buying the entrance ticket, but it was a biggest waste of money we did so far. They promise you entrance to all the buildings and 20 museums for 2 days, but you will soon notice it's all a waste of time. The insides are very plain and often falling apart and the famous “museums” display water jugs from... late XX century!
All in all we liked Uzbekistan a lot! We didn't need long to come to this conclusion. It may not be a country we'd like to live in, but it's definitely worth visiting. It is famous for its magnificent cities and architecture, but what we liked most were the people. They are incredibly friendly and open, trying to help foreigners whenever they can. When they speak to you they address you as “brother” or “sister”, treating you as the most welcomed guest. It all makes the trip even more enjoyable. But local people are sometimes hard to find. Tashkent proved not to be the only deserted city and after dark there is hardly anyone on the streets, no matter how touristic the place is. Most restaurants close pretty early too. But the best place to catch a glimpse of a local life is always the bazaar. It's a place full of life and colours, that I guess hasn't changed much since the silk road times. They sell the best and cheapest food too. So the best thing to do is to seat, eat and watch all the people passing by, going around their business. Local fashion is worth observing too. We were surprised to find that most women in the country where dressed in what we in Europe would describe as a bathrobe, with matching slippers and obligatory socks. Some of them wear local silk too, which is anything but what we understand as silk in Europe. The material is pretty thick and warm, painted in all colours of the rainbow, making the narrow bazaar streets look even more lively.
Our biggest problem remained the shortage of the fuel. At the end we have always managed to get some, it was just the question of price and time you have to invest in finding it. But even the most expensive 95 octane we bought in Nukus (from plastic cans in some guy's backyard) was still much cheaper than what we regularly pay in Europe.
Finding a proper toilet was a harder job. It's not a problem in hostels that are used to European tourists, but in most restaurants and even private houses you will only find a small wooden shack outside the house with a hole in the floor and no toilet paper. But you get used to that as well. Though it does make you appreciate all the comforts of everyday life in Europe a bit more...