Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Fistful of Dollars on The Silk Road

We realised on our second day in Uzbekistan that we were fleeced at the border and had our money changed at the ‘official rate’. We knew there were 2 rates, but had no idea that the difference was huge. On the black market we can get 4,500 to the US dollar, at the border it was 2,500. Ouch!

Initially we got it all in 1,000 SOM notes – in other words, handfuls of the stuff. A wallet is useless. When we go out, the question is ‘how many handfuls of money do we need’? We are now savvy and know that you can ask for 5,000 notes (the highest) but still only worth just over a dollar.
This is about 200 euros.
We spent 3 nights in magical Khiva, staying in a hostel just outside the western gates. Bernard from Belgium also showed up! This walled city has a charm that is hard to describe but it will take a hold of you as soon as walk inside. Relatively new on the Silk Road, Khiva was built in the 19th century but in the style of much earlier cities. It remains unspoilt and has an authentic feel to it. We loved it.


Walls of Khiva

The unfinished, ceramic clad tower has a great story behind, so bear with me. The Khan of Khiva wanted the highest tower in the land in order to see all the way to Bukhara. The Khan of Bukhara got wind of the plan and had a quiet word with the architect regarding building an even taller one for him. The Khan of Khiva heard of this plan, decided to kill the architect upon completion. Of course, the architect got wind of this plot and scarpered. Hence one unfinished tower. I rather like it the way it is.

The weather is still in the high 30’s, low 40’s so mid afternoon is siesta time. We go out early about 7-7.30 for a good walk before breakfast, sight-see until about midday when cold beer beckons. We don’t really venture out again until 6.30 ish.
Favourite watering hole in Bukhara


It’s way too hot to camp in Boris, so Guesthouses and Hotels (with aircon) are essential.

Next stop on the Silk Road, Bukhara. Once again we stayed in a guesthouse, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Great location though. 2 nights was enough to see the sights – the usual collection of madrasses (Koran schools), mosques and mausoleums. All very beautiful. We also found a great bar/restaurant by an artificial lake with cold beer and good salads.


Next stop Samarkand. Ahh Samarkand – the jewel in the crown of the Silk Road - just the name conjures up images of silk and spices, carpets and caravans. The reality is a little different of course. The city has been modernised to a point of losing its character and charm. The monuments have been beautifully restored but seem out of context near 6 lane highways and perfect pedestrian boulevards. The real showpiece, the Registan is magnificent and restored from a virtual ruin.
The Registran - Samarkand

Timur's Mausoleum - Samarkand

Unfortunately it is only open at the moment between 11 and 3pm due to rehearsals for an international concert to be held there in August. You may see that my photos have a bleached look. A result of midday sun photography.

We are in a lovely hotel, recommended by some Aussies we met in Khiva and Bukhara – thanks guys! Two of this crowd are driving from Bondi to the Baltic in 1920 Dodge and a 1927 Whippet.

So far, we’ve only tried the local wine twice and I am hard pressed to describe it. Let’s just say – don’t go out of your way to taste Uzbek wine. Anyway, being professionals(!) we went to a wine tasting this afternoon. All part of our continuing education. Let me just say it was ‘interesting’. The only dry white they make is with the lovely Georgian grape Rkatsiteli. We can’t figure out how they make it taste like weak sherry! Where’s the oxidation coming from?

Tomorrow Kokand and a hotel with a swimming pool!!! We’ll stay 2 nights and then head to Kyrgyzstan. A late change of plans, but everyone we’ve met has said it’s fabulous – and you don’t need a visa. PLUS there’s cool mountains…

Tips for Travellers

It’s hard to buy diesel in western Uzbekistan. If you are following our route, make sure you fill up in Beyneu before you cross the border. The only fuel station selling diesel is 3km out on the road to Aktau. At the time of writing there were new fuel stations being built on the road into Beyneu, they may have diesel.

The next fuel station definitely selling diesel is approx 40km north of Urgench. Some advertise diesel, but don’t have it, so don’t be fooled.

On the road out of Samarkand towards Tashkent there is cheap diesel.

It’s hard to ‘wild camp’ in Uzbekistan, unless you are very hardy. The desert is really inhospitable, but it is possible. In June it’s damn hot and doesn’t cool down in the evenings. The cities are not really camper friendly but you can park outside the walls in Khiva and Bukhara.

Apart from desert, it’s farmland and I think difficult to find somewhere to camp.

I can highly recommend Alibek Guesthouse in Khiva. A really social traveller’s hostel. Cheap and friendly with the best breakfast in Uzbekistan (by a long shot). It’s right opposite the western gate. The son of the owners is a bit of ‘fixer’ and can arrange anything. So, if you need help with something, he’s your man. His English is good.

We didn’t like our hostel in Bukhara, but we met some Aussies staying at Hotel Komil which looked fabulous, so if it fits your budget, I’d recommend it. There’s parking outside.

You can park outside the walls to the Ark overnight. We saw campervans there.

Our hotel in Samarkand was really good. Hotel Jahhongir, a bit tricky to find but worth the effort. Very near the Registan but you need to come in from the rear. If you want more detail let us know.

At the border, change as little money as you can. The rates on the black market are much better. Your hotel, or almost anyone at all will change money for you.

Bring plenty of US dollars with you – your cash card/credit card may not be accepted in Uzbek. We lost one in a machine, never to be retrieved and most ATMs won’t give you any money. Dollars are necessary…  Euros are the next best thing. Many hostels want payment in US dollars.

The driving is a bit crazy in the Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbek, but nothing like the madness in Georgia – they really have the monopoly in suicidal driving. The roads are variable, some good, some bad, some really bad.

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