Without the Mercedes van in our rear view mirror, we continued towards Uzbekistan. Just before the border, an overpacked Lada stood by the side of the road. It had seven people inside and about 500 kilo on the roof, so no wonder the back tire burst. We helped them to change the tire and kept bumping in to them on the road to Moynaq. They were moving most of the time, so the relocation service proved adequate in the end.
Swapping the sea for cotton
Moynaq is a small town in the west of Uzbekistan. It once was a thriving port of the Aral Sea. But the Aral Sea shrunk so much in the last decades due to cotton field irrigation, that the shoreline is now 200 kilometers from the town. We watched the beached ships, the old fish cannery and the local museum with a feeling of sadness. But apparently the Uzbeks are quite happy with the gasfields they discovered where the sea once was. The joyful part of our Moynaq visit was meeting Polish Andrzej and Alicja, who have been travelling for four years and keep a very informative blog (in Polish).
Medressas, mosques and mosaic galore
We headed for Khiva, one of the three major silk road cities in Uzbekistan. We arrived at the loveliest guesthouse just before midnight and decided to go for a stroll. We zigzagged through the pink and green lit ancient city when we heard some music in the distance. We followed it all the way to a big decorated hall and were invited to join the singing and dancing families. It was a great welcome to Khiva city.
Exploring the old medressas, mosques and wooden pillars is a real treat. And Uzbekistan has such a rich fabric and pattern history, there’s just so much to discover. We visited the ‘Suzanni workshop’, partially beacause of the name of course. This workshop is a place where the local ladies embroider beautiful pillowcases, placemats and duvets. And some also weave silk carpets, which can take up to two years to finish. Every produced item has a little secret; a hidden pommegranate figure. It’s a fun game to try and discover them all.
Bukhara felt a lot more touristy with less of a relaxed atmosphere. But it was impressive to see the medressa which is still in use by students today and to see all the miniature paintings that Bukhara is so famous for.
We left Bukhara for Samarkand, had the best chicken dinner ever and slept between the cottonfields. Samarkand is another beautiful city with amazing mosaics and tiled domes. We also had another mission though; finding a ‘pacimnik’ in the car bazar. Imagine a busy Arab style fruit and veg market, but then only selling car parts and accessories like the smelly tree-shaped refreshers and dozens of different car horns. After checking around, everybody said that Tashkent would be the place to find it.
Off we went to Tashkent. When we got to the check point just before the capital, we were told that Tashkent was closed for us that day. Everyone else simply drove through, but we were expected to head back to wherever we came from. We refused to bribe the guard and decided to sit it out right there at the gate. He got tired of us quite quickly and let us in after 15 minutes or so. Crazy business.
The car bazar in Tashkent was much bigger than the one in Samarkand. With great help from the security officer and his friend we managed to find the right stalls. But unfortunately none of them had the fitting front wheel bearing. We did manage to find a solution for the worn out front shock absorber rubbers, which was good timing considering the rocky roads of Tajikistan still ahead.
So we got some money, got the car kind of fixed, and now our next challenge was to find diesel. That’s not easy in Uzbekistan, but we were lucky to find a guy who took us to his friends house. His friend was selling diesel from his garden and was a supernice man. He invited us to stay the night, which was a great way to experience Uzbek family life.
In the meantime...
We learnt that the border officials are quite strict on the hotel registrations, it’s not a myth. As a tourist in Uzbekistan you have to register at a hotel, some say every third night and some say every night of your entire stay. So we ended up staying in hotels and asking for extra days on our registration slips, which was fine. When the border guys spotted the matrass in the back of the car, the slips came in quite handy...
We discovered that finding diesel in Uzbekistan is a real adventure. You can not just go to a petrol station, because they save their diesel exclusively for companies and truck drivers (at a very nice rate). We, the normal people, have to find a guy who knows a guy who knows a place with another guy and get the first guy to get into our car to take us to the place. Then the chapter of price negotiation starts and we increase the amount of liters we want to buy to get a better price. Anything between 2500 and 2700 Som per liter is acceptable, but usually they start at 3000 Som. The pure joy of overlanding becomes apparent here.
We are rich!!! Oh no, we're in Uzbekistan...where the money only comes in huge piles of small bills which you can only get from an exciting black market tradesman, in full view of the rest of the town. We love it here.
Ok a little behind on schedule...we are in Kyrgystan at the moment...but Yes! We made it to Kazachstan! After three days of research, many phonecalls to ‘insiders’ (thanks again Steve) and just hanging around the harbour area, we were able to get our hands on a golden ticket to cross the Caspian Sea on a big cargo ship. The boat left the port at about 2 AM and the crew proudly presented us to their “surprise”; a private cabin with shower! Luksus...
We arrived in Aktau in the middle of the night and waited for customs to open the next morning. After a big treasure hunt involving collecting about twelve stamps from five different locations, we were free to move into the car search area. After donating a small "souvenir" in the form of a big beer bottle, the border official opened the gate for us to explore Kazachstan.
Kazachstan: in search of Sultan Epe
We met Heike and Julian, who are travelling in their old German Mercedes van. After a breakfast of mini lobsters offered at our car door by the local fisherman, we were up for the challenge of heading down to Shakpak Ata; an underground mosque only reachable by tiny sandy and rocky roads. Surrounded by wandering camels and flocks of wild horses, we found our way through the windy steppes. There were quite a few resque-the-van moments which was good fun.
We camped at a beautiful little lake and survived the biggest rainstorm we experienced so far. We couldn’t easily get back out of the swampy valley the next day, so all the tools that had been left unused so far, proved very helpful. Winging, pulling, digging and sliding our way across to find the necropolis of Sultan Epe was an adventure on its own.
East of the Caspian coastline, there are some beautiful canyons in the region of Mangistau. The further land inward you go, the more windy and sandy it gets. We thought we were in the biggest storm at the lake, but it got much and much worse on our way further east. The darkest sky pulled over and within minutes it was pouring with rain. We had to pull off the road and hide at a petrol station. We thought we were safe, but the asbestos roof came flying off and hit the car! Willem did not turn out to be so waterproof, but nobody got hurt in the end.
Bits of the road we were taking towards the Uzbek border got completely washed away, and we were holding our breath while driving through the fast flowing water. We scouted the best drivable route and The Mercedes van bravely followed. At one point it almost lost its lisence plate, which was easily solved by twisting in a new screw. But that took the attention off what had really happened; they had lost their Auspuf! (this is German for exhaust pipe – love the word!) The rocky roads didn’t do the van any good, so garage service was needed. (not Willem this time – this is his type of terrain!) We had a goodbye dinner with Heike and Julian and we set off to the Uzbek border.
In the meantime...
Tomek suddenly developed a “lactose allergy” but I drank my first fermented camel’s milk! And I survived. Borat would be so proud.
We discovered that there are 42 types of melons. FORTY TWO! There are melons everywhere. If you wake up in the middle of the night and feel like eating melon, no problem, there will be a melon seller within a 300 meter radius. And people take great pride in finding the best one in the pile.