Published: August 28th 2009August 20th 2009
As we entered Uzbekistan, we received the most thorough search we are ever likely to, with everything being removed from our bags and inspected. However, unlike at most borders, the guards weren’t looking for anything in the way of contraband, but instead any indications that we were journalists. This being due to a unilateral ban on journalism, a measure essentially imposed in an attempt to reduce coverage of human rights violations. A cheery thought to start a visit to any country.
Once in Uzbekistan it was immediately apparent that they have only a fraction of the wealth of neighbouring Turkmenistan. In fact, throughout our stay in the country we often commented how much it felt like being back in Africa, complete with some of the worst transport, food and sanitation we had seen in quite some time.
Tourism in Uzbekistan is dominated by one thing, the Silk Route and the legacy of when this was one of the richest areas in the world. The majority of visitors to the country focus their attention on three former staging posts on this once great route; namely Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Given that we were short on time and safe in the
After Changing-up Some Travellers´ Cheques!
The value of the Uzbek Sum is sufficiently low for carrier bags to be a popular alterntive to wallets!
knowledge that things can quickly become a bit samey, we took the decision to miss out on Khiva, as it would involve going out of our way.
Our first stop in Uzbekistan, certainly lacked the grandeur of these cities. Nukus was only a short cab ride from the border and is an archetypal Soviet city, with little in the way to recommend it, save for an interesting art gallery. Contained in the gallery is a large collection of pieces censored during the Soviet era and banished to this far flung corner of the USSR. It made a pleasant place to kill a few hours.
As well as convenience, the main reason for visiting Nukus was to pay a visit to what has to be one of the most haunting places we have ever been, the virtual ghost town of Moynaq. Once a thriving fishing port, Moynaq now lies some 150km from the nearest water. Close to the town the redundant fishing fleet now sits rusting in the desert, serving as a poignant reminder of the tragedy that is the Aral Sea disaster.
In order to increase cotton production in the area, the Soviets diverted the rivers that
fed the Aral Sea for irrigation purposes. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if water ceases to flow into a sea, evaporation will eventually cause it to dry up, and that is exactly what has happened. What was once the world’s fourth largest lake is now a fraction of its former size, and still shrinking. Arguably the worst ecological disaster of all time, over 100 species of animal have disappeared from the area and the microclimate has been dramatically affected by the loss of such a large volume of water. The human story is equally disturbing with thousands of livelihoods affected by the destruction of the fishing industry and the numerous health effects associated with now frequent salt-dust storms and reduced water quality.
Quite unexpectedly our stay in Uzbekistan was dominated by a chance meeting with local girl in an internet café in Nukus. To cut a long story short, after a brief conversation, Aynura invited herself along with us for our journey onwards to Bukhara. Despite our initial fears that she may have an ulterior motive, it quickly became apparent that she simply wanted to practice her English, see some more of her country and
have the kudos of having English friends. Her being only 18 and clearly lacking in experience of life outside her village, meant we felt somewhat responsible for her. However, we quickly warmed to our new travelling companion and self-appointed translator.
During the bumpy eight hour journey through the desert, Aynura commented that she’d never been on a bus before. It was at this point that the true levels of her naivety hit home. We’re not entirely sure that she knew what she was letting herself in for, but we doubt she’ll be jumping at the chance to repeat a bus journey like that. However, she can’t have been having too bad a time, because each time we expected her to say goodbye she continued to tag along and ended up accompanying us for the remainder of our stay in her country.
Bukhara is billed as Uzbekistan’s holiest city and we had high expectations. However, in comparison to the architecture we had seen in Iran it paled into insignificance and was something of a disappointment. Our next stop, Samarkand, certainly wasn’t disappointing and contained one of the most impressive architectural displays that we’ve seen this trip, albeit heavily restored.
One real surprise was the number of visitors the city receives. Far from being the preserve of adventurous backpackers, the streets and monuments were swarming with coachloads of white-haired European tourists.
From Samarkand we travelled to Tashkent, the capital city. It is here that Uzbekistan's status as a police state can be most strongly felt, with armed police posted literally every 20m or so on all major roads. Despite this and having little in the way of tourist attractions, it is a pleasant enough city and conveniently located close to the Kazakh border. Frustratingly, this border has been closed to foreigners and we needed to backtrack some 100km, before we could leave the country.
There are more photos below