The Silk Road

Tashkent, 07.07.2019

The last week was a break from the journey so far. From NYC my girlfriend Kat joined me in Uzbekistan for a week touring the silk road cities around here. We met in Tashkent, and as her luggage got lost by Aeroflot we had to spend the first days shopping clothes. To do that, we needed Uzbek cash, as the local shops almost never accept credit card. To find an ATM in the 35C+ heat we needed to drive around Tashkent, because almost no ATMs dispense cash to foreign cards. And to drive around, we needed diesel fuel, that in Uzbekistan is very tough to find. The majority of cars around here drive on gas, propane or methane, and you can find 80 or 91 octane gasoline easily. But diesel? Almost impossible. The few gas stations that advertise diesel, mostly don’t have it. And if they do, it’s a hose out of the ground in a remote corner of the station, or a tank being brought by a “friend” after a few phone calls. It feels very clandestine, and also like very dirty fuel, not good for the Mini. In Tashkent there is one super modern Lukoil station on the outskirts, that sells diesel properly, and at the highest price we found in Uzbekistan (8000 Som / 0,83 EUR / 0.93 USD per liter). After we had found one ATM not too far from the hotel that gave us Uzbek Som, we finally started an odyssey through Tashkent’s shopping malls to buy basic clothes and shoes, as well as food for the road. The local fashion was, how shall I put it, different from what we’re used from the US and Europe. Chinese counterfeit products and brands were chic around here, and a Mi store even looked like a fake Apple store, selling all kinds of fake products imitating Apple’s sleek packaging and brand design. Even the advertising for their fake iPhone was wake itself. Although almost nobody here spoke English, T-shirts with English language slogans were a big thing. “Never give up.” “The biggest revenge is a huge success.” “I’ll never waste your time.”

After 1,5 days we were finally ready to roll. We saw, in this order, Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara and Sharisabz. I’ll spare you the description of every place, travel guides do a much better job that I ever could. Pics on Instagram might also give an impression. Strolling through the madrassas, mosques and minarets, mausoleums, fortifications and gardens it wasn’t far to the childhood memories of Ali Baba, Sherazade, Sindbad, Aladdin and co. The camels and dromedaries we crossed in the deserts were the trucks of the time, and the caravanserais the roadside motels and gas stations. We both agreed that Uzbekistan is a special place we highly recommend to visit, and fast. Compared to my last visit in 2013 a lot has changed, tourism is rising, and in 5-10 years it will look very different around here. We weren’t sure if for the better. In Khiva a delegation of China Aid was actively “helping” the Uzbeks to restore or rebuild the ancient town, a Unesco site. We weren’t sure if there was proper archeological conservation work at play here, as basically everything after “renovation” looked the same, as a brand new building, where you often couldn’t tell the old original from the newly polished renovation. We read a lot, and the essence of history over centuries is that of building, destruction and rebuilding. In this context what was happening was only the latest reconstruction. And yet, I feel today the purpose should not be to use the buildings in ruins for their original purpose (except for the mosques maybe), but to preserve the craft of ancient times and give us a peak into a past world. We involuntarily drove with the Mini through a Unesco site in Khiva, over old parts of the city walls, and slept in a Unesco protected caravanserai, that today continues to serve as a hotel, albeit a renovated one. Also, in every site we visited, souvenir shops were omnipresent. No hassle, no hard selling, but everywhere the souvenirs, and artisan’s goods were on sale. Uzbekistan has a rich heritage in textiles, we even visited a factory in Bukhara to see the women preserving the manual art of embroidery.

For the traveler of Uzbekistan, a few tips. Don’t drive if you don’t know what you’re getting into and have no experience in places like India, Naples or Southeast Asia. They have high speed trains in Uzbekistan, we saw a Spanish AVE model around here. And there are busses and taxis that can do the job. But here the problem started for us, as the drivers of the many mostly white cars of only a handful of different models are reckless, unpredictable and outright dangerous – as if the roads themselves wouldn’t be enough of an issue. Tailgating was normal, using flashlights too. The alternation of driving at 60 km/h and 130 km/h was erratic and not understandable to us. As all cars had black windows, I never knew who was in these pain in the butt cars behind me. I just saw faces, seldom one or two, mostly five or six, staring at us in the Mini as if we were aliens in a space ship. The drivers would do the riskiest manoeuvres around us to get a view of multiple sides of the Mini. They mostly did it with the best intentions, honking, waving, giving us a thumbs up. But after days of the same routine it got stressful and annoying. Also, another flashback from Eurasia 2013, the question about the price of the car came up since I crossed the border. And wanting to sit in the car to have a friend take a pic. I respect the countries I drive through, and with the exception of China have always enjoyed living the cultural differences, even in sketchy places. But on a journey like this one, I need the car to be safe, and to focus on the road ahead. Playing the exotic animal in the zoo is not fun.

It was a wonderful week. Sharing the traveling through a place as beautiful as this feels good if you find a person that appreciates it. I’m back on my own now. And tomorrow morning the Mini will have to be checked by the only BMW dealer in Tashkent. The front window by now has three large cracks, but that’s not an issue. The steering wheel makes a very un-funny noise, the many brutal potholes and unmarked road bumps since Astana might have taken a toll, and the engine makes new noises when I start the Mini and during certain phases of driving. What will happen from here on will depend entirely on the mechanics’ verdict tomorrow. I’m crossing my fingers, and have worked on all kinds of options.

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