Traveling the Silk Road in Uzbekistan

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Kukeldash madrasah in Tashkent

Uzbekistan turned out to be an unexpected highlight in my 6-month Asian trip because I had not included it in my plans, and boy was I wrong! Skip the turquoise-domed minarets, the never-ending sunsets over sun-washed mosques, I mean … the Silk Road?! WHAT WAS I THINKING? Changing my plans to spend 2 weeks in a country with such a fascinating cultural and religious heritage was one of my bestestEST ideas to this day.

I remember sitting on the stilt living room platform buried in silk cushions at Apple Hostel in Cholpon-Ata one sunny morning of August 2018. Other guests were slowly starting their day and talking about Uzbekistan, and how easy it was to get an eVisa these days. Crossing the border with medication was the main reason I didn’t include Uzbekistan in my plans; I had heard nasty stories of Westerners getting arrested for a single paracetamol found at the bottom of their backpack and I couldn’t be bothered to carry on me a prescription for every medication that might be found in my backpack after being on the road for 6 months. But things had changed! Since Uzbekistan’s new president was elected in 2016, things were a lot friendlier at the border and the eVisa was actually pretty easy to get online – except for their ridiculous picture resolutions that took me a good couple of hours to get right. Was it really that easy to get into fabulous Uzbekistan? Well then, don’t mind if I do!! And so I did.

Edit: Uzbekistan is now visa-free for 45 countries including most European countries, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Israel, Switzerland, the UK, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Turkey. Seriously, now you really have to go!

Following the Silk Road in the footsteps of the nomadic traders and their caravans, from Tashkent to Khiva and back, sleeping in a 200-year-old caravanserai and hitchhiking through the desert, shopping in dusty bazaars, watching a sound and light show on the walls of Registan, and eating lagman, sheshnik and plov with the locals are just a few things I almost missed if a twist of fate hadn’t sent me to Uzbekistan.

While I was traveling I tried to write down moments, people, places and experiences that I wanted to remember later. I’m so glad I did! Reading my notes just a few months later reminded me of how fortunate and grateful I am that I got to be there when I was, to meet the people that I met, to see the marvels I saw and to live the extraordinary adventures that I did. Let me share them with you:

Very smooth border crossing, even with an eVisa that didn’t correspond to my passport info. Smiles, jokes – Da, the Belgish capital is Brussels – and just a couple routine questions such as: any porn pics or films in your bag? “Just the usual” Any medicine? “Heart burn meds” which they didn’t even want to see. The military officer: “First time in Uzbekistan? I think you will like it!” And they speak English! Stamp. Uzbekistan here I come!!

6h-taxi ride from Dorsuk to Tashkent through the Fergana Valley. What is it with the minuscule cars and vans in Uzbekistan? We’re in Lada, Traban and Daewoo-ville. And is it a local trend to have a couple of gold teeth? Maybe I should consider getting one?

Bakery turned momentary currency exchange bureau where the baker gave me lots of 1000 Uzbek notes in exchange for 500 Kyrgyz som. One of them is really a half note, it shall become a souvenir. I have now 53 notes of 1000 Uzbek som to be exact, my wallet doesn’t close anymore.

Traveling around Uzbekistan without a credit card is a fucking HASSLE! Good thinking changing some Kyrgyz som into usd. Note to self: get a lot of cash out, cards are not accepted anywhere. Especially my maestro card. What was I thinking, traveling to Uzbekistan without a credit card?

When dumb sheep go berserk on a highway in the mountains, there’s a chance a truck might ram into them – pun intended – resulting in a failed méchoui. Such is the gory murder scene we passed between Osh and Tashkent: sheep cut open, headless sheep, dead sheep everywhere on the highway and an upturned truck in a ditch. Good job, sheep!

Couchsurfing with Shahruh, his wife and baby Salima. So much basil in that sunbathed, leafy courtyard, I’m itching to make pesto! And vines!! And here again that stilt mini -terrace with colorful velvet cushions and blankets where we played a sort of board game with black and white plastic coins.

Tashkent is a huge, modern city following the old soviet style of long boulevards and massive buildings, with a clear Arabic influence here and there. It’s lively at night in the city center, and chill during the day.

In Uzbekistan, everyone’s a taxi driver. Not knowing the price for each ride I usually let them guide me and hoped they wouldn’t abuse my naïveté and lack of experience. I’m sure they did but it never seemed more than what I would pay for a bus ticket back home. 1200 Uzb som for 1km is the norm in Tashkent and it’s so ridiculously low it makes me feel bad to stick to those prices so I usually give them a wee bit more.

Lagman in Samarkand costs 9000 som (1.14 usd). A 15min taxi ride to the train station (9.5km) costs 10.000 som (1.20 usd). How do people manage to make a living off those ridiculous prices I wonder?

What is it with prices skyrocketing for foreigners here? 20.000 som for a taxi ride when it should have been 4000? 90.000 som for a power bank when I’m sure it should have been a third of that price? I still got it for 50.000 but I’m really not a fan of this feeling of getting ripped off at every turn. And I don’t even want to know what Shahruh would have paid for a pair of fake sunglasses when I paid 30.000 – and the seller originally asked for 55.000 som. Is it written “double the price for this one” on my forehead?

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Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand

“Belgya” shall be the answer to the first question anyone asks me in Central Asia.

So many dash cams in Uzbekistan!

No more salty sunflower seeds or ima need to put chapstick on my tongue.

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Samarkand and its 50 shades of blue are a sight for sore eye! So I dyed my hair mosque! Don’t you wish you had blue dome hair like me, a beautiful shade of turquoise mosaics?

Lovely mediterranean weather. Fig trees, bushes of basil at every turn, vines and pines and lots of fruit in September. Lots of parks and green areas in Samarkand. Hot and dry weather during the day, cool weather at night. Perfect weather for wine! Beautiful sun-washed courtyards! I warmly recommend staying at Jahongir Bnb if you’re in Samarkand. Their place is truly beautiful!!

Spectacular sound & light show about the history of Samarkand and the Silk Road shown on the walls of the Registan – only one of the most important and impressive buildings of the Silk Road and of Central Asia.

A woman who didn’t speak English offered to help find my way at a crossroad in Samarkand! Lovely!

If you do the wine tasting in Samarkand, know that they’re sweet and strong wines. Strong cuz, and sweet because of the amazing weather they have there in the summer which makes the fruits gorged with sugar and very sweet. Omnomnomnom. Hipss.

Couchsurfing prevailed once more! I had one of the best nights with Babi and her two guests from Iran and Turkey. What a fun ride hitchhiking in a blur of Tadjik, Turkish, Uzbek, Russian and Farsi! Babi and I got along like a house on fire! And what amazing parents too! In a traditional society like Uzbekistan’s where Couchsurfing is frowned upon, where mingling with strangers is not common, let alone hosting them, Babi’s parents shine bright! They struck me as extremely welcoming and open to other cultures, interested and curious, and even with the language barrier, it was clear they were happy to have me in their adorable house that evening. Smiles, warmth and comfort is what that beautiful family provided. We sat and chilled on a stilt sofa platform in the courtyard that is so traditional of Central Asia and which was used to support a tree dangerously leaning towards the ground. Light strings, cushions, carpets, mosaic tiles and so much green, plants and flowers in the courtyard and inside the house, everything about that house and that courtyard was welcoming, inviting, cozy, and made to feel at home and comfortable. Even the kitty was playfully stalking an imaginary foe in the shape of a branch of parsley by the kitchen table instead of running for the hills like most cats in Asia.

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Bukhara is an adorable sun-washed medieval town with alleyways, sandy towers, blue mosaic tiles and courtyards around every corner. It is also very touristy and full of French tourists – ugh! Even the street sellers can speak French due to the never-ending parade of french tourist groups. And the souvenirs – silk scarves, clay towers, chess boards etc – are twice as expensive here. Better buy them in Tashkent, it’s half the price.

Spent the night in a 200-year-old caravanserai turned art gallery. The room was very basic. It had colorful carpets and curtains on the walls, and barely a couple mattresses on the stone floor. I was trying to picture what the merchants must have felt like when they stopped for a night in a caravanserai so many centuries ago. Relief to be safe within 4 walls, protected from the cold and wind, the promise of food in the morning and no one to steal their caravan in the dead of night. And just like them, I had a good night’ sleep rolled up in a heavy velvet blanket.

Adorable courtyard in the caravanserai with artsy decorations and an old slightly distorted record player playing Frank Sinatra and other retro English and French songs, wooden doors to cave looking stone rooms, apple trees in the garden and old books on shelves.

Doing Couchsurfing often means sharing a local’s home as well as their customs, traditions and habits for a while. Most hosts go out of their way to meet their guest’s needs, providing such things as vegan or vegetarian food if needed, extra blankets, comfortable beddings and slippers. Such was my experience with Shahruh in Tashkent. I received comfort, sweet local desserts, delicious stew and slippers. Staying in a caravanserai, however, was a more raw and authentic experience. It meant living like my host, sleeping on a thin, velvety mattress on the stone floor and eating gooey, meaty grits for breakfast. Shower optional. But hey, when in a caravanserai on the Silk Road…

Bukhara is a sandy fairy-tale museum town meets the sets of Aladdin. It is a very old and revered town in the Muslim world with a thousand years of history and most of the buildings are beautifully well preserved, like the tower/observatory/jail, the 4 minarets of Chor Minor and the various madras all over town. The four blue-domed minarets represent the 4 main religions and were completed 2 centuries ago. This is NOT the explanation that our guide gave us. You might want to start looking for a new job, Abed!

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Kalyan Minaret

Hitchhiking in a truck 400km from Bukhara to Khiva, going 40km/h. Gorgeous orange pink sunset over the flat desert horizon. Adorable trucker who invited me for lagman, bagged the bread for me to take away and is taking me to Khiva even though he wasn’t supposed to go there. Hitchhiking success story #2. Arrived at midnight after walking to the hostel from the city center. 11 hours of hitchhiking. Need a beer, now!

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Hitchhiking from Bukhara to Khiva

2 nights spent at Laliopa Hostel in Khiva, drinking vodka at night and being silly with Riona and Caden, walking around the old fortress walls during the day, stuffing my face with shashlik sitting on a stilt sofa the shade, and visiting the maze of courtyards and alleyways of the old town. Khiva really is a real-life museum town.

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Shahruh, Riona, Caden, Selim, Babi, Elmar, Farana and Danil, my trip in Uzbekistan featured a lot of great people from all over the world. Riona and Caden guest starring as hilarious Abed vampires and putting on a show in a park in Bukhara at sunset and doing cartwheels and boomerang videos with local kids while I ate salty sunflower seeds.

#womanneverwrong. Hold my poodle. Kshhhhhh Abed the vampire. Ugh I hate vodka but great evening with Riona, Caden and Mr G. Raman never wrong. Hostel (french pron) manager complained we were being loud at midnight. We weren’t. Who’s got the pen? No success finding the mysterious dill-infused pasta. Edit: they found it without me!!! Why did Billy fall off a tree? Because someone threw a bridge at him.

Osh -> Tashkent (2:30h, 51.000 sum) -> Samarkand -> Bukhara (2:30h 60.000 sum) -> Khiva hitchhiking -> Bukhara (100.000 som shared taxi) -> Samarkand (1:50h, 50.000 sum). Keep in mind that you will need your passport to buy train tickets in Uzbekistan.

Osh (oш) or is it plov? Same same! Шашлыки, somsa, lagman?

The sun in Uzbekistan!!!! That gorgeous, warm and blinding sun that casts long shadows over the blue-dome buildings. It seems like the sunset in Uzbekistan starts at 3pm and ends in a twirl of contrasted orange and pink at 7pm. Now that’s a sunset!!

Super weekend in Tashkent with Danil walking around central Tashkent, drinking gin and tonic in his colorful and funky apartment. Danil was the perfect host, from sharing his VPN with me to bypass the Uzbek government’s ban on Facebook to buying train tickets for me online. Head shaving, sushi eating and beer drinking in an Irish pub. Pochtasi. Raspberry genocide.

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