I woke to find the two guys that I was sharing a room with sitting on their beds staring at me like I had just dropped from space and got their grandmother pregnant. This was disconcerting to say the least. I got up, gathered up my gear and exited as quickly as I could. When I left the hotel, I was given a tiny square of paper – my “registration” slip. This is so the government here can keep tabs on you as you tour around their country – I can’t leave without it.
To say the Uzbek government is paranoid would be a massive understatement – in fact, I’m not going to post this blog entry until I’m out of the region, just in case. Not content with being the third hardest country in the world to get a visa for, you have to declare every single penny in every currency you have on entry, and declare it again when you leave, leaving no room for discrepancies. If you change money in a bank you have to give them proof of how you got the money, so if you changed money on the street (as a MUCH better rate), you can’t change it back.
You have to register every night in a hotel, making CouchSurfing technically illegal – you have to get a permit from the government to have people stay at your gaff. It’s like Cuba in this respect. I hate it when governments stick their nosy little faces in people’s private lives, it’s oppressive, unpleasant and damnit, it makes YOU paranoid. I mean, the Uzbek government is known to bug hotel rooms for heavens sake.
But that’s not even the most infuriating thing about Uzbekistan. That would be the money. The biggest note they print (1000 ‘sum’) is worth about 30 pence. Seriously. Which means you have to wonder around with thick wads of 30 pence notes and paying for anything takes a good ten minutes of counting and recounting. Madness.
It’s like the entire country is designed specially to make things awkward for you, which means that it might come as a bit of a surprise when I say that I really, really like Uzbekistan – or to be more precise, I really, really like the Uzbek people – they are honestly the friendliest people I’ve met on The Odyssey so far.
After leaving the hotel, I clambered on board the bus to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. There I plan to battle the fearsome visa demons of Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. The bus was pretty grotty, but the welcome I received more than made up for it. I had the good fortune to be sitting across the aisle from a lady I can best describe as a Scouse Mum… she used the little English she knew to feed me as much food as I could just about stuff in my face – bread, fruit, nuts… I was blown away by just how jolly everybody was – after starting the year visiting a bunch of countries in which women are not to be seen or heard, it was great to be mothered for a change.
The day passed fairly quick smart, sadly I couldn’t see Jack from my seat (in either timeline) so I contented myself writing my blog and reading up (again) on the visa sections of the Central Asia Lonely Planet. If you’re wondering why I didn’t get the visas when I was in the UK, it’s because (as I found with my Algeria and Azerbaijan visas) they would run out before I got here, so I’ve got to get them all on the road.
In the evening, we pulled into a large eatery near legendary Samarkand and I tucked into some tasty ‘Laghman’ – spicy noodles – with the ladies off the bus, who I found out were all from Karakalpakstan and all spoke Karakalpakstanese (I guess that’s what you call it). They made me try everything, and to my relief, it was all marvellously tasty. No boiled sheep head then, phew.
Now what I didn’t understand was this: we got to Samarkand at 10pm. It’s only five hours to the capital, Tashkent, but the bus was scheduled to get in at 9am. What gives…?
And then I found out. In Uzbekistan it seems you do not sleep on the coach while the coach is moving. It parks up for the night, everybody sleeps and at the crack of dawn it resumes its journey.
My opinion? Madness. Not that I like sleeping on a moving coach nor did I wish to get to Tashkent at some ungodly hour of the night, but the coach left Nukus at midday. A quick mental calculation reveals that if the coach left at 7am then it would get into Tashkent for 10pm, negating the need for the overnighting in the damn coach. I’m jus’ sayin’ is all…