Gas Panic in Uzbekistan

Frequent fuel shortages make filling the tank a real challenge in Uzbekistan. Black market petrol traders almost destroyed our beloved car.

Uzbekistan has no shortage of petrol stations but finding one that actually stocks petrol is near impossible. So in order to fill your tank you need to go to the man on the street who sells petrol out of the boot of his car, or the friendly lady who has gallons stored in her living room. These places are generally marked by a yellow painted brick on the side of the road, but the easiest way to find them is to ask a local who will usually take you to the guy they buy their fuel from.

A fuel station on the way to Samarkand (source : flikr)

A fuel station on the way to Samarkand (source : Flickr)

There is no official explanation as to how the fuel crisis started, but many blame corruption,  bad management and a lack of  infrastructure.  Drivers regularly queue for several hours to fill up their tanks, and are sometimes forced to wait through the night, and no one seems to know why. Many people turn to the black market ‘yellow brick’ petrol stations. Unfortunately, so did we.

We had been staying at a hostel in Samarkand and asked the owner if she knew where we could buy “benzene” (the Central Asian term for unleaded). She offered the assistance of her friend, who took us to the outskirts of the city. There we found three men standing by their car on the side of the road. The Uzbek we’d brought with us called to them from the car, they nodded, and immediately produced some large plastic jerry containers. Phil and Chuck went over to one of the men to negotiate the price while the other two filled Betty’s tank with 60L from the jerry containers.

A petrol station on the Shokh Rokh between Bukhara and Samarkand. (source : Flickr)

A petrol station between Bukhara and Samarkand. (source : Flickr)

Phil called to me to start up the car so we could check the level of the tank and make sure they had given us the 60L we’d paid for. I started Betty and as the needle on the petrol tank gauge started to rise she began to choke and shudder. I quickly switched her off and looked at Phil in horror.

“What have we filled our car with?” I asked

Phil turned to one of the men. “That was benzene yes?”

The man suddenly looked concerned. “Diesel” He replied

“Diesel?” Phil repeated

“Yes, diesel.”

Phil shook his head, hands over his face, “Argghhh, no we needed benzene!”

A shiver went down my spine… Had we killed Betty this time?

Luckily for us we were just down the road from a mechanic’s shed so Phil, Chuck and four Uzbeks pushed Betty up the hill and into the shed. Thankfully the guys who sold us the diesel were super friendly and willing to help fix the problem even though it wasn’t their fault. Somewhere along the line there had been miscommunication and they had thought we were after diesel. One of them obviously knew something of mechanics and he set to work draining the fuel tank.

A gas station. The guys who took this picture explain they had to trade a bottle of gin for gas.

A gas station. The guys who took this picture say they had to trade a bottle of gin for fuel.

About 40 minutes later 60L of diesel had been removed and replaced with benzene. One of the Uzbeks jumped in and tried to start Betty. At first she wouldn’t start and I was convinced we really had killed her. After a nervous minute they got her going and burnt off any remaining diesel. Poor Betty was blowing thick black smoke, she had clearly not enjoyed her diesel dinner.

We thanked the team for the rescue and finally got on our way to Bukhara, only a couple of hours after we’d intended leaving. We had certainly learnt a big lesson in roadside dealings, and that you definitely can’t kill a Hilux.

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