Uzbekistan reminded me in many ways of my home country Zimbabwe, a land of incomprehensible procedures, corrupt police and worthless money.
Most tourists choose to enter Uzbekistan via the Osh border, but not us. As the Uchqorghon post was nearly empty and under construction, we thought it would be faster. Our visas were thankfully all in order and we were soon done with all the paperwork, but we were not to enter the country… just yet.
The officer, a friendly Uzbek guy with piercing blue eyes, decided that he wanted to check the vehicle and asked us to empty the entire contents of the back of the car. No easy feat considering Sammi spends half an hour squeezing everything in each morning.
‘What’s in there?” He said pointing to our big box of random items.
“Open it please!”
He spent the next hour sifting through the box. “What’s this?” He would enquire at things he didn’t know. “It’s a maraca.” “Wooden crocodile.””Aspirin.” We answered.
Our vast array of medical supplies could have been anything, but he clearly wasn’t searching for contraband, he was just curious about what was in Betty’s boot. Occasionally he came across something he wanted “Ah Armani…. in Uzbekistan ….. very expensive!” He said pointing at a bottle of cologne. After splashing some on he left it to one side hoping that he could claim it. Fortunately Sammi was carefully packing up after him so we were able to keep hold of everything apart from a green torch we all hated. Eventually we were on our way, with 2 hours gone and with one less torch but at least with a couple of persimmons from another, friendlier customs officer.
Uzbekistan is a harsh dictatorship, with no regard for human rights whatsoever. There is no opposition, no press, and the same man, Islam Karimov, has been ruling the country since 1989. We decided to stay on the right side of the police during our 11-day trip through the country. As we drove into Uzbekistan, the difference with Kyrgyzstan was instantly noticeable. The roads were busier, the towns were bustling with people and the architecture had a much more Islamic feel.
We needed money so headed to the city of Namangan to find a bank.
Suitcases full of Cash
“Do you exchange money?” We asked the bank teller.
“No we don’t.” He replied.
“Do you know somewhere we can exchange money?”
“How much do you want to exchange?”
“Wait here!” The teller told us before wandering out the door with our money.
We stood wondering if we had just been robbed by a bank teller, but he soon returned with a huge wad of cash.
Our first black market currency exchange was complete. The black market rate for one dollar is 2700 Som. The largest note is a 1000 Som note. So our $100 had turned into a huge pile of 1000 and 500 Som notes. We left the bank with pockets bulging. While not as bad as Zimbabwe in its hyper inflation heyday, but we would spend the rest of our time in Uzbekistan with pockets and bags full of cash.
We had originally planned to camp somewhere on the way to Tashkent where we would be staying with an old friend, Holly. But the Fergana valley is the most populated area of the country, making camping difficult. So we decided to push through to Tashkent, have a night in a hostel and then four nights at Holly’s house. What could be hard about that?
We knew that we needed to do some kind of registration in Uzbekistan but we weren’t quite sure of the rules. The manager of the hostel explained the process to us. “You must obtain registration slips from the hotel for every night of your stay in Uzbekistan. You can go two nights without registering but your next registration must be in a different city.”
Bloody hell, I thought. That meant that camping would be out of the question, and that our four nights at Holly’s place would be impossible. We asked the manager if he could sell us some registration slips on the sly. He shook his head: “It isn’t worth the risk”. The risk was high indeed, when the UN claims that torture is systematic in the country.
We had heard stories of travelers being arrested, fined or escorted to the border for not having the necessary registration slips so we didn’t want to risk it either, especially after all our run-ins with the law in Kazakhstan. So in the end we paid for an extra night at the hostel but stayed at Holly’s for three nights before hitting the road for more hostels in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
In Bukhara we met Andrei and Karla, two cool Brazilians on a three year cycling trip around the world. They had been cycling for 17 months around Europe and Morocco and were now heading in the opposite direction to us towards Kyrgyzstan and then China. In a cheap shashlick and beer shack in the local farmer’s market, over a few too many beers we talked with them about their trip. They expressed their concerns on the registration situation, and with good reason:
“How can they expect us to register every two days?! Cycling 300km across the desert in two days is going to be a nightmare! We are not sure how it’s possible.”
As we left the country, we realised our worry was all for nothing: the immigration officer didn’t even look at the slips. We hope that Karla and Andrei had the same luck.