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Posts from the ‘Uzbekistan’ Category

Human Rights and Bribery in Uzbekistan

Today is our last day in Uzbekistan. I spent it at the hotel pool, so it was pretty eventless. I tried to join forces with my new fellow traveler Martina to push Chris into the water, but he turned it around and we ended-up being chased by him. This was pretty much the highlight of the day, especially if you imagine Martina and me running around in our bikinis. Furthermore, we had to say good-bye to the people leaving us in Tashkent and had a last lunch or dinner with them while Sam was playing the piano for us.

I would like to summarize my visit to Uzbekistan with a few facts about the politics and culture which you might find interesting.

First is the registration of tourists in hotels. In Uzbekistan you are required to present your passport upon the check-in to a hotel. They are not accepting a photocopy and really want to see the original passport, mostly also holding it overnight. The hotel will then register you with the police and provide you with a slip confirming your stay in the hotel. This will prove you have spent the night in a hotel and not at the house of local people to teach them human rights. Upon exit of the country those slips will be checked and failing to present slips covering your entire stay in the country may cause trouble.

The Uzbek government also doesn’t want their people to become smart because otherwise they would start to question the current politics. Therefore, the US Peace Corps and foreign NGOs were requested to leave the country to avoid they educate the local people. For the same reason not many foreign investors are allowed in the country since they also could educate people to an extent which is not desired by the Uzbek government. However, this also has a positive site: Uzbekistan isn’t much globalized and therefore wasn’t really affected by the 2007–2012 Global Financial Crisis.

Examples how human rights are violated in Uzbekistan are the government running a secret program to sterilize women without their knowledge or consent (read more on BBC News: Uzbekistan’s policy of secretly sterilising women) or school classes of children are forced to pick cotton rather than attending school (read more on BBC News: Pressure on Uzbekistan to end child cotton labour). Also the people who are getting paid by the government (nurses, doctors, teachers …) need to pick cotton or perform any other type of stupid work when they are requested to do so. When travelling through Uzbekistan we could observe a number of people in white doctor’s overalls cleaning the streets or cutting grass.

This situation in the country depresses many young people and makes them want to leave the country. Primarily they want to go to Canada or Australia because they heard it’s most easy to migrate to those countries. During our stay in Samarkand the owner of the hotel told us his son disappeared a few weeks ago and nobody knows if he tried to leave the country, was kidnapped or killed.

People don’t trust the government. Instead of putting money in their bank account they hide it in their house (preferable changed into US dollar) or invest it in physical items. Popular are investments in cattle or golden teeth. When people hold too much money in the bank, the government might arbitrarily tax them, e.g. request a monetary contribution to the construction of a new road or a public building.

The Uzbek government is also said to strictly control the country’s cotton production. If you want to produce cotton, the government leases you a piece of land. It will also provide you with a quota how much cotton you need to produce which gives you very limited opportunity to grow vegetables or corn for you own need. The government will also sell you fertilizer and define the price it is buying the cotton from you. After the sales it will deposit the money in your bank account (less the cost of the expensive fertilizer) but you can only withdraw a certain amount of it. The rest will remain frozen in your bank account.

Bribery and corruption are also very common in Uzbekistan. As a tourist you can bribe the police to get access to parts of sights which are closed (e.g. for restoration). We also didn’t change money at the official rate of 1,850 Sum per USD at the bank but always with a safe black market source (to avoid fake notes) at 2,500 while the standard black market rate was 2,800. The delivery time for a new car is two years but when paying a bribe of 10,000 USD or so you can get it in a couple of weeks. Bribes are also paid for entrance into university and to obtain better grades (e.g. ~10 USD for a better test score or ~50-100 USD if you really struggle with a class and want to avoid complete failure). It’s said the official salary of many people (especially those working for the government) is less then 50% of their annual income – the rest comes from bribes and other sources.

Lastly, many things still remind of the Soviet times, e.g. there are many very wide roads in Tashkent which were planned to serve as runways just in case the airport is bombed. I found it very fascinating (and also frightening) to learn all the facts described above and I’m sure there’s much more to discover…

Tashkent Metro and other Sights

Tashkent is one of those cities where there isn’t much too see. So never take your girlfriend there on an extended weekend unless you plan to spend most of the time at the hotel pool or in bed. Better go to Khiva, Bukhara or Samarkand.

The city tour, our local guide Jelol took us on, lasted half a day and covered the main attractions. From our hotel we took a public bus that brought us to one of the metro stops. Believe it or not, going by metro is the city’s number one tourist attraction. There are two major reasons for this. One, the Tashkent metro system is one of only two in Central Asia (the other one is in Almaty). And two, the interior of the stations is very splendiferous and ornate. Unfortunately taking pictures in the metro isn’t allowed because it’s considered a military installation. Originally it was designed as a nuclear shelter however only one of the lines is actually capable to serve as a shelter and was build after the end of the cold war. Although I’m German I don’t always stick to the rules and took a few sneaky ones. There were lots of personnel and security cameras around watching what you are doing but they didn’t spot me.

I cannot remember the exact fare of a metro ticket but think it was around 400 Sum (0.16 USD) which you pay at a ticket counter. For that price you receive a blue plastic token which you put into one of the guard barriers. When entering the station you are overwhelmed by Soviet architecture at its best. Each of the three stations we visited looked very much different and centered on a specific cultural or historic theme. One of the stations was ”Космонавтлар” (in English cosmonaut). It was designed in a Soviet space theme and featured pictures of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first women in space. The station was very spacious and reminded me on a huge spaceship. There is also a big digital clock on each platform showing how much time has elapsed since the last train departed which is kind of confusing. Usually those displays show in how many minutes the next train is expected. Speaking of minutes, you never wait more than 5-10 min which is very convenient.

When coming out of the metro we found us at the Independence Square, also known as Mustakillik Square. It’s the political center of Uzbekistan and the senate is located here. You enter the square through a large archway decorated with a sculpture of storks taking flight. During Soviet times the Independence Square used to be the largest inner city square with the tallest Lenin statue in the middle of it. After the independence of Uzbekistan this statue got replaced by the Monument of Independence which is a large golden globe with the map of the country on it. Another monument on the square is the Happy Mother monument which is supposed to symbolize the homeland (mother) and the future (the child she is holding).

In a short walking distance to the Independence Square is the World War II Memorial. It consists of a park with a building holding names of fallen victims, the Crying Mother Monument and an eternal flame. The last building we saw was the Palace of Prince Romanov, now home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which we weren’t allowed to enter.

When we walked towards a square, with the statue of Amir Timur on the middle of it, we also ran into a small market. Locals were selling self-painted pictures and all kinds of Soviet stuff there. Afterwards we split and people went off to visit all kinds of museums. A few others and I went back to the hotel where I spent the afternoon at the pool.

Archie brings us to Tashkent and Tipping the Guide

It feels good to have our truck Archie back. She’s like home to us, especially for those who are on the road for a very long time. While we used alternative transportation during the last two weeks (minibuses, air-conditioned coaches, train), Archie will bring us today from Samarkand to Tashkent, the final destination of our current leg from Ashgabat to Tashkent.

At lunch time we stopped along the road to prepare sandwiches. We had quite some leftovers but neither wanted to throw them away nor store them in the fridge because it stops working when the engine of the truck isn’t running for a couple of days. Therefore, Alistair and I grabbed the stuff and walked over to a guy and his wife sitting next to the road selling cigarettes and sweats. They happily accepted our leftover food and put it into plastic bags for later consumption.

We arrived in Tashkent in the afternoon. Our hotel was a bit outside why there wasn’t an opportunity for a quick stroll around the city center. In the evening all of us went out for a group dinner to a nearby restaurant. My fellow traveler Lauren from Australia, who is beginning of 20, had already put on her fancy nightclub outfit consisting of an LED-flashing t-shirt, a colorful miniskirt, fluffy bright blue gaiters and tons of make-up. It somehow reminded me of my style at her age which was similar crazy.

In comparison to the prices we’ve paid during the last weeks, the ones here were four times as high which made a couple of people leave and go somewhere different. However, in comparison to the prices back home it was still very reasonable why the rest was staying. At dinner we also celebrated Sam’s, Chris’s and my birthday. For Chris and me it was after the celebration on the actual day in Iran and the belated celebration in Ashgabat the third time we celebrate our birthday and I hope it will be the last one too. Not that I don’t like celebrations, I just don’t like to get reminded I’m getting older. At this occasion I also gave Sam the silly hat I’ve purchased for him in Ashgabat. Guess he didn’t like it since it really looks silly and very traditional.

After dinner we were hanging out at the terrace of the hotel where Sam was playing the piano for us. It’s incredible how these hands can repair a truck and play a piano. He’s certainly gifted in many ways. We also had some beer and vodka which made it an entertaining evening. Around midnight Lauren and Andrew left to check-out the local nightlife. Nobody else was really up for it since we had made our experiences… (see post of May 19). The next morning it turned out the hottest nightclub in town, which was recommended by our local guide Jelol, was actually closed for a private party and they didn’t let them in. The whole nightclub excursion finally ended in a taxi odyssey through Tashkent and Lauren coming home at 6am the following morning.

Since the Ashgabat to Tashkent leg is ending here we will lose some people and gain new ones. Actually from the 19 people, who were travelling with us during the last two weeks, 11 will continue, 8 will leave us and one new traveler will join. This brings the total number of people on the next leg from Tashkent to Bishkek to 12 travelers plus two crew members plus a local guide. The new traveler joining us is Martina, a very funny woman with a big smile who was born in Slovakia but is living in London for many years.

Since people are leaving it’s also on them to tip the crew and the local guide. I heard one of the guys gave our local guide an old second-hand electric shaver as a tip. Jelol wasn’t very amused about it since he was fulfilling every special request of this guy during the last weeks, e.g. taking him on a private half-day tour etc. When discussing the topic of tipping in my blog entry on May 11, I received an email from Bob I travelled with in South America saying: “Tipping is a very cultural habit. People from US do it all the time, because the wages for the workers in certain jobs are very, very low, and tipping is expected. In Australia and many other countries the wage structure is quite different and all workers get a basic wage, and tipping is not done.” But this guy was from the US… I don’t understand the world anymore! Why are some people so mean? They spent more money on lunch than on the tip for a guide who has been with them for two weeks. I also heard Kurt, another traveler from the US, asked him why he didn’t give the guide a more appropriate tip. He responded he didn’t have change for a 100 USD note…

Samarkand Market and Money in Uzbekistan

Our second day in Samarkand was a free day and everybody was up for something different. Emilie stayed in bed suffering from food poisoning. Sam also stayed in bed suffering from alcohol poisoning. Jason was working on his accounts and cleaning the truck since Sam wasn’t able to do so. Isabella and Mike went to see a mausoleum out of town which was recommended by the Lonely Planet. Chris was strolling around in town trying to get in touch with local people. Paul was reading a book about Genghis Khan. Wayne was searching for an internet café which actually has internet access available. Alistair and the two brothers from the UK hired a private taxi for a trip to the nearby mountains.

I had a relaxing morning in the hotel and went to the food market in the afternoon. Most supermarkets in Uzbekistan do actually not sell vegetables and fruits. In order to buy fresh stuff you need to go to a market. They are split into different sections such as vegetables, fruit, dried fruit, bread, wheat, meat etc. In each section stall-owners sell products related to the section they are sitting in. Some of them sell a selection of products such as watermelons, bananas and cherries in the fruit section. Others are specialized in one product, e.g. only sell watermelons.

The fruit section of the market was pretty small and there wasn’t much choice. The only fruits available were watermelons, bananas, cherries, strawberries and apricots. Also each stall-owner had only a small amount for sale, maybe 5-10kg of cherries and 10 bananas. 1kg of cherries was 7,000 Sum (2.80 USD) and two bananas were 4,000 Sum (1.60 USD). Based on the available quantities and prices I guess fruits are probably considered a luxury item and mainly rich people and tourists buying them.

Speaking of supermarkets, most of them are rather small and have a limited choice of products available. They remind me of the shops we had in Eastern Germany. Probably people don’t miss the choice since they aren’t used to it and don’t know any better. Our local guide Jelol also told us there is one large Russian supermarket a bit outside of town which offers a greater selection of products but is more expensive too.

When I returned to the hotel a few people were just about to leave for the market to buy food for tomorrow’s truck lunch. Our guide changed them 40 USD into 100,000 Sum which is 2 USD per person for lunch. The largest denomination of Sum available is a 1,000 Sum note (equals 0.40 USD) so for 40 USD they got a package of 100 single notes which isn’t very handy to carry. Our guide told us when he bought a little TV they needed four bags to carry all the money to the shop.

Whenever we need to change money we do so with our guide. He’s always carrying a backpack which some local money with him just in case somebody needs to change. I haven’t seen many official money exchange places and I also heard it’s very hard to withdraw money from the bank since they often have no money available. The “black market” is offering a much better exchange rate than banks since people are keen on US Dollar cash. When Uzbek people want to travel they need US Dollar cash but they can’t really exchange their currency into Dollar with their local bank.

Many Uzbek people also don’t deposit their money in a bank since they don’t want the government to know how much money they have and once money is deposited at a bank they might have difficulties withdrawing it. It might also happen the government is confiscating deposited money when they building a new hospital or a new road and you as a citizen are expected to contribute to it. Uzbek people also fear inflation, especially overnight inflation as it was the case many years ago where millions of people lost nearly everything they had. Therefore, investments in tangible items such as houses or cows are very popular.

Samarkand City Tour and Re-joining of Sam & Archie

Breakfast was at the roof terrace of the hotel. Usually roof terraces are scenic spots but this one wasn’t. The hotel staff used the terrace as workshop for carving doors so I first thought I’m in the wrong spot. Then I spotted a table behind the doors, on which a craftsman was working, where my breakfast was waiting for me. It wasn’t very delicious and consisted of a bread-roll filled with plum marmalade, a hard-boiled egg, a chocolate bar, nuts and dried fruit.

At 9am our local guide Jelol took us on a tour of Samarkand. In the 14th century this city was the capital of the sultanate of Timur. Samarkand is centrally located on the Silk Road and can be seen as crossroad between East and West mixing different cultures and traditions. This mix can still be felt today which make the city an interesting place to visit from a cultural and historical point of view.

It was only a 5-10 min walk from our hotel to the first attraction the Registan Square which felt like the center of the city. On the way we crossed a park with two large golden tiger statues. They were erected because the president of Uzbekistan was born in the year of the tiger or so. It feels really strange to experience how a living being such as the current president is creating monuments for himself so people can admire him.

The Registan Square was very impressive to see. It’s surrounded by a group of beautiful madrasahs. They were built with the intension to make Samarkand the most beautiful city in the world. Therefore, also small villages in the surrounding area of Samarkand where named after large cities such as Madrid, Paris or Damaskus to show Samarkand is more shinier than those “villages”. It took us two hours to walk around the Registan Square. The madrasahs used to be a center of higher education for male Muslims to prepare them for their tasks as imam. In one of the madrasahs we could find a statue of the teachers which was interesting to see since nowadays you won’t find a statue of your professors at your local university.

In one of the madrasahs of the Registan Square there was also a small interesting museum showing the condition in which the Registan Square and other major buildings used to be at the beginning of the last century. Most of these building were damaged by seismic movements. Our guide told us during Soviet times no effort was put into the renovation of Muslim buildings. Only when the Olympics came to the Soviet Union and the government received requests of Western tourists to travel to this part of the country they made cosmetic improvements of inferior quality to the major sights of the city. Nowadays the restoration is done more carefully also involving results of historic research. The restoration of some places appears very time intensive for instance one of the madrasahs contains a very detailed golden mosaic consisting of 4×4 milimeter large mosaic stones.

At the end of our visit of the Registan Square we visited two shops. The first one was a shop were we received a demonstration of local Uzbek instruments. The second one was a clothes shop where they were selling traditional women dresses including a burqa made out of horsehair. Our guide pulled me out of the group and dressed me up in this traditional outfit for demonstration purposes. The burqa completely covered my face so nobody could see it while I was still able to see the people surrounding me. It’s hard to imagine this region used to be very much religious and women needed to cover to the same extend as in Afghanistan. It was also here at Registan Square where women were demonstrating against this dress code and burned their burqas in public.

The second stop of our tour was Timur’s Tomb. Timur, also known as Tamerlane, built this mausoleum but not for himself but for one of his sons who died in a battle. Timur wanted to be as Genghis Khan and since Genghis Khan had four sons Timur also needed to have four sons. I can only imagine what happed to the girls his wife(s) have given birth to. It’s also said the number of his children is actually much higher than four probably because he was quite powerful and they had no contraception at these times. Our guide also told us Timur wasn’t popular at all during Soviet times but once Uzbekistan has reached its independence he’s admired as the great ancient ruler of the nation. When we visited the inside of the mausoleum we were surprised by golden walls and not just one coffin but a number of them. The middle one in black belongs to Timur while the other ones belong to his sons and his spiritual leader. The coffins are pretty small but we learned the bodies aren’t kept in them but one level deeper which is closed to the public.

After a short stop in a tea house we visited the Ulugh Beg Observatory or better to say the place where the observatory used to be since it was destroyed completely. Nowadays you find a museum here explaining how the observatory was functioning and what made it the most accurate observatory of its time. The only part of the observatory which is still there is a part of the large sextant on which the measuring instruments were moved along.

The next stop was the Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum where family members of Timur are buried. It’s actually not just one big mausoleum as Timur’s one but a series of small mausoleums right next to each other all covered with beautiful mosaics. This spot seemed to be a popular destination for local people since there were many of them visiting the tombs, chilling out next to them or praying in silence. Just behind the mausoleum is a modern graveyard at which I had a quick look at. Compared to the graveyards back home this one had pictures of the dead people engraved on the tombstones which was interesting to see.

The last stop of today’s tour was the Bibi-Khanym Mosque which used to be the largest mosque at its time of construction. Also this mosque was very much destroyed but huge efforts were made to renovate it. The renovation is still ongoing today since no mosaics can be seen inside the mosque and some of the walls still look very much destroyed.

In the evening around 6pm Sam and our truck Archie arrived in Samarkand. We had last seen them on May 11th when our truck broke down in Iran. It took Sam nearly two weeks and more than 7,000 USD to repair the crack in the head of the engine and to catch up with us again crossing two borders. He also had to fight against expiring visas since originally the trip wasn’t planning to stay in Iran and Turkmenistan as long as Sam did due to the breakdown of the truck. During his time in Turkmenistan he more or less needed to drive the whole time since his visa was about to expire. Luckily he made it all the way but unluckily he forgot his passport in the hotel in Bukhara where he has spent last night. However, he will not need to drive back but tomorrow somebody will deliver the passport to him.

In the evening some people went out for dinner to an international restaurant but I heard it wasn’t good. The service was very slow, the food not very tasty and in the end the payment of the bill was 16,000 Sum (6.40 USD) short which is about the amount of a complete dinner for one person. It somehow happens on this leg of the trip that all our payments are short since people don’t put in enough money when paying for whatever they had. Probably it’s because of one or multiple of these reasons: 1) people don’t remember correctly how much their food was, 2) people are unable to add the prices of their foods and drinks and a 15% service charge / tax on top or 3) people try to sneak through on the cost of other people.

Since yesterday was Sam’s birthday we were planning to have a delayed celebration with him tonight. Therefore, a number of people were meeting after dinner in a Blues bar featuring a piano. We picked this spot because Sam is a passionate piano player and he very much enjoyed playing for us while we had a sing-along. While playing Sam also had a number of Vodkas and at one stage he wasn’t able to play anymore and needed to be carried home.

Swim in the Aydar Lake

I had a very good sleep in the yurt. When I got up at 8:15am everybody was already sitting at the breakfast table although there was more than one hour time until departure. Some people simple like to get up early but I’m definitely not one of them. Most mornings I need to fight myself out of bed after being woken up by either my alarm clock or fellow travelers. It’s rare I wake up by myself also because I’m usually one of the last ones going to bed. Therefore, I’m very efficient at breakfast and you often will find me arriving at the breakfast table 10min before departure quickly eating a tiny bit more because of rationality than of actual appetite.

At 9:30am we left for the Aydar Lake which is approx. 12 km away from the yurt camp. The lake was man-made during Soviet times when the Syr Darya River was dammed up. During the flooding it turned out the dam didn’t have a sufficient capacity and therefore the water flow was drained into lowlands and unintentionally formed the 250 km long and 15 km wide Aydar Lake, one of the largest in Uzbekistan. The country has no direct access to the sea and is dependent on crossing the territory of two countries on rivers before hitting the ocean. Therefore, seeing a huge lake and swimming in it is especially enjoyable.

For the drive to the lake we used the posh air-conditioned coach we hired for our journey from Bukhara to Samarkand. It feels really strange to see that huge coach in the middle of a basic yurt camp. While traveling overland I’m not used to so much comfort such as air-conditioning and spacious seats but in this heat it’s actually quite enjoyable. However, travelling by coach only works because we aren’t camping during our stay in Uzbekistan. But as soon as we enter Kyrgyzstan we will camp most of the nights for which we need our truck and its camping equipment. Therefore, we hope our driver / mechanic Sam and our truck are re-joining us no later than Tashkent.

Speaking of our truck named Archie, she used to be a 1983 cement mixer before being bought and re-constructed by the British overland company Dragoman I’m currently travelling with. The company operates approx. 30 of these trucks in Africa, South America and Asia. Each truck is equipped with camping gear, cooking equipment, a fridge, a large tank for drinking water which enables us to stay for a long time in the middle of nowhere. For me it’s the best choice when travelling large distances overland because we are independent from public transportation and can go to remote places.

When leaving the yurt camp this morning, I didn’t plan to go for a swim in the Aydar Lake since my neck is kind of cracked from sleeping without a pillow during our two nights camping in Turkmenistan. But when I saw the water and felt the heat of the day I couldn’t resist. Due to the change of plan I had no bikini with me so I walked a few meters to a more private beach where I went for a skinny-dip which was simply awesome. After returning from my swim I was chilling out with Kurt a fellow traveler from the US and our local guide Jelol. He and the bus driver had even set-up a sun-shield and so we could enjoy the heat without getting sunburned.

Around 12pm we returned to the yurt camp where we had fresh fish from the lake and rice for lunch. The fish, I think it was carp, was very delicious and only my mother can prepare it better. After lunch we continued our journey towards Samarkand where we arrived around 6pm. Our hotel was very centrally located not far away from the Registan Square, the heart of the city. Lauren, a fellow traveler from Australia, used the rare opportunity to go skating with the blinking roller-skates she has bought in Ashgabat which attracted the attention of the locals. My body was still fighting against the cracked neck so I had an early night to catch up on sleep.

Holy Nurata and Overnight Stay in a Yurt Camp

In the morning we drove from Bukhara to Nurata. Since our truck is still not with us our leader Jason arranged alternative transportation for us. He rented a posh air-conditioned coach which was very comfortable but also gave me the feeling of being an all-inclusive tourist rather than a low budget world traveler.

On the way to Nurata we ran into a funeral. Maybe one hundred men, all wearing a black hat, were carrying a coffin on the middle of the road. The crowd blocked us for maybe 15 min until it reached the cemetery.

We arrived in Nurata around lunch time. The town is famous for three things. One of them is the Nurata Suzani which is a traditional circle patterned textile. Another one is a mosque from the tenth century which we visited briefly. It also seemed the main attraction wasn’t the mosque itself but the Chashma Springs formed here. There was a small pool with lots of fish in it which was considered as “holy fish”. Although I asked our guide and a couple of my fellow travelers who intensively study guidebooks, I didn’t manage to find out why the fish is considered holy. Probably there is nothing really holy about this fish and the term “holy fish” just sounds more dramatic. The place is also considered holy because many of the people buried here claimed to have seen the Prophet Muhammad which attracts a number of Muslim pilgrims.

The third thing Nurata is famous for is the military fortress which was built by Alexander the Great. There is actually not much to see. You basically can only climb a hill where the fortress used to be on. There you cannot see any real ruins but you a have nice view over the town. All in all Nurata wasn’t worth the visit and you should only go there if you are either Muslim and really appreciate the holiness of the place or you have a special interest in Persian history.

Our home for tonight was a yurt camp in the sand dunes close to the Aydar Lake. From here some people went on a camel ride in the afternoon. Since I don’t enjoy riding any kind of animal I had a nap instead. My body was still suffering from the cracked neck I caught a few days ago in Turkmenistan and appreciated the additional rest.

Staying in a yurt is pretty comfortable although not much different from a tent. There is no heating, no electricity and no light. You sleep on the ground on a thin mattress and when the night is cold you need additional protection such as a layer of thermals, a fleece and thick socks.

What is also comfortable about a yurt stay is the local people, who operate the yurt camp, preparing the food for you. For dinner we had a cabbage based salad, soup and a rice dish with meat which was very delicious. Only the bread was hard like stone, as all bread in this country, and you could rather slay somebody with it then eating it. With dinner we also got served a bottle of vodka per table. The local people really seem to drink vodka as people back home drink beer or vine.

After dinner we all sat around a camp fire listening to traditional Uzbek songs. They all sounded very sad and depressing but interesting. My fellow traveler Paul from Canada, who is in the age of 21, also noticed a whole bunch of female travelers sitting right next to our leader Jason while I was the only one sitting next to him. Paul is a pretty cool guy I enjoy hanging out with. He’s intelligent, good-looking and very much fun. Unfortunately most females on the trip are much older than Paul and therefore seem to be attracted by the 41 year old Jason. For them it’s a kind of exotic holiday romance and very exciting while I’m continuously on the move since many years, know how to arrange for my own entertainment and therefore don’t need to line up with a bunch of chicks.

Lazy Day in Bukhara and Trouble with Tibet Permit

Today different people were up for different activities. Some of my fellow travelers, who have the ambition to see all the sights of the places we travel to, went to see more of Bukhara’s 4Ms (mosques, mausoleums, minarets and madrasahs). The more relaxed ones went to a hamam or wine tasting. They said the wine was pretty much sweet but nice. No wonder in the hot climate of the area.

Personally, I don’t fancy to go sightseeing on every single day of my 15 months journey. Especially when you travel for a long time you need to pace yourself otherwise your mind gets numb from tons of impressions and experiences. Therefore, I like to use some of my free days to relax, to communicate with family & friends, to follow up on my blog or to do arrangements for my upcoming travel.

The travel arrangement I had to deal with today was the Tibet permit which I will need for my travel from Xi’an to Kathmandu. Dragoman informed me yesterday their local China / Tibet agent advised them that Tibet tourist permits may effective immediately not be issued to all nationalities nor all travelling groups. There has been no official announcement made by the Chinese government yet which makes it kind of difficult to understand the situation and act accordingly. The clearest explanation Dragoman can gather by now is those travelling in a group with more than five other travelers of the same nationality will most likely be approved and granted a Tibetan permit. Individuals or groups with less than five people of the same nationality are likely to be denied a permit to visit Tibet. Unfortunately in the group of people I’m supposed to travel aren’t enough fellow German travelers which put me at risk of having my Tibet permit denied.

Until now I wasn’t aware there is a risk of not receiving a Tibet permit and I have already booked my flights to join the trip in Xi’an and leave it in Kathmandu. There is also only a very narrow time window in which you can travel this route since most of the year it’s simply to cold and roads are impassable due to heavy snowfall. Dragoman only offers two trips a year with the departure dates of July 1 and July 31 in 2012. Therefore, I have arranged all my travel in a way to make one of these departure dates work. I’m also very much excited to travel to Tibet since the roots of Buddhism lie here, I would like to experience the high altitude on the “Roof of the World” and wander around the Mt. Everest base camp. Not being able to travel to Tibet would be a huge disappointment for me.

In order to obtain a Tibet permit I was communicating with my friend Michael and a local visa service back home to check if there is anything they can do for me. Unfortunately they couldn’t help here since it needs a local China / Tibet agent to apply for the permit. I also was in touch with Dragoman and it turned out they booked me on the July 1 departure date while I wanted to go on the July 31one. Luckily they were able to change my booking to the other departure date and magically four more Germans appeared on this trip which I found very strange but nice. So far I haven’t traveled with any German on a Dragoman trip and suddenly there should be four of them. Well, when this helps me to get the permit I don’t mind them. So keep your fingers crossed I will finally get the permit.

In the evening some of us went to a small restaurant featuring a roof terrace overlooking Bukhara. The food here was excellent and not too pricy. The restaurant even featured a piano. Strangely it wasn’t in the dining area but in a separate room where a lady was sitting playing the piano for the guests in the restaurant. This reminded me of our driver Sam who is a passionate piano player. Sam always looks for opportunities to play the piano while travelling. Unfortunately he’s not with us but still in Iran to repair the truck or on his way through Turkmenistan to catch up with us. We haven’t heard from him since days and I hope he’s doing fine.

After dinner I went on a walk with my roommate Isabella. We mainly strolled around the main square with a fountain in the middle. Some of the buildings surrounding the square were illuminated by colorful lights which Isabella very much enjoyed and what was her main intention to ask me to go on a walk in the dark with her.

The 4Ms of Bukhara and Excursion to a local Nightclub

Bukhara is our second stop on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan. It used to be a very powerful Khanate controlling most of Turkmenistan and the surrounding area. The city has been a center of trade, culture and religion which left it with an interesting history and an architecture which is considered one of the finest in all of Uzbekistan. The historic center of Bukhara is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and features lots of what we call the 4Ms (mosques, mausoleums, minarets and madrasahs). Nowadays the Uzbek government invests a significant amount of money to preserve the cities sights and I could observe lots of restoration work in the city.

Exploring Bukhara gave us an excellent impression how Central Asia has been before the Soviet domination. We spent most of the day walking with Jelol, our local guide, around the city. It’s more touristy then Khiva, the last place we visited. There is hardly any sight which isn’t swamped by local people trying to sell souvenirs. They reach from carpets, clothes, books, postcards to Soviet pins and hats. There are also much more tourists around mainly from Germany and France. Uzbekistan seems to be a popular destination for pensioners who have been to many other parts of the world or who have a specific interest in the history of the area and the Silk Road.

The first stop of our walking tour was a carpet museum where we could see a number of historic carpets. Actually carpets are not only a popular souvenir from the Silk Road but also popular amongst the locals. Many of them own a number of carpets and do not only cover the floor with them but also the walls to protect their house from the cold in winter time.

The main sight of Bukhara is the Po-i-Kalyan Complex containing a number of historic structures. One of them is the Kalyan Minaret which was used by the muezzins to summon the Muslims to prayer. The Kalyan Minaret is 45m high and also known as Tower of Death since until the beginning of the twentieth century it was used to execute criminals by throwing them from the top of the tower. Certainly not a way I would prefer to die. Other historic buildings in the complex are the Kalân Mosque and the Mir-i Arab Madrassah at which we had a look at.

The next stop of our tour was the The Ark Fortress. Unfortunately it was closed for restoration so we could only see its wall and entrance. Jelol told us if we would like to visit the fortress we should come back in the evening and bribe the police. There seems to be nothing wrong with bribing in this country and sometimes we got even ask by the police if we would like to have a look at certain closed sights for some small money.

Only a few steps away from the fortress was a mosque which is called the Forty Pillar Mosque. Actually it only has twenty pillars but when you include the reflections in a pond nearby you can count forty pillars. The last stop of our walking tour around Bukhara was the Samanid Mausoleum which is the resting place of a powerful emir. The mausoleum is very well preserved because it used to be covered by soil for many years and therefore it was hard to spot by enemies.

When visiting sights in Uzbekistan we often not just get charged an entrance fee but they also try to sell us a photo permit costing 1-2 USD per sight. Not purchasing the permit, as I did, was never an issue since often you didn’t even receive a ticket proofing you purchased the permit. There is also no staff around checking who is taking pictures and who not so simply save the money.

Before heading back to the hotel some of us tried Pilaf which is a local rice dish. You can buy it everywhere on the street and also find it on the menu of many restaurants.

In the evening we went to a local nightclub which was an interesting cultural experience. The entry fee for women was about half the price of the one for men and after entering the nightclub I found out why this was the case. About 80 percent of the guests were male and not particularly handsome. On the dance floor I literally had to push a number of them away from me because they tried to touch me with their fat little hands or rub their sweaty body on me. Also the music was kind of interesting. It changed from electronic music to local pop songs and belly-dancing music. While the belly-dancing music was played, some of the local ladies where fighting with each other for the fame of the best dancer. It wasn’t really a joy to watch since also the women weren’t particularly beautiful and their dance performance was kind of embarrassing. Although I really enjoy spending the whole night dancing in a club I had enough of it after 1-2 hours so I went back to the hotel and the others were following me. Seems nobody really liked it.

Train Ride from Khiva to Bukhara

The main worry of our leader Jason was how we all will be travelling to Bukhara the next stop of our journey. Our truck is still in a workshop in Iran. The posh air-conditioned coach, who picked us up at the border and brought us to Khiva, isn’t available and there is no other coach which we could rent. While validating different options our local guide Jelol came up with the idea of us traveling by train to Bukhara. The train is only running every few days but luckily there was a train running overnight from May 17 to May 18. Travelling overnight means we will miss our second night in Khiva for which we will receive no refund from the hotel. Therefore, we at least stayed in the hotel until 8pm yesterday when we left for the train station by minibus.

We had reservations for sleeping cabins holding four people each. Unfortunately we couldn’t occupy each cabin with four people of our group and so we ended up sharing with strangers. I was sharing a cabin with a fellow traveler from the UK and two local guys who didn’t speak any word with me during the entire journey. Instead they were staring at my ass when I climbed up on the bunk bed since I was wearing a mini-dress only. My fellow traveler Chris from New Zealand was luckier with his cabin mates. He shared with a couple from Kazakhstan offering him some of their tea. Unfortunately they didn’t speak any English and so Jelol helped translating a basic conversation. Their first question was not what Chris’s name is or where he’s coming from but for what that big red plastic thing, he’s carrying with him, is good for. The thing is Chelsea, a red plastic sheep, which Chris received as a present from Alistair and Andrew in Ashgabat (see post of May 13). It’s of no specific use but we all love it by now and it has become the mascot of our journey through Central Asia.

During our train ride the main action was actually not in the cabins but in the dining car where we started a little party with the locals and the restaurant staff. It started off by us playing a card game called Asshole. It has very simple rules and determines a winner and a second place called “President” and “Vice President”. The looser and the second last place are called “Asshole” and “Secretary”. For some reason, which doesn’t include cheating, I was doing well and never ended up last or second last. So I could avoid drinking a shot of Vodka after each round which was the penalty for the “Asshole” and the “Secretary”. Jason and my fellow traveler Paul from Canada where the unluckily ones who had to drink a lot and ended up pretty much drunk after playing the game for an hour or so. In addition to the drinking penalty the “President” could determine another penalty for the looser and so I made Jason and Paul performing a catwalk show making use of the whole length of the dining car for our all entertainment.

After playing that drinking game for a while we started toasting to all kinds of things and so I couldn’t avoid any more drinking one shot of vodka after the other. Since I’m not a big drinker I switched into survival mode and started cheating. It wasn’t too hard since we were using tea bowls for drinking since no glasses were available. Nobody could see how much Vodka was in my bowl and how much of it I was actually drinking. Whenever no one was looking I used the opportunity to distribute parts of my Vodka to other bowls which avoided me getting totally pissed. With this strategy I even managed to survive Alex, a local guy drinking with us, who seems to drink Vodka like I’m drinking water. While his wife and baby were sleeping in the cabin he was up and partying with us. What a great intercultural exchange. When returning to my cabin in the middle of the night the restaurant staff thought I’m completely drunk and tried to charge me twice for some of the drinks we had. Nice try since I was still pretty much sober. After a ten min discussion I just walked off and they didn’t stop me.

Sleeping in the train was really comfortable. Luckily none of the three boys in my cabin was snoring and so I had a very deep sleep recovering from the drinking event. I got up around 9am and when I went to the dining car to check what’s for breakfast the staff recognized me and gave me high 5 for seeing me alive without any signs of a hangover.

After we arrived in Bukhara around 10am we took a minibus to our hotel. On the way to my room I was running into a guy hanging out in the lobby area and exchanged 2-3 sentences with him. Afterwards I went with my roommate Isabella to grab some lunch but we somehow got lost and ended up in a not so nice part of the town where we had not so tasty but cheap street food. There I also bought crisps with Shashlik flavor which had a very interesting taste.

Back at the hotel I received a phone call in my room from the guy I met in the lobby of the hotel inviting me to spend the evening with him. His name is Murat and he’s an engineer from Turkey. Since he was quite handsome and entertaining I followed his invitation.