Uzbekistan gave us one of the warmest welcomes we’ve received, even with the notoriously strict Uzbekistan border control included. Despite being perhaps the biggest country for tourists in Central Asia, famous for it’s long, well-preserved history and its prominence on the silk road, the Uzbek government until recently was not too hot on the idea of having many outsiders unpatrolled inside the country. Motorcyclists coming the other way told us to factor in police checkpoints every 10km into our route planning, and since Kyrgyzstan we’d heard a collection of horror stories from other travellers about the border – from getting stuck in no-mans land to getting detained, put in prison and brought to trail for medicines with a prescription (codeine is illegal in Uzbekistan). But mostly we were told that things would be slow. Uzbek border guards tend search every item you plan to bring into the country, even going so far as to break apart the bread of a friend we talked to in Dushanbe.
We arrive at the Uzbek-Tajik border in the early afternoon. We had wanted to get there right before lunch –in hopes that hungry
border officers would mean a quick passage- but Jie, Graham, an American motorcyclist we met in Dushanbe, and I end up getting caught in the perennial quicksand of a slow morning and long lunch.
Cafeteria plov and overcooked manti are still at the top of our stomachs when we arrive in Tursanzade, a border town 70 km west of Dushanbe. It’s straight drive there, but the
border itself is awkwardly far away from where we want to end up by nightfall: Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s capital under Timur 400 km to the north. Actually, we’re only here because the crossing
closest to Samarkand, 50km east of the city on the Tajik border, has been inexplicably closed since 2011.
The border on the Tajik side is essentially empty. After knocking on the door to find a customs officer who doesn’t look more than twice at our bikes, we get stamped out by a guard at passport control who says less than five words throughout the whole process. Not willing to be too excited yet, we roll over to the Uzbek side and park in the shade just beyond a massive moving x-ray station in the shape of an upside-down ‘U’ made for scanning semi trucks.
The guards are friendly enough and move in a post-lunch haze. We wander past the three office windows under the corrugated tin roof of the customs platform for a couple minutes until a solider with surprisingly good English comes over. We talk briefly, and he’s excited to talk about Australia –smiling and asking questions about the beaches as he pages through my passport. So far so good, maybe this will be easier than we thought.
He’s not passport control, though, and he tells us we should head into the main building first before coming out to customs. Once inside, things are not as comforting. The room’s only decoration is a half-wall length poster of people wanted by the state of Uzbekistan. Glancing through the sullen black and white faces, some as young as 21 and organized into a tight grind like some kind of criminal yearbook, the tension in the room starts slipping into the top of my chest. Worry starts to push toward my palms as the guard behind the counter, dressed in regal peacock teal like all Uzbek police officers, wont stop flipping through the pages of my passport. Front to back, he goes through it for ten minutes without stopping. At each page he wiggles the corner, methodically pushing it under the blacklight and pulling tight across the binding as if he thinks the passport is fake. I’m trying to make jokes with Graham who’s standing behind me, but my mind is running through what happens if my passport –and the Uzbek visa I had to crush through the mobs at the Almaty embassy for— get confiscated on the border. I’m on about plan C in my head when another officer comes into the desk, says something along the lines of “hurry up, ” and my passport is suddenly back in my hands with a fresh entry stamp. Maybe this wont be so easy.
Back at customs, the friendly border guard is still friendly, but asks us to take out our things. After a quick clarification it is clear that, yes, he means all the things. I open my panniers reluctantly, take off my tank bag and start bringing over my stuff to the tarp that he’s laid on the ground. The tarp soon becomes two piles: items I bring over, fairly well organized and still packed in their respective bags or containers, and the items he has asked me about already, each opened, inspected, and tossed to the other side. The process starts a bit tense: he brings over the drug dog and asks us both directly, and then again indirectly, if we have any pornography or religious materials (both a no-go in Uzbekistan). He opens my computer, turns on my camera and asks to see the photos on both. Luckily, we’d heard about this one too, and in the sake of time –have fun scrolling through ten thousand images—and some semblance of privacy Jie and I have already stored all our photos on external harddrives which I hid, along with my phone, inside my riding jacket casually draped across my bike. I tell him that I’ve already uploaded them all, and scroll through a quick very un-sensitive collection and satisfy his curiosity for Sydney beaches.
As we make our way through more items (including four separate packages of tea that seem to mostly just cause confusion–“why would anyone need so much tea”) the mood calms. He is still a nice guy just doing his job and for most items a one phrase answer, i.e. “this is a towel,” is enough to satisfy. By the time he’s gone through my stuff and is on to Jie’s the process is almost comedic. The pile grows bigger and the explanations go faster. In the end nothing is confiscated besides some Chinese traditional medicine we bought in Qinghai, which is really a blessing because it’s the worst tasting thing I’ve possibly ever ingested. The only real issue is trying to get the drug dog to stop chewing on my sheepskin.
Three and a half hours in, with the process seemingly coming to a close, I find myself at the last of the office counters watching the guards play with a baby cobra they’ve captured and put into a water bottle. They’re trying to feed it a scarab beetle, but the snake doesn’t seem so interested. I snap back when I put together the words coming from inside the office.
“Mister, I’m saying I don’t think this is your motorcycle.”
For those hoping to cross overland on a bike registered in someone else’s name in a foreign language, this border is surprisingly the only place that has ever questioned it.
But it’s a question I’m prepared for.
“No, it is my motorcycle, it’s just registered in someone else’s name”
He tries for about ten minutes to explain to me that I am some sort of international overland Chinese 125cc motorcycle smuggler, which might be top ten in the list of “least profitable business plans.” He seems adamant that he will stop me.
Unfortunately for him, we are extremely over prepared in terms of documentation. I bring over everything. Three copies of a notary, each in three languages, registration and translations, insurance, receipts for the bike, receipts having nothing to do with the bike, and about every official-looking paper I can find.
He looks at me, and then to the stack. I inch it forward on the desk.
“Fine. I believe you mister,” he mutters and grudgingly prints out the customs form.
Three for three in four hours. We make it in and the sun is already low.
The first people we run into in Uzbekistan proper are moneychangers. Money is another “not so convenient thing” in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has no ATMs and the Uzbek government keeps the rate official artificially low. This means most people change money on the black market. You might wonder: how big can the difference
really be? Very big. Officially, the Uzbek Som trades for a bit more than 2,500 to the US dollar; on the black market, we got as high as 5,000 (the rate rose from 4,400 in the time we were there
alone). To make things even more interesting, the highest denomination of the Som is 5,000 –and that’s an improvement, until recently it was only 1,000. Like the rest of our Uzbek
information, we’d heard about this phenomenon beforehand form other travellers, yet despite any amount of preparation, it’s something that needs to be experienced to believe. After haggling
briefly with the money traders, both on bicycles with fanny packs, we eventually each exchange $100 USD. In turn we are rewarded with the largest stack of money I have ever held in my hands,
fished out from a plastic bag. On first impressions, Uzbekistan might be the most engaging country we’ve been to so far.
The three of us drive through plains full with farms in harvest as the sun begins to set. Within 25kms we’ve run into our first police checkpoint, but the guards only ask us to stop briefly and then we’re on our way. There are two more within the hour but every time it’s the same story. However, places to sleep are less frequent than checkpoints on this section of road. It’s not until the agriculture turns into undulating arid hills that we start to scout for good camping spots in the view beyond the road.
Having no food and already driving in the dark the three of us decide to stop in the first area that seems like a town first to grab something to eat before camping. We pull the bikes up next to what seems to be a restaurant, four tapchans on a patio, and ask if we can still order something. We’re greeted by a guy in his mid-twenties who says his name is Wolf and that, yes, we can still order something to eat. The food is alright, if not satisfying after what’s ended up being a long day. But what it really leaves us is tired. As we digest, our bodies fall to become more and more horizontal on the tapchan (which really is the genius of the tapchan). I turn to Jie and ask, “Do you think we could just sleep here?”
It’s at this point that I really begin to realize how Central Asia has completely changed my perceptions of hospitality, both in terms of what it means to be a host and what it is to be a guest. Before our time here, I would never dream to ask to stay in a place without being offered – and defiantly wouldn’t assume you could sleep in a small town restaurant. But suddenly, here now in a place where there’s a excess of open space, I’m not only perfectly comfortable asking, but also knowing that whoever we ask will be warm and understanding, even if we can’t stay.
When the owner comes out, Wolf’s dad it seems, things come together even simpler than I could expect. We can’t even finish asking before he’s said ok.
“There’s a room right there. We don’t sleep here but you are welcome.”
He points casually with a smile in a way that makes it feel like we’re always here and have done this multiple times over. To him it might be a small gesture, but to me the ease with which he does it makes me feel like I’ve been placed in the exact right moment. It’s one thing to feel welcomed as a guest in a strange place; it’s another thing to be welcomed in as if there is nothing new or different at all.
As the night progresses, this feeling only grows. Graham has brought a polaroid camera with him (which is a great idea for anyone planning to come through a place like Central Asia, where people rarely have photos of themselves), and we spend the minutes after diner taking funny polaroid’s in the next room. Wolf, his brother, and another friend fight over who will get to keep the prints, and we all laugh as if we’re watching younger cousins at a family reunion.
A mix of people fill through the restaurant as the night flows on. Different members of the village stop over to say hi, talk, and eat the fresh grapes that the owner has just picked for us to try. Drivers coming through town jump out of their cars for a bit to greet everyone, sometimes shaking hands with a couple familiar faces, other times just slowly looking around at the scene. We sit back and talk til late with the group of men that now fill the patio, who even though they live in the same small village still look surprisingly different. Some have hard European features like Tajiks, while others look very East Asian. The oldest of the group is teased that he looks like Uzbek Genghis Kahn. Everyone smiles. They seem genuinely glad we’re there and we’re equally glad to be around.
We tuck in after a
couple hours, into a room off the main patio where quilts have been layered on the floor in a very Uzbek splash of green orange and yellow. It feels like my eyes have been closed mere minutes
before the sun comes up and we’re awakened by distant Tajik dance music. As dawn crests we crawl out of the room and continue the conversations of yesterday. By breakfast time, most everyone from
the day before is already back on the tapchans. Beyond anything in the past 24 hours, it’s this that defines Uzbekistan for me. The warmest of welcomes we could possibly
ever hope to receive. In my journal I jot down a couple lines as we’re drinking breakfast tea
“We stayed here because we didn’t want to move but also because we were so comfortable. Uzbek hospitality is it’s own amazing rhythm. One that makes everything feel good.”