Diesel,Dollars, Donkeys and Places of Devotion
We arrive at the Uzbek – Kazakhstan border about 8.30am on Sunday 15 May, a scruffier and more bedraggled group of Western tourists you would have trouble finding. For the last three nights we have slept either on wooden floors or the sand of the Aral Sea shore, admittedly with a thin carpet mat. Our clothes are very grubby with the dust of the desert and we haven’t washed much more than our face and hands for the last four days. Perhaps our hair has seen a hair brush, but if not, a sun hat hides the bird’s nest.
Yet we are privileged Westerns, allowed to go up near the front of the queue, ahead of the 100s of Uzbeks and their cars lining the road before the border gates. Why are they waiting, how long have they been there, when will they be attended to? We don’t know the answer to our silent questions. Chaos reigns supreme. Lines of cars and trucks everywhere, with no organised system or obvious processing plan. People with piles of gear, the roofs of their cars laden with bags and bedding, proof of at least their intention to enter Kazakhstan.
Next time you Kiwis are standing in line at the Brisbane airport waiting to have your passport stamped and be off to your holiday in the sun, lift a prayer of gratitude that you live in a culture of reasonable efficiency. Much of the world has no idea of how to be organised. It takes us three hours to leave Uzbekistan and enter Kazakhstan. Our guide Rashid helps with translation on the Uzbek side but after that we are on our own. A kind hearted Russian truck driver aids us to fill in the forms, all a mystery to us, as they are all in Russian or Kazak and no official seems particularly interested in assisting. We notice some other truck drivers include some money with their forms and passport when they hand them over and the money goes swiftly into the official’s pocket. Is this a form of bribe to speed the process? We can only guess, but no one asks us for ‘payment’. Eventually we are through and the Uzbek part of our journey is over.
It has been a most enjoyable experience. Most of our fears and concerns have been proved wrong. The pit toilets were an unavoidable reality (not in the hotels) but we were not stopped once by any police looking for monetary hand outs, as we had heard was prevalent. Perhaps the word has gone out to leave tourists alone; certainly we saw instances money being handed over by locals, for example, at a bridge crossing, but no money was expected from us. No bed bugs either! No political unrest – all the things you think about in the night hours as you plan your trip back home.
Our most urgent problem was the poor supply of diesel. In the 18 days we were there, we purchased diesel from a farmer, a truck driver and at least two city dwellers with entrepreneurial bents, doing business in their back yards, as well as from service stations if we could find them. For the Aral Sea trip we carried a 60 litre tank of diesel as well as our normal emergency 5 litre can. We learnt the Russian word for diesel so we could spot any sign of it for sale – pronounced salyarka, but written with Cyrillic lettering!
There have been many little pleasures in Uzbekistan. In Samarqand one afternoon we visited the Russian Orthodox Church, Pokrov Cathedral, with its blue spire and wooden icons inside. I purchase 4 prayer cards to give to our Russian nieces and nephews and the women give me 2 eggs; the first is a real egg with the shell dyed brown and obviously I can’t bring it home; the second is larger than an actual egg and enclosed with a crocheted cover. The woman who gave it to me spoke in Russian but we could understand her words: Christos is risen, she said.
In Bukhara our guide took us to visit a Jewish synagogue, the only time we have entered one. A friend in Omokoroa had lent us a book to read about small minority groups still living in Central Asia. One of these was the Jews of Bukhara, once numbering some thousands, but today a group of only about 200. They had lived in Bukhara since the 12th or 13th century and contributed much to the commercial wellbeing of the city, in spite of difficulties in a Moslem and later a Soviet environment. Many have now immigrated to Israel.
Just a comment on Uzbek money. I have included a photo of a wad of money that has the value of about $150US. One NZ$ equalled about 1220 Uzbek soms when we left NZ. So when you exchange money, you get a wad so fat that it won’t fit in your wallet. Once when we paid for a taxi we had just used, we noted the driver just threw the cash into his glove box which was already stuffed full of other notes. And a modest meal for four may cost thousands of soms – the Uzbeks seem to live comfortably with their money.
The final comment for Uzbekistan goes to the donkey. He is a ubiquitous creature - he is everywhere, pulling every conceivable type of transportation, working in the fields, giving rides to many a human being. Uzbekistan may be coming into the modern age, but the donkey is still a popular beast of burden. One of our guides told us a donkey is worth about $1000US, so he is valuable too, and my guess is that he will here for a while longer. My problem is that I want to photograph them all.
Farewell to Uzbekistan!