The road north up to the Uzbek border was full of potholes. Moritz was at the wheel for the first 2.5 hours and let’s just say he likes to drive fast. I tried to catch up on some sleep, but kept waking up from bouncing up and down thanks to the broken, and in some cases non-existent, asphalt.
We left the village of Darvaza that morning, after having spent the night caught in a sand storm. I had not slept very well and was dreading the drive ahead.
We switched driving duties mid-morning to allow Moritz to catch up on his sleep. I felt more alert & awake at the wheels (good thing, that too). Nevertheless, I took a wrong turn. The navigation system did not know one of the newer, shorter routes to Daşoguz – it’s Turkmenistan after all! – and led me down a road full of even bigger potholes. The car hardly ever traveled over 30km/h.
Eventually Moritz had the idea to turn around as he had seen, through the corner of his eyes, a newer road on the right when I drove straight off the roundabout. Sure enough, after asking some locals, they told us to head back. I was incredibly grumpy about having to drive back through the potholes, though it had been no one’s fault. I was hungry (breakfast had been just two biscuits), dirty and thirsty, and grumpiness naturally followed.
It was hot as expected, but we faced a new challenge. We had inadvertently bought fizzy water the day before and our cooler was not working anymore. If you’ve never had hot, fizzy water in 45 degree Celsius, I dare you to try! To make matters worse, we had about 12 Turkmen Manats left. We spent it on a sweet, artificially flavored drink because there was no water available. This, too, was undrinkable.
After turning back, we were in the border town of Daşoguz within 124km. We found plenty of stores to buy water at. Sadly enough, we didn’t have enough local currency. No one, quite understandably, wanted to take our US dollars.
We arrived at the border around 1:24pm and found the Dutch guys we met the previous evening waiting, parked in front of the gate. Apparently, the Turkmen border officials were on their lunch break.
We were eventually let in at 2pm. I was made to walk through the gate to the customs/immigration office, while Moritz could drive in with the car. For some reason, it was not ok for me to be in the car. Another one of those truly bizarre Turkmen things!
I passed through immigration quite easily. But having our car checked out for contraband took ages. Every piece of luggage was opened and scrutinized. I wasn’t sure what they thought we’d be smuggling out of the country. Because oil was so cheap, we had heard that there was illegal trade over with Uzbekistan. As far as I was concerned, we had not engaged in oil smuggling. Not a single gas station had been willing to fill our jerry cans.
At one point, an official took out a packet of tampons and scrutinized it intently. I’m assuming he didn’t know what he was looking at. I really did not want to have to explain. He didn’t seem to have a clue.
We were eventually let out of Turkmenistan without much drama. After crossing a heavily barb-wired no-man’s-land of 1.5km, we were in Uzbekistan. Border guards on the Uzbek side appeared friendlier and slightly more efficient. We were stamped in, had our cars inspected, made customs declarations and were released into the country.
The short 45 minute drive to Khiva passed without incidents. I was a bit surprised at how lush and green Uzbekistan appeared. Only a few hours earlier we were in the desert!
We checked ourselves into a simple but clean B&B in the heart of Khiva, a medieval city. The city is said to have existed since the Christian era, but some archaeologists assert that it has been around since the 6th century.
Khiva is split into two parts: the outer town, called Dichan Kala and the inner town, Itchan Kala. Dichan Kala was formerly protected by a wall with 11 gates while the latter is encircled by brick walls, whose foundations are believed to have been laid in the 10th century.
We walked around the inner town but it was getting dark and we were famished. We left the well-preserved walls of Itchan Khala and headed for a Uzbek café in the outer town. The place was quite empty when we showed up at around 7:30pm, but quickly started to fill up about 9pm. That appeared to be dinner time, as well as when people go out socializing. The men were drinking vodka with bread as they waited for their mains. A group of women came in as well, and they were escorted to a separate, enclosed seating area. This was my first indication of how conservative the country is, perhaps not too dissimilar from Bangladesh’s own small town restaurants.
We ordered Tuhum Barak, a type of egg dumplings and some the other local dishes. The food was simple but filling. After dinner, we walked back to our B&B through the Itchan Khala. The inner town was lit up by a sickly, greenish light and all the charm of the city was gone.
We went to bed early with the intention of getting up at 6am to walk around the city. Khiva is best seen at dawn or dusk, when the sunlight plays on the mud walls of the old city structures. A stroll through the Itchan Khala at sunrise proved this to be right. Khiva indeed is quite beautiful.
While walking around, we noticed these platforms everywhere, outside homes as well as in parks that seem quite popular to just hang out on or sit for a chat.
After our walk, we came back to the B&B, had a short nap and woke up on time for a simple breakfast. We asked our host to change our money. Uzbekistan has very high inflation. 1 EUR roughly equals to 3065 Uzbek Som. The black market rate can be significantly higher than the official rate. In fact, from one day to the other and even from one city to another, rates may vary.
This also means that changing just 100 USD resulted in acquiring a massive pile of cash. It’s absolutely normal to count your cash when you receive it, but it can be a nuisance to count through more than 600 five-hundred Som notes.
We were excited to be in Uzbekistan. Khiva was small and cozy, but we were looking forward to seeing Bukhara and Samarkand, the highlights of the Silk Road.
One downside, though, is that our car was making funny noises. Moritz suspected that it had something to do with the suspension. We were pretty confident that there are no Renault dealers in the country. We saw a lot of white Daewoo cars on the road which seemed to be the most popular choice for a private vehicle. Certainly there weren’t many European cars in the country.
We now have the additional worry of trying to get this fixed and are considering going to a garage on Sunday, perhaps in one of the bigger cities. But for the moment, we were happy to be alive, glad to have made it this far and were looking forward to driving to Bukhara.
This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.