It was the fourth day of our guided tour of Uzbekistan. We had explored Itchan Kala on the earlier day and had spent the night within the fortress walls. A, our guide, gave us a couple of minutes to walk around and soak in the sights of the old city — before we started our desert road trip.
The weather was slowly turning and we were happy to see blue skies and sunshine. T, the driver, would be our fourth companion for the next leg of the trip and would accompany us right upto Samarkand — his hometown. T was named after an iconic figure from his hometown and one could say it was an apt name given his towering frame.
The journey from Khiva to Bukhara would take about 7 or 8 hours. We started around 10:00 a.m. in the morning and we’d reach Bukhara only after sunset. We’d pass through Kyzylkum Desert, drive parallel to the Amu Darya River and have a glimpse of the border of Turkmenistan. Although I’m not a fan of road trips, I was excited to explore the countryside.
Drive to Urgench
The scenery outside our window quickly changed from brick walls to soviet-styled row houses. It was the perfect day for a road trip with the clouds taking over the blue skies.
Urgench is the capital city of Khorezm Region and is quite developed. It would be the last city we’d pass through on our trip.
The Kyzylkum Desert (translated as red sands) is a wide expanse of sand and shrubs. The road that cut through the desert was desolate. We could count the number of cars that passed by. A spoke about the economy to answer the question that I had asked on the previous day. It was hard to focus on his words when: the heating of the car was competing with the sun. I tried not to think about the time we got lost in Mongolia. And yet, my thoughts kept veering from the vast desert outside and our apparent isolation from the rest of the world.
The dynamics between a guide and driver is interesting to observe. There’s more to learn about a country from that — than what the guide might want to make you believe. Knowledge is a powerful tool. However, in most cases, it can make one lose touch with reality and the ability to unlearn. And that’s why most drivers and guides are poles apart.
T wasn’t very different from the drivers that we’ve met before. He wore his glares like a rockstar, took care of his car like a baby, and drove for a stretch — without letting the sun get to him. He kept his words to a minimum. He was polite and a bit nervous whenever we asked him a question. Did he speak English? I don’t have an answer for that one. Probably, he was a mind reader. He knew when we were hungry or needed to stop. T didn’t shy away from cracking jokes on A and had us cracking up. A would get in the car with a puzzled look. It was our inside joke. Clearly, language has little to do with forging bonds or understanding people.
“Tribes or nomads don’t live in these deserts. No-one gets lost here.”
A assured me. There were few animals like foxes and others. I can’t remember now. I believed him. It was the best thing to do on a deserted road — in the middle of nowhere.
“This is a 5-Star restroom!”
A’s booming voice made an announcement. Now, I’ve been on many road trips around the world. Some on very high mountain passes and some in deserts like this one. I know when I see a restroom in the middle of nowhere — it’s going to be far from 5-star! However, I was happy not to have to relieve myself in the wild or over a long-drop. After all, I was the only ‘sister’ in the group. The toilets were gender segregated (the only time I prefer gender segregation) and required a minimum payment. Perfect, maybe he was right? I guess, one should not count their chickens before they’re hatched.
Amu Darya River & Turkmenistan
Khiva is just across the border of Turkmenistan. The Amu Darya River is one of the largest rivers in Central Asia. The river runs through Uzbekistan and its neighbours: Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan. We passed by a gorgeous location where the water reflected the blue sky. Turkmenistan was somewhere beyond those lines. So close, yet so far.
It was freezing outside the car and this dog was probably as hungry as I was. I’m not sure how it survived the cold.
The Unending Desert Road
The drive through the desert was quite long and the heat inside was excruciating at times. Although, it was probably freezing outside the car. T was doing a wonderful job of driving and A kept him company.
Unlike our earlier guided trips, we hadn’t taken a meal plan on this trip. We wanted to have the freedom of eating what we liked. Turns out, in the desert, during the low season, there were barely any restaurants open. Miraculously, we found one in the middle of nowhere.
Basil and I ordered Laghmaan (stir-fried noodles). T and A ordered meat soup with non. It was an oasis in the desert. I doubt I would have lasted till Bukhara on an empty stomach and nuts.
We reached Bukhara after dark. Bukhara was more developed than Khiva or Urgench. Our hotel was a stone’s throw away from the old quarter. T took the rest of the night off. A lived nearby and joined us for a short walk around the old quarter.
Lyabi House was decorated with lights and a ginormous Christmas tree. The mood was festive. In Uzbekistan, Christmas decorations are synonymous with New Year Celebrations and have very little to do with Christmas itself. New Year’s Eve is spent with family and everyone has to gift their family something. Radical fundamentalists aren’t kicked by the idea of these remnants of soviet traditions. However, most locals seemed to be having a great time.
Photographing guards and government buildings isn’t recommended. At least, that’s what most travel forums advise. Rules have become more relaxed now. Unless a building has a strict sign dissuading photographs, it’s all right to snap away. I’m not so sure about guards/tourist police though. You might want to be more discerning here.
The lake was lit up and ducks quaked away. A gave us a gist about the place. We’d be returning back on the next day (my next post), so we didn’t try to take in too much.
An elderly man greeted me as we passed through the narrow lanes of the old quarter. I wasn’t quick enough to return his greeting. It felt nice being welcomed in a new place. A took us through a winding maze and I didn’t try to keep track of the time or the route.
The Kalyan Minaret glowed and looked spectacular in the dark night. It was getting colder by the hour.
Mir Arab Madrasah reflected the light from the minaret and added to the allure of the square.
Arc Citadel was bustling with activity and year-end cheer. Families (grandparents with their grandkids) had come to enjoy the festive atmosphere.
The giant christmas tree was the spotlight of the festivity. Santa distributed gifts. It was very fascinating and a little surprising because no-one believed in Christmas.
It had been a long day. We hailed a taxi to visit A’s favourite diner in Bukhara. The taxi driver was very friendly. His story was quite interesting. He wanted to become a classical singer, but his father didn’t allow him to pursue the arts. He sang for us in Hindi and Uzbek. His soulful voice filled our hearts with warmth — on a cold winter’s night.