Updated: Mar 31, 2019
The Final Challenge
Uzbekistan was the final country on my journey through the “stans”. The Pamir and Fan mountains, so stunning yet so problematic for travel, were replaced as we drove West in a taxi out of Dushanbe by a flat and featureless plain, dusty, dry and pretty devoid of life, although it was liberally adorned with billboards of the president in various poses. A last reminder of the dictator before encountering another, I thought – perhaps a not-so-subtle method of political one-upmanship. His country and Uzbekistan are barely on speaking terms at present. Emomalii Rahmon’s presence had been felt as I travelled through Tajikistan, and I had cursed him on more than one occasion in this troubled, and troubling country. The road to the border was still in poor condition, but I knew that Uzbekistan’s roads would be much better. Its infrastructure is some way ahead of Tajikistan; this was going to be the first time in the region that I would be able to sample the relative luxury of railway travel. All things are relative though; Uzbekistan stands around 75th in the world GDP list, just above Lithuania, whose population of around three million is nine times smaller than Uzbekistan. The country is comprised mostly of desert, and it is only in the easternmost part around the Fergana Valley and the capital Tashkent where it is greener.
My aim was to head first to the southern city of Termiz before heading north and west through the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara, before taking a train back east and flying out of Tashkent. The Silk Road, a term coined as recently as 1977, actually refers not to one road but to several ancient routes, linking eastern China to Asia Minor, specifically Turkey. For hundreds of years, traders in silk, spices, highly-prized gems, fragrant teas and other exotic goods travelled in slow-moving caravans across Central Asia, bringing back not only western goods but new ideas, technology and culture, thus changing the relationship between East and West forever. The desert country of Uzbekistan is today most vividly associated with it, containing as it does three UNESCO-listed medieval towns, so strongly linked to these times – towns which were all resting points on this route.
Logistically, this was by far the most difficult of the three countries to enter. I had secured a visa in Bishkek, but only after a great deal of aggravating waiting around after paying for a letter of invitation which arrived at the last moment. On the visa application I had been asked to specify exactly where I would be and when, how I was to enter the country and where I would be leaving, and in what accommodation I would stay. I also needed to provide proof of employment. Independent travel is not encouraged in Uzbekistan, and the government of Islam Karimov has made no moves to either abolish the visa or make it easier to obtain, as in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan respectively. As is common in the region, the leader is an old-school ex-communist, and has been in power since before independence – 1989, to be exact. His regime brutally stifles the opposition, is opposed to Islam, and is considered to be amongst the worst countries in the world for human rights abuses. It has effectively silenced imams from making any anti-government statements by jailing and even torturing outspoken critics, and muezzin calls for prayer are banned. However, western governments during the 1990s and especially after 9/11 were tolerant of the regime as Uzbekistan was seen as key ally in the War Against Terror and an area of strategic importance. Since the Andijon massacre in 2005, in which independent observers claim that up to 500 peaceful protestors were executed by state police in a pre-meditated ambush, relations with the West, have deteriorated dramatically and many embassies and NGOs in the country have closed down.
Thus, I felt some degree of trepidation on entering the country, which I did on foot at the Sariosiyo border. Aside from the annoying level of bureaucracy and lengthy walk in the searing heat – it was September and still around 35 degrees – the process was pretty smooth. The first thing to do on entering a country is to obtain some local currency, and in Uzbekistan this is rarely a problem, despite cash machines not recognising western bank cards. There is a thriving black market for currency, preferably dollars, and the rate is around 25-30 per cent better than the official rate – a consequence of regular devaluation of the currency.
Money comes in 1000 som note denominations (0.30 dollars) or lower, which has the irritating consequence of obliging one to carry around large bags of notes, and to constantly have to carefully count through large wads for everyday transactions. Wallets are not necessary in this country, for cash at least. Predictably, I was given a less-than generous exchange rate at the border but my 50-dollar note bought me enough som notes to fill half my rucksack.
Termiz: Deathly cotton
Quickly negotiating a taxi-ride to Termiz – disappointingly there was still no public transport available, here at least – I was able to take in the unfolding Uzbek scenery: fields and fields of white, with heads bobbing up and down in them. Uzbekistan’s main crop is cotton, and this was pahta – harvest time. Cotton accounts for around 20 per cent of Uzbek exports, and it has been extensively cropped in the country since communist times. Introducing a strain of cotton from the United States, the Soviet regime aimed to emulate US production, and went to great lengths to achieve this through extensive fertilization and irrigation.
Unfortunately, the thirsty crop proved unsuited to its dry surrounds and this had major consequences on the environment, most notably on the Aral Sea, which has shrunk in area by 90 per cent since the diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in the 1960s. The Aral Sea is perhaps the world’s worst ecological disaster, its once bustling ports now lying in the desert, hours from the shrinking shoreline. Local incidences of respiratory illness and skin disease are common due to chemicals from fertilisers that have remained in the soil after the sea evaporated. The sad image of ships stranded in the sand epitomise the disappearance of the Aral, once one of the world’s great lakes. Additionally, the government stands accused of enforcing child labour in the production of cotton, and of forced, badly-paid labour in general at harvest time: one million people are thought to be involved in its collection at this time of year, bringing the countryside to a virtual standstill. Uzbekistan has paid a very high price for its cotton. Termiz is a fairly uneventful town which, bordering Afghanistan, has a slightly edgy feel to it, and is not used to tourists visiting. The highlight of my stay was exchanging black market money with a local policeman. Officials are clearly not going to enforce the law when it comes to money changing – the country’s economy would collapse without the black market – and are often not averse to supplementing their meagre income by this means. A couple of days relaxing in a surprisingly good state hotel which was dirt-cheap partly due to the favourable dollar exchange rate was an additional plus in Termiz, as I battled another food poisoning incident and eye infection.