Part 6 – crossing Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is the home to one of the places I really wanted to see for a long time: the former fishing port of Muynak (Moynaq) at the edge of the Aral Sea. That is besides all the ancient cities that formed a significant part of the Silk Road and that were part of the Arabic exotic myths and stories.
So between the nasty road before – and after – the border and Muynak city I’ve managed yet another 12 hours plus of riding. I was happy that the Uzbek side of the border was as easy as possible: no paper forms to fill, no long queues, no detailed luggage check, fast and easy. The rest of the road was also easy, mostly straight as an arrow roads, with passable tarmac (that was after yet another 100Km or so from the border).
I was tired but truly psyched as I was entering Muynak area. On a whim I have chosen a Yurt Camp right next to the old shipyard, which I kind of knew it will not be cheap but it was located exactly where I wanted to be. The bonus was that I got to spent my first night in a yurt, plus a very friendly guy with whom I have spent the entire evening chatting and sharing some beers. The perfect ending for a long and tiring day.
Early next morning, just before the sunrise (and a little bit hangover from the evening beers) I have climbed down to the “beach”, next to the sleeping ships, and waited together for the sunrise, with no one else in sight. It was a really powerful moment, listening to the stories of these sanded ships that will never feel the waves again. All that because of the “greater good” promoted by Mother Russia in the 1960, when the two rivers that were feeding the Aral Sea were diverted to be used to agriculture (mainly cotton). The result was that there was not enough water left to keep the Aral Sea alive and during the next 50 years it continued to disappear. More details here: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/aral_sea.php
It is a sad place, a graveyard not only for these rusting ships but also for most of the former Aral Sea, which will never reach these shores again. Not to mention thousands of people that are suffering along side this man-made ecological disaster. All for cotton – all for greed. It is a sad place, a place that acts as a real life mirror of our own stupidity and carelessness…
The next destinations were the ancient cities of Khiva, Bulhara and Samarkand – but I’ll try to write an article for each one, in turn.
Uzbekistan is an amazing country to visit overall, even though is is getting more and more crowded each year. One problem remains finding gasoline when you need it. Even though it is better now, the problem still exists. The root cause is that the country switch their auto park to the cheaper liquefied gas (propane and butane) some years ago and thus the gasoline became a rarity. Even though there are lots of gas stations, not all of them keep gasoline regularly, if at all. So crossing Uzbekistan overland (especially on the West part, coming from Beyneu, Kazakhstan) is a constant hunt for gasoline. A few years ago on these part the only available source were the black market, famous black Lada cars, caring gasoline in rusty old jerrycans and delivering it straight from the trunk. Now it’s better, meaning that mostly you can find gasoline every couple of hundreds of Km (besides bigger cities), but the “regular” type has an official cetane rating of 80… Not many newer bikes (or cars) can use this type of gas. The “premium” one has a cetane rating of 91, which makes it suitable for all kinds of engines. So you either carry big jerrycans with you or some octane booster. I am happy to report that the V-Strom run flawlessly with the regular 80 gasoline. Other than being slower than usual, not a single problem. That and a range of 400+ Km, with head wind more than half of the time, makes it a really trusted partner for the long haul.
Another issue specific to Uzbekistan was the money exchange, which was also basically possible only on the black market not long ago. Now you can still exchange currency on the black market, but the exchange rate has become level with the official one, so you can go to any bank for the same service. I have used the black market without any issues – just be prepared to handle a big number of bills as the uzbek currency has a very low exchange rate. It is funny though to see the exchange people counting money probably as fast as a counting machine at the bank :D.
The entire country is still heavily influenced but the former ruler and conqueror, Amir Timur (or Tamerlane as he is known in the European culture), so at almost any significant city you can find plenty of his traces. Which is great as the sites he build are truly wonderful and still impressive after all these years. More about that when we reach the next uzbek cities.
Although Uzbekistan is mostly a flat desert/steppe area, if you really want to you can find nice twisty roads to play around. This is somewhere on the road between Samarkand and Shahrisabz. If you reach the area I highly recommend to set aside half a day to discover this road, as well as the last big complex created by Amir Timur, in Shahrisabz.