I’ve traveled a lot, been to a lot of places, had many good and bad experiences but nothing really compares to my time in Uzbekistan.
Just take a shared taxi to Bukhara they said. It will be fine they said. Friday morning I woke up in Khiva and spent the morning drinking tea and slowly repacking my bag for my trip to Bukhara, the second stop on my three city tour or Uzbekistan. At around noon, I made my way over to the shared taxi stand and managed to secure a quick 20 minute ride to Urgench where I could get another shared taxi to Bukhara. Once in Urgench, I wanted for approximately an hour, got shifted between several cars, before the drivers finally organized the Bukhara group together and sent us on our way. I managed to get the front seat and there were three other Uzbek guys around my age in the back seat.
My first mistake was paying the driver upfront, but I couldn’t have foreseen what would happen next and I knew the driver needed gas money so it seems like a normal thing to do at the time. I won’t be paying drivers anymore until all services have been rendered aka I make it to my destination. We left Urgench, made a quick stop at the driver’s home to pick up some iced tea, and were on our way through the desert making good time. The driver really liked Persian electronic music or at least it sounded Persian so we spent the first hour or so listening to that.
The area around Urgench has a fair amount of irrigated farm lands and is somewhat populated, but as you start going further east, the Karakum desert begins. This sparsely populated sandy desert runs from southern Kazakhstan through Uzbekistan and into Turkmenistan. The road to Bukahara goes right through this desert as it hugs the Uzbek-Turkmen border.
About an hour or two in to the drive, we see a gas station on the left side of the road which was apparently the last gas station for quite some time. There was a divider between the road meaning we couldn’t get to the other side to the gas station without driving way down the road until we could U-turn; however, we had recently just passed a U-turn point about 200 meters back. Our driver turned the car around and started driving the wrong way down the road to get back to the U-turn point. He then drove the wrong way on the other side to the gas station. There was also one other car with us doing the same thing just ahead of us. This gas station was really in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by drifting red sands and the occasional bush. When we were about to turn into the gas station several police appeared out of nowhere and made both cars pull over. It was very surprising because we were in the remote desert and these police just showed up almost out of thin air.
The driver grabbed a few notes from his wallet, got out of the car, and went to talk with the police. I guess his bribe didn’t work because we spent an hour waiting on the side of the road and then at the gas station while the driver talked with the police. When the police looked like they had finished up their business we went back over to talk with the driver. He said he needed to go to the police station and fill out some papers. A few officers accompanied him on his drive there which is why we didn’t go with him. He told us to take our bags out of the car and wait for him to return. It shouldn’t take long.
Two hours later and the taxi driver is nowhere to be seen. His phone was dead so we couldn’t call him either. Fortunately one of the three other passengers speaks Russian so I had a little chat with him while we waited. After a while the sun started to go down and we began to think that the taxi might not come back. What do we do? You can’t just find another taxi in the middle of the desert so our best bet now was to try and find another ride with one of the passing cars. All of them were going to Bukhara because there aren’t any cities along this road in the desert. Two of the Uzbek guys went across the road and started trying to flag down a car that would take us to Bukhara, but no one was stopping and cars didn’t even come by that often maybe a couple every five minutes. Another hour of this went by and I was getting worried. Eventually a car did stop and the one Russian speaking guy from the group came over to talk to me. After a few hours with these guys, I had begun to see them sort of as friends through our struggle in the Karakum desert. I thought by this time we were buddies – through thick and thin, right? Apparently not though. It’s every man for himself in the Karakum. The guy told me that the car had only three seats and they were going to take it. Sorry, dude. No worries though – I’d be able to catch the next one! It’d be no problem! I just about went white when he told me that. Here I am in the desert, my Russian isn’t that great, and I’ve got to try and hitch a ride by myself. I didn’t have much of an option at this point though and protesting their decision wasn’t going to help. I knew I would eventually find someone and Uzbek people are very kind, but I was worried about how long it might take based off previous tries. Thank God I speak some Russian because without those classes in Bishkek, this situation would be even worse.
Somehow I got lucky and perhaps the third vehicle, a huge semi-truck, stopped and offered me a ride. Jamir, the truck driver, on his way from Urgench to Tashkent was going to take me all the way to Bukhara. When I asked him if he wanted any money he laughed and told me to stop. I explained what happened with the police and he got a kick out of it. We chatted a little bit to the extent my Russian ability allowed me and then spent the rest of the time listening to ‘80s Russian music. The view from the truck cabin was quite impressive as we slowly navigated through the potholed roads. Driving a truck is much slower than a car so it took another six hours to finally reach Bukhara. After talking to some people in Bukhara, I found out that it’s actually pretty easy to get a ride from a truck here especially if you’re alone because they only have one seat, and they’re always looking for company on their long trips.
When we finally made it to Bukhara at 130am, Jamir dropped me off by some taxis along the main road and I was fortunately able to phone up a guesthouse in Bukhara and get a taxi there. While I was initially afraid to hitch a ride in the middle of the desert from a complete stranger (I also didn’t have a choice really), I learned a lot about Uzbek culture through this experience. Uzbek people will go out of their way to be welcoming to a guest or to help someone in need. They’re incredibly kind people. Additionally while Uzbekistan and most CIS countries sound like unsafe places, they’re really not. Because of the oppressive hand of former dictators, people here don’t even think about breaking the law in any form even without their dictator’s presence. When they see someone in need they’re much more willing to help them rather than drive on as we would in the west for fear of the stranger being a criminal. While I see Central Asia as being much safer from crime than other places, I don’t want to call it all entirely safe. There still is some crime, but more often it’s unsafe because of lax safety regulations, poor roads, and crazy drivers. It’s unsafe just in a different kind of way. I think in the end, this whole experience has really taught me that good people still do exist and are more than willing to help you when you need it. All you have to do is ask.