My journey from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Khiva, Uzbekistan was a quick dash across most of Central Asia in just under two days. With some quick decisions and a lot of luck, my trip just fell together allowing me to make it out here so quickly fortunately giving me the time to work my way backwards to Bishkek through Uzbekistan without having to miss any of the major sites.
It all started off Tuesday morning when I got up at 6:30 at my hostel in Bishkek. I had a 10 am flight to Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan so I made my way to the airport (see post about getting to/from Manas International Airport) and got on the approximately 30 minute flight down to Osh.
Osh is a city on the edge of the Fergana valley which due to Soviet border carvings has been placed in Kyrgyzstan though the majority ethnic group of the city is Uzbek. Generally Kyrgyz people are nomadic mountain men and Uzbeks and Tajiks are more settled farmers in the valleys so the Kyrgyz population historically lived up on the edge of the valley in the mountains and the Uzbeks and Tajiks lived in the valley. The Fergana valley is the site of a lot of recent ethnic tensions which can be attributed to the way the borders were designed much like many of the problems in the Middle East these days. Stalin wanted to prevent an uprising so he purposely drew borders to split ethnic groups between nations so that no one area could have a majority and challenge Moscow’s rule.
With that being said, Osh really is an Uzbek feeling city with Islam being far more important and central than it is in the more secular north. Women are much more covered in the south, but unlike the much deeper south (Afghanistan/Iran), women have bright floral dresses and headscarves. The change in attitudes towards religion is really interesting between North and South Kyrgyzstan. In the north (and Kazakhstan as well) things are secular due to the heavy Soviet influence, but in the south religion plays a more important role in daily life, and as one goes even further south away from Russia religion becomes even more important until it turns into fanaticism as it did when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan or when the Supreme Leader took over Iran. I imagine Southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to be much like what Afghanistan used to be like.
After landing in Osh, I was easily able to take a mastruka right outside the airport to the center of town. It was #107 and it cost 10 som. There is an actual stop with a 107 sign on it right after the small airport parking lot directly in front of the terminal. After getting to the center, I made my way to Osh Guesthouse and spent the night there. While there I met some Israelis and we went to this large rock/mountain near the center of town called Soloman’s Throne. It was a nice view from the top, but really the only thing to do in Osh besides walk around the bazaar. There was a mosque just down the street from Osh Guesthouse called Osh New Mosque and to the left of the mosque (if you’re looking at the entrance) was an amazing tea house and cheap too! It almost looks like its apart of the mosque or built on to the side of it. They have samsi with spicy sauce, tea, coffee, swarma, and really really good swarma burgers. It was so good that I ate there again the next day for breakfast.
Next morning I caught minibus 107 to the Uzbek border and crossed into Uzbekistan with relative ease, sort of. The Kyrgyz side took a couple of minutes to clear, but once in Uzbekistan there was a lot of waiting to be done. It took about 2 hours to get through the entire process. Uzbekistan is essentially a police state so I wasn’t surprised. There weren’t that many people there though, but they spend a lot of time searching everyone’s bag individually and asking questions so that’s why it took so long. I had to declare all of my money including all my little bits of random currency I’ve picked up along the way in places from Vietnam to Dubai. The guard was very concerned about by 30,000 VND which I explained was worth about 1.50 USD. They were also very concerned about what could possibly be on my USB stick… could I have Christian music on there? They searched my laptop and phone for potential religious music as well. I guess they have a point, though. The internet is so slow in Uzbekistan that it would be easier to smuggle Christian music in on a USB rather than download it. I think I probably got off easier than the actual Uzbek people though. Besides my electronics and medicines, they didn’t really look at the rest of my stuff.
Once across the border, I easily found a shared taxi to Tashkent. I probably waited 10 minutes and the driver came back to me and proposed leaving with three people rather than four and having us all pay a bit more but be more comfortable. I instantly said yes and ended up paying $45 for the trip. The extra 15 dollars was worth not being stuck in the middle of a hot car for the 7 hour trip to Tashkent. The drive was beautiful, going through cotton fields and farms in the Fergana valley before passing over a mountain range and ending up near Tashkent. We stopped for lunch about an hour into the drive and had sashlik, tea, and bread. The passengers were really nice and interested in me because I was an American. We tried our best to communicate but my Russian is only so-so. They gave me a lot of free food too on the trip, mostly bread and apples. Several times during the drive we stopped at police checkpoints and sometimes had to show our passports. Usually when we stopped random Uzbek women tried to sell us fruit. The passengers liked to tell these vendors that I was an American and they all got wide eyed and smiled with their golden teeth. I guess they don’t get very many Americans out here.
We finally got into Tashkent at around 6:30 pm and the driver dropped me off at the train station. The original plan was to spend the night at the train station hotel and catch a morning train to Samarkand, but when I checked the train schedule, I noticed they had a train in an hour for Urgench getting in at 1pm. Urgench is the city closest to Khiva and Khiva is one of the top three places to see in Uzbekistan. I didn’t think I would have time to get there because it’s quite out of the way, but this fortunate night train allowed me to fit it into my schedule. After a minute of thought, I decided to skip the hotel and take the night train. I’d figure out the details later, but here was my golden opportunity to get to Khiva so I better take it. Sweaty, gross, and tired I got on that night train bound for Urgench.
The sleepers were surprisingly not that bad and the passengers were really orderly and behaved. Usually on a SE Asian train, the bathroom is ruined in the first hour, but I noticed that Uzbek people are courteous and keep things clean. I chatted with some of the passengers near me and they were again all interested because I was an American. My small talking ability is probably my best in Russian so I got along well with them. When I pulled out my American passport, they all wanted to see it. All of a sudden I was the coolest kid at show and tell again. I showed them all my visas from various countries around the world, and they really enjoyed it.
I spent the next morning reading and waiting for the train to stop in Urgench. Once in Urgench, getting a taxi to Khiva was quite easy. I met some foreigners on the platform back in Tashkent and knew they were going to Urgench so I looked for them when we got off the train. They found two more foreigners and the five us had good bargaining power to get the 20 minute taxi to Khiva for about a dollar each. If you’re alone, there is public transportation as well but it’s much slower.
I’m currently staying in a 4 person dorm at Lali-Opa guesthouse just on the west side of the old city of Khiva. I’ll follow this post up with a post on Khiva once I’ve had a chance to explore the city.