Access Denied

(Emily) The route to get from Samarkand to Tashkent looked relatively straightforward on the map, but for one point where the main road takes you into Kazakhstan for about 30km – seeing as we didn’t have visas for that country, we had to take a detour. Quite the detour it turned out to be! We knew something wasn’t right when we ended up on farm tracks and roads under construction (Donato, who’d done the route himself, had said the roads were pretty good) but all we could do was keep asking ‘Tashkent?’ and we were always told, ‘Yes, that way.’ At one point, a couple of melon sellers showed us where we were on the map and we’d gone way off track, having missed the original turning to get us back on the main road. Grrr! (They did give us a melon which was a nice consolation!) As a result, we didn’t get to the city until 5pm, instead of the anticipated 2pm, meaning that we’d missed the chance to go and ask about border crossing at the Kyrgyzstan embassy. Very frustrating!

Tashkent is a massive city and the roads are really busy – this, together with the fact there are no street names anywhere, meant that the chances of finding the B&B we’d been given a flyer for were remote. We did actually have a map of the centre (part of our Central Asia map, Tashkent being a capital) and we tried asking a few people where we were but no one seemed to know!! Luckily, one guy who stopped to talk to us knew where the bazaar near the B&B was and offered to guide us in his car – what a star! It was a hairy ride on multiple lane roads with people weaving in and out all over the place but finally we pulled into a quiet leafy avenue and the target accommodation: Said, the legend, had got us there! We were so relieved – it had been a long day, especially for James who was understating how crappy he felt with bad stomach and flu. All we wanted was a shower and to sleep…. Not to be; the bloody place was full. Noooooooo!

We stood by our bikes for a good ten minutes, not quite knowing what to do. We hadn’t passed any other hotels, and the few shown on the map (not that we could follow it anyway) were all four star. We even asked to put our tent up in the courtyard of the B&B but this was a no go. Before we lost the will to live completely, I said we’d just have to go back out into the mélé and ride until we saw somewhere; after all, a capital city had to have its share of hotels. So back on the bikes and back into the traffic. The first hotel we came upon was a condemned building – not a good start. After twenty minutes we pulled in to the side of the road by a metro entrance to try and get our bearings when a good samaritan on foot stopped to offer assistance. Denis, it turns out, was part of the local biker club; The Steel Scorpions. (This was quite a surprise to us seeing as we’d seen no local motorbikes in Uzbekistan whatsoever. That said, his club is only ten strong so I guess it’s a minority hobby!) A fellow biker, he was keen to help us out and after a while managed to get hold of the club’s vice-president, Yuri, who came to show us to a hotel they knew in his car. What lovely people! So it was for the second time that we were back on the roads, trying to keep up with a guiding vehicle (not so difficult this time: a twenty year old Lada 4×4!) They showed us to a place which was cheap without being crap, and even had parking. Result. Except it was… full. Nooooooo!

Denis and Yuri were a bit stumped at this point, trying to think of somewhere else we could stay. While we were all pondering, another friendly motorist stopped by having spotted our GB plates. Muzaffar was very excited to have the opportunity to chat with some English people – he’d studied in London for two years previously – and promptly invited us to stay at his house!! Four complete strangers in the past hour and a half showing us unbelievable kindness, so humbling. We jumped at his offer and, having swapped details with the Steel Scorpions, were soon following our third car through the city. Muzaffar lives about 15km out of town and, I have to admit, when we first pulled into his estate of seven or eight blocks of flats, bike security alarm bells were ringing in my head. However, he came up trumps and had called ahead to a friend to arrange a garage spot for us. Result! What followed was an absolutely delightful evening in his home. He and his wife and baby (both visiting her mother at the time) live in the apartment with his parents; Jamila, Muzaffar’s mother, put on a tasty spread of soup, bread, melon and plov (traditional rice dish) until we were full to bursting. We had a great chat with Muzaffar and his friend, Bobir, about the relative merits/disadvantages of living in the UK and some of the frustrating and restrictive laws in Uzbekistan (for example, vehicle tax is an extortionate 120% of the vehicle’s value). They even helped us out on the border crossing front – Bobir had a friend who was a policeman in Osh so they rang up to ask about whether it was possible to cross there at the moment. ‘Yes, definitely’, came the response – such a relief. When we finally put head to pillow (new sheets brought out of their packaging in our honour) we went out like lights.

Muzaffar’s good deeds continued in the morning when he led us to a petrol station so we could fill up for our final run out of the country and he then stayed with us until he was satisfied we were heading out of town on the right road. We owe you, Muzaffar!! We figured we’d head to the border at Uchkurg’on as it was closer than Osh, reasoning that if Osh was open (that’s where all the recent troubles have centred) then this one should be too. Worst case scenario we could always continue down to Osh if necessary. The roads were pretty good on the whole but the 340km down the disputed and heavily militarised Ferghana Valley still took about six hours due to a mountain pass that slowed down our progress and numerous stops to chat with curious locals. Once we reached Namangan, the main town before the border, we had to ask for directions so many times – you’d think something as key as a border crossing would be signed, but no – and we finally rocked up about 5pm. The gates were very firmly closed. Nooooooo!

Hope rose when we saw that at least the post was being manned. James jumped off the bike to go and speak with the soldiers on guard duty and eventually a female sergeant who could speak a little English came out. The upshot of it was that the border was most definitely closed. As was the post at Osh. I heard the words ‘…go back to Tashkent…’ more than once and sat down with my head in my hands in despair. James was applying a more positive approach, trying to appeal to their humanity. He explained that we’d been told by a member of the police, and several other people on our journey down, that the borders were open and that we were in a bind as our Uzbek visas ran out the following day. Before she got into a passing minibus, presumably to go home, the sergeant said that a group of officers were expected that evening at that maybe if we waited to speak to them, they might be able to do something. I took this to be very encouraging and began inspecting the surrounding area for somewhere to pitch our tent – they told us that the border closed at 6pm (er, how could it close if it was already closed?) so even if the officers pulled some strings, we still wouldn’t be able to get through until the following day. However, at half past six the soldiers passed James the phone – it was the female sergeant again. There was nothing that could be done; the border was closed and crossing into Kyrgyzstan was ‘impossible’, end of. Nooooooo!

Such was the lateness of the hour and we were so exhausted and defeated, I was sure that James would suggest camping nearby and then heading back to Tashkent in the morning (the thought of retracing the 350km was sickening) but he was determined that we should at least try and get a few km under our belt before it got dark. Urgh. So, back on the bikes with one last lingering look at the gates, we headed back in the opposite direction. In retrospect, it was a sensible decision – we managed to get a good 70km away and were back on the other side of Namangan before it got too dark to ride. Seeing as all the petrol stations were closed up, we thought perhaps one of them might prove to be a good shelter for the night so we pulled in to an abandoned garage, quietly opening the gates and rolling in with our engines off as not to attract attention. Unfortunately, there was someone there manning the office. Ah. ‘Er, no benizine, right….?’ we spluttered, trying to act like we thought there might be petrol. He was a friendly guy so we thought we’d try our luck – out came the ‘point it’ book and we gestured that we might put our tent up. He acquiesced and I was so relieved – all I wanted was to sleep (and hopefully wake up to find it was all a dream). However, Nassim had other ideas and had soon called in a couple of his friends. ‘Great, now we’re going to be gawped at all night,’ I said through gritted teeth (was somewhat having a sense of humour failure at this point…) After establishing that we hadn’t eaten (I tried to assure him that our manky melon was quite enough), Nassim put us in his car and so began a magical mystery tour of his town – we couldn’t communicate so could only speculate at what he was doing at the various stops… In the end, he pulled in to what turned out to be his own house where his wife and mother quickly busied themselves with laying on a meal for us! Her plov was the best we’d tasted and we were happily tucking in, enjoying exchanging smiles with his gorgeous three year old daughter, when suddenly it was time to go! Heads spinning, we got back in the car and, after another mysterious stop, found ourselves back at the petrol station. Here, Nassim and his friend invited us in to the back room and we were given chai and shashlik (that’s what he’d picked up on the way). All very strange but we weren’t complaining!!

After a while, we were so desperately tired, and in severe danger of being killed by their kindness, so the hinting/yawning tactics began. At one point, Nassim’s friend started looking through the pictures on our camera. ‘Crap, there are nearly one thousand photos on there…’ I muttered to James. Thankfully, they must have picked up on our exhaustion, and as we made our way to the bikes to get the tent set up, they stopped us and gestured that we could sleep in one of the back rooms. Oh the relief! Ten minutes later, our roll mats were down and so were we. What a day!!

6 Responses to “Access Denied”

  1. julian says:

    Blimey! maybe Edinburgh and back twice isn’t as exhausting as I thought!
    Love from dad XX

  2. Jess says:

    What nice people you have met – a little too nice maybe!

  3. mama/kate: says:

    I think that people can never be too nice. What saddens me is that folks are losing the ability to trust each other and thereby arises a reluctance to help others in need.
    How wonderful to meet such big-heartedness from complete strangers.
    It warms the cockles. X

  4. Jackson says:

    yeah muzzafar – legend!

  5. Martha says:

    Who knew everyone was flocking to Tashkent filling up the B&Bs! Oh, maybe it has something to do with them not letting anyone out of the country…it’s all a cunning plan!!

  6. Denis says:

    Hello travelers! Good people who meet you on the way in Asia – this is called the east welcome, we were brought up in these traditions and, therefore, welcome guests! We are very happy to see foreign visitors and be useful! I remember how you were surprised, When this is checked by the hotel guy came up and offered to go to sleep at his home! And you probably even feared that he thug, but then he told me that was two years in Great Britain and now offers you a visit at his home! I wish that you come across in the way only good people! with respect for your Uzbek friend – Denis. :-)

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