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Author: Maria Zehentner / Translation: Elke Weninger
Beitrag vom: 06.07.2017

The high capacity taxi in the footsteps of Genghis Khan!

Uzbekistan May - June 2017


Leaving Kazakhstan at the border of Tazeh ran surprisingly smoothly and without any troubles. Tourists have the privilege of not being checked at the frontier and so we didn't have any waiting time. We received the exit stamps in no time and so could carry on to the Uzbek officials. Having read in various travelblogs that there are very strict border controls when entering Uzbekistan, we expected a really troublesome time there as well.
People spoke about giant x-rays in use, about mobile phones and cameras being examined very closely and putting furniture upside down...,however, nothing was true in our case. At the controls we only had to show the medicine which we had brought along and since we had cleverly prepared a sample for such an incident, the officials were satisfied after only two hours and we could pass the border.

Despite this short crossing it had turned quite late already and I was finally able to take Lennox to bed. I went into the driving cabin to wait for Leander who had left with the Spaniards to organise car insurance for us. This must have taken quite some time as I had fallen asleep and only woke up when the door of the truck was closed with a bang by Leander who had returned. He had signed a car insurance for two weeks at a price of €15 which sounded like a fair price to us even though other travelers told us that cheaper options would have been available. We stopped for the night just off the control area and really exhausted from this day went to bed without eating dinner, having washed or cleaned our teeth.
So now we had reached Uzbekistan on the tracks of the historic Silk Road. This ancient trade route is associated with myth, history and art. There are rich gold decorations, turquoise ornaments, koran schools, minarets and magnificent squares which fascinate in cities such as Xiva, Buxoro and Samarqand.

Though the cities might be wonderful to look at, in this country the streets are horrible and simply in a catastrophic state. They do build new motorways there yet these can always only be partly used. Consequently we had to use roads which were really bad to drive on. Racing down like skiers on the Ganslern in Kitzbuehl might have been easier for Akela and Leander than driving on these tracks. We were thrown from one side to the other in the driving cabin while in the living cabin things were messed up as well. Partition walls were torn out of wardrobes, drawers came loose and when falling onto the wooden floor left really bad marks on it, doors of cupboards didn't close again properly,...! There was nothing but chaos.

After driving for a day and spending a night next to the road we headed towards Kungrad, a small village about 300 kilometers south-east of the border. From there we took the road leading to the village of Muynak, which is located at the Aral Sea, and which is famous for its ship graveyard. Since 1960 the sea has been drying out and is one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters. Its original size of 68.000 km² shrank to 8.300 km² due to global warming and artificial irregation of huge cotton fields. At locations which used to be beaches there are now old and rusty fishermen's boats. There are still seashells visible, but the water left a long time ago and is far in the distance.

Carlos and Sergio, the two Spaniards, were exploring the close surrounding while we got our Honda off the rail rack and packed our swimming trunks to be able to get to the water of the Aral Sea. We hoped for a refreshing swim and some fun in the water. We found a suitable area after some time yet as we weren't sure what creatures there might around in this place we rather only cooled ourselves by splashing around a bit. On our way back we stocked up on beer in a supermarket and were looking forward to a cosy and nice evening outside in mild temperatures. Unluckily a swarm of mosquitos ruined our plans and we looked for shelter inside our vehicles after being stung substantially.
The next morning we opened the door of Akela with heavily swollen eyes and itchy skin as somebody had knocked on it. We were very surprised to see the two Swiss girls we had met on the ferry. There were also two Swiss boys standing there. They were all using public transport to get around and were really happy to get a free lift whenever possible. Consequently, we took them along for 130 kilometers to reach Nukus.

Lennox utterly enjoyed these kilometers and the next two hours as we had never had “full house“ before. On top of those four people, we came across Belgian Sueli on the road, who we also knew from the Caspian Ferry, and she put herself and her bike into the driving cabin of Akela as well and we continued our mighty joyful journey. We reached the city of Nukus in no time and there it meant saying good bye. However, we knew for sure that we would meet the one or the other again while traveling. Had we received our Turkmenistan visas, Nukus would have been the border which we would have used on our originally planned route. This meant that we were back on track yet lagging two weeks behind our original time schedule.

Carlos and Sergio stayed with us and turned out to be very nice and straightforward travel companions! They helped wherever necessary, no matter if it was organising SIM-cards to be online or to find out where to get Diesel. Diesel is not very common in Uzbekistan since most cars are operated with gas and so it might be found only in some private back yards. Due to their help these usually rather tiresome activities went much faster and more carefree and effectively than doing it alone like before.
Our next scheduled stop was in Xiva, 190 kilometers further south. The Spaniards rented rooms in a small guest house which appeared very oriental and also had a very nice patio. As we had high temperatures of 40°C inside and outside, Lennox and I successfully talked Leander into renting a room there as well. The air condition inside the rooms was the most convincing argument. Air condition would also be an improvement of Akela I wouldn't mind at all... The location of the hostel was perfect as only few meters separated us from the city wall and the historical center of the city.
The heart of the city Xiva is rather small and clearly arranged and its many restaurants and tea houses offered a great possibility to endure the heat of the sun at lunchtime. Basically, the entire old city is a bazaar. There are various little shops offering typical country-specific souvenirs aligned next to each other. We couldn't resist either and bought some little bits and pieces to take back home with us.
Even though there are many sights worthwhile seeing in this town we skipped sightseeing due to the heat and also because we had to get going as our visa for Uzbekistan was not valid for a very long time anymore as we did have to take the unwanted detour of 2,000 kilometers via the Caspian Sea and trying to get an extension of their validity didn't sound tempting as there would have been a hell lot of bureaucracy involved to achieve them.

Crisscrossing for another two days on Uzbek roads took us to the city of Buxoro. This city located in an oasis has been one of the most important cities of Uzbekistan and capital of the province bearing the same name. In the historical center there are numerous beautiful mosques and koran schools. As usual in major cities we were challenged to find a parking lot for Akela which made us follow the Spaniards to their booked guesthouse hoping to find a spot there and probably also to get the chance to take a shower. “Bek”, the owner of the Hostel Rumi turned out to be an utterly helpful host. He is 28 years old and able to speak six languages fluently. The very cosy courtyard of this hotel was very inviting to relax and in no time we were involved in interesting conversations with other travelers. Paying a small fee allowed us to take a shower, have breakfast, use the internet and do the washing...and to meet friends again. We were quite surprised to meet the Swiss lads, Remo and Stefan, the ones who we had given a lift to Nukus, there again, for instance. Bek helped us to find a mechanic as our front right shock absorber was on its last legs. Despite being a bank holiday, the Russian man came round and inspected it. He claimed he wouldn't have any problems to get hold of the correct spare part. Even though we had Ramadan we drank to this repair work which had to be done with some Vodka. As the mechanic had drunk too much the previous evening the Vodka did its job quickly. Leander as well had weak knees and didn't feel well drinking alcohol in such a big heat. However, relieved and happy to have found a suitable person to do the repairs on Akela, he put up with these drawbacks. Hopefully the two would be able to remember the arranged time to meet at the garage the next day. After enjoying a mighty fine breakfast at Rumis, the hotel, which Bek's mother had prepared for the guests, Leander and Bek, who helped as interpreter, set off with Akela to take him to the garage. Lennox and I also had to put up with a lot of hassle on that day: we looked for our swimming trunks, took a taxi to the Atlantic Pool and looked forward to a day in an outdoor pool where, according to Bek, there wouldn't be a problem for me wearing a bikini. Nothing could stop us from having a great day out there. Though the predominant religion in Uzbekistan is the Islam, people move freely and seem carefree. Women love bright colours, strass und glitter. They do not wear a veil, if anything a loosely bound headskarf. Wherever we arrived with Akela we were greeted with very friendly smiles. Similar to places we had been to before, in Uzbekistan people were also incredibly helpful and hospitable. When looking for help somewhere, we would definitely get some in a very unabtrusive way. In the evening Lennox and I returned to the hotel where we met Leander again. Our truck had received a new shock absorber, valve cover gasket and the servo pump had been cleaned. Leander was covered in oil while Lennox and I had had a shower and smelled nice. I know this was by no means fair at all and at times I was told by Leander in a rather rude way how much he wished to be able to change our positions every now and then. And as much I could understand his bad feelings about this issue I have to say that we probably would still be in Uzbekistan or Iran if it weren't the way it was. After enjoying a shower himself we were strolling together with Carlos and Sergio into the center. Buxoro is basically the larger sister of Xiva. Sights, the bazaar, ...they all lay in the historical center, but a wee bit bigger than in Xiva. When arriving in the old town we had the impression of being squashed by the busy city life and the numerous people rushing about. I had problems breathing among this amount of people. Constantly different smells came to my nose and I did worry to lose Lennox in this bustling crowd. Enjoying a quiet stroll through the old town and looking at the small shops and stands was simply not possible, but we found a restaurant on a roof patio in the evening and could relax drinking some beer in the evening.

We spent seventeen days with our Spanish friends Carlos and Sergio but now we had to say good bye. They had an even tighter time schedule than we had and so they put down their tents before us and left us alone. Alone? Not quite. Remo and Stefan, the two Swiss guys, required another lift to Samarkand which we naturally offered them. When traveling it's common to help anybody who requires help at any necessary time.
After yet another first-rate breakfast from Bek's mum on the next morning we started towards Samarkand, the mirror of the world. What it must have been like to travel in and through this sand colored, barren landscape with heavily loaded camel caravans became quite clear to us when driving there with our own vehicle. This is how you get a good feel for the terrain and the landscape and its distances.

The country is rich on natural resources such as gold, petrol, natural gas, uranium and copper. The native population, however, doesn't get a lot from these and the unemployment rate is high. About a third of the Uzbek population lives below the poverty line. It can be said that the corrupt government bears the responsibility by making the leaders richer and the population is left to look after itself. We had been traveling for some hours when there was a strange smell of burnt material rising to our noses. We opened the engine bonnet and quickly found out the culprit. Our cooler had, while still in Austria, been mounted rather close to the radiator grille and due to the many potholes and the driving on very bad roads the rotor blades had torn holes into the cooler and consequently it had become leaky.
Luckily we found the damage so quickly as otherwise this might have ended very badly! There was no way to carry on with Akela in that state and we therefore had to look for yet another mechanic in the middle of nowhere, which we had done fairly often and successfully in the past already. We asked around and were sent to a small village in which Akela was repaired within two hours by making the cooler tight again.
We were never able to find out who of the ten men standing around Akela actually was the mechanic, but since this didn't matter at all as the job was done, we didn't spend any energy on finding it out after all. We carried on after this quite long delay and reached Samarkand late at night. The Swiss lads got out at a central junction and we drove on to a hostel which we knew about from German travelers.

Anybody who knows us is familiar with the fact that we prefer to take routes outside cities, yet Uzbekistan didn't leave us with lot of choice regarding this issue. The back country, which is meagre and basically consists of desert-like steppe landscape and its burning heat were not inviting to stay at all. This is why we had to spend time in cities which provided us with internet and made necessary research possible. We had lost a lot of time and money because our Turkmenistan visas had been denied.
Back in Iran we had sent our second set of passports to an Austrian visa agency and therefore had already got our valid visas for Russia inside of them. However, these visas had a date of entry stamped in as well, a date which we would never ever manage to make. Good advice was expensive. How would we be able to stick to the planned route without spending day and night non stop behind the steering wheel? We might have managed if there had been only Leander and me, but with Lennox on bord? Never ever.

We wanted to show him the world slowly and not by constantly looking out of the truck “in a fast food manner”. We felt like Momo in Michael Ende's screen adaption who tries to give back time to human beings. Time, which had been stolen from them at some stage in their lives. Our original plan of crossing China after staying in Mongolia we had already put aside a long time ago. It had turned out to be far too expensive and, on top of that, would have involved many daily drives of more than 400 kilometers.
Additionally, a guide would have been placed into Akela and we would have had to deal with a hell lot of bureaucratic issues. Moreover, entry into Thailand using one's own vehicle was hardly possible at that stage of time. Why was this the case?
Many Chinese tourists had been traveling to Thailand with their own cars in the past and had caused hit-and-run accidents. Consequently, the Thai government had pulled the emergency brake and stopped foreign tourists from entering in their own vehicles. Obviously, you might still find a way of getting there in your own car, but we weren't willing and up to to pay bribes. Paying bribes was NOT our cup of tea. On top of that it would have been too risky to drive through China and Laos just to be possibly stopped at the Thai border...

After these considerations we decided to take the route via Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan once more, further on to Russia and through Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, was our next destination for the first leg. We wanted to park Akela there for a month while we were back home in Austria in September. The rest of Mongolia and Russia, as far as Vladivostok, we would do rather quickly due to the climate there, and start our cruise via Japan to New Zealand. Our first plan had been to park Akela in Laos while flying back home, but stopping in Ulaanbaatar helped us save kilometers which we hoped would extend our time and give us more of it.
However, before our plan could become reality we had to do a lot of research first. We had to find a pitch to park Akela in Ulaanbaatar, had to apply for a new visa for Russia and check out the weather conditions and climate there (as it might already be mighty chilly in Russia in October), ferry services to Japan had to be found, various customs issues had to be clarified, research about Ro-Ro connections for Akela to get to New Zealand had to be done, and we always had to bear in mind our budget...Well, hardly anybody imagines a world trip is spent by doing research on the computer, making phone calls, exchanging information with other travelers.
This is why cities had become an inevitable evil to do these very things and not to have shopping sprees, drink some coffee on busy squares, even though we would have preferred doing the kind. Spending our day of arrival in Samarqand with organisational issues, we reserved the second day there to explore the beauty of this city a little bit.

Samarqand is really big and the sites located far from each other. We arranged to meet Remo and Alex, a Russian lad who we had met in Buxoro, to do the tour together. The mosques and historical buildings left a big impression on us and we were struck by the delicate mosaics and their colours. We moved round using taxis, which Lennox adored as he had had enough of walking in the heat. The bazaars we walked through didn't make us buy anything. Samarqand is oriental, Russian, Indian and Chinese.
Influences from many different cultures coin its city life. On the bazaars of Samarqand distant countries and landscapes get a shape, yet not in native hand-crafted goods but in cheap Chinese rummage. The sales booths were crammed with badly made touristy goods nobody really has a need for. Alex and Remo walked to their hostel while the three of us were looking forward to our comfortable beds in Akela. Between you and me: Samarqand is usually presented as the Highlight by many tour operators, yet we preferred Xiva and Buxoro. These cities are smaller and seem far more authentic. In my mind I quickly had colourful pictures about the busy trading life in former commercial metropolis.
As often as possible we tried to make the day for Lennox which is why we were looking for a location to go swimming for him in Samarqand. We were successful and found an outdoor pool. Even though this pool didn't really give us many reasons to be cheerful we had a good time there. The slides were out of use. There was a huge round pool which was surrounded by a grassy area to lie on and in the middle of the pool there was some kind of island. We quickly got changed and rushed to the water.
As usual, Lennox ran quickly to the water from a distance to jump into it. This was the first time when we spotted the pool attendants positioned around the water. One of them had already put his towel aside and had run towards Lennox. We gave him an all-clear and made him understand that Lennox was able to swim.

He could hardly believe us and stayed nearby watching Lennox in disbelief. After having cooled down a bit we sat down to watch the scenery. There were at least 4 life guards present, ready to take action if necessary. And these actions were frequently needed. It was absolutely unbelievable for us but bitter truth: Uzbek people are not able to swim! We weren't able to spot any person able to do a correct swimming movement to stay afloat. They jumped into the water anyways and by making hasty and clumsy movements kept themselves above the water or used old-fashioned swimming aids to do so.
Should they fail there was a pool attendant around quickly, helped them out of the water and - sorted. Quite frequently the very same person had to be saved more than once. Though we didn't count how often the pool attendants rushed forward to help while we were watching the pool, we were convinced that an Austrian pool attendant doesn't have that many cases of saving a swimmer's life in one whole season than these people here in Uzbekistan have within an hour. It dawned on us then why the slides were out of order.

Imagine how many more pool attendants would have been necessary to have them in operation safely... We left the pool after some hours, but not before saying good bye to the chief pool attendant and thanking him for and congratulating him on his ambition to try to save Lennox' life. He kept shaking his head, constantly repeating in disbelief that our five year old son was able to swim. In the country of Uzbekistan it was an act of madness in his eyes. He kept shaking his head, when remembering that he had really seen a five year old boy who was able to swim. Very tired and exhausted we went to bed right after dinner.
This day in the pool in Uzbekistan will remain in our minds for a long time and when thinking of it will make us smile happily.

There lay a whole day of driving ahead of us. We were pressed for time as our visa for Uzbekistan lost its validity and we had to move on towards Tadjikistan. Once again Leander and I were impressed by Lennox on such days. At such occasions we frequently spent ten or even more hours in the driving cabin and didn't really stop to take a break for food until the evenings of such driving days. When Lennox was tired he went straight to bed or he spent time playing in the living cabin. To provide food I made some sandwiches while driving and this had to be enough as often there simply wasn't enough time for more.

We stopped in Sorysiya, a small spot off the road, to stay for the night. As soon as we were approaching the border the landscape was changing as well as seen often before. The brown and meagre landscape at times had luckily some green areas again. While I was cooking spaghetti the lads were climbing up one of the nearby hills to move their limbs a bit after the long driving day. I was glad that Lennox moved around a bit before going to bed. We had not enough movement altogether in the last months – which we utterly loathed.
After breakfast on the next morning we started our final kilometers until we reached border controls. In the next country a big challenge was waiting for us – we intended to do the Pamir Highway – the second highest road in the world. We were curious what we would experience there and what expected us.

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  1. Mirjam
    Liebes Akela-Team
    Eure Berichte sind der Wahnsinn! Durch eure lustigen, spannenden und mitreissenden Geschichten verfolge ich eure Reise mit grösstem Interesse. Zusammen mit meinem Freund plane ich ab ca nächstem Sommer eine ganz ähnliche Reise. Deshalb bin ich auch froh, um die Informationen bezüglich Grenzübergängen, Visa, Routeninformationen usw., die ihr in euren Berichten weitergebt. Vielen Dank dafür!

    Geniesst euer Abenteuer weiterhin und lasst euch nicht unterkriegen!
    Herzlichst grüsst Mirjam
  2. maria Zehentner
    maria Zehentner
    Hallo Mirjam,
    vielen Dank für deine netten Worte. Es freut uns immer zu hören, wenn wir treue "Mitleser" haben, denn es bedeutet, zusätzlich zu dem gesamten anderen Schmafu wie (Reparaturen, Wasser besorgen, Internet besorgen, Routenplanung, Visaerledigungen....) eine ganze Menge Zeitaufwand für uns.
    Wir geben unsere gesamten Infos was Grenzübergänge, Visaerledigungen, Devisen, Internet usw. immer ganz aktuell an ein befreundetes "Weltreisepärchen" weiter, die die Infos auf ihrer Seite einbauen. Vielleicht bist du beim recherschieren für eure Reise schon mal auf deren Website gestossen.
    Es freut uns, wenn ihr an unseren Geschichten dran bleibt. Vielleicht sieht man sich ja mal irgendwann on the road. Bis dahin noch viel Erfolg bei eurer Planung