Food poisoning, crack dens and swimming pools: the highs and lows of eastern Uzbekistan (August 12-14, 2011)

By Kara Van Malssen


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Our second evening in Burkhara was a rough one. Three members of our crew had contracted food poisoning the previous day at the lovely pondside restaurant. The next morning, the troops emerged looking haggard, either from having been up all night with illness, or having been up all night helping someone who was ill. It was a sad, and rather green scene, as we paid up, and prepared to leave the lovely gueshouse. Russian visa expirations were looming in the not too distant future for some of our group, and we had a lot more ground to cover before we would reach Mongolia.

We pressed onto Samarkand, and found the city full of visitors preparing to celebrate the country’s 30th independence anniversary in a couple weeks. There was a shortage of available, affordable rooms, but we managed to hole our group into a charming place that had decent plumbing — still a necessity for our team. Unfortunately, our memories of the UNESCO World Heritage city are marred by the plight of our fallen comrades, two suddenly inoperable audio recorders (we were convinced the Uzkeb president placed a hex on them so we would not record audio of the independence celebration rehearsals, which were audible, though heavily guarded by armed soldiers), and very little time.

Pushing on early the next day, our goal was to get past Tashkent by mid-afternoon. We wanted to avoid being trapped in one of Central Asia’s largest metropolises, and risk losing even more precious time. Fortunately, the roads were good, and to our delight, there was the sudden presence of functioning petrol stations! We stopped at one that looked to have a particularly nice-looking restroom (always a plus, especially as at least one or two people were still a bit ill, despite beginning a regiment of antibiotics).

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A couple of chatty locals, a father and son duo, struck up a conversation with us, and Miki, the team’s sole Russian speaker, carried on with them for a few minutes. They mixed in a bit of English, and started chatting with the rest of us. Seeing that some of us were couples, the older man, the father of the younger, asked Miki which woman was his. When Miki replied that his girlfriend was back in Australia, and that he had not seen her in over three weeks, the father dramatically exclaimed, “How can you suffer for SO long?!” He pressed Miki further, in an exchange that went something like this:

Father: How many [gesturing by slapping repeatedly the open palm of one hand against the side of the closed fist of the other] do you have at one time?

Miki: Excuse me?

Father: How many women do you have at one time? Me, I have two women. My wife, and my girlfriend. This is my son, he also has two. How about you?

He seemed disappointed when Miki replied that he only [fist slapping gesture] one woman at a time. Then he proceeded to call his son’s wife, an English teacher, and put her on the phone with me. I restrained the urge to ask if she was friends with the other woman.

I note this stop at the petrol station because the exchange with the father and son resulted in two important additions to our Mongol Rally vocabulary from that point on: our mantra (How can you suffer…) and the fist slapping gesture, which we found was understood universally in the region. We had a be careful when we were joking around with each other from now on.

We only got a little lost navigating the ring road around Tashkent, and managed to clear the city about an hour before nightfall. Now our only challenge would be finding a place to stay the night. There were no major towns for the next 100 km, a distance we could not manage by nightfall. Camping was not an option, as it was illegal in Uzbekistan, and this area was heavily trafficed. As the sun set, we were passing through a town, and decided to stop and see if there were any hotels that could accept foreigners. A young man who spoke excellent English outside a cafe offered to set us up in an apartment. He took three of our crew in his car down a dark road to an imposing block of Soviet-style apartments. We went into the apartment, and took a very quick, cursory glance around: three bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen. Yes, there would be enough room for all of us. We accepted.

This turned out to be one of the worst decisions of the trip. We realized upon our return that the place was filthy. The single toilet didn’t flush (bear in mind we were 8 people, one of whom still had to spend significant time near a toilet), it was sweltering and airless, and to top it off, used needles were found in the trash can of one of the bedrooms. We suffered through a miserable night, and got ourselves ready to go early the next morning, terrified that the guy who brought us there wouldn’t return to take us to our vehicles (parked in a secure garage a couple miles away). He did in fact return, and proceeded to over charge us excessively, but we were so relieved to be out of there, that we paid him and tried to hold back our complaints, saying we didn’t sleep well because of the heat.

Back on the road, we passed through a beautiful, mountainous autonomous region, which slowed us town due to immigration controls on either side. Fortunately, the roads were good, and we made record time. We were planning to clear the Kyrgyz border by evening, when James announced that he couldn’t go on, and needed to see a doctor. We stopped at the next town we came to, and eventually found the hospital. The very nice doctors and nurses working on that Sunday afternoon gave him an arsenal of medications and a rehydrating IV drip, and sent us on our way. It seemed to have a much welcomed, immediate healing effect.

hospital on a Sunday

A good night’s rest was definitely in order before any border crossings were attempted, so we decided to stop in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, capitol of the ethnically diverse Fergana Valley region, and sadly famous for being the site of a horrific massacre in 2005, when the Uzbek military opened fire on protestors. Some estimates put the dead at 5,000. Today Andijon is peaceful, though we understand scarred by this not too distant memory.

Andijon turned out to be an oasis at the end of a topsy-turvy week in Uzbekistan thanks to the majestically fabulous Villa Elegant hotel. Described by our Lonely Planet guidebook as, “Andijon’s most comfortable option,” we were certainly intrigued and in need of some comfort after our night at the crack den. What we found far exceeded our wildest dreams. Positively palatial rooms, bathrooms as big as my entire NYC apartment, a SWIMMING POOL, and beer! We were in heaven. And we deserved it.

Best. Uzbek. Hotel. Ever

After a long day's drive 3

Clean, refreshed, and happily awaiting Uz-Turk burgers!