Things go entirely to plan in country number 2 (warning, there’s a twist at the beginning, middle and end). Karakum desert, Turkmenistan to Nukus, Uzbekistan.

So, we were rudely awakened by the dustmen aka Mr Dima at about 6am the next morning, just when the sun was starting to come up and we could actually get some sleep. It had been so cold in our desert tent that we’d all just spent the night shivering and hoping that we wouldn’t get hypothermia. Susan, who isn’t too fond of being dragged out of bed at the best of times, was in a horrendous mood so Jill and Vita helped Dima pack the tents up and load the stuff into the jeep while she took her cup of cowboy coffee (made by Dima on the camp fire) down to the gas crater to warm herself up, since it was her birthday after all. There was only 1 other person around the crater so watching the light creep over the desert while DJ Gas Crater hissed and spat was a fine way to spend her first morning as a 40 year old. As magnificent as the sunrise was, it was still DJ Gas Crater who turtelly sturl the shurr and even with lots of attempts it was impossible to catch just how stunning it all was on camera. When she wandered back up again  everything was packed up and Susan was in a lot finer fettle so we all piled into the jeep, said a tearful yet fond farewell to the new guest DJ for Marijuana Fuelled Murders and set off for the Uzbekistan border.

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Again we expressed to Dima our concerns at having no cash on us and needing to go to a bank. Since he’d told us that we couldn’t get any money out over the weekend as it was a public holiday, we’d assumed that things would improve once Monday came around and that we’d be able to find a bank we could use in one of the towns on the way (and had told him this on the previous day) but when we brought it up again he told us that no, there were no banks between here and the border we could use as nowhere accepted Visa or Mastercard in the whole of Turkmenistan apart from the airport and a couple of 5* hotels in Ashgabat. Well thanks very much like – honestly! You’d think that if you pay for a tour guide he would be clear about important information like HOW TO GET MONEY! And we’d have been fine if we’d took out the amount we’d wanted to at the airport but he told us not to as it was too much! So after doing some research in the trusty Gannet, we found that there were a couple of banks in Nukus (the city that we were headed for just over the Uzbek border), so as we would have to get a taxi there from the border anyway we would just get the driver to stop by a bank on the way so we could get ourselves some funds and pay him. Dima would just have to not get a tip but a) it was his stupid fault that we didn’t have any money TO tip him b) we probably wouldn’t have given him much anyway as he’d really disappointed us with his lack of “guiding” (e.g. at Erbent village when he just dumped us there and went and waited at the petrol station) c). he’d spent the entire trip boasting about how much money he had, his huge house with all his acres of land and swimming pool, and how he only worked 3 months of the year so blatantly wouldn’t even appreciate the gesture d). he was obviously (as he kept telling us repeatedly) more used to taking groups of National Geographic photographers around the desert and didn’t try at all to conceal the fact that he thought we were completely beneath him and e) the Pickwick Papers.

After we’d assured ourselves that we had a plan in place and enough cash left to keep Vita in the manner she’d become accustomed for her last night in Ashgabat, we settled down to attempt to get some sleep in the jeep for the next few hours before we got to the border. This was a challenge as the roads were so incredibly bad and it was seriously bumpy – we still managed to doze off every now and again (we were all shattered after our night freezing in the tent getting no sleep) but kept getting woken up by our heads getting stotted off the side of the car whenever we went over a particularly big pothole. Dima had said that we should really try to reach the border by 12.50pm (as that was when the border officials had their lunch, and the whole border closes for 45 minutes) but then insisted on taking us around Konye-Urgench (the ancient capital of the Khorezm culture and a UNESCO heritage site with some interesting ruins) which we would have been into if we weren’t stressed about having no money/getting to the border on time (not to mention cranky and tired) but on this occasion we’re sad to say we rushed through it as quickly as possible, desperate to be on our way as we had a train to Samarkand at 3.30pm and just wanted to be through the border!

Jill and Susan were dropped at the border, after saying goodbye to Dima and Vita. Vita had been a great addition to our Turkmenistan leg of the trip, had coped very well with the monumental disasters we’d had, and despite her better judgement had joined us in a beer first thing in the morning – “It’s TRADITION Vita!” became a catchphrase! She was flying from Dashoguz back to Ashgabat and was flying back to Dublin the next day and despite our best efforts we couldn’t persuade her to allow the persistent Turkmen driver of the first night to take her out, and probably his wife wouldn’t of let him anyway. It was around 1pm when we finally got to the border, so yes, they were all on their lunch and we had to sit there for another half an hour before someone finally showed up and ushered us through into the offices, where they spent literally over an hour going through our bags and asking us questions. They didn’t believe us when we said we only had 20 manats in cash between us, and they were convinced that we had bought some Turkmen carpets that we had stashed somewhere. “Nor man! How are we going to carry a flipping CARPET across the whole of Central Asia in a BACKPACK?” (although in hindsight we could have done with 12 feet of beige good luck!). Susan’s things got a very thorough going through – they went through every folder on her laptop,  demanded they see what was on her USB stick (Susan: “It’s just XANADU MAN!” – that was literally all that was on the memory stick, in case we ended up somewhere with a nice telly and she could make Jill watch Xanadu in the hotel), looked through all the photos on her phone going back to Ukraine last year (“Is this Russia?”, “No, that’s Estonia.”. “Is this Russia?”, “No, that’s Kiev”. “Is THIS Russia?”, “No, that’s flipping CYPRUS man!” then were totally silent when going through the pictures of Susan in bliddy Red Square! You knar nowt about Russia Dilshod Snuuuurr! (Google informs us that this is the most popular boys name in Uzbekistan, not sure if Snow is a very traditional surname though)). By this point Susan was bricking it as we’d taken a load of photos of her having a wee in the gas crater the previous night, and there were some accidentally quite graphic ones of her bottom. Fortunately she had the camera in the ripped lining of her coat and so far it had escaped scrutiny, however it was on her declaration form so the female guard who’d been though every millimetre of her possessions finally asked for it. She wasn’t as interested in our holidays as the blokes though so it was only given a perfunctory glance and then handed back. Eventually they were satisfied we weren’t spies and we were allowed though, and the blokes were having a bit of a laugh with us so we realised we’d probably only been given such a good going over because it was a very quiet border in the middle of a desert and our daft photographs were the highlight of their month. But we did make a mental note to take the weeing ones off the camera and hide them in the programme files on the laptop for the next border.

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Farewell Turkmenistan. Hello Uzbekistan!

We finally got through the other side at about 3pm, and were a bit worried to find there were no taxis waiting (usually you can’t move for “TAXITAXITAXI” in your face!) but it wasn’t long before a little old man stopped and said he would take us to Nukus via a bank. There were only the two banks in Nukus that we could use – the Kapital Bank for Visa and Asaka Bank for Mastercard, so we’d asked him to take us to the Asaka Bank and he nodded and seemed like he knew where he was going. That was, until we got to Nukus and at the first opportunity he pulled over to ask passers-by where the bank was. He blatantly didn’t have a clue where it was, and after driving around for about an hour, stopping to ask directions literally EVERY five minutes (Jill was thrusting her notepad at him and urging him to WRITE IT DOWN!) we arrived at A bank but not one we could use. By now we had abandoned all hope of catching the train, and after another HOUR AND A HALF of driving around Nukus, with the driver stopping to ask for directions to the bank every five minutes, we were starting to have serious concerns about catching the BANK before it closed! We knew we should have just got out and got another taxi, but we needed money in order to pay THIS taxi first, which we couldn’t get unless we got to the bloody bank!

He finally located the Asaka Bank and Susan dashed in, card in hand while Jill stayed in the car with the driver. What a palava the bank was! You had to go all around the block to the side to a security hut to get in, then inside it was just a massive crowd of people all pushing to get to the 2 cashier windows. Susan had no clue where the credit card cashing part was and the building was HUGE but fortunately a nice woman who spoke a bit of English took pity on her bewilderment and took her upstairs to an office, where some confused Uzbek women then discussed among themselves for a while before taking her BACK to the first throng of people and pushing to the front to get a fella who spoke English, who then told her “That section closed at 4pm” – it was now 4:01pm! Stupid lost driver man!!!! All this took about 15 minutes, so Jill had assumed she’d had some luck but then she returned shaking her head and panic stations were starting to set in. After some more driving around (luckily we were in the commercial district that had most of the banks in) we found the Kapital Bank and again Susan ran in. Jill sat in the car sharing rollies with the driver, bemused at the men who seemed to be coming out of the bank with huge pallets of money! Although Susan had been prepared for battle this time, this bank was nice and small and as soon as she went in she was taken to a little office where a nice man with good English made her sign a couple of forms, swiped her card and then gave her money! The office was even really good craic with everyone laughing and joking. She had asked for 1.5 million sommes (about $500) but the fella said she could only get USD, which she was very thankful for when they took her to the cash part and the bloke next to her walked out with a couple of breeze blocks worth of notes, probably to buy a nice new winter coat with. When she finally emerged she had a smile on her face and all was good. Despite only having US dollars at least we had some cash to change and we were sure we’d be able to find somewhere to change it. We got the driver to take us back into the city centre (well, as much of a centre as these sprawling soviet cities ever have), gave the driver $20 (when he tried to ask us for $60! The cheek! Aye you did drive around for three hours but it was YOUR FAULT and you could have made it there in 20 minutes if you knew the way/actually managed to remember the directions people kept giving you and thanks to you we missed our bloody night train so are stuck in Nukus for the night!!) and headed off to find somewhere to change our money. Aaron rang while we were walking down the street to say that mother-flipping RICHARD MADELEY had only been trying to phone Susan to wish her happy birthday, but hadn’t got through (we had no reception in the desert) and hadn’t been able to leave a voice mail but he was going to keep trying so to keep listening for a phone call. A phone call came a few minutes later and we got dead excited, but it turned out just to be Susan’s gay husband Mark phoning to wish her happy birthday and he hadn’t expected quite such a disappointed tone!

We’d read that the best place to change your money was via the black market money changers in the bazaar, but we wandered around for ages and couldn’t find the bazaar or anything that looked like it would be able to change money. It was after 5pm now, so likely even if we had managed to find a little travel agent or something it would have been closed anyway. Knackered, fed up and dying for a nice cold beer after all the walking aimlessly about, we tried to get a tiny little bar to accept dollars but as expected they said no, despite us offering to pay 10 times what the price of a beer was. We spotted a little shop across the road that looked open, that looked like it had a plane on the sign – great! A travel agent! Alas when we got there it was a mobile phone shop! We just thought balls to it and went in and asked the girl behind the desk if she could change $30 into sommes for us (hopefully enough to get some drinks and something to eat). The girls looked at each other and gabbled away in Uzbek for a bit then phoned a friend before saying yes, they could! We were sure the girls had ripped us off with the exchange rate and were happy to accept that for the favour they had done us, then we worked it out and they had given us the official rate bless them. There are around 4000 Uzbek Sommes to the pound (and their largest note is a 1000) so when we got the money and split it down the middle, neither of us could close our purses properly as there were that many notes in! Good job we hadn’t got that 1,500,000 from the bank! So we skipped off back to the bar (the “Bavaria”) across the road where we enjoyed a few much deserved beers at a rather reasonable 5000 sommes (around £1.25) for two pints.

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Too many sommes on the dancefloor (too many sommes!).

We had pretty much resigned ourselves to having to stay the night in Nukus by this point as there were no more trains (the 15.30 one was the NIGHT train! If only our original planned actual night train timed night train at 19.00 had still been running!), so after a bit of a peruse of the lonely planet we decided on a little hotel called Jipek Joli that sounded really nice and was quite cheap. Not trusting our ability to navigate Nukus (after all the aimless wandering about trying to find the bazaar), we were pleased to overhear a couple of people speaking English a couple of tables down from us, and figured that if they’d been here a while then they might know the place better and be able to give us easy to follow directions to the hotel. It turned out they were a couple of American ladies who were working for some international organisation at a medical centre in the area, providing support dealing with the drug-resistant tuberculosis problem – apparently it is rife in the Karakalpakstan province. Anyway one of them had been here a while and was taking Russian classes, after we had a bit chat and regaled them both with the trials and tribulations of our day, she jumped at the opportunity to ask the barman for directions to our hotel so she could show off her new language skills. It turned out it wasn’t for from the Savitsky Museum (the main attraction in Nukus where they hid all of their most prized art during the war as “nobody would ever think to look in Nukus”) so we reckoned that would be easy to find. Not so! There were tons of massive grand soviet buildings that looked like museums and we followed the directions on our bit of paper from at least three of them (each time “this one has GOT to be the museum – look at it!”) until we got totally lost and had to ask a random man, who luckily for us spoke English and pointed us down the right street.

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Our sexy boudoir for the evening

The hotel was really nice, and the bloke on reception was dead canny. As he took our passports he looked at Susan’s and commented “Oh! It is your birthday! Happy Birthday!”. Our room was lovely and had a nice big corner bath tub that we were looking forward to a good sit in later (Susan only has a shower in her apartment in Dublin so gets very excited about baths). It was getting quite late by this point, so we asked the receptionist to recommend somewhere to go for something to eat (we were STARVING by then – we’d hoped to get something in Bavaria but they didn’t seem to have any menus) and he recommended a restaurant round the corner that was affiliated with the hotel, and rang ahead to make sure that it wasn’t too late to have a meal. The food was delicious – Jill had some beef roll thing and Susan had a salad, with sides of delicious pickled mushrooms, chips and fried eggs- we both love a nice loose egg so love the idea of fried eggs as sides! Plus a bottle of vodka and some juice (sok – one of the only Russian words we managed to learn). We had some good craic chatting away and decided that we’d see if we could get a daytime train to Samarkand the next day. We’d been luxuriating in the bottle of vodka for the table thinking it was so much booze – until we found we had to order yet another bottle of vodka as it was so smooth it has all gone already. The meal was unbelievably cheap – we were laughing that we had changed $30 and hadn’t even spent $10 yet despite having had several beers and dinner. As we were finishing the vodka after paying the bill, a jovial drunk bloke at the other side of the room looked like he recognised us, waved and came bounding over to say hello. Jill didn’t know who on Earth he was but Susan recognised him – it was the bank manager who was obviously out with his mates and very drunk! We had a laugh, had a few shots of vodka with him and thanked him for all his help with the money earlier before his friend dragged him away.

When we got back to the hotel, we decided we would have a nice bath with some beers but there was no plug to be found anywhere for the bathtub. Being the resourceful ladies that we are, we managed to make a makeshift one out of a bar of soap and a carrier bag that worked very well – just like what Bear Grylls would have done! We’d been soaking for a while when there came a knock at the door. Jill got out of the bath (and wrapped in the nearest thing which was a towel and her big tartan shawl) and opened the door to find the bloke from the hotel reception standing there presenting a tray with a bottle of vodka and a plate of orange slices on it “for Susan’s birthday”! Apparently it was very nice Uzbekistan vodka, and the way to do it was by having a shot followed by a slice of orange, similar to the way you drink tequila with limes and one of Susan’s favourite ways to drink vodka after discovering them during a heady Glastonbury sunrise (the cordless screwdriver). Jill was just sitting in towels drinking shots and chatting with him while Susan finished her bath, when he came out with “So…what’s your attitude to sex?”

“Eh? What? None of your business is what it is!!”

And that was the end of that, thankfully. We had a good laugh for the rest of the night, and he told us there was a train to Samarkand in the morning at around 11am and he would give us a knock to make sure we were awake in time to go and catch it. He also asked Jill to go halfies on the bottle of vodka “as a present from me and you”, which she thought was a bit cheeky since he’d made out that it was on the house! We think he must have changed his mind once he realised that neither of us were likely to get amorous with him! Still it was only 10000 sommes (less than £3) so she wasn’t really that bothered.

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Our luxury corner bath. Nowt like vodka and sok in a corner bath.
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