Plan E

We had intended to be up and about early to catch a daytime train to Samarkand to get back on track, but the previous night’s vodka session had taken its toll and neither of us wanted to get out of bed, despite our friend the receptionist continually knocking on the door telling us we needed to get up if we wanted to get the train. We had told him the previous night that this was our plan, so bless him, he reminded us shouting “Girls you will be late!!!” (followed later by “Girls! You will be VERY LATE!!”) through the door. When we finally emerged it was around lunchtime, and upon paying the bill we found that the cheeky “what is your opinion on sex?” birthday vodka gifter room invader of the previous evening had actually charged it to our bill!  And it was Uzbekistans best vodka! But then OK it was only less than a fiver so we just laughed it off but ee, that’s a shan birthday vodka that like dude. After a breakfast beer or two in the room we packed up and headed out to the nearest internet café (that was located upstairs in someone’s house and had to be accessed via a rubbish tip) to check out trains and flights as the hotel wifi wasn’t working and neither of us had any 3G signal. After having no luck with trains (and a lot of our go to rail websites being blocked by Uzbekistan!) we’d come to the conclusion that our best option was to get a flight to Tashkent (the Uzbek capital), where hopefully there would be more transport opportunities available. We could see that there was a flight that evening at around 9pm but he Uzbek airlines website wouldn’t let us book online – we put this down to the ancient browser on the pc at the internet café and decided we’d head to one of the posh hotels in the centre to have a beer and use their wifi.

We found the biggest hotel (Hotel Nukus) and after being accosted by a swarm of begging children outside (who Susan deftly swiped away saying “I’ve been to Cambodia man, you don;t bother me”), we went in only to receive blank looks at the mention of both a “bar” and “wifi”. Fortunately as we stepped outside, we spied the Uzbekistan Airlines office just across the road so we managed to book the flights there,using our best Russian and entertaining the crowd in the huge empty office with our foreign antics. At this point we were starving, so we headed back to a little bar/café type place that we’d spotted by the Hotel Nukus… only to receive blank looks and shaken heads at the mention of both “food” and “piva” (beer) – even though there was a picture of some chips outside! There was a group of men sat at a table drinking, but it looked like they’d brought their own vodka with them! As we left the no-beer bar in dismay, we were approached by a friendly bloke called Cornish who spoke very good English who told us “that is no five-star restaurant! You don’t want to eat there!” (gesturing towards No Beer) and recommended we tried The Sheraton Café round the corner. We stood chatting for a while and he told us how he had lived in Seattle for a few years (hence his good English) and were surprised to find out that he was a loyal supporter of Sunderland football club! We were asked if we had been to the museum for the millionth time (Nukus is home to the Savitsky Art Museum – the second biggest collection of Russian Avant-Garde and the only reason any tourists ever visit Nukus. The collection was hidden here during Soviet Times and it survived because Nukus is “literally the last place you would think to look for anything”. Sadly we’re not particular interested in art so gave it a miss.) He was dead canny and we invited him to join us for lunch, but he had to go back to work so we gave him Susan’s phone number and said to text us when he finished and we’d have some beers. We had lunch at the Sheraton, which was very nice and had a big fat daft catfish in a tank next to our table.

Big Fat Daft Catfish

We had soups for starters, Jill had the ravioli/dumpling things (as she loved them in Ashgabat – admittedly these ones weren’t as good though and nowhere near as creamy) and Susan had her now usual vegetarian option of cucumber and tomatoes – and ordered a side of “Green Salad” that turned out to be a huge plate of fresh herbs to add to your meal, which we both thought was a brilliant idea,if only Susan actually had a meal to add them to. Why don’t restaurants in England do that? (Probably because British chefs are too snooty to accept that people have different palates and can choose how they flavour things when they are convinced that the way they have flavoured it is the best). After lunch we had a few more beers and tried to formulate a plan for where we would go from Tashkent. This was quite difficult, having no internet (seriously – how did people manage?) and we had to admit defeat and phone someone back home who could look up transport information for us online. We decided Kev would be the best candidate (with him having his own office he was less likely to be chastised by his boss for chatting on the phone and googling Uzbekistan travel information) although he did panic when he saw an incoming call from Susan and before we asked him anything, we first had to reassure him that everything was fine and neither of us had died or been arrested. From this we then made a “people we can call to do Internet for us who won’t immediately panic and puu themselves and phone our Mums to tell them we are going to die because we are in a country ending in “Stan””. It is a short list.

If the original itinerary had worked out (damn you Uzbekistan border and inept Nukus taxi driver!) we would have been in Samarkand today, and would have been getting the night train to Denau (near the Tajikistan border) that evening, so we had the genius masterstroke of getting a flight from Tashkent to Termiz (in the South of Uzbekistan near the Afghanistan border) as the train to Denau went via there so theoretically we were back on track! And if we got the first flight from Tashkent in the morning, we might even be able to catch the train that we should have been on as it passed through Termiz, as it wasn’t due to arrive in Denau until early afternoon. And we were both quite happy that we’d get to go to Termiz as it sounded like a strange and interesting wild west feeling town and since we hadn’t managed to include Afghanistan in the trip, at least we’d be able to see it with our eyes over the border! It was a plan! Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we relaxed with some more celebratory beers in the Sheraton (Cornish didn’t text us after work – but when we finally DID get some internet Susan found that he had Whats Apped her instead. Fool of a Cornish! We told you we had nee internet!) until it was time to head to the airport.

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We arrived in good time to board the flight, but panicked as we approached security as we were just taking our bags as hand luggage and had forgotten that Susan had a massive bottle of beer in the Glastonbury bag and Jill had the remains of last night’s posh vodka in hers. Watching other people go through the checks though, there seemed to be none of the usual “belts off, shoes off, liquids in a plastic bag” carry on that we are used to and several people looked to be taking drinks though. We asked the lads next to us in the queue (that we’d been chatting to) if it was ok to bring a bottle of beer on the plane. “Of course! It is BEER! It is not a bomb! What bad thing are you going to do with beer?”. A very good point! Take note Ryanair! Indeed we got through security without so much as a second glance. And were over the moon to be able to drink our own beer on the plane! The camaraderie  was really cool too and we bonded with our new erstwhile airport security drinking buddies for the flight, who were very amused by our missing everything and no seeing anything trip to their country so far.

It was only an hour or so long flight to Tashkent and on arrival we headed straight to the ticket desk to try and buy the flights to Termiz the next day, only to be shooed away by the woman and told that we had to come back at 5.30am the next day (the flight was at 6am) to get them. We thought this was a bit peculiar but evidentially Uzbekistan Airlines worked differently to ones we were used to, so we headed off to get a taxi to our hotel. We were beset by swarms of taxi drivers from all angles, shouting “taxitaxitaxi!” and getting in our faces (which is the last thing you need when you’ve just landed in a new place and just want a quiet moment for a cigarette, beer and to get your bearings, but they ALL SEEM TO DO IT) so Susan took the initiative and yelled “Who here can take us to the city centre for 5000 sommes?” and we got in the cab of the first one to agree our price who seemed like he knew where our hotel was. Unfortunately for him and us, our chosen hotel (Hotel Nur – a nice sounding boutique hostel recommended by the Gannet) had changed its name, and despite us having given the taxi driver the address and street name, he drove around attempting to drop us at several hotels with similar sounding names (like the “Grand Mir” – eh?) before having to admit defeat and phone his friend who told him that it was now called the Hotel Sharq. Having driven round the whole of Tashkent and the surrounding suburbs, the driver tried to charge us treble what we’d agreed, but after the carry on in Nukus the previous day we had zero tolerance for incompetent Uzbek taxi drivers, so he flounced off in a huff with the agreed 5000 sommes that we made clear was all he was getting.

The hotel was lovely – our room was beautiful and the lady on reception was so friendly and helpful. It was late by this point and we doubted any bars or restaurants nearby would be open but thankfully the hotel bar was still serving a limited menu so we got a salad and bowl of pasta to share and had several very overpriced beers while typing up the first couple of days’ worth of blog on the laptop before retiring to bed for a luxury 2-3 hours sleep before we had to get up at 5am to buy tickets at the airport.

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