May 2012: Uzbekistan is an oil rich desert country known for its Silk Road era cities adorned with awe inspiring architecture and weathered caravanserais abandoned in the desert. It was a country I was excited to see because I love the Silk Road era and because Uzbekistan was forbidden for me since my first attempt at getting a visa when I was in Tajikistan resulted in me being denied in 2011 due to a falling out between the dictator, and the USA at the time that saw US troops expelled from Uzbekistan.  Karimov was one of the world’s longest lasting dictators during the time of my visit and had been president since 1991. He was known for his authoritarian style of government that saw politic dissidents tortured, assassinated some reportedly by being dipped into vats of acid.

This time around I succeeded in getting my visa but in Washington DC and my main goal was to visit the Silk Road cites of Bokhara and Samarkand, two cities with thousands of years of history as key desert centers of trade between ancient civilizations in the west and in China.  Bokhara was especially important to me because it was such an important city during the era of the Great game, a strategic battle of diplomacy, war and espionage to acquire India between Russia and England that started in the 1700’s and continued well into the 1900’s. India was the trophy, but Central Asia was including Uzbekistan were also important chess pieces in the game being played out between the two superpowers.

In the 1800’s Bukhara was an Emirate known to be ruled by a very ruthless Kahn and both the British and Russians failed to make any inroads. The British sent two British officer emissaries, Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly to gain favor with the Kahn, but both were captured and thrown into a bug pit where they languished for a year in a 12′ hole accessible only by rope while guards poured scorpions, bugs, and rodents onto their heads. After a year they were released only to be beheaded in the main square. Uzbekistan would eventually fall to the Russians and the Soviet Union until its Independance in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union,

I spent 3 days in Uzbekistan in total. First, I flew from Moscow to the capitol, Tashkent. From Tashkent, I flew via a domestic flight to the Silk Road era city of Bukhara located in the Kyzyl-Kum Desert. I spent two days in Bokhara where I stayed in  Mehtar Ambar Hotel, an old caravanserai, the name of a Silk Road trading fortress where travelers once stayed in a protective fort to protect them from the elements, wild animals and bandits.

 

 

Black line was the route of my travel

As a result of rampant inflation in Uzbekistan, it isn’t very practical to convert more than 100 USD at a time unless you have a backpack dedicated to only carrying money. This stash of bills above, the largest bills available in Uzbek currency, is the equivalent to 100 USD.

Changing money is a tricky thing in Uzbekistan. The black-market rate is almost 50% higher than the official govt conversion rate. As soon as you arrive in the country you must complete an immigration form and declare every last penny on your person. Upon departure from Uzbekistan, you must complete another form declaring the amount of currency you are leaving with and if you are one penny richer than when you arrived you are subject to fines and jail time.

All of this is in attempt to curtail the black market, which is so rampant that everyone from hotel workers, taxi drivers and even the guy at the ice cream stand are all willing to exchange money at the black-market rate. With a 50% difference in the black-market rate, I’m not really sure who the govt is trying to fool and I’d be willing to bet that even the president exchanges money at the black-market rate.

However, I have heard that many package tourists from Europe, who are too afraid of getting into trouble with officials, and yes there are rumors of undercover policemen arresting tourists, exchange their money at banks per the official rate.

 

 

 

100 USD In Uzbek Currency

Caravanserai is a Turkish word meaning a caravan house. In other words, these were hotels used by the caravans of many merchants and traders that traveled the Silk Road. The hotel I stayed in above in Bukhara was an old caravanserai that was used in the 1800’s and was abandoned during Soviet times only to be recently restored and converted into a modern-day inn.

The caravanserai where I stayed. From the outside the hotel, it looks like an enclosed building. This is the traditional style of caravanserai in Bukhara. There is an arched entrance and an open courtyard for the horses, camels, and then stairs leading upstairs to a 2nd floor with rooms looking out over the courtyard for the guests to sleep in. My room was onthe 2nd floor. In the late 1800’s when merchants stayed in this hotel, they would sleep on the 2nd floor, and leave their horses and camels below on the 1st floor. 

I woke up early and wondered down to the main square of the old mosque in Bukhara and watched in the solitude of the morning as the sun rose casting a brilliant array of colors upon the old buildings. The square was empty giving it a magical ancient feeling. Then the imam above approached me with a big smile and extended me a warm hand shake Central Asian style; right hand embracing my right hand while covering his heart with his left hand. He asked me where I was from and when I told him and he chuckled, “Ah Amrika, welcome.”

Imam

Early Morning Bukhara

Early Morning Bukhara

Uzbek Father with Son

Bread a staple food of Central Asia varies in size and shape in accordance with the region. In Bukhara it is huge and doughy. This Bukharan woman was at this spot all day selling these giant slabs of bread from her wheelbarrow.

Selling bread

Good Old Handy Soviet Cars

The old city of Bukhara is alive and well with its maze of meandering corridors and alleyways through mud brick houses. It wasn’t uncommon for people to approach me and shake my hand and welcome me to Uzbekistan.

 

 

 

Old City Bokhara

The Kahn of Bukhara in the old days would throw prisoners into a hole in the ground infested with scorpions, cockroaches, snakes and spiders where they would be tortured by these creepy creatures if not eaten. The above bug pit in the dungeon of the old prison was used to hold two British officers sent to negotiate the release of British slaves taken by the Kahn of Bukhara in the late 1800’s. The Kahn wasn’t pleased with their lack of gifts and their indifference to his self-perceived greatness and had the officers thrown into the bug pit to rot until eventually removing them to be beheaded in the main square. The clay figure in the bug bit is supposed to be a replica of a prisoner.

Bug Pit

Old Bokhura

Built in 1514 as a mosque in Bukhara.

The ancient madrassa is still used today by students of Islam.

One afternoon I sat on the rooftop of a neighboring terrace drinking tea looking out across the main square of Bokhara while it thundered and lightninged in the background. Watching the desert storm encroaching on to the ancient Silk Road City was one of those epic travel moments that I will never forget.

Bukhara in the Eye of an Encroaching Desert Storm

From Bokhara I traveled by train to Samarkand, where I visited the most famous building in Uzbekistan, the Registan. I also visited the tomb of Timer land the Great. I overnighted in the Antica Hotel. From Samarkand I hired a driver to drive me to Tashkent, a 5-hour drive. from Tashkent I flew in the afternoon to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

 

Soviet era train I took to Samarkand-1st Class

Soviet era train I took to Samarkand-1st Class

Samarkand is an ancient city dating back to biblical times. it is a city that has been conquered by almost every imaginable ancient army from Alexander the Great to the Mongols. It once laid at the center of the Silk Road, and it built itself great riches that where renowned throughout the ancient world. Samarkand even spawned its own great and ruthless conqueror, Tamerlane the Great, who went on to ruthlessly conquer most of the known world in 30 years leaving great mounds of decapitated heads in his wake. The mosques and ancient building above were created under his command sometime in the 1500’s’.

Mosque with tigers painted on the facade

The ancient architects of this mosque had these tigers, found in the area at the time, painted on the facade. To this day devout Muslims do not worship in this mosque because of the Islamic belief that depictions of animals such as this render the mosque sacrilegious and unfit for worship.

Uzbek Tourists

This group of cute girls posed for photos with me and offered me their hands in marriage as long as I took them back to Amrika.

Uzbek Tourists

It was common for Uzbeks to approach me and greet me to help me feel welcome in their country just as these two guys did.

I had to pay the guard off with a cool 8 USD and he opened the gate allowing me to climb two hundred feet or so up the crumbling and spiraling staircase to the top of the mosque’s minaret.

Samarkand

Samarkand

I woke up early in the morning and went to the tomb of Tamerlane. I sat alone in his tomb next to the corpse of one of the most ruthless ancient rulers the world has ever known. It was a humbling thought to think that in spite of all the terror he inflicted in his life, lands he conquered and degree of fear he commanded, he was reduced to nothing more than a rotting corpse lying beside me in his tomb, just an ancient memory.

Gur-Emir Mausoleum/Tomb of Timer-lane the Great

From Bokhara I traveled by train to Samarkand, where I visited the most famous building in Uzbekistan, the Registan. I also visited the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. I overnighted in the Antica Hotel. From Samarkand I hired a driver to drive me to Tashkent, a 5-hour drive. from Tashkent I flew in the afternoon to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

 

 

13 + 14 =

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