Aral Sea and The Stans

16 Aug 2010, by Brian in Uncategorized

Waking up early and leaving our desert camp ground at Darvaza, we made for the Uzbek border, filling our fuel tanks both internal and external to full, including some extra 5 liter water bottles, as we’d heard about a gas shortage in Uzbekistan. We made the Turkmen exit border at about 4:30pm and into the Uzbek entry by 5:30, just in time to strat processing by the 6pm closing.

Uzbek border guards were friendly and helpful, asked us lots of questions about the rally and America, and especially about my tattoo. One of them asked if I was Yakuza (don’t know how he thought I was Japanese… I was more worried he thought I was a gangster), but he was laughing and joking around mostly.

After the border we split up our convoy, with Just A Steppe Away saving fuel and heading straight for Bukhara. Romanda from 3 Blondes and a Beater joined us along with team CooperTroopers in their little 1 liter Daihatsu and we headed north towards Muynaq. Our “quick” stop at a market for water turned into a 45 minute ordeal as the whole town showed up to take photos of us on their cell phones. We were all a curiosity and pretty popular, but nobody more so than Tom. In both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, everybody asks where we’re from and we say “America, Canada, Germany, Australia”, listing the nationalities of everybody in the convoy, but they inquire about Tom’s heritage and when he admits India they light up with smiles and say they love India… “Namaste!”. It’s hilarious. We’re all getting a big kick out of it. And Tom’s face is on more Uzbek cell phones than we can count. We finally pulled out of town and found a quiet camp spot in a field a klick or so off the road.

We didn’t even wait for the sun to break camp early and set out for Muynaq. We also wanted to get to Bukhara on the 15th to rejoin Romanda with her team… plus we have to make progress as our visas expire on the 18th. But first we just had to see the Aral Sea, or lack thereof. Unfortunately I’m at a slow internet cafe in Bukhara now, and there isn’t enough line of site for the satellite to work here, so you don’t get video or photos quite yet… but I can’t wait to upload this stuff. The devastation caused by the draining of the Amu Darya river for irrigation is amazing. As we drove north from Darvaza, we started seeing the lush green cotton fields grow more abundant and in this northwestern corner of Uzbekistan it is all green and marshy (with accompanying mosquitos) despite the arid desert environment. Then as you pull off the road at Muynaq the desert just opens up, and there is a cliff at least a hundred feet high where the sea port used to be and the dead sea bed drops off below. At the bottom are 10 rusty ships amidst sand dunes and sea shells and it’s hard to belief that as recently as the 1970’s they were floating up in the harbor of this fishing village. Words really can’t describe it, so you’ll just have to wait for the photos, but Darvaza and Muynaq are competing for most amazing sites on the rally so far… and actually some of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

As we drove south towards Bukhara the cotton fields began to disappear, though as we crossed the Amy Darya, now barely a few hundred feet across where it used to be miles wide, you could see the irrigation canals streaming off either side off into the distance where they feed farms in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. There are resevoirs where kids are playing, unaware of the barren landscape just a few hundred kilometers to their north.

The drive to Bukhara was another brutal day of rough roads, and we quickly began to realize the scope of the gas shortage here. Every gas station you see looks deserted… and the stations that do have attendants tell you they are empty. Every once in a while some shifty guy will approach you leaving the station and tell you he can sell you his gas for twice the price, but it’s stored in 5 liter jerry cans and nobody knows how much of it is really water. We begged off all these early offers hoping we could find a bigger city before Bukhara, but nothing materialized. We made it within 250 klicks of Bukhara before we were too tired to keep driving on horrible roads, and pulled off into the desert to camp. Pitching tents and sleeping on the sand made for a pretty comfortable night’s sleep, and we wook up again at dawn to push on for Bukhara. The road conditions improved and we made good time, but the needle on our fuel tank crawled towards E and the light came on pretty quickly.

We finally found a station that had a line up of Uzbek cars, but when we pulled in they insisted they had no gas. Incredulous, we decided to wait them out and see if they started pumping for a local. Stubbornly, the attendants and owner left the station. We thought the locals might be angry with us, but they made conversation… also insisted there was no gas (we wondered and asked what they were doing there though, without much explaination), and took more photos with Tom. We finally gave an and putter on towards Bukhara. There was another station along the way where a tanker truck was supposedly showing up at 1pm, and it had a half mile long queue of cars in front. Not waiting for that, we coasted into town on fumes and were refused gas at another station that WAS pumping petrol for people, but apparently only for Uzbek firms with prepaid invoices. We are now parked at our hotel and will be hooking up some black market gas from some guy’s house in the morning… probably paying too much, but at this point we need full tanks to make the border and get to Almaty to pick up Amy & Yasmin.

It was nice to arrive in Bukhara in the afternoon. A decent lunch was available and we were able to meander around the Registan and the Ark, relaxing a bit and taking lots of photos. I was anxious to see the Ark, including the Zindon or Sia Chat “bug pit” where British officers Stodart and Connolly were tortured by the Uzbek Emir before execution. The bug pit was closed but we wandered around the outside at sunset and slowly made our way back to the hotel for some excellent night photography.

I just finished a lamb shish kabob dinner and am ready to sleep in a bed again before getting up and pressing on to Samarqand tomorrow.

Next post hopefully with photos & video!

  • Thanks for keeping up with the blog, Brian! It’s nice to feel like we’re on the journey with you.


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