Uzbekistan - A Strenuous Border Crossing and Onwards to Tashkent
One should not underestimate the significance of 'plov' to Central Asia. Initially I don't think I really got it myself and so failed to indulge on plov in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There I was preoccupied by the delicious shashlik - giant skewers of meat cooked over coals and typically served with sliced onion and bread - just awesome!
We were fortunate then that when we finally did succumb to plov we did so in Uzbekistan, where they claim to make the best plov in all of Central Asia! One of the wonderful things about foreign travel is indulging in the varying local cuisines. A meal of plov at a simple local Tashkent restaurant can be very cheap - served with bread and green tea it may only cost about NZ $4. But be warned, too much of that combination of rice and oil could see your waistline expand a bit too rapidly!
In this Post we...
...have our 'wings clipped' ahead of entering one of Central Asia's strictest regimes;
...undertake our most strenuous border crossing of the trip so far;
...spend a week exploring fascinating Tashkent; Uzbekistan's colourful capital city (most of the images accompanying this post can be found down in this section)
We faced an important decision before entering one of Central Asia’s strictest regimes.
Whilst most countries we’ve visited so far have not shown any particular interest in my drone, I was aware from the outset that some countries in and around Central Asia strictly forbid them. Just how strict of a stance these countries take against drones varies, though some have established reputations for confiscating them outright or destroying them. Two that have earned such reputations are Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, whose border guards have even been known to force drone owners to launch and intentionally crash their prized drone! My DJI Mavic Pro drone has been instrumental this year in getting some fantastic aerial footage, all the way from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, to Kyrgyzstan’s Kel Suu. How heart-breaking it would be to see it destroyed, let alone be forced to do this to it myself.
It is common practice for overland explorers to go to lengths concealing their drone when entering/exiting those countries known to have especially strict anti-drone stances. I too initially presumed I would take this approach when we reached Uzbekistan – I had the ideal place to conceal my drone and big plans to fly it over ancient desert fortresses in Khorezm, the former Aral Sea and more. The aerial images I would have captured in those locations would have been spectacular. And so, when packing up camp for the final time on Tajik soil, on the day we would cross the border into much stricter Uzbekistan, I tentatively went ahead and concealed my drone in a highly unlikely to be found location. However, I was conscious that I had recently seen something on a Central Asia focussed internet forum concerning new anti-drone legislation having just come into force in Uzbekistan. Before fully committing to the ‘concealed drone’ approach, we went in search of a local café with WiFi to undertake more detailed research on the issue. I learned that as of 2nd November 2019 (just three days before we entered Uzbekistan) new legislation drawn up earlier in the year had taken effect. These new laws have markedly redefined the consequences for bringing a drone into Uzbekistan – previously an offence, but now amounting to criminal conduct! This newly defined ‘crime’ is punishable by up to three years in prison, or in cases deemed more serious a sentence between five and eight years can apply. The ‘crime’ is deemed to have been committed even where the import of the drone is temporary (as in the case of a tourist) and even if the drone is not flown. I was forced to take serious stock of this information. Risking a prison sentence simply for possessing a drone will strike anyone from a more liberal, democratic country as unduly harsh indeed.
Putting this into context: Notwithstanding that foreign tourists to Uzbekistan are made very welcome, we must not overlook the fact that ultimately this country remains a strictly controlled ‘police state’ with a poor track record on human rights. Innocent Uzbek citizens have long been subjected to arbitrary detention. Indefinite prison terms were commonly handed out to key political opponents of the regime. Simply being caught with a book the government banned has been enough to warrant long prison sentences for local people. I won’t dwell on this too much here, because although this is a topic that has captured my attention, it feels quite 'dark'. Most travel bloggers to these countries make no mention of these darker issues, and part of me wonders if I should or shouldn't. But I don't want to superficially gloss over the bad things in order to only tell you about the amazing things that make a visit here so worthwhile. The facts are that looking further back in time the ancient history to this world region was also extremely brutal, yet it's all a part of what has shaped Uzbekistan into the fascinating destination it is today. I will briefly add that one reason why Uzbekistan’s history of human rights abuses is deemed so especially brutal by international observers is owing to the routine torture that prisoners are known to have commonly endured. If you’ve the stomach to see what I mean you might be curious enough to Google something like: “Uzbekistan prisoners boiled alive”. Whether you look this up or not, I think my suggested search term says enough by itself! This is not a country where you’d want to do anything that could risk seeing you detained by the authorities - so drone owning 'criminals' beware!
On a more positive note I should point out that matters have been improving since the previous dictator’s ghastly and seemingly unbreakable grip on Uzbekistan finally ended when he died (aged 78) in September 2016. Since then, under a new president, the country has begun to make some important strides towards opening up (though it is still not a genuine democracy and lacks free press etc). This has seen dozens of long serving innocent prisoners released, including the would-have-been political opponents of the deceased dictator (at least one of whom had been incarcerated for more than 20 years)… and the human rights campaigners who attempted to draw attention to their plight. It’s also owing to this recent wave of liberalisation that we, along with tourists from many other countries, are now able to more freely travel to Uzbekistan. As with other countries in Central Asia, Uzbekistan hopes to build a thriving new tourism sector and foster new international trade relationships, all of which necessitates that it begin to address its human rights situation.
It may seem that I digressed materially from where I started, talking about drones, but hopefully I’ve provided some relevant context and insight. Relative to what Uzbek people have endured, three years in prison for drone smuggling (and now without the daily torture routine - allegedly) is beginning to look like a pretty sweet deal don't you think?! But there is still one better option - don’t bring a drone here.
I concluded that the only safe options an overland traveller possessing a drone has is to either surrender it to Uzbek Customs at the border (where it will be destroyed in front of you, or permanently confiscated) or post it before crossing into Uzbekistan. I chose the latter option, being the more palatable choice. I took my drone to a Tajik post office near the Uzbek border and sent it ahead by courier to Poland. No doubt sooner or later a foreigner will be caught entering with a concealed drone. Uzbekistan's authorities will have to choose carefully whether they really want to make an example of the poor fool under the strict new anti-drone laws, where doing so will certainly damage the fledgling tourism industry they so desire to grow.
Crossing the Border into Uzbekistan
As things turned out, guards at the Uzbek border we crossed would not have uncovered my drone’s hiding place, and yet I can assure you I have no regrets whatsoever about my decision to ship it ahead. This was by far the strictest border we’ve crossed anywhere in Central Asia. The queue of vehicles we were in didn’t move at all for more than an hour and when I finally walked up to the front I could see why. Border guards were going over the vehicle at the front in excruciating detail; some were beneath the vehicle in a mechanics type pit inspecting for anything that might be hidden in the chassis, while others with screwdrivers were dismantling the interior panels in the boot to check for anything hidden within the car’s frame. The spare wheel was even removed and put through an X-ray machine! Witnessing this, had my drone still been concealed, I would have had to consider that it might be found… I don’t need that kind of stress.
We were fortunate to receive some unexpected preferential treatment from the border guards. With my Pajero buried deep in the unmoving two-lane queue of vehicles and up against a fence on one side, we observed a guard ordering drivers to manoeuvre vehicles ahead and to the side of us. I didn’t realise initially that this was being done for us. As the only foreign vehicle present, we were being extracted from the queue for the purpose of bringing us directly to the front. The guards were pleasant towards us and exhibited great pride in their country. My vehicle was searched, but quite superficially relative to what others were experiencing. A dog was sent through the Pajero and I was asked to unpack a few randomly selected items, but no one took a screwdriver to any body panels. Even with this highly preferential treatment we still took four hours to clear this border! Had we not been moved to the front of the queue I estimate it would have taken a further six hours for the vehicles ahead of us to be inspected. We cleared the border at 10pm, so without the preferential treatment we’d likely have been there all night. I can assure you that even had I managed to bring my drone over the border undetected, the absolute last thing I would do is bring it out and fly it anywhere in Uzbekistan!!!
Tashkent - Uzbekistan's Capital
With a population of 2.4 million,Tashkent is the biggest city we've visited in Central Asia.
Driving into Tashkent we quickly sensed the scale of the place. Not only is it much bigger than Tajikistan’s Dushanbe, but it also feels more ‘real’ - an interesting blend of Central Asian chaos and Western aspirations. It wasn't essential for us to come to Tashkent in order to travel through Uzbekistan towards the Caspian Sea - I just wanted to include Tashkent and am pleased that we did. Although it's a big city, Tashkent isn't the tourist draw that the ancient silk road cities of Samarkand, Bhukara and Khiva (all to be discussed in the next post) are, which is actually a good thing. In Tashkent foreigners can still walk into a restaurant, whether a formal one or just a simple stall at the market, and be treated broadly the same as locals. We subsequently found that some restaurants in the more heavily touristed parts of the ancient silk road cities offered inflated prices, and/or tiny portions. So Tashkent proved a great place to sample Uzbekistan's traditional cuisines, not only paying accurate local prices, but also enjoying the same quality and taste that locals expect.
One of the best restaurants we ate at was this very cheap and cheerful place opposite Chorzu Bazaar. They served the best 'Tashkent' plov!
Although we visited Tashkent in early November, our seemingly never-ending autumn continued. Tashkent is known to swelter in extreme mid-summer temperatures, and whilst September/October would likely have been the most ideal time to visit, we were running much too far behind my original plan for that. Fortunately, it turned out that early November remains a pleasant time to visit. Tashkent is a very green city, full of large leafy city parks, and as such it was a pleasure to experience how it appears before the trees lose their leaves. I would love to return here in summer and would be prepared to endure the heat. We've previously contended with 51 degree Celsius daytime temperatures while 4wding through Morocco's Sahara Desert... though I won't pretend that we tolerated that particularly well!
We attracted stares whenever we drove Tashkent's streets, because here my tall black Pajero stands out more so than elsewhere. It would seem Uzbekistan has a thriving industry in assembling Chevrolet branded cars – almost entirely cheap compact models and nearly all painted white. Due to various Government stipulations these cars represent pretty much the only choice in vehicles for the vast majority of Uzbek motorists, hence they dominate Uzbekistan’s roads.
On a related theme it’s worth mentioning that nearly all local vehicles have been adapted to run on gas (LPG), this owing to Uzbekistan's huge reserves of gas. This is a crucially important consideration for anyone on a vehicle based expedition needing to travel through Uzbekistan. I was largely already aware that other foreign overland travellers have reported having great difficulty finding petrol or diesel once outside of Tashkent. But what I hadn’t expected was to find that even full-sized trucks operating in Uzbekistan also run on gas! I had presumed that at least they would run on diesel and hoped to rely on this in a worst case scenario should we find ourselves struggling to find diesel. Thus it became quickly apparent that when we were ready to move on from Tashkent, we would need to take an even more cautious approach to fuel management than I had anticipated. It should be obvious that even with two fuel tanks on the Pajero, giving 170 litres of total onboard capacity, this isn't enough to traverse the whole country. Hence we would not be able to travel further from Tashkent than we could return, at least not without finding diesel along our route and restarting what I call my 'point of no return' calculation. I'll have more to say on this important issue in the next blog post.
Chorzu Bazaar is one of Tashkent’s biggest and best. You can buy all sorts of fresh fruit & vegetables here, spices, and just look at the massive indoor meat market pictured above. Those who have been following for a while may recall images I posted from a meat market way back in Mongolia's Choibalsan - at least the meat here is refrigerated.
Note the excellent quality of the fresh produce cheaply available from stalls located outside the big blue dome. Bazaars like this can seem a novelty to the foreign tourist, but local people still rely on these places ordinarily, and we now do too. It's simply where the best fresh meats and produce are to be found.
In former Soviet Union times a city qualified for its own metro system once it reached a certain population size. For 41 years, from its opening in November 1977 through until June 2018, it was strictly prohibited to take photos of Tashkent’s underground - the many police present everywhere would immediately descend on anyone who tried! This is another restriction recently lifted as Uzbekistan slowly eases up. I would have thought it a great shame had I not been able to take the following photos. No two stations are the same, and as you'll see, some rather artistic Soviet architecture was employed during the creation of Tashkent’s metro.
Former president Karimov's presidential palace is now open to visitors as a museum. Just three years ago it wouldn't have been possible to get anywhere near this place. It seems odd to see this man immortalised in this way, with a dedicated museum and statues. It's difficult to understand how common Uzbek people really remember him; one local I befriended seemed reluctant to discuss this topic beyond seemingly generic responses and I didn't want to push. Karimov is responsible for the longest imprisonment of a journalist, who dared to criticise the government and as a result spent more than half of Karimov's 27 year reign behind bars. In 2005, in an incident that made international headlines at the time, Karimov ordered his security forces to open fire on anti government protesters; an incident known as the Andijan Massacre. Estimates of the number killed varies from the official government figure of 187, up to a more probable 1,500. It's difficult to get an accurate account of what truly transpired - the government's official version of events is commonly believed to be fabricated, and survivors are generally too traumatised or scared to speak. At the time, survivors (potential witnesses) who managed to flee to Kyrgyzstan or Russia were tracked down by Uzbek security forces and forcibly brought back. Some returned voluntarily because the government had jailed family members in their absence. Others were extradited from Russia, who not surprisingly failed to treat them as refugees.
For me, all this is an important reminder to never take for granted such things as democracy, freedom of speech and/or freedom of press, because for millions of people we share this planet with these things are a luxury they don't have.
Coming up Next
We head out from Tashkent, with both fuel tanks filled to the brim and even a separate 16 litres for running the tent heater (that's nearly 200 litres of diesel!) to begin our tour through the impressive ancient silk road cities of Samarkand, Bhukara and Khiva.
As always, I love to get readers' comments and/or feedback in the comments section just below.