No Escape From Tashkent!

Earlier in the year protests at corruption and rising prices in Kyrgyzstan had turned violent. Following a government crackdown on the riots and numerous deaths, the country's leader legged it. It was a peoples revolution I guess. Following that there was terrible violence in Kyrgyzstan. Tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks fled their homes in Kyrgyzstan and became refugees in Uzbekistan. The conflict and the refugee situation had become a humanitarian crisis. Because of this we had kept an open mind about whether we would go to Kyrgyzstan at all. There were reports that the border had closed at times and the Foreign Office had been warning travellers not to go to the southwestern part of Kyrgyzstan around Osh, Jelalabad and the Fergana Valley. But several people we met had been to Kyrgyzstan and told us that there was no problem for travellers going there. To get to Kyrgyzstan from Uzbekistan we had to go through the Fergana Valley. I worked-out a route that avoided Osh and Jelalabad using a lesser-known border crossing in the north of the valley at Uchkurgan. We planned to go through the whole region in one day if possible without staying overnight.

We would head from Tashkent to Kokand and try to get a train from there to Uchkorgan.

The guidebook explained that there are no public buses between Tashkent and the Fergana Valley and the only way to get there is by chartered minibus or shared taxi. We tried to find a bus nonetheless. A taxi driver drove us around the outskirts of Tashkent and asked at various places where the buses for Kokand went from. Eventually he found the spot. It was a large dusty area busy with vehicles and men that swamped us as we arrived. They were virtually dragging us to their vehicles. There weren't any buses. Just vans, taxis and small minivans. We started bargaining for a price. It was hard work but in the end we got a reasonable price from one of them. He seemed to just want to get on the road as soon as possible. Its always worrying in those situations who are you getting in a vehicle with? But he turned out to be OK. He had a minivan loaded up with rolls of metalwork for plastering walls. He didn't speak any English but we were able to communicate OK with the various words I knew in Turkish, Farsi and Russian. I quite enjoyed listening to his weird cheesy 80's electronic dance music on the way.

The smoggy countryside outside of Tashkent was comprised of rolling wheat fields. The road was fast and straight. It wasn't long before the land rose around us and we were surrounded by rocky mountains. The road climbed up to the Kamchik pass at a height of 2267m above sea-level. Its the only route connecting the Fergana Valley to the rest of Uzbekistan.

The road from Tashkent to the Kamchik Pass.

Road sign. Qo'qon is where we were heading (Kokand). Andijon is in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan. Andijon is infamous because of a horrific massacre in 2005. No one knows how many people were killed. Estimates range from 200 to 5000. The Uzbekistan Army opened fire on a mass of people protesting about government corruption and poor standards of living. Osh is in Kyrgyzstan. It has witnessed scenes of terrible violence against Uzbeks this year. Qashg'ar (Kashgar) is an interesting city in China. I would love to go there some day.

The minivan wasn't that good and we had to stop to rest it half way up the mountain. While we waited for the engine to cool down we sat by a stream. The water was drinkable and we filled our bottles. Thats our driver in the white t-shirt. The guy with the flat cap was just there when we got there. He was friendly.

The view from where we sat while we waited for the engine to cool down.

Still waiting.

Then we were back on the road. There's a bit of snow on the mountains at this altitude and the air was nice and cool. Something we hadn't experienced in a long time.

The road went through a long dark tunnel and then we went down the other side into the Fergana Valley. As we got down into the valley the air became really hot and humid.

When we arrived at Kokand the driver needed to deliver the rolls of metal and some boxes of goods to a shop. In Kokand a lot of people were wearing long baggy light cotton clothes and little lace scalp caps like they do in Pakistan and North Africa. We hadnt seen any of that in the rest of Uzbekistan.asked where we wanted to be dropped off.

After making his deliveries our driver took us to the hotel. We told him the name of the hotel that was in the guidebook. When we got there they told us they didn't have a licence to take foreign tourists and couldn't give us the registration stamp we needed and couldn't let us stay . Our driver had a plan. We didn't quite know what it was but with no other options we agreed. He made a phone call and drove us into a residential area. Rows of dilapidated concrete soviet blocks of flats. Lots of rubbish and kids. We went into the depths of this estate and went into one of the flats where a young lady who was a friend of his lived with her two children. She spoke good English and offered to let us stay on her living room floor. It was unbearably hot and stuffy. We agreed to give her some money for letting us stay. We weren't going to be able to get registered but we would just have to explain at the border that there were no hotels that could take us in! She was very nice and she helped us find out about the time of the train to Uchkorgan in the morning. 5 am! We arranged for a taxi for the morning. We went out for a meal together and had an early night.

We woke up at 4:30 am and a taxi took us to the train station. It was dark and dramatically stormy. Warm, wet and windy with thunder and lightning.

When we got to the station it was in darkness. We got out the taxi and looked around. It seemed to be all locked up and there were no lights and no people. We still had a bit of time to kill so we just waited to see if anyone else turned up. After a while some other people did turn up and we found out the way into the station, bought tickets and boarded a dark and dusty train. It had sleeper cabins which we welcomed although everything was covered in a layer of dust as if it hadn't been used in a long time. There were no lights.

The train rolled out of Kokand and daylight came. It was a grey and cool day. The countryside was arable and flat. It felt familiar, like the U.K. but just because of the weather. The train was busy. The women wore long brightly coloured dresses. Everybody was very interested in us.

After 3 or 4 hours we arrived in Uchkorgan. Walking out of the station there were no taxis waiting. We had had enough of taxi drivers hustling us but at this point I genuinely missed them and wished they were here. We wandered through the streets. There was no traffic at all only people on foot. It was a very quiet small town. After a little while a young lad who spoke good English came up and spoke to us. He was excited to meet us and we explained that we wanted to go to the border. He said he could arrange for a lift and in the meantime we went back to his parents house and met his family. His Mother made us some breakfast of fried eggs and meat with bread. Ruth and Hannah couldn't really stomach it - too greasy. I did the best I could.

We were all really tired and not feeling too sociable. We just wanted to get to the border.

After a while all four of us plus the driver were squashed into a tiny hatchback driving through narrow and empty country roads heading for the Kyrgyzstan border. It wasn't a long journey - a good thing too because our new friend was sitting on my lap in the front seat. The car stopped in front of the border point. It was a grey and uninteresting weekday morning and we were surrounded by flat open arable farmland, much like the East Anglian Fens. A large fence marked the edge of Uzbekistan, with Kyrgyzstan beyond. Big white metal gates marked the point where it met the road. They were shut and there was no one to be seen. As we approached the gates a soldier appeared from a hut. Our new friend spoke to him. I'd rather have spoken to him myself but there wasn't much I could do. The young boy explained that the border was closed. He said it had been closed since April and that people could go from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan but not the other way. He said that the whole border was closed. If we wanted to go to Kyrgyzstan we had to go to Khazakstan first and go from there.

The only way to Khazakstan was to go all the way back to Tashkent again! So that's what we did.

The purple line is where we went.

No comments:

Post a Comment