We spent some time discussing where to go next from Samarkand. We had spent a lot of time in cities looking at old buildings. We wanted to get away from the cities and see some mountains. We were looking forward to the cool green mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
But our Kyrgyz visa wasn't valid until the 23rd. So we had five days to kill before we could enter Kyrgyzstan and we wanted to spend it in some nice rural wilderness in Uzbekistan. Our best bet seemed to be a national park described in the guidebook, just north of Tashkent. To get to Kyrgyzstan we would have to go through Tashkent anyway and then head west into the Fergana Valley to get to the border, so a national park just outside Tashkent seemed like a good place to go and hang out until our Kyrgyz visa was in date.
So we headed for the Ugam-Chatkal National Park.
We got a bus from Samarkand at 11 am bound for Tashkent. We arrived in Tashkent at 4 pm. As we got off the bus we were swamped by taxi drivers persistently trying to get us into their taxis. We hadn't quite figured out where exactly we needed to go from here so we just ignored them while we looked at the guidebook to figure out our next move.
Our next move was to go to the post office because we were carrying around too much stuff we didn't need. A taxi took us along the wide tree-lined avenues of Tashkent's ordinary ex-soviet style cityscape to reach the main post office in Tashkent city centre. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan. But that doesn't make it particularly interesting.
The most interesting part of Tashkent.
The post office was inconspicuous, drab, beaurocratic and time-consuming. In the end the cost of postage was so expensive we didn't bother. We crossed the wide arc of fast flowing cars and trams to reach a Turkish-style restaurant. We ate some food and consulted the guidebook about how to reach the Ugam-Chatkal National Park. It turned out we had to get ourselves to a bus terminal on the north edge of town called the Buyuk Ipak Yolu Terminal and get a taxi from there. This Uzbek place name is close enough to Turkish for me to understand that it means 'The Great Silk Road'. The metro was quite nice. When we got to the 'Great Silk Road' bus terminal, a collection of bus shelters on a busy suburban road we found a driver to take us to Chimgan.
The guidebook had a couple of pages on the Ugam Chatkal National Park. It recommends it for trekking, rafting, kayaking and skiing. It describes a handful of places to stay. Only one of them was in our price range (i.e. less than ~$50 dollars per night). Hotel Chimgan. It was described as a barely still standing soviet relic with threadbare, dark, damp rooms. We hoped there would be other choices that the guidebook just hadn't listed.
The drive took a couple of hours and it was getting dark. We drove further up into the mountains through quite scruffy villages. Sheep filled the lanes. We were still waiting for the spectacular scenery to begin when our driver announced that we had arrived. We told him the name of the hotel. He stopped to ask someone how to find it. After a bit of chat in Uzbek or Russian he turned to me and explained in Uzbek/Turkish that I could understand that the hotel was derelict. We decided to ask about other hotels and were recommended to try Arostr-Chimgan. We drove past the derelict Hotel Chimgan on the way. A collection of huge ugly concrete tower blocks.
We pulled into the Arostr-Chimgan and got out of the car and walked. It was a collection of wooden cabins. We followed the driver into an eerily empty lobby. It felt like Murder Motel. There was no one around. It was dark and musty and there was probably a freaky stuffed animal on the wall or something. Then eventually a freaky-looking guy with hunter clothes, long hair and one arm appeared. He wasn't looking very happy. The driver spoke. The one armed man angrily replied negatively. He pointed to a certificate on the wall that said 'No Foreigners' in Russian. He angrily explained that his licence didn't permit him to take foreign guests. We should try Hotel Asia up the road.
You see the thing is, in Uzbekistan foreign tourists have to get a stamped piece of paper from each hotel they stay at. It's called registration. When you leave the country you have to show this at the border otherwise they might not let you leave. Its a paper trail that proves where you've been. But only licensed hotels are able to register foreigners.
We felt sorry for our poor driver who hadn't banked on any of this and was getting fed-up with us. He was probably late home for his tea. He took us to Hotel Asia and we went in. It was clearly a grade higher than the last place but not commensurate with the rate of $150 per night! We tried our British best to haggle but no deal. As a last resort our driver agreed to try to investigate a bit more about the derelict Hotel Chimgan. We drove back to the poor excuse for a village. It was now fully dark. We parked outside the huge decaying concrete hulk and went to explore. The place was walled in. Driver found the entrance gate. Right beside the gate was a large mean-looking Russian man sat at a large table. He was dressed like Rab C. Nesbitt and turned to spit into the corner beside him. He seemed to be charging people to stay there even though it was officially derelict with no water or electric. Anyway, he seemed riled and wasn't going to let us in. We were going off the idea of staying in the National Park anyway because it seemed rubbish. We just didn't know where else to go and still had four days to kill. We didn't really want to go back to Tashkent but we did.
It was about 22:00 pm by the time we got back to Tashkent. The driver was fed up by now and wouldn't take us any further than the place where he picked us up, even though we paid him to take us all the way back again when he would presumably have had to have driven back to Tashkent for nothing anyway if we had have been able to stay in Chimgan. Nevermind. We set about finding a hotel in Tashkent. Our guidebook had a few recommendations. Most of them were big and expensive hotels. We headed for the one described as the backpacker hostel; B+B Ali Tour. We took two metro's and walked for quite a while with our rucksacks. We were relieved to see the place. But it looked strangely quiet. We rang the bell and somebody answered only to explain to us that their licence didn't permit them to accept foreign guests! We asked if he could recommend anywhere and he told us some big hotels. Most of which were quite a long way away. But there was one within walking distance; Hotel Tashkent.
We walked up the road to Hotel Tashkent. By now it was getting on for 11:00 pm and we were pretty much prepared to take anywhere that would take us! The hotel was large and serious. The kind of hotel business people go to for meetings and all that. It looked very nice but out of our price range. As we approached the entrance I saw a couple of young people climb in through a ground-floor window, they looked like Europeans.
We went in and sure enough they were able to offer us a room. It was expensive and the middle-aged women at the reception desk were plain rude. We managed to get her to agree to let us have one double room rather than have to pay for two. But she still charged us extra for giving us the stamps we needed. We were fed up but at least we had a bed for the night. We planned to sleep and then find a cheap place in the morning.
In the morning, no breakfast, we had to fight to get our registration stamps from the mean reception staff. We set out to find some food and a cheaper hotel. We went into a travel agent for advice. They made some phone calls and got us a quote at a cheap hotel. We took the details and went and had some food at a cafe round the corner. It was a popular little place with outdoor seating. The food looked pretty good but it made Hannah and Ruth feel sick. Not because there was anything wrong with it. Hannah's problem was just that it tasted of nothing but meat. And Ruth was just sick of eating plain, greasy meat-flavoured watery soup or greasy meaty fried dumplingy thingys and all that.
We went and found the cheap hotel, a squat concrete building with a bare lobby. The staff were helpful and gave us the best room. It smelt of stale smoke and had a mosquito infestation but was quite roomy and comfortable. Our home for several days while we waited for our Kyrgyz visa to be valid. We spent most of the time swotting mosquitos.
The following day we took a train out of Tashkent in search of some countryside. We were heading to the Chorvoq Reservoir. It is inside the Ugam Chatkal National Park and is described in the guidebook as a good place for outdoor persuits such as fishing, swimming and canoeing. We had our swimming gear with us. After weeks and weeks of cities and deserts swimming sounded like a very good idea!
We got up at dawn and got a taxi to the station. It was exciting getting a big train in a big Central Asian railway station. Much better than buses. From Tashkent train station trains go to places like Moscow, Beijing, Novosobirsk and Ulaan Batar in Mongolia. We were going to Hojakent. The railway line followed the river for about 30 miles north east out of Tashkent and stopped at Hojakent. The railway was built a long time ago by the Russians and would have originally gone a lot further, into Kazakhstan. It stops here now because of the hydro-electric dam which was built across the whole valley and stops not just the river but the railway line too.
We arrived at Hojakent (it means teachers town). We left the station and found ourselves walking along the main highway in the hot mid-morning sun hoping it wouldn't be too far to the reservoir. After half an hour or so I spotted a little path through the grass on the left and my instinctive sense of direction told me it would lead to a small town that might have a cafe and a shop. Ten minuites later we were sitting in a cafe by a river waiting for our fish and salad to arrive. We had a good fish meal for breakfast but we were all very tired.
After our fish supper we wandered up the road to try to find the reservoir and a good place to swim. The huge hydro-electric dam loomed behind the village. It was quite a long way and we were going to have to walk back again later in time to get the train. After walking for about 45 mins we decided we better not go any further. We were on the road at the edge of the village and there was a wide bright cyan blue river flowing from the dam. Some people were bathing nearby. We decided to go and swim there even though it wasn't particularly attractive. There were electricity pylons and we were a bit worried about the colour of the river. Is that natural?
We had a bit of a swim. Well, more of a paddle. A spaddle. It was only about 1 m deep. The riverbed was muddy and there was dangerous rubbish in the bottom like rusty metal tins etc. It was absolutely freezing! It was hard to believe how cold the water was in such a hot sunny place. We had just been in hot desert for weeks. How was this water so cold?
After spaddling we made our way back to the train station and got the train back to Tashkent to swot some more mosquitos in the hotel room.