After getting up, we had the hotel breakfast in a huge new dining room by ourselves with only the waiter/ attendant just watching from a corner, not weird! We then played some more bank ping pong, third time lucky we found the right one, which accepted our cards. After that, we quickly stopped by Samarkand's main attraction, its registan, a series of three impressive huge mosaic tiled mosques/Islamic places of study in the centre of town. Samarkand was one of the most "normal" feeling cities we'd seen for a while, it mixed history with modern well and felt busy and liveable.
Big driving day though, and we made tracks for the Kyrgyzstan border. The far eastern provinces of Uzbekistan have a history of fundamentalism and other issues, and we were stopped at one of the borders checking paperwork for over an hour. The police we'd seen everywhere started to look insignificant when there were serious soldiers with modern gear and loaded rifles around. Have we mentioned we dodged another speeding fine yesterday too? The police just completely gave up after failing to communicate with us as he spoke zero English...
This was the start of one of the most mountainous regions of the trip and despite the hot day, we saw glimpses of snow on some of the peaks. Instantly scenery central, but a very high police and military presence too.
Ran into The League of Extraordinary Mongoleers (three English guys in a stylish Daihatsu Terios) at a dinner stop, we all had a chat to some locals, and then decided to convoy to the border, which was still a solid night drive. We snuck into town (Uchqoʻrgʻon) around 12:30, and set up camp in what we think is either a pharmacy or convenience store parking lot (we read the surrounding area is landmined, so no bush camping!). Camping isn't really legal here, either hoping the crowd of ten or so locals who are watching us set up don't spread the word!
Sunday 10th August - Uzbekistan Border Crossing, Bishkek and Samarkand
It was a much needed 5hrs sleep, and we made our way the last 20 or so km to the border, paying a dodgy looking guy a toll for a bridge that was little more than buckled steel plates bolted across floating barges, but it was the only way!
We were unlucky to be stuck behind a large group of Taiwanese tourists, so the Turkmenistan side was easy enough, but still took 2 hrs, and by the time we cleared the Uzbek side (another few hours) we'd gone 18 hours without a proper meal!
Uzbekistan was a bit of a return to sanity after surreal Turkmenistan, and silk road city Bukhara was the first stop. We had a little time for sightseeing for once and checked out 500 year old mosques, Islamic universities, and ran into the pair of Spanish teams we'd last seen entering Iran. Also discovered their largest banknote is worth about 40 cents. So...money here comes in bricks of notes!
That wasn't the end of it though, a 250km drive to Samarkand that took 4hrs due to spectacularly unpredictable roads got us to dinner there around 9pm. Seriously...roads that go from perfect bitumen to car-sized craters without warning made for some fun driving.
In great news, our V5 registration showed up in London, and we'll get it mailed to us in Kazakhstan somewhere hopefully. Only two more borders without it!
We'll try for some speed tourism here tomorrow before a huge driving day to the Kyrgyz border tomorrow.
Saturday 9th August - Crossing Turkmenistan
Predictably late start, made later by hangovers and the need to find the bank again due to excessive expenditure the night before! Starting a 9 hour driving day at 2pm, 45 degrees in the shade was never going to be easy! The highway to Turkmenabat turned out to be the worst road yet, with some new sections frequently disappearing into dirt, gravel, or seriously potholed bitumen...there were several airborne moments and unexpected detours, and by 8pm we were only half way, in Mary. We finally made it to Turkmenabat at 1am, finding a hotel just after seeing the aftermath of an accident - a car hit a bike at an intersection minutes before we drove past - there was a small crowd but no police yet, the rider was moving at least. Bit of a reminder to keep an eye out.
Friday 8th August - Turkmenistan Border Crossing and Ashgabat
We broke camp early, and got to the Turkmenistan border early, half an hour before opening. In the line, we met Perman, a Turkmen who had been studying in Turkey, and who was good enough to offer his help.
The crossing itself was easy enough, but it still took almost 5 hours, including a lunch break for the staff there. We scraped through on most of the the various fees, taxes, bribes, etc required, about 320 USD worth, but still needed to borrow some cash from Perman as we'd run out. Several passport checks later and we were free in Turkmenistan!
It had been a cold morning (3 layers even!), but that was all about to change, as it was 45 degrees by midday and getting hotter. Our first impression of Ashgabat was surreal - all buildings in the new city must be made from white marble, which was impressive, and wasteful at once. Every building was spectacularly over the top with gold trim and immaculate gardens...no healthcare though, but we were also told not to talk about that, or politics,or religion, or government...and we read that they bug any places westerners go, so...we might get ourselves arrested for being "amusing" aussies ;)
Steve described the place as an oppressive dictatorship Disneyland, located on the surface of the sun...
After a painful few hours trying to get money out, we eventually withdrew money, visiting three banks and a mosque (midday prayers for Perman) in the process.
We luckily found co-aussies, the Rally Roos, and proceeded to test the effects of alcohol on dehydrated bodies that hadn't eaten all day due to border crossings and banks. We're two days behind our worst case scenario, but as possibly our last proper night out, we accepted enjoying Ashgabat as our challenge, or as Craig put it:
"The challenge is how to unf**k ourselves tomorrow".
By 2am Steve had won a dance floor prize (not for dancing), and had then met some Belgians and degraded to the point of speaking only bad German to everyone. Meanwhile, Brooke and Craig kept up the pace (but we lost the Rally Roos at one point)...bed happened sometime around 5am.