We were out of the sleeping bags early because for days there had been dark warnings about the Ubekistan border crossing and there was a feeling of tension in the air. Breakfast over – neither of us was on cook duty – the tents were packed away for the last time for a couple of weeks. Ubekistan does not allow a lot of things, one of which is camping.
We left the pasture land to the cows and sheep and saw women hand milking cows in the field as we left the area. Back on the road it was only a few miles to the border. First we had to leave Kyrgyzstan. In actual fact the border post was much more up market than the one when we entered the country, but no exotic wallpaper. A sort of ‘portakabin’ arrangement. Passports duly stamped to show we were leaving Kyrgyzstan, we all piled back into the truck for the dreaded entry into Uzbekistan. First step was being lined up with passports in a fairly small room with local people who had bags tightly bound with cling film type material. There were several military types in charge of operations. We queued at a counter to see one of them, but some of the local people were taken into a separate room. Those that weren’t kept trying to get between in an effort to get to the counter in front of us, so sharp elbows and blocking strategies were required to hold off the jostling. The man behind the counter told Keith he looked like a ‘special agent’ – hilarious!
A medical checkpoint’ came next. This meant we got off the truck again a hundred yards further along with all our bags and had to hand our passports to a man in a white coat who wrote our name in a ledger and pointed what looked like a white gun at the head of each of us in turn. I think it was a sort of thermometer. No-one actually said. It felt a bit like lambs to the slaughter. Whatever it was, I guess we all passed muster as we were all allowed to the next stage. This involved a large form and another shed.
The form was quite detailed and had to be completed twice, once in the English version and then you had to remember what it said as the second version was in Russian – the layout was the same but the lines were very close together. All sorts of questions were asked in a way that the information they wanted was not clear. The document completed, we lined up again in front of a man at another desk while watching the bags being completely unpacked and all cling film wrapping being torn off the luggage of those before us. We had been told that no-one was to laugh or do anything to cause offence. We weren’t likely to to do either as there was not much humour about! There were two large German shepherd dogs outside chained up and looking very bored. A nervous giggle might have caused a lot of excitement. It was all a bit weird and it was obvious that they are not geared up to too many people wanting to cross the border – there were only about six guards on duty in total – a frenzy of people would have them in a real tuck!
Having got through that check we lined up again with bags and went through a body scanner that bleeped but no-one took any notice and then went to where the bag opening was taking place. The checking of our bags in fairness was very perfunctory, a quick look through the photos on my iPhone – did I have any morphine or religious tracts?(!) Once I answered ‘no’ I was told to close the bags and go. Keith had the bag with the remedies in it that we thought might cause concern and I had got Saied to write out what they were, but they really were not interested. In time we all got through but then had to wait while they searched Penelope.
The whole process had taken no more than two hours, a record by all accounts.
This done we were off, heading to the Fergana valley – the ‘bread basket’ of Uzbeckistan but growing cotton instead of grain. First we had to buy insurance for the truck that had to be purchased in Uzbeckistan.This showed every sign of taking more time than the border crossing so it was decided that we should set up our lunch on the side of the road. This would have been slightly attention seeking behaviour in any event, but add to the equation the fact that the children were just out of school and it was mayhem! Within minutes we had a large audience of smartly dressed young people (the girls in tartan) all wanting to practice asking your name in English. It was like the parrot house at the zoo! It was certainly not conducive to digesting lunch very easily.
Every so often someone would come along and shoo them away and then another group would form. In time the insurance was obtained and the lunch equipment returned to the truck under the watchful eye of our audience and we were off to a chorus of goodbyes and upturned faces.
Uzbekistan is very noticeably different to Kyrgyzstan. From the outset roads and housing had improved. There was consistently Tarmac on the road, roundabouts appeared and there were bus stops. Everything seemed more organised and tidy. What was interesting was that we saw more bicycles – all are of the sit up straight variety (the old Raleigh bike came to mind) with ‘no nonsense’ handlebars and no gears. They all seemed the same size too – small boys stretched their spindly legs to reach the pedals without losing face.
The afternoon wore on while we made these observations. Cotton is the predominant field crop. I had read a bit about this. Cotton is not a natural plant in Uzbeckistan and in the effort to provide the water it needs the Aral Sea has more or less dried up. It does provide work for a lot of people, some voluntary and some conscripted by all accounts.
On our route to Fergana, in fact just outside the town is the Margilon silk works. Here silk is still spun and worked by hand. We watched all the processes carried out by the ladies who worked there although there were only a few around as it was Saturday afternoon. The factory (for that is what it is) dye the silk with plant and chemical dyes, weave the fibres into fabric and make carpets. It had once employed thousands. It now employs just over a hundred. We saw a whole loom room inactive. Commercial realities have overtaken the hand crafted product. We saw girls working on carpets that had been commissioned and had been in the making for two years already and were still a long way from finished. The cost could not be calculated. The patterns were complex.
Our guide told us that Uzbekistan is the 4th largest silk producer – a position it sometimes loses out to Vietnam. I wondered how they made this calculation. The inevitable shop had some amazingly beautiful things in it.
After a few purchases and having watched the girls leaving the factory being searched – I think a carpet in the bag would be a bit obvious – we left Margilon for the Fergana city centre. Fergana could be a wealthy and well organised city anywhere. Broad thoroughfares, wedding shops and car showrooms were all in abundance.
We reached our hotel and there was a wedding party going on complete with disco music that thudded through the walls. It was still going on when we returned from a rather chaotic dinner. Emma and Simon had to leave early to take the truck over the Fergana pass as large vehicles of people are not allowed. We are to follow in a cavalcade of taxis tomorrow……