It took us less than an hour to be stopped by the police in Tashkent. “Documents,” the young man in his tall hat and turquoise uniform said in a Russian accent, looking us up and down with a serious expression. We’d been warned to expect this. Every corner in Tashkent is full of police, or so we were told by a friend who arrived a month earlier. We managed to fit in all of one beer and an evening meal before being apprehended.
“Where are your documents?” we asked, trying to prompt him into handing over some identification. We’d been told to use this tactic to use to put off crooked officials and it seemed a smart move generally before handing over our passports to some unknown person. It didn’t work. The man either played dumb or didn’t understand and before long a second official appeared on the scene with the same demand.
We quickly weakened. We didn’t feel like playing the game so we gave our passports over to the police who, like officers everywhere between here and Turkey, couldn’t tell where we were from, what our names were or what an Uzbek visa looked like. In a humourous twist, we ended up assuring them that our documents were order and with that settled they let us go on our way.
Welcome to Tashkent. Although we weren’t asked for a bribe, being stopped was annoying and we wondered how many more times we’d be checked during our stay in the city. We resolved to use our bicycles to get around, making it harder for the police to catch us. Travelling by bicycle has some advantages and during our trip between Samarqand and Tashkent we certainly worked on improving our speed and stamina. We covered the 360km over three days, pushing hard so we could get started on the next round of visas as soon as possible.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are all on our shopping list. Until a week ago China was there too but now it seems that’s impossible. The shutters are coming down on embassies everywhere ahead of the Olympics and we were told by a French woman who spent a frustrating day at the embassy in Tashkent yesterday that a visa was now impossible without a return plane ticket.
Other rumours are flying around the internet about even travellers with visas being turned back at the border. Meanwhile, China amusingly claims (according to a report on the BBC this morning) that nothing has changed. So much for a big Olympic welcome. What we’ll do next is anyone’s guess. Russia wants us to go back to our country of origin to get a visa. Afghanistan isn’t an option. Either we find a way to hang around Central Asia until after the Olympics and hope restrictions ease or we take a plane somewhere. We haven’t decided which might be better. Both have their frustrating points.
It was mostly thoughts about what we might do without a Chinese visa that kept us occupied on the road to Tashkent. So far Uzbekistan has greeted us with fantastic cities but rather boring scenery and that held true towards the capital. Only a small mountainous stretch about 100km from Samarqand really caught our attention when we found a beautiful place to camp in a lush valley with rocks towering overhead. We had to wonder when one enthusiastic shepherd drove his flock past our tent at 4am, a good two hours before dawn. Was he sleepwalking or just a very early riser? We had no trouble going back to dozing until the sun came up.
Our second day was notable for a market stop in the small town of Pakhtaabad. It’s always hard to tell what you’re going to find in these places but one thing you can be sure of is that two tourists arriving on bicycles will always cause a stir. We’d barely parked our bikes in the main market when there were already a good two dozen people around Andrew, firing questions at him in Russian and Uzbek. In Bukhara and Samarqand we were able to use Farsi or Tajik for communication – a real bonus since we spent three months improving our Farsi in Iran – but it seems we’re out of the Tajik areas of Uzbekistan now.
Friedel headed off to do the shopping and came back a few minutes later to find two other people had taken it upon themselves to help us, leaving bread and vegetables with Andrew. This random kindness towards two strangers, and relatively rich ones at that, never fails to amaze and touch us, especially in a country where we’ve been told many people don’t earn much over $100 U.S. a month.
It’s proof of something we firmly believe: the world is a beautiful place, much more so than you’d believe from the evening news.