Crossing the Turkmenistan border into Uzbekistan brought no relief from the relentless heat. If anything, it was kicked up a notch or two. And we still had a few more bush camps to get through…yippee!! First stop was in the town of Nukus to do a bit of money exchanging and cook group shopping. It was immediately obvious that the Uzbeks are a lot more laid back and friendly in comparison to the Turkmens. Exchanging money was pretty easy…the thriving black market gives us a fantastic exchange rate ($1 = 6,000 Som) compared to the official exchange rate ($1 = 2,900 Som). Needless to say, we quickly decided to exchange our cash rather than withdraw funds from the ATM. From Nukus we drove north towards Moynaq, where we got to see first hand what happens when man interferes with nature. Moynaq once was the proud home of the Aral Sea’s second largest fishing port. However, due to a combination of over-fishing and irrigation, the sea quickly began to evaporate. Today, there are dozens of beached fishing vessels and Moynaq now suffers from poisonous sandstorms and polluted water as a result of the tampering. The Aral Sea is now approximately 200 km away from Moynaq and shrinking every year. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that the Aral Sea is one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters! From Moynaq, we drove back down towards Nukus and onward to Khiva. Unfortunately, in addition to the heat, we now had to deal with relentless sand storms. Sand and heat…we were counting down the days until our posh Khiva hotel. A few members of our group came down with a stomach virus and it spread like wildfire, making for a rough couple of days. Khiva was everything we hoped it would be – a gorgeous Silk Road town that is easy to explore since all the main highlights are within the city’s walls. From Khiva, we’ll be hitting Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent so stay tuned.
08 Jun – After clearing Turkmenistan, we entered the Uzbek border where our passports were checked and our body temperature measured with an infrared thermometer (pointed directly at our foreheads). While it didn’t take long for the group to clear the border, we had to sit and wait for the longest time for Kyle to get the truck through. The guards had a very energetic dog that searched the truck repeatedly. The young dog appeared to be too excitable, wanting to play rather than do its job. It was definitely a novice searcher and didn’t appear to have much experience in doing its job. Finally Kyle got the green light to proceed so we eagerly hopped on the truck for the drive towards Nukus and the Aral Sea with a quick stop for lunch. Cook group had made pasta the night before but it already smelled sour by lunch so we decided to give it a miss. In the town of Nukus, we pulled over so that cook group (Brian, Daniel and Gungi) would do some shopping. It was here that we learned all about the black market currency rate. $1 from an ATM would give us a measly 2,900 Som but $1 from a black market exchange would net us 6,000 Som. Yay! Everything was going to be much cheaper in Uzbekistan than originally anticipated. We quickly exchanged $100 and our first purchase was ice-cream. Despite Kyle’s best efforts, we didn’t quite make it to the Aral Sea tonight and had to stop 60 km away for a bush camp. Poor Kevin was having serious stomach problems and pooped himself as he sprinted away from dinner. The all guys cook group made a kick ass dish of Spag Bol for dinner. Brian directed the group effort and we were shocked at the result. Say what you will about Brooklyn but that guy freaking knows how to make a mean spag bol meal. Becky went up 4 times for seconds (a personal record) and licked her plate clean…it was that good.
09 Jun – From bush-camp we drove the remaining distance to Moynaq. This once proud town used to be a vibrant fishing community but today it lies a whopping 200 km away from the Aral Sea. You might be wondering what happened to the fishing vessels that once served Moynaq. Well, several of them have been consolidated beneath the town’s Aral Sea memorial in what can best be described as a ship graveyard. We clambered over all the fishing boats and felt an incredible sense of despair and sadness in Moynaq. The remaining residents living in this toxic town have had to combat with a horrible combination of extreme weather (hot dry summers and freezing cold winters) along with severe sandstorms. It is certainly an inhospitable place to call home and we were ready to leave after only an hour. We reversed the route driven yesterday and stopped again in Nukus for cook group shopping. Dya and SCUBA Gill came back a little tipsy after scoring some free beer and champagne here. Denise of course was a celebrity as everyone wanted to take a photo with her. She has a nice attitude about it but the constant attention is definitely getting on her nerves. In the afternoon, we drove towards Khiva and stopped for yet another bushcamp. Everyone is ready for showers tomorrow as we’ve all be been hot, dusty and sweaty these past few days. While cook group was preparing dinner, the guys amused themselves with a bit of baseball and that night, a small campfire was built. Brian urged everyone around the campfire to tell a personal story about something interesting they’ve done…there were a couple of eye opening revelations!
10 Jun – We were up early to drive to Ayaz Qala fortresses, where we had some free time to explore. There were lots of dung beetles dueling over poop and sand lizards that would scurry off in a hurry as we walked past. Next stop…Khiva! We stopped for lunch just outside the city and then checked into the Asia Khiva Hotel. The location couldn’t be beat as we were just a few seconds walk away from this gorgeous walled city. After checking into our rooms, we quickly showered and did laundry, hanging it all out to dry by the pool. It sure looked like a bunch of hobos took over this luxury hotel. The pool felt amazing and we enjoyed pool time with everyone until dinner time. A group of us decided to walk into the old town and we split from the main group when they decided on a restaurant as there were still some photos we wanted to catch in the dusk light. Afterwards, we joined Ichi and Lars at the Teahouse Bir Gumbaz restaurant which is near the ark and minor minaret. Delicious lamb plov and cold refreshing beers…bliss. The young ones (Kate P, Michael, Ben, Chris and Christina) rocked up as we were finishing dinner and ordered a bottle of vodka to kick off their festivities. Lars and Ichi wanted to stay for shisha but we weren’t keen so we returned to the hotel and enjoyed the AC.
11 Jun – Woke up at 6 am so we could go check out the old town just after sunrise. Loads of picturesque photo opportunities and a few hours later we returned to the hotel for breakfast before heading back out. Since we were keen on seeing the majority of Khiva’s sights, we bought a Khiva pass (44,000 Som) at the west gate tourist office. The helpful tourist info staff gave us a map and rundown of Khiva’s highlights along with a recommended walking tour. We spent all day following the route, starting out with the Kuhna Ark Palace followed by the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medressa. After that we ran into Mike, Ben & Kate just as we were getting ready for silly photos dressed in traditional garb and “telpak” hats. Michael offered to be our photographer which we gratefully accepted. Next we saw Khiva’s solitary camel while looking for the crafts street and ended up completely missing the craft street. Instead we found our way to Islom-Hoja Medressa Complex. This was Khiva’s best museum (Museum of Applied Arts) with Khorezm handicrafts (woodcarving, metalwork, carpets, and pottery). After that we debated climbing the attached minaret but were told late afternoon was better so we held off. Instead we went to Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. He was a famous poet and people were praying in front of his tomb. After that, we stumbled upon the craft street where there are demonstrations of women weaving carpets and men working on woodcarvings. Then it was off to Juma Mosque with 218 carved wooden columns and its minaret (47 meters), which we climbed up through its narrow stairs. Somehow we managed to go up without paying an extra fee for the climb so that was a bonus. Fabulous views from the top of the minaret. Next was Kutlimurodinok Medressa and its corresponding museum, followed by the opposite facing Allakuli Khan Medressa where they are supposed to have daily shows hourly from 4-7 PM. We later found out the schedule is only valid during high season so we were out of luck during low season…shucks. Next, we stumbled upon the Allaqulikhan Karvan Seray with lots of souvenirs for sale. SCUBA Gill, Helen, Gill and Denise were shopping for outfits and we left them to it. It was lunchtime and we were hungry, so a quick visit to the bazaar for a lookaround. Reentered the city though the Polvon Gate (east gate) to Tosh-Hovli Palace which is separate into two parts, which requires going through two separate entrances, covered under the same ticket. From there we went out to bazaar area for a late lunch of grilled beef skewers at Tima Kafe (4 for 5000 each). Went back into the old town and Becky bought a hand embroidered water bottle holder (20000) some wool socks (6000….best $1 ever spent) and a big bag (42000). Robby bought a woolly hat, bargaining it down from 60,000 to 45,000…what a deal! We exited the Ata (west) gate and walked to the Isfandiyar Palace but discovered to our dismay that it was closed because it was 6:02 pm so we decided to go back to the Ark. Went back inside the gate for the last site (the watchtower) at the Ark for views just before sunset. We were going to ride the Ferris wheel but it was closed. It had been a long, exhausting day in the heat so we happily returned to the hotel for a dip in the pool and a shower. Feeling too drained for a proper dinner, we munched on some snacks in the room and called it a day.
12 Jun – Got up and had breakfast. We beat a massive tour bus by mere minutes and then the breakfast dining area turned into pure pandemonium! Thank goodness we had stacked our plates high with food before the ravenous horde moved in. Since our all access Khiva pass was good for 2 days, we decided to swing back to Isfandiyar Palace which is outside the city walls. Today was an overcast, dreary day with a hint of a sandstorm on the horizon, and we were glad that yesterday’s weather had been so perfect. Back at the hotel, we checked out and were on the road by 10:30 am. We drove straight for Bukhara, stopping for a bush camp just outside the city’s limits. Chris and Ben had a race to see who could put their tents up fastest. Technically Ben won, but Chris got his tent bag stored away first. You can see in the video below that Chris got a lot of help from Kyle! Dinner tonight was the cook group of SCUBA Gill, Lars and Warner with help from Bjorn. They made a tasty chicken curry which was a hit. This was one of our worst bush camps to date with strong winds blowing in a ton of sand into our tents. It was hot, sandy and miserable and we counted down the hours until our next hotel room!