Hitchhiking in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan: road stories #14 – from Konye-Urgench to Nukus
Staying in Konye-Urgench: sleeping in a mosque and other adventures
We arrived in Konye-Urgench 12 bone shaking hours later with the groggy feeling that comes from riding on a bus for so long. We were dropped off next to one of the city’s UNESCO monuments so whilst Ania snuck off to take some pics I fought off the inevitable pack of taxi drivers trying to persuade us to jump in their vehicle.
One taxi driver was a nice chap and agreed to take us to the only hotel in town for nothing. Good man! When we got to the hotel we were in for a shock however, as they quoted a rather unreasonable 20$ each at us for a room. We tried to call their bluff, or perhaps they ours, and walked away, rejecting their unreasonable demands and determined to sleep in our tent instead. The truth that we were tired, in the middle of a city and had no idea where to actually pitch a tent was a detail that only became apparent once we had left.
We did the first logical thing and asked a group of ageing women if they knew anywhere we could sleep. To our surprise they did and it wasn’t the answer we were expecting.
‘Church’ one woman confidently proclaimed in Russian.
A church? This is a Muslim country, what is she talking about, we wondered.
The next thing we knew, we were in a mini-bus (paid for by the woman) with the driver on strict instructions to take us to the church.
The church, it transpired, was a mosque, that offered free accommodation as a kind of Muslim summer camp for all. It was full of people, from all walks of life and we became immediate celebrities.
The first strange thing was the first person we saw was the chap from Ashgabat who told me that you couldn’t smoke outside the train station. Small world this Turkmenistan. After dropping off our bags we went for a little walk around the complex. Within 10 minutes four families had already offered to cook dinner for us so we choose the people that offered first and had a lovely evening sitting in their little sleeping cell (and it was quite cell-like) chatting in Russian and eating plov.
The head of the camp spoke some English and we had a nice chat about the purpose of the place. He said that many Muslims from all over central Asia used to come here but the numbers had dropped significantly in recent years. He was extremely happy that we had found the place and decided to visit, and offered us one of the dining rooms for our sleeping pleasure.
So that night we stretched out on the floor for our first ever night sleeping in a religious place. We slept like babies.
Crossing the Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan border
The day started early. Not by choice but because we were woken up early and ushered out as they needed the room for a large group arriving. The border with Uzbekistan was less than 20km away and given the lack of traffic we were forced to climb into a taxi to get us there before proceeding on foot.
A quick breakfast by the border later and we were ready to cross. For the last time the staring face of the Turkmenistan dictator looked down on us and another looming portrait lay ahead across the lines of soldiers and fences. Crossing the Turkmenistan side was a pain. They wanted to check everything, which I don’t really understand as we were leaving not entering, but everything had to be unpacked, underwear unfurled and sleeping bag labouriously pulled out and stuffed back in. The whole process took over 2 hours and just when we thought we were through, another official just had to have a look at our passports. Their jobs must be exceedingly boring!
On the Uzbek side things were a little more run-down with the place seemingly a construction yard. Forms had to be filled in, bags x-rayed and broken Russian exchanged but eventually we had broken through and it was on to the 4th country on our Long Way Home adventure.
Hitchhiking to Nukus: changing money & a free lunch
The other side of the border was, unfortunately for us, deserted. Still the day was young so we directed our steps towards the straight road heading unenvitably to the horizon. A mini-bus was chugging its way towards us so we flagged it down and tried to communicate that once we had changed some money in the first town we would pay him for his services. He was quickly on the phone to somebody, and then loaded us in, turned around and headed to what we hoped was the first town on this side of the crossing.
When we got off the bus, a man who spoke English and claimed to be a friend of the driver was waiting for us. He took us to the bazaar, which we had heard was the best place to change money, and we began the first of many money changing experiences in Uzbekistan.
For those who don’t know, Uzbek money is as abundant as toilet paper and worth about the same amount. Changing even $100 results in a bag full of notes all of which have to be counted to avoid being ripped off. The pressure of having to count such a large amount in public when it is technically illegal, with the money exchanger breathing down your neck is not a fun experience, it must be said. After making the deal, our friendly English speaking contact insisted on taking us for lunch (he paid which was nice) before we found the bus driver to pay him.
With all this achieved it was time to get back to hitchhiking at last. One lift with an old gent and we were in Nukus, ready to meet our first Uzbek couchsurfing host Alliyar …
written by: Jon