Hitchhiking in Uzbekistan: road stories #18 – from Shahrisabz to Samarkand

Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan - header

Staying in Shahrisabz: the hostel that doesn’t exist and a town that had become a building site

Building work in Shahrisabs, UzbekistanAs you may already know Ania and I are big fans of UNESCO sites (if it’s UNESCO, it must be great, right?) so we decided to visit Shahrisabz on this basis alone. We knew next to nothing about the town but we had seen one picture that looked nice (we are very thorough researchers) so we decided to detour off the normal route between Bukhara and Samarkand to check it out.

We had been dropped off on the edge of town and having written down the name of the cheapest (and according to the guidebook, the only) hostel in town beforehand, we waved down a minibus and gave the driver the address. His response was a bit confusing.

‘The road no longer exists.’

What? How can a road have disappeared? Where to? We tried again, and got the same response. Eventually, we agreed just to drive to the centre, determined that we would hunt it down ourselves.

Unfortunately, he was right. It no longer existed. In fact, nothing existed anymore in the centre of town. No roads, no buildings, nothing. Everything had been levelled, razed to the ground and all that was left was a building site.

The minibus driver took us to a hotel, but it was way beyond our means as we simply couldn’t afford 50$ each for a room. Then things took an interesting turn. A man sitting in a car outside the hotel became our guardian angel. We clambered out of the minibus and into his swish looking motor.

Firstly, he drove us to where the hostel used to be, just to prove to us that it had really gone. Then, he drove to what I can only describe as a holiday camp as he had heard the prices were more reasonable. He, eventually, tracked down the camp manager, but the latter wouldn’t let us stay as he didn’t have a licence for foreigners and despite the charm offensive he wouldn’t be swayed. Things were looking a bit desperate as night had fallen and we were still nowhere nearer to finding a place to lay our heads. Thankfully, our guardian angel was a lovely chap and didn’t abandon us there and then, as he was well within his rights to do. Instead, he got on his phone and started making calls.

Back in his car we were off somewhere, darkness now reined and this was our last hope. His neighbour, it turned out, had a licence and was willing to take us in and we were saved. The town’s only reasonably priced guesthouse, which wasn’t advertised in any way, became our refuge for the night and the panic at last subsided. The guardian angel drove away never to be seen again and at last we could relax with a well earned beer and some lovely soup the host and his wife made for us.

The next day we explored Shahrisabz, or more correctly what was left of it, before hitchhiking out the same day. The old buildings remained and were impressive enough but that’s not what we will remember about the place.

All the streets had been ripped up, all the houses had been destroyed and everywhere there were people working. Not professionals, let me stress, just normally people, all helping in the destruction / reconstruction process. Groups of doctors, dressed in white, were sweeping the streets, school children were clearing rubble. It was bizarre.

People digging the streets in Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan

Hitchhiking to Samarkand: when is a hitchhike not really a hitchhike?

After seeing what was left of the town, we returned to pick up our bags and headed for the road.

We found what we thought was an OK spot and started waving our thumbs at the passing traffic. Unfortunately for us, the traffic was comprised mostly of minibuses who didn’t really understand what we were trying to do. And as one minibus stopped so did a second and third until we were surrounded by them.

We picked up our bags, walked 200m and tried again.

Within 5 minutes we were again surrounded by minibuses. It wasn’t going well.

Another 200m and another hoard of minibuses surrounded us like hungry hyenas.

On we plodded, reaching the kilometre mark still unable to shake off our pursuers. The next time we tried a group of around 20 men were drawn like moths to a flame. They were nice, just wanted to talk but it really wasn’t helping. We tried to hitchhike by dodging out from the crowd whenever a car passed but it wasn’t the most effective tactic. It was a laugh or cry moment but to our amazement somebody did stop and agreed to take us.

He first drove by where his friend was working as apparently he spoke English. What he actually spoke was a series of English sounding phrases spoken very quickly with pronunciation, grammar or meaning not particularly important. He spoke rapidly and nonsensically for about 2 minutes then disappeared.

Now our driver was a nice guy but he really didn’t want to listen to our pleas to drive us to the road. He knew better (a problem we would encounter often on our travels)! So, he drove us to where the taxis going to Samarkand wait. Bugger! We thought we would be in for a long day of walking away from taxis when our driver decided to pay for our taxi despite our protestations. Nice chap!

We still had to wait for nearly an hour whilst the driver found other passengers to maximise his profits but once we got going it was plain sailing all the way to Samarkand. The scenery between Shahrisabz and Samarkand was stunning as an added bonus, lush green hills and stunning mountain side views.

written by: Jon

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