Across the Kyzylkum Desert to Bukhara

Trip Start May 14, 2009
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Trip End Jun 15, 2009


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Where I stayed
Hotel Asia Bukhara

Flag of Uzbekistan  , Buxoro,
Friday, May 22, 2009

Across the Kyzylkum Desert to Bukhara



Naim, our driver was fast. He drove fast, walked fast and spoke fast and loudly. It took us some time to realise that this is perfectly normal in Uzbekistan. What sounded to us like a heated argument on a mobile phone call was just an ordinary friendly conversation. A former air traffic controller and as he said a "true Samarkander", Naim bore a clipped military appearance and was totally no fuss and dead punctual. Like many people in the travel industry in Central Asia, he was well educated and spoke four languages.

Thankfully for us, Naim was a very capable and level headed driver, able to spot a crater on the road well before we could see it. The roads, although mostly flat in the desert areas, were pretty hairy with numerous pot holes in some cases meters across and with little obvious maintenance. And like Naim, all people drove hard and fast.

The trip from Khiva to Bukhara was fascinating. On leaving Khiva we crossed the mighty Amu Darya River, one of the life blood arteries to the extensive cotton industry in Uzbekistan.

One of the tragedies of this country is the absolute economic dependence the former Russian authorities placed on the almost mono culture cotton industry. Ever expanding irrigation of these huge cropping areas resulted in the catastrophic drying up of the huge Aral Sea, the world's fourth largest lake, causing a major impact on the climate and ecology of the country, the complete devastation of an entire fishing industry and associated cropping production, and the absolute loss of livelihoods to the Uzbekistan farming populations. The government is trying to diversify its industries from agriculture to manufacturing (for example, investing in the motor vehicle industry by buying the license to manufacture Daewoo motor vehicles) but the lack of infrastructure is making this process painfully slow.

Our trip over the great Amu Darya was by way of a series of floating pontoons. It made for a swerving, looping and quite comical journey as we crossed the shaky passageway between the loosely joined soil covered pontoons. In the distance on the other side of the river was the strange country of Turkmenistan, a destination for our next travels.

On leaving Khiva we visited the private home of some of Naim’s friends, a motor mechanic and his extended family. These people were poor but amazingly friendly and generous. Their house was a simple concrete block with a drain carrying effluent through the back of a small dark yard. Despite their obvious poverty they insisted on us taking some freshly baked bread and there was great hilarity when they asked for their photos to be taken. It was a wonderful experience for us to be treated as guests by people who had so little. This sort of generosity has been a common occurrence for us during our travels.

For five hours we drove at breathtaking speed through the Kyzylkum Desert from Khiva to Bukhara. Kyzylkum means “red sand” (as opposed to the Karakum – “black sands” of Turkmenistan). The desert was dead flat and hot. Naim told us that temperatures here can soar to over 50 degrees C. And we were blasted by a hot furnace of air through the open windows of Naim’s Daewoo travelling and swerving around craters at over 140 km per hour. At one time we were horribly close to being wiped out head on by a car travelling straight at us. It was SO close it was impossible to see how we could have missed. Naim thought the driver must have gone to sleep. It certainly kept us awake.

We love desert landscapes. This desert however was not totally devoid of vegetation. Tough gorses, thorny succulents, desert grasses and strange pale claret coloured pigmy palmate plants tenaciously hung onto the endless flat dry red sands and occasionally donkeys with their foals could been seen along the roadside. On several occasions Naim pulled over to show us some desert life. From numerous tracks we saw it was alive with small reptiles and other animals.

Lunch was at a small settlement plonked right in the middle of the desert. As we dined on laghman (mutton soup with noodles), mutton shashlyks, freshly baked bread and beer under swaying peppercorn trees, we idly wondered if the mass of jet engine noise blow flies glued onto on our food had been recent visitors of the restaurant’s diabolical shit covered, fly infested restaurant toilet pits. No point in worrying, we thought. The food was good anyway.

A small group of Russian men gathered at another table. Within a very short space of time they had polished off two large bottles of vodka and with glowing red faces and increasing loud voices were with great gusto into the third. Perhaps that is what we should have done.

Nearer to Bukhara we passed through farming areas, mostly cotton but we also saw fields of what looked like wheat and barley. The more extensive farms were using tractors and mechanised harvesters but there were still many donkey carts and hand weeding and hand harvesting of crops. Naim drove up to a young boy driving a donkey cart and angrily berated him for hitting his donkey. “You hit yourself before you hit that donkey!” he roared. The boy looked startled and we looked pleased. We felt very sorry for the donkeys with their huge loads. It seemed wrong that they have the misfortune of being just beasts of burden.

The housing in these rural areas was very poor. It reminded us of rural parts of China, with mud brick or stone and mud flat roofed square boxes as houses.
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