So, after a couple of weeks back home the dust has settled, so I thought I'd write a quick dit about my trip, hopefully someone picks something useful out of it for their own jaunt across the region.
Three friends and myself flew from the UK to Almaty (via Kyiv) for three weeks. Our itinerary was roughly:
Almaty > Bishkek > Osh > Fergana > Khujand > Samarkand > Bukhara > Khiva > Nukus > The Aral Sea > Nukus > Almaty
It meant for a pretty packed three weeks, but ticking off 4 Central Asian countries was well worth it. The most we spent in any one place was two nights, so typically we'd spend a day travelling and a day of sightseeing wherever we were. Being honest, we probably packed a bit too much in; but who knows when you'll be in the region again, y'know? I was knackered by the time I got home though!
Highlights were undoubtedly the Silk Road cities, with a special mention for Khujand. We weren't expecting anything at all but a stopover from there, but it appears to be a genuinely nice place, I'd love to go back and give it a bit more of an explore. We were big fans of Almaty as well, would definitly consider using it as a stop over in the future.
The undisputed highlight of the trip was the 2 night jaunt from Nukus to the Aral Sea and back. This was arranged for us by our hotel in Nukus , Jipek Joli (it came to about $300 each for three of us for the whole thing, including accomodation & food in Nukus), and I really can't recommend it enough. Our driver, Viktor, was superb, knew some locals for us to stay with and have lunch with, and some of the landscape we saw was mind boggling. Confronting the full scale of the Aral Sea disaster was both amazing and sobering. If you have time to fit this in on a trip to the region, do it, you won't regret it.
Biggest challenge we found was generally getting from place to place, especially in Uzbekistan, where at best it was difficult and at worst it was an utter pain in the arse. Trying to get train tickets at a station was a bit of a farce, if you can try and hunt down a ticketing agent in the town centre of wherever you are, you'll thank your stars. We ended up relying on taxis far more than we expected. Also, if you are using taxis, for the love of all that is holy, check you have all your belongings on you as soon as you get out, because taxi drivers* will speed off at the earliest opportunity back to wherever you picked them up! I think my old mobile phone might still be wedged underneath some taxi seat in Navoi! If it's still in the taxi when it leaves, chances are you'll never see it again.
* And by "taxi driver", think more "man with a car and nothing else to do".
Train travel was probably the most comfortable way to get around (with the exception of the swelteringly hot Tashkent/Shymkent border crossing), but we never once got a train with a restaurant car, so stock up on food and drink! The way Uzbekistan restricts access to train stations can make it difficult to get food on the move.
We timed our trip (luck, rather than design!) so we were able to pick up the weekly (every Tuesday) two night train from Nukus to Almaty on our return from The Aral Sea. That came to about 350,000 Som each, which when you factor in two night's accomodation on top of the travel is a bit of a bargain. We managed to pick up pretty much the last 3 berths on the train though, and that was booking 5 days in advance, so don;t count on rocking up to the station and getting a berth. One thing we found in Uzbekistan was that despite it's much trumpeted railways and high speed trains, tickets were difficult to come by.
Contrary to expectations, we had no problems with authority at all, but border crossings could be time consuming.
Interactions with the locals were almost always fun and rewarding, the one bad spot being discovering that someone nicked a toiletries bag from a backpack in a luggage stowage on a bus. Otherwise no problems at all, everyone we met was friendly and helpful, always curious about where we'd been and where we were going. People loved having a look at our photos. Bring a copy of Point It though, we used ours more than we have done on any previous trip. Also, I regret not bringing more smally trinkets from the UK like postcards and BIg Ben keyrings, etc, we'd give them to people who helped us out and it always went down well, but we'd run out by the final week.
Money was only an issue in Uzbekistan, it took us a few days to figure out the whole "black market" thing, but once we were up to speed we were generally getting 600,000 Som for $100 - about twice the "official" rate. I'd love to know how everyone knows what the rate is, though. Presumably they don't just pick up a copy of the Financial Black Market Times! Luckily, we left Uzbekistan about 5 days before Old Islam popped his clogs. I think getting around or out of the country was even more of a pain in the arse in the immediate aftermath.
All in all, a fantastic trip, one of my favourites. It really felt more like an adventure rather than a holiday. Hard work at times, but rewarding. If anyone has any questions about anything, no problems at all. I can recommend a raft of B&Bs and hostels!
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