Termiz, Uzbekistan (and how I snuck down to the Afghanistan border)
Uzbekistan Take I
I first visited Uzbekistan in 2017 after crossing the border from nearby Turkmenistan. The trip was marred with problems from the outset. The VISA process was long and complicated and required several trips to the Uzbek embassy. in London.
After crossing the border into Uzbekistan we were met with more problems. There were no ATM’s and neither my companion nor I had any useful currency with us. (Tip: always have a few crisp dollars as a backup).
After 2 days of messing around with broken ATMs and long waits, we were finally able to withdraw money. The problem now was that I was behind schedule and had to make my way to Kazakhstan. I had wanted to explore the ancient Silk Road city Samarkand, which was the main point of including Uzbekistan in my itinerary.
Uzbekistan Take II
Fast-forward to 2019 and Uzbekistan has massively relaxed its VISA policy meaning I could visit VISA free for 30 days. (See my Silk Road guide for more VISA information). Another perk was that the capital Tashkent had more than one working ATM so getting money was a lot easier.
I took a series of trains, buses and taxis from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Tashkent. The border crossing was a nightmare. I arrived at the border early thinking I was being clever and would beat the rush. It wasn’t to be and I spent hours queuing.
After 3 hours of queuing, pushing, shoving and shouting (not by me I hasten to add) I was finally through. This time the Uzbek border guards didn’t even search my bags (last time they went through everything).
I took a taxi into Tashkent and spent a few days exploring. I hired a scooter from the hostel as I didn’t fancy too much walking in the 40c heat. After a few days in Tashkent (the Amir Timur Museum was a highlight) I made my way down to the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand.
Samarkand to Qarshi– Taxi Number 1
After a few days exploring the Registan, mausoleums and madrassas of Samarkand, I made my way to the long distance taxi stand and negotiated a ride to Termiz. We settled on 200,000 Som (about $20). It wasn’t long before the price went up again (“oh, you have a bag, I will have to charge another 100,000). I was miffed, as it was clear I had a backpack, but it did take up one seat so agreed.
There were two young Uzbeks already in the aging yellow cab and we made our introductions. Between their halting English and my basic Russian we were able to communicate relatively well.
After filling up at a nearby petrol station we were on our way. It wasn’t long before the discomfort started to set in; my passenger window was seemingly broken in the down position resulting in me being blasted by hot air. The sun was in its usual position directly above wherever I was and I could feel my face burning immediately.
After a couple of hours we suffered a puncture and stopped at the roadside to repair it. We were at the top of a large hill with sweeping views down to settlements below. It was a good place for photos and welcome respite from the wind. I took the opportunity to grab a towel from my bag and wrapped it around my head against the sun.
On most trips I pack a shemagh that invariably sits at the bottom of my rucksack and is never used, however I foolishly neglected to pack it on a trip where I would be spending weeks in the deserts of Central Asia.
After about 4 hours we reached the town of Qarshi where the two young Uzbeks were dropped off. Our driver then spent an hour driving round town dropping off brown envelopes to various people, the contents of which I can hazard a guess at, but draw a blank at the reason why.
It was here in Qarshi that the fun and games began. My driver decided that he didn’t actually want to take me to Termiz any longer and we were less than half way with over 200km still to go. He then insisted on 400,000 Som to complete the journey. I was livid and argued in halting Russian that we had agreed a price (which he had already increased once) and that I wouldn’t pay a penny more.
Qarshi to Sherobod – Taxi Number 2
The driver was adamant and I eventually agreed, very reluctantly, to 350,000 Som (almost $40). It was still a bargain considering the length of the journey (around 400km) but I was annoyed that the price kept going up. Then, the driver went and talked to a guy in another car and told me to go with them. I questioned what was going on, but he just indicated that I should take this new car and I would not need to pay any more. I was skeptical, but didn’t have a lot of choice.
The silver VW was already full of people and I had to squeeze into the middle next to a young Uzbek student and an old guy with a full set of gold teeth. My legs were cramped in next to the central console and it pretty quickly it became very uncomfortable. I had to shift my position frequently to allay the cramps and pins and needles.
The driver was having a great old time, singing along to middle-eastern sounding music and flying over bumps in the road at break-neck speeds. I shared cigarettes with the Uzbeks and they shared their water with me. The scenery shifted from undulating hills to dramatic rocky crags and desert; very wild! We stopped a couple of times for fuel and fresh drinking water from village springs. Each time I got out of the car, locals would wander over and stare at this stranger in a strange land!
The roads were bumpy with sporadic bits of tarmac, but we were eating up the miles and hurtling through the desert at 120mk/h (I could see the display on the dashboard). After 2 or 3 hours we reached a small settlement called Sherobod where the other passengers got out and once more my driver decided he didn’t want to go to Termiz. He found another car willing to take me the final 50km and again assured me I didn’t need to pay anything else. Again, I had little choice but to agree and was soon on my way again.
Sherobod to Termiz – Taxi Number 3
It took less than an hour to finally reach Termiz. We passed through a checkpoint outside the town and I was glued to the window as we followed the Amu Darya (Oxus) River and Afghanistan on the far shore. The driver found my hotel easily and I was soon checking into the Hotel Intourist (the name for the old Soviet tourism agency).
The room was basic and the bar, restaurant and wifi that were advertised were non-existent. I took a shower and washed the muck and sand from my weather-beaten face before thinking about dinner. The hotel receptionist recommended a restaurant down the street but advised that I had best take a taxi. I thought it strange as it was only 1km away. I asked if it was safe to walk the streets and she assured me it was, but that a taxi would be better.
Termiz and the Afghanistan Border
Termiz is a very “wild-west” sort of place and a hotbed of smugglers taking heroin from the poppy fields of Afghanistan en-route to Europe. I had read that there was a heavy army and police presence, but I didn’t see much evidence of this in the dimly-lit backstreets. The houses were similar to those in Russian and Kazakh villages; wooden izby with yellow, blue and white painted fronts.
The restaurant recommended to me was full up and so I went to a nearby supermarket and bought myself a beer before heading back to the hotel. I noticed on my map a few possible cafes and walked to a nearby place selling shashlik (tough as old boots, and the worst I’d had in Central Asia).
As I was waiting for my food a group of youths made their way to the restaurant and the owner seemed to eye them with distrust. After I finished my meal and made my way back, I noticed the group got up and left just behind me. I put my fast-walk on and nearly got hit by a car crossing the road and high-tailed it back to the hotel which was two streets away, without looking back.
Al Hakim at Termizi Mausoleum and Afghanistan Border
I had studied my map and researched online to try and locate the best vantage point from where I could get a good view of Afghanistan. My research indicated that the Hakim Al Termiz Mausoleum; the grave of a famous Islamic scholar and mystic, would be the best spot as it was just a few hundred metres from the border, and if I got caught by the authorities I had a better excuse for being in the area.
I flagged a taxi and told them where I wanted to go and we agreed a price to take me to the mausoleum, wait and return me to the hotel. It was a short drive through the town and back onto the highway. We started to follow the river again and then turned off onto a small road that led along the Amu Darya to the mausoleum.
The sun was high in the sky and beat down mercilessly onto the surrounding desert and the yellow brickwork of the entrance gate dazzled in the morning sunlight. I paid for an entrance ticket and camera pass and entered the well-kept gardens that were alive with birds and insects.
There was a small museum which I looked around before entering the minimalistic mausoleum. Unlike the bright colours and patterns of Samarkand, the mausoleum was just made of sandy coloured brick with little else save a domed roof.
Subsequently, I made my way behind the mausoleum where barbed wire covered a small excavation pit and signs warned that this was part of the Afghanistan border. I took a few photos but there wasn’t much to see. It seemed new walls had been erected blocking the views across the border. As such, I headed back to the taxi a little dejectedly.
As we drove along the 2km road from the gate of the mausoleum to the highway, I couldn’t help but notice there was nothing but a few bushes between the road and the desert next to the river. Meanwhile, I could see guard towers in the distance and thought to myself that I should have walked this route. However, the driver dropped me off, and as was the custom, decided that the agreed price was not acceptable any longer and demanded double.
Upon getting back to the hotel I was unhappy that I had failed in my mission to get a real look into Afganistan and decided to try again. This time however I would get the taxi to drop me off on the highway so I could walk the 2km along the river, and so that’s what I did. I went to the station to buy an overnight ticket for the Termiz to Tashkent train, and after securing my sleeper went and found another taxi. The driver was a Russian in his fifties and talked a little about football, something I’m not very clued up about (however he mentioned Liverpool winning the Champions League or some other such competition and as my Dad is a Liverpool supporter I was able to feign a certain level of interest)!
Once we reached the turning for the mausoleum, I asked the driver to stop there and let me out. He thought I was crazy to walk 2km in the heat of the day, and perhaps he was right, but I was determined! The driver asked if I had water and I assured him I did. This didn’t stop him from giving me the 2 litre bottle of frozen water from the dashboard. I protested and assured him I would be fine, but he wouldn’t take no for answer. I offered him extra for the ride, but he turned that down too and wished me luck. This was a good sign that things were looking up!
The Amu Darya and Afghanistan Border
There was a path along the road and small trees along the path. There were lots of gaps in the trees where you could walk out into the desert and see the river a few hundred metres away. A guard tower stood about 1km to the north near the mausoleum. This was perfect! I was more than a little paranoid as I really shouldn’t have been here taking photos and wondered what equipment they had in the tower. Could they see me or the glint of my camera?
Tourists that arrive in Termiz are met by police as soon as they leave the train and have to register their presence. But, as I had taken a taxi all the way from Samarkand I had not registered so I was already pushing things. It goes without saying that taking photos of borders anywhere is a bad idea, but to be caught sneaking around the Afghanistan border probably wouldn’t go down very well at all.
It was hard to stop my hands shaking as I took a few sneaky photos. Occasionally people would come along the path and I would try and act normal, or like I had just taken a pee in the bushes. I spent an hour or so slowly walking up the path and taking pictures. I was desperate to get one of the guard tower, which in hindsight was pretty idiotic. However, the adrenaline pushed me on.
After a while, I reached a large gate made of mud brick. It looked exactly like the sort of places in Afghanistan I had seen on countless news reports. Behind the gate was a guard tower and I snapped a few pictures trying to look as innocent as possible. I waited for a car full of soldiers to race up and bundle me in, but thankfully that never happened.
There were stalls outside selling souvenirs and I bought 3 small carpets as gifts (one of which I gave to my father, another to Greek friends as a housewarming gift, and I have one here in China to remind me of that day at the Afghanistan border).
I decided to walk back to the highway the way I had come to make the most of the experience. I ambled back to the highway whilst staring at this most interesting of places. The next day I stayed in the hotel trying to escape the fierce heat before my train to Tashkent. Subsequently, I would head back to Kazakhstan and go west, first stopping in Aral where the Aral Sea used to be. Next, I would move on to the Caspian Sea and Aktau.