That time we broke the Uzbek law, confused a scorpion for a reptile and hiked around a crystal lake culminating in stealing a bed.
Where? Uzbekistan (just)
When? September 2015
With whom? Alone
I had been camping most of my way across Europe and Asia so far, as the plan was to camp as much as possible to save money. It is illegal to camp in Uzbekistan, so we had been splashing out on hostels in Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. That aside, the journey from Samarkand to the Tajik border to embark on the Pamir Highway was too long a drive to get there before the border closed for the night, so we decided to break the law and camp.
On our drive we stopped at a local market selling fruits, veg, meat, and biscuits. Just as we thought lunch would be fruits and biscuits today, we found some cheap potato samosa stand (Only 600 som each, which works out at about 5p!). At this time I was with CJ, an Aussie I had met travelling who weirdly likes her name to be pronounced “seeJAAY”. We knew we still had a long way to go so went in the pursuit of a loo. When on the road, you have get used to pretty horrific toilet facilities, if there even are any. So when you can, you learn to pick wisely. CJ and I went to the fanciest restaurant we could find in this tiny village to have a wee before getting back on the road. The waiter gesticulated for us to go upstairs and we obliged. Curious by the room next to the toilets which had loud music and disco lights, we popped our heads round the door.
As soon as someone saw us, we were beckoned in and welcomed into their dance circles. There was clearly some family party going on and they all seemed to want to have a go dancing with us. Probably because we were doing it wrong. The women were moving serenely with elegant grace and poise, and the men seemed to be going mental and moshing to the softest beat. There was a knees-up-to-hands move that resembled what I would call high knees as part of a work out circuit, lots of jumping, and lots of high kicking. CJ and I tried to match the moves of whomever was next to us, as they were the closest to copy, although not always the easiest. Eventually we had even coaxed the waiting staff to join in. There was so much laughter that our sides hurt. Never had I been lunch time clubbing before, and certainly not in some small unnamed village in Uzbekistan with locals sharing no common language.
Our drive got us as far as someone’s farm, and with permission we set up camp. As we did, a posse of turkeys came running across the land. I reckon I could have taken one turkey, or even two or three, but there were about seven or eight of the buggers and they had the element of surprise on their side. They completely wiped me out whilst squawking raucously, much to everyone else’s amusement.
After breakfast the next morning, someone spotted an agitated scorpion between camp and the vehicle, so we alerted our group and took shifts guarding the tiny critter to ensure that nobody got hurt. We could tell it was agitated as its stinger was raised ready to strike. Sometimes the smallest ones are more dangerous than the larger ones. I was told by Vernon, my South African friend who somehow convinced me to put antelope shit in my mouth (read about that here) that you want to look at the stinger in comparison to its pincers. If its pincers are small, then the likelihood is that the sting is its main weapon, and therefore is more likely to do you damage. This little guy had tiny pincers and a tail that constituted more than half of its body. We did not want to mess with it.
As I was loading up my tent in the vehicle I heard a kerfuffle behind me. I turned to see that one of the Brits we were travelling with at this point had picked the thing up with a tea towel with the claim that she had “lived with reptiles all her life”. Awkward silence ensued until someone had the courage to look to me and say “Reptile?” I confirmed what everyone else was thinking by whispering “Arachnid”. She was lucky not to get hurt.
The border crossing went smoothly with the filling out of forms and showing of our visas that had been obtained before we left the UK over two months ago. Back on the road as we made our way to Lake Iskanderkul via some ridiculously steep escarpments with a road placed precariously on it. It made for stupendous views. We were all leaning out of the windows to take in as much as we possibly could of the sights.
Tajikistan at first glance seemed poorer than what I had seen of Uzbekistan and the temperature was definitely cooler as we were heading North. Every body else was pretty happy about the temperature drop but I started layering up.
The lake, when we arrived, was beautiful. The water was turquoise with the surface sparkling with the sun’s reflection, supported by a backdrop of the Fann mountains with an accompaniment of the relaxing sounds of the waves ebbing over the edge of the sand. I waded knee deep in the ice-cold water and tried to convince my friends that it was warm. It didn’t work; it was either my chattering teeth or my whole-body shivers that gave me away, hard to tell which.
I changed out of my wet trousers to hike the circuit of the lake. It was only about 10k, so not a challenging walk. I must have taken hundreds of photos because everywhere I looked proffered a postcard view. This place was like Barney Stinson, it had no bad angle. We chatted about life, why we left the UK on more than simply a holiday, and skimmed rocks. During this hike I decided that I wanted to buy a cat when I got back to the UK and started working again. Important decisions (I still don’t have a cat).
That evening I spied a camp fire from across the lake and explored. There were a group of expats who had escaped Dushanbe (Tajikistan’s capital) for the weekend to hike around the famously beautiful Lake Iskanderkul. I chatted away to them and swapped stories of our trip so far and their time since leaving the States or the UK. We ascertained that one of them went to the school down the road from where I lived in the UK – it’s such a small world. We shared rations for beers and they gave me contact details so that we could get in touch when I get to Dushanbe, which was really lovely of them. When it got to bed time, I was about to make my way to my freezing cold bed for the night in my tent, when Cate (one of the expats) shared that she had booked out an entire dorm and that there were plenty of beds in the warmth. With our journey continuing North, it was only going to get colder, so I gratefully took Cate up on her offer and had a decent night’s sleep in a cosy bed. I was not popular the next morning. The gloating didn’t help my case.
Info: I had the luxury of having a vehicle to get from A to B, otherwise it is very difficult to get around Central Asia. The idea of public transport hasn’t taken off here (at least not in 2015). It’s a police state, and when I went to Dushanbe, the capital, everything was closed due to a small event that happened in the government which meant that the everyday people were afraid so stayed at home. The group we met at the lake were part of the “Hash” which they told me is a walking/running group that occurs in many cities all over the world to help expats meet other expats. If you want to traverse the Pamir Highway, I would definitely recommend doing so, despite its sub-zero temperatures. You will need to apply for a permit for this on top of your Tajik visa. Lots of people I met did the Highway by pushbike or motorcycle and some with dogs.
The Pamir Highway. It looks like a painting. Me saying it’s high.
Product of the week: Camping across the world like I did requires a decent and lightweight tent. I can recommend Vango Soul 200. In theory a two-man tent and in reality enough room for you and your backpack. Durable, compact, easy to pitch and pack away.
Tip of the week: In terms of going to the loo, go when you can rather than when you need to. You won’t always know when your next opportunity will be.
Other places to visit nearby: The Pamir Highway as mentioned in the info section, but also I had come from part of the Silk Road through Uzbekistan, which has amazing architectural feats to offer as well as decent food and cheap vodka (it was former USSR).
Dushanbe is an interesting capital. I’m pretty sure I came across a dead body in the city centre, but I will never know for certain. The town hall is so beautiful and impressive. I wouldn’t recommend breaking in as that may lead to you being escorted out by the police. (It was very easy to do. Perhaps a story for another post.)