They say that there is no such thing as perfect conditions for writing. Well, I’m writing to you now from a small shack on the side of a rural highway, about halfway between Bukhara and Samarkand. We’re out of gas. We didn’t plan to be out of gas – this isn’t one of those out-of-gas moments where you’re almost out of gas, see a gas station and think you can press on to the next one but you don’t make it. No – we started today in Bukhara with 2/3 of a tank. And we haven’t passed a single open gas station since.
There seems to be some sort of fuel shortage in Uzbekistan – closed petrol stations litter the side of the road. So we’ve been forced to try our luck on the petrol black market. Benjie is currently in a local’s car, en route to who-knows-where, armed with two empty water bottles to bring back who-knows-what. But more on that later. For now, let me catch you up on the past few days:
The Turkmenbashi-Ashgabat “highway” (a generous use of the term) was fine for the first couple hundred kilometers (we’ve taken to the metric system), save for the occasional rough patch. We tore across the stark Karakum Desert as fast as our steed would carry us, with nothing but camels to keep us company. Then we hit the war zone. We’re unsure if an actual war had taken place on this 150km stretch of “highway,” but it sure seemed like it. The potholes were a little smaller than our car, or about the same size as Benjie’s driving hubris.
It was on these roads that our steed earned its name, and it is with great excitement that we can now introduce to you the Tandoori Terror, the Massala Menace, the Vindaloo Vehicle: Keshav Pothole! Indeed, we’ve chosen to memorialize our late teammate by naming our car after him. There’s one catch, however – we’ve already determined that our car is a female. Sorry, Shav.
Just when we thought we couldn’t take the brutal roads any longer, Ashgabat’s gaudy, opulent tentacles reached out in the form of a freshly paved four-lane highway, replete with gold and white fencing and shimmering statues of the Dear Leader. The bridges were still crap though.
So we coasted into Ashgabat, a city best described as equal parts Las Vegas and Pyongyang. The buildings were white marble with liberal amounts of gold trim. Pictures and statues of Turkmenbashi (literally, “Leader of the Turkmen) and his successor, the equally self-righteous Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (say that ten times fast) were everywhere, as were police. Benjie’s attempt to film our drive into the city center was hampered by a distinct fear that a police officer would pull us over, take the camera, and unceremoniously smash it onto the ground (this didn’t happen but they really don’t like people taking photos).
After a night’s rest in one of the more Soviet establishments in town, we attempted to fix our roof rails, which had slid forward about six inches at some point in Pothole Land, as well as our roof box, which had by now lost both of its hydraulic arms as well as one of its two hinges. We soon realized that our efforts had caused more harm than good, so we duct taped the box in place and hit the road for another day of potholes.
The Rubikhans slowly navigated their way out of Ashgabat (no thanks to three inexplicably closed highways), and eventually wound up on more beautiful tarmac – the gaudy tentacles of Ashgabat extending out towards Mary, our destination for the night. Cautiously optimistic that the tarmac would continue for quite some time, we were pleasantly surprised to make it a solid 100km out of the city before returning to Pothole Land. So we grueled through it, our suspension shaking and groaning, our roof box rattling, and our teeth chattering. We fought off the 114-degree desert heat with warm water and open windows.
And we were rewarded for our toilsome efforts, for our accommodations in Mary had the one thing we needed most but didn’t expect to find in the desert: a swimming pool. And we swam, and we feasted on “Hot Amerikan Pizza,” and we slept, and we woke up to try to fix the roof box again, and we broke it even more, and we applied even more duct tape, because why not? And we drove off toward the Uzbekistan border.
Despite Turkmenistan’s reputation as a hermit kingdom second only in isolationism to North Korea, the people we encountered proved to be wonderfully hospitable and friendly. On one occassion, a fellow driver even got out of his car at a traffic light to gift us some tasty bread! And countless cars honk and wave at us as they (inevitably) pass us on the highway. It seems as though everyone we’ve encountered on this tremendous journey is willing us to succeed. And without their support, we wouldn’t have made it this far.
The roads from Mary were thankfully not terrible, and we made it to the border by early afternoon. We suffered a bit of PTSD at the Turkmen exit border (only about five pointless stations this time) and drove on to Uzbekistan, where the border guards had big guns and bigger senses of humor.
We had been dreading the thorough search of the car that other teams had encountered at the Uzbek border, but the guards just had us open a couple doors, tried on our sunglasses, and waved us into their country, telling us to bring girls next time. Maybe not, given how we smell right now.
After hours upon hours of bleak desert terrain, arriving in Bukhara was like dream. We dropped our bags at the hotel (which had, along with many other hotels in the city, incidentally lost all electricty), and then meandered through the carefully preserved old city, surrounding ourselves in a buzzing maze of sandstone mosques, turquoise minarets, and lush courtyards. It’s no wonder that this city is heralded as one of the most beautiful in Eurasia. It hardly felt real.
We presently decided to exchange some money on the ubiquitous “black market,” where a US dollar goes for ~2800som. Since 1000som is the largest denomination in circulation, exchanging $20 dollars gave each of us stacks of 56 bills. I hadn’t felt this rich since my brother landed on my Boardwalk hotel in Monopoly. It was so much money, I couldn’t fit it in a lunchbox (Michael “BDM” Parets, 2011).
Benjie here, taking over the narration (with Cooper adding serial commas and supplementary commentary). Fortunately, at this point I was wearing cargo shorts, giving me the perfect place to keep my stacks of money. We decided to go to dinner and were on our way there when we saw two guys looking at us quizzically; after a few seconds we realized that they were the Austrian ralliers we had met all the way back at the London launch party. One of them had given me a stamped and punched “One-way ticket to Adventureland,” and lo and behold we meet them here, most certainly in the heart of Adventureland. An amazing coincidence, but just one of many occasions on which we have chanced upon another Rally team and been instantly and happily united by our shared quest – to me, this is one of the coolest parts of the Rally experience.
After an excellent breakfast from our lovely hosts the next morning, we set off for Samarkand in high spirits. Unfortunately, as Nick mentioned, these were quickly crushed. Potholes and bumps everywhere. Dozens of closed gas stations – the only open one we saw had a line that stretched over a hundred yards. And then our roof rack, which has been slowly deteriorating, finally cracked and the lid to our front compartment flew off like a leaf in the breeze. Fortunately, no one was behind us, and so we simply pulled off the road and stuffed our tent and sleeping bags into the car, bringing our packing jigsaw puzzle to an entirely new level.
It was also at this point that gas became a serious problem, and we decided to pull off by the small shack/repair shop where Nick began writing this blog post. Eventually, we communicated with the proprietors that we wanted petrol, and agreed on a price for the 6.5 liters we could carry in our empty plastic water bottles. So I rode off with our generous providers, a father and his son who had outfitted their Soviet-era Lada Riva with a set of massive Pioneer speakers that blasted Uzbek dance music at a nearly intolerable volume. We went to the next town over where a nice lady filled the water bottles out of a massive black plastic drum next to her shop, and we were off to Samarkand!
Generally thought to be the pearl of Central Asia, Samarkand is a mystically beautiful city that was once the most powerful point on the Silk Road and an important center of Islamic learning. Its central square, known as the Registan, is bordered on three sides by medressas (Islamic theological schools) that were built beginning in the 1400s. Because we arrived too late to see them last night, Cooper and I woke up at 7am this morning to have a look, and were rewarded with an incredible experience.
Since the buildings didn’t open to the public until 8:am, hardly anyone was around: just a couple of policemen and a few babushkas sweeping the square, which was bathed in morning light. The exquisite geometric patterns that adorn the ancient buildings glowed in soft hues of turquoise and green and gold. For 12,000 som – a little over four dollars – a policeman allowed us to clandestinely climb the narrow spiral steps up one of the minarets from which we could observe the whole scene from above. Words can’t do it justice, so have a look at the pictures below, but without a doubt it was one of the most remarkable places I have ever seen.
After buying more black market gasoline in Samarkand – this time, with the help of our English-speaking B&B host – we set off for the sprawling capital of Tashkent. The roads proved to be much better than we’d seen in previous days, so we made good progress and arrived with plenty of time to explore a bit and have a massive dinner of various unnamed Uzbek delicacies which may or may not wreak havoc on our stomachs tomorrow. But they were sure tasty. We rounded out the night with a couple of beers in the square next to our hotel, where some local kids engaged us in a riveting conversation consisting of random English words for things they saw: Tomato! Food! Refrigerator! Instagram! Sexy!
Tomorrow (assuming we can find enough gas) we are off to Osh, the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan. We are told that the roads are decent, and are fervently hoping that this is the case – because Vishnu knows, Keshav Pothole could use a break.
KP on the road to Ashgabat
Our first encounter with roving camels
Ostentatious mosque/government building on the outskirts of Ashgabat
“Mom, I’m five kilometers from Iran!”
Ridin’ dirty on the donkey cart (note the iPod)
Dusk in Bukhara
One of the countless mosques/madrassas in Bukhara’s old city
Team photo in the window
Old city road
Benjie flaunts his money (worth about $16)
The Registan, in Samarkand, in the early morning light
Uzbek women inside one of the Registan’s three primary madrassas
The Ulugh Beg Madrassa (the eldest of the three), viewed from a minaret
Intricate tilework on the ceiling of the Ulugh Beg Madrassa
Benjie ogles the Registan. (Note the kimono, which was loaned to him by our kind hostess, who was worried that he’d get cold)
New friends in Samarkand
The Tashkent circus. Tomorrow, Kyrgyzstan!