Getting into Uzbekistan was the easy part.
Taking a shared taxi to the Zarnisar Bazaar in Dushanbe, finding a ride to the granitsa (border), and waltzing through a series of checkpoints was mostly painless; I was even
forced asked to play my ukulele while the Uzbek officials checked my bags. Emerging from the border buildings with a grin and a swagger, I headed towards the cluster of cabbies lurking like a malignant stain outside. It was noon on Sunday.
Sounding for all the world like the seagulls from Finding Nemo, the taxi drivers swarmed.
“Mister! Taxi! Samarkand! Change money!”
“Bukhara?” I shouted, locking eyes with one.
“Bukhara, ok!” he confirmed and motioned me to follow him.
I stopped him and asked how much the ride would be. Poker face cranked to 110%, he punched a few numbers into his phone and held it up for inspection.
150. Dollars? Dollars.
I snorted and waved him off. My hotel in Dushanbe had told me to expect $50. He typed a few more numbers.
“No, no, no.”
“Skoltka?” he asked. How much?
I grabbed his phone and typed my counter-offer in.
“Okay!” he agreed and walked away. Now I’m not exactly a savant negotiator, but that was entirely too easy…
My driver informed me the drive would take around 9 hours, but we couldn’t leave quite yet. We had to wait around for more passengers to fill up the car. It took about an hour and a half, but a couple nice Uzbek babushkas and one’s granddaughter filled out the seats, and we were on our way. They were quite talkative and helpful, pointing out interesting things as we drove past and pressing snacks into my hands. One even gave me some gifts to pass on to my family (you’ll find out what when I get home, guys!).
We drove for hours, and the terrain slipped past. Dusty plains of scrub and brush, barren hills, shattered and leaning plateaus reminiscent of Pride Rock. All was going swimmingly. Then my driver and travel companions started talking. After a while, they seemed to come to an agreement.
“Samarkand, okay?” my driver looked at me.
As I began to suspect I’d fallen asleep and was experiencing a nightmare, I went back and forth with the driver, who had decided he would be over-nighting in Samarkand (as would the other passengers)–a five hour drive from Bukhara. Samarkand wasn’t even on the way to Bukhara… it was east of where we were, while Bukhara was west! Straining to resist an overwhelming urge to throttle the man, I explained as congenially as I could that I had a hotel reservation in Bukhara and that–since I’d paid him to take me to Bukhara–he would be taking me there that night. He threw up his hands and agreed; I assumed that meant I’d won.
We rolled into Samarkand around midnight, and he stopped at the station.
“This, Samarkand,” he said.
I stared at him, my face an emotionless mask concealing the roiling rage-nado within.
He flapped his hand, then explained I would be taking another taxi.
“Money,” I said, crossing my hands in the universal symbol for ‘heck no’.
He nodded agreement and indicated that he would pay. Fine. Whatever.
A new taxi meant new passengers, which meant we waited for another 2 hours before leaving. The break gave me a chance to run to the bathroom four times and take a sloppy snore-fest of a nap in my new backseat. After what felt like ages, we headed off. Shortly after leaving, the new driver looked at me.
“Navoi?” That is the town mid-way between Samarkand and Bukhara. Keep in mind, I’d confirmed my destination with him upon entering the car.
You’ve got to be freaking…
He sighed like I’d asked him to drive me to Jupiter. No, no, no, it was impossible, he would take me to Navoi.
“Bukhara.” I said, then looked away. We drove in silence to Navoi, where he stopped.
He got out and came back with another driver, motioning for me to get out. I groaned and obliged, confirming with sign language that he had paid the new driver and that the new driver wouldn’t charge me. Everyone nodded and I got into my third taxi.
Lo and behold, that one actually took me to Bukhara. Not, however, to my hotel. That convenience would cost extra. Honestly, at that point, I didn’t give two steaming, fly infested piles of crap. I just wanted my hotel. I gave the cabbie a few measly bucks and a glare, and then I waved my hand at the horizon.
And that’s where he took me. I walked through the doors of Rustam and Zukhra B&B a little after 7:00 a.m. on Monday–about 22 hours after leaving my hostel in Dushanbe. The girl who opened the door smiled and indicated a bench where I could sit.
After I checked in, she showed me to my room, and I enjoyed the use of the bathroom for a while. Refreshed and smelling less like a vagrant, I headed out to the courtyard again. Sleep could wait.
The courtyard was beautiful, stone walls and wood beams with a few plants in the middle. There were a few tables around the perimeter, and birds flitted to and fro in the alcoves above.
“Can I have breakfast, please?”