Day 26 – Another day, another Silk Road city

Monday 22 September 2014

Turns out I wasn’t charged for Friday night … this is just as well as I’m loath to exchange any more hard currency, especially as I still don’t know yet how long I’m staying in the country or where I’m going next. There’s something about last-minute decisions and lack of planning that are a feature of my travels. Did I mention I’m an INTP on the Myers Briggs personality profile?

As I’m now getting used to with Central Asian cities, the buses/shared taxis depart from somewhere outside the city centre, in different places depending on where you’re heading (and, partly, on how far you’re going). The marshrutka dropped me off at the shared taxi park, and, ignoring people who wanted to whizz me to Khiva for an exorbitant sum (not a journey I’d do again in the near future, grrr), I crossed the road to the bus station, where, to be honest, the clientele was much the same but the vehicles were bigger.

“Where you go? Tashkent?” say the clamouring hordes of people. It’s hard to know who’s a tout and who’s a driver in this mad throng.
“Samarkand” I reply.
“This way this way, come this one leaves soon.” says one chap, directing me towards a mostly-filled coach.
“How soon?” I naively ask. His reply could be ‘fifteen’ or could be ‘fifty’, I ask him to clarify.
“One five minutes,” he confirms.
There then follows a bit of negotiation over the price; something I’ve never been comfortable with but it’s very much the way of the world. I’m not sure quite how that would work in the UK, trying to negotiate with the driver of a National Express coach to knock a fiver off the fare – maybe that’s something for a UK version of ‘Extreme Cheapskates’ but it doesn’t rock my world.

I wasn’t expecting a repeat of Friday’s journey – for one thing the trip’s only scheduled to be four hours to Samarkand, and in any case I can tell a little more urgency amongst the passengers. There’s also a fierce babushka with a clipboard, dressed in a bright blue blouse, who seems to be running the roost of the coach, making sure everyone’s sitting in the right seats and chastising the driver and his running staff who are loading the coach whenever they wander off.
In the end, the coach left around fifty minutes after I boarded, not fifteen, but I wasn’t in any real hurry.

After a completely unmemorable journey, I arrived on the edge of Samarkand, in incredibly oppressive heat. Completely surprisingly, the shared taxis ignored me as I wandered past them – it’s only 3km to the centre from here bur even so you’d have expected them to have made the effort. People who did make the effort however were the two ladies who tried to charge me for going into Ulubek’s Observatory; it’s atop a hill but the building itself is outside a nicely tiled yard which is public access, and they were waiting at the top of the staircase. No dice, ladies, no matter how much you drop the price. First impressions count.

Interesting walk to the city, down a long winding road that felt a little like I was going through the middle of the countryside, but soon I came across the tour groups and the buildings. My hostel was a little further away, at the other end of ‘Tashkent Kochasi’, a major pedestrianized thoroughfare lined with medressas and souvenir shops. Seems to be quite clear where the priority lies; like Khiva, the real city lies apart from the touristy bits.

The hostel was recommended to me by Paul; he said it was quiet but the Internet access was good. What he didn’t tell me was it was quite weird and quirky …
Like many other hostels in the region, it’s built around a central courtyard – this one however looked very ‘busy’ and ‘lived-in’, with tables in alcoves, a big plastic wall hiding the clothes-washing area, lots of trees, and a parrot. I’m not sure how many floors it had, but everywhere I looked were iron staircases leading upwards, clinging to the walls like shoots of metallic ivy.
My dorm was slightly underground, and with the aircon, definitely the best place to be in the mid-afternoon heat. It was a four-bed dorm, no bunks, and all seemingly empty, but the lack of people was more than compensated for by the ‘clutter’. The room was full of … well, ‘memorabilia’ would be a good word, ‘junk’ might be another. Pictures, ornaments, board games, even an old radio, all seemingly from the Communist era. David Dickenson would have been in his element.

Went out in the cooler evening for a walk and to see about grabbing some food. I have noticed that eating later on in the day is quite tricky, the occasional shashlik stall notwithstanding, as restaurants tend not to be open. After losing my bearings wandering between the old town and the Russian area, I ended up finding a generically tourist place opposite the Registan; at around 10,000 som (£2) it felt relatively expensive for a fairly plain bowl of noodles with some meat in it.

Still not sure what to do next. My plans are being thwarted by World Politics; the US have started bombing Syria, and there’s fighting on the Kurdistan border which is spilling over into Erbil, thus making my plans to head West somewhat dubious. In addition, a Frenchman just got kidnapped in Algeria. Not sure this is the right time to be in the Middle East.

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