29 October 2007

Modes of Transportation in Central Asia

In our trek into and out of Central Asia from China, we've tried a number of different transportation options.


Perhaps our worst, but most authentic experience was our bus ride from Tashkent to Samarkand. We heard from a fellow traveller that it was easily done, without the hassle of negotiating prices. So one morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed to the public bus station.

First of all, it was raining. It rains about once every 6 months in Uzbekistan. In the drizzle, we were first taken to the train station by our taxi driver. When we finally got to the bus station, we found a little stall marked "Samarkand bus tickets." We walked over, and then the fun began. First, the ticket seller refused to sell tickets. She couldn't sell tickets, she said, until the bus pulled up in front of the stall. When was the bus going to pull up? She had no idea. So we joined the rapidly growing huddle of people next to the stall, as it continued to pour. An hour and a half later, there was a false alarm. Someone thought tickets were beginning to be sold. Vigorous pushing and shoving began as people pushed handfuls of money in the direction of the stall window. Mark was nearly bowled over. This stopped after 15 minutes.

Half an hour later, a bus arrived. It was the Samarkand bus, but it did not pull up to the stall. The locals started to pile on, only to be chased away by the chauffer. When it finally pulled up, people started piling in again, ticketless.

Meanwhile, I had at this time worked my way up to the ticket window as people had gotten tired of waiting. The ticket seller opened her little window, and again there was a furious jostling of elbows as people tried to get to the stall. Armed with my big backpack, I managed to be 3rd in line, and got a ticket. However, it was too late. By the time I had gotten onto the bus, there were no seats, and barely any standing room.

It turns out that bus drivers in Uzbekistan are more interested in overselling seats than providing safe transportation. The ticket seller sold only a total of 10 tickets in a 40 seater bus. With a ticket, the bus driver were forced to find you a seat. Without one, you paid 50% extra for the privilege of standing 5 hours to get to your destination. It was 100% more for a seat. All this for a slow ride as the driver stopped every 10 minutes to cram more people and produce into the bus. Not a good option.

Shared Taxi

One of the most popular options for backpackers. The theory is great. You find 3 other people to charter a car to your destination. It is flexible, as you can go anywhere, and leave anytime. None of the hassles of having other people picked up. So we tried this one too.

We wanted to drive from Bishkek, the capitol of Kazahkstan, to Tashkent, the capitol of Uzbekistan. Early in the morning, we made our way to the parking lot where the shared taxis were congregated. Once we arrive, we were swarmed by touts. Shoving signs of their destinations in our faces, shouting in our ears, they stopped just short of hauling us into their cars. We managed to shake them off and start inquiring other, less aggressive drivers. For Tashkent, the market rate was supposed to be between 150 to 200 USD. All the drivers started at 400. For one proud owner of a Mercedes, he was talked down to 200 and refused to budge. He told us we weren't going to find any other cars going to Tashkent. Finally, we found a nice Audi with a driver who was willing to accept 150USD. We piled our bags in and took off. However, 100 meters down the road he started asking for money. For "benzene (gas)", he said. We gave him 50 USD. "Useless! Sum (the local currency)!" We didn't have any. His face red, he tried to dump us by the side of the road. We finally made him drive back to the parking lot, where he almost ran Mark over. Finally, after getting into and out of another shared taxi, we located a Nissan that worked out. We got to Tashkent safely, but the ordeal of the bargaining wore us out.


Perhaps the most civilized option, we thought. We were finally leaving the Central Asian portion of our trip and flying back to Xi'an. We had made it from our guesthouse to the shiny new airport 4 hours early. We hoped that it would be easy sailing from then on.

The first inequity was that the airport refused to accept the local currency. We were in Uzbekistan, yet the exchange office refused to turn the Uzbek Sum back into dollars. They were happy to take our US dollars and turn them into Uzbek Sum that we could not use, but not the other way around. When we poked our head into the gift shop, they also refused their own money. US dollars only. Even the cafe in the waiting lounge had a large sign saying, "We do not accept Sum!"

Secondly, none of the strict security rules in Western airports applied. Although you could not bring explosives, fireworks, and guns onto the plane, you could bring an array of knives that varied from scimitars to samurai type blades. Liquids? Of course that was allowed.

Thirdly, the pushing and shoving culture was not restricted to cheap bus tickets. Adhering to the rules of queueing, we lined up to check in our luggage and get boarding cards. Not the locals. Once the ticket agent showed up, the line turned into a swarm as again passports and tickets were shoved in the general direction of the desk. It didn't help that one of the ticket agents had trouble using computers, or that as our boarding cards were being printed the machine broke down. This every-man-for-himself mentality applied to every situation that arose. Passport control. Customs. We nearly laughed when we pulled up in our shuttle onto the tarmac. A man, luggage in hand, broke free of the vehicle and sprinted towards the entrance of the plane. Were we going to leave without him?

As we finally touched down in Urumqi, we thought that perhaps this event-filled plane ride could no longer surprise us. We were wrong. Once the plane landed, as it was coasting towards our gate, the passengers in unison got up, took their luggage from the overhead compartment, and surged towards the front. For our part, we had had enough. If you can't win 'em, join 'em. We violated all plane etiquette, grabbed our stuff and pushed forward onto Chinese soil.


After the trans-Siberian, Mark and I often wondered the following: Were we going to be so sick of trains after our trip that we would never want to see one again?

Scarred by the bus experience from Tashkent to Samarkand, we decided to splurge and spend an extra 2 dollars per person for a train from Samarkand to Bukhara. We could not contemplate the waiting, pushing and shoving, and the uncertainty that during the many stops our backpacks would mysteriously disappear. A finer choice we could not have made.

In our usual obsessive-compulsive manner, we had arrived a good hour before our train departed. The platform had plenty of seats, it was a fine day, and most surprisingly, there were no crowds. We had a beverage seller finger our Pacsafes and marvel at the construction, but that was all the hassle we got. When the train arrived, we embarked and found nice comfortable chairs. Shortly after departure from the station, 2 packets of crackers were deposited on our tables. Steaming cups of chai were brought around. All this free of charge. As we dug into our snacks, plates of hot food were also brought around for us. Harkening back to my memories of New Jersey transit, I thought, "What a difference! How nice it is to make a big deal out of a train trip!" Besides bad Russian movies and loud Indian MTV being blared from the television, we really had nothing to complain about as we saw the countryside roll by.

In the train, then, we had our winner for "Favorite mode of transportation in Central Asia." We hope to do a lot more of it in the coming months.

No comments: