Jamie Lafferty

Jamie Lafferty has travelled to all seven continents and over 70 countries. Driving is his preferred method of travel; his least favourite is bobsleigh. Or maybe horse. He trusts neither.

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If you’re ever in need of diesel outside of Khiva in Uzbekistan, there’s a man in a caravan who can help you out.

I don’t know his name, nor do I know how much he charges, but you’ll know him when you see him. And he’ll know you.

Many Uzbek cars run on gas. Not in the American sense, but natural gas, with huge pressurised containers taking up most of their boot space. If it’s not gas, then it’s petrol, which, like everywhere else in the world, is abundant. Diesel is a bit more complicated. Uncommon most of the time, it completely dries up in autumn when national reserves are diverted to fuel agricultural machinery.

He’ll come running out – top off, grease-spattered and screaming about diesel like he’s just escaped from the set of Mad Max.

He’ll then lead you to his caravan, beside which several large barrels of diesel sit. You negotiate a price, rather than an amount, then he siphons what he feels is fair from the barrel into your tank. He has so much experience, this nameless man, that he no longer gets much of the foul mixture in his mouth. When you’re finished and the money is in his oily hand, he’ll wave you off with a big, toothless grin.

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GHOSTS OF THE ROAD

As I find out in a few days of driving across it, this is life in Uzbekistan; Central Asia’s most populous country and a place where weird things happen on the roads every day. I’m travelling as part of the Central Asia Rally, which cuts across 1,000 miles of Uzbekistan as it moves from Kazakhstan in the west to Tajikistan in the east. Uzbekistan is smaller than the former, but larger than the latter, about the same size as Germany and Portugal combined, but so wild are the variations in temperature and landscape that much of it is uninhabitable. Winters can drop to -30C in places, while summers can soar to 50C. In Uzbekistan, you have to be well-prepared for pretty much everything – especially if you’re driving a diesel car.

But then this has always been a country of migration and of travel, not least because the ancient Silk Road ran through it. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo all travelled – or rampaged – through, long before the Soviets christened it. The latter two would have likely stopped off in Khiva which, aside from being a haphazard stop for diesel, is perhaps the first great city in the west of Uzbekistan.

If millennia-old history here is full of wonder, then modern times have been distinctly unromantic. For a visceral display of Soviet malfeasance, the doomed Aral Sea lies a few hours north of Khiva. You can visit Muynak, once a fishing port but now a dusty expanse surrounded by the eerie (and highly photogenic) skeletons of ships; the result of water being diverted away for irrigation projects.

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Such modern madness is a long way away in Khiva, the historic centre of which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site for the last 25 years. So much has been preserved so well that it has the feeling of an open-air museum, a place just waiting to be the setting of the next underwhelming Indiana Jones film. The city, like many between here and China, looks so splendid today because of its association with the fabled Silk Road, the storied transcontinental trade route that altered the world through the exchange of goods, religions and cultures.

When the rally visits Khiva, then takes the long drive to Bukhara, we’re approximately following the old route eastwards. But it’s hard to imagine that in any other point in history it would have been more uncomfortable. The decimated trail that exists now is more like a bad memory of a road, 10 hours of driving characterised by violent potholes and great plumes of grey dust kicked up by thundering to and from China.

The decimated trail that exists now is more like a bad memory of a road.

After enduring this for several hours, my Hungarian co-drivers and I decide to cheat when we see a piece of new, not fully complete tarmac. The bollards indicate that driving here probably isn’t entirely legal, but there’s just about enough room to get the car through and it gives our backsides a rest for fifteen wonderful minutes.

But then, just as suddenly as it started, the road ends, cordoned off by huge, don’t-mess-with-us concrete blocks. Rather than double all the way back, we decide to try and cheat again, by driving on just a little bit of desert to get around the blocks and back onto the old road.

This, as it turns out, is a terrible idea.

Almost immediately, the car gets stuck in the sand, a small hump enough to trap its belly and turn it into a kind of useless seesaw. And there we sit, stuck, helpless in the middle of the Uzbek wilderness.

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SMALL MERCIES

It’s a great mercy that the dreadfulness of the driving surfaces is not replicated in the personality of the people. Perhaps it’s because this is an ancient route of travellers, but the concern and etiquette of the Uzbek people is absolutely astonishing. In half an hour of being on the side of the road, four cars stop without me hailing them, each apologising for not having their towing gear but offering food and water instead.

After a while, a minivan of four men also stops and, without me trying to explain what’s going on, they immediately begin trying to fish our car out of the sand. It’s hot, difficult work, but the men seem overjoyed to be helping. With an enormous language barrier I can’t do any more than show my gratitude (they embarrassedly refuse the offer of money) but I suspect that they are so dedicated to helping people in distress in the hope that they would one day receive the same should they ever find themselves in a similar position.

It’s a great mercy that the dreadfulness of the driving surfaces is not replicated in the personality of the people.

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Vmmm Vrrrce! Vmmm Vrrrce!

Hours later, on the border of Bukhara, a policeman with a machine gun is shouting in our window, a row of golden teeth making him sound as though he’s trying to speak with a golf ball in his mouth. In neighbouring countries this would make me quite nervous, but after a few days in Uzbekistan I feel surprising relaxed. Besides, I’ve heard this, or something like it, the world over, from Oman to Argentina to England. Often in England. The Hungarians, meanwhile, have no idea what’s going on.

I’ve just told the man with the gun that I’m from Scotland (‘Schottlandia’ in Russian) and his automatic response is ”William Wallace!” Not just because of the Kalashnikov he’s holding, I smile and nod, and he lets us on our way.

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HAVE CAR, WILL TRAVEL

Bukhara, like Khiva, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but has a history far greater than that modern stamp can reasonably cover. Alexander the Great knew about this place, as have done millions of others in the intervening 2,400 years – Macedonians, Persians, Ottomans…

Today, travellers from around the world continue to gather here, in search of trade and knowledge they can find nowhere else. At the heart of the city lies the 900-year-old Kalyan Minaret, the centrepiece of a mosque complex and the point from which the rest of the city evolves. After two days of wandering the labyrinthine alleys and laneways of Bukhara I’m in no rush to leave, but Samarkand – arguably the most famous and historic site on the Uzbek portion of the Silk Road – is just a few hours away to the east.

*****

Tomes have been written about the architecture and history here; UNESCO declared it the ‘Crossroads of Culture’ when citing it in 2001. No one knows exactly how old it is, but archaeological evidence points to people being here when the Neanderthals were still in Europe – 40,000 years ago. There are other sites from the later Mesolithic era and the Iron Age, which is to say that by the time Alexander sacked it in 329BC, the city had existed for a long time. Over the centuries it was invaded and squabbled over again and again. A great many lives have been lost in and for Samarkand, making it all the more miraculous that it remains so complete, so consistently astonishing today.

The rally has taken us from Budapest and will continue on into Tajikistan and the finishing line, a course of more than 5,000 miles in total. But nowhere in between is there a prettier town than Samarkand, which is now – as it was to Marco Polo in the 13th Century – ‘a large and splendid city.’

Words by Jamie Lafferty 

Published 6th February 2015

Images 

Ships in the desertArian Zwegers & Martijn.Munneke

The road to the wildernessPekka Taminen

Cities of the Silk RoadFulvio Spada, stefan_fotosMichał Huniewicz (2) & Jose Javier Martin Esparo

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