August 16: Fergana City, Uzbekistan
7:00 Today we will travel about 350 km from Fergana City to Tashkent. There’s just one catch: The government of Uzbekistan, in its infinite wisdom, has deemed the mountain pass between Fergana City and Tashkent to be too dangerous for anything but passenger vehicles. It’s not that vans and buses cannot make the trip, they just cannot do it with passengers onboard. Fortunately a company owned by one of the President’s daughters has a fleet of at least one hundred Chevrolet Cobalts and they are more than happy to make the trip with one of their drivers and up to three passengers per vehicle. (Duncan and Jalal made the crossing with the empty truck late last night.) The Cobalts have air conditioning, seats that are far more comfortable than a Dragoman truck, and the Uzbek drivers are certainly entertaining characters.
(Note: The only vehicles currently sold in Uzbekistan are several models of Chevrolets produced in Uzbekistan as part of a 75/25 joint venture between the State owned Uzavtosanoat and General Motors Corporation. There’s a three year wait for delivery of a new Chev. While other vehicles can be imported, they are subject to a 100% import duty. Nine out of 10 vehicles are Chevs and 9 out of 10 Chevs are white.)
8:05 Our group of 24 is split between eight Cobalts. I ride with an Aussie couple, Heather and Kirk, who are happy to take the back seat. I ride up front with the driver. I’d tell you his name if I knew it but after eight hours he didn’t say a single word except for a few cellphone conversations in Uzbek. When I said earlier that the drivers were ‘entertaining’ I was referring to their driving skills. More on that later.
8:35 Before we leave Fergana City we make a pitstop at a silk factory. The place is usually closed on a Sunday but several men are on hand to open up and give us a tour. There are modern silk factories in Uzbekistan — it’s one of their largest industries — but this isn’t one of them. While it seems a tad “touristy”, the guide is interesting and knowledgeable. Within the first minute of the tour I easily expand my lifetime accumulation of silk production facts and figures by a power of 10. At the end of the tour most of the girls head to a gift shop and purchase a few meters of raw silk, a scarf, table runner, or some such souvenir. I did not make a purchase. In fact I missed the entire second half of the tour while I slept off a killer hangover under a shade tree in the yard.
13:00 We stop for lunch in an old Soviet era ballroom. Everyone orders from a menu and few choose the same item. Service is understandably slow. If it were up to me I’d tell the group that it’s a set menu and they can chose to eat what they’re given or go hungry. I’ve only been in Uzbekistan a few days and already I’m thinking like the President.
16:03 We come to another Passport Control Stop. The tone at this one is particularly serious as large parts of the mountain pass are controlled by the military and photos are strictly prohibited. Armed guards line the road and snipers are positioned in nearby towers. We get out of the cars, have our passports scanned by a clerk at a roadside hut, then carry on. No sideways glances and certainly no photos. I get the impression they’d shoot first and ask questions later if I were to wield a camera.
16:17 We make it through passport control in a record 14 minutes.
16:50 Photos are allowed at a rest stop near the highest part of the mountain pass. Many kids approach the cars and say, “Mister, Hello.” At first I thought they were begging but it turns out they are just eager to practice the English that is now a mandatory subject in public school.
17:00 The view is nice but so too are the roads. At no point do I sense any danger due to road conditions. (Snipers are quite another thing.) The road is no different than the Trans Canada Highway through the Rockies. We’re riding in Cobalts instead of our overland truck simply because the President says so.
18:00. We arrive at Tashkent and check into the very comfortable Hotel Konstantin. There’s a small pool and a nice patio bar shaded by trellises laden with fat red grapes. Most of us agree, this is exactly what the long term travel doctor ordered.