We arrived at the Kazakh-Uzbek border in total darkness, not knowing what to expect. There was a long queue of cars, perhaps 50 or more, with their engines off. People were standing and sitting around chatting, eating, drinking, and smoking. Some were sleeping on camping mats on the ground, wrapped in their jackets. We asked one of the people how long the wait would take. He said, perhaps it would be until tomorrow evening, or longer, hard to tell. We were disappointed – no one wanted to lose a whole day sitting around here in the dust!
Zsolt and I walked all the way to the border gate and started asking around there. The uniformed soldier guarding the gate then told us that, because we were tourists and had EU passports, we could jump the whole queue and they would process us immediately. Surprised by such preferential treatment, we went back to the car and drove past everyone else, all the way to the gate, where they indeed let us through. There, we were separated. Zsolt, as the driver and owner of the car, had to stay with it and go through all the car import formalities, while Eslie and I would have to go through the passenger border and customs control. So we did. We were stamped out of Kazakhstan, walked across the neutral zone along a fenced-off corridor where people were running around changing money or sitting on the dirty floor selling trinkets, with a massive queue of cars on the other side of the fence, waited at the Uzbek gate, and finally went through passport control and immigration there. The whole thing took about half an hour and we were in Uzbekistan, on the other side of the gate. Zsolt and the car were nowhere to be seen.
We waited in absolute silence for three hours, although it felt like an eternity. We were tired because it was something like 3 am and we hadn’t slept at all. It was very cold: we were in shorts and all our warm clothes were with Zsolt in the car. There was nothing to sit on apart from the cold, dirty pavement. People were carrying ridiculous amounts of luggage back and forth, somewhere into the darkness. We could see the Uzbek border building, cars being searched and coming out one by one, about one car in 15-20 minutes.
While we were waiting, Zsolt had to get various stamps, copies of his passport and car papers, fill out a customs form, and answer the guards ten times that he didn’t have any narcotics or weapons. Then we finally saw the car appearing at the checkpoint. We observed from the distance how the guards forced Zsolt to take out all the bags from the car and then thoroughly searched everything inside. He then had to go through immigration control and load everything back in. We were not allowed to help. Finally, they let him go and we were reunited.
The next step was the car insurance. This was similar to Kazakhstan: there was a shack with a dude selling it. This time it was in the middle of the night though, and it took a very long time to wake him up, after which he very slowly started filling in the necessary papers. There were money changing ladies here, too, and this time they succeeded in pulling a scam on us: we changed money for 5500 Uzbek som for one dollar. Later we learned that the actual exchange rate was 8300 som. But there, we had no internet and no way of verifying what the exchange rate was.
After a total of five hours for this crossing, and shortly before sunrise, we were all in Uzbekistan with all papers in order, extremely tired and in a very bad mood. I fell asleep on the back seat, while the guys took turns driving.
A couple of hours later I woke up. The car was standing. We were in a desert that looked even drier and more barren than Kazakhstan. The sun was shining; it was still early in the morning, but already baking hot. Giant blue dragonflies and weird scary orange-red wasps were flying around.
It turned out that our very rusty exhaust pipe didn’t appreciate all this rattling on the bad roads and broke in two pieces. Eslie attempted a fix using duct tape and some cable ties.
The fix didn’t work very well, and so we continued our journey with the car sounding like a 50 year old Soviet tractor. At least we were driving again. I fell back to sleep.
Soon I awoke again from a really loud noise and a very sudden stop. This sounded much worse than the exhaust. And indeed it was.
The beam that connected the right rear wheel to the car frame broke off. The rusty clamp that had been holding it in place fell off completely. The whole suspension collapsed and the car was resting directly on the wheel. This whole side of the frame had been very rotten since the beginning, and all the bad roads now caused it to fail. We would not be going anywhere like this.
Eslie managed to apply a temporary fix by making a hole in the chassis under the back seat on the right side, fit ratchet straps through this hole, and raise the broken beam towards the frame by tightening those straps. At least the wheel could now turn again. It was clear that we wouldn’t get very far with this fix.
A truck driver stopped and asked if we need help. He examined Eslie’s creation, scratched his head and said he didn’t have a better idea either – we would have to try to get to the next car shop like this. He said it was some 20 km further down the road.
It took us an hour to get there, going very carefully at 20 km/h on the very bumpy road and praying that the straps would hold. When we arrived it turned out to be quite a bizarre place, with lots of scrap lying around, in the middle of the desert. A couple of Uzbek guys were hanging out in the shade. There was not much going on. We drove the car to their workshop pit and showed it to them.
They had a look and shook their heads. Everything was happening very slowly. We were waiting in the scorching heat. After half an hour or so it turned out they didn’t have proper welding equipment. The owner said that the next place that could weld this properly was another 180km down the road, in Kungrad, the next big city. In order for us to get there, they temporarily “fixed” the beam by adding some thick wire to our ratchet straps to hold it in place:
The guy said the wire was strong and we could go as fast as 80 km/h with it, and it would even be strong enough to get us to Mongolia. I am pretty sure it was meant as a joke, but the wire definitely stabilised the wheel somewhat, although it was visibly in an odd position. Eslie also did something to the exhaust that made it much quieter, although it still needed welding.
While we were tinkering with the car, a guy came along on a bicycle. He turned out to be Marc, a Swiss dude who was on an epic one-year solo bicycle adventure, going from Switzerland to Southeast Asia.
The car shop also had a restaurant next to it. So we stayed for lunch, and joined Marc at a table. The food consisted of rice with meat, tomato and cucumber salad, and tea. The room was swarming with flies, but after a whole day without proper food this lunch seemed delicious.
It also turned out that they had screwed us with the money at the border, where they had given us 5500 som per dollar. Here at this restaurant they were offering 8100. (The actual exchange rate was 8300, as we learned later.) It’s a bit similar to the Kazakh guys who tried to omit a zero, counting on the fact that tourists don’t know the rate. This was a lesson for us: be aware of the actual exchange rate before going to one of these countries. The Uzbekistani Som is quite a weird currency anyway because of the low value of the banknotes. For 20 US dollars, we got the following massive stack of bills:
With the temporary fixes in place, and our stomachs sufficiently filled, we said goodbye to Marc and set off for Kungrad at around 3pm. Parts of the road were appaling. There was only desert as far as the eye can see. Sometimes there were some rusty pipes sticking out of the sand. The whole scenery could have been straight from a Mad Max movie.
While on that road, we hit the mark of 5000 km driven since we left Budapest.
In the evening, around 7pm, we got to Kungrad. The wire was still holding up. We had to ask around for a while before we could find a car shop that had welding equipment. Finally we found one. The guys at this place were just about to call it a day and go home when we arrived. But when they saw us, they became interested. We put the car up on their ramp and the guys went to work. They first had a look and consulted with each other. The whole frame around the broken piece was rotten and there was no easy way to reconnect them. Apparently the challenge of the task ahead motivated them, so they decided to stay and fix our car. We were mostly sitting around as they were welding.
In the end, they pulled off a pretty impressive fix. They found a plank of metal with the right size, and hammered it into shape such that they could weld it on to bridge all the rotten parts of the frame. Then they attached the wheel beam with the clamp to that, and welded it into place. The boss said in the end that the weld would be “70% secure”. We gave them 50 dollars for their work. Here’s the finished job:
When they were finished, it was about 10 pm and dark. The exhaust was still not done, and we decided to finish this with the same welder guys tomorrow morning. We were extremely tired and needed to sleep. However we were told earlier that this whole town didn’t have a single hotel, as tourists normally never came to Kungrad.
We asked the car shop boss for help and he offered to sort us out with some accomodation for the night. He drove us to some friends of his a few blocks down the road. They had a house with a small bar in the front, and a two-bedroom flat on the ground floor in the back that they were renting out. For 20,000 Somoni per person ($2.40) we could stay at this guest flat for the night. They also let us park the car behind their gate. We decided to stay there and sealed the deal. The car boss then shook our hands and left. We agreed to meet again tomorrow at 8:30 at his shop to fix the exhaust.
The place where we were staying wasn’t exactly up to Western standards, but instead it had lots of authentic local character. There were cockroaches. The toilet was one of the “hole-in-the-ground” types outside in the garden. Finally, there was no running water at all. Instead, they brought us several buckets of cold water that we could use for washing. Despite all that, we were happy to have a bed for the night. There was really no other option anyway.
The housewife warned us to not get drunk, not cause any trouble, and not do any “private stuff”. Then her husband invited us to have some freshly made samosas and cold beer (which we were very happy about), and even offered us vodka (which we declined, to his big surprise).
Stay tuned for another exciting day in Uzbekistan!