In Turkmenistan, the petrol is incredibly cheap, available at regular intervals at politely staffed petrol stations, many of which take Visa. Perhaps because of this, the locals have driven the roads ragged. In Uzebekistan, the contrary problem is evident. We did not see a single petrol station selling petrol for the whole of our time in that country. Even if we could find petrol, we also could not find a single ATM from which we could withdraw cash to pay for it. Perhaps because of this, the roads are pre-eminently passable.
As a result, whilst the car was being dismantled with home-welded hammers, Jack and Dom were walking around in 40C heat trying to withdraw money.
After being directed to four different banks, the 5th bank that Jack tried took VISA. The maximum withdrawal amount was equivalent of $100 (USD), which gets you 237,800 SOM in local currency. It felt like monopoly money and the 200 SOM notes almost had the same value, being worth just 5p each. Jack found out his pockets weren’t big enough and required a plastic bag to hold all the dough.
Returning to the bank with a second debit card, Jack and Dom were excited to be informed that all of the cash money dollar had gone home for lunch or something. A lengthy trek to a second bank was rewarded with Dollars available at a 6% commission. They returned empty-handed and grabbed some lunch from a local café. With no idea of what anything was on the menu, they received dumplings, bread and cold water for two for the grand total of £3.75.
That night we threw wads of cash at each other in a hotel room. It was like that scene in Mission Impossible when they have pulled off the heist, except each wad of cash was worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper (which is admittedly more valuable the further East you go).
To celebrate, we walked around Nukus looking for beer and food. Nukus is an interesting city, I suppose. It is characterised by soviet fetishism for geometry (without the grandeur) coalescing with an absence of concern for practicality or finishing things. That is to say: it’s square and ugly. The roads switch capriciously between thick dust concealing large holes and fair tarmac. Nukus covers an irritatingly large geographic area: a diffuse suburban grid with no clear centre or public transport, around which you may occasionally happen upon ornamental squares. These squares are always partly overgrown, partly dying, giving them the unkempt feel of the undead. Whereas in a European city, a central square will often be framed by smart flats topped with penthouses, Nukus’ squares are bordered by the occasional, jutting apartment building placed asymmetrically to everything else and maybe an “OK, go on then” grade kebab restaurant. It was at such an establishment that we ate kebabs. After we had finished our kebabs, six bowls of plain rice arrived.
We got our tow eye fixed first thing in the morning and repeated our cash search before moving off en-route to Bukhara. It was around then that we realised that the petrol shortage was endemic. We did, however, stop at tens of petrol stations before sluggishly arriving at this conclusion. We saw a petrol station purporting to have petrol just once in Uzbekistan: as you will later discover, this was not a fruitful discovery.
Reclining in the leather chairs of the Rover, looking out through tinted windows, we used philosophy to deduce several possible causes of the fuel shortage:
- Uzbekistan exports so much fuel that it has caused a semi-permanent domestic fuel shortage
- It was cotton picking season in Uzbekistan and all the machinery was using up the fuel (Uzbekistan, #4 exporter of cotton)
- Supply and Demand were actually in perfect equilibrium, it was just the case that, given intense uncertainty over whether this supply would continue, locals would drain petrol stations each time they were filled (Economics 101)
- A fleet of Rover limousines had passed by recently
- The petrol was “in the post”
Nevertheless, it is fairly simple to come by “Benzin” in Uzbekistan if you just implement these tried and tested methods:
- Pull a hauntingly forlorn facial expression whilst waiting by a petrol pump in an abandoned fuel station.
- Pull up to groups of men you find throughout populated areas and shout “Benzin!? Eh!? Eh!” at them out of the window. Two will peel away from the main group after a heated discussion and lead you away. The car they climb into will probably be a cream Lada from circa 1990. They will take you to a garage full of 2 litre plastic bottled full of yellowish liquid and there a man, who obviously occasionally drinks his own stock, will charge you either an astronomical or a suspiciously reasonable price.
- Drive with your horn held down with one team member’s entire upper body out of the passenger-side window (a sun roof will work just as well) violently waving an empty jerry can
- Drill, refine, repeat
- Look for empty plastic bottles by the side of the road, these signal “fuel here”
On the move, with barely any fuel in the tank, we were overtaken by a Mongol Rally team. They sped past us, one team member with his entire upper body out of the passenger window violently waving an empty jerry can (that’s how it’s done, we nodded sagely to one another, impressed). As they went by, they gestured that they had to drive quickly in order to get to fuel soon, as they were running low. Our nodding became more confused. Sort of half circles in lateral and vertical directions.
The Lonely Planet, anecdotes and other dubious information sources had put ‘Plov’ on our minds. It was getting late and we thought that it would be a good time to try and find it. For four men travelling without the comforts of home, this was only natural. We were told we should try it in varied locations, as it would be different every time. Different ‘stans and regions spice their Plov up in different ways and some places make it slow whilst others turn the heat up and get it going quickly. We had done a couple of quick web searches but came to understand that the local women would do it better than we could by ourselves; they’ve had the practice and know the secrets, passed down from their mothers. With some embarrassment incurred, we had searched in vain for Plov in Nukus. It is hard to know who or how to ask for such an intimate thing and we imagined there might be a level of resentment towards foreigners impinging. Dom, having heard we would not have any trouble getting himself some, was getting quite heated about the fruitlessness of our search and by now was feeling quite un(P)loved.
We were hungry. Our experience of Uzbek food to date had really only involved kebabs and dumplings. We tried two separate places to find that they had only one large frozen fish each. This was surprising. We carried on, only to see the Rally team that had passed us earlier. Together we ate at a roadside restaurant and became friendly with a man purporting to be a manager at a major oil corporation. After beers, spaghetti soup and kebabs, we split with the Jimny and the other team, who intended to make it to Bhukara that night, whilst we preferred to camp.
The light faded quickly. Without full beams on, it was impossible to see the road. Seeing the road was essential for avoiding the pot holes. The Uzbek Pot Hole only comes out at night; this is how it evades repair. It can be seen leaping from one side of the road to the other in order to trap its prey; its staple food being the common or garden variety Rover Limousine. Growing tired of these shenanigans, we searched with increasing urgency for somewhere to pull over to sleep. A track appeared and disappeared on the left; “track to Starboard” yelled Jack. This confused Dom, who was not used to conversing in nautical terms. We drove past it. “Is that another one?” asked Dom, just a metre or two later. “Uhm I don’t –“. Dom pulled off the road.
Had it been daylight, he would have remembered that this road led through a desert and that deserts predominantly contain sand. He would have further realised that the limousine is averse to sand, as we had proved driving to the door to hell. Following this chain of logic, he would not have driven the limousine directly into a deep well of soft sand. With its rear end obstructing traffic and its front end mired, the limo was in a tight spot. “We’ll push it out” said Dom hopefully. We’ll push the 2 ton limousine out of the sand. “Prove me wrong!” he cried defiantly. Leaning to, the four pushed the limo. At first it seemed hopeless. Then they all heard it creak. It was hopeless. The creaking was Dom’s defiance being crippled.
It’s not every day that you see an English limousine parked horizontally across a road in Uzbekistan. In the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere. Either this fact, or the fact that we were obstructing traffic in both directions, lead to a crowd forming. It was a minor circus. Lorry drivers held down their horns, whilst people mobbed the scene, shouted in broken English, Russian and Uzbek. The headlights of vehicles parked haphazardly across the road criss-crossed the area with intense beams of dazzling light.
Someone volunteered to tow us out. It was relatively easy and the limo popped right out of the desert and back onto the road. Then it hit the car towing it. “Dom, what the fuck!” “$50, $50!” chanted the baying mob. We (Dom) had grazed the bumper of the white sedan who had so kindly offered to help us out. “$50!” Dom reached into the front of his shorts. Uzbek women, watching, giggled hysterically. He pulled out his …wallet. We paid up and left.
Just a few miles down the road Jack spotted a truck stop and suggested asking if we could sleep there. Adjusting a sentence we found in the “Romance” section of our phrasebook, we asked if we could stay the night. The price shocked us all. It came in at 75p per person.
After a beer, Jack and Ollie were in with the locals who promptly gave them shots of vodka. They put on a video of an Uzbek pop star and we all went to bed.