I consider myself an adventurous, go with the flow, traveller, but as I get older, my desire for a touch of luxury grows. Where I used to sleep in mud jungle huts on a straw mattress atop a dirt floor, I now have more specific needs like a bedbug-free hotel room with air conditioning. I don’t care if it’s one star or three stars, I just need to sleep in cool peace.
The moment everything went wrong on our trip, was the moment we checked into Boudin hotel in Samarkand. The shiny split system air conditioning unit bolted just below the ceiling allured me like a fly to a light. After a full day of taxi mishaps and border crossings in the 45 degree heat, an air con oasis was just what I needed.
Click, click, beep…nothing happened. I tried it again. Our glorious air conditioner was broken. Disappointment overcame me. I demanded to switch rooms, and once again the air conditioning in the new room was non-functional as well. We did have a fan, so I decided to suck it up for a few days and rough it in the sweltering heat.
The next morning we made a dedicated effort to rise early and see the stunning architectural sights before the heat and crowds kicked in. We basked in the beauty of the Registan admiring the magnificent edifice all to ourselves. The Registan was built in the 1400’s as the city’s public square and is arguably the most famous historical building in all of Central Asia.
It was as beautiful and awe inspiring as all the postcards, travel websites, and Uzbekistan travel brochures that I had oggled over for years. I couldn’t believe I was fulfilling my lifelong dream of visiting this far off exotic land. As the morning crept on, the throngs of tourists never arrived, and it eventually dawned on me…no one visits Uzbekistan in the height of summer.
Walking back to the hotel, my stomach began to feel unsettled. Soon after, Tim and I both fell ill. We were confined to our sweaty hotel room for the rest of the day.
Spending the night attempting to sleep in sweltering heat with nothing but a fan, whilst intermittently vomiting in the bathroom wasn’t exactly how I imagined our time in Uzbekistan.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, the power went out. It was around 2AM, the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees (104 F). The hot stagnant air instantly clung to my skin like a warm embrace, and it was impossible to ignore the pool of moist perspiration that was forming on the sheets below my back.
In a moment of genius I remembered a water bottle I had placed in the hotel lobby’s freezer just a few hours before. I went to retrieve my frozen prize, opening the freezer door to reveal and empty abyss. Seriously? Someone has snagged my cool bottle of safe drinking goodness? In a fit of desperation my eyes scanned the lobby, WHO STOLE MY WATERBOTTLE?! I spotted a group of Arab men playing backgammon in the corner, and with them, my water bottle.
I approached them, yelling that they had stolen my water. They simply laughed and extended a platter of watermelon which they offered to me.
No air conditioning, no fan, no POWER, in the stifling heat with NO water and food poisoning. This was hardly the situation I imagined when planning my trip to Uzbekistan. All I could think of was my oversized bed in Melbourne and an icy cold Gatorade to quench my thirst and subside the stomach pain. Maybe a pharmacy where I could buy pills to stop vomiting…is that too much to ask?
While things didn’t get any worse (how would that be possible?) the rest of our time in Uzbekistan didn’t get much better either. We journeyed to the next major town where a promised two hour air conditioned train ride turned into a five hour non-air conditioned quest.
Our hotel had air conditioning (it was great!) but the days got so hot, we were forced to spend afternoons and evenings indoors until night fell and it was bearable to venture out again. By now I was severely regretting not reading the “when to visit” section in the Lonely Planet book.
The food poisoning continued for another ten days! I would be sick and bedridden, then Tim would be sick the next day. We basically alternated days being confined to the bathroom. As the sickness continued, we became more and more paranoid about the food around us.
I remember meeting a group of travellers in Kyrgyzstan who went on and on about Uzbekistan, the poor sanitation standards and the backwardness of the country. Mike Tyson’s face was plastered on billboards for community welfare housing, and upon further investigation Tyson had no involvement with Uzbekistan – his face had simply been nabbed (legally or illegally) and he became the poster boy for better housing in the country. Water conservation was virtually non-existent with councils watering lawns and sidewalks during peak hours of the afternoon, and sanitation was so poor one of the travellers actually contracted Dysentery. They warned us about Uzbekistan.
We knew getting sick during our trip was inevitable, guaranteed in India, but we didn’t expect it to happen so soon. The culprit? We suspect tainted milk in porridge at our hotel breakfast. Due to the incredible temperatures, fridges weren’t kept cold enough, and it doesn’t take much for non-pasteurized milk straight from the cow outside to go off.
We critiqued every piece of food placed in front of us, resorting to a diet of packaged instant noodles and bread.
A fellow traveller we met in Kyrgyzstan said the only restaurant she liked in Uzbekistan was an Italian place called Bella Italia. Her eyes lit up as she told us about it, and we laughed it off, of course we were not going to eat Italian in Uzbekistan, afterall, we were here for the most local, authentic experience.
Soon enough, Bella Italia became the only place we would eat at. We became those tourists.
Our journey in Uzbekistan wasn’t all grim. There were glimmers of joy throughout and some downright bizarre experiences and adventures!
We spent a day at a local waterpark in Tashkent, the capital city, ate at a wildly overpriced Thai restaurant, and met up with an old uni friend of Tim’s.
When the sun sank and night set in, we would venture from our hotel into the street markets filled with locals eating, kids driving around in remote control cars, amusement park games, and beautifully lit LED sidewalks. The local night market took place in nearly every central Asian city we visited, with families socialising and playing until the late hours of the night.
We originally planned to stay in Uzbekistan for two weeks, but cut it to 10 days, as the sickness and heat were unbearable. I would have loved to visit the dried up Aral Sea in the far north and ventured further into the desert, but alas, travel does not always turn out as expected.
I can now look back on the experience and laugh about it. Uzbekistan wasn’t what I expected. Part of me felt disappointed and let down, but I was grateful for the experience and the memories.