Early morning rise and checkout, and then a quick transfer to the airport. The flight is at 6.40, the check in procedure is chaotic and after the worst security inspection on this side of the new millennium we yet again carry our own bags to have them loaded on the waiting AHTOHOB AH-24 turboprop. At least the commotion helps ensuring that I don’t doze off and sleep through the flight missing out on the fun. We are headed to the eastern city of Mary where we will do some sightseeing before boarding a bus and drive towards the Uzbek border and make it to Bukhara sometime in the evening. I have a fun if somewhat limited conversation with a girl named Nadja who is returning home from a holiday trip to Iran. Apart from her stylish clothing I notice she is carrying a decent load of U.S. dollars in her designer purse and take the opportunity to trade some Swedish bills for the missing denominations in my Turkmen collection of Manats. One interesting detail is how the president has grey hair on the bills yet the blackest of black these days.
Mary is supposedly a truly fascinating place of the orient, a conglomeration of five different cities from different epochs, but to be honest I don’t really remember it as that spectacular. In fact the most amazing thing is how the oldest members of our troupe – being well over 90 years old – are racing up the hills to the remnants of an ancient city. I hope I can be at least in half as good condition when I am sixty, but I have my doubts. When we arrive to visit the local museum the caretaker hurries to light up the spotlights of the portrait of the president which hangs in the entrance hallway. We have our lunch at a local place and then hop into our bus and start the ten hour drive to Bukhara. The highway is crossing the Karakum desert and a lot of the time is spent dozing off behind the thick, brown curtains to cover from the blazing sun. Sometimes we drive through sleepy towns, always on the lookout for the golden statues of our favourite leader.
The bus suffers a breakdown in the middle of nowhere and with no traffic in sight things are getting a bit interesting. Some anxiety is spreading through the group but I take the opportunity to walk out into the dunes to take some snaps. I don’t get that far though, the heat is killing me. Our competent drivers fix the situation and within half an hour we are on the way again. A lengthier and much more annoying stop will take place this night. As we come up to the Uzbek border crossing we say goodbye to Gholuya and happily wave across the border to Shoista who has been standing around patiently waiting for our return. However, as we are about to cross the border the guards get into the game. They have decided that they need to fill their inspection quota, and in the middle of the night, and since the border post is pretty much deserted, who could be a better client than our group? A lengthy inspection takes place and Shoista gets busy discussing with the four guards while we stare in half amusement, half disbelief. Some of us take the opportunity to get out and have a laugh at it all, even making some jokes with the officers. It doesn’t help much though, we end up having to drag all of our bags out of the bus and submit them to the border post where they will be thoroughly searched. Fortunately the inspectors grow bored faster than we do, and only a few of us actually have to undergo this exercise.
Getting the passport stamped is an interesting procedure reminding of a factory conveyor belt. You start out in Turkmenistan where an official will inspect your documents, stamp accordingly, hand them over to a colleague who pretty much does the same thing, and then hands it over to a third official who inspects, scruitinizes and stamps and then hands it over to a fourth guy who does the now familiar routine and before you realize what has happened you are standing outside the office on Uzbek soil. We’ve been kept at the checkpoint something like one and a half or two hours and everybody is pretty tired and alseep most of the time while we drive the remaining distance to Bukhara and happily occupy our rooms at the gigantic New Bukhara Hotel. Aaah, sleep…