Public transport in Uzbekistan is not quite ready for mass tourism yet. Sure, there are trains to cover the vast distances between the main desert cities, but a general lack of these together with an awkwardly difficult bureaucracy (not to mention the lack of English skills of personnel!) makes it a near-impossible task to take one when you don’t have travel plans fixed a week in advance.. VIP buses are not so common either and very few people are willing to cover the distance by bike (or very old-school, on camel back), so what is left to explore the magnificent country are taxis. Private, or for the chasers of a real Uzbek experience: shared.
A real adventure to embark on, but with these tips you should be sufficiently prepared for the unforgettable journey.
- Know that fear is futile
If you ever felt unsafe on the road, I beg you to rethink that feeling. Uzbek drivers make it a sport to drive on the wrong side of the road (or next to it, claiming there are just too many holes in the road to drive on it) and to dodge truck drivers coming from the other side as late as possible. Keep a poker face and act unimpressed, a frightened look will make them chuckle even more and hit the gas harder!
- Silence? Catch up on sleep? Keep dreaming
For some reason, Uzbek drivers are always calling. Friends, relatives, colleagues, it doesn’t matter, but talking they will. For the few moments that they aren’t calling, you will find yourself wishing they would because they would be texting (and therefore, not looking at the road) instead. Loud and repetitive Russian hard bass, making the old cars tremble even more than the dire road quality, is not uncommon either on long—haul rides!
- You will make new friends
Part of taking a shared taxi is that in whatever way, comfortably or uncomfortably, you will get acquainted with your co-passengers. Questions like “Are you married?” or “Do you have children?” are very common and ig you are an unmarried couple travelling together, the resounding “No” will be met with disbelief and confusion, after which they’ll just proceed to the next question. Be prepared to sweat it out next to sweatier men (often with their legs WIDE open resulting in no space for you at all) and to pose for multiple selfies.
- Chewing tobacco
Although it is prevalent all over Central-Asia, nasvai (a type of tobacco that is usually chewed until the flavour is gone and then spat out) is particularly popular among taxi drivers in the region. Expect to be offered (unless you are a woman) and don’t bat an eye if they open their doors driving at 80 km/h to spit it out on the roadside before taking yet another batch. Also, whatever you do, do NOT swallow it. Not only will you be the subject of shameless laughter, you’ll be stuck with the awful taste as well.
- Bring your own food, and more…
Chances are you’ll find yourself in a shared taxi for more than 5 hours, for example from Bukhara to Khiva. If you expect the taxi to stop for lunch breaks, you could be very disappointed. Although it happens, you don’t always know. Once, my driver stopped somewhere and just left off for half an hour, in which case I did not know if it was appropriate or safe to just leave the car alone with all my luggage inside. Turned out afterwards that he took lunch but didn’t bother to tell me what he was going to do. So I did not have food until 7 hours later upon arrival. Lesson learnt for sure! And of course, whatever you bring you are expected to share with your fellow passengers. They might even claim their share before you start yourself.
- Learn to play the waiting game
Taxis only leave when full. At a huge parking on the outskirts od the city with 100+ taxis, that can take a while. Passengers are not all put in the same vehicle, but most likely spread out until one driver is convincing enough to get more passengers to fill up. Add to that about half an hour arguing with other taxis and Uzbeks fighting over the best seating position and calling their relatives and you’re good to go. Sometimes you might even find that taxis randomly stop somewhere to receive a package (occasionally wrapped clandestinely, giving it a dodgy look and making you feel like a local smuggler for just a bit!) and deliver it elsewhere along the way. Being patient is what makes or breaks your day here!
But finally, just enjoy your ride knowing that after all, you are in beautiful and crazy Uzbekistan. You might think you’ll never arrive, but their reckless speeds greatly make up for the loss of time during the numerous calls, breaks and packages. One thing is for sure, after crossing the border into Kazakhstan and stepping into a real, comfortable and professional taxi with full leather seats and a state of the art music installation, my heart ached a little.