Chores when Overlanding in Uzbekistan (Where are We – Uzbekistan 2)


#1. Find diesel

#2. Get the SIM card working

#3. Get registered on the Uzbekistan registration app

#4. Visit the Savitsky Art Museum

That, in Uzbekistan, means a time-consuming day program, if not a two-day program. After all, it’s January 2nd. Yesterday, New Year’s day, everything was closed. We couldn’t even find a place to eat. We drove through the largely empty streets of Nukus.

Fortunately, there are always people out there willing to help a  stranger.

If there is anything that gives hope for this planet it’s this experience, that time and again, no matter where, we come across the kindest, hospitable people who give a helping hand to people whom they have never met, don’t know, and may never see again in their lives.

Driving on an empty road in Uzbekistan

Overlanding in Uzbekistan

Nukus lies in western Uzbekistan, some 600 kilometers from the border with Kazakhstan which we crossed a couple of days ago.

The western side of Uzbekistan largely consists of an endless flat desert. The region probably is at its dreariest under a dark-grey sky void of any colors, which has been  nature’s ceiling during our drive across that vast emptiness that is home to not much more than shrub, camels, and pipelines.

Karakalpakstan, as this part of the country is called, is largely an autonomous region, at least on paper. It is incredibly rich in history, particularly this narrow section around Nukus and Khiva which runs into Turkmenistan because it once was all one massive oasis.

With the wide Amu Darya River (in ancient time known as the Oxus River) running through the region, the soil was fertile which allowed empires to rise and conquer each other. It was part of the famous Silk Road.

Read More: Where to Find Silk Road History in Termez, Uzbekistan

street in Nukus, Uzbekistan

Nukus itself doesn’t have such a rich history. It’s a 20th-century town that grew from a small settlement in the 1930s to the location for the Soviet Union’s Chemical Research Institute. It is the capital of Karakalpakstan.

Today, the town largely consists of wide roads, the typical derelict Soviet-era apartment buildings in suburbs, as well as a surprising number of big, modern buildings downtown, I assume many are government offices.

While working hard to look like a modern town with a big plaza, new museum buildings, two enormous flag poles (one with the Uzbekistan and one with the Karakalpakstan flag), Nukus feels void of joy.

So, that’s where we are.

Here’s what we did.

Travel Guides for Central Asia

(click on the images to look inside)

Bradt Travel Guides – Tajikistan

Bradt Travel Guides – Uzbekistan

Bradt Travel Guides – Kyrgyzstan

Products from Amazon

Flag Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan

Get SIM Cards Working

Yesterday we had topped up our telephone balance (in a machine) but the Internet still didn’t work. The office of Beeline was open and an employee spoke English. He couldn’t help as our SIM Card isn’t Beeline but Ucell, however, he was kind enough to drive us to the Ucell office. The office was closed. 

We chatted a bit with the man who had brought us here and he figured out what the problem was. In surrounding countries you buy a SIM card and charge it with money when you need it. It doesn’t have to be topped up every month. 

In Uzbekistan, however, it does.

We had used our SIM card in November, not in December (we were in Kazakhstan). Thus our topping up had just leveled our balance from a negative to zero, and not enough money was left on the card to activate our internet plan for January.

As all the Paynet machines were off on this day, our friendly helper kindly wired our January fees per telephone to our numbers, while standing outside next to our car. We paid him back in cash. 

How kind was that?

Nukus Plaza & Savitsky Art Museum, Uzbekistan
From: Savitsky Art Museum – locals in traditional head gear in a horse race

Getting Diesel

What’s the big deal in getting diesel, you may ask. Yet this seemingly simple task can be a headache for overlanders in Uzbekistan.

Thank you iOverlander. This app, started some 6 years ago by Sam and Erica and for which Coen did a lot of beta testing at the time, has grown into the main digital resource for overlanders. On this app, overlanders share camp spots, workshops and lots of other practical points.

In Uzbekistan it’s a practical way to learn where to find diesel as this is far from obvious. All cars in Uzbekistan drive on gas as do most trucks.

Gas station in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has liquid gas stations all over the place. They are rudimentary, large, concrete Soviet constructions selling either Propan, Methan, or just gas. They are often referred to as ‘Gaz Bar’ on the signs.

There is one catch. These big Gaz Bar’s sell only liquid gas, no petrol or diesel.

So we followed an iOverlander point and drove out of the city center. Across from one such ‘Gaz Bar’ was a small, dilapidated looking place with three pumps, two for gasoline and one for diesel. Pistols hung on improvised wire hooks as the original old pump pistol holders were either broken or gone.

The place looked deserted but after knocking on the door, a man came out. Initially he didn’t want to help, saying the diesel is only for businesses but since we needed only 45 liters he agreed to help.

How kind was that?

We paid and he filled up – without working meters on the pump we will just have to take his word for it that we actually got 45 liters. Who knows.

For overlanders – Here’s the iOverlander website.

Gas station in Uzbekistan
Gas station in Uzbekistan

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Visiting the Savitsky Art Museum

There is only one reason to come to Nukus and that’s for this art museum. Mr. Savitsky was a Russian born in Kiev early 20th century. Arriving in Uzbekistan to assist as an artist impression painter on an archeology excavation expedition, he never returned home.

He became an avid collector of avant-garde art that was forbidden elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but for some reason the authorities couldn’t be bothered with what happened in this backwater in that respect. Mr. Savitsky also collected a massive number of items of anthropological and archaeological interest, often from peoples’ homes whose owners did not understand the value of it.

Eventually the authorities built a museum of which Mr. Savitsky was curator until his death. Recently two new museum buildings were built in the heart of town, on the big massive empty square with the tall, massive flags along the wide, empty boulevard.

Nukus Plaza & Savitsky Art Museum, Uzbekistan

We visited one of the buildings, which displays a collection of paintings, historical and cultural artifacts. To be honest, the story of the museum is more interesting than the museum itself. I am more a history buff and loved the ossuaries that have been found from Zoroastrian times whereas Coen took a bigger interest in the paintings. 

Never short of caretakers in places like this, women sat on every corner doing nothing. In this rather new museum many lights didn’t work, which infuriated Coen who went on a hunt searching for switches and asking for new light bulbs (the latter to no avail).

This, by the way, pretty much sums up the state of the average museum in Central Asia (and Siberia).

Nukus Plaza & Savitsky Art Museum, Uzbekistan
From: Savitsky Art Museum

Getting Coffee

One can get only so many things done without a proper dose of caffeine.

It’s another point that sounds too simple to be a challenge, right?

Wrong, again. With Nescafe being the default in a country that drinks mostly tea, finding good coffee isn’t a matter of course. (You need a modern supermarket in a city to be able to buy coffee to brew your own).

Across the museum, a sign called out: Cinnamon Coffee & Pastries. That sounded modern enough. Maybe they had proper coffee?

Let’s check it out!

The Cinnamon Cafe is a nice looking place with a 21st-century interior. And, most importantly, GREAT coffee. As well as delicious Moroccan tea, and edible pie. What looked like chocolate pie turned out to be ‘snickers pie’, the employee serving us, said.

She spoke good English and Coen saw his chance.

Could she help with the last hurdle this day?

Cinnamon cafe in Nukus, Uzbekistan

Getting Registered

Here is a typical Uzbekistan issue: the country requires registration slips from your stays in hotels. When leaving the country the immigration officials may ask for them and, in fact, I had been asked for them after our previous stay (but not Coen).

Not providing these registration slips means a fine and probably a lot of hassle.

This mandatory registering is a bit of a problem for overlanders who hardly – if ever – stay in hotels. Some go to hotels and for a small fee just get a registration slip. 

During our first visit we had heard about the registration system but not really taken in how serious it was and, tending to ignore bureaucracy whenever possible, had forgotten all about it. This could have gotten us in serious trouble (for different reasons) and the kindest man ever helped us out. It’s a story for another day.

Nukus Plaza & Savitsky Art Museum, Uzbekistan
From: Savitsky Art Museum – traditional clothes

Recommended Books on Overlanding

(click on the images to look inside)

The Year we Ruined our Lives – by Paul Carlino

Monkeys on the Road – Mary Hollendoner

The Road Chose Me around Africa – Dan Grec

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That same kind man pointed out that there is an (Android) app on which you can simply register on arrival, pay 10,000 per day (about 1 dollar) which is like a tourist tax and be done with it. That sounded easy enough.

We had no working SIM card until today, in Nukus. Nor did we have an ‘Uzbek Card’. The latter is the tricky part with this app: you need the help of a local who can pay with an Uzbek Card and receive a registration code on his mobile. You then pay that person back in cash.

We did stay in a guesthouse last night, a super kind and friendly family guesthouse called Nika. The place, including our room, had a very homely feel and at night the owner brought us a number of dishes of salads (Greek, mushroom, and potato) to share.

How kind was that?

Nukus Plaza & Savitsky Art Museum, Uzbekistan
From: Savitsky Art Museum – traditional clothes

We did get our registration slips from this guesthouse, but they couldn’t help with the app as they didn’t have that Uzbek Card. 

The employee in the Cinnamon cafe was willing to help. Sure, no problem. I got the laptops from the Land Cruiser, Coen got the website on this screen, filled in all the required fields (it’s one of those typical things where once you know how it works it’s pretty straightforward) and only the payment needed to be completed.

Whether miscommunication, she not understanding what this was, whether not wanting to help after all, whatever…  In the end she couldn’t help. Not a big surprise either, because well, after all, you do ask somebody to use his/her credit card on your computer and with all the scams going on, who can you blame.

Only, we later learned, it’s not a credit card. It’s a type of virtual card Uzbeks use for all kinds of things, among which public transportation that uses a deposit system that is linked to a telephone number. Still, I can imagine the whole thing sounded a bit sketchy to the employee in the cafe.

Nukus Plaza & Savitsky Art Museum, Uzbekistan
From: Savitsky Art Museum – view from a fishing trawler of the dying Aral Sea

We packed up, drove to a hotel, and tried there. We were in luck because Nuruz, a student working there, was more than willing to help. Great! Coen fired up the system and hit the pay-button on the website, filled in Nuruz’s card details and hit go.

However, all he got was a message saying “Not enough funds on the card”. Nuruz then called some friends who magically put money on that card, and Coen’s registration was done. Oh, for your wife, too? Another call to his friends and I was registered too.

How kind was that?

For overlanders:

Getting Food into our Stomachs

By then it was 7 o’clock, but missions accomplished.

Back to the Cinnamon cafe for excellent lentil soup, pumpkin soup, and French Fries.

We are ready for Khiva!

Nukus Plaza & Savitsky Art Museum, Uzbekistan
From: Savitsky Art Museum – cotton harvest

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