Somewhere in Uzbekistan
Having been to nearly 30 countries in the last 20 years, I’ve got a fair number of fun stories I can tell. Who knows, maybe my next book will be a book of fun stories – assuming I write another one… When I think of crazy overseas stories, though, there is one that always comes to mind first: The trip from Tashkent to Termez, Uzbekistan during my first trip to Afghanistan.
It was just before Christmas in 2002, and I was part of a team of 7 heading into Northern Afghanistan to work with a development organization for 2 months. Since the town we would be going to was only 3-4 hours from the border of Uzbekistan, we flew into Tashkent, spent a couple of days there, traveled in taxis to Termez (the border town), spent the night, and crossed the border the next day before getting taxis to our temporary home… Sounds easy, right?
Depending on how much you’ve traveled in Central Asia – or anywhere in the third world – you may see several steps in that process that could go terribly wrong. Flights were delayed, we were stranded for a day in Seoul, S. Korea on the way to Tashkent, and extra fees were charged in airports because of the delays, but finally we arrived in Tashkent. I had been there for a couple of months earlier in the year, so we found our housing and met up with our hosts fairly easily. The time in Tashkent went well, and surely the worst was behind us.
Our Uzbek host in Tashkent arranged our transportation to Termez. He would meet us and the driver, send us on our way, and then we would meet up with someone else at the guesthouse. It seemed simple enough, but then again we were in the part of the world where things are rarely “simple”.
Though he was asked SEVERAL times, our host would not give us the address of our destination in Termez. Instead, he assured us repeatedly that our drivers knew where they were going. And yes, I said drivers… Instead of the van we had asked for, we would be traveling in 3 taxis. Don’t worry, though; the drivers know to stay to together. No problem.
So, off we went. Thankfully, we had 3 men on the team, and so each car had a man to accompany us ladies. Because there were only 2 of us in my car, the rest of the back seat was loaded with luggage. (Remember that bit of info for later in the story.) The ride was meant to be about 9 hours, plus time to stop for lunch along the way, so even with the fact that we left about an hour after our scheduled departure time, we were in decent shape.
As you may imagine, our cars were separated before we even got out of the city. For the rest of the drive we kept our eyes peeled for cars that looked like those carrying our team mates. And we did see them once. It was at the top of the mountain pass we had to cross, and there were many cars there. Several were stuck, and several (including ours) had to be pushed to move over a particularly nasty patch of ice. I still look back at that and thank the Lord we didn’t slide off the mountain. 🙂 By the time we traversed that bit of craziness, the other cars were long gone, not to be seen again for far too many hours.
There were a couple of stops along the way. One, a brief stop in Samarkand so our driver could buy bread, (which he was kind enough to share bits of with us since we had no money to buy our own). Another was at a tea/coffee shop where our driver bought the 3 of us coffee. I choked down the bitter but sweet concoction very aware that I was the only female in the building that wasn’t serving the drinks. (Aside from the piece of bread and the cup of coffee, my friend and I shared a 1.5 litre bottle of water and a snickers bar during the trip.)
After approximately 12 hours in the car, thanks to the snowy mountain pass traffic jam and extremely dense fog for many miles, we finally arrive on the outskirts of Termez. Praise the Lord! Unfortunately, this is the moment where our situation goes from bad to worse. Our taxi driver, who speaks only Russian, looks at the guy on my team and asks “Where to?” (I recognized the question only because of my previous visit to Uzbekistan.)
We showed our driver the paper we had with the name of the organization we were to work with hoping that he would know where the guesthouse was they typically used. He was unfamiliar with the group, and so he took us to the Red Crescent Society – the equivalent of the Red Cross in that part of the world. By this time it was after 9pm, and they could not help us. We drove around the town for quite sometime, everyone in the car becoming more desperate as time wore on.
Finally, he drove us outside of town to the UN compound. At least there would be someone there who could speak English, and so a spark of hope was kindled. We were invited in, given tea, and a call was made to the police. All vehicles coming into town were stopped at checkpoints, and the idea was that perhaps we could track down the other cars through that avenue – especially if they had given an address.
The head of the UN offered us beds (for a price, of course), but I couldn’t leave the rest of the team with no word of our whereabouts – especially since the occupants of one of the other cars were my parents and I knew they were freaking out! 🙂 And so, off we went again, this time with a new passenger, a young Uzbek UN worker with a crush on me… Thankfully I didn’t find that out until later in our adventures. (This is where it becomes important to remember that 1/2 to 2/3 of the backseat was filled with stuff. The car was now quite crowded!)
We drove around town a while longer, stopping occasionally at various locations to check one thing or another. Honestly, I’m not really sure what happened during these stops because as a girl, I was told to stay in the car at all times. I do know that, at each place with a telephone, a call was made to the sister of our young UN friend, who spoke English. During these calls, the phone would be passed back and forth between my friend, the driver, and the young man so that the sister could translate conversations for them.
Finally, we ended up at the home of our young friend. We met his sister, and were given some small snacks and probably some more tea while he called back to the UN to see if there had been any new information discovered. Lo and behold, they had tracked down the other cars, and we had an address! As we began to make our way outside to pile into the car one last time, the young lady who had been so helpful began to ask if I was married or had a boyfriend because her brother… I made my apologies that I really needed to be on my way, and while I am very grateful for all of their help, I didn’t think it would work out. I must find and talk to my parents, after all!
At long last, we were reunited with the rest of the team at midnight! 15 hours, very little food or drink, a LOT of praying, and quite an adventure later, we were where we were supposed to be.
Come to find out, the other cars, though they had been separated most of the day, arrived in town at about the same time. They connected at the checkpoint and were able to figure out fairly quickly where to take their passengers – though they had not been given the address either. They arrive at the guesthouse not too long before we pulled into town and began the craziness. They stood outside for a while, hoping that we might happen by. (They assumed that since their drivers didn’t know where to go, that ours would not either.)
Unfortunately, they had moved inside to wait, worry, and pray mere minutes before we pulled up at the Red Crescent Society, ACROSS THE STREET from the guesthouse!
Though not the most fun I had ever had at the time, this will probably always be one of my favorite stories. God was good, and protected us, not to mention the lessons I learned in the process. Lessons such as, if possible, never get into a taxi without knowing the destination, always make sure you have at least a small amount of currency for wherever you are, always have the personal contact number of SOMEONE, and always find the fun in every situation, even the unscheduled adventures! 🙂