Grey. That's how I'd describe Uzbekistan.
My days in detention got progressively less comfortable as both the guards and the restrictions on me became more strict. On Monday afternoon though, I was able to pay my fine and leave Termiz for the mountains of Boyson, 120km to the north.
Things seemed to have instantly improved as I was invited that evening to join a group of young local boxers with black eyes or gold teeth. We ate together, then they took me to a viewpoint over the town, where we shared a couple of beers and listened to music. Yet the local officials soon put an end to our fun; driving from the darkness and ordering me back to my guesthouse - a not-so-gentle reminder that I was travelling through a severe police state.
I left early next morning, catching a taxi to the small nearby village of Avlod (1450m). I passed some friendly local shepherds to begin the ascent of my Uzbek mountain. It was a slog. The ground was either a thick and heavy clay, unstable scree, part-melted snow, or a horrible combination of the three. But the physical demands were superseded by a strange feeling. I was struggling to shake the sense of oppression brought upon my experiences over the last few days. Not helping was the sense that the officials back in Boyson were taking too great an interest in my presence. So, for the first time, I did not feel any freedom in the mountains and I had to push myself constantly against a hoard of negative emotions. Six hours later, I reached the summit of a 2800m peak with views of a dull landscape. On my descent, four huge vultures circled close overhead. I wondered if they'd come to put me out of my misery.
As I returned to Boyson, an incredibly kind local man invited me back to his house to share dinner with his family. On cue though, the police struck back. This time, things were a little more... cloak and dagger.
I'd left my hotel to buy some water that night. On my return, and under the shade of some trees, I watched as a policeman furtively wandered towards my bedroom window and pried through the glass. I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. Part of me wanted to shout out, but part of me wanted to watch what he did. After ten seconds or so, he wandered away, and I snuck back into my room. The next morning, I was gone before dawn.
I reached Bukhara yesterday, an ancient city in the middle of the desert, filled with millennia old minarets, mausoleums, madrasahs and old city ramparts. Typically, it was raining heavily when I arrived. The presence of those elusive creatures, foreign tourists, gave me a little ease, but despite the beauty of this city, I now want to make a beeline for the border. Slight problem though, my visa application for Turkmenistan, my next destination, has been delayed or rejected. This mess isn't over with yet.
The mountains have gone missing.
After three days in a desert city, I'm now surrounded by grassy plains. I might be out of Uzbekistan, but things didn't exactly go to plan.
My Turkmenistan visa finally came through, one day into the specific five days that they had permitted. Yet, as I prepared for a long journey across the border, a bank clerk revealed that all banks and ATMs in Uzbekistan would be closed for the next three days. Who knew? This was a big problem. I only had around $30 in cash, not enough to pay for my Turkmen visa at the border. Further, foreigners are not able to withdraw cash in Turkmenistan. As I left the bank, considering every option I had, I realised that I could not go.
I therefore had just two days and $30 to leave Uzbekistan before I overstayed my visa. My only choice was to journey north. I bought some cheap snacks and caught a soviet-era sleeper train 500km into Tashkent, enjoying little sleep overnight. A metro train, a bus and a taxi took me to the border, where I reached Kazakhstan with a couple of dollars to spare.
A final thought on Uzbekistan. I often say that there can be a great difference between the state and the people in many countries. Yet scarcely before have I experienced such a disparity. The state searched every file on my phone, cameras, laptop and hard drive, tested my blood and urine, detained me, fined me, searched me, spied on me, regularly apprehended me, and ordered me to follow their will without complaint. Conversely, the people invited me into their homes, paid for my bus fares, took me on free guided tours, gave me gifts, food, photographs, drinks and an overwhelming sense that the human race is good, and that there is barely a finer example than the real people of Uzbekistan.
Now though, it's time to move on. My one remaining overland option would be to journey 1800km across the desert to Aktau and sail the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan. However, the unscheduled ferries are said to depart just once a fortnight. With an important wedding to attend soon (my own), I've had to sigh deeply and and book a flight to Baku. The big consolation for me... In a couple of days time, I'll be back among the mountains.