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Report: Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan Border Crossing at Zhibek Zholy

I made three significant border crossings during my trip to Central Asia in May 2019. The first was from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan. The second was from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan. And the last was back from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan. This report details the first, and most hectic, border crossing from Tashkent to Shymkent via Chernayevka/Zhibek Zholy.

That morning, I arrived at Tashkent’s main bus station, located near Olmazor metro station (formerly called Sobir Rahimov, confusing, I know) via a Yandex taxi. As the driver helped me unload my luggage from the boot, I searched for the ticket booths in the parking lot. The station was cordoned off as I remembered it three days ago. There were makeshift booths selling bus tickets that day, but I was told, through much calendar-pointing, that they could only be purchased up to two days in advance.

Timetable for long-distance buses. The row bordered in red shows the Tashkent-Shymkent route, which costs 40,000 soum one way and takes around 3.5 hours. It leaves five times a day.

As I had been away in Samarkand for the past two days, getting tickets in advance had no longer been an option, so I prayed there would be tickets left today.

However, I had hit my first hurdle already. The ticket-selling booths were nowhere to be seen. In fact the parking lot looked deserted, bar some buses using it as a depot. In mild panic, I used the few Russian words I knew to ask one of the many gruff-looking touts hovering around the station.

Kassa? Shymkent.

He pointed in the direction of the metro station. 

Bloody hell. Three days ago the booths had been at the bus station, but I had come by metro so I had to walk across a number of main roads with crazy drivers and clouds of dust to get there. Now, today, when I had purposely taken a taxi to the bus station, the booths were for some inexplicable reason parked next to the metro station. Which meant I had to do the same dusty trek again. 

They have a brand-spankin’ shiny bus station, but they don’t use it. Instead, they sell tickets in the parking lot. Go figure.

I thanked him and began making my way over, swatting off the countless touts on the way who kept asking if I needed a ride to Samarkand. 

Finally, I reached the parking lot near the metro station and saw the familiar booths. I strode over to the one that had Шымкент (which is how “Shymkent” is written in Kazakh) pasted on its front, and held up my smartphone screen. I had written the destination and time down, so I didn’t have to struggle with my non-existent Russian skills. 

The two ladies said something in Russian I didn’t understand, then shook their heads and held up one hand and a thumb to indicate the number “six”. I got the message.

“What?! There are no more seats till 6pm?! That’s too late,” I protested. It was currently just before 9am. 

The lady shrugged and then acted like I no longer existed.

Eateries near Olmazor metro station, with the fleet of cross-border buses in the distance. Yes, it is as hot and dusty as it looks.

Time for Plan B

I wheeled my suitcase to stand to the side and consider my options. I actually had read that tickets sell out fast and feared this would happen, so I did have a contingency plan. Although the cross-border bus takes passengers directly to the bus station in Shymkent, it is also possible to cross the border using a combination of taxis on either side. It would just cost more and was less convenient.      

As I was researching a reasonable price for a taxi to the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border crossing at Chernayevka/Zhibek Zholy, drivers kept approaching me asking “Samarkand? Samarkand?” I was beyond irritated now, so shook my head and mostly ignored them. One burly Russian-looking man then asked me where I was heading (I could only pick out the word “где” [gde], which is “where” in Russian), and I said “Shymkent.”

He pointed to the booth I was just at, and I tried to explain to him the next available bus wasn’t until 6pm, but he didn’t understand me. Trying to be helpful, he went to the booth to ask for me, but was told pretty much the same thing I was, except this time it was 4pm. (The booth ladies had likely meant 16:00 not 6pm with the fingers). I then tried to convey that the time was too late, but he again did not understand and instead roped a lady selling tickets in another booth to help me.

She was a kind motherly type but also did not speak a lick of English. She enquired at the same damn booth, and told me what I already knew. At this point I was trying to type a message in Google Translate, asking if she could help me negotiate a taxi to the border instead. She said something and went back to her booth to make a phone call. Just as I thought she had given up dealing with me, a younger woman with a round face suddenly appeared. The booth lady came out again and indicated I should speak to her friend.

“Yes, can I help you?” her friend said in accented English.

Someone who spoke English! Thank God. I then realised the booth lady had specially called her English-speaking friend over to help me. I felt touched.

I explained my issue and asked if she could help me find a driver who would take me to the border. 

She talked with a tall lanky guy who offered me a price of 25,000 soum. I thought it was a ridiculously cheap, since the bus ticket would have cost 40,000 soum. There had to be a catch, but I agreed for now. I thanked the English-speaking lady and booth lady for their help. Before I proceeded to follow the guy, the booth lady handed me a card with her number I could call, in case there were any issues. Although with the language barrier I don’t know how I could have a made use of it, I was still grateful for the sentiment. 

When the guy led me to the car of a typically Russian-looking man with a pot belly and loaded my luggage into the boot, he said the price would be 80,000 soum

What? No. 

My luggage still in the car, he brought me back to the English-speaking lady. She clarified it was 25,000 soum per person if there were four persons. That meant I had to wait for three other random people who wanted to go the border, and they couldn’t guarantee there would be. If I wanted to leave now by myself, it would be 80,000.

Ah. So that was the catch.

“Can you ask if he will take me for 60,000 soum?” I said to the English-speaking lady. I had read on Caravanistan that a traveller had gotten to the border for 50,000 soum, so I knew it wasn’t unreasonable.

She relayed the message, and he agreed. So back to the Russian guy’s car we went.

The Russian driver spoke no English but was friendly and tried to make conversation in the 45-minute drive to the border. He pulled off to the side of the road every time I tried to communicate with him using Google Translate, so in the end I gave up. 

While in the car, I called the guide in Shymkent I had previously booked and asked if he could pick me up from the Uzbekistan border. He agreed but said it would take him 1.5 hours to get there from the city centre. I said it would probably take me another 40 minutes before I would reach the border, and I would wait for him on the Kazakhstan side. 

The Russian driver faithfully deposited me a few hundred metres from the checkpoint, as this was the furthest cars could go. He pointed that I needed to walk the rest of the way. I paid him the 60,000 soum and waved goodbye.

The road to the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border crossing at Zhibek Zholy. Pedestrians only, cars have to use another border crossing.

Crossing the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border

The border was not crowded at all, and the process took less than 30 minutes. Exiting Uzbekistan was relatively smooth, although every time a guard looked at my passport they read my name out loud, as if testing the pronunciation. On the Kazakhstan side, immigration officers looked at my passport in great interest and asked me a few questions. I think they had trouble wrapping their heads around why someone with an Asian face had an Australian passport.

“Where are you from?” the Caucasian-looking officer asked in heavily-accented English.

“Australia.” I replied.

“What city?”

“Perth.”

“What city?”

“PERTH.” I pointed to the text in my passport.

I suspect he didn’t know how my home city was pronounced, so thought I was saying something else.

He continued examining my passport. At this point, another officer patrolling the back of the booths had noticed his colleague was taking an unusually long time with me. He stepped into the booth and they spoke to each other in Russian. I heard the word “Australia” being thrown around a few times.

The new officer, who had darker features and looked typically Central Asian, turned to me and asked in broken English “Where are you from?”

“Australia,” I said.

He placed a hand on his chest said, “I, Kazakh. You?”

“Australian,” I said.

He didn’t seem convinced. “Japanese?” he enquired.

“Well, I live in Japan now but my family is Chinese,” I said exasperated. “But I’m Australian.”

This seemed to confuse them even more, and they talked amongst themselves in Russian again. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of them inspecting my passport, the original officer stamped it, stamped my immigration card twice and handed both back to me with a smile.

“Welcome to Kazakhstan.” 

On the Kazakhstan side of the border.

As soon as I had crossed, there was the usual touts hovering around the entrance, bombarding travellers with “Taxi? Shymkent? Taxi?”

Pushing past them, I was met with another frontier. Now there were women trying to do currency exchange. “Tenge? Tenge?” they shouted, waving wads of cash in my face.

As I stopped at a corner to gather my wits in the sweltering heat, an old lady sitting under an makeshift umbrella booth said something to me in Russian (or Kazakh). I didn’t understand but from the wads of cash in her hand I knew she also wanted to swap money. 

I did want to get rid of my soum for some tenge, so I leaned over and tried to ask the rate. She punched some numbers on the calculator, but they didn’t seem to make much sense. All of a sudden, a large guy with strong Asian features bounced over and asked in English “Sister, can I help you?” I explained I wanted to swap some soum, and he relayed it to the old lady. With him as the interpreter, I managed to exchange most of my remaining soum for tenge.

He then asked if I needed a taxi. Central Asians are forever enterprising, as I discovered on this trip. I replied that I was waiting for someone to pick me up. 

“Where is he?” he asked.

“On the way,” I replied truthfully.

“Do you have his number? I can call and check for you.”

I’m not sure if he didn’t believe me, or was just trying to be helpful, but there was no harm either way. I gave him the number and he called. I heard him talking briefly with my guide in what I presume was Kazakh before hanging up.

“He’s on his way,” he said. 

See? I told you, I almost wanted to say, but instead I said “Thanks. Do you know where I can wait? It’s kinda hot here.” I surveyed the dusty desert-like surroundings with a chaotic mess of touts and cars.

He pointed across the road. “Try the tourist information centre.”

The tourist information centre

After paying 50 tenge to use one of the most rancid toilets ever, I dodged more touts trying to offer me a ride and took refuge in the tourist information center. It was more like a one of those temporary offices you see set up on construction sites than a solid building, but looked cleaner than the hodgepodge of sun-bleached food stalls behind it.  

I entered and saw two men sitting at a desk each. The one on the left was a skinny middle-aged man sitting with his arms crossed and staring intently at his screen. I later discovered he was watching Game of Thrones. The one closest to the door, a younger fleshy guy who looked almost Korean, greeted me enquiringly.

Po-anglijski?” I asked in broken Russian. English?

He shook his head. So much for being a tourist information centre. Still, he gestured for me to sit down as he took out his phone. We ended up having an entire conversation using Google Translate, since he was kind enough to let me wait there for over an hour. The GoT-watcher even turned on the air-con for me.

He only cares about Game of Thrones

Just when it seemed like I would have to spend the whole day in this place, my guide finally came through the door. He shook the Korean-looking dude’s hand and thanked him on my behalf.

Finally, thanks to the help of many locals on the road, I could start my adventures in Kazakhstan.  

5 thoughts on “Report: Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan Border Crossing at Zhibek Zholy

  1. I found your article interesting in so far as I had read it before ( And after ) our own trek from our hotel in Tashkent to the border with Kazackastan and onward to Syngment. We were relatively lucky it seems. Our hotel ( Mirzo Boutique Hotel – good place ) obtained a taxi for the very reasonable time of 9.30 a.m. I haven’t retained actual prices, because from a Westerners point of view, they are usually reasonable and get you there quickly and conveniently. I had ( like your experience ) heard some scary stories about the bus route from Tashkent, so we decided to give it a wide berth. Our taxi driver drove some distance along the queue of cars when we arrived at the border, before letting us out. We were then on our own, and preparing to engage the vagaries of the immigration posts. The entire procedure of doing this was so uneventful, that I have no details to impart. Forgive me – I am 78. Then we were assailed by a mass of bodies, clamouring for your money for taxis, currency exchange and other unmentionable services. A very enterprising young man soon salvaged us from the worst experiences of dealing with this challenging prospect. ‘Taxi’ he shouted as we walked rapidly through the throng. ‘Yes, Syngment’ we replied. He named a figure, and in the best travel guide tradition, we shouted back a 50% per cent reduced figure. Somewhere in the middle, we agreed a price. Then he led us to his car. Other drivers were hailing him with words of either ‘well done’ or the opposite. We didn’t care, as he deposited us in the rear seat of his taxi. Any thoughts we had harboured of traveling independently, were dashed when a young woman was ushered in to the front seat. Then another joined us in the back. After about 40 minutes, we were ready to go. I had heard about Kazackastan drivers before. Now I can confirm it is true. The driver drove us at dare-devil speed along the highway, to the accompaniment of some kind of mood music which exhilarated and thrilled simultaneously. I had visions of us being scooped out of some field in Kazackastan, but somehow we arrived in the city in one piece. The driver must have misread our navigational details, because he dropped us at the rear of our hotel, the Promenade Hotel. This resulted in us searching back gardens and various cul de sacs, before we discovering our oasis. A beautiful and most practical venue, right in the heart of the city. Hooray! The next evening, we did use the international bus. Arriving just minutes before the scheduled departure, we purchased our tickets and headed for the border. Again, an uneventful journey. Mission accomplished!

    1. Hi Joe, thanks for the colourful recount of your own experience! It made me laugh. I’m glad you managed to get there in one piece in the end, although I think we can both agree that the borders are rather chaotic and the driving is devoid of rules. Do you speak much Russian by chance? I felt like that would have been been immensely helpful in navigating many confusing situations.

  2. Thanks Doni for your kind comments. Although I am a comparative newcomer to the challenges of travel to places outside my comfort zone, my wife and I have managed to experience to some extent, a total of 55 countries. In the past few years we have traveled to Iran, India, South Korea ( Pan Mum Jon ) Lebanon, Egypt, Azerbaijan and Georgia, just to mention a few. I have always had a desire to travel since the days of the old school wall maps. Keep up the good work!

    I didn’t even try to master a few words in Russian. Apart from a very scant knowledge of Italian, I have to make do with our adopted language. I am from Ireland. I feel like sharing a couple of humorous interactions I experienced with some citizens of a particular country, on our very last trip to the Stans. Not Australia I hasten to add. We were late joining the queue in Istanbul for Uzbekistan. I said to a rather genial looking gentleman ‘is this ( pointing to the already formed queue ) Tashkent’. He replied ‘Hell no – this isn’t Tashkent, this is a queue, but the queue is for Tashkent’ At that precise moment a lady spoke over to me and assured me that I was in the correct place. Of course, I thanked her graciously. I thought his face fell just a little. He was nearly my age, but far cleverer.

    Another day in Tashkent, I needed to exchange 50 E for USD’s. My taxi driver was insistent that he would only take dollars. We noticed that three or four local people were ahead of us. Service in the bank was a little on the slow side. Then a number of people came in, accompanied by a guide. The group was clearly annoyed that their progress was being impeded by others, whose business no doubt, was of little consequence. Their accents were loud and audible. They were also natives of the country referred to previously. Their largish guide, who spoke perfect English, assured them that he would soon sort out this little problem. At this stage, I had in fact reached the clerk, and had handed in my 50E. The Guide and his charges were by now behind me. The Guide said ‘do you really need to hold everyone up with this petty transaction?’ Mustering my best stage English, I turned and addressed him. ‘And who exactly are you?’ He was clearly taken aback. ‘I am just me’ he faltered. I said ‘ I am not just me- I am me, and I am before you in the queue, and I don’t require any assistance, thank you’. At this, he was clearly disabled verbally, and he sat down like a deflated dummy. Then I heard the word ‘altruism’ uttered from the traveling party, followed by ‘ Grandad, what does altruism mean?’ The reply was ‘helping vulnerable people’. I am 6 feet tall and 14 stone. I turned around again, and looked down at a corpulent gentleman and using my best dramatic voice once again, said ‘ I beg your pardon’. Then another person said ‘we are just trying to help you, that’s all’. As I finally got my business attended to, I said to the group as I exited the bank ‘For some absurd reason, my taxi driver insists on USD’s. I think he had better start reading the ‘Financial Times’. I think they got the message. As I left the building I heard ‘have a good day’ being directed feebly, at my disappearing person. I just had to share this with someone, and unfortunately It had to be you. In Ireland we have an old saying ‘you can take the person out of the bog, but you can’t take the bog out of the person’. Happy traveling – it’s a wonderful world just the same. Joe

    1. Wow, you and your wife have been to many interesting countries, a few which are still on my bucket list. Very impressed you are still living the dream of seeing the world even in your 70s! 🙂 Haha, thank you for more amusing stories. I, and many others I talked to, had a lot of issues getting money out from ATMs in Uzbekistan – foreign cash cards just wouldn’t work, not even for the Russians. Banks themselves would only swap soum for USD or Rubles. So I would recommend people just bring USD, as it’s your best bet for both swapping and being accepted as payment. Keep up your travel adventures!

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