The Petrol Merchants of Uzbekistan

by Nathan James Thomas

The antique streets of Bukhara weave around ancient mosques and crumbling walls of brown clay. You can imagine camels happily clopping by, perhaps pausing for a hearty spit into the gutter, their humps laden with spices enroute to the distant west.

But today the camels are gone, the streets are packed with honking cars, your car’s about to run out of gas, and there’s not a single working petrol station in the entire country.

Uzbekistan imports meager amounts of petrol, the majority of which is channeled into the agriculture industry for their annual cotton harvest. Local cars pretty much all run on propane. But our car wasn’t local. It was a goddam Ford Fiesta, and it ran on good, old fashioned petroleum.

As other Mongol Rally participants will tell you, petrol is impossibly cheap throughout most of the Middle East and Central Asia. In Azerbaijan, seventeen immaculately dressed attendants will polish every inch of your car as they top you up, and practically pay you for the privilege. Iran is even cheaper, just be prepared to donate a few selfies to any local dudes hanging around.

But in Uzbekistan, buying petrol was a Homeric endeavor involving endless conversations in broken Russian, black plastic bags full of illegally exchanged cash, and an urgent excursion to a burger bar called ‘Big Mac’ to stem the tears of a local 11 year old child. Here’s what went down:

Turkmenistan: 1, Ford Fiestas: 0.

Emergency research while broken down in Turkmenistan

Roads in Turkmenistan suck. Tyre collide with potholes and explode. Our muffler fell off and was promptly nicked by a local on a motorbike. We ran out of a water, and a translation error (entirely my fault) almost had us storming out of the only convenience store for miles around.

When we finally crossed into Uzbekistan we were thirsty, and so were the cars. We’d read that buying petrol in Uzbekistan wasn’t easy, and our first few feeble attempts at gas stations confirmed this. It was LPG or nothing. We had to step up our game, which would push my Duolingo Russian to the limit.

At a small convenience store on a side street near the border town of Nukus I asked the cashier “do you know where to buy petrol.” Or at least, I thought that’s what I said. The young man looked slightly scared, and shook his head. I asked to change money. Another blank stare. I repeated the memorized Russian phrase, enunciating carefully. He finally seemed to get it.

We changed about $50, and were handed a fist-sized wad of Uzbek Som. Walking out the store, the man shouted in Russian “Hey – you need petrol?”‘Yes!’ “Drive two kilometers up the road, and it’s on the right.” Boom. We’re in business.

About two kilometers up the road was an appropriately dodgy looking building. Decrepit mechanic equipment strewn over the ground. Old men smoking idly by the pavement. Impressively clapped out cars whipped by, belching foul smoke. A bold knock on the door. No answer.

I approached the old men and repeated my now well practiced mantra: “where can I buy petrol?” Only three repetitions needed. “Drive two kilometers up the road, and it’s on the right.” Ok, here we go again.

Another two clicks along, an identical group of old men sat smoking in front of the an identical looking tumble-down house. This time, they got the question about petrol on this first attempt. “Drive two kilometers up the road, and it’s on the right.”

This was getting silly, and we were getting desperate. Our cars barely had it in for them for the next two kilometer journey, but we had no choice. This time, instead of old men smoking by the side of the road, young men were industriously puffing away while they lugged bits of scrap iron about a muddy driveway.

“Do you have petrol?” “Petrol?” “Yes.” “How much do you need?” “50 liters.” Wait. The man walked inside, and furious chatter in Uzbek ensued. He returned, and scribbled a figure in the dust on our rear windscreen. It worked out to about 70 cents a litter. Done.

An ancient, battered, rusty canister appeared, and our cars greedily gobbled up the sulfurous liquid. This would get us to Bukhara, a major tourist city where, we assumed, sourcing petrol would be somewhat easier. Turns out we were wrong.

The Backstreets of Bukhara

The Po-i-Kalyan. Bukhara, built 1514

The religious and spiritual capital of Uzbekistan boasts 5000 years of human history. The imposing, 46.5 meter high minaret of the Grand Mosque was laid siege to by Genghis Khan. Criminals would be hurled to death from its peak, the splatters of their bodies interrupting the business of this busy silk-road hub. It became known as the ‘Tower of Death.’

It would have been nice to visit it, and indeed we did – for all of 5 minutes or so. The rest of our time in Bukhara was spent trying to fill up our gas tanks.

Our shared room overlooked a leafy courtyard in the guesthouse near the historic center. Abdulaziz ran the business with his son, Akmal and his grandson, Akbar, who was 11 years old. Abdulaziz worse a large white beard, but little else. I changed money with his large shirtless form, before wandering out into the street and immediately finding a better rate.

The next day I was determined not to repeat the mistake. I went to Lyab-i Hauz, an ancient pond in the middle of the city surrounded by former residences of merchants and sufis, and today popular with Russian tourists and Uzbek money changers.

I approached the sketchiest looking locals I could find and used my best (terrible) Russian to try and determined the rate, but it seemed that the rate had plummeted overnight. As if by telepathy, all money changers had copied the trend, and adjusted their rates in sync with the competition. Rates would rise again the next day, and before dropping sharply again in the evening.

Official exchange rates were still barely half the black market rate, so with my tail between my legs I went back to the Bank of Abdulaziz, who had mercilessly put on a shirt, and whose rates held steady and were suddenly the best in the city.

Abdulaziz, didn’t have a lot of cash on him, but he had heard from one of our team that we needed petrol. Akmal and Abdul were summoned, and we were promised an easy petrol score. Myself, two rally teammates and the father and son duo hopped into the least empty of the Fiestas. The mission had begun.

The Road to “Big Mac”

Akmal and Abdul look strikingly similar. Short, round faced, with a certain squint which stopped short of making them appear malicious. Akmal insisted on sitting in the back. His son at sullenly by his side as Akmal guided as through the narrow, sclerotic streets.

We stopped at a park outside the center, surrounded by monolithic Stalinist apartment blocks. A dog defecated in the scraggy grass, and families ambled through, shooting curious glances at our white faces in this battered, eccentric car.

Leaving his son with us and relieving us of a couple of hundred US dollars in crisp, unfolded notes, Akmal hopped out of the car and strode purposefully into one of the apartments opposite. About 10 minutes later – Abdul sullenly, silently staring all the while – he hurriedly returned clutching with a black plastic bag filled with Uzbek currency.

Cashed up, it was back onto the honking streets, dodging hooligans on motor bikes and madmen in motorcars.

Finally we swerved down a long driveway towards another identical cluster of stalinist apartment blocks. Seeing a clearly foreign car with clearly foreign people turning off towards his home, an old man interrupted his busy day of smoking by the side of the road to come and head us off.

He strode towards us with stern purpose. Akmal leaned forward in the back seat and wound down the window. The old man looked shocked, and then laughed. A rapid exchange of Uzbek followed, before he waved us on.

We parked our thirsty car under a small shelter. Once again Akbar was left with us, while Akmal went up to a house, knocked, and entered. He emerged on the porch with a middle aged man who peered grumpily at our cars. They appeared to be talking intensely.

Akmal came back to us, and confirmed how much fuel we needed. 100 liters. They only had 50, at a sharply higher price than we’d found on the highway the day before. Nevertheless, we decided to proceed. Akmal and his friend disappeared inside. We waited by the cars, while Akbar twirled our fuel cap around in his hands, entirely absorbed in what he was doing and oblivious to the gaggle of foreigners standing around him.

Then the familiar rusted tank, smell of sulphur, price scribbled on the dusty window, exchange of cash (turns out Akmal had helped himself from our plastic bag and ‘payed in advance’), wave of farewell, and the fresh assault of Central Asian streets.

Akmal had decided to change strategy. Myself, one friend and young Akbar would wait at his house, which was in this part of town, while Akmal and our other teammate would take the car and source the final 50 liters of fuel.

Like our hostel, Akmal’s house was a series of small buildings surrounding a central courtyard. The main house appeared not to have a roof. There was a chicken coup in the courtyard, and what looked like the remains of a vegetable garden. Akbar quickly disappeared inside. Curious locals spotted the two westerners from the street, leaned their heads around the open door, and stared.

Our friend returned about an hour later, drenched in sweat. The first house had sixty liters of fuel – 10 greater than our capacity – and refused to sell us anything less. They’d battled through the angry streets to yet another ‘petrol station’ where they were, mercifully, able to acquire the correct amount.

Akbar had appeared at the sound of his father’s voice, looking surlier than ever. It was a long drive back to the hostel, and we were sure the poor lad would make it. Hence the small detour down a nondescript street to a burger bar called “Big Mac.” We hadn’t spotted a McDonalds in Uzbekistan, so I guess “Big Mac” was a local knockoff.

Outside, “Big Mac” looked like any old fast food joint, but inside it was a sparkling paradise of delicious looking burgers, ice cold soft drinks, and trendy young people on their smartphones. I noticed that nearly all of the clientele appear to be in their late teens or early twenties, and sitting in couples. It would seem Big Mac is the hip dating spot in Bukhara (lads take note)!

Back at the hostel, Akbar did his usual disappearing act while we packed the cars and made our farewells to the helpful Akmal and his bearded father.

We heard chatter from outside the hostel door, and opened it to see Akbar, standing proudly in the midst of a chirping gang of local kids. We had a rugby ball handy, and someone had the presence of mind to toss it to the young lads. A furious game ensued, with these (barely) 3 foot tall kids giving us fully-grown Kiwis a serious run for our money.

When the game ended, we beeped and blared our way through the narrow streets, and finally found ourselves back on the highway. We had two full tanks and four heavy, sloshing canisters on the roof. Next stop, Tajikistan.

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