Sat on Itamarâ€™s pack, wedged between Jamesâ€™s unwashed thighs and Ramilâ€™s never washed T-shirt and holding up my own seventy litre rucksack to promote the circulation of available air, I cross the Amu Darya at Urgench. Weâ€™re on our way to Khiva, where 150 years ago judgement, as an approximation for justice, was passed and the punishment involved pushing the condemned from the top of minarets on market day to a painful splatty death below. Iâ€™m ecstatic.
Our Daewoo Damas follows an even smaller Daewoo Tico, tea-cosy would have been more a more appropriate name, nipping left then right in an attempt to pass the dawdling piece of powered kitchen quilting. The driver uses the horn more as a keyboard when passing pedestrians, playing out a one-tone melody to ensure they donâ€™t intersect his erratic path. One group of ladies is narrowly avoided as they struggle across the uneven surface in heels to join a dusty bride and groom having wedding photos taken a few metres on. Under her, now slightly off-white but dazzling pleated and frilled outfit, sheâ€™s wearing flip-flops.
The bridge is in fact a series of adjoined rusty floating hunks of iron, variously actual boats, square box sections of plate and actual sections of pontoon, held together with sturdy chains and the grace of God. Where the boats arenâ€™t squared off at the bow and stern, the road zig-zags onto them from the side, before heading off to another section of the pontoon crossing. The whole set-up is reminiscent of a kilometre long game of Blockbusters, with rusty brown winning over muddy brown, just.
We pass the Tico, and cross a six-inch gap in the bridge with the murky silty river flowing some five or so metres below. Our next target is a Volga, best described as a Soviet Cadillac – complete with the sweeping bodywork curves, but eschewing the capitalist tail fins. Itâ€™s orange and carrying a precious cargo of Â£30 worth of watermelons, about two hundred of the large green fruit. Miraculously, none of them fall out as we jerk from pontoon to pontoon. Our driver takes his eye off the prize when avoiding an exceptionally large dent, and a Daewoo Matiz hustles by.
Two centuries ago, the Great Game between Britain and Russia was just kicking off as Muraviev and Moorcroft battled to reach the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva first. Then, the goal was as much to saturate the unpenetrated central Asian markets with each empireâ€™s products as it was to retain or acquire control of India.
Now, the Asians are most definitely winning the new great game. Our taxi driver points to the crazy Matiz and communicates with us in Pigeon Russian. â€œVery good, Korea-Uzbekistanâ€. He points at a Lada passing in the opposite direction: â€œRussian â€“ no goodâ€, and asks me whether Ford is an American or British brand; weâ€™ve only seen one on the whole journey. Itâ€™s a story mirrored in Turkmenistan, from where we crossed into Uzbekistan, except there (whilst talking to an LG employee) it was: â€œHyundai, this is my favourite Korean company, Samsung is my second favourite, LG is thirdâ€. Joint venture foreign policy is the twenty first century annexation.
We reach the last link of iron and summit a 10 ft muddy mound, following a bus that, thanks to a clever and practised diagonal driving technique avoids grounding in almost cartoon style. Reaching the far bank, clothes and bodies are being washed in the still blisteringly hot late afternoon sun. Our driver hands over the official bridge toll of 500 som, about 15p. The new bridge is clearly being built, but whether the rusting pontoons sink before itâ€™s finished is a matter of local debate. This is not the largest fee we are to face on the 40km dusty dual carriageway from the Amu Darya to Khiva. That tax goes to the smartly dressed policeman, in pressed green trousers and a square hat, who whistles and waves at us with a luminous orange stick further on. He takes the largest purple Uzbek note of 1000 som.
We stop for a few minutes just outside town to untangle bodies and bags with the intention of offloading some of them. Many other minibuses are doing the same, but the stallholders of the nearby water and snack mountains stand idly by. Thereâ€™s no rush to sell the bag-blocked and bus-confined tourists a slightly overpriced but much appreciated bottle of tepid water. Sitting in silence, serving no-one and waiting seems to be of greater importance
Itâ€™s hot – between forty and fifty degrees outside; it has been every day since we left Europeâ€™s last outpost of Dolce and Gabbana and wifiâ€™d Baku two weeks or so ago. So much so that I now see having achieved any form of hydration at 7 p.m. as evidence a productive day. And Iâ€™ve got the enviable afflictions of mosquito bites in triple figures and bowels as loose as the Honduran constitution.
Pains aside, people here look far more Mongolian than Persian or Russian, and although we are a long way from the entrepreneurial streets of Bangkok, weâ€™ve crossed the historic Oxus. Mighty and for centuries landscape defining, it has me excitedly following in the footsteps of many Great Gamers, and not that many others from lands afar.
Iâ€™m ecstatic, for we really are in central Asia now.