BISHKEK -- Single-bus journeys between Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, are possible again after many years of inconvenience at the border.
Regularly scheduled bus service between the two cities began Monday (May 7) from the Tashkent bus station, according to the Uzbekistani Agency for Automobile Transport (Uzavtotrans).
The 601km-long journey, which includes several stops, takes more than 12 hours.
Two private operators -- Mironshox Grand Trans (Uzbekistan) and Trans Soyuz-Asia (Kyrgyzstan) -- are serving the route. A one-way ticket costs 120,000 UZS or 1,030 KGS (about $15).
The new service is in high demand and comes close to selling out every time, said Bishkek bus dispatcher Marina Yusupova.
"Usually the [less comfortable] last row remains empty," she told Caravanserai. "Otherwise, the buses ... are pretty comfortable. Passengers are very happy."
The passengers are usually split evenly between Kyrgyz and Uzbekistani nationals, she added.
Resuming the bus route will bring together the two peoples, said Ravshan Abdullayev, 52, of Bishkek.
"I'm an [ethnic] Uzbek living in Kyrgyzstan," he told Caravanserai. "I have many relatives in Tashkent ... It was very difficult to travel [to see each other] without a direct bus route."
New service expected to boost relations
During Soviet times, residents of Central Asia travelled routinely and easily from one republic to another because they were all part of one border regime.
However, after the Soviet Union collapsed, Uzbekistan -- under the rule of isolationist President Islam Karimov -- sought to minimise ties with other countries.
Bus service between Tashkent and Bishkek, which restarted in the mid-1990s, meant that passengers had to depart their first bus at the border, trudge through customs and passport control on foot, and then board a second bus in the next country.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who succeeded the late Karimov in 2016, has sought to re-integrate his country with its neighbours.
Mirziyoyev "is conducting an open policy ... giving us hope that our peoples will befriend each other", said Abdullayev, the Bishkek resident.
Other routes, active and planned
Other routes, either planned or already operating, are helping Uzbekistan reach out to its neighbours.
In January, Uzavtotrans announced plans to resume similarly seamless bus service between Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and the Uzbekistani cities of Andijan and Fergana. Those plans have not yet been realised.
Also in January, buses began operating between Tashkent and Shymkent, Kazakhstan. In April, they started to run between Tashkent and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agreed to open bus links and set up other border measures during a visit by Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov to Dushanbe in January.