Thankfully the Uzbek border was not really the problem the rumor mill had led us to believe. There was of course a crowd of people hanging around at every gate and not much indication as to what or where we were meant to go but as a group of 5 cycle tourists we were soon waved to the front of each crowd. It was a little embarrassing and I felt very bad for the locals who must use this crossing regularly, but there was not one complaint from the sea of gold teeth smiling at us, as they were made to continue waiting in the heat. Declaration forms, multiple passport and visa checks (one by a guy in uniform who struggled to understand that all our passports said Great Britain but we are all from ‘Anglia’ as it’s known in Russian. He was then obliged to enter each of our details into a computer with only his index finger and a look of complete confusion) a few verbal inquiries as to whether we had any guns or weapons, debates about whether we have to declare our bikes as vehicles or not and general hanging around, but eventually we were given a vague wave in the direction of the gate. And we were in Uzbekistan! I’m sure the temperature increased by 10C and directly outside the border point gates there were 2 things available; water and money. The water we had stocked up on but the money we needed. Changing any currency to Uzbek som is an experience because it is a closed currency, controlled by the government, so the black market offers a 30% better rate and is the only way to go. But changing $10 gives you about 27000 som, the biggest note is 1000 and it is all done out of a black bin bag. (At the bazaars there is also half an eye open for the police but they know exactly what’s going on and no doubt get their reward for a blind eye!)
We pushed on into the searing afternoon heat knowing it was a long stretch (170km) until the nearest town and next water stop. Just before dark a car stopped to say hello and we met another Mongol rally team, they had just spent 7 ½ hours at the border compared to our 1 ½. We camped with them for the night just off the side of the road but left early in the morning to take advantage of the brief cool that dawn provides. A few kms further on another car approached, as the road was straight I could see the outline for several kms before it reached us and the shape on the roof was very confusing. A dark silhouette that looked almost human, slowly leaning side to side. When it got nearer it turned out not to be a trick of my eyes or the heat, but there was actually a guy sitting on the top of this car with a scarf tied across his face. He hopped off the roof as the car stopped beside us and started asking for documents – but none of us were about to start getting our passports out for an un-uniformed, random guy riding through the desert on the roof of a car and treated him with slightly hostile suspicion. After an entertaining mimed conversation illustrated by drawings in the sand we managed to understand that he had lost a briefcase of documents and was looking for them along the road – welcome to Uzbeistan! (We later found out he had left the briefcase in customs and had to drive back over 150km to find it – all this time scanning the sand from the top of the car!)
There was not a lot of other traffic on the road which was more long, straight desert and I had been toying with the idea of hitching a lift to the first city of Nukus. So my luck was in when the Mongol rally team (finally having woken up) caught up with us a chaihana (tea-shop) and I asked them if they had room for me and Carra. They were more than happy to strap the poor girl on the roof and squeeze me into the backseat and let me join them for the day. I said a sad farewell to Claire and Mark, although I was pretty sure our paths would cross again in Uzbekistan, and suddenly I was taking part in the Mongol Rally! I was given the honorary title of “Motoring Nun” alongside the self-titled “Motoring Monks” who were Will, Josh, Carlos and Flo. 4 friends who had just finished boarding school and were now on the trip of a lifetime to Mongolia in their pride and joy “Kiapatra” raising money for charity (see their site here). I spent the next 24hrs with them as we had a mini adventure; searching for petrol (there isn’t much sold in Uzbekistan), taking a detour to Moynac (the former shoreside fishing town that has born the brunt of the environmental catastrophe that was the Aral sea) to see ships in the desert, getting stuck in the sand and towed out by a tractor, camping by the motorway in the pitch black, scoffing our way around Nukus bazaar. All of this safe in the knowledge that one of them had only learnt to drive in the Kazak desert! They were a great company and I am happy to say they made it to the Mongolian finish line – good job lads! 🙂
The city of Nukus was my first Uzbek metropolis and whilst having the feel of an ex-soviet city albeit being heavily revamped, it had a few attractions for me – food (a big selection of, running water and an unusual art collection. The food was in colourful abundance at the huge bazaar, running water never looked so good after 3 weeks in the desert (even if it was a bit brown in the bathroom of my soviet style hotel room in the cheapest place I could find!) and the art collection is a great story of KGB money being used to collect art that the soviet government wanted to ban and then to hide it all in a city in the desert! The story of the Savitsky museum, named after its’ mastermind is told in the film “The Desert of Forbidden Art”. Just round the corner of this museum was a very popular cafe/bar that I passed a few times until the temptation was too great. Every time I passed the only things I saw on the tables were beer and ice-cream – heaven! But when I tried to order 3 of each (I was with 2 cyclists – not just very greedy) I was told there was no beer. I pointed to everyone at the tables and said beer, beer, beer but was again told ‘beer – no’. So I ordered 3 of whatever was in the glass. Turns out it is a gas water and syrup combination, very nice, especially with ice-cream but from the photo you will understand my confusion!
From Nukus I made the 2 day hop south to the ancient silk road city of Khiva. On the way into Nukus the desert had dramatically turned into green farmland in the space of just one hill and the landscape did the same in reverse on the way out. I battled a headwind again along this stretch before turning off to join the mighty Amudarya river that irrigates much of central Asia. The change in landscape was dramatic again as I found myself riding through swarms of huge dragon flies alongside fields of cotton and other crops, past villages of mud houses and groups of kids swimming in the coffee brown waters of the irrigation channels and ditches. It was another world. I was invited to stay with a family in their house for the night and fed the national staple of plov, washed down with beer, vodka and green tea.
Subsequently I was a little worse for wear when I set off the next morning, but I arrived in Khiva that afternoon to get my first real taste of the silk road. Many people had commented that the ancient city had been a little over restored but I found it incredibly beautiful. It was a bit disappointing that everywhere had an entry price tag but just wondering round the streets and city walls in the dusk and dawn light had a magical feel to it. Despite living with the inquisitive eyes of tourists all the time the local people still living inside the old city walls were incredibly friendly and the beautiful children would all say hello and wave enthusiastically. I caught up with Jon (who I had met in Baku), a day later Claire and Mark arrived too and in the evening I could sit on the guesthouse roof looking up at the stars with a cold beer! The bazaar was again a fantastic hustle and bustle of colours, faces, produce, smells and vibrant life giving the slightest of insights into how Khiva must have been when it was a hub on the silk road and also a major slave trading center. The photos can not really do it justice and it was hard to convince myself to leave the luxury of the guesthouse and head back into the desert for the next stretch to Bhukara, nearly 500km away.