I was by now an old-hand at cycling in the desert but I was still a little apprehensive about the 500km stretch to Bukhara as this time I would be on my own. Having made the decision I wanted to spend a little time just me and Carra, I left the relatively fertile area surrounding of Khiva with the intention of making the 70km to the outskirts of the desert in time to camp. One big advantage of the desert is there is generally not much and no one there so you can just peel of the road a few hundred metres to camp for the night. But a big dis-advantage of Uzbekistan is the police checks and registration rules. There are checkpoints in and out of most towns, at regional borders, at major bridges, the list goes on. It becomes a little tedious having to show your passport and answer the same series of questions (sometimes several times in a day) and registration causes cyclists constant headaches. The law is that tourists must register every 72hrs in Uzbekistan and this can only be done by paying for (not always staying in) hotels which give you a handwritten (monopoly joke style) slip of paper. But most of us do not want to fork out for hotels, are happy sleeping in our tents or enjoying local hospitality and besides – there aren’t many hotels in the desert. So a police check at a major railway bridge (you have to wait for the train line to be clear so the traffic can then use the bridge) just before dusk on the edge of the desert, in the opposite direction to any hotels, was a bit worrying. But I used my trusted distraction method – by accidentally sounding the comedy horn on my handlebars it seems most Uzbek officials are reduced to childish giggles and want to have a go themselves, before forgetting their job and letting me go on my way. Failing that I tell them I am staying in the next chaihana I find.
In this case I cycled out of view of the checkpoint and bridge, waited for the next train to go by then began dragging Carra over the tracks and into the desert. But not all deserts are the same and this was the first time I had found myself in fine sand – a nightmare for a heavily loaded bike; the wheels just sink and grind to a halt. The next 3 nights, whenever it was time to stop, I had to unload half the bags and do a relay into the sand to move all my stuff to a suitable camping spot. It’s the last thing I felt like doing after long hot days in the saddle, with the help of some good roads and tail winds I was managing 130-150km per day and needless to say I was pretty shattered at the end of each day. One of these days coincided with the end of Ramadan and at a chaihana, (next to yet another police check,) 3 truck drivers insisted on buying me dinner – 1 meal from each of them! – as their gift to me. The next day I clocked up my 4000th km on the bike computer, I stopped to take some photos to mark the event and didn’t realise I had not properly re-placed the counter on the sensor. So the next time I stopped I was still on 4000km. As this was at a chaihana (just short of another checkpoint) that was selling beer I decided to celebrate the distance with a couple of cold beers, asked if I could stay the night and spent the evening watching the traffic come and go listening to Uzbek radio – much better than dragging all my stuff across the sand to find a hidden spot to camp. I shared the room in the chaihana that night with a family of swallows who had a rope set up from wall to wall so they could perch between their nests and I could perch between their piles of droppings!
The following morning I rolled the last of the 500kms stretch out of the desert and into Bukhara. Again, I was in a restored ancient Silk Road city, with a few more tourists and a little less charm than Khiva, but still a magical place. On my first evening wandering around the winding back streets I was looking for a place to eat away from the tourist restaurants and passed a table covered in food. Some local people ushered me in through the gateway into the traditional Uzbek family home court-yard. I thought I was being invited into a family restaurant, but was ushered into a brilliantly colourful room full of carpets, beautifully dressed women and endless plates of food. All the men were outside and after a little confusion it was explained this was a family party to celebrate a new arrival in the family. Without a second thought they had invited me in to join in the celebrations which included a room FULL of food and a bowl of vodka being placed in front of me by the rosy-cheeked grand-mother. Despite the language barrier and the temperature in the room it was a beautiful evening of sign language, laughter, photos and incredible spontaneous hospitality by the family.
I spent the next couple of days hiding from the heat of the day and again wandering around the old city and its beautiful terracotta and turquoise tiled mosques, madrasahs and minarets. In the residential back streets away from the tourists I met a young boy sweating out a living in the family bakery and got lost in another sensory maze of at the local bazaar. Bukhara was also somewhat of a cross roads for cyclists in central Asia and I bumped into several familiar faces from the bicycle club in Baku and a couple of new faces who had come through Iran and Turkmenistan. Not long down the road out of Bukhara on my way to Samarkand I was stopped by a group of guys (doing the usual Uzbek man thing and just) sitting around outside a butchers stall. They offered me water melon, which I gratefully accepted (as this was the first offer of the day, by the afternoon I am usually all water melon’ed and chai’ed out – such is the generosity of people along the road) and they explained 2 more cyclists were ahead.
Not long down the road out of Bukhara on my way to Samarkand I was stopped by a group of guys (doing the usual Uzbek man thing and just) sitting around outside a butchers stall. They offered me water melon, which I gratefully accepted (as this was the first offer of the day, by the afternoon I am usually all water melon’ed and chai’ed out – such is the generosity of people along the road) and they explained 2 more cyclists were ahead. And an hour or so down the road I caught up with Camille & Xav from France, who I had met briefly in Bukhara, and we rode the rest of the way to Samarkand together. It took us another 2 days and both nights when we were looking for a place to hide the tent we were invited to stay with families. It was another testament to the Uzbek hospitality as we were each given our own mattress bed on the floor and fed water melon, plov, milky chai with bread and butter and as much green tea as we could stomach. One of our hosts was a 14 year old boy who had run 1km down the road after us to invite us to stay so he could practise the English he was teaching himself from a book he took to work with him each day. Shamefully I was reluctant to accept the invite as I was tired and not in the mood for the strain of trying to communicate all evening – but I could not help but be humbled by his enthusiasm to learn and generosity to us. He even took us round to his aunts’ house so we could have a shower in her wash room!
The road just before Samarkand started to get busier with traffic and after well over a 1000km of flat desert and riverside roads, a series of rolling hills was a bit of a shock to the system. We weaved our way through the traffic and into a hostel (for those all important registration slips) before spending a lazy day and evening with the Uzbek national drinks of chai and vodka. I also had to pay a visit to the national bank to try to withdraw some $ from my bank ( I had not realised that there are almost no ATM’s in Uzbekistan and had been surviving on generous loans from other cyclists). The trip to the bank was an eye opener – mainly at the sight of someone making a large deposit. Due to the value of the som a lot of notes don’t add up to much and there was a guy at the cash desk just surrounded by cardboard boxes of money. You could have been mistaken for thinking he was moving house, not paying in his weekly salary. I had to wait 30mins to get my dollars and all this time he just seemed to be passing wad after wad of cash through the window. I took my pitiful looking dollar bills to the bazaar and found a man with a black bag to change them into my own wads!
This was maybe the stand out memory of Samarkand for me – Bukhara and Khiva had given me a taste for the ancient Silk Road architecture and cities. Unlike them, Samarkand’s sights are swallowed up by the modern city and it didn’t have the same charm for me. Much more interesting was talking with my couch surf host and his father about the realities of life in the dictatorship of Uzbekistan. Erkin’s father had served with the Russian army and his grandfather was a well-respected and much-loved paediatric surgeon and teacher at the hospital over the road. The family house, that they were still in the process of building, will be mostly destroyed to make way for the new ‘western style’ street that is being built and Erkin can not even read this blog (and I could not access it all the time I was in the country)as it and others are blocked in Uzbekistan. I was treated to a vodka soaked lunch and a bicycle tour of the city (not both on the same day) before we had to say good-bye after a mad dash through the city for me to catch the train to Tashkent. Think James Bond on a bicycle (that was me) following the bad guy in a Lada (that was Erkin’s father so I wouldn’t get lost after we had lost track of time talking after breakfast).
I had decided to take the train to Tashkent to get my visa for Tajikistan and save myself 3 days of riding on my Uzbek visa (in case there was a delay at the Tajik embassy) It didn’t save me any stress though. Passport check to get into the station, then everything off the bike to go through x-ray, then everything down 3 flights of stairs to the other platform, back up 3 flights of stairs and then an argument to be allowed to bring the bike on the train, the insistence of an extra 10,000 som “to help” find room for the bike. I made a real fuss, refused to pay the bribe and eventually Carra (squashed into a doorway) and I were on the train. Ironically (considering my reason for going to Tashkent) the film being showed in 1st class (the only ticket left/ I were allowed to buy) was about Tajik terrorists hijacking a bus!
Much like Samarkand, I don’t have much to say for the city of Tashkent. It feels a lot like an ex-soviet city with very wide streets that lots of tanks could roll down and some over-the-top ministry and official buildings. The police checks for cars were out of control with a policeman and his red baton every 200m waving down cars. Depending on what time of day it was they would also tell me to cycle on or off the road along the same stretches of street. The Tajik embassy was nestled in a back street and always surrounded by a crowd outside. But once again a red passport and a western face shamefully got me called to the front and the whole deal was pretty painless. My host Stanislav and his family were again incredibly generous and welcoming hosts. His grandmother cooking wonderful homemade Uzbek and Russian dishes and his friend helping me find Igor. Igor runs a small bike workshop in a cellar on the corner of a street that would have been impossible to find on my own and here he spent a couple of hours giving Carra some very much needed TLC over a bunch of grapes! It was, again, interesting to talk with Stanislav and his family about life in Uzbekistan, especially in the capital where it felt the police control and presence was so much greater. Many people I had tried to talk to were fairly guarded with their answers but from my language-limited chats with his grand-mother I understood she missed the benefits and relative prosperity that life in a soviet state had offered.
With my Tajikistan visa in hand and a few days to spare between visa dates I decided to do a bit of pre-mountain training and do a loop of lake Chorvoq to the north-east of Tajikistan. I took another train (much less stress this time as it was a local train with no x-rays and stewardesses looking for bribes) the 80km out of the city and up the valley to the foot of the dam that created the lake. The hill training started straight away with a climb around the dam and Carra slipping out of her granny gear repeatedly until she had adjusted to her new chain. It was a bit of a shock to the legs with the first real hills since leaving the mountains in Azerbaijan, but the views looking down to the water were beautiful.
Another reason for heading to the lake was to observe a personal landmark. The km counter was ticking towards 4500km – this was the same distance I covered on foot to Istanbul. I’m not sure why I felt it was so significant but I had decided I did not want it to happen on a busy street in the city and felt it warranted a few days by the lake. I was about to become more cyclist than walker, but Carra had her own celebration in mind. Just as I was starting to look for a camp spot she sprung her first puncture of the whole 4470 (or so) km. I unloaded everything and changed the rear inner tube just as the light was fading, afterwards I rode on into the dark but found nowhere to stop so resorted to asking to pitch my tent in the field of the only house with any light on. Needless to say I was invited in, fed and watered with chai and the same again before I continued on my way in the calm of the lakeside early morning. The next day Carra again tried to interfere with the occasion by shearing a bolt that was holding the front bag rack on, but some swearing and some cable ties saw to that. I found a perfect camp spot high above the lake and watched the sun go down with a bottle of vodka (and unfortunately some Uzbek dance music for most of the star-lit night from a holiday spot on the opposite shore). As I was leaving the lake to head to the Tajik border I crossed the 4500km mark whilst zooming down the other side of the dam. I am not sure if it was the vodka but something was also trying to zoom down inside of me and I made a few emergency roadside breaks on my way to the border. At one of these breaks I saw Igor again, he was out on a Sunday ride but I couldn’t say more than “hi” as I headed for a hedge. I was leaving Uzbekistan with one of its best known souvenirs SSS (Stan Stomach Sorties – my affectionate term for the travelers right of passage in central Asia – diarrhea, you can not escape it!!