Enchanting Uzbekistan

We were sitting by the side of the road somewhere between Samarkand and Bukhara eating fresh pomegranates that a man had walked by and handed us, when a boy of around 12 years old galloped past bareback on his donkey. He was in pursuit of three bullocks which had also just galloped past, jumped a canal and disappeared off down a slope. The boy paused on the embankment to look at us looking at him and gave a wave before kicking his donkey and galloping off after his charges. I’ve never seen anyone galloping on a donkey before, let alone bareback and I suddenly had the most surreal feeling of wow, I’m in Uzbekistan!

After quite some deliberation we had decided to get the train across the deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan all the way to Samarkand. This was not a decision we took lightly. I had wanted to cycle all the way with no cheating. I also wanted to have time to explore the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara though before our visas expired, so truth be told, it didn’t take that much arm twisting from Chris to coax me onto the train.

The commute was tough! The boat from Baku to Aktau took 36 hours altogether with about 12 devoted to standing around for border control and customs. When we were finally released into Kazakhstan, we pitched Steggy (our tent) briefly in a car-park near the port in Aktau purely to get a couple of hours sleep before finding the train station on the outskirts of the city. The first train to Beyneu took nine hours. We lounged around in the top bunks gazing at the hot desert as it swept by. Camels everywhere!  In Beyneu we haggled at the platform bazaar for a tasty dinner of somsa for Chris, plov for me and tea. This was followed by the least fun leg, a 14 hour train journey to Kungrad (Uzbekistan) which involved the tedious border crossings. Guards boarded and checked everyones passports at 3:30am and again at 4:30am.  We arrived in Kungrad in the evening and spent some time sorting out money. You have to buy the near worthless Uzbek Som on the black market as it trades 30% above the official rate for some reason. After hesitantly asking a lady at the market about ‘Som’ Chris was swiftly led to a private courtyard where he was handed a plastic bag containing 300 x 1,000 Som notes in exchange for a $100 bill. He counted all of it! Back at the station and with the help of a lovely girl who shoved her way into the ‘queue’ on our behalf, we secured our final tickets to Samarkand on a train departing the next morning. Relieved, we bought the only vegetable we could find, a lone cabbage, and cycled out of town to camp and cook a hot meal, only to discover we had run out of fuel. These things happen… The cabbage went down ok raw with some olive oil and salt and we settled into our beloved cosy tent for a good night’s sleep. We cycled back into town at dawn for our final train to Samarkand and were beyond excited to find the girl had arranged for us to have our own private cabin and that the journey was going to take 20 hours! Bliss. The guard woke us at 2:30am, helped us offload our gear and had a great old time riding my Troll up and down the platform before we waved them off at 3:30am.

As it happens, 3:30am is the perfect time to arrive in Samarkand. This city was made great by the War lord Timur in the 14th Century. He was a tyrant and responsible for the massacre of millions, but also appreciated art and education. He’d bring back the most talented artists, architects, mathematicians and scientists from the civilisations he conquered and give them all the encouragement they needed to succeed in their talents in Samarkand. As a result the city, previously obliterated by Ghengis Khan, was made beautiful, full of architecturally superb mosques, medressas and mausoleums.

The guide book recommended seeing Timur’s resting place, the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum by starlight. It was a beautiful starlit night when we rode into the city at 3:30am so we headed straight there. What a beautiful sight it was. By the time I had finished photographing it dawn was just beginning to appear. We decided to head over to the Registan, best seen at dawn according to the guide book. We stopped for a fortifying hot chocolate on the way, so surprised were we to even find a cafe open and then rode our bikes into the silent plaza of the Registan. A group of three regal medressas facing each other and built over two centuries from 1420 to 1660, they are a sight to behold. After all those hours of gazing at nothing but desert, cotton crops and grim little villages from the train these buildings were like nothing I have seen before. There was no-one around other than a guard outside each medressa. It was magical and we felt so privileged to be there.

Tiredness caught up with us though and we made our way into the Old City where we soon found the guesthouse we were after. By 9am we had showered, changed into clean clothes and eaten a delicious breakfast. The guesthouse was actually quite a large family home set around a beautiful garden filled central courtyard where we sat to eat our crepes, zucchini fritters, bread and cake, homemade jams and as much fresh coffee as we needed. We immediately decided it would be appropriate to stay here for at least three nights in order to properly explore the city.

We spent the next couple of days roaming the city’s sights and bazaar and soon needed more cash. In our quest to find Samarkand’s only international ATM, we stumbled across a kids cycle coaching session at the local athletics track. The coach was Vladimir, a retired Russian who is seriously passionate about cycling! He runs the free sessions for local kids and sources bikes using funding from a local bus company. They rode a mixed assortment of mountain, hybrid and road bikes but they were having a good time. We tentatively wandered over and ended up joining the end of the session on our Trolls before being taken into Vladimir’s bicycle workshop for a chat. It was the den of a true fanatic. One wall was covered in memorabilia and the other three bikes and bike parts. Chris was like a pig in shit. He ended up going back to meet Vladimir a couple of days later & with the help of one of his friends who spoke English they discussed bikes, Uzbek riders in the Tour de France and the future of the Dinamo-Samarkand City Bicycle Sport Club. In fact they got on so well that Vlad gave Chris a pair of his old thermal underwear bottoms to keep him warm at night on the next leg of our journey through Tajikistan.

On to Bukhara. We had a minor incident on the way where we accidentally attended a wedding thinking it was a restaurant. They refused to let us leave though and after a few cups of vodka our hosts started force feeding Chris from the cold meat selection on the table. I managed to stick to the tomatoes, cucumbers and yoghurt so didn’t spend the rest of the night bent over outside Steggy throwing up like Chris did. The rest of the ride was uneventful though and we found our way into Uzbekistan’s holiest city.

Bukhara has a good feel to it. More laid back than Samarkand and as most of the Old Town is difficult to access by car, it’s easy to stroll around. We were there for an unplanned four nights as Chris recovered from his food poisoning only to pick up a stomach bug – on his birthday no less. I’d booked us into an above our budget hotel for the occasion. Poor Chris spent most of the night in the spacious bathroom but did get plenty of sympathy from the friendly staff the next morning who prepared him a special bowl of plain rice for breakfast. We had to move back to a cheap hotel so that Chris could continue to languish for another two nights. It did give us a good opportunity to see more of Bukhara though. Some of the restored medressas are still operating as Islamic schools. Can you imagine studying in one of these beautiful buildings? The students receive two free meals a day and those who travel from rural areas also receive free accommodation. Out the front of one of the schools is a 47m high minaret which impressed Ghengis Khan so much that when he obliterated the rest of the city, he ordered it spared.

Chris was a shadow of his usual self as we pedalled back into the desert towards Tajikistan. He sat quietly behind me on the road gradually regaining his strength as we cycled past herds of karakul sheep and goats and big oil refineries. Towards the end of the second day we reached the mountains of SE Uzbekistan and the scenery changed dramatically. A night camping through a ferocious storm on an exposed mountainside sent us scurrying for hot drinks at the first opportunity the next morning. Frozen, wet and covered in mud we crowded into a tiny magazeen where the lady was serving hot cups of tea and 3 in 1 Mac coffee – my new favourite drink. Sweet, coffee flavoured happiness in a cup. Squashed in among truck drivers and border officials we clutched our mugs and ate iced biscuits until we could face the rain again.

Towards the end of a spectacular day’s riding through mountains, where we had stopped for a deliciously filling lunch in the hill top town of Boyson, an uncomfortable gurgling in my stomach told me that Chris’ bug was, as we had feared, a contagious one. I scrambled into a ditch by the side of the road and will spare you the rest of the details. Chris from his vantage point on the road suddenly piped up and said, ‘You know I think it’s a God send we stopped here. Did you see those women back there sorting tomatoes? I’m going to ask if we can camp on their grass!’ I glared at him from my position in the ditch. The absolute last thing I felt like now was a home-stay. We’re quite opposite here. At the end of the day I’m tired and love to find a quiet place to camp and cook our own dinner. Chris on the other hand loves mixing with the local people at any opportunity. ‘Fine’ I said. ‘But you know they won’t let us camp on their grass and we’re actually inviting ourselves into their home.’ No, Chris was adamant we’d insist on camping on the grass. It would be good for Steggy who was covered in muck from the storm.

We were told to park our bikes against the wall and ushered into their living room. Mats were placed on the floor and Pasha, the 72 year old head of the house arranged us so that his son sat at his right, Chris at his left and me next to Chris. His son cracked walnuts for us and ripped up bread from a stale family sized loaf and poured the tea. The usual conversation began. They ask us questions in Uzbek and we answer in English.  My stomach continued to gurgle as the daughter in law served dinner an hour or so later but I was too scared to move. Pasha, sitting regally on his mat, completely at ease in his cross legged position, was intimidating. Communal plates of rice and lamb were placed at either end of the mat along with bowls of the sour yoghurt they love in Central Asia. The four kids joined us and everyone began grabbing handfuls out of the bowls and sucking it off their fingers. Pasha indicated we should do the same. I thought back to the ditch and reached out with my left hand. No, Pasha pointed to my right hand. I winced. The situation was deteriorating.

After hours of entertaining Pasha with the Russian App on my iPhone and reading from his granddaughter’s english school book, I just had to go to the loo. I got the attention of the daughter in law and indicated I needed to go outside. As she led me out Pasha kept calling after me – Anna Anna Anna. She rolled her eyes and ushered me out the door and to a slope behind a barn where she and her two daughters stood watching me in the moonlight. As I didn’t drop my pants immediately she told her daughters to show me how it’s done. Both little girls squatted and wee’d down the slope before standing up and turning their attention back to me. Their mum had respectfully gone round the side of the barn now but the little girls stood there watching expectantly. With careful control I wee’d down the slope and dejectedly went back to sit on the mat by Chris. God knows where the actual drop loo was. Even at bedtime I was ushered to our sleeping mats, still in my lycra and waterproofs and lay there through the night, two cats sleeping on top of me with my stomach in knots.

Pasha woke his daughter in law at 5:30am by standing outside the door where the family slept and bellowing. I felt so sorry for her. I had heard her up with the baby a lot during the night. He did the same to us at 6am. The daughter-in-law was sitting there frantically trying to do her daughter’s homework which must have been missed as she served us the night before. Sat back on the mat, this time with me at Pasha’s left (I’d moved up in the rankings)  we were served more yoghurt which Pasha thinned down with water, tea and the same stale bread which we were directed to drop into our tea for a soaking before drinking the tea and slurping down the sodden bread with it. I have never been so happy to get out in the cold and find a ditch!

I spent much of that day in various ditches, behind trees, in fields etc. I jealously watched as Chris stuffed himself at lunch in Denau, the final big town before Tajikistan. I ate a couple of crepes and ten minutes later was hurrying across a car-park to the filthy communal drop. We continued on towards the border and spent our last Uzbek Som in a beautiful tea house in the countryside. Sat on the big beds they use to lounge around on and eat, we drank green tea in the shade before cycling the last few kms to the border. It was quite a long winded process but the border guards were more than happy to show me to their own also filthy loo while Chris took care of the paper work inside. Soon though, we had had our bags, photos, medicines and bodies searched, our temperature taken and we were done and through yet another border into Tajikistan, snow capped mountains already in view!!