“A Kuda?” Canada! 50-100 times a day from passing cars and donkeys. Welcome to Uzbekistan.
Another country with another unique set of adventures and challenges. Generous vodka sharing Uzbeks, flying donkeys, gold teeth, unrelenting heat, fly infested pilav, apple ladies, turkey ladies, and knowledge of Uzbek shitters second to none. Somehow, 12 days felt like a really long time here.
Uzbekistan is a great place to go if you wish to lose weight. It appears everyone who passes through this country will get sick from something. Instead of seeing the Registan or Amur Timurs tomb, the highlight becomes a solid poo. It is pretty much the price of admission into Uzbekistan.
Upon entering the Uzbekistan customs office, I was puzzled to see the border guard pointing an electronic device at each visitor. I thought to myself “How sophisticated, they have a retina scanner!” It turned out he had an infrared thermometer, and was taking the body temperature of every tourist. I don’t believe it served any purpose at all, the guy likely just thought it nifty and got a good kick out of it. Maybe it was amusing to take the temperature of people who have been standing outside in +45C heat for a while. Maybe a measure of frustration…
Uzbekistan has a lot of ridiculous rules and regulations that the previous autocratic ‘stan didn’t even have. They have what is called an OVIR, where visitors to the country must collect little stubs of paper to identify at which hotels they’ve slept in the course of their stay. The police can demand these stubs of paper at any time, at least this is what I’d been told. The tour agency I’d gotten my visa through (stantours), made a point of telling me that the fine could be 1000 USD for not having these pieces of paper. Seems like a regulation I could flout. (FYI, if you actually do get busted, you’re only required to have one of these papers every third night)
The first night there we managed to spend the night with an large Uzbek family. Hamid kindly invited us into his family home. In fact he didn’t live there, he was only visiting from Tashkent. He phoned up his father and they butchered a sheep for us! We get a tour of the kitchen, and sure enough, there is a stew of mutton broth on.
Sabine is a vegetarian, which is an awful thing to be in a country that has meat in every dish. Want a vegetarian pilav? Dream on. It’s hard not to offend people who’ve just offed a sheep for their new guests. Needless to say, I ate a lot of meat that night. Thank you Hamid and family for your wonderful hospitality.
The following day we burned into Bukhara pretty quickly. The road was flat and uninteresting. As you ride into the city, the minaret of Kaylan can be seen from 20km away, the beacon of trade and war as it has been for centuries.
Bukhara is one of the gems of the silk road. Fantastic architecture and history dating back several millennia gives it more an air of charm and depth. It was a centre to the Sassanids, the early founders of the pre-islamic persian empire. The highlight of the city is the poi kaolin complex comprised of the Mir-i Arab Madrassah:
The minaret we could see from so far away.
There was an uzbek couple in the area taking wedding photos at dusk. A very picturesque place to take these kind of photos. The place has a magical air about it.
All of our sightseeing was done in the morning or late evening here. Midday the heat climbs up to +40C making it uncomfortable to walk around the city. So the following morning we got up and went to visit the famous fortress in the city. The ark is a 1000 year old structure that has been burnt, rebuilt, burnt, ransacked by gengis kahn, rebuilt, bombed by the bolsheviks, rebuilt, and is now just visited by tourists.
Inside the ark there are several museums with artifacts of some profound historical importance. I couldn’t really tell you anything about it, as everything was written in either Uzbek or Russian. I did snap a couple photos of some neat artwork in there.
At the hotel in Bukhara, we met a swiss couple cycling from their home to SE asia. We agreed to roll to Samarkand (300km) together. We waited another day in Bukhara while I spent most of the morning offering my previous days’ lunch to the porcelain gods. It may have had something to do with “Johnny”, the hotel owners drunk brother who poured me shots of vodka in a series of small seredipities from his jacket pocket the night before. I did not think of myself so lucky at 3am. Sabine came down with a fever as well, which are a great collection of symptoms to have when it’s +40 outside. Sabine eventually decided to take the train, while I wanted to cover a large swath of Uzbekistan in my half recovered state. With a stomach that conjured up images of a ship weathering a terrible storm at sea, I rode to Samarkand with Steve and Sara.
The first day went reasonably well. We covered 100km on good roads in the morning stopping for lunch at a small restaurant. It was the first place we could stop, as we found there was a 60km stretch with no shade, food, or water. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this restaurant. Middle of the desert, +40C, terrible uzbek pop music blaring on the television, and more flies then a month old rotting donkey on the side of the road. Failing to communicate our order I ventured into the kitchen with the waiter. Sweet baby jesus, I think there was a fly factory in there. Flies lined the walls at a thickness that obscured the tiles. He shows me a pile of uncooked pilav sitting on the counter, and I assume that’s all he has. Fry it good man, cook the bloody hell out of it. Surprisingly, there weren’t any cooked flies in it. Only on it. We tried to have a little nap next to the restaurant. I’d wandered over and turned the shitty music off (no one appeared to be watching or listening), but it somehow managed to turn itself back on at top volume. Yup, I’m living the dream.
We camped in a field near a farmers cows. We found it was a bit more difficult to wild camp here then previous regions of the country. The fields are lined with irrigation canals, several meters deep, that prevent any kind of cycle trespassing. I’m a pretty easygoing guy but I’m getting tired of having an audience every time I erect a tent! The local farmer was quite accommodating inviting us into his home but we had to turn down his offer and camp among the cow shit. Such are the other costs of having a 4am start.
Along the way, we witnessed an Uzbek van stop on the side of the road and 5 men proceed to beat the tar out of another Uzbek. Thoughts of getting involved flashed through my head, but rational thought soon prevailed. It would be likely that we also would have the tar beat out of us. Carry on. Weird sight #7240.
We rode another 100km the following morning, stopping at a another restaurant. This one was much better, no flies, attentive staff, and no shitty pop music. However, my stomach was still at sea and the ship had taken on considerable water. Read: I still felt terrible. Nothing like a soup of lamb bone, fat, and potato to fix that. Lying on a bench in the restaurant after lunch I soon projectile you know what into their garden. A curious stare from the waiter, and he returns moments later with a shovel to cover up the evidence. Oh what the hell, it’s only 50km left to Samarkand, I can recover there. So we continued riding. Two flat tires, three police checkstops, and several emergency shit stops later, I could hardly contain myself (literally) when we arrived in Samarkand. I’d never noticed this earlier, but it turns out that padded cycling shorts also serve as sort of a lycra diaper, preserving the liquids and my respectability.
We all stayed at Bahodirs guesthouse in the city centre. A fantastic family run place, the food was excellent, the had a porcelain toilet, and best of fall, it was full of other cyclists! There we literally in excess of a dozen cyclists here, working their ways both east and west along the silk road.
When I’d recovered we strolled around this ancient outpost. The registan lived up to expectations, it is amazing. It consists of three Madrassas’ (schools) built 450-500 years ago. Anything older had been levelled by Genghis Khan. It had been used as a bazaar and was a huge centre of commerce along the silk road in it’s time. Unfortunately, at this time, they were rehearsing for some kind of festival and I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the courtyard. So I’ve stolen this one from wikipedia.
The Sher-dor Madrassa has very beautiful decorations on the exterior. I was particularly fond of the depictions of the lions with the sun rising over them. It is a reference to the golden era of Samarkand.
Tilla Kari Madrassa was also primevally pimped out with golden decals. This ostentatiousness was meant to symbolize the wealth of trade as well.
The man who built it, Ulugh Beg is more impressive. The grandson of Amur Timur, he inherited the city as a teenager and decided to make it the intellectual centre of the Timurid empire. He very accurately calculated the proper length of a year, and the tilt on which the earth rotates. This was a century before Copernicus came along. Amazingly, his 700 year old calculation of the tilt of the earth was spot on and it the value still used today. There is a statue inside the Madrassa illuminating these pioneers of astronomy.
At dusk, we were able to bribe the police officers at the Registan to let us up one of the minarets. It cost us about 8 dollars each, and he let us into the back door. I suspect this procedure is routine. The view was worth it.
We visited the mausoleum of Amir Temur (Tamerlane) as well. Temir is to the Uzbeks what Alexander the Great is to the Greeks and Genghis Kahn to the Mongols, one hell of an empire builder. He built an Islamic empire that spanned most of the modern day ‘stans and Iran. The Uzbeks are very proud of him, believing he was probably the greatest thing to ever come out of Uzbekistan. We just don’t talk about how he might have killed roughly 17 million people in building his empire. I’ve seen some Uzbeks pretty excited to meet German tourists and exclaim “Ahh, you’re German. Hitler hey? He really expanded your empire” This statement is usually accompanied with a wink and a nod. Timurs grave, Gur-e-Amir is pretty impressive.
The last place worth visiting was Bibi-Khanym mosque, one of the last things Timur built before his death. It’s only of the largest mosques in the Islamic world, with an entry gate 35M and a 40M mosque. It was elaborately decorated with precious gems “borrowed” from India in his excursions there. Currently, it’s falling apart but it’s still worth visiting.
Back at the hostel, we met Tim and Tine a second time. They have a blog too, but it’s in Flemish. We had met them the first time in Tehran, and a second time in Isfahan. We’d kept in touch anticipating cycling through Tajikistan together. They joined the rest of us for some of the tourist attractions.
We visited the alley of mausoleums, which is pretty pointless if you’re tired of seeing dead people you don’t really care about. There were a lot of Uzbeks there making a pilgrimage, and they were more interesting.
There’s always some interesting signage in these places.
The last night we were in this hostel an older bearded crazy man wheeled his bicycle in and started chatting with everyone. He’s a 53 year old biology professor from Australia on a long trip. He’s subsequently interviewed by some german filmmakers and described his border crossing into Turkmenistan with some colourful story telling. I think to myself that he’d be a riot to bring along. So I propose he ride to Duschanbe, Tajikistan with the four of us.
The next morning we set out. The closest border crossing into Tajikistan is now closed, so we have to take an extra 500km detour through the south of Uzbekistan to cross the border near Denau. We had a nice climb south of Samarkand through the hills to start it off.
Not that most people would care, but this was the first hill I’d been on in roughly 2000km.
On the way down, Sabine got 4 flats within an hour. Her tubes we getting holes on the inside, and we didn’t quite figure it out until we removed the rim tape and found this:
This is a terrible problem to have in these countries. There are no good bike shops in the ‘stans, and the likelihood of finding a rim you can tour on is slim. At the time, we had little choice but to continue. Hopefully, we could replace this rim in Tajikistan.
The landscape soon turned to desert again. Stopping at a bus stop in the middle of the desert, we were approached by a group of turkey wielding women. “Photo photo photo” they screamed. Some days I feel like a rockstar, with groupies I’d never anticipated ever having.
They loved Sabine and Tine as soon as they showed up.
The third day of this leg of the journey was rather event filled. First thing in the morning, the battle of the buldge on my sidewall finally decided to break. Kind of disappointing when you expect to get another 4000km out of the tire.
Thankfully, Tim and Tine had a spare tire they were able to lend me until I could get mine fixed. This disappointment was accompanied with a new diarrhoea difficulties. I’m not sure why I could sick again, but I kept it mostly under control. We ended up on a long and difficult stretch of road around lunch, forced to go on in the heat and the headwinds over the rolling hills.
We finally stopped around 2pm in the roaring heat near a police checkstop. I had very little patience for the police officer demanding my passport when I was dying to unload somewhere. I ask him where I can go to the toilet, and he points out the rolling desert step in front of the checkstop to me. Yeah, thanks mate. I ran to the officers quarters, where a nicer kinder officer directed me to their toilet. Perhaps he didn’t know what kind of violations I would commit in the police toilet. I somehow felt this was retribution for all of their ridiculous demands. We sought refuge under an abandoned gas station near the police check stop. I’m pretty sure I nearly died.
Somewhere on the road that day, we also saw something rather unconventional. As we passed a train bridge, we noticed two donkeys on it. Stopping a second later, we hear the train coming, and the whistle going. My friends were rather astounded to see a donkey jumping off the bridge, and probably more astonished to see a second one hanging off it. Weird item #7304, check.
At least the following day I was able to trade my bicycle for a while and ride a real live non-bridge jumping donkey. I think I may have done nearly as much damage as the train had done earlier.
We had a spectacular campsite on the hillside near Boysun in Uzbekistan. Despite being sick I still had a great time s(h)itting on that hill.
The final event prior to our arrival in Duschanbe was a ride through a proper sandstorm. I don’t have any photos of this, as no one was willing (in their right minds) to pull out a camera. In the beginning, it looked like it was going to rain, but the dust that followed turned out to be much more vile.
Finally, after a rather eventful 500km, we arrived at the Tajikistan border. Leaving Uzbekistan, visitors are obliged to present the customs form they filled in upon entry. As I had changed money to the Uzbek som, I put it down on my exit form. The police officer failed to understand me, and was adamant I must change this to dollar. So I ended up leaving with 200,000 dollars on my form. I kind of thought this blunder would at least raise some eyebrows, but they didn’t seem to care or notice. They also didn’t seem to care about all of the OVIR papers (hotel registrations), and we were never asked for them.
By the time we arrived at the Tajikistan border, Tim really had to take a poo. As there was no place to go in no mans land, he asks the police officer if he can run into the desert for quickly. So he illegally enters Tajikistan, poos in it, and returns 🙂 Meanwhile, in the customs office, Ian is having a good time with the customs officer. He’d flipped to a bollywood television station, and Ian managed to get the border guard to bust a move with him. I love this place already.