The Uzbekistan Airways flight from Istanbul to Tashkent went better than expected: we got to transport the bikes for free but most importantly the plane didn’t crash somewhere in the Turkish mountains on its way to Central Asia. We landed in the Uzbek capital around seven in the evening but by the time we had picked up our belongings, cleared customs and assembled our bikes back together it was already 10PM and dark outside.
After one hour spent cycling around the dark streets of Tashkent, trying to locate the cheap hotel that our friends Marine and Olivier had recommended, we finally gave up and settled for a $70 room at one of the only two hotels we had been able to find. After moving to a cheaper place we spent the next 3 days exploring the city, exchanging money on the black market and stocking up on water and snacks for the road ahead. Tashkent would actually be a pleasant city to visit, with its broad streets, numerous water fountains and quiet parks, if it wasn’t for the omnipresence of the police around every street corner and metro entrance. Every time we took the underground public transport we had our passport checked and bags inspected. It made us feel uneasy and gave the whole situation a 1984 feeling…
Eventually we left the capital and spun our wheels towards Samarkand, the first Silk Road city we would visit on this trip. Back when we started planning this adventure we thought we would start cycling from Khiva, in the west, and head east towards Tajikistan, crossing a large and deserted part of the country in the process. We thought it would be fun. But once in Tashkent we agreed that maybe we ought to first do some test cycling in the heat before attempting any pedaling in the desert. It turned out to be a wise decision: once on the road by 8AM it was already over 30°C and by 9.30 we’d be in the forties… And after just two days of riding in those conditions Angela went down with a severe case of heat stroke. She started feeling tired and weak in the morning and by the evening, just before arriving in Jizzak, she could barely move. To make matters worse, the only hotel we managed to find upon arrival in the city must have been the most disgusting one in the whole of Uzbekistan… The sheets were grubby and the bathroom looked like it had been repainted with poo. But by that time every single muscle in Angela’s body was cramping up and hunting for a better place for the night was out of the question. The next day Angela managed to get on the bike to cycle the five kilometres to the city’s other hotel, which had nicer rooms but no running water: aligned next to the loo were six full 1,5L bottles to be used for flushing… Lovely. On the third morning we made an attempt to leave Jizzak but Angela could hardly stay on the bike for more than fifteen minutes. So we decided that she would take a taxi while I cycled the last 100km to Samarkand. It’s only when leaving Angela that I noticed the spanking new hotel on the outskirts of the city…
The flat road and a nice tail wind got me to Samarkand by lunch-time. I got lost in the centre and started panicking, thinking that I would never find Angela in this big city. Luckily after half an hour I got my bearings back and managed to find the Registan, our meeting point. There I saw Angela, pushing her bike as if she had just showed up: her taxi ride should have arrived ages ago! Apparently she had had quite an eventful journey: at one of the many checkpoints on the way here her taxi had been impounded by the police and she had had to wait two hours before another taxi came to take her the rest of the way! Happy that we had managed to find each other we checked in at the Bahodir B&B next to the Registan. It had mixed reviews in our guidebook but the interior looked inviting, they had a free room with air conditioning and most of all many other travellers were staying there, among which some cyclists. We hadn’t really met any other tourists since the beginning of our trip (apart from Kath and Andrew in Turkey) so we decided it was the perfect place to stay and relax for a few days. We had a great time there, meeting many friendly and interesting people like Vinzent the Dutch cyclist, Oscar the Spanish backpacker, Damien the French hitch-hiker or Danny the scooter-rider, among others. Samarkand itself was beautiful, with its many blue-tiled domes and its bustling bazaar. Though we didn’t enjoy the fact that tourist were being treated like walking cash-machines… We generally had to pay ten times more than locals for the touristic attractions and always had to haggle prices down, even for the smallest and most meaningless things like toilet paper. It became tiring in the end but made sneaking in some touristic places like the Alley of Mausoleums more exciting and somehow more rewarding.
The prospect of getting back on the bikes, on those hot and boring flat roads, really didn’t appeal to us so we kept putting off the departure from Samarkand. Someone at the Bahodir B&B had also told us that it would not be possible to get our Chinese visas done in Almaty (apparently only locals could do it there) and that our best chance was to do it back in Tashkent. A couple of French travellers also gave me the contact details of a travel agent in Tashkent who could provide me with a letter of invitation for the Chinese visa. So eventually we decided that we would not cycle but take a bus to Bukhara and then a night train back to Tashkent to sort out those visas. We packed a few things in our backpacks, left our panniers and bikes at the guesthouse and hopped on a bus with Nicolas and Anais of Switzerland for a long and sweaty five hours ride to Bukhara. It was even hotter than the other parts of Uzbekistan we had visited so far, but we both really enjoyed the old Silk Road city. It was less busy than Samarkand and had a more “Arabian Nights” feel to it. Early in the morning or late at night we had the streets to ourselves and could explore the many interesting sights undisturbed.
Three nights later it was time to leave and after saying our goodbyes to Nicolas and Anais we hopped on the night train back to Tashkent. We had bought first class tickets (there were no second class places left apparently) which meant sharing our compartment with only two other travellers. We arrived at the station early and proceeded to our seats but the temperature in the wagon must have been way over 40°C so we just dropped our bags off and waited outside. Once we got back in, just before the train departed, we were rather surprised to find a family of five seating in our cabin… I guess the two parents must have only bribed the conductor for two extra children, because when he later started doing his tickets round they hastily told one of the three kids to go and hide in the overhead compartment above the entrance door. Fifteen minutes after the conductor’s round, the kid finally climbed down of his hiding place, totally shaking and dripping in sweat, probably minutes away from having a major heat-stroke. We think they must have totally forgotten about him.
Back in Tashkent we were delighted to bump into Vinzent and Damien again. It was also our first of what was going to be many more encounters with Ernest, a Swiss man traveling around Central Asia on his moped. We sorted our visas out in one day (paying the extortionate express price of course) and were able to catch the early morning express train back to Samarkand the next day. We stayed another three nights at the Bahodir B&B and decided that it was finally time to start cycling towards Tajikistan. The Penjikent border directly east of Samarkand was closed so we had to head south towards Termiz to cross at the Denau border. From the moment we started spinning those wheels again I could tell that something was wrong with Angela. She got tired very quickly and had to take more breaks than usual (every fifteen minutes instead of half an hour…). For our first day back on the saddles we had to tackle the highest pass of the trip so far, having to climb from 800m to 1790m. After just a kilometre of going up Angela could pedal no more and I had to transfer three of her five bags onto my bike to help her. We eventually made it over the pass and into the city of Shakhrisabz, where we found, not without difficulty, the lovely Fayzullah B&B. The grandpa running the place looked after us like after his own children and offered us tea, bread, honey and sweets every hour. He seemed impressed by Angela’s height and would not stop giving her hugs and kisses. He very much reminded me of my granddad in Poland, not for his ways with the ladies but for he was always restless and looking for stuff to do. We both woke up the next day completely shattered, from the climb the previous day and the fact that we were both quite unfit after nearly two weeks off the bikes, so we decided to stay in the homey guesthouse one more night. Angela didn’t need much convincing, the food in the B&B being the tastiest we had had in Uzbekistan so far.
We left feeling refreshed, five kilos fatter and headed south again, towards the little mountain village of Langar. It was a little detour through the southern mountains of Uzbekistan but we had heard good things about it and we felt like we should test our mountain riding skills before getting to the Pamirs in Tajikistan. The first and flat part of the day went well, thanks to a nice tail wind, but as soon as we left the main road and begun climbing westwards Angela started struggling again. I took most of her luggage and powered through the many switchbacks before eventually reaching Langar. Upon our arrival a villager directed us to the house of the village’s French teacher, where the manager of the guesthouse in Shakhrisabz had arranged for us to stay. His whole family welcomed us warmly and after a well-deserved nap the man of the house took us for a walk around the village, showing us the mausoleum at the top of a hill and the mosque with its unrestored tilework. We were then both served a tasty dinner before collapsing in bed, unaware of the events to come…
“Stef, wake up! There’s someone in our bedroom!” The voice woke me up, it was dark and quiet and I turned my phone on to check the time. When Angela’s words finally sank in I turned towards her and asked what he hell she was going on about. She explained that she was sleeping and that something touched her leg. She first thought it was me but then realised that someone was slowly feeling up her leg from foot to knee. When I turned my phone on she saw a young man running away from the foot of our bed towards the door. Feeling safe in this family house, we had left the door of our bedroom open to let some air in. Now petrified, we both laid there, wondering what to do next. Eventually I mastered some courage, got up and checked outside to see if I could spot the shadow of a hiding pervert. Everything looked quiet and normal, so I closed the door and went back to bed, trying to give Angela some reassurance. No need to say that neither of us could get back to sleep, which was probably for the best, as about two hours later the pervert tried to reiterate his shenanigans! We were dosing off and suddenly heard the door open wide and I could make out the shape of a man in the doorway. I shouted “who’s there” and the shape disappeared in the garden. Only when I looked outside again did I notice that there was actually a key on the other side of the door, and locked us in for the rest of the night. To this day I still can’t believe that the man tried coming in again… What was he thinking? That we had simply and happily gone back to sleep, regardless of what had just happened? The next day we explained over breakfast what had happened to us, but the French teacher seemed dubious. “Who could it be?”, he wondered. Surely not one of his sons, they are family! Things got worse when the time came to pay him. The evening before he had told us that we should pay him what we considered a fair price, based on the quality of his homestay compared to other places we had stayed at. Fifteen dollars seemed a reasonable amount, considering the events of the night, but when I handed him the money, he gave me a puzzled look and said bluntly that he wanted sixty! “Times are tough in the village”. Had he already forgotten about last night’s episode? Not wanting to hang around the place much longer, I gave him thirty dollars and off we went, back on the dirt track towards the city of Dekhkanabad…
From the moment we left Poland it was clear to Angela and I that the trip would be a breaker or a maker… We have been together five years and this was the ultimate test. Angela’s habit of getting ill every two days during the four month we have been on the road Angela gave me plenty of opportunities to realise how much I care about her and how I might actually want to spend the rest of my life looking after her. Now it was a question of timing: I always thought that I would pop the question somewhere special and romantic, like in front of the Opera House in Sydney or during sunset on a sandy beach somewhere in South East Asia. I certainly didn’t think that I would do it in the southern and deserted mountains of Uzbekistan… That morning the road out of Langar quickly transformed into a mountainous and dusty dirt track: we had to push the bikes on more than on occasion and after taking a wrong turn we soon got lost. Moral was not very high after the events of the previous night but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We both dropped our bikes on the ground and fell into each other’s arms, crying. What the hell were we doing here? I don’t know why but at this particular moment I felt, deep in my heart, that I had to tell Angela how I felt about her and I did. And that’s how she agreed to marry me!
Back on the main road we pedaled south-east through the blazing heat towards Termiz before cutting north-east through Boysun and finally arriving in Denau three days later. The landscape had been beautiful and varied, but we failed to enjoy it as Angela was yet again inexplicably struggling. I was really getting worried: she had been totally fine for almost two months in Europe, where we had had tougher climbs and longer days of cycling, but now she could barely move forward on flat roads and with a tail wind! Was the hell was going on… We had a day to spare before our Tajikistan started so we found a nice hotel room with air conditioning where we could rest and chill. Angela certainly needed it. We spent our rest day in bed, watching series and movies, and on the seventeenth of August cycled the last thirty or so kilometres to the Tajikistan border, happy to be engaged but wondering how the hell we would be able to cross the 4000m Pamir peaks considering Angela’s poor health condition…
– People’s genuine generosity and interest! In cities we’d get stopped every ten metres and asked where we’re from, where we’re going etc. Many times people would give us fruits, water or bread and would not accept any money in return.
– The beautiful Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.
– The delicious fruits! The water-melons and melons we ate in Uzbekistan were the tastiest I have ever tried.
– The other travelers we met! The tourists you see here in Central Asia are not the same ones you bump into in South East Asia for example. They come here for the culture and the adventure, not for the beaches and the comfort. You find yourself having a lot in common with them and they all have an interesting story to tell.
– The heat. I know it wasn’t as bad as for some of the cyclists who had to cross Turkmenistan, but still we struggled. Up to 50°C some days and that right from 8AM… It makes everything you experience during the day so much less enjoyable.
– The rather boring landscape. Well, there’s not much you can do about it: Uzbekistan is mainly flat! It might be nice for a day or two but after three weeks you get bored of the irrigation pipes and cotton fields everywhere.
– The poor food hygiene. We both got sick very early on from the food… Not a surprise when you see meat at the markets hanging outside in 40°C heat and covered in flies… Shame really because the food generally wasn’t as bad as we expected.
– Having to haggle for everything and still getting the feeling that you are being ripped off at the end. Some people like it, we were not good at it!
– The stacks of money we had to transport because of the low value of the local currency. A 10cm-high pile of 25000som was only worth about $10…
More photos of our Uzbekistan can be found here!