The first time mankind is recorded to have crossed an ocean was way back in 45,000 B.C. when the first primitive men sailed from mainland Asia and discovered Australia. The reaction to this grand new desert world with all of Australia’s Galapagon flora and fauna must have been surprising to say the least. No less surprising was my grand journey across the Caspian Sea (probably an overstatement…), as I moved away from the relative security of Eurovision’s furthest reaches – and entered the strange largely untouched world of Central Asia.
As soon as the boat touched shore and we were boarded by a Somalian inspired band of local law enforcement, you could immediately see huge changes in facial features – a move away from tanned Europeans towards their wider eyed, flat jawed cousins from the Orient. The landscape had become noticeably harsher too. Whereas Azerbaijan had only hinted at the impacts of desertification, Kazakhstan had gone full Sahara on our asses, with the oasis town of Actau in which we landed being completely surrounded by an endless swathe of hot nothingness.
Not keen to brave the summer desert heat on bicycles we had instead opted to take the local ex Soviet trains as far as the ancient Silk Road city of Khiva in Uzbekistan. Later on in our jaunt through Central Asia, we did meet some cyclists who three times had attempted to cross this desert stretch and three times they had been forced to turn around after becoming physically ill from the inhuman conditions.
Not that Uncle Joe’s trains weren’t without their difficulties. We took three in the end, and the general itinerary went something like: get there hours before the scheduled departure; realise tickets you have been sold are fakes; buy new tickets; argue with your coach’s allocated official about how to squeeze anywhere up to four touring bicycles into the train; once bikes are bunjee’d in place in the vestibules be ushered into the guards room to negotiate his ‘fee’ for services rendered; find beds near each other – most of the time seat allocation is ignored so a good old fashioned scrum is the order of the day; squeeze cycling panniers into whatever space we can find; crack open a bottle of finest Mother Russia wodka; relax…
This was also a time to really get to know the locals who over the duration of the journey would build up the confidence to speak to us and offer us some chai or unrecognisable lumps of meat handily folded into an old napkin or dishcloth previously hidden from view up their blouse.
Soon we approached the dreaded border crossing into Uzbekistan. Surely one of the world’s most thorough land crossings, you can expect to have every item of luggage searched and explanations for owning items to be provided as required. Phones, laptops and kindles were also searched for any pornography or books with a political stance in opposition to this free and open ex Soviet state… Probably some time spent in an Uzbek chokey for anyone found to be in contravention of such rules. Thankfully we had befriended a traveller called Stu on our train who had the unfortunate characteristics of being both American and a photo journalist, so we basically left the authorities to pore over Stu’s photos while we half heartedly emptied our bags until the pointy-hatted officials had grown too bored to go on any further.
The second the authorities left our train carriage, suddenly the real Uzbekistan poured through the vestibule as we had smiling, gold toothed locals offering to sell us clothes, hot rice based meals from their handbags, as well as to change money into the local Uzbekistan Som. The twilight zone that is Uzbekistan somehow means that you get an exchange rate if you change money on the black market twice as good than if you change it in a bank. Due to only small denominations being available in the country, for the equivalent of $50 you’d receive a wedge the size of a commercial house brick to try and crush into your wallet without breaking the stitching.
So after a dodgy start, Uzbekistan was starting to look up. After a two day cycle from Utrench, we finally reached our destination town of Khiva which is one of three major Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, and were absolutely blown away by what we found there. This was architecture unlike I have ever seen before, and since Khiva is far smaller and more compact than its competitors at Bukhara and Samarkand, the whole town was absolutely filled with the turquoise and stone towers of this golden historical age.
A few days later we arrived into Samarkand which contained an incredible central plaza, but nonetheless failed to wow us so uncompromisingly as had Khiva. Finally after around 3 weeks of crossing the deserts on some of the dodgiest, and most fun, local transport I’ve ever travelled on, we set off from Samarkand towards the Tajikistan border, on what would be the craziest most incredible, amazing month of travel of my life…
By now I was in a group of 6 cycle tourers due to the bottleneck effect of everyone trying to reach Tajikistan during the Summer months. This meant my routines had to change almost entirely as i said goodbye to planned accommodation and evening meals in local gastronomical abominations, and hello to wild camping and communal cooking on our stoves.
But there are few better places to start such practises than Uzbekistan. The people were, and continue to be, the friendliest I have ever encountered on any travels. They all had big smiles full of gold teeth and would be more than happy to bear them all for you as they greeted you at every town and village we passed through. The route to Dushanbe in Tajikistan involved lots of climbing through rugged beautiful low mountain terrain which was absent of people and full of incredible secret spots to put up our 6 tents and enjoy our meals of pasta, vegetables and any other ingredients we could scavenge from the ill stocked local shops.
However camping wasn’t always necessary. On 2 out of the 6 days on our route to Dushanbe, we were invited to stay with local families for the night. The second of these was fairly ‘conventional’ in that the man who invited us spoke good English, and his mother’s was excellent. They were also a relatively wealthy family in a gated off house with a large courtyard and a room for all of us to sleep in on traditional Uzbek mats. As is standard in this culture they also provided us with pre dinner snacks, a large meal of the local rice delicacy ‘Plov’ (not as bad as the name suggests) and we even got to quaff a cheeky beer to cap things off. The first invite however, we received while searching for a camp spot off the main road amongst some farmers’ fields. No one ever turned us down when we asked for a place to pitch our tents and this was no exception. However when we couldn’t find a suitable spot, a farmer who spoke a grand total of no English invited us to stay at his house instead. Crossing a small stream on flimsy planks with our fully loaded bikes we arrived at his two room house, which includes just a kitchen and a living room / bedroom. The family were obviously extremely poor but were still happy to host us for the evening, as well as providing us with an embarrassment of food not only for dinner but breakfast also. On both these occasions we were keen to offer money to repay them but this was instantly refused and we suspected the offer to be most likely considered rude. As such we instead would leave some of our precious food cargo in their kitchen before we left to in some way help repay their enormous generosity.
Uzbekistan did have a nasty sting in the tail for us though, since as we approached the border to Tajikistan, I was the penultimate rider in our group, and the line had been fairly strung out at this point. Suddenly I was stopped by a car who told me in sign language and Russian to turn around. Knowing there was a Swedish girl, Aminda, in that direction I suspected she may have had a nasty accident. Instead when I find her by the side of the road with a small crowd trying to help her out, it transpired she had been bitten by a dog on the bum as she cycled past it. I myself had seen the dog wander out of the bushes as I passed it and the mutt seemed to be walking in a tired confused manner and dribbling from his mouth… Aminda then told me the dog had bit her without barking beforehand which only compounded my concern that this could be the sort of dog bite you don’t want to receive… Aminda patched herself up as best she could and bravely cycled with me back to the group whereupon an ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital, presumably phoned up by some kind-hearted local. Thankfully Aminda received all her rabies jabs, and was cleared of the disease anyway when tested, and she thankfully caught up with the rest of the group in Dushanbe after resting for a day and hitchhiking to Tajikistans capital with her boyfriend.
All in all though I don’t wish to take anything away from this incredible country. The ancient cities were a sight to behold but my gosh, that all paled into comparison to the kindness of the local people – always looking to help us in any way they could without ever requesting money in exchange. Whilst I hope the country doesn’t change, I strongly feel that more people should give this oft forgotten former soviet state a chance when they are considering their next adventure away from the 9-5…
You can watch an English language video made by some of the people I was travelling through Uzbekistan with at the following link. Thanks Holly and Conrad!