Dushanbe -> Bukhara -> Khiva -> Nukus -> Tashkent -> Samarkand -> Bukhara.
I want to start this blog with a big, heartfelt MERCI to Veronique, Gabe and Stephanie for the hospitality, kindness and friendship they shared with us during our time in Dushanbe. It’s hard to leave a place that feels like a home away from home. With heavy hearts and teary eyes we pedaled out that morning towards the Uzbekistan border. It was a lazy 70 kilometres along the M41, but the two and a half weeks rest (and illness for me) found us meandering slowly through the countryside. The landscape had shifted again and we now cycled through cotton plantations that would be our constant companions for the next few weeks.
Just before the border we stopped to spend the last of our Tajik Somoni on ice creams and chocolate, a pep me up, as we knew the border crossing process could be tricky. Leaving Tajikistan was no problem and for those cyclists who are on a 45-day visa, we did not register ourselves with OVIR after 30 days, and this was no problem at the border. Uzbek immigration was no problem, but customs was a tedious process. Being a paranoid police state many things are illegal here, especially numerous prescription drugs, and political, religious or pornographic paraphernalia. Our perfectly packed panniers were pulled apart and everything was scrutinised. Luckily our hard-drive was formatted only for Macs and my description of science fiction films bored them from investigating any further. After an hours unsuccessful search, they were disgruntled, and we suspect that they secretly keep or sell anything that they find.
Entering Uzbekistan late in the afternoon, we decided to push on to Denov as we had heard of a cheapish hotel there. Foreigners are required to register at a hotel within 72 hours of arrival in Uzbekistan, and technically they are meant to stay in hotels every night. We had heard mixed reports, both of people camping most of the way with no problems and others who had been deported or arrested for flaunting this law. Dad would be arriving soon in Tashkent and rumour had it that the hotel managers there are stricter than border guards about daily registration, so we chose to err on the side of caution. The sun was setting as we pedaled into Denov and our hotel room (at the Hotel Denov), like most things in Uzbekistan, was a throw back from the Soviet era.
Rested after a night’s sleep we were ready to hit the road early and headed to the market for a few errands. Money was exchanged freely on the black market and our single $100 bill was exchanged for about 300 Uzbek bills. Our friendly dealer then made the lady at the phone shop give us a SIM card under the false name of 10000, as foreigners are not permitted to have an Uzbek SIM. Cashed up with partial technological access to the world, we started our journey towards Bukhara.
Fruit orchards and vineyards surrounded the city and fortunately delicious grapes were the flavour of the season. It was nice to see some greenery after so much dryness. And then the cotton plantations started again. Autumn is picking season and we were again reminded of the disparities that exist in a police state. Just a quick rundown of the problems with cotton – cotton is a water intensive crop and Uzbekistan is pretty much a dessert, farmers don’t have the right to plant another crop of their choice, the government buys all of the cotton at falsely decreased prices in exchange for providing slave labour at picking season, slave labour is provided by villagers that are forced to forgo paid employment to pick cotton for free for the government. We saw busloads of villagers picking cotton in the hot sun as we cycled passed being grateful for the freedom to do what we would with our lives and our time.
The afternoon scenery was the beautiful stark mountainous desert that we had become familiar with in this part of the world. It had been another long day and the distance and heat took it out of me, as did the hills. Six kilometres from town my energy levels disappeared and it was a hard slog as the sun set and we pedaled in the early evening darkness. My spirits were lifted when a group of workers stopped us for a chat and one cheeky man stole a kiss on Jude’s cheek. All the Uzbek men believe her to be beautiful, and I must say that I agree. After locating the only hotel in Baysun and the welcome we received revived our souls further. We were seated around a table in the kitchen of a small restaurant where the owners filled our plates with salad, rice and vegetables, and the hotel owner filled our cups with tea and then local vodka. Traditional Uzbek music sounded from the radio and we laughed at our conversation attempts in broken English and Russian. After such a day we didn’t care that the price of the hotel was ridiculously high and the quality a Soviet low.
An early morning walk brought me to the local market where I spent the equivalent of a dollar fifty on two loaves of fresh bread, a bottle of kefir and a mixture of apples, tomatoes and cucumbers. It was here that I received the SOS from dad and I spent a panicked hour trying to find somewhere with internet access. Eventually I was able to get into my email account to discover that he had not taken our advise about applying for his Uzbek LOI (letter of introduction) early, and as such would not be arriving in four days as planned. It would be another fortnight before the paperwork was in order, so plans had to be chopped and changed again.
There was a lot to think about that day on the road. Fortunately cycling provides the time and ability for clear thinking and meditation. The hills continued and we climbed and descended for the whole day. At one of the many police road-blocks we were asked for the registration papers for our bicycles and the ridiculous request left me laughing in the face of the poor officer who had asked it. That evening the requirement of staying at hotels left us feeling extra angry as we were charged $42 for a substandard room, the shared showers were useless and the men staying there were not able to aim properly when using the toilet – both for a wee or a shit. Additionally, all Uzbek hotels charge a foreigner price and an Uzbek price for the rooms, the difference is fourfold.
Fortunately most of the Uzbek people we met were lovely. On previous days we had been gifted our lunch at the restaurants we stopped at and such generosity continued. A man in a small village waved us down, bought us freshly baked bread, which we ate with honey, and he then provided us with walnuts from the tree in his garden. Others waved and called out greetings as we passed by and the dark mood of the evening before evaporated. The hills slowly gave way to flat riding and at lunchtime we found a restaurant in Guzar that was pumping. We feasted on six different salads, shared more freshly baked bread and drank cold kefir. Our destination for the evening was the ancient town of Qarshi. Not much remains of its 2,500 year history, but we acquired our very own Soviet era apartment for the next couple of nights.
Rejuvenated from our rest day we set off hoping to arrive in Bukhara in two days time. Unfortunately the wind had swung around and now blew strongly into our faces. Men had become super annoying as they gathered in groups to leer at us whenever we stopped. Jude’s man rage kicked in and my relaxed vibe dissipated when a male driver ran me off the road while ogling at me and his male passenger was blowing me kisses. Really, what do these men think we’re going to do when they behave like that? Act like we’re interested in them? I think not. That night after dinner in the ballroom of our hotel, the gold-toothed waitress pulled us on to the dance floor and we danced our rage away with a disco for three. It was Friday night after all.
A cool change blew in that night and we woke to a crisp morning. A frigid headwind persisted all day, requiring us to find shelter for every rest break. The trees and the long grasses bent sideways in the wind and it was sometimes a struggle to stay upright. Hungry from the cycling and the cold we bunkered down with truck drivers in a makeshift restaurant and shoved spoonfuls of Plov into our mouths. Plov, the local specialty rice dish, was the staple of our mealtimes in Uzbekistan. The hundred kilometres to Bukhara dragged on yet late in the afternoon the city limits came into site. As with other cities it was the identikit housing that first greeted us. Imagine a Stan version of Roxborugh Park and you would be close. We navigated our way to the centre of the old city and were awed by the amazing Islamic architecture of mosques, medressas and minarets that are synonymous with the ancient Tamerlane kingdom. The beauty of the buildings is breathtaking and the first image of them will forever be imprinted in my memory.
It was now confirmed that dad would not be arriving for another week, so the next morning we packed a backpack, left the bikes in Bukhara and jumped in a shared taxi to the ancient khanate of Khiva. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are the three major attractions of Uzbekistan, and despite all of them having spectacular Islamic architecture the vibe of all three cities are as different as one can imagine. Khiva feels like a museum, Samarkand a soulless Disneyland and luckily Bukhara has retained a friendly, comfortable, lived-in feeing. Despite the differing vibes, all were worth visiting. We roamed the streets, explored the buildings, and marveled at the intricate designs and patterns that surrounded us.
From Khiva we headed further west to Nukus, home of the Savitsky museum and probably the only reason to visit this town. The museum is home to the most remarkable art collection in the former Soviet Union. There are 90,000 artworks and artifacts in the collection with currently only one building displaying a rotating selection of these. Another two buildings are under construction and will hopefully open in 2016. We spent the morning admiring the numerous Karakalpak artifacts on display, which left the afternoon to wander and appreciate the hundreds of artworks Savitsky bought to the gallery for protection from destruction by the Soviets. It was inspiring and we felt elated when we left the museum just before closing. Paper and pencils were pulled out that night to loose ourselves in the creativity that continued to stay with us.
It’s a 24-hour train ride from Nukus to Tashkent, and it was one of the best train rides I have ever had. We were in the second-class sleeper cabin where all six-bedded compartments are joined. Bedding was provided, the toilets were clean and hot water was available for numerous cups of tea. We had stocked up on food at the Nukus market and everyone on board shared what they had. It was a communal atmosphere and we spent the hours chatting, eating, reading and napping. Despite the long journey we arrived in Tashkent feeling refreshed and happy. Our guesthouse was a Metro journey away and as we settled in for the night it was hard to contain my excitement, as dad would be arriving the following evening.
The train museum, a photography gallery, a walk around town and a funky café were good distractions until pick-up time. Waiting outside in the cold did not dampen my enthusiasm for dad’s arrival and it was a sweet site when he walked out of the airport doors. We spent the next 10 days exploring the sites, sounds and tastes of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. This time we didn’t have any strenuous activity planned for dad and I think he felt relieved about this. Instead we walked around the cities, drank coffees, ate ice-creams, looked at the sites, explored the bazaars, admired the Central Asian fashion, sampled the various Plovs of the region, tasted the beers and wines, and enjoyed each others company. Thanks again Dad for joining us, we love it when you come and can’t wait for your next cameo appearance in the foonsonbikes journey.
I’ll leave you now to peruse the photos of the amazing sites and experiences we had over those ten days – enjoy! Love Astrid.