We’d only been in Uzbekistan for 4 hours and already we’d been given lunch, a watermelon, some toilet roll, 2 bottles of water, and a bottle of coke. The generosity started within a few kilometres of crossing the border. Some farm workers had spotted us approaching and had come out to give us a watermelon. After communicating briefly in Russian and sign language they invited us to share their lunch.
Earlier we’d crossed the border relatively painlessly. But before that had been a mad rush to get money. There are ATMs in Uzbekistan but the official exchange rate is about half what you can get on the black market so it makes sense to bring dollars and change them there. Due to the sanctions you also can’t use ATMs in Iran so we had to withdraw a fair amount of cash for the next couple of months. Wanting to avoid carrying large amounts of cash around for as long as possible I waited until the end of our stay in Bishkek. But then forgot about the time difference with my bank in Australian and went at 8 pm just as it turned midnight on Oz and so busted my daily limit for the next day.
So in the morning I hurried to the small town near the hotel only to find that the two ATMs there wouldn’t take my card. So I had to hitch a lift to the town 25 km up the valley. The first guy who stopped happened to be going there and very kindly took me on a tour of most of the towns ATMs before finally finding one that worked. He then waited while I changed it into dollars and then took me back to where I could get a shared taxi back to the hotel.
All that messing around had taken most of the morning and it was nearly 12 by the time we set off. I was worried the border might be closed for lunch but it wasn’t although it was very quiet. We were the only people we saw crossing during the couple of hours we were there.
The Kyrgyz side was pretty relaxed and consisted of a couple of huts and a few guards lounging around outside. They asked where we were from and then wanted is to pose for photos with them. Informalities over they ushered us towards one of the huts. The two officers were as usual unsure what do to with a Vietnamese person without a visa. In the end they Googled the visa requirements to discover that Vietnamese alongside North Koreans and Cubans can visit Kyrgyzstan for an unlimited period without a visa. It would seem that very few of them take advantage of such a liberal travel regime.
The Uzbekistan side of the border was altogether more serious. A set of huge gates surrounded by barbed wire opened onto a serious of newly constructed buildings their freshly painted exteriors gleaming in the brilliant summer sunshine. We were ushered inside by a guard in a crisply pressed uniform.
You can tell a lot about a country by its border posts. China’s were big and imposing edifices illustrating the power and control of the police state and the border guards faceless, characterless automatons. Little cogs within the machine of one party rule. In contrast in Kyrgyzstan the buildings were shabby and crumbling but the officers were friendly and helpful. And that was rather like the country. Still suffering from the traumas of the collapse of the soviet union with a lot of poverty and unemployment but such a cheery welcome from the people. That extended to the bureaucracy related to tourism. No visas for many countries. No registration required. You can camp where you like and stay in any hotel. In short an easy place to be a tourist in.
The Uzbekistan border seemed like a combination of the two. The buildings and trappings of a police state, including the border guards who were very serious and officious at least at the start however as the process progressed their masks began to slip and hints of the famous Uzbek hospitality began to seep out until at the end they were almost apologetic about the rigmarole we had to go through. The customs declaration accounting for every single cent in every single currency you had on you we then had to empty all our bags. Kim went first and I had to wait for her to finish despite their being 6 officers watching on. I think they all just wanted a good nosey at what we had with us especially as I had a look at the list of prohibited items which included grains and seeds yet they said nothing when I pulled out some rice and lentils. Curiosity satisfied they allowed us to repack our steeds and continue on into the blazing hot Fergana valley. It was green, fertile and heavily cultivated thanks to the complex network of irrigation canals and pipes which transfer water from the nearby mountains to water what would be otherwise parched fields.
The fields weren’t the only ones becoming parched. It had reached around 40°C so although the road was nice and flat it was hard going. After a short climb out of a river valley Kim slumped onto her handle bars to get her breath back and concerned locals came hurrying up to offer her water and check she was ok. Soon after we found an ice cream cafe were we ate a while tub of ice cream and the owner plied us with gifts and then asked us to pose for photos with the family.
That evening our target was Namangan the only decent sized town on our route and the only place I could find that had a hotel. Uzbekistan requires that you register for every night during your stay which effectively means you have to stay in a hotel. You can get into serious trouble and be fined when leaving the country or at the frequent police checks if you don’t have the correct number of registration slips and some hotels won’t even let you stay if there are gaps in your registration. However you are allowed to travel between each place which means you can camp as long as you stay in a hotel at least once every three days. So I thought it best to get the first registration where we definitely knew there was a hotel. The first place we went to, next to the Bazaar didn’t take foreigners but the next place did. It was cheaper than I expected (Uzbekistan has a reputation for pricy accommodation), basic but nice. We were offered the choice of air-conditioning. The room without was like an oven and there was no fan, so you can guess which one I selected.
I enquired at reception about changing money and was directed back to the Bazaar. Normally they find you, but I must have been in the wrong place after asking one of the taxi drivers a man beckoned me over and led me through the throngs of drivers and their cars touting for passengers. He took me to a flour shop, huge sacks piled on the floor and a dusting of white on all the surfaces. They indicated the rate 4 (4,400) and I showed them my hundred dollar bill. Then they pulled out a stack of bills. The biggest note in circulation is 5,000 Som which is worth about $1.20 however they are pretty new so there aren’t so many of them about. So he handed me a stack of 1,000 Som notes in bundles of 100. And I’m thinking do I really want to count 440 notes while everyone is watching me. But what if some of them are dodgy? So I start checking them, but it’s really awkward holding them all and trying to check them. And the bundles are falling apart and some notes fall into the floor and I still don’t have any idea if there are the right number. Fuck it I thought to myself, stuffed the wodge of notes into the carrier bag they offered me and headed back to the hotel on my bike.
On the climb out of town the next day I was ahead of Kim when the police drove past, stopped and motioned me to pull over. They asked me the usual questions but didn’t ask for my passport and then waited for Kim to arrive. When she did they gestured to continue. I think they were implying that I shouldn’t go rushing off on my own but make sure we rode together.
We were riding higher up the side of the valley so it was drier and far less densely populated. Often there were only cultivated fields on the lower side of the road. The fields on the other were sunburnt and dusty the brown grass a reminder of what the whole valley would look like without the life giving irrigation waters that flowed ceaselessly. The fields have been irrigated in this fashion for centuries. Water is released from the networks of canals and ditches and then allowed to flood across the whole field. It is simple and once the ditches have been built only requires a hoe to operate. But it’s labour intensive, contributes to soil erosion and is very inefficient, requiring much more water than other techniques. Uzbekistan is already a hot and dry country as climate change exacerbates this it could pose real challenges in the future.
We’d set at off at 6:30 but already the sun was high in the sky and it was hot. By mid-day it was stifling and we began a habit that would turn into a daily routine. Find a shady tree and then rest for a couple of hours after lunch during the worst of the heat. By early evening we were both bushed and set off to find a campsite for the evening. Going down a gravel road we spotted a family resting on a Tapchan the wooden bed style frames that people in Central Asia use for eating, drinking, relaxing and sleeping on outside during the summer months. Using sign language I made the shape of a tent and then sleeping to the guy. He said ok and indicated we should follow him leading us for about a kilometre up a track to a large abandoned house and then showing us to a dusty empty room. Clearly he had misunderstood my mime for tent and thought I meant house. We found the word for tent, cleared up the confusion and set up our home in an Orchard just as the sun was setting. A number of families lived in small huts among the trees and they were friendly and inquisitive without being over bearing. We shared the second of the two watermelons we’d been given that day with the dude who had first shown us the place.
The following morning we began the climb out of the valley. It’s not super high, at least not like we were used to, although it is over 2500 m and it begins at around 800 m so it’s a decent pull. We climbed all day pausing for our extended lunch break in a lovely wooded valley. We’d spotted a wooden bridge crossing the stream and had intended to eat our picnic on the grassy bank on the other side. When we got there the farmer was there and when we explained our intention to him he invited us use their Tapchan Instead. It was wonderfully cool in the shade of the trees with a breeze blowing. The twittering birds and gurgling brook provided a soothing lullaby for our siesta.
We pushed on up the hill, but after 2 weeks off our legs were suffering. We were just short of the top but both of us were tired and hungry. We spotted a little place with Tapchan on the hillside and the lovely family were happy to let us bed down for the night in one of them. At around 2000m it was delightfully cool compared to the sweltering valley below which never really cooled down even in the middle of the night. It was lovely having to use the sleeping bags again.
It was only a short hop up to the tunnel at the top where the army insisted on checking our passports in great detail. As did their compatriots 500m away at the other end of the tunnel. I’m not exactly sure what they were anticipating finding. That we had swapped roles with a crack team of assassins that had been hiding in the darkness. The whole rigmarole was repeated at the next tunnel a couple of kilometres down the road. I have to say they are probably the best guarded tunnels in the world. That is against those renowned trouble makers and agents of terrorism touring cyclists. If you have a car you can pretty much take anyone or any through. But people of Uzbekistan you can rest easy your tunnels are safe from cyclists.
After the final checkpoint we rounded a bend and the valley opened out in a sweep of greenness with the remnants of the winter snow clinging on to the mountains behind. Gorgeous.
As we descended further the gradient flattened and the wind picked up meaning we were having to pedal to go downhill much to Kim’s chagrin.
We reached the town of Angren later that afternoon. First passing it’s huge open cast coal mine and then the stacks of the power station that dominates the sky line. I asked for directions to the hotel and a taxi driver explained and then passed us with his fare and gesticulated which was our turning. It was quite hard to find and we kept asking for directions. We came to a couple sitting on a bench clutching a half empty bottle of vodka and they pointed to continue on the way we were going. But the next group we asked pointed back to the drunks. We headed back and they continued pointing from where we had just cos from. Seeing the confused looks on our faces the explained it was for Uzbeks only and continued pointing up the road and saying the name of a street I couldn’t decipher. I asked then to point it out on the map. Most people in Asia don’t use maps so usually struggle to read them. Trying to get drunk people to do so is asking for trouble. The guy squints at it for a few seconds before rapidly giving up. Now he’s talking to me in Russian and he can’t get his head round the fact that I can’t speak Russian. His girlfriend tries to tell him I don’t speak Russian. I try to tell him I don’t speak Russian but he carries on talking to me and begins to think I’m being rude by not answering his questions. Now he’s getting louder and flecks of spittle form at the side of his mouth. Thinking it was probably time to beat a retreat I thank him profusely for his assistance and head off.
We ask a couple of taxi drivers where the other hotel is and they don’t know either. Someone else says there isn’t one. We’re just about to give up and head out of town when the woman in the shop where we stop to buy water comes up trumps. “take the second left”. It was with some relief that we pulled up to the shiny new hotel. It was a bit pricy but they let us have a cheap room without a bathroom and said we could use the shower in another room, probably after smelling and seeing how dishevelled we were after riding for 3 days in the scorching sun without a shower. We were just unpacking our bicycles when the receptionist came out and said “we have a problem”
We didn’t have a registration slip for every night. I explained that was because we’d been camping. I showed him the letter from the travel agent which indicated we were permitted to camp. But it was no use at first they weren’t going to let us stay. Then they wanted us to pay for two nights and they would register us for that night before. Then the boss arrived and he continued to insist that we paid double and refused to call our tour agent who would have been able to explain the situation. Finally we compromised and agreeing to pay an extra fee to register us for 2 nights but not to have to pay double.
At last we could check in an the receptionist advised us the price included breakfast. When we told him we were leaving at 5 am to beat the heat and get to Tashkent he suggested we swap and could have breakfast in the evening. “you mean dinner?” I asked. But no it turns out he did actually mean breakfast in the evening. We were presented with pancakes, bread, jam a hardboiled egg and a selection of cold meats.
Although we had intended to beat the heat the sun was long risen even at 5:30 but it was still coolish and we enjoyed it while it lasted. The first 40km were all downhill and with a decent tailwind we made good progress. As we turned towards Tashkent it became more undulating and hotter. It was harvest time and ancient Soviet era combine harvesters were chugging up and down the golden fields of wheat. The road was lined with stalls piled high with plump watermelons. Then we reached a section of road with tables and chairs set out under shady trees. Perfect for a pit stop. Turned out they were selling fermented milk which was actually much more refreshing than it sounds. Later that night I wasn’t finding it so refreshing.
We arrived into Tashkent in the evening after our customary afternoon snooze under a tree. Of course the guest house I had booked was on the opposite side of the city. After having already covered 100 km the additional 10 km was a struggle. Although that did mean we got to see a fair bit of the city. The very Soviet looking suburbs all trams, low wooden buildings or crumbling blocks of flats. In the centre it’s a different story. The government has attempted to remove as much of its Russian past as possible. Most of the buildings have been demolished and replaced by rather gaudy blocks of white marble as testament to the new regime. The streets have all been renamed, sometimes 2 or 3 times so people navigate by landmarks as opposed to Street names which can be very difficult for travellers especially as some of the landmarks have changed names too. Such was the fever to reject all things Russian that Russian is not an official language. Yet a significant proportion speaks only Russian, much business is conducted in Russian at least in Tashkent, and many adverts and signs are in Russian.
The city was pleasant. Lots of wide streets and trees and parks, which was good as we ended up staying there for ten days. More visa travails. We had planned on heading to the French Embassy the next day however the fermented milk that I consumed earlier had other ideas. I woke up at 2 am and was violently sick. The next 12 hours consisted of me moaning not very softly on my sickbed punctuated by hasty dashes to the toilet.
24 hours later I was feeling well enough to venture out and about. As soon as we arrived and saw our bicycles the security staff motioned us over and let us bypass the long line of people that were already waiting and we explained what we wanted. A few minutes later a member of staff came out and asked us some questions. He seemed just as keen to check out our bikes and talk about the logistics as he was planning a bike trip of his own. The next thing he said was “we’ll give you a visa”. Then came the waiting game for the visa. We asked if we could take the passport away with us so we could get out of town while we waited, but they wouldn’t let us. They said it would take 7 days. The 7th day was Bastille day so we came back on the 8th, but it still wasn’t ready. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after was the response. But time was running out on our visa. We had 9 days to cover the nearly 700 km to the border with Turkmenistan but the last of those days included one of the 5 days we had in our transit visa to cross the whole of Turkmenistan. We decided to set off that day and return to pick up the visa on one of the rest days at had scheduled. Otherwise we would have to ride more than a thousand kilometres in 12 days without any breaks.