We took the quieter of the two roads out of the city. It took a while to clear Tashkent but once we did it was pleasant enough riding through rich farmland. Wheat, maize and of course the ubiquitous cotton. Uzbekistan is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world thanks in a large part to the policies of president Islam Karimov which sees a significant proportion of the population transformed into virtual slaves for the duration of the harvest. Public servants such as teachers and doctors are forced into the fields. Recently there have been a reduction in the use of child labour after an international outcry but the opportunity to buy themselves out of the obligation to work has led to massive amounts of corruption.
By late afternoon we’d turned into an even smaller road that weaved through tree lined villages and past cheery farmers working in the fields. Luckily it had clouded over while we were having our extended lunch break making a pleasant change from the scorching temperatures we’d experienced during our 10 days in Tashkent. During our stay there we had tried to contact some environmental groups to discover more about their work and climate change in Uzbekistan. However the advised us we would require permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before talking to any organisations. They never replied to our email although it did become impossible to update our website from within Uzbekistan during the course of out stay there!?!?!
As the sun was lowering we spotted a lovely grassy river bank that looked like a prefect camp site. We were just heading down the rutted track to get there when a guy pulled up on a bicycle and started gesticulating that we were going the wrong way. We gestured that we wanted to camp and he said no and indicated we should follow him. He led us to a crumbling concrete building in the middle of an orchard and motioned us inside. He lived in 2 of the rooms but the rest of what one must have been a pretty impressive house was just used to store sacks of wheat and one room was home to a family of ducks.
As soon as we were inside he put the kettle on for chai and asked if we wanted some eggs. He turned an ancient looking hotplate on by inserting the bare wires into an extension socket precariously balanced on the arm of the sofa. There was a flash and the lights dimmed but that appeared to be normal as he carried on cooking as if nothing had happened. After we had washed and eaten he took us on a tour of the farm picking plums and apples for us on the way. Then he made up a couple of beds for us in the living room. He was just a lovely guy. Unfortunately conversation was a little limited as he spoke no English and we no Uzbek or Russian. Using sign language and Google translate we managed to piece together that his wife and baby lived elsewhere while he was looking after the farm.
The following days ride was long and dull. After only a few kilometres we joined the main highway, so it was busy and the landscape was pretty similar to that we’d been riding through for the past couple of weeks. 130 km later tired and sweaty we pulled into Jizax and found a hotel for the night.
Next day we had a couple of changes to break the monotony. Hills and rain. Although neither of them were very spectacular especially the rain which didn’t amount to more than a light sprinkling. Still for the first time since we left Kyrgyzstan I felt almost cool whilst going downhill in the rain.
And so we rolled into Samarkand one of the major cities on the silk road. The plan had been to spend a couple of nights there to take in the sights but now we had to return to pick up the visa we had to push on. So that evening we had a wander around town visited the Registan which of course was closed as they were rehearsing for a performance at Eid. Ramadan had been on during the entire time we were in Uzbekistan but I’d barely noticed. Shops and restaurants were open as usual the only suggestion that the most important event in the Muslim calendar was occurring was the crowds of people heading to the Mosque in the evening.
We couldn’t even take photos of the exterior as there were police everywhere rigorously enforcing the no photos of the practice. So we wandered some more. Saw some tombs, ate some dinner and went back to our guest house which was one of the best we had stayed in. It had a delightful courtyard with those tables that you lie on the floor and an ancient grape vine as thick as a tree trunk in the middle with its leaves cascading down the stairs and the balconies that led to the rooms. We were welcomed with tea and biscuits and that evening while we were chatting more tea was served with watermelon. Those little things that make the difference between an ok stay and a truly memorable one. The room itself was a little old and musty but the overall experience more than made up for it. It’s called Bahodir if you’re interested in staying there.
And then it was straight back on the road which was more of the same really and was more notable for the interactions at the places we stayed in rather than the journey itself. The first night we were looking for a place to camp and pulled off onto a farm track. An educated looking guy on a bicycle stopped and I showed him the “can we camp here” in the Russian phrasebook. He shook his head and motioned that we should go back to the highway and continue on our way. We were just turning our bikes round when a farmer shouted us over and indicated that we could camp in the corner of his field. As we were setting up camp a small child came over to say hello. A few minutes later he was back with what seemed like all the children from the neighbourhood plus a few mums. There was over a dozen people gathered around Kim. One of the older girls spoke ok English and they were bombarding Kim with questions through her. The girl’s mother arrived and she was even more inquisitive than the children, wanting to know all about our journey. Then plying us with bounty from her garden. First watermelon, then eggs, tomatoes bread and fermented milk. Finally just as it was getting dark the mother seeing that the food I had been preparing while we talked, was ready ordered everyone home to leave us in a bit of peace.
24 hours later saw us in Navoi, a large industrial town. The chimneys and factories are far from the city centre which is actually very pleasant, centred as it is around a large artificial lake and we managed to locate the cheapest hotel rooms we’d found in Uzbekistan. Later that evening we went to find somewhere for dinner which proved a greater challenge than we expected. We sat down at a fast food restaurant in the amusement park next to the lake. It proved anything but fast. Waiters scurried about all around us but steadfastly refused to come near our table. We asked 3 times and waived at each of the staff as they passed but to no avail. We left. Then spent the next half an hour trying to find somewhere that sold things a little more substantial than hotdogs. Finally we spotted a little place that served Kebabs and took a seat and were again ignored, finally some people at the next table grabbed a waiter for us after seeing our plight. Like many restraints in Uzbekistan there was no menu which is a pain for the traveller but I recognised on of the dishes he rattled off “tabak” which is roast chicken. Last time we’d had it we’d got a whole chicken so I mimed that we wanted a small one and translated it into Uzbek just to make sure. The waiter looked a little confused but didn’t say anything and walked off. And so we waited, and waited and again the table next to us came to our rescue summoning the waiter and it became apparent that not only had he not understood our order but he hadn’t even bothered to communicate that he hadn’t understood. We left. I know it’s hard to serve someone who doesn’t speak your language but it really isn’t that hard to communicate sorry I don’t understand you . You will have to go somewhere else. 10 minutes later we found someone who showed how it should be done. “Tabak” he said and did a bit of a chicken dance just to make sure we understood. Salad we said. He nodded. Ten minutes later we were tucking into a fabulous dinner made all the more delicious by our previous tribulations.
The ride to Bukhara was rather uneventful until we were around 25km from the city and the bumpy road suddenly felt all the more bumpy. Flat tyre. We had the puncture routine down to a T. I checked the tyre for anything sharp still stuck in it which could cause another puncture and fitted a new tube while Kim repaired the hole in the old one and we were shortly back on the road. Then 10 minutes later another puncture. I must have missed something. I checked the rims this time and there was a puncture hole in the rim tape where the spokes are fitted. The guy who had fixed my broken spoke in Vietnam had used the wrong sized spoke and there was a couple of millimetres protruding out of the top of the nipple. I removed the offending spoke , but the rim tape broke as I took it off the rim. So I patched together the tape fitted a new tube and we were rolling once again. Very gingery to avoid damaging the wheel. But not for very long. Puncture again. We’d had enough. Out came the thumbs and a lovely guy stopped to help. Strapped the bikes onto his roof, took us all the way to our guest house and refused to accept any money for his troubles
After our great experience hitchhiking into Bukhara we thought we would try our hand at hitchhiking to Tashkent. Bad idea. Most of the traffic wasn’t going that far and everyone wanted paying. That’s how things roll in central Asia. People stand at the side of the road looking for a lift and most people going past will stop and take you as far as they are going for about the same price as a shared taxi. Which is fantastic from an environmental perspective as it means they are less cars on the road. And it’s essentially the same as the supposedly “new” sharing economy that everyone is taking about except it hasn’t got a fancy app nor some bearded hipster banging on about social enterprise. But it’s not so good for the person who wants something for nothing. So we ended up paying more abs it taking a few hours longer than if we’d just taken a shared taxi in the first place.
After checking into our guest house The first task was to get my wheel sorted, but not before having the first negative experience of touring cyclists of our trip. Normally there is a lot of comradery between our biking brethren, but not from these two. They spotted me carrying my wheel on my way out of the hostel and asked what I was after. “new spokes”
They laughed and replied “you’ll be lucky ”
I told them I’d already spoken to a guy called Igor who said he could help.” oh must be a new guy ” was their only response. No sympathy, no offer of help just arrogance. For some reason their attitude really pissed me off. Now I was even more keen to get it fixed.
Luckily Igor came up trumps. After the taxi dropped me off at the address I called him. Seconds later he emerged from his subterranean lair. He was short, skinny, dressed in an old polyester cycling jersey and sporting a fantastic mullet. He led me down to their workshop in the basement of a block of flats
After exchanging pleasantries he got down to work. He measured the wheel and then started measuring the bundles of spokes he pulled out of a drawer. The first couple he tried were the wrong size and my heart began to sink. Then in the deep recesses of another drawer he struck gold. He fitted the spoke, trued the wheel and gave me a couple of spares and I returned triumphantly to the guest house. Luckily the two cyclists were in the kitchen as I walked through smugly with my newly fixed wheel.
Next up was a trip to the French Embassy and once again they let us jump the large and argumentative queue that was already waiting when we arrived. Kim went inside and at first was told to come back the next day. We had to leave the country the day after that so she asked if it could be done quicker and kicked up a bit of a fuss. Eventually after getting another member of staff involved they relented and said we could come back at 3.
Whilst all this was going on who should turn up at the Embassy but Olivier the crazy French dude on the zero carbon trip around the world. We’d first bumped into him in Kashgar, then again in a shared taxi in Kyrgyzstan and now here. He’d been refused a Turkmen visa in Dushanbe and was here to try and enlist the help of the French Embassy to get a visa in Tashkent. We chatted while he waited for his appointment inside, then caught up again when we returned to pick up the visa. We found out later that he’d got the visa so he’ll be following our tyre tracks across Turkmenistan. I wonder if we’ll bump into him again.
Then it was a mad dash across town to catch a shared taxi back to Bukhara. We arrived at our guest house at midnight knackered after all the running around. Hardly the best preparation for the next stage of our trip. The 570 km 6 day trip to Iran via Turkmenistan.
Next day we took a lightening sightseeing trip around Bukhara which turned out to be the nicest town we visited in Uzbekistan. The centre had been restored to recreate it’s glory during the days of the silk road. Narrow streets with ochre brick buildings and domes and towers but unfortunately we couldn’t stop to enjoy it. Although we were forced into a stop before we’d even left town. Another puncture. So it couldn’t have been the spoke after all. I painstakingly searched for anything that could be causing it and removed some pieces of glass from the area of the that seemed to be the culprit. Then 15 km later it happened again. This was driving me nuts. 5 punctures in around 30 km ridden. At last I think I found the culprit. A 1cm long piece of wire that was stuck horizontally through the bottom of the tyre with sharp edges protruding at the sides. When there was no weight on the tyre it didn’t pierce the tyre wall which is why I couldn’t feel it when I was searching the inside. However under load with a bump or two at the right moment…… Removing it seemed to do the trick anyway.
Finally we could begin to make some kilometres to the border. We were around 16km short just as the sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon. We spotted a farmers camp next to a field of watermelon. The old woman welcomed us and said it was no problem to pitch our tent next to their hut. I cooked pasta and we shared it with their dinner of potatoes and eggs. Then watched a magnificent sunset across the fields. Yet more wonderful hospitality and a fitting end to our stay in Uzbekistan.