The road since Kazakhstan hasn’t risen or dipped. It has rarely turned. Instead, it has shot a nearly straight line through the Uzbek landscape from Nukus in the north west to Samarkand in the south east.
Much of the riding has been, to be honest, a bit uninspiring. The landscape has been flat, the wild camping has been difficult and the summer sun has been very hot. But amongst the ancient domes of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities I feel transported to another time and truly get the sense that I have entered Central Asia. Even in the more mundane desert stretches of the last few weeks there has been an excitement to the fact of where I am, how far I have cycled to get here and how much further there is to go!
From Beyneu in Kazakhstan a very long and dry road takes overlanders into the desert of northern Uzbekistan. It is difficult and badly surfaced with reported distances of up to 170km between water stops. I met some cyclists who rode the stretch and I admire them for that, but I opted for the train.
For now I was still travelling with Spanish cyclists Marta and Coco. We slept the night on our wobbly beds in relative peace but during the day the train was abuzz with money changers and food vendors charging up and down the narrow corridors calling out for our business.
After arrival in Uzbekistan it was time to change money. The Uzbek Som is highly inflated and it was bizarre to receive these four giant wads of bills in exchange for my $50US. My wallet was not built for this. A further quirk of Uzbekistan is that the official exchange rate is about half the black market rate so nobody ever changes money in banks. Walk through any bazaar and you will be swamped by money changers carrying piles of cash in plastic bags calling ‘exchange dollar’. It feels very odd and unsafe to sit in the public bazaar counting through 400,000 Som while crowds stream past but it’s worth it, and nobody seemed to care.
After arrival in Kungirot, our bikes were hastily stashed in a restaurant and a ride was hitched to Moynaq, a town that used to sit on the shore of the Aral Sea. The steady destruction of the Aral Sea over only a number of decades is recognised as one of the greatest man made environmental disasters of all time. Soviet irrigation projects transformed what was previously arid Uzbek land into a totally unsustainable area of intensive cotton production and in doing so robbed the Aral Sea of its water source. As the Sea evaporated Moynaq was robbed of the fishing industry that sustained it and its old fishing fleet now stand stripped back and rusting into the sand as a monument to the human disaster. The shoreline now sits around 150km from the beaches of Moynaq.
Agricultural chemicals also became embedded in the sand the retreating sea left behind, causing high rates of sickness and cancer amongst Moynaq’s population. A disaster on all fronts.
To lighten the mood though, at Moynaq we met the most unlikely of fellow travellers – a Belgian family with four young children, travelling from Brussels to Sydney in a huge off-roader truck! Nicolas, the father, is now an emergency doctor but bizarrely financed medical school by working backstage in a circus where he picked up all manner of skills that rarely find use in every day life. The morning was spent trying to learn juggling until it became too hot to stay outside and they drove us back to our bikes.
Having ridden with company for a few weeks I was feeling ready to strike out again on my own and waving farewell to Marta and Coco I sped on solo to Nukus. (There is however really only one route through Uzbekistan, and I have seen Marta and Coco and various other cyclists in every city along the way so far).
Tucked within this nondescript building in nondescript Nukus is one of the most important collections of Soviet era art in the world. At a time when most artwork was being suppressed and artists persecuted, Igor Savitsky rebelled and collected and hid important artworks in this building in Nukus – a forgettable soviet grid of a city where nobody would think to look for them. The price to take photos inside is over five times the price of admission so if you want to see the artworks you will have to visit yourself.
Out of Nukus and on the road to Khiva I saw something I did not expect. The tail of this plane was visible in the distance from the main road and hoping to find an aeroplane graveyard I made the detour. Sadly, only one plane was there, with absolutely no signage to explain why. Long time readers will know that I love abandoned buildings and it was pretty great to go exploring around my first abandoned commercial airliner!
I definitely feel less safe on these things now that I’ve seen how little separates you from everything outside…
The Uzbek landscape is one of extremes. I was either riding through a dry and desolate desert or through agricultural land so dense and wet that it reminded me of South East Asia. The land is sometimes so lush that you can pull over and fill your panniers with ripe apples from the trees by the side of the road.
In these densely agricultural areas wild camping is all but impossible and I was reliant on the kindness of strangers to find a place to sleep.
Misha was one such kind stranger, who I asked where I could camp and responded by offering me his back yard. In his yard he grew everything from cherries and apricots to tomatoes and cucumbers.
The pride that he took in his crop was clearly evident and very humbling.
The best campsite of Uzbekistan.
Well fed from Misha’s garden I rolled into the ancient city of Khiva and witnessed my first great examples of Silk Road architecture. Those are some mighty impressive minarets.
But what I enjoyed most was wandering around and breathing the smoky air of its bustling bazaar. The city’s ancient architecture is an immersive vestige of a former time but when you see other tourists walking around with their DSLR cameras slung around their necks it reminds you starkly that you are in the 21st century. I love the bazaars in Central Asia because except for the jeans and the sneakers that some people now wear they are pretty much unchanged from how they were hundreds of years ago. To walk through one and buy some fruit is to take part in a ceremony that’s been binding and sustaining these communities for centuries and I can feel the history of the place even more strongly than I can when standing outside a centuries old mosque.
The kaleidoscopic fashion of Kazakhstan continued into Uzbekistan.
A wonderful new thing though are these soft drink vendors. They mix a splash of their thick sugary syrup with a glass of bubbly water, making on demand soft drinks that taste like fruity creaming soda. For less than ten cents a glass there’s nothing better to quench that summer thirst.
Some people criticise Khiva for being a lifeless museum city but they are so wrong. Venture beyond the city’s impressive facades and there’s action around every corner.
Another criticism that is often levelled at Uzbekistan, but an accurate one, is that their food is terrible. For the most part, in my opinion, it is – and not just because I got food poisoning here. It’s bland, fatty, oily and repetitive. This meal was the exception that proved the rule. These dumplings were filled with some kind of cheese and topped with freezing cold yogurt with little chunks of ice in it. A refreshing and delicious antidote for the midday sun, and the first time I’ve ever had brain freeze from dumplings. They were served to me unprompted and for free at a rest stop on the road and sadly I never found them again.
From Khiva to Bukhara is 450km, 300km of which stretches through the Kyzylkum (‘the Red Sand’) desert. Travellers in Uzbekistan are forced to stay in a hotel every three days or face huge fines at the border, so many skip this stretch in a taxi. I hadn’t set myself a physical challenge since Turkey and so I opted to ride;
Day 1: 103km
Day 2: 200km (longest day of the tour – second longest day ever)
Day 3: 155km.
The days were over 40 degrees in the sun and I rose at 5am to beat the heat, resting between 11:30 and 3:30 when it was at its worst.
Luckily the tea houses lining the roadside were well stocked with water.
The highlight was the cardboard cut outs of police cars that occasionally line the roadside and are presumably supposed to act like freeway scarecrows to make drivers obey the speed limits. They do not work.
The worst of it was the final 100km into Bukhara. The buttery smooth road through most of the desert was made recently by the Chinese and is a pleasure to ride, but suddenly and without warning it ended and reverted back to what Uzbekistan deems sufficient for a major road into a major city. This isn’t a road, it’s a nightmare. Even the cars were driving in the sand on the side rather than over the cracked and gnarled tarmac.
The encouraging characters on the way into the city kept me smiling though, in spite of the road.
Dehydrated, exhausted and with food poisoning I rolled into my Bukhara hostel and spent a few days moving slowly,
Exploring the city’s corners,
It’s hazy streets,
And watching life go by.
Now I’m in Samarkand and the sun has set on my time in the desert. Ahead of me lie the foothills of the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and I’m so excited to see a road that goes somewhere other than straight ahead that I can barely contain myself. My stomach is fixing itself and my legs are itching for some gradients – bring on the hills!