UZBEKISTAN, 31st August – 8th September 2017
Pizza, fries and a chocolate milkshake with cream on top. Not the kind of thing to be found in the Uzbek desert, so Alex and I were making the most of it during our last moments in Nukus. We’d been reunited the day before. Alex, remember, had cycled with us in Georgia and hung out with us in Baku before we’d left to catch the Caspian Sea boat. He’d had to stay behind in Baku and wait for his Uzbekistan visa, but he’d caught us up now, or rather we’d caught him up. In Kazakhstan he’d had trouble with his wheels, breaking several spokes, and so he’d hopped on a train from Beyneu, leapfrogging ahead of us in the process. Now we were reunited and planning to cycle together through another 500 kilometres of desert to get to Bukhara, but before we began Dea had expressed a desire to visit the museum of Soviet-era art that Nukus is (almost) famous for. Fortunately just before we went in she’d suggested that if we weren’t that interested in the museum we could wait in a cafe for her while she went to look around, and even more fortunately the cafe that we chose was trying very hard to be Western, and had the aforementioned pizza, fries and milkshakes. Oh, it was a glorious alternative to a museum, to be sure.
Before leaving Nukus for the great unknown we went to a supermarket (of sorts) and stocked up. Dea and I took half an hour, loading up our bikes with fifteen litres of water, six litres of chocolate milk, five litres of juice, three types of bread, some jam, chocolate spread, pasta, chocolate, and a handful of Snickers. We wanted to be ready for the desert. Alex popped in and took two minutes, and came out with a couple of bottles of water, a loaf of bread, and a bag of nuts. It was all part of his laid-back, ‘travelling-light’ mentality. “Are you not worried about running out of food and water?” I asked. “Nah,” he said, “it’ll be alright.”
We finally left Nukus around three in the afternoon, returning to the desert and straight into a strong headwind. There was nothing to do about that, so we struggled along as best we could on what was an unusual road system. It appeared to have been designed as a dual carriageway, but unfortunately no one had informed the drivers, and so rather absurdly both sides of it were being used by traffic heading in both directions. After just 35 kilometres of laughing at this madness, we gave in to the winds and stopped to make camp, where Alex revealed he’d like to be played by Ben Affleck should a movie ever be made about our journey, and I drank too much chocolate milk.
The next day our start was delayed by the inaugural Team Spirit Long Jump Competition, which I won with a leap of two and a half metres, that everyone agreed wasn’t even worth trying to beat. We were then further hampered by Alex suffering a couple of punctures, and a wind that was determined to hold up our progress, but we did begin inching our way towards Bukhara. After a while we stumbled upon a cafe, where the kind owners gave us big plates of food free of charge – all we had to do was sign a guestbook (that revealed we were not the first cyclists to visit) and solve a Rubix cube in under a minute while being filmed. Luckily Alex is very skilled at Rubix cubes, and he completed the challenge. The food and water we received also vindicated his laid-back approach to carrying desert supplies.
In fact there were plenty of chaikanas to be found along the way, and for about a hundred kilometres we even passed through an area of relative civilization, where fields were irrigated and people walked or cycled about. We could have detoured down to the old town of Khiva from here, but we’d heard it was a bit too touristy, and we were too keen to press on east to Bukhara to be making detours. We’d even booked accommodation already there, and so we were on a schedule that the winds were making hard to keep to.
On our third day out from Nukus we were back into the empty desert when the wind gods turned friendly, and we suddenly found ourselves with a massive tailwind. We also now had a perfect new dual carriageway, a smooth surface that almost everyone managed to drive on the right side of. With such good cycling conditions I sensed Team Spirit, as we’d named ourselves, could make it to Bukhara on time after all. For two whole days the wind carried us forwards, blowing us across the hot desert. We entertained ourselves with a round of the Spotting Things Game. As happened with Jacob in Bosnia, we found it annoying that our guest participant should beat us at our own game, but Alex was the 7-6-6 winner (albeit with a questionable ‘Abandoned shoe’ that was, surely, a mere sandal).
In two days we covered almost 250 kilometres, and Bukhara was within our sights. Only one thing blighted our progress. It happened as we neared a chaikana, the cafe rest stops that appeared every 30-50 kilometres and provided us a blissful chance to escape the sun to refresh and refuel. I must have been distracted by the sight of it on the horizon, for I hit a big stone in the road and my rear tyre deflated instantly. I didn’t want to change it under the hot sun, so I pushed the bike the rest of the way to the shade of the chaikana. As I went about changing the tube I found something far more worrying. The sidewall of the tyre had a big gash in it. It was perilously close to making the tyre unusable. Had I just made that gash by pushing the tyre while it was deflated? If so, then I was an idiot, for we had no spare tyre, and no hope of finding a good one out here.
I put the damaged tyre back on with a new tube, but the next morning, our last of this desert crossing, I found myself stopping to fix punctures more than once. I put a patch on the inside of the tyre where the cut was, but I knew it was only a temporary solution. And this last day turned into even more of a test of endurance as the road grew narrow and bumpy and heavy with traffic. So it was with a sense of triumphant exhaustion that Team Spirit finally sighted the famous Kalyan minaret tower of Bukhara, with a little feeling of what it might have been like for the great caravans of the past. Our final long desert crossing was over.
We’d booked to stay at the Jeyran Hotel for four nights, because it was cheap and because it had very good reviews we thought it would be the ideal place for us to relax. How wrong we were. We first had to sit down with the frumpy owner lady, who took down our details for the registration process. She spoke no English, but clearly wasn’t happy that we hadn’t registered anywhere else for a few days (Uzbekistan has a silly law about foreigners needing to register in hotels every night, difficult to do in the desert) but she took our money all the same. Her husband, with some reluctance, then showed us up to our room. We’d booked into an eight-bed dorm because it was cheap and came with free breakfast, so we were a bit surprised to see there were only four beds, one of which could not reasonably be described as a bed. The other four occupants of the room would have to sleep on blankets on the floor. I sat down on one of the better beds, quite exhausted. The man motioned frantically for me to get up, then handed me some bedsheets. Oh, I had to make the bed before I could sit on it. “You know, in some establishments I believe they do that for you,” I said, frustrated.
Dea and I had so been looking forward to a place where we could relax for a few days, and this certainly wasn’t it. Next the owners got angry with us for walking around in our socks, and we felt like we couldn’t relax here. The final straw for us came when we asked what time breakfast was and were told that it would cost an extra two dollars each. The booking we’d made clearly stated that breakfast was included in the price. When we tried to show the frumpy owner lady our booking confirmation she wasn’t interested in looking, and just got angry, saying breakfast was not included. Her attitude was horrible. This was a horrible place to stay. We wanted out. I told her if she gave us some of our money back we’d be happy to leave in the morning.
We went back up to our room, where Alex was resting, and where there was also now a Russian girl. After a while the frumpy owner lady came up to the room, and started making angry noises. The Russian girl translated for us. “Erm, she wants you to leave now.” It seemed like we were being kicked out. But we weren’t going anywhere until we got our money back. “She says she will call the police if you don’t go,” the Russian girl added. The frumpy old woman nodded her head smugly. “Registration,” she said, “registration problem. Police.”
“Call the police then,” I said. “We’re not going anywhere until we get our money back.”
“She says she will give you everything back except half the money for tonight,” the Russian girl said. That was good enough for us. We wanted to get out of this place. Well, Dea and I did. Alex still laid on his bed, looking like he wanted nothing to do with this. “I think I’ll just stay,” he said.
So that is how Dea and I found ourselves kicked out on the streets at eleven o’clock at night. We gathered ourselves and walked our bikes in towards the old town of Bukhara, feeling a sense of freedom and adventure to be doing so. We walked past the great ark, and on along empty streets, until we turned a corner and suddenly stood jaws open at the sight of Kalyan minaret and the madrassahs next to it. A big moon floated behind them. It was a special moment.
On we walked, down a street suddenly busy with life. A hundred men kneeled laying the paving bricks of a new pedestrian road, much as they would have done centuries ago, working in the cool evening. There was some debate about whether or not we would be able to navigate our heavy bikes through this chaos of bricks and piles of sand, but eventually it was decided, as so often is the case in Asia, that it must be possible, and we were led through. On the other side a man asked if we needed a hotel, and offered to show us to a cheap one. He led us down a dark street, but we trusted that fate was holding our hand now, leading us somewhere good. And we were right. We were soon welcomed in at a new hotel by the young owner, Akbar, who showed us a welcome much warmer than we had any right to expect from a man we’d just woken up.
The next day our decision to move felt even more like it was the right one. We were now at the Moxinur Bukhara, and for basically the same price we now had our own private room, in a peaceful, homely place with a big open courtyard. Akbar lived here with his wife, their two children, his parents, and his sisters, and they all made us feel so welcome, almost as part of the family. It was the perfect place to relax. Oh, and breakfast was also included.
We spent the day relaxing and making enquiries about bike shops and tyres. I knew that I was in real trouble, because Central Asia was no place to be finding good quality tyres, and the Pamir Highway was no place to by cycling on cheap alternatives. I looked into getting tyres shipped, but the cost of sending anything into Central Asia was extortionate. But Alex had found some bike shops and the next day we went there to see what they had. A lot of people do ride bikes in Uzbekistan, but they mostly use very cheap old bikes and parts, and the first shop I went in reflected this. He had a tyre the right size for me, but it only cost £3.50, and I doubted very much it would last a week. I was contemplating how many spare tyres I was going to need to carry of this quality to get through the Pamirs, when Dea started talking to a man at another of the little bike stores. “He says he has a Schwalbe tyre,” Dea said, excitedly. Frankly, I didn’t believe it, but the young guy seemed quite insistent. He didn’t have it there in the shop, but he promised to bring it in the next day for me. I left, feeling like I would believe it only when I saw it.
The next day Dea left early in the morning on a train bound for Samarkand. I’d seen Samarkand on my last visit to Uzbekistan, and we’d decided that it didn’t make a lot of sense for us both to cycle there, adding a lot of stressful cycling to our route. Instead Dea would go there for a couple of days by train, then return to Bukhara so we could cycle more directly to Tajikistan. So I was alone when I walked back to the bike shops, still not daring to believe my tyre problems were about to be solved. When I got there the young man smiled at me, and went to the back of his little shop, where he pulled out a Schwalbe Marathon Original. It had been used a bit, and had some scratches, but it was the right size and looked in good enough shape to get me through the Pamirs. I couldn’t believe my luck. It must have been the only Schwalbe tyre on sale in the whole of Uzbekistan, this land so devoid of good bicycle parts, and I’d stumbled upon it. It was a miracle.
I skipped merrily back to the guest house. I was in a fantastic mood. It was great to be in Bukhara, great to be relaxing, great to have the Pamir Highway ahead of us and a bike that now had a chance of making it. I put my new tyre on the back wheel and it fitted perfectly. It was just great news. Now my next task was to clean and repaint my bike. This was something I did every so often, although I’d not done it for a couple of years. I knew there were some rust patches and I’d been meaning to do this for a while, I’d just never found the time. Luckily the bike shop had some cheap spray paint, so I washed away all the desert dirt, ready to repaint the areas of the bike where the paint had been stripped off. Then on went the paint. There were a few patches on the top tube needed repainting, a bit on the chainstays, a lot on the racks. Then I turned the bike over and checked it from underneath. I came to my front fork and I froze. I stopped and stared for a while, trying to process what I was seeing.
“Oh dear,” I said.
NUKUS – BUKHARA
Distance cycled: 568 kilometres