UZBEKISTAN 8th – 9th June 2017
There was no one to hear Chris’s outburst when he saw his cracked fork, except maybe from the pigeons that circled endlessly over the still and peaceful neighbourhood of Bukhara’s old town. I was not there but far away in Samarkand.
I had been woken up by my alarm at 4am in Bukhara and by 7.15 I stood in the heart of Samarkand 200 kilometres away, face to face with the Registan square. It was an almost unbelievable sight. Not only because of the elegance, dimensions and beauty of the three madrasahs’ high arches and endless variations of patterns and the colour blue. But also because I had travelled so far and so slow riding my bicycle the last five months, and now the last few hours car, train and bus had increased my pace of travelling to a speed that was hard to grasp. I had only just woken up in Bukhara, now I was in Samarkand and it all felt a bit unreal to me, but in fact, that was the reality for most people on the fast train I had taken that morning, as the 1.5 hour ride seemed to be their daily commute. On our journey I was getting out of sync with the speed of the world of today, but I didn’t mind that at all.
I got back into my slower pace by watching the architecture sitting on some steps for half an hour in the peace and cool of the early morning hour. It was as if you could look at it forever and still not have taken in every detail, every bend, every colour. It was overwhelming. The structures were leaning slightly to different sides which revealed their old age (they were built in 14-1600) that was otherwise masked well by the thorough restoration work of the bricks and tiles that had been undertaken over the last 40 years. This restoration strategy also seemed to have extended beyond the old buildings and into the city centre itself. My hostel, that I now went to find, was located in the old town. Like in Bukhara, this was an enchanting maze of narrow streets and old, light coloured buildings with gates in bright blue metal or old, carved wood and with little shops, benches and shading trees here and there. People lived their every day life here, kids walking to school in their tidy uniforms, some people chatting outside a shop, some riding their bicycles or pushing carts with goods through the streets. I found it very charming, but apparently this look of Samarkand was not what the government wanted to show to the outside world. The quarters were hidden away behind high, brick walls. On the other side of the walls were pompous, tidy parks and leafy boulevards surrounding and connecting the main attractions, so it was easy and pleasant to move between them. Also out here was a lively and peaceful atmosphere, so it was not that I disliked the modernised part of the city. It was just such a strange contrast between the two types of town lying there side by side separated by the walls, and I found it a fascinating example of how preservation and tourism can affect and change a place.
Arriving at my hostel I immediately spotted two touring bikes in the courtyard and the helmets and panniers in my dorm. My own appearance didn’t reveal my identity as a cycling tourist, but when I introduced myself to the German couple, Janine and Till, we instantly got into the usual chatting about our trips, bike issues, the traffic and so on. I was once again amazed about how the common experiences with cycle touring breaks down the usual barriers between strangers and make us act like friends from the first moment we meet. We agreed to go out for dinner in the evening, and eventually I tore myself away from the conversation (that could have continued for hours) as I only had one day in Samarkand and many things I would like to see.
First I went back to the Registan madrasahs to go inside each one of them. It was an incredible feeling to stand under the arch of one while admiring the symmetry and decorations of the one on the opposite side and suddenly realise that over your head was a building of a similar, and yet unique, overwhelming beauty that you could not see because you were standing in the middle of it. There was so much beauty, in such a big scale and at the same time on the smallest scale in each and every little decorating pattern, that it was far beyond possibility to take it all in at once. And I think it was this feeling of acceptance of something bigger than you, something beyond your intellectual reach, that was the purpose of it all. It was an architectural experience that embraced and affected me.
Inside the madrasahs were more, smaller arches full of decorated tiles around a courtyard with trees that gave a pleasant shade from the hot sun as well as making it even harder to overlook it all at once. It was a strange satisfying frustration to feel you could never have seen it all.
Souvenir shops selling Uzbek handicrafts filled the little arches and rooms that once was meant for students of Islam. I tried to ignore these shops and the sellers’ insisting “Miss? Miss?” as I mostly found it a disturbing element in the experience. But in the second madrasah a man somehow caught me and got me into his shop. He insisted, he didn’t expect me to buy anything but only wanted to tell me about the tradition for the Samarkand embroidery design called ‘suzani’. I was very interested in this, as I found the various hand embroidered cloth I had seen throughout Uzbekistan very pretty in their colours and patterns, and now I learned that blankets, bed- and pillow covers all could be understood as amulets full of symbols like ‘bulls horns’ or ‘bird wings’ that protected against evil and gave good health and wealth. Dilshod, as the man was called, was a passionate teacher and man and he elegantly weaved info about the past and the present of Uzbekistan’s culture and politics into the lesson. I enjoyed the intense, little moment, but suddenly the alarm on his phone rang. It was Friday noon and time to go to prayer in the main mosque, but before he left he also gave me a few good words about religion and his email address, in case I one day wanted to order anything from his shop.
He left and I stood back with a feeling of wonder and joy, thinking that maybe it had all been about business and he surely made me feel, that if I should ever buy an Uzbek blanket it should be from him. But if all business was just like that, so heartfelt, dignified and human, I could see nothing wrong with that.
Outside the third madrasah I suddenly heard something that struck my heart, something I had not heard for a long time. Danish. A group of women that seemed to be on a group tour were admiring and discussing the weaving and work of some fabric some of them had bought. I knew the tones, the words, the mentality from the deepest inside me, and I just stopped there, stood close to them with a subtle smile and listened until they strolled on to their bus.
After a few hours at the Registan I continued to the main bazar. I love looking around the bazars in Asia, and this one was no disappointment with a great array of dried and fresh fruits, spices, freshly baked bread and handmade cheese. But I was there on a mission to find some decent tires that Chris had heard should be for sale there. I began asking around and had a great time being pointed in various directions in the maze of shops slowly closing in on what I hoped was what I was looking for. But the little stall I finally ended up at only had five tires, that felt like thin plastic when I examined them and didn’t have any of the wished for brand names on them. I knew Chris had been promised that Schwalbe tire in Bukhara and so it was not the end of the world if I didn’t return with any, so I labelled the mission ‘impossible’, bought some bread and peaches for lunch and found a spot under a tree in the park outside.
The final thing I wanted to see that day was the alley of mausoleums where the rulers of Samarkand had built small temples over the graves of their loved ones and had their emotions expressed in the most delicate of blue tiled decorations. Again, I was surrendering to the overwhelming beauty as I walked through the narrow street between the slim, tall arches with my eyes wandering up and down and here and there to try and take it all in. It was simply stunning.
After a few hours of rest back at the hostel, I went out to see the Registan one last time together with my new friends, Janine and Till. The sun had just set and the square, the buildings and the colour of the big, turquoise dome presented itself in yet another look in the soft, pinkish light. And then in a second it all turned golden as the electrical evening lighting was turned on and lit the sandstone with warm yellow lights. It was an incredible sight.
Two young guys discretely came and stood next to us and after some shy minutes found the courage to ask if we would mind speaking with them so they could practise their English. They were very polite and positive young guys with generous smiles. They asked me curiously what my home country was like and I tried to explain the differences between Denmark and Uzbekistan and they spoke openly about their dreams of being able to live abroad in New York or work as guides in the Registan. They were really sweet young people and talking with them put me in such a good mood. And this was often the case when I’d been talking to Uzbek people regardless of their ability to speak English or not. I felt a sincere joy, positivity, curiosity and self-esteem in them even though life conditions here were poorer and less free and rich in options and opportunities than what I was used to from Europe. But they found their joy somewhere else and generously let me be a part of it. For that I liked Uzbekistan I lot.
Till and Janine found us a great local restaurant behind the walls in the old town area close to Registan. Like in most local restaurants there were no menu, but the hostess proclaimed they had plov and pivo (a rice dish and beer) and we happily accepted the meal. The German couple were cheerful and good to talk with, they had cycled a route from Germany to Iran before catching a flight to Dushanbe and, instead of heading for the Pamir Highway like most cyclist, they went the other way into Uzbekistan doing a northern loop around the biggest mountains and into Kyrgyzstan. “We don’t like the big mountains, we are not really cyclists” they said comparing themselves with many other cycle tourers (myself included) who had the Pamir highway as the highlight of their travels. However, I found it an unfair underestimation of their achievements of pedalling such a long way. In my eyes we were all cyclists just with different preferences and styles, and that was why it was so easy to sit down like friends although we only just met. I really enjoyed spending time with Janine and Till (their blog).
They left the hostel at dawn the next morning and I spent the morning alone. It was so good to have some time by myself. Spending every single moment side by side with Chris was going just as well as I had hoped it would. Of course, we both had our moments of bad mood and low energy where the other one had to put up with the less appealing side of the other. But it didn’t seem to take anything away from the many happy days and moments we still shared, and it was certain that it was each other’s company that added to the happiness. But there is a constant need to do compromises and be considerate towards the other in all relationships and doing a journey like this together even more so, as we spent every moment together and it fills our lives almost completely. There’s hardly anything we don’t share from when we wake up until we go to sleep. Having a few days apart was giving me a little time to listen only to my own needs and wants and to experience the world around me with my full attention. It was a special freedom I prized highly and I knew Chris did the same. And what a world I was taking in that morning. The fluted blue dome of the mausoleum nearby the hostel and the French tourists there. The flow of the traffic at the boulevard I cautiously crossed and the little, rattling minibus no. 73 that came with the flow and stopped for my flagging hand. The many women in the bus that seemed to be wearing their best and most beautiful clothes and jewellery for the Saturday and the thin conductor with undershot teeth that jumped out of the bus at every stop announcing its destination with a firm, repetitive call. And in the train, that was the old, slow type with no air-conditioning and an open wagon with rows of uncomfortable seats, I gave in to the exhaustion from the thousand kilometres of cycling and the same amount of experiences that occupied by mind and fell asleep while the Uzbek landscape passed by the grimy windows.
0 kilometres cycled
424 kilometres travelled by train between Bukhara and Samarkand