UZBEKISTAN, 7th – 17th September 2017
“Guess you’re done then, hitch a ride, and make arrangements to fly home.”
Not exactly the inspired solution I’d been hoping to receive when I’d posted the details of my predicament to an online bike mechanics forum. To be fair, my fork did not look good. It surely wasn’t safe enough to cycle the rough and remote roads of the Pamir Highway on, with three rusty holes linked by a thin crack spreading almost halfway around it, promising to collapse on me at any moment. And there was little hope of finding a good replacement fork in Bukhara either, but I wasn’t ready to quit just yet, what with the miracle of the Schwalbe tyre still fresh in my mind.
“If you know the dimensions and angles on your bike, you might see if you can get a first-world shop to FedEx or DHL you a replacement fork.”
I appreciated this second reply much more than the first, as it had a lot less going on in the way of mass pessimism. It wasn’t however, all that useful. I’d already looked into this idea, and there was no chance of getting a new fork to Bukhara before we had to leave for Tajikistan. There also seemed scant chance of getting a new fork shipped to Tajikistan, because when I looked into it I found the headline: ‘Tajikistan, a country with an atrocious state postal service, has shut down several international courier firms such as DHL, UPS, TNT and Pony Express’ dated June 2017. Oh dear.
I went outside to look again at the damage, hoping that my bike might have somehow fixed itself. It hadn’t. The fork looked a real mess. Then, as I stood there, I heard a voice I hadn’t heard for quite a while.
“See what happens when you don’t look after me.”
“Spending all your time with that girl. Don’t have no time to take care of me any more, do you?”
“Talking bicycle, I thought…”
“You thought what? Where is she now anyway? Now we’ve got a real crisis, and she’s nowhere to be seen, eh? Abandoned us, hasn’t she?”
“She’s in Samarkand. She’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Whatever. Are you going to weld me back together or what?”
Ah yes, of course, welding. This was a solution put forward not only by my talking bicycle, but also by several new contributors on my forum post. It seemed to be a logical enough solution, at least temporarily. I figured a half decent weld would get me the 500 kilometres to Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, which, being a bigger city, might have a chance of having a fork I could use. So I took my fork off the bike and walked with it back to the bike shops where I’d found the Schwalbe tyre. From there I was pointed around the corner to a man who could weld. He was an old man, and he had on a flat cap, which I found strangely reassuring. I showed him the fork and he nodded and placed it before him on his welding desk.
From the forums I’d received plenty of advice about how this fork should be welded. Actually I’d been told it should be brazed, not welded, but I didn’t really know the difference, and this flat-capped man wasn’t giving me many options. He did tap the fork with a bit of metal before he started though, which reassured me that he knew what he was doing. He didn’t bother cleaning the fork first to get at the metal, which I’d been told was something he should do, but he also didn’t bother wearing his welding mask, or tucking in his shirt, which more than once in the minutes that followed almost caught fire. It really was too late to do much more than stand back and put the fate of my whole trip and possibly my life in the hands of this man as he lit up my fork with his welding stick.
After a while he seemed to be indicating that he was done, and handed me back my fork. His weld looked rather ugly, but worse than that I saw that he hadn’t actually welded it all up. One of the holes remained. I handed it back to him and pointed that out. He looked at it, noticing this massive glaring hole for the first time, and returned to working his magic.
With my fork fully welded up for less than a pound I wandered back to the bike shop. I wasn’t 100% ready to put my full faith in this 90p weld, so I stopped by, hoping for the same kind of miracle I’d had with the tyre to fall my way. There was one small miracle straight away, for there was a man there who could speak English. He told me that the Schwalbe tyre I’d bought the other day had been brought back by his friend who’d gone to Germany for an operation. This friend then said something, which the English-speaking man translated for me. “He says he has some forks like yours, if you want one.”
Well, yes, I did want one actually. The English speaking man, Rustam, then said we could walk halfway across town to see them. This we did, and it was a very pleasant walk too, with Rustam being a very friendly sort of man, and the promise of a new fork waiting for me at the end. We went around the bazaar, where Rustam tried and failed to find some wool for his mother, and around the old town where I bought some new t-shirts. Eventually we found our way to the home of Rustam’s friend, where we sat and waited for him to arrive. He came by bicycle, then disappeared again. “He’s going to The Master to get some forks,” Rustam said. I wondered who The Master was, he sounded fantastic, and, guessing he was a local bike mechanic, I asked if I could be taken directly to The Master. Rustam agreed and we walked the narrow streets of Bukhara’s old town once more. Then Rustam’s friend reappeared. He’d already got the forks from The Master and was on his way back to us with them. I took a look. “No thanks,” I said.
I got back to the hostel and put my welded fork back on my bicycle, who may or may not have said thank-you. Then I went up to check the internet. The forum had gone a bit crazy, with people suggesting I should use wire or glue or adhesive tape, and somebody else telling me that “some problems just don’t have solutions” which I thought highly unconstructive. I decided to appease them with a photo of the weld I’d just had done, which clearly showed my problem had found a solution. “Can you get the guy who welded it to do a test ride?” one joked.
Then I checked my Facebook and I finally found what appeared to be a real solution. I’d posted something on a Pamir Highway cycling group and I’d received a reply from a man in Dushanbe. He seemed to be something of a local bike dealer, and he told me he had a fork that could work for me. Not daring to believe it I asked him to send me a picture. And there it was. One brand new fork, the right size, the right brakes, the right length steerer tube. It was a suspension fork, but that was alright, my bike was going to love looking so seriously bad-ass. Now I had a real solution for the Pamir Highway. I just had to hope Mr Flat Cap’s weld was going to hold for the 500 kilometres that separated us from Dushanbe.
It almost felt like coming home when I walked through the streets of the old town in Bukhara towards our hostel. Whereas the Russian couple in the minibus had to look at their maps to find out where we were and where they were going, I could just jump off and stroll through the streets I already knew. It was not a feeling I had often in this life of travelling. I felt happy when I entered the living room of Akbar’s family, which was also the reception, to smiles and greetings from the people on the couch. Upstairs Chris welcomed me with good news about his fork and a little present on the bed that partly was from Kevin the Koala. It was good to be back.
We decided to stay another day, excusing ourselves by having more things to do, but mostly I think, because we felt so good in Bukhara. The hostel didn’t have many other guests, actually we were the only ones most of the time, and maybe that made for a more intimate relationship with the family possible. Every morning they would serve us breakfast down in the courtyard or in their couch, not up at our own balcony, but in their own living areas. The food was tasty and mild and every day they served us something new, eggs, pancakes, yoghurt or rice pudding, but always together with a green tea that, gentle and detailed in its flavour, for the first time made me really understand the appreciation of tea. While we ate we could follow the morning life in the house with the women doing house work and Akbar’s two little daughters cheerfully playing around until they were sent to kindergarten. A few times the family also invited us to sit and have lunch with them and with Akbar speaking good English we managed to exchange curious questions and explanations that, at least for me, opened up the door to Uzbek life and culture much more than our brief encounters with people along the road had done. Staying with Akbar’s family in the Moxinur Bukhara Hostel made Uzbekistan a special experience for me.
On our last day, a Sunday, the family proclaimed that there would be served dinner, the tradional dish ‘plov’ at 6pm, and it was at once an invitation and expectation that we would be there. Of course we would. The whole day the house was full of more people, family I guess, than usual and also the number of foreigners grew when Ika, a Polish/British woman, moved into the room next to ours. The three of us were served all kind of appetizers in the afternoon at our balcony by the many kids that made the house lively. At 6pm all the men seemed to gather to a kind of prayer and dinner in a room opposite our balcony, while we were served the plov, which is a rice dish with chickpeas, raisins and some vegetables, and usually also with meat. And although the family had understood and respected Chris’ pledge for vegetarian food throughout our stay, the plov was always and traditionally cooked with meat, so Ika and I did what we could finishing the three big portions. I was so grateful to experience this exceptional hospitality and inclusion in the family.
After the meal Chris and I went to see the Kaylon Mosque and Minaret one last time in the light of the sunset. We had found a shortcut there via narrow alleys and stairs through the old town and once again I appreciated the peaceful atmosphere here in the city centre and how the life of the old town was not hidden away by any walls but integrated with the beautiful old, buildings in a much more natural way. It was a thoughtful moment saying goodbye to the square, the dome, the mosaics, the arches and the endless variations of decorations. We agreed that our time in Bukhara had been something special.
But it was time to leave and for the first time in months we were now feeling ahead of our schedule, as we still had nine days left on our visa and less than 500 kilometres to go. So we eased our pace and rode shorter days, which gave us time to lie in in the morning and make early camps in the desert, we were still riding through, to cook dinner and play games together with Alex, who was still cycling with us. Our easier cycling also coincided perfectly with me beginning to feel feverish and sick, so that several long breaks during the days were required. To be honest, I did not really experience much of my surroundings those days and in my diary I wrote: “I can’t remember what happened today”. I excuse it mainly with my illness, but I also must say that riding through the more populated areas of Uzbekistan easily grew into a blur. It was long, straight roads passing little houses and villages, flat farmland, some short stretches of desert, some busy little towns and lots and lots of beeping traffic, which I had to spend most of my attention to look out for. The rest I had to spend on the bad road surface constantly judging whether it would be better to try cycling on the gravel/sandy shoulder or stay on the road. And therefore it was sometimes hard to return the many, many waves, smiles, “Hello”s and “Atkuda?”s (Where are you from?’) that generously and a bit enervating was sent my way constantly. It was like almost every person wanted me to see him (yes, it was mostly the men that called for attention) and greet him, and I was split between being excited and honoured about the attention, and embarrassingly annoyed. I didn’t like to get annoyed over it and I tried my best to smile and wave back, which made the many approaches much more likeable, but sometimes I ashamedly got enough. And I think I’m far from the only cyclist in that dilemma.
Due to the law about foreigners having to register every three nights we went to a hotel in the bigger town Qarshi three days out of Bukhara. We all got in one room with four beds along the walls and a fully prepared dinner table in the middle with table cloth, plates and cutlery. But there didn’t seem to be served any dinner on our dinner table, so instead we went back to a pizzeria we had seen on the way, and boy were we excited to have a pizza, after having mostly had fried eggs, chips and salad every time we went to a restaurant. We decided on a large size vegetarian pizza that the waiter told us was big enough for 4-5 people. We waited with great anticipation, but were quite disappointed by the size when it came. It was tasty, but certainly not big enough for even just three hungry cyclists. Fortunately they also had soft-ice and that had us done.
The next evening we camped one last night in a landscape that looked like the desert we had liked so much throughout Uzbekistan, although here we were not far from towns and people. It was proved to us when four young guys on beautiful, brown stallions curiously rode up to our camp to see who we were. They got off the horses and started whistling which was a signal for the horses that they could pee, and so they did. I’ve never seen horses trained like that before. I really enjoyed watching the horses and one of the guys sensed my interest and convinced me to sit (I won’t say ride as the horse hardly moved) on his horse. They left us again and we made camp, cooked and I found my ukulele and we made a great band with Chris as a backup singer and Alex doing some rhythms. In the middle of a song the young guys suddenly showed up again, this time without the horses. We all sat down, I played some more songs and we tried to have a sort of conversation without any common language, but helped greatly by our smartphones with pictures and videos. I thought we had a great time. The guys left when we wanted to sleep and I went in the tent, but soon they came back asking for me. They kept repeating my name, and I realised I had been too nice, too smiling, I had let them get the idea that I was interested in them. I knew it was something you, as a woman, should be careful with in Central Asia, but I had forgot all about as it had never been an issue before. Chris sensed it too and outside the tent told them, that I was not coming out and eventually they left. Back in the tent he told me, that from the moment they came back without the horses he had been anxious about their intentions as he had seen a big knife in the belt of one of them. I realised we had perceived the whole episode very differently and that somehow I had put Chris in a situation where he didn’t feel safe. It made me sad and I was reminded that although so many people treat us well and respectful, we are often in a vulnerable position that can easily be taken advantage of, and it is something we almost must be aware of in the back of our heads.
Excitement rushed through me the next day when I saw hills rising on the horizon. We had been cycling through flat land for almost a month, so it was quite a change, and since we had started this trip my mind had often been wandering off to the Pamir mountains that were waiting at the end of Uzbekistan. And now the first small mountains were finally there!
Cycling uphill again was hard, but it was also so rewarding to get higher up and have views over the barren, yellow hills and cliffs with little villages that camouflaged into the landscape. Life seemed different up here.
We joined the road that came from Samarkand and by that we were on the popular track for cyclists going to or coming from the Pamirs. We were caught up by a guy, who was also going to Dushanbe to head for the Pamirs. He was from Somerset, England and his name was Alex, and he could easily be included in Team Spirit as an extra for our Alex from Guernsey, but he sped off ahead of us to get to a hotel. A little later we crossed ways with a French girl, Andrea, who came the other way from Dushanbe and the Pamirs and her stories made the excitement burn even stronger in me. We were all here because of the big challenge of the Pamirs, it was thrilling and a little frightening, and we were finally so close.
The rest of the day we climbed gradually up, and although we felt our legs had not been tackling hills for a long time, it was not so hard as I had imagined. We camped in a stunning gorge and I felt so happy to be in such beautiful surroundings and thinking about how much more of this that was awaiting me.
The next morning we made it to the top of the 1500 metre mountain pass at the same time as Chris had a flat and Alex from Somerset caught up with us again. Now Alex joined us and together we enjoyed a great downhill through spectacular and colourful mountain landscapes that reminded me of places in Turkey. I thought I had not been in such incredible scenery since then. We got to a police check point where everyone passing must be registered in a big, handwritten book, and then we passed the road that led to the Afghan border. When I looked at my map I found it hard to understand that we were now so close to not only Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and the north-west of India where I had travelled before. We had cycled so far.
There was another climb waiting for us before the day was over and it felt much harder. However, I still enjoyed myself greatly, as the atmosphere up at the mountain was so different from what we had found in the flat lands and very refreshing. The traffic was lighter, the air was cooler, fresh streams were running through the villages and at the top of the hill people were selling the most beautiful apples I have ever seen. I love apples and I had a great chat with the two women selling them, it was just all so good.
That evening we made it to another hotel in the little town Boysun. It was a charming family place a bit like our hostel in Bukhara, and Alex from Guernsey almost fell in love with the woman serving us breakfast. “I want to take her with me” he said, “she melts my heart”.
It was 90 kilometres to the next and last town in Uzbekistan, Denau, and Alex from Somerset set out early to make it in one day. The rest of Team Spirit were indecisive about whether to do the distance in one or two days, but too much time already seemed to have slipped away while not making any decisions. We looked at an elevation chart that revealed that almost half of the distance was downhill. Our friends Jack and Barbara, who had been a few days ahead of us all the way through Uzbekistan, informed us via WhatsApp that we could have vegetarian pizza in Denau. And that night Manchester United was going to play Everton, the first time with the old United star Wayne Rooney in Everton’s blue jersey. Suddenly it was clear what we had to do: get to Denau, pizza and Premier League that night.
So we set out at 10.30, and surely there was a lot of downhill, but also still some uphill, some more encounters with cyclists coming from Dushanbe, and a lot of stunning scenery to stop and take pictures of, things that all delayed our progress. With three hours of daylight left we were down from the mountain and still had 50 kilometres to go on first hilly and then flatter roads, that were now again busy with beeping traffic and “Atkuda?”-shouting people. But Team Spirit were not going to give up on pizza and Premier League, we put our heads down and kept pedalling, pedalling, pedalling, until we finally reached the edge of Denau as it was getting dark. After a last intense push through the busy town, that was bigger than we had imagined, we made it to Hotel Denau where Alex from Somerset already had settled in. We didn’t know where to find these vegetarian pizzas, and the staff in the reception also didn’t have a clue about it, so we walked randomly out into the town. But by a minor miracle we soon stumbled upon a place making European fast food and yes, vegetarian pizza. They also had a TV on and as football is a popular sport in Uzbekistan the young waiters didn’t mind putting on the match for us. And so we celebrated our last night in Uzbekistan watching an epic football match, eating a whole vegetarian pizza each (no one was interested in sharing this time) in the great company of Alex and Alex.
And the look on Wayne Rooney’s face at the end made it all worthwhile.
BUKHARA – QARSHI – BOYSUN – DENAU
Distance cycled: 448 kilometres