UZBEKISTAN, 26th – 30th August 2017
Not the kind of thing you like to hear your girlfriend shriek when she’s packing away your tent, although slightly better than, “Oh my God, Chris, there’s a scorpion on your cap!!!”
This was how our last morning in Kazakhstan began. The first two scorpions had burrowed under us in the night and were revealed as Dea folded up the tent. They were not very big, but their tails curled menacingly, ready to strike, as they scurried around looking for a new hiding place. Unfortunately they chose to run under our panniers, but we eventually managed to escape away from them to a nearby fence surrounding an electric pylon where we leaned the bikes up and sat and ate some breakfast. That was when Dea’s second exclamation occurred, though thankfully the cap upon which this latest scorpion resided was not on my head at the time. It was hanging on my handlebars. The scorpion also appeared to be enjoying breakfast – a grey moth was trapped in its grasp. I found a couple of pieces of wood to use to encourage the scorpion away from the cap. This was not easy. The scorpion seemed fond of the cap, and hid from me beneath a fold. But eventually I forced it out and it too scampered away.
We bumped onwards towards the Uzbekistan border. We had heard that it could be a long and involved process to cross this border, where the Uzbek officials might go through all of our bags and possessions with a fine toothcomb. I’d not been looking forward to that at all, but suddenly now such an intrusion of privacy seemed like a GREAT idea. A thorough scorpion check, for free. What could be better than that?
The border was indeed chaotic. We arrived to find an extraordinarily long line of trucks and cars, none of which were moving anywhere. People were out of their vehicles, lying in the shade, cooking on camping stoves, bored, waiting. “Atkuda?” they cried out as we rode past. It looked like they’d been waiting here for days. We made our way to the front of the line to see what was going on. The main gates were closed, but a side gate opened almost as soon as we arrived and we were ushered through. Tourists, it seemed, got special privileges here. It was almost embarrassing to be led through the Passport Control room by a guard, past dozens of waiting locals, straight to the front of the line. Getting out of Kazakhstan was easy enough, but we still had to get into Uzbekistan.
There were more cars and trucks lined up and waiting between the border posts, and dozens more people waiting at Passport Control. We didn’t know why this was the case, but nobody was being processed, nobody was moving through the border. We had to fill in two copies each of an immigration form, no mean feat considering it was all in Cyrillics. We made a best guess of what to do until a young guard came and helped us out with it. There were lots of these uniformed youngsters about and, while they had the badges and the rifles, it was hard to take them seriously. A few of them looked at our bikes and tried to figure out what to do with them. Another tried desperately to hold back the increasingly impatient crowds of old woman creeping through the entrance doors. These teenage officials reminded me of a MacDonalds staff, they seemed to take this, their first job, so seriously, yet they were just so unintentionally funny. One approached us. “Mister,” he addressed me, then turned to Dea and said, “sister,” and it was really all we could do to stop ourselves laughing out loud.
Eventually one of the guards stepped forward, winked at me, and then took it upon himself to lead us inside and open up the Passport Control booth to give us our entry stamps. The crowds behind us moved forward like something from a zombie movie when this happened. God knows how long they’d been waiting in this place. Our passports were stamped and we were allowed outside to collect our bikes. The man shut the booth again. No one else was going anywhere for a while.
There was still the customs search to be done of course. The young boy who had first helped us with the forms now seemed to be in charge of this, although he paradoxically also seemed to have no idea what he was doing. For several long minutes he looked confused, sort of pointed at our bags, sort of asked us what was in them, thought about the best way to search them, decided it was too much effort, looked confused some more, sort of pointed a bit again, thought again, started to say something else, then went back to looking confused, until eventually a slightly older guard stepped outside and, quickly weighing up the situation, told us to, “Just go.”
On the other side of the border Uzbekistan looked very much like Kazakhstan: flat, grassy steppe surrounded us on all sides and an immense blue sky stretched from one end of the horizon to the other. What indicated that we had come to another country was the tarmac on the road that had been missing since we left Beyneu two days before. It was not new, smooth tarmac and there were many holes in it and sometimes longer sections where it had worn off, but it was still tarmac and on that we made faster progress.
From Mark, the Aussie we met in Beyneu, and a girl named Alice who was cycling the same way as us but 4-500 kilometres ahead, we were informed about the distances between the few towns and chaikhanas on the 400 kilometre section to Nukus. 20 kilometres into the country we came to the chaikhana that was the last place to stock up on water and food for the next 140 kilometres. With our hopes high we went inside a dark, narrow corridor that opened into a small room with no lights. To our left men were laying half a sleep between low tables on a raised bed-floor covered in carpets seemingly resting after their meal right beside the table (a traditional Uzbek arrangement I had never seen before, but something I soon learned to appreciate myself). To our right was a little window into another room with a counter and a few old soft drinks and crackers for sale. A woman, who might have been the most unwelcoming, unfriendly and unhelpful person I’ve ever met, banged her hand on the counter and looked questioning at us. “What do you want?!” her attitude said in a most hostile way.
We wanted to exchange money and we wanted to buy water and bread. This we tried to explain with our very limited Uzbek/Russian vocabulary and charades to the un-understanding woman. At last she reluctantly understood enough to change money for us, and she sold us two bottles of water. That was all she had. A man had some bread served, but when I pointed at it and tried to make her understand we wanted bread too, she just said “NO!”.
We had enough of her and left the shop, but we didn’t have nearly enough water to get us through to the next chaikhana 140 kilometres away. Fortunately, there was a little village a couple of kilometres away from the road and there we found a few shops. We bought the last eight bottles of water there was to be found in all the shops together and supplemented this with five litres of juice. There was no bread in any of the shops, so we would have to make do with the one small loaf (and the big load of seed bars) we had bought in Beyneu.
After another 20 kilometres we made camp off the road. Camping on the steppe was easy in the sense that there was not much to consider. There was nowhere to hide, but also no reason to hide. We simply just went a few hundred metres away from the road and still visible, but too far from the road for anyone to bother to come, we put up the tent. Finding flat ground was not a problem. The wind was something we had to take into consideration. Most evenings the wind died down as the sun set and the nights were completely still. But we could not be sure to have such peaceful nights and there was nothing out there providing shelter, no trees, no bushes, no hills, no buildings. So every night we secured the tent with all the pegs we had, which had been down to three. We had collected big rocks near the camp site, used a five-litre water bottle and a heavy bag attached to the straps to tighten the cords and stretch out the sides. Very generously Jack and Barbara had given us four of their pegs when they heard of it, so we now had seven, and that was just all we needed. With the tent firmly secured to the ground we enjoyed the most peaceful hours of the day while the sun sat, the temperature dropped and the sky slowly changed colours and the stars came out. And apart from a car on the road from time to time it was all so silent. Such a big space around us and not a sound. It was hard to grasp. It was a profound reward of peace after the challenges of the day and those of the next.
We got up before sunrise the next morning and set out motivated for a big day of cycling to reach the next chaikhana by evening. 120 kilometres according to Mark, maybe only 110 according to a blog Chris had read. The tarmac got better and better and a wind, that at first threatened to grow into another fierce headwind died down again and left the steppe deadly still and hot. There was some traffic to and from the border, old cars and vans packed spectacularly with people and luggage, they drove fast on the long straight road, but we could see them approach from far away and therefore felt safe enough to play some games to get us through the long day. A while ago we invented a new game, that has not yet been introduced on this blog, but now is the time. We call it The Country Game and it is derived from the concepts of the infamous 20 Questions Game and a football penalty shoot out. In The Country Game one player thinks of a country and the other player has ten questions to guess which country it is by asking questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It can be questions like: “Is it a country in Europe?” or “Does it have the letter ‘l’ in it?”. If the first player guesses the country in ten questions it is a goal, if not it is missed, and we play ten rounds and take it in turns to be the one guessing, so each play has five opportunities to score.
This day I got ahead of Chris in the second round where he missed guessing ‘Azerbaijan’ and I managed to maintain my lead all the way to the end with an exceptional strike of luck when my last wild guess ‘Madagascar’ was correct, although my questions had not led me anywhere near it and my knowledge of African geography blissfully kept me from knowing all the countries it could have been.
Later in the day I invented a new game, or a brain teaser, where we had to figure out the root of a three digit number, for example of the number 765. Although it was my invention I didn’t know how to do the maths right, and got it wrong every time. But Chris is a skilled mathematician and he explained it to me and thereafter impressed me greatly by being able to get a root with up to five digits after the dot, a feat that requested you could joggle with so many numbers in your head that it made me dizzy.
Or maybe it was the heat that made me dizzy. We had decided to cycle the days distance in five blocks of 24 kilometres between breaks, but after our second break, where we didn’t find any shade, I began to feel uneasy, dizzy and very thirsty. I was rationing my three bottles of 1.5 litres of water so that one should last 40 kilometres, but at 75 kilometres I downed my second bottle, the water was warm and didn’t help much and a slight panic grabbed my mind. I wanted to get out of the heat, find shade and to drink fresh, cold water, and I wanted it so badly. I fantasized about standing in streams of water, laying down in it, bathing in it, water that would stream and run and splash constantly and never stop. But the fantasies only emphasized my current situation by their dreamlike nature. There was not a single drop of cold, running water anywhere near. Chris kept his head cool and spotted a little bush next to the road that could give us a little shade. He nursed me with water, juice and something to eat and I laid down there looking up into the blue sky through the thin, dry branches listening to the wind, trying not to think too much about scorpions and snakes. “This is the desert” I thought and I valued the experience.
After a while I felt better and we continued, but it was not long until it was Chris who collapsed next to bike like a madman in the sun, but I got him to move into the afternoon shade of our bikes that were leaned against a road marker pole. It took another 20 minutes before he was ready to continue.
Our system of 24 kilometre blocks had broken down, we just cycled to get there now and we were running low on water. The landscape was dotted with little bushes and on the horizon they deceivingly looked like buildings appearing in the distance. We had cycled 100 kilometres and were waiting for the village Jasliq to come into view, but again and again I was disappointed that the shimmering silhouettes only grew into more dry bush. Finally, the village really appeared and when our cycle computer showed ‘118 kilometres’ we arrived at the turn to Jasliq where some local men craftily were selling ice cold water to the travellers of the road.
After our last experience with stocking up in a chaikhana we didn’t take any chances, but decided to do the extra ride into the village to stock up from the shops we expected to be in there. As we rode into the village a bus arrived wildly beeping its horn and the village people came out and swarmed excitingly around it. It was bringing fresh deliveries to the shops, bread and fruit, and so we had come at just the right moment. A big-bellied police man spotted us through the crowds and demanded to see our passports and told me not to take more pictures, but then he turned helpful and guided us to the shops. Here we found plentiful amounts of water, fruit and biscuits and we also bought three flat round white breads, but hoped to find a real loaf at the chaikhana. While we were stocking up kids curiously circled around the bikes and young women walked past, dressed in neat dresses and pretty sandals, with brief, shy glares at us. Men of the village stood at a distance talking, and one approached us with his own bicycle to compare our cycle computers with the speedometer he had on his own bike. The village was full of bicycles and a group of boys followed us out of town on theirs. It was such a lively place, such a contrast to the desolate steppe, and although we were very tired we appreciated the break of the monotony and the glimpse into the village life.
After another five kilometres and 131 kilometres cycled in total we finally arrived at the chaikhana, exhausted and relieved. It had a shop, was a restaurant and also worked as a motel, an oasis for travellers who hadn’t seen any sign of civilization for hundreds of kilometres, and a huge collection of stickers on the front doors showed that many foreign travellers on trips like our own had been here before – most recently maybe our Mongol Rally Team friends with their ‘Lancaster Snow Sport’-sticker that we recognized with joy.
We got a room with air-conditioning, we had dinner with fresh vegetables sitting crossed legged at the traditional Uzbek raised bed-floors and finally a shower with cold water running and running and running (the tap broke and it took a while before Chris figured out how to close it again). My fantasies finally came true.
The 140 kilometres to the next chaikhana we decided to break into two more gentle days, but to be out in the desert two full days we needed more water and food. Therefore, I got quite upset when the women in the chaikhana told us that there was no more bread. Not again, why did this keep happening to us? Fortunately, Chris quickly found another solution buying nothing less than ten swiss rolls as an alternative to bread and six Snickers as emergency snacks. The Snickers would stay cool and solid, because Chris invented a carriable fridge of course. He stuffed the extra pannier he carries on the back of his bike (the yellow Ortlieb that lost its partner to a hungry bear in Canada) with cold bottles of water and juice (and the Snickers) and then wrapped the pannier in an insulation mat that he usually sleeps on and fixed it with electrical tape. It was simple and very effective.
With a fridge, ten cakes in the bags, a gentle tailwind and the prospect of only having to cycle 70-80 kilometres we merrily wobbled away from the safety of the chaikhana and out into the sunny nothingness once again. The day started well with some different games, the best one was ‘Spot the rodent’, the little fellows that popped their heads up or sprinted between their holes next to the roads. I found a deep satisfaction in shouting “RODENT!” as loud as I could, but Chris still won by a magnificent spot of four rodents at the same time.
After a few such happy hours we had to stop because of less happy circumstances as Chris’s stomach was making troubles. We settled in under a big road sign which we attached the tent to and by that made a good shaded area where we could both lie down. Here we stayed a couple of hours, dozed and ate some cake and drank cold drinks from the fridge, and except from a growling stomach, cycling in the desert was not bad at all.
Chris managed to get back on the bike and we cycled another 40 kilometres before making camp. That night we laid out under the stars and it was as if peering out into the unfathomable universe spurred Chris to talk and talk, and I loved to listen to his speculations and wonderings about what is out there.
Back on the road again the next day we met a cyclist going the other way, Nikolai from Moscow, on his way home from a round trip in the Stans. He told us it was only 50 kilometres to the next chaikhana and hotel where we had planned to stop for the night. The thought of a short ride to another safe place with air-conditioning and wifi motivated us greatly and we arrived at the place at noon, only to find out that the price of 20 dollars was not for a room, but per person. We found it a bit too much to pay for accommodation we didn’t really need and as we still had energy (and cakes, Snickers and water) to cycle some more, we realised we instead could reach the bigger town of Nukus the next day, if we continued and cycled another 50 that afternoon. When we, using the wifi in the chaikhana, found out that our friend from the Caucasus’s, Alex, was in Nukus and would stay there just two more nights, we found the last motivation to get back on the bikes and keep riding.
Late in the afternoon we suddenly caught glimpses of green vegetation. We had reached the area near the river Amu Darya and from one moment to another the desert was gone and we found ourselves in a humid, green and lively environment with people working in the fields, selling fruit and vegetables by the road and driving their tractors or cycling themselves home from the fields. It was a very sudden and contrasting change from the desert and I could not help missing the peace and quiet of the desert when we sneaked in between some fields, found a nice little spot amongst some trees and suddenly squatted down quietly hiding behind the tent from some workers on their way home. I had enjoyed riding through the desert very much, it had not been as hard as I had feared and now it had ended a little too quickly and a little too soon, but there was still more to come.
We arrived in Nukus 95 kilometres later the next day in the afternoon after a, for us, incredibly efficient and fast ride through the Uzbek farmland. The road had been busy with cars, cyclists (cycling in both directions on both sides of the road), tractors, buses and people waiting for them, but it was good and wide most of the way for us to ride fast. We had received so many smiles and waves and “Hello”s and “Atkuda?”s (“Where are you from?”) and I certainly experienced a whole different side of Uzbekistan from that in the desert. If the people is what makes a country, it was as if we had somehow arrived in the country three days of cycling since we had crossed the border into it. But what was it then we had experienced out on the steppe? It was a part of Uzbekistan and a part of the world that was beyond human activity, it could be called empty from that perspective, but I felt it was full of so much else, things that there may not be human words for. It was nature, merciless and peaceful at the same time, and it had made a deep impression on me. It had also left several days’ layers of sweat and dust on me and I looked forward to a shower like never before.
Jasliq – Nukus – Bukhara
495 kilometres cycled