Uzbekistan and the Silk Road Cities

​We approached the Uzbek border, full of trepidation, in the knowledge that a full and detailed search would be made of our entire luggage. An ‘illegal’ item, such as codiene, or a topless snap of a girlfriend, would result in a ‘fine’, or more plainly, baksheesh, a bribe. I was in company with Jonas and Emma, having left Dushanbe together, early on Tuesday morning. We were already nervous, since an earlier mishap at the Tajik border post; I’d forgotten to get my GBAO permit extended, consequently, the guard threatened, several times, to send me back to Dushanbe to get the necessary stamp; a 160 kilometre round trip I was loathe to entertain. I repeatedly shouted and pointed at the dates in my passport until, some 20 minutes later, the guard relented, allowing me to join Jonas and Emma on the short cycle to the Uzbekistan border crossing.

In the growing dusk, we entered the town of Denov (Denau), stopping at a clean looking hotel to enquire about a room. At €30 a person we decided it was a touch out of reach for three down at heel, road weary travellers. We pressed on to another hotel, down a very bumpy backstreet, only to be denied a room since the place was ‘shut’ for renovation. During an excellent pantomime performance by Jonas and myself (we were explaining that we would happily sleep on the floor somewhere out of the way), a passerby intervened and took us to his house. Apart from our impromptu hosts insistence to feed us melon and vodka (it was one am and we’d been up since 5am), our brief stay was a pleasant one. Next day, a hefty breakfast was put on, guests from neighbouring houses joined us sporadically, bringing large plates of home cooked treats, culminating in our retiring from breakfast to visit directly another man’s house for lunch. And so it was that we surrendered to the overwhelming hospitality of the splendidly generous Uzbek people, and to any hope of cycling that day.

Finally, fit to burst from the day spent feasting, we made a move to the train station. As a group we’d decided to take the train to Samarkand in order that we could enjoy a bit of sightseeing in the ancient Silk Road cities; we felt we’d earned it after the long month spent crossing the Pamir. It was hot too to enjoy cycling; forty in the shade; and what’s to see in a desert?. There were no tickets to be had at the station but our host, a train driver, assured us that we could simply get on the train and ‘pay’ on board. We followed this advice to the letter, only we were a little conspicuous with three bikes and a dozen items of luggage, so when it came to handing over the cash, the conductor was under the watchful eye of the local transport police. Our attempted baksheesh was rumbled. We argued our case in halting Russian, erratic sign language and exasperated shouts, alas, to no avail. We were ejected from the train, having caused a delay of nearly fifty minutes. The Bukhara-Tashkent Express would be very late indeed.

Our new plan was to hitch. As a trio I had my doubts; one bike, easy; two? No problem; three?! Come off it! We considered going back to our host family for the evening but, for once, couldn’t face another feast. We struck out to the main road, found a shade from the sun under an abandoned fruit sellers stall, stuck out a thumb, and waited. Emma had scarcely read a chapter of ‘Brave New World’ when not one, but two trucks pulled over. We explained to both our requirement,  picked the first, and we were off! Destination: Termez. Emma took the front seat, Jonas and I stood on the back, looking out over the top of the cab, sand blasting our exalted faces, as we raced across the Uzbek desert, like some wild scene from Mad Max. Jonas even tied a bandana across his head. It was an insane thrill. We arrived just after sunset. Termez is a busy border town joining Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. There’s a lot of building going on; brand new houses are being thrown up, there’s lots of restaurants and of course, tons of hotels. It appeared a lively and prosperous city.

Early morning next day we pootled over to the train station to buy proper tickets for the next available night train. Surprisingly, we got three tickets immediately without fuss, for that very evening. We couldn’t believe our luck. We stepped outside of the gloriously air conditioned booking office to find that Lady Panza had a flat tyre (having crossed one of the toughest mountain ranges in the world without problem). Cities are a menace, we thought collectively, before scooting off for a long lunch and a nap in one of the excellent local restaurants. Later, on the train, we found our beds, stowed our luggage and whipped out the camping stove; Jonas and I cooked up a storm in the guards carriage and we feasted once more before retiring to an early night and a restful nights sleep on the slow train to Samarkand.

Our early arrival meant that we had the rare pleasure to cycle through near empty streets, past many famous, deserted landmarks, that later would be mobbed with tourists, all this accompanied by the life giving aroma of delicious, hot, fresh bread. Of course, we stopped by directly at the baker’s to devour a whole ‘non’ each, drizzled with balsamic vinegar, left over from our week in Dushanbe. As the sun rose, we three sat on the wall, enjoying one of life’s simplest pleasures. Bread never tasted so good. A local man ran out from a nearby house, to catch the bus, saw us sat on his wall, ran back in to his house, brought us three cups, a pot of tea and jumped straight onto the next bus. We greedily drained the pot, all the while exchanging contented smiles with bright, grateful eyes. We left the pot on the mans front step and rolled into the Old Town.

After a couple of days visiting the famous sites of Samarkand, including the Registan, and scoffing the delicious, fresh ice cream found on every street corner, I was ready to move on. I met with Jonas and Emma for a farewell meal and we reminisced about our journey together across Central Asia. It was a tearful parting. I hate goodbyes. I took the train to Bukhara where I spent a few days pottering about the numerous sights and ruins. I met a young British girl hitchhiking to Australia. Cass, a 19 year old fire performer from, I forget the town, middle England, suburbia, had travelled solo across Europe and the Caucasus to reach the beginnings of Central Asia. I was awe struck, as I am every time I met a very young traveler. With little money, long dreadlocks and a lot of savvy, Cass was a bundle of joy and wisdom.  We did a little yoga together, I learned something new. I expressed the thought that she’d get stuck in India. A point we agreed on. How would things have gone had I struck out at such tender age?

Onwards, then, to Khiva and the regional melon festival. Another silk road city, another caravanserai of remarkable buildings. Theres a certain feeling one picks up in these ancient, dusty streets; the unrelenting force of the sun, the desperate necessity of shade, the hopelessness of man in the face of the desert; vulnerability. The desert is vast, unforgiving, and terrible. This thought never really leaves the mind in this country. The sanctuary of the city is an enormous comfort for that reason. The celebration of the melon then, is the fruit equivalent. The Uzbeks take their melons seriously. Testament to that fact was the 20+ varieties on show at the annual festival in Khiva. Delicious and nutritious, I indulged obligingly. I left Uzbekistan for Kazakhstan and the port of Aktau. The great benefit of the night train was that there was none of the fuss of searches at the border, just a cursory glance at passports then back to sleep.

In Aktau I had a huge stroke of luck. The boat across the Caspian Sea is notoriously tricky to get a ticket for and is subject to lengthy delay. I initially rode directly to the port assuming that I could get a ticket there and camp out if needed. That was not the case. The Prime Minister was due to visit the port that very afternoon, so I was sent away to the ticket office in town. I found the ‘hard-to-find’ ticket office and was informed that the ship sailed later that day. I could hardly believe my ears. ‘But the Prime Minister is visiting, so the port is closed’ I worried to the good looking blonde booking agent. ‘The Prime Minister will leave at 4pm, you will sail at 6pm, if anything changes I will text you’ beamed the blonde beauty. I pedaled off to town and treated myself to TWO cheeseburgers and a lengthy wifi session at the local grill, amazed by the simple, straight forward thing that I’d heard so many travelers complain about. I rolled back to the port, flashed a smile and my ticket and cruised aboard the ‘Heydar Aliyev’ and set sail across the Caspian towards Azerbaijan. Not even the Prime Minister could delay this rolling stone.