Uzbekistan

(This post has been back-dated due to the lack of internet for uploading over the past month).

Uzbekistan is an immense hassle for tourists (ie. us) wishing to get money out.  Not simply because the country is 80% desert, but also because ATMs are scarse. Scarily scarse. Even in the cities.

So just how did we manage to traverse 1800km and end up on our final night making speeches through a PA in front of an audience of a hundred, the same amount of mobile phones cameras and a professional TV camcorder ?


We rely somewhat on a grapevine of information passed onto us by other tourers for such matters of nuance as the money sitation. With everyone else travelling through Iran (at time of writing, British people have been unable to move freely since April) we missed out hearing the crucial advice of entering the country with as many US dollars as possible to serve as your bank.

The €50 note and $100 note I had been carrying for such emergency measures dug us out of the north west part of the country (which was pure desert). As we crossed the border and cycled into the pitch black desert at night (where we subsequently managed to pitch up in the dark!), we were able to find traders who happily swapped the notes for local Som.  Despite the seemingly wealthy wads of cash this produced, we quickly realised that Uzbekistan isn’t the cheapest of countries; it just about bought us our train fares for the next day, food and the only “hotel” (floor in a cafe and absurdly expensive) in town.  Camping wasn’t an option here: the previous morning, we’d got stranded in the worst mud that saw us break a speed record of 200metres in three hours. 0.05km/hr.

On the eve of Carmen’s birthday we were counting our last few wads of cash and rationing every minute purchase. Tea and bread had to be justified.

Amazingly, upon opening her cards the following morning (I had been carrying them with me since Bulgaria) a €20 note greeted Carmen, all the way from Nan San and GDT on the Wirral. This would help us on the train journey but we still needed a lot more.

We knew we could probably rely on the goodwill of our fellow train passengers to feed and entertain us. A fantastic Soviet train with beds facing each other and people feasting on all sorts of produce served up by the dozens of traders hustling up and down the carriages. Fresh bread, cakes, biscuits, samosas, chocolate, drinks, the lot. They even have chefs hop on with giant vats of cooked food to dish out in plates which they collect after use.

And it wasn’t just food on the go: Barbie dolls, huge toy cars and trucks and electric appliances. All carried awkwardly through the narrow aisle in giant tall bulky plastic bags. This train had started it’s journey in St Petersbourg and I saw several Russian men alighting the train carrying their toy trucks and dolls. Subjects of Putin sporting Barbie dolls. It really didn’t conform to the stereotype. Was this the homosexual propaganda that Putin is so afraid of?

I informed the passengers in our vicinity of Carmen’s quarter-century milestone. It didn’t take long for them to share up their vodka, meat, bread, tomatoes and tea. Sadly no Barbie doll. We switched the €20 birthday note for local currency and bought ourselves some delicious plov and salad from one of the passing chefs. We kept the change and hoped we’d find ATMs once we reached Samarkand.

3rd class travel to Samarkand

3rd class travel to Samarkand.

We arrived the next morning at 5am, still pitch black, 20 hours after departure onto a chaotic platform in heavy falling snow. We carried our possessions over the railtracks and slowly rode towards the city centre 10k away, with iPad offline maps at hand to find the cheapest hotel. We rode into the sunrise with snow falling into our eyes. It was quite a beautiful scene.
More beautiful was arriving into the warm cosy hostel-like hotel and sharing an early morning breakfast with three other cycle tourers, a duo from Australia and a Thaiwanese chap. Long gone were the warm sunny days of joyfully bumping into other cycle tourers. So this came as a surprise to us as we had assumed that we were the only ones to be cycling in these colder climates. It felt reassuring to know that we weren’t alone and that others could soon be enduring such hardships as our Kazakh winter experience.

Samarkand Registan

 

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Samarkand Registan

 

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Meeting Chi from Taiwan at the hostel in Samarkand

 

We spent three hours going from bank to bank to ask if our Visa Caxton card can be used in their ATMs. Each “nyet” thrown at us added to the immense frustration of being gridlocked from doing anything. Power outages common, we’d walk into banks operating a reduced service.  After protesting some, we used crying and venting psychological manipulation to turn an unhelpful cold receptionist into an obliging and caring soul who sat us down with coffee while she phoned around to find us an ATM.  We were put in a taxi, dumped somewhere and we asked around “znayete gde Kapitalbank bankomat?”  Another hour later, our four day search was finally over.  We waited for the day’s 3rd power cut to cease and spent 20 minutes withdrawing $400 from a reluctant cash machine. Even the computer wanted to say “niet”.

Panic over. We found a lovely blues bar, sat by candleight (6 powercuts) and stayed up till 3am (9 hours after our usual bedtime) getting pissed.


We didn’t feel that we had missed much by catching the train, it all looked bleak and boring out the window.  The parts that we did cycle (from Samarkand onwards) were scenic and prosperous; roads lined with trees and with plenty of fresh fruit sellers. On a mountain pass of 2100m we asked to pitch up our tent but were given a hut to sleep in with a beautiful view.

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Over a 2200 metre pass

 

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View from our mountain hut. Approximately 1500 metres altitude.

 

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Our new Australian friends from back in the hostel had brought with them some new concepts. Among these:

Dumpster diving, cooking on the coals of fires every night, washing up gloves used as rainproof glove layers, cycling 100k a day and using a candle to dehumidify the tent for 30mins before use.

These were strange ideas to us that we assumed to be part of ordinary daily austral culture and language. And although it did baffle us a bit, we set about trying to implement some of it. (We instantly ruled out the 100k regime though). XL washing up gloves fitted perfectly over my new cheap cotton gloves and together acted as an effective pair of waterproof gloves. Genius. The candle trick may also be working, it’s hard to tell, but we have woken up to a completely dry tent on two occasions.

The rapidly reducing daylight hours and temperatures now brought about a new evening routine of gathering firewood and lighting fires every night. Not only did this toast us up tremendously but it gave us something to do other than simply fall asleep at six o’clock every day. But one step at a time; ‘cooking on the coals’ requires a little more expertise in fire management. Basic steps first eh?

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The enthusiasm we received from the locals was tremendous: constant attention and every other car honking us. It was as if we were famous. Any form of privacy whatsoever, including a simple conversation, stopped for us the minute we crawled out of our tent. Stopping for any reason such as lunch, buying a Snickers, map-check or just a quick pause would quickly force us back onto the bikes as a crowd would gather round and stare at us.

We would repeat about a hundred times a day the same well-rehearsed Russian dialogue with the locals:

-Where are you from?

England (curiously, the Russian word for this is that of our former kingdom ‘Anglia’)

-Where are you going?

Kyrgyzstan then China then south east Asia.

-Did you fly here?

No, England to here with bicycle. In Malaysia finish and aeroplane to England.

-How many days?

6 months

-How many km?

We don’t know. 6000 or 7000.

-Are you husband and wife?

Yes. (Spares Carmen the immense constant bore of men assuming they’re in for a chance)

-Where do you sleep?

Tent

-Do you have children?

Niet

-Why don’t you have children?

I don’t know.

-You are 33 and you don’t have children?

Yes.

-Are you not cold?

Niet

Just at the point of closing a conversation and taking our first pedal, we would be stopped and this entire script could be repeated. After three weeks of being deprived from having our own conversations, it did become exhausting. Sometimes the only way to get things done or even to concentrate was to shut everyone off around us for a minute, as if they were disposable avatars in The Matrix.

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Routine questionning. This one from The Melon Men, a mafia known to pull us over and offer us their goods free of charge

 

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Crowds gathering around the camera is common

We left Uzbekistan in style. As we were looking for a spot to camp we got waved in to a wedding party in someone’s garden. One minute we were exhausted from a 90k day, the next I was feasting on a flow of food and vodka surrounded by about fifty faces watching me, each person tapping my shoulder and each face shouting their questions through their golden teeth at me as I calmly ate. It was hilarious. It was chaos. Nobody would let me answer a single question before the next question would be fired. Two or three of these faces were an inch away from mine.

-Zhosef, vodka vkusno?

Da, ya lub..

-Zhosef? How years when are you?

I am thirty th

-(Tap on the shoulder) chai, chai pozhalsta, eta vkusno!

-Zhosef, my name is Abdullah and my name is (pointing to another person) Maruf

Pleased to meet you, ochen priatno, gde vi…

-Zhosef? Chai vkusno?

Da, da ochen vkusno, spaseeba

-Dance ? Eat after dance, ok?

Yes ok

-Zhosef, you dance now

Yes. Chai ee borsch patom dance, harasho?

-Zhosef,… (ad infinitum)

I was forced fed tea and vodka from all directions, everyone competing to put something in my mouth, with my mouth already full of either cakes, soup, vodka, tea, bread or meat. I was crying with laughter whilst eating. There was a professional video tape camera pointing at me. It was hospitatlitic chaos on another level and total sensory overload. Teaching groups of sugared-up 4 year old Korean kids required less management.  Here are a few photos showing my point of view.

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Nutters.

I had no idea where Carmen had been ushered to. I escaped and found her in a peaceful room by candlelight (blackout) sitting down and eating with the girls. All questioning from her audience was channeled in an orderly manner via an old lady, who conducted the interview in German and in Russian.

And then we were dancing and people were giving us money.

And then we were made to a produce a speech in English, camera phones pointing at us. I can’t remember exactly but I think I said something like:

Hello and welcome to this wedding party. Thank you for making today so special. Had a great time.

Sod the happy couple. We were the centrepiece, surrounded by dozens of faces at all times. Then, just like that, less than an hour after arriving, a couple of dozen people presented us with our belongings, ushered us to our bikes which were being steered to the exit and we were further ushered to bugger off into the night, 4000 som richer. But we think everyone may have been leaving because a minute later a van laden with golden teeth overtook us. With an arm waving from the passenger seat we heard a final “Zhosef!” disappear into the silent night.

High and merry, we cycled on for another hour or so and approached a garage to ask if we could pitch up. Naturally our bikes were put on the back of the customer’s pickup truck which was being serviced from the pit below. We waited for them to finish fixing it, and we were then taken into his peaceful family home. Two nights in one! For hours we were fed, vodka’d and tea’d by candlelight (blackouts) and put into the extremely warm and cosy floor beds that are found in every Central Asian home.

Today had been travel at its finest.

I was so vodka’d up that night that bad things happened to me. So bad that I am too ashamed to write about them. It wasn’t pretty.

The next morning we rode the last peaceful ten kilometers and proceeded through to the world’s quietest border crossing that we eventually found off the beaten track. Sunglasses on, a backstage door out of this insanely friendly country was exactly what my delicate head and stomach needed. No interviews or nothing.

Behind the backdoor was our final home-straight to Bishkek. But did we decide to take the easy route or the difficult and even potentially extreme route?
I guess you read that as a rhetorical question with only one clear answer?


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Carmen, operating a bicycle

 

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The numerous food bazaars kept us well stocked up

 

The Australian tourers also heading east at the speed of 100km/day

The two Australian tourers (right) also heading east at the speed of 100km/day

Cyclists Chi, Zig, and erm... J.

Cyclists: Chi, Zig, and erm… J.

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More aircraft marshalling

 

thjing, Samarkand

Registan, Samarkand

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Kazakhstan

(This post has been back-dated due to the lack of internet for uploading over the past month).

Our first morning on dry land again after our Caspian Sea voyage, and we found ourselves standing in the middle of Aktau bazaar, bikes at the ready, wondering what on earth we should take with us into the desert. Our not-too-detailed map showed us stretches of over 100km at a time in between towns or villages, and we had no idea whether we’d be able to even buy supplies when we came to them, or whether they’d just be a cluster of houses that had made it onto the map. Nervously, we filled up Joe’s 10l water bag, packed my bags up with extra bottles of water, filled up the remaining space in the pannier bags with pasta, oats and dried fruit and decided, “Right, we’re as prepared as we’ll ever be…let’s go.”

We were eased in fairly gently, with a few villages hugging the coast and a surprisingly warm sunny day. As the road turned away to the east, we got our first glimpse of the desert proper, stretching out to all horizons and shimmering in the sunlight. It seemed like we were in a dreamworld as a herd of camels sauntered past, smiling a casual greeting. We cruised along through the warm afternoon, before pitching our tent on the sand and sitting out to watch the sunset. At this rate, the 550km to the Uzbekistan border was going to be easy!

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Hmm can you see anywhere to camp?

Hmm can you see anywhere to camp?

The next morning, the desert had different ideas. It seemed the welcome period was over and it sent a ferocious headwind our way, which we battled against all day long at less than 5km/h. In the afternoon the road changed direction slightly and it became an even more aggressive side wind, blowing us off the road several times! At around 3pm, having done only 20km but having used up more energy than a normal 70km day, and by this point pushing our bikes because it was actually easier to balance, we decided that it was pointless to keep going and set up the tent to get some shelter. Maybe it would be easier the next morning…

Nope, the desert wasn’t letting us off that easily. I woke up in my sleeping bag feeling unusually cold, to the sound of rain pattering on the tent. Boring. We tried to snuggle further into our bags and have a snooze until the rain stopped, but eventually I gave up and unzipped the tent to venture outside to investigate. I wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted me- everything was white! It wasn’t rain, but in fact snow that was falling! This was a big shock. We weren’t expecting snow for another month at least (in fact the plan was to make it all the way to Bishkek before the winter properly starts). It was still October! Two days before we’d been cycling along in the sun in our T-shirts! What on earth was going on?

Packing the tent up in horror

Packing the tent up in horror

We decided to bite the bullet and pack up as quickly as possible before our hands froze, and get moving to warm up. The wind was still ferocious, so it was pretty much a snowstorm. Wearing every piece of warm clothing we had, we set off for our first snowy ride, stopping every ten minutes to beat the ice out of our mudguards and snap the icicles off my derailleur. Our water bottles froze, and our sunglasses (which we were wearing to keep the snowflakes from blowing directly into our eyes) kept steaming up due the scarves covering our frozen faces! Does this count as ‘extreme conditions’ yet? We cycled past more camels, now looking a little out of place as they trotted along with their new white snow-coats.

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After a couple of hours, we saw to the junction we’d expected to arrive at the morning before, and right beside it, the glowing windows and steaming chimney of a chaikhana! We whooped with relief and rushed inside, to be greeted by a steaming pot of tea and plates of delicious plov (a rice and meat dish that tastes much better than it sounds). It was pretty surreal watching the blizzard through the window, trying to come to terms with the fact that it had caught up with us before we managed to beat it to Bishkek. We’d never dealt with anything this intense before on the trip and had no idea whether it would even be possible. Before we left, we’d read books and blogs of other cyclists who have done crazy things like cycle through Siberia in winter etc, but they fall into the category of ‘hardcore cycle tourers’, which we definitely do not. One thing was certain though- we only had a 15 day visa for Kazakhstan, so we couldn’t hide out in the warm forever. It was time to get back out there.

Brrrrr

Brrrrr

A few more hours of ice-cold pedalling (still against that headwind) and we started to feel anxious about where we were going to sleep. Was it even possible to get the tent up in such a ferocious snowstorm? Our map showed a little dot of a village maybe ten kilometres away, so we decided to aim for that and all would be well. Luckily a cluster of houses eventually materialised out of the whiteness, and we headed towards them looking a little more needy than usual. Before long we found ourselves sitting around a table in a warm house, drinking tea and being fed dumplings by a lovely Kazakh lady named Karina and her husband. They told us it was far too cold to be camping outside (some truth there) and laid out a couple of floor mats for us in a spare room. She even ordered me to sit at her feet and started giving me a head massage before bed! A warming end to a very scary cold day.

Houses here are huge, with three generations of families living together, and when a woman gets married, she is expected to move into her husband’s parents’ house. No more indoor toilets anymore though, so in the night you might find yourself trudging through the snow with your head torch on to the communal village hole in the ground. We learnt from the family that many villagers around this area own camels as domestic animals, and use them for milk and meat. Apparently they let them out in the morning and the camels go for a little trot around the desert, before coming back obediently in the evening to their huts. For some reason this tickled me.

We were saved from putting the tent up the next night as well. As soon as we arrived in the town of Shetpe in the early afternoon, we met a very friendly man who spoke pretty good English, and took us for a cup of tea to escape the snow. Three cups of tea later, he’d convinced us that 40km really was enough for such a bleak day, and we should stay at his family’s house. First though, he took us in his car up to the mountains to see the view from the top.

Is that a flying saucer?

Is that a flying saucer?

Monuments in the mountains

Monuments in the mountains

Luckily for us, after another bitterly cold day of riding, the sun came out and it stopped snowing. All of a sudden we could feel our fingers and toes again and enjoy riding through the stunning landscape. It was still cold enough to wake up with ice inside the tent and frozen water bottles, but as soon as the sun came up we could manage just fine. (Just as well really, as Joe had chosen this extremely cold snap as the optimum time to lose his winter gloves and so was cycling with thin wooly ones and a pair of socks over his hands. Let’s just say he didn’t take that realisation too well, quite understandably)!

For a desert, it was more hilly than we expected to begin with, with plateaus and craters like the surface of the moon, which was great as the scenery would change from time to time when we emerged from one crater and descended into the next. I found myself thinking in ‘horizons’ as units of measurement. “Shall we stop after that next horizon for a rest?” Two days out of Shetpye though and the landscape changed to the flat nothingness we were expecting from the start. It felt a bit like Groundhog Day, cycling along with nothing but the railway parallel in the distance, thinking, “This looks suspiciously like the part we were in yesterday…I’m sure I’ve seen that bit of old piping before…have we been here already?” The only thing to entertain us were the chaikhanas that seemed to pop up conveniently out of the sand around once a day. These little oasises of warmth became our lifeline, as we had already decided it was far too cold to sit outside cooking unless we absolutely had to, and we looked forward to warming our hands around a pot of tea and a hot plate of rice or bowl of borsch (cabbage soup, mmm). It was a bit hit and miss with these places though, and sometimes the only thing on the menu would be a plate full of meat…

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Amazingly, the desert decided it had maybe been a bit hard on us at first, and treated us to a powerful tailwind that had us soaring the last 50km into Beyneu, the last town before the Uzbekistan border. It felt good to be finally getting some distance done. By this point, we’d realised that at this rate there was no way we were going to be able to get across the whole length of Uzbekistan on the bikes, as we were already five days late for our 30 day visa (thanks to the wind) and it’s absolutely huge. Most people heading this way on bikes take the route through Iran and Turkmenistan, before cycling a short stretch of Uzbekistan which is possible on the visa time, but as we weren’t able to get Iranian visas, the only way we could approach Uzbekistan was from the furthest western point, and unless we planned to cycle into the night every day without stopping to talk to anyone or see anything, we wouldn’t have enough time. That hardly sounded like fun. There was planning to be done, so we needed the internet. After finding the sad-looking, ex-soviet town to be pretty much devoid of anything useful (including supplies), we decided our only option was to check into a hotel for a night. Surprisingly expensive considering it was in the middle of nowhere (they even tried to charge us extra for breakfast the next day!) but my god, it was worth it for the indoor shower. After nine days of washing in the cold with a bottle of water that is partially composed of ice crystals (a routine accompanied by lots of loud shrieking) I couldn’t help but laugh like a maniac as I stood under the hot water, thinking at the time that nothing could make me happier!

We learned that it was possible to get a train to Samarkand, but after a very stressful ten minutes in the Kazakh ‘queuing system’ at the train station, we were told that we couldn’t buy a ticket from Kazakhstan, we’d have to go to Uzbekistan. At least I think that’s what she said-it’s difficult to blunder through these exchanges in Russian at the best of times; even harder when you’ve got men on all sides, pushing you out of the way and trying to shove their passports through the window and shouting their own demands as you’re trying to translate your own dose of bad news.

The road to the border and onwards until the first town in Uzbekistan was a 400 km stretch of apparently terrible road surface, and headwinds. Weighing up our options, we decided we’d get more enjoyment cycling the eastern part of Uzbekistan in the time that we have available to us, so decided that our mission was to get that train ticket as fast as possible. It makes me sad that we don’t have time to cycle every single kilometre, but when short visas and big countries are involved, you really can’t be dealing with headwinds and short daylight hours if you’re going to make it the whole way by bicycle. I’m so impressed with the people who never have to fall back on public transport. We decided to hitch the 80km to the border and not waste our time on the bad road. Within twenty minutes, a friendly old man driving an empty minibus had stopped to give us a ride. It seemed to easy- we’d be at the border in a matter of hours- too good to be true. Of course it was. He drove 15km and stopped outside a railway engineering station. It turns out he was the driver for the engineers there.

At that point, a very bizarre stoke of fate happened. As we lugged our bikes and bags out of the bus in front of a crowd of curious engineers, a man stepped forward to greet us. He was the same man we had met over a week ago on our first day in Aktau when we got off the boat and were looking for somewhere to stay! He remembered us, and excitedly told us that we must come into their station for lunch and a cup of tea, and then he was going to arrange a pickup truck to take us to the border after we’d had a rest! It turns out he was some sort of boss man there, and had been in Aktau on business, where he bumped into us the first time. What a small world.

That afternoon, we found ourselves driving along in our newly aquired pickup truck with Albert and one of his employees, listening to russian rock music and getting to know each other. About 10k away from the border, he pulled into a little village shop and emerged with a large bottle of vodka and chocolate bars. “Now, before you go, we have Russian tradition,” he winked. Hours later, we were still 10k away from the border, by now feeling very warm and fuzzy. By this point we were all best friends, and making toast after to toast to our chance second meeting. We eventually got there just as the sun was setting (gone was the hope of putting up the tent in the daylight on the other side). After making some mysterious calls, Albert drove us straight to the front of the queue and had the border guards (in their impressive black furry hats) shaking our hands. We said an emotional goodbye, and our new friend shed a vodka-laced tear before the two of them drove off, back to work.

Albert

Albert

The border crossing was fun. Lots of different queues for stamping passports, scanning your baggage, being interrogated and filling in declaration forms. I was discreetly told by a guard to rip up my first form and start again- they were so obscurely translated and confusing that it seemed I had ticked boxes to imply that yes, I was a drug smuggler and yes, I was carrying spy-equipment into the country. He pulled me aside and instructed me to basically tick all the ‘No’ boxes, no matter what the wording said. Two hours later, passports stamped, baggage scanned, questions answered, and we were through. Out into the pitch black Uzbekistan desert.

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Our new daily travel companions

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...after stopping for a quiet lunch

…after stopping for a quiet lunch

Just an average day for the railway engineers...

Just an average day for the railway engineers…