For various reasons we ended up spending rather more time at the Uzbekistan border than we had anticipated. The formalities for entering the country were relatively straightforward and it only took an hour or so to get the magic stamp. Contrary to our expectations, nobody asked us for bribes – indeed so far we seem to have got off rather lightly on that front – only Christine has been asked for a bribe (at a police checkpoint in Turkmenistan) – and it was asked in such a halfhearted way that she looked confused as she wondered if she had misunderstood something, at which point the police officer gave up trying and returned her passport! The same thing happened to Ian a day or two earlier so there was definitely no misunderstanding on our part, but we have to wonder whether that police officer is ever successful in getting a bribe! We think that being on bicycles helps – several Mongol ralliers that we spoke to had had to pay bribes already on the trip.
Vehicles entering Uzbekistan have to drive through a trough of what we assume is like sheep dip, and we were instructed to take our bicycles through it too. Pete went first, and not realising how deep it was, elected to cycle through, with the result that his feet got covered in the dip – this wasn’t good because he had a small cut on his foot which was severely excacerbated by the chemicals (which also dyed his socks). Unfortunately he didn’t realise until later on in the day that his foot was getting sorer, by which time it was a little late to wash it. Having seen this Dean and I elected to push our bikes through while walking along the side of the trough. After all the fun of crossing the border, we decided to take a break in the cafe until the late afternoon when it would be cooler, and to change money at the same time. There is no bank there so everybody uses the black market moneychangers, who give a much better rate than the bank anyway. Pete and I decided to change $100 as the only smaller bill we had at that point was a $20 that was a bit tatty – it is a right pain but currency has to be absolutely immaculate here to get changed, one speck of dirt or even just a crease and it becomes worthless. In fact the first $100 bill we presented had a small mark on it and was rejected, at which point Pete put it in his pocket while he presented another bill that was unacceptable. After exchanging the bill for a couple of enormous wads of notes – the largest bill here is worth less than $0.50 – and counting it, then arguing with the money changer because he had tried to short change us by not giving us enough, we walked away, before suddenly realising that the $100 bill in Pete’s pocket had vanished. It was obvious what had happened – one of the money changers mates, who had surrounded us while we were arguing with the guy, had pickpocketed us. We decided to make a fuss and complained to the police and soldiers at the border. They seemed sympathetic and embarrassed but were reluctant to do anything at first, so we sat on the floor of their police control box in protest and waited and after a while they realised that we weren’t going anywhere so went and had a word with the money changer. It took some time but the long and short of it is we got between $50 and $75 of our money back (depending on what exchange rate you use) in local currency (the $100 bill in question had of course swiftly disappeared). At this point we decided to cut our losses and not push for more, as we felt lucky that we had got anything at all. We cycled off with our pepper spray to hand in case the money changer in question decided to get revenge down the road – thankfully we saw no more of him or his friends.
Needless to say we didn’t feel that we had had the best introduction to Uzbekistan, but at least the landscape was nicer – rather than desert, the area was quite lush and green, and it was lovely to get a cool breeze off of a river running along the side of the road. We cycled till it got dark then camped in the yard of a restaurant (in which, rather surreally, they were showing a Manchester United – Chelsea football match). The next morning we cycled the remaining 60km to Bukhara, which we reached by mid-morning. Bukhara was absolutely lovely, with a stunning and well-preserved old town, at the centre of which there is a lovely pool with ancient mulberry trees, fountains and several chaikanas round the edge. A great place to sit and enjoy a beer or some tea, or to have something to eat. We found a cheap hotel which was pretty decent and seemed good value for money apart from the fact that the water pressure was so low the shower wouldn’t work, so we had to wash using a jug which filled quite slowly! There were loads of other tourists there including some other cycle tourists who we enjoyed meeting. Particularly memorable are an Australian couple called Cat and Adam, who are cycling from London to Melbourne! Unlike us though they are really taking their time and covering quite a lot more ground – so far they have been on the road 16 months and have covered 13,000 km (we have covered 7,000 km). They take a nice relaxed approach to cycling, taking time to do side-trips and see places off the beaten track, and apparently they have never said no to a cup of tea – seeing as we turn down most offers of tea due to time (and bladder!) constraints, it is no wonder they have been going 16 months! Their approach is in sharp contrast to that of some other cycle tourists that we have met who are most interested in the cycling aspect – how far they can cycle every day, what their average speed is etc – we have to say we much prefer Cat and Adam’s approach!
We stayed one night in Bukhara, then cycled on in the direction of Samarqand the following evening. We had fun leaving Bukhara – as we were setting off from the main square a bus load of Italian tourists arrived, all of whom were very impressed with our exploits and insisted on taking turns having their photo taken with us! This is what it must be like to be famous! We eventually worked our way free of the hordes of admiring fans (!) and set off, managing to put 30km behind us by the time the sun went down. We were trying to work out where we could camp when a teenage boy by the side of the road shouted in good English to stop and come and see his house and meet his family. Spotting an opportunity, we stopped and after introducing ourselves asked if we could camp in their garden. Nonsense the boy (called Shaxob) said, you can sleep in our house. Great! His father is the local policeman and obviously does quite well for himself as the house was lovely – a large building set around a spacious courtyard. We were invited to sleep in the dining room, which was huge – the dining table must have been 10m long! They had already eaten but insisted on setting up a quick and delicious buffet meal for us – absolutely wonderful. Despite clearly being relatively wealthy, the family did not have reliable electricity or running water – we had a candlelit dinner (really rather nice!) and had to wash with water from a barrel. The bathroom was great – a stand-alone building with a heater in that is on all the time, so the room is constantly warm, as is the barrels of water they keep in there for washing – very nice! After dinner we entertained ourselves and them by showing photos of our wedding (Pete’s kilt always gets a chuckle) and our families, and taking photos of them. They laid out mattresses for us to sleep on and we had a comfortable night’s rest.
As usual we were up early the next morning. That day – August 11 – was the start of Ramadan and we were a little nervous about how much of an impact that would have on us – in countries like Iran or Pakistan it is virtually impossible to buy food during the day, and a real faux-pas to eat any food you have in public, a nightmare if you are cycling. However, either Islam is not as prevalent as we thought in Uzbekistan, or they are not as strict as in some places – we have not seen any cafes or restaurants shut during the day, and there are certainly plenty of people eating throughout the day. By 11am we had cycled about 70km, when we decided to stop for a long lunch-break. We found a restaurant with lovely shady day beds and enjoyed a good meal before falling solidly asleep for a couple of hours! It didn’t feel as hot as on previous days so we continued cycling at 2pm, and got 135km by the end of the day, when we camped in a disused orchard. We had only 100km to do to reach Samarqand, so we took the next day at a leisurely pace. We took a side road that was shorter than the motorway that we had been following (I say motorway, but in most places it was single lane, frequently poor quality, used as much by donkeys as by cars, and liable to disruption from sheep or cattle crossing the road), but soon realised that the motorway went a longer way for a reason – the shorter road was quite hilly. This was not good considering that Pete’s gears were virtually non-functional. Still the hills were small so it didn’t slow us down too much. That changed when Pete got a puncture on his rear wheel – this was the wheel that was changed in Ashgabat and was no longer quick release – just taking the wheel off took quite some time. It didn’t help that we had an interested group of onlookers! Putting the tyre back on we found yet another problem – the ‘Schwalbe’ tyre that we had bought in Tehran having been assured it was the real thing, was definitely not the real thing, but rather yet another rubbish Iranian fake (Iran is notorious for having no copyright laws, with the result that everything from branded clothes and goods to cars is fake – our personal favourites were the ‘Pegout’ cars that were meant to be Peugeots!). This tyre had stretched beyond use after us taking it off just one time. Thankfully we are carrying several spares so were able to swap it, but it was quite irritating as that was meant to be our best (ie newest and best quality) tyre that we were carrying.
Eventually the tyre was fixed and the wheel replaced and we got going again, and rolled into Samarqand around 4pm. Believe it or not, we had yet another problem with Pete’s bike on the way in. His front tyre was pretty old, having done around 8000 km, and we were planning on replacing it any day. The need to replace it was, however, expedited by the presence of wet tar on the road into Samarqand, which stuck to his tyre and ripped it to shreds! Thankfully we were able to get most of the way to our hotel before the tyre punctured. We stayed the first night at the Hotel Zarina, which we had arranged to have Pete’s new wheel sent to. It was a little expensive and not that great, and the wheel hadn’t arrived, so all in all we were a little despondent at this point. Still it was nice to be in Samarqand, which has some fantastic sights, notably the Registan, an impressive collection of three medrassas that are hundreds of years old. The next morning we decided to move to a different hotel that was somewhat cheaper than the Zarina. The hotel we moved to, called the Antica, is lovely, with rooms set around a large courtyard filled with pomegranate and mulberry trees. Here we met up again with Dean and Ian, who had cycled from Bukhara to Samarqand just behind us, with a French guy called Rafael. We spent the day sorting out practicalities such as obtaining some more cash in US dollars – a bit of a pain as the ATMs in this part of the world are both few and far between, and notoriously unreliable, with a strong tendency to swallow cards, which would be a bit of a disaster for us. To avoid this we spent some time tracking down a bank which does cash advances and got hold of enough cash to last us through to China, where reliable ATMs are plentiful. Pete’s foot was still rather painful and we were worried that it was getting infected so we also went to a pharmacy to buy some antibiotics – very useful having Ian around at this point as he is a GP and so able to advise what antibiotics to get. It is also useful that the pharmacies over here will sell most drugs to you without a prescription, obivating the need to investigate the Uzbekistan health system.
The hotel was very busy, mostly with more mongol ralliers, so we had a nice time in the evening chatting to them over a beer in the courtyard. The next day was spent sightseeing and trying to track down our parcel – it turned out it had been shipped a couple of days later than we thought, so probably would not be arriving for a few days yet. Not a problem as we were planning a side-trip up to Tashkent by bus in order to get our visas for Kyrgyzstan. As we were leaving for Tashkent on the following day, we heard some very worrying news from some of the Mongol ralliers, which they had heard from a team further on – apparently the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at Sari Tash had been closed, resulting in the team having to turn back and retrace their steps along the Pamir Highway, a notoriously difficult road to drive along because of its high altitude and poor condition. This was exactly the route that we were planning on taking and having this border closed would present some serious logistical difficulties for us, including potentially having to miss at least part of the Pamir Highway and having to fly out of Central Asia into China rather than cycle – not ideal at all. This put us into a bit of a tailspin and we spent the next 24 hours thinking about and discussing our options, and trying to find out what we could on the internet about the situation. The problem was solved however when we went to the Kyrgystan embassy in Tashkent to get our visas – we were able to speak to the consulate there, and he kindly telephoned the chief of the border post there to check the situation, and was able to confirm that the border was in fact open and was expected to remain so. We are not sure why the mongol ralliers were unable to get through – possibly there was a problem with their paperwork or something, rather than the border being completely closed, or maybe it was closed but only temporarily. Either way, we will be keeping an eye on the situation but fingers crossed we will be able to cross ok when we get there.
Aside from applying for and obtaining our Kyrgyz visas, we spent our time in Tashkent relaxing and shopping for things that are unavailable elsewhere, for example contact lens solution for Christine. This was not available in the opticians in Samarqand, which is a pretty big city, but could be bought from some opticians in Tashkent. It is interesting that contact lenses appear to be a luxury and uncommon item, because very few people in Central Asia wear glasses. We can only conclude that either the people here have unusually good eyesight compared to the West, or, probably more likely, there are a lot of people walking around not being able to see properly. This could probably help explain the standard of driving over here! We had our first – and so far only – problem with Ramadan on our first evening in Tashkent – we had had a late lunch so went for a late dinner (around 8.30pm) at a restaurant near our hotel, only to find them just about out of food – we had missed the big rush that happens when the sun goes down at 7.30pm. This surprised us until we realized that we were very close to the city’s largest mosque, where lots of people would have been to worship before breaking their fast at the nearest available restaurant. We ended up having a dinner of biscuits and some other sundries from the local corner shop, we were certainly grateful we had had a late and large lunch! On our second day in Tashkent we decided to check out the Aqua Park, which was great fun – definitely a good way to spend a day while waiting for a visa! We picked up our visas late that afternoon then headed straight back to Samarqand in a taxi – in this part of the world taxis are very cheap, in fact between the three of us it was cheaper to take a taxi than the train – $30 for a 300km drive. The reason taxis are so cheap is that the vast majority are ‘informal’ taxis, i.e., just ordinary people who are driving between major places and are willing to take passengers, just like car-pooling. They all congregate in one part of the city and leave when full. They also operate in cities – in Tashkent all you have to do is stand by the side of the road and within a minute someone will pull over and offer you a lift, for a very cheap price – much easier than having to haggle all the time with proper taxi drivers like you have to in most cities.
Back in Samarqand we were disappointed to learn that our wheel still hadn’t arrived, although we were assured it would be arriving any day, which we certainly hope it does as time is now ticking on our Tajikistan visas and we really want to get going on the Pamir Highway. Fingers crossed we will be able to get going soon!