Just deserts

There are two things that make life on the bike interesting: freedom and variety. In fact that’s probably a distillation of what makes life in general interesting, when mixed in with a healthy dose of challenge. Uzbekistan so far was definitely lacking in the variety department but mentally, the desert had proved challenging. Now finding myself alone, the sole survivor of the final barren stretch of road, it was time to ride solo for the first time in over a month. This would be the small bit of variety I needed to gain some motivation for the two days riding to the next city. In fact, why didn’t I give it a crack in one day? 

The gauntlet was set. 110 miles of riding would take me from ‘Uzbekistans least desirable city’ to its crown jewel. The ancient silk road city of Khiva. 

Keen to spare my Celtic skin the hassle of turning lobster red, I left as the sun rose over the dunes ahead leaving me ‘running’ from my shadow all morning. I dodged the potholes of this rugged road to the sound of my new found love – the Tailenders podcast. Listening to some seriously ‘twaddle chat’ about cricket mixed in with bad jokes, it’s an English cycle tourers dream soundscape. That bit of desert riding boring? Stick on Tailenders, laugh to some British humour and forget you’re even cycling. Until the next pothole… Probably looking like a madman cackling to terrible jokes on the lonely road, I was beginning to make up some miles. Happy to push on with the wind now literally on my back, I could easily make up the distance by the late-afternoon, leaving me time for shower and a beer before dinner. What more do you need in life? 

The most eventful part of the day came in the form of a quite frankly ridiculous bridge. The whole thing was built on decrepit floats that looked as though they themselves may sail of down the river, and the top was constructed from irregularly sized steel sheets. These sheets were being welded together whilst cars were driving over them, making for a funny back and forth routine between the welder and the trucks. It made me laugh thinking about how at home they’d shut down huge sections of road to replace a man-hole cover but here they just went and did the work in traffic. I bet they’d get the work done much faster back home if they were afraid of being mowed down by a speeding bus on the job!

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Welding now firmly behind me I was free to enjoy the ancient city in the cool evening air. What a ‘city’ it was, maybe only a square-mile in size filled with ornate madrases and decorative minarets all contained between these labyrinth like streets. The city wall cocooned the inhabitants from the outside, making me feel like I was in a complete other world. I wandered around just taking it all in whilst strolling the surprisingly quiet streets. A ‘minaret sunset’ view from the hostel roof rounded off what had been a great day cycling. I’d located Pol in this hostel and we both agreed to spend a few days here, it was peaceful and beautiful – a different Uzbekistan. 

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I made some hostel friends the following day and we decided to venture out from the walls to take a look at the sunday morning animal bazaar. Cows, goats, chickens and whatever else were paraded around the paddock to potential buyers, eager to get themselves a good deal for great livestock. Despite there being some pretty interesting beasts on show, we were the animals of interest for the bemused locals. Hundreds of beady eyes followed our every move – it was very strange. Soon we were welcomed into the frenzy when a man started picking up small goats for us to hold and pet. They were nice little guys (or girls?) and the ‘goat man’ was loving the attention he was getting for hanging around us. The whole place had a real buzz to it, money was rapidly changing hands, being fanned out, quickly counted, then animals would change hands to the nod of a head. Everyone was here. Small kids hustling old men, demanding they upped their bid for a prized goat – it was great. I tried to snap a few personalities on show before we left the madness, this was a real experience.

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After watching an Uzbek pop concert that consisted of some questionable mining and a sunset dinner, the road was waiting for us. But not before I let one of our friends ‘style’ my hair with a very dodgy haircut with some clippers. I claim the aerodynamic benefit is worth aesthetic loss, although I’m barely convincing myself… 

Pol was still slightly under the weather the following morning, so we agreed to take it easy for the next few days to Bukhara – another ancient city. This leg would consist of yet another desert leg, to which neither of us were enthused. After having to push our bikes through some sand whilst taking a sketchy shortcut, we arrived on the main artery road of Uzbekistan, opting to crash in the first truck stop. The long-haul truckers, take refuge in these places, eating, drinking and often sleeping in these buildings. They aren’t always the nicest places and neither is the cuisine but there really isn’t much out here and just a bit of shade is welcomed. We chucked our sleeping bags on the floor besides the building to escape the arriving midnight truckers, soon getting some kip. This wasn’t to last however, when in the middle of the night a small deluge came from the sky, forcing us to pack up, dash for cover before setting up again. We are in the desert! What is going on! Now facing a seriously strong wind, sleep just wouldn’t grace me and instead watched the sunrise in the desert for an hour until it was time to get moving again.

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The next day brought more of the same, riding along one road, trying to entertain yourself as you went. We stopped at, you guessed it! Another truck stop for dinner and a bed. Pol opted for an inside communal ‘bedroom’ that looked like something straight out of ‘Saw’. The room was complete with rusting wire mesh beds and some decking areas, giving off a distinct ‘abandoned hospital’ vibe. Not keen on ‘donating’ any organs in my sleep, I slept outside on a decking area in the cool air. Truckers kept coming and going but at least it was cool.

I was rudely awakened in the early hours by a crazy guy shouting at me in Uzbek. He was wearing a huge cap decorated like watermelon and didn’t seem to care that I had no clue what he was shouting, carrying on and on. Eventually I gestured toward Pol inside, doing my best to explain that he could speak a bit of Russian. He went over and talked to a sleeping Pol, then shouted at me a bit more before leaving. The next day Pol told me the guy had been concerned for my well-being. Apparently sleeping outside here can be dangerous. It made me laugh, the only danger I’d felt is when Mr. Watermelon himself started spouting off at some ungodly hour! It was definitely an interesting method of displaying concern, waking up a stranger and shouting at them… 

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After another terrible sleep now firmly under my belt, we hit the road once more. An uneventful morning was broken up by meeting an English tourer ‘Adam’ who’d ridden from Singapore. A real nice chap, he was heading back to London to start his masters. It was really refreshing to chat to him and he told us some funny stories from his travels through China and the Pamirs. We wished each other luck and got back on the same old road again. It wasn’t long before we were stopped by some motorbikes who’d ridden from bloody Maidenhead (where I started my tour!). I couldn’t believe it, here I am in the middle of a desolate Uzbek desert and here were people from a town 3 miles from my own. We organised to meet in Bukhara for a drink and chat about the good old shire!

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Now, back to that road. Which, was starting to disappear. Not just the tarmac fading to pot-holed dirt track, we were losing sight of anything in front of us. The sky ahead now an orange hue, a sandstorm was starting up. Everything turned to a muted grey and sand was being whipped up into our faces. It became impossible to cycle in a straight line as we were constantly being blown from side-to-side. We started off having a good laugh to each other, this was cool, I don’t usually get caught up in a sandstorm back in the chilterns. We were lucky that as the road turned the sandstorm was now on our backs. Man we were going fast now, seriously fast. Almost keeping up with the traffic we zipped between potholes before things cranked up a notch. We really couldn’t see much now and traffic was just appearing from the cloud in front and behind us. We found another truck stop, sought refuge, staying inside until the storm subsided. This ended up being the morning. 

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We arrived in a scorching Bukhara early that morning, with a desire to just chill out after a few nights of terrible sleep. Our time their was spent hanging out with people at the hostel, complaining about Uzbekistans terrible WiFi (the achilles heel of the modern traveller) and meeting up with those we saw on the road. We met the famous ‘hammock-man’, an ex-British solider who was cycling so light that he had only brought a hammock instead of a tent. Word between tourers passes surprisingly quickly, with people constant relaying information from the road ahead or behind. The story of ‘hammock-man’ was yet to reach us but we were keen to spread the legend on after our friend enlightened us, and him, to his nickname.

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The final desolate stretch was now ahead, the end was in sight. I was keen to do the distance in two days but Pol still wasn’t feeling 100%. We had a lazy start and took things slow and steady as the day heated up. Now cycling a couple miles apart, I hadn’t seen Pol in an hour or so, until his smiling face popped out the window of a truck next to me. He’d hitched a lift the jammy bastard! He shouted to meet him in 30 miles – we were to stay with this guy he’d met. Perfect. I could crack on and get some of these miles out the way knowing Pol would be nicely rested and feeling slightly better for riding to Samarkand. 

It worked out a treat, as our host was a keen cyclist, eager to make the most of the early hours by leading us from his house towards Samarkand. We rode for 30 miles together before he peeled off and headed back for home. It was now only 70 miles to Samarkand, 70 miles left of me and Pol cycling together. We both knew we had to finish with an epic ride. It has been quite a journey since we met in the pissing rain on a Georgian mountainside. From snowstorms to sandstorms, protesting on the streets of Tbilisi to crossing remote deserts together, this section has been without a doubt the highlight of my trip. I’d be sad to say goodbye to my good friend, although I’m sure we’ll catch up after all this is over. We’ve already planned to ride from Batumi (where we met) to Baku in 10 years time on motorbikes.

We both pushed hard on the pedals for a good few hours as the final ancient city drew closer. I stopped in a cafe, waiting for Pol only 20 miles from the city. I decided to celebrate by ordering a beer, thinking Pol would join me and we could have a toast to a great cycle together. The poor guy, he arrived about 15 minutes later, saw me with a beer and pointed to his stomach before riding onwards, barely stopping. I was left to toast myself before we rode into the city together. The final miles of what had been a great ride.

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The hostel was full of our friends we’d met on the road, and the next few days were spent hanging out and saying our goodbyes. I don’t think it will ever become normal saying ‘look forward to seeing you in Tajikistan, have a great time in Mongolia you guys’. I have to pinch myself sometimes, when surrounded by like-minded people doing similar things you forget this how lucky you are and that this isn’t the most normal thing to do. One great chance meeting was with an Austrian guy called Stefan, we met whilst both staying with a couchsurf in Ankara, we nearly met again in Tbilisi where we were both in the same protest at the same time, and now we were in this hostel together in Uzbekistan. The road work in mysterious ways and we had a good laugh about it all over a drink.

Samarkand is a stunning place and Uzbekistan has been a real experience. Providing the toughest days of the tour so far but also some of the most beautiful cities. The silk road really is something else and I’m glad to have experienced this country. From staying with the lovely locals to grinding out miles in the desert, I wont forget it. I will just gladly not cycle through it again… 

DSC02951Back on my own, for good this time, I pedalled towards the mountains and the Tajikistan border. A bit of bartering with the money exchange men by barrier and I was the proud owner of enough Tajik Somoni to see me to Dushanbe. A surprisingly quick crossing meant I was soon in the mountains once again. The border between the two countries feel like line between ecosystems. Flat and arid, to green and mountainous. This is where I wanted to be. Kids running into the road for hi-fives, trees for shade and mountains to gaup at. I knew I was in for something special over the next few months. Tajik, Kyrgyz and Pakistan are known throughout the cycle touring community as the mountainous meccas to ride. They were instrumental in me deciding my route and I was excited to finally be here. Riding through the valley floor, huge crags rising beside me, I felt a buzz for cycling that I hadn’t felt since Azerbaijan. It began to rain as a thunder rang overhead. The sensible decision would have been to stay put under cover, but that’s no fun! I wanted to go out and ride in it, get wet, feel alive. I barrelled along the road, warm but wet until the storm picked up and I sheltered next to a donkey in a barn. The little guy had nabbed the best spot!

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After a little more riding I decided I should find somewhere to sleep out of the storm. I saw a cafe in a tiny village and headed for door asking for a chai. The guy responded in great english ‘no problem’. I was taken a back but sat down on the plastic chairs with the locals and started chatting. Next thing I know, they start bringing me plates of food I haven’t ordered. I was hungry so I started eating them anyway, but they kept bringing more. Suddenly it all clicked. This wasn’t a cafe, I was in someone’s house! All the people here sitting on the chairs were extended family, who just come here to relax and chat together. I felt terrible! I’d just rocked up, asked a man for a cup of tea and parked my bike in his garage and sat at their table! What a diva! 

Fortunately they were genuinely excited to host me, asking me all about my life in the UK and my trip. Already I could see the Tajik people were at least as friendly as their Uzbek counterparts and they family even gave me a shirt as a present before showing me to bed. It was a really lovely evening, with them even inviting me to see their prayer time and customs.

I cycled out of the village laughing at whole situation the following morning as the road started to press upwards, the larger peaks now in sight. The whole day was spent slowly ascending until the road became a seriously steep set of switchbacks carved into the mountainside. This was some of the toughest riding to date. I crawled up the switchbacks as another storm brewed and then broke overhead. I was now up at 2300m and found a truckers hostel to stop at. The place was seriously dank, so I opted to sleep outside under the cover of the teahouse. The lady running at the place thought I was crazy to want to sleep out there in the cold, but we had a good laugh about it. I slept well until a sheep tried to jump up to where I was sleeping in the night. The sound of hooves on scratching on corrugated metal in the pitch black scared the life of me until I made out the culprit. Now awake, I watched as the stars lit up the sky, I have never seen a sky so clear in my life. 

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The dodgy food here had upset my stomach in the morning, so I struggled my way up the final miles to the 2700m summit the following morning. I hadn’t eaten much and was really feeling the effect. Thankfully for me, it was to be all downhill from here. I only had to negotiate the ‘tunnel of death’ first… I’d read about this tunnel on forums before setting out on this trip and more recently followed people of cycled through it. One lady broke down crying it was so bad and others had commented they’d come out completely black – caked in diesel fumes. Here I was with a dodgy stomach at 7am. Right lets get on with it. Lit up like a Christmas tree, I pedalled inside dark tunnel. I could hear oncoming trucks but through the haze of exhaust fumes I couldn’t even make out their headlights. I started pedalling like crazy, lets get through this thing as quickly as possible. A mile into the tunnel the fumes got thicker and thicker until visibility was only 10 or so meters. Trucks sped past in both directions and I was sure there was going to be an accident here. I really pushed hard and tunnel started to go down and a faint light appeared. I shot out the other end to find myself facing the most beautiful mountainside I’d ever seen. Talk about from one extreme to another. I’d survived the tunnel of death, although, the fumes have probably taken a good few years off my life mind. 

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I freewheeled from there, pretty much all the way to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan where I checked into the famous Green house hostel. A place where all the bikers gather before riding the Pamir highway. There are loads of us here and the atmosphere is great. I watched England dismantle Panama 6-1 in the world cup and now I’m all set for the next leg. The toughest so far. I’ve opted for more difficult road of the Pamir highway. This is going to be an adventure.

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