Funnily enough, we had over-prepared our passage through Turkmenistan, as any wise adult would, and hadn’t at all paid any thought to Uzbekistan. I remember unsuccessfully trying to get some Internet before crossing the border to find out what the official Dollar to Som rate was. The final solution was to ask some locals waiting in line with us at the border.
So, after 9 weeks in Iran, where it’s impossible to find a beer, and 5 days in Turkmenistan, where you don’t even have time to drink one, we had an incredible dinner in Bukhara with many cold pints knowing full well thatj780 they were the most deserved in our lives since we had lived, and cycled, through many hardships.
We know that the beer thing might seem trivial but seriously, try cycling almost 10 weeks without having a cold one at the end of a difficult day, on a day off OR during the Christmas holidays. Yes, we videocalled all our friends and family who were all toasting to our health and we had juice!
Try it and then judge us, we’ll be awaiting your messages…
Back to the story, next day, after breakfasting off a small hangover, we set off to explore this amazing city, which impressed us a lot actually; the local government has really made an effort to restore its numerous monuments and surrounding areas. We also dedicated a lot of time catching up on our social networks and the likes (no Wifi in Turkmenistan) and giving some rightful love to our bicycles.
We didn’t know it at the time but Bukhara was the city that we enjoyed the most in Uzbekistan. Don’t get us wrong, Samarcanda has lot to offer, with its long history and huge cultural background and Tashkent is definitely a must see if you’re in this corner of the Earth but we really felt good in Bukhara; people were friendly and, it not being so big, life was simple.
It was the beginning of March and we had lots of time to kill before getting to Tajikistan. Long story short; it was still too cold on the Pamir. So we decided to make the best of our 30 days free Visa and we took it slow, real slow! We hardly ever stepped foot on the busy M37 but instead decided to zigzag our way through towns and villages on a much smaller, and bumpier, paralel road.
Side note about this road, the M37, and any other main road we cycled on while there; the thing is that yes, Uzbekistan is a Muslim country but it’s a very laxed kind of Islam. Uzbekistan, as you might know, is also an ex-USSR member meaning… well… Vodka. Drinking and driving are never a good mix, no matter where you are on this globe, so we always felt safer whilst on smaller and bumpier roads; some people still drove like c*ap but at least they weren’t going fast!
Another great reason to get away from busy main roads is that, as we probably repeat in every post, that’s when you meet the real locals. And that’s what we found there, interesting, rural, communist architecture and friendly, warm, welcoming and trustworthy people!
Examples? Alright, brace yourselves. First few kilometres out of Bukhara, we stopped to eat lunch and a lovely old man paid the bill. That same night we were looking for a place to sleep, someone invited us into his house. However, a neighbour called the cops who kicked us out but another local friendly cop warned a friend who lived down the road and he invited us to his house PLUS he brought us to a restaurant for dinner! More? Ok! This guy was cycling home and hosted us. As always, he also gave us dinner (cooked by his best friend’s, and neighbour, wife) served with an amazing bottle of French wine, breakfast AND lots of dried apricots and salad from his garden to take with us. We stayed with a family who treated us better than royalty and who insisted we stayed longer because the next morning it was raining. Another time we were just sitting on a wall having a small break and a local teacher invited us to his house for tea. Tea became lunch. Then afternoon tea and biscuits. Then dinner (and 3 50cl bottles of Vodka). Finally we stayed there two days, sharing the space and routines with his family, left our bikes and gear there for some days while we visited the capital, stayed another night on our return and were really sad when we finally left!
When you take into account the fact that, at the time, there were 4 of us since we were cycling with the mighty Jakob from somewhere between Denmark and Sweden and Jojo the tall a.k.a. Double J, all the above examples double in impressiveness!
We actually camped only one night while in Uzbekistan and that’s because we really wanted to. Even then, it was in a park behind the central police station where they took real good care of us (and allowed us to leave our bikes in their garage during the night). Ok, actually we camped twice; on our last night before crossing the border we went through a beautiful area full of green hills and small canyons and we found one of the best camping spot ever with a breathtaking view and we just stopped there for the night. Even then though, a farmer walked about 20 minutes to invite us for tea (which we turned down because we just wanted to make the best of that little corner of heaven).
Uzbekistan was also the place where we finally experienced Norooz. During over 3 months we heard stories about the importance of this huge festivity so we were really excited about it.
Norooz or Nowruz (actually there are about 15 different ways of spelling it but the pronunciation is always the same; “nouruuz”) is the Persian New Year and it’s celebrated by millions of people worldwide. It always falls on the day of the vernal equinox (19-21 March) and marks the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere. Its origins go back 3 millenia and it’s simply enormous!
Families gather, foodstuff cooked and happy times spent. Of course preparations begin weeks before and the cities fight over whose is best. We happened to be in Samarcanda, the country’s cultural capital, at the time and, just to show, the President was also there.
We’ve often wondered what Samarcanda normally looks like because, during our stay, streets were cut and parks and avenues were flooded with stands of many different kinds, music and people preparing the national dish and pride; plov.
By a stroke of luck, we bumped into other western cyclists while there and the daytime festival of Norooz melted into a crazy Karaoke night… A story for another time…
Before we move on, the previously mentioned plov deserves a short paragraph. It’s a rice dish cooked with carrots, onions, butter and mutton meat (although there are many variations including Marco’s favourite; with raisins and extra caramelised onion on top). It’s very yummy, it has almost everything a cyclist needs and it’s cheap. The only downfall is that, if you want to eat it at lunch while on the road you better get to a restaurant fast or it’ll run out! Its preparation is pretty long and they don’t often make huge amounts of it.
Tashkent was also a good experience; its communist architecture is something we hadn’t seen since the Baltics and we found a good French patisserie among other home-like comforts we took advantage of but, if you allow it, we’d like to skip to another part of the country, Termez. Just as you come over the Hissar Range, the landscape changes drastically. From one day to the other we had to remove layers and wear suncream because it was so hot and sunny!
Termez offered us an insight into a very different culture to the ones that we had witnessed so far; placed between Central Asian Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, :it’s a very interesting mix of a lot of things which we truly enjoyed and which we found so different from what we had seen so far. That’s also where we bumped into the International Folk Music Festival where, apparently, over 100 countries were represented and famous artists came from all over the world to showcase their traditions and customs. I dare say we didn’t see any of that. Just a park full of local stands where we gatecrashed thanks to our foreignness and took an average of 45 selfies per meter walked.
On a different note, Uzbekistan is also the place where we have seen the largest donkey population of our lives! Without exaggerating, we must have seen well over a thousand of them in the month we spent there and we found them overly amusing and quickly grew fond of their braying which they emitted as we cycled past them (are they wary of cyclists or just happy to see us?) or whenever we tried to sneak into the bathroom at night consequently waking up all the other donkeys in the vicinity which also started hee-hawing as loud as they could… at 4am…
Wait, what? Donkey, toilet and 4am all in the same sentence? Yes indeed, an explication is needed! Remember the curious Soviet rural architecture we mentioned a few paragraphs back? Well, turns out that providing running water to households was not a priority back in the days so most houses in towns and villages do not have this facility. Instead, every morning citizens must fill their pots and bucket from big taps found in every street corner and do do with that for the day. This, and the lack of sewages, mean that toilets are strategically placed as far from the living quarters as possible, normally at the bottom of the garden. Unfortunately, this gave us a foul souvenir of Uzbekistan which we won’t forget for a while; the worst toilets we have have had the misfortune to witness on our trip (so far)!
So, just to wrap this entry up; great people, interesting cities and beer. Sounds like a good place right? Well, it actually really is. Pity about the terrible state of some roads and those damned hotel registration slips! Excuse me? We didn’t talk about those? Sorry but time is up… All we can say is that we didn’t bother with them and at the border we said that we had camped every night. The end.
Happy that it went smoothly, we left the Uzbek Customs building with a smile on our faces which lasted until we saw a 7% slope (there’s actually a sign) which leads to Tajikistan. An appetizer of what is about to come…
If enjoyed reading about Uzbekistan then you’ll adore our video; https://youtu.be/q-h3FWoKhBY