Long Way Home
Our next stop was the famed Silk Road city of Bukhara. We stumbled wearily into the delightful little oasis of Fatima’s B and B, where we flopped onto comfy beds with huge fluffy pillows, flicked on the satellite TV (first English news since Istanbul!) and splashed happily in the modern bathroom where the taps didn’t fall off and the loo actually worked.
Old and sick vehicles of all varieties are very noticeable in Central Asia. They are often abandoned, awaiting repair, in all kinds of odd places. It’s not unusual to see cars left sitting missing a wheel in the middle of a city intersection, or trucks with engine block and pistons strewn out on the roadside. We were buying an icecream from a street vendor in Bukhara when we heard a loud ‘clunk’ and turned to see an ancient lime green Lada with it’s front suspension collapsed and wheel skewed off at an odd angle. The driver casually got out to have a look, then wandered off, leaving the car sitting forlornly in the laneway.
It seems that after seventy odd years of Soviet rule the ‘Silk Road’ is now well and truely carpeted with cotton. Cotton fields dominate large areas in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It’s interesting to see the vast numbers of workers out picking cotton by hand; and we were often passed by tractors with huge trailerloads of cotton and a pile of kids perched on top.
After relaxing in Samarkand for a few days we decided to take an afternoon trip to a popular Sunday market in a nearby town. We jumped onto a local minibus, happy that it wasn’t crowded, and set off. Before long we realised that the front seat passenger was totally inebriated. The driver was barrelling along the rough road steering with one hand and trying to fend off the drunk’s exuberant embrace with the other. The drunk was keen to assist with the driving and kept grabbing at the steering wheel, while in the back the other, slightly less drunk passenger smiled benignly at us then promptly threw up out the side window. We sat cringing, thinking (not for the first time) that it’s definitely better by bike.
Samarkand was also one of the places where we’ve met other travellers. After some hard days, attacks of the ‘squiggles’ or just feeling low we sometimes wonder if perhaps this was a really dumb idea ….. so it’s reassuring to meet other travellers and realise that we might be slightly crazy but at least we’re not alone.
The Poms have always led the world when it comes to eccentric behaviour, and we’ve met a few out here doing their best to continue this proud tradition. Young Londoners Steve and Will are taking part in the charity ‘Drive to Mongolia’ – an unusual event where the only rule seems to be that the vehicle utilised must have an engine size of less than 1000cc. Apparently only ten of the forty or so vehicles that left London reached Ulaan Bator by the designated finish date – the rest remain scattered across Russia and Central Asia in various states of disrepair. When last heard from, Steve and Will had stopped off at Lake Issyk-Kul for a spot of trout fishing (would you pack a fishing rod when planning a quick jaunt to Mongolia?).
Enroute to Tashkent we were passing through a built-up area where each village and farm ran into the next. It was getting dark, and with our camp options looking weak we pulled over at what looked like a roadside cafe with a large house behind. The friendly Russian woman in charge of what was actually an all-night bar and kiosk soon had us sorted, with our tent pitched on a slab of concrete in front of the house. Hot water was boiled up for a quick splash around the back under cover of darkness, and the teapot frequently replenished as she summoned her English speaking daughter so she could ask us some questions. After a few references to ‘prostitutes’, and noting the sleepy looking women wandering around in dressing gowns, we eventually twigged that we’d inadvertantly camped out front of the local brothel. It had been a long day though and any noctural comings and goings went completely unnoticed.
We enjoyed the cities of Uzbekistan – Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent all provided pleasant days of sightseeing and relaxing with good food and some unusual local beers. In Tashkent we stopped in at the Navoi Theatre and Opera House and picked up tickets to that evenings ballet performance. At US$3 each we thought the show could be a bit rough, but were pleasantly surprised. It was worth a visit for the interior of the theatre alone.
After several weeks of a Central Asian diet the ‘food fantasies’ have well and truely kicked in. I’ve been firmly focused on the thought of a bacon and egg buttie for some time now, although there’s no sign of one on the horizon anytime soon. Cravings can be helpful though ….. I was able to scale the 2267m Kamchik Pass recently, largely by imagining that there was a big bowl of Betty’s Lemon Delicious Pudding (with cream and ice-cream) waiting for me at the top.
It’s not all bad food-wise. One highlight of our time in Central Asia has been the numerous roadside ‘chaykanas’ or cafes. These vary from a few raised seating platforms with piles of cushions outside a kitchen area (Uzbekistan); to seating areas inside rusty old railway wagons or yurts (Kyrgyzstan). We’ve got into the habit of stopping off at the most appealing of these and eating whatever’s on offer. I’ve never really considered Russian goulash as something to eat for breakfast before, but after six months on the road pretty much anything goes.
Crossing from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan proved to be a little more complicated then expected. We were directed to one border post by locals, only to find that after waiting around for ages and having our passports comprehensively inspected by numerous guards (and then passed around the gathering crowd), we couldn’t cross there and had to go to another border post 10km away. At the next post there was more delay until finally they told us tourists were ‘problem’ and we’d have to cross at another border near the town of Osh. ‘No problem’ one guard said, indicating the circle we’d need to take to loop down to the border and back up to reach the Kyrgyz side of where we currently stood. Actually this was a bloody big problem from our point of view as it involved a 350km completely pointless detour. Never has violence seemed more justified ….. I wanted to take our map and shove it up the sneering official’s nostril.
We pedalled dejectedly away ….. getting a few hundred metres before yet another puncture – the seventh for the day I believe ….. courtesy of Uzbekistan’s glass and debris strewn roads. We stopped to get some food and Coke with which to comfort ourselves while we planned our next move. Soon the usual mob of curious kids arrived, among them Sherzod, who spoke some English. He invited us to his home and was absolutely beside himself with excitement when we accepted. We ended up spending the night with his wonderful family, savouring some delicious home cooking, more of the inevitable vodka toasts and deciding that Uzbekistan wasn’t all that bad after all.