The footsteps of the newly boarded Kazakh army members brought an end to our Caspian crossing and precipitated a hasty exit, rendering the serenity of the crossing all but a memory. Once off the ship, we were ushered hurriedly through passport control by the Kazakh officials who seemed more preoccupied with watching a Kazakh boxer fight on their phones that checking our bags, not that we were complaining at 2am.
Within a few minutes of cycling out of the port it became apparent by our silence we were in a place none of us recognised at all. As we passed under the spider's web of gas and electricity piping, factories emerged emitting large white plumes of smoke, and the air had an inescapable taste of gas. Where the hell were we I thought? Soviet Union 1985? The start of a bond film? This was no time for daydreaming though as somewhere around us the sound of angry barking dogs crescendoed. As ever, the dogs never actually tear us from our bikes, rip off our legs and decapitate us as imagined, but just stroll around playfully in a pack. Despite my shocking use of Maps.me we managed to find our hotel that night thanks to another friendly local and end the most intriguing first cycle in a new country I’m sure we will ever experience.
The next morning we headed to the large communist style central square in Aktau and managed to book the elusive ticket for the 26 hour train that crossed into Uzbekistan, which would give us a chance to reach the Pamirs before winter set in. After a mad dash across town to make the train we just managed to buy a few provisions, cram our bikes on board and find our open sleeping berths. When the train reluctantly jolted away from the platform I turned to our Kazakh neighbors who smiled and raised an eyebrow as if to say this wasn’t their first journey on this route and this wasn’t going to take the estimated 26 hours. Helping to pass the time was the beautiful view outside in the Kazakh steppe. As we all admired the leisurely camels, carefree wild horses and shallow canyons we felt a heavy sense of guilt: we should be out there cycling. This, after all, was a legendary stretch in the cycle world known as the ‘demolition derby’ for the damage the appalling road does to your bike.
The Kazakh Steppe from the rear of the train
Back on board I headed to the rear of the train to enjoy the sunset and was joined by a bloke who after a few minutes of silence attempted to strike up a conversation firstly in Russian then in his native Qaraqalpakistan only to return to silence. I lamented my ignorance of languages. Minutes later he turned to try for one final time and with one work sparked off a conversation in a language we both knew well: ‘Leicester City!’ he exclaimed. I recall this because it is a moment that has happened frequently on our trip and although it often includes us essentially just naming teams, players or grounds, I enjoy it immensely. This conversation however is sadly brought to an abrupt end when I repeat ‘Norwich City, Norwich City...you must...Norwich City.’ This time it was his turn to be confused and after shaking his head for a third time, he smiles kindly and leaves for his carriage. Call yourself a football fan, I thought.
Later that evening another conversation of interest occurred when Dave and I were called to small room for a semi-interrogation by two officials. With one standing directly over me (not hard) the other sat in front, examining my passport and asking me questions. The brief feeling of intimidation soon disappeared though as the whole time was spent by me effectively helping the man pronounce my birth town. This was a truly Soviet-esque game that would experienced again over the next two months in central asia.
The games were over however six hours later when in the middle of the night Uzbek army boots entered our carriage. We were woken a half hour earlier and immediately we sensed tensions in the carriage. Our previously jovial, relaxed neighbours now sat straight legged, silent, in anxious anticipation for what was to come. For us this was a border crossing that had been on our minds for some time after hearing the death of former president Karimov a few weeks earlier. We had even taken action by deleting potentially inciteful photos, film and even books and throwing out codeine and other medicines. This wasn’t a time for risk taking. In the end we need not have worried as a friendly army officer checked our passports and smiled his way through asking the usual questions. An hour or so later the train eventually pulled away and the silence was broken by a collective sigh from all on board.
The following morning the train changed face once more and became a hive of activity. Hawkers now jumped on at every stop as we neared our final destination of Koningrad selling everything from dried fish, clothing to money exchange. We dealt in the latter and for a few hundred dollars found ourselves with mountains of Uzbek som that was allocated its own rucksack. We departed on time in frantic fashion reminiscent of a football stadium clearing when the opposition scores a last minute winner. Five minutes later we stood alone on the platform not quite knowing what to do now. We hadn’t really thought this far. Fortunately there were only two options along one road and we weren’t heading back to the border!
We headed south on the flat main road towards Nukus making good time in beautiful weather. Two things immediately struck me about Uzbekistan. First was the sky - absolutely huge, making Norfolk’s effort paltry. Second was the cotton and it’s pickers - everywhere. We’d read quite a bit about this exploitative industry but nothing can prepare you for seeing hundreds of people, mostly women (also children at times) in a field picking cotton from a bent over position. I stopped to view the process with more detail, as if viewing a painting. I was quickly jolted into life however as the bent over women straightened up and stared straight back at me, smiled, waved and shouted a welcoming hello. Cycling off I considered if I would react similarly if the roles were reversed? The answer wasn’t one I wished to dwell on for too long.
Realising we were nowhere close to Nukus we pulled into a side road and began looking for a camping spot, a little unaware of the local rules (camping is illegal here). We quickly bumped into a man who shook his head with the kind of confidence that made us think we should cycle on. How wrong we were. He wished however for us to join his wife Fatima and three children inside for the night. We willingly obliged and were welcomed inside his beautiful Islamic home, given tea, a huge circular bread, freshly made blackcurrant jam and dozens of sweets. After dinner we then sat with the family watching state television report on the funeral of Karimov that had taken place earlier that day. Before bed it was selfie time with the children, an event Dave took part in for two hours after Jess and I fell asleep!
In the morning we were invited for breakfast and a tour of their beautiful garden that included a variety of fruits and vegetables. The mother Fatima took a real liking to Jess and before we left they embraced in a few long hugs and Fatima gave her a small present. It seems as if the further East we travel, the more generosity we receive.
Jess and Fatima share a final hug before departing south to Nukus
The familiar sight of cotton picking
Continuing south in glorious weather we soon stopped in the shade for an early lunch and were joined by yet another English cycle tourer. Jamie, like us was heading towards the Pamirs with a vague hope of making it in time to beat the winter. We left as a team of four and made it to Nukus in the late afternoon and importantly checked-in to a hotel ensuring we ‘registered’ our whereabouts – an expectation by law from the Uzbek government. Aside from a bustling market, Nukus is a town notable for a truly remarkable art gallery. Comprised of work collected by the Russian art collector Stavitsky, it made for a superb morning visit.
Uzbekistan is a gigantic country and concern that we might not reach the Pamir Mountains in time was creeping in. Therefore Jess and I decided we would head to Khiva, our first ancient Silk Road town by any means necessary and ended up leaving Dave and Jamie to cycle the entire journey. Although we hoped to see Dave again in Khiva the following day we both felt uncomfortable leaving him behind after three weeks together. In addition to being a great friend, his positive, laid-back approach makes him simply the best travelling buddy anyone could ask for and he deserves a medal of the highest order for putting up with us two.
Our sophisticated plan to make it the 170km across harsh desert by sunset was devised after much consideration of all the possible permutations and hazards: cycle for a bit and stick thumb out. We weren’t hopeful. Fifteen kilometers out of town we pulled in tried our luck. Success! A huge tanker pulled immediately in but alas he could only take one…ummm, just one you say?? Interesting…Minutes later we again tried, and again, immediate success but this time they didn’t have any room but were just stopping to see if we were OK! Fortunately, the third attempt proved successful, this time a small bus carrying incredibly friendly people who rushed to our help. We had been here only a few days but already we had lost track of the kindness offered to us. The bus driver (who refused to accept a fare) took us an incredibly useful two thirds of the way there, passing a sizzling Dave en route. This left us 50km in around 3 hours which after a brief lunch spent fixing a flat tire we were determined to do. The ride was beautiful, passing many welcoming faces and plenty of beautiful scenery as well as plenty of cotton both in fields, in tractors, strewn across the road and at factories. As the sun started to set we pulled into Khiva’s historic gates and made bee-line for the watch town to grab a view of the setting sun over the ancient city. Once up the top we both stopped for air and stood shocked at its majesty. This was a sight we had dreamt about seeing not only for the entire day but for months preceding. As we stood there silent awe we both struggled to hold back the tears. It was as if the entire trip had been for this moment.
Walking around the stunning streets of Khiva's old city
Djuma Mosque, Khiva
That night we received a message from Dave, he was in Khiva! The following day we all looked around the well preserved/restored town and marveled at the magnificent madrassas and towers while reflecting on its rich yet chilling history. We departed late that afternoon and once again bid Dave a farewell, this time though for good. We headed west along the Turkemistan border and as night fell tried to camp under a field of apricots. Once more we were denied access and instead offered a space in a tea house by its owner, Oybek. He, like many in the region was an ethically Turkish Uzbek. This diverse and multiethnic nature of Uzbekistan was something we found fascinating and reminded us how crude the creation of nation state boundaries can be, a skill that the Soviets, like the English had expertise in. Unlike some nation states however ethnic tensions in this region appear as low as to be negligible. That night our conversation was aided by a local English teacher who explained to us that during the cotton season school finishes a few hours early at 2pm to join the picking effort. This would explain why we had seen so many school children on the road yet often they were seen well before lunch. He also delivered what appeared to be well-rehearsed, positive response when questioned about the death of president Karimov. This however may also have be my own cynical construction shaped by western media that is on the whole extremely critical of the country. He was, like the all the previous Uzbeks we’ve met, incredibly friendly and welcoming and as we left we once again questioned if he would be afforded the same generosity in the UK.
The following day we once again tried the combination of cycle/hitchhike with the hope of reaching the famous Silk Road city Bukhara. An hour into the ride and we were treated to stunning views of firstly Turkmenistan across the river and later a few hours of desert as we headed north to the main road. This time hitching wasn’t so easy and eventually after waiting on a contender for the world’s quietest main road, we took a guy up on an offer of a paid ride to Bukhara.
Much to our surprise Bukhara had a completely different feel to Khiva. Although as expertly restored and preserved, it operated as a working city with the madrassas continuing to be used by locals as places of worship and buildings unenclosed by a city wall. Notwithstanding the large amount of tourists, it genuinely felt like a ‘lived-in’ city and you had the unique feeling of a town that was living out its history. To add to our enjoyment here we saw Dave, again! He had, like us, ended up taking a lift across the desert from Khiva. That night while applying for our Tajikistan visa we implored him to join us for the Pamir Highway. Although he declined (wise) we secretly expected to see him once again up in the mountains. We utterly loved walking around this ancient city and felt reluctant to hop on the train to our third major city of Samarkand so soon after arriving.
The welcoming hosts of the teahouse, 25km east of Khiva
Kalân Mosque, Bukhara
Char Minor, Bukhara
Just the name Samarkand conjures up excitement for any traveler. We were no different and for months since we decided to head here, it had taken on almost mythical proportions. It’s hard to describe the grandeur and splendor of the buildings in Samarkand. The juxtaposition of their setting within a bustling city possibly adds to their overwhelming magnificence. We were fortunate to share some time with a young market seller named Mel within the walls of the Registan who explained the history of her stall, owned by her grandfather. I couldn’t help but ask about the funeral of their president that was recently held here and she replied by describing the story of how her father and grandfather fell to their knees in tears with grief upon hearing the news of his death. Again it felt contrived, rehearsed. But again I felt too cynical. Perhaps it was me who had too easily swallowed the narrative of the western press; that his people had despised him. At dusk that evening we visited what remains our favorite monument to date: the Samarkand mausoleum. We left feeling this town’s mythical status might just be justified.
Our last train ride to the border town of Sariasyo lasted through the night. While leaving the train in the customary calamitous fashion we turned to see a friend from Khiva, a Canadian guy named Frank. Leaving behind the cotton plains, we cycled the 20km to the border inching ever closer towards the towering mountains in the distant. After a fairly rigorous examination of our goods at the border we departed Uzbekistan and crossed into our third country in Central Asia, Tajikistan: home to the Pamir Mountains.
The incredible Registan, Samarkand
Gir-I-Amir mausoleum, Samarkand
Rapid fire chess in the old town of Samarkand. Within seconds of arriving we were invited to share their watermelon