Cycling about and finding a spot to camp, or chancing on the hospitality of strangers, is a real joy.
It doesn’t always work out. Pushing my bike along rutted tracks one night last week, evading trucks returning from the cotton fields, their lights blaring, my mind grasping for the anecdote about gangsters, prison labour, and Uzbekistan’s second biggest export, I wasn’t that happy with my life choices.
But when it does, like on our first evening in Uzbekistan, and 99.9% of other evenings, it is great. One evening in to a new country, settling down to watch TV with our host family, after an early evening meal of breads, jams, eggs, biscuits and milky, sugary tea, having cycled a good distance in the day, we were very content.
Since then, though, with the need to register at local hotels, and the desire to get to Tajikistan and through the Pamir mountains before winter descends, I navigated along a more familiar tourist trail – Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand – staying in hostels, and only cycling in fitful bursts, failing to make the huge distances I planned, before hitchhiking the rest of the way to arrive in time.
Despite a great trip, I lost my rhythm, basically. So when the reason for the big hurry expired, unable to get a visa for Tajikistan, I regretted rushing through all of the in-between places.
And then I met some cyclists participating in a long-distance cycle event, going back the way I came. Sold. Another fitful burst to try and get this show back on the road and properly cycle Uzbekistan before I leave. So I will be retracing my steps as far as Bukhara, in a Tashkent-Bukhara-Tashkent loop.
I’m sure that, and my more than likely not at all epic failure to finish, will be the subject of the next blog post. It is a 1200k distance and you have 90 hours. People normally start with a 100 or 200, then a 400 or a 600, rather than dive right in to the longer distance. But I figure I have done a lot of cycling and am generally quite stubborn. So why not give it a go. Cue mental image of lonely breakdown at the side of a potholed road in a long, cold night in the desert.
Back to the start, setting off from Nukus to Khiva, I cycled through windswept desert, edging up and down the slight hills shaped by the dunes, before a turn off into the start of the cotton fields and countryside that surround the famous Oases towns. Vast fields of budding plants stretched out along each side of the road. Agricultural workers called out and whooped before I had decided whether to wave from my expensive, shiny bike.
My vantage point showed me the start and end of people’s days, but little of the gruelling work in-between. Early in the morning, police cars would escort convoys of 10 or 20 buses, filled with many sad faces, as locals would arrive, riding sturdy bikes across potholed roads, or on foot, in groups. As the sun went down, the workers would finally leave, and legions of trucks, stacked high, would converge at one central point, cueing to upturn their cargo to form snowy white mountains.
I stopped too, thinking how much easier the 120k I had managed was than a full day in the fields, and managed to hitch a lift the rest of the 200k distance to Khiva.
Khiva to Bukhara was the real test. 300k of desert alongside the Turkmen border. I failed. Someone offered me some free panniers for my bike, in Tajikistan, before September 23, and the appealing reasonableness of getting there earlier than planned, and replacing my broken panniers, overwhelmed my fragile motivation.
I still cycled the first day, hedging my bets along terrible, potholed, under-construction roads, and stayed in a hotel in an admittedly miserable town. By 3am I was experiencing my first bout of sickness, in a bathroom worthy of The Shining, and by noon I had traipsed 5k to a nearby lay by to hitch a lift the rest of the way.
Bukhara to Samarkand started not much better. I planned to try and do the 280k in two days in a vain attempt to stick to the schedule. The first day ended after 90 hard fought kilometres, battling gusts spewing sand and gravel in my direction. I slept in my tent, eventually finding a good spot near depleted cotton fields, shielded from the distant lorries trundling through the night.
An early start inspired a brief motivation to do the 190k, but the sun was never going to last, and I pulled up at a town about 50k along the way. Looking for a place with a wifi connection, I was immediately invited in to what appeared to be a locked hotel. Turned out to be a super trendy wedding venue with impromptu light show. Making my exits before things got out of hand, I caught a bus to Samarkand.
Samarkand was a great interlude, albeit with many hours spent refreshing the Tajikistan evisa website, in between walking around the sights. The evisa application continually failing, I caught an overnight train to Tashkent to apply at the embassy. That failed. Maximum of 10 days visa length.
Cue a great weekend at the Art Hostel in central Tashkent. Met some crazy cyclists. And now preparing for my first long distance event. I need to find proper lights….. Wish me luck!!!