Bukhara to Tajikistan. Otkuda, otkuda, otkuda!? Get me out of here!
From Bukhara, the first 20 km’s east were actually kind of fun. The road wasn’t too bad, the wind wasn’t hindering me much and the car horns weren’t too strenuous. That all changed however when the last of the small towns disappeared. The highway once again became a patchwork of rubble, the wind increased and then the sun seemed to forget it was late September as the heat just became intolerable. My thermometer was closing in on 48 degrees in the shade of my handlebar bag and every bottle of water I had seemed even hotter. It was hard work and I decided to take shelter at a bus stop. I hadn’t even sat down and already someone was cycling over to me. Can I not just have five minutes?
Uzbekistan is proving a hard country to cycle through. The roads, traffic, numerous people and endless stretches of desert make it tough on my sanity!
I have implemented a rule too. I know people will stare and I know they will beep. I know they will even come and sit three metres from me and watch me closely as I eat an apple and I understand that people will hang half their body out the side of a Daweoo van in order to get a good look in. With all this being said, the price they will now pay is to have their picture taken. Every last one of them. The people in the cars however will be filmed for my own amusement.
I reached the 50 km mark and cruised through the first town from Bukhara whilst eyeing up the roadside for a shop. As I stopped to take a photo, a car pulled up opposite me and reeled off words I could for once understand. “How may I help you?” “It’s okay,” I replied, “I’m fine.” Why does that happen when I never need help. Send me English speakers when I’m in dire straights please…..
I pulled over and lent my bike next to the wall outside a market. I’d already had the famous Uzbek greeting shouted at me several times as I was approaching and so I wanted to make a hasty getaway. I walked into the shop and someone followed me inside. Oh no he wasn’t there to buy anything. He just wanted to follow me around. I put my hands over my face as if to show the fact that I did not care to be followed around but this had little affect and so I walked around a central plinth twice to see what would happen. He stayed still. I bought an ice cream, some orange juice and some onions before leaving and then found about five people stood around my bike. Right, I’ll answer your questions but for this I want some water and a picture. Deal? They couldn’t understand me but I was led into a strange building with bunkbeds and a filthy shower room where I could get some water - to cook and wash with, not to drink.
I stopped again when I realised I needed to eat something. (Sometimes I forget). Having finished my noodles and bread I looked up, and the two boys whom had evidently come to watch me eat and whom were sitting about twenty metres away, were now sat two metres behind me, just staring. Come on over, take a picture. These guys actually followed me on their bikes for a few kilometres whilst they filmed me.
And then I got another puncture.
For F**ks sake! I really do need to leave now. It’s too hot, I can’t stand the stares and the beeps, the roads a pile of shite and now I’m getting punctures. I need to stay calm.
I was away by 6 am the next morning. With the border 400 km’s away, I hoped to put in a couple of superhuman days and reach the border on the morning of the 4th day. As the day wore on though, I was getting anxious about my lack of registration slips (just three slips for six nights in hotels in 15 days) and realised that I now had only two options. (You’re supposed to stay in a hotel at least once every 72 hours)
Option one: Take a taxi for nearly 200 km’s and arrive at the border before night three was up.
I didn’t much like this option.
Options two: Stay in a hotel tonight thus renewing my three day limit.
Well I don’t much like paying for hotels in nondescript towns either but if this option allowed me to cycle all the way then this is what I would go with.
As I had missed a turn off coming into the city of Kasan, I asked for directions and darted off before anyone else joined in and when I came to what I was sure was the turn off, I asked a chap for the road to Quarchi and he indicated that this was indeed it. Thank goodness. I couldn’t get away this time though. There were just too many people and I was surrounded by these white Daweoo vans! People shouted things at me. “Otkuda! Otkuda!” They shouted so many things but since it was all in Uzbek or Russian, I just had no idea. More vans pulled up every few seconds so the occupants that were crammed inside could see what all the commotion was about. I wanted to be in the Sawyers arms with a pint of ale in Manchester. What was I doing? I was surrounded by about twelve people. Now if these were women I wouldn’t mind but, well, Life just isn’t that kind.
But I managed to break free.
And then I got a puncture.
This was just not happening. Negative thoughts entered my mind again. I really did question my resolve and my ability to do this. I thought about just paying for a taxi to the border and just leaving all this s**t behind me, starting afresh in Tajikistan. I was having a couple of hellish days and I was in a very bad place mentally. This is where travelling with someone else comes in handy I suspect. I had to push on. I had to persevere. I had just come too damned far to give up now!
I followed the highway a further thirty kilometres where I finally arrived in the village of Quarchi. I say village but it was actually a big city. I hadn’t realised this until this moment which of course made my finding hotel all the more difficult.
As I passed over the river I saw what appeared to be a huge gathering of school children all dressed in their uniforms and with many sporting umbrellas in order to shade themselves ala Michael Jackson from the midday sun. It was a strange sight. There must have been more than 5000 of them. I thought I might go down to take a look but upon remembering that I would get totally swamped, thought better of it. Instead I decided to conduct several full blown conversations with drivers and passengers of the many vehicles that decided to slow down and have a chat. Never mind that the traffic behind them were beeping furiously. Nope, they just wanted a chat with this strange man on a bicycle.
The traffic was mental with these small Daewoo vans zipping about all over the place. Every car beeped at me. Full blown long beeps right in my ear. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Thanks for that. People shouted form passing cars. Random people tried to cycle alongside me. I just needed my hotel now.
I finally arrived at a rather fancy looking place in the central square but decided to go in anyway in order to ask for direction to a cheaper hotel. Rude yes, sensible – almost certainly. The kind man printed out a map of the city and showed me where I could find the cheaper hotel but when I arrived there, I was told that I wouldn’t be staying as their guest as they weren’t registered to take foreigners and so I cycled off in the direction of hotel number three which I couldn’t find for love nor money. I eventually wandered into the courtyard of a building that I thought might be it but upon asking a guard whom was sitting in the office at the entrance was promptly rebuffed again but for a different reason this time; it was a sanitary building. There was a huge sign outside that read confidently declared the word, welcome, and so this led me to believe it was a hotel.
Anyway I was directed to another ‘hotel’ but was again told I couldn't stay as I wasn’t an Uzbeki. Feeling just a little frustrated with my aimless wanderings, I returned to the first hotel where I booked into the cheapest room they had. Imagine my surprise then to find that they were actually using the official bank conversion rate of 3000 Som to the Dollar and thus I spent only $8.5 equivalent in Som instead of the $17 advertised.
I left early the following morning and was immediately confronted with roads that just defied logic. With the intensity of the traffic, I was constantly being pushed off onto the side which would inevitably send me flying into a hole one foot deep. It would be yet another painful day on the bike.
I asked a young guy for directions in one town and, having told me where to go, disappeared behind me. He reappeared five minutes later in my mirror and cycled with me for the next five kilometres even though there was now only one possible road to take. When at last he said he had to leave, I asked him why and he replied that he really ought to get back to school. Yes I thought, that wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Ran into yet another police checkpoint a little later but tried to speed through it. I was abruptly waved to stop though by one of them waving his bright orange light saber wildly in the air. I stopped next to two fat men who seemed more concerned with heir ice creams than looking through my passport. They did however ask to view my phone – something which I’m really getting tired of. They are just being nosey in my view but once again, upon handing them my brick, they gave it straight back to me. Another officer said, computer, computer, but I pretended not to hear him as I responded to another man saying Dollars, Euros. I replied that I had none and when they asked why not, I said that I’m in Uzbekistan and here we use the Som. They actually all laughed which seemed a mild improvement in the mood and I was soon able to cycle onwards to the next checkpoint, one kilometre further down the road.
I soon entered the mountainous region that straggles the border with Afghanistan and the scenery was simply wonderful. Those stark and barren rolling hills really were something to witness. The road quality improved somewhat here and I was able to enjoy a few nice descents too. The heat however was something I was not prepared for. My water was disappearing fast due to the immensely dry and hot wind sapping away the moisture in my mouth which resulted in my having to wrap a t shirt around my face. This worked great though and I was immediately drinking half the amount.
By evening, I was cycling through village after village which meant I was forced to ask someone’s permission to sleep on their land. I really didn’t want to do this as I was so tired and simply wanted to sleep and I couldn’t be doing with having to entertain the whole family with hand tricks.
I needn’t have worried though as they allowed me to put my tent up on the edge of their land and I was left alone for the duration. Every five minutes though, their seven year old son would run out and hand me a gift. First it was some fruit and then a box of matches. I prayed for a cheeseburger after this but I was given bread instead.
The scenery improves immensely the further east I cycled
I set out the following morning and followed the road through the beautiful mountains that were lit up with the golden glow of the morning sun. I climbed and climbed higher over a pass until I finally crested it at around noon and was greeted by the smiling faces of three ladies selling fruit and cheese by the side of the road. I was almost out of water too and a well appeared at just the right moment. The sun was beating down and to taste such ice cold water straight from that well was just magical. There really is nothing like it you know.
I had some really harsh climbs later on in the day though. Gradients of 12% and above were not uncommon and I was really having a hard time climbing up them.
At the top of one such climb, there was a man strategically positioned with a freezer full of drinks and I stopped to pick up some water. He counted in German for some time and then seemed to pull a price for the water out the air and quoted me 6000 Som for one litre of water. I told him that 1.5 litres usually cost 1500 Som and simply laughed at him. “Tourist price eh?” He backed down to 2000 Som but it was too late. He’d lost the sale and I cycled off.
I was still 140 km’s from the border with Tajikistan, and with this in mind, I was again away by six and continued along the dreadful roads all day long.
I continued throughout the morning climbing once again ever higher into the mountains that rose magnificently all around me and where, having finally reached the summit, was afforded views of the most barren and deserted landscape I had ever seen. I really did look very similar to all of those images I had previously seen of the region, particularly of Afghanistan and I just sat there mesmerised by the enormity and of it all.
By 2 pm, I had arrived in the agricultural belt and, although happy to be on flat land and out of the desert, wasn’t so happy with the furious traffic, blaring horns and shouts of otkuda from almost every single person along the roadside. I had stopped the waving by this point and I just wanted to leave. Everything was too much, too loud, just too hard.
I reached the border town of Denau by 5 and found my way through the madness that was the rush hour traffic. I was literally having to fight my way through the mass of Daewoo vans and lada’s whilst people were clawing at my bike in order to stop me and have a chat. Hmm. I don’t think I’ll be going India.
I spent a lovely evening with a family but what I wasn’t expecting was the vodka. The father and I sat in the living area where food was brought and many toasts were made. I think I had previously drunk one beer in just three weeks and so I was quite worried about the consequences of this the next day.
Just as I had thought, when I woke up the next morning, my mouth felt like the Sahara and the last thing I wanted to do was to start cycling towards Tajikistan, having to deal with the Uzbek border guards with a very sore head but I of course had no choice in the matter
I said my goodbyes and began the bumpy ride towards the border. Forty km’s of painful cycling. I had to stop several times in order to gorge on chocolate and water as I felt quite dizzy.