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  • Jamie Shannon

Khiva to Bukhara. The government pay you? Otkuda, otkuda?!!

I left the hostel in Khiva at around 09:30 and no sooner had I left the inner city than the road once again tuned to absolute shit. It's quite unbelievable how bad it was at times. Luckily I was taking a quieter route back to the highway which meant fewer cars which in turn meant I could weave across the road in order to take the smoothest line. My bike was being battered though.

Continuing my cycle trip across the vastness that is Uzbekistan

I was passing through the green belt of Uzbekistan where the roadside was chock full of people selling melons, fruit and drinks of questionable taste. I tried Kazakh Cola back in, well Kazakhstan and found that it wasn’t to my liking and so I gave these soft drinks a miss too. The fields were full of women in brightly coloured headscarves picking cotton all day long. I wanted to take a photo of them but decided against it as 3.2% of the population are, according to the UN, used as slave labour and this is one of their tasks.

There are a lot of bicycles too here which I quite like to see. Sometimes I’ll try and race them but they always win. When the boundary of their village ends, they turn around and I say goodbye and it all starts again.

Meeting locals in Uzbekistan
One, two, three, four I counted. I was about to hit five and asked “par Ruskie?” “Sorry, nyet, nyet.” “otkuda?” “Holandia”

I stopped off at a small market to pick up some more water and juice as I knew the desert was looming soon. As soon as I walked in and the people stared I knew it was a bad decision. “otkuda? otkuda? They shouted” I replied “Japonia”. They looked confused and I laughed whilst I hit the guy on

the shoulder. The women laughed too which was a rare thing it seemed. I have gotten so sick of being asked the same questions that I’m trying to inject a little humour into these mundane and identical questions.

I sat outside and drank my juice, enjoying the shade that the shop offered and began to count in my head. One, two, three, four I counted. Some men walked up to me just as I was about to hit five and asked “par Ruskie?” “Sorry, nyet, nyet.” “otkuda?” “Holandia”. Having said that I don’t speak Russian, what do they do? Well they carry on asking me questions in Russian of course becoming more and more irate each time their question fly’s straight over my head. By the fifth question they usually give up and walk away shaking their head. This is usually my cue to leave too.

They don’t all annoy me though. At one point as I was sat down behind a huge oil pipe just off the road, and thinking that I was safe from the barrage of otkuda’s, a car pulls up and hands me three apples before disappearing straight away. Now that’s the kind of encounter I like! Fruitful yet short and sweet.

Eventually, after a long, tough and bouncy day through the green belt, I came to the bridge which would take me back across the Amu Darya river and back into the red desert – something that I was actually looking forward to. The bridge was closed whilst a train to passed through and with twelve Daewoo cars parked up next to me, well you can imagine what happened next and how those ten minutes flew by.

Thankfully, the guards must have seen my helpless looks and let me through whilst the traffic from the other side crossed and I was soon back onto the Dakar rally road again – all two foot craters and deep sand. It was quite the ‘road’.

After 5 km’s I decided to call it a day and headed into the sand to sleep under the stars again. The day ended on a bright note though as I was joined by a friendly desert dog that lay by my tent all night. I even gave him some biscuits.

It drizzled all morning and was in fact the first time I have used my winter gloves since Sweden.

Having made my way through the 15km stretch of dread that was my quiet road, I came to the main highway again and found it much more to my liking. I honestly could not believe what I was seeing. It was super smooth concrete slabs. It was almost too beautiful. Yesterday Had really tested my mental resolve again with regards to the road quality here in Uzbekistan but this was certainly something I could work with. It was a duel carriageway too with hardly any traffic at all and pretty soon I was zipping along.

Cycle touring in Uzbekistan

Even though it was the main highway, people were still shouting otkuda at me from the tea houses that dotted the first stretch. I apologised and carried on right past them. I had about 500km’s to cycle in four days and so I needed to get my skates on. I’m supposed to register every third night here but the best I can do with these long desert stretches is four nights and I just hope this satisfies them at the border, hence the four days cycling.

I was stopped at another police check point later on. I usually just fly through these as they usually only ask me stupid questions and glance through my passport. These guys however did wave me down and the checkpoint was right at the bottom of a bloody hill. Why here? Why now? Jesus.

They asked for my passport and so I handed it over. “Registration” they said. “Registration?” F**k. I’ve already missed a few days. What if they want to know about my missed hotel registrations? I’m screwed. I've heard of hefty fines running into the thousands for failing to comply with the registration rule and I haggle over twenty cents. I simply couldn’t afford a fine. He then ushered me to come with him into a booth where, to my quiet relief, he just wanted to copy my details down into his hi tech A4 binder. After spending the best part of ten minutes spelling my surname I was allowed to take me leave.

I cruised along for the remainder of the day feeling quite content with myself. I had already crossed the huge expanse that was the first desert section and I was now flying along with some pretty nice views and over some super smooth roads. It was bliss Beeeeeeeeeep! Otkuda! Beeeeeeeeeeeeep. Otkuda!

With no real maps and no cycle computer, I had no idea of the distances I was covering and so had no idea when I got to 100 km’s for the day. Instead, I went by how I felt and by half five and with an excellent camp site spotted, I called it quits for the day.

I was up at the crack of dawn like usual and back on the road by seven. I already had fifteen km’s under my belt by 8am and, with the welcome sight of a tea house in the distance, stopped off to gather some water for the long day ahead. I passed my first sign at this point too which indicated it was a further 240 km’s to Bukhara which meant that I must have cycled 150 km’s the previous day. It’s amazing what’s possible if you have good roads and no wind.

I was accosted by a group of men a few km’s further. I literally tried to swerve around them, not wanting to stop for idle games of charades, but they actually walked into the middle of the road. “otkuda, otkuda” they cried!” Here we go.

Locals in Uzbekistan

Playing a game with myself, I asked them how far it was to Bukhara (having only just passed a sign that said 240 km’s) and they all gave me different distances. The furthest one I got was 300 km’s.

Workmen I met in Uzbekistan

I had a really nice talk with a foreman later on whose group were fixing the road. He actually said I could sleep in their compound come the evening but I just had to crack on with this desert. I asked him why there were huge gaps across the road every 30 metre’s or so, thinking the road was made up of concrete slabs that had been lifted into place. He told me that they have to cut the road every few metre’s as the temperature fluctuates wildly here and so the roads expands and contracts every year. This of course makes more sense.

I sped past another police checkpoint later on and was chased by two massive dogs from a teahouse across the road. Usually I get off the bike and start walking but I felt like a chase now and so I pushed on. They wouldn’t give up though. I don’t think they get many cyclists round these parts. I looked in my mirror to see them losing ground and heard the police whistling at me.

I knew from looking at my kindle that an acute bend in the road lay ahead and this would mark 125 km’s left to Bukhara. I just wanted to get to that bend today. 125 km’s was doable tomorrow but any more and I would be pushing my luck with regards to making it to Bukhara and my registration deadline. Finally in the distance I could make out the faint haze of the power lines that accompanied the side of the road arcing off to the right. This was good enough for me and I darted off into the most beautiful of hotels for the evening. It was splendid. I had a huge balcony and en suite bathroom. Hell I even had my own kitchen! Yes, it was another night spent in my tent.

Desert camping
Desert camping

It really is utter bliss sleeping outside in the desert. It’s so quiet and peaceful with just the occasional scurrying rodent or high pitched squeak of a bird to interrupt the silence. The stars too are simply magnificent. The night sky is awesome as there is simply no light pollution whatsoever to screw things up. Just wow.

Still, I needed to get to Bukhara for this damned registration and so having admired the stars whilst clasping my delightfully warm cup of coffee I began to put into action my cunning plan.

It was very cunning indeed.

I would be on the road by the crack of dawn which here in Uzbekistan meant cycling just before six. I thought it was cunning anyway.

I liked cycling at this time. The temperature was pleasant, I could watch the sunrise whilst cycling and most importantly, there were no beeps or shouts from cars. Yes it was a little bit of heaven. It’s a shame then that the proceeding thirty minutes were to be the most enjoyable of the day. Yes it was all downhill from here and it was painful too: Heartbreakingly painful for me.

Annoyingly the road continued dead straight for another ten kilometres and so what I thought would be a 125 km day would turn out to be a 135 km day today! Not to worry though Jamie, at least the wind is coming from your left. Then I turned left. "Whaattttt!!! No! Why me? Why now?" I turned straight on into a headwind and it felt like I was inside a wind tunnel. Fu**ing horrendous it was.

The honks continued too. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Have you any idea how loud they are when coming from a huge articulated truck two feet from your ear drum. Unbelievable.

I pushed and pushed harder into the wind. The higher the sun lifted above the horizon, the more the wind increased in its intensity. I must have been cycling at about 3 km/h and that was with all my effort. I was going absolutely nowhere very slowly. Just to add to my problems, my ass was hurting. I had a huge lump on my left cheek from the saddle and it was hurting like hell. Trying to cycle into a gale force wind with only your right arse cheek supporting you is no fun at all.

When I finally reached the next town, I dived into the nearest teahouse but even this was shaking. Madness. The lady did what a lot of people seem to do here: she reeled off a list of drinks as long as my arm. “Hello mister. Coca cola, Fanta, water, juice, chay, coffee?” Evidently this place had seen cycle tourers before. I ordered some coffee and eggs with bread before plonking myself down on the carpet wondering how on earth I was going to make it to Bukhara.

I decided to try again.

I can’t possibly describe the mental torment I endured the following few hours but suffice to say it was something I do not want to repeat a second time although I’m sure this day will happen again.

The beautiful road I had been travelling on for the past couple of days disappeared too. Now the road once again was cracked, filled with pot holes that battered myself and my bike whilst becoming so narrow that it was barely wide enough for two cars let alone two trucks. Every car seemed to beep madly at me and the trucks would create such a gigantic crush of wind when they thundered pass that they almost knocked me off the bike and left me gasping for air and wiping sand from my eyes. Every car that passed seemed to slow down too in order to gawp at my misery through their windows. Slack jawed they were with faces pressed up against the glass.

I came to another teahouse a little later and found some shade inside where I could try and piece my sanity back together. I was annoyed at the beeps and gawping faces, my wrists were hurting because of the state of the road, I was covered in sand and I wasn’t quite sure I could continue on this path. This was just too hard.

I checked the tyres like I always do and to my utter astonishment, the back tyre was flat. I just couldn’t believe my luck right now. Was I never going to make it to Bukhara?

I was on my way again and thankfully….mercifully the wind had finally died down somewhat as I was now heading in a more southerly direction. It was the break I had been looking for and I put my head down and concentrated on just putting in some miles whilst avoiding the craters that littered the road, and the horns from trucks, and the whistles from cars. This was certainly not a holiday.

Then I ran into a shepherd hitting a donkey with a very large stick. As I peddled past, I heard the familiar growls of two sheep dogs. Jesus. I got off the bike but whilst one stood to my left, the other walked over to the other side of the road. I thus felt quite exposed. I tried to walk off but they kept growling menacingly. I shouted at the shepherd to reel them in but he just stood there slack jawed like the rest of them staring at me. Control your mother fu**ing dogs man! He seemed to get the message and he managed to get them back and so I slowly pushed my bike further down the road before stepping back on and…..of course they gave chase. Alas I was too fast.

Running into my final police checkpoint of the day. Can I please leave now?

Then came to another police checkpoint. I tried to slip past but again they were having none of it. I was surrounded by four policemen but the one in plainclothes whom spoke English asked the questions.

Mr Policeman: Where do you go?

Me: Bukhara

Mr Policeman: Samarkand and Tashkent?

Me: No. Only Bukhara and then Tajikistan

Mr Policeman: You like military?

Me: Not really no

Mr Policeman: Why not? You don’t like England Military?

Me: No. I don’t like nuclear weapons so I don’t like English military.

Mr Policeman: What photos you have?

Me: Here, take a look but it’s mostly desert I’m afraid

They all begin to look through my photos and videos. (I feel violated)

Other Policeman: How old are you?

Me: Thirty one

Mr Policeman: are you married

Me: Nope.

Mr Policeman: Why not? We marry here very young

Me: I’m not Uzbeki

Mr Policeman: I do not understand why you travel like this.

Me: It’s a challenge.

Mr Policeman: Most tourists use buses.

Me: I like to go my own way and to see real people and not just people selling souvenirs.

Mr Policeman: But what is your aim. The government pay you?

Me: To cycle to China. I save my money

Mr Policeman: Where do you work?

Me: Can I go now? I really need to get to Bukhara

Mr Policeman: Passport.

Five minutes later………

Mr Policeman: You have enough money?

Me: A little

Mr policeman: You are free to go

Me: Thank you (I hope I never see you again)

I made it to Bukhara by around 20:20. I was delighted and couldn't quite believe I had finally made it. That 20km lift on the back of a truck helped too though. By nine, I had finally arrived in the Majestic city centre and it was truly a great feeling. The central square with its madrassas and minarets were illuminated under a golden glow and it felt like I had arrived in somewhere quite special.

I found a super hotel for a great price and this is where I have been for the past three nights awaiting the outcome of my Tajik visa application. It went swiftly enough in the end and I’m leaving today on the final stretch of desert between here and Dushanbe where I’ll begin my preparations for the Pamirs. I’m really excited about what lies ahead but also just a little apprehensive. Winter is coming and temperatures can plummet to -20 at 4000 metres in October. I just hope I have the right equipment for the job. Time to get my skates on again so I’ll see you in the big D!

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