- Jamie Shannon
Through Uzbekistan to Nurkus. Mr policeman: Difficult in England to find woman?
No sooner had I stepped out the other side of the border than a horde of black market money changers raced over to me. Their eye’s must have lit up at the sight of a western tourist.
“Money, money. You want exchange?” Everyone was thrusting mobile phones into my face with various numbers on them. One lady, holding aloft a huge wad of Uzbek Som gave me 300,000 Som for 100 Dollars but I had been ready for this. Being the cunning cat that I am, I was never going to exchange one hundred dollars at the border as I knew the rate would be much better in the cities and so I had a ten dollar bill handy which I hoped would be enough to see me though until I reached Nukus.
I got out my phone and typed in 40,000 as I knew people had been getting 4000 Som to the dollar recently but this was laughed at predictably. We settled on 35,00 which was fine by me: Much better than what other people had gotten at the border. I then counted every last Som which was a lot as each 1000 Som note is worth about 40 cents and then handed her my nice, crisp ten dollar note.
With that done, I wheeled my bicycle through the crowds and, with a huge smile on my face, began to dream about the beautiful paved road that would take me through the desert.
Alas it was not to be.
Why did I think it was a good idea to travel through Uzbekistan on a bicycle?
The road again resembled something more akin to the Dakar rally again. The first few km’s actually had tar on some parts of it but after this, it simply disintegrated into gravel, rocks and sand once again. To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. I was absolutely livid. My bike and my wrists were taking a battering here and I remembered thinking that this is where a strong and expensive bike comes into play. Still, I haven’t had a puncture since leaving Baku and that was certainly something to smile about.
There was some light drizzle in the air but with the wind still behind me, I got on with the job at hand and began to inch my way forward one fall at a time. It was exhausting work.
I came to a police checkpoint where I was waved to stop but they seemed more interested in my bike and bell than in my camera or passport. One officer even took it upon himself to listen to my music from the earphones dangling from my neck. So instead of having my bags and documents scrupulously checked, the officer did what any normal police officer would do; he invited me inside for tea.
I did want to get a move on but it’s not often a police officer invites you in for tea and so the decision was made in my head.
I was then lightly interrogated as to my private life but not in any official capacity. He just asked me all sorts of questions with the aid of his wife on the other end of his phone.
Mr policeman: Why are you not married?
Me: I haven’t found the right woman
Mr policeman: Difficult in England to find woman?
Me: Depends on how choosy you are
Mr policeman: You like Uzbekistan?
Me: I have only been in the desert half a day
Mr policeman: What is your profession?
Me: I do not have one
Mr policeman: Why not?
Me: Because I’m in Uzbekistan
Mr policeman: What is your aim?
Me: My aim?
Mr policeman; Da, your aim…
Me: Hmm. My aim….to get to china
Mr policeman: Why?
Me: I like to be tourist.
Mr policeman: Why are you one?
Me: One? Alone?
Mr policeman: Da, one....you have no friends?
Me: Yes but they work.
Mr policeman: Do the government pay you?
Me: I need to go.
Before I left, he took a picture of us both on his phone after which I thought that I might do the same. “No, no” came the reply. “No photos of police at checkpoint in Anglia, no photo here”. I wanted to say yes, but the police in England also don’t invite you inside for tea.
Just as I was getting my bike, someone came over with some black powder whereupon one man exclaimed that it was not cocaine. Everybody laughed and I was encouraged to slip this powder under my tongue which I duly did. When in Rome ad all. My mouth was on fuc*k*ng fire. I cycled for the next half an hour with a bottle of water strapped to my face.
The most miraculous thing happened a little later in the day: The sun began to shine and parts of the road began to recover in the form of long strips of asphalt. I could finally make use of this wind. Horay! I went as far as I could but with nowhere to camp once again, I elected to push my bike across the desert when I saw some sand mounds that could hide me. I just prayed the asphalt and wind would now continue to favour me in the morning.
I pushed out 130 km’s the next day. With the wind behind me and autumn beginning to take a foothold, it was a glorious day to be on the bike. The road was pretty rough going at times with many, many huge pot holes to look out for, but on the whole, I was making excellent progress. The flat horizon and desert scenery was giving my eyes repetitive strain injury and I was keen to make it back to civilisation, good food, interesting sights and a shower.
The one thing of note was arriving at a tea house. I bought some eggs and bread, lots of water and some chocolate but the place was actually quite expensive and I had to put a few things back as I needed to conserve some of my ten dollars. I suppose if you’re going to live out in the middle of the desert, then you at least want to make a profit which I totally understand. Upon realising that I didn’t have much money with me, the lady gave me two delicious hot mounds of bread before leaving.
Camped behind another mound of sand this evening and the stars were absolutely unbelievable. There were millions of them and they were so clear and bright.
Again, the next day was much like the day before; I had the wind at my back pushing me along in the morning and was again making excellent progress across the desert. Cars were few and far between but what ones there were looked as if they were moving house. They zipped past whilst beeping the horn furiously, carrying an array of furniture atop.
I became quite excited at one point - and this is no joke; I saw a bend in the road! Well after 300 km’s of dead straight rubble, you can surely understand my excitement. It also meant progress as from here on out, little buildings in the distance started to appear, if only for a brief moment.
Then once again the road turned to absolute shit for ten km’s as if to highlight the fact that my ordeal was certainly not over. A new road was under construction to the left of this but there were sand barriers spaced at regular intervals in order to inhibit the cars but I opted to use this anyway.
From here on out though it would be a brand new road for the next day and a half. Yay!
I came across a small town on the left of the road a little later on. Running precariously low on water and wanting for a cold drink and perhaps some vegetables, I turned off the highway to have a look. It was a peculiar town where every building was identical and almost brand new. It was eerily silent too except for some people walking around in overalls. I genuinely thought I might have wandered into and army barracks or something but upon questioning some people in white jump suits, as to the whereabouts of a market, found out that it was indeed just an oddity of Uzbekistan.
With only $3 left in my pocket, I had to choose wisely but thankfully the prices here were much more to my liking. The lady wouldn’t even let me pay for the tomatoes and after I had had a long ‘chat’ with her and her son, was given 2000 Som back.
I sat outside and savoured a rare moment of relaxation before a car pulled up and out stepped two Uzbek men. More photos and questions followed and I was again handed some freebies through the shop window. All in all I received a huge chunk of meat, fresh water, bread and tomatoes as gifts. I thought that stopping to chat was becoming quite a profitable venture for me. Perhaps I won’t need to change so many dollars after all…..
I entered the land of nothing once again and received my first flat tyre since leaving Baku. Why is is that this always happens when the highway is smooth and perfect yet on the shittiest roads you can imagine, the inner tubes work perfectly? Still I was mightily chuffed with how my steed had coped the last few days and I was on my way soon enough.
I rode on and on in some baking heat for hours, still with a tailwind behind me, and after much peddling finally began to descend into the fertile region that boarded the Amu Darnya river that had once flowed all the way to the Aral sea but which had been dammed in the seventies to aid the production of cotton in the country. Hence there now stands cotton fields in the middle of the desert.
I was elated. I was ecstatic. I hadn’t seen fields and tress and smelt flowers since the middle of Azerbaijan some two and a half weeks before. It was a sweet, sweet moment and I relished every second of it.
I flew down into the valley and continued along the highway thinking that I should try to find a hotel in the city of Kungrad to register myself. It’s a a hangover from the USSR whereby a foreigner in Uzbekistan must register at least once every 72 hours. Having heard that this rule is only lightly enforced at the borders, decided to push onto Nukus and register my stay there instead.
Well after eight and a half days riding through the steppe and desert with no one for company and just my kindle to keep my sanity intact, imagine my utter surprise and happiness when I came across three other crazy people on bikes sat beneath a tree by the side of the road. I asked if I could join them and upon hearing English accents, well I just hugged all three. Eight days alone doesn’t sound a lot but my dear lord it really is. I was so glad to have found these guys.
Turns out they had all taken the train from Aktau to Kungrad and had spent the morning cycling from there. I must admit that it did make my own journey from Aktau seem that much more admirable. I was very pleased with myself. They also told me that they had gotten an exchange rate on the train of 6000 Som to the Dollar which made my 3500 Som seem a bit shitty. I was mightily glad to have only exchanged ten Dollars.
We cycled the remaining 35 km’s into Nukus and it was great to be part of a team once again and to have someone to chat to whilst riding. We were accompanied by beeps and people cycling with us all the way into Nukus and it was strange being such an oddity, standing out so much and to be welcomed with such open arms at every corner we turned.
After searching for a hotel to stay at, we finally found one which had hot water and wi-fi for a reasonable price and it was super nice too. The lady initially told us it would be $70 for a double then we quickly said it was far too much. Next thing we know we are wheeling our bikes around the back before making our way to the huge room for the sweet price of ten Dollars per person. Bargain I tell you. The Lady even got her brother to come over so I could change one hundred Dollars getting me an exchange rate of 6000 Som to the Dollar. I was a very happy man.
It was now starting to dawn on me that I was actually in Uzbekistan. Years of dreaming about this trip and reading other stories about cycling across the vast Steppes, deserts and mountains along the ancient Silk Road routes were finally becoming a reality. The hard times were finally paying off and I was now beginning to relish what was to come; ancient cities and the second highest road in the world. Daunting….