Published: October 9th 2009October 9th 2009
Camels to the left of me,
Jackals to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle of U-zbekistan.
A blatant rip off the Stealers Wheels' lyrics it may be, but all three statements stand true nonetheless. Why I'm here, stuck in the middle of Uzbekistan, and how I got here, well that will be revealed soon enough.
As chance would have it, there was a clown to the left of me – Guy Laliberté, the Canadian clown, space tourist and founder of Cirque du Soleil, launched into orbit from the Kazakhstan Space Centre not far from here. And there's jokers to the right of me aplenty.
I call this chapter “The Stans” but before I reached any of them, there was just the small matter of a “Jan” to get out the way first. Azerbaijan claims to lie “between two seas” – the Black and the Caspian. Though the latter is no more a sea than the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Both are enclosed inland bodies of water. Admittedly, the Caspian is somewhat larger, more saline and has ferries crossing it, but a technicality is a technicality.
There were only 2 questions at the border into
Azerbaijan. Firstly, “Have you visited Armenia?”. I hadn't, but my passage would not have been half as smooth had I done so. I won't bore you with the details of their gripe. Instead I was given a seat in the immigration office and a complimentary cup of cha. Question 2 was, “Can we ride your bike?”. So I sat sipping on loose leaf tea whilst grown-men in positions of authority giggled their way in wobbly cycle circles around the table.
In the last weeks this scenario has repeated itself time and time again. I invariably get stopped at police checkpoints, but rarely have they then asked to see my documents. No, most of the time they just want a quick pedal or to fiddle in fascination with my GPS – or “Sputnik” as I have to explain it in Russian.
It was one such incident that lead to my second crash of the trip. The first was not really a crash, more a tumble. On the second day of the entire ride, I was slowing down to a traffic light in France. I have clip-in pedals, and at that time was not accustomed to them. As I came to a
stop, I had failed to unfasten my shoes from the pedals, and I fell like a domino into the ditch. Much to the amusement of all who witnessed it. This second incident was slightly more crash-like. After some Uzbek police had finished pressing Sputnik's buttons in bewilderment, they pointed me in the right direction. A minute later one of them overtook me, and excitedly waved me leftwards. I took this as a signal to go go go, and didn't check behind me. I veered left into the front-end of a passing van. My front pannier bag acted like a fender on a boat, and cushioned the blow, and the impact rebounded me into the roadside gravel, where I slid a few yards on my side. Nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises to learn a valuable lesson - Don't blindly trust excitable traffic cops.
The roadside is abound with gravestones of traffic accident victims. The stones bear etched images of the loved ones, with the date of their perishment. You'd have thought this would act as a deterrent against dumbass driving, but still the cars race towards head-on collisions, before swerving into the smallest gap at the last second.
If that gap needs to be created by squeezing a cyclist into the verge, then so be it.
Via Zaqatala, Seki, and Lahic, lush towns in the lower Caucasian mountains, it took just 4 days to reach Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, perched on a peninsula of the oil-rich Caspian Sea. My pace was quickened by the stream of vicious, salivating dogs gnawing away at my ankles as I tried to pelt past. The dogs have tended to get more aggressive the farther east I reach – and the likelihood of encountering wolves increased too. I've resorted to carrying a whacking-stick on the frame of my bike to fend off unwanted canine attention.
Azerbaijan is a paradox, a dichotomy, a contradiction. Beer-guzzling Muslims, closely controlled capitalism, Ladas arm-wrestling with Mercedes to flex their motor muscles, scenic beaches blotted with oil rigs on the blue Caspian shores, Baku's building boom constructing out towards rural goat-herders living a life unchanged for centuries. Not Europe, not Asia, not the Middle East, Azerbaijan has influences from all.
The Caspian indicated a dead end as far as cycling was concerned. Can't go over it (Dagestan. Out of bounds); Can't go under it
(Iran. No visa, no chance of getting one); Must go across it. There are cargo ferries across the Caspian from Baku to Turmenbashi in Turkmenistan and Aktau in Kazakhstan. Again, these are by no means passenger ferries, and the regularity of departures depends totally on freight demand. But they seem happy enough to let the odd tourist hitch a ride. That's “odd” in every sense, of course.
Ferries cross several times a week to Turkmenistan, and much less frequently to Kazakhstan. Herein lay my dilemma. My 30 day Kazakh visa had been on the clock for 2 weeks already, and I only had another 2 weeks to traverse the ninth biggest country on earth.
I'd try to obtain a transit visa to Turkmenistan, scoot up to Kazakhstan, and then dive into Uzbekistan. The latter seemed best, but it meant securing two more Central Asian visas in Baku to allow onward travel. Not to mention finding a boat.
Visas for the post-Soviet 'Stans can be hard work to come by. Firstly, Turkmenistan. After eventually locating the embassy in Baku, I was told it would take 10 working days to process.
“Oh, right. Can you do it in 2?”
is a virtue, but there is a fine line between being virtuous and being taken for a mug. They just chuckled lightly and pointed to the door. I'll get my coat.
The Uzbek visa was more negotiable. Normally you would require a Letter Of Invitation for Uzbekistan. I didn't have one to hand but somehow convinced the consular that Brits don't require one – They do when applying abroad, but he took my word for it nonetheless. Instead I was asked to provide a Letter of Motivation. Now this I could do. A short paragraph of Uzbek ego-massaging, highlighting how I always wanted to travel the Silk Road, that Uzbekistan was by far the most interesting, welcoming and accommodating country in the region. Blah blah and some more motivational blah and 24 hours later I had the Uzbek visa in my passport, gave a whole-hearted handshake to the consular and my new route was opening in front of me. To round off a thoroughly productive day I was told the ferry to Aktau would leave tomorrow evening. With or without me.
It left with me. A 28 hour crossing in wild, wet and windy conditions and docking at
3am. I hung around the port until daybreak, and the sun burnt off the last of the clouds. I could see clearly now the rain was gone, and I had no obstacles in my way. Just the vast emptiness that is Kazakhstan, but finally, I was irrefutably on Asian soil.
Every time I had reached a new country to date, I could think of a reason why it was not really in Asia. Even Kazakhstan play in the European Football zone, but I'm not accepting that as evidence of European credentials. So do Russia, and Vladivostok is a hundred miles short of Japan.
“Please, you come read my blog. If it not success, I will be execute”.
Let's get the Borat references out the way early. As far as I could tell, very few Kazakh men wear mankinis, and some Kazakh women are not prostitutes. Jagshemah, these are country of Kazakhstan..... it's nice!
OK, enough already.
The Kazakhs are famed horsemen. When they're not riding their steeds, they're eating them. Horse meat is commonplace, and to be honest, I had no idea whether I was munching on mutton, beef or Desert Orchid most of the time. Kazakhstan
is a big place – the world's largest landlocked country.400 kilometres of solid riding after leaving Aktau and I hadn't even made it past the first K of Kazakhstan on my map. So instead of continuing towards the remaining 'AZAKHSTAN, I took a southeast turn to Uzbekistan.
The last day was a 90 kilometre splash and dash for the border from the town of Beyneu. It was shortly after leaving town that the tarmac ran out, and the sand track started. Into a head wind, in the middle of desert, and my thin tyres sinking into the sand, I averaged a meagre 9km/hour. It was a long day - You do the math. This part of Kazakhstan is more rugged than a Carpet World warehouse.
Before I left the UK, I sought the advice and expertise of my biking buddy as to what type of bicycle I should invest in for this trip. He spent several hours in consultation with me, and urged that a good quality, sturdy Mountain Bike was the tool for the job, even going so far as to design me a few options. I considered long and hard, before deciding I knew best and bought
a hybrid instead – bigger wheels, smoother on the roads. As I grinded and sank my way through the desert, I could hear his Italian “I toldo you so” over my shoulder. Sorry amigo.
I made the border with Uzbekistan shortly before sunset. Stamped out, stamped in and onto the small village just the other side of the border, long after dark. Knowing full well there was no guesthouse or hotel here, I asked around the market sellers anyway. Before I could say, “I'll cope without a trouser-press”, I was offered a space on the floor of one of the houses. The same tactic was failproof each and every time.
I would always try to give the host family a token thank you gift. Money can feel too clinical, and discredits the genuine gesture on their side. In Africa I would always carry a bunch of pens to act as thank you gifts, donations or even bargaining chips. I was told by a guy who'd cycled this way before that toothbrushes are appreciated in Central Asia. It's not hard to see why. Dental hygiene is clearly lacking. And that's coming from a Brit, so it must be bad. Where
teeth aren't simply missing, they are replaced by outlandishly ostentatious gold teeth. I'm told it's a status symbol, but I couldn't help thinking there was an epidemic of James Bond villains.
....."Here I am, stuck in the middle of Uzbekistan"
Specifically the desert of Karakalpakstan in the northwest of the country. In front of me lay 400 more kilometres of desert scrubland before the next town of any note. At least the roads are “paved” on this side – in the loosest possible sense.
Given I had very little else to do with my time other than ride, I covered the distance in 3 days, emerging the other side after 72 hours of sun, sand, sweat and solitude. For once, I had judged (fluked) the season in my favour. September was the best month to do such a ride – the days not being too hot, and the nights not being too cold. Still quite hot, and quite cold, but bearable. I only had to camp the one night in the middle of nowhere – which is one of those experiences that is a little daunting at the time with nothing other than stars and distant unfamiliar
noises for company (camels and jackals, no doubt), but once the sunlight announces the new day, the secondary memory is much more satisfying than the primary experience.
Uzbekistan is another of those countries with just the one road of any significance. The sort where I can use my Pocket World Atlas as a road map. The route was one of the major branches of the Silk Road, and so the towns along the way, such as Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand have huge historical significance. The cities architecture and history is closely associated with Timur, a descent from the family of Genghis Khan. Timur conquered and restored the Mongol empire and under his emirship this region blossomed. His legacy and name is positively Godlike around here. Thus introducing myself as Tim brings great privileges in Uzbekistan. Like being called Gandhi in India I imagine.
As I moved along “the” road, I ignored the turn off for the Aral Sea. Until a decade or so ago the lake would have been just 100 kilometres from the main road. A mere day trip, quite literally. But the Soviet re-direction of the source water to feed cotton fields has resulted in the
Aral Sea reducing to 10% its original size. Moynaq, the town that used to mark the shoreline is now just a graveyard of beached fishing vessels. Teenagers who live in beachside huts have never seen the waters and talk about the sea as this fabled landscape their parents waffle on about. The Aral Sea's days may be numbered, but the product of the booming cotton industry has consequently been stringed out. Of course, the Aral “Sea” is also not a sea. Uzbekistan is a long, long way from any ocean. It is one of only 2 double-landlocked countries in the world* – ie. Surrounded by countries that are themselves landlocked.
From the once-was-Aral Sea, one last day through the desert, stopping off at several Qalas – sand/stone fortresses that litter the Uzbek desert. And I do not use the term “litter” lightly. Heaps of garbage scattered around trashed walls, they are just bit rubbish too. That night was spent in an Uzbek yurt camp beside Ayaz Qala, the best qala of the bunch. An authentic local traditional Uzbek yurt camp – you know the type – designed for, and catered for tourists. Whether traditional Uzbeks had hot running water,
power sockets, and a separate toilet block for their yurts, I cannot say for sure. But I did have the feeling that my yurt was missing a certain authentic something. Diseased rats and a sickly child crouched in an overcrowded corner, perhaps.
Trust me, I do not want to be snobbish and dismissive about tourist-catered facilities. They serve a purpose, are mutually beneficial to both parties, and allow us western types our necessary comforts whilst allowing ourselves to pretend we're roughing it. I, for one, need these comforts every so often in order to recharge the batteries. Both my Duracells and my blood cells.
The next day was my birthday, a day much like any other. I stopped for lunch in a chaikhana (a teahouse) where I had bought a piece of stale cake and placed one of my tea-candles on top of it.
I completed the ride to Khiva early afternoon. I would tell anyone who cared to listen – and many who didn't – that it was my birthday. It was amazing how many extra favours came my way. I am considering playing that card more often. That evening in Khiva, the family I was boarding with
realised it was my birthday, and rang ahead to the best restaurant in town. I was given a feast for a khan, and only paid for the beers. They even brought out a chocolate cake, and I had the whole restaurant singing a Uzbek festive song in my honour. I said my humble thanks and said they really shouldn't have put in so much effort just for lil' old me. But secretly I was dead pleased they did.
Khiva is a preserved historic city recognised by UNESCO, which is slightly more compact than Bukhara, a preserved historic city recognised by UNESCO, which is not as grand as Samarkand, a preserved.... yep, you've guessed it. The Big Three are abundant with magnificently mosaiced mosques, mausoleums and minarets. If the Ukraine can be defined by the multitude of gold-domed cathedrals, then Uzbekistan can be defined by the multitude of blue-domed mosques. They will tell you they're “azure” as it sounds more regal. But they're blue. In the right light, some are pushing turquoise at best. It's like my first car, a Fiesta, according to Ford it was “coral sand” colour. According to everyone else, it was beige.
These 3 cities
mark the tourist-heart of Central Asia and allowed me to meet loads of other travellers, including a few other cyclists, and pick up, pass out hints, tips, used maps, unused currency, etc. Of the people coming the other way, those who had routed through Tajikistan spoke most fondly of it. You can buy all the guidebooks on Amazon, but none come close to first hand accounts and recommendations. So after a few Sarbast beers I decided I'd change my plans for a 23rd time. I also had my first nights out and like-minded conversations for near on a month. Not withstanding the daily dialogue and arguments I have with myself.
Come what may I needed to go to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, whatever my next step might be. Whether to secure a Tajik visa, a transit Kazakh visa, or keep moving on to the Fergana Valley and into Kyrgyzstan. It was a 2 day ride from Samarkand to Tashkent. Nearing the end of the first day I was starting to look for accommodation, when a giant of a guy standing beside the road started beckoning me to slow down;
“England, England, come here five minute”.
“Nyet, I must
“Yes, yes, five minute. Tree minute then”.
I slowed to a halt beside him.
“Come, come. I am boxing champion of Asia. I fought Audrey Harrison. You see my medals”.
“OK, tree minutes”
So I followed him into an Olympic sports complex and he showed me trophies, medals and insisted I took photos of me and him beside them. He was obviously a celebrity who had no celebrity recognition here. No Heat magazine or Question of Sport appearances to keep him in the spotlight. Just a passing white guy. He gave me a signed photo of himself, I said my excuses and went to leave.
“You go to Tashkent?” he beamed
“I drive you now. Let's go!”
How do you say no to a heavyweight boxing champ? So for 2 hours and 150 kilometres out of his way, Lazizbek Zokirov drove me to the edge of Tashkent, before I spotted a cheap looking hotel and suggested I'd jump out there. I wanted to show him my appreciation, but did not dare offend by offering him a toothbrush. But it was he giving me gifts. He signed a huge hardback book of Uzbek Olympians to give me
and insisted I took a watermelon too. A hardback book and a watermelon are not the best appendages to a well balanced bicycle, but what harm could they do for now? And without so much as a drawn out goodbye, he happily turned around a drove all the way back to whence he came. I Googled him soon after, and he did indeed box “Audrey” Harrison, losing on points. He never once mentioned losing. Not that I asked.
I was in Tashkent, but with no set idea what direction I would be leaving. But tomorrow is another day. Maybe tomorrow, I'll wanna settle down. Until tomorrow, I'll just keep movin' on.
That's hobo style.
*Try Lichenstein, if you're still wondering.
There are more photos below