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Published: July 30th 2014
Lonliest stretch of desert highway.
First car in two hours.
A single, white Lada.
Skinny red coffin on top.
It was beautiful.
Experiences may carry a wealth of great potential lessons, however, the whole "best teacher" assertion might be pushing it a bit far. At the least, they add weight to those lessons and drive the point home, especially in the minds of those of us who seemingly have yet to shed the robust cranial structure of our ancestors. Indeed, we are not always the best students and what we take away from our experiences is certainly a product of our receptiveness as much as it is a function of the experiences themselves. We have sweated out sweltering heat before, crossed long stretches without water, laid awake sweating in our tent, and lived to tell about it. Through many of these times, the great teacher that we call reality has been there shaking its finger. We have seen it written all over peoples faces, on broken bicycles, between the dots of heat rashes, and from those shockingly hollow looks that reflect back out of mirrors. We have felt it in our crampy legs, our dry throats, and our aching heads. But lessons are sometimes hard learned and our final days out on the steppe stood to remind us of points
we wanted to take away. In several instances we took a moment to stop everything and realize it, together. In a few of these moments of clarity, we actually had such profound feelings that we found it prudent to make a permanent agreement about decisions-to-come, and shake on it. Whether or not this will prevent such sweaty tales from filling the monologues of our future will be yet another test of (or testament to) our hardheaded nature.
The old stories of the silk road still haunt the psyche of the people who live here and those who travel from far and wide to see for themselves the places where the spirit of human endeavor reared its head in such vehement form. These are the lands where such figures as Timur (Tamerlane) and Genghis Khan rode for months at the head of massive, mounted armies to claim spoils and burn civilizations. Where long caravans of traders, thieves, maniacs, traffickers, and travelers mixed, mingled, fought, made love, and died; ostensibly in the name of conquest and capitol. Doubtlessly there was another human-all-too-human motive in the mix. Just as Homer implies that the destiny of man is to sail over the next
horizon in search of foreign spoils, the tail of the silk road implies a terrestrial form of the same epic journey, albeit across an ocean of sand and grassy steppe. Walking and riding through this region, with only the wind as a soundtrack, it does not take much of an imagination to hear the beating of a thousand horses' hooves.
The valleys of the Amu-Darya and the Syr Darya, and the sandy stretches of desert between them are historically referred to as Transoxiana. It was here where the early Turkic tribes of the vast, eastern steppes first encountered the Arabs. The concurrent exchange of information transferred new understandings of mathematics and mechanics, along with agricultural practice that would empower the nomadic tribes to settle the oasis. Another outcome was the Turkic adoption/adaptation of Islam, which has had far reaching effects into modern times over an area the stretches from the Balkans to central China.
Our entry into the area of Uzbekistan was heralded by an extreme heatwave in a region famous for extreme heat. By the time we rolled into Bukhara the heat had subsided into the mid forties at midday, making at least the evenings a pleasant
time to stroll. After two days of exploring the touristy side of the city we were longing for some good old banal scenery, and so we went off into the modern part of town to enjoy cheap kebabs and watch children play in the park. In places like this, life begins after sundown. Daytime heat drives all but the heartiest of tourists into the shade, but it is not unusual to see parades of local families out and about until after midnight. Really, the touristy side of Bukhara was pretty tolerable but we have a limited attention span for such places. Truth be told, missions to find alcohol for our stove, cheap eats, and other incidentals often give us the most joy as we meet and greet with a society who has its own mission: namely one that does not include trying to sell things to us. In these situations, nobody cares about us and yet, when we are heard speaking a bit of Russian, the inevitable "where are you from" question comes up and a real conversation often follows. This is our brand of traveling - just doing ordinary things in ordinary places.
When we rolled out of
Bukhara it was 0350 and the first light of day was still below the flat horizon. A bit of construction and narrow lanes quickly gave way to a fairly maintained four-lane road as we travelled through the oasis of the Zeravshan River that connects Bukhara to Samarkand. By this point in Uzbekistan we were in a constant state of deja vu. The desert/oasis scene was so similar to what we had encountered two years ago in the Uigher regions of western China. The people also bore a striking resemblance to Uighers and (of course) spoke a similar language. We had noticed the obvious similarities between the ethnic cousins repeatedly in Uzbekistan but seeing them in this landscape, so similar to Xinjiang, really brought back memories. Another striking feature of the demographic in the oasis was the frequent lack of a second language. So many of the people we met barely spoke a word of Russian. Many Uzbeks posited that this was a result of some sort of collective desire to distance themselves from Russia and draw closer to the west. To us this seemed odd given how many Uzbeks depend on either working in Russia, or receiving diaspora remittances from
relatives working in Russia, to pay the bills. Besides, it is not as if the void is being filled with English, Chinese, German, French, or some other random second language. If anything, meeting monolingual people in such a multiethnic part of the world pointed out to us how many people spend their lives in the field and have limited access to education. This is understandable when one considers the importance of agricultural production in the few arable regions of central Uzbekistan, but still unfortunate (and ironic) given the superior education that was available to many of their elders during soviet times. Fortunately for us, this did not in any way hamper the Uzbek spirit of hospitality. We were warmly greeted by so many people that it was tiring at times. More so than in the western part of Uzbekistan, people in the oasis have seen more cyclists and have a lot more desire to interact. Of course this can become a bit irksome at times but these times are when the bicycle and diplomacy come together and it would be seemingly heartless to not oblige some of the folks we meet.
When we reached Samarkand the heat was throbbing
and Allison had a handsome heat rash presenting bilaterally on her lower legs. Our appetites had wained and we needed an air conditioner to cool us down to normal proportions. We found a hotel operated by a smart, worldly fellow who spoke a quiver of languages fluently and had studied in the US. His perspective straddled cultures and it was nice to hear his take on the modern Uzbek state after reading so much criticism about it. Many of these critical sentiments have seemed one sided, penned by the hands of those who hold democracy and the free market as something as inalienable as the breath of life itself. These are the guidebook authors of today; quick to criticize anything that does not allow the pervasive monstrosity of the western style market economy to permeate into every nook and cranny of the planet. This view does not seem so out of place when the source is western media or some other minion of the populous corporate, but when it comes from professional travelers, it is hard to separate it from inane narcissism. Our hotelier was keen to dispel a few premises of such lines of logic, and we found his
points sensible, if a bit overly confident in the powers that be.
For readers unfamiliar with modern Uzbek politics, it is in many ways a tale of one man, and his strong handed policies. Islam Karimov has been the president of Uzbekistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is a typical Central Asian administration with a long rap sheet of shady elections, human rights violations, the ubiquitous massacre, and suppression of opposition powers. The past two decades have also been marked with tight import regulations, and stringent policing. All of this might seem like a recipe for a nightmare from an American perspective, but when one looks closely at the people and the history of the last century, the pieces seem a bit more in place.
"People in this region lived under the control of communism for more than a generation. They cannot make a transition to civil liberties as the citizens of western countries have enjoyed for years," expressed our hotelier. "We are an old civilization but a young nation. Democracy is not something that we can yet understand well enough to make safe and effective use of it". To be honest, it is hard
to say that westerners understand democracy and the rights and responsibilities it implies. "Look at Kazakhstan" he added, "there we have a market gone wild (i.e. free)". He pointed out that Uzbek citizens often complain that they are restricted to buying items produced domestically while their Kazakh counterparts are free to purchase a wider range of foreign goods. The result is a stronger, steadier growth margin in sustainable production markets, where as the big neighbor to the north is more fully at the mercy of the oil economy. Moreover, for the first time, we had the opportunity to hear the opinion of someone who favored a more heavily regulated market in favor of a boom-and-bust economy. After quite a few experiences in former Soviet states, we could see the logic to his argument.
Another issue he was willing to address was the notion of Uzbekistan as a "police state". This is an idea we have seen expressed by many travelers and authors alike and it seemed a bit odd given the perfunctory nature of the policing we witnessed. The topic was of a particular interest to us as we had been essentially in violation of federal laws since our
first week in the country and we were about to exit in a few days. Uzbekistan has rather strict laws about "registration" that apply to foreigners and domestic travelers alike. Essentially, all persons entering the country are required to register within three days of entry with immigration officials, and continue to do so wherever they stay. There are all sorts of stipulations about not actually needing to register in places where only a night or two are spent, but some travelers have been busted and deported for failure to produce a registration slip for every night in the country. Citizens of Uzbekistan are also required to register when they spend more than two nights in any one place out of their home region. There are also a number of police checkpoints along the road throughout the country staffed by bored policemen asking questions and occasionally conducting random searches.
This might seem a bit draconian but many of the old USSR countries apply such rules and they are rarely hard and fast regulations. Our hotelier again posited that the total freedoms of habeas corpus we enjoy in the west are not necessarily the best idea in a country trying to
curve its role in harboring extremist groups, drug/human trafficking, and other associated nasties. He also pointed out that the growing wariness of Russia had been heightened by recent events in Ukraine and other breakaway republics like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. This all seemed reasonable enough but our experience with these authorities was (and would further come to be more so) that it was a mostly unprofessional, untrained, and useless vestige. We had been running checkpoints, even when loudspeakers called out to us in English to stop. Nobody ever chased us, and we weren't feeling defiant, we just didn't feel like gearing down. When we did stop it was your classic good ole' boy scene with lots of hearty laughter and good natured suggestions about where to eat and what to see. At the entry customs point we left several large articles on our bikes simply because we didn't feel like removing them and our med kit was so vast that we never made it to the injectable drugs and their associated peripherals. They just got bored, asked us if we had any guns, and sent us on. The idea that those boy scouts would actually be able to
detect (much less stop) an offensive on the behalf of Russia or another similar power is totally naive. But if it lets the people sleep at night, so be it. It occurred to us at times that one nice function of the institution was job creation in rural areas. The staff at these checkpoints had jobs which required a basic amount of thought and sobriety in landscapes where herding sheep would have been the alternative. It seemed like a decent way to trickle down central funds to those communities, if nothing else. Coming from the US where the police often come off as scared, rude soldiers who carry a small arsenal and operate under the threat of total physical domination, Uzbekistan seems far from the "police state" moniker that has been pinned on it so often. We are fully cognizant that things were a lot more corrupt towards travelers only a few years ago, but we have to wonder if many of the horror stories we have heard might have included an unwillingness on the part of the traveler to engage in a bit of friendly banter with those bored roadside cops. On this side of the Bosphorus, rhyme seems
I think I'm turning pachyderm,
I think I'm turning pachyderm,
I really think so.
to govern more than reason.
It would be callous of us to insinuate that the good people of Uzbekistan do not deserve progress. The current government is doubtlessly one of the most corrupt in the non-African world, and many Uzbeks live in the same state of hapless poverty that befell them in 1991. The president's daughter has become the brunt of public hatred following a long stint as a wealth-flaunting fashionista and has recently been jailed, reportedly by the president himself. None of this should come as a surprise to those familiar with the policies of the Central Asian states at large. Kazakhstan has been operating under the strong arm of a wealthy, aging ruler since 1991 as well. These situations are unfortunate but, as our man in Samarkand asserted, it is unlikely that the people of these countries will be able to grab the reigns of democracy any time soon, and a stout hand might be the lesser of evils at this point. "We are a people who will benefit in our current situation from strong leadership, even though few of us agree with everything the president does," he said. "But I do not expect anybody from the
west to understand that, they are as governed by their circumstances as we are by ours..."
After a few days of eating we headed north towards Tashkent with our usual dawn patrol start. Now it was really
hot and the forecast did not look good. On day three we decided to leave the oasis in order to avoid the metropolis of Tashkent, where many travelers have reported problems with registration issues. We also were not excited to see, or ride through, another city. On our map, the road in Kazakhstan looked small and remote and the border crossing was reportedly rarely used by foreigners. We made it to the border post early on day three and crossed without a hitch. The Uzbeks had never seen a US passport and the Kazakhs had never seen a five-year visa. We crossed without a hint of trouble and nobody so much as inquired about our registrations. The post was probably the most disorganized we have ever seen. People were running in all directions scratching their heads, the crowd was impatient, and the guards did not even have magazines for their weapons. It was a circus, and much to our delight, nobody seemed
to give a damn about us.
On the other side the trees opened up onto the barren steppe and the heat intensified. We stopped to chat with a friendly store owner who gave us water and made a lot of jokes. The mentality in Kazakhstan was notably different and the humor waxed cynical. Over the next few days of open country riding the heat became immense. We asked locals if this was normal and were repeatedly told that it was actually hotter than anyone could remember. Our thermometers were just below 50 but people laughed at these numbers, saying that they were seeing 55 on theirs. We rode along on a strangely busy road with thirty year old pavement for three more days en route to Shymkent. Occasionally a gas station would have aircon but mostly we just cowered beneath trees and tried to replenish fluids with massive oral intakes of water and cola. It was a losing battle and Allison's heat rashes were looking pretty rough. In the evenings we would take a copious amount of fluids to camp with us and consume them but it made only a minor difference in the color of our urine. For
"fun" we added Mecca and Dubai to our daily list of weather briefings and found the prognosis to be several degrees cooler there than in southern Kazakhstan.
Climbing the final grade into Shymkent, our cyclocomputer thermometers read 49.8. The hotel said that it was actually 56 but who really cares. We found the old Intourist hulk to be nicely restored and best of all, air conditioned. Allison stood in the cool lobby and checked us in while I drew Kazakh tenge from the ATM outside. The man in front of me was quite frustrated with the slowness of the machine, ditto for those waiting behind. We all stood there in the direct sun, waiting for the slow machine to respond to each entry. Finally I grew so hot that I stepped into the small piece of shade with the customer at the machine and started a conversation. There is no privacy associated with this process here and he obviously thought nothing of it. Imagine: you are at an ATM when a man twice your size, covered in smelly, gritty rags, wearing a beard as big as Rasputin steps into the one square meter of space with you and just
starts talking with a strange accent. The guy was obliging though, and he seemed to need someone to vent his frustrations to anyway. "This is so typical, you know? Our whole society is like this, this whole country is kaput!" He said in a cynically humorous tone. "Just look" he added, "the streets are filled with fancy cars, there is all of this new construction, but really, we have nothing, Kazakhstan is already finished!" "Every country has to finish at some point," I coldly added. He looked up at me, seemingly ready to cry. I will admit it was an incredibly callous statement, but when he started laughing, I had to laugh as well. Then we looked at the overdressed, unhappy line behind us....and laughed even harder.
By the time he was finished several people had crowded around us eager to try to push their cards into the ATM before I could get mine in. But my elbows are sharp and my new friend ran interference while I thrust my card into the machine. A few people sighed as I began the long voyage to a withdrawal. My buddy stayed around to chat while I pulled out my money
and he translated from Russian to Kazakh for a small group of curious student types that had gathered to check out our bikes. It was so hot that I thought I would certainly see a heat stroke in the crowd at any moment. Finally, after about five minutes of "Please Wait While Your Transaction Is Being Processed", The machine spilled out the cash and then returned my card millimeter by millimeter. A strong looking lad in a muscle shirt seemed to have the upper hand on the queue for next contestant, but an old lady in massive "Jackie O-O-O" shades faked left and cut him off without a flinch. A straight shooter, that one. A real expert at the game.
By this time Allison was back in the doorway and we grabbed our bikes to make the awkward move into the hotel. The young man who had been out-carded by the old babushka brought over several of his friends and we all posed for a sweaty picture. He seemed consoled and we bid the crowd farewell as we melted into the world of luxurious air conditioning. Ten minutes later we had cold waters and more in the freezer, a
few chicken samsas, and two frosty mugs of locally brewed ale. Paradise Found! Nikita Khrushchev would have been rolling over in his grave.
We decided to stay in Shymkent until the heatwave ended. We spent most of that time in air conditioned museums, air conditioned cafes, our air conditioned hotel room, and air conditioned shops. On a trip to the local mall to score a beard trimmer (a "trip" in every
sense of the word) we watched, mesmerized, as a group of children perfected their spirals and leaps on the local ice rink. We did not want to be on the ice, we wanted to be
the ice. The proud display of new money is everywhere in Kazakhstan, lending credence to the thoughts of our buddy in Samarkand that most were not ready for a free market in the CIS. Of course, look at the silly things that westerners buy to keep up with their neighbors and one might come to think that nobody is capable of such restraint.
Finally the heat broke and with much less hair we climbed up out of Shymkent and into the higher steppe. The forecast had been correct and the temperatures barely
rose above 35. That night, with the westernmost reaches of the snowcapped Tian Shan in the distance, we used sleeping bags for the first time in weeks. As we approached the Kyrgyz border, the mountains loomed over us and our hearts melted. It is hard to describe what it feels like to leave the sanctity of the hills, and equally difficult to put into words the feeling of exaltation when they again rise above the horizon. On the first night that we camped at their feet, we sat for hours in a field staring at the snow, the ridges, the summits, and the massive alluvial fans that spread out below. We imagined every line up, down, and across and reveled in the idea that mountains would not be out of our sight for some time to come. That night the alpenglow, always like a gift, seemed somehow even more special. After all of those hot, sandy days in the desert, every line of pink snow seemed to spell out "Welcome Home".
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