This is why I cycle Uzbekistan!

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February 16th 2014
Published: February 16th 2014
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80%!o(MISSING)f Uzbekistan is covered by desert and I knew I would be doing a lot of cycling in empty areas where tedious barren scenery unfolds for hundreds of kilometers. I already crossed the huge Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang Province, and although I am very happy and proud to have done it on my bike, I can’t say this was the most thrilling part of my trip. So when in Samarqand I realized I could head to the mountains one more time before entering the desert towards Bukhara, I got excited! I could go south to Shahrisabz, visit Amir Timur’s hometown (Central Asian ruler in the 14thcentury) and hit the mountains on the way: I would kill 2 birds with one stone. It was the perfect plan for me! Plus, my Portuguese friends Nuno and Joana had ridden this way from Tajikistan and they got to cycle up and down the pass a day after it snowed. They showed me pictures of the mountains: it looked absolutely lovely! After arranging to meet Nuno and Joana again in Bukhara, I bid farewell to Samarqand and its turquoise domes.

It had rained the night before and the sky was still grey when I left town. This should have been indication enough that it was going to be a tough day…The road was muddy and bumpy and uphill but there was hardly any traffic. 10 minutes after Samarqand, it started raining and I had to put on my raincoat. Up in the mountain it must have been raining for a few days already because there was almost no sign of snow, except at the very top of the pass (altitude 1788m). It didn’t take me very long to get to the top (only less than 50km) but I went through some very tiny villages where people were out praying, in spite of the rain. Since there is no plaza in town, they all sat down on the sidewalk and on the road. Women were all wearing a white veil on their heads, and men were wearing the traditional dark blue-purple coat and Muslim square hat. I am not sure what the occasion was but it seemed like the entire village was out (Friday praying?). I didn’t take any picture out of respect. Everyone was staring at me… a white guy riding a bike uphill in the rain, in the winter time on this small countryside road … Farther down the road I passed some men who were cutting meat out of some hanging dead sheep. I took a few pictures from the top of the pass and then found a place to stop for a few minutes. I changed into a dry shirt and put on my sweater, my polar jacket, my wind-stopper, gloves, hat, everything for the downhill to Shahrisabz.

In Samarkand I was told that it was impossible to withdraw money anywhere in Uzbekistan and this made me worry. So I decided to camp as much as possible in order to save up. I got down the mountain faster than expected, so I set camp outside Shahrisabz around 3pm and read in the sun. That’s right, the sun came out as soon as I was done with the mountain… It’s a shame because the place would have looked so much better (on my pictures too!) if it had been sunny. I put up my tent maybe 30m from the main road behind a little grass mound. I could see some houses down the road but I thought it would be a quiet night, hidden from everyone who might pass by… Yeah right! There are very few places in Asia where you can actually be all alone! That one night a bunch of kids found my tent. I got out and started chatting. A few minutes later a dozen kids were out around me. We sat down and one of them (a young shepherd) made a fire from dry grass we all pulled out. A kid went to his home to fetch a Russian-English phrase book and that’s how we were able to talk for hours. These kids all dream to become football players… they also get their ears pulled by their teachers… They plan on getting married at the age of 20… and many kids told me their Dad was working in Russia. 2 dads came to see what their kids were up to and they of course invited me to their home, but I declined because it was already dark, and it would have been a pain to pack everything again. Some of the moms sent me some fruit and some tea. It was nice. I asked them to sing some Tajik songs (most people around Shahrisabk ar Tajik Uzbek) and I also sang some French ones. You should
in Shahrisabzin Shahrisabzin Shahrisabz

Visiting Ak-Saray Palace
have seen the kids dancing around the fire. I was stupid coz’ I only took pictures instead of filming. I asked them about their school and we agreed we’d walk to their school together at 8am the next day. It was a lot of fun! I met their teachers and I got to see where they spend their days. The building in itself was not bad at all, fresh paint, big black boards, lots of desks, no uniform. I had thought of a lesson just in case their teacher asked me to teach them a few things in English, but the opportunity didn’t come up. I really had a lovely time with these kids. People were so hospitable and the smiles on their faces: priceless! This was definitely one of the highlights of my trip in Uzbekistan.

I got back on the road and visited Amir Timur’s hometown, Shahrisabz. I read from my guidebook that this little town probably put Samarqand itself in the shade at one point in history. Timur gave Shahrisabz its present name ( Tajik for “Green Town”) and turned it into an extended family monument. I visited Ak-Saray Palace, which is actually mostly destroyed. There is only one 40m-tall tower left but it is entirely covered in beautiful blue mosaics. Outside the palace there is a statue of Timur, and there were dozens of people taking wedding pictures there with their relatives/guests. A short guy with a funny-looking hat and an even funnier-looking bike (Harley-Davidson bicycle?:-) approached me. He smelled of alcohol at 9am… but he insisted on having one of the wedding photographers take a picture of us. He said he would pay him for 2 shots… and as the photographer asked us to wait 1 hour for him to develop the 2 photos, I was stuck with this guy! He asked me to follow him into town to visit the sites. Fair enough. We both rode into Shahrisabz and visited Kok-Gumbaz Mosque (built in 1437) and its gorgeous blue dome (another beautiful one!) and then we rode our bikes to Khazrati-Imam Mausoleum, which is a tomb for Timur’s eldest son, and another crypt where Amir Timur was supposed to be buried. My guide was an interesting fellow… he was spitting green tobacco everywhere. He got in trouble for taking a leak against a tree at the mosque… We rode by the outdoor market
in Qarshi in Qarshi in Qarshi

attracted quite a crowd this time!
and even stopped at the only guesthouse in town so that I could pick up Joana’s dirty sweat pants she had forgotten there a few days ago (it took a lot of miming for them to understand what I wanted!). Eventually the photographer never printed the pictures for my short friend. My improvised guide asked me to wait and wait but I had to go. I still had more than 150km before Qarshi where I had planned on spending the night. I asked the young man to email me so that I could send him the pictures of us together… and yes, he asked me to give him my helmet in the end… If any of you reading this right now ever thinks of visiting Uzbekistan, you have to spend some time in the Shahrisabz area. People have the most welcoming smiles in the country. I literally spent 2 days of non-stop waving and smiling back at people on the road. It was “hello!” and “Salam!” all the time: kids, grandfathers, truckers, young men, even the ladies were cheering for me on the bike! It felt amazing but I was very pleased to find a quiet place by the side of the road to pitch my tent and enjoy a silent evening in the desert. Far away I could see a refinery with flames going up in the night sky… these were my romantic candles for another night of noodle soup! I locked my bike to a pipeline (This is Uzbekistan!) and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over the desert. Life is good!

In Qarshi the next morning I stopped at a hardware market to get some water (don’t ask!) and I was quickly surrounded by a hundred men (all dressed in dark clothes). It was a bit intimidating but after a few jokes about how the French can headbutt an Italian at a World Cup Final, we had a good laugh and all took pictures: another memorable event for me in Uzbekistan. I spent the rest of the day riding through small towns and desert in between: bare yellow sand, a bit of bush, a small town, a shop, a few kids following me on their bikes, cotton fields, more sand under the infinite sky, more “hellos!”, more students running out to be able to shake my hand or look at my bike. That southern part of Uzbekistan is so different from touristy Samarqand or Bukhara. I loved it!

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up around Samarqandup around Samarqand
up around Samarqand

Donkeys are everywhere in Uzbekistan

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