UZBEKISTAN - THE FADED GLORY OF THE SILK ROAD
Uzbekistan is a country with a fascinating history, and to me it is the most defining part of Central Asia. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur; some of history’s greatest conquerors have marauded through this region. The great silk road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara lie before me, as does the long desert route north towards the Caspian Sea. It is extremely difficult to find anywhere to draw out money using a bank card in Uzbekistan, so I change over some US dollars at the border. Due to massive inflation over the past few decades, the currency situation in Uzbekistan is now somewhat ridiculous. The largest denomination bank note is 5000 som, which converts to less than one dollar US, and most of the time people have only the 1000 som notes.
Changing over $50 therefore leaves me with an enormous stack of notes the size of my head. Uzbekistan has two conversion rates, the (apparently delusional) ‘official’ rate set by the government and the black market rate which reflects the actual strength of the currency and gets you around twice as many som for your dollar. I therefore change over my money with a shady looking guy just out of the gate, a process made slower by the need to painstakingly count out over 300 individual 1000 som notes to make sure I’m not being ripped off. Wallet sales must be at an all time low in a country where any big purchases would require turning up with your cash in a wheelbarrow.
From the border it is only a short ride into Uzbekistan’s capital city of Tashkent. Destroyed by Genghis Khan in the early 13th century, it now feels very modern and its soviet influences are clear to see. I check in to a hostel and spend a day exploring the city, enjoying its many bazaars and parks and getting the front derailleur on my bike fixed up by a Russian guy at one of the markets. The following day I pedal out of town into the countryside. Tashkent is a nice enough place but it does not have the feeling I am looking for in Uzbekistan, for that I am rich with anticipation for Samarkand and the golden road west.
I enjoy a glorious afternoon’s ride, racing with tractors up and down the undulating hills and looking out with interest at the surrounding farmland. People seem to be everywhere, families and children walking and working in the fields, with horses and donkey carts everywhere I look. Everyone seems happy and friendly, even the lone camel that snorts as I pass. I feel incredibly contented as I ride into a spectacular sunset, the gentle blue sky fading into a soft orange. For the first time in a long time I have difficultly finding a camp site; as with southeast Asia there is very little unused land.
Things change quickly the next day; the night was cold and unpleasant and the morning ushers in a truly miserable day. I pack up a wet tent and ride out into the rain. The landscape flattens out and looks sullen and gloomy beneath the greyness of the sky. It is an excellent reminder of the sometimes bipolar nature of bicycle travel; on top of the world one day and then feeling utterly fed up the next, the silver lining is the knowledge that no matter how bad things seem they will always turn around sooner or later. For today though I am destined to struggle. Just after lunchtime I am standing on the pedals to get over a hill when my left pedal suddenly snaps, giving me a painful wedgie as I fall hard onto my saddle. The pedal has snapped off completely, the metal completely shorn through leaving the thread stuck in the crank.
I have no spare pedal so I have little choice but to ride awkwardly on through the rain with just one leg for almost 20km until I finally reach a garage. After much amusement at my strange one legged pedalling motion and my drowned rat appearance, the men explain with sign language that they do not have any pedals to sell me, but they kindly offer to drive me on to the next town where after a long search I am able to find a basic pedal for just under a dollar. They drive me back to the garage and help me get the new pedal fitted. It is a big relief to be able to ride on with both legs as even 20km with just one pedal left my right leg burning and exhausted.
The rain gets progressively worse and the temperature drops to close to freezing. The road is busy and unpleasant; I can see almost nothing around me through the thick grey cloud. Then I get a puncture, which I have to repair with numb fingers on the roadside. I ride on until I get a second puncture, then push my bike off the road to shelter by a small hut to patch it. It is the way of the world that punctures always seem to happen on those days when the weather is miserable and it is most inconvenient, although possibly it is just because when the road is flowing like a river it is almost impossible to see pieces of glass to avoid them.
While I am fixing the puncture an Uzbek man comes along wearing what looks like a hugely impressive and ornate dressing gown but is in fact the Uzbek national dress, the chapan, coloured in a deep regal purple and topped off by one of the square black fur hats often associated with soviets and soviet places. He gestures that I am welcome to stay the night in his hut, which it seems he is not himself living in but is using for storage. I am indescribably grateful to be able to get out of the rain and am soon snuggled up in my sleeping bag listening to the rain lash down outside.
My new friend comes back in the morning to gift me the largest watermelon I have ever seen, which tastes incredible and keeps me going for the rest of the day. The rain seems to have exhausted itself so I ride out into the sunshine, finally leaving behind the endless scrubland and crossing some more mountains before passing through some gorgeous woodland and camping in a muddy field overlooking a snowy range to the south. The next morning I pack up my ice encrusted tent and ride the remaining 60km Samarkand, finally completing the golden journey and fulfilling a dream I have had for years.
Stopping at the crest of a hill I can see the city laid out before me, with several beautiful blue-domed mosques quickly catching my eye. I fight through the traffic to the centre of the city, making my way straight to the Registan, Samarkand’s famous trio of madrasahs. The heart of the ancient city of Samarkand and the centre of Timur’s empire, the Registan to me is a symbol of Central Asia and represents all that is exciting and glorious about the silk road. Since I first learned of it years ago I have wanted to come here; it always seemed so romantic and far away, an exotic place in an exotic land. From Samarkand the border to Afghanistan is only a few hundred kilometres south, it really is the heart of Central Asia. And now here I am at last; to have arrived on a bicycle makes this moment feel so much more special.
All to often reality fails to live up to imagination, but I am delighted to find that Samarkand and its Registan are everything that I have dreamed of. The Registan is incredible, and I spend hours simply gazing up at it in wonder, coming back at night time to find it lit up by spotlights. I tend to be far more moved by natural wonders than man made ones, so the extent to which the Registan captivates me says wonders as to its majesty. The rest of the city is beautiful too, with many more stunning sites to explore, and it seems to have kept its ancient character, the legacy of the silk road still in evidence.
I am tempted to stay for a few more days but time is fast becoming a precious commodity with winter coming early to Central Asia, so with some regret I spend a final morning in front of the Registan then take the road out of town towards Bukhara. Although there is not much to see but endless steppe, the 280km journey proves challenging as the road is in terrible condition and on the second day I come down with serious food poisoning for the first time since China. Ignoring the stabbing pains in my stomach I keep going, making it into Bukhara on the day before my 26th birthday.
The first thing I notice coming into Bukhara is how quiet it is. There is almost no traffic and the city is far smaller than I had expected; I am in the centre almost before I know it. I check into a hostel for a couple of nights and set off to explore. The old city has undergone a major restoration process and is now in excellent condition. Perhaps it is because I am here in the off season, with winter closing in, but the old city feels like a bit of a ghost town. There are still a few touts around, and a few vendors selling souvenirs, but hardly any tourists and the streets are quiet. When I head out to one of the bazaars I am again struck by its relatively small size. Even the markets in Samarkand seemed fairly small, not even close to the endless sprawl of the Osh bazaar in Bishkek – Uzbekistan’s silk road days as a centre for the worlds trade have long passed by.
I spend a relaxed birthday in the city, heading out in the evening for a night of drinking beer and smoking shisha in a small bar. A group of English speaking Uzbeks tell me wistfully that there is little future in Bukhara for young people and that many are moving away to the capital of Tashkent where there are more opportunities They also talk of their government and its record of human rights abuses – Uzbekistan is one of the worlds greatest contributors to modern slavery with over a million of its people every year forced to work in the cotton harvest on threat of severe punishment. People the world over complain about their governments, but talking to these young men puts many things into perspective.
Over the last few weeks I have been gradually approaching a resolution. My birthday is October 25th, and on my birthday I decide that I am going to try to cycle home to England to surprise my family on Christmas day. I have already been away from home for more than three years. It will be a tall order; I have only two months to ride around 7000km, in itself a fairly long way, but on top of that I will also have to find a boat across the Caspian Sea and apply for a visa to Azerbaijan, all of which could easily cost me up to two weeks of waiting. I will have to get a move on.