30 September – 8 October, 2015 – After four days in Samarkand of which Johan spent almost two days in bed with a severe diarrhoea it was time to move on for the 270km- distance to Bukhara, another well-preserved Silk Road town. The first day passed uneventful on good and undulating roads, through a boring cotton field landscape and in the afternoon against the wind. The first night we stayed at a huge house with an Uzbek family and for the first time we successfully refused sweets and bread. And for the first time there was a bathroom – basic, but we could wash ourselves and go to sleep clean. The second day begun uneventful. At a monument we met a funny Korean guy who works for Korean Air at the huge International Airport we just passed. He walked with a golf club to protect himself from chasing dogs in the villages. We had a very funny conversation and could have talked much longer but we had to move on as it was already getting late and we had to look for a place to sleep.
Which turned out to become a challenge. We dismissed the luxury 4-star-hotel on the way because we didn’t want to pay 60$. If we had had the second sight we would have just stayed and made use of a luxury stay. But we continued instead and stopped at a brand-new village to try to find a camp spot. We asked a few people but all refused and sent us away. One woman belonging to the local police asked 50$ to stay at her home but we also dismissed this ‘friendly’ offer and moved on to the next village. A few questions and a few more refusals later, one family finally invited us in. We showed them our instant noodle soup as we didn’t want them to cook for us – this time the place looked rather poor – and for the first time the whole family would join us for dinner. We of course would get our noodle soup but also had to eat their food – cabbage with saussages. All evening neighbours and more family members would pass by to say hello and at around 8pm we could go to sleep. About an hour later there was a knock on the door, our host came in repeating several times: “Palatka, you go, go!” Someone must have told the police about us and our hosts were getting into trouble. We quickly packed up our stuff and cycled in our pyjamas into the dark back to the very busy main highway. There was no way to pitch our palatka (tent) in the fields around us, that we knew from when we arrived here. We though remembered a small platform next to the highway and a house where we now wanted to ask to pitch our tent. As we couldn’t see anything, we cycled slowly on the shoulder against the traffic and reached that place after a few hundred meters that felt like kilometres. Unfortunately we were directly refused and couldn’t convince them to let us pitch the tent anywhere near the house. Instead, they sent us back to the expensive hotel. Grudgingly we moved to the right side of the road and cycled another five kilometres back to the hotel through the eerie darkness to where we’ve been a few hours ago, checked into a very nice, clean and luxury room with a soft bed, white bed sheets, soft pillows, and a perfectly working bathroom with white towels, a real shower, a sink and a Western-style toilet and still went to bed dirty at around 10:30pm. The shower had to wait until the next morning.
Given our blackmarket exchange rate we only had to pay 30$ for our hotel room including breakfast, as the hotel used the official exchange rate. After a long shower we raided the breakfast buffet. In fact Johan ate so much, that the toilet seat broke into 100 pieces when he sat on it later. Back in our room we also noticed that there wasn’t neither electricity nor water anymore – we once again had to use our headlights and drinking water for brushing our teeth. At the check-out I told the receptionist about the problems and all she replied was “Yes”. When I said that she didn’t even tell us about these issues, she again replied with “Yes”. Johan then told me that she doesn’t speak English and I gave up complaining. Five minutes later she approached us asking in perfect English for 25.000 Sum (5$) for the broken toilet seat! If it comes to getting money people suddenly know how to communicate. After a short discussion we left without paying the fine and reached Bukhara around lunch time. The following day was Johan’s birthday which we spent sightseeing in Central Asia’s holiest city with buildings spanning a thousand years of history. As per our travel guide Bukhara is one of the best places for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan.
Knowing that it would be unlikely for us to return to Uzbekistan we took a taxi to Khiva, 600km North of Bukhara. The Silk Road town is famous for its slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys and steppes infested with wild tribesmen. The town itself is like an open air museum with well preserved minarettes, medressas, mosques and boring museums and feels a bit like stepping into another era, if it wasn’t for the many tourist shops and cafés mainly catering for groups. We met Christian from France again and decided to have dinner together. We had met him first in Samarkand, he has been travelling through Central Asia from France with his 4WD car and was now on his way back home on more or less the same route as we were. Earlier that day we had made a reservation at the best restaurant in town and thought it wouldn’t be a problem to dine with one more person. We could not have been more wrong. It took us 15 minutes to convince the waiter that we would either eat all together or not at all at this place. We were almost about to leave when they finally agreed and angrily put a third chair at our table. After weeks of Laghman (noodle soup), Plov (fried rice) and Manty (dumplings filled with meat) we happily ordered hamburgers. Our mouths were watering by the thought of yummy juicy hamburgers American style. The bigger was our disappointment: two meat patties with some rice and mashed potatoes decorated with a leave of lettuce. We were bemused about our own naivity but enjoyed a nice evening with Christian. To our surpise we got a free dessert from the kitchen – maybe they understood that their earlier reaction wasn’t appropriate.
Looking for the right outfit 🙂
The next day we continued sightseeing in the morning and got annoyed by the poor service culture once more. We entered a café and the first question they asked us was “do you belong to a group?” Our usual answer, “Yes, we do, we are a group of two and sometimes even our group is too big!” didn’t amuse the waiters and we could see their disappointment. We got seated but nobody served us, despite us desperately trying to order coffee until finally a group arrived who got served immediately. Normally we would have left but as this was a place where Wifi reception was good and I had work-related emails to be sent we endured and stayed. We spent the afternoon in the taxi back to Bukhara to reunite with our bikes.
It was once more time to leave the country as our Turkmen transit visas started on 9 October. With only five days to cross the country we wanted to make sure to pass the border as early as possible. We now had two days for the 100 km to get to the border and we only left Bukhara in the early afternoon, cycled until 5pm and pitched our tent in an apple orchard. That night we noticed that our matresses were deflating and by midnight we were both laying on the hard ground. Not a very good prospect as we had to cross the desert in Turkmenistan and would have to camp the coming days with no possibilities to repair the matresses. After a bad-night’s sleep we woke shattered and bad tempered as on top we were facing headwinds. By midday the wind was becoming a sand storm, the air was completely yellow and sandy, our sight very limited and the atmosphere eerie. We struggled to get to the border on time even though we had only a distance of around 60km to cover. But this time our delay turned to our favour as the customs officers wanted to go home and hardly checked our luggage and within 20 minutes we were officially checked out of Uzbekistan.
We had a lot of nice experiences and a few bad ones in Uzbekistan. Despite opening up for foreign tourism, the country is still a harshly governed police state. Nonetheless we felt genuinely welcome by people be it through their greetings when we cycled through villages, their gold-teethed smiles, their tea invitations, their children running or cycling happily with us, by those who invited us to stay at their homes and who shared their meals with us and of course by those who gave us fruit or bread when we cycled past. We were deeply impressed by the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva with their fabulous architecture, positively surprised by the beautiful landscapes up until Samarkand and less impressed by the landscapes as from Samarkand dominated by vast deserts and cotton plantations. Dating back to Russian times – at least that’s what we assumed – the state administers itself to death. Our passport was stacked with little hotel slips, neatly filled in by the hotel managers, stamped and signed and when Johan got money from a bank he had to sign endless papers that were handed from one person to another, before they would retrieve the dollars.