Turkmenabat - Bukhara ... 05/10/08 - 06/10/08
The road to the border is far from direct, it swirls all the time, south, then east, then north ... We trust the flow of trucks to lead us to the border. Most trucks are from Turkey, "aaah" says Ben, "The good old days"! We left Turkey only a month ago but we did so much since then that it seems like a year ago. The last memory of Turkmenistan is the floating bridge to cross the Amu Darya river. The pontoons are dislocated and rusty, some pieces of rusted steel have been added here and there to help link the pontoons that are at different heights. Without realizing we reach the border half an hour before lunch break. Hunger must make them more effective, as we manage to cross both borders in 45 min! That’s it, we are in Uzbekistan. The landscape is monotonous, between desert and steppe. We don’t have much food left, only a bit of rice and pasta, and anyway we would lose too much time if we stopped to cook. We are starving but we have to wait 25 km before we reach the first village! Unfortunately we only find tiny shops that sell biscuits. We take that opportunity to refill our water. We managed to change some money at the border, we know the exchange rate they gave us is very poor: 1030 soms for 1$ when you can actually get 1300 soms in the cities. But we don’t have much choice and only change 10$. The sun begins to fade but the land is flat, and there is no place to hide, we are a bit reluctant to camp there. We ask a man in a field but soon several others come, so much for being discrete!
A little further Ben notices a large farm and a couple with their baby. They agree immediately to help us but refuse we put up the tent in their garden, we are now their guests and will sleep in a room. Pahlavon, the husband, speaks a little English and is fluent in Russian. He has a 13-year-old daughter, Bibi Sora, and an 11-year-old son, Jezabek. They are both learning French at school but unfortunately only know a few words. They show us their house, on one side the different rooms (bedroom, kitchen, bathroom...), on the other a small barn with 4 cows and a couple of chickens, in the centre, a beautiful garden. Everything is clean and well maintained, a real little paradise. We eat all together, kneeling around a low table. Firouza, Pahlavon´s wife, has prepared "plov", the national dish: rice, vegetables and a bit of meat. As we don’t want to feel bad about being invited, Sylvie also prepares some rice but it’s not quite the same :o) They are very polite and pretend it's good. Let’s hope they don’t think this is typical French cuisine!
Pahlavon decides to invite the French teacher of his children. We can finally understand better what they say! Between two glasses of vodka, he explains that there is a big wedding tonight in the village!
Firouza and Pahlavon put on some nice clothes (we are rather limited with two t-shirts) and here we are 5 of us in Pahlavon´s car, the very popular Nexia Daewoo. The wedding takes place in a massive courtyard, we are told there are approximately a thousand people, and looking at the crowd in front of us that could well be the case. The crowd is divided in two: on one side the women, in their colorful traditional clothes, and on the other, the men with their embroidered black hats, jackets and trousers. People are seated around long tables, eating, drinking, talking but mainly drinking...
On the side, on a large stand, the newlyweds are standing still, him in a dark suit and her in a European type of dress. They do not eat, drink or smile. From time to time they exchange a few words with a guest and then resume their pose. Better be a guest at an Uzbek wedding than the groom :o)
We all seat on the men’s side, even Firouza. The tables are covered with plates but they bring new ones for us. We eat a kind of stew with meat and vegetables, in which we dip the bread. Firouza and Sylvie then go dancing, while Ben is trying to keep up with the guys: everyone wants to drink a shot of vodka with him!
Firouza´s father, Bachtiori, decides we should go and say a few words at the microphone. First day in Uzbekistan, we are a bit embarrassed to be standing with our dirty fleece and our dusty faces, in front of several Uzbeks in their Sunday clothes! Fortunately, Bachtiori and the French teacher come to our rescue. Bachtiori embarks on an enthusiastic tirade. We don’t understand anything but he looks very convincing! Then it is the turn of the French teacher. We wonder what on earth they can be telling the guests. Ben is then invited to say a few words and then Sylvie, who thought she had escaped. Finally, everyone gets on the dance floor. Ben tries to compete with the professional dancers hired for the evening!
The next day, we plan to leave at 10 am but reality is different… Firouza's father arrives with his bottle of vodka and here we go again! At 10 am! Firouza brings what remains of yesterday’s plov, bread, fruits, biscuits ... Pahlavon comes to Ben’s help and at the 3rd shot of vodka, replaces it with water. Bachtiar doesn’t notice anything! Then we have the whole family try the bikes, it's good fun!
We finally manage to leave at noon. We actually believe that they understood we would stay another day. But the heavy registration process is worrying us. Apparently, we should register every night we spent in the country and only hotels can record foreigners ... How stupid!
We make the 60 km within a few hours. There are more and more cafes, we find samsas and even Viennetta ice cream on a stick, yummy.
We have a shock when arriving in the old city of Bukhara, there are French people everywhere! While Sylvie tells our latest adventures to a friendly French couple, Ben goes to check the hotels. Surprise, he finds Bernd (the Dutch cyclist we met in Yazd)! He has been here for a week, sick. His visa expires in 2 days so tomorrow night he leaves for Tashkent to extend it. Too bad, he is such a nice guy and every time we meet, he has to leave!
Bukhara and Khiva ... 07/10/08 ... 14/10/08
We spend the next day walking in Bukhara. The old city is very touristy of course, but the atmosphere is very relaxed. The mosques, madrasas (religious schools) and bazaars are in a good state. We wish a good journey to Bernd when he leaves us late in the afternoon. As he is also on a world tour, our paths might cross again.
Emails from Benoit, Amanda and Olivier make us think about our route. Amanda and Olivier are in Khirghistan, not so far from us and we won’t see them if we keep the same route. They fly in late October to Thailand. We are disappointed; we made friend with them in Paris and then followed their journey via their website. Benoit also has sent us an email to tell us that he had met a cyclist who had cycled from Tashkent to Bishkek and there were 10 cm of snow. We will be there in 3 weeks, which means the penguins will have taken over the whole country by then! Khirghistan and the Xinjiang province of China are two regions that always attracted us. Also, after the deserts of Turkey, Iran and Turkmenistan, we are hoping for some green scenery.
That’s it, we decide to change plans! A feeling of freedom overtakes us, we have no constraints. For half an hour, we are so excited like two kids. We play with countries like we would with juggling balls. Our current plan is to come back mid-May to Khirghistan and then go to Xinjiang. In the meantime, we will fly at the end of October to Thailand. That leaves us 6 months during which we need to find what to do. There are still several countries in Southeast Asia that we haven’t been to and anyway, we already planned to go to Australia. We are really excited: Sylvie starts dreaming of sticky rice with coconut cream and mango and Ben of ice coffee!
The next day, we take a taxi to Khiva, an ancient town in the middle of the desert which has been completely renovated. It is a 500km ride across the desert, along the border with Turkmenistan. The road is full of holes but it does not bother the driver who drives at 140 km/h. We tell him we are eager to see Khiva but not at the expense of our lives. We stop in a service station. The driver shouts, a guy comes running and starts turning a crank to activate the pump!
Khiva is beautiful, perfectly restored, a little too much may be. The city comes alive at about 9 am when the women set up their stalls and the groups start walking around. At 6 pm, everyone packs up and the city is deserted for the night. We regret that the locals live outside the inner walls. We also regret that they are not friendlier. The kids jump on us at every street corner, shouting "candy, candy." The first day, not giving them sweets, they start throwing stones at us. The parents are not better. They know that whatever happens, buses will carry on unloading tourists every day ... The city is still worth it, especially for the mysterious atmosphere of the hazy streets at night.
We go back to Bukhara the next day, glad to go "back home". We were thinking of only staying one more day but Sylvie suggests "Why not more?” We end up staying 5 days! Ben takes the opportunity to fall ill. He has a violent stomach ache. In the evening, we call the doctor who treated Bernd. The scene is rather amusing. As she doesn’t speak English very well, she comes with her 16-year-old daughter. You should see the teenager, a bit shy, asking Ben how many times he has been to the toilet and the consistency of his stools! Sylvie is struggling not to giggle. Seeing our pharmacy, the doctor prescribes Paracetamol and Spasfon. After she leaves, Sylvie puts Ben on the floor, piling blankets on an inflatable mattress. The beds are in a bad state and, according to Ben, the back pain is getting worse than the stomach pain! Strangely, the next day, the pain has almost disappeared.
This rest gives us a chance to read, clean the bikes, write and chill out ... And finalise our new route. Buying a plane ticket for Bangkok turns into a real adventure but not a funny one. We can buy a ticket at the Uzbekistan Airways’ office but they do not take Visa card. We have to go to the city centre, withdraw some dollars in a specific hotel (it is not possible to get soms with an international card in Bukhara). Then we need to change the dollars into soms and walk back for 20 minutes to the office of Uzbekistan Airways with our pockets bulging with notes... The ticket costs 350 euros which means 1,400,000 soms for 2, how do we put that many bank notes in our pockets!
After spending the afternoon going back and forth, we settle for the travel agent who gave us the letter of invitation, it will be easier if he buys them for us!
We finally leave Bukhara, our friendly guesthouse, the good meals cooked by the lady of the house ... We also met a lot of nice people. Many French, including Carole who kindly offered to take to FranceLausanne, who we hope to see again in Samarcande. Through him we meet two Australian girls, Stephanie and Simone, who cycled 10 weeks in Khirghistan and Tajikistan, on the Pamir Highway. Their enthusiastic stories confirm our decision to come back during spring