Bukhara - Samarcande ... 15/10/08 - 17/10/08
Only a few km after Bukhara, the pain in Sylvie’s left knee returns. We have 280 km ahead of us. Ben moves the pedals a few mm away and the pain disappears. The tendons will be taking the strain but the road is flat so it should be ok.
The landscape is monotonous and boring: just cotton fields and villages, not a spot has been left untouched by humans. For us, it is tiring. People shout, whistle, from the roadside or in the fields. Girls giggle behind their hands and men let out big laughs. At least we make people happy. As soon as we stop in a quiet place, we find ourselves surrounded by children and men. We do our stretching under the gaze of curious eyes. Pee breaks are therefore difficult to make!
The road, is supposed to be a highway, a 4-lane road with a concrete fence in the middle. There are ‘holes’ in the fence only every 3 or 4 km to allow cars to do U-Turns. So a lot of cars, bicycles and donkey carts ride in the wrong direction to reach the nearest exit! The state of the road varies. Sometimes it is smooth and we can hear our wheels singing. But, quite often, our bikes jump on bumps, holes, and gravel. We lose 3 to 4 km/h with these road surface changes, it is frustrating! The worst are the slabs of concrete, planned so that aircrafts could land in case of war. A long time ago, there were joints between the slabs... Now, our front wheel falls in a crack every 3m. Luckily, we have a suspension on the front wheel but we waste a lot of energy ...
Still, some events brighten our day. During a break, we stop a hundred meters from a house under construction. Oooch, we have been noticed. Several men wave at us, and shout "Tchai, tchai." Noooo, we want to go ahead and be alone! But one of the men jumps the wall and rushes towards us with a teapot and a bowl! Moved by so much kindness, we answer his questions "Where are you from, where are you going, how many km ..." That will be a topic of conversation for the whole day for these workers. A little further, we see a little donkey which is frightened by our bikes. It jumps up and down and puts its two riders on the ground! The guy at the back is laughing his head off on the ground. The driver swears, maybe he is hurt? But he also, soon starts laughing. Sometimes children compete with us until the “limit” of their village. Standing on a bike usually too big for them, they keep a good pace. At 22 km/h, they are still at our side!
We have lunch in chaïkannas, small restaurants along the road. On the menu, vegetable soup with some meat and lots of fat (we become experts at distinguishing between fat and potatoes!), and skewers of meat and fat (there is no way to avoid it!). Prices have fallen by half compared to Bukhara.
We are less anxious than before to find a place to sleep. However, the landscape is not great for rough camping. The only places are too open to setup the tent. On the first night, we sleep in a motel for truck drivers, stuck between a massive chicken farm and a military airport. But at 7 euros for the room, we can’t complain.
The next afternoon, a red Lada stops by during one of our breaks. After the usual questions, the driver insists we stop at his home. We decline, we have only done 80 km, and we would like to carry on a bit so that we only have 60 km before reaching Samarcande the next day, especially since entering a city always takes time and night falls early now (at 6 pm it is already dark). But the man takes Ben’s hand in his own as a sign of agreement. Basically, we don’t have a choice ...
He invites us to eat in a chaïkanna. We sit under the trees on a wooden platform covered with mattresses. A lovely lady serves us a salad of tomatoes and a large plate of meat (and fat yes of course!). The baker joins us with two hot breads. Ben uses his few words of Russian to speak about our families and our jobs. Then they get the vodka out and it is a disaster. Bachtior doesn’t hold alcohol very well and after 3 bowls he is completely drunk. Ben drinks twice as much as the baker and our host and yet he manages to stay sober. Sylvie is a bit worried and the lady of the restaurant offers us very nicely to sleep at her home instead. But we promised, and besides, he is married so we shouldn’t have much to fear. He puts us into his 15-year-old son hands and disappears for the night!
The village is made of groups of small farms built next to each other along dirt roads. Like Pahlavon and Firouza, one of the rooms serves as a lounge/dining room with a coffee table and mattresses around it. Another room serves as a bedroom with just mattresses. There is also a kitchen with gas. The toilets are at the back of the garden. A wooden shack with a hole dug into the ground ... not really the kind of place where one lingers with a comic book, especially in winter! Some cows wander in the courtyard. There is even a small cornfield that will help feeding them this winter. It's time to milk them. Guli, Bachtior’s wife, brings back a bucket full of fresh milk. They drink it hot for breakfast or turn it into yogurt. We pretend we have an allergy to milk. The smell is too strong for us!
We spend the evening with Guli and their 3 children, a 16-year-old daughter and two sons of 15 and 9. The oldest are quiet but the little one is excited about the bikes. He becomes ecstatic when we take him for a ride. He asks us a lot of questions but unfortunately we can’t understand a word! It is the first time they see foreigners. Most people travel from Bukhara to Samarcande by bus or train without stopping.
That may be why, once again, we are greeted like kings. Guli and her daughter bring quantity of dishes: meat stew and vegetables, tomato sauce and garlic, cherries and apricots in syrup, yogurt, and homemade bread. We are not very hungry, we just ate! They don’t eat, they probably already had dinner. Bachtior comes back the following morning. He is sober again and very friendly. The whole family is disappointed to see us leave, but registration is always a worry. The baker escorts us to the main road and shows us where his bakery. Large trays are covered with balls of dough ready to be stuck on the wall of the tandoor, a special circular oven made of concrete. We also say goodbye to the friendly lady of the restaurant.
People here seem to have a more enjoyable life that many people in France! They live in houses that many French people would dream of. In the villages, small farms allow them to live in semi-independence. The men work (Bachtior is an engineer for a gas company). Women stay at home, caring for the farm, baking bread, making yogurt, jams and preparing the meals. In Bukhara, a souvenir seller told us she lived in a 600 m² house, a normal size house for her. She was amazed when we told her many French people lived in 60 m²! Still, most people complain about the cost of living, as in France and in all the other countries we travelled through. This souvenir seller prefers to bake her own bread at home. Her family consumes four loaves a day and at 800 soms a bread (50 euro cents), the math are easy. Strangely, the “elite” professions like doctor or teacher are very poorly paid. To have a souvenir shop is much more lucrative! We got the proof when the doctor in Bukhara presented her bill: 3 euros for two visits!
Samarcande … 18/10/08 - 20/10/08
We quickly cycle the last 100 km to Samarcande. When we stay with people, we cannot decently leave before 8 am. During the day, we stop frequently to stretch and drink. And there is also the lunch break. Even though those stops are necessary to renew our energy, we waste a lot of time. Ben takes the matter in his own hands: one 10-minute break every hour instead of every 1/2h and no more than 1/2 hour break for lunch '... Fortunately, the landscape is without interest. Otherwise we should also take into account the frequent photos stops for Sylvie (constant source of debate)!
We arrive in Samarcande at dusk. Fortunately, two young Russian cyclists help us find the hotel. They don’t know the street names and only certain neighbourhoods. We actually realise the next day that they made us do a big detour! One of them speaks fluent English. He is only 17 but his parents sent him to a private English Institute since he was 9. Most people here don’t speak English so Ben’s basic Russian is very useful. We notice that while 30 to 40-year-old Uzbeks are fluent in Russian, young people don’t always understand it.
The hotel has been recommended by a guide we met in Bukhara. We are late in the season so we negotiate a very good price. We end up in a luxurious room: 3 beds, nicely decorated, and a beautiful bathroom with hot water and pressure!
The next day, we call the travel agency regarding the plane tickets. They haven’t bought them yet! We don’t understand what is happening and feel trapped. Do we need to end here the cycling ride and take a bus directly to Tashkent to speed things up? It is now the weekend, so we can’t do much anyway until Monday.
Samarcande has two distinct areas: the Russian side, clean and pleasant, with wide tree-lined streets. Autumn is here, and yellow leaves litter the sidewalks. The other part of the city is Asian, with small winding streets, missing sewage covers, small street vendors ... more disorganised but also more spontaneous!
After we search in several hotels, we find Stephane whom we met in Bukhara. We also meet a French couple on motorbikes coming back from a 15-month journey that led them to Japan... The time of caravans is over but not the one of long-distance travellers...
The next day, we are told a group of French people is coming. We are a bit worried, we were happy on our own! Our peace is disturbed but it is all for the best. They are 6 of them, retired but dynamic, funny and generous. We spend a day with them and end up having a great time. They have travelled a lot and we talk about Patagonia, Khirghistan, and Antarctica where they plan to go next year... We hope we will be as dynamic when we reach their age! We also have a surprise. One of them (the only one who is not retired!) happens to visit Sylvie’s village the following week for his work! His visit is greatly appreciated by Sylvie’s parents.
Samarcande is famous worldwide but the architecture of Isfahan and Mashhad amazed us so much that many monuments fade in comparison. And we are a bit blasé by the blue domes and mosaics ...
Still we enjoy it, especially the Registan of course, with his triptych of mosques, two facing each other and the third one at the back, and the Shah-i-Zinde, a group of mausoleums richly decorated with blue tiles and gold. Just for them Samarcande is worth the journey!