Samarcande - Tashkent ... 21/10/08 - 23/10/08
We spend the morning trying to contact the agency for the tickets. We are very annoyed, we asked 7 days ago and it is still not done. They don’t keep us informed, not an email or a phone call. We would have been better off buying them ourselves at the Uzbekistan Airways office. At 2:30 pm, they call, they finally have the tickets. It is already late but we decide to leave. The landscape on the outskirts of Samarcande differs from the cultivated plains which we have been accustomed to from the border. A yellow steppe runs to the horizon. This region was called 'the steppe of hunger' by the Russians, rightly so as it seems. The road surfs on several hills, a real roller coaster. We ride for 50 km, and it is nearly dark when we notice a chaïkanna on the other side of the road, a hole in the concrete fence allows us to cross the road, it is a sign! We order two laghmans, a noodle soup with vegetables and meat. The server brings us two bowls with a huge pile of vegetables! He is very friendly so we think it shouldn’t be a problem for us to setup the tent behind the restaurant. But the boss turns us down. From what we understand, there are thieves so it is too dangerous for us to camp here. So he throws us back on the road at night, that’s logical!
Ben is furious, it is almost dark, and it is dangerous to cycle: where are we going to sleep? The steppe extends very far, and it’s not the few small bushes along the road that will hide us. We decide to go back 2km and ask for hospitality in the last village we saw. The place is deserted or so it seems, not a light, and the doors are closed. It doesn’t look like the white houses villages we have seen so far. It looks poorer, the houses are made of mud, living standards are not the same. Neither is the welcoming. The first family Ben asks doesn’t seem to understand our request. They are fascinated by the bicycles. We stand waiting in the dark while the Uzbek couple is scrutinising our bikes. In a minute we will turn mad! The woman eventually leads us to the house next door. The head of the family, an old man, understands immediately: "No problem, you can sleep in here, get the bikes in this room." Gosh, that was close!”
He lives here with his wife and two of his sons. They speak good Russian. Here, young people go to work for two years in Russia, Moscow or St Petersburg. Back in Uzbekistan, they buy a house and a mini van and work as taxi drivers. His third son currently works in a warehouse for fruits and vegetables near the port of St Petersburg.
The father also speaks Russian but not for the same reasons. He served in the Russian army. UzbekistanCentral Asia was divided for a long time in khanats: there was the khan of Bukhara, the khan of Khiva, small kingdoms that fought for land and power... got its independent only in 1991 just like Khirghistan.
In the nineteenth century, Russian settlers arrived. They developed cotton culture and settled down. Gradually, the Russians came and dominated all of Central Asia. They then savagely divided that land that was formerly just a vast territory inhabited by nomadic tribes, into several “countries”. Each country was given a language, a culture, a history, all made up. As a result, some cities in Uzbekistan like Bukhara are tadjikophones, there are pockets of Uzbek territory in Khirghistan and borders have been drawn to prevent easy circulation of goods and people (i.e. military troops!). The highway that links Samarcande to Tashkent cannot be use entirely as it goes across Kazakhstan for 50 km. So everyone uses another road that makes a 100km detour! 'Divide to reign', the Russians knew how politics works...
The next day we leave early after a frugal breakfast: piece of dry bread and tea. A little light for us so we stop a few miles further and eat our muesli with milk powder on the roadside. The good side of starting early is that there are not many people on the road so we are not surrounded by curious people. The road still goes up and down. Usually, when going up, we motivate ourselves by thinking of the great downhill that is waiting for us and where, perhaps, we can beat our speed record. Dangerous thought! The road is in poor condition, holes, bumps, irregular surface... On a particularly steep descent, Sylvie lifts her head to see Ben swerving dangerously. The bike and the trailer are at a totally different angle while the trailer is jumping like a kangaroo, all of at about 60 km/h. Sylvie is divided between the regrets of not having been able to videotape this scene and the fear of having to pick up her favourite explorer with a spoon! Fortunately, the explorer is strong enough to pull hard on the brakes and calm his excited bike. Especially as a truck is coming behind, horning! Well, we will wait to beat the speed records ...
The desert landscape carries on but the road is rarely empty in Uzbekistan. Here, stands of honey attract our attention. On the roadside, people sell honey in containers of all kinds and sizes: empty pots of Nescafe, glass bottles... The choice is wide! When we reach villages, there are usually colourful stands with rainbows of red and yellow apples and green watermelons. We wonder why vendors all gather in one place. Surely they must diminish their chances of selling?
At about 1pm we stop for lunch. 80 km, good performance! The owner of the restaurant brings us two big laghmans and informs us that there is a motel in Khawas, about 60 km away. We exchange a look, come on, this would be a chance to beat our Bulgarian record (134 km)! We speed up and reach Khawas at 5:30 pm, just before nightfall. But big disappointment, a restaurant owner tells us that the motel is 30 km away! Seeing our disappointed look, he suggests we sleep in his restaurant. Shavkat takes us to a small room where we can store bikes and luggage. He sits us at a low table surrounded by cushions and asks his son to bring tea and biscuits. Then: 'What do you want to eat?' The kind of question that doesn’t need to be asked twice! He takes us to the kitchen. We look amazed at the stove: a large cylinder made of concrete supports eight massive woks. In the centre, a large pipe distributes gas under each basin. One of these contains soup, another plov, another, water to heat the dishes... what a clever system! While waiting for the plov, he asks his staff to bring salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage marinated in vinegar, beer and he chats with us. It is his turn to be amazed when he sees our record (142 km) and he insists we sleep at his home. We are a bit worried to leave the bikes but he asks his son to sleep in the restaurant to reassure us! A huge plate of plov is brought to the table. It is the best we ever tasted. Fortunately Shavkat and one of his employees eat with us. (Otherwise we were guaranteed an indigestion!) He explains that in addition to the restaurant, he owns a grocery store run by his wife and a construction company that employs 4 to 5 people. The man we are having dinner with is one of his builders. This man lives in Tajikistan and crosses the border every day to work in Uzbekistan. Our host is also Tajik. For fun, they suggest a little getaway, ‘Come and see my house’ laughs the builder! Thanks, but we rather not get into trouble with the authorities... Still, we are moved by their warm welcome. If it wasn’t for the problem of the border, we would have taken the invitation seriously. We are welcomed like kings at Shavkat’s. His mother has prepared two beds in one of the rooms of the house and the next day he gets up at dawn to take us back to the restaurant. We hit the road after a solid breakfast of fried eggs, sausages, bread, biscuits and tea. If only the Europeans were as welcoming as the peoples of Central Asia! We realise that it is also the fact that we are travelling by bike that creates these encounters. Foreigners who travel by bus only see the big cities where people are accustomed to tourists.
Tashkent … 23/10/08 - 29/10/08
We are only 150 km away from Tashkent. Excited by our record the previous day, we decide to reiterate it and try to reach Tashkent that evening. We beat two records in two days: 142 km and 148 km! That gives us some confidence for the rest of the trip...
The entrance into the capital takes ages and it is night when we finally arrive at the guesthouse. Surprise, surprise we find Stephane! We originally had planned to stay two nights but we have an argument with the owner over the price of the room. We therefore call Igor, a Russian cyclist who got our email through Corinne and Loic (the French couple on recumbents we met in Iran). We had actually first heard about Igor through Kerem, a Turkish cyclist we had met in Dogubeyazit, Turkey. We expected a middle-aged man but it is an 18-year-old boy with red cheeks and full cycling gear who turns up! We quickly sympathise. Igor speaks English perfectly and loves to have foreign guests. Getting a visa for a European country or the United States is the dream of many people but it is very difficult to get. Visa procedures have been tightened a few years ago. To compensate, they try to meet foreigners.
Igor lives with his mother, Violetta, in an apartment in northern Tashkent. We spent 5 days, mostly preparing for the flight to Bangkok. Everything takes time here. Withdrawing cash, such a simple operation in Europe, took us here four hours: in the first bank, the telephone line didn’t work, the second one is in the dark due to a power cut, and the third one works but takes a 4% commission instead of the usual 3.5%! Between each bank, we have to take a taxi or a bus because of the distance... nothing is simple!
Another great topic is the registration. In theory, every foreigner must register every evening. In practice, as cyclists, there are inevitably nights where we cannot register. We spend two days walking all over the city, hesitating between paying hotel nights and registering with the OVIR (Official office for visas registration). The OVIR doesn’t look like a good idea, Igor and his mother could get into trouble for hosting foreigners and they would have to supply a lot of documents. So we decide to pay two hotel nights even though we sleep at Igor’s. We still have a few days without registration so Igor shows us a tour in the mountains near Tashkent that we could have done with our bicycles. That is the story we will tell if the customs officers ask too many questions.
Igor’s situation is quite special. When we arrived in Uzbekistan, we naively thought the country was populated with Uzbeks (logical!). In fact, it's much more complex. The population is composed of Uzbeks, Khirghizes, Tajiks, Kazakhs ... all the tribes that had always been mixed on that territory. Borders were drawn but people remained. Added to this ethnic mix are the Russians, who arrived in the XIXth century as settlers. Their descendants stayed, they have Uzbek passports but under nationality, it says 'Russian'. Igor tells us that everything is more complicated for Russians. Opening a guesthouse is more difficult for example, because they don’t have the right contacts/relationships. And if they want to return to motherland Russia, they need a visa! This is only one of the countless aberrations left by the Russian government…
The first night, Ben falls sick again. He says it is because he drank ten cups of coffee in the morning at the guesthouse! It is a rather violent reaction, like in Bukhara. He twists in pain on the living room sofa and throws up all the meals he has had over the past two days. Sylvie doesn’t panic but Violetta and Igor are worried and eventually call a doctor who lives in the building. The next day, he is back to normal and the pain is lessening. We don’t know what it is. Violetta gives Ben a special treatment: Until the end of our stay, she toasts bread every morning because the doctor has advised fresh bread was not good. She shouts at Igor and Sylvie if they dare touch Ben’s basket of bread!
Besides running around the city, we spend a lot of time playing yam’s, chatting, reading our emails... In the evening, we cook: couscous with vegetables, pancakes, spaghetti... it’s a change from the Uzbek cuisine for our hosts! Thanks to Igor, we finally learn the meaning of a gesture that worried us: When, on the road, people waved at us, they banged their index against their neck which meant getting 'a drink' (or rather, several!). But then, when they passed their finger under their throat, like if they were going to slit it, we were becoming suspicious! In fact, it is not a threat, it's just a sign to say 'a lot' ... eat a lot, drink a lot ... cultural differences can sometimes be quite confusing!
Igor accompanies us to the airport to get some information on the bikes and the excess luggage fee. The boss in charge of the luggage agrees to help us pay less (we are 60 kg overweight and Uzbekistan Airways doesn’t have special prices for bicycles!). Unfortunately, the day we depart is not his shift and it will be someone else. We can only cross our fingers.
On the eve of departure, Ben and Igor have the difficult task of packing the bikes. Previously, Igor had literally showered our bikes in his tub. He loves washing bicycles and dismantled ours and washed them in the bath! At 5pm, Ben realises the huge roll of tape is nearly finished. Igor and Sylvie go out to buy another one. By an unfortunate coincidence, it is the day the electricity controller chooses to do his tour and he is precisely at the door when Sylvie and Igor come back. It wouldn’t be such a problem if Igor and his mother hadn’t blocked the wheel of the meter...
Violetta is not here to negotiate and the controller threatens to cut the electricity straight away. Ben nearly loses his mind: 'How are we going to pack the bicycles in the dark? That’s it, we will miss the flight tomorrow...’ Just then, there is a power cut and, indeed, we realise it would be impossible to dismantle and pack the bikes just with a candlelight ... The controller eventually give us a time limit. 15 minutes before the ultimatum ends, he calls back: 'Your mother hasn’t returned yet? I will cut the electricity! ". Ben goes wild again! On top of not being able to pack the bikes, we are also conscious that Igor and his mother will have to pay a heavy fine. At the end, things work out a bit better (for us anyway!). Violetta gets home and the controller returns with a colleague. The discussion takes ages but at the end, they won’t denounce them in exchange of a pack of dollars. This is how it’s done in Uzbekistan!
Ben and Igor spend the night dismantling and packing the bikes. As it is the first time, they wonder for each part, if it is better to disassemble it or protect it! Sylvie collapses on her bed well before the end. Cutting polystyrene and cardboard is clearly not her thing!
The next day we load the bikes, the luggage and Ben in a small truck and Igor and Sylvie get a taxi. The boss for the luggage refuses to negotiate for our luggage. We should pay the full price that is to say, 360 euros extra! This is the price of a ticket! The check-in agent is a bit more lenient but it’s still very expensive. He whispers to Igor: ‘Cameras are watching us, so slip a $100 note in a passport and I will register only half the weight’. The cashier asks us to pay in soms. We quickly go and change our dollars to the exact amount in soms. When we return, the girl takes out 2 kg of the total. Great, we can change back the equivalent of $10. But these stupid girls of the “Bureau de Change” refuse to change it back! They won’t take back the notes they gave us ten minutes ago!
The girls in the other exchange office could change it but they ask for the original of the exchange certificate… and the first girls won’t give it to us! Ben goes crazy and insults the girls!
We leave extremely angry and Igor is quite upset not having been able to help us more on this part. It is lucky we had plenty of great moments in Uzbekistan, these two hours in the airport would have been enough to ruin our experience. We say goodbye to Igor and wish him a lot of great encounters for the future. He is planning to setup a guesthouse. A few days after our departure, he actually launched a website to welcome foreigners at his home.