Link to interactive route map for Uzbekistan here.
We have recently arrived back to our nice air-conditioned house in the green and pleasant capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, after 10 days in the desert.
This was the second attempt at the western-most region of the country, having failed last summer when I arrived on the eastern edge of the Caspian Sea, in Aktau, Kazakhstan, but most of my bicycle and gear did not. I remember how gutted I was back then, being stuck in a dusty town, waiting and waiting, raring to head east across the steppe into Uzbekistan, but my plan was foiled.
Thankfully I got another shot at most of it this summer, so treating it as a practice ride before we head east for a year, Niamh and I headed off west in a Taxi some 6ookm to Bukhara, where almost three years previous, we had already cycled on our first tour together. The bikes made it down from the roof of the taxi unscathed, which is remarkable considering what the instruction of ‘drive slowly please’ seems to translate as here.
After a night in this beautiful open-air museum of a city, we excitedly strapped our luggage to the bikes and headed off west with trepidation. It was mid morning and it was close to 40 degrees already. We knew right then it was going to be a battle of the senses, body, spirit and mind. We didn’t make it far on the first day, partly due to having a few weeks of ‘body repair’ from a fitness regime, (which was more like being lazy without the guilt really) and partly due to intensity of the sun, which was in our faces for much of the afternoon. At least heading east for the next year after this practice ride would mean less of this glaring issue.
We wild camped on this first night and enjoyed some decent food and a few minutes of sleep. We woke to a lovely sunrise and feeling better for the rest and the cool of dawn we rode on, straight into a sand storm with one of the strongest headwinds I have ever faced. We battled through it and in the late afternoon, when the potholed excuse for a road turned into a smooth multi-lane highway, our mood picked-up.
We found a hotel in the town of Gazli and promptly avoided it. There were birds flying around in the rooms and the atmosphere was that of a world-war bunker, very odd. We rode into the centre to find a shop and stumbled upon a building with a shaded forecourt. I asked if there was somewhere to camp, a few moments later and we had napped in a family’s air-conditioned bedroom, been fed and had showered. There are some unbelievably hospitable people in this part of the world.
Next morning we woke before dawn to a tail wind and enthusiastically got back on the smooth highway. It was plain sailing for 90km’s, although hotter and drier than I had ever experienced. Each time a small cluster of trees could be seen on the horizon, it meant another target to reach to rest and it was at one of these respites that we asked in another tea-house whether we could camp, with the same result as the previous night. The tale of wolves, large cats and scorpions made me feel less of an intruder. They simply would not allow us to camp. However, Niamh was sick at night and in a bad way. Heatstroke had set in and I was kicking myself for not being more careful. The weather conditions were good so after a slow morning trying to energise we headed out. Not far- it was simply too hot, too much.
I am not a purist. I have realised that a perfect, constant line around the planet is not what I am cycling for. I’ll write more about what I am cycling for in the future I am sure. I also realised that being pedantic about circumnavigating is not fair on others one might travel with, especially if you love them. Looking at a map of my past rides, I have ridden to central Asia from the arctic via the UK. I do not care that there are a few disjointed starts and finishes.
I have also concluded that the heat of the Kyzl-Kyum desert in June is downright dangerous for cycling all day in. It must have been 50c at road level, where, three days into the ride, with an even paler than normal Irish girlfriend lying beside me in a stifling roadside Tea-House, the decision was made to hitch.
The very first vehicle to pass was a car-transporting articulated truck. You know the ones most boys dream about driving when they grow up. Well, I didn’t get to drive it, General Motors would not have permitted it, but we did get a cool and relaxing 100km lift to ‘civilization’ on a bed at the back of the cab. The bikes were lashed down on the car tracks on the trailer, safe as houses.
Later we found ourselves in Urgench, a city that is rarely visited by tourists intentionally, as it is more of a staging post for the delights of the ancient fortified city of Khiva. Since both of us had already visited Khiva, we simply enjoyed a rest in a good hotel at a great price of $13 (locals rate) per night instead of $80 (all-foreigners-are-rich rate). I played the ‘working visa equals only local currency’ card, which is not true, but hey. We wandered around an easy going part of the town and found cold beer for my birthday and crisps for Niamh.
Energised, we took a quieter route north through farmland into the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan to Mang’hit. As per every town in this country it seems that there are three ways to spell it at a minimum. This place was great, we found an AirBnB would you believe? The hosts were excellent and we were taken out in the evening to the nearby Amu-Darya River for catfish, which was pretty good.
The next day we made it to Nukus, think Mad-Max meets Lenin and then twist it with overpriced hotels, vodka, seemingly no restaurants, heat, heat and more heat. Ridiculously, this was my third visit to the town. I had come before with my folks to visit the Savitsky Art museum, which is fascinating (well as much as Art Museums can get) because of the back story- Creative expression hidden under the desert sands from the clutches of communism- recently unearthed and exhibited for all to see by the passionate curator whose name the museum bears. I had also visited for a weekend with Niamh last October to begin the marathon 4x4 journey to the edge of the environmental disaster zone, which is the Aral Sea, or more accurately pond, as it is soon to be.
The final day’s ride towards the Kazakh border was a great one. For the most part the road was smooth and the wind was not against us. We also made it 100kms by the early evening, so we called to find out whether the taxi we had arranged would come out to meet us in a Tea-house a day early. He was willing, so I took the opportunity to bash out another 50km before the sun set over the steppe. I had made it almost as far west as I had planned to get to last year and I am sure that I flew that last 50km’s fuelled by the anger and disappointment of last summer. It felt excellent to get out there, to the middle of nowhere. All that effort to get nowhere, strange but satisfying.
Two full days of travelling by car later and we were back home. We managed to rendezvous with the agent who is helping with our Chinese visa applications on the same day. Since then we have already been for an interview, have run some errands, serviced the bikes, but most importantly are relaxing and enjoying Tashkent on holiday. This is just the beginning of a very long and well-deserved one.
Link to interactive route map for Uzbekistan here.