Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Extract from James Elroy Flecker’s verse drama Hassan … The Golden Journey to Samarkand
Having travelled the road to Samarkand, I can confirm that there is nothing golden about it whatsoever. It is pot-holed, rutted and dusty. It has been far from boring though and it feels like we have packed more into the last couple of weeks than we have done for a long time on this journey.
After surviving the first desert crossing we arrived in the remote desert outpost of Nukus. Described by the Lonely Planet as “definitely one of Uzbekistan’s least appealing cities”, we weren’t expecting much from this place other than somewhere to have a well-deserved rest day. Arriving at the hotel after another 140km in sub zero temperatures, covered in mud, dust and both developing horrible colds, the receptionist took one look at me and said, “you look tired”. I just nodded at him, too exhausted to even speak.
Following a long sleep, we had recovered our energy enough to take a jeep trip out to visit the Aral Sea; one of the mysterious places in the world that I certainly never thought I would visit. A long bumpy ride north brought us to Muynaq; formerly a thriving seaside-fishing town with 30,000 residents employed in the catching and canning of fish from the Aral Sea. Today the water’s edge is over 150km away. The lake is less than 10% of its size back in the 1960s and is so salty that no fish can survive. The remaining residents, who haven’t left in search of work, apparently suffer health problems caused by toxic chemicals blown about in sandstorms. This desertification is all due to huge irrigation networks diverting the rivers that feed the lake, providing water for the still booming cotton industry.
Mid winter in Uzbekistan is bleak. Especially out in the desert. Most of the small towns that we have passed through look like some sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare of mud, tumbledown buildings and rusting cars. But this place has an extra level of forlornness about it. Looking out from a cliff, we could see a vast expanse of sand where there used to be water stretching as far as the eye could see. Directly below us, stranded in the shifting sands, lay the rusty hulls of old fishing boats. A poignant reminder of everything this town has lost.
The next day we drove out onto the former seabed for hours. At one stage our driver said to us, “the water used to be 40m high at this point”. It’s hard to imagine the enormity of the water volume that has disappeared. The seabed is now dotted with drilling platforms belonging to foreign corporations. There is natural gas in abundance here. As with most things in life, one man’s loss is another’s gain I guess. On finally reaching the current shoreline, we were stunned by the wild beauty and peacefulness of the place. It’s hard to believe that this southern section of the Aral Sea is doomed.
Back on our bicycles again, we headed for the ancient Silk Road walled city of Khiva. The temperatures had plummeted and we were faced with cycling in -20 degrees Celsius with wind chill. The sun was out though and it wasn’t nearly as bad as we had feared when looking at the weather forecast from the warmth of our hotel. That night we stayed in a very basic guesthouse. Although it was warm enough wrapped up in our sleeping bags, all the external doors and windows were covered in a very thick layer of ice – on the inside!
Arriving into Khiva the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about how we had made it all the way there across the desert, in winter: something that the Russian army expedition of 1839 had failed to achieve. I had a huge smile on my face.
The old town has a vast array of mosques, madrassas and minarets all squeezed in closely together, making it very easy for exploring. The beautiful blues and greens of the ornate tiling contrast starkly with the dusty browns and greys of the streets and buildings. It really is very beautiful and we had it almost to ourselves. There are pros and cons to travelling in off-season. On the plus side, we can meander around unhindered by hordes of other tourists exactly like us. On the other hand, lack of tourists means lots of businesses in a place like Khiva old town are closed up for winter; the hustle and bustle of the Silk Road days feel like a long distant memory.
We were reluctant to leave Khiva, partly because of the lovely, warm guesthouse we were staying in, and partly because we knew we had another long stretch of desert to cross. We had anticipated this section would be much easier than the previous one. We were wrong! Day two of the desert crossing saw us battling away against the wind at an agonisingly slow 12kph all day. To make matters worse there was also freezing fog for most of the morning, which reduced our visibility to just a few metres, froze my eyelashes together and iced up my glasses so that I was even more blind than usual. There was more than one occasion that day where we looked at each other and asked, “Why are we doing this?” Luckily we managed to find a small teahouse at the end of the day where our spirits were revived with the most delicious sponge cake iced with chocolate and covered in coconut sprinkles (not the sort of treat usually found in such establishments!). I think the owner was a little surprised when we each devoured three slices in quick succession.
Teahouses have been our lifeline in the desert (and beyond), providing food, warmth and often a corner to sleep in. They are usually advertised by a colourful menu on the roadside displaying all of the food that you won’t be able to find inside. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been really looking forward to eating a steaming bowl of plov (a tasty rice dish) only to be told they don’t have any. We’ve now learnt, as soon as we enter, to reel off the names of the standard dishes, plov, lagman (thick noodles in a meaty sauce), manti (large dumplings filled with minced meat and onions), to find out what is available before getting our heart set on a certain dish. The one thing we can be sure of getting at each meal is a pot of green tea – an Uzbek tradition that I am not getting tired of.
Bukhara was our first stop after we finally saw the back of the desert. Walking down the street here was like stepping back to another era; cows meandering back from a day out grazing, ladies selling their wares from make-shift stalls on the roadside, teenage boys driving donkey carts laden with sticks (albeit with their mobile phone blasting out rap music). All of this under the shadows of the Ark, where Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, British heroes of the Great Game were executed, and the Kalyan minaret, which so impressed Genghis Khan that it was the only building he left standing when his Mongol horde razed the city.
In contrast, Samarkand is a thoroughly modern city. Its mosques and madrassas are certainly the most impressive of the three khanate cities that we have visited, but there was something odd about it that we couldn’t quite put our finger on. We wandered round for a while before we worked it out. There are huge walls around the main tourist sites and modern, uniform facades on all the buildings along the main streets. As we explored further, we discovered hidden out of sight behind these, the twisting alleyways and jumble of mismatched houses that we’ve seen everywhere else in Uzbekistan. Shy, smiling children peeped out from doorways that lead into shady central courtyard areas where women make bread and wash clothes and men sit idle. I can only assume that the tourism authority decided the hubbub of everyday life should be hidden away from tourists but we felt the place slightly sterile as a result.
In Samarkand we visited the Registan complex; undoubtedly one of the most impressive sights so far on this journey. As we paid for our tickets the man at the office said to us, “if you want to go on a secret tour up one of the minarets it is possible”. That sounded quite interesting to us. Then, in a lowered voice, “you just pay 20,000 Som each to that policeman over there” pointing at a uniformed man loitering hopefully nearby. Ah, so not an official tour then!
Having expected otherwise, we have been pleasantly surprised by the lack of hassle and corruption we have encountered with the police here. There are police checkpoints on the roads everywhere and it is difficult to travel more than about 30km without encountering one. At most stops we are waved through with a friendly smile and hello, at a few we have been stopped and our passports examined but nothing more than that. My favourite experience was one where the policeman stopped us and asked to see our passports for “registration”. Steven took them into the tiny guardhouse, just big enough for two people to squeeze inside and the door was closed behind them. I sat outside on a concrete bollard in the sun and kept an eye on the bikes. Soon I heard raised voices from the guardhouse. I started listening, alarmed at what might be going on, but soon I relaxed and started giggling. “Manchester United! Wayne Rooney! Sir Alex Ferguson! David Beckham! Chelsea! Roman Abramovich! Arsenal!….” and so on. The policeman was getting more and more excited and his voice was getting louder and louder until he was shouting out all the names of football teams and footballers that he could think of. Steven was obviously joining in enthusiastically and they spent a good few minutes happily communicating in this way. They both emerged from the box smiling and we were waved on our way. As for “registration”, he didn’t even bother to open our passports let alone write anything down. Fingers crossed we meet more policemen like this one!