The weeks leading up to Samarkand had been spent crossing vast swathes of emptiness, battling ferocious head winds, and dealing with the challenge of cycling in really cold temperatures. This of course was interrupted with the immense pleasure of visiting some truly remarkable Great Game cities. Leaving Samarkand felt like the end of our Great Game and the beginning of a new chapter in our journey to New Zealand.
The first day cycling out of the city was astonishing; the sun was shining, revealing extraordinary mountains that had remained shrouded in mist for most of our time in Samarkand; the roads were good, we were making excellent time, and we had our first hills since Azerbaijan. It felt good to be pushing up the hills, probably more for the change of scenery than the physical exertion, but nonetheless it felt good. As the kilometres ticked by at a rather alarming speed we realised that wild camping was going to be virtually impossible. Unlike the north west of Uzbekistan where you could in theory camp almost anywhere, the south east is heavily cultivated and populated, which makes it almost impossible to find a suitable camping location. As the day was drawing in we were starting to fret a little about our situation, when on the horizon a building resembling a very posh çayhana came into view… Not only was it the most upmarket çayhana in the world, it also sported three very fine yurts in the front garden and after much negotiating we eventually managed to secure a spot in one of the yurts for the evening. Result!
Aside from the excellent accommodation, the people who ran the çayhana were fantastic. As with every çayhana in Uzbekistan the first thing we enquired about was plov; Plov is possibly the best thing ever to come out of Central Asia and we both get quite upset when it is not available. The English-speaking son of the owner pointed out that their plov was not of high quality and we should consider something else. Thinking this was a ploy to buy more expensive food I asked to see the plov being prepared. What I experienced was the best part of an hour in the huge kitchen servicing the çayhana “chatting” with the owner (who speaks fluent Spanish, which strangely enough, given that I speak no Spanish, made it slightly easier to communicate), listening to him crank out some tunes on his guitar and converting the staunchly vodka consuming Uzbeks to beer (even if only for one evening). By the end of our beer drinking session it was confirmed that the plov was indeed not fit for consumption. Free beer, free plov advice, numerous kms under the belt, excellent company and a supremely warm and cosy place to sleep… the day had been a raging success and we were really happy to be back on the bikes pushing towards Bishkek.
We broke the journey from Samarkand to Bishkek up by spending time in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent at an excellent hostel. As Katie proclaimed on leaving Tashkent it was a nice, inoffensive city; aside from that there is not much to say about it. What our time in Tashkent did allow for was to reflect on a successful crossing of Uzbekistan, which up until now has been by far and away the toughest thing we have ever done. Aside from the physical and mental challenges of cycling across a frozen desert there were a number of country specific idiosyncrasies:
Registration – by law you are (apparently) required to be registered every third night in the country (depends entirely on who you talk to). This is not outlined in any official documentation that we found, but is outlined on almost every cycling blog ever written (thankfully). Not wanting to cause any trouble when leaving the country we religiously went about collecting the registrations, just to have them completely ignored by the border guards on exiting…
Currency – for some strange, unknown reason (certainly unknown to us) there is an official rate for the Uzbekistan Som and an unofficial rate for the Uzbekistan Som. The official rate is somewhere in the region of 2480:1USD, the unofficial rate is anywhere between 2500:1USD and 3800:1USD; this made the country either expensive or cheap depending on the rate we were able to obtain from a money fixer. Not only does the currency fluctuate by as much as 50% it generally comes in denominations of 500 (or 1000) Som, meaning that when changing money you are left with large piles representing very little. Once, when changing $200USD we received no fewer than 1552 notes… talk about feeling like a gangster when going to buy anything!
Based on our previous experiences in Kazakhstan it was with some trepidation that we finally left the relative comfort of Tashkent and headed for the border; which at 30km from the city centre did not take long at all. Fortunately the same could be said for the border crossing as well. On the Uzbekistan side the vehicle lane was closed, thus meaning us (and our beloved bicycles) had to join the throngs trying to force their way to the exit counter. More than once a pedal or pannier would unexpectedly surge forward in the human scrum and attack a poor unsuspecting local. This did not make us at all popular with the local population, in fact, you could say it made us particularly unpopular. Thankfully the border guards could see that we were upsetting the proverbial apple cart and eventually we were ushered forward to help alleviate the unnecessary stress our presence was creating. With Uzbekistan cleared we made our way to the Kazakhstan border where the border guard immediately set about hitting on Katie… this was an excellent result and it did not take long until we were again ushered to the front of a queue, issued with our 15 day visa and sent on our way. Brilliant!
On entering Kazakhstan it was immediately obvious that it was not the same desolate, almost apocalyptic Kazakhstan that we had entered into at the beginning of January. Dramatic mountains to our right and endless grasslands to our left had replaced the desert of Aktau; the grey drabness we associate with Caspian Kazakhstan gave way to the sun glistening in pre-spring crispness and most importantly the temperature was above zero.
This new version of Kazakhstan gave us the confidence that camping was the only option, so camp we did. Due to immense cold and our love of a warm bed we had not camped since the early days in Azerbaijan, but it did not take long to get back into the rhythm; with the tent set up, terrible dinner and a warm cup of tea in our bellies we were able to really appreciate the beauty of this country. The stars were shining, the mountains were majestically silhouetted in the moonlight and the sound of dogs barking was nowhere to be heard. This version of paradise lasted exactly half the night! The second half of the night was spent hoping the tent would not blow (or float) away. Thankfully neither happened and we awoke to a very fine stream meandering past the end of our tent and yet another flat tyre. This flat tyre game that the bike was playing was not appreciated at all, particularly with the rain returning and still 60km to cycle before we could find somewhere completely dry to stay.
To put the bike’s flat tyre game into perspective, it was the third flat I had had since arriving in Uzbekistan from the same tyre. Before leaving Britain I had openly proclaimed that the only thing I could really fix on a bike was a flat tyre, but this made a complete mockery of that! Eventually, and entirely by accident I found the nasty little piece of metal that was the cause of much frustration (and unnecessary stress in the desert). It should be said that the first flat tyre appeared to be caused by a deterioration of an existing patch (just coincidence I thought… Sherlock Holmes would not have been happy with me about deducing that); the second flat tyre, which was a very slow leak appeared to be due to a leaky valve (probably because I accidentally leant on it or something equally stupid); and the third flat tyre, well that was found on a cold, wet morning where my jovial mood was nowhere to be found. They apparently call this sort of thing character building?!?!
If the day started badly, it quickly descended into one of those days that people say you look back on fondly. I don’t look back on it fondly yet, and I can almost guarantee I never will! Quickly following the flat tyre was the burnt porridge, the realisation that most of our gear was now wet (due to condensation and the rain), and to make matters worse the road we started cycling on was diverted onto what is essentially a country lane. This meant that four lanes of traffic became two, and in some cases there was only enough room for one lane and no bicycles. We spent a lot of time in the mud, which also had the added pleasure of bringing us into contact with the huge local dogs. At one stage I genuinely thought at least one of us was going to be eaten alive by a group of dogs, so I unleashed the pepper spray (the first and hopefully only time we use it). This just added to the all-round hilarity of how bad a day could get and to top it all off the tail wind that had been caressing us along turned into the number one enemy…
Note-to-self: when spraying pepper spray, make sure of a strong head wind! The pepper spray did not in anyway, shape or form get close to one of the dogs chasing us. The dogs, as per usual stopped at their invisible boundary and I was left immersed in a very fine cloud of pepper spray that blew all over my face the moment I unleashed its fury. I can confirm that pepper spraying oneself is not recommended! We limped into Shymkent; wet, (partially blind), and ready for a warm shower. After looking at the weather forecast we decided that the best course of action was at least three nights in a warm, dry hotel room.
Something incredibly odd has also started to become a common daily occurrence in Kazakhstan; hopefully it stops soon. We have had a number of cars slowing right down to a crawl and then someone (often the driver) leaning out the window to “interview” us on their mobile phones. I guess the “interview” would be fine if it were in a language we understood, and the driver was keeping an eye on the road, sadly neither ever happens. More often than not if I get out a camera and start videoing them back they pull off quite quickly, annoyed at why someone would ever do this.
On the penultimate day in Kazakhstan we had set ourselves the arduous task of cycling about 140km so that we could make the final two days into Bishkek as relaxing as possible (relaxing is good when approaching any city). Not only did we pass our 9000km mark we were also reminded at just how great cycle touring is. We arrived in the city of Merke on dusk and went about asking people for directions to the nearest guesthouse when out of the corner of my eye a car approached going the wrong way and stopped next to us. My gut reaction was “great, someone else to video us”; I could not have been more wrong, and felt completely ashamed of my thoughts. Two very kind people got out of the car, stated they were both teachers (one an English teacher) and offered to take us in for the evening. What ensued was one of the most memorable nights of our journey. This was not one of those (often) cringe “homestays” that have so regularly been a low point in a holiday (everything seems kind of fake, false and put on for the foreigners who are paying); this was a genuine “act of kindness”. We were fed until bursting, and then fed some more; we got to listen to traditional Kazakh music being strummed out by the father of the house; and most importantly we got to interact with the family around the dinner table. It truly was a wonderful way of breaking down barriers and seeing just how a local family lives. When sleep took me that evening I can remember thinking how incredibly lucky we were to be cycling around the world and meeting truly wonderful, genuine and kind hearted people.
The next day, as planned, was rather relaxing. The Kazakh/Kyrgyz border was the easiest so far, and pushing the bike across into Kyrgyzstan felt as if we were back in Africa. The cold hard efficiency of the Kazakh border gave way to a ramshackle of buildings flanking a rather rutted, baked mud road. The smells of shashliq were thick on the air, moneychangers were aplenty and all of this under the watchful gaze of more incredible mountain scenery. It probably also helped that I had just received news (cheers Robbie) of Southee and McCullum giving the English a good old fashioned hiding in the cricket ☺ Life was good!
The day went much the same way, the people in Kyrgyzstan are more interested in waving or talking than interviewing from a moving vehicle and the scenery is just ridiculous. The fairly large town of Kara Balta had our names written all over it as somewhere where we could spend the evening. Little did we know that there was virtually no accommodation, and the accommodation that we eventually found had not been recommended by locals; in fact it is fair to say they had warned us about staying there.
How bad cold it be?… Well it was pretty bad; it felt like a disused mental institution, and I had the disturbing feeling that bad things had certainly happened there. But it was a roof over our heads and was super cheap. It was also the sort of place that you just knew something interesting would happen. Later that night I was woken from a surprisingly deep sleep by the sound of knocking down the hallway, I thought to myself that if someone knocks on our door I would probably just hide behind Katie (preferably under the bed) armed with the pepper spray (of course my eyes would be closed after the last use of it) and hope they just go away. Thankfully I did not have to be mortified by hiding behind my wife as the knocking stopped, a door opened and the lady of the night (we later deduced this from the unsavoury drunk sounds) was welcomed in to someone’s room. The next morning I had the pleasure of bumping into the lady of the night as she kindly held the door open to allow me to push my bike out into the beaming sun (the world always seems better in the light of day). Not only did she open the door, flash a rather interesting gold plated smile at me and intoxicate me with alcohol fumes; she offered her services for the princely sum of 200 Som (just north of 2 quid). I was taken aback and could only think of shaking my head, moving away slowly, and pointing to my wedding ring. This had the exact opposite intended effect, so I indicated that I would go inside and be back in a short while. Thankfully Katie appeared at the door and the lady of the night skulked off into the day.
The final push to Bishkek passed without incident or excitement, which is exactly what we needed!