Greetings from Tajikistan! Been awhile, and I have been busy…
The “Road” to Uzbekistan
The “road” from Beynu is difficult to describe. We had taken a room there after much exploration. A chase had ensued involving a paddle ball and some Uzbek kids, winding up with a lost ball and Frederic just about tearing off his toe. We finally found a reasonably priced hotel, where we were lulled to sleep by the peaceful sounds of a prostitute getting pounded out over and over again next door and then woken up at seven in the morning by the hotel staff, which was apparently the checkout time. Much arguing in Russian ensued, to no avail, though ultimately we lounged in their lobby until four in the evening. All of us save for Cody left at around four and found ourselves on a shattered Soviet-era road with rebar sticking out of it that quickly gave way to silty dirt. We camped after about 20 kilometers, missing Cody, who had been too weary to carry on with us. The next day was horrible: hot, dusty, slow and torturous. Asphalt can erode in many ways, a thousand pictures would not suffice to describe the phenomenon that is this path. Little archipelagoes, canyons, craters, sinkholes, mesas, divots, scars, punctures, landslides, speed bumps, gravel, sand, dust. The face of the moon would still seem unblemished by comparison if it had twice as many craters. We made it though.
Uzbekistan is a country with many faces.
The first interesting experience occurred about 800 meters after the border: there is a cafe/hotel there which is essentially a truck stop.
We crossed late, about six in the evening, and without much resistance we agreed to sleep in a yurt for 5 dollars a person. We took showers in the main building and proceeded to exploit the wifi, drink some beers and order some dinner. An Uzbek money-changer invited himself to our table, black-out drunk, but very nice. He offered Zach some vodka and proceeded to pour out a shot about two inches to the left of where the shot glass was. He eventually left, but not before I beat him at arm wrestling and a protracted argument about the mountain of money he was trying to give us for some reason. After seven or eight attempts, we set it aside for him to come back for later. (He never did- the mountain of money turned out to be about ten dollars. Thanks, I guess).
Almost immediately Freddie was adopted by the table behind us and pictures began to be taken and bowls of vodka poured. As I drank my second beer I was motioned over to the table in front where I practiced my non-existent Russian, conjectured about what they were trying to tell me and drank three bowls of vodka with a kebab. Very generous people. Soon they beckoned Alize over, the California beach girl, and many a selfie was taken. The rest of the night got a little chaotic after that. Two or three sets of Mongol rallyers ate at our table, drinks were ordered, as well as more food. At about 3 in the morning I found myself running around collecting money and trying to sort out a single bill that encompassed the purchases of four or five separate parties. We worked it out in the end, after a long argument via google translate that was concluded when I realized there was a ten percent service charge that exactly accounted for the discrepancy we were arguing over. Exhausted, I headed for bed but was dragged to another table for two more bowls of vodka.
The next day was a rest day, more or less. We were recovering slowly when who walks in the door but Cody? There was much celebration over the reuniting of the Camel Krew. After some more rehabilitation we rode about 20k that evening just to get some distance from the place.
There was a chaikhana 140 kilometers away, which was a stretch but Frederic and I decided tentatively to shoot for it the next day. That morning we split up, me and Frederic, Zach and Alize, Freddie and Cody. I was not feeling well, however, and the road was junk. We passed Zach and Alize, who had started before us, and I stopped off for some breakfast with them as Frederic blasted on ahead. We three started off together, and I was feeling more hungover than the day before. I stop and poop, which is a bit difficult with the flat openness of the desert, but I found a hole some machine had dug and let loose. Bad stool, runny. I felt better though and pushed on, outpacing the others a bit, but then I felt the urge again,found another hole, and pooped again. A bit nervous, but feeling better, again I set off. I outpaced the other two and started smashing, chewing up the kilometers and suddenly intent on catching Frederic. I rode hard through the hot sun and kept up good energy all day, but I had to pull over four more times to poop. I ended up catching Fred and beating him to the chaikhana, which is a rare thing. We stayed the night there and I was sick every hour or so, reasonably afraid that I would poop the bed.
The next day I met Frederic at breakfast and simply said, “I need medicine.” I was worried that it would take some time to find some, but Fred happened to have some, and within an hour I was plugged up, and extremely grateful for this. It is scary when your body cannot stop purging, all your fluids and nutrients just washing right out… I really don’t understand how it is possible. The rest of the crew caught up, and then it started pouring rain, so we stayed another night. We were entertained by the Uzbek kids of the family, who showed us their baby camels, played catch, and one of the younger girls was kind enough to serenade us with some Madonna, which was very sweet. The power went off about 9 o’clock and then we had music and a light show from the boys, who had a little segwey type thing they proficiently zipped around on.
The next day we were off early, with a tailwind. Fred left an hour before the rest of us, and I didn’t see him for a good 5 days after that. The rest of us did 130k before 5 o’clock, ate some dinner and made a fire at camp, roasting tomatoes for lack of anything else to cook over a fire. From this point the race to ride all of Uzbek began.
It really seemed impossible. I had to average 130k a day with no rest days and to accomplish this the wind and the road conditions couldn’t be too unreasonable. We lost 4 hours in Nukus trying to track down supplies, mostly American dollars, which I eventually discovered. We set ourselves up for a 120k day into Khiva, which was out of the way for me, but I didn’t want to miss it. We constantly discussed the reality of hitchhiking, the impossibility of riding all the way, and the value of being devoted to our style of travel versus missing quality time in these Silk Road cities. Ultimately I decided to try to see everything and also ride all the way. At the very least I wanted to hitchhike as little as possible and was frustrated by the time limitation. My plan was to arrive in Khiva around midday or early afternoon, explore the place, then set off the next morning for Bukhara. If all went well, I could have a rest day in Bukhara and one in Samarkand as well.
In the morning we crossed the craziest, janky old bridge I have ever seen outside of Kipchak across the Amu Darya river, which had guards posted either side to keep us from taking pictures. It was a real Indiana Jones situation, with sections linked together to form a bridge, which were covered with steel panels to drive over that had been welded, broken, patched, broken, welded, and broken over and over again. It was difficult to find a path that didn’t run our tires into jagged broken metal! Incredible experience.
I got ahead of the group a little before the turn-off to Khiva. I came to the intersection, which had a steady stream of buses and vans crossing from the town of Gurlen. I was hungry, so I stopped off in Gurlen to have some lunch, then set off down the road, eager to get to Khiva before 4 o’clock. The road was terrible, and I was anxious to make progress. I got stuck behind a big truck full of brick that was going about my speed and just belching diesel, so I decided to stop off and check my progress, allowing the truck to get ahead a bit. I look at my map and am stunned: I had gone 15 kilometers, but ON THE WRONG ROAD. I simply could not accept this reality into my world view. Not only was it the wrong road, it was in EXACTLY the wrong direction, West. There was also no way to tie it into a loop of some sort. The shortest way back was to turn around, but the road was so bad I elected to ride another 5 kilometers and meet back up with the main road about 12 kilometers from where I initially made this fatal turn.
It is a strange thing when one cannot assimilate irrefutable raw data into your conception of the universe. There is a short-circuit in your brain, and certain walls you have erected crumble, some soet of streak is ended and one finds oneself kneeling amid the rubble, absently handling some charred pieces as you float through the purgatory while you reconfigure the world according to the new information.
There are a few different influences in my mind, however. I mentioned earlier that my spirit animal is a donkey. Maybe it’s more of a goat, but the point is that I am hard-headed and very obstinate, which is peoving ro be an invaluable trait in these circumstances. So, while I struggled mightily to overcome the tsunami of self-pity that threatened to totally engulf me, some other more sensible part began to pedal, knowing full-well that the struggle was pointless and the information wa correct. So I cycled on while I pored over my existing framework of the universe, trying to find some loophole that might undo what has happened, or discover some external source to blame for my own foolishness. That is the problem with personal responsibility though, you have a lot of freedom but total responsibility (at least, you split the weight between the universe and yourself).
I was far from lacking solutions though, I could humble myself and stick out a damned thumb! Ultimately, this battle boiled down to yet another battle with my own ego. I was cursing the universe for suffwring that was entirely self-inflicted. The outcome of this was a stubborn resolve to cycle on, to avoid hitching unless absolutely necessary. In a word, my ego was victorious, as is the usual outcome. I realized that I absolutely refuse to give up, even ad I cry for mercy, in my low points even asking the universe to relieve me of this burden, for which I feel inadequate and unqualified to nurture and caretake. But I always rise, refuse to give up. Stubborness shares a border with stupidity and I think I cross the border enough that the guards know me.
I was offered a ride three times between there and Bukhara. I didn’t take them. Instead, I caught the group that day 30k outside of Khiva, finishing off a 160k day into the hostel, where I took a rest day. I was beat up, so I did a measly 100k the day we left, but after that I realized I needed to buck up and leave the group behind, which I was loathe to do. So I did another 160k the next day. After that 194k into Bukhara. I spent a half day there and rode 70 or 80 with Frederic, who had smashed there as well. The next day 135k on a bad road with bad wind. After that, 145k or so across the Tajik border on the day my visa expired. I spent 2 hours in Samarkand and hit the border around 6 p.m., then camped in an orchard, absolutely exhausted.
On the way to the border I was in a hurry, you understand. I stopped to pee about 15k from Tajikistan and leaned my bike against a tree. As I was droppinmy zipper I heard the bike fall over, which happens, but for some reason I turned to look, and good thing I did:
Instead of falling away from the tree, it had fallen around the tree and into an irrigation ditch. What I saw was my bike upside down with one front pannier underwater. I zipped up and dashed over to the bike, remarking as I ran what was contained in that pannier. The irony of it was that morning I switched my food bag and electronics bag by accident. So, the bag with my passport, toilet paper, journals, book, keepsakes, camera, and tablet was currently drowning. I rip the bike out, showering myself with mud and pull my tablet out. By the grace of God my tablet was dry. I keep it in a waterproof bag, but I never seal it, it was just folded over but this was suficient to save it. This was important because my visa was on it, and I would need it in the next half hour to avoid getting fined. My camera was again drowned, but I was not concerned. Tablet before all else. I began to ride and noticed that my balance was way off. Of course, the bag was still full of water, a good liter at least. I dump it out and continue. The guards were perplexed by my soggy passport, but other than that I passed through without issue.
The next day I would discover just how much paper I had in that bag. All of this was initially protected by a zip-lock that over the last six months had ripped a bit, so I tore off the zipper. By now it was simply a pocket to keep the papers together and totally useless against water damage. This is not an issue, my Ortliebs are completely immune to rain, but I advise against dropping them in a creek. So, no pictures of Uzbekistan for now, sorry! The camera should dry out in a few weeks, just after I get through the gorgeous Pamirs! Haha, but I have the tablet, not to worry.