I got off the night train and walked straight to the Tajikistan consulate. I was there an hour before ‘opening time’ (not that that means anything to them) and already there was a huge crowd outside – they’d been closed Monday & Tuesday due to the Uzbek Independence Day so it was no surprise that they were busy.
I’m so sick of this scrum – it’s the same routine every time. The list is full of about 75-100 names by the time they open. I make pals with the guards and try to make sure that I get in at least near the front. Everyone is made to stand back on the other side of the road, but as ‘opening time’ nears they slowly migrate across the road to the entrance until the guards shout at everyone to get back. A couple of the older people tell the guards they need to sit down after standing so long and point to the conveniently placed bench just on the other side of the metal fence. One granny blagged her way in to sit down but then legged it for the consulate door and the guard had to chase after her. Usually a couple of the younger pretty girls try and flirt their way to the front of the list, as do the business men who are organising company transits.
After a couple hours of nothing happening (apart from the gate opening occasionally to let out/in a posh car) the guards get a call and get ready to open. Everyone rushes forward, despite the ordered ‘list’ and the guards decide that’s enough chaos for the day and get a huge barrier out to keep the mob a couple of meters away from the embassy fence. You’d think that the list of names would make it a nice logical queue – but no, none of that in Uzbekistan. The place is total chaos, everyone surging forward shouting stuff I didn’t understand. I do the same, waving my passport and trying to catch eye contact with the guards.
Every time – the exact same madness. Why can’t they just queue up like normal people? Part of me feels sorry for the guards having to deal with all this mess, but the other part of me thinks they deserve the stress for not being able to come up with a better system. I miss that about English people – our ability, readiness and indeed, eagerness to form an orderly queue. Here it’s every man for himself.
Inside I received good news, thank God. I applied and could return for pick up at 3pm. As did everyone else, so it was the same situation in the afternoon – now the fourth time for me. I can’t hack it anymore, but fortunately I wouldn’t need to – my visa was ready, I coughed up and went back to the station to catch the sleeper train back to Bukhara.
I only just made it and as I walked along the train to the cheap ‘platskart’ carriage at the very end all the guards tried to get bribes to let me into a nicer ‘kupe’. One of them ran his thumb along his throat when I said ‘no thanks – platskart’. It’s not that bad!
The guards in my carriage wanted me to join them for a drink, but I suspect they just wanted me for my pack of crisps. After a little while their boss turned up, told them off and I was kicked back to my bed – a narrow plank dangling over the aisle.
I wasted about 40 hours on trains for that visa and about 10 hours loitering around the consulate. I got off the train in the morning and was attacked by the usual mob of taxi drivers waiting like vultures. Putting my headphones in and ignoring them never works so I have to try new tactics to entertain myself instead of shouting at them to leave me alone, this time when they asked me where I was going I told them a place in Tashkent. ‘But this no Tashkent, this Bukhara’ they’d reply. I’d give them my most suprised face ‘shit! this isn’t Tashkent?’ and then they’d just look confused and worried for me as I wandered of for the mrshetka minibus (that costs a tenth of their price).
I’ve done this too many times now – the guy at the station somsa cafe knows my morning order and on the mrshetka minibus back to town I know exactly when we pass the mosque where everyone in the bus cups their hands to their chin and pulls them over their face as we drive by.
When I got back to my bike the front wheel was flat again. That tyre is completeley worn – the inner green belt is showing in multiple places and it keeps puncturing. No worries – I have a spare tyre that I bought in Iran, ready for this change when the tyre really wasn’t road safe (you’ll have seen it hanging of the back of my bike in pictures from the last few posts). But, when I tried to put it on – would you believe it – it was the wrong bloody size. I’m an idiot. I just got a 28” wheel not realising that they aren’t universal.
I also finally checked my spare chain in Bukhara that I’ve been carrying since Denmark. Guess what? That was also the wrong size. So I’ve been carrying a nice bit of added weight in the form of both a chain and tyre that were of absolutely no use to me. Sometimes I wonder how I’ve got this far…
I should have cycled to the bicycle bazaar in town to get a new tyre but I couldn’t be bothered. No excuse better than that.
It was already past midday and I wanted to get on with things. So, I pedaled off with fingers crossed. The road was boring, just as I expected. Flat, dry desert. But one thing did feel strange – a very unfamiliar sensation. Could this be… tailwind!? Unbelievable – for the first time in 6 weeks I was flying with the wind rather than battling my way into it.
I pitched my tent in the desert. I was terrified of getting a puncture in my worn tyre so I carried my bike from the road to avoid all the nasty shrubs that decorate the sand.
It was my 150th day of cycling. It felt like a big milestone, especially as I’ve been stuck on 149 for so long…
As I lay down in my tent I remembered that I had the numbers of the girls I’d met on the first train I took to Tashkent who’d taken all the pictures of themselves on my camera (see previous post). I couldn’t recall who was who so I texted the two that I thought were the ones who spoke a bit of English.
I reached Qarshi and one of the women had replied saying I could come and visit her family. I had some time to kill so I cycled over to a very strange looking WWII memorial I’d noticed in town. It was one of the strangest Soviet concrete slabs I’ve seen.
I had to take pictures with a bunch of people in town – sometimes the attention can be exhausting here.
When my host did turn up to meet me I was suprised to see it was the 14 year old girl from the train. Whoops – I definitely got my names mixed up there! Luckily her old man didn’t find it weird that I’d been texting his young daughter asking for a sleep over and the family let me stay the night.
I got excited when the father said he was getting out his ‘Uzbek wine’ (I haven’t had a glass of wine in months) but it turned out to be a bottle of cognac that we had to shot in horribly large quantities once again.
The road finally started to climb the next day. I could see the mountains looming in the distance and I couldn’t wait to get into them properly. The roads in Uzbekistan had been extremely unexciting so far and frankly I was sick of cycling in desert.
Luckily there was a hotel in one town so I could stay the night there. I needed to registar my stay as if I don’t do so every three nights I could get into trouble at the border. I spent my morning in Qarshi running around trying to bribe hotels to register without me staying – but they weren’t having it at all. One guy didn’t understand at all what was going on when I tried to wave a couple of dollars under his nose and the other place just said point blank ‘njet – danger’.
I winced slightly when he showed me the price list – $22 a night. Ouch! But when I asked for the rate in Uzbek Som it was the official exchange rate (so nearly half the listed price). So of course – I paid in Som, but that meant I had £2.50 worth of local money left to my name… Game on!
The road meandered up into the moutains. Within a couple of hours Uzbekistan had gone from one of the most boring countries to one the most intriguing. It was the Central Asia I’d imagined – rolling sandy steppes and washed out villages dotted across the hillsides.
Unfortunately I was sick, again. Spent the afternoon struggling to cycle with my stomach cramping horribly. It was awful, and not fair at all! I was so healthy the first 6 months and now I’ve been ill 3 times in the last couple of months.
In one small village a guy flagged me down and offered me tea – I gladly accepted, any excuse to get off the bicycle. I followed him into his farm house and the garden was full of people. It was Sunday (the only day off in the Uzbek working week) and they were clearly having a good old family gathering that afternoon.
As soon as I sat down I was given a huge bowl of plov (a staple Uzbek dish) and lots of melon. I passed the guys my passports to look at and gave all the kids coins from the previous coutries I’ve cycled and I was instantly the most popular person around. People are easy to please sometimes!
While I was sitting there one of them shouted – ‘velik! uch tourist’. Something along the lines of – three tourists on bicycle. Really? I didn’t completeley understand/believe them, but it was possible – despite the fact that I’ve seen no cyclists on the road for weeks there are clearly lots of us around, the Pamir bottleneck effect is taking place along these roads.
Half an hour later they said the same, but this time just two. I put my shoes on and headed out to the road, but whoever had been there had disappeared. A mystery.
I like that everyone cycles here, but it can be a pain too. In every village a local kid will come out to ride alongside me. They’ll do circles around me showing how much quicker they are, doing skids or crap wheelies and grinning at me as they wobble along the roads. Am I supposed to be impressed that they are faster than me? They wouldn’t even be able to ride my heavy bike!
In one village this kid came out and started doing loops around me and then practicing his skids annoyingly close in front of me. As he turned back to check I was watching him his front wheel slipped of the edge of the street (it’s just sand at the edge of the tarmac) and he crashed onto the road. I checked to see he was OK, which he was (just about), with a nice amount of skin scrapped off skin of his hands and knees. I left thinking – serves you right pal, no one likes a cocky show off.
I’m sure that makes me a terrible person…
Just before the town Boyson there was a little mountain pass. I stopped at the view point and was asked to take a photo with a bunch of very drunk guys (I think the kid was the only sober one, but I doubt he was driving).
From there I could see the valley looked quite busy, so I looked over a ledge on the next hairpin bend and I found an incredible spot to pitch my tent. One of the best locations so far.
I’ll let the picture do the talking…
The next morning I was leisurely cycling when I heard a snap and looked down to see my chain hanging off my cassette in two halves. Shit. How do you fix a broken chain? That’s been on my ‘to do’ list for the last 8 months.
Hmm. Well – I guess I would have realised that my spare chain didn’t fit fairly soon after all! I think you need a special ‘chain break’ tool to fix a chain but I had’t got arond to buying one of those either…
I recalled a guy in a shop somewhere giving me a couple of spare links so I dug around in my bags for about half an hour and then – bingo! Found them. They were the sliding ones too – I pulled out the broken ones, slotted my new ones in and was back on the road. Phew.
Actually I’m never too worried about being ‘stuck’ somewhere. There’s usually cars around and I can hitch a ride with a little patience anywhere. The problem is that I’m so desperate to cycle every km – so I would probably hitch back to the place I was to continue again, and I don’t want to be in a silly situation like that.
A couple of hours later I was minding my own business, pedaling away when I heard a ‘hello!’ and saw a GoPro in my face, wielded by another cyclist. It was the two French/Dutch guys I’d met in Bukhara! They’d left a day before me, but gotten sick so I’d caught up with them. I was happy to have some cycling company again – I hadn’t cycled with anyone else since Armenia and that was a good while ago now.
The best thing was that I could pinch some money of them! I was sick of stale bread, porridge and instant noodles…
We stopped in one village cafe for some grub. Sometimes the food in Uzbekistan is amazing, sometimes awful. At least it’s always dirt cheap. On this occasion all they had was boiled beef, swimming in oil and fat. I say beef – at least half of that was fat too.
The owner was a funny guy – he was desperate to show us his roses and wanted me to take a photo of them. I said I would after I’d eaten. I ‘forgot’, but when we were leaving he came running over looking distraught that we hadn’t photographed them – so as a result I have this very strange snap of me and him next to these stupid roses…
Apparently there was an English pair ahead, as well as a Dutch guy – that explained who the other three cyclists had been. Perhaps this is where I finally start drowning in cyclists. On one road we passed a Ukrainian guy with the most knackered bike and heavy load I’ve ever seen. He didn’t speak any English which I thought was impressive, but he showed me his route on a map and I realised that he’d come the whole way through Russian speaking countries.
We stopped in the last town before the border to buy food and were very quickly surrounded by people. I’ve had enough of being a celebrity now. Too many months of being stared at. I don’t mind having to wave all day, shout hello or tell people my country – that’s all OK. I don’t mind the staring either, when it’s just a nosey glance.
What I can’t stand is this gormless standing and staring. For example – I’ll sit down somewhere to eat an apple. Someone turns up and says something in Russian to me. I’ll let them know that I can’t speak Russian or Uzbek. Then, instead of asking me anything else, taking a picture or just going away and finding something better to do with their day they’ll get a comfy squat going and just stare. It pisses me off so much. Don’t they have some thing more interesting to do? I’m a white guy on a bicycle – do you think I eat an apple any different to you? No – so go away!
We really struggled to find somewhere to camp that night. Everywhere was farm land – mostly cotton fields. We ended up riding an hour in the dark before we could find somewhere to kip.
The next morning we reached the border. This week had been more exhausting than I’d expected.
At the crossing it was the usual time wasting. The girl gave me my most thorough search so far – every nook and cranny. Through the oily bicycle repair bag, my dirty laundry, rummaged through the shampoo covered toiletries bag and the out-of-date condoms in my medicine bag. She opened up my laptop to look for pictures of me with my terrorist pals or any kinky pornography.
It took her a good while to figure out that my power bank was not a hard drive, and I watched her for a few minutes trying to open a GPX sat nav file thinking it was pictures before she gave up on the laptop. Then she found my iPhone in its secret pocket but I pretended not to know how to operate the ‘stuck’ homescreen button so she gave up on that one too.
I was a little nervous about the gaps in my registration slips (one was more than three days) but the guy didn’t seem too bothered about that. He was more concerned about my new beard disguise – but I suppose that will be the same at every border until I shave!
Uzbekistan, it’s been a blast. A nice mini-holiday off the bike (if a little frustrating too), some beautiful mountains towards the end, wonderful people and the most impressive tourist ‘sights’ of my trip so far.