A vast white wall of mountains – the very western gates of China – stare back at us now somewhat tauntingly as if to say, “are you ready for this?” And we do not know. But we are tickled with excitement at the prospect of the entirely different to come. The Chinese border controls of Irkestam, where Kyrgyzstan abuts the Eastern behemoth, lie a mere 80km off to the right from where we currently sit in the sleepy Kyrgz village of Sary Tash, attempting to catch our breath after thousands of kilometres of, well, breathless sky-high cycling. We presently gasp for oxygen at 3200m above sea level after having spent large chunks of the last four weeks well above 4000m where our lungs have persistently grumbled at the lack of fuel. But we are getting well ahead of ourselves – skittish excitement again has overtaken measured reporting of our trail tales.
It is way back in the much lower and decidedly hotter climes of Uzbekistan and its sand-lands that we must drag you back, to more than a month ago. Such a lapse in time is testament to our indiscipline in keeping the blog up to date, the utter lack of internet access away from the primary populated arteries of Central Asia, being entirely absorbed by our days full of cycling and finally, running the gauntlet with the local cuisine and its highly dubious hygiene.
We had made it across the deserts of Turkmenistan and done so in strict accordance with the requirements of our stingy transit visa and, as promised, green fields did unfold to right and left of the highway that rose gently to the notoriously special Uzbek town of Bukhara. Within a few kilometres of the border we were enjoying (gorging ourselves on) the excitable hospitality of an Uzbek matriarch who dominated an equally lively family unit. Having consumed our yearly quota of the ubiquitous watermelon we were soon within sight of the turquoise domes and khaki minarets of one of the most famous of Silk Road cities. Once the mother-ship of intellectual, religious and cultural enlightenment, the town is now a pleasant (if somewhat over-preened) walkable museum, packed with sparkly ancient medressas, foreboding citadels and eager hawkers of all, and anything, Central Asian.
We had both visited here in 2006 and Francesca had been here in 2003 and the metamorphosis since those days was palpable. No gently naïve local traders anymore but ruthless business folk primed to extract the very last Uzbek Sum from your pocket. But we were grateful for the chance to re-acquaint ourselves with the joys of Snickers and good quality (shhhh!) Coca-Cola (Yes, the excellence of Black Stuff varies wildly across the region and you need to suss out your dealer before any purchase).
Both the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand are as synonymous with the Silk Road as they are with the antics of British and Russian spies during the years of Great Game activity, as these two imperial super-powers vied for control of Ye Olde Turkestan and generally world domination at the turn of the last century. Surprisingly, given the relatively newly nascent nature of this former Soviet Republic, the Russian connection has waned over the last 8 years to the extent that only the wrinkly elders continue to speak a smattering of Russian.
The temptation was strong to re-visit Samarkand not only to tread the footsteps of former explorers, adventurers, imperial cartographers and devious spies, but also to re-live the scene of one of our greatest triumphs and the source of inspiration for our current Odycycle. It was in Samarkand 5 years ago that we stumbled across the disconsolate Maurizio, a Swiss-Italian who had just had his beautiful touring bike pinched (the very bike that had carried him from Basel and was to take him yet further onto and into Tibet, to Lhasa on the infamous and no longer traversable G219).
It was while combing the back-streets of the city that we came across the 10-year old thieves and wrestled the disoriented stead away from its captors and returned it to Maurizio’s tear-filled arms. As the vodka flowed that night in celebration of the re-coupling of man and machine, Sam and Francesca quietly clasped hands and made their pact that they would one day trace much of Maurizio’s tire tracks on their own way East.
But a return to the Den of Thieves (we had our camera nicked the very same day we returned Maurizio’s bike 5 years ago!), was not on the cards for us this time. The Samarkand border crossing was closed and in any case, both of us had already done sufficient gawping at the stunning Islamic architecture of Samarkand’s prime jewel, the Registan, and Bukhara had once more injected us with a satisfactory cultural fix to allow us to concentrate on traversing the southern plains of Uzbekistan and make a bee-line for the cool mountains of Tajikistan.
The crushing emotional blow for Sam of not only reaching the ripe old age of 32 in dusty Guzor, but also his entire family forgetting about it, was ameliorated to the point of joyous celebration by the happy crossing of paths with Rafael and Tanya late in the afternoon on his birthday. Two three-wheeled Portuguese trans-continental pedallers, who endlessly amused and charmed us and who eventually became our fellow travellers all the way through the borderlands and onto Dushanbe in Tajikistan and beyond. Camping each night with this pair of sociable acrobats invariably led to exhausted belly-hurting laughter before crashing into heavy sleep in anticipation of more kilometres the next day.
As we neared the Tajik border and the rolling dust-bucket hills of the south-east, chirpy bicycle chat had turned to our stomachs and the fateful interplay with the local gastronomy. For any of you who have followed this blog since its early days, you may have noticed a slight over-emphasis on the pleasures of food that we have attempted to describe as we have passed through each country.
We have invariably spoken in glowing terms of sumptuous this and glorious that, bicycling foods of the gods. But not now. We have now been in Central Asia for more than 7 weeks and to put it bluntly, the food is dire. Worse yet the limited culinary array is sprinkled with various bacterial nasties, from your bog-standard Giardia to the shock-and-awe-inspiring amoebic dysentery that seems to have laid many a decent fellow traveller to waste. It is curious how skilled human memory is that we had both successfully blotted out the trauma of the food from this region.
Food-wise, the options across the breadth of Central Asia, and in this case Uzbekistan, extend at their extremes to meaty-greasy rice, fatty cubes of shashlik kebab meat or samsa (pasties of a non-Cornish variety) with the most dubious of contents. This limited diet is only very occasionally supplemented by anything approaching a fresh vegetable or fruit (save the venerable Watermelon). And what has struck us so much about this sickness-inducing-vitamin-free platter of depressingly flavourless foods is that of all places in the world, this should by any right not be the case.
Uzbekistan is pretty much ground-zero on the old Silk Road, which itself was effectively a “Spice Motorway” throughout the ages funnelling all sorts of tasty goodness east and west from the very far East to the Portugal’s most westerly tabernas. This great fortune has been augmented by the fact that the fertile turfs of Uzbekistan are blessed with sun-rays and rain in such goodly measures year-round that even the most stubborn of seeds will sprout into any of the delicious raw ingredients necessary for one satisfying dish after another. Finally, add in the whirlwind of cultures, shared skills and know-how that have circulated these lands for centuries and we ask why. Why the utter lack of anything pleasing to the palette? And why the utter lack of interest in broadening their daily grub. Whatever the reason, we are now eager to head on and pass through those western gates of China and sample what promises to be the entirely different.
As ever, we have tried to upload some of the images of our time in Uzbekistan and they should be here.