30 seconds after having my passport stamped with the official Uzbekistan seal I was offered my first glass of fermented camel’s milk. “You have glass”? A jolly looking official asked me. “Umm… yeah what for”? The next thing I knew my sporty, pop-top cycling water bottle was filled to the brim with a thick, white, sour-smelling fluid. “Drink”!!! The official lifted his half empty bottle in a cheers motion and not wanting to be rude I took a rather large sip. “Yup… that’s camel’s milk” was all I could say before gagging a bit as the warm fluid went down my throat. Welcome to Uzbekistan!!
The Uzbekistan border was marked by a tall fence and a small rectangular building in the middle of nowhere. Leaving Beynue, the last city in Kazakhstan, I was told that somewhere down a long rough, dusty dirt road, lay the entrance to the mystical country of Uzbekistan. With good spirits I pedaled on hoping that traveling conditions would improve upon entered the new country. (They did, but I wouldn’t notice for a few thousand kilometers). After drinking camels milk and having my bags inspected for drugs I pedaling into Uzbekistan. I was shocked that there was no town, city or village insight. At every border I have encountered there always seems to be a few shops selling over priced goods to travelers wanting to get rid of their extra currency, in Uzbekistan there were only auto repair shops. After asking a few locals I was told that the nearest ATM or Bank was over 300 km away.
20 km later I passed a small “Chaixana”, Russian for tea house which serves food and sells a variety of items. I looked into my money pouch and feeling a bit like a secret agent, I asked accordingly: Do you accept “Euros”?..”No”!!…. “Manat”?(Azerbaijan currency) ..No…”Tenge” ?(Kazakhstani currency)…No…”Dollars”?…OK!! “Adeen dollar skolka som”? I asked. The lady grabbed her calculator and typed 3,000. I had no idea if this was getting a good rate, so I asked how much a bottle of water cost. 1,500 SOM, was the reply. A minute later I was handed a wad of cash, 60, 1,000 SOM bills that I stuffed into my pocket. It was over 100 miles to the next “Chaixana” so I filled up and pedaled on. In Uzbekistan I would get used to having pockets filled with bills.
Other than the feeling that is accompanied by the knowledge that you are in Central Asia, there is nothing unique about the vast desert steppe. Hours of pedaling go by and the scenery does not change, here and there a strong gust of wind challenges your will or a cloud gives you a temporary respite from the intense heat. Often the road conditions get so bad that is better to take the sandy desert paths that to brave the large pot holes and reflected asphalt heat.
Within 50 km I passed my first City of the Dead. At first glance it looked like a small village or the remains of an old settlement, but as soon as I got closer I noticed that there were small houses built over and around bed shaped graves. Some of the structures were even two stories tall and seemed to have small yards around them. These large cemeteries were built-in the shape of a city, with narrow streets and alleys, even a large gate around the entire complex, kind of like a gated death community. Without a city or town nearby I wondered why the deceased had chosen to be buried so far from society? I continued to see these throughout my travels of Uzbekistan, and they always give me chills.
The long distances between settlements and the intense heat continued on, but finally I pedaled through the fertile region of the country. It came as quite a shock, as all of a sudden I saw a large patch of green in the distance. As I got closer I discovered cotton plantations, cabbage patches, flooded rice fields and livestock throughout a large valley. The dry heat quickly turned humid, and I was ferociously attacked by mosquitos throughout the night. This was all too familiar to my experience pedaling through the fertile regions of Jordan, except that at that time my tent was in better condition and it did require a ¼ of a roll of scotch tape to keep the zipper shut!
After 5 days of continuous pedaling through the deserts and fertile valleys I came to my first Uzbekistani city, Nukus. A large industrial complex located on the banks of a wide shallow river. What a sight for dust eyes! I ventured to the local produce district and saw a huge conglomeration of goods; “Deen” large (American football) shaped melons, raisins in all colors, large circle shaped breads call “naan”, grapes, apples, and fresh lamb grilled with the pungent smell of cumin. I had been living off of bread, and onions and couldn’t be happier eating a large bowl of “Lagman” hand pulled noddle soup, with “Somsa” lamb stuffed pasties and “Shaslik” BBQ shish lamb. I pedaled away into the desert with a full stomach, but somehow managed to camp in a desert tick haven.
I have really gotten used to most insects, including the cuddling scorpions, spiders, ants, flies, mosquitos etc, but I remain sensitive to ticks, especially when you find them in your sleeping bag!
The locals have been extremely hospitable and on several occasions I have been offered places to sleep in farm houses, home cooked meals and roadside fresh melons! I met an extremely friendly group of locals selling melons and we sat down to lunch together under their rad side melon cabana. Sitting cross legged on the dirt we drank Chinese team with bread, crystalized rock sugar and candy. This was as close to my Bedouin experiences in Jordan and Egypt as I have gotten so far! Afterwards they offered me the local vice, “Noshbi” a finely ground green tobacco like substance that is placed under the tongue, then slowly expectorated. After a few minutes my head began to spin and I left in a confused state after a few km of pedaling I was forced to camp in yet another mosquito infested heaven.
I am now in the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara, and will post again when I arrive in Samarkand three days from now. I am doing fine but I miss you all – Julian