I cannot sleep….. Dreaming would only take me away from what is present; sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, languages in strange tongues all of the ancient spice route linking Europe to China. Frequented over the centuries by caravansaries and traders on the backs of camels. Thousands of years of culture, religion, philosophy and art have all traversed this long, lonely, desert road.
Here we are: The Silk Road.
I touched off my last post upon entering the city of Bukhara, where I got my first taste of the silk road. I pedaled into the busy, dirt streets of the ancient town. My eyes frequently wandering off the road in the direction of tiled Mosques and listing minarets. Old men and women brushed the sidewalks with straw brooms and city employees in bright-colored uniforms cut the grass with scissors. Bukhara was a city that seemed untouched by the years of development. The roads were filled with potholes, sidewalks were made of clay and business owners poured cold tea on the ground to keep the dust down. I moved about the city for four days, sleeping in a new bed each night. The city was a complete marvel, with a long history of Islamic practice and devotion the Mosques, Madrasas (Islamic schools) and Mausoleums were built to withstand centuries of practice with such attention to detail that it makes one wonder whether he/she has chosen the right religious path.
It was Friday when I journeyed to the central Mosque for prayer. After washing and listening to the sermon (Khutba) in Uzbeki, I was quickly befriended by two, extremely dusty construction workers. We talked for a few minutes, I in Russian them in Uzbek. I could tell from the dust on their clothes and faces that they were sanding drywall and I tried to convey to them that this was my least favorite part of the job. They were impressed with my little explained knowledge of hard labor and invited me into the interior of the Mosque. We took off our shoes and I followed their lead by crawling through a narrow hallway covered in a few inches of drywall dust. The lights were dim and flickered as the power cord unraveled under my knees. After a few meters the tunnel gave way to a large interior. Inside I watched workers on ladders painting Koranic phrases in bright blue and yellow, while my new friends cleaned the floor and laid a long rectangular rug. “Kushi” they said (Lunch time). The men on ladders quickly returned to the floor, and we all (about 15 people) sat cross-legged around the rug. A huge bag of fresh naan was brought out, and everyone started ripping the bread into pieces and preparing them in stacks for the up and coming meal. I joined them in prayer, and nibbled on naan, telling them stories of where I had been, watching large plates of pilaf come to the floor. One plate per two, were all shared, passing plates around and ate the rice with our hands, sometimes using the naan as a utensil. I was sitting in single lotus, and was soon asked “Budhish”? I said yes, thinking that they were asking me about my religious beliefs but soon realized that they were asking me if I wanted more food! A neighbor passed me his half eaten plate of pilaf, and I ate everything as a gesture of respect. The best pilaf I have ever had!! The dish consisted of three layers; on the bottom was the Basmati rice cooked in oil and cumin, followed by thinly sliced carrots, topped with lamb.
After two plates I joined the group for tea and noshbi (Central Asian crewing tobacco). We cleaned up, I said good-bye, and they hurried back to work, but not before inspecting my bike and helping me carry it up the stairs.
Back in town I ran into two separate solo cyclists, and all of us being the classic solo cyclists, greeted and acknowledged each other, then went off again on our own. Hours later I ran into both of them at the only restaurant serving beer on tap. We drank pint after pint on the dusty village streets and talked about what our lives have been like on the road. Jack, was an impressive architect from southern France, who had been on the road for 5 years, sailing, hitch hiking and cycling the globe. Probably in his forties he was currently renting his flat in Paris and earning money while traveling. He had countless stories of the beautiful yet simplistic life in the south Pacific, and recommended visiting East Timor on my journey to Indonesia. Pascal was a true nomad, with a long beard, and honest, kind eyes. He had been a software engineer for the past five years in Australia and was now making his way back to his family in Quebec. I am not sure how to describe it but I felt a deep-rooted connection with the two of them. Of the few cyclists I have met most fall into two categories, those that are pedaling toward some sort of social acceptance/approve, and those that are obsessed with physical challenge. Very rarely do I meet two, enlightened human beings who are just here to witness and enjoy the remote parts of the world. We talked till 11 pm the Uzbekistan curfew, and then we bid each other farewell.
I left Bukhara with refreshed spirits and pedaled on towards Samarkand. Day one, brought me to a small village with a fragrant aroma of spiced meats and fresh-baked bread. I dropped in to a local roadside café and ate noodles, pilaf and a liter of beer for less than $3. I then slept in a local dormitory, too tired to venture out again for $4. The desert has a way of slowly changing you. It has left its mark on everything I own, from my head to my fingernails, my sandals and sleeping bag. Almost as if time moves faster out here I watch as my gear and body slowly wears away.
Getting closer to Samarkand the sand once again changed into fertile farming land and I soon found myself unable to find a secluded place to camp. Caught after dark I asked a farmer if I could camp on his land and he offered to let me stay in his home. Not wanting to be a burden, and knowing from past experiences the laborious hospitality this farmer would grant a foreigner on a bicycle, I refused and slept between two rows of yet harvested cotton plant. The next morning I awoke to a Uzbekistan lady yelling at her cow as she pounded a staked leash to the soil for grazing.
Samarkand, is even more magnificent than Bukhara to scale but lacks the old city feel, so easily found in Bukhara. The entire city has been rebuilt and now feels like some sort of amusement park. Fancy bright-colored shops line the smooth tarmac, and a walk from Minaret, to Mosque feels almost as if caught in a game at a miniature golf course. The spirit of the Silk Road continues in the Bazaar where you can buy naan,melons, vegetables, spices, and dried fruits from local vendors. There is so much to learn and see in this city, I quickly become somewhat of a celebrity among the locals, as there are very few Americans traveling alone out here. For me the true Silk Road is outside of the city, where you can watch locals tend to herds of sheep and rest in the afternoon shade of a secluded tree.
The desert will soon give way to snow-capped mountains as I cross the Fergana valley into Kyrgyzstan.