Cycling east on the silk road

The Registan, Samarkand

The Registan, Samarkand

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.

Po I Mosque and Minaret, Bukhara

Po I Mosque and Minaret, Bukhara

Corridors inside Mosque, (This mosque was so similar in design to the Mosque seen years earlier in Turpan, Xinjiang)

Corridors inside Mosque, (This mosque was so similar in design to the Mosque seen years earlier in Turpan, Xinjiang)

Quiet, small neighborhoods of Bukhara, my favorite city in Uzbekistan

Quiet, small neighborhoods of Bukhara, my favorite city in Uzbekistan. Some alleys one can purchase fruits others construction tools, some though are just quiet and reflect the past.

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.

More of the famous Minaret in Bukhara

More of the famous Minaret in Bukhara. Each day I would come to the square and watch the sun slowly fall behind, tracing a half circle, before drifting off into the horizon.

Friday, Juma, service at old Mosque in Bukhara

Friday, Juma, service at the old wooden Mosque in Bukhara.

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.

My homie Omar,

Fellow Uzbeki construction worker Omar Hasian

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.

More local amigos demonstrating the proper method for eating melon

More local amigos demonstrating the proper method for eating melon, I average about 1.5 melons a day. It is local knowledge that you can buy up to 3 melons for the same price of a 1 liter bottle of soda.

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.

Gaby waiting outside the Bazaar

Gaby waiting outside the Bazaar

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.

The original Silk Road, this was used for countless years before the highway was put in

The original Silk Road, this was used for countless years before the highway was put in

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.

Acres and acres of cotton on the Silk Road between Bukhara and Samarkand

Acres and acres of cotton on the Silk Road. Photo somewhere between Bukhara and Samarkand

Amirs Tomb Samarkand

Amirs Tomb Samarkand

Inside the Registan, Samarkand

Inside the Registan, Samarkand

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Close up of tiles at the Registan

Close up of tiles at the Registan

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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.

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The desert will soon give way to snow-capped mountains as I cross the Fergana valley into Kyrgyzstan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uzbekistan: Cities of the Dead

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!!

One of the many lonely desert camps

One of the many lonely desert camps

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.

Close to $10 in Uzbekistani SOM

Close to $10 in Uzbekistani SOM

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.

Distant city of the dead

Distant city of the dead

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.

Another necropolis

Another necropolis

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.

A flowering Tamarix, in Uzbekistan's fertile region

A flowering Tamarix, in Uzbekistan’s fertile region

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!

Flooded rice fields, I have heard that even a bottle cap filled with water can breed close to 100 mosquitoes

Flooded rice fields, I have heard that even a bottle cap filled with water can breed close to 100 mosquitoes

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.

Local Uzbek cuisine: Lagman (Lamb noodle soup), Somsa (Lamb filled pastry) and naan

Local Uzbek cuisine: Lagman (Lamb noodle soup), Somsa (Lamb filled pastry) and naan

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!

Locals coming to the roadside and offering watermelon in the intense heat

Locals coming to the roadside and offering watermelon in the intense heat

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.

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Halfway through a 2 kilo sweet melon

Halfway through a 2 kilo sweet melon

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

Minaret in the silk road city of Bukhara

Minaret in the silk road city of Bukhara