Rough Guide: Uzbekistan is completely landlocked making it a difficult destination to get to. I cycled the length of the country in the summer of 2014 and although the landscape is very similar to that of Kazakhstan, (desert) there are a lot of beautiful and historic places to see. The ancient Silk Road route went directly through the country making many of Uzbekistan’s older cities historic sights. Buxoro (Bukara) and Samarqand (Samarkand) are few of these epic cities that have beautifully preserved mosques and schools. Local money, Som, has two exchange rates, the bank rate and the local black market rate. I therefore never used an ATM and instead exchanged much of my USD at hotels, gas stations and Bazaars. The Uzbekistan government requires all Foreign travelers to register at hotels every 4th night in the country. The hotel will give you a registration slip. Make sure not to loose these as there is a steep fine for anyone who did not properly register. Also watch out for corrupt police, and hotel officials as they may try to black mail you into giving them money for registration slips. Other than an encounter with a corrupt hotel owner and police official I found Uzbekistan to be a wonderful country full of culture and history.
Visa: $160 USD for 30 days (US citizen price)
Warnings: Must register passport at hotels or guest houses every 4 days.
Read from the blog below.
Uzbekistan: Cities of the Dead
September 5, 2014
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
Cycling east on the Silk Road
September 12, 2014
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.
September 21, 2014
Pedaling and climbing through the Fergana valley. I was pushed by a strong tailwind, dust-covered the sky, trees and road, and I saw the sign “Qashqar 450 km. September 21 less than 300 miles from China
I have just crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, and am in many ways sad to leave the remote country of Uzbekistan. Hours ago I left a beautiful Uzbekistani woman behind, probably never to return or see her again. The last ten days have been full of challenges, and random encounters with spiritual individuals. My health has not been good as more than once now I have been sick from consumption (Vodka) and roadside food stands. It seems that on almost every opportunity imaginable (gas stations, super markets and restaurants) I am met by friendly locals who quickly pull out a bottle of local vodka and start filling rice bowls. No sipping, and your only hope for survival is that there is plenty of bread on the table.
Uzbekistan, has by far the most abundant use of bicycles. Children, not yet tall enough to reach the seat or make it over the top tube, pedal with body slanted to one side, trying to keep up with me as I pass. Teenagers, and young adults pedal their girlfriends and wives on the rear rack home from school and to work, and older men transport propane tanks, and other various goods to and from their homes. Like all Muslim countries I have traveled to, there is a noticeable separation between the sexes. Restaurants, tea houses, roadside café’s are all only frequented by men, and very rarely do I see couples in public. Women out here work in the cotton fields, produce markets and pharmacies.
The eastern side of the large country was full farmland and plenty of open fields. Each night I camped thinking I was alone only to be surrounded hours later by a herd of sheep or cows, followed by a friendly shepherd with a half empty bottle of vodka. I will truly miss Uzbekistan. It has the most beautiful and hospitable people you could image, where it was not uncommon to have your groceries purchased by a stranger or have your panniers filled with fruit from a smiling farmer who refuses any money.
I now prepare for the steep, cold mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Fall is in full swing here and two weeks ago the mountains were covered in a half a foot of snow. Once again my panniers will be filled to the brim as I pedal towards the Tajikistan border in hopes of viewing the legendary Pamir mountain range. China does not allow cyclists to pedal from the Kyrgyzstan border to Kashgar, so there is no point on entering China yet. I plan to spend 3-4 weeks cycling the remote regions then flying to Japan in mid-October. I will return again to Kashgar in the early spring of next year hopefully with a Pakistani visa, planning to pedal the Karakoram mountain range into the legendary Kashmir region. -Julian
My forbidden shish kebab evening followed by stomach sickness was definitely a story to tell, for those of you who are sensitive to bodily functions such as diarrhea and vomiting you may want to skip the end of this post….. So pedaling through the small city of Ohangaron (About 350 km from the Kyrgyzstan border) I quickly befriended the local baker, who after teaching me how to make the local bread, told me about a super cheap hotel. I personally do not like hotels or guest houses, but in Uzbekistan every tourist must register at a hotel every 3 days, otherwise a fine of up to 8,000 USD can be applied! (This is another story as some hotels will often try to blackmail you if you do not have the correct amount of registration slips in your passport, I only registered a few times but was able to avoid trouble). After a night around town, and eating several lamb kebabs at the roadside grill I found the mentioned hotel. It took me close to an hour to bargain the price down, and half way through my stomach started rumbling in an all too familiar way. At least I will be in a room with a toilet I thought and got a room for $3. After getting Gaby and all my panniers up to the second floor, I fell asleep.
Hours later I woke up with a fever, and terrible stomach pains. The whole hotel was dark, and it seemed that the power was out. I scrambled around trying to find my headlamp and my room key and while holding back the pain fumbled for several minutes on the 1920’s style hotel key, trying to unlock the door. After finally getting out of the room and fumbling again to lock the door, I searched the second floor for the toilet. No bathroom. The toilet was all the way down two flights of stairs and through a long corridor. Once there I learned that not only was the power out but so was the water!! The water must have been off for a while, maybe the hotel had no water as all the squatting toilets were filled with excrement. The sight of the bathroom, accompanied by the smell made me vomit and I decided I would have to be creative and make something work out in my room, as the bathroom was too far and too disgusting. Luckily, my room I had a small balcony, and earlier that evening I had purchased a large 5 liter bottle of water. I dispersed the water to a few bottles and made a make shift toilet by cutting off the top of the 5 liter plastic bottle. I used a few books and a piece of wood found under the bed to elevate my feet, and there it was a water bottle toilet.
All night I prayed that it wouldn’t fill up as I made countless trips to the balcony, my stomach was so painful. I had plenty of antibiotics in my panniers but I always try to avoid them and continue to do so in this situation. By early morning the fever and diarrhea were gone but now I had close to 3 liters of excrement in the bottle on the balcony. No matter how terrible the hotel was, I would never leave that for someone else to deal with. Disguising the bottle by putting it in a plastic bag I tip toed towards the bathroom but was met halfway by hotel staff who thought I was trying to steal “things” out of the room or hotel. I am not sure exactly what this lady was saying but she wanted to see what I had in the bag! “Can’t you smell it” I said and she looked inside, she made a stinky like face then walked away, I guess a 5 liter bottle half filled with diarrhea is nothing shocking in Uzbekistan.