The journey so far – Bicycle to Burma – had been direction driven. Of course that goes against all advice about travel… what wasted opportunities! “You need to take time to experience where you are.” A combination of factors had contributed to not going at a more leisurely pace. The winter closing of the Kunjerab Pass on the China Pakistan border for example. More importantly, my very understanding and encouraging partner and I had agreed eight or nine months was about as long an absence we would consider. That was the time scale. The route to Burma had been determined by my desire to cycle from west to east across the Silk Road, through the oasis cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, names that conjured up romantic images.
Three months on the road and I had reached Bukhara. The route had taken me through northern Europe to the Ukrainian city of Odessa on the Black Sea and across to the mountains, vineyards and glorious choral singing of exotic Georgia. Then the hot and dry plains of Muslim Azerbaijan, a preparation for the real challenge of the next stage – across the desert in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The desert had been physically gruelling, but even tougher I found were the mental demands. Fifteen hundred kilometres, week after week of unrelenting Steppe, with very little to stimulate the cyclist visually. What must it have been like for the caravans in centuries past?
This was the fabled ‘Silk Road’. Not actually a road, but various trade routes stretching between China and the Mediterranean which were eventually linked – two thousand years ago – to create a long distance political and economic exchange between civilisations east and west. Along with Chinese silk and other goods, various technologies, religions and philosophies also traveled along the Silk Road – a cultural exchange, influencing societies along the way. The route thrived and dwindled depending on the market in Europe – demand dropped completely in the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman empire. Eventually the fragmentation of Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire in Central Asia – the largest the world has known – resulted in interrupted trade, and the resulting opening up of a sea route from Europe to China in the 16th century. This eventually led to a decline in the importance of the Silk Road.
The country whose borders correspond most closely to Transoxiana (as it was known then, the land across the Oxiana, now the Amu Darya river) is present day Uzbekistan, one of only two doubly-landlocked countries in the world (the other being Lichtenstein). Not only does it have no access to the sea, none of the countries it borders do either. Less than ten percent of Uzbekistan is irrigated, the rest is vast desert and mountains. And it’s hot. Average summer highs are 40 degrees.
“For lust of what should not be known, we take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”
In Bukhara I excitedly abandoned my trusty Surly for the much awaited arrival of my girlfriend who had joined me for a holiday. What a joy to take a break from solo travel on the bike to enjoy these ancient sights in her company. First stop was Samarkand, that most celebrated of Silk Road cities, and one of the oldest inhabited in the world. Occupying a central position on this trade route between China and the West and – along with Bukhara – hugely wealthy, Samarkand was famed for being an Islamic centre for scholarly study.
And Samarkand was the capital of one of history’s most powerful rulers, Timurlane. The last great nomadic leader, Timur’s armies crossed Asia and Europe from Delhi to Moscow, from western China to Turkey. Known for his extreme brutality, his conquests were accompanied by genocidal massacres in the cities he occupied with his military campaigns causing the deaths of an estimated 17 million people, about 5% of the world’s population. A barbaric legacy to rival his ancestor Genghis Khan.
An Arab ruler Ibn Khaldun who met him outside Damascus in 1401 wrote: “This king is one of the greatest and mightiest kings… he is highly intelligent and very perspicacious, addicted to debate and argument”. Timur is recognised as a great patron of art and architecture and in his time Samarkand was in a state of constant construction resulting in some of the wonders still standing today (although heavily renovated in the last century by the Russians). Apparently in his conquests he spared the lives of scholars, artists, craftsmen and architects so that he could bring them back to improve and beautify his capital and enrich the culture. On the one hand a brute and the other a man of culture. Islam Karimov the autocratic Uzbek president has made Timur the national icon.
Samarkand has its landmark buildings like the spectacular Registan – the public square framed by three madrassas (Islamic colleges) with spectacular tile adornment – or the quietly majestic Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Bukhara, at one stage the intellectual centre of the Islamic world, has buildings perhaps less mind-boggling. But the earth coloured mosques, minarets and madrassas (Islamic seminaries) with distinctive blue tiled domes make the atmospheric centre of Bukhara such an enchanting place to visit.
The western town of Khiva, with the Korakum desert to one side and the Kyzylkum desert to the other, was an isolated outpost on the Silk Road and in the nineteenth century had the largest slave market in Central Asia. Due to its remoteness I was hoping it hadn’t yet been exposed to the attentions of mass tourism – it was a long way to get there. And so we took a memorable ‘night train to Khiva’. The Russians had carefully restored the original buildings and town walls, resulting in what felt like a small museum town, the centre populated only with souvenir stalls and tourist restaurants. Impressive though it is, disappointingly it didn’t have much of an atmosphere.
And so after a whirlwind ten days it was time to get back to ‘real life’ – my girlfriend to her responsibilities in Dublin and me back to the cycle! It was difficult seeing her disappear into the airport building to fly home. A momentum however had been built up so far, driving me forward to the destination – Burma. It felt oddly comforting to be reunited with the Black Cadillac in Bukhara and hit the road again, south through scrubby desiccated plains towards the mountains of Tajikistan. My time allowed in Uzbekistan was ticking away and I had four days to get to the border before my visa ran out.
The last stop was Denau, a bustling market town, thronged with people traipsing between the rows and rows of stalls, getting in and out of cars and vans, hauling bags of purchases or pushing carts. Traffic crawled and raced in fits and starts on the broken tarmac and dirt road, parping and bipping avoiding pedestrians, belching diesel fumes. Drivers would stop without warning, whether to pick up a fare or drop one off – all vehicles are prospective taxis – or just to get out of the car and cross the road to a market stall. I steadily wended my way through the streets. One final task in this last town in Uzbekistan was to find a post office, but it was closed. Of course it was Sunday!
An extended, friendly exchange – with no common language – between me and three middle aged men of varying degrees of apparent seniority – none connected with the post office – eventually led to an offer from one of them to post my stamped and addressed cards the following day. Once again my frustrating lack of Russian was a handicap. He wanted me to wait for what I wasn’t sure, maybe a post office employee friend who was on lunch, but I had to push on. It was too complicated to explain that my visa was running out and I had just hours to leave the country. I think I sealed the understanding by finding the word for ‘trust’ in my dictionary. And taking his photo holding the postcards, giving him my card with website address indicating the picture would be on the internet. He seemed to respond very positively and I hoped would take extra care to fulfil his commitment. (If by any chance Sergei is reading this, thank you so much, at least two of the postcards arrived at their destinations 🙂 )
So this was the end of my time in Uzbekistan. The final twenty kilometres seemed to drag out, although the cycling was pleasant through irrigated countryside. That condition that sooner or later afflicts all travellers had announced its presence earlier in the day without mercy. I had been fortunate on the trip so far but knew inevitably it would catch me and this morning was pissing rusty water out my backside. Numerous times during the day I had to make a sudden dash for the side of the road. The bike was handy for cover. And of course dignity is a luxury in situations like this. One time I just managed to swing off onto a side track, jump off the bike and squat by the edge. Only for a donkey and cart to emerge nearby and slowly approach. What can you do? I just looked away expecting the driver was probably doing the same as he plodded steadily by in front of me.
With some relief I discovered the border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan border didn’t close so there was no pressure on time. After supplying my passport for scrutiny at the entrance to the border post, arriving at the Customs and Immigration a soldier brusquely barked for me to bring my bike around to the pedestrian entrance instead of leaving it in the shade. Once inside the declaration form had to be filled out. The young officer scrutinised, signed and stamped it, asked if I had any “medications”, then impatiently commanded me to bring my bike and bags through. I obeyed, hauling the loaded bike up the stairs and wheeling it into the customs area. He rudely gestured for me to put each of my panniers through the scanning machine. I maintained an impassive manner. After a difficult day I was irritable and didn’t like this one little bit, neither the ridiculous need to unpack my bike nor his attitude.
He had me empty a few panniers before losing interest, suddenly dismissing me with a curt “Go mister” and returning to his desk. Reloading the panniers back onto the bike my hackles up I toyed with the scenario of calmly telling him, in Russian, that when he was older he might understand a little more about respect. I was mindful of course that until I was out of the Uzbek jurisdiction he had the power to make things difficult.
And I wasn’t free to leave yet. Fifty metres further I handed my passport through a window just slightly ajar – presumably the aircon was on – to a surly soldier for the exit stamp. Two lighter hearted soldiers manning the last barrier, in full camouflage gear, rifles slung over their shoulders, allowed me leave their country through the gate after having their obligatory nosey at the passport. By now I was really looking forward to Tajikistan.
There was no other traffic. If the Uzbek side was overly officious the Tajik side was the opposite. I could have strolled on through. Eventually the Immigration officer took his place at his desk and beckoned me in – absent-mindedly going through the procedures while taking long pauses to follow the soap on the small television in the corner. With me just standing next to him at his desk waiting. If it went on much longer I was going to take a step to the side and block his view. Then with a wan smile he handed back my passport with a “welcome” and I stepped out of the office into Tajikstan. That familiar excitement was there. I had entered another country.
It had been four hard days from Bukhara through inhospitable landscape, leaving the desert Steppe into the foothills of the Pamir mountains. The previous day had been a long one, over nine hours in the saddle over a hilly range with just a hundred kilometres gained. The road surface was that rough at times I was reduced to six or seven kph – downhill. Walking speed is five kph. The trots had left me feeling drained, and I was dying to relax, have a wash and maybe a bed. Although camping had its compensations – nights alone in silence under the stars, a more ‘grounded’ experience in touch with this earth that I was cycling over – the truth is I usually preferred the option of a bed. Learning there was a hotel in the next town ten kilometres away I set off in the fading light with resolve.
Despite the Soviet gerrymandered borders between the two countries – Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan were largely Tajik speaking and in fact claimed by Tajikistan – and no obvious change in scenery or agriculture, there was that sense of having entered a different country. Maybe the gentler landscape was part of it. And a generous welcome from people on the roadside. “Welcome to Tajikistan” was the refrain from drivers, farmers, workers in the fields. Some farmworkers still toiling in the fading light stood upright and hailed me from across the fields.
At a village crossroads I enquired about the hotel and was directed three kilometres off the main road. Hmm, hold on a minute, were there any other options? What about this building that looked like a community hall? I asked at the shop next to it and didn’t get much encouragement – it was a chaikhana, public teahouse, the shopkeeper indicated but made the point he didn’t have anything to do with it. In the dim light I strolled over to a group of men in the corner of the chaikhana compound engaged in or watching three different games on the go – backgammon, cards, and chess. They were all so engrossed they didn’t pay my presence any heed. Most were seated cross-legged up on a wooden cot, like a king size bedstead, the heavily bearded older men in jellabas and skull caps. Not wanting to interrupt I intercepted a man approaching to join the divertissement and asked about sleeping possibilities. He responded immediately with engagement and concern. I had someone onside.
The two of us went back over to the shop and established that indeed the shopkeeper was the man to deal with. With some slight reluctance he offered me a cot on the verandah. I was grateful and as I began unloading the panniers he warmed and unlocked the doors. The interior of the chaikhana was a large high ceilinged room with eight cots for sitting on spaced around. He urged me to take my bike inside and sleep on one of them. What a bonus. Clear water ran from a turnpike on the pavement outside which, I was informed, is turned off every night shortly. A wash! This was perfect. Filling a tin bucket borrowed from a bakery within the same compound I found some privacy out the back. I had managed an irrigation wash a few days previously, but how great this felt, scrubbing away days’ build up of salt, sticky sweat and dust. With the wash I recognised other things disappearing – the journey’s exertions, slight earlier anxieties about where to sleep, my chronic pain in the butt, tensions I was feeling about issues at home… all gradually replaced by a pleasant weariness and feeling of wellbeing.
I knew there was no food for sale in the shop, nor beer. But wait. What was that – maybe next door? In a tiny shebeen an attendant with a hangdog look was pulling half litres of the amber nectar for a group of young Uzbeks. At thirty cents a pop. Like elixir, the first two went down so well. No-one in the compound so far had any English, all communication had been through gestures and the few Russian words I had. In the shebeen a limited exchange didn’t get much further than the usual – distance from Ireland, how long, and Ireland footballer Robbie Keane before they went back to their conversations. I brought my beer over to a cot outside, settled back on a cushion and relaxed. A few young lads hung about outside the railings but paid me no heed. In the darkness the village was still. This was what it was all about. Simple pleasures.
As I was unpacking my stove to cook up a few packets of the cyclists’ fall-back carb resource – Chinese noodles – two of the shopkeeper’s kids ran up on a mission. They wanted my bowl. A few minutes later just as I was about to boil up water they returned with my bowl full with a stew of potatoes and mince stuffed peppers – absolutely delicious. As they looked on for my reaction, my wide-eyed “mmmmm” delighted the twelve year girl. Their mission was accomplished.
Tajikistan, I like you already.