April 17

Soon we were back at the station and waiting for our train in the cold.  It pulled up about 1245 and  we awkwardly dragged our bikes and bags on board – funnily enough we didn’t get charged for our bikes this time and within minutes I was quickly adopted by some old Kazakh women.  Over the course of the next few hours, as we approached the Uzbek border, they would wake me up whenever I needed to show a passport, fill in a form, or wait for customs officers.  The soldiers who met us were all inquisitive and very friendly and one of the officers in charge spoke excellent English.  They made the usual inquisitions about what we were carrying, one of these things being medicines.  I was told that the Uzbek border guards would confiscate anything stronger than paracetamol, so when asked if I had any medicine, I told him ‘paracetamol, ibuprofen, eye drops…’  He jumped in with ‘That’s fine’ before I had to continue my list to include the very strong painkillers I was carrying and we quickly moved onto a good conversation about the state of the world.  As he left he shook my hand, stared me square in the eye and told me ‘Good luck brother’.  I felt it wasn’t something he said to just anyone, and it really resonated with me.   

A few hours later I woke up to a familiar scene – the endless desert.  Luckily, there were plenty of diversions – little children, a constant stream of hawkers and hordes of curious middle-aged women.  Thankfully the train didn’t take the advertised 24 hours, and so by 2pm we were back on the bikes and rode until the sun set, dropping red and orange all across the landscape.  We had found an especially lush piece of grass to camp beside, and after finally getting back on the bikes after what felt like ages it felt great to be riding again – especially as we had lovely roads to ride on.

Well, you know what they say about good things – they never last.  Our roads didn’t.  They switched quickly between excellent and terrible for quite a while.  Thankfully, we had a beautiful tailwind, strong as hell, so we were outside Nukus by 1030.  We crossed the Amu Darya – the ancient Oxus for you history buffs – on the way into Nukus and once there we went to see the Savitsky Art Museum that the friendly officer had told me about. 

Funnily enough, as we arrived there was a school visit, so we quickly became the centre of attention.  Once we got inside though, there was a large percentage of Western tourists walking around, which was a very weird feeling.  For the longest time, since Cappadocia really, we hadn’t seen tourists, and so it was quite a disconcerting feeling.  Normally we’re something extremely rare in people’s lives and they will often literally come running to see us – I’m literally the first Scottish person most of these people have ever met – so it was very weird being ‘just another tourist’.  Probably just having our special status revoked is what I didn’t like!

After we finished at the Savitsky – the home of Karakalpak culture – we headed to the bazaar.  It was the best shopping experience I’ve ever had, with no-one able to speak English and so call out to me, and stalls jumbled on top of each other – samsa being cooked beside silk dresses and ties being sold beside loo roll.  I picked up a new hat for the desert, FBI of course, and after I returned to the bikes to let Ryan have a wander, I was quickly surrounded by a throng of curious Uzbeks.  The English speaker quickly materialised, as I was struggling with my Russian and was able to translate for everyone.  As is always the case in Uzbekistan, it was great fun and such a spectacle – the Uzbek people are so flipping friendly and charming that I’m very comfortable with being surrounded by thirty people peering at me and shouting questions. 

On our way out of Nukus towards Urgench, a cyclist in a snazzy road bike flashed by us.  When we pulled up to him beside the traffic lights, he introduced himself as Wallace.  He rode with us for a while and we walked about his bikes, before he had to say goodbye.  A few photos later, and an attempt at riding Ryan’s bike, we got on our way.  The road we were supposed to be riding was in an absolutely atrocious condition, but there was a brand new one being built right beside it, so we quickly hopped onto that one and took it as far as it went.  It petered out after about 60k, but meant we were able to rack up a decent 125k today.  It’ll be another 90 or so to Urgench tomorrow, where we’ll take a hotel to get registered, then a day trip to Khiva and a train to Samarkand that night, or the next day.  I’m very conscious that I have only two weeks in this country and I’m quickly falling in love with it.  After we made camp in the Kyzyl-Kum desert, the sunset kept us up for an hour or so and I finally got round to changing the oil in my Rohloff – no idea if i did it properly but so long as it keeps working I’ll be happy.

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