Well today was both an awesome and an incredibly frustrating day. We woke up in the middle of the desert, with absolutely nothing around us in any direction. Slowly got our stuff packed away, and I stopped for a while to pump up my rear tyre as it was a little low. Once we got going it became clear that my rear inner had a problem, either a flat or something else I don’t know. There was still some pressure in it, unlike a flat, but it wasn’t holding pressure very well. So I sat in the desert for twenty minutes, and slowly switched over the tyre. It was very pleasant to do so, sitting in the sun on the edge of a desert, getting beeps and waves from people driving past – there are worse times and places to have to sit for a while. Once I got rolling properly it felt great as the roads got smoother and started to have a few nice wee hills. After a day of nothing but flat, even a small rise is enough to rouse you from your cycling slumber and that’s always a good thing.
Well the day progressed, as they do, and the sun got hotter and hotter, but it was manageable. My new hat was just great. Around lunch time, I stopped outside a little village to eat an orange and an apple. Just as i did so, an old man popped up and we had a very animated conversation about the trip, and he told me about his life. It’s really incredible how much information you can convey just using basic sign language. I learned he was married, had three kids, lived in Urgench and worked at a petrol station. He had come up to pick up some greens and was just about to catch the bus back home. We shared my orange and apple, then as the bus was coming I hopped on my bike and headed off.
As I rolled into the centre of this dusty little village, i saw Ryan’s bike abandoned by the side of the road, and a lot of people on the other side of the road started shouting at me, indicating away from the road. I was sure that he had probably just gone for a whizz, so I stopped to have some bread. Ten minutes passed and he still hadn’t appeared, so I started to get a little nervous. I cycled around where the people were indicating, and tried to ask some of the people around about, but no one had any idea what I was talking about. Finally, a 10 year old called Danya rode up and told me to follow him. Two minutes later i found my erstwhile companion being plied with lunch by a 52-year old Kazakh lady who, it turned out, was the local German teacher. She provided us with a lovely spread of tea, food, sweets and, surprisingly, conversation in French which was a nice change of pace.
After we were finished, we took some photos of her and her daughter and their beautiful home. Houses in Uzbekistan, like in Kazakhstan (or the one Kazakh house I saw at least), seem a little drab on the outside but once you enter them they are amazing. They are always a sea of throws, cushions and carpets, all decorated in the most beautiful colours and designs – of course they’re all hand-made by the women in the house. The clothes that the women wear in this part of the world are just amazing as well, with most incredible assortment of patterns and colours that never seem to clash. The headscarves, skirts and kerchiefs they have are only matched by the incredibly boring uniform of the Central Asian man – jeans and leather jackets.
After stuffing ourselves, we got back on the road to Urgench, and the road quality disappeared, until it was just tarmac broken into little circles everywhere on the road. It was often faster just to ride on the dirt on the side of the road, but this of course presented it’s own problems. Well, we got to Urgench eventually, after passing a number of enticing places for swimming. I’ve heard a lot about issues with water in this area of Uzbekistan, so once we found a nice swimming hole we made sure to ask someone if we could swim there. Unfortunately they said definitely not, forbidden, so we got back on our bikes, sweaty as anything, and headed into Urgench.
Now Urgench is an odd place. It’s situated in the middle of a desert – but some parts of it are incredible lush. The park in the middle of town is as green as Perthshire and is full of imposing monuments and statues. It’s flanked on all sides by baroque style Govt buildings and it is undeniably beautiful, but it’s eerily reminiscent of Baku in that it feels distinctly unnatural – as soon as you leave that central park, it quickly goes back to dusty and windswept.
As we needed a hotel, we headed for the first one I spotted. It was definitely a fancy place, but as Ryan pointed out, fancy doesn’t necessarily equate to expensive. Well in Urgench it bloody well does – $160 for Ryan and I. As we quickly disappeared from sight to another, hopefully cheaper hotel, an Italian American accent hailed us and asked where we were from. An odd accent to hear in an odd city, so we wheeled back round and went to meet Roma. He would quickly become our friend and saviour – an Uzbek guy who’d lived in New York, LA and Vegas for six years, hence the accent, and was such a cool dude.
We told him we needed to find a hotel, and over the course of the next hour and half, cycling all over Urgench the cheapest hotel we found was 80 dollars for the two of us. This was clearly a fucking insane price for a hotel in a town with literally no attractions. Khiva, one of the most famous and ancient cities on the Silk Road is 30km away, and that’s apparently the reason why hotels are charging so much. But there were no tourists in Urgench, obviously, as Khiva is only 30km away. Why would you stay in Urgench and pay a shit-ton and not even be in the city you want to see?!
Trying to find a hotel in Urgench was incredibly frustrating of course, and finally we just asked Roma if we could camp on the grass behind his restaurant. This was around 630, as we’d spent three hours just roaming Urgench trying to find something approximating a cheap place to stay. Roma was was totally cool with us staying, and after we’d dumped our bikes we went in and had some beautiful cheeseburgers, some Uzbek pasties and some butter chicken. After dinner he informed us that Chelsea were playing Manchester City across the street if we wanted to join him, so around 9pm we sauntered over, and after a couple of beers the guys in the next booth asked Roma where we were from.
At this point, it became evident that the football was going to be abandoned – the collective reply from the lads was one of such astonishment when Roma recounted our adventure so far. They had a million questions, to which we tried to answer them all. One of the things they were most impressed with was the fact that we stayed in the desert – apparently the wild animals there are something to be afraid of. They offered us some vodka, so we took a shot with them, and then they started to talk football. They asked us our teams, so I said Arsenal and Barcelona, and Ryan told them Man City and Real Madrid – apparently el Classico is a really big deal in Uzbekistan – and they showed us pictures of two fortunate children’s birth certificates – one was Messi and the other Neymar, and yes, that’s their first names.
Well, we chatted to them for a while, and they invited us to a Thai massage, and to go fishing with them the next day. Unfortunately, we told them, we were going to Khiva the next day, so immediately one of the guys offered to drive us there! Well, sure dude! it’s either that or a taxi or a train, and even if he can’t speak English it don’t matter. Ideally we could meet up with Jahangir, a teenager we met while we were cruising around town who was going to Khiva the next day, and he could help us out with the touristy stuff.
After inviting us to come to Khiva with him, the same guy, Umka, told me he was going to bring his Barcelona jersey for me and called his brother to come over and bring it. True to his word, his brother rocked up twenty minutes later with a jersey over his shoulder. Roma explained to us that Umka had two jerseys, one blue and one black – the blue was his favourite. He had asked his brother to bring the black one, but for whatever reason he had brought the blue one. Even though it wasn’t the one he had intended to give me, he said a promise is a promise and handed it over immediately. I was totally in shock, and tried to refuse it but he was having none of it. I immediately put it on and the guys just went wild, we spent about fifteen minutes taking photos, and the lads shouted at each other, Barca vs Real – it was just such a funny experience.
After the guys left, and the game ended, Roma took us to this insanely good, traditional kebab joint outside of town. We sat in these bamboo huts and ate the most delicious kebab while sipping down cheap Uzbek beer. It was probably the best kebab we’ve had in the entire trip, with lumps of fat in it, and the bread dripped in a meat broth. Totally simple, but just so delicious. Roma had offered us to crash on the floor in his restaurant and since it meant we didn’t have to set up our tents we jumped at the chance.