Hit the road by 7am this morning with the knowledge it would be slow going. The rolling hills and gentle climbs were a nice way to warm up the legs, and by about 10 the climb started properly. The ascent was incredibly beautiful, with lots of very friendly people waving support and saying hello. There was a surprising number of military checkpoints, but they were all nice enough. The road deteriorated quite often, but for the most part was hard top so didn’t slow me down too much and by noon I was at the top, thanks to a judicious bit of truck-hitching (grabbing on the back of a slow moving truck and letting it pull you), and about fifteen minutes later a truck pulled up and Ryan jumped out with his bike.
Once we reached the top, there was a tunnel, with the very standard military wielding AK-47s. Not so threatening once you see there’s no ammo clips in their guns though. As usual they started off trying to be intimidating and were soon laughing and joking with us. We had about 6 checkpoints over two tunnels to run through, but finally we were into Ferghana and the last stretch of Uzbekistan. We stopped for lunch near the top, grabbing some shashlik and meeting a couple of tourists from Macclesfield who were in Uzbekistan for a couple of weeks, looking at Silk Road sites. Then we got to enjoy the descent – easily one of the nicest pieces of riding i’ve had on the entire trip. At first, the downhill was steep, so we were able to fly past cars and trucks with ease, we were dodging left and right, flying past behemoths and ducking in front of them just as a car passed us on our left – it was bloody good fun. Once the gradient flattened out a bit, it meant that we could ride in our top gear all the way down to the Syr Darya, about 25 km away from Kokand. Great cycling.
We took a wee break once the road flattened out and had a lie down, but it didn’t take us too long to get back on the bikes and get cracking into the city. On the outskirts we met a couple of guys who took it upon themselves that were going to escort us to Kokand and that’s exactly what they did. At first they were to content to film us, but then they worked up the courage to cycle up and say hello and we talked for a bit about the usual. When they left us near the city centre (after the obligatory photo) a group of guys from an auto-shop waved us over, and since we hadn’t got rolling yet, we went to say hello. Immediately, we were surrounded by twenty guys who got quite childlike about the bikes, and Ryan was able to get a small piece of work done.
We got cycling after a photo with the auto-boys and got to the Khan of Kokand’s palace about 530. Finding good internet signal, we stopped on the steps and awaited the crowds. Very quickly two policemen came to say hello, but they were good natured and just curious so they were soon on their way. The next was a couple of old women with some snazzily dressed kids in tow. They were lovely and friendly and they told us a good place to get some food in town. Just as we were about to leave, a group of lads came up to check us out. One of them was 20, had a wife and a kid, but was cruising around town with the boys at 615 – strange. Once they left, we went to grab some cheap food from a local market and as we were getting our food we had a constant stream of near-perfect english speakers which was a very odd thing to happen. They were all lovely, and wished us well on our trip.
As the sun was starting to set, we got a move on out of Kokand and once it got dark, about 25km out of town, we found a place to shack up for the night. Just as we settled down, I heard two people nosing around outside – I was butt naked in my tent so hastily dressed to find out they only wanted to give us some beer. This country is just amazing.