April 27

We bid good wishes to Feruza and her family as we waved them goodbye this morning.  Our route took us along the ring road on the outskirts of Tashkent where I saw the only collision of the trip so far and it was a very gentle one – a minivan rear-ending a car.  Thankfully it was back to a normal temperature after all the rains, 20C, with zero humidity so we were able to really cruise.  We reached Ahangoran around lunch-time and after a recommendation from a local for ‘Nur’ we trundled over to find another feast, this time delicious shashlik. 

After Ahangoran we were back into the hills, climbing over the mountains into Ferghana valley and it was tough work.  The drivers on the road were so friendly though, with plenty of beeping and cheering and quite a few people hanging out of the side of their cars to yell their support!  As the light started to fade we arrived at a long lake in the mountains and were able to find a small place to pitch our tents behind a shed.  The plunger for my gas container had broken in Jizzakh so I spent a few hours trying to fix it.  Gluing was no good, melting the two plastic parts together didn’t help and I was out of ideas until I bored four holes in it and tied them all together.  Coupled with a tent peg, it worked, but it was not efficient and it was certainly a little more work.  We’ve got a nice climb tomorrow before we descend into the supposedly beautiful Ferghana Valley. 

April 26

A red-letter day today.  My first English lesson went surprisingly well considering we had about ten seconds to plan it. Feruza had told us she wanted us to talk to her kids and help them with English, but as we were leaving it transpired we would be on our own with 13 Uzbek kids for two hours!  I had no idea what we were going to do, but with a stout heart Ryan and I prevailed.  Also, google helped.  It turned out to be great fun and the kids were so nice to us.  In a British school we would have been torn apart, but they were curious and eager to learn.  And they had bloody good English, Feruza had clearly been doing a good job.  When we were finishing up, one of the girls gave a small talk about Uzbekistan and then she handed me a small statue to help us remember Uzbekistan.  I’ve carried it with me all the way.

After our brief jaunt as English teachers, we went to the Chorsu Bazaar where Ryan got a new hat and we both got some handkerchiefs for the desert.  We returned to Feruza’s house where her mum made us a big pot of plov – a delicious rice dish with lamb, apricots, carrot and spices.  After we were all full of plov, literally everyone in the house went and had a nap.  I woke about two hours later to a text from Ali asking if we wanted to go to his house for dinner which I gladly accepted.

It was bucketing down with rain when we left the house, so Ali came to pick us up in his car – even though it was only 100m to his house.  The Uzbeks are such a great people.  He was a really interesting guy – his family having fled the communists in Uzbekistan to China, and then from China back to Uzbekistan when the Chinese started solidifying their power there.  He’d lived in England and the US and was a professor in the Westminster University in Tashkent. His mother made us an incredibly delicious meal of samsa, plov and cheesecake which we ate with Ali and his father  as we talked about the world.  He also had a couple of whiskies which I was more than happy to educate him about as we drank them.  By the time we’d finished our meal it was almost 11pm so we made our goodbyes and dragged our full stomachs back to Feruza’s house to fall into a deep, happy sleep. 

April 25

Two days of hot riding in a baking Uzbek landscape.  Hottest ever recorded in April is 37 and it was 36 for us. The morning we were to leave Jizzakh, neither of the promised Savaras turned up or picked up their phones, so by 1030 we headed north out of town.  Hot as hell and twice as humid meant it felt like we were drinking our body weight in water every few hours but we were finally able to find a place to swim – canals criss-cross Uzbekistan, but almost everywhere we asked people told us we weren’t allowed to swim there.  One friendly shepherd told us to jump in the canal he was standing beside and we did so with relish.  The current was strong, but it was so clean and so cold, it was one of the most refreshing dips I’ve ever had.  Soon after, we crossed the Jaxartes, the Syr Darya, one of the most famous rivers of the ancient world. 

200km from Jizzakh we arrived on the outskirts of Tashkent.  We had no idea where to go in the city, so we found a place that had wifi and served food – standard approach – and got in touch with our couchsurfing host for our time in Tashkent, Feruza.  The pizza turned out to be brutally expensive, but we managed to make contact, so not all bad.  We were to meet Feruza later that evening, and since it was only 2pm we went to the park in the centre of town for a swim.  We met a group of Uzbek guys our age who are all swimming and jumped in.  Again, the water was such a welcome break against the humidity and we stayed with them for a few hours until it was time to head to our home for the next few days. 

It wasn’t too hard to find the place we were meeting her, and as we waited a group of children appeared who tried, unsuccessfully, to talk to us.  One nice surprise was a new friend we made, Ali, who spoke perfect English and offered us his house if we failed to make contact with Feruza.  I took his number and we promised to stay in touch.  It wasn’t long before our truly amazing host showed up.  Feruza was an English teacher working in Tashkent, and she had the most amazing skill with children.  She knew all the kids that were hanging around us and was able to play them so well, it was wonderful to see.  She took us back to her family home with her friend Maktuba, where we met her mum, her brother and his wife and after a delicious meal we went back outside to hang out with the kids again.  They were super curious about us and had followed us all the way back to her house – when we opened the front door two of them were waiting for us.

April 23

Finally we’re back on the bikes.  The scenery is green, the poppies are blooming and the road is flat and straight.  Unfortunately, the heat has cranked up somewhat – it’s now about 35 degrees so I’m drinking gallons and gallons of water.  40km outside of Jizzakh, the next town, two Uzbek girls, both called Savara, drive past me and pull in to the side of the road.  They speak no English or Russian, so we can’t really communicate, but after twenty minutes of us taking photos and attempting to talk, they tell us to text them when we arrive in Jizzakh.  I have no idea what might happen, but I’m certainly willing to find out!

The road deteriorates when we get closer to Jizzakh, but after two hours we arrive and find a cafe to sit in.  I get the impression that Jizzakh is a University town, and this is confirmed by Aziz and Oscar, two Uzbek guys who speak perfect English who, luckily, sat down beside us in the cafe we were in.  We talk for a while before the Savaras turn up and they are able to translate for us, thankfully.  First of all, Savara1 and Savara2 decide they want us to stay the night.  So we walk for half an hour to find the only hotel in town that tourists can stay in, before the girls pay for it – classic Uzbek hospitality.  Then, we go to what I can only describe as the most surreal dinner in my entire life. 

We arrive, after showers and a change of clothes in the hotel, by taxi to an incredibly grand-looking building.  There is gilt everywhere, and lavish decorations.  Aziz, translating, tells us that we have a choice of three rooms.  This is starting to feel like the beginning of a story.  They pull open the first room to reveal a dance floor and they ask us if it looks good.  We both reply, enthusiastically, that it looks brilliant, and the six of us dive in. 

We struggle through the mass of people to a table.  The lights are down, and everyone is jumping to Uzbek techno mixed with Scottish fiddle music even though it’s still early.  I look down at the table to see that there is cutlery in front of me.  On the table there are four bottles of vodka.  I get the feeling things are only going to get stranger.  I’m right.  At some signal, the lights go back up, the music stops and everyone who was dancing ten seconds ago is now sitting at their table, waiting for food.  By this point a nine year old girl has joined our party.  She likes to dance and she’s going to make damn sure Ryan and I dance with her.  The vodka starts.  It doesn’t stop for a while – only shots.  The food arrives – dishes and dishes and dishes of delicious vegetables, meat and steaming rice and we drink vodka and beer as we work our way through these piles of food. 

That was the first course, there are two more to come.  I’m already full.  But, of course, between courses there is a break for dancing.  The music comes back on, the lights dim and everyone gets up to dance.  The young girl is as insistent as I would expect and half as shy – she drags us all up to dance and I don’t have the willpower to resist her iron determination.  So we dance and dance and dance and then we’re dragged back to our seats by this girl, who sits us down.  Savara1, to my left, hands me another shot of vodka and suddenly, Hogwarts-style, the food has arrived.  Stomach almost full, I push to eat as much as I can, as it’s really delicious.  More vodka and beer, then the food is gone and the dancing begins again.  More techno, more fiddle music and lots of drunk, happy Uzbeks.  We’re the centre of attention.  Finally the music finishes, the food is all finished and we’ve run out of beer.  We call it a night.  The girls take us back to the hotel, and Savara1 tells me she’ll pick me up in the morning so we can hang out.  I crawl into bed, completely exhausted by one of the oddest experiences I’ve ever had. 

April 21

After our satisfying tourist day, we had an equally satisfying admin day in which: we were able to get my phone unlocked (turned out it already was); buy a SIM so we could have mobile internet in Uzbekistan; pick up our tickets to Samarkand from the station; and get our stuff together for our train journey.  We bade goodbye to Roma around 3pm and trundled down to the station, eager to be off.  It’s annoying that we don’t have enough time to cycle to Samarkand, but not much to be done about the strictness of Uzbek visas. 

As we expected, the train was great fun again.  Within minutes we’d made a bunch of friends, especially a guy named Ergash, who bought us some beer, fed us some bread and talked with us until it was time to pass out. The trains in Uzbekistan really are just wonderful.  People recommend the compartments, but I loved being able to sit in a small community of people, forced into intimacy by our shared space and enjoy each other’s company – all with no shared language.  As night came, I lay my head alongside an open window and felt the breeze from the desert cool me as I passed off to sleep.

April 20

Our first ancient Silk Road city today – Khiva. We picked ourselves up off the floor of Roma’s restaurant and after a spot of scrambled eggs and sausages we were dropped off at the trolleybus station.  It was a fun ride, as we were 100% the centre of attention, but Uzbek people being a little shy, it took the middle-aged woman sitting to my right to break down the floodgates.  After a small prod and some introductions, firmly establishing my proficiency in Russian at chou-choute, whatever that means, I was able to explain what we were doing on the bus and in Uzbekistan in general, and soon it became a bit of a free-for-all of questions, photos and smiling and laughing.  Uzbekistan is just the best. 

Once we arrived in Khiva we split our time equally between wandering around gobsmacked by the ancient city, taking photos of incredible architecture, artwork and museums and being mobbed by people demanding a photo.  Needless to sat we’re on a lot of people’s cameras, probably labelled as ‘those hairy guys’.  Khiva is a beautiful city, and I can’t do it justice in words or pictures – you have to go there and see.  The thick walls extend all the way around the old city and the inside is a maze of mausoleums, mosques, museums, madrassas, minarets and other equally inspiring m-words.  After spending an incredible afternoon in Khiva, we jumped back on the trolleybus, repeating our first journey – mainly with the attention and the photos again – and when we arrived back at Roma’s place we went back out to get more kebabs from the incredible kebab house, this time with his brother and cousin. 

 

April 18

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.