A lot of riding and writing in this post, with fewer pictures. The scenery has been dull and somewhat unchanging day-to-day. This post covers three separate sections of the last bit of time. First, back to Nukus. Then on to Uzbekistan’s second desert, Kyzyl Kum to Bukhara. Finally, the ride from Bukhara to Samarkand along one of Uzbekistan’s most populated Silk Road corridors.
One rest day in Nukus turned into two, when I decided to try and solve some logistical issues relating to my tires. I had one win and one loss. The win was a search for tube patches, which proved fruitful. After wandering through the bazaar in Nukus for an hour with no luck, I finally tapped someone on the shoulder carrying what looked like a new bike tire, and asked him where he had found it. He pointed me in a general direction, and after five minutes I stumbled across the ‘bike’ section of the bazaar. A gearhead’s paradise, but obviously not for modern parts. Threaded stems, generic cranks, etc. But they DID have tire patches and rubber cement. I almost screamed in delight, and bought about 40 patches for maybe $5. I was set. I could keep rolling. Tubes remain elusive, as the stands did not have them in the right size.
My logistical ‘loss’ was finally receiving word from Baku that, although my package was sitting in a post office, it could not be picked up by the bike shop. I had stupidly sent the package to myself, under the address of the bike shop. Azerbaijan checked their trusty Authoritarian’s Almanac and found the mismatch between my name and the owner of the shop. They held the package from delivery as ‘suspicious’. In short, the post office wanted a notarized letter from me assigning the rights to the shop to pick up the package. Confronted by a number of challenges in finding a notary in Nukus, I finally gave up. I told the bike shop in Baku to tell the post office to send the package back to Germany, and I set up a new order direct from a shop in Colorado to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Postage was expensive, but still not as much as having a new chain taxied to me in the highlands of Iceland. Here’s hoping that this package works. A big thank you to everyone who helped try and get the package, but I think I’m finally out of options and patience.
On day in Nukus, I visited the city’s one main tourist attraction, the Savitsky Gallery. Savitsky was a Ukranian artist who, in the time of the Soviet Union, amassed a huge collection of avant-garde Soviet art from the early 20th century. Many of the artists ended up banned in the Soviet Union, because their art did not conform to the realism that dominated state-sanctioned art. Having traveled around Qaraqolpakstan, Savitsky realized, as I did during my ride through the desert, how incredibly isolated the region is. One day he came to the conclusion that he could no longer keep his incredible art collection safe from the government by himself, and decided to hide it. He chose Nukus, because really, who in the Soviet government was going to make the trip way out to Nukus in the Uzbek SSR just to burn some paintings?
Nukus was a closed city until Uzbek independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, basically shut off from the world because of a few complex political issues involving a prison and a chemical weapons plant. When Uzbekistan achieved its independence, Nukus’s treasure was revealed: thousands of pieces of formerly banned, avant-garde art from the early 20th century. In 2003, a massive new building was built to house the collection. Savitsky had additionally collected more artwork and relics from his time in Qaraqolpakstan, and these are displayed as well. The museum is stunning. I couldn’t take pictures inside, but if you come out this way, make sure to pay a visit. The entry is 40,000 som, or $5, and I spent a solid morning wandering the gallery, astounded that this artwork even exists.
More words that have been replaying constantly in my ears over the last few days: Before I left the Fed, I was talking about Uzbekistan and the two main deserts to cross, Qaraqolpakstan and Kyzyl Kum with my section chief. He asked if I was going to hitch through any of them. I said I would try not to, and I distinctly remember him adding “well you know, if you’ve crossed one desert, you’ve really crossed them all.” This stuck so hard in my head that upon heading into Kyzyl Kum, I decided I was going to do a comparison and determine if this were really the case here. I have reached a conclusion: For riding purposes, the two deserts are completely and totally different.
Yes, they are both very flat, but Kyzyl Kum has more small, rolling hills. Kyzyl Kum is sandier, whereas Qaraqolpakstan has a harder, more tent-stake-able mud. Ecologically, Kyzyl Kum has more bugs. It was also hotter when I rode through. There are more restock points in Kyzyl Kum, maybe spaced at more reasonable 20-30km rather than Qaraqolpakstan’s 100-150km. Kyzyl Kum has more ice cream, whereas Qaraqolpakstan effectively has none. The road through Kyzyl Kum was in mostly perfect shape outside of about 200km around the cities. A concrete four-lane highway with a divider, and very little traffic. The road through Qaraqolpakstan was… not.
Spring sprung so quickly in Uzbekistan that I barely noticed it, and now it feels like it’s already closing in on Summer. I did a handful of long days in Kyzyl Kum to ride from Nukus to Bukhara, taking advantage of good road and wind conditions. The core of the desert ride was done in a pair of back-to-back centuries, fueled by liter after liter of irradiated boxed milk, chilled in the desert at night. Eager to get out of the desert, I ended up doing about 570km of riding over four days, which is a personal record for me. The Uzbek police have apparently been told to stand down, and I encountered no police checkpoints this year, only empty stations at open gates. It was hardly the slog that Qaraqolpakstan was, especially with the many chaykhanas, which also kept me going with a steady supply of shashlik (Uzbekistan’s take on ‘meat on a stick’). Your mileage may (quite literally) vary with the wind conditions, temperature, or a million other factors. My ride was pretty pleasant, sunny and warm, and the kilometers just seemed to melt away in front of me.
I spent a day in Bukhara at a hostel, quickly seeing the city’s sights. I’m not one for long museum tours, unless it’s avant-garde Soviet art, but I’m sure you could find them here if that’s your thing. As evidenced by the last bit of riding, I was physically feeling pretty good and more interested in seeing how quickly I could push myself to complete my ‘Uzbekistan Time Trial’ than spending a long time in Bukhara. Out riding the city, I was stopped by a few Europeans who had seen me from the windows of various tour busses driving to Bukhara from Khiva. Bukhara’s old town is magnificent, but I sort of wanted to get going.
And get going I did. I left Bukhara and rode into the populated Zarafshan River Valley. It was like heaven after the desert, passing through multiple cities each day and able to fill up on water or bread whenever I wanted. I faced a barrage of greetings and atkuda’s (where are you from?) each day. Many selfies taken, sometimes from a moving car, and many high-fives given to children in spotless school uniforms. My second to last day into Samarkand was an incredible illustration of this wonderfully friendly and welcoming region of Uzbekistan. I stay away from minute-by-minute recounting of a day’s events, but this day, with all the ups and downs, just seemed to hit all the notes of a great day traveling on a bike. So here’s the story of that day, really the epitome of a day of bike touring:
I woke up in the back of a tiny hotel outside the Navoi Airport, where I had been given a spot to put up my tent. After a night with very little sleep due to an obnoxious little shit of a dog who wouldn’t stop barking at me into the early hours of the morning, it took awhile to get over my sleep deprivation. At about 30km, I was waved over to the side of the road and my breakfast was paid for by two truckers who had passed me earlier. They refused point blank to let me pay, which would become a sort of a trend of the day. Pulled over at the side of the road shotgunning some apple juice (cheap calories), a massive man with a mouth of gold teeth waved cash at me, and eventually after repeated refusals, stuffed some of it in my handlebar bag as I tried to leave. This would happen twice more over the next few hours, but those times I was more successful in turning them down. I was this close to having my first cash positive day on tour.
The stop to pick up apple juice was a story in itself, too. There, I met one of the many Uzbeks I’ve met that are just incredibly happy to meet and have the opportunity to practice their English with a real live American. He eventually asked if I was ‘a Yankee’. Given his Yankees hat, I thought he meant ‘are you a fan as well?’, which I am not. My Mariners spring training hat will attest to that. But that wasn’t what he meant, so he wrote down ‘1865’ on a napkin and asked again. He had apparently just watched a documentary on the American Civil War and was curious if I had supported the Union. I assured him that yes, I am a Yankee.
100km into the day, I passed through the town of Kattakurgan, where I intended to spend the night. There is nothing really very special about Kattakurgan. It’s a small ex-soviet city with many a drab apartment block. After asking around, I was directed to one maybe-hotel, where a man inside went so far as to offer me a quote on a room but said the manager was ‘sleeping’. It was still midday, maybe 1:30pm, so I stayed around for a little while to wait with him and his son and watch a Russian boxing film on a tiny phone screen. I still don’t know if this was a hotel or not. I didn’t have the language skills to really ever make that determination. But I’m suspecting that it may literally have just been a lonely Uzbek guy and his son who wanted to hang with an American for a bit. The woman I thought was the manager eventually came out and told me ‘nyet hotel Kattakurgan. Samarkand.’ and that was that. I was out of luck. Back on the road.
Tired and frustrated at this point at being back on the road when I thought I was done for the day, I pressed on into the afternoon on a back road that was shorter distance-wise to Samarkand than the main highway. This road finally took me into genuinely fertile land rather than irrigated desert, and the first rolling hills I’ve had really since Azerbaijan. It was wonderful. The fields were full of children who would run to the road to give me a high-five, and I would quickly attract a smiling, welcoming crowd of Uzbeks of all ages if I stopped. They aren’t pushy, they don’t take pictures, they don’t want to hassle me. They literally just want to shake my hand and meet me, which is refreshing. My mood gradually improved, especially when I started to realize also how physically good I was feeling for that late in the day. Now about 2700km into this trip, my fitness is finally there. I ended up powering through the hills to another chaykhana far past my original goal distance for the day. I didn’t quite make it to Samarkand, but the chaykhana I finally stopped at was run by a delightful family who let me camp in their front yard, fed me my second meal of shashlyk of the day, and let me play with their puppy.
That last bit aside, there are a multitude of factors that contribute to me concluding this post by saying this: the deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as a tandem, were hard. They are probably the first countries I’ve been in that don’t immediately lend themselves to bike touring. There are other stretches, and countries on this trip that do. The Pamirs, a holy grail for bike tourers, is a great example. Mongolia as well. These countries were connectors. They weren’t very scenic, and the windy deserts can just be so fickle. The roads are either really good or REALLY bad. Most of the cars in Uzbekistan run on propane or methane, which presumably makes each car, with a large tank of compressed gas in the trunk, a tiny bomb. (That’s your reminder of the day: don’t rear end drivers in Uzbekistan.) The mental aspect was a challenge too. Mile after mile, day after day of mind-numbing desert just wears on you. If you’re alone, get ready to spend some quality time living in your head. I briefly mentioned my more vulnerable emotions last post, and I want to bring it up again. The physical exhaustion every day combined with a powerful sense of isolation was like a drug that just made a lot of external stimuli hit harder than usual. Music, podcasts, human kindness. It was a trip.
Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva (not visited) are sort of like tourist cities without the tourists. Right now, there are very few people who come from far to visit Central Asia. Despite these incredible mosques and madrassahs, and just intense architecture, the place is… pretty empty. I love it. Uzbekistan is the greatest. The countryside and smaller cities were also such a refreshingly new and positive experience for me, and that’s what will really stick from this place. Uzbeks are just so welcoming, despite me being more of a rarity here than in any other place I’ve been. If they ask where I’m from, I feel as though American is maybe their fourth or fifth guess at what I ‘am’ (From a snarky Brit in Bukhara: “After ‘Russian’, ‘European’ and ‘Nuts’?”), rather than first or second. I’ve dealt with many people on my trips surprised by my sudden and somewhat unexpected presence in their world. But it’s usually because of the bike. Uzbekistan was one of the first places where I felt it was explicitly because I was American. Not many people from America come to Bukhara, let alone a day’s ride outside of Bukhara, and that was neat. It’s just so far out here. I get a kick out of telling people where I’ve been so far. The following conversation roughly translated, has occurred about a half-dozen times in the last few days:
‘T’bilisi to Baku in Azerbaijan’
‘Baku to Aktau by the Caspian’
‘Aktau to Beyneu.’
‘Wait, what? Why?’
Whew. This turned into a long, wordy post for what amounted to mostly just a long stretch of desert. Composing on the road as I go has made each post longer, but I think in all honesty that this stretch deserved the extra length. If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with it. On to Tajikistan!