Avid followers of our blog may remember that like the very best of Bristish adventurers that have gone before us, our primary concern for route planning was of course the weather. Not concerned about rainy UK in March, or indeed the snowy Alps in April, (rain and snow is an almost year-round reality in our Scottish home) our only concern was the purportedly unbearable heat of Central Asia during the summer months. However, between a series of unfortunate events (please recall attempted bike theft in Slovenia, Russian visa delays in Georgia, missing Vehicle registration document in Kazakhstan) enjoying the Mediterranean a little too much and the subsequent occasional recuperation day, we found ourselves at the Uzbek border as June was making way for July. And so it was that we left the frying pan of Kazakhstans pan flat western steppe and entered the fiery hot deserts of Karalkalpakstan in north western Uzbekistan.
Most days involved us enduring temperatures somewhere between 40-45℃, rendering the afternoons useful only for siesta. In fact one morning when we got up early to make the most of the cooler temperatures it was 39℃ by 8:30! One biker that we met unsuccessfully resorted to soaking all her gear before riding so that it would dry while she rides, keeping her cool. We shall not lament too much further about how hot it was, just take our word that it was really, really hot.
The heat coupled with the roads made the 1500km of riding in Uzbekistan an endurance event. We didn’t know what to expect of roads in Uzbekistan but a quick look at the map will show you that there is really only one, going from the Kazakh border in the north west, all the way to the capital at Tashkent via Bukhara and Samarkand. This road is majoratively straight, paved and therefore very boring, but the condition varies from brand new asphalt motorway to potholed madness, large enough to swallow a lorry nevermind our little bikes. Neither of these conditions make for pleasant riding on our slow 400cc dirt bikes so it was a welcome relief when an off-road alternative route presented itself.
Karalkalpakstan (a Stan within a Stan) was once a thriving region thanks to the huge Aral Sea whose shores it partially surrounded. It’s large fish stocks supported a valuable fishing industry and its oasis towns have provided shelter for silk road travellers and traders for millenia. However, the USSR partially diverted some of the major rivers that feed this inland sea to water the vast cotton plantations whose produce it consumed. It was not long before water levels began to drop and the shoreline began to receed. Even the local climate changed as the land dried and fauna died. Fishing ports and their communities were left far from the actual sea and the increase in water salinity made the sea inhospitable for most marine life, killing off the fishing industry that depended on it. Now the sea attracts intrepid tourists rather than fishermen and provides fossil fuels rather than food to the Uzbek nation.
We were both fascinated by this man-made disaster and keen to see for ourselves the human and environmental impact. It was fortuitous then that we stopped at a roadside Chaikhana (cafe/restaurant) owned by a motorbike enthusiast who told us how we could directly get to the former fishing centre of Moynaq, across the desert without any roads. It was time to don the adventure pants, trust a local and to some degree hope for the best. That night we camped at the turnoff under the stars and worried about how long our water would last or who should be eaten first in the case that it became a misadventure.
With the rising sun in the morning, our nervousness grew, but we stuck to the plan and set off into the empty desert. Following the double poled electric pylons as instructed by the friendly Chaikhana owner, we raced across the baked crusty desert dodging the occassional ditch, boulder or camel. At times the sand was deep testing our riding skills but after 90km we arrived at Kubla-Usyurt, a village of 30 or so houses in the middle of the desert whose inhabitants clearly liked blue. Trusting local directions again we set off east, this time following only small red and white cable markers spaced every couple of hundred meters and now difficult to see in the low thick scrub. Initially not comprehending fully our directed route, it was with much exclamation that we arrived at the top of the cliffs of the Usyurt Plateau. These 100m high cliffs once formed the shoreline of the Aral Sea. Now, despite the elevation, the present shoreline rested beyond the horizon, approximately 70km away with only gas drilling derricks breaking up the vast empty dry seabed. This view more than anything else depicted the scale of the diaster. A track now followed the cable markers winding its way down to the seabed and then made a poker straight line to the derricks and Moynaq beyond. It was surreal blasting over the former seabed and the going was good (this terrain is what our bikes were designed for), that was until Lottie came a cropper at high speed on a particularly nasty set of 4×4 tyre ruts. Flung from her bike she landed unharmed, but the same could not be said for her trusty steed. Her instrument display and indicators were broken beyond repair with her screen and fairing bent out of shape. Luckily it was nothing that cable ties and duct tape couldn’t solve. Limping into the depressing Moynaq, coke and ice-cream was a welcome relief from the day’s riding in the heat and the array of rusting hulks of the former fishing fleet displayed at the old marina, further reminded us of the sad history of this once bustling town.
Despite our large fuel tanks, additional fuel bottles and efficient bikes, after blasting across the desert we needed to find petrol. Uzbekistan is full of fuel stations but unfortunately very few sell petrol or diesel as most of the vehicles have been converted to gas, which the country has in abundance thanks to the receding Aral Sea. This meant that petrol is mostly bought on the black market, or involves queuing for hours on the seldom days that a fuel station has a supply of petrol. Money is also traded on the black market due to the instability and high inflation of the Uzbek som. Apparently it is better to sell som at half the official rate in order to have your money in a stable currency such as US Dollars. This meant that Uzbekistan was a cash only country and we received over 8000 som per Dollar, mostly in 1000 som notes making for carrying a lot of cash….
Having escaped the Karakalpakstan desert we entered the heart of the ancient Silk Road and Great Game territory as coined by Rudyard Kipling and beautifully brought to life in Peter Hopkirk’s book of the same name. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are undoudtedly some of the jewels of the silk road and evoke exotic tales of ancient civilisations, lifesaving oasis, secretive Khanates ruled by brutal Khans and imperial espionage.
Our first stop was the anciet walled citadel of Khiva via the slightly disappointing Savitsky museum of Nukus. A few wrong turns lead us to the Turkmenistan border and eventualy riding the obstacle filled back roads to Khiva in the dark. Following her crash Lottie’s headlight was not working properly and we have since vowed to avoid at all costs riding at night again, such was the terrifying ordeal. Still, the Lali-Opa guesthouse was a welcome shelter and in the morning we appreciated the magnificently preserved citadel gates and walls only 50m away as we devoured our delicious breakfast. The Lali-Opa was most appreciated for its fine air-conditioned dorm room which Lottie made best use of having come down with our first dose of the trots. We had truly arrived in Central Asia.
Khiva is a wonderfully beautiful city full of mosques, medrassas and mausoleums (MMMs) decorated in exquiste glazed tiles which bring colour to the otherwise monotone mud-brick city. One can still walk along the city walls and look over the parapets expecting to see the marauding Bukharan Khanate riding across the desert to lay siege. Local life still continues in the backstreets where there are small vegetable gardens and craftsmen making their trinkets to sell to willing tourists. Unfortunately though, under strict planning regulations most MMMs have now been converted into small museums, fancy hotels or markets full of tourist shops where one can buy the same tourist tat over and over again. This somewhat deteriorates from the city’s authenticity and left us craving to see it in its heydays of centuries past. This would become a recurring theme for the subsequent Silk Road jewels and made us consider visiting more of todays ‘jewels of civilisation’ before their glory fades.
En-route to Bukhara, at the other side of the 400km wide Kizilkum Desert, we took a detour out to some of the ancient fortresses of the Eliq-Qala, making camp on top of Toprak Qala. Once impressive behemoths of mud bricks and wooden logs, most are now melting away like chocolate in the fierce desert heat. Still, looking out from our now fortified tent and watching the Milkyway slowly get brighter as the night crept in was a memorable experience and reminded us of just how fortunate we were to be there.
Bukhara was the scene of one of the most infamous episodes of the Great Game between the Russian and British empires of the 19th Century. The imprisonment in a 6m deep, vermin and bug infested pit, and eventual beheading of 2 British Army Officers whilst on official government duty was the first time many British people had heard of Bukhara and its cruel Khan. Since then its citadel (the Ark) has remained largely closed to British travellers as soon after these events it was swallowed up by its powerful Russian neighbour. It was with intrepidation therefore, that we British tourists entered Bukhara keen to soak up some of the intrigue and exotic life that this city was renowned for. In the end we saw some more beautiful MMMs, had drinks with fellow travellers and were shocked at the level of redevelopment going on around the anciet monuments. We left Bukhara hot, bothered, with the runs and its fair to say, a little disappointed.
Samarkand lay another 300km along the hot dusty potholed road and was different again to its Silk Road neighbours. Having been heavily developed and restored by the Soviets, Samarkand often gets described as being Disneyland-esque; a planned city interspersed with interesting sights and attractions. This is perhaps a fair description but we are not ashamed to admit that we enjoyed it nonetheless. We found it to be a living, working city that was not shy in showing off the relics of its glorious past. The famous warrior ruler Timur (Tamerlane) made Samarkand the capital of his huge empire and his impressive mausoleum stills stands as an example of his immense power and wealth. The Shah-I-Zinda is an avenue of sublime mausoleums of the rich, famous and powerful of Samarkand’s past and is breathtakingly beautiful. However, Samarkands real highlight is of course the awesome Registan. A collection of 2 medrassas and 1 mosque arranged around a central square, it is what adorns every postcard of Central Asia and draws travellers from far and wide to marvel at its magnificence. No picture and no words can do it justice. It’s got to be seen to be believed.
Despite it’s wealth of MMMs and its profession to be an Islamic country, we were surprised by the lack of Islamic culture and customs to be observed in Uzbekistan. Sure enough, pork was not on the menu and ornamental Quran stands could be found in every tourist shop. However, drinking was encouraged (particularly vodka), conservative dress of women was not very common and we did not witness a single call to prayer. This was the most notable exclusion as the country was not deficient in mosques or minarets that would typically exalt Allah and call his followers to join together in prayer. In Bosnia and Turkey, this 5 times daily occurence we came to really appreciate and it served as a reminder of the culture we were exploring. We sorely missed this in Uzbekistan but have heard rumours of this being recently outlawed by the government in attempt to subdue rising extremism in some far reaches of the country.
Thankfully Islamic hopsitality was not lost on the Uzbeks and like Bosnia and Turkey before we fell into the wamth and kindness of some great people. Most notable of all was Kulken who we met in Kungrad when looking to exchange money. First he showed us where to find a decent rate, then took us to his friends house to buy some much needed petrol before finally inviting us back to his house for food and a bed. His house appeared to be in the process of being transformed into a hotel with exquiste carpets, lavish wallpaper and decadent lighting which all together were rather over-bearing for our reserved British tastes especially having existed in a bare tent for the past 4 months. Still Kulken and his family’s company, food and hospitality were superb and we cannot be thankful enough having learned a lot about Uzbek culture and even how much they paid for their son’s wife who patiently waited on us hand and foot. Lottie is currently in training with family negotiations to take place once she has shown suitable ability in the camp kitchen.
The food in Uzbekistan was surprisingly good given the rumours we had heard of it. Lots of Shasliq (BBQed beef or lamb kebabs), Lagman (meat, vegetable and noodle soup) and plov (fried rice with meat and veg) along with lots of fresh fruit and various forms of bread. Our only real complaint was that there was not enough of it, with portion sizes leaving Lottie still hungry nevermind the ever fattening Ryan.
We were not the only travellers to enjoy the food but wish there was more. As a result of there being only one real route through Uzbekistan, and Central Asia being a favourite destination for many overlanders traversing the continent, we were able to share many meals with the same people we had met in previous cities. Jeppe the Danish viking and 3 young English students, Sam, Sam and Omi we met in all 3 cities, often sharing the same dorm as them and are now glad to call them good friends. It really is a small world.
Our final refletion on Uzbekistan was what a joy it was to travel through. From our very first impression at the Kazakh border where the infamous guards were friendly and relaxed about our electronic devices and illegal prescriptive medicines, to the jovial black market money exchangers, the welcoming families, the waving children, the helpful guesthouse owners, the exquisite monuments and jaw dropping scenery….despite the heat….we had a great time and feel fortunate to have freely explored this once forbidden land of ancient Kingdoms.
Would we rush back? Perhaps not especially in the height of summer but would we recommend it to a curious friend? You’ve got to see it to believe it!