A short post this week, covering just a few days riding, but based on my schedule it’s going to be about 12 days before I post another. This week has involved yet another round of illness, some of the toughest winds so far, new friends and seeing some wonderful sights.
I want to start by saying I have been really surprised by Uzbekistan. I’ve been reading about Central Asia for a long time as, with it being one of the least touristed parts of the world, I’ve been fascinated by it. I knew Uzbekistan contained the best preserved sights of the entire silk road but I did not know that the country, and its tourism infrastructure, were so well developed.
I had expected to see the odd backpacker here going off the beaten track but have been surprised to see coach tours full of French, German and American tourists. Very few Brits but hopefully my posts may get a few more of us interested! Each of the historic cities has a beautiful clean developed centre around the main sights with friendly affordable accommodation and cafes.
There are also a huge amount of domestic tourists who have come to visit from other parts of the country and also tourists from other Central Asia countries (mostly Kazakhs due to their stronger economy). People are very friendly and are curious about foreigners but very respectful in their approach, usually just introducing themselves with a handshake and a bow. If you have no common language most people just smile, shake your hand again and walk off which is very refreshing compared to a few countries where people barrage into shouting questions at you louder and slower in a language you have no grasp of.
Tailing on from my last post I spent the best part of 3 days relaxing and eating in Bukhara, putting on some weight after the Turkmenistan crossing. I plodded around the city and took in the views of the impressive Kalyan minaret…
The tower so impressed Genghis Khan that he left it standing whilst his men destroyed the entire city around it. He proceeded to use the tower as an execution device by having people thrown out of the arches near the top, a practice that was still in use as recently as 1920.
The streets of the city follow along little canals, although not as vast as Venice, they are still rather pleasant and give a cool feeling in the oppressive heat of the day. The canals originally doubled as moats which failed in their defensive role when Genghis Khan simply filled them with the bodies of civilians so that his soldiers could cross.
A big frustration in Uzbekistan is the money. Firstly your bank card will not work in the local ATM’s which dispense Uzbek Soms, but even if they did you would not want to use them. The reason for this is there are two exchange rates for Soms. The official rate of 2,100 to the dollar and the black market rate of 3,000 to the dollar. If you manage to withdraw Soms you’d effectively be paying 30% commission.
A few places give US Dollar cash advances on foreign cards, and there are a handful of ATM’s that do as well, but these are such a pain to find and use (I spent two days getting dollars in Samarkand) that if you are coming on a short trip I would just bring a stash of dollars.
So once you have your dollars how do you go about getting the black market rate. Simply walking around town will have people trying to grab your attention offering rates of 2,700 to the dollar which will do if you really need the cash. The best bet I’ve found is that most B&B owners have a friend who will get you a good rate (I got 2,950 to the dollar in Bukhara and 3,000 to the dollar in Samarkand).
The final hurdle is that the bank notes in Uzbekistan are very low denomination. There is a new 5,000 Som note that is not yet in widespread usage so you will most likely end up carrying around a wedge of cash like this…
You’ll feel a bit self conscious pulling this out to pay for things at first but no one bats an eyelid and you’ll spot everyone, including the locals, all having to deal with this issue. The wedge above is about £40.
Some of you may have figured out by now that I am a bit of a food lover, despite my spates of no appetite in the desert, and I am delighted to have returned to the world of dumplings, a part of the world that joyfully includes the entire remainder of my trip. Whilst following a tempting sign in Bukhara that directed me towards “Beer and a Burger” I stumbled upon a little Mante shop…
Absolutely beautiful dumplings filled with spiced beef and topped with sour cream, chives, chilli powder and pepper. A plate of four with a pint of beer and double of local vodka came to about $3 (£1.80), bargain!
There is something that has been playing on my mind recently that I thought I would write about in a slightly more insightful way departing from my normal anecdotal style of writing.
Regarding food and drink I am normally quite experimental, happy to try differant things from differant places, especially when travelling. Now that I have been on the road for so long this desire has almost completely reversed, I crave the familiar. Not in the sense of grabbing some home comforts like Battered Sausage & Chips or Sushi from Wasabi but more along the lines of familiarity as a stand alone concept.
Moving from town to town you may order the same food or products in a shop but you never really know what you are getting. Bread is differant 10 miles down the road, national dishes vary in quality and price from one truck stop to the next. I fantasise about walking into a cafe, ordering something and receiving exactly what I expected and knowing what it will cost. I know this must come across as me being dull as dishwater but it really is a strange phenomena.
Ultimately it must boil down to a desire for comfort, a desire that led me to have the above pictured dumplings for both lunch and dinner for two days.
After one of my dumpling sessions I went for another plod around town and spotted two people getting out the back of a lorry carrying a Sainsbury’s “Bag for Life”. Hmmm. Another glimpse and the truck had British plates. I introduce myself to Ed and Ros who it turns out are driving their converted ex-British Army Leyland DAF truck all the way from Maidstone to Magadan, the most eastern city in Siberia tackling the notorious “Road of Bones” along the way before driving back home again…
We hit it off and made plans to meet for dinner where even more dumplings, beer and vodka were consumed with Ed very very generously picking up my share of the bill. You can have a read of their blog here.
With the freshest feeling legs for a month I finally dragged myself out of Bukhara and hit the road. The fresh legs were a god send when I spent the entirety of that day riding head on into the strongest winds of the trip. At one point I spent nearly two hours riding at about 6-8kmph, slower than walking speed…
It was seriously on the verge of being unrideable. If the winds had not been coming directly head on, and instead been pushing me into the road, I think it would’ve been too dangerous to continue due to the risk of being blown into traffic.
I got caught out by a little 30km desert stretch on this route as normally I would’ve flown through it and instead spent 3-4 hours sweating and struggling my way along. I spotted a car outside what appeared to be a closed Petrol station and managed to find the attendant who gave me some water from his personal stash of bottles.
Another difficulty in Uzbekistan is that you need to register your accommodation every three days. Effectively what this means is staying in a half decent hotel every 72 hours. No problem for a back packer but this can create a logistical problem for a cyclist (You need to show your registration receipts when you leave the country or face a $1000 fine).
As a natural worrier I decided I’d go over budget for my two weeks in Uzbekistan (which should easily be balanced by three months in China) and to register in hotels whenever I can, hopefully not ending up with a three day gap. To fulfil this need I was aiming for the city of Navoi which would make this day into the wind 115km long.
I was delighted to stumble upon a small Cafe/Hotel 20km before the city which was part of the Navoi airport complex, an airport currently operated by Korean Air as one of their main Cargo hubs which led to the unusual novelty of my room being decorated with famous sights from South Korea.
I asked the Hotelier about the winds and he was adamant they are caused by rocket launches from the nearby Baikonaur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan, where Russia launches their rockets from. There had been a launch 5 days prior and the winds had started and not stopped. I can find no documentation to back up this claim.
Thankfully the winds were not so bad the next morning and I managed to reach “blistering” speeds of 13kmph for most of the day (I normally ride on that flat at 20-25kmph). I won’t go on about the long slog that day but I reached the next candidate for a hotel, Khattakurgan, after an exhausting 100km. I spent about an hour riding around town asking everyone if there was a hotel before eventually being shown to an apartment I could rent for the night for $8, but, without registration.
I knew I could register the next day in Samarkand so no problem and was keen to sleep rather than go hunting for a camp spot. I did a bit of food shopping and picked up a couple of Somsas, the local variation of Indian Samosas, from a street vendor.
At about 2am I was awoken by an all to familiar grumbling and proceeded to vacate my digestive tract from every available orifice for an hour. Once this episode was over I was quick to discover that this apartment, albeit cheap, was devoid of running water. I managed to wash my hands with some of my bottled water but obviously this was not ideal.
After a terrible 5 hours sleep I knew I had to carry on as I wasn’t going to be able to clear an infection if I couldn’t keep my hands clean. On top of this I was keen to vacate the apartment before the state of the bathroom was discovered.
With shakey arms and legs I made it 6km down the road before I had to stop and take a break for an hour. I climbed back on and made it another 1km before stopping again. Bugger. What am I going to do? I can’t go back, I need to find somewhere I can get better. My only real option was to hitchhike on to Samarkand. This would potentially lead to me breaking my “Cycle every inch” rule but right now I didn’t have much of a choice.
I asked some old ladies who were relaxing outside their house about busses or hitch-hiking and one of them helped me flag down a car. The seemingly nice guy who was driving helped me load everything up before suddenly demanding money for the journey. Angry at this, but exhausted and desperate to get moving, I haggled him from his insane $30 down to $10 and we headed off.
I knew I’d made the right choice when simply driving this undulating road, which was pot-holed to hell, was exhausting in itself. The driver carefully eyeing me all the time as I was visibly nauseous.
As we reached the outskirts of Samarkand he stopped the car and said we were here, an all too familiar taxi driver technique. I checked my GPS to find I was 8km for the centre and thus the shouting match began. If he wanted a game of who was angrier right now I was certainly going to win and despite my strong desire I restrained myself from some on-demand vomitting in his car.
I won the “discussion” and soon I was checking into my B&B. By that evening I was feeling much better, a wonderful revelation as the last food poisoning had lingered for a week, and after some discussion on a cycling community I frequent (reddit.com/r/bicycletouring) and some prompting from the user AppleTart I decided that it would bug me forever if I did not go back and ride the section I had missed. Whilst this trip is more about the adventure than being a purist I can’t say I am not motivated by the achievement of having a perfect line across the world that I have cycled (documented in this map).
After another day of rest I hopped in a shared taxi stopping exactly where I had left two days earlier. The old ladies were still sat under the tree and seemed rather surprised to see me hop out a taxi, pull my bike out of the boot, re-assemble it, give them a smile and a wave before turning around and riding off in the direction I had come from.
I’d decided it would be truly stupid to insist or re-riding this section with all my luggage so was having some fun riding my light weight un-laden bike for the first time since September. Once I’d cleared the first 15km of awful tarmac and hills…
… I was soon averaging 30kmph on the smooth tarmac and flew back to Samarkand in under 3 hours. As I rode I knew I’d made the right choice to comeback, I was smiling all the way. I raced into the city centre and rode up to the countries most famous sight, the Registan…
I’d walked past it the day before whilst ill but this, as far as I am concerned, was the ‘real’ arrival. I asked the guy in the above photos friend to take the photo for me and he insisted on joining in!
After having a good look on the internet into my three recent rounds of illness I think I have come up with a good set of candidates;
Illness 1: Food poisoning for 7 days in Iran. Gastroenteritis.
Illness 2: Exhaustion in Turkmenistan. Dehydration due to loss of salt, not lack of water. Lack of salts due to sweating in high heat and little appetite.
Illness 3: Food poisoning for 1 day in Uzbekistan. Gastroenteritis but cleared quickly due to vomitting up the cause (which didn’t happen last time) and maybe residual anti-bodies from fighting off the last round of it.
I was worried for a little bit as it seemed Giardia was a good fit, a more severe infection that your body cannot recover from on its own, but that now seems unlikely. There’s not too much I can do about the food poisoning but to help with the dehydration I have decided to stock up on Rehydration Salts which I will use pre-emptively. I previously only had two sachets which I had used in Iran when recovering from the food poisoning. It was a bit of struggle finding the right Russian words for Rehydration Salts but I had success when I asked for Регидрационная соль (Regeedratseeonnaya Sol). Bargain at 5 pence a sachet…
On top of this I figured cooking more often will reduce the chance of food poisoning so I replenished my wavering stock of alcohol fuel for my cooking stove. They only sold it in 40ml bottles and were shocked when I requested 20 of them but fulfilled my order without suspecting me of anything weird.
The magic word you need to find alcohol fuel in a Central Asian Pharmacy is Спирт (Speert). It is only 70% alcohol but this is perfectly useable, it just means you need more of it and cooking takes a bit longer than a higher percentage. A bit expensive (£4 for 800ml) but well within the price range I was happy to pay…
One more rest day to really see the sights of Samarkand…
And to try and resurrect the decent drawer I was in my childhood.
Next up is 7 days riding to the border with Kyrgyzstan and I have 10 days left on my visa to reach it. Hopefully no more illness!
If you’ve enjoyed reading this then checkout my site 121degrees for more info and subscribe to this blog for more entries along the way!
I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.