Detail of traditional Rishtan ceramic, Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Detail of traditional Rishtan ceramic, Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Well it has certainly not been a dull few days since my last post. I’ve ridden my final few days in Uzbekistan (hitting 6,000 miles along the way) being blown away by the incredible ceramics at the Rustam Usmanov workshop in Rishtan, achieved another one of my cycling goals (riding 100km non-stop) as well as finally meeting up with my new riding partner Stephen Cunningham. Within a couple of hours of getting to know each other we found ourselves in the back of a police car being hassled for money and threatened with a truncheon…

I headed out of Kokand and rode the 40km to the town of Rishtan, the centre of Ceramic manufacturing in Uzbekistan. The Silk Road brought Chinese Ceramics to the town which inspired local craftsman to begin emulating the decorations before evolving it into their now famous geometric designs. The area is also famous for its clay as it can be worked into pots straight from the ground with no preparation.

Workstation, Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Workstation, Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Rustam Usmanov used to be the Art Director of the Rishtan collectivised Ceramics factory under communism, achieving the prestigious position a mere year after graduating with his Art Degree. When the Soviet Union collapsed Rustam set about creating his own workshop were he now directs a teams of apprentices whose impressive work you see throughout this post.

Ceramics produced by Rustam himself are highly prized and grace Presidential and Royal homes throughout the world as well as there being an exhibition of his work in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Workstation, Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Workstation, Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

I was worried I would miss the workshop as I only knew that it was roughly 1km out of Rishtan on the main road from Kokand. This concern was quickly dispelled when I spotted the grandest entrance to a home I have ever seen…

One hell of a front door. Rustam Usmanov's cermaic workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

One hell of a front door. Rustam Usmanov’s cermaic workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Once you step through the grand entrance you enter a fairly modest home and workshop where you can see Rustam supervising his workers as well as a huge display of their work…

Ceramics at the Rustam Usmanov workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Ceramics at the Rustam Usmanov workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

I have to say I absolutely love these geometric designs and walked around the display with Rustam who then showed me into his small museum where he has ceramics from the region dating back 1,000 years.

Plate, Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Plate, Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

As I walked around one little tea cup really caught my eye, and knowing how expensive Rustam’s own work is, I was tentative to ask how much it cost. When Rustam asked for $5 I was gobsmacked and found myself agreeing to the price without even attempting to haggle. My lovely new cup…

My souvenir tea cup from the the Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

My souvenir tea cup from the the Rustam Usmanov Ceramic Workshop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

I know, I know. Carrying ceramics 4,000 miles over bumpy roads all the way to Shanghai doesn’t sound like a great idea but hopefully it survives! I’d also picked up a much more simple tea cup in Samarkand as I’d quite frankly become fed-up of drinking tea and coffee out of my aluminium cup. This simple pattern is prolific around the country and nearly all plates, cups and tea-pots I’ve seen in hotels and cafes use it…

And a more simple cup I picked up in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

And a more simple cup I picked up in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

As I was carefully packing away my prize in my pannier Rustam walked over and asked if I’d like lunch. Visiting the workshop and museum is free but I’d read that Rustam’s wife prepares huge meals for tourists for $7 and I’d noticed a group of German tourists had just started to tuck-in. This was way out of my budget so I said thanks but that I had some noodles in my bag I would cook.

Rustam then said the magic word that he was “inviting me for lunch” and he called over his workers and we all sat down and had some soup and bread with Rustam insisting I have some vodka with him. The vodka here is fantastic by the way. The cheap vodka, £2 a bottle or so, is comparable in smoothness to £40 bottles of vodka I have had in England.

As I rode out of town I noticed everything was ornately decorated in fine tilework, even the run down old bus stops…

Orante bus stop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Orante bus stop, Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

As I pressed on to Margilon, the silk producing centre of Uzbekistan, a van pulled up along side and the passenger handed me a load of cherries before smiling and driving on! The van is in the distance in this shot… (ignore my grubby hands I’ve been riding without gloves recently to get rid of ridiculous tan lines)

Free cherries on the road near Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

Free cherries on the road near Rishtan, Uzbekistan.

This area used to be a huge wine producing centre but was repurposed as cotton growing under the soviet union. Wine production is now coming back but apparently the quality is yet to reach what it once was. Grape vines are everywhere and most of the towns I went through had canopies with vines growing over all of the pavements, a clever use of space and also a way to create shade…

VIneyards over the pavements in Altyaryk, Uzbekistan.

VIneyards over the pavements in Altyaryk, Uzbekistan.

I reached Margilon and went into the local silk factory to find it had closed for the day. I had wanted to buy a metre of patterned silk to take to china and maybe have it made into some handkerchiefs or a tie but all of the patterns were huge and clearly designed to be worn as dresses not as small items.

The staff at the museum informed me that the hotel I planned to stay at in town had lost it’s license to host foreigners a year ago, this annoyed me greatly as it’s about the third time the Lonely Planet guide I am using (That was published only one month ago) has had bad information. It seems they didn’t bother to update any of their section on the Fergana valley.

The helpful silk-factory staff then phoned up various home stays in the city of Fergana about 15km away but unfortunately they were all full. The Lonely Planet listed the cheapest hotel in town as $38, and having no choice as I have to adhere to the tourist laws of staying in hotels in Fergana, I cycled on fully expecting the hotel to be more expensive than the poorly researched guide book said.

On the way into Fergana I did spot this really cool home made two seater recumbent trike. What a way to travel…

Sweet two seater recumbent trike in Fergana, Uzbekistan.

Sweet two seater recumbent trike in Fergana, Uzbekistan.

I reached the Taj Mahal Hotel in Fergana and as I expected it was more expensive than I expected at $50. I had no choice so checked in and went and got groceries to cook in the room. I never new the Chicago Bulls made sausages…

It appears the Chicago bulls  sell Frankfurters in Uzbekistan.

It appears the Chicago bulls sell Frankfurters in Uzbekistan.

Whilst in the second most expensive accommodation of the whole trip I decided I was sick of spending a fortune on hotels in Uzbekistan. I had planned to take two days riding to Osh in Kyrgyzstan via the city of Andijon but worked out a route on the back roads that would get me there in 120km compared to the main roads 160km. It would mean going through border procedures after riding 115km but fortunately my hostel in Osh would be a mere 3km after crossing. To get to the border as early as possible I decided to go for another of my cycling goals, riding 100km without stopping. When I finally did stop I couldn’t believe how much salt I’d sweat out into my leggings, time for one of my rehydration sachets…

Overdoing it in the heat, those rehydatrion salts were a good idea!

Overdoing it in the heat, those rehydatrion salts were a good idea!

The border crossing was fairly straightforward although I was a bit thrown when one of the Kyrgyz guards asked me “What is your purpose?”. I did not know you needed to provide your personal existential philosophy to enter Kyrgyzstan but “I cycle… therefore I am” got me a weird look and an open gate out of the border complex.

I rode a short kilometre before I begin to see thoughtfully placed signs directing me to the hostel that took me past this imposing statue…

Monument on the road into Osh, Kyrgyzstan, from the border.

Monument on the road into Osh, Kyrgyzstan, from the border.

In the hostel I spotted a touring bike and quickly got chatting with Nick Hirst who is currently cycling almost the opposite of my trip, Singapore to London, his blog here. We swapped a huge amount of tips and helped each other plan big sections of our onward trips, my route through China is really coming together and his photos from the road through Kyrgyzstan have gotten me really excited.

I spent the next two days hanging with Nick, eating and drinking the much cheaper food and beer here compared to Uzbekistan and waiting for Stephen to arrive. I also visited my first ATM in 2 months, it is refreshing being able to get money easily! I withdrew about $200 worth of Kyrgyz Som, which will become relevant shortly.

Stephen and I have been in email contact for a while as he found my blog when plotting his route into Istanbul. We realised our schedules might lineup and it all came together here in Osh. Our routes are the same all the way to Xian in Eastern China so it looks like we should be riding together for 3 months and we are both looking forward to the variety it will inject into our trips.

We headed out for some dumplings (god I love dumplings) and then went for a walk in town with Stephen hitting up the same ATM for $200 of local currency. We headed down the main road for a couple of kilometres before turning around to head back and as we were chatting I hear Stephen say “I think we’re in trouble…” and noticed a group of Police officers approaching us…

Nick, the other cyclist from before, had told me about a run in he had had with the police in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. He had been forced into a police car and been told they needed to “Count his dollars”. He relented and let them thumb through his dollars whilst he still held onto them much to their annoyance and they finally tired of him and let him go.

As the police approached us one asked for our documents, which we genuinely didn’t have on us, and then they began gesturing for us to get into their car. Remembering Nick’s story I was not getting into that car easily and I decided it would be best to conveniently forget my basic Russian ability. As the two of us constantly repeated “Passport. Hotel.” and “Ya Nye Ponemayo”, the Russian for “I do not understand”, they began to get angry and started to push Stephen into the direction of the car, gently at first and then very forcefully. I became painfully aware we were both carrying $200 worth of cash, a stupid thing to be doing.

A very slow game of them getting us into the car began. First Stephen got forced in but kept his feet out of the car. Next they forced his feet in and then had to force him to move across the back seat. Next it was my turn and I repeated the same routine, however, their patience was wearing thin and when I refused to let him push my legs into the car the driver started threatening me with a truncheon. I put my legs in but kept a hand on the roof of the car so they couldn’t shut the door and drive off.

We spent what felt like 20 minutes in the car of them asking for our passports and then asking us to empty out our pockets but we refused and continued repeating “Passport. Hotel” and “I do not understand”. They started pulling passersby off of the street who spoke English who nervously informed us we needed to pay a fine and the Police Officer in the drivers seat started grabbing at my wallet through my trousers, at this point I suspected he was drunk as well.

Throughout this whole experience it seemed this guy was the ring leader. He was the one getting physical with us and shouting the most, the others all just seemed to be laughing and following his direction. At one point he said to me in Russian “I am a Police Man not a bandit”. Well you’ve just added Liar to the list of things you are, which, by the way, does include Bandit.

One of them leaned in and yanked up the sleeve of my shirt on the arm that I have tattooed and him and another “Officer” started running their hands over my arm to get a good look, one of them seemingly making a point to rub his hand “clean” on the car seat afterwards. It was tough to restrain my anger at that moment.

A small crowd of locals was looking on and one older guy seemed to be shouting at them a bit, the others seemed too nervous to get involved. After an eternity of us repeating “Passport. Hotel.” the driver made the subtlest “Leave” gesture I’ve ever seen and we jumped out the car and started power walking in the direction of the hostel.

The first guy who had been pulled off the street to translate came after us and apologised and asked if we had lost any money. This is what really annoyed me about the situation. The Kyrgyz government is working very hard to promote tourism, they have made the country Visa-free in a region of countries difficult to get into and the flights to Bishkek from Europe are so cheap they must be waving the taxes. On top of this the people are lovely and very friendly, you’ve just got a few crooked cops ruining it for everyone.

I was glad I’d met up with Stephen as, if I’d been on my own, I would’ve been angry for days about this incident. After a few beers, and considering we technically came out on top of that situation, it quickly becomes another funny story. I’ve noticed this affect before when a bus I was taking into Iraq was ambushed by protesting Turkish Taxi Drivers, if I hadn’t been on that bus with a friend it would’ve been a seriously bad experience.

Whilst drinking in the hostel a couple of Kyrgyz guys introduced themselves and when Stephen said he was Irish asked “Northern or South?”. We were gobsmacked to find they knew all about the names and capitals of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. One of them asked if we’d had any bad experiences in the country but we diplomatically said no as it would’ve just served to embarrass them.

Well after all that it is going to be a relief when me and Stephen hit the road tomorrow. We’ve got roughly a 7 day stint to the capital of Kyrgyzstan crossing the two highest mountain passes of the trip so far at 3,586m and 3,184m as well as travelling through what is set to be the best scenery so far! On top of this my fundraising efforts have just reached the £1,000 mark. Please consider donating through the link below to Samuel’s Children’s Charity, this is a small charity where even a small donation goes a long way to improving the quality of life for children dealing with severe/terminal illnesses. On top of that it really motivates me through the bad parts of this trip :).

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.

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