August 22nd, 2016 in Khorog, Tajikistan
We entered Uzbekistan feeling exhausted and low in spirit. The Turkmen-dash had completely drained us and everything felt very hard. The never ending heat, the boring desert landscape and our upset stomachs had us doubting we would get any more joy out of this journey. So we settled in in Bukhara for some serious rest and recovering, both physical and mental. We drank beer, ate good food (or as good as it gets Uzbekistan) and hanged out with other English-speaking travellers such as fellow cyclist, people travelling by car or motorcycle and “ordinary” backpackers. We took a day trip to Samarkand (which we previous thought we bike to) and simply just enjoyed being ordinary tourists for a couple of days. It was good for both mind and body and slowly but steady we were once again looking forward to getting back on our saddles.
Well, that's the filtered version; in reality, our “holiday” got a bit longer than we had planned due to two reasons. Firstly, Robin got sick again and didn't leave his bed for a whole day. Secondly, we misunderstood the e-visa application for Tajikistan and were not allowed to enter until a couple of days later than we originally had intended. But the extra time in Uzbekistan came in handy with Robin not being in top form so it all sort of worked out for the better.
As a place to just rest and hangout Bukhara, or Buxoro as it is also called, was great. It's not so big and everything a tourist might want is within walking distance. The area around the big pool, Labi Hovuz, might have been a bit touristy but still a nice area. The madrasahs, the mosques and all the historical buildings and monuments were pretty but also quite boring. But that didn't really matter in Bukhara because we were on a vacation from cycling and simply being was all we needed.
Samarkand on the other hand was not really our cup of tea. Maybe we went to the wrong places and maybe we had too little time (we were only there for a day) but the mosques and shrines felt too renovated to feel authentic and were filled with small stores selling junk. To top it of, all the places had high entry fees…which apparently were negotiable.
It didn't take us long to realize that all these fancy “old” buildings in Samarkand wasn't really for us so we decided to spend the rest of the the day sipping coffee and eating well. Well, that's what we wanted to do… But we couldn't find any nice cafés or bars and instead ended up walking around the city in some sort of limbo waiting for the night train that was going to take us back to Bukhara.
The place we stayed at in Bukhara felt like, and really was, a true meeting place for overland-travellers. Everyday new travellers arrived outdoing the last one in terms of crazy adventures. One guy was driving from Australia, one girl was cycling from Vietnam and so on... We hadn't had these types of meeting points before and really enjoyed both the social interaction and the opportunity to exchange tips and experiences with other cyclists.
It's no coincidence that this meeting point come to be where it is. With the two main overland routes from Europe connecting in Bukhara as well as the Uzbek rules of registration, it's only natural for a place like this to come into existence.
What are the rules of registration you ask? Well, the general rule seem to be that as a tourist you are obliged to register at a hotel at least every third night. Or is it also the first three nights in the country? Or is it only if you stay at a place more than two nights? No one, and we really mean no one, knows. But to be on the safe side it's recommended to stay at a hotel every third night and then, usually, when you exit the country you should be fine. Not complying with the rules of registration (whatever they may be) might result in a big fine when leaving the country. Or sometimes nothing will happen at all. It's weird but Uzbekistan seems to be all about at least pretending to have some control over tourists and citizens. Along the roads there are police control after police control. Some of them will only wave you by while other will carefully write down all the information in your passport in a big fat notebook. And it appears to be the same for the locals. We never had any problems though, it just seems like something that has to be done.
Leaving Bukhara and heading towards Tajikistan there was… more desert! The roads were very uneven in quality, ranging from perfect smooth asphalt to a sea of potholes, shaking all the screws in our panniers and bikes lose.
In Korshana, a small village in between Bukhara and the Tajikistan border, we “celebrated” four months since we started this journey. Four months is a third of the expected total length or our trip. That a third of our trip has passed by feels really strange. In a way it feels like only yesterday that we said goodbye to everyone at home and at the same time we have covered so many countries since. But even stranger than the distance already covered is what we have in front of us. Knowing that we still have another ⅔ to go is of course exciting but also feels really long. There is many kilometres to cycle and many challenges to overcome. Hopefully we'll make it…
But back to the present. We did enjoy Uzbekistan even though we can't say we saw a whole lot of it. For the most part our thoughts were on Tajikistan and the Pamir highway. That meant that Uzbekistan too (like Turkmenistan) became somewhat of a transit country for us even though it wasn't supposed to. One thing we really didn't like though was the hygiene or more the lack thereof. We already had a taste of the “Central Asia Stomach” in Turkmenistan but it wasn't going to get better anytime soon. Robin had more than one rant where he swore and went on about how the people should just bloody learn how to wash their hands. The people was however very friendly as always. Old men offered us vodka with our lunch, children offered us fruit and when we had problems finding a camping spot people let us camp in their garden. Once at a farm they even provided us with a sauna, gave us dinner (including vodka off course) and then forced us to dance under the stars to the sound of their cranked up car stereo.
A slightly amusing aspect of Uzbekistan is the money. On the black market you'll get more than double that of the official exchange rate. But the problem that you face when changing money is that you are likely to only get 1000-som-notes (one dollar is equal to approximately 6000 som). That means that you'll walk away from a money exchange with a big black bag filled with money; and don't even get us started on paying for dinner with these notes or just keeping enough on you for the day.
Up next is Tajikistan, likely to be one of our biggest test so far. There, a large part of our route will be spent above 4000 meters (will we get high altitude sickness?) and the population will be sparse forcing us to plan ahead and stock up on food much more then we have had to do before. The roads will be even poorer than before and we will most likely only be able to cycle 40-50 km per day. It's going to be rough and we have no idea of how well we will do but the scenery is supposedly worth it…