World by Bike 25: Central Asia 3
Leaving Tashkent was much easier than leaving Bishkek. In my head, I'd made the stretch through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan incredibly difficult, picturing it as one massive, remote, unwelcoming stretch with the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara as my only respite. However, as I got closer to this section, and is the nature of bike touring, you have to start breaking it down into daily targets, and then again into sections between food and water stops. Now leaving Tashkent, and having to break down the last week from Bishkek, things didn't seem that daunting anymore. What had been a 1700 mile abyss in my head turned out to be rather manageable. Leaving Tashkent, and having looked ahead on the map, I'd been able to break things down for at least another 1000km until the city of Nukus, and even then the biggest stretch was 160km without food or water. Perfectly managable when broken down into smaller steps with an attached plan.
The traffic leaving Central Asia's biggest city wasn surprisingly tolerable, with everyone on their best behaviour with the visit of the German president. Although Urumqi in Xinjiang, China is technically bigger than Tashkent with closer to three million people, you’re not allowed to considered it within Central Asia as you'd definitely be thrown into a Chinese jail for a long time for suggesting part of China wasn’t the Far East. Anyway, the ride from the Uzbek capital was a simple highway grind along the Kazakh border until the town of Jizzakh, where my host in Tashkent had put me in touch with a local church leader. The heat was growing in intensity as I rode further south, and seeing encouraging signs for the Afghan border inform me that we were gradually making progress. The relatively flat riding west of the Fergana valley was much more tolerable, and a light breeze wind helped my progress. My host in Jizzakh managed a small complex with the church in the middle of concrete courtyard, and a few surrounding buildings with a kitchen, sleeping quarters and a separate holes in the ground for male and female toilets. My host, Renat, ran a small congregation in a majorly Muslim town, and spoke no English. Fortunately, his friend spoke English and he shared with me the struggles of running a church in this part of the world. The friend recently took over a congregation from his father, who'd be in charge for the best part of 20 years I believe. There are only 6 people in the congregation, but they rotate through each other's homes a couple of times a week to discuss the Bible. It's fascinating to hear people serving each other diligently in such a small group.
Renat had a contact for me in the next city of Samarkand. It’s a famous trading city on the Silk Road, and is home to many famous and magnificent Muslim architectural relics. It's a beautiful place, but incredibly hot at this time of year. The sun is so bright and the sky so clear that photos don't do the grandeur of the place justice during the day, you've got to wait until sunrise or sunset. My host here, Tim, was wonderfully generous, acting as my tour guide despite typically giving a tour in Russian as his day job. He helped my understand Uzbek taxi culture, where it's customary for a taxi that you've paid for and is mid-journey, to pick up other people who may be going the same direction. It was a bit bemused at first to have a large elderly lady and a sweaty young man climb into the back seats of the taxi either side of me before we'd completed our journey. His generosity towards me was truly humbling, letting me take his bed in his house for a couple of nights whilst he moved into his sister's room. When it came time to leave, he even stayed up until 5am after an all-night prayer session at his church to make me breakfast before I departed for the city of Bukhara.
I decided to do a big day to Bukhara, after taking a rest day in Samarkand. It’s a relatively empty stretch of road between the cities, so I saw no need to drag out the boredom over 2 days. Around 270km later, and fortunately after an overcast day, we arrived in the next Silk Road city. The traffic and roads had worsened, with a much increased level of traffic noise and even more careless driving. These two cities are much more Tajik and Iranian by population, more heavily influenced by Persian culture than traditional Uzbek culture. It was strange to see that manifest so vividly in the driving. The roads felt much more like what I've heard Indians roads are like - they were distinctly more chaotic. I managed to catch a gorgeous sunset before meeting with one of Tim's church contacts in the south of the city. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to spend much time with the pastor, but from the looks of things, they ran quite an operation there.
After Bukhara, the desert appeared to begin, much earlier than expected. After losing a lot of time trying to find an ATM in the city, I stopped in a small grocery store at the start of a disgusting highway to load up on drinks as I had little energy. It was fortunate I did as there was precious little for the next 130km. The road surface was appalling and the vast expanse of land meant you could see every dark rainfall within a 15 mile radius. That was about as entertaining as the scenery got. As the evening darkened prematurely with thick cloud, and more locals mislead me further as to where I could find food and water (I'm learning that even locals haven't got a clue unless they're talking about an area within 100m of their house), I set off further down the highway, surprised by a brand new stretch of wonderfully smooth two-lane tarmac. Fortunately there were a couple of small teahouses on the road, and one even let me put my tent up alongside their kitchen when I rolled in at 11pm. I managed another big day the next day, despite the heat, making the most of the low-wind conditions as winds can be brutal in the region.
As I'd made good progress, but not yet been able to crack the 300km barrier, I took a small detour and day off in the ancient city of Khiva before a painfully slow grind on terrible roads and a frustrating headwind to Nukus, the last city before the proper expanse of desert. I arrived in Nukus so late that I decided to take another day off there to recover and stock up on supplies for the emptiness ahead. I'd received intel from other tourers that I have a 140km stretch from Nukus to a well-stocked truck stop, then 130km to a small petrol station that had some bedrooms, then 160km of nothing until the Kazakh border, where things ought to get slightly easier.
Helpfully, that was exactly how it turned out. Being off social media for a few days, and having nothing but putting your head down and grinding out the miles was interesting. There's no escaping the responsibility of getting yourself from A to B, as there's no one out there to help you. The road did progressively get worse to the border, but as I broke down the route day by day, I found it was only one day when the road was awful, the other days were fine. A brutal 500km to the border, just became a tough 160km, and then when I got there I was only the last 70k that was hard. Of course it's hard to keep moving when there's no scenery, and you've got to use every large road sign you can find to shelter from the sun, but the desert was manageable. Fortunately the high 40 degree temperatures I'd seen on the way up to Nukus did drop for the week in the desert, only seeing temperatures as high as 38, when people told me I could see 45 - 50 degrees Celsius.
The desert was a weirdly encouraging place, as I saw many other tourers coming the other way as there's only one road from here to the Caspian Sea and Eurasia. I think I partly saw increased traffic with the difficulty of getting an Iranian visa, but it was encouraging all the same. I saw two groups of Brits riding from the UK to Japan for different charities, I saw my hitch-hiker friend I'd met in China drive past me on his way to the sea, and even happened to bump into Mike, a US tourer who'd given me a place to stay in Flagstaff, Arizona when I was riding across the States back in November, a couple of hundred days ago! It's a very small world.
The desert on the Kazak side of the border was much easier, and there perfect highway for the next few hundred kilometres all the way to the Sea, bar a rough 20k stretch into the desert town of Beyneu, culminating in a 3km stretch of disgusting deep sand. After coming off three times in the space of 2km, I had to push the bike for a whole 100m, the first miles I'd had to push in over 17000 miles of pedalling! The route to the sea was much more straightforward though, until a brutal headwind and lack of food make the last 30 miles to Aktau a real battle. However, knowing all the tourers I'd met had already battled this terrain, and with a real desire to see the sea, I persevered and made it to Aktau a couple of hours before a gloriously late sunset over the Caspian. It was one of the nicest swims of my entire life.
However, soon after arriving in Aktau, I caught news that the mysterious and often hard to located ferry was arriving in town the next day, so I had to haul it down to the ferry port and catch my ticket out of there. It was rushed under to the adventures east of the Caspian, much like this rushed ending to the blog post, but I was quite ready to be out of there. It was a real challenge, and I'm still feeling the build-up of fatigue now, but it was epic. That whole stretch through the 'Stans was a real lesson in breaking things down, and not getting overwhelmed by the scale of a task. You can only manage it in smaller sections, and have to tackle what each day brings. You can't fit more into the day than you can do in a day, so there's no point fixating on what's coming tomorrow, or the day after. They'll worry about themselves.