Osh (Kyrgyzstan) to Andijon (Uzbekistan)
The currency exchange in Uzbekistan was on the cusp of a reform – going from a black market norm to the banks taking back control. In the midst of this confusion, we decided that spending all our Krygyz money was the simplest solution. That way we would only have to get our heads around changing up US dollars, plus a good excuse to stock up on snacks.
We had read other blogs about their experience at the Uzbek borders and were anticipating the worst: dense, pushy queuing, endless checkpoints, and tight security checking our medicine kit for illegal drugs, scanning our laptops for pornographic material and scrutinizing our phones and messages for any threatening intentions. We weren’t worried, but just expecting it to be a long and lengthy process. At the Uzbek entry point, the border guards were friendly and smiling, with one taking us under his wing and ushering us to the front of the queue. We felt a little awkward, being the privileged tourist to skip ahead, but the guard insisted and showed us the declaration forms and where to go next.
We popped our panniers through the x-ray machines and expected the guards to request to inspect our belongings. Nope, one guard just came over to pick the bike up, gesture it was heavy and that he would have tired legs if he had to cycle with it. That was it. No paranoia, no sweat. Sweet as, bro.
On our first cycling leg in our new country, everyone seemed pleased to see us: waving and smiling from cars, leaning out bus windows, and a madly grinning old lady, every gold tooth gleaming. We stopped to exchange stories and tips with a very British cycle tourist pedalling the opposite way, and it was great to hear the familiar accent. During our coffee stop, an Uzbeki family stopped by to have a photo with us.
Then, one of the best on-the-road experiences happened: we raced an old man on a mobility scooter. He was the happiest rocket-powered pensioner, overtaking traffic and weaving in and out between the cars and buses, grinning as he passed us, let us catch up and cycle alongside him.
Andijon to Margilon
Our pleasant ride took us through fields of corn and fruit orchards, and flowers filled the sides of the road. More smiles and waves, and hollered over to collect some free apples from a friendly Uzbeki man.
Being a fertile basin to grow crops, the Fergana Valley has been a disputed area where control over the river has led to some political tensions. We didn’t feel any hostility and enjoyed the Turkestan Mountains and white cotton balls dotting the green fields.
With the sun shining, we arrived in Margilon, the hub of silk production on the famous Silk Route, a town that was apparently founded by Alexander the Great, and named after chicken curry!
Margilon to Kokand
We cycled out through quiet villages with little children wandering off to school looking smarter than what would be expected at a wedding. Courtyards were hidden behind walls that stretch the length of the street, with trellises covered in grape vines. With any doors that were open, we peeked in to see these secret gardens, full of flowers and trees.
We arrived in Kokand to some wonderful chalk-coloured buildings with turquoise domes, put our head through the gates to peer at the mosques, and went to see the Palace of Khan – which was very beautiful. Here, an older school boy took his opportunity to practice his English with us. A few other young local herberts seemed to be taking the piss out of him and in his broken English he told us “stupid street boys”.
Kokand to mountain cafe
The ride out of Kokand was busy with morning traffic, but nice and fast. We noticed many local men on bikes, and when they saw us, they were out to impress: either with some no-hands-on-the-bar cycling (sometimes even with their hands nonchalantly folded at the chest), or they zoomed off, pedalling as fast as they could, to show off their top speed. What was so entertaining is that these guys weren’t kids; it was great to see their light-hearted attitude on their daily commute.
One thing we also noticed was the bus-load of workers being taken to the cotton fields. We had read a little about the cotton farm industry – not all positive – and felt uncertain about how happy the locals were if they had been forced to give up careers to stand cowering over cotton in the baking sun. What we did know, however, was not to take any (obvious) photos; this is a seemingly sensitive subject and we couldn’t help but notice that every field of workers seemed to have a ‘minder’ in a car next to it.
The climb up the Kipchek pass started and we soon left the green and fertile valley behind – and the scenery was dry, arid and bare. In only a few places were there any trees or anything green. The gradient up the pass was fine, not too steep, but it was hot and over time our motivation soon evaporated, especially when the wind picked up and blew dust in our faces. Towards the afternoon, the headwind had got stronger and we felt it was a sign to stop.
We got to a café and asked if there was anywhere we could pitch our tent, and instead we were shown to what seemed like a private dinner room, and were allowed to sleep there for the night; they supplied us with tea, as they watched us filter water and looked through our pictures.
Mountain cafe to Angren
We set off knowing we had around 10km to go before reaching the top of the pass, but the fierce headwind was there to greet us. Still, it was the morning, it was chillier and we needed some warming up!
We had to negotiate some terrible driving, potholes and traffic cones on the descent, which made us feel robbed of our victory. You put all the effort in to get to the top for a lovely, isn’t-life-great, speedy descent. Not today. We struggled as much against the wind and poor road as getting up this thing.
It was all made worth it, however, when we asked a local farmer whether we could camp in a nearby field next to a river. He looked confused, shook his head and gestured some shooting of guns. Oh no. What he meant was, over towards the field was a military base. We showed him a picture of our tent, and he beckoned us to follow him; he took us to his house, where we met his wife, daughter, three goats, two dogs, two cooking ovens, his shallots, and tea pot (chai-net). His wife instantly prepared some tea, and we had a picnic of bread, jam, apples, sweets; and then a dish of plov, meat and more bread. The farmer proudly took Will to the local shop to show him off and buy some vodka, cigarettes, cider and ice-creams. We then spent the evening taking photos of his dogs, eating ice-cream, looking at passports and drinking cider. Before bed, they made sure we knew how to use the light switch, displaying the on and off function a few times – to be sure we understood – and the farmer announced we were now part of the family!
Angren to Tashkent
In the morning, we were fed breakfast, said our farewells, and I was given a headscarf as a parting gift (gypsy woman).
We had such a fun experience with the family, and there were more smiles when we were given warm, fresh bread from a kind lady during our first break – a traditional circular bread with an intricate pattern pushed into the centre during the bake.
We arrived quicker than expected to the town we were planning to stop at. However, though our map indicated two or three guesthouses in this area, none seemed to exist. Even asking some local shopkeepers, they didn’t seem to be aware of any in this area. New plan: to Tashkent – even though we weren’t keen to get to the city yet (we were going to be spending our last couple of days in Tashkent anyway) we weren’t that far, and at least there would definitely be places to have a shower and recoup.
Here we were to discover that Uzbekistan has a rather annoying way of governing tourism. We were aware that tourists need to register in hotels and that these slips must be presented to the border guards when you leave the country (or face hefty fines). However, we also learned that there was some leniency when they see that you are cycling – they don’t expect you to be in cycling reach of a hotel at all times throughout Uzbekistan so understand you may need to camp. Having one or 2 nights “unregistered” is ok for cycle tourists. Or so we thought. After popping into a couple of hotels out of our budget, we found a cheap one and were relieved to be stopping. However, the hotel man wanted to see all of our registration slips, for every night. Problem was, the last two nights we had not stayed at hotels. Unless we went to the police station to sort it out with them, we would not be allowed to stay.
It felt like China all over again. Why did these people not want us to stay to give them money? That’s what tourism is, surely? Ok, rules are rules. We later found a hostel who didn’t ask to see any receipts, but sent us off the next day with a huge breakfast, delicious coffee, and registration slips for that night.
Tashkent to Syrdarya
Being late September, we started to notice the fresher mornings, with the coolness extending further into the day. This has been much better for cycling.
After about 80km, we needed a coffee break, and as we stopped we noticed a hotel behind us. It was a bit basic and decided we would continue another 10km to the town, as we had planned.
We found the guesthouse, but there was no one there just yet – their neighbour informed us it would open at 7pm. Seemed quite late, and as it was only 3pm, we would have to wait. Luckily, there was a café next door. When we bundled over with our big bikes, everyone just stared at us. Will quite happily walked through everyone, saying hello and waving, in a lightly sarcastic way.
We ordered a coffee, and soon after 2 bowls of ice cream and 2 bottles of coke were given to us as well. A group who was just leaving had ordered and paid for them for us! The Uzbeki tourism department may be nuts, but the locals are incredibly generous.
By about 5.30pm, we were keen to go and decided to cycle 10km back to the cheap hotel. We were unsure whether the guesthouse nearby would really open at 7 and it would get dark soon. At least we knew other was open for guests, even if the hotel lady was a bit of a hag. Turns out, she was a right old hag. This lady did not want to be our friend. She asked for our registration slips – we gave her the ones from the night before. No, no, she wanted all of them. We gave all the ones we had. She stood defiantly, waving her fingers around and yelling. It was getting dark. We pleaded with her, but she turned her back on us, refusing to let us stay. Fed up, we knew we had to cycle back (again) to where we had just come from. Fed up, tired and hungry, we cycled as fast as we could back only for me to get a puncture. I felt utterly deflated.
This thing with the registration slips was becoming a pain; if only we could change the dates from a 3 to a 5…I say no more.
Syrdarya to Gulistan
We realised that cycling in Uzbekistan has a 4- or 5-day limit. After the initial excitement of new country-new culture, the flat roads seem flatter, the landscape doesn’t seem to change, and the quality of road starts to get worse (or patience for it withers). It’s a situation that welcomes cravings of home…ooh lovely light road bikes, no worries of where you will be sleeping that night, whether the place will accept you, whether you’ll be able to find food and enough water, home where friends and family are…Sometimes cycle touring is the simplest, most liberating thing, sometimes it just feels like wasted energy.
Central Asia, however, has some incredibly friendly people and we were reminded of this during our next stop, when the young girl who welcomed us to the guesthouse seemed so happy for us to be there, helping us with our luggage and excitedly running around, skidding all along the floor and whizzing around the room to make sure everything was ok for us.
Gulistan to Jizzax
We ignored most of the stuff around us, and cycled together on a wide road, side by side happily chatting the whole way, giving in to our thoughts of home and what we’ll do when we’re back. The afternoon drizzle made us even happier, as if a cloud from England had made its way over to us. Even our overnight residence had the feel of an old English country pub, cosy, dimly lit, rustic, bricks and dark wood.
Jizzax to Samarkand
A steady climb took us through some small mountains towards Samarkand, and we could see storm clouds brewing on the horizon. It wasn’t long before drops of rain started to fall, and just in time, we got to our hidden and wonderful guesthouse. Fallen autumn leaves where swirling around in the wind, and the rain got heavier. Peering out from our sheltered booth, sitting among multi-coloured rugs and cushions and drinking hot tea from a silver teapot, we watched as the rain poured down.
The temperature had dropped to a comfortable 16 degrees for our walk around the city and we took a couple of days off to take in the incredible buildings, monuments and markets of Samarkand.
Samarkand to Mirbozor
The first 90km of cotton fields flew by but we suffered the same issue as before – the hotels on our map weren’t to be found. Even the police confirmed this. We thought that if we asked the police they might help us a little more than that, but instead they confirmed what we already guessed: nowhere to stay around here. Ok thanks. We would just have to push on in the hope of finding somewhere…the issue with the registration slips was on our minds and we assumed it would be easier just to stay ‘official’. This meant we lost our freedom to camp when we were tired.
The next 40km were not quite as fast as we pedalled head first into a sandstorm. As Will went down a dirt track in search for the hotel on the map, the man running the café insisted we stay with him in their family home; I tried the best I could to decline without causing any offence, saying thank you but we had to register, otherwise police would tell us off…it seems such a shame, we would have loved to stay with these kind people.
Mirbozor to Navoi Airport
Well, after all that, the kids running the hotel who said ‘yes, yes’ to the hotel receipt hadn’t understood and we left without anything. We may have to add a squiggle to one of the hand-written receipts to extend the dates of a previous hotel stay. This would certainly make our lives easier. I’m not saying we did any fudging, only that doing such a thing would make life easier.
As we were passing by, we popped into the international Navoi Airport to hop onto some Wifi. The place was empty, with just some staff pottering about, I think wondering what to do. It was a 4-star hotel and yes, at $70 a night, it was way too much for our budget. The lady at the desk was very nice though and we sat outside to study the map to plan our afternoon cycle. We found it funny how quiet the international airport seemed – it wasn’t exactly Heathrow – the pilot was just chilling in the lobby area – he must have been wondering who on earth he will be flying. Slow day at the office for him.
We said goodbye to the receptionist and turned to go, but then she offered the room at a ridiculously cheap price – we couldn’t refuse but wanted a bit more time outside. We decided to pootle around and explore the little dusty village across from the airport, and then do our own out-and-back 10km TT. Why, I don’t know, we’re a bit OTT.
Navoi Airport to Bukhara
Today marked our last full day of cycle touring in Uzbekistan, and we felt pretty glad when we came across one of the worst roads so far. The rocky boulders and canyon potholes bumped us around. I expected the frames of my panniers to snap in exhaustion, and we’re surprised that our bikes came out in one piece.
The generosity of the Uzbeks has been astounding though. During our coffee stop, a car pulled up beside us. The man got out, handed us a bag, smiled and drove off with a wave. It was a gift of roasted vegetables and meat on top of a plate of fresh bread, and it was still hot!
Even when buying groceries, we were given some samosas with a spicy tomato dip from the shopkeeper. Well fed, we cycled to Bukhara, enshrined in ancient city walls and beautiful mosques, madrassas, bazaars and caravanserais. Here, the dusty sandstone made the blue domes even more striking.
CHEAT ALERT. We caught the train back to Tashkent to complete our circular cycle tour of Uzbekistan. It was super cheap, comfortable and really easy with the bikes – which we lifted straight on. When we arrived, we cycled out of the train station and were greeted by the taxi men offering us a lift. We couldn’t help but laugh, and question them: “A taxi? Why no sir, we are in no need of your taxi service, for we good fellows are on bicycles.”
Tashkent to Shymkent
So, we had entered Uzbekistan with no issues at the border, even though we expected a lot of hassle. Now we were on the way out, we were convinced this would be the time of interrogation – laptops, photos, money, medicines, registration slips.
We sailed through the Uzbek customs, with not one single person asking about our hotel registration slips. Not one sausage asked for them. We were even waved past the X-ray machines. Though slightly baffled at their leniency, we were happy to be back in Kazakhstan and receive a bunch of grapes as we cycled away from passport control.
A nice smooth road took us over undulating hills all the way to Shymkent, marking our last day of cycling in Central Asia where we would catch a flight out of Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan!
Posted by Lindsay
Great writing; highlighting, humorously, all the critical aspects.