Uzbekistan

Fever in Khiva

The road heading north from Bukhara gave way to a progressively arid environment as the Kyzylkum desert ensured that water management and shelter from the sun remained at the forefront of our thoughts. The road finally led to the outrageously culturally-rich walled city of Khiva, although for the less attractive half of the Detouring team, enjoyment levels were to be somewhat limited by a suspected spider bite that had been picked up on the way.

Navigation was not a problem.

Siesta.

What began feeling as a fairly normal fatigue-induced fever soon deteriorated, and after five days with no improvement – despite throwing a combination of every medication we had at our disposal – we conceded that a consultation with the local doctor may provide some answers. In hindsight, we’d have likely had greater success back-tracking to find the guilty spider, and persuading him to suck the residual toxins out.

The doctor arrived wearing a silly hat and was accompanied by his nurse, who at 6ft 5 and with hands that would crush rocks, could easily have been mistaken for an Olympic shot putter, though the red cross fancy dress costume confirmed her place in the charade. The initial prodding and poking did not install a great deal of confidence and as we all looked at each other in puzzlement as to what those two numbers from a blood pressure reading actually mean, it was becoming apparent that this would not provide the jab-to-the-bottom panacea that had been hoped for. As recycled medical supplies from a relic of a first aid box were being prepared to take a blood sample, we quickly drew an end to the debacle before things could get any worse. Although this whole episode failed to provide any suitable solutions, it did at least allow for a moment of comic relief in an otherwise dire week.

After an agonisingly slow eight days in Khiva we were finally able to get the wheels turning and heading north once more. However, the week wasted shivering in the foetal position had scuppered our chances of making it to the border within our 30-day visa. Without wanting to risk an unnecessarily hefty fine, we rode as far north as possible before embarking on a most depressing train journey for the last few hundred kilometers through Uzbekistan. Although disappointed to have missed out on the final ride to the border, really quite delighted to be regulating body temperature once again.

The cultural corner

The cycling in central Uzbekistan has so far been largely uneventful. The only redeeming feature of the flat, unremarkable kilometres are that they have at least passed relatively quickly. The cities which punctuate the tedium however, are certainly far more noteworthy. At one point in history Samarkand and Bukhara were two of the most affluent and influential cities of this region, although both have also taken a bit of a hammering over the centuries; most notably from the particularly disagreeable Genghis Khan. Some impressive restoration work followed (the purists argue ultimately too much in Samarkand) and what remains is a visual spectacle.

The reasonably good-looking Registan in Samarkand.

Arrival into Bukhara.

It is difficult not to be impressed with the grandeur of the architecture dotted around these cities and it certainly makes a pleasant backdrop for our futile pursuit of a working ATM. It would be safe to say though, that we have had our fill of intricately tiled medressas, mausoleums, mosques and minarets, as we contemplate the prospect of a sandy windswept desert for the next week.

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People make places

After a week spent in Uzbekistan, the obvious subject of focus would be the searing heat, rendering our modest and normally-attainable 100km per day entirely unrealistic. Alternatively, we could discuss the southern province of Surkhandarya; nestled between Tajik, Turkmen, and Afgan- istan, which has proved to be an absolute gem and delivered some spectacular riding. We could even talk about the frustrating currency of Uzbekistan, which although only moderately weak (certainly not absurdly so by global standards), has a completely inadequate maximum denomination equivalent to a mere $0.33. The upshot of this is not only the inconvenience of transporting carrier bags full of worthless paper with us, but more entertainingly, that each hotel or restaurant bill payment can be genuinely acted out like some sort of illegitimate international arms deal.

We soon adopted the dawn and dusk tactic.

Just a Mars Bar and a coke thanks…

However, the recurring highlight of Uzbekistan so far has been the Uzbeks themselves. One advantage of travelling by bicycle is that you are forced to visit places that would otherwise go unnoticed. This isn’t always a good thing (in fact frequently it is not), but last week it certainly was.

Firstly, there’s the vodka. The continual offers to join generous locals for a drop (bottle) of the local tipple have been a delight; sometimes in restaurants, sometimes in bus shelters; sometimes at 9pm, sometimes at 9am, but always welcome. We can also concede to have been saved on more than one occasion by voluntary offers of food and drink when we have been (clearly visibly) a little worse for wear after a day in the sun. And in what can only be described as a quite bizarre morning, our arrival into the small town of Boysun somehow resulted in attendance at a garden wedding reception, where our attempts to explain the absence of a gift, or in fact why we hadn’t even bothered to shower, were as fruitless as they were unnecessary. The whole thing was quite humbling and as a couple to have recently married, it certainly made us consider our own attitudes, should those roles have been reversed.

Discarding the early incidents of heatstroke, we have only praise for Uzbekistan so far.

The Vodka Boys enjoyed the helmets.

Guest of honour, with the Bride.