Distance cycled: 21,500 kms
Arriving in Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent, our first and as it turned out only stop was at the house of Ieva and Gatis from Couch Surfing. As Ieva opened her garden gate, we got a pleasant surprise. Our own room, swimming pool and sauna were all waiting for us in a beautiful,shaded, high walled garden. Latvian's Ieva and her husband Gatis made us feel right at home. We could see we were gonna have a good rest here and we certainly needed it after our 500 km, 7 day dash through Southern Kazakhstan.
|The largest note of 1000 Sum is only worth 20p so you can imagine the wads you have to carry around with you.|
Our first few days in Tashkent were spent getting the Iranian and Turkmen visa applications started. Ieva spent hours helping us at the two embassies and it would have been ten times harder without her. The Iranian visa was easy to get .The service was great and the embassy relaxed and comfortable but it came at a price, 100 Euros EACH for a one month visa not including the 70 euros we'd paid for the authorisation code. Getting a Turkmen visa was a different story though. Everyone we had met had had a bad experience at the Turkmen embassy.
|Gouda. A cat.|
Due to Ieva's job, she was able to flash an I.D card at the 15 foot high gate and get us into the building straight away. We smiled a little guiltily at all the other poor sods who had been waiting all morning in the baking sun as we made our way past. Once inside, the application process was easy with Ieva by our side. The application form was all in Russian and no one in the building spoke a word of English. We handed it in behind the glass screen. “Ready in 21 days” stated the guy behind the counter.
|Was a bit surprised to find my Dad fixing bikes in a flea market in Tashkent. I thought he still lived in Shotts.|
|Ieva and Gatis. Nice pants Ieva.|
It was no use arguing with him. It used to take 10 days on their “express” service but they could no longer offer it, he explained. We could like it or lump it. Like the embassy, Turkmenistan is a very hard place to get into. We realised this 3 week wait would use up most of our visa time and would mean us having to train it to the other end of the country.
|At a party hosted by the Swiss Consul and his African dance teacher wife in Tashkent. Free Baileys all night.|
In Uzbekistan foreigners are meant to be registered in a hotel every night or at least every 72 hours, not sure which. Overzealous police in Tashkent and particularly at metro stations can demand to see your passport and registration slips at any time and can fine or possibly arrest you if you don't have them(in theory). On our first trip on the Tashkent metro, we were stopped by some jumped-up 18 year old in a police uniform. He demanded to see Ieva's I.D card and our passports. We had no registrations at that point and Ieva knew he might make life difficult for us. However, Ieva soon put him in his place telling him he had no business looking at our passports and her high-ranking position meant he had no right to be hassling her either. Ieva simply ended up walking away from him in mid-sentence shouting “Dasvidania”(Goodbye).You tell him Ieva! As we left him with his colleague looking on at the spectacle he was muttering uncomfortably about how he was off to phone someone. 2 minutes later we were on the train never to see him again. After this though we thought it would be good to have at least one registation slip from a hotel and on our 3rd night made our way to the delightful Hadra Hotel.
|What you get for 20 bucks in Tashkent. Now that's value for money.|
We packed a stunt suitcase provided by Ieva and Gatis and filled it with some nonsense items to make it look like we were really staying there. It's not as bad as the Lonely Planet made out but the Hadra is a depressing place nonetheless. We had no intentions of staying there and after we had checked in and been given our precious slip of paper, we sneaked back to Ieva and Gatis's leaving the suitcase in the room. Next morning we ambled back into the building as though we'd just been for breakfast, grabbed the suitcase and went back to the house. When you are registered in a hotel you are required to stay there the whole night and the police apparently do spot checks to see if the people who are registered in the rooms are actually there. It's sheer madness but really not surprising in such a totaletarian country. The level of control here of both Uzbek nationals and foreign visitors is absurd to say the least. The Hadra Hotel is one of the cheapest in Tashkent at $20 a night. Central Asian hotels in general are notoriously expensive and usually bad value for money.
|Brightly coloured traditional Uzbek dress|
|Fun at the Tashkent Aquapark|
Tashkent city may have felt like an open prison at times but Ieva and Gatis's was another story. Most mornings, cheerful Ieva made us a lovely breakfast and the 3 of us would sit at the tapchan. Later we'd jump in the pool, read a book, listen to music, cook or go to the local bazaar. When Gatis came home from work we'd eat together, watch a film outside on the projector screen and drink beer with another 2 Latvian friends Raimonds and Erwins. We were having a tough time as you can imagine.These two felt like a couple of old friends we'd known for a long time and being in their company was so easy. After almost a week at the house and not wanting to overstay our welcome, I suggested we went to another Couch Surfer's. These two are as cool as cucumbers and told us we really didn't have to go anywhere. They couldn't have made us feel more welcome and we happily settled down for another week.
|The blatantly unsafe Soviet-era rides at Tashkent funpark|
A highlight of our time in Tashkent was definetely our trip to a weekend festival up in the mountains about 90 kms from the city. A festival in Uzbekistan? We'd no idea what to expect. When we arrived it was grey and overcast. We paid our 3 pounds entry fee and set about getting the tents put up. There were already 30 or so badly erected, sodden tents set up in the long grass but as we looked around, it seemed that the weather hadn't dampened anyone's spirits. The atmosphere was good and we were surprised to see that the only police presence was 4 officers squashed into a lada not seeming the least bit bothered what the punters were up to.This is not the case in Tashkent where you can find an on-duty policeman every 100 metres in the centre. It was a truly surreal event. As night fell the 200 or so strong crowd made their way down to a huge sinister looking Soviet-style hotel, a bit like the one in “The Shining”. We made our way into a dusty auditorium and listened to 3 or 4 extremely melancholic guitar recitals with singing in Russian. It was verging on comical. After song number 3 Ben's eyes started to glaze over so we made a swift exit. The hotel was full of festival goers but people were also sleeping on the floor or sofas which lined the huge corridors.
|Having fun in the tent pre-rain. And despite looking absolutely trolleyed, we'd just opened our first beer.|
After the race everyone wanted to talk to us, interview us and take our photo. Ben felt embarassed that people seemed more interested in him than the poor lad who had won it. It was just a big deal to them that some foreigners had turned up. We were given a goody bag each, me as “winner” of the women's race and Ben for 2nd place in the men's. Ah the glory, first place in a one woman race. It was a great event really with a good atmosphere and we were so pleased to see that the extremely cycle-unfriendly Tashkent has the makings of a MTB scene. The weather really did spoil it though.
|Thanks to Erwins for the nice shots.|
|The Rockhards now a household name in Uzbekistan|
Mountain biking, Russian folk singing in a weird abandoned Soviet hotel in the middle of nowhere? Just when we thought the weekend couldn't get any stranger, Raimonds came to tell us that the Hare Krishnas had turned up and were dishing out free food! We made our way down and enjoyed some tasty vegetarian food in a huge hall in the basement of the hotel. As the Hare Krishnas were chanting, a Russian accordianist joined in for a jam session. Music filled the hall as people danced, clapped and enjoyed their dinner. We left with a doggie bag of leftover Krishna food and after a side trip to a beautiful lake, made our way back to the city.
|Ieva made me an Olympic-style bouquet|
|Dmitri and co.|
During our second week in Tashkent we paid a few visits to the Turkmen embassy to try to hurry them up a bit. The first time we went with Ieva and got in to the building quick sharp, the second time though, we had to put our name on the list and wait outside with everyone else for over an hour. We got in eventually though to be told, not surprisingly, that the visas weren't ready. The next time Ieva came back with us and finally made a breakthrough. He told Ieva that we should bring our passports in the next morning and the visas would be issued that afternoon. Hopefully he would keep to his word but I still wouldn't believe it till I had the visa page open in front of me.
|Art sellers, Tashkent|
|Cycling into Bukhara|
|Nonsense scribble t-shirt|
Bukhara is Uzbekistan's holiest city and has beautiful buildings over 1000 years old. It's certainly a good place to see what this area was like before the Soviet's came. Most of the old town is an architectural preserve as you can see from the photos, full of minarets and madrassahs. After hearing loads about a true Bukharan eccentric, we made our way to Mubinjon's B and B. Mubinjon is a lovely man who, despite the basic facilities of the guesthouse, does his best to make you feel at home. He is an ex-Olympic swimmer and although he doesn't speak much English can certainly get his point across. We spent only one night there laid out in the traditional kurpachas in our room and had to set off for the border the following morning. We'd have liked another day there but visa time, as always, was of the essence.
|Writing a French postcard for a local boy.|
|Our dog for the day, Bukhara|
|I'm not trying to steal his bag. It was meant to be a high-five.|
I must admit, I was a bit nervous about this crossing. There was a chance the guards would ask for our hotel registrations which we didn't have. We decided to hide most of our $700 and claim we had less than $200 on departure just incase we got fined for not registering. We changed our remaining 49,000 Uzbek som at the gate for 20 Turkmen Manat later realising we had been well and truly ripped off. It always pays to check the exchange rate in advance but in the end we only lost around $15. Getting out of Uzbekistan was easy and as I heard the familiar sound of the stamp going down on our now expired Uzbek visas, I knew we had gotten away with the not registering. At the Turkmen side there was a lot more faffing around and an extra $12 each to pay to get into the country. We loaded our gear into an x-ray machine but the guard meant to be watching the screen was simply staring into space. We loaded the bikes back up and with passports stamped, were free to go.
|Free date juice. Uzbek folk are very nice indeed we discovered after leaving Tashkent.|
|Uzbekistan is overflowing with apricots at this time of year.|
What a relief! We were so happy we had taken a risk with the registration thing instead of wasting all our money on crappy hotels. It had saved us a fortune and allowed us to have an amazing time at Gatis and Ieva's. The young gun-toting soldiers who checked our passports were very friendly and welcomed us to Turkmenistan. We changed a little more money(at the correct rate this time) and set off towards the city of Turkmenabat 45 kms away.
|Over the border|
|The president of Turkmenistan likes to put flattering photos of himself up everywhere|
We arrived a couple of hours later to a friendly welcome and parked ourselves outside a samsa shop on the outskirts of town. After 5 super cheap samsas and 4 ice cold glasses of lemonade, we felt revived and able to face riding in the mid-afternoon sun again. The hassles and bureaucracy at the Turkmen embassy had put us off Turkmenistan quite a bit but the people were so open and friendly.
|Friendly locals, Turkmenabat|
As we cycled out of town, the surroundings became more and more desert like. We cycled another 35 kms before calling it a day. We had done 125 kms that day but only 80 of those kilometres were in Turkmenistan. It was 440 kms from the Farap border in Uzbekistan to the Sarakhs border in Iran meaning we would have to cycle another 360 kms in 4 days. This is the shortest route between Uzbekistan and Iran used by most cyclists and we had just 5 days to do it. The Karakol desert which we would be traversing however is the hottest place in Central Asia and as we were there in June, temperatures could reach up to 50 degrees celsius. We were really in the desert that night and stuck the tent up in amongst the sanddunes just off the side of the road. It was, unsurprisingly, a hellishly uncomfortable night in the tent. We were almost thankful for the cooling gale force wind which picked up during the night and almost ripped the tent apart.
The following day poor Ben had 3 punctures to fix. The tyres seemed to be softening in the intense heat, something we'd never heard of. It was difficult to get any shade out here and for the second puncture we had to almost crawl under a bush to get out of the sun. What a hassle. Whatsmore we had a headwind to fight most of the day, a cross-desert cyclists worst nightmare. Was some higher force punishing us for something? It began to feel that way. After around 40 kms and around 2pm, the hottest part of the day, we saw the welcome sight of a cafe in the distance. We pulled in and sat at a table, zombiefied, waiting for the sun to cool down a bit. We set off at around 3pm only to discover that the weather was still unbearably hot. I really began to suffer. My face was as red as a beetroot and I was feeling faint and sick. I scanned both sides of the desert road for some kind of shade but there was absolutely nothing. Just as Ben had decided enough was enough and was going to make me some shade by putting the bikes together and laying the tent over them, I spotted a lorry parked in the distance. I lay down in the shade of the truck, praying that he wouldn't set off in the next few minutes. The trucker took a look at me, disappeared into his cabin and came back with some hot, flat coca-cola. I was happy(forgive me) to see that his truck had broken down so he wouldn't be leaving any time soon. After a nap and a litre of water, I felt able to face the slightly cooler weather. It was 4pm and we had done only 55 kms into a headwind. We pushed on through the empty desert, stopping again at 80 kms at an abandoned police station. We hadn't eaten a proper meal since we started the ride as the heat had seriously supressed our appetites so forced ourselves to cook up some pasta.We forced it down and gave our other tin of tuna and some water to a poor, hungry dog who was digging furiously into the earth to find himself a cool spot. A lively bunch of ladies stood by the roadside flogging cold drinks to passing cars and we bought some cold water from them. As we set off at dusk they presented us with another free bottle of water, loads of bread and tied some good luck Uzbek booties stuffed with camel hair on to my handlebars.
|This dude with 4 wives and 15 kids couldn't get his head round how Ben could be happy with just one woman.|
|Looking a bit flushed there|
|After only a couple of days we had fallen in love with the beautiful Turkmen people.|
The Turkmen people so far had been the kindest and friendliest we'd met in any country so far. It was a pleasant surprise for us as the Turkmen embassy had really put us off coming here. Whatsmore, the country has a really weird, repressive government whose attitudes don't seem to be reflected in these warm and sociable people.
We carried on into the darkness on our second night as the headwind we'd cursed all day decided to blow in our favour for a couple of hours. We zoomed along at 25 kms/hour and had reached 90 kms as the last light was fading. We came across a guy with a fridge freezer at the side of the road and sat chatting with him and his brother for a bit as we contemplated carrying on into the darkness to make up the kms. The policy in Turkmenistan seems to be either buy one, get one free or buy none get one free. We bought a couple of bottles of water and our new friends sent us off with another 3 free of charge. As we pedalled on in the pitch darkness I realised how completely and utterly safe I felt in this country. Our goal was 120 kms but as we clicked 107 both of us decided enough was enough. Sleep was calling. We pulled off the road and dragged our bikes over some sand dunes(yes we know sand's not good for your bike but it's a desert). We decided to sleep out under the stars that night and enjoy the cool breeze. It was a beautiful night in the desert lit up by a bright moon. Despite our complete exhaustion, sleep wouldn't come. This is what you call being “wired”. We awoke the next morning though after approximately 4 hours sleep, the same as the night before.
Getting up and going in the heat is so hard. It takes every ounce of effort to get yourself packed up and back on the bike when all you want to do is sleep in some shade. We got going just before 8 though. It was a tough day again with headwinds and several flat tyres. We were being sorely tested. After 60 kms I realised I had yet another puncture. We could see a house in the distance and decided to head for there so we could use their shade. As we pulled up to the house, the many people hanging around outside enthusiastically called us over. Everyone gathered round to greet us in disbelief at the arrival of these two foreigners in the middle of the desert. It seemed that they were having some sort of party as we pushed our bikes past loads of dancing women in brightly coloured Turkmen dress. We sat down with the menfolk round the back and were brought plof, bread, salad and fizzy water. My appetite was still non-existant even though I'd hardly eaten a thing that day so it took all my effort to finish my bowl in front of our hosts.
We were conscious of being sweaty and filthy and so were happy when we were invited to go and have a strip wash with a big bucket of water in a washhouse. We then spent the next few hours sitting around drinking endless tea, dancing, taking a million photos and being stared and smiled at by everyone there. What a great bunch. There was a headwind blowing again that day so we didn't mind taking such a long lunchbreak. After a short nap in the house, we came out again to find the wind was still against us and so sprawled out on the mats again for more tea drinking. Everyone was desperate for us to stay the night but we kept trying to explain about the 5 day visa and how we needed to cover 100 kms a day etc. Needless to say though we were still there at 6pm and finally accepted, to everyone's delight, the invitation to spend the night there.
The festivities during the day were just the tip of the iceberg as that night 250 people would be arriving for a wedding. Tables were set, the stage arrived for the band and more and more guests arrived. Most of the people there were Iranian but there were also Turkmens, Azerbaijanis and Baluchistanis there too. We felt much happier when we changed into our “good” clothes and could finally relax and enjoy the evening.
When the bride and groom arrived, chaos ensued. Everyone crowded round them singing and cheering, pushing each other around. A rabble formed as sweets and money were scattered on the ground. Everyone pushed Ben and I right into the couple and made us touch them. Never before had I seen a more miserable couple of newlyweds. The look on the faces of this young couple was one of bewilderment and despair. They were led up to a decorated stage where they sat for the rest of the evening, only interacting with the guests when people came up to get their photos taken with them. Everyone sat down to dinner, men and women at separate tables. With dinner over and the tables cleared away,the band got fired up and the evening's dancing started. The beat of this traditional Iranian music was so catchy that even Ben, who normally dances like a coma victim being stood up and tazered, was getting into the groove. At midnight we decided we'd danced enough and asked about going to bed. We were shown into what was probably the best room in the house and an electric fan was brought in. One of the guests brought us in a Farsi/English book as a gift with useful phrases in it like “you have a talk diarrhoea” and we fell fast asleep.
|What the hell am I doing up here? I only called in to get some shade.|
The next morning we got up at 5am as we'd promised ourselves. We needed an early start to make up for yesterday's short day. Most of the guests had gone but there were still some people sleeping outside. A few people got up to wave us off, giving us grapes and bread for our journey. We wished them all the best and thanked them for what had been one of the most memorable nights of the trip. We set off in the cool morning air as the sun was just popping it's head up over the horizon.
That day we had, you guessed it, a headwind. This was really taking the piss. Whatsmore within 10 kms of setting off, we had another puncture to fix. Stopping at a fruit stall we asked for a half kilo of apricots. The lady just kept piling them in, apricots, cherries and apples. When I asked how much I owed her she just waved her hands and smiled. More fruit sellers came over and piled even more free fruit into our bag. It was more than we could get through in a week.After 45 kms we rode into Mary,our first big town since Turkmenabat. It was peak heat and we stopped at a little row of shops for some shade. Several shopkeepers came out and invited us to join them for tea and breakfast. We dragged ourselves another 70 kms that night after many breaks. Turkmenistan had already taken number 1 place for friendliest country. It was a very unenjoyable ride as we were both completely exhausted. My leg sadly was in bad shape again. I used to feel like a ferrari, now I just felt like a clapped out old diesel truck, an old workhorse that could keep going for miles but had no speed or power. It seemed to take forever to reach the town of Hanhowuz and by the time we did arrive we had just about ground to a halt. We pulled in at a little cafe for cold drinks and samsas, amazed that we had managed over 110 kms feeling like we did. We feared we hadn't done enough though. We still had 100 kms to do to the border tomorrow on checkout day. We camped by the side of the road and set off the next morning wishing we were about 50 kms closer. We had eaten very little in this intense heat about had slept less than 5 hours every night. It was really starting to catch up with me.
On the morning of day 5 we had a tailwind! We sped to the Iranian border as fast as we could on a very quiet, scenic road with hardly any traffic with renewed hope that we might actually make it in time after all. It was a close run thing but at around 3.30pm we arrived at the checkpoint hoping they hadn't closed for the day. We had infact made it with an hour to spare before the gate closed. We breezed through the Turkmen exit border and cycled off towards Iran. We suddenly felt a lot closer to home and couldn't wait to see what adventures Iran would have in store for us. Turkmenistan had been just wonderful, a place that reminded us what a wonderful world we live in.