At the border, the Kazakhstan guards were upgraded to Uzbekistan's military. They ran a tight ship.
One by one our passports were analysed and luggage searched. As an American citizen, McK was taken off the cage and interrogated. I was envious, he was free; free from the sweat, the heat, the lack of oxygen.
Harriet and I became concerned. What if his story didn’t ring true and he was detained? After careful planning, we decided we'd call the American embassy as soon as we got to Nukus... Fortunately, he was returned 40 minutes later. His grilling hadn't been too gruelling, and he got a stamp.
The train lay stationery for two hours before we were allowed to continue on our journey.
Escapism was the only option; I heaved my tiresome body from its cramped seat and walked to the end of the carriage. A window was open, a brief relief from the torment. Hunched over, I sat on the floor between two carriages and listened to music. I let the rocking motion of the moving cargo send me into a warped state of semi-consciousness.
The ride took us through the inhospitable Uzbekistan desert – how communities survive there is a mystery. The view was repetitive, and the landscape went unchanged. Occasionally, double humped camels filled the retina, but the window-scape was mostly a glowing dry hue; an oven where heat thrives and little else.
Beds were swapped every hour; a gentle poke in the side and we'd be ushered to move. It was laborious. But, with heavy eyelids and bloodshot pupils, we arrived in Nukus, some 23 hours after we left our Beyneu boudoir. The anguish and anxiety was over, we had made touchdown on Uzbekistan soil.
As the bikes were taken off the carriages, the guard had another change of heart. He gestured to Harriet to cough up cash. An expert in the art of knowing when to swoop on his prey, the guard had chosen his time wisely. Our sleep-deprived Australian reluctantly paid the bill.
After a brief interaction with Nukus for dinner, we cycled to a guesthouse and collapsed.
Some say that ‘sleeping is for when you’re dead’. So, with that mindset, we got up early and went straight to the bank (to withdraw cash) and to the phone shop (to get sim cards). To curb an uprising, we were told the Internet would be switched off from 8pm until 9am everyday. That worked, we only needed to navigate and feed Harriet’s Instagram addiction.
A short, dusty ride out of the city and we were back in the golden heat trap. On the highway headed south, we stopped twice; once to enjoy a couple inches of shade behind a small bush, and another to eat an ice cream in a well stocked refrigerator cum petrol station. The heat was worse than Kazakhstan, but bearable. I routinely took water bottle showers on the move, which seemed to keep exhaustion and heatstroke at bay.
After a few hours on the highway, we veered right towards Turkmenistan. We crossed a river, which acted as a physical border between the desert and heavy forest and luscious farmland. Shade was aplenty, a transformative addition.
A local stopped to give us a watermelon – a generous but wasted gesture. After McK had cradled our new bundle of fruit for some time, Harriet took over. It was strapped to her bike for no more than ten minutes, when the watermelon came undone and threw itself onto the road. The watermelon was in bits, plastered across the asphalt. So, we reluctantly left it for the stray dogs.
It had started to get late, so we regrouped outside a small town, Gurlen. We spent the next hour trying to find a place to camp. No petrol stations would have us – and most places were farmland or inhabited. Stress levels high, McK took the lead. Using Maps, he found us a flat, sandy and private area to camp. Ideal.
After an early start and a swift 30km cycle, we arrived in Khiva. A restored archaeological site, rich in history and culture, and our first encounter with the infamous Silk Road.
Like a child at Disneyland, I walked my bike through the main gate. The walled city dates back to the 10th century and is full of sandstone structures and beautifully detailed tiled monuments. The madrassas and mausoleums are decorated with inscriptions from the Quran – a detail that echoes the buildings’ islamic and religious nature.
We found shade in a restaurant hidden within an enclave and away from the hoards of awe-struck tourists. After we ate breakfast, I went for a solo wonder. I hopped from monument to museum, structure to mausoleum. The highlight was a small mosque; the ceiling was covered in mirrored silver. It was a special place, unlike anywhere I had visited before. I sat on a bench in the centre of the mosque. Whilst absorbing its tranquillity, a man to my left started to sing. I couldn’t understand what he sang, but it was a chorus of islamic tones that echoed throughout the dome.
Over a tasteless burger, Connor told us he would get the train to Bukhara. He struggled with the early mornings, the heat and the long distances. Either he hadn’t recovered from food poisoning or had caught something else. With this news, Robin set off for our evening’s destination. He’d usually cycle with Connor, so without Connor he didn’t want to be left behind.
Myself, McK and Harriet stayed in the restaurant and analysed Uzbekistan music videos that were played on loop on the TV. It sounds dull, but it was surprisingly entertaining and passed the time. After an hour, and to fend off a food coma, we returned to our saddles. We had a brief encounter with drizzle (a shock for us all) before we found Robin. Robin had reached the small town 45 minutes prior. This had given him enough time to befriend a woman who worked at a mini market.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by her like long-lost friends. We used her shop to restock supplies, as we had a long stint in the desert and we didn’t know when the next shop would be. The four of us filled our baskets with water, mixed fruit and nuts, biscuits, chocolates, pasta and instant noodles. When it came to pay, she refused: “It’s a gift”. We were gobsmacked. We pleaded with her to let us pay for some of it, yet her answer was always the same: “No, please, it's a gift”. The generosity of strangers is simply unbelievable.
Not only that, but she arranged for us to stay with her brother-in-law, Timur. We cycled the short distance to his house where we were greeted with warmth by his entire family. Timur’s house was a large bungalow built in the Soviet style. Its large furniture-less rooms and tall ceilings were coupled with traditionally elegant rugs and walled art. Minimalist, yet impressive. In Timur’s lounge we devoured a vast spread of fish, bread, cheese, fruit and sweets.
After dinner, we retired to the terrace and slept on our matts under the stars. What a day.
At 5am a Rooster in the garden woke me, and half of Uzbekistan, up.
Before we left Timur’s, we hid money under a book in his kitchen. The amount of food his wife had cooked would have cost a lot and we wanted to show our appreciation. Timur wouldn’t have accepted the gift if we handed it to him ourselves.
Fast forward a couple of hours and we were back in the desert. Naturally, our aim was to cross the sand pit at speed. The less time, the better. We were looking at 130km+ days.
Harriet, being Harriet, sped off. But, after some time, her silhouette on the horizon got bigger. Eventually, she slowed her pace so I could catch up – or so she claims. We briefly stopped at the top of a hill where the desert floor lay at our feet. The road continued for 300 straight miles and into the depths of an unforeseen abyss. It was a daunting prospect, but a challenge we were more than capable of. There were few places to stop and even fewer ways to get lost. This made cycling ahead or stopping relatively stress free – if we took a break, we’d leave the bikes on the side of the road and in plain view for the others.
Myself and Harriet were in tandem when the sound of an explosion temporarily halted our monotonous rhythm. “What was that!?”, I yelled as I turned to Harriet. We looked around and saw a mushroom shaped cloud one to two kilometres to our left. A moment later, another explosion. “What’s going on!” Harriet asked, rhetorically. “100%, Russians!”, I replied. As we rode, the explosions continued. For the next twenty minutes, our conversation was full of curious and imaginative speculation as to what the explosion might have been. However, we came to no solid conclusion.
We stopped at a truck stop with a restaurant. One of Central Asia’s greatest gifts are trestle beds, for resting and eating. We took the afternoon off and sprawled across a trestle bed. At 5pm and rejuvenated from our naps, we returned to our saddles. We cycled for another 15km before we found a camp spot hidden from the road and sheltered by sand dunes.
Standing at the top of a dune, I watched the orange heat melt into the sand. The only sound was an occasional car and the distant chatter from camp. As the Milky Way surfaced, I was momentarily overcome with the feeling of absolute, pure contentment. I was in the middle of the desert, living out an adventure exactly how I had envisioned it.
As the sand radiated heat through the ground sheet, I drifted off to sleep happy, if a little sweaty.
The heat had become unbearable, so I raced ahead to our planned stop. The first sixty miles were dotted with Dust Devils, or ‘Sand-nandos’; a unique Wild West event which heightened that sense of adventure and exploration of a foreign land. At the stop, I bought 1.5 litres of Fanta and replenished my body of its sugar, thirst and salt by consuming 1 litre in a single gulp. Honestly, Fanta is a gift from God.
Once we had re-grouped, a tailwind picked up. So, instead of waiting out the midday heat, we got on our saddles and raced towards the only town in the desert. The afternoon was tough. I desperately needed shade – I spent the remainder of the day chasing the shadow of a cloud. Each time I could taste shade, the cloud moved forward by a few feet. An incredibly frustrating situation. At a petrol station on the outskirts of town, we realised Bukhara was only one day’s cycle. Excited by the prospect of a bed, we frantically booked hotels before we returned to the tarmac with new found enthusiasm.
This enthusiasm came to an abrupt halt, however, when the smooth tarmac turned to gravel. It didn’t make sense. We were closer to civilisation than we had been for days. How can a beautifully laid highway turn to gravel… with no warning or reason? A few miles in and a spoke broke. Infuriating.
After tanking 102 miles, we called it a day. I was happy and tried not to let the broken spoke overshadow the achievement. Robin was spent, we suspected he might have succumbed to mild heatstroke. To help lift his mood, we slept in a drainage tunnel.
We arrived in Bukhara at 12pm – not a devastating result, considering the road conditions. After a long, overdue shower, I cycled around the town to find someone who could fix the spoke. A goose chase entailed. I was eventually led to a mechanic, who was based in a sports centre and completely invisible to any Google search result – he fixed the spoke and checked the bike over for free. Win.
That evening, we regrouped, reunited with Connor and went for dinner. In a restaurant. Harriet told us about her plans to cycle from Bukhara to Samarkand in one day, a 273km ride. I didn’t have any desire to cycle that far and we were ahead of schedule, so I wasn’t in a rush. But, I was keen. Of course, McK was the first to sign up. I agreed to do the first 200km and then duck out. Whereas, Connor and Robin resigned themselves from the challenge.
The Aktau Five would split, permanently.
The ancient city of Bukhara. Once a prominent feature on the Silk Road trade route and an Islamic learning centre, is now a living, breathing museum for history buffs. The Old Town is a maze of madrassas, mosques and bazaars that date from the 9th – 17th century. The minaret, a tower in the Old Town’s centre, is the only archaeology that has stood the test of time. Each brick that lay before us was the same that lay before Ghengis Khan. It’s the same structure that saw prisoners thrown off the top to meet their fate on the cobbled streets below.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was once the capital of three empires; the most recent being The Emirate of Bukhara, until it was besieged by the Red Army in 1920. The city is a mesmerising mosaic of turquoise tiles and beautifully drawn sandstone. It’s a mirage frozen in time. We spent the day walking between monuments whilst trying to understand the complicated, yet fascinating heritage.
Nowadays, Bukhara is famous for its textiles. In particular, carpets. Out of curiosity, we stepped inside one of the shops. Upon entry, we were invited to watch the women who worked there delicately weave each thread into its designated place. It’s a technical, dying craft that requires an incredible attention to detail. As a fly on the wall, it was just shy of a spectator sport. Shortly after we met the owner, Sabrina. She had attended University in London, so spoke perfect English. Her most expensive rugs cost $80,000 – unsurprisingly, a large proportion of her clientele are internationals. After this bombshell, we made it clear our intentions were not to buy. She still made us tea and bought us traditional Uzbekistan snacks. Sabrina just wanted to practise her English. Grateful, we sat for two hours and spoke about Uzbek culture, rug making and her life. Sabrina is in her early thirties and has five children. She will send them all to University in the UK and hopes she can pass down the business to one of them. In Uzbekistan, it’s normal to be married by the age of 24. If not, you’re classed as “mutton”. It’s also normal to have more than four children. She loves Bukhara and couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I can understand why, it’s a beautiful place to raise a family.
Although Uzbekistan is a developing country, since it opened its borders to the outside world, the economy has gone from strength to strength. Relatively speaking, Uzbekistans are wealthier now than they ever have been – and Sabrina, although extreme, is an example of this.
Whilst talking, we noticed Sabrina wasn’t wearing a headscarf, so we enquired: “Yes, Uzbekistan is an Islamic country, but we have freedom. There are a number of ways to be muslim and they don’t include wearing a headscarf”, she explained. In-depth, genuine conversations are the ones that have the greatest impact – I am very thankful for the time we spent with Sabrina.
After a farewell dinner for our cycling companions, Robin and Connor, we got an early night.
We were up and on the road at 6.10am.
McK had stayed in a different hotel, so he said he’d meet us on the road. Harriet and I agreed to take it 50km at a time. Every 50km, we stopped, ate and drank Fanta. We did this religiously. We thought we’d catch McK within five or 10 kilometres, but he was on a mission. It wasn’t until the 150km mark when we were eventually reunited with him.
As a three, we felt strong. We cycled at an average of 16mph. We thought our pace would slow, but it didn’t. We kept churning away at the chain ring and the tarmac kept coming. At 200km, I felt like I’d cycled 100km, so I stuck with the group. We took it in turns to lead the peloton – teamwork at its finest. At the last 50km stop, we knew we had the ride sewn up.
As we joined the ring road around Samarkand, the excitement drew stronger and with that so did our pace. We were cycling at 20mph. The body is incredible at adapting to the pressures it's put under, and this was an example of that. We had put away 260km, yet we still rode at speed.
We ended the ultra at the centre of the Silk Road, the Registan. We cycled 273km in 11.5 hours. I had no expectations and had planned to drop at 200km, so for me, it was a proud moment. We also linked up two of the Silk Road’s most prominent cities, Bukhara and Samarkand, in a single day. After congratulatory hugs, a couple commemoratory photos, and an Australian woman instructing me to move my bicycle away from the Registan due to its size (tourists!); we found a hostel 500m down the road, ate dinner and collapsed.
Days 121 – 122
Registan is the heart of the Silk Road and dates back to the 14th century. Known as ‘sandy place’, the area comprises three buildings that tower over the centred public square. The madrassas are decorated in turquoise tiles and islamic inscriptions, following a similar aesthetic to those in Bukhara and Khiva.
Within walking distance of the Registan is the tomb of Timur Lang, ruler of the Timurid Empire. He was a dictator who slaughtered 17 million people (5% of the world’s population) during his reign, and sits amongst the greatest murderers of all time, yet he is largely unknown. During his reign, Timur built the largest mosque in the world (at the time) – a present for his wife. A spectacular feat. The tomb of his family members and other important figures from the Islamic world are buried in a collection of extravagant mausoleums in the north of the city.
From the comforts of the hostel, we dragged McK onto a self guided tour of the ancient city.
To which he said it was the best day he’d had off the bike. Culture pays. Sat in the UK, I couldn’t picture what it would be like travelling to Samarkand, it seemed so far removed from anywhere I’d been before. Yet strolling the streets felt familiar. The familiarity was partly due to the slow and overland method of travel, but generally speaking, people’s needs and wants are exactly the same the world over, no matter their religious or cultural backgrounds.
Robin and Connor joined us in the cultural capital a day later.
Day 123 – 126
The plan was to leave the following day, but when I checked my visa start date it wasn’t for two days. I was ahead of schedule! With this news, McK and Harriet decided to add a trip to the seven lakes to their itinerary, so I would meet them in Tajikistan after.
The visa delay was a blessing in disguise. After one month of barely spending a single moment alone, I treated myself to a hotel. I sat on the bed all afternoon and watched Netflix on the smart TV. A slice of normality that I craved.
The remainder of my time in Samarkand was spent either lying in bed or seeing Connor and Robin. They had planned to cycle to Kyrgyzstan together, which was both their end destinations. I was sad to see them off. Not only was Robin the only other Englishman I had met on the trip, but I had spent some time getting to know him.
I also didn’t want to leave Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a country rich in culture and history. The people are kind, full of warmth and the most generous I’ve been lucky enough to meet on the trip. For a country that felt so foreign before, it’s one that has produced incredible and unforgettable moments. The anticipation of the Pamir Highway also weighed heavy on my mind – the internal monologue was riddled in self-doubt.
I felt strong, so I raced the short distance towards the Tajikistan border. The plan was to meet my bike touring friends on the outskirts of the first Tajikistan town, we had nicknamed it ‘Pumpkin’.