Looking in the mirror at the Uzbekistan border I was covered in dust from the desert riding, making my hair look grey and my beard less ginger. The border guards still recognised me as a tourist though.
They were quickly shouting ‘tourist tourist’ at me, then as has become the norm in central Asia I was escorted straight to the front of the parted sea of locals like some VIP, at first I felt guilty but now, my approach is, ‘what the heck I can’t be bothered waiting’ and they all seem enough happy to let me through! The number of machine guns and soldiers made it seem inappropriate to take pictures but here’s a camel named GOP near the border!
The border procedure for Uzbekistan was ridiculous you have to fill out two long identical forms declaring every penny of every currency, then every piece of medicine. Once filled in it is stamped and you’re taken to a chap who searches your bags and matches what you wrote to what he finds, it was all a bit scary, the panic of remembering if you included that last paracetamol! The guard was pleasant enough and we both passed through OK in the end.
The group of German drivers in Merc’s were outside, they were taking 58 days Berlin to Beijing, I asked a friendly lady how it had been she said its been super dull just lots of driving past nothing in Russia then Kazakhstan!
Over the border there was a crowd of people who mobbed us offering taxis, money exchange and food. We hagged and changed cash at the official rate which is apparently much lower than the black market rate should be! Uzbekistan money is a joke the highest value note is 20p so we were given 500 notes in total, that spare pannier was useful now! The picture shows about 200 notes or £50 worth!
We were directed to some tea rooms 2km down the road where we could sleep and make a place of attack for the desert.
We found a friendly tea room run by two ladies and they agreed to let us sleep there.
After settling in we drank tea then outside we were taking in the view when the Germans back Mercedes’s went passed, thinking they were secret police the ladies freaked out bundling us into the tearoom out of sight. This confused and unsettled us both. We cooked some food as the sunset on the desert and life was sweet.
Then Greg got out a piece of paper from his visa arranging travel agent. It clearly stated in bold capitals that staying in private residences is not allowed you must stay in official hotels. The minimum fine is $7000, this freaked me out, we rode back to the border to double check but failed to get clear answer, we asked the cost of a taxi to first official hotel, $100 was too much! We then made the error of saying where we were staying.
The tea house clearly didn’t want us to be seen to be staying hiding our stuff and bikes, things just felt wrong. One tea lady then explained that her brother was here and could drive us in his taxi to the first hotel for just $30 each. It seemed like the best and by far cheapest option. As soon as we agreed to it, a border officer arrived in the tearoom and asked questions, it seemed the border taxi drivers had grassed up that we were staying here and they were now outside waiting for a fare when we got kicked out! The tea ladies I think explained we were just waiting for a taxi and all seemed fine and I was allowed out of a room! To be fair this is just speculation, Who knows what was going on but I didn’t want to pay $7000!
The taxi ride over night across the Uzbek desert was quite cool for the first hour with the bikes strapped onto the sedan car roof and a smell of LPG wafting from the DIY conversion in the boot. Fair to say I ran away when we stopped for cigarette breaks! The driver was actually pretty sensible and chewed something constantly, then spitting out the window to stay awake. I saw desert foxes, kangeroo like desert rats and snakes in the headlights while in the back Greg was sleeping with a dozing local on each shoulder, he wasn’t too happy. Finally 4 hours later we arrived at a hotel that for $15 a night offered registration.
The next day we rode through the desert and a town called Nukus then to a small place called Mangit. In the desert, we saw little along the way however there was a detour to this awesome fort we were all alone except for this guy hanging out playing fantastic traditional music!
He let me play for awhile but quickly recognised my skills lie outside the music world and took it back!
The view shows the river that is the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan!
Here is a view down to where we left our bikes:
We also saw more camels and lots of watermelon sellers who would wave us over as cut one up for us to eat! The were so incredibly sweet it’s hard to say no.
The town of Mangit is right next to Turkmenistan and a bustling little place.
The Hotel said it was full and no to foreigners it was Sunday and there was no way out. After rereading the visa letter it seemed to apply to people with letters of introduction to get into the country, something that I don’t need but Greg being Polish did, so it should be fine for me to register every three days in theory and Greg didn’t care. We asked around and slept on someone’s raised sitting platform thing common outside houses, but we moved under cover of their porch with a big storm threatening. Next door was a cool traditional bakery and a local store where the girls just nervously laughed the whole time we were there! In the morning the family was getting ready for school and wanted some photos with the foreigners.
Here was my tent pitched to avoid the storm, the kid was fascinated standing and watching!
With no toilet in or near the house I visited the village communal toilet, a block with an open pla and just 6 over flowing holes in the floor that women and men could use side by side, needless to say the place was one of the least pleasant experiences of my life!
The kids went off to school, then as word spread people kept popping by to look at us in before we rode off!
The next day we rode from Mangit to Khiva, through friendly villages of cotton pickers, rice paddies and melon sellers. I egged this guy on to ride the pipe but he wimped out!
We ate a great melon at our third attempt! To earn our free melon the size of a beach ball we helped unload the next delivery.
The next melon stall had a mini Del Boy, who was hilarious with his flat cap and constant mobile chat and he was only 7 years old:
Here us a picture he wanted taking with his mum, that I love as it shows how happy they all were!
Finally we rode into Khiva town and found a cheap guest house that registered us, located right next to the huge ancient fortified walls.
We spent the evening wandering about. At one point there was a hall with loud traditional music playing, so we wandered over to look and a male wedding celebration was in full swing, we both got dragged in to join them. Apparently the wedding is over three days and first the men and women celebrate separately. The men were celebrating and dancing with tables of great food and glasses of vodka. We were totally mobbed by about fifty happy men wanting to dance with us and drink Vodka, it was just crazy and so intense. To be polite we had a couple of vodkas toasting the groom and accepted food before dancing towards the exit door half an hour later!
The rambling streets between ancient buildings were filled with street stalls:
The absence of many tourists and abundance of kids gave the place a much more genuine feel, whether we were out of season or lucky I don’t know but it felt cool to be someone so enchanting and stereotypical of the ancient silk road.
The kids were quick to jump on the bike despite its size!
A picture of this cool city at night:
The next morning we still hadn’t got a conclusive answer on the whole registration thing, it seems the three day registering rule applies but then the official rule states you need a record of every night in Uzbekistan!
The ride out of Khiva to Ugench in morning was along a busy straight dual carriageway. We got thoroughly lost in the town for ages, it’s not a particularly interesting place to get lost. Not wanting to get stuck out again without registering we rode for a fair bit and flagged down a local bus. This was hilarious as the bikes got lifted into the back, it became clear that the last 7 rows of seats were missing and it was loaded with with rugs and blankets.
The seats had all been filled so to Bukhara we lay on rugs flying through the desert, I was hoping someone would feed us grapes like a Roman emperor, but as more people got on it became cramped, so much so that one old lady was grabbing y leg thinking it was a rug I hope! Frustratingly the rugs shifted back onto my bike and snapped my derailleur cable adjuster it was pretty annoying but at least nothing major. The bus was insanely dusty and super hot the conductor came around collecting money with a big plastic bag taking a wad from each passenger, looking at it carefully then throwing it in the bursting bag of notes!
After three hours of magic carpet travel we arrived in Bukhara and found a hostel tucked away in a romantic old alleyway.
The place was full so we were shown the flat roof where we could sleep under the stars with a view across the low mud brick house roof tops to the lit up mosques and bazaars of this amazing of silk road city. We drank a beer and cooked on my stove soaking in an experience that I will never forget!
Bukhara was stunning, so much so that we took a day off to explore!
This was the roof view in the morning:
The next day I toured the market and found a cool bike bazaar where I got my bike fixed up for £1. These guys helped me out:
Then I just wandered the streets taking pictures and exploring, generally being a tourist for a change!
This was actually Khiva another good view of the city!
Myself and Greg then decided to go our separate ways as we had different paces and I wanted to cover move ground each day than he could on his MTB set up, communicating in Russian without him was tough though, but I will save that for the next blog post!