Uzbekistan – A hidden gem for cycling in Central Asia

Riding across Uzbekistan was more of an accident than a choice. I only rode there purely because it lay in my way as I headed east. Before I got to the border I couldn’t even point to Uzbekistan on a map, I genuinely didn’t know anything about the place.
I usually select countries to cycle across based on the number and height of mountains or even the quality of food, but maybe I need to rethink this because it turns out you can miss out on some fantastic places! Uzbekistan has it all from the unique landscape to UNESCO listed heritage sites and bazaars that transport you back to the heyday of the silk road caravans.
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Uzbekistan at first appears pretty flat and it’s mostly desert. It is maybe best known for the vanishing Aral Sea. During the USSR days a thirsty cotton growing industry sucked all the water out leaving behind just more desert, along with desolate ships stranded in the sand.
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Politically Uzbekistan is still a mystery to me. It’s a country run by a strict government made up of parties that include the word Democratic in their name to reassure you if little else. The president is head of state and head of the government. The government controls the media here and they effectively banned foreign currency and blocked ATM machines. For the tourists there were one or two unreliable ATMs, but you need to bring USD cash with you. As a result of this restriction the largest denomination note is about 20 pence. Exchanging $100 dollars requires a carrier bag to hold the notes, this picture is about $20 worth wpid-20140915120542_img_9373_1.jpg

The landscape alternates from bleak arid desert to lush fertile oasis and in the south the valleys lead the eye upwards and upwards to the vast snow capped Mountains of Tajikistan.
It’s maybe starting to sound a bit more inviting for cycling. Add to this the distances between stunning historic towns like Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are perfect for touring. The roads are quiet and there’s always a local racing you as they head to school or the cotton fields. If you get hungry then the perfect refreshment can be found by the roadside in the form of fresh water melon stands. Being allowed to pay for a melon is the exception to the rule with friendly sellers giving them away to us, one even offered me his camp bed to sleep in for the night.

I arrived on my bike after riding overland from the north east and specifically the town of Beyneu in Kazakhstan. I don’t hugely recommend this area unless you like a lot of open space, because there’s virtually nothing here. It’s literally a world of sky, camels and sand. I was riding with a random Polish cycle tourer I’d met in Azerbaijan and I certainly appreciated the company here. After being constantly sand blasted in the face by the wind all day we saw a mirage of the Uzbek border building rise on the horizon. Crossing was a pretty intense experience as every pill from paracetamol to Rennies has to be counted and a mime acted to explain symptoms treated (mostly just diarrhoea). Then every dollar was declared and counted. Before finally a x-ray for the bike and finally then you can enter the same windswept sandy landscape you just left. wpid-20140913072949_img_9239.jpg
The road was pretty well surfaced allowing us to cruise the final few KM’s to a roadside tea house where we hoped to sleep for the night. Like all my overnight stays in Uzbekistan we were welcomed in with hot tea and biscuits. It felt like hygiene might not be exemplary out here in the absence of running water so we opted to cook our own food under the setting desert sun. Bikes locked to a rusty old heap of metal made it feel very post-apocalyptic and Mad Max-esque.
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As a tourist you’re supposed to register with a government approved hotel every night, the paper slips you receive are then in theory checked at the border when you leave. Any missing and you face a $10,000 fine. Still interested in visiting? Well in practise it is once every three nights and at the border they were entirely nonplussed about the registration slips. They just emptied them out and handed them back so I could have stayed anywhere I wanted in hindsight! With quite a strict Visa regulation on top of all this you can see why it’s not on many tourists radar. However I suspect that might soon change….

The desert finally gave way to what makes Uzbekistan special, a huge historic hilltop mud fort rose above desert on one side and green fertile oasis on the other. Intrigued by this lonely structure we cycled over to be greeted by a man entirely on his own playing traditional tunes on a Ukulele type thing. wpid-20140914113807_img_9312.jpgAs bizarre experiences go this was up there with the best. We chatted to him before climbing the hill fort and gaining views over into nearby Turkmenistan. The lush green river snaking through the sand being all the separated these two countries and the first greenery we had seen in days. wpid-20140914112210_img_9297.jpg
That evening we rolled into Khiva a town within vast intimidating defensive mud walls that must have been 15m wide at the base and at least that tall. Spiked with spears of wood you can imagine ancient marauding armies arriving after crossing the desert only to be thwarted here. wpid-20140915111646_img_9362.jpg

The old town was in good condition and felt like it should be full of tourists but instead it was empty, a few stalls selling their wares, kids playing in the streets and mosques echoing the call to prayer. I suspect the tourists will come but at the moment it felt like a step back in time.
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The local women wear colour head scarves and bright flora dresses. We were lucky enough to be invited to two weddings where the colours get even brighter and bolder, I never fully understood how weddings worked here but it seemed there’s separate male and female parties on day 1 to 2 then everyone gets together for the final day. The first we get dragged into was the male party with lots of vodka going around. Toasts were raised for random things and a pretty dancing lady was looking fairly overwhelmed in the middle of the room. Later on I stumbled upon a female wedding party and was waved in, the dancing here was far more stylish and dignified, far less vodka being consumed. The outfits were pretty amazing, lots of gold and deep rich fabrics.wpid-20140917135306_img_9644.jpg

The next day I rode my bike around the streets exploring most of the city and stocking up on provisions. The kid in the picture was convinced he could get on my XL framed Tripster! wpid-20140915141327_img_9410.jpg
The ride continued south to Bukhara which was going to be tough with limited chance to stock up on supplies en-route, but staying with a friendly family on the way added to the experience. We were constantly stumbling upon more juicy sweet water melons added to the enjoyment as we progressed south.wpid-20140915072221_img_9348.jpg
At Bukhara we again toured the ancient city, here it is more engulfed by the modern soviet buildings but still formed the heart of the place. There are more tourists here with the associated souvenir stands but still a remarkable place to explore. However what really made the visit was staying at a low key guest house that let us camp on the mud roof top with the most amazing views across to the mosques, then at night we were illuminated by the stars. The picture below shows our beds on the roof: wpid-20140916185400_img_9490.jpg
The old towns can be found all over the country and they highlight the strategic importance of Uzbekistan on the ancient silk road trade route. The bazaars in these towns were the melting pots of the world where traders of all ethnicities would stop to rest and trade before heading to China or the middle east. Just as it was back in those days it is still a place where travellers are embraced and shown hospitality whether on motor bikes, Jeeps or cyclists. In the few guest houses all like minded travellers seem to turn up creating a great atmosphere of story telling and tales from life on the road. Many have travelled overland from Japan, Australia or the UK, France. Few were on short trips it seemed, myself included.

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The roads were getting busier as I headed towards Samarkand but still I was flanked by dry dusty fields dotted with irrigated cotton or watermelons. People were busy working on the land or selling from the road side.
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Cycling here means you connect with people and see the way of life at the same pace as the locals, there really isn’t a better way to travel. Constantly having a friendly race on bikes from being waved down for some tea and sweets. A favourite here is tea with jam mixed in, served with a boiled sweet and sugary bread. You need a sweet tooth here it’s fair to say. I guess the abundance of gold teeth reflects the quantity of sugar consumed!wpid-20140919021637_img_9752.jpg
I almost made the 280km from Bukhara in one day but, the light was fading fast. I called into a local village and asked around for a place to stay, the international symbol of sleeping was demonstrated and a room was found for me, only after a game of snooker on a full size table – rather unexpected out here. Despite me not speaking any Russian I always got by with a smile and a hand sign however I wish I learnt a few more words to get the most out of the experience.

Samarkand was the biggest city so far and yet again a fascinating complex of mosques. The most impressive was three huge mosques all tiled in blue mosaics. It is called The Registan and was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Timurid dynasty.. The name Rēgistan appropriately means “Sandy place” or “desert” in Persian. The Bibi-Khanym Mosque was another stunning building from the 1400s:
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Now from Samarkand there’s a few options, many ride south towards the mountains of Tajikistan and the Pamirs, others head towards Tashkent and onto the lush fertile Fergana valley. This area requires a permit and has seen some unrest with a fractured and disputed territory.

I went to Tashkent and decided this was probably the least interesting city as I headed north to Kazakhstan. The Fergana looks beautiful although I didn’t venture that way. It is a place I’d like to return to one day and see the towns I missed and mostly just to get some more of the sweetest watermelons in the world for free!

Linking up all these fascinating places would make a great two week tour. I had an absolute blast riding here. Yes I was pretty scared of how strict some of the rules were and where I registered properly, but the people and the cycling more than make up for it. The flat miles mean you can cover some serious ground too.

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