It was an atmospheric twilight in central Uzbekistan, the orange glow was slowly fading into the dust filled air and the encroaching darkness of night added mystery to the towering roadside skeleton trees in my rural surroundings.
I was well into my cycle tour to China and every pedal stroke was getting me closer.
I was carefully avoiding cars and potholes while I cycled up the wrong side of a roughly surfaced Uzbek dual carriageway. I was eagerly searching for a peaceful spot to wild camp, but the fields were all filled with cotton bushes or creeping melon plants; there was just nowhere for a tent. All was not entirely peaceful because every kilometre there was a wedding hall with the sound of outrageously happy Turkic music blaring out. Outside one hall I stopped, hoping for some advice about a place to sleep. I leant my bike on a wall and approached a group of guests, but before I knew it my world was suddenly a blur. I had been swept up in a sea of young men, most of whom were happy on life, while a few stank of vodka. I was the eye of the storm, stuck inside this whirlwind of excitement about the lycra-clad foreigner. Away from the mêlée I could see elegantly dressed women dancing in traditional dresses, alive with bright colours and sparkling silver trims – the dancing reminding me of a scene from a Bollywood movie.
Then I saw the banquet tables loaded with a feast of delicacies, like honey to a bee for a starving cyclist like me. But I had ridden 200km since this morning and I didn’t have the energy to attend another Uzbek wedding so I was looking for my exit . A group of older men whom, rather understandably, thought my lycra outfit to be inappropriate wedding attire, helped form an exit path between the sea of excited bodies. So after just two enforced celebratory toasts, I was pleased to be back with my bike, to resume my search for a place to rest. It was now getting even more desperate, I needed somewhere to sleep and soon!
As most cycle tourers riding through this part of the world will know, being a token wedding guest is just one unforgettable experience that you encounter on the road. Travelling by bike is undoubtedly the best key with which to unlock these doors of cultural interaction that enrich and inspire us all.
After four months in the saddle, I had seen so many amazing sights and I had had so many amazing interactions. It is these unique and unforgettable experiences that make cycle touring such a beautiful experience. It is also true that travelling by bike is a ying and yang experience, a roller coaster of ups and downs. The days can be tough and lonely, however over time I found that the low points were becoming more easily mitigated, and I was buoyed on by the overwhelming happiness of the freedom of living simply and simply living on my bike. I sang songs when it rained, I learnt to enjoy the spontaneity of the unknown and relished the interactions that stopping for a puncture brought on.
It is hard to fully relax when you feel so isolated and vulnerable but that slowly down car on a lonely road will always just want a slefie with you not your phone. By losing this fear and living purely in the moment, gone were the stresses or worry of life, and a state of calm had developed that Lord Buddha would have appreciated.
Here is one of the loneliest road selfies of the trip, 8 people piled out of the car, it was one of only 3 cars I saw all day:
The weather however is not always going to be favourable when cycling long distances, and it certainly tried to test this Zen state of happiness to the limit this summer. But like the saying goes, remember every headwind or rain cloud has a silver lining……
The sky over Kyrgyzstan had been darkening all morning and it was only by a stroke of luck that I had kept dry this long. Sadly the bubble finally burst and in seconds the heavens opened. The rain literally fell in sheets soaking everything instantly and it didn’t stop all afternoon. I reached the stage of pure saturation – it was well and truly overwhelming my Gore Tex waterproofs – but inside this invaluable shell I was still warm from pumping the pedals hard.
In case the rain wasn’t enough, I was riding the most tediously dull and flat stretch of road in the whole of beautiful Kyrgyzstan. I couldn’t even face singing Travis’s “Why does it always rain on me?” or an ironic rendition of “Such a perfect day”.
I was tiring rapidly as the limited light started to fade further and a concerning chill was now in the air. Water had worked its way inside my panniers long ago and I knew everything would be damp – there was just no way I could camp in these conditions, at least without hypothermia setting in.
Then to add to my woes my back wheel felt odd, wobbling from side to side before finally I was on the rim: I had a puncture. I really couldn’t face mending it in this weather and looked around desperately – I needed somewhere to stay and fast.
Like all the villages I had ridden through since Bishkek, there was a small but ornate domed mosque with the lights casting rays out into the gloom. I waited for a few minutes for prayers to end and approached the middle aged, bearded imam resplendent in his dark red robes. Standing there drenched to the bone I didn’t even need to explain my situation fully; I was guided into a small side room and some other guys carried my punctured bike up the eight steps into the porch. An electric heater was fetched and colourful cushions and blankets were laid out. It couldn’t have been more perfect, and I settled down for the night cosier than any fancy hotel. I did awake rapidly when a chap sang the call to prayer two feet away from me though! This was the room in the mosque where I rested up in the dry:
This experience again illustrates the beauty of adventures by bicycle. In central Asia mosques are often a much appreciated cycle tourer refuge. Cycle touring like all travel enriches us by teaching one to ignore any preconceptions and learn by real life experience. Muslim countries from Turkey and Iran through to the less religious Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan generally outdo us Westerners in their generous and unquestioning hospitality to cyclists or travellers. In the six weeks from leaving Georgia I was welcomed into strangers’ homes most nights, always leaving as a friend despite the language barrier.
Personally I feel slightly guilty at this generosity, firstly because it is shameful that in the UK and many other developed countries we are generally so closed off and distrustful – it must be a shock for other travellers.
Secondly I felt I might be a burden on rural families where living can often be so hard. I often tried to leave a gift: a few dollars to cover food, a pack of sweets or even some chai. It was all normally refused but I was happy when people accepted something.
I never used any of the excellent resources like WarmShowers.org and rarely local homestay schemes because I simply had no idea where I would be tomorrow. I didn’t want to make commitments and then let people down, but for others with different approaches they are a great way to arrange a rewarding place to stay.
So what happened on that night in Uzbekistan? Well it’s probably fairly predictable:
I left the busy road and detoured into a peaceful looking traditional village, the hay drying outside people’s homes and the tied up cows back from the fields, a cotton filled tractor and trailer rumbled past adding to the white snow in the gutter that had already fallen out. Three men with friendly yet weather-worn faces were sitting and chatting outside a small shop. They all wore the standard Uzbek flat-topped Muslim hats and spoke no English.
I approached them and used the universal sign language for needing somewhere to sleep – I was getting pretty good at Russian sign language because it can lead to sketchy vodka sessions if misunderstood! My query was quickly understood and the response was yet again positive. Within minutes I am following a lady with keys to a random room filled with blankets and cushions and my bike is carried in too. This is fantastic I’m thinking – almost too good to be true – where’s the catch?
I next get a guided tour that ended with me posing for a few phone selfies over a game of billiards then I returned to my room and settled in for the night. I had no choice but to settle down and sleep because the door was padlocked from the outside! A while ago this prison cell would have freaked me out, but many weeks of receiving generous hospitality from strangers taught me that it was certainly for my own safety, there was no hidden agenda, no scam or trickery. OK you are all wondering how did I deal with a weak bladder in the night? Well I used a cut down water bottle and found an opening window!
And I think this experience sums up why I love travelling by bike. If I turned up by car or motor bike the reaction would be directing me to a hotel or nearby town. Arriving on a bicycle you receive respect and that always leads to fantastic hospitality. It’s not all one-sided; there is much interest in where you have come from, and some basic hand and broken Russian explains to the curious less travelled what England or America is actually like and that hopefully helps break barriers and is often enough reward for your hosts.
Inter continental travel by bicycle is growing in popularity and it is easy to see why. The physical challenge is rewarding but the experiences and unpredictable adventures it facilitates leave a lasting impression and that makes it addictive. After cycling from France to Asian Turkey in 2013 and England to China/Kazakhstan border in 2014, where’s that map – I have next year’s cycle tour to plan!