Samarkand – Dushanbe

Well deserved BreakAfter a couple of eventful days in Samarkand we were back on the road again, making a start on the last 500km and some challenging climbs until the Tajikistan border. Directly outside the city our way was leading us into the mountains and the soft hills, covered with dry yellow grass and occasional herds of sheep or skinny cows, that were slowly turning into steep, multicolored rock formations were a welcome sight after the monotonous steppe plain we crossed so far.

Piloti Tent

Together with the altitude our mood was rising whereas the pitiless heat was finally decreasing, another more than welcome change. And when we found a well sheltered spot just a few kilometers from the first pass to pitch our tent in the shade of some old trees next to a babbling brook, we haven’t felt that happy and peaceful in a long time.

Pretty steep

The next day we reached Sharisabz, the hometown of Timur the Great that once upon a time probably put Samarkand itself in the shade. Today there is not much more left of its former majesty than some derelict ruins, which are half covered under the rubble of the currently ongoing modernization efforts of Uzbekistan’s government. It might be that in a couple of years this plans come to fruition, but at the moment the whole town seems like bombed in ashes. Due to Uzbekistan’s restrictive registration policy, we had to stay anyway one night here and were lucky to find a charming little hotel that had more resemblance with an ethnological museum.

Vodka Party

Some young Uzbek people that were staying there as well – they were actually on a common honeymoon trip as we should learn later – straightaway invited us to dinner with them, which inevitably resulted in a boisterous, vodka drenched evening.

BBQ Preparations

Incapable of sticking to our regular biking rhythm the next morning, we instead spend a hang-over day all together in the cool, mountainous backcountry having three BBQs, several naps and a refreshing bath in an ice-cold mountain brook pool to clear our heads.

Rested and motivated we continued our way in the southeastern corner of Uzbekistan and in the following days we cycled in a stunningly beautiful scenery through rolling sand dunes and narrow red sandstone canyons, only meeting scattered goat herds accompanied by their weather-beaten shepherds on heavy loaded donkeys, dragging big dust clouds behind them, that reflect the early rays of sunlight. From time to time we passed through small clusters of mud-walled houses where kids are running after us, shouting “Adkuda, Adkuda?” (where do you come from?). Sandstone Canyons

Shepherd at Sunrise

Roaring with LaughterAlong with the remoteness of the area also the hospitality of the people was increasing, which gave us the chance to try oil-soaked but delicious homemade plov and spend a night sleeping with the whole family on the terrace under the star-spattered sky.

Circus Show

We weren’t on a hurry during this stage and hence we really enjoyed taking time to come in contact with the friendly but endless curious population of this region, including an acrobatic clown show, fit for the finest circus, in front of 20 kids roaring with laughter.

Closer to the Tajikistan border, scenery was changing completely and within 50km we were suddenly cycling through green and fertile plains with more vegetation than we’ve seen in the last two months – hard to believe but even some high shade-giving trees weren’t missing and one day it was indeed cloudy, a weather condition we didn’t expect to welcome so much one day.

Only a few kilometers before the border, the most dreaded and most inevitable travel disease (do we have to give more details?) stroke Martina hard and we had to pause for a couple of days before we could pedal the last section until the border. Obviously Uzbekistan was especially sad to see us leaving and said goodbye with an unexpectedly heavy rain shower – the first at all we’ve seen since Iran! One extensive border control on the Uzbek side and another, practically non-existent one on the Tajik side later, we entered Tajikistan, the 7th country on our unforgettable journey, where we will face one of the biggest challenges so far – one of the world’s highest roads, the roof of the world,  the famous Pamir Highway!

Samarkand

We travel not for trafficking alone.
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known we take the golden road to Samarkand.

From James Elroys Flecker’s Golden Road to Samarkand, 1913


SamarkandNo name evocates the mystics of the famous Silk Road more than Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s ancient most glorious empire and we were quite excited when reaching the city after some long days on our bikes. We pitched our camp at the very first Bead-And-Breakfast that was recommended in our Lonely Planet, the Furkat Hostel: a decision with wide-ranging consequences as we should experience soon…

Sunset at the Roof TopIts inner courtyard was pretty appealing with multiple, wine tree overgrown galleries and the view from the roof top with its fine wood carved ceiling was undeniable pretty impressive, but that was already about everything positive to say about it. The rooms were entirely cluttered with various traditional decorations and everything but clean. Instead of mattresses we found a ragtag accumulation of smelly wool covers that gave you this inimitable “princess and the Pea” feeling – soft but still really uncomfortable. And when Gui entered the tiny dirty room that served as a toilet and a shower at the same time, for washing off the dirt of the road, it didn’t take more than 2 minutes before he rushed out to give fire alarm: the hand dryer inside caught fire when switching on the light, already before even touching the shower tap! But to go easy with our budget we decided to accept these “inconveniences” for one night before we would find something better – and prayed that we would still live to see the next sunrise 🙂

mongol rally_smallThe next day welcomed us with a bunch of long bearded guys in washed out T-shirts at the breakfast table, all speaking English with various kinds of accents. At the first glance it was clear that we were all from the same batch: all travellers on a long challenging journey. They all were participants of the so called Mongol Rally, a kind of charity race starting in London with the goal to meet at a certain lake in Mongolia using a car with less than 1200cc (and fancy car decorations seems to be obligatory as well). Since this race hasn’t any time limit – the slowest participant arrived two years after the starting shot – they weren’t in a hurry and the whole convoy entertained us with amusing road trip stories all morning long.

Mausoleum Roofs

We spend the rest of the day exploring Samarkand’s numerous historical highlights. Unfortunately we had no chance to see the famous Registan mosque & madrassa complex because it’s currently closed due to an upcoming oriental music festival. Therefor we, somehow coincidently, stumbled across Samarkand’s mystical graveyard and the amazing Shah-i-Zinda, an avenue of ancient tomps, each of it a masterpiece of exceptional craftsmanship itself.

Cyclists EveningSince we were still quite unhappy with our accommodation, we had a look at the neighboring hostel and suddenly discovered two familiar faces at one of tables: Iris and Retic, the Swiss couple we had met at the Uzbekistan embassy in Istanbul, and now, nearly two month later, we run into them in Uzbekistan, what a coincidence! It was a really joyful reencounter and since we had taken nearly the same route so far, we had a lot of experiences to share while having a cold beer on “our” rooftop. The mission of finding a better hotel stayed unaccomplished for this day, and also on the following day we had no luck in terms of that, but in other ways when we run into Iris and Retic and another Swiss biker couple, again! Just in time for sharing a great dinner all together 🙂

Notebook fixing TeamObviously we had pushed our luck too far these last days:  out of a sudden our laptop had a complete and irreversible breakdown. Hence we had to delay our departure from Samarkand for two more days, while Martina spent most of her time with some backyard computer engineers and a practically non-existent internet connection, trying to find a not Russian windows copy and restore as much of our files and *cough* valuable software. Special thanks to Wolfgang at this point, who supported us a lot with his untiring efforts to split downloads into package sizes appropriate for Uzbekistan’s download rate that is still measured in bytes per hour. Additionally to our misery, at some point the hotel manager cut off the WiFi because he noticed that we were trying to download some stuff – another drop on our already raised tempers.

But the last straw that broke the camel’s back was the incident that happened the next day when we meet two poor Swiss-Italian guys at the breakfast table, who hastily had to cancel their trip because one’s father had an accident. As if this wouldn’t be bad enough, this asshole of hotel manager charged them 35$ for a room that they would not even use before their flight home, just because he convinced them that they needed a valid registration for their last night in the country. At this point we packed our bags and finally left this terrible place to spend a last night in a more friendly and “luxury” atmosphere before heading south direction Tajikistan’s border!

Unfortunately these circumstances cast a pall on our stay in Samarkand so that we didn’t experience the same unforgettable Silk Road flair as in Bukhara, but still the numerous majestic, old monuments make it a place well worth a visit.

Turkmenabat – Bukhara

First Contact with UzbeksAfter only four days in Turkmenistan we were again facing another border crossing procedure. After our experiences when entering Turkmenistan, we were certain that nothing could strain our nerves anymore. But after waiting for an hour in the heat until the border officer finally came back to his well air-conditioned little booth to give us our longed-for stamp, we were – to put it mildly – a little bit tensed up. Stoically the customs officers went through all pictures on our laptop, whereby they were admiring Clemence’s snowboarding skills, and made Martina pantomime the purpose of every single pill in our medics bag, literally everyone – including Immodium. Luckily photos are prohibited at the border stations 🙂

SunsetTo sum it up, we didn’t have the best start into Uzbekistan. But our first stage goal, Bukhara, completely made up for all this border hassle. This historical Silk Road city still pours the charm of an ancient desert oasis town. Most of the thoroughly lived-in old center hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years and is an architectural preserve full of madrasas, minarets, a massive royal fortress and the remnants of a once-vast bazaar complex.

Reflection

And in the heart of the city remains Lyabi-Hauz , one of its famous pools, a cool, mulberry-tree shaded oasis, where locals as well as travellers gather to enjoy a green tea and a cool breeze. Bukhara’s truly unique atmosphere and the fact that we found a lovely family-run hostel 500m from the central plaza (named Sarrafon Hostel) , where breakfast was a feast and – in contrast to Turkmenistan – no chemical warfare gear was required to enter the bathroom, let us stay a couple of days to recharge our batteries.

Romantic Tea Break

For the next 350km until Samarkand we found back to our well proven rhythm of starting to bike at 5 o’clock in the morning and make as many kilometers as possible before the roasting sun turns the asphalt into black caramel. When we then start to search for an accommodation to flee the blazing heat, completely wasted and drenched in sweat already at 10 in the morning, we caught the one or the other weird look from the locals. And regardless of our condition, they always offer us boiling hot tea, exactly what we need at this moment 😉

The way itself was not a highlight: it leads straight as a pole through Uzbekistan’s steppe, where from time to time abandoned gas stations alternate with run-down villages. To give you an impression of the road conditions: picture the shittiest road that still dares to be called asphalt (for all insiders the road to Béville would be a proper base for imagination), multiply the number of potholes by ten and add numerous rusty, ramshackle vehicles that shrouds you in a heavy black puff of smoke when passing by. Additionally another factor makes bike travelling in Uzbekistan challenging is the fact that you have to register in an official hotel every night, otherwise you might face a fine of 8000$ when you can’t show sufficient registration slips at the border. Uzbek HospitalityNot a very encouraging prospect for wild camping or various homestay invitations. Nevertheless we always gladly accepted every hospitable invitation for a homemade plov or iced kauwon (=melon, very important word to learn)! But unlike before, we had to adjust our daily distances depending on the availability of a “michmonchona” – Uzbekistan seems to be the only country worldwide where literally nobody outside of the capitals has the slightest understanding of the word “hotel” 🙂

But we enjoyed being back on our bikes again and living our “sweating in the morning and having a fan cooled nap on the afternoon” life style for a couple of days before reaching Samarkand.

Turkmenistan – fast forward

Welcome to Turkmenistan
Welcome to Turkmenistan

After one month in Iran it was time for us to leave this remarkable country and move on to a new a cultural area, a new adventure, and on the 31st of July we crossed the border to Turkmenistan – after we finally found the anything but eye-catching border station in the middle of the dessert. For the first time in this trip the border crossing took some hours, especially because the Iranian customs officer took their time to go through all our luggage and pictures (with particular interest in Martina’s photos in the chador – “so much more beautiful!”). And after showing our passports to literally every man in a uniform in the short no-man’s-land, getting a stamp from every counter clerk and convincing the customs officers that we really don’t have a copy of “Mein Kampf” or any terror movies, we finally set foot on Turkmenistan ground.

Typical Turkmen?
Typical Turkmen?

When reaching Mary, a city with real post-Soviet charm and the first stage on our transit route, we directly sensed the difference in the general atmosphere compared to Iran: women were finally showing their beauty wearing colorful, form-fitting dresses (quite a relief after all this black chador monotony) and elaborately pinned-up headscarves that looked like multicolored beehives and people on the streets were in general more relaxed with tourists, so that we no longer felt like some exotic zoo animals.

Soviet Charm
Soviet Charm

But on the other hand we also experienced that police presence is still strong: when starting a conversation with a random guy at a bus terminal, it didn’t take long until a police officer politely but vehemently pulled him away in the middle of the sentence and made clear that any further interaction between locals and us foreigners is undesired. This might be a remnant of the old Soviet era or a sign for the still totalitarian regime, which had his origin in the bizarre dictatorship of ’Turkmenbashi’, who covered this little-known desert republic with golden statues of himself and grandiose monuments to the achievements of his ‘golden age’.

You don't wanna use that
You don’t wanna use that

Since we just had three days before we had to head on to Uzbekistan, we didn’t have the chance to see much of the country’s natural beauty or ancient traditions, but therefor we saw some pretty expensive yet extremely dilapidated hotel rooms and a lot of dead-straight roads leading through dry, completely deserted regions. This might be a reason why Turkmenistan won’t achieve a place on our favorite list, but at least the local Samosas were delicious 🙂