September 14th to 22nd. 394km
Our speedo’s battery started dying when we were coming into Dushanbe. We changed it when we arrived, at 14,000km, but that reset our overall trip counter. So unfortunately we haven’t got the total distance on there anymore, so any future distance photos will be +14,000km!
Clare still wasn’t feeling great when we set off from Dushanbe. It wasn’t so much the stomach issues, but more the side effects of the anti-biotics which left her feeling nauseous and without any appetite. Definitely not ideal for her to be cycling like that, but we needed to move on as our Uzbek visas were starting that day. We rolled out of town, heading west towards the border with Clare doing her best to fight through the lethargy, hoping that even if they were making her feel like crap, the meds were doing the job to kill the stomach bug.
The road was good and flat, so we made a decent start, covering the 65km to the checkpoint in a few hours. We’re leaving the mountains now, the last patches of snow on the high peaks disappeared into the heat haze behind us as we rode onwards. The area was heavily farmed, mostly melons, judging by the fruit stalls beside the road. We also passed a huge aluminium factory, spewing out smoke into the blue sky. We planned to camp before crossing the border, but there really weren’t many areas that weren’t farmed or built on. Luckily, between the final town and the checkpoint, we saw a small triangle of grass hidden behind some trees next to a graveyard. It was as good a spot as any, so we pitched our tent there for our final night in Tajikistan.
We woke early to pack up and get to the border as quickly as possible. From all accounts, the crossing into Uzbekistan is rarely a smooth or pleasant experience. The guards have a reputation for checking absolutely everything, cameras, laptops, sd cards, all money and medications, so we expected it to take at least a couple of hours. Leaving the Tajikistan side was very simple, a couple of passport checks and we had our exit stamps, despite not having registered at a GBAO office after 30 days in the country. (Seems like this is no longer required for tourist visas) Once on the Uzbek side, the ferocious customs officers were actually very civil and friendly. We filled out our customs forms and went into the inspection area. As expected, we had to empty everything from our panniers for them to have a look through. They asked me to turn on my laptop for them, and then searched the hard disk for any files titled ‘XXX’ (would any porn really have that in the name?!) They also had a quick flick through the photos on my camera for a few minutes, but it seemed like it was more out of curiousity and no questions were asked. After a bit of a chat about the places we planned to visit in Uzbekistan, we were free to go. The biggest delay was in repacking our panniers, but we were through and back on the road within an hour. We were an obvious target for the money changers, but we got a reasonable rate to exchange some US Dollars for giant stacks of Uzbek Som. The rampant inflation in Uzbekistan has meant the largest denomination note (5,000 som) is worth less than 1 US Dollar, so carrying even a small amount of cash means thick wads of notes and paying for anything takes a good couple of minutes counting them out.
Into another new country then, number 12. Not much changed, other than the main crop changed from fruit to cotton. We received a warm welcome. Friendly shouts of ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’ greeted us as we started cycling.The weather was less hospitable. Even though we’re in mid September now, the temperatures in the middle of the day rise to 40 degrees. On flat open ground with little shade, it was hard work. We took a couple of longer breaks when we did see shade, so progress was slow. Clare was definitely not feeling well or enjoying the day.
We got to a town, Denov, and decided to call it and find a hotel. That evening, we had a knock on the door and met another British couple, Will and Chloe, cycling east on a tandem. (What is it with the Brits on tandems!? All of the people on tandems that we’ve met or read about have come from the UK or Ireland!) They’ve come from London and are heading through the Pamirs to Almaty, before flying down to Africa to continue their ride (http://whaleboneonabike.wordpress.com) I joined them for a quick beer to chat and compare notes from our trips, but Clare wasn’t feeling up for it. She decided to stop taking the meds and hope that the amoeba had been killed off. We also decided to get a taxi the following day to Samarkand where we could get to a doctor if needed.
Finding a taxi was easy, agreeing a price took a bit longer, but eventually we were sorted and the bikes strapped to the roof of an old yellow Daewoo. We settled in for a long sweaty ride through the desert which took most of the day. Without the anti-biotics, Clare was feeling much better too, glad to be skipping this section which looked like it would have been tough cycling. Arriving in Samarkand, we were dropped off just outside the main centre and cycled the last few hundred metres in to find a hostel.
We were right next to the most famous sight in the city, the Registan, an incredible building which epitomises the Silk Road. Quite a sight to see, and a nice moment to arrive here with Clare feeling significantly better after a low couple of days. A stone’s throw from the Registan, we found a hostel and added our bikes to the collection of several others that were stored in the central courtyard. It was a popular stopping point for touring cyclists, a large wall was covered with messages and cards from other travellers, including many names who’s blogs/Instagrams we follow and several people who we’d met in person. Logging in to wifi we received an email from Tim and Claire, who’d also arrived that day and were staying in a next door hostel. Seems like they can’t get away from us, however fast they cycle!
We spent the next few days in Samarkand. Despite feeling better, Clare wanted to go to the docs again just to get checked. Luckily though, it turned out the amoeba had gone and so she was given some different, milder drugs to help with the remaining digestive problems. A big relief, and she continued to improve and feel much better from then on. With Tim and Claire, we did the tourist bit and went on a tour of the famous madrassas, mosques and mausoleums that are all over the city. Although not the most authentic of buildings (almost all are recent recreations of the originals) they are nonetheless very impressive. Lots of photos of blue tiles and sandy brick buildings were taken, set against the constant blue sky. We weren’t alone as tourists here. We’ve seen more Europeans here than anywhere we’ve been since SE Asia. Mostly they’re of the grey haired variety, bussing round in big groups, ticking off the 3 famous Silk Road cities, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. But, to be fair, that’s what we’re doing too, even if we are cycling some of the way.
Next on the itinerary is Bukhara, 280km to the west. We rode with Tim and Claire again, hoping to cover the distance in three days. The old team, back together again. Up and on the road early, we stopped by the Registan as we left for a group photo. Compared to the riding we’d been doing in Tajikistan, this was a breeze. We averaged well over 20km/h on very smooth and flat roads. Some parts were through open desert, but most of the time we were in cotton or fruit farming areas with regular towns for drinks and supplies. There were a few more stops for Tim to set up his camera, ride past it into the distance then ride back to pick it up. All part of making his documentary! The scenery wasn’t particularly inspiring, but we were back into the zone of just cycling at a good pace to get the distance done.
We got early starts, cycling through the mornings to get some kilometres behind us so we could take nice long lunch breaks in the shade. A couple of hours reading or snoozing during the hottest hours of the day would set us up for more riding in the afternoon. Without too much effort, we logged our two longest days of the trip, 117km and 115km. The Uzbek people continued to be super friendly, constant ‘hello’s and ‘atkuda?’s (where are you from) as well as beeping horns and waves from passing cars. Camping was a little bit trickier as there was a lot of farmland, but we were able to find a couple of quiet spots in orchards hidden from the road. With two longer days of riding behind us, the third day into Bukhara was easy. We started passing a few more interesting looking historical structures beside the road and within a couple of hours we were riding into town.
After negotiating the busy ring road, we were into the pedestrianised old town and surrounded by the blue tiles and sandstone. Again, it was cool to be arriving in the centre of such an impressive place on touring bikes. We were set upon by the locals, offering us money exchange and trying to lure us into their guest houses and gift shops. We’d been recommended a hostel where we wanted to stay, so we headed straight there. By midday we were off the bikes and showering off, before regrouping for lunch and a beer in the central square. Morale back on a high after a good ride and Clare having kicked her bug. We’ll spend another few days here exploring Bukhara before continuing on to the next stop, Khiva.
Here’s the route by bike and taxi from Dushanbe to Bukhara