4am: Difficult wake-up call
Following heat stroke in the Kazakh Mangistau desert, we took the difficult decision to avoid a second catastrophic desert crossing. We travelled the 500 kilometres between Beyneu in Kazakhstan and Nukus in Uzbekistan by rail. This means that the border crossing formalities are done aboard the train. Departure at 3am, arrival at 5pm. It is 4am. Exhausted, we have just fallen asleep on our berths, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the wagon. Boot noises, barking dogs and flashlights point in our direction. “Passports”. The first quick check. Our faces correspond to the photos and our Uzbek visas are valid. Phew. We go back to sleep. Second visit. This time we are shaken by the shoulder. “Declaration” We are handed a sheet of paper to fill in, the instructions are only Russian. “English?” The man leaves, promising to bring us the forms in English. We go back to sleep. Third passage. “Medicine?” I get up a little shaky, take out the first aid kit, hand it over to the military. “OK. Declaration?”. Given our fatigue and our level of Russian, we need 5 minutes to explain that we are waiting for the forms in English. “OK, I come back”. Moments later, we take out our pens and rub our eyes. Questions are all trivial, except the small chart to complete by indicating the amount of cash that we carry. We take out the wallet. Kazakg Tenge, Uzbek Som, US Dollars and some remains of Georgian Lari and Azerbaijani Manat. Everything is in order, our passports are finally stamped. Welcome to Uzbekistan!
6am: Cotton field breakfast
We get up with the sun to enjoy the relative freshness of the morning. Around us, fields of cotton as far as the eye can see. We are in the agricultural valley that stretches between Nukus and Khiva along the Amu Darya. In the 1960s, Soviet economists decided to intensify cotton cultivation in the region. The plant, very greedy in water, meant vast irrigation programmes greatly reducing the flow of the river and decreasing the surface of the Aral Sea by 75%. It’s a sad reality, despite the joyful screams of children bathing in the canals. This river, with its source in the high Afghan mountains, was one of the two major tributaries of the Aral Sea.
7am: Khiva awakens
As Adam sleeps deeply, I get away quietly for a morning tour of Khiva. The city specialised in the slave trade at the time of the Silk Road’s caravans, today it attracts many tourists. Early morning, the streets are deserted. Well, almost. In front of most mud-brick houses, fathers and their children are finishing their nights on wooden platforms underneath mosquito netted traditional mattresses.Meanwhile, women in colourful traditional dresses are busy. Like every morning, they sweep the dusty ground before spraying it in a desperate attempt to keep the wind from playing with the sand.Gilles and Danielle, a French couple making a documentary about women’s life in Uzbekistan will explain later that the ability to get up early to clean is one of the essential criteria when choosing a wife .
9am: Adam’s treat
A souvenir stand grabs Adam’s attention. He is in awe of the hand-painted chess sets. He’s been trying to convince me to learn to play for a long time. Looks like he found the ultimate argument. These boxes and their unique pieces in wood are real works of art. It’s hard not to get caught up in the game. Do we really have space? Since we abandoned our climbing rope in Turkey, our bags are not so full. Sold. We are loaded with 600g more.
10am: Military checkpoint’s secret
been cycling for two hours when we reach one of the many military checkpoints. Almost every time, we have to present our passports and registration receipts (explained later). As we wait our turn behind a delivery truck, we witness an unexpected scene. To avoid any problem, locals seem to have taken the habit of sliding two 1000 Som notes into their passports. When getting controlled, the man in uniform opens the first page, seizes his prize, puts it discreetly in his pocket before returning the passport without a second glace. Not so surprising that Uzbekistan is 187th out of 204 in terms of corruption according to the World Bank.
11am: Break in a chaikhana
In the red desert that separates Khiva from Bukhara, temperatures reach unbearable levels. It’s time to get back on our feet, park up the bikes in the shade, lie on one of the cushioned platforms of a traditional chaikhana (tea house) and get out our chess set. One of the unexpected consequences of our new hobby is the buzz it generates around us. In a few minutes, several men, young and old, jostle to play with Adam. In the Soviet era, chess was considered a national “intellectual sport” and a federation was even responsible for promoting its development. No need to speak the same language to have a good time together, everything goes through the eyes!
4pm: Surprise on the bill
After a good nap, a basic meal and countless chess games in the chaikana of the day, it’s time to pay the bill and hit the road again under more acceptable temperatures. Since arriving in Central Asia, we got used to asking the price before ordering a dish or a drink. We can then detect any anomalies on the bill. Today we were told 7000 som per soup, 2000 som for bread and 1000 som for tea. We should therefore pay 17,000 som.
When we ask for the bill, we get asked for 50,000 som (a little more than 5 €). It is not much but it is still three times the original price.The tone rises quickly, the amount to be paid decreases slowly and we end up losing patience. We put 20,000 som on the table and leave. Whatever. Riding in the desert at sunset is pure pleasure. Surprising encounters with camels. Warm waves from the locals. Easy camping in the vast expanse of sand.
5pm: Chekmate in Bukhara
Whilst we enjoy the cool evening to visit the incredible Bukhara, we come across a craftsman making all sorts of chess sets. Even more lovingly made than the one we bought in Khiva, and otherwise more beautiful. What should we do? We don’t wonder very long. We can’t resist. Only we do not have enough local money. To change dollars to som, the most economical way is to do it on the black market. The chess seller puts us in touch with the “best exchanger” of the city. We meet him a few streets away. His sports bag filled with banknotes, he gives us a rate of 9000 som to 1 euro while a bank would have given us about 4500. Case quickly settled, we return to the hotel with the intention to spend the evening enjoying our new game. One question remains. What to do with our first chess set? Start a collection? Not very convenient on the bike, especially as we are heading to the high mountains of the Pamir soon. It would be wise to go as light as possible! We remember Malikjon. Over the past 4 days, the hotel owner’s son has spent many hours with us. He helped me change my broken spoke, he spent hours studying our map of Central Asia and our inflatable globe and he kept asking to play chess with Adam who patiently explained the rules. When we give him the spare set the next morning, we’re certain we’ve made the right decision when his eyes light up.
6pm: Petrol shortage
The plan is to stop soon and camp but we have no more petrol for the stove. It’s time to refuel and it’s gonna be a mission. The gas stations we see sell LPG gas but not liquid fuel. As a result of the energy import independence desired by the government, the shortage of liquid fuel is almost permanent. The vast majority of mini-buses run on gas and those who are not so fortunate must stock up on the black market. To do so, it’s rather simple. Locate the plastic fizzy drinks bottles filled with a yellow liquid along the road, pass the gate of the often abandoned house located nearby, negotiate a price, fill your tank from a plastic jerrycan and leave before the police shows up.
8pm: Obligatory registration
We get to Boysun as darkness sets in. Tonight we must find a hotel to avoid any problems at the border. Indeed, tourists visiting the country are subject to a daily registration requirement. As independent nomad travellers, we are informally allowed to spend 3 nights without showing up at an official accommodation. After 4 nights of wild camping, we need to add a small coupon to our collection.
2am: The end of the world
Camped in the desert away from any sign of life, we wake up to a painfully loud explosion that lasts 15 minutes. All we can see is a 20m flamme emerging from nowhere whilst a black cloud engulfs the full moon. Weather it’s a bad dream or the Uzbek refinery industry, we’ll never know – we still haven’t found the answer.
We spent 19 days in Uzbekistan, from the 3rd to the 22nd of August. Of all the Stans we went through, our quick immersion in the Uzbek world was the one that surprised, shocked, and culturally challenged us the most. A colourful experience in dramatic landscapes and grand historic cities (see photos here). A fascinating country where life does not look easy every day but where the benevolence of the inhabitants is omnipresent despite their natural tendency to charge you more than normal.