The land of honking cars, selfies, gold teeth, cotton balls, cows on the shoulder and waving people. Uzbekistan amazes us. We share the roads with overloaded Chevrolet vans and other vehicles, the most wondrous constructions. The country where we find that having a shower in your house is still a rarity. The land where we hang over primitive squat “toilets” with (if we are lucky) rolls of sandpaper. The country that loves foreign guests. And selfies! We take pictures with hundreds of strangers: along the highway, at gas stations, restaurants, while walking through town, filming from cars, secretly filming, usually asking kindly, sometimes in exchange for nuts, cola, water, fruit or a Barbie mirror. Daily there is also someone who puts a baby in our arms for a photo. We are handed bread and apples from cars and an Uzbek flag from a moving truck. Policemen check our passports, but actually use this as an excuse for a selfie. English is still very scarce and most of the time we are greeted with the question “Ruski?” “No Ruski, Niderlandya.” “Aaah, Robin van Persie!!!” And once the sun sets, the humidity rises and families start cooking, a smoky stuffy haze hangs over Uzbekistan.
We land at the airport of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. It is 4 a.m. and it is still dark outside. Our bikes have been reduced to a kit and we are devastated. We find a secluded spot at the airport to assemble the bikes, but appear to have put our junk out in front of the customs break area. It doesn’t take 5 minutes before the first curious staff members come over for a chat. Putting the bikes together is slower than expected. We spend more than 3h and one customs officer, Abdurahim, helps us for 2h. With every screw Audrey wants to tighten, he says, “I will do this.” Suddenly he says: “Women in our country don’t do this, they take care of the children” when I try to put the tire on the wheel. Audrey doesn’t quite know what to answer, but he doesn’t seem to expect an answer either. More and more customs officers show up and take a look, some want to practice English, others just want to know what we are doing. A wide-eyed Tajik with gold teeth also shows up and raises his thumb. The golden smile is a well-known phenomenon in Uzbekistan. 6h later we are still at the airport…. the customs officers want to practice some more English and they insist that we eat the national dish “plov” with them. It is a kind of pilav with vegetables and mutton and it tastes good, a hearty breakfast 😉 Before we leave we are offered 2 giant plates of 2 kg each (!) as souvenirs. On these plates they eat the national dish. We look at each other in amazement. Before we took the plane, we almost lost our nerve to reduce the weight of the luggage and bikes. We couldn’t refuse the plates, so now we added another 4 nice kilos 🙂
Finally, they want a joint photo, but given their official role, they are not actually allowed to do so. Travelers are also not allowed to take pictures of government buildings or security guards. So they quickly put on yellow security vests to hide their logos and a whole string of photos is taken.
Later in the evening, we meet customs officer Abror from the airport again. He invites us to dinner at a typical Uzbek eatery and then he guides us through Tashkent. We enjoy the cooler temperature, as it has been a while since Turkey, Iran and the Arab Emirates. He also takes us to a monument where 3,000 scientists and poets were murdered during the USSR era. Near the impressive monument in this now peaceful place is the “witch” bridge. This refers to the bloody waters of the atrocities that took place here in the past.
In Tashkent, we change our plans and decide not to cycle the famous Pamir Highway. Our visa for Tajikistan has been rejected (110 euros down the drain) and the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has been plagued by a border dispute for some time. A day later we read in the news that shots were fired between border guards resulting in casualties. The two countries share a 1,000-kilometer border, more than a third of which is still not clearly demarcated since the fall of the USSR. Although the Pamir Highway would be one of the highlights of our trip, it is now not feasible to traverse the sections that are accessible in a hurry. Instead, we will drive to northern Kyrgyzstan and then cycle toward Kazakhstan.
Selfies and more
From Tashkent, there are not many roads that are pleasant to cycle. So it is very crowded and all the Chevrolets (95% of the cars and vans) have their roofs loaded with dozens of carpets or other stuff. There seems to be a real population movement going on and we struggle out of town. As in Turkey and Iran, we are continuously encouraged by hooting or shouting passersby. However this time so many drivers stop to take a selfie. In return, we get ice creams, bread, apples and gallons of Coke. What people will do with the photos is beyond us and sometimes they don’t even need the photo themselves but ask us to take one with them. When we think we have found some privacy for a moment under an abandoned hut at a gas station, people soon approach us again. One brings water, the other asks if we will have lunch with him while we are eating our own sandwiches. We try to explain that we have our own food. He sees that, but still he insists and suggests a place on our route, for which he makes a special detour… So a second lunch with the national dish “plov,” bottles of Coke and a photo session followed.
And apparently it brings good luck to put a baby in the arms of a complete stranger cycling, another reason to stop the car on the side of the road in Uzbekistan. “We love foreigners and it brings good luck“, says an English teacher as she gives her baby to both of us.
Uzbekistan in our minds was a flat desert, but there turns out to be a mountain pass of over 2,000m on our route to Kyrgyzstan. The mountain is extensive and the climb up takes about 20 km. After the first 5 km we notice that our legs can’t cycle up the mountain today. Near what was supposed to be a restaurant on the map is now an abandoned building. Nearby some people are working. They indicate that the restaurant no longer exists but we can sleep outside they say. Then another man joins us and he tries to make it clear with hand gestures that we can sleep at his house. We didn’t see any houses but right next to the road it turns out there is a gravel path leading down. There, in the garden, his wife is already smiling broadly. They both don’t speak a word of English and from the Uzbek we really can’t deduce anything. So it remains to Google Translate, hand gestures and food.
Indeed, in Uzbekistan, and perhaps throughout Central Asia, food and tea drinking appear to be an important unifying factor. Guests are welcomed by putting food on the table. As shown earlier, it is almost impossible to turn down a meal. And when you are then seated at the table, it is usually packed with all sorts of things mixed together (cookies, fruit, savory and sweet). You may have noticed that the tables usually contain too much to eat. In the middle, then, there is often a communal plate, which is literally eaten from together. And after eating, you get the leftovers and everyone makes a gesture of thanks. This part of the culture remains a special experience every time.
When we leave the next day we continue climbing. At 8:30 in the morning it is already quite hot. We are overtaken by a flock of sheep being brought over the mountain and every 500m we stop for a moment. After more than 4 hours, several hairpin turns and 2 tunnels with passport control, we have reached the top. The descent goes like a rocket and we are going so fast that we even have to overtake trucks that are saving their brakes. While driving, a truck driver sticks his arm out of the window to give us an Uzbek flag. After all, it is still missing on the bicycle and he had quickly noticed, because they are proud of Uzbekistan here.
As night falls we drive into a village looking for a place for our tent. We try to inquire with hand gestures from some residents. There would be a stadium nearby where we could pitch the tent. Because the conversation remains difficult to follow and we get noticed, more and more people come to watch. This includes a family of which 2 young women speak English. The conversation begins from the beginning. Their first question: “What on earth are you doing here in this village in Uzbekistan?” After some explanation and laughter, the grandmother steps forward and asks if we would like to be their guests and stay in their house. Immediately a table is set, with the best tableware they have in the house, and one fruit after another is prepared. All from their own garden. We feel slightly uncomfortable, as we seem to be treated like royalty. The whole neighborhood drops by to take a look, and yes, everyone brings something more to eat. The grandmother of the family preaches a prayer and wishes for a good journey.
After breakfast we are about to leave in time (before the heat), but the news that there are English speakers spreads quickly and a boy from a nearby village is eager to come over and practice his English. After all, he has an English exam coming up soon to study abroad. We wait for him to arrive and tell him about our trip. He can’t believe his luck, invites us to his home, and is sorry that we have to go. Once we leave, we move forward with difficulty. Not necessarily because of the heat or steep roads, but because of the paparazzi. It’s a big honking parade on the road. On the rural roads, literally every car honks and every few minutes one stops along the side for a photo. In fact, at a certain point it starts to become too much, we don’t move forward and get overexcited. Star life is not for us. The fact that the Uzbek roads are not of good quality and there are potholes everywhere also makes it a tough cycling day as we cycle the 6000th kilometer!
Walking toward the end of the day, but still far from any facilities, we ask an eager passerby in our best sign language if he knows a place to sleep nearby. More and more people come looking and also a car stops with a whole family in it. Everyone wants to say something, but we don’t understand a word. The grandmother from the car gestures to come with us to their house, the man in the street says he has food at home, another man indicates that he speaks English. We decide to follow the family with the grandmother. Arriving at the house we are again welcomed with tea and cookies and without English we get to know the whole family and they ours with the help of a picture book. We are in a very rural area and it is clear that the family is not very wealthy. A neighbor suddenly approaches. He tries to learn English and helps with translation.
We ask if we can have a little water to wash ourselves, but then they busily discuss and call in Uzbek. Clearly there is no shower or bathroom here, but a bucket of water was enough for us, only they are not satisfied with that. Eventually they ask us to bring a towel and get in the car. We drive back two villages to the man’s sister. They have a shower room. Can you still believe it?
We watch Uzbek television with the grandmother and then eat Osh. It looks like plov, but different. Later, when Audrey needs to go to the bathroom in the dark, a woman with a light on her phone walks with her. Behind the house in the meadow, she turns off the light. Audrey is confused but then realizes she needs to do her business there. Oh well, a hole in the ground is almost the same thing. Once back, some more pictures are looked at. At 8:30 pm it is suddenly bedtime and teeth are brushed outside. Bizarre to think that a few weeks back in Iran we didn’t have dinner until 11:30 pm. We adjust our rhythm back and gladly catch up on some sleep.
The breakfast of bread and mega sugar cubes comes from a good heart, but also makes us realize again how little they have. The neighbor who spoke some English told us last night that the man of the house absolutely did not want to receive money or anything else from us, that would be an insult, so we thank them with a card. The two boys of the family decide to bike with us for a little while longer.
And so begins the next day of cycling. We may be repeating ourselves, but still, apparently, we haven’t seen everything in Uzbekistan. When we have had a baby in our hands from a family that has pulled the car over, the man suddenly pulls out his wallet. “Here, money for lunch.” We try at all costs to return the money, but the family gets back in the car and drives away. A new dimension of hospitality…
In the nearby village, a woman with a little son stands by the road and asks us inside. Tired and exhausted, we agree, we go in but the woman only speaks Uzbek and has no internet. So it really is a guessing game tonight and sometimes we seem to understand each other, but often not. For the rest, we laugh about it and look at the pictures on each other’s phones. We wash up with a tub and go to bed early. Tomorrow we will hopefully make it to the border with Kyrgyzstan.
Later than expected, we arrive at the border, which is only accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. Before the border, we quickly unofficially exchange the last Uzbek money with one of the men at the side of the road. On the Uzbek side, all bags have to go through the scanner (even though we are leaving the country) and we hold up. On the Kyrgyz side, the customs officer suddenly pulls us out of line and we are pulled over for priority treatment. No baggage check. Why the distinction?
We are looking forward to it, but are also somewhat nervous. Limited facilities, higher mountains, the winter that will be around the corner. Just before sunset we arrive at a guesthouse. Eloy is not feeling well before bed. Is this an omen? We are about to find out here in Kyrgyzstan….