50 Shades of Beige

Plans are strange things.

I’ve often been asked why I’m riding around the world on a bike.  I find it hard to answer.  I tell people that I’ve always liked bikes, and I’ve always liked travelling.  So putting the two together was obvious.  This is all true.  But I can’t pinpoint when it became obvious, or why.  I can’t tell people when the idea was born, or when it became a plan.

But at some point, it did.  And then the vague plan became a more detailed plan (though still outstandingly vague by most people’s standards).  And then the plan started to happen.  And now, here I am, bouncing around on a bike in Uzbekistan.

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Leaving Bukhara on Saturday, another plan was mysteriously germinating.  My conscious mind was preparing for a four-day ride across the Kyzyl Kum desert to the oasis city of Khiva.  I didn’t realise that my subconscious, having noticed the weather forecast, had already decided to do 450-odd kilometres (marginally under 300 miles) in three days.

Kyzyl Kum translates as ‘Red Desert’, and it’s the fourth-biggest desert in Asia, covering a massive swathe of Uzbekistan and neighbouring Turkmenistan.  But as you can see from the picture above, the rickety road out of Bukhara took me not into redness, but into a sea of beige.

The plan worked, as far as day one was concerned.  Just over 100km to Gazli, wafted along by a gentle tailwind (as my subconscious noted).  And the road improved all the way there, even turning into super-smooth concrete about 10 km before town (my subconscious noted, again).  Shower, kebabs and bed at a truck stop.  All very much according to plan.

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I still hadn’t worked out what my subconscious was up to when I woke up early on Sunday to discover that the south-easterly breeze had strengthened.  That’s a strengthening tailwind.  How interesting.  Eventually, after two cups of coffee, I started to put things together.  If the brand new road remained the same…  If the wind stayed put…  Maybe…

The wind stayed (at least until the last hour of the day).  And the road actually got better, turning into a perfectly smooth, almost completely deserted, dual carriageway, which might, for all I know, go all the way to Kazakhstan.  It certainly runs all the way until I got off it at the end of the desert.  So I got my head down and kept going.  There was nothing to see, anyway, and everything remained beige (picture above).  I stopped for a drink, and realised I’d been zipping along at 30 kph.

Lunchtime.  It may not be red, but the desert certainly is monotonous.  Concrete, sand, scrub.  Beige.  And 100km down.  Feeling fresh.  And finally, the thought lodged in my head properly: I might actually be able to hit 200 km for the day.  Which would be almost the end of the desert, and within one more day of Khiva.  Head down, push on.  Let’s see what happens.

This is what happened:

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That’s a record.  For me at least.  I’ve not been near 200 km before in a day (and quite possibly won’t be again), so I was reasonably chuffed with myself.  213 km.  132 miles.  And a friendly little teahouse at the end of it (or, more accurately, in the middle of nowhere), which was only too happy to let me stay, for a small fee.  Kebabs, bread, bed.  What a good day.

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It couldn’t last, of course.  The weather forecast in Bukhara had said there was rain on the way, which is one of the reasons my subconscious had decided to put the pedal(s) to the metal.  My pleasure at waking up to a view over the Amu Darya river to Turkmenistan was marred by two things: it was already drizzling, and Turkmenistan appears to be just as beige as Uzbekistan.

It doesn’t seem fair when it rains in the desert.  It certainly doesn’t seem fair when that rain continues for nearly the whole day.  Yesterday (Monday) was ugly.  Already wet and cold as I reached the end of the desert, I swung off the beautiful main road, onto the shortest way to Khiva.

Big mistake.

Potholes, washed-out roads, landslips, sand, mud.  The whole gamut of road problems.  Much grinding of drivetrain, much splashing of beige dirt onto previously non-beige shoes.  Wet feet.  Oh, and the most aggressive pack of feral dogs I’ve yet had the displeasure to meet (many thanks to the three locals who positioned their cars between the beasts and me, so I could make my escape!).

Still, cycle touring’s nothing without a little rough to make you appreciate the smooth.  And eventually, after a signposting error (i.e. there wasn’t one – a standard Uzbek problem) had cost me an extra ten miles, I finally ground and scraped my way into the ancient city of Khiva.

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Which was…  Guess what?  Beige.

Not entirely surprising, as the old city is surrounded by impressive walls made of local mud.  Hence the colour.  And, having recovered from the beigeness of the place, I think it’s probably my favourite of the three old trading cities I’ve seen in Uzbekistan.

Khiva’s much smaller than Bukhara, which in turn is smaller than Samarkand.  And Khiva’s old town is pedestrianised, meaning that you can just meander through the ancient alleyways and bazaars.

And there is even the odd splash of colour (like the famous unfinished minaret, below):

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I’ve had a rainy day off here today, but the plan (assuming the weather plays ball) is to get back on the road tomorrow, through the last of the irrigated areas of Uzbekistan, towards an even larger stretch of desert, and, eventually, Kazakhstan.

At least, that’s the plan as far as I know it.

If you’re still having doubts about plans being strange and unpredictable, by the way, consider this.  After eventually deciding to go, and with a little bit of a plan, I set off on my bike around the world.  I rode for a long way.  And I’m still riding.  Stuff has happened, plans have changed (whatever happened to South America?).  But I’m still rolling.

Today is the 29th March 2016, and in terms of days spent cycling around the world, today is day number 365.  Exactly a year spent on the round-the-world ride.

Of course, it’s a lot more than a year since I started.  The plan was a little disrupted by getting hit by the truck in Thailand.  And when did that happen?  The 29th of March.  Exactly a year ago…

Pretty sure I couldn’t have planned it like that…

For Touring Cyclists:  
If you’re coming this way on a bike, be sure to check out the Pedalling Prescotts excellent guide to this section of Uzbekistan.  They rode the other way (from Khiva) in early 2015, and their info is by far the most complete I’ve seen.  
Apart from the main road having improved (it’s still being built, so should continue to), a couple of police checkpoints having moved, and a couple of new chaikhanas having opened (so more accommodation options), their guide is pinpoint accurate in terms of where stuff is, and what’s there.  Including the hotel on the edge of the desert which no locals have ever heard of.  Oh, and where they say that the small road to / from the A380 deteriorates a bit, take that to mean ‘descends into hell’.
If you want my full list of places and mileages (from March 2016), I’ve put together a PDF sheet:  Bukara to Khiva March 2016.  Or give me a shout via the Contact page to discuss.

The Four Horsemen and the Oasis

It’s been an odd few days.

For the last two, I’ve been loafing around in Uzbekistan’s second famous Silk Road city, Bukhara.  It’s a beautiful city, and an interesting place to be:

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On the other hand, getting here was something of an ordeal.

After a nice, easy cruise away from Samarkand on Tuesday, all four of the Horsemen of the Cycling Apocalypse made an appearance on Wednesday at the same time.  This is not a usual thing.

Normally, I get to moan about either the headwind or the road surface.  This is surely infinitely boring to anyone who’s not me.  I know that, and I’m trying to keep it to a minimum.

But getting all four of my personal worst cycling problems at once (that’s a strong headwind, plus an awful road surface, plus driving rain, plus cold) is just nasty.  And it made me look like this, with half of a long, 140 km plus, day still to go:

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That’s my grumpy and self-pitying face, by the way, in case you didn’t pick it up.

I can already hear my Northern English cycling colleagues telling me not to be such a soft Southerner.  Grab a quick cup of tea, and get back on it.  You can only get wet once.  Hard day?  There aren’t even any hills!

Yep, they’re annoying, aren’t they?  Especially as they’re just voices in my head at the moment.  But they’re also right.  It wasn’t the apocalypse, just a longish, hardish day on the bike.

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In any case, as I ground my way towards Bukhara on the damp gravel shoulder (it was much smoother than the road), I had other things to ponder to take my mind off my own worries.

I was surprised that the first question I got when I found a roadside hotel on Tuesday evening was ‘Are you Belgian?’.  The manager launched straight into a quick summary of the then-developing situation in Brussels: another grim act of pointless violence by some lunatic religious fundamentalists.

Ironically enough, as well as being a major trade centre and oasis, Bukhara (along with Baghdad) was one of the great seats of Muslim learning in the middle ages.  When the Muslim world held on to humanity’s stock of knowledge while some lunatic religious fundamentalists in Europe were busy killing each other, and forgetting how to make toilets for hundreds of years.

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The sad thing is, that I could see the hotel manager looking at me while he was telling me about Brussels.  I think he wanted to see if I’d somehow blame him, as a Muslim, for the attack.  I guess, if I’d never met a Muslim before, or if I was Donald Trump, I might have done.

I suppose it comes down to perspective.  My slightly tricky ride on Wednesday wasn’t really the apocalypse.  And the horrible attack on Brussels is utterly at odds with how warm, friendly and welcoming Muslims have been to me and my bike, whether in Uzbekistan, Malaysia, India or Indonesia.

You can’t let a few cycling irritations get in the way of a round-the-world bike ride.  And you can’t let a few loons colour your view of an entire culture.

Bukhara is well worth a look, by the way, if you’re ever travelling in this direction.  It’s much more compact than Samarkand, and you can wander around the old town on foot very comfortably.

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I’m still not sure whether the Soviet approach of restoring ancient buildings (rather than just preserving the ruins, as we would at home) is the most authentic way to go, but it certainly makes it easy to imagine strolling around the bazaars, fortifications and mosques hundreds of years ago.  And as the original buildings were badly damaged by the Red Army in 1920, I guess they owed it a refurb.

In any case, my time at the oasis is nearly over.  Tomorrow, I’ll be out of the irrigated zone, and off into the desert for the first of two long stretches.  It’ll probably be a few days before I get back to an internet connection.

And, given the almost total lack of facilities en route (it really is a proper desert), I may even have something reasonable to moan about next time…