tashkent

On Ancient Roads

I was pretty tired by the time I got into Samarkand last night (Sunday).

Well over 300 kilometres from Tashkent in three days, through rain, over hills, and into headwinds.  It was fairly hard on the bike.

I’m not sure I’d want to try it on a camel.  Or on foot.  I’ve been on some very long, straight roads, which left me plenty of time to imagine travelling this route seven or eight hundred years ago.

But people really did travel this route on their camels and their feet for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years, bringing silk and spices from the far-away Orient to the edge of Europe.  And they left some quite impressive monuments behind them.

This is right next-door to my guesthouse here:

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Which is undoubtedly a good landmark to finish the first section of the Silk Road.

But it didn’t start well on Friday.  After all the rain during my stay in Tashkent, the Internet said that Friday was going to be overcast and cold.  But dry.  And it was all those things as I started off.

Two hours later, I was clear of town, and well on my way to the middle of nowhere, when the rain began.  It didn’t stop all day.  And so, my first day riding in Uzbekistan degenerated into a sorry, soggy, shivering mess:

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Thankfully (and partly due to gracefully declining the first of two wedding invitations I’ve had on the road already), I made it to Gulistan just before hypothermia set in.

I knew there were a couple of hotels there, but I couldn’t find them (the signposting here is generally awful).  In the end, I asked a policeman.  Although this is generally accepted behaviour at home, the general word on cops in former Soviet countries is to leave them well alone.  But I didn’t have a choice.  I needed to get inside, and quickly.

Either because of my pathetic state, or because he was just a nice bloke, I ended up following a police car through the streets for the last two kilometres of the day.  The third hotel we went to had space, and I was absurdly grateful to get under a hot shower, knock back a steaming pot of tea, and collapse onto a sofa for a while.

I was also quite relieved that the rain drifted off towards the mountains during the night, and hasn’t been back since.

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What with the random wedding invitations and helpful policemen, Uzbekistan’s character is starting to reveal itself.  Friendliness definitely seems to be a strong trait.  Including hugs from total strangers.  It’s definitely got the former Soviet feel.  I get especially strong flashbacks from people with vodka on their breath before lunchtime, and gold teeth.  Though huge wall murals like the one above are also good reminders, albeit with no hammers or sickles any more.

But as the Registon in Samarkand (below) and the many other bits of spectacular Islamic architecture remind you, this is also a country with a strong Muslim culture.

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And I think it’s probably the Muslim tradition of hospitality that’s leading to the invitations and general helpfulness that I’ve encountered so far here.  It’s really nice, although there is the slight drawback of ending up in a twenty minute conversation every time I stop by the roadside.  Which is definitely slowing my average speed a little.

And it’s also Navro’z (Uzbek spelling, there are many variations) at the moment, which means that Samarkand today was like a ghost town as everyone (including the restaurant owners and shopkeepers) had a day off.

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Still, it’s definitely so far, so good in Uzbekistan.  The roads are reasonable (mostly).  The driving, which is often slated by those coming on bikes from Europe, is so much better than in India that it seems really, really good.  And yet again, people (as they seem to be almost everywhere) are being marvellous.

Back on the road tomorrow for another near-300 kilometres towards Bukhara, the second of the major Silk Road cities.  That should be another three days.  Assuming I can restrain myself from joining in the three-country, vodka-fuelled political debate that’s going on in the guesthouse courtyard at the moment.  I’m tempted.  But I’m just not convinced that strong alcohol is necessarily the best preparation for more long days on the Silk Road…

Back in the (Former) USSR

I’ve been off the bike for a whole week.

I’m feeling a little bit chubby, and a little bit lazy.  Especially lazy, as I watch from my warm room as yet another band of cold rain strafes Tashkent.

It’s been worth the time off, I think.  A few days to recharge, and to ready myself for a lot of long, hard miles to come.  And a little time to adjust to the cultural and meteorological differences between India and Uzbekistan makes the change less stressful.

And it really is a different world on this side of the Hindu Kush.

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I was a little nervous flying over Afghanistan on the way here (above).  Not because I was worried about flying over Afghanistan, but because of some of the stories I’d read about Uzbekistan.

It’s apparently impossible to get hold of dollars here, as the handful of cash machines in the country are always empty.  And I wasn’t sure I’d managed to collect enough in India to get across Uzbekistan.  Customs apparently take your bags apart, searching for prescription drugs, undeclared cash and pornography.  And the currency is apparently so shot that you have to take your money around in carrier bags (due to the fact that the highest note here is only 1000 Soms).

All very dramatic and a bit worrying.  And mostly not quite right (dollar cash machine working, customs polite, bags scanned but unsearched).  Although the currency is definitely shot, and my Uzbek Som are, indeed, in a carrier bag…

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As it turns out (so far, at least), I feel surprisingly at home here.  Yes, it took a few minutes to get India out of my system.  I got in the wrong side of the taxi at the airport.  I gawped at the cleanliness and quietness of the streets on the way into town.  And I thought I might have gone deaf for a moment, due to the almost total lack of honking.  We even stopped at a pedestrian crossing to allow people to cross.  It was all a bit disorientating.  Disconcerting, even.

But, fairly shortly after arriving at my magnificently old-school Soviet hotel (above), I realised that I actually knew how things worked here, and that I was probably going to enjoy myself.  Not that the relatively posh hotels will last for long, mind you…

I was lucky enough to spend many months in the former Soviet Union when I was (a lot) younger, as countries crashed, recovered and crashed again in the 1990s and the noughties.  And I speak enough Russian to get by (it’s the common language here).  By the time I’d had my second conversation about unofficial money changing (with the second person I spoke to – it’s a national sport over here), things were starting to come into focus for me.

The currency here is, indeed, something of a mess.  The government sets the official rate (currently just under 2900 Som to the dollar).  The market sets a more realistic rate (currently around 6600).  Although you’re unlikely to get quite the market rate as a foreigner, you can get close with a bit of haggling (another national sport).  You can see both rates here.

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The dual exchange rate basically halves the cost of anything which is priced in dollars.  Which means that dollar prices initially appear really expensive.  For example, my SIM card and internet package, which was outrageously priced up at $35, actually cost more like $17.  Still very pricey, compared to South East Asia and India, but not too bad.  And, unlike India, it worked as soon as I bought it.

While it’s no longer true that the biggest Uzbek note is 1000 Som (less than 20 cents), things have not changed that much.  The biggest note is now 5000 Som, which is still less than $1 at the ‘real’ rate.  The picture above is a million Som, or less than $200.  And it’s still pretty bulky.

Apart from readjusting to life in the 1990s, I’ve spent my two days in Tashkent generally staring at driving rain.  I managed a couple of little strolls, to inspect the impressive city centre buildings, but the weather has been woeful here since I arrived.

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I’ve also been enjoying the widespread availability of proper cheese, which is an immense step forward.  And I unpacked and rebuilt the bike today, alleviating the last of the major concerns that were bothering me over Afghanistan.  As always (so far!), the bike survived the flight with no obvious problems, and is ready to hit the road tomorrow (Friday).

And it’s hitting the road in a big way over here.  Most riding days will be over 100 km, as I head south-west for a long, long way, before turning to head north-west to Kazakhstan (for another long, long way).  Ancient cities, camels, and long desert days should be in the offing.

There are likely to be some tough days ahead.  But for now, I’m fed, rested, and raring to go.  The Silk Road is calling, and I’m excited to see what it brings.  As long as the rain stops, I’ll be happy…

Finishing India

Well, here it is.  The last post from India.  Assuming I get out of the airport OK tomorrow (Tuesday), of course…

Just the one day’s riding; a final 80-odd kilometres last Thursday, bringing me into Amritsar.  Still flat, although with some truly awful traffic in the city centre to keep it interesting right to the end.

And I got here just in time.  There’s been nothing but unseasonal rain and thunder since I arrived.

Well, not quite nothing.  I took advantage of a break in the weather on Sunday morning to go and have a poke around Amritsar’s (and Sikhism’s) crowning glory; the Golden Temple:

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A bit like the Taj Mahal, it’s one of those places that stops you in your tracks as you enter.  Or, at least, it would if you weren’t being propelled bodily through the entrance by a huge surge of Sikhs.  I think Sunday might be the busiest day to go, but it was really the only option, given the weather.

Anyway, once you’re in, and padding around on marble in your bare feet, you can soak up the magnificence of the place.  There’s a huge amount of real gold on the inner sanctum itself, and the combination of reflections in the water, and the square of buildings around it, really make an impression.  And best of all, it’s free!

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Apart from the Golden Temple (and stuffing my face to put a bit of lard back on before the long miles to come in Central Asia), it’s been mainly sleep and admin in Amritsar.  After all the bureaucratic nonsense involved in getting a SIM card, I should have anticipated that something as apparently simple as buying some US dollars would cause issues.

Thankfully, I first tried to get my dollars back in Delhi about ten days ago.  I’d have been in trouble if I’d waited until Amritsar.  Because, to cut a tedious and very expensive story short, it’s taken me nearly a week to withdraw enough rupees (in small, permitted, instalments) from cash machines, which can then (in small, permitted, instalments) be changed back into dollars at an exchange office.  With all the cashpoint fees and poor exchange rates you can imagine.

If you’ve remembered to keep the receipts from the cash machines, of course.  And if it’s less than a week before you leave the country.  And if you have a plane ticket to show the money changer.  Like it’s any of their business.

I’m not going to miss the bureaucracy of India, that’s for sure.  Although there’s a fair chance that the former Soviet version will at least match it over the next few weeks…

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India does have the great advantage of being bicycle country, though.  While the technology is a little dated in general (above), it does mean that finding a bike box for the flight was nice and easy.  The Beastlet is nicely tucked up and ready for flight, although I’ll still no doubt have the usual terrors about rough baggage handlers tomorrow.

As it’s my last day here, I should really have come to a conclusion about whether I’ve actually enjoyed touring northern India on a bkie or not.  I’m not entirely sure I have, but let’s see…

It certainly fair to say that the riding has been dustier, bumpier, and less interesting than many other places I’ve been so far.  The difficulties doing things that are simple elsewhere, simply because someone made a clunky rule about ‘security’ or whatever, are an absolute pain.

On the other hand…  The food’s great.  The people have been really nice, in general.  And places like the Taj Mahal and Golden Temple really do blow you away.  It’s just the length of the bits in-between.

The real decider is probably the driving.  I’ve moaned about it enough in past posts, but the standards here are just appalling.  I found out yesterday that the Punjabi traffic police offer salutes to careful drivers:

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I’m pretty sure that most of them will be well out of saluting practice.  Because the answer to ‘Do You Deserve It?’ is a resounding ‘No!’.  I only gave out three ‘thumbs up’ for good driving across the whole country.

So while it’s easy to make long distances here, I can’t pretend it’s been ideal touring cycling.  And sadly, the situation’s likely to get worse as more and more Indians get cars and motorbikes.  Unless all the millions of drivers over here get trained properly, I don’t think I’d want to ride (or drive) here at all in a few years’ time.

And getting so accustomed to near-disaster that your adrenaline no longer spikes when a truck comes charging towards you on the wrong side of the road?  That just can’t be healthy…

Well, there we are.  India very nearly finished, and the Silk Road of Central Asia about to begin.  What the roads, drivers, weather and bureaucracy of Uzbekistan have in store, I don’t yet know.  But it should be interesting finding out.

Next stop, Tashkent…