Sand and caravans
North of Termiz the land turned to semi-desert: knuckles of sandstone, punched by the green plumes of weed. After the pale, deathly world of Afghanistan I was coming into the hunk of Uzbekistan that can be farmed, though irrigation costs the Aral Sea, which shrinks towards extinction. But a blankness lived ahead too – I was inching toward the Kyzyl Kum, a desert too large to traverse by bike before my visa expired. After the cities of the fabled Silk Road, I would have to take a train.
There were a few police check points as I edged north where the officers would order me to a halt and demand to know how much a ticket costs to watch Manchester United, or to examine an old Indian visa in my passport and ask ‘How is the Maharaja?’ At the bazaar in the village of Sayrab I was enclosed by a band of wispy beards ancients who draped arms over my shoulder and cackled benevolently. Conversations flowed towards an inevitable question:
‘How old are you?’
‘Where is your wife and children?’
‘I don’t have any’
Much muttering, a gasp, wide eyes, ‘Get on with it!’, ‘What do you live for?!’
The next day was ending well: a lively wind coaxed me down to Karashina. But with the sun low in the sky my pedal fell off, oily bearings scattering into the dust. With no spare I had to make do with the thread, my foot slipping off on almost every turn. I found a plane of hilltop and set my tent up. An hour after sundown I noticed the dance of a torch a hundred metres or so below me, and so I slunk back into my tent, hoping the search wasn’t for me.
I poked my tent out into a sunny morning and saw the source of the torchlight – another cyclist had chosen almost exactly the same spot to camp. I waved him over – Charlie was a twenty something biker from Virginia. He had a hammock that was proving unsuitable for desert-living, so he just stretched it out on the earth and used it as a bivy bag. Yesterday, he mentioned, had been a long one. 230 km, and he’d started at 12. But that’s late, I thought, until I realized he meant midnight. He’d scored a puncture and pushed his bike off the road, my bike problems had moved me to do the same, at almost exactly the same spot of reaching Uzbek scrub, and only minutes before.
We were heading the same way, so we filtered coffee into mugs and pedaled off together, camping the next night in a tilled field, a fat and painted moon bleeding over the horizon. We climbed the pass south of Samarkand, threw ourselves into a frenzy of fruit eating at the top amid traders of trinkets and cheese, and then dropped into the clamour of city, where the enrapturing and long-venerated blue domes seemed dimmed amid the less alluring traffic and tourist tat. In Samarkand we met up with Kay, an American biker and friend of Charlie.
Tamerlane was not Uzbek, but that didn’t stop him achieving hero status in a region reaching for its misty history and sense of self after the Soviets pulled out, leaving Central Asia a strange commotion of borders with dislocated peoples pocketed away, adrift from their ethnic groups. It was deliberate: Stalin discouraged unity in permanent fear of an Islamic uprising. Tamerlane, a fierce dictator whose empire once sprawled over half of Asia, his sacked villages marked by pyramids of skulls, is buried in Samarkand. We stalked his mausoleum, hoping the guard would let us enter the real crypt beneath the show one, as travel writer Colin Thubron had done, but Colin was probably not looking quite as deviant as us, in ragged cycling clothes and Russian as halting as London’s traffic.
Kay’s plan was to come with us to Bukhara, 300 km to the west, but she’d left her bike in Tashkent from where she would fly home. ‘If I buy some rollerblades…’ she tentatively asked me in the hostel ‘will you guys tow me there?’
Charlie had agreed to try, and Stuart, a student from St Andrews was on board too.
‘Sure, why not?’ I said. It’s testament to the personalities present that no one offered any of the hundred obvious answers: because it was 300 km away, or that roads in Uzbekistan were piteous, or that any available rollerblades would likely be worse. Instead a pact was made and Kay went hunting for wheels.
When she returned I found her in a corner of the hostel, clutching fearfully to a chair, her legs involved in some kind of mad Irish dance routine. She managed after a time to let go of the chair and barrel across the courtyard, her windmilling arms madly hunting for more furniture before her new skates could set her violently on her head, or ass. ‘I think…’ she told me after another panicked expedition between a potted plant and desk ‘I’m gonna need some elbow pads.’
So we met Kay an hour later outside the store she’d bought her blades (for 40 dollars), now wearing as much protective gear as they sold. We used Stuart’s hammock stings to make a kind of reigns for Kay, she was supposed to cruise fluently behind, like a water skier, but Samarkand’s sketchy paving and bolshy drivers meant it was easier at first for Kay to drape herself over Charlie’s rear rack with legs straight and blades rolling. He towed her out of the city, me and Stuart alongside. Imperfections sent her into wild, helpless wobbles, a slight incline was nightmarish.
Gradually though Kay grew skillful, soon she was on the reigns, hopping over obstacles and she got to the end of the day one without emergency surgery. The Silk Road has flowed for ages with merchants and their curious caravans, and Uzbeks marveled again at three laden bikers and a girl on rollerblades carving out their own Silk Road odyssey. It must have been knackering for Kay though, hard on the ankles and back, hostage to constant concentration, and when we stopped to rest she would throw herself extravagantly into the nearest dust (‘the Kay-dive’) arms and legs starred like a depleted sky diver after a crash landing.
The next evening we camped by some ruins, boiling up pasta and then gorging like animals, when a boy arrived and stood about watching us. After a while he loped off into the dark, it wasn’t until the next morning we realized Kay’s skates were gone. With Charlie’s two rear panniers redistributed to me and Stuart, Kay sat on his rear rack and for the last 100 km Charlie lent low over his handlebars, Kay rested her chin on his back, music poured from speakers and they raved and weaved their way into Bukhara.
In all three of Uzbekistan’s ruined and reconstructed Silk Road cities, I felt that familiar depression that comes with being commoditized. It was unthinkable in the Uzbekistan I had relished in the south and east that anyone would invent a five-fold price hike because I was an outsider, in fact if I didn’t leave a town with five times the amount of free fruit I could eat, I would have felt unappreciated, such was my soring expectations of central Asian generosity. But in touristville I bartered for bottles of Fanta, argued with the plague of unofficial cashiers who popped up around monuments in well-rehearsed scams to pluck the tourist dollar, or with unscrupulously tricky taxi drivers and hoteliers. I don’t begrudge a two tiered price system, I am after all from a country that spends money on putting large ferris wheels in every major city, and a guest in one that has uses forced labour to pick cotton, it’s almost singular industry, in hardening times. But its hard not to get antsy when the cost of everything gets quadrupled.
My birthday came so we went out on the town in Khiva, it was a spectacular extravaganza of vodka and shisha that was spent in the company of a large group of well-middled, middle-aged men, who danced with racing legs, their arms drooped out in front, like a bunch of sweaty tyrannosauruses. Charlie ended up backflipping into a flower bed, ‘its so poetic’ he told me, breathing vodka fumes.
Khiva was my favourite of these ancient trading posts, from the minaret it was easier to imagine the ragtag caravans that would lumber into what must have been paradise after a long troop through the sere wastelands which fill the flats to a far horizon.
I said goodbye to Charlie and Kay, and set off with Stuart. The hotel in Nukus had the floating fragrance of toilet, but I’d been in worse, even considering the five minute on-off cycle for the running water and the belligerent alcoholic parked in the restaurant. There were three bored women sitting in the currency exchange office who offered the official exchange rate of 2600 somme for a dollar. But the blackmarket is booming. In any shop outside I could get 4500. Still, they sat. Maybe some travelers are dumb enough every month or so, and it becomes worth it.
Cotton plantations grew to consume everything outside the road and only the few purple bushes on the edge of the crops spiced the world with colour. I ran into Tim and Fin, two bright eyed Brits on bikes, I’d even been on a bike repair course way back when with Fin’s uncle Ray. Back then I might have exclaimed ‘small world!’, perhaps not now.
On the road I was wind-splashed by great trains of buses, holding the cotton pickers of Uzbekistan. There has been international pressure and boycotts of Uzbek cotton because of this forced labour, especially when it concerns children. In 2012 the president issued a decree banning children from working in the cotton fields, though the buses I saw were full of kids, faces planted on the glass, but how many ended up picking cotton is impossible to say.
In Kungrad I shuffled into a murky half-light of jumbled shrubs on the town’s outskirts. I’ve spent so many nights sequestered in this type of edgeland now, stalking civilization like a stray, and it can feel more adventurous than camping in the wilderness. There’s something seductive and outsiderish about the fringe of towns, here I listened to the clank and grumble of a strange city, sounds particular to the embers of the day. I woke in the fledgling moments of the next, the factory still beeping, the pylons above hissing like vipers, the journeying lights of the first cars on the horizon, the harangue of farm dogs that had fixed my scent. And then above me a team of red objects were tearing though the sky, something breaking up in the atmosphere, not the quick dash of a typical shooting star but the careering burn of something bigger and closer, appearing much slower in the sky.
I boarded the train the next day, almost all the passengers were economic migrants, bent on laboring in the building sites of a more prosperous Kazakhstan. I’d never before encountered so many vendors on a train, their number competed with that of the passengers, it was a mad melee of money changers who can count notes with bewitching speed, others carrying dried fish like a stack of newspapers, and spreading them for selection like a deck of oversized cards. Two silver bearded men gave blessings in exchange for money, which looked easier than the women’s harried task.
I sat with my journal open, waiting for an apt metaphor to hang onto this window view, but this was cliché desert, remarkable only in its unabating sameness, the train shadow stealing and releasing a thin strip of desert scrub for mile upon sandy mile. Gradually local people gathered around me, one old women was particularly brave. ‘Do you have an old grandmother in England? No? You can have me! Come on, let’s go!’ the women around me shrieked in delight as this old eccentric took centre stage.
On the next train there was no seat for me because I got on last with my bike, and passengers outnumber seats as a few bribe the conductor and board without a ticket. It didn’t matter, as I spread myself out in the cramped smoking section between carriages, a stocky man waded in, set his head to one side and made a meditative face which cracked into a grin. ‘Come on tourist, we’ll make room’. His son hopped out of his bed and I watched aghast as he squeezed into the luggage rack, high up above the other berths, to make space for me. They say a Kazakh has three faces: a smile for the guest, neutrality for the friend and a scowl for the stranger.
I arrived 20km kilometres from Aktau, a port town on the Caspian, now a fading tourist industry trying to fill the void after uranium mining retreated and died. I stepped out of the station and looked around. A sign on a shop blinked redly: ‘paradise’. The sky was baubled with grey cloud. I made my way in those delicious minutes before sunrise, past single story homes, the cheap gaud of restaurants, but alongside expensive SUVs, rushing testimony to the providence of oil. The sun rose at last, switching on the baubles of cloud, they burned a lingerie-pink.
In the end I flew to Baku just over the Caspian, it was cheaper and faster than the boat and I had the deadline for a school talk to make. Pedaling away from the airport, an intimation of blue coloured the horizon, venus still glittered bright. The sun rose, cold and orange. The highway of this new country, Azerbaijan, was perfect. Trees were trimmed into spirals like shells, petrol stations had video screens, there were street sweepers even before the first sunbeams rouged the highway, the first I’d seen since China. There was order and money everywhere, I embodied neither of those things and received some stares. I passed the Expo centre, the great stadium for the European games, the dreamlike grace of the Heydar Aliyev Center, the flame tower skyscrapers, not red, but blue with reflected sky. In the city the Azeri girls were beautiful, dark and sultry and sunglassed from the world. One in a group flicks their hair, and the others do the same, a Mexican wave of hair tossing. Their kids are accessorized to the max.
For years Azerbaijan has been quietly getting rich, though the cynics, and there are silent stacks of them, would argue that all that money barely drips from the elites. I cycled out of Baku under the previous president’s gaze, his mouth a straight line, like a hyphen, promising more to come. And it did, when he died in 2003 his son dropped into his seat as top dog, commanding the oil barrens and tycoons, the silencers of the press, the mobsters and cronies, from the tip of a very broad pyramid. Azerbaijan can put on a show, but behind the gleam there are faultlines and the pong of impermanence. The street cleaners don’t do the backroads, just the route from the airport to city. Journalists are regularly imprisoned, more in just the few days I was there. I wondered what will become of Baku in fifty years when the oil has run dry, whether only then discontent will better reach the surface, and boil over into rebellion.
But that, of course, is politics; as ever the people were entirely welcoming, from my great host Araz in Baku to all the rural folk that I met en route to Georgia. My first days in Azerbaijan took me through a tawny grassland, the land folded away in a wind made of dust. Men sat playing Nard (a form of backgammon). I stopped at a fruit stall and the vendors all charged towards me to begin a quiz. I answered what I could in Russian, and then the gifts arrived: apples first, by the arm full, then grapes, then men lunged in bearing tomatoes ‘Present! Present!’ they crooned. The ladies behind the crowd decided that they couldn’t let these rival vendors become the epitome of Azeri hospitality, and they burrowed though the arms of others, popping up in front of me to thrust aubergines and cucumbers into my overladen arms.
The world smelt of loam and mushrooms and woodsmoke, and I’d missed the woods after so long journeying through mountains, desert and steppe. I topped 70 km/hr on the downhill, passing Ladas who probably couldn’t speed up and not risk breaking up like a rocket entering orbit at the wrong angle, making debris of wipers and bonnets and bumpers. The weather was perfect, 28 degrees by day and sunny, the forest canopy a shut door preventing all but a few cracks and misshapen keyholes of light to stipple the leaf litter. Eventually I was released from kind the hug of the Great Caucasus mountains to zip through a flat farmland where the smell of horses muscled through the woodsmoke and where tribes of turkeys cavorted around stacks of hay.
I spent a night in the caravanserai of Seki and left the following day, asking directions for Qax, which if you do so articulately, will leave your assistant wiping the phlegm from their eye. It must be hell for the residents of Qax at borders.
Georgia: no more running for visas, here I was instantly granted a year as an EU citizen. I pedaled up towards Sighnaghi, the old town walls looped over the forested hillsides, a different sprouting of mountains these, the bulk of the Caucasus still just visible across the valley, half eaten by shadow and distance.
It was harvest time for the grapelands of Signhangi, wine flowed as the town celebrated. I met Nina, a German girl, and with another friend Emma we visited the monasteries carved into mountains at David Gareja.
Nina and I then decided to try and buy two donkeys and ride together to Tbilisi, but Nina, being sensibly German (and also correct) decided the risk of a wayward, uninsured donkey causing a fatal road accident was too great, so we found her a bike and cycled together for three days around the wine country. It was ace.
I’m now in Tbilisi where it was an honour to meet Paul Salopek, a double Pulitzer prize winning journalist working with National Geographic and walking around the world for a planned seven years following the earliest human migration out of Africa.
Aigerim and Bakhtiear, Araz, Paul, everyone at the International School of Azerbaijan, QSI in Aktau, Vladimir and Fabienne, Paul Salopek and Kevin Sullivan.
Next up: My good pal Ollie has just flown into Tbilisi. We will go lightweight bike-packing into the remote parts of the country for the next month, surviving on the bone marrow of the mountain lions we hunt. And then I’m off to Europe. Having already cycled once across the behemoth of Turkey, I’ve decided to eschew another crossing and will head, perhaps by boat, to Bulgaria. From there, three straight months and I’ll lumbar over the finishing line, and down a vat of Earl Grey.
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