Vodka and spring in the ‘stans
18 April, 2011 10 Comments
With the sunshine blaring down upon our beetroot faces, we whizzed past the green fields and courtyard cafes lining the roads of Uzbekistan. The immense feeling of relief and glee at making it through Turkmenistan with a few hours left on our visa had us buzzing and loving the journey now that we could relax a little. We changed a single crisp $100 bill into Uzbek currency and got a plastic bag full of notes in return. The largest Uzbek note is worth $0.40, so paying for pretty much anything involves counting out large numbers of notes from a ganster-style roll of cash.
We had a mixture of wild camping and staying with locals in Uzbekistan and took days off to explore the famous Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.
The Uzbek people were keen to invite us into their lives and on Noruz (New Year, 21st March) we found ourselves topped up with streetside vodka in the afternoon sun before pedalling a few wobbly hours to a tiny village where a partying family gave us more vodka, dancing and a roof for the night. It turns out vodka would replace tea in our daily street side offerings in Uzbekistan – Woop!
Uzbek homes tend to have a large open courtyard with rooms surrounding it, a set up which is lovely in Summer but a bit nippy in colder months. The toilets continue to be a hole in the ground, and the ceramic footplates of Iran have been replaced with a plank of wood. In one home the toilet shared a sparse wooden fence with the sheep pen so I had a bit of a surprise when a few black faces peered through at me with a loud “baaaa”!!!
Much of the cycling in Uzbekistan was flat, but the road surface was a painful bumpy mess and my bum has left a lot to be desired ever since! We have also found managing our water supply increasingly challenging, given the rising temperature and the fact that there is very little infrastructure and no filtered water here – water from a tap is usually from a tank and we got a bit sick at one point so are more wary now.
The food is usually a choice between kebab and a dish called ‘plov’, a combination of rice and meat dripping in fat . Ryan has a weird obsession with plov and is mortally upset if a roadside cafe has run out.
The ride to Tashkent was long and tiring, and combined hot sun on some days with miserable cold rain on others. Feeling shattered in the early afternoon one day, Ryan sprawled out on the pavement gorging on chocolate, we checked the mobile with about 350km left until the city. To our delight we found a text from Dad saying he’d got an Uzbek visa and was flying out to Tashkent in a few days!! Shrieking with excitement we hopped back on the saddle and with new energy pedaled extra fast through the rain.
The arrival of Dad was like Christmas, with packaging sprayed round the room we delightedly tarted our beloved bikes up with new tyres, chains, brakes and handle bars. It was fantastic seeing him and we were in desperate need of some new kit. The day he arrived I wrote in my diary:
“YYYAHOOO! Saw Dad today! Unbelievably impatient cycling in rain with a headwind – I just wanted to get there! At midday when I knew he was at the hotel every pedal felt like it took a lifetime. We texted him a few kilometers away and as we cycled to the hotel he was waving from the entrance – I felt like bursting into tears, but I beamed at him and jumped off my bike for a colossal hug – he squealed because I was so wet and muddy but I didn’t care and held him tighter”.
After lots of beer and sausages and a visit to the Central Asian Plov Centre (which made Ryan’s day) unfortunately we had to say goodbye.
The temperature rose as we crossed into Kazakhstan and our thirst with it, suddenly a 5 litre water bag is empty by midday. Our large scale map doesn’t show many villages where we know we can find water so we’re being more cautious now. We usually pass a couple a day, but as they’re not shown on the map we don’t know when we’ll reach the next one. Asking locals the distance results in wildly inaccurate guesses, so we leave each village with a full supply and so our already heavy bikes have become permanently obese. Currently Ryan carries the extra drinking water (I’d like to say graciously, but I’m reminded of it hourly!) and I carry an extra few litres for cooking and washing – we havent been able to spare enough for a full shower but amazingly just one cupful of water is enough to get pretty fresh and I wonder at the gallons of water I use at home! I suppose we should get rid of some of the excess fat we haul around with us to compensate for the extra water burden!
The green rolling hills in Kazakhstan have made spectacular camping spots, with brilliant starry skies. There is absolutely no light pollution so the scene is quite mind blowing, you don’t have to wait more than a few minutes to see seemingly everlasting shooting stars – the midnight toilet outings, which I have always dreaded, have become a real treat! In fact camping in general has become fun again, longer daylight hours and nice warm evenings make all the difference. Kazakhstan is probably the first country that we’ve visited at the correct time of year – spring is glorious here, squeezed between a brutal winter and a scorching summer, and it’s made all the difference to our morale.
After a week with no shower or bed we felt pretty disgusting and desperate to get to Almaty, where we knew friendly faces and hot showers awaited. On the final night before arriving in Almaty we were about to crawl into the tent when a beast walker (shepherd) trotted over on his horse, insisting that we follow him because there are lots of wolves and wild animals (people always say that). Tired, we re-packed the tent and loaded the bikes. I rode back on his horse while he struggled with my bike back across the fields. It was pretty surreal travelling by horseback in the moonlight, but my life is pretty surreal these days so in a way it felt like a typical end to a very normal day.
His wife looked surprised as the three of us dismounted in her yard, but we were quickly taken into the little mud hut and settled next to the stove (despite the warm night). The house had two rooms separated by a curtain, dried cow dung fuelled the stove and as always there was no running water. We were offered tasty shredded carrot dumplings for dinner and despite no common language (as usual) we had a lovely evening. We all snuggled on the floor to sleep and the cowboy rested his shot gun by his pillow – just before sleep caught me he rushed outside and fired a shot!! Not understanding why, but comforted because mother and baby looked unfazed, we didnt say anything.
In the morning we went to see all his beasts, his whole world, and were amazed as 500 sheep left the pen to graze free on the huge grass plain between his home and the mountain range that separated us from Kyrgyzstan. He then follows the beasts around on horseback for most of the day. A comparatively affluent beast walker perhaps (his flock was one of the biggest we’ve seen) but still with the most basic standard of living we see – I asked to use the toilet expecting a hole in the ground and was shown to the side of the house and told to just go in the yard.
That evening we arrived in Almaty, after 100km of exhausting hills and hot weather we were not looking our best – and punishingly the couple we were visiting live to the South of the city up the mountain and so we had a very long, sweaty and polluted finishing climb to the house.
Alex and Anja have just moved to Kazakhstan from Berlin, with 2 beautiful little girls and are really living the expat dream in an amazing house (our guest room had 2 showers, a balcony and a swimming pool sized hot tub!). Waking up in our king sized bed, the contrast to where we’d woken up the previous morning was fantastic and one of the things I love about this adventure. Anja is fully embracing Kazakh life and has been feeding us horse and we also went to a local restaurant where they set a whole beast (I think it was a sheep) on fire!! After a few beers it only seemed appropriate we check out the nightlife and we were overly excited to find a rock bar with a live band – having a few too many wasn’t a problem as we had the use of a driver for the weekend, the Russian way apparently. It’ll be very hard to leave this comfy bubble tomorrow morning for more sweaty cycling and dirty camping!
Almaty is only 400km from the Chinese border and we feel our batteries have been charged ready for this daunting leg. We’ve been following other cyclists who have recently done long journeys with similar routes and very few people seem to make it all the way across China without using a plane or train at some point, so we’re a little worried and hope we can do it. We have a 90 day visa to cycle the 5,500km (ish!) from Kazakhstan to Vietnam. The vastness of the country and the heat is going to test our food/water planning and our determination to new levels – I can’t decide if I am looking forward to it yet.
The recent long days in the saddle and milestones reached (200 days on the road, the 10,000km mark and our first thousand pounds for our charities!) encouraged me to reflect on the journey so far and my friends and family back home.
I think of you coming home and flicking a switch to boil water, getting cold fresh milk from the fridge and making a cup of tea. Having a deliciously cooked meal and listening to some music. Then taking a hot steamy shower and letting the water engulf you, the stresses and worries of the day washing away. Clean, warm and safe with loved ones near by you sink into a soft bed surrounded by fluffy pillows and a duvet. I imagine Ryan and I, hidden in a little green tent, perhaps in a field in Kazakhstan, having just washed with one capful of water and drinking a cup of tea with a petrol stove built from scratch. I think that getting into my bed was probably more fun, and the effort going into preparing my tea makes it taste even sweeter, so despite it being hard work I think I will miss the simplicity of our life once back in the safety of home…