Category Archives: Uzbekistan

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Crossing the Uzkek-Kazah desert, 2000 of kilometers of nothingness.

I had dreaded the Uzbek desert crossing. In the end what can sound less appealing to a cyclist than the monotony of a straight road through the middle of the nothingness, with the almost the same scenery from sunrise until sunset, day in and day out. It is the unknown around the corner that turns my wheels, except that in the case the next corner is just a slight angle variation in the road direction and I’m pretty sure what I will find after it: another stretch of bushy and barren desert.

And then there’s the wind, the constant side wind which has been blowing continuously for the past 5 days from the same direction. I think that there are few things more demoralizing than going to sleep after a hard day of fighting the wind knowing that tomorrow you will have to start over again.

But surprisingly as the days went by I have to admit that the desert became more and more enjoyable and somehow I found a certain tranquility of the monotony of each passing day. Usually when touring you have your mind set on the next destination on the map, the next mountain pass, the next city where you can take a rest but now only the Caspian Sea which the end of desert and it’s more than 1000 kilometers away. It’s impossible to plan anything when such distances are involved and quickly you forget about the destination and you settle in what seems like an endless daily routine.

But then there’s the light and the incredible clear and blue skies of the desert, accompanied by a million stars during the night. Slightly changing but constantly beautiful, coloring each sunset and sunrise in a different way.

And then there’s the peace and the silence which you find either on the bike while cycling or each evening at the chosen camping spot. While on the bike moments when you are completely present alternate with moments when your mind drifts off to an imaginary place following it’s own internal monologue.

Days fly by and your only worry becomes to carry enough food and water to get you to the next small village. The daily agenda consists of 120 kilometers of nothing, followed by a small village and another 140 kilometers of empty desert. Each evening’s goal becomes knowing that I put in a good effort for that day which I usually quantify as time spent in the saddle. Kilometers are completely irrelevant when you factor in the wind and the road quality.

Time seems to lose any kind of meaning. How many days has it been since the last real shower and the last night spent in a bed? Certainly more than a week… How many days until the well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea? No idea but probably also around one week. Probably this is the best test to see if I will ever get bored of myself.

And yet the days go by and finally after almost 1600 kilometers in Uzbekistan I finally cross the border into Kazakhstan, changing countries but unfortunately not the scenery. The welcome sign into Kazakhstan consists of 80 kilometers which could be easily classified as one of the worst roads I’ve ever cycled on.

Three days and 400 kilometers later I finally see the shimmering water of the Caspian sea in the distance. It’s hard to explain in words how you feel when realize that finally the desert is over and that shortly you will sink your dusty self in the cold and clear waters of the Caspian sea. I honestly cannot think of a better way of ending a desert crossing.

Looking back I have to admit that I really enjoyed what I had dreaded at first and that I had grown fond of the desert, of the feeling of being completely disconnected, of losing track of days and of time and of the monotonous peace and serenity of the desert. I would clearly rate it as one of the most interesting bits of the road back to Europe.

And now for some practical considerations.

1. Visas and costs.

It seems that all the people I met along the way were Englishmen and they were all cycling eastwards (or the wrong way as I used to say when I met them) and probably the only reason you would chose this route through Central Asia is that you can’t get a visa for Iran (which seems to difficult if not impossible for people from the UK and the USA). The visas for Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan while not cheap are at least obtainable, and you also avoid the Turkmenistan 5 days fixed entry/exit madness.

2. Road quality.

The tarmac isn’t as bad as I expected and there are construction work still going on both in Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan so it will get even better the following years. In September 2015 there were plenty of newly opened bits where tragic wasn’t allowed yet but where you could ride your bycicle, perfect conditions. Also the bit between Beyneu and Aktau (once dubbed the worst road in the world) has been repaired. Just take care to choose the northern alternative and not the main road after Shetpe. There are some broken bits along the way though and the 80 kilometers between the border and Beyneu are absolutely horrible.

3. Supplies and distances.

Probably the most challenging bit is between Nukus and the border where for 400 kilometers you only have 3 settlements. And there is literally NOTHING in between (except camels) so depending on the speed you need to plan and have enough food and water for 140 kilometers / 120 kilometers (the greatest distances in between settlements). At the same time if you run out of food or water you probably can wave for help at one of the occasional trucks, the drivers are usually more than helpful. Also depending on the temperature you really need to carry a lot of water, I had temperatures around 30 degrees and I was still drinking around 7-8 liters per day. And Uzbek melons rock.

4. People.

My experiences in Uzbekistan were a bit mixed regarding the people, which is probably due to a real presence of a police state. And even though I had some genuine examples of hospitality something still felt strange. From the overly sanitized like Samarkand and Khiva, to the police checks every 100 kilometers to the monuments portraying Uzbekistan and it’s president in positive light something just didn’t fit in. And perhaps in comparison with other Stans when talking with the people they seemed to have a good opinion about the president and government which also seemed somehow strange. Other than that I had no problems with the police except for the 2 hours spent at the border crossing between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where the customs officials were simply assholes (it seems that almost everyone passing through this border crossing had the same experience).

5. Money.

Be prepared to carry bags of money, or “Sum” – the local currency. With the biggest note having the equivalent value of 2 euro and with plenty of smaller notes worth as little as 0.05 euros be prepared to have a special place to store all the cash. A plastic bag worked fine for me though. As a side note cash machines exist only in the big cities (Samarkand and Bukhara should have one but they could be out of service). Also it’s worth asking around to find out which is the black marked rate, as the difference between the official rate and the black market rate can be as high as 30-40%. A good place to change money at the black market rate is the local bazaar, just as for the money changers corner.

6. Temperatures and the best time to cross Uzbekistan.

I spent most of September crossing Uzbekistan and the temperatures were almost perfect for cycling (between 25 and 35 degrees, but mostly around 30) but I heard horror stories from cyclists which crossed Uzbekistan in July and August and which had to deal with constant 40 degree temperatures. Weirdly enough while you are cycling and the wind is blowing around you temperatures above 35 degrees are tolerable, but the moment you stop sweet covers you instantly. There were many moments where I was thinking if how much extra water I need to drink each stop just to make up for the water lost through sweat in the same time span.

The bright future of the Tadjick people, on a mural before the border with Tadjikistan.

The bright future of the Tadjick people, on a mural before the border with Tadjikistan.

A tipical roadside meal in Uzbekistan (for about 2 dollars). Enjoying sheep meet really helps in Central Asia.

A tipical roadside meal in Uzbekistan (for about 2 dollars). Enjoying sheep meet really helps in Central Asia.

Igor from Ucraine, travelling with less than 2 dollars per day.

Igor from Ucraine, travelling with less than 2 dollars per day.

Hot air, hot asfalt and no shade in the Uzbek desert. Stoping is not an option as without the wind you're instantly covered in sweat.

Hot air, hot asfalt and no shade in the Uzbek desert. Stoping is not an option as without the wind you're instantly covered in sweat.

The standing minaret from Bukhara. One of the oldest in Central Asia.

The standing minaret from Bukhara. One of the oldest in Central Asia.

Hiting the 12.000 kilometer mark somewhere in the middle of the desert.

Hiting the 12.000 kilometer mark somewhere in the middle of the desert.

Up, up, and away! On a new stretch of road between Bukhara and Khiva.

Up, up, and away! On a new stretch of road between Bukhara and Khiva.

Uzbek road workers, as friendly as ever.

Uzbek road workers, as friendly as ever.

Desert skies.

Desert skies.

Geometrical patters in Khiva, the last surviving khanate of the Mongol Empire.

Geometrical patters in Khiva, the last surviving khanate of the Mongol Empire.

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Uzbek melons make the perfect roadside snack.

Uzbek melons make the perfect roadside snack.

Coffe brewing in the middle of the road. Also on a newly constructed stretch of road.

Coffe brewing in the middle of the road. Also on a newly constructed stretch of road.

It seems that the only people on this road are people from Great Britain or from the US, for whom the Iran visa is still unfortunately nearly impossible.

It seems that the only people on this road are people from Great Britain or from the US, for whom the Iran visa is still unfortunately nearly impossible.

The cyclists tan after 2 weeks in the desert. And the cyclist's legs after a couple of months on the road.

The cyclists tan after 2 weeks in the desert. And the cyclist's legs after a couple of months on the road.

Desert glamping.

Desert glamping.

Dancing in the middle of road in the middle of nowhere, what better way to celebrate a birthday.

Dancing in the middle of road in the middle of nowhere, what better way to celebrate a birthday.

Improvised karakapak sheep herding

Improvised karakapak sheep herding

The road can't get much worse than this. The 80 kilometer bit between the border and Beyneu were horrific.

The road can't get much worse than this. The 80 kilometer bit between the border and Beyneu were horrific.

Somewhere at the end of this railroad, 500 kilometers away was the Caspian sea.

Somewhere at the end of this railroad, 500 kilometers away was the Caspian sea.

A good book, coffee and some proteins make the perfect lunch break for the dusty cyclist.

A good book, coffee and some proteins make the perfect lunch break for the dusty cyclist.

Roadside smelly companions (somehow you can sense the smell of cammels from a great distance)

Roadside smelly companions (somehow you can sense the smell of cammels from a great distance)

Desert glamping take 2, this tame with a scenery which seems taken from Mars.

Desert glamping take 2, this tame with a scenery which seems taken from Mars.

The end of the journey, and an incredibly well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea.

The end of the journey, and an incredibly well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea.

The end.

The end.

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Samarkand, poppy fields and snowy mountains, and some practical considerations about Uzbekistan

Probably the strongest impression I have from Uzbekistan is seeing the mountains after leaving Samarkand, the first mountains I’ve encountered after almost 3000 kilometers through flat high plateaus and deserts. Somehow I really missed the mountains and even if I knew that tough times (and tough roads) are ahead I was really happy with the change.

Uzbekistan at the end of April looks almost magical in some places, with high mountains in the background, immense green pastures dotted by an infinite number of poppy flowers. It seems one of the best times to cross the country before the scorching temperatures of mid-supper, with more that two months with temperatures above 40 degrees.

From all the countries which I’ve crossed I think that the mixture of peoples and races is incredible in Uzbekistan, especially near Buchara and Samarkand. You see almost everything from blue eyed persians, to children with mongol looks, to Turkic faces and the blond hair and round faces of the Russians.

Also there is a huge difference between how travelers are perceived in the touristic cities and in the countryside. The human contact which you encounter on the least traveled cannot be compared with the way tourists are seen in major touristic site like Samarkand. There you one of many, while a hundred kilometers away on a dusty mountain road you might be the first guy riding a bike which they’ve seen this year.

This being said in the short time I’ve spent in Uzbekistan I did encounter some incredible examples of hospitality, and being invited to spend the night at locals happened quite a few times in the countryside, with the only mention that a little bit of Russian can really help up getting some information across. And it’s incredible how much you can express with a small vocabulary. I clearly remember an evening somewhere in the south of Uzbekistan, when the Maqsud was politely set the TV to a Russian channel thinking that I would probably understand something from it. I somehow got the impression that his Russian was not much better than mine.

And now for the practical considerations:

1. Visas and Money

Uzbekistan is a place where you literally carry with you a bag of money as large amounts of small and almost worthless bills make a wallet a complete joke. Samarkand was also the first place after Turkey where I managed to withdraw money from an ATM which was more than welcome as my cash reserves where dwindling. On the other hand it’s really important to try and change money at money changers using the black market rate which is usually 20-30% better than what you normally get in a bank,

Visa-wise the Uzbek visa has been the most expensive visa for me, cosing in total 150 dollars, 75 for the visa and 70 for the letter of invitation. If you have  an embassy in Tehran which can issue a letter of recommendation for you can skip the letter of invitation but on the plus side if you do pay for a letter of invitation you get the visa on the spot in Teheran.

2. Roads and food

The roads are really bad sometimes, with long stretches under construction and a lot of gravel in some places. On the plus side most of the cars are Ladas or small Chevrolets and generally the traffic isn’t disturbing.

The food can be summed up in Plov, the rice dish popular in the entire Central Asia, Laghman, a very consisten noodle soup, and Samsa, tasty baked pastry with bits of sheep meat and onions inside. Samsa on the other hand can be a bit dodgy if you have a sensitive stomach and I did meet at least two travelers which got food poisoning from it.

3. Bureaucracy and rules.

Theoretically in Uzbekistan a tourist should spent each night in a government approved hotels, where you receive a small note saying that you’ve spent the night there. Also theoretically police can check you for these notes and police stops (and there is one going from each county the the next) or when you leave the country. While biking following these rule is next to impossible and my experience was that the police officers were ok when I explained this at police stops. At the same time you can always meet the bribe awaiting policeman. 

4. Scenery and sites.

Bukhara, Samarkand and Shahrizabz are amazing well preserved medieval silk road jewels and probably if you want to travel a bit back in time and if you want to get an idea what the silk road meant to the region they are a must see. I did like Bukhara much more than Samarkand which seems overly sanitized. When you add the variety of the landscape in the south-eastern part of the country and the relatively empty roads you end up with a place which is really enjoyable to cycle through.

5. People.

As I’ve said before the people are incredibly hospitable and also really diverse. Near Samarkand you encounter Uzbek villages and you almost always see people working in the fields, maintaining  an incredible network of irrigation canals and perfectly aligned fields. Then you have the city dwelling tadjik and the shepherd villages of the relatively nomadic Kyrgyz, all in just a few hundred kilometers. And they are all generally hospitable and friendly, but a bit of basic Russian will really get you a long way.

A bag of money worth around 100 dollars.

A bag of money worth around 100 dollars.

The 3 wheeled tractor, always popular in Uzbekistan.

The 3 wheeled tractor, always popular in Uzbekistan.

Curiosity and the chance of practicing a bit of russian.

Curiosity and the chance of practicing a bit of russian.

Work begins with the first hour after sunrise.

Work beggins with the first hour after sunrise.

Blue overdose.

Blue overdose.

Sanitized.

Sanitized.

Searching for the shadow.

Searching for the shadow.

Shahrizabz and the imense gate of the Timur's summer palace of Timur.

Shahrizabz and the imense gate of the summer palace of Timur.

The entrance to a 600 year old mausoleum.

The entrance to a 600 year old mausoleum.

Geometry.

Geometry.

The typical breakfast, yogurt and bread.

The typical breakfast, yogurt and bread.

School crossing with slanted eyes.

School crossing with slanted eyes.

Finding shelter from the heat.

Finding shelter from the heat.

Details.

Details.

Following the road.

Following the road.

Inside one typical uzbek home.

Inside one typical uzbek home.

Red, yellow, green and blue.

Red, yellow, green and blue.

Heading towards the Pamirs.

Heading towards the Pamirs.

Uzbek.

Uzbek.