We were both looking forward to reaching Uzbekistan. I think the constant stomach bugs we kept catching (everyone gets ill in Tajikistan) and the long wait in Dushanbe for a visa application to Turkmenistan slightly overshadowed our experience of cycling the famous Pamirs.
It certainly was very beautiful but the roads made it pretty gruelling at times and we both couldn’t help comparing the views to Sichuan and Yunnan in China which, in our opinion, are hard to beat.
Our time in Uzbekistan, our next stop on our Silk Road, Central Asian adventure, promised to have a completely different flavour to Tajikistan with sightseeing and city stays taking up most of our time.
The majority of the western part of the country is taken up by desert (and the shrinking Aral Sea) with almost all the population and cultural sites bunched up together in the Eastern tip. The historic cities of Samerkand, Bukhara and Kiva would frame our journey through this eastern part and with my friend Jo flying out to meet us for a week in Bukhara we weren’t planning much cycling from then on.
Having had no answer from the Turkmenistan embassy about our transit visa, the new plan was to leave Jo to travel back east to Tashkent from Urgench while we headed west by train to the Kazakhstan border where we would cycle towards Aktau before taking a short flight to Tehran.
The first hurdle we needed to jump was border control on the Uzbek side. Uzbekistan is very much a police state with a string of human rights abuses to its name under the ever growing totalitarian rule of president Karimov.
Medication, valuables, cash and illegal media are all carefully policed at the country’s borders and it took us 2 hours to clear customs. The guards were all pretty congenial throughout the ordeal, even though they made us manoeuvre and lift the loaded tandem up a number of steps and narrow gates before telling us to simply unload the bags and take the bike back down to the parking bay… Very annoying!
Our camera SD cards, external hard drive, phones and iPad were all taken away and searched and I was given the task of opening and emptying the entire contents of each bag (Paddy wasn’t permitted to carry the bags at this point). Finally, after discovering I had studied music at university I wasn’t allowed to leave until I sang a song to the guards…
Anyway, we were in and the plan was to spend the next few days cycling to Samarkand via the towns of Denov, Boysun and Shakhrisabz.
The first day and a half was very flat with excellent paved roads and so we easily do 80km to the town of Denov despite the suppressive midday heat which largely puts us out of action from 1-3pm.
Our first impressions of Uzbekistan is that it is an incredibly friendly place and the people like to joke with you. Whistling loudly is the preferred way to attract your attention.
Within a few hours of cycling through the country we can’t help but notice the cotton fields which line the roadside. Uzbekistan is famed for its cotton production but certainly not in any good way!
Introduced by the Soviets who developed a cotton monoculture in much of Central Asia, the farming of this thirsty crop still dominates farming practices in Uzbekistan despite the obvious difficulties. Cotton needs constant irrigation to grow well, not ideal for the dry, dusty Uzbeskistan climate, and poor government controls and policies (such as the draining of the Aral Sea and lack of proper price controls) have left the soil salty and the people who farm it too poor to pay for machinery or labour.
Farmers have not been allowed to switch to fruit or vegetable crops instead and the only way the system continues to survive is through the government making school children, students and adults go out to harvest the crop in Autumn. The practice has naturally sparked international boycotts on Uzbekistan cotton and a number of Anti-Slavery and human rights organisations to get involved but the practise still continues.
After an overnight stop in Denov we continued on and soon hit some climbs. We leave the flat cotton fields behind us and climb steadily up towards the town of Boysun through a moon-like landscape stopping to camp just outside of a town in between.
After the second day I feel strong enough to cycle out a few kilometres so we can camp on the hills above the town. We take the wrong turn out of town though and end up having to push the tandem up a track. A large group of men (and boys) covered head to foot with black soot pass us on our way up, a string of donkeys carrying bags of coal behind. There is obviously a mine nearby and by the looks of it, it’s another industry which is plagued by bad government controls and a lack of any industrial machinery.
The view from the top is pretty spectacular.
The next day we finish the climb and then enjoy a long downhill section stopping for a good few hours under the shade of an orchard for lunch and a siesta. We find a secluded camping spot by a dammed river that night which means we can both have a bath! Bliss!
The next day we hope to complete the 100km to the town of Shakhrisabz, the birthplace of Timur. We make good headway that morning and stop in a busy restaurant for lunch where a wedding is taking place in a large covered courtyard at the back.
As we finish eating a big bellied man approaches our table and insists we come and eat a second lunch at the party next door. Feeling overly full already but honoured that he’s asked we follow him through to the courtyard where about 25 tables are set up around a large fountain. Men and women are sitting separately and a live singer serenades everyone over a loud backing track.
We’re greeted by a number of people but a bride and groom are nowhere to be seen and we soon have to conclude that we’re not at a wedding. We soon learn we’re at a Khitan ceremony (Islamic circumcision ceremony) for 5 boys who are seated under a canopy overlooking the guests instead.
In front of the canopy are five bedrolls and it soon becomes apparent that the guests want us to stay, watch and photograph the public ceremony. We both know that this is a normal practice which takes place across the world in many religions but this still didn’t really prepare us for this experience.
Curiosity and an openmind made us stay, this is what travelling should be about and who are we to judge and be squimish without understanding what goes on? so we agreed to stay.
Paddy sat with the men while I was encouraged to get up and dance with the group of women and it was fun trying to copy their dance moves.
Next came some performances by some young people. A group of girls in blue outfits performed some gymnastics and the boys then came on to demonstrate judo. After this the five boys were invited up and were given wads of cash by a number of important looking men who all gave a short speech.
Paddy and I were then invited into a side room with these men to eat more plov and drink port and vodka. We are both feeling pretty sick from all the food already but we really can’t refuse, they almost force feed us!
Professional photographers come in to take photos and 30 minutes later we’re supplied with printouts of the photos. This one is the best, mainly because of the superimposed border and how terrible we both look in it!
The time comes for the ceremony and the boys get laid down side by side. They all seem pretty calm considering but when then the preparations take place, the legs are held tightly together and a large nan bread is brought to bite down on the tears start. We can’t blame them this is anything but a nice experience!
I can’t help thinking it’s slightly barbaric and although I know that this operation is nowhere near as painful or debilitating as FGM practises it’s clearly painful and the boys don’t really have a choice in the matter either… Is it the same and where do you draw the line?
As we ride away we discuss and contemplate the above while also feeling humbled (yet again) at the amazing generosity and welcome we have just received.