Sorry folks: This posting from the beginning of our time in Uzbekistan is published out of order, after some ‘later’ ones, because we don’t want to ‘fess up to illegal tourist camping and teahouse stays (even though we had little choice, daylight and legs being limited), until we’re out of the country.
Just about the time we boarded the Caspian Sea ferry, it was announced that Uzbekistan’s longstanding president was seriously ill. By the time we left Aqtau, he was dead. In the nature of such governments, that meant Uzbekistan might face some serious political disruption; they’d recently closed the frontier just for their national bank holiday. Our entirely selfish fretting about this was in the background as we planned the next section. In the event, there was a smooth political transition and no border closure.
We deliberated about the next section, probably the most committing part of our trip so far, through the desert from the Kazakh town Beyneu to the border with Uzbekistan, and to the western towns thereof. On the one hand, there was our pride, we’re on a cycle trip of course we’ll cycle it, weighed against the reality of not knowing where we could stay or take on provisions. Food would be fine, carrying enough for 3 or 4 days is doable but water was a far more serious issue. This, together with several nightmare descriptions in blogs: sand storms, double punctures, heavy rain and head winds, as well as slow & hard work because the road has not been reconstructed, shook our confidence. So, we went to the railway station to check out our options. Yes, we could go by train, albeit starting at 3am and taking about 15 hours.
We kicked around our options and decided, given the ideal cycling conditions, we should not duck our rite of passage as Central Asian cycle tourists. Next morning, a bit late, we saddled up in perfect weather.
The road out of Beyneu was as alleged – dreadful, worn concrete slabs with reinforcement rods protruding. But it soon settled to 15km of fair asphalt, before the dirt road started. In truth, and dry September weather, it was at the good end of dirt roads. Dropping the tyre pressures smoothed out some of the bumps allowing us to whizz along, albeit, only looking up to catch the view occasionally. There was one fleeting moment of hope, when for perhaps a kilometre or so, a smooth new road went under a new looking railway line, not on our map (we suspect it’s part of China’s new route West).
Enthusiastic locals: a bus load of pensioners, cars that passed, the local lads hanging out by the town sign, shepherds on motorbikes, kids in the few villages… have all whipped out a phone or smartphone for a photo together. Thus, making us feel very welcome, unusual, and feted in Kazakhstan, despite the many blogs making us think cyclists must pass by here daily.
We keep on posting pictures of scenic old things, ruins, old cars, wonky power lines, and so on. Just in case that leaves the wrong impression, here’s a picture of one of the many new houses we saw occupied or under construction in the desert towns.
We reached the frontier at about 5pm. Formalities took a while, but both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan staff, who whizzed us to the front of their queues saying ,’Tourist, tourist’ were very helpful.
By 7pm we were through and immediately pounced on by, it seemed a family of, money changers. Prepared by blogs, Gid had a plan, and knew at least the official rate, quoted on the Internet. Later experience suggests that entering a bazaar, with foreigner stamped firmly on our foreheads, means someone will quickly accost us with double that, at least when dollars are involved. Anyway, we were only changing our remaining Kazakhstan Tenge, about €40 worth. For this we got 139,000 som, in 1,000 som notes – a huge wad. Later on it was more convenient to change $100 at a time – at the bazaar rate that’s 630,000 som. The picture below shows Gideon’s barbag with it in. At least we’ll never be short of toilet paper.
Besides being officially maintained at an unrealistic value, the Uzbek Som is generally available in notes up to 1,000: roughly 20p or 30 US cents. There is a 5,000, but we rarely saw one, until Samarkand. So everyone has huge wads, and Uzbeks are the fastest money counters we’ve ever seen.
Seting off with thoughts of camping, we were flagged down from the roadside after a few km. They saw us coming. Sleeping space at the teahouse (Chaikhana/Chaihanna) was free, but the food was priced up to cover everything. It worked out comfy and secure enough with a friendly crowd inside. The outside karzi was as expected: 50m behind the house, a hole in a wooden platform that was best not to look down. The only pain was that there was nowhere Clare could wash. Supper was an huge pile of cow chunks. Staying there was not officially allowed, as such places can’t do the Uzbekistan government’s registration requirement, OTOH the places that can do are pretty hard to find outside tourist towns.
On rising, we skipped breakfast, and were off by 7:45. A real novelty was that it felt a tad chilly. This day’s cycling on this “dreadful” road was, err, not at all so. The asphalt is old and worn, covered in cracks and craters, occasionally reverting to gravel or fine sand, but it’s not a bad ride.
The surprise for us as was: Police checkpoints. There were two on this first day. We stopped at “stop”, and a friendly fellow in a green uniform carefully wrote down our details in a log book. At the second one, adjacent to Jasliq, he told us there was an hotel very soon. Then there were signs, then an hotel. It felt a little simplistic, but it had all we needed for food and a comfy night. And, our first registration slips, rah, rah, rah! Overall, with our tailwind, we covered roughly 160km in less than 9 hours.
The traffic consists almost entirely of fairly recent but clearly pre-owned artic curtainsiders, and full cars or minibuses already fully loaded with more bags piled on the roof. We figured this is a flow of Uzbek workers going to richer Kazakhstan or beyond to work – overseas worker remittances are apparently a major element in Uzbekistan’s economy. There are big potholes, so the trucks barely go any faster than we did. We don’t know if this slow, crappy, road is a significant element in Uzbekistan’s foreign trade. Whatever an economist might make of these trucks and travellers, over half wave or hoot as they go past.
Immediately after leaving in the morning, we came across an accident. A couple of carloads of locals had stopped and were scratching their heads wondering what had happened. There was a very large, very dead, cow on the east bound side. And a very crumpled Daewoo Nexia on the other. But no driver. We figured maybe he was the big guy still asleep on the divan at the hotel. Probably the urgent thing was to contact a truck and a butcher.
This tale ends at Kungrad, a fair sized town with our first bazaar, and a population who seemingly have no knowledge of the accommodation it offers. Kungrad marks the transition from desert to agricultural land; there are rivers, wet ditches, and crops, especially cotton, and also, we think, a few paddy fields. We stopped at Kungrad for a rest day, in which the hotel owner and a friend drove us to see where the Aral Sea used to be.