Uzbekistan had so much to see, do and snap, that we made a number of themed blog posts, instead of trying to tell one story. We hope this posting will give an overview of our tour in Uzbekistan, and show of the pictures we took between the “sights”.
Our posts on Uzbekistan:
- To and through the Uzbekistan border (we entered 11th Sept, towards Kungrad)
- The Aral Sea, or rather Not the Aral Sea
- Crossing the desert is gruelling. (up to Nukus, more or less)
- A night in a yurt at Ayuz Kala (between Nukus and Khiva)
- Photo gallery – The ancient silk route cities (Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand)
- A night to remember (Bukhara to Samarkand by train)
- (to come) Ferghana Valley (side-trip by train)
- We left Uzbekistan 8th Oct, via the foot crossing en route to Shymkent.
Uzbekistan’s roads were generally good to us. We were often on main roads, which were often dual carriageways. But this was rather like Turkey – there was plenty of room and not too much traffic, albeit the roads were not as smart and new as Turkey’s. It was flat. And it was sunny but not too hot. Not too much wind. Out of the desert, there were plenty of little shops and teahouses. Really nice touring conditions. The only bugbear was trying to comply with the hotel registration rules. We mostly managed this, with a few deviations into teahouses.
Uzbekistan’s people were invariably friendly and helpful. We were often flagged down, or addressed from a car crawling alongside: “atcuda, atcuda?” – Russian for “where are you from”. Strangers rushed to take pictures of themselves, or their friends and family, with us. In towns especially, young people would come up and ask to practice their English with us. We were, of course, given melons. And one lovely family invited us in, with delicious food in the local style, and the extended family all joined in too. That was an especially lovely experience, and we thank them again for their kindness.
Just before we got to Uzbekistan, on the ferry, Clare had a severe, if short, bout of food poisoning, and Gid’s tummy was a bit uneasy as well. The timing of it made us suspect a pre-ferry pasty rather than the actual ferry food. But Clare’s tummy then kept suffering from recurring problems which had us calling on pharmacies as we went along. It wasn’t desperate, but the overall effect was weakening and depressing. We took a few extra rest days in an attempt to ease the impact. With various tummy pills and a very plain diet it was sort of kept under control. We needed rest and a long break stop, but the Uzbekistan visa was only 30 days. Whereas we’d always planned a long stop in Bishkek (visa free for 60 days). Thus we altered our plans a bit:
Original Plan: From Samarkand, south into Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, then loop south taking the Pamir Highway along the Afghan and China borders, then north into Kyrgyzstan, Osh, then Bishkek. A classic, but tough ride, and in the back country. Plan B: From Samarkand, north to Tashkent, then east over mountains into the Ferghana valley (this road might’ve needed our Tajikistan visas. Across this valley; flat, fertile & historic (have you heard of the Bactrian empire?), to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, then north to Bishkek. Less back country, and three significant passes to cross, but easier and shorter than A.
- Plan C: From Samarkand, north to Tashkent, then north to Shymkent in Kazakhstan, then east to Bishkek. This route is pretty flat, and on major roads. This we took, and indeed were able to make pretty long distances most days.
On The Road
Finally, having calculated, and re-calculated the interaction between the Azerbaijan visa period, the Kazakhstan visa validity, and travel times, we left Tbilisi (really late in a day, see previous blog post about postage), for a fairly horrible main road ride east. Can’t remember where we stayed that night, but towards the end of the day, the traffic was much less of a problem – it was all Tbilisi traffic, not long distance. The next day’s ride was pleasant enough but unmemorable (at least, I can’t remember much of it). Nino, our Tbilisi landlady had recommended a friend’s guesthouse in Sighnaghi, which apart from being up a big hill, was a fine choice. Well, the whole town was up the hill, and a very nice, if totally touristic, town it was too. In Georgia, it’s the town of love, and popular for honeymoons. The guesthouse made a bit of a thing of the family’s folk music, so in the evening, after we’d come back from a nice meal, there was Georgian wine, Georgian brandy and travellers from all over (especially Israel, including Vicky and Aaron we’d met at Nino’s). This sing-song was especially appropriate as it was CLARE’S 60TH BIRTHDAY! Happy Birthday my love!
After a 12km winding route down hill we cruised along on the next day, crossing the flat plain towards the Greater Caucasus (see picture above). We experienced a new kind of road side stall.
We stopped in the afternoon under a random tree for a swig of water and handful of nuts. Along just a bit someone was working in a bit of field. After our “gamma joba”, somehow, they decided we were worthy of inviting in for chai. We didn’t have much language to share, muddling by with a bit of Russian phrasebook, Google Translate, and pointing and laughing. The old couple showed us a postcard – they’d previously invited in a Swiss cyclist(s?): So, lacking a postcard, we had to sketch them one to add to their collection. Chai was on offer, these were Turkic folk, Azerbaijanis – if they’d been Georgians it would probably have been wine. It’s an interesting difference to Northern Europe, this: borders have been stable for at least 95 years, and in nationality terms these were Georgians – to go to Azerbaijan they indicated they need a visa. But one of the first things they said – about the time we said we were English – was they were Azerbaijanis. For all these Caucasus countries, statistics are quoted X% Georgians Y% Azerbaijanis, Z% Russians, etc. The ethnic identities are (I think) defined from the mother tongues, which is why in the early-mid twentieth century, the big governments (Turkey, Russia), made efforts to stamp out, or at least discourage, the local languages, and teach only the “empire” lingo. They also at times forcefully moved tens of thousands of people about, to achieve particular ethnic mixes to suit their purposes. Not so nowadays AFAIK, but a lot of the border troubles in the region must be because of the mismatch between culture/ethnicity, and state borders. Some of which is our own government’s fault (up to Mr W. Churchill’s generation), as the British Empire was very much a force in the region, and had a particular habit of setting borders to divide peoples, and create weak, manipulable states. Together with our lot, the Czars, the Ottomans, and the Persians were all meddling away in their “Great Game”, it’s hardly surprising the borders, people and politics are rather unsettled. Anyway, these folk were extremely friendly and generous, and I for one felt rather guilty we had no present to leave. Perhaps we should have a stash of postcards from Worthing. The old couple (err, well, they may not have been much older than us) lived in very humble circumstances. Their house was tiny and made of bits. Shady in summer but, if they didn’t move to town in winter, rather horrible then, I expect, even in the mild, plain winter. The kitchen area was out back and roofed, but unwalled and a mud floor, running water from a piped spring . Yet, it was a nice place to be, shady, with a cooling breeze, and everything vital close to hand (yes, including a mobile). They also offered us milk – fresh, but scalded & warm: This was delicious. It seemed to be a truly subsistence farming operation; the cow chewed the cud nearby, ducks on the pond, the agriculture looked like a smallholding, little bits of everything.
Next stop was Lagodehki, chosen as a town to let us cross the Azerbaijan border early in the day. It’s also the edge of Georgia’s easternmost national park, a remote area that runs up into the Greater Caucasus mountains and the Russian border. We knew there’d be guesthouses, and arriving mid-afternoon, were cruising relaxedly up one of the main streets, looking for somewhere to stay. We passed one or two but carried on. A young man seemed to be dozing on a bench, but leapt up as we passed, to ask (in Georgian) if we needed a guesthouse. Well, we didn’t understand the words, but the context made it all plain. The house was unsigned. This seems common for Georgian guesthouses. A cynical British view would suspect something to do with the tax system. In Tbilisi we’d been mildly scammed when a fellow enticed us into a restaurant, which afterwards presented an appalling bill (and didn’t offer change, when we certainly didn’t intend leaving a tip): Fortunately we’d only consumed one hot drink each, so the “appalling bill”, while infuriating, wasn’t actually much. So we were wary in this case, but with no reason. After a small delay while the landlady whizzed up from the village centre, we inspected, learnt the cost of (amazingly cheap, so we lazily opted for breakfast and dinner, which was still good value, especially as the breakfast was enough to doggy-bag for lunch), and were soon ensconced. Nino (most Georgian landladys seem to be called Nino) provided us with a self contained ground floor apartment. She also wielded a sheaf of leaflets, and indicated we were only about 500m from the National Park office, and how nice the park was, etc, etc, again all in Georgian, or was it Russian. It’s amazing how clear it can be without understanding a word. So after a shower, we wandered up to the park office for more information. Reassuringly, the stuffed & mounted bear was quite small.
… and replanned again, so we’d hike tomorrow, staying two nights not one, delaying our entry to Azerbaijan another day. The hike involved a 14km cycle to the start, blissfully unloaded. It was only a day hike, so only a picnic, camera, and swimmers were needed.
The hike had a few tiny scrambles, but the only challenge really was the log river crossings. Compared to the earlier Georgia hike, the logs were wider, and less high up, and the exercise felt less committing – so we managed to walk across them this time. At the top there was a lovely waterfall, a nice pool for a dip, and a dozen or so Georgians also enjoying the day out and a picnic. One suspects Georgians should be rather good at picnics.
Heading into Tbilisi from Mtskheta we’d tried to miss the main road. The Garmin had come up with another route that seemed fairly direct. All was going well until it directed us to turn right onto a dirt track directly up a hill. No way! The total journey was only 26km but that could take us all day if we hit a really lumpy dirt road, and we were cruising along nicely without too much traffic.
Shortly after this decision the motorway merged with our main road; the traffic increased exponentially. With a few hair raising moments you’d expect when cycling in a city we made it into the tourist centre and from there to our accommodation.
We had a few days to kill, while waiting for our Azerbaijan visa to become valid. So off we went exploring.
Churches – the most prominent being the new cathedral built in time for the millennium (that doesn’t include decorating the inside, which may take decades). Others date from Byzantine times.
Balconies are a special feature of old Tbilisi.
We also visited museums: one on Tbilisi itself, another on Georgia, and the outdoor Ethnographic museum (very similar to Sussex’s Weald & Downland Museum). We baulked at the 11GEL each for the music museum where it is compulsory to have a guide. Most of the museums, so far have had information within the cabinets in the home language, Russian, and English and we prefer to wander round at out own pace.
The Flea Market is another feature of Tbilisi. It’s also good for buying original paintings, or at least, it appears so to our unschooled eyes. Generally the city wears its artistic endeavours on its sleeve, including where we stayed, in Nino’s Guesthouse, which is like a mini gallery.
And there’s lots more to see, out and about on the streets.
New Tbilisi arises in any big gaps. Glass, steel, new and classical shapes. Just as long as it doesn’t look remotely soviet.
The Museum of Ethnology – most houses are between 100 and 200 years old.
All in all, a thoroughly photogenic city, with lots and lots of cheap accommodation.
Day trip to Davit Gareji Monastery Complex (yet more caves)
Finally, 19th Aug, we left Tbilisi. We had one errand to do first – post the Tbilisi souvenirs home. It took quite a while to find the Post Office, but as from Turkey on, the helpful chap serving wanted to know what was in there, for the customs declaration. Whereupon we came unstuck! The main item is a saddle bag, made in the same way as a kelim rug. Clare’s wanted one since Cappadocia. Normally, carpet shops claim they are “antique”, although often the age is faked, and want well north of $100 (yes, dollars, for some reason). However, Tbilisi’s flea market made no claims of age, and Clare beat the seller down to 110 GEL, much more realistic (about $40). Good. But. Both online and in Nino’s LP guide, there are warnings about the potential difficulty of taking out of countries, or sending, carpets especially and anything that might be part of the nation’s cultural heritage. So, post office man sends us off to the Ministry of Culture to get a letter certifying it isn’t old, and while we’re about it, also covering the two felt glove puppets. They obviously are not antiques, but to be fair, customs might have to open the package to see that. The ministry sent us on to the correct agency. All three are within about a square kilometre of central Tbilisi, but the bikes, one way system, and step-ridden pedestrian accesses, plus the moderate difficulty of finding the places, means it takes a while. The letter itself takes about 30 minutes, and a pleasant surprise is – no charge. Then, embarrassingly, it takes us an hour at least to find the same post office again. Now it’s lunchtime, so everyone is in there, except most of the staff. An hour queueing, then at least 30 minutes to send the thing (lots of forms). We finally set off from Tbilisi at 14:30. Good job we’d planned only a 55km ride to Sagarejo, where, fortunately, it was very easy to find what we think was the only hotel. Let’s hope the donkey bag proves as useful as expected once (if) it gets home.
- 2 swims in the (warm) sea, one accompanied by a couple of surprises – eurrgh!
- 2 ambles round sights in the town.
- 2 or 3 thrillers read.
- Extra laundry washed.
- 2 new chains, Gideon’s bar tape and bus-damaged brake cable replaced.
- Slept lots.
- Cooked evening meals with potatoes.
- Failed to significantly improve our Georgian or Russian.