It feels great to be back on the road. Being able to move around with ease… I rode almost 20 hours through the Ustyurt Plateau and the Karakalpak autonomous region. This section was worrying me a little bit. The roads in the area are not listed on most maps. There is a railroad but the satellite images were showing mostly dirt tracks scattered around the area. I assumed it wouldn’t be easy so left very early in the morning after a warm farewell.
The asphalt ended shortly after Beyneu as I expected. But the grading was much better than I thought it would be. I could easily do speeds above 60 kmph on these gravel parts, and it continued up until the Uzbek border. Even the previous days storm was working in my advantage because the clouds were bringing the temperature down to comfortable levels. I stopped only once at the campsite of an expedition crew from Poland.
90 kms later I was at the border. They had just started customs processing, so the timing was perfect. Kazak side took about an hour to clear. I was probably the first to arrive at the Uzbek side. No problems here either. It just took me a while to be able to fill the customs form because it was written in Cyrillic alphabet.
At one point I had to exchange some money. 100 Dollars is about 180.000 Sum. And the largest Uzbek bill is 1000. So I was handed out 180 bills in two decks tied up with rubber bands. It doesn’t even fit in a wallet. I left the border with a guilty feeling as if I robbed a bank.
The roads got much better on the Uzbek side. There was even some tar surfacing on the gravel. Soon enough I remembered that this was a police state. About every 50 kms there are police checkpoints with bored officials waiting for people with interesting passports. The first one was near a small village so I took the opportunity to have a good lunch at the local chaikhane (tea house).
Everything was starting to feel much better. My bike was running fine, the roads were good, people were very hospitable and behaved kindly. The only thing that was worrying me was the obligation to register at the hotels every night. This meant that I had to find a cheap hotel every night I spent in the country. Camping is not an option if I am to be a nice tourist. It’s weird to know that someone out there in Tashkent wants to know where I am and what I’m doing every day. Everything is very tightly controlled. They don’t want tourists mingling with citizens.
As a method of maintaining the roads here, they pour fresh tar on the surface. Apparently, the older one melts away. I came across a fresh section and rode on it for less than two minutes. The bottom of the bike was immediately covered in tar. As if that wasn’t enough, the rear tire picked a nail and I had the first puncture of the trip. No worries. I took out my puncture repair kit and was ready to hit the road in less than 15 minutes. Even that felt good.
The first big town was Qungrad. Sun was about to set and I was hoping to find a hotel here. I asked the police at the entrance of the town but they didn’t know any hotels. I took out the Lonely Planet guide to see if there were any listings but there was nothing in there either. My only option was to push on to Nukus, where there seemed to be plenty of places to check in. The desert had ended at this point and I could smell the humidity of the large fields irrigated by the waters of the famous river Amuderya. Cotton is the biggest crop here since the Soviets. The waters of Amuderya are being spread onto this dry land to cultivate it. As a result, the Aral sea has almost disappeared.
Riding through the night in this humid area feels like diving underwater. The air is full of insects and some of them are enormous. I had to constantly stop and wipe the wisor of the helmet to keep my sight clean.
Nukus is the capital of the autonomous Karakalpak region within Uzbekistan. People I met here, don’t call themselves Uzbek. They emphasize that they’re Karakalpak on every opportunity. They speak a Turkic language that’s more akin to Kazakh than Uzbek. I checked into Hotel Nukus, an old official looking (probably Soviet) building with a huge entrance. Yes, they did do registrations and the cheapest room was 10 dolars if I didn’t mind sharing it with a British backpacker. I though it might be interesting to meet another traveler, but this one turned out to be the least talkative one I ever met. At least I had a good sleep and a shower.
Khiva appeared to be the most interesting spot on the map dividing the road between Nukus and Bukhara. This is a very old city with an amazingly rich history. What’s even more interesting is the way it’s been proteced like a museum since the 60’s. It’s been cleaned up, restored and kept that way ever since. There is a mud wall surrounding it, so what’s hostorical and what’s not is very easy to define. Walking around Ichon Qala, the inner city, sometimes it’s very easy to lose your sense of time. There are no contemporary clues as of to what period in history you are. Until suddenly a tourist with a camera walks into your view… I’m sure it didn’t look nearly as clean as this, back when the city was at its golden ages.
I left later in the morning to cross the Kızılkum Desert into Bukhara. Amuderya and its many branches divide the land numerous times before you actually start feeling the desert. I crossed two interesting bridges built of metal sheets on floating docks connected together. Between each section is a gap where you can see the river running a few feet underneath and the metal sheets drift independently as you ride over them. Lots of fun.
Kızılkum is truly a desert. Not that it fulfills the cliche image of one, but because of the scale and the expanse of it. It’s quite astonishing to imagine how the caravans used to cross it without even any roads. Despite the constant wind and heat, there is lots of plants and little critters hanging around. I know that because I’ve seen many flat ones on the asphalt.
I crossed this 500km stretch stopping only for military checks and a few cigarettes. In the last check point, I noticed that the engine oil level was a bit low. It’s been a couple of thousand miles since I changed oil in Turkey so this is a reasonable decrease. I decided to add some and reached for one of the bottles inside the pannier and realized it had leaked. It took me almost a full day in Bukhara and a liter of gasoline to clean all the stuff inside.
This is my second day in Bukhara. Apart from all the architecture and history accumulated on every street of this holy city, there is an immediately noticeable dynamism. People are very outgoing and there is something happening on every corner. Conversations start easily and continue till late at night near the central pool called Lyabi Hauz. Some of the madrasas are still in use. History is not frozen in time. There is something still going on connected to the past. It’s exciting to think that Ibn-i Sina and Firdausi had been walking in the same streets as I walked today. Cengiz Han had admired the Kalon minaret just as I did yesterday.
I bought some cinnamon and cloves to spice up my teas on the road and finally found something like cheese. It’s dry very salty and concentrated, but tastes close enough.
Samarkand is next.