Desert Riding, Cold Drinks and Khiva
- Categorized in: July 2011
I think all three of us were a little trepidatious about setting out on this leg. Various other riders had impressed upon us the heat, the emptiness of the landscape and the poor quality of the road as good reasons to be prepared for a tough slog to Khiva.
When we finally set out from Bukhara with the team more or less restored to full health, we found a wind out on the road that could almost be described as a tailwind. In reality more of a crosswind, it did seem to offer us at least some kind of help.
The cultivated land – all flat as a pancake – only lasted for about 50km before we moved out into the desert proper. Sometimes the sand had blown onto the edges of the road, but for the most part the surface remained fine.
The buildings petered out till the three of us found ourselves out on long exposed straight stretches for dozens of kilometres at a time. The first town after Bukhara, called Gazli, was another 100km on. Because of our early departure, and with a bit of help from the wind, we made it there in time for lunch: another repetition of some barbecued meat, tomatoes/cucumbers, bread. All washed down with whatever was the coldest non-alcoholic drink available.
Our aim was to do 150km on each of three consecutive days to get to Khiva. Having done 100km so quickly, we had time in hand, so we slept for some hours in a spare adjacent room to the one chaikhana we’d located in town. I can’t speak for the other two, but I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my sleep before. I woke up to find a “Theo-shaped” soaking wet patch on my air mattress which reminded me of past weights sessions with the Cambridge University rowing club. ‘Orrible! And yet only the beginning.
Re-provisioning ourselves on the assumption that we would need to camp in the desert for the following two nights and that this was the last town for at least 250km, we set out again after 5pm hoping to get in another 50km.
Leaving Gazli - 250km till the next town
As evening moved on, the road swung round into a headwind and everything became laboured and weary for a while. We passed another chaikhana sooner than we thought but kept going and then the road swung back in our favour as the wind dropped.
We then had one of the more memorable bits of desert riding I’ve yet done. With not much traffic around, we rode almost three abreast down the road, the blood red globe of the sun setting to our front, and a bright silver white full moon rising behind us. We carried on in silence enjoying these moments.
Riding into the sunset
Before we’d decided on a place to stop, we saw a few low buildings come up over the horizon, and the dark line of a few trees someway from the road. We were beginning to understand this meant a chaikhana, which meant shade, food, drink….rest.
Sure enough, it turned out this was some kind of police checkpoint for traffic along the road, and there was a chaikhana just before the barrier with some buildings set back, surrounded by a little white wall with a dozen or so trees creating a sort of garden.
It was dark by now, and we had some of the very basic food on offer – samsas – just pastries containing a small amount of meat. I was so exhausted from the heat, wind and early start I fell asleep lying back on the tapchan as we waited for the food, in the most uncomfortable of positions. When Kellen called me back to consciousness, I had the first of quite few occasions when I had absolutely no idea where I was for about 10 seconds.
Who were these people? What was this place? Where on earth am I?
Oh, that’s right. I’m in a self-imposed race across the deserts of western Uzbekistan. Phew – for a moment there I thought I might have woken into a living nightmare.
Anyway, once again Uzbek hospitality excelled and we were allowed to make our beds in the little garden set well back from the road and the noise of trucks passing in the night. The full moon that stayed with us for the next 5 or 6 days was at its brightest on this night, and instead of the harsh emptiness of the desert, we felt secure and sheltered as we gazed up at the shining disk from the cover of the moon shadows that fell off the trees.
Moon rising beyond our "garden"
A few short hours’ of heavy sleep later, we were up and moving out again. A beautiful if stark dawn broke on the desert and we set out into the toughest day of this leg. We passed patches in the road where the sand had completely swept across it, meaning all traffic – bikes to buses – had to slowly steer round and through glutinous piles of sand.
Desert sands encroaching on our road
Despite this we made reasonable progress before we again began to feel the heat of the morning. We passed another chaikhana but too soon to stop for our afternoon break, so we pressed on eventually coming to another clump of trees next to a couple of little roadside stores.
A handful of young Uzbek men were hanging around manning the shop. After selling us his coldest of cold drinks, one of them wanted to try out his English on us. It was reasonable, and he seemed to want to steer the conversation round to President Bush once he heard that Kellen and Cory were from the US. He said he really like Bush.
“Why’s that?” we asked him.
“He’s a good economist,” was the reply.
We then asked him about Karimov (his own president) and Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara, who is an entrepreneurial power-monger in her own right, and one of the next generation of the Central Asian elite – rich, powerful and educated in the West, politically adept and universally disliked (we’d been told). But apparently not by this fellow. He liked her.
“Why do you like her?”
“She’s a good economist,” was the reply.
We changed the subject. Always interested to know where our next break would come, there then followed an argument between the boy and his friends about the distance to the next chaikhana. Since it was already burning hot, I was keen to reach our bolthole for the afternoon. One said 25km, another said 45km. Certainly one answer was preferable to the other, and we were getting into the habit of choosing to believe the most optimistic of estimates until proven otherwise. This seemed to be the most encouraging way of getting through the distance.
Personally, I then went through one of the more unpleasant periods of the whole ride across Uzbekistan. I was really feeling the heat and could feel my head throbbing it was so hot. I was worried if I didn’t get out of the sun I might risk getting sun stroke, which would be a huge pain for the whole team. There was not a scrap of shade anywhere. We’d finally reached the roadworks where the road was supposed to diminish into a jumbling, bone-shuddering trail of rubble, but so far at least one lane had been maintained in good order.
Road surface on its way down....
Eventually, when I felt my whole being was somehow trying to shrink itself down to fit under the visor of my cap, and my skin had begun to take on that curious “pins and needles” sensation that only comes when severely over-heating, we spied the tell-tale trees of the chaikhana. I was delighted and practically threw my bike down in an effort to get into the shade quicker.
Despite the oppressive heat in the sunlight, a strong breeze was blowing across the back of this building where the roof provided the welcome shade we needed so desperately. Curiously (I thought), for a location so squarely in the desert, the only thing on the menu was fish, all of which were kept in a slightly shabby looking concrete fish pool immediately behind the shaded terrace. We ordered up a couple of fish and collapsed on a tapchan, all three of us falling into an instant sleep. (In fact we were only about 15km from the Amur Darya River, the huge watercourse that flows from the Pamir Mountains in the east into the Aral Sea in the west of Uzbekistan, so the fish shouldn’t have been such a surprise.)
Eventually the food arrived, much delayed it seemed to me, but that was because we’d actually ordered our food from another customer mistaking him for the waiter who then drove off, the waiter being none the wiser as to what we wanted.
After lunch, I needed a “pit stop”. I suppose it is necessary, for the sake of completeness, to mention the methods of ablution available to a traveller through the desert. This chaikhana was typical of its kind.
In almost all houses, restaurants, chaikhanas, shops or any other kind of basic building like this, the toilet is simply a small wooden outhouse, usually set a hundred yards or so back from the main building. One becomes something of a self-appointed critic of these outhouses, applauding the owners who had insisted on placing the little structure over a hole of 10 feet or more, and reproaching the laziness of the builders who’d stopped digging after only a couple of feet. All in all an unpleasant experience that becomes less so with time and practice, I do remember thinking at this particular chiakhana that “people in England still abed” (or anywhere else for that matter where a seated flushing toilet is available) should think themselves very lucky. I struggled to imagine any of my female friends tolerating the facilities available across most of Central Asia – yet perhaps even they would adapt. I was amused that this level of sanitation had become completely normal to me.
The reason – in case you wondered – why the Asiatic is so accomplished at squatting for hours on his haunches – “The Asian Squat” – has to be the long hours of practice he gets in carrying out this manoeuvre in other circumstances. Certainly by now, I myself can do it rather well. And for this reason, I suppose (if I were asked) I can point to two very definite and practical benefits that have arisen from this trip.
1) I no longer need a chair.
2) I no longer (really) need a toilet.
I wonder whether for ever after I will now be grateful whenever I enjoy the luxury of using a “sit-down” toilet. I like to think I will. I certainly should be.
Digressions aside, the rest of the ride that day became rather difficult. This was the beginning of the so-called “bad section” of the ride to Khiva. For about 45 minutes, I didn’t know what all the fuss was about as I appeared to emerge on “the other side” under the shade of trees that lined that a village not far from the Amur Darya river.
In fact I’d missed a turn and it was another hour or so before I realised my mistake and caught up with the others again. Meanwhile, as they’d been trying to find out where I had got to, Kellen and Cory had managed to inadvertently (and innocently) set a chain of events in motion that caused a car crash. Fortunately far from fatal, this did at least set off a storm of argument between the two drivers, who were so absorbed in raining down curses on the other’s head that they didn’t notice Kellen and Cory quietly make themselves scarce.
With mixed messages as to where exactly the next chaikhana would fall, we set off into the dusk. Our advisers were quite right about one thing though – the road surface (or lack thereof) was pretty awful. Sometimes you could find a more or less navigable track through the dust and grit that allowed smooth (if slow) progress, but for many sections the whole road was covered from side to side by “high frequency” corrugated ruts which are deeply uncomfortable to ride over, shaking the whole bike violently, and juddering your bones, especially your wrists quite painfully.
The road takes its toll - one of many puncture repair stops
Despite this, and well after dark by now, we came to a section of the road that had already been cured in preparation for the top surfaces of the new road to be laid. Cars and other vehicles couldn’t get onto this, but we could if we lifted our bikes over the protective wires. So by the light of our headlamps, we made faster progress, the smooth grey concrete lit up like a white snake by the rising full moon.
Birds have nests, foxes have holes, but we ain't got nowhere to lay our heads
Even with this progress, it was already 11pm and we needed sleep. With no sign of any likely place to stop, we decided simply to stop on the concrete road and sleep there. This half-built road is probably the most improbable place I have slept since Hong Kong, but I did actually get a great few hours’ sleep, and woke again at 4am, happy that (in theory) we should have a bed for the night in Khiva that night, if all went to plan. Though we still had over 150km to go.
Angel wings, UFOs or perhaps they're just boring old clouds...
...whatever, they were the only thing in the sky that morning
The road got worse and better. Bowling along for a few kilometres on the concrete road, this would then come to an end and we’d be back on the grit and rubble, only for another cured section to start up further down the road. But the distance was racking up and we felt sure we’d come to the end of the roadworks soon.
It's 4.30am and THRB is raring to go....
Quite early in the day we caught sight of the Amur Darya River which was an encouraging sight, as it meant we would soon be leaving the desert behind us, at least for a while.
We came to a small collection of buildings stood on a bluff a few hundred feet above a bend in the river. Hoping they could give us some breakfast, we sniffed around. All we found was a jolly, fat-bellied Russian on his way back to Tashkent from the city of Nukus, whose truck had broken down. Almost a parody of a rough old Russian truck driver, with dirty looking shorts slung under his beautifully round and taut naked belly (the kind that all sharp objects should be kept well away from), short rusty hair and a larynx with a distinctive coarseness that only decades of smoking and vodka-drinking can create, he was very friendly, inviting us to come and sit down next to him on his bed and join him for a drink at least.
Resisting this tempting offer, instead we pumped him for information about how far it was to the next chaikhana, where the roadworks ended, whether we could cross the Amur Darya at the next bridge, how to reach it, and more besides. He answered with great certainty all of our questions, and we later discovered he was more or less wrong about all of them.
However, we had by then learnt to take people’s estimations of distance with a pinch of salt. We all agreed that if we were stopped in our own homelands by a distant traveller we would be equally useless at providing precise distances to various landmarks or towns. Kellen and Cory couldn’t even agree on the distance from their house to the centre of Detroit, which seemed to prove the point.
In the event, we didn’t have long to go. A chaikhana came up on the radar pretty quickly, where we re-energised and then pushed on to get out of the desert and back on a decent road. It was only another hour or so before we came to a proper town, which struck me as particularly chaotic and busy and noisy after the emptiness of the desert.
It's nice to be popular
We found a little roadside store to buy more cold drinks and chocolate – memorable only for the fact that they kept their air-conditioning about 10 degrees colder than any other store I remember in Central Asia. What a great idea! The philosophy of coolness is something I have reflected on at length during the many hours under the sun – but perhaps I’ll talk more of that later.
Meanwhile, happy to have made the transition back into civilization (of some kind), we wasted a bit of time trying to find our way to the road that led to a bridge which we’d heard about which could cut out a good 30km off our ride to Khiva. Only after literally being led by the hand to the end of this road did we get away from the town, and found ourselves riding past some quite attractive farmland, fields of cotton and vegetables, as well as fields of dill, its strong scent filling the little country lane that we followed.
It wasn’t long before we came to what we were looking for – the Amur Darya river. Set in the middle of a wide and low-lying floodplain, the Amur Darya could not be described as attractive. It is murky, muddy with bland looking banks. But we were pleased to reach it. The bridge that we found was not quite what we expected. Comprised of a series of barges sitting low in the water, strung together by steel cables and connected by sheets of beaten steel laid out on top, it reminded me of the pictures of old Bailey bridges used by the British and American armies in the Second World War.
Crossing the Amur Darya river
To celebrate passing this landmark and to cool off a bit, we went through the rather laborious process of taking a dip. The required a fair amount of precarious tip-toeing over some very prickly ground in the burning sunshine till we could finally slip in the gloopy brown water, and bathe amid suspicious looking lumps of gunge floating past.
Still it was wet. But we took care to keep our mouths closed.
By the time we were on the road again, it was the hottest part of the day. It was around 20km to the next town where we could have a break. Although it was all riding through villages and past creeks and tributaries of the Amur Darya (which were sometimes filled with local kids splashing around in their underpants), and there was some shade, I personally became quite desperate to reach our stop.
Eventually we got to the edge of the little town, but when I stopped and asked the first person where there was a chaikhana or at least a shop, he said it was another 3km into the centre of town.
My ears were ringing from the heat and my tongue was parched. Although we had water, it never took long for it to heat up to the point where it ceased to be refreshing. All of us agreed there were few things that had become more sickening to us than those repetitious sips of boiling hot water from slightly dirty water bottles, especially water that originally came from some dirty hosepipe. (But more on this later).
On this occasion, I was feeling slightly desperate, so as I road on, I finally turned a corner and saw what I took to be a little village shop. Not waiting for the others, I flung my bike down, stormed past two surprised looking old women sat in the shade nearby, swept aside the fly netting in an easy movement and rushed into the shade of the little store.
It took me about three seconds to look around and register that this store would not be selling me any cold drinks, or indeed any kind of food or drink, but only mobile phones. I’d obviously disturbed the man behind the counter from an afternoon nap. He looked up with a slightly gaping look on his face, but before he could speak I’d turned on my heel and was charging out into the sunlight as quickly as I’d come in.
It was only a few minutes later that I wondered what that man must have thought – disturbed from his reverie by a wild-eyed and wild-haired over-bearing European barging into his little store in this forgotten corner of Uzbekistan, looking like he was ready to tear something limb from limb (even if that was only a bottle of Fanta), who disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. I genuinely believe he must have thought he was having some kind of bizarre nightmare. (Or perhaps a vision of mysterious import). Either way I suspect he was left a little confused.
I only had to wait another kilometre or so before the real shop came, and was treated to the beautiful sensation of standing bare-foot on the cool stone floor of an air-conditioned shop, drinking in rapid succession two glass bottles of Coke that have been cooled to a point just short of freezing. I bless Coca-Cola with all my heart. What they have created is a wonderful thing. This is a pleasure barely short of divine.
(Perhaps you had to be there to understand this.)
Anyway, after another break, we still had 50km to run to reach Khiva. The evening was cooling down but a headwind had picked up and we were getting to the end of a ride of 470km in just three days. No mean feat. The last 30km followed a nice straight and sheltered road that had been re-surfaced to handle all the tourist traffic to this old historical city. We worked (for once) extremely well as a team to haul ourselves to our journey’s end, taking turns at the front every 5km and eating up the distance quite quickly. But I have to admit, I was completely finished by the time we were rolling into Khiva. My legs could barely move and were cramping up, even while we were still cycling.
The last few kilometres approaching Khiva
At last - Khiva - this wonderful town that evokes so much in the imagination that sums up Central Asia. How happy we all were to have made it!
We were just under halfway in our charge across Uzbekistan. But we could at least take a breath. It would need to be a deep one if it was to get us all the way to the Caspian, and we knew it.
But we would be ready.
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