GO, GO, G'O'Zbekistan!!
- Categorized in: July 2011
Khiva has the dubious reputation of once being the largest human slave market in Central Asia. Slaves from all four points of the compass changed hands here well into the 19th century, but no one seemed inclined to do much about it for the sake of their subjects except the Russians. Despite a couple of notable failed attempts to take over the Khanate of Khiva in the 18th century, ending in disasters of spectacular proportions typical of the region, eventually in 1873 the Russians sent a force well organised enough to hold its ground and obliterate any Khivan opposition it met along the way. This brought an end to the practice of trading slaves, one of the cornerstones of the Khivan economy.
Along with the rest of the old Russian empire in this region, the Khanate of Khiva was swallowed up by the Bolshevik Revolution when it came, being transformed into the Khorezm People’s Republic in 1920. The last Khan was conveniently and summarily executed, and when the new republic showed a lack of serious enthusiasm for the Bolshevik’s brand of socialism, the little republic was swallowed up into the larger Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, of which it now remains a part.
All manner of interesting shenanigans went on in and around Khiva during the Great Game. Knowing the British stories a little better than the Russian, I can tell you of a couple of notable characters. During 1839 Captain Richmond Shakespeare excelled in following his orders to negotiate with the Khan for the release of all the Russian slaves kept in Khiva, in order to remove the possibility of the Russians using these slaves as a pretext for invasion. He was entirely successful, and marched 400 men, women and children back to Russia, much to the chagrin of the Russian generals champing at the bit to have a go at Khiva. When he got back to England, he was invited to Buckingham Palace for tea and medals, and got back to his post in India just in time to hear the news that he’d avoided one of the biggest military disasters in British Imperial history – the Retreat from Kabul.
Lookout across the old city in Khiva
Despite his efforts to stall the Russian invasion, it did eventually go ahead. Once secured, the Russians issued an edict declaring Khiva as off limits to any foreigners (especially nosey Englishmen). This came to the attention of the other notable character I'll mention, who was Captain Frederick Burnaby – a gifted multi-linguist and a man so big he could apparently straddle a small pony with both feet touching the ground. He happened to be reading a newspaper while serving in the British Army in Khartoum, Sudan when he spotted an article about this new prohibition. Taking this as a personal challenge to his resourcefulness, he declared that he would be damned before being told where he could and couldn’t go by any Rusky. And he was sure they were up to no good at any rate. So he decided to make the trip to Khiva during his four weeks’ of Christmas leave in the depths of winter.
Taking the train from London to St Petersburg, he slowly made his way by train and then by sleigh to the outermost limits of the Russian frontier to the south, hired himself a batman, a guide and a couple of camels, and completed the journey across the frozen steppe in temperatures as low as minus 40 Celsius in several feet of snow, nearly losing his hands to frostbite in the process. Deftly evading the Russian authorities, he did finally get to Khiva, where with due deference he secured an audience with the last independent Khan of Khiva – a man he described as “muy simpatico” – for want of a better expression, despite the Khan’s reputation as someone who should rank a few degrees lower than the Baby-Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells.
Khivans enjoying a good meal - in miniature
Burnaby’s account of his journey – A Ride to Khiva – is considered a Great Game classic and in fact would make interesting reading for anyone travelling in this part of the world. I’ve occasionally wondered what he would have made of the swarms of cyclists today piling along the routes that he considered so outlandish in his time.
I suppose he might say, “Pah! Asphalt! Roads! Shops in every town….no one carries any guns….where are the brigands? Where are the cut-throats? An iPhone? What the devil is that??” (Etc. etc.)
To which I would reply, “Well, I do at least carry all my own stuff. Two servants? Two horses? Three camels? For one British Officer? Come off it! “A Ride to Khiva” – should be called “Sitting on Your Butt All the Way to Khiva while Someone Else Gets You There.” (Etc. etc.)
Yet, undoubtedly the man had the gift of the Gab, and he was something of a legend in his own day.
Perhaps we could agree on one thing. If crossing the desert from Khiva to the Caspian Sea in the depths of winter is madness, crossing the same country at the height of summer demonstrates a decided want of reason too.
Of course, necessity drove us both to it.
As for our little team, we had come to a milestone. Khiva was our last day off before Aktau, the port lying on the Caspian Sea, some 1,100km to the north-west. It was spent, as you’d expect, traipsing round some of the sites in the Old City, which is remarkably well-preserved, extremely atmospheric, and in every way “just the job” for anyone with a strong Central Asian touristic itch to scratch.
I won’t dwell on how we went about this since nothing of particular note happened. But I would suggest you take a look at some of the photos I’ve put up in the Uzbekistan photo gallery to see what a remarkable-looking place it still is.
We also managed to get Cory’s back wheel fixed.
Every team needs a weak link, and unfortunately Cory’s rear wheel was it. It is amazing to me that he showed SO much patience with his bike. Somewhere along the line, there was a failure of understanding, communication, or perhaps it was a blinding flash of optimism, that meant Cory had arrived with a beautiful spanking new retro-looking touring bike, with super-sleek tyres, that would look wonderful speeding along the by-ways of the Loire Valley, but far less impressive over the mass of white rubble they call a road in Western Kazakhstan.
"Ooh, that'll cost yer!"
What hadn’t been impressed on him enough was quite how bad the condition of this road was going to be. I think it was difficult to know this anyway. But the result was that his poor bike took a battering that it was clearly not designed to endure. I lost count of broken spokes and flat tyres, but I’m sure he didn’t. But by the time we had to put him and his bike in the back of a Russian truck a couple of hundred kilometres short of Aktau, his back inner tube was more patch than tube.
Nevertheless, as my old boss used to say, we are where we are. (Or rather we were where we were.) And we were determined we would get to Aktau one way or the other with what we had.
Kellen and I both came to the conclusion that the fastest we could possibly cover the 1,100km was in 8 days. We would do this by averaging around 150km per day, and where possible we would try to find suitable locations to get off the road for the hottest part of the day (which would be approaching 45 degrees Celsius), and if we couldn’t we’d cower in the shade of a storm drain or something (where available).
We had never heard of anyone covering the distance this quickly. But that only made us more determined to do it. And of course, however fast you think you are, your actual speed is heavily contingent upon what the wind has up its sleeve for you. (This is where religious types like myself start muttering to heaven.)
But the general cry was, “Go, Go, G’O’Zbekistan!”
Water was to be of prime concern and so we all had our drinking bottles and several other water containers to carry extra water which would be needed throughout the day. We’d adopted a policy of drinking any source of water that the locals were also happy to drink. So for example, this meant we filled up from an assortment of taps, hosepipes, boiled water tanks and any other means by which the locals provided themselves with water. Often this water tasted quite appalling and it was an unfailing delight every time we arrived at a chaikhana or a shop and could drink something other than boiling hot rancid hose water.
Still, as we left Khiva and our kind hosts who’d put us up in their beautifully air-conditioned house just outside the western gate of the Old City, we’d been furnished with reasonably cold water from their tap, which didn’t taste too bad.
Our hosts in Khiva - behind you can see the western gate of the Old City
As we set out on the road out of town in our little peloton, we passed a gaping-mouthed gaggle of school kids traipsing along the roadside. They literally froze and stared as we piled off into the distance with a jolly wave.
Kellen wondered aloud what it would be like for the situation to be reversed. He imagined a scene in which he would be sitting one Saturday morning, outside Starbucks in front of his local shopping mall back home, about to open the paper and lifting his semi-skimmed mocha latte decaf to his lips, when, in a sudden flash of zooming tyres and whirring chains, three Saudi women regaled in full burkhas speed past in a neat line, spraying themselves down with water, a billow of black cloth flapping behind them. I have to admit, this image kept me giggling for at least a couple of kilometres. (It still does!)
It was a fine morning and not too hot. We sped from town to town, slowly crossing part of the fertile Amur Darya delta throughout which agriculture was abundant, and the trees and crops had a cooling effect on the air.
It was around lunch time when we reached the main river once more, and we stopped for our daily break at the last in a long row of restaurants that led to the bridge. Of course there was nothing to eat but melons and fish, but we needed nothing more.
Re-crossing the Amur Darya towards Nukus
When we set out again, we crossed the bridge and immediately I got a puncture. I was a bit shocked since I had one of my reserve “bomb-proof” tyres on my back wheel, but this didn’t seem enough to defend against a nasty little piece of shrapnel picked up on the bridge.
Once it was fixed, we turned north-west towards Nukus and endured one of the most physically exhausting sections of our 8 day charge, grinding our way painfully (in turns) against a strong crossheadwind along the road which led us back into the desert in a slow but relentless climb.
But as the sun dropped, the wind died with it and we got a whiff of our destination for the day, which was to be Nukus, the last big town in Uzbekistan, if you’re leaving by the western (back) door. Finishing off the last 25km into town in the dark, we managed to find our hotel pretty painlessly, and we were fed, watered and tucked up in their spare room (which was in fact a yurt in the back courtyard) within 45 minutes of getting there.
Cory enjoying our home for the night - in a yurt
Phew! Right – 170km down in one day. A good start.
A shorter, hotter day to follow. If you look at a map, you’ll see the city of Nukus sits up there in the top left corner of Uzbekistan, not too far from a couple of smaller towns. One is called Moynak. This is a sorry sort of a place. It used to be a seaside port that thrived on its fishing industry in the Aral Sea. Today it lies more than 100km from the sea shore. The Aral Sea is one of the great ecological disasters of the 20th/21st centuries. Since we can, let’s blame the Soviets. They managed to divert so much of the Amur Darya river for irrigation for their cotton agriculture as it flowed through Uzbekistan, that the Aral Sea has effectively been completely choked of the main source of its water supply. Because of this, it has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk to a pitiful puddle that, according to environmental experts, while one day vanish. And of course, with it will vanish all the industry and economy that was supported by it. In fact, most of this has already gone.
So that’s Moynak. A little to the south and west is the town of Kongirat, which really is the last sizable town before the road shoots off in a dead straight line, 350km to the border.
Kongirat lies only 100km from Nukus. It was burning hot (comme d’habitude) but there was a bit of a headwind too so it was a weary sort of day, albeit not too long. Kongirat itself was nothing special. I remember a lot of broken glass on the ground, and a big rail junction. We stayed in a place that passed itself off as the town hotel, but was really just a room with three sofas in it – and one fan. The shower was quite ingenious though. A over-sized bucket suspended over a kind of cupboard. You step inside and turn the tap and the water sprays out – fast at first, then slower and slower as the pressure drops. They charge you through the nose for refilling the bucket.
We went out to get some provisions, and …..some information.
Just what was out there? And what state was the road in?
The general consensus from two or three different people – after some consultation - seemed to be that after leaving Kongirat it was 40km until a factory, then after that another 130km until the “town” of Jazliq. By town, they explained, they meant about three buildings. One of which is a gas station, and another a chaikhana. (Fine.)
After that it was either another 100km or 150km until the border town called Karakalpaki where there would be another chaikhana. The border control was another 20km further on.
So with this information, we set out at around 6.30am the following morning knowing we had at least 170km until the next source of water. Between us we had around 20 litres of water which we thought would be enough. We took it from a rusty old tap beside the shower. The water was brownish and tasted like it had been strained through someone’s dirty laundry. It was foul.
Still, whaddaya gonna do?
Off we went, and every 5km past seemed like a gasp of relief. What would the wind do? How would the heat be? When they say “nothing”, do they really mean “nothing” for 170km?
Leaving Kongirat - what would be out there?
I would say the answer to the last question is “no”.
In fact we quickly past the factory, and then there was another collection of buildings, some apparently still used, some abandoned which hadn’t been mentioned, another 20km further on. After that, at around 100km done, we came to a little abandoned hovel, probably an old chaikhana that had been abandoned some time ago when the route of the road changed.
The "hovel" - literally a real dump, but it did provide shade
It was so hot we decided to stop here for our lunch – extremely poor fare of basically bread, a tomato and dog-meat (sold as some kind of beef). And some nuts. Inside the hovel was just dust and small dried out piles of what I took to be human excrement. Charmant!
Kellen and Cory wanted to sit out the heat of the day there and lay down and fell asleep. Within a few minutes I followed suit but woke within 40 minutes or so and sat getting, very literally, hot and bothered. Eventually I ran out of patience and woke them up and said we should try to make it to this next settlement.
The following 70km were no fun at all. By this stage we were all quite tired from lack of sleep and some quite big distances done already. Within 30 or 40km I felt I was really struggling, and could see the others weren’t doing much better. We had a couple of little breaks to eat some snacks, but I really didn’t feel like eating the food that we had with us in that heat. The water was disgusting, boiling hot and in fact running low.
I had brought quite a lot more than the others on this occasion and we’d shared it out. With about 25km to go, we ran out. This was not great planning on our part to say the least! (But we learnt our lesson.)
25km is not so bad but it was bad enough. The terrain had changed from the morning, where we had to climb out of the town of Kongirat onto a sort of plateau, which after about 80km flattened out into the pale void of wilderness that it would remain like this for the next 500 or more kilometres. But by the evening, it was dead flat. So when we finally saw the low buildings of “something” come on the horizon, this at first seemed encouraging, until about 20 minutes later when they seemed no closer at all. It took us probably an hour of pedalling to close the distance, where indistinct lumps in the horizon turned into buildings, and telegraphs poles, and the forecourt of a gas station. By this stage, with no water for any of us, we’d strung out. I just wanted to get there.
Where is this chaikhana then?
All afternoon I had been fantasising about English summer gardens, jugs of iced elderflower water, or better still Pimms – the quintessentially English summer drink – which had my mind in raptures over slices of lemon, and floating strawberries, and leaves of mint and as many ice cubes as I could fit into one glass. Meanwhile I’d been sucking on my pants-flavoured water, after each mouthful of which I had to spit so revolting was the taste.
So you can imagine the gritted teeth, the final burst of energy, the fixed stare into the setting sun as I pushed on and on to reach this place that seemed to keep slipping further over the horizon. Was that a truck? Is that really a gas station? Why can’t I see anything moving? They’ve gotta have at least a tap somewhere amongst those building, haven’t they? Lord, let there at least be a tap! Etc., ad nauseam.
We must have looked a curious sight. Arriving one by one several hundred metres apart, leaving our bikes in a heap on the forecourt and staggering inside in the hope of what we did indeed find.
The woman behind the counter opened by telling me what exchange rate for dollars she would accept. This crazy non-sequitur threw me for a few moments, and she got out her calculator and was tapping away. I said, “Please, listen. Just get the coldest drink you have. We’ll talk about paying later.” My ears were ringing again from the heat and exhaustion (a curious side-effect) which makes it hard to both speak and of course hear, but eventually she grasped that I was really not interested in exchanging money just now.
By the time Cory arrived, half a litre of ice cold Sprite had already disappeared down my throat, followed by a litre of water, and then I took out my litre of Coke to sit on the terrace and gulp it down in my own time, like a baby with its bottle.
So good. It’s a strange kind of pleasure when your whole existence reduces itself down to the need simply for a glass of water. Nothing else in life seems important until that need is satisfied. But when it is, it is like a kind of ecstasy. A soaring moment of pure pleasure which, perhaps like many pleasures, is gone just as quickly. By the time I was a quarter of the way through my Coke I was far less excited about drinking the rest of it.
Apart from finally satisfying our thirst, none of us were in a particularly good way. We all needed to lie down, and I felt utterly spaced out. I couldn’t hear anyone, and couldn’t hear myself speak either until quite a lot later in the evening.
But we were going to be fine. We ate well, although it was difficult to eat enough to fuel the intensity of exertion that we were going through each day. And we slept on a rickety old tapchan outside, falling asleep quite quickly.
But not before I’d had a conversation with the owner of the place who appeared as we were bedding down. He said it was too bad we were going to Kazakhstan. He said they weren’t very hospitable.
“Really?” I said. “I found them pretty friendly when I was in Taraz.”
“Huh! Maybe. Sometimes they are OK. But in Beyneu, the first town you’ll come to, I would say roughly 100% of the people are thieves.”
Riiiiiggght. That’s good to know.
The following day we couldn’t get away early because the place was all locked up and we needed water so we sat and waited, despite much banging on the door.
This day was a lot easier. We made sure we over-provisioned on water and set off. We’d been told it was 130km. There was a strong tailwind with us this time which was a huge blessing. The scenery was…..well there was no scenery.
We managed to organise ourselves into being quite efficient taking turns on the front, and before we knew it we’d knocked out 90km. We stopped in the fullness of shade of ….a signpost to eat our “lunch” – bread and a cucumber. Oh, and a tomato. And nuts again. The wealth of dry biscuits we’d bought I just couldn’t stomach in the heat.
The next 40km was a bit more challenging mainly because it was more like the next 55km.
[Is this really boring by the way? If so, skip a bit!! I don’t blame you. It was far from interesting to ride too.]
Clouds appeared – woohoo! Every time one went overhead, the temperature dropped markedly and the speed picked up. Kellen had a puncture, and blew up one of his spare tubes when he fixed it. That was a bit shocking.
Anyway, suffice to say, we struggled on, saw the line of trees that marked the little settlement – we were thrilled and elated, until 15km later the trees still seemed an extremely long way off.
We were learning our lesson though. The desert does end (but not yet). Distances do close. And chaikhanas are reached.
Oh, I love chaikhanas. The one in Karakalpaki, the last outpost before the border with Kazakhstan, will remain in my mind as the definitive chaikhana experience. The bottles of water and Pepsi (this time) were beautifully cold, the floor was comfortable, the staff were friendly, the company was generous and interesting, the food was tasty and plentiful, the room was a boiling hot sweat pit but outside the night air was cool, there was a family of gypsies eating at one of the other tables (who kept staring at us), a Kazakh man invited us to share his enormous melon, there were camels drinking from a watering hole at the back, we slept out under the stars, there were drunk travellers being irritating, the outhouse had at least a 15 foot long-drop, and I slept jolly well.
So happy - on my back, sweating, having downed two bottles of iced Pepsi
Meanwhile, a storm had gone through in the night and we awoke to quite a wind. But creeping gingerly round the corner of the building to see in which direction it was blowing, I found it was going to be a strong tailwind. Excellent!
Kellen sharing a waterhole with a couple of gypsies and a camel...
This being the case, the 20km to the border crossing were done in under 40 minutes. We were held up a little bit getting through to the other side, but we passed the time chatting to people around us, the question of grand import to us being: “how is the road to Beyneu?”
We met one old fella who was more interested in us than most of the others. He was going with a group of his family to visit his brother-in-law who lived in Beyneu.
“Great! You must know what the road is like then?”
“Yes, of course. It’s a new asphalt road. Brand new! Very good.”
(Amazing! We’d heard it was awful.)
“When did they built the road then? We heard it was terrible.”
“Five years ago.”
“Five years ago? Hmm.. and when did you last go to Beyneu?”
“Me? Oh….8 years ago.” (Beaming)
“So you’ve never actually seen the road then?”
As it turned out, there was no road. Or nothing any European would call a road. Just a kind of pale streak of dust and rocks and gravel, arranged carefully in ripples and ruts to maximise discomfort for small vehicles, such as bicycles.
OK. Another drawn breath. We're in Kazakhstan. 85km of grit to Beyneu. 550km to the sea. Let’s go.
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