Into the Heat

Into the Heat

 

Route to Tashkent

 

I awoke first with one eye, then with the other.  Slowly coming to consciousness and wondering whether I had escaped the hang-over I was pretty keen to avoid.

 

Swinging my feet onto the ground and standing up, I was happy to feel pretty clear-headed considering the length of the festivities the night before.  It was still early – only 9am - and I suddenly felt energised and determined to make the distance of 175km to Shymkent that day.

 

Although I tried to rouse Askar and Zarina to say farewell, there was no movement or sound coming from their room, so I simply left them a note at reception and then set out.

 

The road was easy to begin with, and the weather mild.  The sky was quite overcast, fending off most of the heat, and there was no wind to speak of. 

 

The first 40km went by quite quickly into the beginnings of the great Kazakh steppes, here cultivated with wheat and barley, in fields that stretched for miles with no sign of a boundary.  Around midday the road led up into some hills, and the going was slower and hotter for a while, until I popped out on the other side, apparently on a plain at a higher altitude.  The wind picked up and swung round in my face, and I slowed some more.

 

170km at this pace would mean a long day. 

 

After 60km, I was hungry and already tired.  All that dancing from the night before probably wasn’t helping (to say nothing of the one or two shots of vodka I might have seen away).  I pulled over at a pretty nondescript roadside café and ordered three bowls of food, hungry despite the feasting of the evening before.

 

As I ate, the greyness outside turned darker, and soon the spitting rain was turning into a shower, then a downpour and then a torrential thunderstorm.  Through the dirty window panes I could see people fleeing from the deluge under any cover they could find, picking their way gingerly but hastily through the deepening puddles.

 

Riiiiggght…..OK – only one thing for it.  Time for a sleep.  So, with the owner’s permission, I unrolled my air mattress and lay down in the corner of the restaurant and had a kip, to the apparent amusement of the other patrons.

 

Waking about an hour later, the rain had subsided but not completely.  Just enough for me to decide that I would continue on.  But within a few kilometres of setting out, down it came again.  Feeling a little light-headed, I just told myself that this was going to be one of those unpleasant three or four hour sessions and I will survive it.  Just to keep going.  I still had over 100km to go and it was already 5pm. 

 

“I can and will make it to Shymkent.”

 

As I had a straight section and my speed picked, my optimism grew despite being soaked to the skin.  But realistically on a bicycle it is hard to endure being completely wet in a wind.  Soon one becomes extremely cold.  So I pulled over, put on a dry top and then my raincoat, pulled up the hood tightly and set out again.

 

The wind battered me with gusts from different directions, and the road went up into a slight climb, but in fact it was only another half an hour like this before I reached some kind of checkpoint, and a high point in the landscape, after which the road continued through one village after another in a gentle descent.  

 

There were mountains to the south of me, and the rain lightened.  I could see the end of this front ahead of me now and the brilliant golden sunshine of the late afternoon slanting under the blanket of cloud.   Soon enough, I was out from under the cloud and in the sunshine.

 

Soaked from the inside this time with sweat (as always happen with the raincoat), I stopped for a little break by a restaurant to buy some more drinks.  There were two tables of men seated at the restaurant, on the little dais arrangements with short-legged tables under which you sit cross-legged.  One group asked me to join them for some food.  Despite needing to push on, I agreed and was treated to yet more delicious shashlyk and some banter with these truck drivers, one of whom was Turkish (his family having been deported to Uzbekistan by Stalin) and the others were Uzbek.  Once again, I was slightly amazed by the level of hospitality one enjoys passing through these Central Asian countries.  But I couldn’t dawdle if I still wanted to get to Shymkent that day, so quite soon I was back on the road, having bid them farewell.

 

...after an exhausting ride through a thunderstorm - a welcome sight

The rolling fields of southern Kazakhstan

 

It was a beautiful evening now, and the landscape had evolved into deep rolling undulations, with fields of corn spreading either side of the road, interspersed with small patches of woodland and the occasional wandering herd of cattle. 

 

But the going was hard.  What were gentle undulations for a motorist were actually quite sizable hills for a cyclist, and the last 40km or so into Shymkent were a relentless rhythm of 2 or 3 minute descents followed by 20 minute climbs. 

 

Fields of gold...

Fields of gold - which I could just about still appreciate at this point

 

Dusk fell into darkness and I continued on, pretty short of energy now and in need of a bed.  Although I didn’t want to stop, I was persuaded to take a little break by a car load of Russians, who complained that I couldn’t understand what they were saying and said my eyes looked all screwy.  Both of which were true as my brain by that stage was feeling decidedly unhinged.

 

Russian road warriors with a cross-eyed THRB

Feeling pretty ropey as a car-load of Russians get me to stop

 

But I carried on more and more slowly until I crested a hill and finally saw the lights of Shymkent in the distance.  It was another 45 minutes’ riding before I reached anywhere near the city centre, and stopped in a petrol station to get my bearings.

 

The security guard sat with a shotgun across his lap, and the two pump attendants joined in the conversation, one of them seeming to take great delight in telling me how dangerous it was out at night in Kazakhstan, and that there were bandits out there desperate to rob me (at which he’d peel off into laughter at the thought). 

 

At any rate, they set me on the road towards one of the hotels in the book.  It was after midnight by then, and the night folk were out on the streets.  Wedding parties spilled out onto the streets, the sound of muffled house music throbbed as I passed clubs and bars, and cars with thumping speakers screeched their tyres as they sped away impatiently from traffic lights and empty junctions.

 

The light went red and I pulled up to wait.  A bright white car with alloy hub caps drew up next to me, and the window drew down slowly.

 

I looked over.  The shaded window dropped to reveal the slanting dark eyes and long lashes of the beautiful but hard looking face of a Russian woman.  With all the careful make-up characteristic of women I recalled from my time in Moscow, she looked like what she no doubt was, a gorgeous predator. 

 

She called me over, to which I dutifully obliged.  She asked me what I was doing, and I told her, all the while watching her eyes that seemed like a sort of vortex of lust.  I knew I looked like hell, after 170km of wind battering, my lengthening hair manages to tie itself in knots and sits in a kind of lumpen shock on top of my head, and my face was streaked with the dried salt from sweat earlier in the day.  But from the look she was giving me I might as well have been Achilles himself. 

 

I suppose the male instinct in me inwardly preened itself under this look, and I would have been happy to chat to her all night.  But whatever conversation was just beginning between us was interrupted by the man sitting in the driver’s seat.  He was a Kazakh man and had a confident and laconic air.  Assuming them to be a couple, I immediately shifted my attention to him, and he took up the conversation which soon moved on to getting directions for a decent hotel.  All the while, I could still feel the woman’s eyes on me, and though I wanted to return her look, I didn’t. 

 

Eventually the man had set me straight as to where I should head, and the lights began to change.  The woman leaned forward out of the window just a little and said in a lower voice, “do you need any girls?”  My response must have been a fairly blank look, as she repeated, “do you want a girl tonight?  We can get you one.” 

 

I let out a kind of half chuckle and said “No, thanks.  I’ll be fine alone.”  She shrugged her beautiful bare shoulders and up went the window as I let the speed of the bike build down the hill.

 

Dostoyevsky wrote: “It’s a hell of a situation, you know: what the head brands as shameful may appear as sheer beauty to the heart.  …  The terrible thing is that beauty is not only frightening but a mystery as well.  That’s where God and the devil join battle, and their battlefield is the heart of man.”

 

Ridiculous phone calls in the middle of night from Chinese women offering "milk", and the alluring lashes of a Russian woman face to face are really two quite different things.

 

**********

 

Anyway, I hope you are neither offended nor surprised by my recounting these kinds of things to you.   The idea is to share the journey as it is lived, so there it is…

 

The next day I wasn’t sure whether to stay in Shymkent or press on to Tashkent so I could arrive there ready for the start of the week. 

 

After a pretty disappointing breakfast, it was too tempting to round out the 110km to a decent rest on that same day, so I once more pulled together all my stuff, and set out into the blazing heat of a clear Kazakh sky.

 

The journey passed pretty uneventfully, but often slowly.  The rolling hills continued, occasionally drawing out into quite lengthy climbs, especially in the heat of the middle of the day, and I would have to stop sometimes for up to half an hour and take on water and soft drinks to cool down my body. 

 

But fortunately the second half of the distance proved easier than the first and I was soon approaching the border crossing from Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan.   30km away, then 20, then 10.

 

It was already quite late by the time I rolled up to the big iron gates that marked the beginning of the border control complex.  A throng of pedestrian travellers huddled together on the right hand side, all trying to get through the small gateway beside the guard post. 

 

I changed the last of my Kazakh Tenge into Uzbek Som – a ridiculous currency to handle right now, of which more another time – and then assumed I had to join the back of the queue.  But a guard from off to the left called out for me, and I was ushered in through the big steel gates, flashed my passport, and wheeled my bike onward toward the customs control hall.

 

Passing through into Uzbekistan had its little fiddly bits, but basically, with some patience, and a ready smile for the officials, the process was surprisingly painless, dare I say fun.  One of the Uzbek officers dealing with incoming people took it upon himself to help me fill in the forms correctly and go through the baggage checks (which thankfully didn’t involve a check of each and every item this time).  It’s so useful being able to communicate with these guys.  He was actually very friendly, and he too (like all customs officials it seems) was keen to impress upon me that as far as hospitality was concerned, Uzbekistan was second to none. 

 

By the time I was through, the last light of the day was finally fading, so I turned on my flashlight for the second time in two days and set off for the final 20km into the heart of Tashkent.

 

This distance passed very quickly, flying past shops, houses and gas stations that populated the roadside more or less the whole way.  Before too long I was obviously passing inside the limits of the city proper, but of all the cities I’ve come to, Tashkent is far and away the worst sign-posted.

 

In fact there are no sign-posts, nor are the street names immediately obvious as you roll along the road.  But through compass readings and following my nose, and occasional asking of directions I gradually zoned in on my target destination. 

 

My first Uzbek friends - not including the customs guard

A likely bunch of Tashkent lads

 

Eventually I found the main road off which the little street should have run, but I must have missed the turn, so I drew up by a little store.  I asked the collection of young men there where I was.  They proved very friendly, and after a few minutes conversation, they said I was very close and they knew the place, but they wanted to take me there themselves. 

 

These fellas kindly helped me...

Local transport advisers approaching midnight on my arrival in Tashkent

 

So tired, I was happy to accept their offer, so they bundled me and my bike into their little minibus and all jumped in with me.

 

Cut a long story short (they wouldn’t let me go straight there without first showing me the big cultural centre of Khast Imom, newly renovated with its huge mosque, minarets, madrassa, and the museum housing the oldest manuscript of the Qur’an in the world), I found a bed.  Not the one I intended but a bed nonetheless.

 

And so here I am – in the colourful, hot, green and welcoming capital of Uzbekistan. 

 

In a word, this is Central Asia. 

 

And Tashkent feels like it.


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