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Cycling without Borders!
Published: 3rd March 2015
Written by: James Marr
The Lone Ranger – Uzbekistan
Every man has his Achilles heel. In the case of Tom Roberts, his Achilles heel is his Achilles heel. Or is it? After the harsh conditions of the Kazakh Steppe, I couldn’t blame him if his problems were perhaps not entirely physical. I’m just upset I didn’t think of it first.
Regardless, the result for me was cycling alone through Uzbekistan for 16 days. This was a great experience, but it’s the events of just 4 days that I am going to share. This is the story of my lone cycle through the desert between the ancient Silk Road towns of Khiva and Bokhara.
Day 1 – Leaving Khiva
The Som of all my parts
It took me a while to leave Khiva, partly because of how fantastic the ancient walled city was, partly because I was scared shitless of cycling alone in the desert, and partly because I had logistical problems, namely getting access to local currency.
Som, or to give it it’s official name, “funny money”, comes in notes of 1000 maximum (which equates to around 20 pence). To get hold of funny money you must first locate an ATM, of which there are a total of 2 in the whole of Uzbekistan, and one of these doesn’t work. From here you can get US dollars. The next stage in the adventure is to track down what the locals refer to as “shady characters”. These legitimate business men and women can be identified by their holdall full of used bills.
You make the deal, count the Som, and nobody has to get hurt.
As I left town came across a new phenomenon. In the short time I’d been cycling on my own I’d seen some charades which were so obscenely graphic that I’d often double take, then startle, and quite probably blush. The words were in Russian but unless these men were inviting me to partake in some extreme form of needlework it could only mean one thing. Prostitutes.
Now, not to say that the saddening cultural significance of this has bypassed me, but it would be a lie to say that my over-riding preoccupation as a result of these incidents wasn’t “why now?” I’d cycled through many capital cities with Tom and it would be naive to suggest that there wasn’t sex trade in those places. I also know that since we parted Tom has had at least one similar offer (ruling out the somewhat worrying theory that I look like the type of guy who might be up for it). So what’s left? You don’t suppose that we look like we are, you know, together? He’s not even my type!
Anyway don’t worry Eliza, I didn’t elicit any services.
I’m on a budget.
The Oxus (Amu Darya river)
“There in the moonlight gleamed before us the broad bosom of the mighty river that from the glaciers of the Pamir rolls its 1500 miles of current down to the Aral Sea.”
“Even today few foreigners have ever set eyes on this river, so remote is its course.”
Yeah well I totally cycled there, didn’t I? It really was an enchanting find in an otherwise barren landscape.
I had been warned. I was gonna get shaken down at every opportunity. AVOID the military, and the police, but especially the military police, they’re the worst!
So when I found myself on a desert road, with no cars in sight, and a man in uniform pointing a gun at me I immediately reached for my brown trousers. “O’n besh!” he shouted (fifteen). Then he gave me a thumbs up.
I pulled over and we spent the next ten minutes looking at my bike and playing with his speed gun.
All 6 of the remaining notorious military checkpoints passed with similar joviality. Chit chat, cey and the occasional glance at my passport.
Maybe it was the saddle related pudendal nerve palsy, but the desert wasn’t doing it for me any more. More likely to be the cause of my loss of cycling libido was the mile upon mile of bleak nothingness. If I looked behind: nothing, infront: nothing. The road just faded off into the horizon in both directions. Sometimes, when a car came over the horizon I would count how long it took to get to me, and attempted to use this number for all sorts of ridiculous mental arithmetic. It also let me know how long I could completely switch off for before I had to start worrying about avoiding traffic again.
This desert even lacked the FUNdamental feature which I had come to expect following the Kazakh Steppe. Camels! In fact, the only Camel I have seen in Uzbekistan was chained to a tree in Khiva. She was called Katya and you could pay to take photographs beside her, although it costs more to actually be in the photo. Naturally I didn’t do this out of principle.
The Principle of Tightfistedness.
The desert at night, cyclists delight
I decided to seek an end to this monotony by cycling into the night, churning out over 220km for the day. As it happened, this was a great decision. I found myself cycling on empty roads, in complete silence, with the moon lighting the way and the stars as bright as they get. It was a magical experience that I won’t forget in a hurry. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any photos that would do this justice, sorry.
“Every day I wake up, poke my head out of the tent and hope the fucking thing has been stolen. Then I can go home.”
These were the words of Marco, an Australian we met back in Albania, who had been cycling for 7 months on a single speed bike and was growing weary. On the morning of day 3 I knew how he felt. Aside from a repeat of the sand, solitude and saddle paralysis of the previous day, I remembered what had happened the night before.
Just as I was reaching total cycling zen I got a sense that all was not well in my universe. The sense was hearing, and the sound was of the springy gear changer bit at the back of my bike grinding and then bending to an unrecognisable shape. Anxious not to kill the mood, I ignored it, stuck the tent up and fell immediately asleep under the stars.
But then morning came, and the stars were gone. I had to face it. To be honest it didn’t take much thought on my part, “well, if it’s good enough for Marco” I said to no one. And a single speed conversion it was.
How did I choose a gear? I hadn’t changed gear in over 200 miles, why start now.
Lost in translation
Meet Alex. He’s Russian. He jumped off a lorry just in front of me when I was in the middle of the desert. He’s been hitch-hiking around the world for 6 months, and on this day he just fancied a chat. Unfortunately the only words he could speak in English were “yes”, “no”, “beer” and “thank you”. Coincidentally this is also the extent of my Russian.
So the conversation went something like this:
“AVENGE ME!” he began (I think), “For I was mortally wounded in a vicious attack in Kazakhstan and now I am back from the dead” he seemed to continue. “Then I was abducted by that Uzbek Lorry driver and brought to the desert to haunt it until the sun shines no more” he probably concluded. Then I think he also slipped into conversation that he was one of the founding members of the 1970s progressive rock quintet ‘Supertramp’, although he didn’t say which one.
Or maybe he was saying that his travels were inspired by the story of Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) and that he had been hitching his way around Siberia and northern Kazakhstan for several months before he was the victim of an assault. They had a knife and would have killed him had it not been for the Uzbek truck driver who turned up and gave him a lift out of the country. Now he was in the desert until he got another lift, which he hoped would be soon because it was getting dark.
Despite the lack of common language, we were both so used to non-verbal communication that when he told me his whole story in Russian I understood virtually all of it, something which struck me as being quite amazing when I thought about it later.
Before I left him I reminded him to be careful, given how the story ended for the real Alex Supertramp. I hope he understood.
Day 4 – Arriving in Bokhara
Take a look at this photo. Cool, isn’t it? Both Khiva and Bokhara were full of this Aladdin, magic carpet, Ali Baba and the 40 thieves stuff. This particular Minaret is said to have struck such awe in Genghis Khan that even during his notorious destructive pique he ordered it to be spared.
Now look at the photo again, and try to find the thing that spoke to my heart.
In the bottom left hand corner, on the side wall of one of this ancient town’s most famous Madrassas, is the painted outline of a football goal. The young football stars clearly not sharing Khans high opinion of their town’s beauty.
The marvels of modern medicine
Tom has now undergone an intensive rehab regimen straight from the forefront of modern medical research (2 weeks Ibuprofen and rest, and maybe try some frozen peas). We’re ready to set off together for the next stage of our adventure. I’ll be glad to have company again, but I have to say this last section has been pretty magical. It turns out that cycling alone is a pure laugh.