Melting along the Silk Road

Melting along the Silk Road

Uzbekistan was without a doubt the hottest country we had ever been. A bit like a flashback to Portugal on one of its hottest days of the year, but worse. Even hotter (or perhaps just drier) and without any ocean nearby to dive in to cool down, not even for a few minutes.

We entered the country next to Khiva, which Timothee (who with Julie and Lipo we had met in Bulgaria) had said was his favourite place on their whole trip. It seemed a promising start. It was in fact part of the reason we chose our route through Turkmenistan. We would get to see Ashgabat, sleep next to the Darvaza gas crater and conveniently enter Uzbekistan near this epic historical silk road town.

Khiva did not disappoint! Surrounded by a mix of brick and clay walls (which we managed to sneak in through without paying the ridiculous entrance fee and to even climb at the end of the day as the sun set), it’s architecture was completely new and amazing to us. We had found Aladdin’s home. We wandered around town gazing at the buildings, at their tiles and peering through the wooden doors.

After Khiva we could have simply taken the train to Bukhara and avoided cycling in this desert dominated country in the scorching hot temperatures. We could have, but of course decided not to, actually actively wanting to have the experience of cycling in the desert… Cyclomasochists, Stefan would say…

Somehow we felt it would also make up for the fact we didn’t cycle at all in Turkmenistan and cheated our way with trains. And most of all, we actually missed cycling, realising how little cycling we did in Iran in the end!

Now, given how high the temperatures rose and how quickly they would rise, we know we had no other chance than waking up as early as possible, to start our day even before the sun had risen. It soon became our routine to wake up around 5am and to cycle until lunch time, then stop for a few good hours and cycle just a little more to our next campspot.

So we did, or tried atleast, the first day when we left Khiva towards the desert. We soon realised we couldn’t even really cycle till lunch time as at around 11.30 the temperatures were already unbearable. We collapsed in a heap at the nearest restaurant and were offered the chance to sleep and eat as if clearly reading from our tired and beetroot coloured faces.

Eventually we got to the edge of the desert and soon realised that this ideal image of camping in one didn’t quite meet reality. It was like camping at the beach, which we don’t like anyway, but without the ocean and so therefore worse. During the night we sweated and sweated and had to control the urge of just leaving the tent and sleeping outside (with all the scorpions and snakes that were likely around).

The next day our desert adventure stretch would begin. We checked how long the stretchs would be between “civilization”. It meant cycling as quickly as we could between shops, cafés, gas stations or whatever we could find for shade. It meant however we would have to cycle on average at least 40km between breaks, meaning at least 2 hours in the hell-burning sun non-stop.

We managed to cycle 80km before 10h30  but by then the heat was just physically unbearable. As we approached the end of our second stretch we started to wonder where the hell was it and if we would actually make the remaining 10km, as it was so hot we struggled for breath and our bodies started to have strange cold shivers. But we had to no choice but to make it, as there was zero shade anywhere around. When we finally reached the road side restaurant we collapsed inside and admitted defeat. Our bodies simply could not take it….

We were a bit sad as we were kinda curious as to how it would feel cycling through 400km of nothingness… And we, perhaps naively, hoped for some awesome desert campings. But sometimes you have to make your ambitions meet reality and recognise your (mental and physical) limits and we had reached ours.

Luckily we managed to get a ride on a passing truck, which proved itself bumpy and hard, even inside. Sarah’s bike took a plunge as it hopped around in the back of the truck, which made us even sadder when we left the truck and found the bicycle quite destroyed from the ride… karma eh?…

The truck left us in Bukhara at the end of the day and we headed to a hostel where we were surprised to see a stack of bicycles at the entrance. We were after all in the middle of the infamous Silk Road and close to the beginning of the Pamir Highway, renowned amongst long distance cyclists. From now on, meeting other cyclists would become the norm.

We took some much needed days off in town (removing sand, mostly) and explored it. As in Khiva, we took content in gazing at (and photographing) tiles, fabrics, wooden doors and mosques and towers.

Uzbekistan was the only country where we might have enjoyed the cities more than the countryside itself. Not only for the need of AC and cold showers, but the countryside roads were just a collection of continuous farm fields and towns, strung along by roads in very bad conditions.

Despite this, after our most recent truck ride from Khiva, we were now determined to take no more rides, between Bukhara and Samarkand, the next big town in our way before Tajikistan.

We did find however a lot of friendly people along the way. But, I don’t think there was a single time when we had to pay for lunch as we cycled and restaurant owners were always suggesting that we took a much wanted nap to wait for the worst of the afternoon heat to pass.

The day we arrived to Samarkand, we woke, as it was by then usual, at around 5am and did the remaining 50kms from our camping into town. We arrived to the hostel we were staying at around 9am, as most other guests had only just awoken and were having their breakfast, astonished that we had already finished our cycling for the day.

In the end we didn’t take much time in Samarkand. It had the same type of tiles and architecture that we had experienced in Khiva and Bukhara, but it felt already too big somehow. At least for people like us who were coming from Khiva and had been in increasingly bigger cities, the tiles were losing their enchantment somewhat.

The next day, after we took the typical photo cyclists take next to the Registan, we somewhat surrealy headed towards  Tajakistan. That place that had been so much in our heads and seemed so far away when we left Portugal all those months ago.

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