We’re getting into the groove of Uzbekistan now, a few days after crossing the border. The country has greeted us in style with two of the most marvellous cities we’ve seen anywhere on our travels. Bukhara and Samarqand certainly live up to their reputations with charming old quarters and a string of tiled mosques, madrassas and mausoleums that rival anything we saw in Iran.
Between the sight-seeing we’ve done a bit of gastronomic touring as well. How nice it is to linger over cups of coffee laced with cardamom, sample the local wines (whites reminiscent of Spanish sherries and some surprisingly good cabernets) and treat ourselves to lunches of grilled meat and tall mugs of draft beer. And all within a modest budget too! Life here is miles more affordable than what we were experiencing in Europe a year ago.
Perhaps our biggest surprise has been discovering that the hospitality we experienced in Iran continues to be an important part of life here. We entered Central Asia with stereotypes of bribe-seeking police officers and overcharging merchants in mind. Instead we’ve been showered with good wishes as we pass by on our bicycles. One elderly cafe owner even insisted on saying a touching prayer for us as we stopped for tea. All three of us held our hands out together, palms pointing to the sky, as he asked Allah for a good journey ahead and safe return to Canada.
Our warmest welcome came in Bukhara where Jungsun, a Korean volunteer, kindly let us stay in her home, fed us a mouth-watering meal and introduced us to her always-smiling friend Rakhima. The next night we went to visit Rakhima, who cooked us traditional Uzbek food and took us to her family’s nearby plot of land where they keep cows and bake bread in an outdoor tandoori oven. How we feasted on fresh bread and milk straight from the source and all this nearly in the middle of Bukhara! After spending a few hours with Rakhima and her charming family we left Bukhara with our hearts lightened, feeling very excited about the rest of our journey through the region.
The road to Samarqand was very flat with hardly an inch left untouched by the intense cultivation in the region. With few things to see along the way, we pedalled our way to our longest day ever (137km), only stopping occasionally at a cafe for a pot of tea or more of those addictive beef and onion pastries. The samsa has stolen our hearts in the world of food. If the Silk Road had been as smooth as its name suggests (it turns out it’s made of rather bumpy asphalt), we might have gone even faster but long stretches of cracks and potholes slowed us down and left our hands tingling.
The police also tried to slow us down with their frequent checkpoints but we soon learned to ignore their whistling and frantic batons waving around in the air. They looked serious as they shouted at us to stop but every time we put on the brakes they had no interest in our passports. All the officers wanted to do was look at our map and ask us questions. Three times we stopped for no good reason and when we started flying past them with a friendly wave they never chased us so our strategy was set. Ignore and pedal past at speed.
After three days on the road we arrived in Samarqand. A French cyclist, also doing a world tour as his retirement project, spotted us within seconds of our arrival and pointed us to a good hotel. Soon we were watching the dirt roll off in the shower and doing a little tour of the old city, before returning for a second bite of the apple tomorrow. There’s probably enough to keep a person amused here for several days but we’ll try to fit it into one before we hit the road again, destination Tashkent.
Regular readers may notice we haven’t posted individual journals for our trip to Samarqand. Connection speeds have been so slow lately and posting things for each day was taking an enormous amount of time so this is an attempt to lighten our load. Until we start getting reliably faster internet, we’re unlikely to go back to publishing daily journals, although we’re still writing them.