Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border (Farap) to Samarqand: A Bike Touring Route

uzbek-route1Distance: 400km
Duration: 4-5 days cycling plus two nights each in Bukhara and Samarqand.
Terrain: Flat through irrigated farmland.
Accommodation: Wild camping or asking at cafes for a simple room between the cities. Hotels in Bukhara and Samarqand.
Highlights: The cities themselves are the highlights. Make up for the dull landscape in between by feasting on Central Asian treats like samsa.
Lowlights: Slightly bumpy road and boring scenery.
Tips: Stop at local shops for cheap and tasty ice cream, a great pick-me up halfway through the day. Speed through police checkpoints as they only want to look at your map and ask where you’re from.

Section 1 – Uzbekistan Border to Bukhara (100km)
Crossing the Uzbekistan border is a relatively straightforward affair after getting through Turkmen controls. The only hitch is that the forms are in Russian only but guards are happy to help you out. There’s a brief health check (“Are you sick?” “No.” “Okay, approved.”) and a declaration form where you have to list the money you’re carrying and beyond that not much to worry about.

A few money changers and taxis hang around just outside the main gates. The exchange rate isn’t great (about 10% lower than what you’ll get in Bukhara) so don’t hand over much and count carefully. Some cyclists, worn out by the rigors of Turkmenistan, prefer to take a taxi straight to Bukhara. The going rate is somewhere around $10-15 dollars but you’ll have to bargain. It’s not uncommon for tourists to pay double that.

If you choose to cycle, the route isn’t difficult and the roads are in noticably better condition than Turkmenistan. They’re still not perfect with a few cracks and potholes but it’s a definite step in the right direction. You’ll be surrounded by farming fields and an almost constant string of villages all the way into Bukhara.

Qarakol is the best place to stock up on food. You can’t miss the busy bus station on your right and a string of cafes here is as good a place as any to have lunch. We recommend samsa: beef and onion filled pastries, fresh out of the tandoori oven. We paid 700 som each, which in hindsight may have been a touch expensive but they were big and delicious. You can also make a telephone call here and buy food from some small shops. The town itself is a few kilometers down the road that forks off to the left but it’s quite a ride in and you can probably get what you need on the main road.

As you carry down the road, there are cafes and shops at regular intervals and plenty of opportunity to get water either bottled from stores or from wells in front of houses. Any Uzbek would be more than pleased to fill your bottles.

Finding a place for your tent is more difficult. There is very little uncultivated land but if you go down enough farm tracks, eventually you should find a spot, usually some way off the road. The farmers work late here so it’s unlikely you’ll sneak in completely incognito unless you set up after dark.

Coming into Bukhara, just going straight will take you directly to the Ark, smack in the centre of the city.

Section 2 – Bukhara to Kattaqorghan (220km)
The flat landscape and intense farming activity continues as you leave Bukhara. The main road out of the city is filled with cafes and shops for the first few kilometers, then things thin out a bit but you’re never far from houses or a small village. On either side of Ghijduvan, you’ll find a number of cafes, all touting for your business. When we passed they looked quite popular with locals and passing motorists. The town of Ghijduvan itself is slightly off the main road.

There are a few police checkpoints and the police may whistle at you or wave their batons and shout “passport” but whenever we stopped they weren’t interested in our papers at all. It was merely a curiosity check, to find out where we were from and wish us a good trip. After this happened a few times we didn’t stop for the rest of the police checks we passed, even when they were trying to wave us down, and they never chased after us.

Not long before Karmana, the road passes by a traditional well and the entrance to what looks like either a ruined caravanserai or mosque. There isn’t much in the way of explanation but it’s worth a short stop. Carrying on, as you come into Karmana there are several cafes and we stopped here for a large pot of tea and four samsas. Total bill, just 2,000 Som. The selection of shops around Karmana and the larger town of Navoi (just off the main road) is about as good as you’ll see anywhere on this stretch before Kattaqorghan, a good place to stock up.

Section 3 – Kattaqorghan to Samarqand (70km)
As you come into Kattaqorghan, you pass a few cafes and then the road into the town forks to the right. Follow this into the centre, staying to the left at the first major intersection. As you pass through the centre and out the other side a sign marks the junction with the secondary route to Samarqand. Turn right onto the smaller road. It’s 65km to Samarqand from here via Juma.

The road isn’t in great shape but when we passed they were doing some work on it so in a few months it may be just like new. There’s a surprising amount of traffic, mostly shared taxis serving the numerous small villages. The upside to taking this road is in the small hills. They make a nice diversion from the flat farmland. You’ll see plenty of people out riding horses and it’s easy to find wild camping spots out here.

Around the 15km mark you pass through the first of several small villages, some with cafes, before Juma and you may see local women out selling things like eggs, mushrooms and herbs by the side of the road.

As you approach Samarqand, just keep going straight into the town. It can seem like quite a while before you actually reach the centre but if you keep going straight you’ll end up on Ulughbek Street. A right turn near the end of this street (when you see the Zone X internet cafe on your left) will take you to the statue of Amir Timur. Nearby is the Guri Amir mausoleum and a few moments walk away is Dilshoda B&B as well as a number of other hotels.