“Any carpets? Drugs? Guns?”
We shook our heads and giggled. The thought of carrying a carpet or a rifle on our bike tour was oddly funny to us. The guard smiled too. “We’ll search your bags, just to make sure there’s nothing dangerous.”
Turkmenistan was trying to be thorough as we made our way through their customs formalities and towards the Uzbekistan border post. They turned out to be quite soft in the end. The bag check never materialised and when an official came over to berate us for not registering with authorities after five days (something we checked with the Tehran embassy and were told we definitely did not need to do), he immediately backed off when we said we were sure of our position.
A few minutes later the exit stamp was in our passports and we were on our way, past the last smiling picture of Niyazov and across no-man’s land to the Uzbekistan frontier. Several families were pushing their belongings on carts between border posts and for perhaps the first time ever we caught people enviously eyeing our relatively speedy and efficient bicycles. The deluxe mode of transport! The Uzbek officials were efficient and friendly, helping us to fill out a customs form entirely in Russian and then speeding us through the rest of the process. All told, it took us just over an hour to leave Turkmenistan and enter Uzbekistan.
Immediately we noticed how green Uzbekistan is in comparison to its poorer neighbour; so many leafy trees and fields with what seems like a much wider variety of crops. Perhaps, because we were staring at the landscape, the money changer thought he could get away with shorting us on our newly acquired wads of som notes. No luck for him. “You owe us two more bills,” we said and he paid up without a hint of delay or embarassment. All part of the game for him.
If we liked the green scenery, we loved the roads. They still aren’t perfect but compared to Turkmenistan they’re a godsend. Maybe now some of our sore muscles will start to heal after a week of being continually bumped up and down.
In the first town, Qarakol, we stopped to buy some supplies and four hot samsas; beef and onions wrapped in flaky pastry and baked in a clay oven. It’s rather like a Cornish pasty and for only about $0.60 each we think they might become a regular lunchtime treat! We also tried a drink sold at many stalls, a shot of Coca-cola mixed with fizzy water and something else we can’t quite place. Central Asia is proving to be a lot more rewarding than Iran when it comes to interesting foods.
Our only challenge lately has been finding a place to camp. Where do you go when just about every square inch of the land is cultivated and the farmers stay out from dawn until dusk working in the fields? After examining at least three different spots, we finally found a patch of hard uncultivated dirt next to a disused outbuilding. Many farmers leaving their fields saw us as they went home for the night but they all seemed friendly and simply waved and smiled as they passed.