Dushanbe (Tajikistan) to Samarkand (Uzbekistan) 475km, 5 days riding
Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand
The romance evoked by James Elroy Flecker’s quill had conjured up a wonderful world in our heads as we left Dushanbe for the Uzbekistan border. Armed with our new horns and Tajik number plates, the long, busy, dusty road left behind a city we had both become strangely fond of for different reasons after spending two and a half weeks waiting for onward visas.
The romantic ideal of the Golden Road was not going to come to us on our first day though. The border crossing was predictably chaotic, disorganised, and a little aggressive at times, taking a good three hours to get through after putting all our kit through the ex-soviet x-ray machines. Beyond, we temporarily found the silence our poet friend once described, though instead of beating bells there came a sound of laughter. Awoken from “the zone” by these jubilant cries and lured by the smokey smell of braised meat wafting over the road, we headed into a little restaurant for a quiet spot of dinner, as the sun set and before finding a place to camp. Alas, it was not to be. “Welcome to Uzbekistan”, jeered one of the five sitting next to a kind of canal-stream. “Wodka, wodka”, slurred another. The invitation of a free dinner in return for just one shot of vodka with these harmless Granddads seemed like a good return on our time investment. Uzbek vodka, albeit being surprisingly smooth, is nonetheless not the most ideal recovery drink for a 10hr ride in 40 degree heat. Three double shots, a small bowl of tomato salad and an amusing altercation between one of the granddads and the canal later, we headed out into the dark streets to get to a small hotel up the road. Welcome to Uzbekistan we thought. This country has a bit of edge.
Cycling in 45 degrees in the middle of the day is no fun so we are now getting up at 6am and are on the road by 7.30am. We cycle until around 12.30pm, eat a decent lunch usually of lamb shashlik kebab, tomato salad and bread, have a snooze on the raised platform where we ate, then set off again at around 4pm for another 40-50km. It’s a good way to do business.
On our second day in Uzbekistan we came across a guy we have fondly come to know as Eric the Fruitbat. Olde Fruity was thus named because of his excellent collection of dried fruits he had for snacks during the day, not because he had fangs, in case you were wondering. We had met him in Dushanbe and invited him to join the two-man wolf pack into Samarkand and was excellent company for almost a week of riding.
The terrain has been quite hilly without being mountainous though in this heat even a small climb seems like one from the Pamir. Then again, our definition of what a mountain is has undoubtedly shifted after our last month of riding.
There is a much greater population here than in Tajikland meaning there are more villages in between stops – good for supplies, more difficult for finding stealth camp sites that are not going to be trampled on by the dawn rush hour of sheep. Despite this we found two excellent sites on following days. On the first night, as we were looking up at the clear, starry skies through the inner mesh of our tent, we just started chuckling to each other. “Holy scruffbags, we’re camping in Uzbekistan”. That is not something either of us thought we would ever say two years ago. Flecker’s world may not be the same as ours but we feel as privileged to be traveling through this distant land as he himself made clear.