PART ONE: Gently slipping into Stan.
It was finally time to enter that weird collection of countries known as the ‘Stans’! We’d opted to exit Iran into Turkmenistan, as it seemed like the ‘easy’ option....well easy compared to getting a dodgy unreliable ferry to Kazakhstan or riding a bike through Afghanistan.
Entering Turkmenistan was a bit nerve racking as it’s not exactly a tourist friendly country, you have the option of paying an extortionate amount for a government tour guide that will take you to the parts of the country that the authorities want you to see or you get a 5 day transit visa. 5 days isn’t a very long time when you’re traveling with pedal power and scrawny legs.
We were unsure if we’d even be let into the country with our bikes, so were extremely surprised when the border security guy ‘searched’ our bags by half opening one or two zips before smiling and waving us through! A good start.
Happy and keen to make a quick start with the limited time we had, we began riding towards the border security exit and the very steep downhill road towards Ashgabat only to have a border guard with a machine gun run towards us yelling to stop. Shiiiiit! Any one holding a Kalashnikov gets my full attention so we quickly halted and jumped off the bikes.
Turns out while you may be allowed to bring a bicycle into the country, you are not allowed to ride that bicycle out through the border security post and we were forced to get a mini van taxi. Super disappointing as we’d spent a fair amount of time the previous day in Iran climbing into the mountains and had been looking forward to the downhill part! Through use of pretty amusing sign language and a tiny bit of English we were informed that the official reason for us having to get a taxi is because we would be eaten by tigers if we tried to ride. Yes that’s right kids, tigers. Turkmen desert tigers; seems legit. Pretty sure it was more to do with them not wanting foreigners poking around near the border, but tigers definitely sounds cooler.
We had to make a difficult decision in Turkmenistan and opt to catch a train from Ashgabat to Mary. Neither of us really wanted to catch a train as completing the whole trip on bike was part of the original idea, but we had to choose between an absolutely punishing 5 days of cycling 700km through the desert and not actually getting the chance to see any sights in the country or take a train for one section which would allow us enough time to detour and see the ancient city of Merv. Considering the chances of us being ‘in the area’ again and just ‘popping in’ to Turkmenistan were pretty slim we decided to take the train to see the sights.
The crazy shrine to the Turkmenistan dictator in Ashgabat
While getting the train was supposed to be the easy option, we still had an absolute bitch of a time trying to get our bikes on the train due to the workers at the station in charge of loading cargo trying to gouge as much cash out of us as possible by claiming our bikes were actually the size of buses and weighed as much as a pair of mating African elephants. There was no getting around it, it was either pay the extremely bullshit inflated cargo charge/bribe or miss the train. It came right down to the wire as the train was about to leave the station and despite the best efforts of an extremely nice local girl arguing with the workers we had to pay the bribe…except we’d just spent nearly all of our Turkmen money on the train ticket! The local girl was so amazing she actually paid the charge for us so we could get the train on time! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to get the girl’s details so we will never get the chance to repay her or tell her how much she helped us out, just another random act of kindness we experienced on the road and at least made us happy to know the whole country wasn’t going to be out to rip us off like the train workers.
We unloaded the bikes at night in Mary and headed to the cheapest hotel we could find. It would have been a bargain if we were from Turkmenistan (about $20) but unfortunately the government has a policy that means tourists pay a whole lot more so our most expensive hotel of the trip so far cost us about $100 for a dingy dark room that looked and smelled like a seedy brothel.
After around 6 or 7 weeks in Iran booze free I was missing my old buddy alcohol. Much to my disappointment, we arrived too late to buy booze due to a government night time curfew so in the morning we rolled out of the hotel and across the road to the market to grab a couple of cold cans of Turkish beer each. Efes in the morning is a glorious thing and I think It’s a pretty smart idea to down a couple of pints before riding your bike through a desert, right?
Riding in Turkmenistan was an interesting experience, the roads were definitely worse than Iran and basically just dusty tracks in some areas, but the locals made up for it with people stopping and giving us water and even one legend who either owned a bakery or perhaps had some kind of kinky bread fetish pulled over and opened the boot of his car to reveal a mountain of loaves and rolls. He filled my arms with about five loaves of freshly baked bread, waved goodbye and hopped back in the car and drove off without saying a word! Very strange and unexpected as we had been told it was actually illegal for locals to speak to foreigners and had even heard reports of other tourists being followed by authorities and questioned when they’d been seen associating with local people. I guess he took pity on my shiny bald head and thought I could benefit from making a bread hat for our journey across the desert. Whatever the reason we were extremely grateful and happy to know that the locals were so cool.
BREAD! that's lunch sorted
We camped outside a restaurant one night with the drunken chef trying to force feed us vodka before disappearing to pass out in the prayer room next to the restaurant and in the morning we set off into the harshest stretch of desert we’d experienced so far. I actually really enjoyed riding in the Turkmen desert, it was tough, dusty, extremely hot and our bike chains were basically grinding through kilos of sand, but it was also fun and camping in the sand dunes with no one around was one of the coolest experiences of the trip.
One of the other most memorable ‘experiences’ in the desert was taking a much needed crap behind a sand dune just as a full bus rolled by giving the passengers a perfect view of a lanky Australian tourist in a bike helmet laying a large log in the desert. I bet they weren’t expecting to see that! I should have sold tickets as the entire bus had front row seats for Cowgill’s spectacular dusty poop show.
The heat kicked up a level and we were running low on water and exhausted when we finally pulled into the only ‘town’ in the middle of the stretch of desert where we promptly found some shade behind a government building and passed out for an hour or two. We were worried that we weren’t going to make the border in time before our visa expired and definitely didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences of that (a large fine and being forced to exit the same way we came in…back in to Iran without a valid visa) so we hitched with some truck drivers to Ashgabat for about 50km. the truckies were awesome, it is apparently illegal to have more than two passengers in the truck at once and even though they already had three they still let us climb aboard! We had to hide from the police at the regular checkpoints, but were spotted so the driver had to pay a small fine (bribe) before we could take off again. They dropped us off in Turkmenabat and we headed to the Uzbek border where we quickly made friends with Turkish truck drivers camped at the border crossing and waited until it opened in the morning.
Camping at the border was basically like setting up your tent on a rubbish tip as every night dozens of truck driver’s sleep in their trucks waiting for the border to open and throw all their rubbish on the side of the road. Our Turkish mates kept us fed with melon, bread and cheese and more tea than any human should attempt to consume and in the morning we were ready for another new country!
Camping with truck drivers at the Uzbekistan border
Crossing into Uzbekistan was relatively easy, this time we actually had to take our bags off the bikes and put them through a scanner but it was pretty straightforward and before we knew it was standing on sweet Uzbek soil!
The first day in Uzbekistan was fairly eventful with Kelly’s rear tyre finally deciding it had had enough of life as a tyre and would rather become a giant rubber pretzel, twisting itself in a rather funky manner and tearing itself to shreds.
We also found a puppy with a broken paw under a shady tree in the middle of nowhere. This was one of the hardest parts of the trip, seeing stray/injured animals and being powerless to help them. He was a super cool, cute little guy but we had no way of helping him as he was too big too carry on the bike and even if we could have we had no idea what to do with him or if we’d be separating him from his mother. We eventually had to try and move on and leave him in the shade after feeding him and giving him water but he kept trying to chase us down the road and took quite a while before we could actually move on. It was heartbreaking but we really weren’t equipped to help him and didn’t know if it would be worse for him to take him away from his spot if his mother was in the area. Unfortunately this would become a common theme for our time in central Asia.
The poor puppy we found with a broken paw
The roads were bad in Turkmenistan, but they were fucking shocking in Uzbekistan. It actually became a bit scary and dangerous trying to ride into Bukhara as the sun had gone down and we were crashing into random potholes and sliding across patches of sand in the dark so even though we were only 10 or 15km from town and a much wanted shower and hotel bed, we stopped and asked at a restaurant if we could sleep out the front. The restaurant guys were totally cool and invited us in and let us wheel our bikes into the restaurant and sleep on the floor of one of the dining rooms! I felt obliged to eat something so decided to devour a mountain of lamb ‘shashlik’ and beer to say thank you…and also because lamb and beer are pretty rad.
'Camping' inside a restaurant! Just outside Bukhara
The next day we rolled into Bukhara and found a nice hotel with a glorious breakfast buffet!! We were due for a few days off cycling so chilled out and explored beautiful old Bukhara and even splashed out and bought a bottle of honey vodka for the grand total of $4!
Bukhara was awesome, definitely felt like we’d reached the central Asia I had dreamt of with its beautiful uniquely shaped turquoise mosques and bustling marketplaces. Unfortunately my joy was short lived when I woke up in the middle of the night with intense stabbing pains in my guts and spent the rest of the night running to the toilet to shoot disgusting fiery jets of flaming liquid from both ends of my body. It got pretty bad and we were forced to spend an extra couple of nights in Bukhara until my guts calmed the fuck down. The honey vodka helped, but I will always regret not being able to fully terrorize the breakfast buffet to my full potential.
Entrance to local markets in Bukhara
Mosque in Bukhara
Over the next few days we rode in the punishing heat on the shitty roads and slept mostly out the back of restaurants or farms, made friends with cows outside our tent and experienced one of the worst squat toilets on earth with some kind of mysterious hideous shit beast living in the pool of muck that made us miss shiny white western dunnys.
Uzbek people were all generally very friendly and nice, but this was definitely the country that nearly broke us. After being on the bikes for 6 months we were starting to get tired and feel pretty weary and fed up of feeling like a freak show. On one occasion we asked to sleep outside a cafe and ended up with a crowd of people around us watching us cook and eat with all the local kids hanging around our tent for hours.
Everyone was really nice and I don’t blame people for being interested, it was our fault for choosing to camp in an area where people are likely to see us and I guess it’s a pretty random sight in a small town to have two weird westerners on bikes show up and set up camp outside a cafe. We had been choosing to ask to sleep outside places like petrol stations and restaurants with the theory that we would be safer near people rather than in a random spot in the middle of nowhere where if we got into any trouble nobody would be around to help us out.
I guess we were just getting a bit worn out and craving a bit of normalcy, plus we were back to getting flat tyres constantly, this time it was Kelly’s turn with us having to stop two to three times daily to fix punctures and sort out other minor issues that made the day drag a bit.
Samarkand was beautiful though and we stayed in an amazing guesthouse with awesome food and a friendly family and some of the scenery while cycling was nice, but generally the ride was just a bit dull and monotonous. This could be due to the route we chose though and the pace we were travelling due to visa entry dates.
Madrasah in Samarkand
From Samarkand we headed for the capital Tashkent through some hilly areas and small towns, stopped to load up the bikes with fresh baked amazing bread in a busy marketplace and ended up staying at a restaurant about 40km from Tashkent.
We asked one of the restaurant managers if we could set up our tent somewhere but he insisted we sleep inside on the comfy cushioned benches in our own private dining room! This guy was a total champion; he could understand a bit of English but couldn’t speak any so he called up his friend’s two brothers who just happened to speak fluent English! Abraham and his older brother turned up and we chatted for a couple of hours about their plans to move to the USA while the owner prepared us an amazing and ridiculously big meal for free! One of the best meals of the trip and totally unexpected, we were even invited to attend a breakfast the next morning before a wedding that was being held at the restaurant but we had to get moving so left early in the morning and navigated our way through some pretty hectic traffic and found our guesthouse in Tashkent where we chilled out for a couple of days and washed our stinky belongings, replaced some brake cables and pads and were ready to roll on!
Kelly chilling out in our own little restaurant sleeping quarters!
We made it maybe 2 or 3 km from the guesthouse when we spotted a puppy lying in the middle of the road injured with cars whizzing by. Didn’t really have much time to think about it as any second he would be crushed by a car so quickly parked bikes and I ran and scooped the terrified little guy from the road. When we set him down on the grass he couldn’t move and it was pretty clear he was in bad shape and not able to move his back legs. Kelly rode back to our guesthouse to try and convince the owner to let us bring the dog back to try and get him some help, but it was a definite no and a reaction that suggested he thought we were slightly crazy for even getting him out off the road.
We had no idea what to do with him, I managed to squeeze him into my handlebar bag and we headed for the closest cheap hotel we could find where Kelly went in and got us a room while I waited around the corner with the puppy before somehow managing to smuggle him in and upstairs past the owner into our room inside a backpack.
Injured puppy we smuggled into a hotel room
After the first dog we found outside Bukhara, Kelly had been researching animal shelters in Uzbekistan and had found one that supposedly existed in Tashkent, but when we contacted them we were informed it was less of a shelter, more of an organisation that treats and sells purebred dogs and had no interest in helping a stray. We basically spent two more nights hiding the dog in our hotel room trying to find someone willing to help us with no luck. The day after the accident he started to actually look a lot better and actually started to walk around and ate some tuna, he even waited until we smuggled him outside before going to the toilet! It was pretty distressing as we knew if we were back home we’d be able to find him help and a new home pretty easily but we felt powerless and eventually felt we couldn’t help him and had no choice but to take him to a park and leave him with some food and water. We had toyed with the idea of trying to continue the trip carrying him but there was no way we would be allowed to cross borders with a dog with no paperwork.
We felt like shit, totally powerless and terrible that we couldn’t help the little guy out more. When we left him he was able to walk around and eat normally, but he definitely needed treatment and we couldn’t even find a vet that actually existed. We left him with plenty of food and water in a shady spot in the park and all we could do was hope he’d recover and go back to surviving.
It was around this point that we really started to miss the ‘normalcy’ of non-cycling life and were missing a regular lifestyle. We still enjoyed Uzbekistan and the amazing people we met but it was a definite tipping point that wore us down a bit, particularly the cycle out of Tashkent and through the mountains.
The next couple of days we covered a few hundred kms, rode through a crazy wind storm and camped outside a really bleak industrial soviet looking town called Angren at a closed petrol station where the friendly owner gave us tea and massive arm sized sticks of rock sugar to suck on. From Angren we started our ridiculous hill climb into the mountains, this was possibly the physically hardest part of the cycle trip to that point as the mountains just seemed to keep going up and up as the roads got worse and worse. It’s one thing riding a fully loaded up bike up a steep mountain, but when you throw in huge potholed roads, no hard shoulder, extreme headwinds and a traffic jam causing your lungs to be pumped full of exhaust fumes it can get a bit much. We were already feeling pretty down after the dog incident in Tashkent and this was just dragging us down further and to top it off Kelly’s knee was starting to play up again. I wanted a beer, a burger and the beach.
A brutal windy hill climb outside Tashkent
Didn’t quite get everything on my wish list, but I did get a beer! When we left the mountains we stayed on the floor of an abandoned bar outside an all night roadside marketplace with some creepy weird old drunk dudes hanging around outside peering in and trying to get us trashed on vodka. Was an odd night and felt a bit weird/uncomfortable as they tried opening the door a couple of times (we had secured it with our bike lock) but was pretty cool of the owner to let us stay in the bar and the market owners were really nice.
We were getting close to our next Stan! Only had a couple of hundred kms to travel before entering Kyrgyzstan, we tried to find a hotel in Namangan with little luck and ended up riding through a crazy outdoor marketplace/traffic jam and out of the city to try and find a camping spot before it got dark, again we had little luck as the town seemed to stretch on forever. We were extremely lucky and had a car pull over to the side of the road and wave for us to stop, we hopped off our bikes and spoke to a lovely school teacher Mahbuba and her mother who invited us to come and stay in their families house just a few kms away. It always surprises me the way things sometime work out when you’re running out of hope and options! The family was amazing, it turns out the grandmother of the family had spotted us cycling and encouraged her daughter to chase us in the car to invite us to dinner and stay in their house! Mahbuba and her brother spoke excellent English and the whole family was extremely friendly and welcoming and prepared a huge feast! Had an awesome night, a shower and even got to wash our clothes!
Hanging out with a kind local lady who invited us to stay in their family home outside Namangan
Freshly cleaned and fed, we headed to the border. Entering Kyrgyzstan was an odd experience, the border crossing was super chilled out and the security guards nice and friendly, it got even more relaxed on the Kyrgyzstan side where it was basically an old shipping container with a boom gate next to it and three guards sitting around joking and drinking tea. The head honcho border dude was roughly 12 foot tall and looked like a chubby Russian hulk, but he was a funny guy and even though he couldn’t speak English managed to have a sign language based chat before he stamped our passports without even checking the visa!!! Hello Kyrgyzstan!!
Even though it had been a bit mentally testing at times, our first two stans had still been great, I think we were just getting a bit worn out and tired after 6 or so months on the bikes….apologies for the whinging in this blog, we still love you Uzbekistan!!!!