On the border I had to fill out a zillion forms and my panniers were x-rayed again.
I had to tell the officials how much money I had with me, the value of my bicycle, electronic equipment and so on.
But everything went rather well, so I was quickly back on the road again.
A sandstorm was in progress, but luckily the wind switched around so that I finally had the wind pushing me lightly from behind.
Actually it would have been appropriate for me just sit down and rest somewhere, but I felt a need for contact with the outside world. I hoped to find a nice accommodation in Bukhara where I could exchange my experiences with other travelers and that drove me onward.
I hadn’t stayed overnight in a hostel since Yazd and that was nearly 4 months ago.
It was almost another 100 km to Bukhara, but I knew I could still manage that. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a really nice hostel, but I found a room with a bath.
To appease the stress of acquiring the Turkmenistan visa, I sat for hours in the bathtub in an attempt to regenerate myself. Somehow, it felt like both Christmas and my birthday at the same time.
But, somehow, the excitement of traveling was totally gone. I was in a new country filled with grandiose mosques; the temperatures were now Spring-like and actually, I should have been turning somersaults out of sheer joy because I was finally in Uzbekistan, a country which I had wanted to visit for so many years.
But it didn’t interest me.
I had no desire to visit any mosques, especially since the city is more like a museum. Instead of displaying Islamic life, the mosques here were full of Souvenir stands.
After arriving from Iran, it was a real disappointment.
The cries of the cashiers at the entrance of the mosques “Ticket, Ticket” made me lose my appetite for any more such visits. In a small restaurant when I asked for some sugar for my tea and then had to pay an additional 1500 Som for it, although the tea itself had only cost 1000 Som, the enjoyment I had vanished (3900 Som are 1 Euro).
I had landed in a tourist trap, but I didn’t see anyone interesting.
There were only the typical tourists, but no one with the same interests.
I was really wiped out; I dragged myself from one day to the next and didn’t really know how I could become motivated again.
I had absolutely no desire to do anything and everything was just too much for me.
By chance, I got into a discussion with a group of scholars who, with a concerned look on their faces, asked me “what’s the matter with you?”
I was nearly in tears because I was totally travel weary and surprised that anyone had noticed it right away how bad I felt.
They invited me to dinner and tried to keep me in a good mood the entire evening. When we said good-bye, they gave me a book in German to get my mind off of things.
For 4 days I stayed in my guest room with a bathtub and then continued on unenthusiastically. The wind accompanied me again, a loyal friend,
but unfortunately, as expected, from the wrong direction – a bothersome headwind.
I began to set goals for myself and to conjure up incentives to keep me going. The best method was the appeal of reading another chapter in the book.
I pedaled 20 kilometers, sat down at the roadside and then devoured the next chapter of this exciting book.
I didn’t care what was happening around me.
For once, I was traveling only in my own world and that kept me busy enough.
I stayed with a family and was taken in in a super nice way there. They provided supper just for me alone, which was somehow a little bit uncomfortable
because I didn’t want to be given special treatment again.
The host breaks the bread and distributes it in small chunks on the tablecloth. It is important that the top of the bread is facing upwards. It may never be lying upside down.
Before the main meal is served, biscuits (cookies) and sweets are served and, of course, always tea.
Afterwards we played chess and cards together and, after a power outage, we sat beside a warm stove in the candlelight. It was really nice; even though we couldn’t converse with each other, it didn’t matter.
The next morning, they convinced me to stay another night, so the entire day, I played chess with half the people in the village.
In Uzbekistan, every 3 days you have to register with the police through a hotel. However, no one seemed to really understand the exact regulation. Supposedly, there are hefty fines for non-compliance when leaving the country.
Since Uzbekistan is not as inexpensive as I thought, I wanted to attempt to do that alone to keep from having to pay the hotel charges. So, I went to the police.
When I arrived, the place was in total chaos. Dozens of people were standing in line to fill out one kind of form or another. With all the people talking loudly and pushing and shoving, a really unpleasant atmosphere prevailed at the police station.
In the end it was all in vain. I was unsuccessful and was sent away again without being able to register.
The Uzbeks tended to speak very loudly, and when they learned that I couldn’t understand them, they thought that if they yelled even louder it would get better.
The favorite question here was: “ad kutta?” “Where are you going?” and “Where are you from?”
I was also asked if I was married or if I had children, but the questions were not too many. It was pleasant and the people were really nice. I have to admit that they were more skeptical about me than the people in other countries I had visited before.
In the evening I was invited to a birthday party – the men in one room, women and children in another. For the men, a lot of vodka was consumed while the women drank Coca Cola. With a snap of fingers on the neck, it was made symbolically clear that I should also drink alcohol, but I vehemently refused it.
However, I was forced to do my best to dance to some folk music in front of all of the women.
It was only 280 kilometers to Samarkand, but the scenery was unbearably desolate and my mood was still at zero. I shortened my motivational reading distance to 10 kilometers and also treated myself to ice cream at every shop I passed.
It’s amazing how much harder it is to travel when you’re not in the right mood – when you just don’t want to continue anymore and you feel like throwing the bike into the next gully.
When that happens, the bike just stops rolling. You continuously have the feeling that the brakes are on or that someone has secretly placed bricks into your pockets.
There are days when I hang my bags on the bike and think “jeepers are these things heavy” and then there are other times when I have the feeling “Wow! Did I leave something behind? They are really light today.”
The contents of the panniers varied only marginally, so it absolutely can only have to do with the mood I’m in and not the weight of the bicycle itself.
My bum had suffered badly in Turkmenistan. One spot had really become sore and hurt every time I moved.
Eventually I made it to Samarkand and found exactly the kind of hostel I had hoped for. I discovered a small paradise where I could stay until I wanted to experience the world again – namely for 10 whole days.
The first 7 days I didn’t step out of the hostel. I looked at the mosques from the rooftop terrace and that was close enough for me.
I met people from everywhere; other cyclists; strangely enough, a Dutch couple whom I had met already in Iran; a Spaniard who was headed in the direction of Iran; two motorcyclists who had been traveling for more than 10 years; several jeep tourists who, more or less, had raced all the way from Europe to Central Asia; and a few backpackers – Japanese, French, Poles, Italians, Spaniards, Australians and even a Kazakh.
Heaven itself had given me this hostel. I could recharge my batteries again wonderfully, collect some new ideas, share thoughts and finally converse again in my own two languages. It was just plain awesome.
For the first time in 8 days, I finally went outside the door of the hostel together with a Japanese woman Megumi Okamoto who had organized a photo shooting with me.
We had an incredible time of fun together, partly because our communication was amusing because she sometimes said the letter L instead of R, which often led to humorous misunderstandings.
Samarkand has quite a lot to offer, but due to a construction site on the main square and the many tourists, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
With new strength and new thoughts I continued on my cycling tour.
The desert transformed itself gradually into green fields of grain, flowers bloomed along the way, and the cherry trees were in full bloom; it was finally spring – colorful again – and I was finally in a good mood again. The first snow-capped mountains embellished the landscape. The closer I got to the mountains, the more it smelled like adventure.
But I was also worried because the Spanish cyclist who just returned from the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan said that the nights there were as cold as minus 18 degrees Celsius.
I’m sure that many might wonder why I didn’t want to cycle through the Pamir Mountains. The reason is simple: I had already cycled on the Pamir Highway on the Tajikistan side 4 years ago, so I was ready to put all my focus on Kyrgyzstan.
I stayed overnight on a farm where I was awakened in the morning before 6 a.m. to help milk the cows.
The lifestyle of the people in Uzbekistan was again completely different to that in the nations I had visited since I was in Bulgaria. Here, the people get up early, work all day and go to bed early. People just hanging around and doing nothing are nonexistent here.
The “bathroom” here, as is so often the case, is located outside the apartment. And no wonder, in the outhouses you can’t stand it very long because the acrid odor is unbearable. A bathroom of your own is rare. After going to the toilet, someone comes from the family – at least it had been that way everywhere before – who runs up to you and pours some water from a jug over your hands and then gives you a towel. Soap? Never.
As usual, the national dish “plov” was served: rice with carrots, chickpeas, raisins, meat and pieces of flabby fat and a lot of oil; the garnish was a boiled egg. Very tasty.
Everyone in the family eats from a large communal pot, which I personally don’t like at all, but it’s ok – I can live with that.
Normally, the food is served only Luke-warm, never hot. But quite often it is really very tasty.
A rainy day came along and on that day I found only a very pitiable settlement where a family wanted to invite me into a house where, as was often the case, I had to sleep in an oxygen-poor room with all the others.
Ants were running around everywhere, the sugar was more black than white, and the cats and the dog nibbled on everything edible in the house. After a lengthy discussion, when I realized they couldn’t understand anything, I put my tent up under the roof of a shed and hoped that no rats would chew on me that night.
In the end, however, it was an annoying dog that kept me from sleeping the entire night – it constantly whined to itself and howled incessantly around the tent.
At noon I always took a break somewhere, eating at a small restaurant along the roadway. Frequently, I found delicious raviolis, known as “mandis” here; tasty noodle soups; bread filled with meat and onions and cooked in a stone oven; filled puff pastry and delicious spinach pockets that you can get at food stands directly on the roadside.
To keep them warm, the vendors wrapped them in a dozen towels and, odd to behold, transported them in very old baby strollers.
What I had learned from underdeveloped countries nearly everywhere is also practiced here. There are often 10 food stands virtually next to each other on the roadside that all sell the same thing and who attempt to grab their customers from each other by persuading them like crazy and offering their goods persistently.
I’ll never understand why no one gets the idea that they would have a better opportunity to sell their wares if they would offer something different from everyone else. Thus, there might be 10 food stands selling bread that spread over 200 meters, 20 kilometers of nothing, then 10 more stands with drinks, then nothing for a long way again, and so on.
In the restaurants, many people begin to ask who I am and where I come from. When I tell them how many kilometers I’ve cycled, which everyone always asks about here, lots of eyes become very wide.
They frequently shake my hand and congratulate me on what I’ve done. Sometimes, even the boss gives me my food free of charge.
Finally, I arrived at the terrible industrial city, Olmalik. It was the 4th day without overnighting in a hotel, so I had to get back on a hotel registration list. In that town there was only one completely run-down Soviet shack – a huge colorless building with a receptionist who had hair on her teeth and only fussed at me.
On the street outside, several people were fighting rudely with each other and the whole atmosphere had a totally Russian character, well, let’s say a former East Bloc character. There are absolutely no prissy people here at all.
The room was absolutely filthy and was completely saturated with old smoke, yellowed wallpaper, and the East Bloc literally stuck to the walls. After tough negotiations, I still had to pay a hefty $15 and I almost didn’t dare to turn over during the night because I was afraid with every movement that the bed would come crashing down.
The first 2000-meter pass lay before me; but, unfortunately, it was raining in torrents and the traffic was extremely unpleasant. The road was surrounded by old patches of snow and the asphalt looked like a single large patchwork quilt.
I was lucky and found a truck that I could easily hold onto, so I allowed myself to be pulled up the switchbacks part of the way. However, my arm felt soon like it was about to fall off. It’s extremely exhausting, because you almost never have a chance to switch arms. If you let go once, you have little chance of catching up to the truck again.
When I arrived at the pass, I was standing in front of the tunnel and was searching for my taillight in the handlebar bag when a soldier armed with a machine gun began to rummage around in my things. I took his hand out of my pannier and told him in a forceful tone of voice that that was the last straw.
When something like that happens, I really get pissed off. Give somebody a uniform and he believes he can be tough. He wagged his machine gun around in front of me in an attempt to impress me, but that didn’t worry me at all. He wanted to see my passport.
I don’t want to know how many times I was supposed to show my passport to uniformed men in this country. Often, I got out of it by acting dumb, but with him it was clear
that he wouldn’t let me continue unless he saw my passport. But when he wanted to look at all my other visas and stamps, I took my passport out of his hand and drove away. All harassment and pure curiosity.
More frequently, I noticed that China could not be far away. The soup was slurped loudly, people began to spit everywhere, the teacups looked the same as the Chinese use and, in the public outhouses, it didn’t seem that you needed to aim for the hole.
Instead of toilet paper, people were beginning to use note paper that had been written on.
Suddenly, it became brutally hot during the night. It was already over 30 degrees Celsius and the heat was miserably oppressive. Strange, because the Spring had actually just begun.
During the last kilometers on the way to the border, unfortunately, I had to repeatedly ask for directions because there were often almost no signs.
Based on my rough map it was impossible to recognize exactly where the border was located.
However, asking for directions is not always easy, because the people often have no idea at all.
The information about distances in kilometers that people offer me are pulled arbitrarily out of thin air and the actual distance is usually much further than the intended goal.
Instructions about the direction I should go are often not easy to understand because the people tend not to want to use their hands to confirm their words, or at least I have that impression.
Their favorite word “priamo” (straight ahead) frequently ends 100 meters later at a T-junction. If I ask three people at a crossroads where to go, all three sometimes point me in a different direction.
My last night I spent in a small village barely 5 kilometers from the border. The environment was primarily agricultural in nature and, once again, unsuitable for camping.
Additionally, border areas are never safe areas. A family invited me into their home and I was given a room for myself alone. As I found in Iran, Uzbeks have significantly more rooms at their disposal.
There are often large courtyards with plenty of space.
I went to bed early and had the bicycle in the room and opened the window to the street to have fresh air during the night. One of the two doors to the room was lockable, the other was not. I didn’t worry about that; I heard a few dogs outside yapping and then immediately fell asleep.
Sometime in the middle of the night someone suddenly shined a flashlight from the window into my eyes. I heard men’s voices and was immediately wide awake. It’s amazing how quickly adrenaline racing through the body can transform you for an emergency.
I responded immediately. I pulled my trousers on, fumbled for my pepper spray and yelled at the people to disappear.
Inside, I thought, “well Heike, now you’re in trouble.” My biggest concern was that they had been drinking. I couldn’t hear the family in the next room. Instead, a man pounded on the closed door and called in English “Open the door!”
I was completely surrounded and was thinking about how I could block the second door because, most certainly, someone would realize that the other door was not locked.
I was really scared because I couldn’t assess the situation properly and I also had the impression that the woman, who had taken me in so nicely, was no longer there.
What should I do?
The man pounded incessantly on the door and the other men were watching me in the glow of their flashlight while, even though I knew it was completely nonsensical, I was holding on tightly to the handle of the other door.
Eventually – at least it seemed like an eternity – one of the men said “Police”. He pushed his way in front of the others so I could see him at the window. He was in uniform and wore a police hat.
“Passport” he said. “What?” Was there actually a policeman standing next to my window in the middle of the night, shining a flashlight into my eyes, and asking for my passport?
I thought “He can’t be serious at this time of the night.” I snapped at him and asked him in German if he was crazy to frighten me so much. But he was dead serious. He had a notebook with him in which he wanted to enter my data.
I just shouted at him, perhaps out of sheer relief, or maybe just to deal with my stress, because I had reached my limit. I snipped my fingers at my neck to ask him if he had been drinking, whereupon he breathed toward me to show me he was sober.
I found it almost comical that I had asked a cop to prove that he had not been drinking. He made the impression of a little school boy who looks up to his teacher while being punished by her because of some prank.
I must have made a pretty authoritarian impression. I took his notebook out of his hand and wrote my name and nationality in the book, then gave it back to him. I was completely surprised that he was happy with that.
All of them, including the policeman, walked back toward the car; I heard the lock of the courtyard door slamming shut, and the man who was in the house got into the car with the rest. They drove away noisily.
Eventually, the street yappers calmed down again and I could only hear the crickets. Where the family had disappeared to, I have no idea. I think the only one in the village who couldn’t sleep that night was me.
The next morning I was expected at the breakfast table by a man I hadn’t met yet. There was no trace of the woman I had met the previous day. Eventually, I rode away irritated because I had not understood anything about the whole situation and it had gotten me pretty steamed up.
I realized how quickly it’s possible for you to get into a hopeless situation, because, if the men had had something else up their sleeves, it would have been all over for me.
The supposed protection I would expect by staying with a family would have been useless. The incident will certainly be on my mind for a while.
I pedaled to the border. No one asked for the registration slips that had cost me a lot of money. Instead, they wanted to see my cash which, even though I had nothing to hide, I avoided with a diversionary tactic. But then, who likes others to sniff around in one’s private affairs?
However, I couldn’t avoid showing them the contents of my panniers. I opened the desired bicycle bag, the customs officer fiddled around in it a little and then asked about the other bags. Whereupon I said, “I think that’s enough; I’m a German citizen. I come from a good country. I’m OK.” That was enough for him and I was allowed to ride on.
Normally, I would never say anything like that, but sometimes it helps to come from a popular country to have an advantage.
Overall, I had not become very enthusiastic about Uzbekistan, which certainly also had to do with my mood, but it really had nothing to offer except the well-known cities along the Silk Road. It’s not a country that I would visit again.
And now, on to the next adventure. The mountains in Kyrgyzstan are already waiting for me.