27 August - 5 September 2016
This section covers the 700k from Tashkent to the Turkmenistan border including stays in Samarqand and Bukhara. The Turkmenistan visa is date specific and only 5 days, so it was all about allocating the days prior to reaching the border. Based on many recommendations, I decided to spend 1½ day in Samarqand and 3 days in Bukhara.
Itinerary and weather
I rode main road A2 75k out of Tashkent where it connected with M39 which I then followed SW the rest of way to Samarqand. Except for navigating a small dry barren mountain range between 200-270k, it was mostly flattish irrigated farmland from flowers to crops. So not very interesting and though the first day felt slightly less hot, it must still have been 35-40C in the shade of which there was little.
When biking, staying in cities is mostly a rest stop from life on the road and I hardly ever go sightseeing (last time was in Xi’an, China). However, for thousands of years Samarqand was the most important intersection between Europe, Persia, India and China, so historically and culturally it has a huge significance. The importance becomes obvious knowing that new rulers took over every 1-200 years including notorious Alexander the Great in 329BC and Chinggis Khan in 1220 before Timur made it his capital in 1370 making it the economic and cultural epi-centre of Central Asia. When the Uzbek Shaybanids moved their capital to Bukhara in the 16th century, Samarqand fell into demise until the Russians resuscitated it in the 19th century. There was many things to see though most were not the originals especially after an aggressive and controversial restoration during the first part of this millennium. So I stuck to the famous sites e.g. The Registan, Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Shah-I-Zinda (avenue of mausoleums for kings) and Timur’s mausoleum Gur-E-Amir. I am happy to have been here but essentially you are equally well off reading and seeing photos. There is little atmosphere because the whole downtown (tourist) area has been walled from less nice neighbourhoods including the old town.
From Samarqand, I headed out early morning intending to do the 280k to Bukhara in 2 days. There was a long main road out of Samarqand, but after trying a similar thing out of Tashkent, I decided instead to ride M37 all the way. It was flattish through a mix of irrigated and dry farmland, so it was an easy and pleasant ride except for the bad road stretches (see below) and as always it was hot with a N/NW wind to cool me down. I arrived in Bukhara around noon and easily found my hostel. I spent the first afternoon talking to David and Yasmine - very interesting siblings from Canada with Iranian heritage. A goldmine of information about the region, and as they spoke Farsi like the locals also a great pleasure to do sightseeing with the two following days – the people we met in the street were all friendly, curious and cheerful which was a good sign for soon travelling Iran. Lots of mosques, madrassas and mausoleums and in general, it was just a pleasure strolling around the countless small alleys in town. Where Samarqand felt artificial with a few sights in front of walls, Bukhara was had charm, atmosphere and life. While in Bukhara, the country celebrated its 25-year anniversary at which time the president also died creating challenges for travellers particularly in Samarqand where he was buried (getting around blocked by police and everything closed down for days).
From Bukhara, it was 100k hot and mostly bumpy kilometres to the border. On the positive side, I met three people biking the other way, which was a good opportunity to exchange information. I had planned to leave Uzbekistan and sleep in no-mans-land, which would save me hours of notorious, customs check in the morning. However, it was not allowed so I pitched my tent 100 metres from the border, ready to be at immigration when they opened at 8 in the morning.
Road quality and drivers
From Tashkent, the first 40k of A2 was good but then followed 25k of terrible Kyrgyz-like road. I speculated, this might be the bad road many bicyclists had told me about, but when I reached the highway, it was mostly decent quality with relatively few bad stretches of ½-5k though I always had to look out for big bumps. From Samarqand, the good highway unfortunately didn’t continue. The first 60k was mostly bad, and I began speculating if I could get to Bukhara in two days. But fortunately it got much better with long newly paved stretches so my speed increased from 5-10 k/h to 30-35 k/h. Getting closer to Bukhara the second morning, I had a 40k Kyrgyz bad stretch before a pleasant last stretch into town.
In the section about Charvak Lake, I wrote that most Uzbek drivers are fairly considerate. Heading south and west this was still my overall perception, however they were more considerate when there was ample room. When there was only one lane and no shoulder, they became more aggressive mostly by honking though there were a few close calls. A number of people greeted me but not in an appreciated way honking aggressively, shouting and whistling (or trying to as half the people didn’t know how to). Why do people feel an urge to honk loudly just next to me or shout into my face from a few metres? I don’t get it. Maybe I should be glad for the enthusiasm, but when it happens all the time it’s very annoying, so I ignored them and only greeted the few people who managed a “normal” greeting e.g. a smile, a wave or normal hello.
Camping and people
From Tashkent, I camped twice. The first night was difficult as I throughout the valley was stuck between the concrete road divider and a water canal just off the road - and besides, it was all private farmland. I was running late, so when I saw a couple of trees behind a melon vendor’s stall, I asked if I could camp there. It turned out, it was Ibrahim’s small plantation with vegetables and fruit trees. We chipped in and had a nice dinner by the road side. The next evening was easier as I was lucky to find some trees 50k from Samarqand before it again became farmland. From Samarqand I only had one night out and again camping was difficult because of the irrigated farmland, so I asked for help from some farmers. To my surprise, the first two turned me away (one drunk and the other angry) but the third guy, Bakhraddin, invited me home.
In both cases I stayed with locals, the language barrier prevented much conversation, but we shared some information about sports, family, my trip etc. It’s an okay experience once in-a-while to get a bit of feeling for the people and culture, though it came with several downsides. They always made me a showpiece walking around town/village with me, having friends over and calling people for me to say something in English. Secondly (and despite the limited conversation opportunities), they kept me up until after midnight, which was challenging as all I need after a long day of biking is dinner and sleep. Finally when departing, they asked for my t-shirt which diluted the experience somewhat. The first I instead paid for the food while the other got a shirt I got in the USA. Like in Kyrgyzstan people here were “takers” asking also for softdrinks, water, candy, my cap, etc.
The saddle was still woobly, so I concluded it was somehow broken inside. I sacrificed an old tube and put it under the saddle, which worked out well.
One of the front panniers halfway fell off, luckily not into the wheel. The screws had undone themselves on the many rough roads, so it was a good opportunity to do a complete pannier screw check.
Otherwise only a flat tire but once again the Australian wonder wheel did well though it began to be slightly crooked, and I had to adjust spokes after riding the worst roads.