The Three Wise Women – Becky, Lorilyn, and Rachel – on a camel ride at the yurt camp

For the last few days of our bike trip the scenery and climate changed dramatically. While before we had been up in mountains now we were in flat deserts. Not entirely flat, to be sure – there were some big climbs – but much flatter and drier than anything we’d encountered before.

After our last night in Samarkand the day started – as too many did – with a long bus ride over bad roads. As in three-and-a-half hours long. Eventually though it was time to ride and it was beautiful in its own bleak, desert, nothing-ever-changes way. A highlight for me at least was that much of the route was on very new pavement, a great relief after the awful roads we’d biked on up to this point.

Mark in the morning starting a long climb up away from the petroglyphs. We wanted the crew to put our bikes on the van and take them to the top of the hill rather than starting the day with a long climb. Peter, the lead guide, declined our offer and said we’d be fine on the ride. He was right.

Eventually we got to our second yurt camp of the tour, one that would go down in our memory as by far the worst of the three we would eventually stay in. No hot water when we got in, no running water for a few of us in the morning. Crazy loud speakers when we got there – it was Victory Day, a major celebration of the victory over the Nazi in 1945 – and everything kind of dirty.

The highlight of the region was that a kilometer or so from the yurt camp was a bunch of petroglyphs, art carvings in the rocks, some of which are believed to be up to 3,000 years old. After a lot of biking Mark and I weren’t super eager to go exploring but we went out there, saw a few petroglyphs … and came back to the yurt.

The next morning it was back on the bikes, returning the way we’d come in over that same freshly paved road, and on to the town of Nurota. A lot of that dry, desolate landscape that a lot of our fellow bikers didn’t enjoy but I was still into it. The interesting thing about Nurota is that it was founded by Alexander the Great and there is, in fact, still the (very minimal) ruins of a castle he built.

Here I am with Rachel, Susan, Stewart, Rebecca, Luba, and Lorilyn atop the remains of an Alexander the Great castle in Nurata

Next morning, back on the bikes and off to the Kyzyl Kim Yurt Camp. This was one of the stranger places we stayed in Uzbekistan. Truly out in the middle of nowhere, but only a kilometer or two from Aydar Lake, a huge reservoir in the middle of the desert. So after settling in and cleaning up we got on the bus and headed to the lake for a swim. To my enormous surprise it was pretty nice: there were wooden beach chairs and umbrella-sort-of-things for comfort and the water was pretty good for swimming. A little cold but you could get used to it. Slightly brackish from all the salt in the desert so you could float a bit. Nice.

Luba and I in the reservoir

But then it got strange. We were the only people at the beach when we got there but not long after a parade of middle-aged and older Muslim women came parading by, all dressed in pretty conservative wraps and dresses and headscarves. We learned later that they’d come on a bus all the way from Samarkand and the lake (it was really a reservoir, but they call it a lake) was apparently a key destination. They all made their way maybe 200 meters down the beach from us and proceeded to strip down and go swimming.

To say we were a little surprised is an understatement. I mean, they were well down the beach but certainly not out of sight. Someone in our group would ask “Are they really naked?” and then you’d see someone bend over and her large breasts would swing around and you’d say “Yup, they’re naked all right.” Our Uzbeki guide said that yeah, their husbands would be pretty upset if they knew they’d gotten naked with men in some proximity.

This is what our beach neighbors looked like dressed after their swim

And this is what it was like while they were enjoying their freedom

The next morning it was up and out of the yurt camp for one last bus transfer and one last ride. And it was pretty much a disaster the whole way. We were never real happy with the yurt camps and while this one had the advantage of the lake/reservoir, I actually don’t like sharing my bathroom and shower stall with dozens of other people. The beds aren’t that comfortable, you can hear everything going on in the camp, and they only have electricity during a few hours in the evening.

Our third and final yurt camp

Conditions at the yurt camp could be kind of rough, but the extreme cuteness of these marmots helped a bit

So we packed up, got on the bus … and learned the next day that I’d left my toiletry bag in the yurt. Without electricity it was just dark in there and I didn’t see it. Normally that wouldn’t be so bad but the bag included some medications I need. Replacing them has been a real pain, though eventually it worked.

If anything the bike ride was even worse. We were supposed to bike into Bukhara, another of the great ancient Silk Road centers and one-time capital of the Persian Samanid empire. Somehow our bike leaders and the local Uzbeki guide could never coordinate where we were going to meet up for lunch and so repeatedly we would be told that we would ride for 20 or 30 minutes and then there would be a break or lunch and … it wouldn’t happen. OK, they’re over there and we’re over here and we’ll ride toward them and they’ll drive toward us, except it never worked. Just a mess.

Mark on the road to Bukhara. We were supposed to have stopped for lunch LONG before this and ultimately it would be another hour or so before we finally made it.

Eventually, hours after it was scheduled, we got to a restaurant for lunch but by then I was hot and tired and apparently dehydrated enough so that nothing would help. That night I was running a fever and had chills and diarrhea and in all just a mess. And given that over the last couple days three – three! – of our comrades had tested positive for COVID I figured that was it but to my surprise I tested negative. Just dehydrated apparently.

Love that single bar!

So Mark will have to describe Bukhara in the pictures. Apparently it’s a beautiful old city, full of mosques and madrassas and so on, but I didn’t see much of it.

Finally the next morning we had a little more time in the city before it was off to the airport to fly to Tashkent and – for us – on to Almaty. Even that couldn’t go quite smoothly though – the arrival in Tashkent and transfer either to vans into the city or off to the international terminal was a mess in a pretty heavy rain – but eventually, somehow we got on the plane to Almaty.

What’s the summary of the bike trip? There’s lots of beauty in Uzbekistan – the mountains, the deserts, the Silk Road centers. And some of the food was really good, especially the multiple salads that came with nearly every meal. Don’t ever go out of your way to find Uzbeki wine, and the Grasshopper snacks that we’d loved on our earlier trips just weren’t as good, nor was the lodging. I liked a lot of the biking though I think I would struggle to get Mark to do another ride that didn’t have e-bikes. And the big thing that we enjoy about these trips is the people we meet. Doing the ride with Rebecca and Luba was always going to be great and running into Tony and Sharon was pure joy. But the rest of the people, almost without exception (almost), were fun and interesting and great to get to know. I mean, if you’re biking in Uzbekistan you must be pretty interesting, right?

One of my favorite pictures from the trip: Luba and our bike guide Sasha at the very end of the trip

And another favorite, Rachel, Becky, and Chee

Becky enjoying some tea. She was so upbeat and positive and excited about the whole trip – really made the experience better for all of us!

Even the cats loved her

Sasha leading the way on an amazingly smooth road through the desert

Mark cresting one more climb

One day we rode right past molting camels out in the wild

Our Grasshopper guide Peter and his guide-in-training son Ben. They would do the same ride as us and then do all the work getting things set up when we landed somewhere. Impressive!

Rebecca and Luba approaching the entrance of an 11th century caravansary

Bukhara was a great learning center in early Islam, with over 300 madrassas, some covered in spectacular tile work

The 154-foot Kalon minaret was probably the tallest building in Central Asia when it was built in 1127. It is such a stunning sight that even Ghengis Khan was amazed by it — enough to order it to be spared as his troops destroyed everything else around (as they generally did).

The 16th century Mir-i-Arab madrassa still operates today

Jim makes a tough day of biking look effortless

Mark climbing a very tough hill

Luba is always positive, no matter how bad the conditions

After the trek in Zaamin National Park, and a night of sleep, the plan was to head out of the park on our bikes. This involved a significant ride downhill, then some ups and downs, then a tough 7 kilometer climb, and finally a 40 kilometer descent from the mountains.

There were a few snags. First, the weather forecast was miserable. The temperature was barely above freezing, and it was actually snowing the night before our ride. The roads were also pretty treacherous. And then there was the matter of that 7 km climb. We all sort of assumed that once morning came, we’d ditch the ride, especially since all of us came to Uzbekistan expecting hot weather everywhere, and nobody had clothes for cold and snow.

But when we got up in the morning the weather had mostly cleared. It was cold — just above freezing — but it was sunny and beautiful. Of the fourteen of us, ten decided we were going to try the ride. It was beautiful riding, though the roads were pretty hellish. Wearing a couple layers, and working pretty hard, the temperature wasn’t bad — except for some pretty cold fingers.

Jim and Rebecca get ready to bike in the cold

Once we began the very tough long climb, it started to get a little colder, and by the time we reached the summit we were wiped out and freezing. This caused a few of us (including me) to decide again the 40 km descent. It was just too cold, and the roads looked just plain scary for riding steeply downhill. So more of us got in the bus, while Jim and six others started downhill. The weather got worse. The roads got worse. There were mean dogs. Becky took a tumble on her bike (but wasn’t hurt). Suffice it to say, by the halfway point of the descent, the remaining riders were climbing into the bus with their teeth chattering. And we all began a 3-hour ride to Samarkand, where we’d get a day off to recover and explore.

Samarkand is the stuff of legends. It is the quintessential Silk Road town. Ancient in origin, it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC and decimated by Ghengis Khan in 1220. In 1370, Tamerlane made it the capital of his Timurid Empire, stretching from Constantinople across Central Asia into India and China. Today it is leafy, lovely city with an incredible legacy of tile-covered Islamic architecture. It was a joy to explore this beautiful place — and to heal from a rough day of biking. And it deserves lots of pics, as you will see.

The Registan in Samarkand is a stunning group of three medressas — religious schools — the first of which was completed in 1420

Mark, Rebecca, and Jim touring the Registan

A dazzling ceiling inside one of the medresses of the Registan

Timur (known in the West as Tamurlane) watches over his empire

The stunning Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum is Tamurlane’s final resting place

The ceiling of the mausoleum

Mark and Chee take a break outside the mausoleum

In the courtyard outside the mausoleum, a few Central Asian tourists started to try out their English on Jim, and before we knew it he was surrounded by people wanting their pictures taken with him

Shah-i-Zinda is an incredible avenue of mausoleums loaded with tilework from the 14th and 15th centuries

The Registan looks amazing during an evening light show

More of the light show

Mark on the very dry and dusty road to the Asmansay Yurt Camp

We started Day 5 of the bike trip with a tour of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Normally Mark and I would avoid an organized tour of a city at all costs but there was really no way to avoid this one; the group left the hotel in the morning, toured the city, and then headed west – still on the bus – the city of Jizzakh. Thus were we trapped.

In the scheme of things it wasn’t so bad and parts of it were even good. We saw some monuments, went to the big market in town, toured a beautiful mosque complex, and had a great lunch of local food. Given more time I’m sure I would have found parts of Tashkent to like but with a whirlwind tour like that you just get a little flavor. After that it was a long drive over pretty awful roads to Jizzakh.

Part of a complex of Islamic mosques, schools, and museums in Tashkent

From there it was another transfer – we neither biked into or out of Jizzakh, it was just a convenient stop – out to the start of the ride. By now we were some 150 miles southwest of Tashkent and the terrain was completely different. This was essentially dessert, just dry rolling hills, with the ride entirely on dirt lanes. I missed the beauty of the mountains but this area had it’s own charms. And while I prefer riding on paved roads I learned there are lots of people who prefer this sort of mountain biking. So everyone gets some of what they like on this tour.

Biking to the yurt camp

We ended the ride at a yurt camp – sorry, no pictures – a lodge with maybe a dozen traditional round “tents” with beds. It was extremely remote and I was pretty happy with that. At night, though, the wind came up pretty strong and was just lashing the canvas on the outside of the yurt making a noise that was almost impossible to sleep through. And then to add insult to injury when we got up in the morning they had lost electricity which meant not only no lights in the yurt for packing, but no running water, which was powered by pumps. Not a great morning.

Then it was a l-o-n-g bus ride to Zaamin National Park, where we were supposed to hike instead of bike. When I say long, well, it was supposed to be a three-hour transfer which, on those roads, would have been bad enough. In fact it took us nearly five hours to get to the park. And when we got there it had snowed recently and there was a light drizzle falling making any trails muddy and slippery.

Most of us made the hike anyway, though Mark wisely stayed back; he’d have hated the slippery downhills and his knee would have rebelled. For those who went … hmmm … it was a good hike. Too fogged in to have great views and too cold to really enjoy. But I love mountain air and I don’t get a lot of that in Manhattan so despite the cold and the wet and the mud it was OK.

Cold and wet with plenty of mud, but it was still a beautiful hike

Tomorrow we’re off to the ancient city of Samarkand but it’s not clear how much biking we’re going to get in. Right now it’s actually snowing here and none of us brought the clothes you would need to survive biking in that kind of weather. Fortunately we’re all being pretty flexible so I guess we’ll play it by ear.

One of the first stops on our tour of Tashkent was the local market. I had Mark & Rebecca pose just to show off how spacious and clean it was, in contrast to many other markets we’ve seen.

There are always scores of displays like this

And this

Islamic architecture in Tashkent

Mark in front of a mosque. Because we were wearing shorts we couldn’t go in – which wasn’t the worst tragedy we’ve experienced

At another mosque they provided robes so men with shorts could enter. I thought Mark could have passed for the Grim Reaper…

Our tour of Tashkent included a ride on the local subway. My experience is that the Soviets – who built this subway – always did a good job of designing the stations. This is a LOT nicer than anything we see in NYC!

Tony & Sharon posing in front of some of the art in another subway stop

Plov is the national dish of Uzbekistan, so before leaving Tashkent we had plov at the Central Asian Plov Center. There were probably eight or 10 big vats like this with guys – always guys – making their own variation of plov.

This is what I ended up with and I thought it was spectacular

Dinner in Jizzakh included these new friends of Mark

Our new friend Rachel on the road to the yurt camp

There was a lot of this on the route

Cute kids on the route! Our experience so far is that locals – adults and kids alike – are much more reticent than most places we have biked. Not these boys though – they were eager to interact, run along with our bikes, and have their picture taken.

We had a camp fire under a full moon at the yurt camp, serenaded by this local guitarist

Mark and some of our fellow riders

And finally, near the start of our hike in Zaamin National Park. And yes, that’s fresh snow even though it’s already May.