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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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?