The Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan stand out as a jewel in the cultural crown of our adventure. But like every country before, it was the time spent in forgotten villages, drinking tea with locals, that really warmed our hearts.
The border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan straddles the edge of an unforgiving central Asian desert. With 450km to the closest Uzbek town, we expected a breezy entry and arrived in the late afternoon. Little did we count for the fact it was the end of Nowruz (Persian new year), which meant swarms of people pushing their way through barbed wire fences manned by machine gun toting military men.
Our breezy entry turned into a 3 hour border crossing, bag searches and all. When we finally rolled into Uzbekistan the sun had set, and we were 450km from the nearest hotel, with not a cent of the local currency in our hands. Luckily this seems to be a special skill of ours, so we pushed off in search of the faint lights on the horizon.
We are both lucky enough to be born in rich countries, where I earned more in a day than some locals do in a month. So before this trip I promised never to ask for anything, and always offer to pay for that which was offered. But sometimes even the best of intentions fall through.
When we finally arrived at those faint lights on the horizon it was 10.30pm, the air was cold and my stomach was holding a small revolution. As an old couple came wandering down the street, I couldn't help asking, almost begging, for a bed for the night. With guilt on my heart, and tail between my legs, we followed them into warmth for a much needed meal and place to rest our heads.
The next morning we were huddled beneath the shade of a tree, staring absently at the empty space on our map. Cycling the steppes of Kazakhstan was a truly special experience, but 400km of flat empty desert didn't sound particularly appealing, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves tying our bikes to the roof of the first van that drove by. The 8 hours of bum breaking pot holes that followed certainly reinforced the fact it would've been a horrible cycle.
Waking up in the heart of Khiva we were blessed with a mesmerising view. Meters from the door of our guesthouse stood the ancient citadel, a thousand year old structure at the heart of the Silk Road. Surrounded by golden-brown mud brick walls, the citadel was filled with winding alleys and locals going about their daily life. Morning were spent wandering the streets, taking a step back in time and imagining the life of another world. Our afternoons were wiled away sipping tea and watching the sun fade away. In any other part of the world Khiva would be filled with tour groups by the bus load, but the image issue of any country ending in "Stan" means we had the place to ourselves.
Next stop was Bukhara, another great trading city along the Silk Road. With new hotels popping up weekly, we managed to negotiate the honeymoon suite of a swanky guesthouse for a mere $10 per person. But Bukhara isn't about fancy hotels. Home to 140 monuments, madrasahs and mosques, this city is a living museum to the glories of the Silk Roads past. It's the perfect place to wander the winding streets, get lost in awe and chat to friendly locals. After 4 days it was hard to leave, but another night in the honeymoon suite would've made returning to the tent near on impossible.
Samarkand stands out world-wide as 'the' Silk Road city. It's the only city I'd heard of pre-trip, and the one for which I had the highest expectations. The historical centre of town was picture perfect, but as a city, it felt somewhat inauthentic. Unfortunately the powers that be decided tourists like things fancy, so a wall was built around the centre to block out views of real life. In between monuments we walked down a manicured promenade, with boutiques and souvenir shops on either side. Nevertheless we loved this cities architectural beauties, and were fascinated by their celebration of Amir Timur (Timurlane), creator of the Timurid Empire that killed 17 million people.
After the cultural delights of these three great cities, it was finally time to jump back on the bikes and cycle 700km to Kyrgyzstan. The roads were some of the worst in our trip this far. Days were spent dodging potholes that turned into ponds after the slightest bit of rain, and my tyre finally decided it had had enough. In 10 days cycling to Osh I had 20 punctures, and by the end I was seriously considering throwing it in the river. But that's no way to treat a trusty servant who's got me 8000km, and my troublesome tyre has now retired to the lovely town of Osh.
Our cycling wasn't all potholes and punctures though. Uzbeks turned out to be well practised in the art of hospitality, and we were welcomed into the homes of many. One particularly memorable afternoon we were sitting on the street of a dusty out-of-the-way town, when a smiling Uyghur lady invited us for tea. One pot turned into two, then came cakes and after that a plate of fried eggs. Without a word of common language the conversation was flowing, and soon we were invited to stay the night. What followed was a home cooked feast of spicy chicken washed down with ice cold beer. Our first beer in months certainly put a smile on our faces, and sleep came quick and easy that night.
Once again travelling by bike has given us the opportunity to see into the homes and hearts of locals like I've never experienced before. The Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan are truly amazing, an 8th wonder of the world. But traveling by bicycle has become so special to us because of the people we meet and cultures we learn about.