Saturday, 3 May 2014

r&r in Bukhara

trying to get coins out of the boy's pockets
Day Eight continued  Border formalities are tedious but we are saved the torture of a customs inspection and roll into Uzbekistan, passing the clutch of taxi sharks who stiffed us the last time we came through.  I feel tempted to ride over and ask if any of the drivers would take us to Bukhara for $500 before cycling off while they clamoured and clawed for the business.  The road is wide and open and hot in the sunshine.  We have only Bukhara on our minds - still about 90kms away - and food - we spent our last pennies in Turmenistan on the train fare so we didn't stock up there.  It takes most of the day to reach a village with a bazaar.  At about 4 o'clock we sit down in a cafe to eat samsas.  The roadside scenery is green once again with farms and villages strung out along the road.  The only problem is where to camp.  We head off down a track past some houses in search of dead land but all of it is being cultivated.  We ask a man at one house and are directed to a park further on. 
best drink of the day
The problem is that as the sun begins to set the roads come alive with people enjoying the cool of the day.  Everywhere is busy.  Down a side road we ask again and the man indicates with a nod to the house he's standing beside.  He is inviting us to sleep inside.  This kind of hospitality is impossible to refuse.  So we push our bikes through the large door and he shows us a big empty 'guestroom'.  There's garage space for the five bikes, a clean pit toilet, and space to cook.  Perfect.  Kabul introduces us to his wife and kids and we get down to cooking our tea while his daughter lays out thin mattresses for us to sleep on.  We manage all this with very few words of understanding and a lot of mime and guesswork - like most of our conversations in Central Asia.  I worry that we are answering the questions in the wrong order:
Where are you going?  England
Where are you from? Japan
Which city? Bukhara
Bukhara United? No, City!
Are you married? No
Do you have children? Yes
How many? 16,943
How far have you cycled? None

Day Nine  It's a relatively easy ride into Bukhara, but we stop short at about 1pm to have lunch at a roadhouse restaurant.  Shashlik. Chunks of lamb and fat barbecued on skewers with dinner-plate-sized bread, salad and green tea.  We eat on a raised bed around a low table and then snooze for a while in the mid-afternoon heat before continuing on to the fabulous old Silk Road city ahead.  A towering brick minaret indicates the direction to the centre of the old city where the impressive old medressas, mosques and citadel are located.  Tour buses and gift shops.  Suddenly we are in another world - the mass-tourism world (if that's not overstating it) of Uzbekistan.  We remember the same feeling last time after crossing Turkmenistan, a country rarely visited, and arriving here seeing groups of middle-aged French, Italians and Japanese being herded around the main sights.  Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were open to foreign tourists back in the Soviet era so these places have well-established tourist 'facilities'.  in other words there's a choice of hotels, restaurants with menus and locals used to fleecing wealthy tourists.  I'm not complaining - after 9 days cycling I'm looking forward to a comfy bed and a bit of sight-seeing and Bukhara is the perfect place for this.

Weary and elated at arriving, we are happy to find Raimon the Catalan, and his co-cyclist Valentin, parked up in front of the tall Kailon minaret and huge tiled mosques in the centre.  Uzbek tourists are taking their photos, intrigued by something a little different to the wealth of architectural gems surrounding us.  One man approaches to ask where we are all from.  When we point at Gabor and say 'Hungary' one excited man steps forward brandishing a tattoo on his upper arm.  Hungary 1982-83.  He was stationed there in the Red Army.  Gabor drily remarks "At least it's not 1956".  After a lot of catching up with Raimon we gang up and cycle through the old streets and past the magnificent old buildings that are now used as backdrops for a string of tourist shops selling mostly local handicrafts like the beautiful embroidered suzanis, carpets and traditional striped dressing-gowns only worn by elderly men these days.  Down sort-of-familiar backstreets we find the cheaper hotels and collapse into our rooms.  Hot showers.  Laundry piles of salt-stiffened clothes. Food supply assessment - it's evening already and we just buy bits and bobs from the overpriced mini-market in the main square.  Bittersweet dreams of desert roads, Turkmen women in long velvet dresses, tortoises, cold water refills, passport checks and currency exchanges involving bricks of notes, pungent pit toilets, instant noodles, waving smiling bemused people, shelling salty sunflower seeds, water channels and vivid green fruit trees, zzzzzzzzzz.............

It takes us a good rest day or two to break out of our catatonic state.  It's good to explore and shop at the bazaar in the cool of the early morning and wander the old town at the end of the day as the sunlight softens.  After a couple of nights suffering the odd moods of the hotel owner and realising that the wi-fi will never work unless he wants to use it himself, we all up sticks, load the bikes and resettle at Madina & Ilios' guesthouse - run by the friendly Madina (where is Ilios?) whose family home around a tiny shaded courtyard replenishes our energy reserves and spirit for the next stage of the journey.  There are bike chores and worries to deal with: Franzi and Jona's new MSR stove has been misbehaving and Gabor gets his first flat.  Lots of desert sand and dust to remove.  Going through our belongings yet again to see if anything can be off-loaded.  Typically, we are in one of those mystical fabled places that conjure up images of ancient exotic times and just thinking about laundry, repairs, sorting through photos, and writing messages.  It's the cycle-touring paradox: you expend all this energy to get somewhere and then you're too tired or occupied with chores to really enjoy it.  But actually we do.

In one of Bukhara's parks is the tomb of Ismaili Samani, the great ruler of the Persian Samanid dynasty which lasted a couple of centuries in Iran and Uzbekistan.  This heralded Bukhara's Golden Age when it became a centre of Islamic learning on a par with Baghdad and Cairo.  Ibn Sina  a.k.a. Avicenna was a local lad.  Ghenghis and his Mongol Mates finally put an end to the glory years.....

1 comment:

  1. You asked where Ilyos was. Well, he's working in Moscow in a restaurant (not sure if it is his or not). Hasn't been home in 2 years... I'd be surprised if Medina doesn't Skype him though - the connection seemed good enough for that.