The rich tapestry of Samarkand

Arriving at night, winding our way through narrow stony streets in the dim light of our headlights, could not have been more perfect. Then opening the large foreboding wooden doors to the oasis that was our hotel (or apparent oasis as it turned out) was everything we could have wished for.

After 102km it was even hard to sit up!

Despite the pleasure on arrival, it wasn’t the place for a rest and relax – not for us. Contributing factors could have been – the bathroom that was a repurposed refrigeration unit – with a handle that didn’t work, less than clean bedding, a general feel of lack of attention to detail, being locked out of our room with no easy solution, o real clothes washing facilities and for the first time being around locals/staff who did not seem happy. But of course there is a reason for things – here we met Monesh and his family. Wonderful warm, friendly and helpful. His tips have definitely enhanced our stay. And of course he introduced us to the ineffable Firdavs! (A journalist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Uzbekistan!)

Firdavs and Adrienne at Shah-I-Zinda

Travelling in countries where you do not speak the language often means it’s a peripheral glance – without being able to talk or read its hard to gather much information other than what a guide book provides. Of course as English speakers we are incredibly fortunate with much of world now learning and speaking English.

Firdavs was our guide – originally it was to be just one day – but we all had such a good time – we stretched it out for another day. (Well actually Firdavs joined us on the second day and wouldn’t accept any fee for his assistance). More examples of the generosity of spirit of the Uzbek people and Firdavs in particular.

So we did explore the usual tourist hotspots, the Registan, Gur- E- Amir Mausoleum, Bibi- Khanyn Mosque, Hazrat-Hizr Mosque. We also spent our time at Afrosiab museum and the Observatory where history was brought to life in technicolor through stories and walking the same paths as people in ur history books. Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan – both commanding armies and known to us but Amir Timur and Mirzo Ugulbek were the ones that captured our attention. It was a clear example of how little we know about the history and the leaders of significance in other parts of the world.

The magnificence of the architectural vision, vastness of the majesty was at times overwhelming. Though at the same time it was hard to get enough of it. Day after day we returned to soak a little more in.

The same place the blog cover shot was taken 🙂

Lisbet – you asked if 100 days would be enough. No. A thousand days and nights would not be enough. This place has the majesty of a thousand lifetimes. And yes I know that sounds dramatic but it is so awe inspiring- in quiet space sitting reflecting on it all, trying to take it all in, you can easily be reduced to tears.

The architectural wonder is certainly the visual focus but understanding the purpose behind the design makes you love it even more. As one of the major hubs on the Silk Road Samarkand has always had visitors – so they designed with that in mind, places for travellers to rest, to eat as well as places for locals to learn. So education and knowledge and hospitality are foundations stones to much of the design. If you’re into science, check our Mirzo Ugulbek – his work in astronomy is astounding!

Seeing the architecture and knowing a little now about the country also helped us make sense of the textiles the images and icons used in Sozanis, carpets and soumak. As a weaver, Adrienne was right at home, now speaking the same language, the language of textiles. The delight on the weavers faces was obvious, finally someone who understood the complexity and value of their work. It was during one of these long chats – that Adrienne tied her first carpet knot!

The first knot!
Hard to buy on the first day. Fate intervened it was gone by day 2 .
Natural silk dyes walnut shell, asparagus flower, madder root
So many silk threads to choose from – though it’s all governed by the pattern
Fellow weaver
One of thousands of golden smiles in Samarkand
Fired three times these plates sing like crystal

Ceramics and textiles, more wonderful people, history brought to life through landscape and story, architectural splendour – so much to take in. Of course I have taken hundreds of photos – and you’d be seeing more of them is they didn’t take so long to upload. 😫

The first morning we were treated with the first of many walks around the Registan!
If it appears to be a lean – well that’s ‘coz it does (though maybe not quite that much 🙂
The detail is hard to comprehend – lots of it including quotes from the Koran

One of may favourite quotes from the prophet was “in battle with demon, one person with knowledge is better than a thousand ignorant prayers”. This reflecting the importance of the pursuit of knowledge – and perhaps one of the reasons behind the high literacy levels of Uzbeks.

There is of course more to tell and much more to see – but tomorrow we leave the wifi zone – such as it is – so short and sweet – for somewhere really too big to fully comprehend.

So below is a map of our journey to date (highlighted) and the finger pointing to our next major stop Bukhara (or Buxoro) on many maps. From there we’ll head further west to Khiva/Xiva then back to Tashkent and off to Khazakstan by early June.

First legs…then more legs

The first question everyone wants answered is how many kilometres will you ride. There are many questions that should proceed that. Lets start with …..1.How much are you carrying?

About 30kg (we think we bought too much food). On the first day we were given lunch and dinner so the chance to eat what we bought is minimal especially as we are often not only fed but also often given food to take on our way, so we seem to have even more food than we started with! (Plus the fuel we had to buy burns black and dinner can smell a bit like it was cooked by a diesel mechanic who is doing a bit of painting on the side – so it’s fine when you are really hungry but not otherwise!

2. What are the roads like?

We started initially on small back road with potholes the size of bathtubs and sections like a riverbed, lots of loose flat stones. Then we finished the day on an expressway, with cars and trucks zooming by. (If there is a speed limit here it certainly isn’t obvious!). While the roads are very busy the traffic does have a feel of well organised chaos. The road is shared by all those on it with equal respect shown to all vehicles truck and bicycles and donkey drawn carts and shiny new cars all have the same value. I was carefully shepherded across a very busy intersection by a thoughtful truck driver. That would never happen in Sydney!

3. What will the weather be like?

Hot mid 30s, not much shade and much heat coming off the road. There’s an occasional sandstorm thrown in just to keep you focussed. But then there’s rivers and waterways to cool off in or have lunch by. Then there’s the wind – how strong is it? Is it a tail wind or a headwind? So far we’ve been lucky – not much wind either way though one afternoon a very hot dry headwind did feel like it was scorching the tonsils.

4. What’s the terrain like? We’ve done our first big hill – it wasn’t a mountain but did take a couple of hours. Apart from the weather, the other benefit of starting in Uzbekistan is it is relatively flat – especially compared to Kyrgystan and Tajikistan.

We had many options to top up on fuel at many fuel stands they sold both petrol and honey!

5. How many times a day will you be invited in for tea, for meals, to stop for selfies, to chat and make real this vision of two women with loaded bikes in Uzbekistan. Many many times. It was very hot riding so we were constantly looking for shade to take a short break. We stopped under a big shady tree 🌳, nodded hello to a local and were invited in for Chai. Israh – (well actually his daughter in law) made us a feast fit for queens). Two different types of freshly baked homemade bread! We were also invited to stay for the night – but it was too early in the day.

6. What will you see along the way that will make you stop? Multi story stork apartments, donkeys at work, mulberry trees.

The back roads were a mulberry fest – every kilometre or so we could stop and feast, staining our lips and hands with sweet, ripe, mulberries- ours for the picking.

Having stopped late on our first night to make camp we decided to started looking for somewhere to camp by 5pm. We asked a few people – with our newly acquired, extremely limited Russian.

Boris roasting his freshly dug up new potatoes

Maria and Boris to the rescue. We were briefly invited to put up our tent in their garden but almost before we could answer we were taken inside given a room. Then more treats – a sauna and wash, food and then lots of chatting each in our own tongue but with warmth and laughter we somehow understood each other.

Separating the milk and cream
Fabulous sauna and washroom

Boris gave us “spirit”as we had politely refused the vodka – mental note – next time accept the vodka!

It seems many people grow their own food both our lunch and dinner were from the garden.

Leaving Marianna and Boris

After a few days riding we have finally figured out the 4 types of horn blowing. 1. A short blow – for awareness only 2. Two short beeps – wow its people on Bikes. 3. One – two longer beeps – you are in my way and you dont seem to realise you shouldn’t be doing that. 4. Four – six frantic beeps oh my god I just saw two woman riding bikes oh my good they waved oh my god!!

Even out of the cities there are beautiful majits

Of course every journey has its challenges too – we have had to learn to say no – there are so many offers of chai, food, somewhere to rest, we could easily not move very far at all. There was also the snapped seat post screw (for the non bikers amongst you – a seat that swivels as you ride and that can’t be adjusted for the right height!). Adrienne was whisked away in a car by locals with almost no English only to return a while later with not one but two screws, one of which was promptly tested and put in place before they disappeared as quickly and quietly as they had appeared.

Knights in shining armour

It’s so hot in the day we start early then take a break for a few hours in the middle of day before continuing in the afternoon.

Even politely saying no – people go out of their way to help. After explaining we didn’t have time to go to his house (via a very helpful app) we were asked to wait for a short moment while a friend brought cold water to us!

We couldn’t go to water so water cane to us!

There are usually little roadside stalls popping up regularly .. except of course when you need it and water is running low…. late in the afternoon we turned off the main road in the search for water. I asked if they was a shop close by? At that the garage door opened and there was a shop 🙂 After buying water we then given Airon – a cooling yoghurt, pickle and dill soup and also a jar of kefir to help us on our way. Such warmth and generosity can at times be overwhelming.

Airon helps cools us off before setting off again

After an early start – packing up our campsite under the walnut trees – we were on a mission to reach Samarkand. We weren’t exactly sure how far it was but thought it was within reach.

Many many hours later, with stops and gifts along the way, we rolled into Samarkand, though the old stone streets at 9pm. 102km – big day and we felt it.

Across the bridge to Samarkand
We have arrived!

Friends we met along the road.. first leg

Paying to weight
Every vehicle equal value
They were very interested in the bike 🚲
Australia – kanGAru

Now to explore Samarkand…here’s a taster

Early daze

We often think a journey begins when we board a plane (or ship or train or car) but perhaps it really begins when we arrive, body mind and spirit at our destination.

We arrived – bike boxes intact, along with the rest of the luggage. But it took a while for a minds to catch up. Within our first hour we had left a passport behind – thankfully a helpful soul had found us before we even noticed the passport was gone nor had we gone too far.

Like many places, negotiating the cost of a ride often takes longer than the ride itself. So after much discussion with a growing crowd of curious men we squeezed 2 bike boxes and Adrienne into a car not much bigger than a mini. I took the other car 🚗 – also small with the rest of the luggage. The ride was akin to a police chase, high speed, weaving in and out of traffic, veering at speed across lanes and in tunnels and fearing death. We both separately had visions of joining Princess Di. Thankfully bikes, Adrienne and I all arrived safe and sound and within minutes of each other.

Home for a few days

The architecture is a real mix of style, both functional and astonishing

One of many beautiful majits (mosques)
In addition to the majits there are also medressa – schools of religion

First impressions? Uzbeks are warm, friendly, generous and always keen to help. So generous at times you feel like you have been kidnapped. Yesterday we stopped for a rest from the day’s heat while searching for fuel for our camp stove. We were asked if we wanted to try some local food. Munisa – a local woman who was sitting in the same place we stopped – bought us food to try ( thankfully not meat) a lemony yoghurt and rice – surprisingly good and cooling on a hot day. Hours later we were still flying around in her family car along with husband, son and husbands brother all in search of fuel. We were finally driven home, fuel in hand and also given bread to take home. Today we went to Munisa’s school for a meet and greet.

The wonderful Munisa
QnA with Australia and New Zealand
We had both students and teachers wanting to join us on our travels

Each day there has been a new story of hospitality and warmth.

Misha our local baker showed us how he make bread, placing each loaf (that word doesn’t seem right for the beautifully crafted bread he makes) on the wall and roof of the oven.

Misha at work
Inside the oven
The gift

In addition to the people, there’s the markets, wonderful displays of dried fruits, fresh spices that waft their perfume throughout the market air, bread of every shape and size and more.

Dried fruits
Intricately designed bread baskets
Amazingly fresh spices
It’s strawberry season!

Of course our plan was to get about everywhere on our bikes but it thankfully took a few days before we put them together. So instead we had the opportunity to experience the subways. Wow – each one different, each one a different shade of spectacular.

I can’t remember if the station but I won’t forget the ceiling
Despite the other photos – yes their were other commuters

So we’ve wandered the streets by foot, by subway and today by bike. That’s right we are finally back on two wheels. The wanderings have been delightful but now it’s time to hit the road jack.

Lots of construction on our wanderings
And beautiful buildings
Peri on her way to completion
The final touches
And we’re ready to roll
So much stunning colour …

Tomorrow we’re off to Samarkand – so will be off the air for a few days. We’re both looking forward to being on the road, sleeping in the tents and just being out of the city – even though it’s been wonderful. See you soon

The meeting of minds while Seoul searching

It was just an overnight, a stopover, an accidental visit as it were… but somehow it wedged itself into our now collective psyche.

A city that celebrates water, things that live in it, that ride above it. Fish big and small, boats, bridges all adding life to an otherwise oft barren concrete landscape.

Fish leaping the bow
Bow the beauty or is that beauty to the bow
A city of bridges and paper flowers

Old and new juxtaposed in deliberate elegance and with an equal celebration of the value of each.

Faces of past and future if we are wise
Solar wisdom

Water, the mix of old and new, of music and art, the use of otherwise waste land and particularly the way it all wove together made Seoul a place very worthy of attention.

Someone took a leaf out of Beethoven’s book

So we met In Seoul – of course meeting should’ve been easy but we were destined for separate hotels – first mini challenge overcome – with the help of Lucy – a Seoul local and fabulous advocate we were able to ensure we were allocated to the same hotel.

Next it was pillow pick up- courtesy the wonderful Vanessa – all the way from Perth – to Seoul via Melbourne and Paddy Palin. Thankfully it was V not us who navigated the subway lines and found her way to our hotel. (Big thanks 🙏🏽)

So we squeezed quite a bit in in our less than 24 hr adventure. The pace will no doubt slow down soon.

First days coming soon …

Next stop Tashkent!

Countdown is well and truly here! We take off tomorrow morning and arrive in Tashkent Sunday eve.

If you’re like me – you probably only have vague idea of where each of the Stans are. They were of course part of USSR until 1991. I’ve included a map of the region just so you start to get your bearings. So our vague plan – is Uzbekistan the Kazakh then Kyrgy then Tajikistan. Given the distances involved it will at best be dipping our toes in the water …with just a taste of each country, whetting our appetite for future adventures.

That’s a lot of ground to cover by bike in 100 days!

So for next few weeks we’ll be cycling along the old silk road through Uzbekistan, hopefully taking in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. It sounds remote and isolated but there’s 30 million people living there with a population density of more than 22 times that of Australia. Like all the Stans the dominant religion is Islam, so we’re destined for some absolutely stunning mosques. It is a police state that’s harshly governed, but don’t panic Mum, everyone also says it is an extremely friendly country with hospitality part of every day life.

Samarkand – that should be about week 2 – Plan A

So the bike(s) are packed – and yes my bike has a name! Adrienne will be on her Thorn, which is well worn in but also has some new equipment to make this journey just a little bit simpler. There were so many great names for my bike – and I had to test a few out as I rode along Vivien, (drawing from French and Latin alive, live), Wee Wendy (am sure bike and I will soon become one), Petal (a play on pedal of course,) Olga (Russian princess), Peri (as in peripatetic), Blackbird (flying along), Arash (Persian for bright arrow), Roshni (Persian for shining) and that’s just a sample.

At the end of the day it felt like the bike chose her own name.. Peri , so we’ll see if that sits right and sticks as we travel along.

Tashkent – a mix of old….

..and new

So now its just final packing – passports and then sitting back closing our eyes and landing into 100 days in the Stans. See you there.

It is amazing what fits in panniers – though may leave some bits behind as think food will be the priority!

Everything is packed, Peri in her box and that mess above now neatly organised in multiple packing cells. We’ll see how long that order lasts 🙂

The Journey Begins

The first part of the journey is the excitement of the preparation, right? Well – a month out and it’s feeling like there has been a little too much excitement and not enough preparation. 

Come what may though, on 4th May  – Bike (she is yet to be named) and I climb aboard a plane bound for Tashkent.

uzbekistan-1468911_1920 (1)

 I head off to meet Adrienne, a friend, cycle tourist and fabulous weaver who will be sharing this journey with me – in what promises to be an epic 100 days through the ‘Stans’! (We are meeting in Seoul then start and finish our ride in Tashkent, Uzbekistan). We have 100 days to pedal a few thousand  kilometres across Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and hopefully Tajikistan too. 

So this is my bike – she’s a Vivente World Randoneur Gibb model – I need help naming her – feel free to make suggestions – and the reasoning behind it 🙂

She is of course a lot cleaner and a lot lighter than she will be in the weeks and months ahead.

And this is Adrienne on our first shared adventure, in NZ late last year.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton ……we look forward to you keeping us company