Those in the know had warned me Uzbekistan may not exactly be a vegetarian heaven. As if it wasn’t strange enough to have two grandmotherly types (certainly in the eyes of locals that’s exactly who they compare us to) arrive on bicycles, to have us then try and explain we are vegetarian is sometimes more than they can bear.
Of course sometimes we strike it rich, Feruza, our rescuer in Ishtyxon, spoke a little English and so understood we were vegetarian – so for much she made us pizza – no meat of course…though it did smell like meat so thought I should double check – no meat, definitely no meat…. just sausage – and was crestfallen that we would consider that meat. There is lots of meat and many local dishes have meat as their base but fortunately it’s spring and so in addition to all the meat dishes there are salads too and lots of fresh herbs. Dill and coriander flavour most of the salads.We’ve taken to lunch time salads whenever we can- fresh vegetables are such a treat in a diet heavy with sugar, cream, bread and pastries.
Bread is served with just about everything – with the favoured dip being egg white beaten with sugar until strong white peaks occur – that’s right – meringue – only you dont cook it – you just dip your bread in it.
We rolled into the outskirts of Bukhara on a tail wind, though the pace the slow as we meandered though small gravel and baked mud tracks. There were no trucks whizzing by, no horns, no offers of chai, it was quiet and peaceful and we could just roll our legs over and take it all in.
The road looks better than it felt. Each crack and hole had to be carefully ridden.
Being in cities our experiences are very different to being on the road, there is still warmth and generosity, but we also have to accept that we are tourists. While we see ourselves as travellers and it feels like that is how we are seen where on our bikes, once we get to the city and park our bikes and walk – we are transformed in the eyes of others and we are included in the general throng of tourists. It’s a very different place and takes some time to adjust to – so despite the clean clothes and showers – we often find ourselves quickly longing for the country. A bus trip with a wonderful teacher and students, then ending up at the local markets made us feel a little like the obvious tourists we are.
One of the many joys of being on our bikes is we are often joined -by another cyclist – most often young men – but they are happy, interested and chatty and it is a delight to ride alongside them for the few kilometres they join one of us.
Bukhara like Samarkand (and Khiva where we are heading tomorrow) are major historic cities on the Silk Road, full of spectacular Islamic architecture and beautiful finely woven silks, both carpet and fabric, rich embroideries, many other fabrics and of course spices. So after the usual washing of clothes and selves we ventured out to explore our new surrounds. (We both bought outfits we felt more comfortable wandering in – so could happily take to the streets without standing out anymore than necessary.
The minaret is one of the defining architectural features of Bukhara, its striking in its simplicity. Unlike the flamboyant and conspicuous Samarkand, Bukhara’s architecture, while still awe inspiring, is more subtle, using large expanses of plain brickwork to accentuate the shapes and flow of buildings. (There is still of course plenty of colour)!
After a short stroll we wind our way to the women’s hammom – a bathhouse where we will be steamed and scrubbed and massaged, with the passion and enthusiasm we have come to expect from the Uzbeks. It felt good to feel so clean – though laying on the hot stone floor – it was hard not to have your nostrils full of smells of the DNA of the thousands of woman who had laid here before you.
Wandering the streets as well as visiting old palaces and being in the bazaars, the vibrancy of colour and the style with which it is worn and combined is hard to miss. As the days go by the vast range in quality is also becoming obvious, the tightness in weave, the fabrics, the length and evenness of the stitch… particularly on the Suzanis – embroidered cloth. Then there’s all the weaving – stunning design of every colour imaginable. Seeing it all worn together, the scarves, tops, trousers or skirts, under layers, over layers – often all different is a feast for the eyes.
The annual silk and spices festival started today – a parade, lots of colour, and lots of noise, large horns, drums and the noise of a happy excited crowd. The rain dampened the grass but didnt dampen anyone’s spirit.
And while it is different in the cities, there is still warmth, generosity and curiosity. It may not. Be as dramatic as offers of chai and a bed for the night, instead its telling you to go first when waiting in the toilet queue, offering you a more comfortable chair, giving you food to try when they know you have no intention of buying.
Apart from genuine curiosity and interest, the Uzbek people we have spoken to also feel a great sense of containment. For many they would love to travel – initially the preferred destination seemed to be USA but lately that seems to have changed to Australia – but its almost impossible for them to get visas – and if the Aust government travel warnings are anything to go by – its more than possible that the views of Aust Government are very outdated. Of course in addition to the challenges of international travel, there is containment around expectation – particularly for women, with expectations of marriage generally a non negotiable. It’s a great joy to be riding along seeing women working in fields give us a big thumbs up as we ride by – it feels like they both approve of and are impressed by our freedom to ride.
I tried without success to find the blacksmithing workshop but did see some of their amazing workshops, tools and finished products.
Tonight we met Mohina and so tomorrow morning she has offered to come with us to help us organise a ride to Khiva ( not a bicycle ride this time – our time is running out and we’re keen to get to Khiva and Nukus. ) she is coming with us simply because she thought it would help, there is no expectation beyond that.
So it will be a mix of transport to Khiva- though until it happens we won’t know really know just what type of transport it will be – train, shared taxi or bus – and of course if all else fails we’ll just ride somewhere.
Next stop Khiva!