Peri is loaded, everything is where it should be, including me. I switch on my gps tracker and feel my smile widen as I click my shoes into the pedals. I am off- cycling towards the Kyrgyz Uzbek border. It is an immeasurable joy. I am back.
Today will be 41C so I’m heading off early – I’m planning to be at the border when it opens at 8am. I’m so pleased with myself riding across this final border I hardly notice the time or the scenery- in minutes it seems I am at the border.
The excitement at another border crossing means I arrive about 7.40. There are long lines of trucks waiting – I am waved past by the border officials, the truck drivers wave at me too. Then I see the big queues of people, a long colourful snake of people stretching back for well over a kilometre. It may take longer than I anticipate – hopefully it doesn’t get too hot too soon.
I forget I am a tourist, but of course I am obvious. Peri with her bright sunshine yellow panniers and me in cycling gear looking very much not like a Kyrgyz women or man and we stand out more the than I realise. The upside is there is a special queue for tourists. So half a dozen Uzbeks and I join the very short queue.
The others, standing waiting for ages in the long queue do not seem to mind that we are pushed to the front. Instead they are smiling and pointing and ask A kuda – where are you from, Scholka let? How old are you. Then wave me goodbye as I head inside.
So I wheel Peri across the nowhere zone back into Uzbekistan. My bags are xrayed. I’m asked if I have any medication and then I’m through. Full circle – I am very happy to be back at the beginning happy I could do that final border crossing under my own steam.
I am riding into the Fergana valley, a rich fertile valley, home of ikat silk weaving. Andijan is the capital of the region, a region known for its religious conservatism.
Before coming I had wondered how it would be riding through Muslim countries and what dress code would be appropriate – it has felt fine everywhere to be in my shorts. Today though I am wearing my longer shorts.
It’s 50km into Andijan – I have crossed the border and it’s only 7.15. I am done before I arrived. I’ve gained an hour. For a hot day loaded up it is yet another blessing.
The road is nothing special, the usual dust, lack of hard shoulder, but I can tell I am back in Uzbekistan- I am getting hello beeps and waves, people contorting themselves to lean half their body out the window and yell A kuda? I am happy.
It’s starting to get pretty hot as I hit Andijan. Luckily I have some Uzbek money so can stop for a drink before I change money. I also need to find the address of where I’ve booked to stay. I forget however to download the confirmation email and I no longer have a sim, so I need to find wifi too.
I stop. The cafe doesn’t have wifi but now it’s getting hot. I have the name of the hostel but they haven’t heard of it and can’t find it listed in the internet. Once again there is one extremely kind soul – I hotspot to his phone, find the location I am looking for. He calls them just to make sure all is okay with my booking. I wind my way through the small backstreets stopping twice for directions. Again someone calls for me then escorts me to the building.
Muktarov is there to greet me. I dont yet have a sense of what Andijan is but it doesn’t seem overly conservative or religious at first glance. I shower and cool off under the air conditioner. I am keen to see if I can see and maybe buy some of the ikat silk. Muktarov offer to go with me – so we head off Jahon bazaar but most stalls are closed on Mondays. Muktarov assures me he knows other places. We end up at a multi storey shopping mall, it is as overwhelming and underwhelming as shopping malls anyway. I don’t find what I am looking for and I’m not surprised.
I abandon thoughts of shopping and instead we go looking at the local buildings. That makes me feel at home.
We wander the streets and enjoy the beautiful buildings. None of this is on the guide book. The book only talks about history – Government’s brutal crackdown in 2005, resulting in a massacre, but there is no sense of that history out on the street.
The heat is keeping everywhere fairly quiet but still there are kids in bikes mostly small kids but not always small bikes. At times the wind themselves through the frames unable to reach the pedals over the cross bar. Nothing seems to big to ride.
Here I don’t see any women on bikes – it seems rare in Uzbekistan. Other than the kids the bike is very much just transport, no speeding along in Lycra (not here) thank goodness.
The day is getting very very hot.
Muktarov is a good guide. He has just graduated from college and running the hostel is his first job. He cannot do enough for me. He keenly shows me around.
The patterns of the buildings are mesmerising or maybe it’s just the heat… no I’m really loving seeing this type of building again.
Tomorrow I’ll try my luck again searching for silk. Margilon has a silk factory.
I’m up early but Muktarov is not. There are three rooms at the hostel (including his) and he has successfully let them all out. He and his brother sleep at the kitchen table but don’t get much sleep.
His brother takes me to the mashrutka stop – and I wait until the van is full. It’s a small minibus, no air conditioning and jammed with people. I don’t see any other tourists about. The trip is nearly two hours but goes quickly with games of charades in addition to usual set of questions where are you from, how old are you and now, are you travelling alone?
Before the silk factory I just wander – the bazaar is in full swing. It’s colourful and full of energy. As I wander along I am given various things to try – a sweet soft fresh mellow yellow fig is my favourite. The halva which isn’t a halva I know (it’s milk based) is my least favourite.
I see a silk shop and wander in – it isn’t the silk factory but that too is close. Most of the silk is mixed with cotton though there’s some pure silk too. There’s a young guide here – a schoolboy practicing his English. He has a group of French tourists under his wing. He invites me to join them for lunch. Why not?
The factory is the first large group of tourists I have seen. I whole bus load of them! They help me choose a couple of scarves – which given the choices is incredibly helpful.
Then it’s back to the mashrutka stop. The day hasnt cooled at all. It’s hot, very hot – at least 42C. Everyone in the mashrutka is hot and tired. I am wedged between two mothers holding toddlers.
When I get back to the hostel I take a long cold shower. The sweat and the dirt take a while to wash off. It’s been a great day – I love being out there in the day soaking up (and in this case sweating out) whatever the day has on offer. I’m now ready for for my next challenge. Getting self and Peri to Tashkent. Back to my next family home Makhsuda, Nargiza and Hilola.
Muktarov comes up trumps again. He’s organised me a taxi – with a roofrack! – so once again Peri is travelling by car. Thee is no rope though – just my two ocky straps to hold her in place. Luckily they are very strong and the driver is happy to stop and check as we go.
We stop twice. Everything is rock solid. Apart from short breaks we keep up a good pace and by mid afternoon I’m back in Tashkent. It really is like coming home.
There are hugs all around when I arrive. This is my third visit and it already feels like we are old friends. I had so many plans for the afternoon – cleaning self, bike, clothes but instead I lie horizontal in the air conditioning and doze. There is always tomorroooozzzz.
Peri takes quite a while to clean but I don’t mind – playing with a hose on a hot day is not a bad thing. Makhsuda and I play a little and both end up a little damp. With scrubbing brush and toothbrush Peri is cleaned and then cleaned some more. Shoes and clothes are next. Tent and chair were cleaned in Osh so at least they don’t need doing again.
By mid afternoon I am done cleaning and can start dismantling and packing Peri up for her homeward journey. More full circle this evening. I am meeting Akbar, wonderful Akbar who couriered us around Tashkent in search of a stove and gas.
The evening is warm but lovely, he’s remembered I’m vegetarian and so chosen carefully our restaurant. I delight in gifting him our stove n spare fuel and a couple of other items Adrienne decided to leave behind. He is delighted too.
The food is great and there is an awful lot of it. So much we end up taking some home.
The farewelling of new friends makes me really feel like I am heading home. I am ready now.
Despite an after dinner walk I am still feeling overfull. As I enter my accommodation Hilola and Nargiza both say come we have a surprise for you. I am ushered into the kitchen. The other guests are there sitting around a table full of food. I’m given a plate. Then the cake comes out – my birthday cake! Though it’s exactly one month early. When I chatted earlier with Makhsuda there had obviously been confusion re my actual birthday. Anyway overfull or not – it’s such a warm generous gesture I eat cake, after being sung happy birthday. The celebrations have begun. I lay down, stomach distended, heart bursting.
Today I am off to see Boris and Marianna – who we stayed with en route to Samarkand. Despite no and I mean no – shared language we have been doing what’s app video calls as we traverse Central Asia. Marianna chatters away in Russian, then throws her head back and laughs hysterically. We laugh too then she starts again. Sometimes we have a clue about what is being said and sometimes we don’t. Either way the message is clear – it is good to see you.
But before I head off there are other friends to see. Misha the baker, who’s work has become even more impressive – working with a wood fire, placing bread on the walls – with the heat of the day and the oven it means it is not only the bread that is baking.
With charades he enquires if I want to sell my bike – he is interested. I tell him it is coming back to Australia with me but that I will be back in two years to do the Pamir. He seems satisfied with that. I am given bread straight from the oven and warm wishes. I am sure I am not imagining the shared joy of meeting again.
When I’m not riding each leg of a journey is an adventure in itself. Finding transport, negotiating a price, the drive – it all takes time and or energy. Today Makhsuda has organised for me to be dropped at the shared taxi stand. After much arguing I find a ride. After about 5 minutes I think I have made a mistake.
It’s true since my accident I am a little more conscious of my own mortality but even before that I think this guys driving would’ve terrified me. We are travelling at 120 or thereabouts, we are at best 2 metres behind any vehicle in front, though never for long, at any chance we swerve out around the vehicle in front then back in again. I ask loudly if we can slow down but that just causes him to look at me and quite honestly I’d rather his eyes stayed in the road.
There were many moments when there were no hands on the wheel. On my first siting of Baxt, my destination town, I asked him to stop. I couldn’t remember exactly where Marianna and Boris lived but I knew I’d be happier walking to find out. There is a restaurant that looks familiar but I can’t seem to find the alley to their house. I keep wandering – and now I have their photos up on my phone. Showing people I pass – and asking if they know them. They first boys I pass point me down the road and to the right. The next woman is even more helpful. She has a roadside stall. She closes it. She escorts me all the way to their gate and physically hands me over. She is happy. I am happy and Marianna and Boris are overjoyed.
Marianna explains to me that Boris thought I was leaving Tashkent for Australia today but she was convinced I was coming to visit. Boris shows me the message. I will leave Tashkent at 3pm – I can see why he was confused – still the greeting from them both is joyous.
We spend a delightful evening and I’m surprised at what I can understand. Tone and pitch and pace give lots of clues – along with the usual charades. I am told to shower, then to brush me hair, then to go bed. For some reason I willingly comply. Marianna cannot believe it is the first time in three months I have brushed my hair – but she has not seen all the photos.
As I leave they escort me across the road and flag down a ride. Here every car is a taxi. I cannot understand any word that Marianna says and I understand everything. It is the volume, the emphasis, the gesticulations, the tone and pitch. All together it is clear “this is our friend, drive safely, do not charge her too much”.
Marianna has the same effect on the driver as she does on me – he is scared into happy compliance – on all accounts. He is a fantastic driver, he speaks English and he drops me right outside my Tashkent home!
I spend my last evening hanging out with Hilola and Makhsuda- we do mini facials, laugh a lot and then laugh some more
Today I am flying back to Australia. 100 days since I left. It has been a very rich journey. I left Australia feeling fortunate. I am returning with a much greater appreciation of life and of those people in my life – the old and the new and all they bring.
This is not the last blog – I’ll do my final reflections when I get home. Thanks so much for joining me on this journey – you’ve no idea what it’s meant to have you along for the ride 🙂