Riding out of the walled city of Khiva on the morning of 10 November was an amazing feeling – though an equally daunting one at the same time. Our crossing of the first section of the Kyzyl Kum desert to the oasis of Khiva had taken a lot out of us physically, and after just a few pedal turns from the city walls I could feel my legs beginning to complain. This doesn’t normally happen straight after a rest day – our legs normally give us a couple of hundred kilometres before reminding the brain they would rather be stretched out somewhere else. Enough to alarm us both, because we knew roughly what lay ahead: we had about one day’s worth of riding before reaching the end of the ‘Green Zone’ – where towns, shops and people could be found regularly – and the start of the ‘Red Zone’, the 400km stretch of perfectly abandoned desert until Bukhara. Of course the names we gave these are great for adding drama, but the name ‘Kyzyl Kum’ actually means ‘Red Desert’ so that’s where it started. If our first stage from the border to Khiva was anything to go by, we wanted to get through the Red Zone as quickly as possible. Lobby’s blog goes into the details of the many difficulties we faced. To stay on track for our Dushanbe arrival we now had 4 days in which to cover slightly over 450km southeast, so we left the safety of Khiva praying for good roads and favourable winds.
Just as we made our way through Khiva’s morning market we spotted a man selling bike parts, so finally bought a set of pliers from him to complete our bike repair kit. It turns out our timing was something of a miracle, as little over 30km into our route my front pannier decided to snap in two places. Impossible to repair without pliers, and the nearest garage was 50km away. We were still in the Green Zone, but this was Uzbekistan after all! Once again the roads had been awful so the constant jolting must have been too much for my rack. Cue a lengthy stop, plenty of excited (though utterly useless) onlookers, and a pot of cay as we figured out a workaround with one of the two spare clamps we had. And off again.
But this was not to be our day. We’ve worked out after our first desert crossing that you get some days like this, when things determinedly don’t work out for you despite starting off as prepared as you can be and in the best of moods: only minutes after my front pannier snapped, Lobby’s went the same way. Another lengthy stop, our second of two spare clamps now used on the repair job. Slightly worrying not to have any spare clamps left in the space of a couple of hours! Since London we’d cycled for 120 days or so and hardly had any pannier problems, and now two in one day?! Today the odds were definitely not in our favour. Therefore we stopped early, still well into the Green Zone, as everyone knows bad things happen in threes – we weren’t about to tempt fate and get hit by a truck so early into our second desert crossing.
We woke up before dawn on Day Two and were on our bikes to watch the sun creep over the horizon. The guesthouse we’d stayed in had refused to register us and the owner was banging on our door as the alarm went off – perhaps he thought the police would raid? Getting licensed to accept foreigners is an extra cost for hotels in Uzbekistan, so they usually try to overcharge you and risk the police fine instead – except this time we had bargained the owner down to (nearly) a local rate. He’d clearly got cold feet during the night and wanted us out of there as soon as possible – fine by us, we had a desert to cross! So by mid-morning we had cycled beyond the last run-down shacks of the last town before the desert, and by lunchtime we were back in the Red Zone.
The Kyzyl Kum desert is a beautiful place: rising sand dunes on dirty steppe, and this section quite up and down compared to the first leg to Khiva, which meant we could see even further into the empty distance. But I think it is beautiful in the same way that flying over a mountain range in a helicopter would be beautiful. If you hiked over the mountains instead there would definitely be a point when you thought, “Yep this mountain is great but I’d rather be flying over it.” I think by the beginning of Day Four – our third sunrise from the saddles in a row – I had reached this point. We had been cycling from dawn until beyond dusk for three days straight in an attempt to cover too much mileage in too little daylight, and knees, undercarriages and brains were beginning to cry out for rest. There was nothing much to stop for in the desert, except to eat our biscuits and stale bread or go to the loo – though we did stop on Remembrance Day for two minutes’ silence staring out into the wasteland, which was pretty epic. Time off the saddle usually means a later finish time in the evening. If there was a headwind (as there was on several occasions), our speed dropped to the extent that it became physically impossible to finish the daily mileage before dark. We would cycle in the hope of a slight bend in the road which would change the wind’s tack from being fully in our faces. We saw these bends literally tens of kilometres ahead of us (over an hour’s cycling with a headwind) and got ridiculously overexcited as we approached them, often to be disappointed by the limited effect they had on our speed as we took them. We had been sleeping in the few teahouses we’d come across, usually truck stops after military checkpoints with quite a rough crowd. They liked a good drink which we sometimes shared with them (and a good prostitute we found out later, which we didn’t). Quite hard to get to sleep over the noise, and these places were open during all hours. Day Four – just 100km from Bukhara and the Green Zone again – was where I nearly reached breaking point. It also turned out to be the hardest day of our passage.
We had woken up at dawn from a bad night’s sleep in a truck stop, which claimed it was a restaurant. The TV outside our little room had been blaring all night, and now and again rats scuttled in the space above our low ceiling, which had made sleeping difficult. Immediately there was a confrontation over breakfast with the ‘restaurant’ manager on night duty, who demanded we pay for our stay. This would have been fair enough except that the day duty manager had insisted we could stay for free the previous evening if we ate dinner and breakfast there, so a heated argument in Russian started our day off brightly. As we argued both Lobby and I knew we were losing precious daylight riding time, which only aggravated us further. We settled for an expensive breakfast and the bloke seemed satisfied.
As we left it became very obvious very quickly that the day would be a grim one, as Lobby’s bike was practically catapulted down by the wind. What should have been a straightforward 100km into Bukhara became a single-file crawl – each of us taking turns riding in front to break the wind for the other. We still only managed about 6 kmh, which is the speed of a very slow jog. To compound our frustrations the road was the best we had seen in the desert, which we could have zoomed along were we not being continually smashed across the face by Mother Nature. After a miserable four hours we had covered 30km, which meant our ‘easy’ day would end up being over 12 hours on the saddle. I decided I needed a bit of Daft Punk to see me out of this dark place, so stopped to plug in headphones only to find these had shredded inside my pannier. Not to worry, I thought, grabbing my spare pair with a sort of manic calmness. Now the iPod decided it had had enough, dying in my hands at the crucial moment because of the cold. This was the spark that was needed to send me over the edge, and I screamed unrepeatable words at the wind, chucking my dead pair of headphones high into the desert. The wind of course swallowed all of my drama, and the tiny thud of my headphones landing in the Kyzyl Kum was far from satisfactory as a stress reliever. Shortly afterwards I came the closest I’d ever come to a proper collision when a big petrol tanker thought it would play chicken with my mirror from behind. Unsurprisingly the tanker won and my mirror went spinning off my handlebars, the lorry’s massive wheels only inches from my very exposed thigh. It made a deafeningly long sound with its horn, as if I had no right to be on the road at all let alone tucked into the hard shoulder praying for my life. This adrenalin rush made the next hour go faster though, as I went through in my head all the gory details of just exactly what I’d do to the driver if he made the mistake of stopping, as his lorry became a speck in the distance.
We’re still not sure if the desert people of Uzbekistan are looking to scam the very occasional people who pass through or if they’re just quite simple when it comes to numbers. We think it’s probably a combination of the two. My personal favourite was encountering a lady at lunchtime on Day Four who was determined to make 8 plus 2 equal 13. We didn’t usually find cafés for lunch in the desert, so finding her place was a huge morale boost as it meant we must be approaching the Green Zone (held in my head on par with the Holy Grail at this point). At first it was all quite funny, as calculators were produced and numbers counted very obviously on fingers. It quickly became tiresome in our fragile mental state though. The husband was summoned and to our surprise joined our side, berating his wife (who was holding her own!) about her inability to do simple addition. I began having visions of bludgeoning this obstinate lady with a heavy maths book until her entire body disappeared below the sand – I’d been doing a lot ‘imagining’ recently, and can quite easily see how people lose their minds in the desert. Anyway she finally got the numbers to add up, wasting another half hour of our daylight but in the process earning herself a victory jig from two bearded bikers she must have assumed had completely lost the plot by now.
This was the turn of the tide for Day Four and suddenly the wind gods were on our side. Well, just not so painfully set against us anyway! Clearly karma for not beating the lady into the sand. We were not racing by any means, but if we kept pedalling we would make Bukhara within the day. Within the day!! The prospect of finally stopping drugged our brains with excitement, giving our whole bodies a massive lift just when we needed it. We willed our legs onwards as the roads worsened on the approach to the oasis, and the sun set behind us for the fourth day in a row. Now it was a question of not snapping our front racks on these bumpy cracked roads as the light faded. We limped into Bukhara by the light of our torches, nearly getting hit by a second truck which thought indicators were a fashion statement. Sleep has never felt so good. 1000km of Kyzyl Kum down!
Bukhara was another amazing Silk Road city to explore gently on our day off. More sprawling than the walled city of Khiva, the new and old city seemed to mesh together as we wandered through it. The historic centre is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the quantity of museums and beautiful buildings to be found there, some of which date from thousands of years ago. Well worth the couple of days we spent there off the saddle! It being off-season we had the place to ourselves too – by our second day all the locals recognised us as the bearded bikers who spoke bad Russian. The dream. X