Uzbekistan I: Silk Road Cities

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is well known globally for its extractive institutions. There are no many countries, where people are obliged to work for free in cotton fields. In Summer, Children are working on fields instead of studying. All profits from the export are captured by one ruling family. People who cultivate those cotton fields get almost nothing. They are growing vegetables in small fields next to houses to survive. What’s more, employers (mining sites, factories) have a cap on maximum salaries. Foreign companies cannot pay more than the set limit to its workers.

The tragedy of the Aral Sea adds to this unfavourable picture.

Samarkand

Samarkand is known as the oldest inhabited city in Central Asia. Remarkable mosques, build in the XIV-XV century, attract tourists from around the world. The city is divided into the old part and the new, build by Soviets who have been in control of the city since 1868.

It took a long time to find an ATM in this place. Inflation hits double-digit levels in Uzbekistan, so you pay in thousand nominals.

After the very mountainous Tajikistan, a flat Uzbekistan was bid change. I cycled from Samarkand to Bukhara in two days. I stopped in Navoya for the night, where I could experience an old Soviet hotel.

Theoretically, every day in Uzbekistan you have to register in a hotel. This makes them expensive compared to Tajikistan. Practically, no one checks the registration slips at the border if you are a cyclist. The stretches of desert among cities are too long to get to the registered hotel every night.

Bukhara

In 1825 famous Willian Moorcroft reached Bukhara to buy horses for India. It took him 5 years to reach the city, passing by unfriendly Afghanistan and Turkmen deserts. In 1830, Lord Ellenborough tasked Lord Bentinck, the governor of India, to establish a new trade route to Bukhara. It began the Great Game between Russia and England lasting until 1895. The Great Game in this part of the continent was won by Russians, who seized the city in 1866.

Needless to say, Bukhara is the iconic city and the dream of many rulers.

Contrary to those famous great game politicians, my travel from India to Bukhara took only 2 months 😉

I stayed in Bukhara at the host from the Warmshowers network. It was neither comfortable nor cheap. Stay was for free but I needed registrations for which I had to pay $20 for 3 nights (organized at the hotel nearby). High price for sleeping on a floor… But still probably 3x cheaper than a hotel.

I met an old cyclist from France and another one from the Netherlands. It was good to hang out together with Europeans. They warned me of a strong headwind the next day. Unfortunately, they were right. From that day for the next 2 weeks, I had to battle the strong front wind.

From complete laziness, I did not make even one photo of the city 😉

Kyzył-Kum desert

Desert for the first time. Out of 450km between Bukhara and Khiva, almost 300km are in the desert. At first sight, it’s flat and empty. In reality, it’s wavy – I was cycling up and down all the time. Somewhere behind the horizon, there are small villages or big mining sites and factories. Uzbekistan is one of the largest exporters of minerals. That is a very unique experience to cycle alone in a desert and suddenly pass by a person standing alone on the road. Maybe waiting for transport. Maybe walked to the road 4kms for the village somewhere nearby. Maybe.. 😉

Once, I got very frightened when I heard a series of explosions. There was a mining site behind a horizon – I could not see it, but I could hear it.

The wind was the biggest challenge. It was the weakest in the morning, right before the sunrise. It got a stronger afternoon. The road was so far good.

The first day, I stopped for the night 30kms ahead of the planned place. The wind was so strong that my speed dropped below 9kms. I was lucky I was passing by a restaurant, where I could stay for the night for small money. The owner showed me his Uaz truck. He was very proud of it – 30 years in service and still working 😉

In the morning, I woke up very early to benefit from weak wind. That day I was passing very close to Turkmen border. I finished a very monotonous ride at the restaurant, after passing 150km that day. I run out of money. Fortunately, Uzbek workers invited me to their table and ordered a very tasty fish for me. I was so happy! One of them called a daughter to be a translator, but she spoke only Russian and German. People in Uzbekistan do not have much, but they are happy to share. I pitched a tent for the night.

People very often asked me where I am from. They have never quested Poland. Germania? Italia? Francja? The USA? Canada? Poland???? No waaay 😉

On the third day, I finally arrived in green fields. The first stop was in Tortku’l, where I exchanged money.  Another one in Urgench, where I stopped for dinner. People were very interested in me. Again, I was more tourist attraction for them, then they for me 😀

Canals

I passed over the first water canals. In the 60s, the Soviets decided to build water canals to irrigate cotton fields. They build very ineffective canals, which loose even 60% of water by perspiration or percolation. The canals take water from Syr-Daria and Amu-Daria rivers. Those rivers feed Aral Lake. As a result, the 5th biggest lake in the world dried off, causing one of the biggest natural catastrophes in the history of humankind. Uzbekistan is still the biggest exporter of cotton in the world.

Khiva

Itchan Kala in Khiva was the first site in Uzbekistan to be inscribed in the World Heritage List in 1991. The city, established 1500 years ago, attracts as many tourists as Samarkand. However, the historic center is much smaller so it makes an impression of being much more crowded.

I stayed in Khiva in a backpacker hostel and finally enjoyed a normal bed and breakfast. I have also met a group of Polish tourists.

I did not enjoy this place. Very touristic, very expensive. In one restaurant with very poor service (no one came to me to take an order and they served dessert before soup!), they wanted to charge me 15% for service! After my opposition, they gave me money back. After a one-day stay, I left. Another desert and the Aral Sea was awaiting. I couldn’t wait to see it.

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