Uzbekistan broke me and almost broke my bike!
Cycling Uzbekistan was probably the most mental and physically exhausting segment of our cycle trip. That being said, it is still a country worth visiting – just don’t do it on a bicycle!
It could have been the 5 consecutive months on a bicycle, it could have been that I was still recovering from gastro, it could have been the terrible roads, or it could have been the tight tourist restrictions. Most likely it was a combination of all these things plus more, but either way I felt broken and don’t quite know how I managed to cycle out of the country.
Let’s start with the first hurdle – tourist visa restrictions.
When applying for our visa we were given a whole list of rules we were supposed to abide by while cycling Uzbekistan. This included, having to register with the government, through a licenced hotel, every night (apparently, every third night is also acceptable, though technically not legal). Licenced hotels only exist in tourist areas, which meant we had to bust out at least 300km on the bicycle in just 2.5 days, each time we travel from one city to the other. Our hardest cycle section being a 340km stint, with a 2200m mountain pass from Tashkent to the border town, Uch-kurgan.
On top of this camping is technically illegal, as is couchsurfing. This also includes staying with ANY local that invite you into stay with them (something that no one in Uzbekistan seems to be aware of). These rules obviously made cycling Uzbekistan a bit of a challenge! We did try and abide by these rules, as much as possible – honest! My argument is, if you don’t want people cycling through the country, then don’t approve visas for cyclists, luckily I never actually had to put this argument into use.
We spent the entire time in Uzbekistan, racing from one town to another.
We were attempting to cycle around about 120-130km per day on absolutely terrible, dusty roads (or dirt tracks). One thing we learnt early on, never stray far from the major roads, even if you see a shorter route. The shorter road is barely a road at all and will end up taking you twice the time. Not only were the roads terrible and very dusty, the scenery is repetitive and quite boring. There is also limited water available on route. As well as so many rules and restrictions, there were also lots of road kill dogs, including many puppies. It was quite heart breaking, and unsurprisingly to those that know me and know how much I love animals, Uzbekistan is my least favourite country for cycling so far.
One little puppy, about 10km from the Turkmenistan border broke my heart.
We stopped for a water break and this little puppy bounced out of the bush with a broken leg. She was wagging her tail and super happy to see us. We fed her, gave her some water and I unsuccessfully searched for her mother. Not knowing what else to do, we sadly had to leave her. She chased after our bikes for about 15 minutes, and it brought tears to my eyes, knowing there wasn’t much more we could do for her. Later in Bukhara I tried to contact some animal shelters, but I could only one in the whole of Uzbekistan. It was in Tashkent, and they only worked locally in Tashkent (or so they told me).
Though the roads and cycle conditions in Uzbekistan were horrible, the people were unexpectedly super nice. We had people constantly waving, plenty of gold-toothed smiles, people following us on their bicycle, kids running out of their houses to wave or give us a high-five, plus people pulling over in their cars to give us fruit. We even had a restaurant owner cook us a special veggie, Uzbek feast for free – it was delicious! This was after he agreed to let us camp at his restaurant. At the bazaar in Tashkent, a stall owner even gave me a beanie as a present – AMAZING! It is also a country where people whistle and make strange noises as we cycled past – a bit like spectators at a marathon or sports match.
People always seemed curious to know where we were from. The first Russian word I learnt was “Atkuda?” which means, “where are you from?” I never knew how many words, Australia, could sound like. The convo went a bit like this;
Local: “Atkuda?” Aleman? Francis? Russo? Americano?
Me: Kangaroos followed by me mimicing some strange jumping creature.
Local: stares at me in confusion
Me: Tim Cahill? Kangaroo? Owww…stray…la…ya
Local: Oh, Australia.
I used to think Australians always traveled.
Australians travel, but I think most of them just all go to the same ‘Australian-friendly’ spots, like Thailand, Western Europe, Canada, USA etc. In Central Asia however, Australians are apparently much more rare. A couple of Australians cycling Uzbekistan on 2 bicycles was as rare as you could get. We were told more than once, that we were ‘exotic’ – a funny thing to think of Australians as being exotic. Most people seemed delighted to know that Uzbekistan had some visitors from Australia. If I ever return to Central Asia, one thing I’ll definitely do, is bring some Australian memorabilia. I may even go all out and fly an Aussie flag from the back of my bike – so no one will have to ask me where I’m from.
In Bukhara Michael got gastro really bad. We ended up staying an extra couple of nights. Bukhara was a nice city, extremely touristy – probably the most touristic place we had been to since Cappadocia in Turkey. The majority of the tourists were Russian and German, there was even a Germany bakery in the town.
After a few days recovery, Michael was feeling a little better, though not 100%. He also ‘kindly’ shared his gastro with me so I ended up sick again – thanks Michael. Anyway, time was ticking, so we decided to attempt to cycle the to the next city, Samarkand – another 300km+ stint. So we continued our journey cycling Uzbekistan!
The cycle to Samarkand was pretty uneventful.
We passed lots of cotton fields that are owned by the government – apparently people in rural areas are made to shut up shop for the cotton season, and work the cotton fields, picking cotton. 1kg of cotton = 200 som (or about 10 cents). Other than that and the pot holes, there were plenty of donkeys, sheep, and cars loaded up with what looked like, the entire contents of a house, or overflowing with melons, or some other local fruit.
Samarkand was nice, very touristic, but still quite beautiful. The thing I liked the most was actually our guesthouse, and originally I was going to write that the staff in Samarkand are probably the most trust worthy workers I have met, but since then I’ve discovered they gave me a $20US bill that I can’t change anywhere. They still had the best value dinners available – $3 for a huge Uzbek feast with tea.
Onwards to Tashkent
The next city after Samarkand was Tashkent. To sum up our cycle to Tashkent; 5 punctures, 1 destroyed tyre, 1 broken brake cable, 1 loose wheel, a load of shitty, dusty roads and one broken Kelly. This cycle stint is probably the worst 3 days of the trip for me. I cried, I yelled, I swore, I cried some more, then yelled some more and poor Michael had to put up with all of it. I was almost ready to call off the entire trip by the time we got to Tashkent.
After arriving in Tashkent and resting for a few days, the last thing I wanted to do was get back on the bikes, and be cycling Uzbekistan for another 3 or 4 days. I cannot emphasize this more, I would have rather pulled my toe nails off with plyers then continued cycling Uzbekistan, however I felt guilty. Michael wanted to keep going, and I had committed to this charity cycle trip. We had already gotten so far so, somehow (and I really don’t know how), I managed to get back on the bikes.
** Right, so, I’m probably going to go on about the little puppy we found in Tashkent for quite a bit. It’s quite sad, and I’ve made people cry telling this story. So feel free to skip this part if you wish.**
We were on the bikes, and ready to hit the horrendous Uzbek roads, once again. 3km from our guesthouse I spotted what at first looked like roadkill (dead dog) lying in the road. Sadly, this is not uncommon in Uzbekistan. I suddenly noticed the dog was looking up and moving his head as cars whizzed passed, missing the dog by centimetres. The dog must have just been hit, and was clearly still alive.
Michael ran out to pick the dog up and bring him to the side of the road. He was clearly in pain, and at first we thought he was dying and had no idea what to do other than try and comfort the poor thing. Locals were walking past, giving us odd looks but no one gave two shits about the poor puppy. We had no idea what to do, but I had already discovered an ‘animal shelter’, that existed in Tashkent, from our previous attempt at rescuing a puppy.
They told me they could help stray dogs in Tashkent.
So I cycled back to the hostel in hope to contact someone that might help. Michael stayed with the puppy. Honestly I thought the puppy would probably pass away during this time I was gone. When I left he could barely move. Either way, I thought I could do something to help. Turned out it wasn’t as simple as I first thought.
We ended up spending 2 more nights in Tashkent, trying to find someone to look after the puppy. We even snuck him into our hotel room. It was heartbreaking and it felt like no one gave a shit. We were just crazy tourists that didn’t know better. It made me so angry and frustrated! I don’t care what anyone thinks of people back in Australia or my second home, the UK – if a dog got hit by a car and was still alive, 95% of people would pull over to help it!
Unfortunately, it turned out the animal shelter, wasn’t actually an animal shelter.
No animal shelter existed in Tashkent and we couldn’t find anyone to look after the poor thing. We had to put him back on the streets, with some food and water. After I left Tashkent, the ‘animal shelter’ gave me the link to a Russian facebook page of people in Tashkent that help animals (a bit late!!!). So, I posted something on this site, with maps of where we left the puppy, and surprisingly people on this site actually went out searching for him, but with no luck. They told me they did rescue a dying cat in the search, so at least some good came of it.
It upset me even more that we discovered people in Tashkent that were willing to help the poor puppy, but after it was too late. And I keep questioning whether we should have done more. The only thing that made me feel better was knowing that there were people in Tashkent that cared enough about animals and were trying to help them. I can image there are lots of restrictions they have to deal with in doing this, so though their impact is small, it’s still amazing!
** And back to cycling Uzbekistan **
So we finally left Tashkent. At this point I wanted nothing more than to leave the country. I was even more mentally and physically exhausted than when we first arrived in Tashkent and I was greatly missing home comforts. The last thing I wanted to do was head back on the pothole covered roads, and climb some 2200m mountain pass in the rain – but that is what I did.
We cycled through one town, Angren – a sterotypical soviet town. It had a grimy and dirty vibe to it. Surrounded by nuclear power plants, people living in what appeared to be abandoned buildings, burnt out cars – and this is where we were meant to spend the night! Luckily on the outskirts of town we found a small (closed) garage, with a friendly owner that let us camp there. The strange thing we notice while cycling Uzbekistan, is that everyone drives, a lot, but fuel is so rare, most of the gas stations are closed down. Gas trucks are protected by armoured vehicles and people sell gasoline by the litre on the side of the road (from empty coke bottles).
The killer mountain pass!
Due to registration restrictions we were meant to cycle 120km for the next 3 days, which includes a mountain pass climb that went from 500m to 2200m across 60km, in one day – very bloody steep! There were road works the entire way, the road was extremely busy, cars drove fast, it rained, it stormed, there was wind, there was sun, there was so much air pollution from cars and the nearby power plants and the scenery was not at all motivating. We finally made it to the top. Just before the storm.
That night we spent in an old cafe next to some 24 hour shops on the side of the road – it seemed like a good set up (as it was still raining), until the drunk guys showed up. It wasnt too bad, he just tried to force feed us vodka and beer – not really a great idea when you’re already dehydrated and on a tight schedule. Eventually they got the hint and we were left in peace. The following morning we hit the incredibly horrendous road again, but at least there was no rain!
We had planned to make it to Namangan, find a hotel and register.
This however seemed to be mission impossible – we spent 3 hours cycling around the city looking for a hotel – no luck! There was no way we were making it to the border. So we had no choice but to head out of town, camp and hope we have no issues at the border crossing the following day. On the way out of town we met some Uzbek ladies – an English teacher and her mum. It was fate! They invited us back to their house for dinner and to stay the night – we accepted!
We had a great night, a good rest and met some lovely people. They also had a pet dog, so they were definitely awesome people in my mind. The following day we were refreshed and in a positive frame of mind! We had a good cycle to the border crossing (once we actually found it), and had no issues crossing the border! Within the hour we were no longer cycling Uzbekistan and into the next country, Kyrgyzstan.
Overall, I had a really hard time cycling Uzbekistan.
I felt exhausted from the day I arrived until the day I left. I never felt safe actually cycling on the roads, and all the rules just made it too much. It’s not a country I recommend visiting on a bicycle! For me, the people were the best thing about the country and I am happy I got to leave the country on a positive note.
* On the off-chance that someone is reading this because they found an animal in Tashkent that needs help (which is likely while cycling Uzbekistan)*
So despite what you might find on the internet, there is no animal shelter in Tashkent or in Uzbekistan. There is however a facebook group that can probably help. It’s all in Russian, but some people on there will be able to help and translate for you. You need to join the group to post anything, but they are very quick to respond. I’m not sure whether they just operate in Tashkent or in the whole of Uzbekistan, but either way they are your best beat. I’ve also started a post listing all the animal shelters or contacts in countries around the world.