What is travel to you? Is it adventure in the mountains, or is it the mystique of history? Is it the happy solitude in your sleeping bag in your tent in the cold in an unknown land, or the drinks and laughter of hostel nights? Is it sweating uphill and whizzing downhill at scary speeds, or is it the monotony and noise of a good, flat road?
I entered Uzbekistan on 18th of November, 2018. I left behind the mountains of Tajikistan and rode into flat and truck-infested highways. The ride continued to be punctuated by the amazing people of Central Asia.
I was dropped to the border by a cheery singing duo of construction workers. I was rescued from my fear of not finding a campsite by a petrol station attendant who let me sleep in a room inside and made sure I had food and water the next day. Just before reaching Tashkent, I stopped to eat some somsa/samosa. The chef at the restaurant was so amazed by seeing an Indian cycling alone on the roads that he took ten pictures, but no payment for the food and copious amounts of tea that he served me.
Uzbekistan wasn’t an adventure like Tajikistan. I was alone, but the cycling was peaceful. The people were friendly and curious, and the usual questions were asked many times: why don’t you have kids, why aren’t you married, and so on. I had heard that the locals would happily let you stay in their house if you asked them, but I never did. I think this was because of a combination of shyness and desire to camp and enjoy my solitude.
On cycling days, I would spend six to eight to nine hours cycling. Podcasts, music, meditation, locals, and highway noise were entertainment. For lunch, I would have melons, or some bread. Dinner was rice or pasta with whatever vegetables I picked up along the way.
Here’s what cycling alone and staying in a tent is: a feeling of intense oneness with your surroundings. You feel the undulations of the road, you see people smiling at you, you bond instantly with other cyclists and then part happily. It’s simple. It’s free. A very different life from my life now, I must say. However, it was the intense freedom joy of cycling that led me to question how I can – to use someone else’s words – spread the joy.
All that being said, I actually cycled only eight days out of the month I spent in Uzbekistan. Most of my time was spent in the cities, because that’s what I had decided I would focus on.
The food – like everywhere else in Central Asia – was quite unimpressive. Plov, which every country is quite proud of, seems to be rice cooked for a long time in a lot of oil and meat. Not necessarily bad, but not something that any state in India would list among their best dishes. There is shashlik – meat on skewers – which was nice, but not something to write about. Somsa/samosa is simple, and usually nice.
The bread (non) was really good!
I don’t remember whether it was a local or a traveller, but someone told me that the reason local cuisine is so uncreative is that the Russians destroyed all the old creativity by replacing all the crops with rice and potatoes in some countries; Uzbekistan became (and still is) the main cotton producer in the region.
My first stop was Tashkent.
I spent almost ten days in Tashkent over two visits. This wasn’t because of any attachment to the city, but because I had to apply for a visa to Turkemenistan.
Working at the hostel was Fahad, an immigrant from Pakistan trying to set up a restaurant (“or anything!") in Uzbekistan before arranging for his wife to join him. He talked quite a lot, and he said that Indians and Pakistanis were brothers, so I felt very good and tolerated his constant chatter. He was apparently a very good cricketer. “Inzamam Ul-Haq beat me to the national cricket team, otherwise I would be rich right now”, he told me.
Since it was almost December, most of the people in the hostel were not backpackers, but people looking for work. Meeting them was an experience in itself. One night in the hostel, I went out for dinner with an Afghanistani, a Russian, and a Pakistani. I remember thinking to myself, “This probably not hasn’t happened many times before in the history of the world.”
Conversation at the hostel table was inevitably political. The Russian was proud that they had given Uzbekistan (and the other ‘stans) development and stability. “The USSR created these countries”, he said, “and gave them schools and education and gender equality”. I met locals who would disagree strongly with what he said, but I also met some who looked back nostalgically on the days when education was free and jobs were plenty.
The Afghani man, a car mechanic from a village close to the Tajik-Afghan border was quite conservative in his religious views. Fahad kept waving me to keep quiet whenever I tried to argue whenever he said something sexist or regressive. “There’s no point”, he told me later. He (the Afghani) was also extremely angry at the United States. “They destroyed our country”, he said multiple times.
According to him, the rise of terrorism in Afghanistan was America’s fault. It was because of their involvement that life had now become unbearably difficult in Afghanistan. There were no jobs, no money, and no hope for the future. He and everyone he knew were trying every trick to immigrate away from Afghanistan to make a better life for their families. However, He was still unfailingly polite and friendly to the two Americans who were staying at the hostel.
Outside of the hostel, the city of Tashkent was quite uninteresting. Most of the city was built in the 1960s, and was supposed to be a model communist city, which meant the buildings were plain and boring. But the metro stations were quite impressive.
There was a Lal Bahadur Shastri square, where I learned for the first time that the second Prime Minister of India had died right here in Uzbekistan. It turns out there are a lot of conspiracies about his death. The one that I lean to now is the reported confession of a CIA man on his deathbed. He said that the CIA killed both Shastri and Homi Bhabha, because they believed that India was getting too cozy with the USSR, and too close to having nuclear weapons.
On the way to Samarkhand from Tashkent, I met a Hungarian cyclist going the other way and we mourned the lack of company for both of us. We were probably among the last few cyclists passing through Uzbekistan for the year. The apple trees were devoid of apples, the cotton had already been harvested everywhere, and the famous Uzbek melons were hardly available on the streets. Sunset and sunrise were always beautiful, though, and I was learning to surrender to the loneliness and even enjoy it.
I went for a walk in Samarkhand and was surprised by how much the touristy-ness of the city startled me. I felt very uneasy the whole time. Registan and Bibi Khanum mosque, which were supposedly exalted centers of learning once upon a time, now seemed to be just a collection of gift shops with historic architecture.
The buildings however, were really, really beautiful. Registan, for example, had three madrasahs from three different eras. The tilework was incredibly intricate, and of course there was a tile available for every budget in the gift shop. The buildings themselves seemed like they were ready to fall down and be rid of this bastardization of their original purpose. There was a sense that great things had happened here through history, but I couldn’t get beyond the tourists and the selfies.
Bukhara is another pretty and touristy city, the kind where you have to be sure that the mediocre restaurant you’re having lunch in doesn’t have a separate menu for tourists, the kind where you always wonder if you managed to bargain enough for every trinket that you buy.
The architecture is beautiful though, and extremely photogenic. I could almost smell the stories of the silk route in the winter air, and it made me feel a bit better that there was probably a lot of swindling of travellers in those times as well.
Amidst all this touristy-ness and trinkets, the spirit of Uzbekistan still shone through. I was walking around with a French couple one day, and a young local student appointed herself as our guide. She walked with us for the whole afternoon, practicing her English, telling us about the history of Uzbekistan, singing songs, and reciting Uzbek poetry with a delightful enthusiasm.
I was done with cycling on the highways of Uzbekistan, so I decided to take a taxi to Khiva. Khiva is the smallest of the big three historic cities in Uzbekistan. There are shopkeepers asking you to buy souvenirs, taxi drivers asking you if you want to go somewhere (anywhere), entry fees to everywhere, expensive and mostly crappy food, and a crazy number of wedding processions.
All over the city, monuments and madrasahs have been converted into museums, hotels, and shops. A local told me that UNESCO is so frustrated with the state of the monuments that they have now started acting on threats to remove places in Khiva (and all over Uzbekistan) from their World Heritage list.
But still, the city is really beautiful. There is one historic square, inside and around which I walked multiple times. The beige of the walls is comforting amidst the chaos of the square, and the restored blue/green/white colour scheme of the tiles was something that I never got bored of in my time in Uzbekistan.
In the hostel, I met two young German girls and a French guy. They were very politically active and opinionated. Listening to them talking about how to avoid police while protesting, I had to wonder if I had done anything useful with my life.
Apparently, Khiva was a major outpost for slave trade for a lot of its history, so maybe souvenir shops aren’t such a bad idea after all.
So, that was a quick summary of my time in Uzbekistan. Coming off of the highs of Tajikistan, I was quite underwhelmed when I was there. But I think that was just my inability to truly commit to the present moment. Because now, looking back, there are only pleasant memories. Camping in the desert by the highway, stumbling upon a well-preserved caravanserai by the side of the road, walking through the history of the Silk Road, cooking khichdi with other backpackers at the hostel, the boredom of the highway, getting fleeced by juice sellers and shoppers…all good. All travel.