Day 320 – Intro to the Silk Road

Aktau Oasis

 

Cycling into Aktau after arriving from Baku, the feeling that things have changed is unshakeable. We find ourselves in the middle of the desert, with herds of horses and camels roaming the horizon.

After facing much difficulty to get out of Baku due to the spread of Covid-19, we are anxious to get through this corner of Kazakhstan and into Uzbekistan as soon as possible, in case the borders begin to close. The options are to cycle for ten days through the desert, or to take a train.

We spend just one night in Aktau before cycling to Mangystau, where the train departs. Aktau butts the Caspian Sea. Here in the warm and bright spring sun the sea is a milky blue. Billboards advertise sea-side resorts. The city is built on a grid, with no clear center. The wind is strong, blowing dust and the smell of natural gas in our faces.

As the sun sets in Mangystau, we purchase our tickets for the morning train. Next door to the station, we install ourselves in a dingy restaurant, eating fresh manti and drinking cold pints. It’s impossible for the locals not to notice we’re foreign, and within a half hour, we’re knocking back shots of Kazakh cognac with a group of construction workers. We’re well on our way to getting drunk enough not to mind camping behind the train station when a soft spoken Russian joins our table. Through Google translate, he invites us back to his place to pass the night. We’re happy to accept the invitation and stay out of the howling wind.

In the morning, nursing on our hangovers, he bids us goodbye on the platform. With much creativity, we are able to stack our bicycles in the space between the wagons. In the wagon we ask, “Are these our seats?” The other passengers laugh. Any seats are our seats.

 

Third-Class to Bukhara

Outside, the desert flies past the windows, endless. White salt coats the ground. Only the sun’s position seems to change. Inside, we are absorbed into a new world. The train has its own ecosystem, its own economy. Each wagon has a half dozen cabins, six beds to a cabin. We pass the day sleeping, eating, and watching the neighboring passengers sleep and eat. Children scamper up and down the corridor. Approaching the Uzbek border, the family in the cabin beside us begins meticulously stashing bags and bags of candy, cookies and snacks in order to hide them from custom officials. A few bills are slipped to the conductor, and he helps hide even more bags of sweets.

Around midnight, the customs officials give our the train the okay to continue, and new passengers board. From midnight until dawn, the train becomes a bustling bazaar. Women walk the corridors selling snacks, slippers, coffee, dumplings, and toys. One loudly calls out, “Tenge! Som! Tenge! Som!” A  hand signal brings her over to exchange Kazakh Tenge for Uzbek Som, at an exchange rate much better than the rate offered by the banks.

 

What do you know about the Silk Road?

An oasis in the desert brings the Silk Road to life before our eyes. Disoriented from the long train ride, we find ourselves in Bukhara’s old town. We lose ourselves to the preserved mosques, madrassas, bazaars and caravanserais. Islamic mosaics in blues that we’ve never seen enchant us, and a spring breeze flows through the arched corridors. In the old Jewish neighborhood, we visit the often overlooked Chor Minor mosque. It’s unusual four minarets capture our attention.

For centuries, the Bokori kord hammam has eased the tensions and pain of travels; Quentin is eager to shoot the massage therapists in action, but needs a subject. Antoine is happy to volunteer for a massage that looks anything but soothing. Though he swears it worked out all the knots in his back!

 

Outside the old city’s walls, we meander towards the largest covered bazaar of the city to stock up on dried fruits and nuts for our ride through the desert. The smell of sautéing vegetables pulls us into the terraced restaurant near the boulevard, where we find traces of the Chinese traders who influenced the cuisine here, so many millennia ago; fat, homemade noodles in savory vegetable broth with a variety of veggies and hot sauce thrown on top. At the mosque across the way, we meet an artisan tapping away at a metal plate, carving a scene of a Carmel caravan. He wears his clothes proudly, and shows us around his shop. His is trained in many mediums: carving, painting and ceramics. What a pleasure to see the madrassas today still honing and honoring the skills from the Silk Road era.

Though we lingered several days in Bukhara, eventually we can’t deny that our panniers are full and it’s time to get back on the bicycles. The desert awaits us, and then, the sparklingly city of Samarkand.