Day 333 – Riding in the Realm of Tamerlane
Nights in the Desert
“Should we go north, south, or through the middle?”
“Ashley, there’s nothing in the middle. It’s just desert.”
The three of us exchange looks as we finish our last breakfast in Bukhara. Through the middle of the desert will be a new test for us. We have no information about this route; will we be able to find water? Restock our food supplies? Will the roads be passable?
The sun pouring over our backs, sparse vegetation dots the vast desert surrounding us. The asphalt melts away and we’re pedaling on a path used only by the occasional work truck or military van. The ridges in the road are so bumpy it makes our teeth rattle. We find a campsite tucked between two hills. The sky fades from pink to periwinkle. When the first stars appear, a few lonely jackals yip before falling silent. We survey the desert around us, and inhale the crisp evening air.
We didn’t haul in more than one nights’ worth of water, so the in the morning we’re obliged to ride back to the highway. At a restaurant frequented by truckers hauling Uzbek cotton, we stop for lunch and get a better look at the cartography separating us from Samarkand. We slurp down noodles and discuss leaving the desert behind to cycle adjacent to the long canal north of the highway. On the other side lie a ridge of foothills, and a string of villages. The waiter weighs in, and encourages the route but points out a few villages to avoid, warning of “trouble,” due to high unemployment and alcoholism. We decided to risk it anyways.
Leaving Navoi, we head north to a hamlet at the base of the hills. In the cherry orchard that doubles as the town square, a family is busy pruning the trees. After much sign language we’re able to remember the Russian word for tent (sounds like “pa-lat-kah), and the father instructs his sons to take us somewhere safe to camp. The boys walk with us until the canal, and point at some hills on the other side. The bridge is a wide pipe that has some metal and rubber laid over it to make it more or less flat. There are no railings; a tumble would take us straight into the rushing waters of the canal, soaking us and our gear, and what’s more, if you fell in the water, you’d have to be pulled out by a rope. Balking at first, we each summon up the courage to walk across. Bidding us goodnight from the other side of the canal, the boys trot home, and we look for a path up into the hills to spend the night.
Ashley’s been feeling feverish all day, and promptly throws herself into her duvet, waking only to spoon dinner into her mouth before falling back asleep. Quentin and Antoine linger outside the tent. Before them lies the whole of the region. Clusters of towns are nestled close to the canal, but otherwise the land is deserted, flat, and dusty. When the cold becomes distracting they too climb into the tent, and fall into a well-earned sleep.
All throughout the center of town, children are gathered in groups, dressed in bright colors with grins on their faces. We stop to look at the festivities but can’t really tell what’s going on, so we keep cycling. Within a few hundred meters, someone pulls up behind us on the road and begins chatting to Antoine. It’s a French professor, who insists we come visit the middle school. Laughter streams out of windows as the students abandon their desks to stare at us and maybe dare a short “Hello!” Steam rises from an enormous pot in one corner of the schoolyard, where a group of neighborhood mothers are stirring the wheat for sumalak. The sweet dish takes more than a week to prepare, and consists only of whole wheat sprouts, flour and water. An Uzbek speciality, it is a staple for the Navruz celebration, which will take place next Friday.
After a visit to the classrooms, where students stand up to recite their names, ages, and hobbies in French, we’re invited to a small wooden restaurant next door for lunch. Plates loaded with somsas arrive, filled with succulent beef, lots of gravy and plenty of spices. The professors make lengthy vodka toasts to the continued friendship of the Uzbeks and the French, and a particularly touching toast to Ashley: “Around this table today are men of books and travelers. I would like you to notice among them, just as educated and ready to see the world: a woman. To her!” The vodka’s cadaver tucked in the corner, we sip tea, trying to sober up before bidding our farewells and cycling on.
In the evening, surrounded by cotton fields, we pull into a schoolyard and ask to make camp. Before we can set up, a dozen teenage boys show up with their soccer ball, and a friendly match begins. At dark, the boys file home, and we try to settle in. The nightwatchman invites us inside the school, but once we get our mattresses set up in the entry way he has a change of heart, and asks us to set up outside where we originally were. We have a feeling the rumors that foreigners carry Covid-19 are to blame.
The next day we awaken early, to leave before the students arrive. We are more than 100km from Samarkand and each of us is battling their own fatigue, stress, and anxiety. Tension is high, and disagreements come to a head about when and where to eat breakfast. After lunch, Antoine decides to ride fast on his own, racing over the remaining 75km to Samarkand. We don’t put any deadlines on ourselves to arrive in Samarkand that night but somehow we do, and end up surprising Antoine when we arrive at the hostel an hour or two after him. The day’s ride totals 115km, a record for us, and is celebrated with hot showers and warm beds.
Chatter about Covid-19 grew louder over the days between Bukhara and Samarkand. Though we weren’t connected to wifi during the ride, we caught bits of news each day. Italy is in quarantine, Macron is shutting down France…but so far things are normal in Central Asia. This is about to change. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan report their first cases of the virus, and they retroactively announce the closure of the borders. We hope that the whole thing will blow over in a month or two; our Uzbek visas have been extended.
The best thing to do seems to be to hold tight, and watch how things develop. That’s fine with us. We’ve been traveling for a year, and are finally in a city so different from what we are accustomed to, sitting still and soaking it in seems like the perfect thing to do. We map a bike route around the city, and go visiting some of the magnificent architecture commissioned by Emperor Tamerlane.
The winds of the desert have brought us to Samarkand, and our first stop is “the sandy place,” better known as the Registan. The square is the heart of the old city, where the market and caravans did their business. The surrounding buildings are three ancient Islamic schools, known as madrasahs, where students study Islam, but also math, applied arts, and philosophy.
Inside the Tilya-Kori Madrasah, we find cool halls. They are engorged with fluttering tapestries, rugs, porcelain and silk, all handmade by artisans commissioned by this madras. If only we were traveling by van, or a camel-led caravan, we could load our panniers with beautiful ceramic plates, decorated with traditional motifs so inspired we’re surprised the birds didn’t fly off the plates to sing to us.
A few hundred meters from the popular Registan square is Gur-Emir. Here is the tomb of Emperor Tamerlane the Great. From the spoils of his conquests that Samarkand was built to such splendor. Despite the spectacular entry to the mosque, Tamerlane’s tomb is solemn. In a square room where the light shines gold is the black stone tomb, guarding the remains of this powerful emperor.
On the other side of town another cluster of tombs were commissioned by Tamerlane. At Shah-E-Zinda, we find a necropolis of mausoleums, with the most intricate mosaic work we’ve seen. The site is a place of pilgrimage, to see the tomb of Qutham ibn Abbâs, who brought Islam to the region in the 7th century. Tourists and pilgrims take their time admiring each corner of the complex. The shapes, colors, and architecture are so diverse and stimulating that as a mere guest, all you can do is try to take it in.
A Decision to Make
Despite these distractions, the waves pushing us to make a decision roll in. The French embassy strongly advises us to come to Tashkent, and to sign up for a flight repatriating Europeans. They tell us that Uzbekistan is going to limit movement to a high degree, and that things will be difficult if we decide to stay. Our hostel owner explains that an official notified her that she cannot accept new guests until further notice. Her whole season has fallen out from under her feet. The same is true for others involved in tourism; while drinking coffee under the cherry trees at the Registan, the shopkeepers mourn the death of the season before it has even begun. Things are beginning to look serious. Antoine decides to follow the embassy’s instructions and takes a taxi in the dead of night to Tashkent, under the impression the flight could leave any minute.
We spend the morning lounging around the hostel, calm on the outside but tumultuous inside. Questions nag us. Should we ride out the storm in Uzbekistan? Should we try to cross the borders anyways? Should we hustle to reach the mountains and wait it out deep in nature? What would our favorite adventurers do? Would our heroes give up and head home?
In a snap decision, we decide to go to Tashkent. If we stay here in Samarkand, and things shut down, we’ll be stuck. At least in Tashkent, we can try the border with Kazakhstan, and if it’s really closed, we’ll head east for Fergana Valley and the mountains shared with Kyrgyzstan.
The stands of food-vendors at the taxi stand don’t tempt us; we just want to get on the road. Quickly we’re surrounded by prospective drivers, shouting prices to take us to Tashkent. We start low, and don’t budge. There are enough drivers without clients that we’re able to get the price we want. Within five minutes, we’ve dismantled our bikes, and arranged them like a puzzle in the back of the cab. The vibrations of the road lull us to sleep. A few hours later, we’ve arrived with no idea where to go or what do to. It seems strange, but we are much more at ease planning our next moves in an unknown parking lot in Tashkent, than cooped up in a hostel in Samarkand. After a year of travel, we’ve learned not much can happen to you if you don’t press on.