It was time to cycle a long stretch through the Kysylkum desert in Uzbekistan and to explore some of the most important cities of the ancient Silk Road.
After we cycled through the south-western tip of Kazakhstan and crossed the border to Uzbekistan in the middle of a desert, it was time to get some “So’m”, the currency of Uzbekistan. Cause of the inflation that occurs in this country and from stories we heard from other travelers, we already prepared our wallets for the cash. A few minutes later we left the money exchange with about half a million So’m each and a 2cm stack of banknotes.
Right before the border to Uzbekistan, at an old gas station, we also met Niklas, a cycle tourer from Germany, who cycled a few days with us. As we then left the border checkpoint as a group of six, we only managed to cycle around 3 more kilometers as it was already pretty dark. Even though we were still within sight of the border checkpoint, we decided to leave the main road and just set camp a few hundred meters from the road. With our headlamps, we tried to find all our stuff needed and built our little camping village in the desert. As we had already suspected, id didn’t take long until the Uzbek border policed arrived with a car and some flashlights pointing at us. Luckily they didn’t mind that we stayed here after we told them that we just came from Kazakhstan and that we are leaving the next morning.
As it was already the case in Kazakhstan, camping became super easy in the desert. There wasn’t just always a large flat area somewhere on both sides of the main road, it got also colder when the sun went down at the horizon. During long, flat, and rather boring cycling days in a desert during the day, the camping was always, at least for me, the part I was looking forward to the most. Especially when you can share all this with other cyclists.
What changed quickly in Uzbekistan compared to Kazakhstan were the road conditions. As in Kazakhstan we almost always had a well-paved road, the road here in Uzbekistan was full of potholes. What also changed quickly as we got further east, were the temperatures during the day. It was now a lot hotter again with temperatures between 32 and 41 degrees. The sun was quite strong and there was almost no shade except in tiny villages. We ended up using a lot of suncream again and changed to long-sleeved clothing, cycling arm-sleeves and scarves to cover from the burning sun.
To be honest, in terms of cycling, Uzbekistan was definitely not one of my favorite countries. Cycling long flat roads is one thing, but doing that day by day on bad roads and with headwinds almost every day, it can get grueling. We always stopped when there was another city, no matter if it was a small or bigger one. Sometimes, out in the desert, the villages or cities were not directly along the main road, but away from it a few hundred meters. There, we had to fill all our water bottles for the rest of the day, for the cooking in the evening, and for breakfast so as the next morning. Food-wise, it didn’t get much more culinary. We always bought a few bags of buckwheat, rice, lentils, tomatoes, eggs and yellow peas.
For lunch, several snack breaks during the day so as for breakfast, we bought big loaf of Uzbek bread and, of course, chocolate spread aka “Chococream”. The Uzbek Chococream was available in different sizes of red tubs, from 250g, 450g, up to 900g. Meanwhile, Andrew and I had reached the point where we killed a tub of 250g of Chococream per day. It was the perfect match together with the tasteless bread during the day or mixed in the porridge in the morning. But this shouldn’t be an excuse, we knew that this kind of sugar addiction, which started in Azerbaijan, was not over yet. Since we were cycling in a group, we also have started an additional, general wallet for all of us. We always used it to buy a large bottle of cold coca-cola and to pay the basic food for dinner.
Around an hour before sunset, we then went out a few hundred meters into the desert to find a flat place. After a few days of camping together, a kind of evening routine developed, which looked like this.
As soon as we found a place for the camp, we parked our bikes and put our tents in a kind of circle. Kata and Andres then put their big green plastic sheet, or as we called it “the garden”, in front of their blue tent. After a short “shower” with baby wipes and a change of clothes in the tent, we then started with a 10-15 minute stretching routine. We all decided to join Favio with his stretching routine, which he did every evening for years. Most of the time, Favio also already started with the stretching even before he put his tent. Then we have gathered in, respectively “on” the garden to start cooking.
Our kitchen consisted of a 2L pot and a fuel stove from Kata & Andres, a 2L pot and a fuel stove from me, so as another small pot on Favios gas-stove. In one of the bigger pots, we cooked rice or buckwheat (our main source of carbohydrates), in the other one lentils or yellow peas as a protein source. In the third pan, we cooked some tomatoes together with eggs as kind of a sauce. For dinner the next day, we then changed from rice to buckwheat and from lentils to yellow peas or vice versa.
While eating dinner, most of the time it was already completely dark, and we got to see the most amazing clear skies full of stars. Most of the time, there was no lite pollution at all, which offered us these marvelous starry skies. For me, this was always the most special time during the day. The sky seemed to be so close, so crazy beautiful, and at the same time you realized how small you actually are.
After eating dinner and cleaning the pots, we had some dessert which was mostly chocolate or cookies and finally all crawled in our tents to get enough sleep for the next day on the bike. In Uzbekistan, I probably had the best sleep in my tent of the whole trip. It was cold, but not too cold, it was flat and it was quiet. As it was pretty hot during the day, in Uzbekistan we decided to start early in the morning. So normally we went up around 05:00, ate our breakfast while still being in the sleeping bags, packed the tents and then startet cycling around 06:00, just before the huge, orange sun rose at the horizon. Cycling towards the golden sun rising in the east was another highlight of the day and something I may never forget. It was this feeling of pure freedom, cycling in a row with good friends, the light, the silence, and all that.
After around 5 days of cycling and 4 nights of sleeping in the dry desert, it slowly started to get green again as we got closer to the city of Nukus. Nukus is right on the border with Turkmenistan and the river of Amudarja. This river was formerly more than 1400km long before it ended in the Aral Sea. Today, none of the water arrives there because of the diversion of the water for agriculture purposes like cotton, rice etc. The Aral Sea was once the fourth-largest lake in the world and lost about 90% of its water in the last 60 years. The shrinking of the Aral Sea is one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters of our time.
From far away we could already see the green valley where the city of Nukus was, and once we came closer to the city and cycled through nearby villages, suddenly there were cotton fields all around us. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, which is important for the national economy, being the second largest income next to gas. Next to huge problems with forced labor in the cotton industry, the example of the dried-up Aral Sea is a reminder of the damage Cotton can inflict.
In Nukus we stayed in a nice Hostel which just newly opened a few weeks before. We went to a huge Supermarked and bought all kind of food for the next day, lots of snacks, cookies, cold beers and vegetables to cook dinner in the hostel. The best thing though was a hot shower and a proper wash. Nukus wasn’t just a stopover, it marked also half of our desert crossing in Uzbekistan. Although it was a super comfortable stay in the hostel, we decided to continue the next day and heading back into the dry desert, for some more great desert camps and to finally get to one of the most important cities of the ancient Silk Road: Bukhara.
The area after Nukus and along the Amudarja river was more densely populated. We found a lot of small roadside restaurants where had some food, followed by a 30-60 minute Siesta on the typical bed-tables called “Takhtans”. In Restaurants, we either had one of these two things:
- Lagman, the Uzbek national dish, a soup made from onions, potatoes, meat, carrots and a kind of pasta. Most of the time the soups, or the food in central Asia in general, was a bit bland, but it offered proteins, vitamins, and also salts and water. A good meal for cyclists.
- The other typical thing was Somsas, hearty pastries they cooked in a mud oven and which were filled with vegetables, meat, potatoes or even cheese. This was by far my favorite snack in whole of central Asia. They were not only super delicious but as it was finger food, you could take a few of them in a bag on the handlebars and eat them while cycling.
Treasures of the ancient Silk Road
Near the city of Birunly, we were able to visit our first place steeped in history in Uzbekistan, an old desert fortress called Toprak-Kala. Toprak-Kala is an ancient city from the 2nd / 3rd century CE, where wall paintings, coins and archives were discovered.
After leaving this impressive place and after having some food in the nearby village, we moved on and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of the dry desert again. The second desert section was shorter but also different from the first one, as there was much more sand with small sand dunes. We had four more days and 3 more nights camping in the desert. Then, after more than 1000km through the Kysylkum desert, we finally made it to Bukhara, where we were going to have a day off from all the cycling.
Bukhara, a former commercial center on the Great Silk Road is one of the most ancient cities in Uzbekistan and has to offer more than 140 architectural monuments, dating back to the Middle Ages. We used the break to get a lot of sleep, having a shower, washing our clothes and mainly, to explore this amazing ancient place. Bukhara was by far one of the most beautiful ancient cities I’ve ever been to. All these structures, highly decorated in every detail, the mosques & madrasa’s so as the peaceful atmosphere that prevailed.
Located on the Silk Road, Bukhara has long served as a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion.
After we left this beautiful and historic city, the next one was already waiting for us. During our last two full days of cycling in Uzbekistan, we pedaled to the oasis city of Samarkand, one of the oldest cities of our planet and probably the most important one of the great Silk Road.
At the famous and historically important Registan Square, the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand, we stopped with our bikes to take a picture. What a great feeling it was to arrive by bicycle at this stunning and historical place!
The square is surrounded by three grand madrassahs, Ulughbek, Sherdor and Tilla-Kori, which are the main sights of the city.
Never have I seen such a majestic and highly decorated architectural ensemble like this, which ranks first in Central Asia and among the greatest of all the magnificent works of the Islamic world.
In this city, also called “Rome of the east”, we spent two days off the bikes to get some rest. We had a lot of food and a few beers as a celebration of the distance we have covered in the last few weeks. In Samarkand also ended our journey through Uzbekistan. We decided to have two rest days to prepare ourselves for the upcoming route and the new country to come. Just 40km’s from Samarkand there was Tadjikistan waiting for us, and thus the mountains! Honestly, we couldn’t wait to be in the mountains, to have some variety from the last few weeks or almost months in flat areas and deserts. At that point, I was super excited to finally arrive in Tadjikistan and to do the Pamir Highway, which was my major highlight and the main reason why I decided to cycle this route towards the east.
Uzbekistan offered an interesting and good mix of challenging roads, awesome desert camps, and beautiful cities of the former Silk Road. There was no varying landscape in this country, but still, in its way, the desert was a challenging and spectacular experience. All the camps, the stars, amazing sunrises and sunset so as always super friendly people willing to help us. Uzbekistan was not an easy task cycling-wise, but pretty good training for what was coming next, an even bigger challenge and to cycle through some of the highest places on earth.
See you in the Pamirs!
Special thanks to all of you for being part of my journey:
Favio, Andrew, Kata, Andres, Niklas
What exceptional photos! I loved the large umbrella! I’ve not yet cycled in 40 degree heat. Incredibly challenging!