Cycling through the Red Sands
OK, so this is rather a melodramatic title. We’re cycling through the Kyzylkum, or Red Sands, Desert. After a breakfast of bread, eggs, fresh yoghurt, choy, and dried apricots, we were escorted to main road by Yuldash and Aybek. Having waved farewell, we left the hundred kilometre oasis that surrounds Urgench, and headed back into the desert, this time aiming for Bukhara, some 400 kilometres away. The Kyzylkum was much more sandy and desertish than the steppe we crossed in Karakalpakstan, and far more dramatic, swirls of reddish sand spotted with scrub and the occasional goat (no camels, though). We took a lengthy lunch break in a choyxana, cleaning our bikes as we sat out the midday heat. As usual, we chatted with the customers who drifted in and out, including an odd duo on a road trip to Urgench from Navoiy in the south of Uzbekistan. While I entertained one, who showed me a picture of himself as a wrestler in former days, before crushing my hand to prove he still had it, Nico charmed the other into offering us a place to stay in Navoiy, which is en route between Bukhara and Samarkand. Buoyed by this success, we cycled a little further before pitching camp and making a delicious dinner of pasta and sprat in tomato sauce and getting an early night.
That Forty Degree Spirit
We rose, and soon realised that all we had for breakfast was three biscuits and an apple each, and no idea when the next choyxana might be. As it turned out, we were flagged down by some builders and given tea and a tasty potato salad, before tackling the desert heat. It was hard riding, in temperatures which were well over 40 degrees in the sun, into a ferocious headwind. We were relieved when just before midday a choyxana came into sight, and stopped for delicious samsa and a cold bottle of coca cola, followed by shots of vodka (inevitably) with some telecoms workers, to international friendship. It was intended to spur us along in the heat, a dash of forty degree spirit, but predictably had the opposite effect. I take some tobacco powder, Central Asian style, under my tongue. It was zingy and tasted surprisingly good. We spent the next few hours chatting to people drifting in and out, and pumping the local pond water with our filter (it was so grimy that even the locals wouldn’t drink it, which is really saying something)
We set off again, and Nick’s cycling bib, already rolled down as far as possible, fell ever lower towards the final frontier of tan lines. 35k down the road, we stopped to investigate a goatherds’ yurt a few hundred yards away from the road, hoping to ask the goatherds whether we can stay the night. The men must have been out with their goats, but there was an old lady at home, who offered us a delicious loaf of bread from her oven. She didn’t speak any Russian, despite being of a generation who to learn Russian in school, marking her out as a true nomad. Feeling tired, dehydrated and ill (not a good combination in a desert) we decided to camp a little distance away, pitching our tent tenuously in the red sand. We decided to jerry rig our tent to expose as much of our inner tent as possible. The nights are stifling, and our otherwise excellent Hilleberg doesn’t allow you to put up the inner alone, so we folded back part of the outer and supported it with guy ropes, feeling rather pleased with ourselves.
The Handcrusher Returns
We rose early, only to find that I had a puncture (the first of the trip), losing us a precious fifteen minutes of cycling in the cool, and out of the wind. Having made good progress for the first thirty kilometres, we came up against a headwind, which got progressively stronger and the day went on. We pushed onwards, aiming for Gazli, a town ninety kilometres away for lunch. It was a real slog (the desert is beautiful, but deathly dull when the only things that change, kilometre after kilometre, are the distance markers, and then all too slowly. We made Gazli in time for lunch at a choyxana, where we ordered a tasty bowl of laghman and a couple of shashlik each, before napping on the carpet and cushions.
At 3:30 we set off into desert again, riding hard into the interminable headwind, and eventually camping a morning’s ride from Bukhara. The slog was only briefly interrupted by the appearance of the Navoiy duo, en route home, who stopped to say hello and to wrestle Nico, who had cunningly avoided being crushes two days before. As for the last two days, it was lights out by 9pm, and sleep claimed us immediately.