At the risk of reduplication, I’ll start at the beginning. Sunrise saw us peering furtively from a minaret over one of the most spectacular sights of Central Asia, the Registan of Samarkand, as our guard paced nervously below. The Registan was built over the the course of two centuries by the heirs of Tamerlane, who were a) stupendously wealthy and b) enormous showoffs, as well as c) big madrassa fans. The Registan contains three, all facing each other around a central square, it looks great at sunrise.
Following a rushed breakfast, and a farewell to Julie (who was headed for Tashkent, Kazakhstan and Russia) and Seb (who we hope to meet again on the Pamirs), we cycled out of town to try to hitch to Dushanbe. After half an hour of frustration, we realised that we were on the wrong road for truck traffic, which we need to hitch with our bikes. We decided to split, with Nick heading straight to Dushanbe to meet Lisa by train and truck, and me taking the cross country route on the vélo.
It felt strange to be alone on the road for the first time in over almost three months, liberating and lonely at the same time. The rest of the morning was spent climbing the green pass between Samarkand and Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane, cresting it just after midday. As I puffed over the final incline, I was rewarded with a spectacular view out over the broad valley down to Shahrisabz, and just as significantly, a huddle of market stalls selling dried fruit. A nice man bought me a bag of dried apricots, and I cruised down the hill into Shahrisabz on a surging sugar high.
Penniless, l decided to take some money out at the local bank. Unfortunately this turned out to be rather harder in rural Shahrisabz than in cosmopolitan Samarkand, and could only be done at the head office, frustratingly located 10km up the road I had just come down, and due to close in ten minutes. The branch manager, Muzaffar, seeing the look of despair on my face, took pity on me, and invited me to stay with him for the night, which is undoubtedly better customer service than I’ve ever got at NatWest. Probably even better than Nationwide.
As it turned out, the day was only just beginning. I was taken on a helterskelter tour of Shahrisabz, including the Ak Saray, an enormous triumphal arch constructed in the middle of a provincial town, now partially ruined (I hope that if I ever become a successful warlord, I shall do the same for Solihull). I was treated to two rounds of dinner, to a sweet drink from a stall (Shahrisabzi Kola, I was told), and to an Uzbek lesson, in which I learnt that the word for willy in Uzbek (bulbul, or nightingale) and that a literal translation of America into Uzbek gives Amir Aka, or wealthy brother. I discovered the answer to the question ‘How many Uzbeks does it take to change a lightbulb?’ (three, one to sit on the other’s shoulders and change the bulb, and a third to look on). I can’t remember the order, but it was a great evening, ending with Muzaffar, his friend and me crashed out on mats in the dining room. What a day!