Leaving Samarkand I had prepared myself for some tough riding, similar to the ride I had experienced arriving into that city. As ever on this trip, things did not turn out as I had expected and instead I was treated to three days of relatively easy riding on flat, smooth roads with very little ice. It felt great.
Sadly an off the road encounter left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Throughout Uzbekistan, I had thus far felt very welcome and as though people were treating me with kindness. So I had let my guard down, which a cafe owner decided to take advantage of. As I was looking for somewhere to stop for lunch the cafe owner in question called me over and seemed very keen to have me come in, he seemed very welcoming.
The owner brought me over a small salad of pickled vegetables, some bread, tea and a traditional bowl of soup with bits floating in it. This was what I had been eating for most lunches for the past few weeks and I was pretty bored of it but also pretty used to it. After I finished the first salad the owner practically insisted I have another, the same when I ate my bread, even though I didn’t really want anymore, he also tried to get me to have more soup but one bowl a meal is pretty much my limit with that stuff. I had thought he was just trying to be nice and make sure I have everything I needed. Then I asked for the bill.
This gave me a rude reminder of an important rule of travelling: always ask the price of something before you consume it if it isn’t shown. Afterwards it is too late to negotiate! The cafe owner was asking me for 30,000 som for a frankly awful meal – this even at black market rates was $11 and a good three times what I would expect to have paid. I asked him again and made him break it down. Yes he was charging me 15,000 som for that bowl of soup, 10,000 som more than I’d paid yesterday for a slightly better one. I stared at him incredulously and he at least looked a bit embarrassed but wasn’t adjusting his prices.
There isn’t really much you can do after you’ve eaten the food unfortunately and I didn’t really want to kick off when no would understand what I was saying anyway. Needless to say the owner didn’t get a tip…well apart from the 200% uplift on the bill he’d levied.
This put me in a bit of a bad mood and similarly to when my bicycle pump was stolen in Turkey and reminded me that not everyone was kind to strangers. A reminder that I always hate to receive as it is a lot more straining travelling around with that feeling. It also made me realise how lucky I had in general been on the journey.
That night, I stopped to ask a man selling oil by the side of the road if the building on the other side of the road was a guesthouse. The man said no, but the building behind him on this side of the road was one. Well he either said it was one or that I could sleep there as it wasn’t really a guesthouse but a cafe with an area I could sleep on the floor in. Either way it was warm and I was very careful to ask upfront how much it was and how much the dinner of eggs and bread was that I had.
The owner of this cafe had three little boys. The eldest who was about 9 was very curious and keen to practice his English bringing a textbook out and getting me to read the English in it with him. The youngest was about 5 and an unmitigated pain. I had to keep a constant eye on my things as he would try and run off with them.
I also made another mistake in that I let them drink from my cycling water bottles with sports mouth piece. For some strange reason they all seemed to want to try the water in them – I am not sure if it was the water or the bottles that fascinated them. Given they had mineral water on sale in the cafe anyway I assume it was the bottles. This was a mistake in that it broke pretty basic hygiene rules and my stomach started feeling dodgy the next evening which may be linked.
They also had the least safe looking gas cooker I have seen:
Basically it ran on what looked like a hose with gas coming through it that they had lit the end of. This they had stuck in a stove. I’m not quite sure how you turned it off and on and didn’t want to ask in case they showed me.
The next day I woke to see that it had been snowing overnight and so I was expecting a day of unpleasant slushy or icy riding. When I was getting ready to leave the cafe owner indicated that the in direction I was going the snow was much worse, he indicated he had talked to someone on his phone and they said that the snow was at least a foot high. The owner then gestured I should stay here another night. This amount of snow seemed unlikely to me as I had been checking the weather reports and nothing suggested it would be so bad up ahead – I also didn’t want to hang around another day in that place, so I thought I would chance it.
Which turned out to be the right thing to do as the snow had barely settled on the highway and in fact got better the further I went. A lot better and I made very good distance. So someone had been lying, the owner or his friend. It seemed to me it was just another attempt to get me to stay to get more money from me.
Happily a kind shopkeeper restored my faith in people when he sat me down and gave me warm bread and tea when I stopped to buy some water later in the day.
I also bought some weird dried melon stuff from these chaps by the side of the road:
That night I would again be treated to a mix of Uzbek perfidy and kindess when I arrived in Syrdarya and tried to find a guesthouse. Eventually I found one – it appears that to find Uzbek guesthouses outside tourist towns you have to ask people. There is no other way to locate them as they have no signs or indications of what they are, just unmarked buildings.
Going in I asked how much for the room and was told 50,000 som….which was about 30,000 som more than the room was worth. In Kattakorgan I’d stayed in a similar type of place but a lot nicer for 20,000. I knew the woman was ripping me off again because I was a foreigner but again there wasn’t much I could do about it as darkness was arriving and in the scheme of things, while it was twice what I should be paying, it was still only GBP 11.
I could also bring my bike in the room:
Heading out to get dinner I stopped at the nearest cafe restaurant where I met Sultan: the owner and probably one of the only people in the town who spoke any English. Sultan was very happy to meet me and practice his English and also to practice Uzbek hospitality which he said was very important to his culture. Something I had seen a lot of before but was starting to doubt after the last couple of days.
Sultan also confirmed I’d paid too much for the room and said “You should have come here first!” If only I’d known…
Sultan was keen for me to try the food his restaurant had to offer – normally this would have been fantastic but that night I was feeling a bit peaky so only managed to eat enough food for two people rather than the normal four.
When it was time for me to go Sultan refused any payment and told me to come back the next morning and he would give me breakfast on the house as well. He was as good as his word and he also gave me a bottle of vodka to take with me.
The only strange thing was his apparent belief in every conspiracy theory going and that America was responsible for all the evil in the world.
That day I made it to Tashkent with little or no event and was surprised at the ease of the ride I had to the guesthouse I was staying at. I had expected a nightmare of traffic but it was OK. I don’t know whether it was because it was Sunday or that I was expecting the worse!
That night I rode on an underground metro for the first time in ages. Tashkent’s metro is quite impressive and has some pretty stations and was very clean and efficient – sadly you aren’t allowed to take photos down there and this is apparently enforced – as there were police everywhere I wasn’t going to test it.
The only annoyance with the metro I experienced was police checks – nearly every time I used it my bag got checked and they would often ask to see my passport as well. That said I never felt intimidated and the police were always polite, even saluting, it was just a pain having to go through the rigmarole.
The next day I really wasn’t feeling well and I wanted nothing more than to stay in the guesthouse recuperating. Unfortunately I had arranged to go and take my bicycle to a mechanic – a ‘velocipede master’ as they are called in these parts. As arranging to do this hadn’t been easy given his lack of English I was keen to go and do it without messing him around and having to find a translator, I also thought I really ought as the fellow in Samarkand hadn’t really fixed my problem before. My whole bottom bracket was still wobbling which definitely didn’t seem good.
So off I went for a 13km ride across Tashkent to Kadisheva bus station, around rush hour, with stomach ache…not happy days.
I eventually found where the guesthouse owner had told me to go (he’d spoken to the mechanic for me on the phone) and started to ask if anyone knew where his workshop was exactly. No one seemed to. Some people directed me in one direction, others in another. One restaurant owner helpfully told me that his restaurant wasn’t a mechanic’s workshop when I asked if there was one nearby….thanks.for.that.
To top it off I was out of credit on my Uzbek sim and when I went to top up there was a power cut so I couldn’t…things are seldom easy in Uzbekistan.
Eventually, after about an hour wandering around, and through using kind strangers phones I was able to figure out that I had been told to look behind the wrong bus station by the guesthouse guy and located the workshop when one of the mechanics came out to find me.
This was a relief as I didn’t want that journey to have been for nothing!
Going inside my relief increased as I could tell immediately that this was a serious bicycle workshop – just from the parts and tools lying around and even the brand stickers they had stuck on the walls. I was fairly confident it would be from what I’d read on the internet but it was good to have it confirmed. There were four guys there: Dmitri (the boss), Igor, the third man and Alex
Then they checked my bike and it turned out it was lucky I had made sure to track them down as there was something quite big wrong with it. Apparently my bottom bracket was ruined. This is the part that lets the pedals turns and is rather important…I’m not sure what horror would have occurred if I had carried on riding with a broken one but I think I would have damaged some expensive components!
Igor, who spoke some English then made my heart sink by telling me that the replacement part was very rare in this part of the world but then having given me the bad news he hit me with the good. They had a spare – it was Dmitri’s own spare for his bike and he was willing to let me have it. My relief was tempered by fear, how much was this going to cost! This situation was a little different from restaurants though – now I didn’t want to ask as I knew I would have to pay whatever these guys said – they had me over a barrel. Fortunately they didn’t take advantage of this and the price they charged for the new bottom bracket, installing it, checking my bike over and tuning my brakes was only $30. Of that only $5 was labour. It was $25 for the bottom bracket and that had included shipping it from chain reaction cycles. Was I ever grateful!
All that remained was to ride back to the guesthouse – where I would spend the next day and a half in bed feeling rather sorry for myself but confident that when my body was ready to leave on the next stage of the journey my bike would be too!
If you need to get in touch with Dmitri and his gang of mechanics then you try and ring him on +998 90 956 51 70
I met them at their workshop facing the main entrance of Kadisheva bazaar behind a large bus stop. Don’t be confused with the bus terminus at the end of the bazaar.
If anyone is ever in Syrdarya and needs to find accommodation or food I think that Sultan would be happy to help, his number is: +998 91 509 35 72