Bukhara & Samarkand – legends of the Silk Road

No sooner had we rocked up at Labi Hauz, the centre point of Bukhara that comprises of a historic pool (one of two that remain of the many that served the town’s washing, drinking and laundry needs in the 17th century), than we were approached with an accommodation offer. Having agreed earlier that we would jump at the first place with a shower for under $10, we grinned at each other upon hearing the words ‘Air con… lovely breakfast… quiet location… off road parking… ten dollars’!! Never had finding a place to stay been so easy! (Not so easy getting the bikes into the courtyard but James managed – see pics…) Bukhara turned out to be an absolutely delightful town – dusty yet beautiful, bustling but chilled out – we couldn’t ask for more and we settled in for a much needed 24 hours off the bikes.

Our B&B was a cute little family run place, centred around a cool shady courtyard, and we were ushered to sit down for melon, chai and biscuits as soon as we crossed the threshold. The owner’s son, Abdul, spoke great English and was able to advise us on where to find petrol the next day – we had passed many abandoned gas stations in the 60km from the border to Bukhara, and the one place open for business was sporting a queue of at least 100 cars. We definitely needed insider knowledge on that one! He also arranged for us to change some money on the black market at a rate of 2200 sum for your dollar, as opposed to the 1600 sum offered at the official rate!! The currency here is ridiculous – the biggest note is 1000 sum (about 30p!) so you are forced to carry round great wads of cash just for a trip to the minimart. (Makes you feel pretty flash though!!) There was a lovely French couple, Edward and Marie-Sophie (so Parisian, so chic), staying at the B&B who had come Uzbekistan for a holiday – how cool is that?! I hadn’t even heard of the country before I realised our trip would take us through it, and they’re choosing it over Italy or Spain for the destination of their precious time off work. Risky; I like it!!

The next morning, after a fantastic, and huge, breakfast comprising of chai, fresh figs and grapes, bread, muffins, fried egg, sausage, and a strange concoction of what looked like curd-like cheese that you add milky yoghurt and sugar to (absolutely delicious, thank goodness!!), we headed out for a leisurely wander around the historic city. The place is filled with stunning mosques and madrassahs (Islamic schools) and with the perfect blue sky as a backdrop to the intricate tiled facades, James was in photographer heaven!! One key monument is the minaret of the Kaylon mosque; a launching pad for criminals back in the day. Legend has it that the only person to have survived the fall was a young, recently married woman. Her last request to the executioner was to wear the dress her husband bought her for her wedding day. Not knowing which was the favoured garment, her servant brought all forty dresses from her wardrobe which the lady subsequently donned one by one before being pushed to her death. The padding cushioned her fall and she survived, prompting the impressed emir to spare her life. It is now a Bukharan tradition that a man must give his bride forty dresses on their wedding day – just in case! (Sounds like an awesome tradition to me!!)

When the time came, we really didn’t want to leave Bukhara and could have easily spent another few days chilling under the ancient mulberry trees surrounding Labi Hauz and chatting with the friendly locals and travellers – we even bumped into Michael and Noemi again, the French cyclists from the Caspian ferry, who had caught up with us having crossed Turkmenistan by train! However, we were all too aware that our Uzbekistan visa would expire on the 6th and it was already Monday 2nd (the visa was actually issued for 30 days but seeing as we got in Istanbul before the accident, we had used most of it up before we even got into the country) so we reluctantly packed up, and with help from Edward and Marie-Sophie, managed to get the bikes back into the street and away. Goodbye Bukhara, we’ll be back one day…

We headed straight for the one petrol station that was open for business (thanks Abdul!) and, although we were pretty hot and sticky after a 30 minute wait in the queue, we happily left with full tanks plus 15 litres in jerry cans. (The petrol crisis is an issue long-suffered by the Uzbeks – apparently there is plenty of oil in the country but that’s the problem; the government want to hoard it until prices go up so they can make a hefty profit…. Nice.) The ride to Samarkand was fairly unmemorable (that’s a good thing!) save for getting mobbed by curious locals whenever we stopped. After the usual married-children-age trio, questions always turn to the bikes: make, top speed and, of course, how much? James always plays this one down, not wanting to a) rub peoples’ noses in it or b) make the bikes appear more tempting than they already are (not that we’ve ever felt even the slightest bit threatened; people everywhere so far have been nothing but genuine). We rolled into Samarkand at about half past four, having seen zero petrol available since leaving Bukhara; the Malaysian bikers hadn’t been exaggerating. (Incidentally though, we were having absolutely no trouble whatsoever with the police – at most they would pull us over just to gawp at the bikes then wave us on again.)

A guy in Bukhara had recommended Bahodir’s B&B in Samarkand. We weren’t sure where it was but once we saw the domes and minarets of the mosques in the Registan in the distance, we knew to aim for that to get to the centre. Two helpful teenagers led us to the hostel, just round the corner from where we came to a stop, and the garage doors magically opened as we approached. Result! Uzbekistan so far had the record for the quickest transition between arrival and accommodation; normally we’re riding around for at least an hour! We’d just finished getting the kit of the bikes (another bonus being that our room was the first door off the hall where the bikes were parked) when we heard the rumble of another bike. In swept a badass on a Harley, who promptly took off his helmet and asked, ‘James?’ WTF?! Turns out it was Donato, one of the bikers we hooked up with on the internet months back to form a group to cross into China (making the whole thing a lot cheaper) – what are the chances! (Well, quite high I suppose seeing as we were on similar routes and it was the only backpackers in town… still, don’t ruin the moment!) Donato, and his travelling companion, Stefano, has been having a few difficulties obtaining their Pakistan visas so although for most of the trip they’d been ahead of us, this had caused some delay. Now with girlfriends in tow, who’d flown in from Italy to Tashkent, their plan was to get that sorted before heading to Kazakzstan and then our meeting point of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It was great to catch up with Donato and Roberta (Stefano was due the next day) over the communal dinner at the hostel – he’s done a heck of a lot of overlanding, most of it on his Harley – and I was reassured by his bike thinking that hopefully wherever a Harley could go, me on my XT could go. Fingers crossed!!

We didn’t get out much in Samarkand. After Bukhara, it seemed quite big and we were both recovering from slightly dodgy tummies… We did pay a small bribe to be allowed up one of the minarets in the registan (the main square around which two madrassahs and a mosque were situated) at sunset. The guards were ostensibly there to prevent anyone from coming in to the square which was a ticketed affair during the day, but actually they were leading tourists up the tower to make a few dollars on the sly. Brilliant! The tower was not designed to be a tourist attraction – uneven worn away steps led up to a derelict ‘worksite’ half way up and then narrow spiral steps up to the top. The guard indicated only five people allowed at a time, but in actual fact the ‘viewpoint’ was a small hole out of which one person could poke their head!! After awkwardly negotiating our way past people on the stairwell, we each took it in turns to pop up like meercats and take a few quick photos. It did indeed provide the best view of the city but was not for the faint-hearted! Jackson, you’d be proud of this climbing escapade!

Our two main priorities in Samarkand were to find out where we could get enough petrol to make it to the capital, Tashkent (the only place where it is apparently readily available) and to investigate whether we could cross into Kyrgyzstan at Uchkurgon; this is a border to the north of the more unstable crossing at Osh. Donato came up trumps on the petrol front, assuring us that we’d be able to go with him to a black market supplier but as for our border options, we were a bit stumped. The ‘internet café’ down the road was an absolute joke – after twenty minutes we still hadn’t managed to open a page and the sullen git behind the counter still had the cheek to charge us (James refused to pay, good man) – and the word among the travellers that we chatted to at the hostel was that all borders were closed. This worrying news prompted us to find somewhere with a better internet connection – an endeavour that took us all over town but we did eventually locate somewhere decent. Fat lot of good though because trying to find a definitive answer is nigh on impossible. Several government advisory pages were saying non-essential travel was unadvisable but not whether the borders were actually open or not. The closest we got to an answer was discovering from other travellers’ blogs that people had indeed been going through Osh and Uchkurgon as recently as two weeks ago. We were encouraged by this but decided that, on a cautionary note, we would head to Tashkent the next day and actually enter the city proper (something we’d wanted to avoid) so that we could find out for once and for all from the Kyrgyzstan embassy itself. (Also, in the worst case scenario, we would be able to apply for a Kazakhstan visa in Tashkent and enter Kryg that way instead… keeping up with this?)

Poor James was not doing too good – the symptoms of flu had crept in alongside the bad stomach and what he really needed was a few more days of rest. However, with the Uzbek visa expiry fast approaching, we had to hit the road again on Wednesday morning. Donato, together with a local guy riding pillion to give directions, headed up a fuel run and then we were off. ‘I just can’t wait until we’re in Kyrgyzstan tomorrow and all the time pressures are off us…’ said James into my ear piece. I couldn’t respond (our comms system has been a one way affair since the middle of Turkey) and there was no wood around to touch. Hmmm…..

5 Responses to “Bukhara & Samarkand – legends of the Silk Road”

  1. Jess says:

    Another great post pies. Hope James is better now. x

  2. Elizabeth says:

    poor Bob all poorly and stuff…chin up ya badass and i hope u feel better now. I LOOOVVE reading all ur posts-it’s amazing, I can’t get enough. Stay safe!!xxx

  3. Joanna says:

    Yo guys! Long time no speak. Having just come back from a light toasting in Egypt in 49 degrees of heat, wearing little more than a couple of bits of string and a triangle or two of material (best not to dwell on that one for too long!) I can officially say that I know how flipping hot you must have been, broiling on that ferry/boat crossing thing across the Caspar.

    I have a couple of questions:

    1) Are you making the names of all these countries/towns etc up, or are you on an Owen Wilson/Jackie Chan film set?

    2) Did you, James, swallow a copy of Encyclopedia Britannica (or any other or all encyclopedias) or did you just take the relevant volumes with you? and

    3) (sorry. not very good at maths – should have done 1:1 with Emily when I had the chance) Are you holed up in a dodgy cottage somewhere in the Orkneys trying to pull a fast one on us all?!!!!!!!

    I couldn’t wait to catch up on all your shinanigans when we got back!

    Keep safe and happy. Big hugs to you both xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  4. Lorna Souch says:

    We’re having another drizzly Devon Day so this was a great read, thanks guys.Pete’s recovering from his exploits on sunday – he completed the Chara Challenge (30 miles across Dartmoor in 10.5hrs with 40 lbs on his back) for Charity – so we’re not going far today(you should see the blisters!).I think I’ll start the Twilight Sagas for the 3rd time…thinking of you both.keep safe and watch out for any more late night activities…lots of lovefrom us all xxxx

  5. Jackson says:

    oh my word i am shocked for you eggle…..you mean whenever you are riding you have to put up with fountain boy constantly bantering in your ear and you can’t even tell him to shut up!?!?!?!

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