Uzbekistan

Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand

Posted by James Anderton on August 29th, 2018


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Uzbekistan is not one of those countries cyclists go out of the way to visit. For many it is simply on the way to the Pamir Highway and China or to Baku and Europe. On the face of it there seems little to offer the cyclist. Huge swathes of empty desert, precious little mountain scenery and mind boggling bureaucratic nonsense that can leave you tearing your hair out in frustration. Whilst all of the above are true there is also plenty to offer the intrepid cycle explorer. As is often the case with big cycle trips it’s the countries you happen upon that often provide the most interesting experiences. Uzbekistan is a tricky place to travel. There are things you need to know before you arrive but once there Uzbekistan could turn out to be the hidden gem in your cycle adventure.

a camel in the desert of Uzbekistan

A camel in the East of Uzbekistan

First of all the nonsense. There is plenty of bureaucratic devilry at work in Uzbekistan. An ex Soviet state with rules and regulations that could only be dreamed up in Russia. You must register with the police every 48 hours. If you stay at a hotel they will register for you. The hotel will then give you a little registration slip as proof of your stay which you should keep. Bearing in mind I did not see a building for my first 4 days in Uzbekistan this is not so easy. With such long distances between towns it is impossible for a cyclist to find a hotel or a police station every couple of days. Hotels have been known to refuse guests if they can’t provide recent hotel registration slips. I was a little nervous when I arrived in the town of Nukus after 5 days crossing the desert from the Kazakhstan border. However no one asked me for my registration slips and I enjoyed a night in a bed. Same a week later in Bukhara. I began to think it was one of these rules that no one bothers to enforce. Then I arrived in the capital Tashkent. The first hotel wanted to see my registration slips for the last few days. I explained I didn’t have any because I have been cycling and camping. They replied sorry you cannot stay here. Same with the next hotel, and the next, and so on. Many were apologetic. They would love to help but they would get into trouble with the police if they were caught housing a foreigner without sufficient registration slips. They were genuinely scared about the repercussions. I said maybe I should go to the police station and explain the situation. They were adamant I shouldn’t do that. I would get fined, deported or both. I had to stay in Tashkent a few days to sort out my Tajikistan Visa. It was getting late. I cycled around and found an abandoned parking lot. My home for the next couple of nights. The people of Uzbekistan are not allowed to put up foreigners and are fearful to do so. I met up with a guy from Tashkent who I’d met along the road. I explained my predicament. He insisted I come stay with him. I was reluctant as I did not want to get him in trouble with the police but he was angry with the authorities for their treatment of visitors and eventually I agreed. He helped me make fake registration slips to ensure I exited the country without a problem. The border police have been known to ask for these registration slips when exiting the country. If you can’t supply enough to cover your stay in the country you will get a $300 fine. The whole business with registration slips seems to be a problem in and around the Tashkent area and the border crossings close to the capital. I exited the country at a remote crossing at Denau in the South and no one asked me for my registration slips.

Women selling bread in Uzbekistan

Women selling bread in a bazaar in Samarkand

There is a lot of desert to cycle in Uzbekistan. Often all you can see is sand and sky. The first few days were dead flat and astonishingly straight. I don't think I changed gear or turned my handlebars for 4 days. It is pure pedalling but the road was fairly good. Far superior to over the border in Kazakhstan, and I revelled in the feeling of being in the complete middle of nowhere. You can look in any direction and easily imagine there is no one for 100 miles. It is so quiet. It is also hot. Dawn and dusk were wonderful times to cycle with the sun turning the desert into a hundred different shades of orange. The midday heat was brutal and I would keep an eye out for a culvert. Safety havens to escape the sun for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. They are concrete drainage pipes underneath the road. Quite hard to spot but the road tends to rise ever so slightly when you go over one. There’s not a lot else to do other than play spot the culvert. I loved the evenings out in the desert. The temperature drops and you wheel off into the desert and pick your camp spot under a million stars.

A dead straight road in the desert of Uzbekistan

My view for the first 5 days in Uzbekistan

Water often seems very far away in Uzbekistan. The country is not only landlocked it is one of only 2 double landlocked countries in the world. That is to say surrounded solely by other landlocked countries). The other one is Liechtenstein. It used to have a sea, the Aral Sea, but it vanished. During the USSR days a thirsty cotton growing industry sucked all the water out leaving behind more desert, along with desolate ships stranded in the sand. With long distances between towns you can spend a lot of time dreaming of water. It is important to carry plenty with you particularly in the West of the country. Fortunately every day or two you will come across a Chaikarna. A little oasis in the desert. Here you can get water. They are tea houses but really they are vodka houses. At the end of the day the Russian truckers stop here. Park their trucks outside and get on the vodka inside. Once I had satisfied my thirst for water I would join in. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak any Russian. You only need to know one word. Cheers! (zda-ró-vye)

In between all the desert Uzbekistan contains some of Central Asia’s best sights. Including the famous Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand where it’s easy to gaze upwards in awe at tiled mosques and pack your panniers with souvenirs from the bustling bazaars. Bukhara is over 2000 years old. The ancient Persian city served as a major center of Islamic culture for many centuries. A great place to feel the flavour of the ancient Orient world as well as authentic Uzbeki life. Samarkand is more of a modern day Uzbekistan but the old city remains well preserved. A must see for anyone visiting Central Asia. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001.

Cycling Uzbekistan Old town Bukhara

Old town Bukhara

The IMF needs to pay this country a visit. The highest denomination of note is 1000 Uzbeki som. This is about 20p. When I changed 300 US Dollars at the border I was given 760 notes! My wallet became useless. I had to use a carrier bag instead. I felt pretty money initially but when I had to hand over 20 notes to buy a pack of biscuits I realised I wasn't. ATM's generally do not work. You don't want to use them anyway. Everyone changes money on the black market for a better rate. So bring plenty of dollars with you. You can change money at hotels. Better than the official rate but not as good as the black market. Best places to change money on the black market rate are outside the bazaars.

crazy exchange rate at Uzbekistan border

About $200!

The best cycling for me in Uzbekistan was the road from Qarshi to the border town of Denau. Dusty, rugged mountain landscapes. A real wild west feel but with donkeys instead of horses. The Kamchik Pass in the Qurama Mountainsis is a stunning mountain road. It will give you your first taste of things to come heading towards the Pamir Highway. The people everywhere in Uzbekistan are very welcoming and hospitable. Every day I would be invited into a local home for tea and biscuits. As always cycling is a great way to connect with people and see the way of life at the same pace as the locals. None more so than in Uzbekistan. If you can get your head around the rules and regulations it is a fascinating place to travel.

Cycling the Kamchik Pass Uzbekistan

Kamchik Pass, Qurama Mountains

Roads:

The big roads connecting the country are in a reasonable state, with some bumpy exceptions. Close to the Tajikistan border in the South there are some sandy dirt roads but fine to cycle. Expect all sorts away from the main roads.

Wild camping:

Incredibly easy but can cause issues with lack of registration slips. Very unlikely to find camping gas anywhere in the country. Expect long gaps between petrol stations. Often need to stock up with water especially in the West.

Visa's:

Getting a visa for Uzbekistan isn’t difficult, although you may need to fork out for a costly letter of invitation. Either from your home embassy or a travel agent. 30 days is the maximum you can get which is just enough for crossing the country by bicycle. Visa can take up to a week to process. It will generally mean hanging around somewhere for a few days. I got mine without hassle in Baku and it cost me $70. It is difficult to extend your visa in Uzbekistan. You would have to leave and get another. Things of course may change. There was talk in 2017 of Uzbekistan relaxing the visa and hotel registration rules. Whether they ever do is another matter.

Border Crossings:

Complicated. Uzbekistan has land border crossings with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. You’ll have a different experience at each border crossing, so it pays to do a bit of research beforehand. Caravanistan is a great resource for all things Central Asia.

You’ll need to declare how much money you’re bringing into the country at the border. You’ll fill out an immigration form with the amount on it—don’t lose it! You need to show it when exiting the country. You must leave with less money than you entered with. That’s why you need to save the immigration form. If you’re exiting with more money than you came in with, it’ll look like you went into the country to work, and that will not bode well with officials.

Expect a thorough bag search when entering the country. Officials might check your mobile phone and/or computer when entering and exiting the country. They’re looking for anything suspicious. From religious material to commentary on the government although they are probably just looking for porn.

When to Go:

September – October is generally considered the best time to visit. The summer heat is gone, and harvest season is in full swing, which means plenty of delicious fruits and veg can be found all over the country.

Wind:

With long distances between towns and the exposed nature of the landscape wind direction can be very important. There doesn't seem to be a prevailing wind in Uzbekistan but before setting off across the desert check the forecast. A 200km stretch without water will take just a day and a half with wind. It could take 4 days into the wind. This is very important when working how much water you need to carry. Worth considering waiting for the wind to change if the forecast is not in your favour. Ventusky is an excellent site for wind forecasts.

Current wind direction/speed for the cycle from the Uzbekistan border to Nukus

Bicycle Shops:

Nothing outside of the main cities. Your best bet is near the Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent. Caravanistan is a good source for bicycle shops in Central Asia.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.