One common feature I have seen across the former Soviet Union are the regional welcome signs, displaying the name and, in true Soviet imaginative spirit, a sculpture of the raw material or manufactured commodity the area is ‘renown’ for. These totems of the planned economy have been topped by Georgian grapes, Azerbaijani wheat, and, as we entered the town of Muynak, Uzbekistan, a couple of fish. The latter was an odd and depressing sight as the nearest body of water was about 200km away.
What’s left of Muynak stands simply as a memorial to its former self and to the days of prosperity before the draining of the Aral Sea: the worst man-made environmental disaster in history in the eyes of the UN. The town’s population is less than half of what it used to be in the 1980s. The town’s main employer, the fish canning factory, closed many years ago and the owner allegedly shot himself. Our short time there was spent walking around the rusting fleet of fishing boats that look like they were deliberately placed in a middle of a desert; the only clue to suggest otherwise are the marine shells nestled amongst the slightly toxic sand on which the boats have been laid to rest.
There’s not much else in Muynak, but neither did we find much between the main cities of this country. One hot and dusty wasteland morphed into another hot and sandy wasteland as we passed from the Karakum into the Kyzylkum deserts. As the latter gave way to intensively irrigated fields of cotton, the notoriously thirsty crop farmers are forced by the government to plant and what is responsible for the death of the Aral Sea. But, like there desert, there were few landmarks or significant changes in the scenery to measure any progress; the completely flat horizon remained, albeit with more trees, greenery, and a succession of uninspiring villages. Riding once again was reduced to nothing more than a routine designed to get the distance done while avoiding of the hottest part of the day: 5am starts with a 4 hour session of eating/napping in a restaurant before returning to the saddle for an evening ride.
But between these stretches of tedious nothingness are the three pearls of the Silk Road: Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. Each of these cities display some of the best examples of medieval Islamic architecture: beautiful light brown carved walls are covered in turquoise ceramic tiles that make the buildings’ domes and minarets look as if they are reflecting the cloudless sky. These mosques, madrassas, and mausoleums are some of the grandest religious buildings I have ever seen and it was a joy to spend several days relaxing in each of these cities while I wait for my Tajik visa to begin.
You could say that Uzbekistan has been a country of lopsided contrasts. The time spent in these amazing cities hasn’t entirely compensated for the monotony between them in the countryside. Likewise, the efforts made by the locals to make you always feel welcome is slightly undone by the overbearing and rather annoying government policies: ubiquitous police checkpoints and mandatory registration for foreigners every couple of days, ruling out wild camping for extended periods of time, have soured the overall experience.
The good news, however, is that after 3 long weeks the desert/steppe chapter of this trip is finally coming to an end. My first mountain pass for a long time is scheduled for the first day’s ride out of Samarkand and this marks the beginning ofthe climb to the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan: the ‘roof of the world’.