As we left Tajikistan, the hopeful plan of getting to Bukhara in 20 days had already slipped away. Now we were trying to get as far as we could before we had a short planned-break. Our first stop was Bekobod, Pittsburgh of Uzbekistan. We arrived on a cold rainy day, having not seen the sun for a couple days of walking. Having found the cheap hotel on the far side of town, we decided the next morning to take a rest day due to the snow coating the world outside our window and the bad forecast for the next few days. Paul and I had a fun evening at one of the local bars, the town seemed to be comprised of bars and steel factories. A bar here is a bare room of tables and a counter with the one beer tap, possibly also selling sunflower seeds, salty cheese, and cigarettes. Naturally, we made some local friends who were steel workers. They talked us into joining them at a club, which was a large room blasting music for us and the three other patrons, who sat at a table unable to have a conversation over the music. The highlight was Paul trying to converse in sign language to a deaf steel worker.
When we continued on from there, the fall weather gave us its worst, switching between rain and snow throughout the days with no sun to warm the bones or dry the layers. This set the tone for one of our oddest days. As we walked along the border, we could feel the collapse of the Soviet Union. We walked through what looked like 1950s ghost towns, crossed over a dam that seemed in total neglect. Passed along military compound after military compound, until we reached a stereotypical soviet city with its large block-housing and its sport center with far fewer people than it was built for. This sits very different to Uzbek construction style of small homes, each with an inner courtyard. We continued through the backside of a huge power plant and followed guard towers along the way. Then arrived on the border line where we were met by two soldiers.
They made it clear we weren’t to pass. They didn’t speak Russian, and without being able to have a discussion, we turned around. We lingered 100-feet away as we tried to figure out our other options, it was a day detour to get around this spot, after which we would still be walking along the border or we could try to push our luck with the soldiers. After all, the vehicles were passing by without being stopped. While contemplating our next move, one of soldiers got off the radio and motioned us to carry on through the check point. This wouldn't be the last time lingering worked out for us, either. The next several kilometers were alongside the trench, patrolled by soldiers from Uzbekistan. It was at least another kilometer before anyone asked for our papers for the first time that day, and they only half glanced at them. It seemed that they wanted to talk to us more for entertainment than security purposes.
Next, we arrived in a former border town that had clearly been ravaged by war. Presumably by border disputes when the Soviet Union fell. It was the first time I had walked through a community that had gone through war and not been rebuilt. Buildings were crumbling as people lived in the remains of the best ones. Massive estate homes were abandoned, untouched craters and demolished buildings lay in pieces all around. Multiple areas looked as if they were flattened to create clear sight lines to the military border positions. It was a somber and sobering area to walk through. Even now I find it crazy to think of the local consequences for the people living in this area. When, for the first time their neighbors became a foreign country, and the whole area tore itself apart. The late muddy fall contributed to the somber atmosphere we felt. We continued to interact regularly with police along the border and were even invited in one night by them to stay out of the cold muddy wetness.
As we traveled to Jizzakh, it became clear that in Uzbekistan we would only be camping if we wanted to. Wet and cold each day, we sought out restaurants with the hope to spend the night there. After immediately being invited to sleep in restaurants the first couple times, we began to request it. One time they said no because they told us the restaurant would be cold. We told them we would sleep outside if we weren't allowed to sleep here and they immediately gave us a room in the back. Usually we try to sleep where people aren't so we can rest better. That week we were grateful to be able to stay indoors to escape the elements. At its best, the ground was frozen mud with snow or rain coming down on it throughout the days.
We carried on at a brisk pace all the way into Jizzakh. There we realized we would not be making it past Samarkand before our break and decided it was time to pump the breaks. Pat’s knee had been acting up, so we decided to do a cool down section of 20-Km days to Samarkand. After another night of hospitality, Paul decided to continue to Samarkand at a fast pace rather than travel there slowly. With only one day above 20 Km and warmer weather, Pat’s knee recovered and I got a needed opportunity to catch up on writing. When we arrived in Samarkand we spent a day together before Paul left for Bishkek, wanting to get there by flight rather than taking the minimum 14-hours of bus ride across two borders. He planned to spend time with friends there before Vivian arrived to visit him. Pat and I spent the next couple days filming and enjoying Samarkand. This is my favorite way to experience destinations along the route. To simply live there for four or five days. Having the Registan be part of everyday life, I got to soak it up more and more with each time I passed by.
Samarkand was once the capital of the Timurid Empire. It has been an important Silk Road trade city since the beginning of the cross-continental trade route and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of Central Asia. It was captured by both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, visited by Marco Polo, and at one time was the scholarly center for Islam especially in the fields of astronomy and mathematics. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site listed as Crossroads of Cultures. Today the old city is dotted with some of the oldest and best preserved Islamic Architecture in the world. It is hard not to be in constant awe while being there and people make the journey all the way to Uzbekistan just to see it.
Pat and I (Timb) spent time in Tashkent which was brief and productive before the break. I was on a motivational high brought on by the distance we had just walked and wanted to leave for our break with a completed to do list. Then with a sense of accomplishment, we went our separate ways for two weeks. Pat to China, Paul to Bishkek, and me to my cousin’s wedding in Sicily (the reason for the break). We hoped to rejuvenate and be ready to hit the ground running (well, walking) when we returned.
When we returned, we regrouped and tackled some chores in Tashkent, including dental work for Pat. Then returned to Samarkand with plans for an immediate start, albeit going slow and steady. With this in mind, we resumed walking on Christmas day. Throughout the trip we have not been great about celebrating and this continued as another holiday season passed unceremoniously. The landscape throughout this entire section was unremarkable and passed as a blur of gray sky and tiled fields. Mud was the dominant feature of the landscape.
We carried on at this slow pace to Kattakorgan where, after only half a day of walking, we stopped to register at a hotel. Registration has been a constant struggle for us in Uzbekistan. We are suppose to register every third day. The only practical way to do this is at a hotel, which won’t be an option soon. For months now we had been trying to work out our system for registering while camping. On our way to Kattakorgan another attempt ended in failure, resulting in a gap in our registration. This time the gap is small, but if we don’t have a working system during our next section the gap may be a week or two. Hopefully a hostel in Tashkent will be registering us. Unfortunately it seems we will have to pay to be registered every night with this system rather than every third day. All this is to avoid what we're calling 'the border lottery'. You win the border lottery by having nothing occur and being allowed to pass. You lose by becoming one of the tourist horror stories. The only time registration is checked is when you leave the country, if you have a gap in your registration then they have the legal standing to hit you with a big fine for each day you failed to register. The rumors are that they often target young tourists who seem to have been biking or hiking. The most recent horror story we heard was from a friend of a friend who got detained at the airport and told to pay 1000 Euro fine for missed registration. He eventually got out of paying the fine but only after having missed his flight. We have been camping (or staying in restaurants) the majority of our nights in Uzbekistan, and doing border runs every month. This has caused a constant low-level of stress throughout the entire time. Already we have crossed the border four times, and for all our paranoia our registration has only been checked twice. Both times we had gaps and only once were Paul and Pat questioned about it, their answer of camping was plenty to satisfy the guards then. Hopefully we can maintain this streak and if we can’t, hopefully we have enough time left on our visa to linger at the border until they let us go, fingers crossed. We ended up staying in Kattakorgan for a couple days while Paul came down with a rare bout of illness. Finally, leaving on New Year's Eve, we celebrated just how we had for Christmas, by putting kilometers behind us.
We spent the evening gathered in a building under construction that would serve as our home for the night. The original system of always trying to remain in sight of each other faded away as we left the mountains. One of the largest stresses lately has been trying to accommodate each other's needs and still walk a real distance each day. Paul would like to start early because he prefers to walk during the day time. He also walks way faster now than earlier in the trip and has to intentionally slow himself down to walk with Pat and I. Pat wants to not use an alarm and to take each day without a plan. I am down to start at any time, but want to sleep as much as I can, so I need a start time or I will naturally sleep till 11 am. When our goals for the day were shorter distances, this was fine because we either would walk at night or only do 20 to 25 Km. Now we want to be rolling into a 30 Km a day schedule and it won’t work without something changing. This caused tension to rise among us as we struggle to find a way that we would be able to accomplish our goal of maintaining a 30 Km a day pace to the Caspian Sea. So for the first week of 2020 we decided to try something different and parallel each other. This challenge might have been heightened by the suddenness of being back together again following our short break. The lack of freedom in traveling together constantly felt like a burden. Maybe we were just avoiding facing our current interpersonal challenge but the idea of space for a week felt really exciting to me.
The 1st of the year we split before I even awoke (at 11 Am) to each walk alone for the week.
We were registered till the 7th, after our first successful attempt at camping registration, we each had till then to arrive in Bukhara. The new year is a large holiday here, despite the fact that the Turkic new year is on March 21st. Everywhere was closed but Pat and I (Timb) were both brought in for lunch.
To say hospitality is an aspect of Uzbek culture is an under statement, it appears to be a pillar. I even know the Uzbek word for hospitality, which I have never learned in a language besides English. Mehmondost is the word guest (Mehmon) and friend (dost) combined. We receive hospitality so much in this country that it normalized, and we often forget to take the time to talk about it. So I want to take a quick moment to list all the hospitality we received from Bekobad to Bukhara, here goes: taken into sleep in three restaurants for the night, taken into homes to sleep two nights, eight meals, Timb’s lost then found gloves, cake, many liters of water to carry, four pairs of socks, vodka twice, beers twice, two bags of nuts, an apple, a sausage, candies twice, cake candles and decorations, two instances of small bills for tea, and hot water. That is what was accepted. Most of the offers we turn down, in addition we have received daily and countless offers of rides, tea, meals, places to sleep, help if needed, and to be guests. Ever since my first time in Uzbekistan, what has struck me most about this place is the generosity of the people, and everyday we are reminded of this.
Having split up, I decided to take the opportunity of walking alone to try something I had dreamt of doing since we walked our first marathon. I (Timb) decided I was going to attempt a 100 Km day. It was the hardest thing I had done in a long time and left me more exhausted than I had felt in years. I definitely wasn't in good enough shape to be doing it and it took me 28 hours before I finished. I spent the next two days recovering in Qiziltepa, before continuing to Bukhara. Both Paul and Pat ended up staying in Qiziltepa during those three nights at the hotel as well. It was fun to hang out after having been on our own and I was reminded how much more I enjoy their company when it is balanced with time alone. The challenge is making space for time alone during a lifestyle in which we are on expedition, and therefore together. It was rainy and wet throughout this time. The worst day of it, all three of us stayed where we were. Paul and I at the hotel and Pat took a full camping rest day, grateful to not have to leave the warm sanctuary of his tent for the day.
When I got back on the road, everywhere was mud. Mud is up there for my least favorite environments, along with heat and biting bugs. Noticing that no spot looked clear of it for sleeping, I decided I would just walk until I could sleep out of the mud either because it froze or I reached a hotel. It ended up being just over a marathon when I arrived at a hotel just outside the city of Bukhara. No one was there and after a couple attempts at calling the various hotels clustered there I finally got a hold of someone and got a dorm room to myself for 30,000 Som or 3 USD. I counted myself lucky again as I had begun to worry I would have to choose between sleeping in the mud or walking 65 Km all the way to Bukhara. I awoke the next day to a text from Pat that he had arrived. Having not been able to sleep, he started walking to Bukhara at 3 Am and arrived just in time for samsa breakfast. I was relieved to have a couple days to simply be in Bukhara as my body felt the wear of those two long days.
Bukhara is another great Silk Road city that has existed for as long as the Silk Road, dating back to the 6th century BCE. It's location in the center of the Silk Road made it an important trade hub that became a center for culture and scholarship. The historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its plethora of well-preserved architecture. It is also still filled with life and activity. The bazaars still operate throughout the old town selling local products: knives, chopans (Central Asian robe worn in the winter), carved wood, ceramics, and of course hats. Uzbekistan is home to many traditional artisans and you can see masters creating Damascus steel knives in their traditional forges as you walk down the narrow streets. It is hard for me to say if I enjoy Bukhara or Samarkand more, and I definitely recommend anyone who has the opportunity to visit both of these cities that have become icons of the Silk Road.
When I reflect on this last section of our walk, the feel is of the tail end of a large transition for us. We struggled to make progress through Kyrgyzstan, had Marta and Kit join in the Fergana Valley, and then began to walk at a faster pace than we had all trip. We also began to sustain our pace for what feels like the first time since the beginning. Reaching the midway point in this manner is a big deal mentally. We have one large desert leg ahead of us before we are on the home stretch. With our renewed speed and determination, the end now feels in-sight. If we keep this up for seven more months we will be finished. That sounds like a long time, but it took us 8 months of working and 18 months of walking to get here.