2009/07/25 Alat 80 km
Travelling by bike leaves us vulnerable to the whims of the road. Sometimes the road throws us punches, but it also sends its share of joyful surprises. The latter sometimes follow sharply on the heels of the former, as on our last day in Uzbekistan. We set out from Bukhara shortly after 4:00 a.m., and pedalled uneventfully to Alat by about 9:00 a.m.. Alat is the last town before the Turkmen border, and positioned us 20 km short of it so that, starting at dawn, we could easily arrive there for 7:00 a.m. opening time. We’d also been assured it had a gastinitska. Arriving at the establishment, and once we found someone other than the fellow shuffling through the lobby clutching his vodka bottle, we inquired about rooms. The response was clear: “We cannot deal with foreigners. You cannot stay here. Go back to Bukhara.”
Back to Bukhara? 80 km into the wind in scorching heat? No thank you, we thought. We could always camp in the desert when it became cooler at night, but it was only 9:00 a.m.. We just needed a shady place to nap during the day, so we headed to a treed park in the town centre. We were looking for a quiet place to spend the day and possibly the night. Entering the park, we noticed beggar children and wondered how much peace we’d get before they found us. We had several hours napping and reading under a shady pavillion before they inevitably did. “Denge!” “Canfit” -money – candy – demanded three little girls, but neither of us can understand any Russian and we become very unresponsive in these situations, of which there have thankfully been remarkably few.
The girls scattered as three teenaged boys appeared on their bikes. The lads inspected our bikes with interest, asked about our trip, and seemed generally concerned that we were considering spending the night in the park. (They warned us that it would become a venue for various shady businesses once dark fell.) Mansur was the blonde one, a very Russian-looking 15 year-old. He could have been a younger Chris with that colouring, but he was tanned and freckled from growing up on the edge of a desert, instead of the pasty British version of a teenager that Chris had been. Mansur made a call on his cell phone, and then invited us to his house. We accepted his invitation.
Arriving at Mansur’s, we were warmly greeted by his grandmother, 61 year old Sofia, who offered showers and made us tea and snacks. We were then ushered to a room in the house for a nap. When we emerged, it became clear that various neighbours would be coming for dinner and a big dish of plov – Uzbek national rice dish – was being prepared. Neighbours sat and chatted as carrots were thinly sliced, and the fire was lit under the heavy iron plov dish. We became honoured guests as food and people flowed, and as Farit, Mansur’s 74 year old grandfather, opened two types of his home brew.
We slept on the eating platform in the garden.
2009/07/26: Turkmen border 20 km.
The whole family got up to see us off at 4:00 a.m.. Sofia provisioned us with Tatar meat fritters for a breakfast on the road, filled our water bottles with tea, and tucked a jar of her currant jam into our bags. We were escorted out of town and halfway to the border by Mansur and two of his friends on their bikes.
What an amazing send-off from Uzbekistan! The hospitality here can be almost overwhelming, but we’ve learned to cherish it, and will always remember it.