As with many of the settlements through which we’ve passed, Nukus was another sprawling affair with lots of wasted space between the mostly single story buildings. All this creating a very spread out town, with any trip requiring a ride in one of the many buses that are whizzing around. Bus! – actually a Beford Rascal Van. After looking in the guide book, we found that there was one main attraction in town and that it was actually around the corner from the hotel! After a 14 hour sleep we waited for the worst of the blazing heat to pass before heading over to the Savitsky Art Museum. It holds a collection of avant-garde Russian paintings that were deemed unfit by the Soviet Regime, and were rescued from destruction by Ivor Savitsky. Reviews rave about how inspiring and amazing this place is – maybe we were in the wrong frame of mind, it was OK, but like many things, not what you’d put up with in Europe – we rushed round before heading back to our air conditioned hotel!
With another desert section to cross before we could reach Samarkand, we decided to continue with our railway adventures and take the twice weekly train that was due to leave at 11am the following day. After a trip to the Bazzar to change some money (on the black market again), we jumped in the #54 Bedford Rascal bus and headed to the railway station to buy the tickets. Actually, they are not Bedford Rascals – Daewoo/GM now build them by their thousands in an Uzbek factory and sell them as the Damas, typically as a 7-seater!!
Once we had gone through the routine police and passport checks which you have to do to even enter the station, we found that Uzbekistanis clearly do not have any sense of personal space or how to stand in a queue! There were three ticket windows, each with a mass of people all crowding around and standing so close to each other that you could feel the next persons sweat on your own skin. With queue jumping a national a sport, it took the two of us standing our ground to get anywhere. Eventually we got to a window, handed over the required one-hundred-and-six paper notes! (about 26quid) and got our two tickets. With our mission completed we quickly returned to the safety of our air conditioned hotel room, and crashed out again!
We were looking forward to arriving at our destination during daylight and were aware that a new ‘fast’ line had been built on that route. The hotel had said the train took about 5hrs and that matched the arrival time of 3.45 on our ticket. However, as 3.45pm approached we were still in the middle of nowhere with only sand dunes to be seen. As the bedding got handed out we realised that we would be arriving in Samarkand at 03.45am and in the dark once again! After a rather restless night, constantly waking up thinking ‘have we missed our stop?’, we got off the train at 04:15hrs. As there was not much choice in the only open shop, we had a breakfast of ice-creams and chocolate, then put all the lights on the bikes and set of towards Samarkand’s city centre.
There are advantages to being up early, the roads are quite, the temperature is bearable, and tourist attractions empty of tourists! As the sun began to poke its head up above city’s low rise skyline we cycled past the most magnificent Registran, one of Samarkand’s major landmarks, but like many old things in this part of the world – it is very over-restored to the point of appearing ‘fake’. We were cycling around trying to work out how best to photograph such a large but intricately decorated building in the morning light, when one of the guards/police whistled us over. It turned out that if we graced his hand with a small ‘donation’, he would let us go up one of the towers to get the best view and full advantage of the rising sun. After a bit of negotiation about the size of said donation, we were shown the door to a dark, narrow stone spiral staircase. There was just enough room at the top of the tower for the two of us to squeeze our heads out and be amazed as the millions of coloured tiles glinting in the waking sun!
With sight-seeing over for the day, we found our accommodation and arrived in time for breakfast! The guesthouse, run by a very helpful family, was set around a lush green bohemian courtyard. Once again we found that we were not the only cycle tourists in town and met a New-Zealand Couple, an Ozzy and a Lithuanian. Their general direction of travel was east to west so it was good to hear of their experiences and see photos, giving us ideas for the adventure to come! It was still ridiculously hot so we stayed in the shaded courtyard for the next 3 days, only popping out for water, lemonade and the odd ice-cream. Although there was no A/C we did have a fan in the room which made sleeping possible! It was ‘reassuring’ to know that the majority of people we met had had sickness on this stage of the trip. When we had both recovered sufficiently from our stomach bug, we took a quick tour round the rest of the sights and then jumped on a train to Tashkent in search of better health and hopefully a Chinese visa!