With passports in hand we were now free to leave Tashkent, and after 30kms we finally left the suburbs to start heading out into the green countryside. By the end of the day and a total of 93km, it became apparent that our month off the bikes and bouts of sickness had taken its toll on our strength and fitness. We found a camping spot by an irrigation stream, rehydrated some instant noodles, added some cooked vegies, dined and fell into our tent absolutely exhausted! Things weren’t much better the next day, when we only managed to complete 59km. There was a slight gradient so our lunch stop turned into a three hour snooze! After passing through more police checkpoints we eventually found a track off the main road down to a river and pitched the tent nicely out of sight. It had been a hot and sweaty day so it was great to jump in the cold river and have a wash! Later that evening we were very surprised when first a lorry, then an excavator came down the track, forded the (deep) river and stated work by moonlight! We assumed it was illegal activity but in the morning even more trucks went across and more digging started – mostly by hand!
Our energy levels the next day were still low, it was still hot and we had a 1300m climb to make the top of the pass. (For reference back home, the summit of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, is 1344m) The road surface was concrete, but in very poor condition and with it being the main (only) route across Uzbekistan, the traffic was busier than we would have liked. Fortunately, the cars and lorries were having as much trouble with the 10% gradient as us, keeping the traffic speed low. Every couple of kilometres there were market stalls selling cold water; we stopped at every single one and watched the refilling of overheated car radiators. The sweet smell of coolant all the way up the mountain reminded us of our trusty old Peugeot, which is now in car heaven, RIP 306. After another extended snooze at lunch, we had still got the majority of the climb to go, and with not a lot of hours of daylight left, it didn’t seem realistic that we could reach the top. However, with fading light, perseverance and encouraging shouts from passing cars we made it to the ‘old road’ that would avoid the two ‘new’ tunnels at the top. So we finished the day with some peaceful riding, looking down on the busy road below. This was cut short when we came across a couple of army snipers, we presented our passports and they radioed base, eventually they allowed us to continue We finally made the top of the pass just as the sun was setting, and set our highest camp yet at 2267m.
As a reward for our previous days climbing, the downhill on the other side was less steep so lasted for the majority of the 100km to Kokand – we averaged 35km/h – weeeeeeeeee! We took a couple of breaks for cey, but had our money refused every time – such generosity! Checking the map we identified another potential camp spot by a river, so headed out of town only to find that the area was actually one of the most heavily populated area of Uzbekistan. With nowhere suitable to camp, and wondering what to do, we spotted a nearby cafe with a garden behind, so went in and order 2 drinks hoping we could ask to camp there later. Imagine our surprise when they only served beer – it was actually a pub – result! Unfortunately it closed at 18:00hrs and we got kicked out! We had started looking again for somewhere to sleep when some villagers came over and told us to camp on the local football pitch (along with the grazing cattle), so we followed them down a dirt track, through the village and to the playing field. By now we had attracted quite a large group of people – who proceeded to sit down on the grass and watch us pitch the tent as though we were aliens from another planet!
There must have been over fifty people staring back at us, we weren’t sure what to do for the best! Eventually Rebecca went off to talk to the ladies and Tim went off and sat on the grass with the men; they instantly got out their camera phones and took it in turns to have their photo taken with the tourists! After a while one of the men dragged Tim off by the arm and showed him the grapes and lemons growing in his nearby garden, then suggest that we should stay with them! One of the ladies brought Rebecca in, so we accepted their kind offer and went back to the football pitch to de-camp and retrieve the bikes. We were treated like royalty at dinner and after an early breakfast (although the men had already gone to work) we were back on our way at a record early hour!
It was a flat and uneventful ride to Marghilan, where we visited the best tourist attraction yet; the Yodgorlik Silk Factory. With an English speaking tour guide we were shown the full silk production process, from boiling and unravelling the silk cocoons, softening, reeling, and colour dying. The factory produced hand and machine woven cloth and carpet. By the end of the day we were exhausted, and in need of a wash! So took the decision to pay for a homestay for the night. Unfortunately as we entered the toilet the first signs weren’t good – a sheep baa-ing – the toilet was another ‘drop’ without a seat or porcelain. Our wash was with bowl and flannel in the central court yard, but it was better than nothing! After yet more Plov (the traditional Uzbek dish of oily rice ) we fell asleep with ceiling fan whirring/squeaking away above our heads!
Whilst riding during the following day we stopped at what we thought was a cafe (it did have a giant teapot out side) but as we where taking photos, we found ourselves being invited inside and taken upstairs into a grand carpeted room with a banquet table laid out. What were we getting into here? It became apparent that this was the home of the local business tycoon, and we where his lunchtime guests!
The camp that night was in a grassy valley, out of sight of the road but we still got spotted by the local fruit pickers and farmers on donkeys. They all came by to see what we were doing, and insisted that we followed them to their houses, (we politely declined!) After more visits in the morning, we were given watermelon and grapes!
When we arrived at the Kyrgyzstan border we cycled past the long queue of waiting lorries and approached the gates to assess the situation. To our surprise the guards waved us inside. We filled out the required customs forms, truthfully at first, but then were told to try again – ‘forgetting’ some items! After putting our bags through the scanner we were very relieved to hear the sound of a heavy stamp being entered into our passports meaning that we were free to pass into the far less restrictive country of Kyrgyzstan, Hooray!