Silk road cities
As suggested in the previous blog “Desert warfare”, crossing the Karakalpakstan desert produced some particularly challenging moments for me. In fact, for most of the early weeks in Uzbekistan I was experiencing an emotional ebb. Physically tiredness compounded a mental state fatigued by several weeks of solitary self dependence. Each day I would wake up feeling slightly more battered and slightly less motivated to continue. I didn’t hate the journey, but I wasn’t enjoying it.
Hindsight has allowed me to identify some of the reasons for my emotional ebb. Humans are creatures of habit. In Kazakhstan I spent several days cycling with a friend and my habits changed. With a friend you naturally seek the company of others less. In Uzbekistan my friend and I parted ways but my new habits and I did not. For some weeks I uncharacteristically avoided company. I cycled alone and avoided populated areas for mealtimes and during the night. The voluntary solitude didn’t feel like a conscious decision, it was just a groove I got into.
I am not suited to solitude. My favourite memories are almost exclusively shared with other people. Meeting a new friend or being welcomed into a family for an evening goes a good way towards assuaging the current absence of my own family and friends. Each new companionship re-invigorates me and affirms my warmest beliefs about human nature. By avoiding others I withheld experiences from myself which I have come to realise are integral for my happiness and mental stability.
In the Silk Road city of Bukhara I experienced a motivational rebirth.
I was unlucky enough to get a touch of food poisoning on my first evening and remained bed bound for two days. The phrase “the night is darkest just before the dawn” was particularly pertinent. Although struck by illness, I had some wonderful encounters in Bukhara which kicked me back into gear.
On my first evening I was lost in search of my hosts house. A young man and his son noticed and approached me. Bobir, or Bob, was a Bukhara local who had spent six years living and working in Croydon, only a few miles from my home turf. That evening we met to watch the Liverpool match and drink a beer (which he said he knew was integral to the enjoyment of football for an Englishman). Afterwards he treated me to traditional Uzbek dinner of Saslik (gargantuan lamb kebabs which incidentally gave me the food poisoning, but of this Bob was of course blameless) and the evening concluded with a walking tour of the old town.
My next four nights in Bukhara were shared with a local family. Rakhima, head of the family, is a seasoned traveller, a mother of two, works full time and is a long term host on warmshowers and couchsurfing, making the effort to regularly host passing travellers. A food poisoned patient is not a desirable tennant, but their warmth, company and optimism was inspiring.
I left Bukhara feeling completely re-invigorated for the experiences ahead. I was rested, I had re-discovered the pleasures of company and Samarkand, the finish line of my 1200 kilometer odyssey from Kazakhstan, was a tantalising two days away.
My string of outstanding encounters continued daily from then on and I must be selective in my descriptions.
Several days later I pedalled out of Samarkand in the evening the town of Taylak. Peering down a dirt track I spied an unusual splash of rich grass and followed, hoping for a comfortable camping spot. What I discovered was an enormous dusty football pitch, invisible from the road by a partition of buildings, and surrounded by gated villas.
A group of fifteen or so young boys who had were smashing a ball about spotted me and swarmed. Thankfully I was soon rescued from the tumult by a young man. Sharaf was shorter than me with a round face, a kind but cheeky smile and wide wrestling shoulders. Using google translate I asked whether I could camp beside the football pitch. At this request he looked indignant and bade me follow
him to a gate on the opposite side of the arena.
Here I was welcomed by his cousin Begzot, who spoke perfect English and invited me to eat and have sleep with his family. I hadn’t realised at the moment of my acquiescence that these luxuries were to be earned. We three trooped back outside and teams were picked for the evening fixture. Historically, I am good at football and magnanimously told myself I would go easy on these kids. I needn’t have bothered. Their fitness, speed and skill was infinitely superior, and I was run ragged well into the night. My first contribution was a disastrously missed penalty, smashed well wide of the young gentleman standing in as the left goal post. I redeemed myself with a goal minutes later, although the satisfaction of hammering the ball past the keepers outstretched arms was tempered by the height of the goalkeeper, which barely exceeded my waistline.
After a breakfast of fried eggs and cake the following morning I was sent packing for my final kilometres towards Tajikistan.
It is generally good practice to try to understand the bases of your emotions. When situations are changeable and evolving it is even more important, as you must differentiate the causes of daily emotional fluctuations with more significant underlying factors. Travelling still feels new to me and the last few weeks prove I have not yet reached a perfect equilibrium.
In Uzbekistan I better understood one factor which critically influences my emotional state. The effect of human kindness is tangible and I leave Uzbekistan with body and mind invigorated for the challenges to come.