Samarkand became Samar-can’t as I lay bed-ridden with a bout of food poisoning. This did not stop me enjoying this extraordinary place, but it would stop me making any progress over the next few days. Hence I suggested Josh and I split until Dushanbe, allowing him to arrive earlier and get his application for an Indian visa underway.
Setting up camp that night was a tad quieter but the joys of solo travel were not far off: this quiet interrupted the next morning by two farmers rolling small boulders in to a gorge below the hilltop on which I camped. I awoke to them driving past this grassland hill in a red Lada, their car window placed opposite my tent door, and smiling at this anomaly. We chatted while perched on this hillside until another shepherd about my age approached sat on a staggering donkey, face covered in a shawl, the faint sound of tunes echoing from his phone. The broken Russian flowed; sheep meekly stumbling between us; his offer to ride the donkey; grass-covered mountains drop away to a clear sky on the horizon and the sound of my rapidly diminishing tent’s structural stability as it flaps violently in the breeze. All I have to do is gently turn the conversation when I’m asked if one of the shepherds can have my shoes and I have a fully entertaining breakfast.
I have been trying to learn some Russian since I cycled through Czech Republic using audio courses on the iPod, aware that between Turkey and China lies a fairly consistent swathe of Russian-speakers, as we skirt the edge of the former Soviet empire. This has come in particularly useful when determining the eager questions sent your way. “Where are you frommmm?” the most common as the driver of a vehicle almost reaches out of the passenger window as his car speeds on past. Other common questions include “Are you married?” (Or ‘wifed’ in Russian) “Are you alone?” “Why don’t you find something better to do?” “Do you want a lift?” Your response to these repetitive questions and horn beeps can range from encouraging support in the former to an occasional downright loathing of the honker in the latter.
The southern fringe of Uzbekistan has delivered remarkable beauty and further police checkpoints holding the world’s most pointless and unexamined books: a volume recording individual’s names and passport numbers travelling from one state to the next. This remarkable waste of time illustrates the government’s unreasonable obsession with the whereabouts of its inhabitants. Uzbekistanis must apply for an exit visa to leave the country and be assessed at an interview in order to attain this right.
My last night in Uzbekistan, another moment to treasure: as I sat on the roadside munching on some biscuits just prior to the Tajik border two ladies walk past as the sun sets. They are exquisitely dressed in a nature typical of many women I’ve seen, common across Central Asia: long colourful flowery dresses, head shawls and jewellery.
They ask what I am doing and where I will sleep, after some laughter and disbelief we walk to their place of work, a farm depot where I meet a handful of men exhibiting the post-work exuberance that no doubt fills farms depots across the world, made all the more delicious when one returns from the shop carrying a bottle of vodka, “What is the English name?” they ask as I smile with them at their playfulness and obvious relish. We drink it from porcelain bowls with green tea, sat at a precariously resting wooden table under a tree, surrounded by the wheat fields in which they work. They ask of my family and I of theirs, exchanging the few Russian words I know, enough to cover these essentials of life. In a short time their homes and families will call, but for now it’s time for a drink.