After the long ride into Bukhara, Andrei, myself and the other 4 Russian bikers from Samara meet up for a late hotel breakfast before heading into downtown Bukhara by Taxi. The plan was to spend most of the day seeing the sights. Like Khiva the previous day, Bukhara had its heyday when the Moslem world was at its peak. It was the only conquered city that Genghis Khan bothered entering after capturing it, such was its fabled beauty. (Usually he just allowed his troops to pillage and plunder the enemy city). But enter Bukhara he did and was said to be struck with awe upon seeing the Kalyan Minaret. It still stands today and the square in which is stands is a stunning sight. We decided that despite motorcycles (nor any other vehicles) not being allowed into the square, we had to chance it, come back with the bikes and try to shoot off a couple of shots before we got chased out of the square.
It was after 5pm when we finally had done our sightseeing, returned to the hotel, showered and continued our ride south east. I had been heading south-east since Atyrau, over a week ago. We only got 200 km done before it was getting dark with threatening rain, thunder and lightning. Rather than get soaking wet in the dark, we decided to pull into a chaikhana, get some food and a room for the night. The room was free, we just paid for the food (mostly shashlik), but as usual, there was no running water. 6 of us and a lot of riding gear slept on the floor of that dusty room!
We all woke early on the morning of the 5th May, packed up the gear and were moving by 7:30 am. I had hit the end of the long ride south east. From our overnight camp, we were going to be heading north east, through Shakhrisabz, Samarkand and Tashkent. As we approached Shakhrisabz there was something else I hadnt seen for a long time … mountains. Since leaving Elbrus weeks ago I had been riding across flat plains, endlessly, broken only by the short descent down the cliffs that market the end of the Ustyurt Plateau. Here between Samarkand and Shakhrisabz was the far western end of the Tien Shan.
We stopped in Shakhrisabz to visit an old Mosque from the 13th century which has a tomb which purports to house (or previously housed) the body of Tamerlane. (see photos section) Samarkand also purports to hold his body so not sure which is which. More research needed. Tamerlane (Amir Temur) was an central asian warlord who falsely claimed descent from Genghis in order to legitimise his claims to greatness. As powerful he became in his realm, he never amassed enough power to threaten Europe or China the way other steppe warlords like Genghis or Attilla did. Accordingly, he really doesnt add up to a hill of beans in my book! But the Uzbeks think he was pretty cool, probably since he was one of them.
Andrei and I left the others in Shakrisabz and headed into the hills. Here poppies grew wild beside the highway and in the fields… it was a subtle reminder that we were less than 2 hours away from Northern Afghanistan – the worlds biggest source of poppies. We had to cross a pass up at 1660 metres to get to Samarkand. On the way we passed a number of nice looking chaikhanas. Since we hadnt had breakfast, we decided to stop off for some food and some tea. We found a great place halfway up the mountain, ordered some shashlik for breakfast, and waited for the others. By the time the others arrived, we were sprawled out in the sun and fresh mountain air, eating the best shashlik of the trip, and drinking tea while a waterfall behind us provided the background music. It was about as idyllic as it gets.
After brunch, we crossed the pass, and headed to Urgut. It was a town Max (the central asian guru) had recomended to us, but Max was no longer with us, and we were unable to raise him by telephone. So we headed to Urgut with no idea what Max wanted us to see there. We took a side road up to 1300 metres high up in the mountains above Urgut, but didnt see anything out of the ordinary so left to head back down the mountain and on to Samarkand. I did notice that in this region there are a lot of non Uzbek looking faces. I assumed they were Tajiks and this was confirmed in Samarkand, a city with a large Tajik population. Pretty much all the nationalities I have run into since the North Caucasus (with the exception of the Russians of course) have been Turkic or Mongolic or a mixture of these two main bloodlines that have dominated central asia since history began recording such things. But the Tajiks are different. They are not Turko-Mongolic but are closely related to the Afghans and look less oriental as a consequence.
A brief diversion again … a common error is comfuse Turkic with Turkish. Turkish refers to people from Turkey. Turkic refers to a bunch of related peoples that stretches from Yakutsk region in the North and east to Turkey in the west. Turkic peoples are believed to originate in western Mongolia, and in the Altai region of Russia. Todays “Turkish” people are the just the western turkic peoples who took over Asia minor, and interbred with the middle eastern and european peoples living there, thus taking on their less Asiatic appearance. But the Turkic homeland is right next door to the Mongol homeland.
Samarkand is one of those places that looks great in the photos but Max had warned me not to expect too much. The sights are not located together and there is no “old city” such as there is in Bukhara and Khiva. I made my mind up that I was just going to see the world famous “Registan” and hit the road to Tashkent. Max had a number of biking buddies in Tashkent and I had more luggage rack problems. The location of the problems in the luggage rack makes it crystal clear to me they came from the lifting of the bike by the luggage rack. The side bags themselves have been no problem at all since Zhenya the Kalmyk Biker sorted them out properly in Elista over a week ago, but now both sides of the rack have broken, in the same sort of place, just days apart. Considering one side bag is twice as heavy as the other, (the bag that goes on the fuel tank side is packed lighter) it clearly isnt from the bags. In any case, I would try and fix the rack properly in Tashkent.
We found the Registan easily enough, but our attempts to gain entry by dodgy means were foiled by a sharp eyed Uzbek Babushka. Time was running short in any case, and Andrei and I just thought “stuff it”, and hit the road out of Samarkand, north east to Tashkent, arriving on the outskirts of Tashkent just before dusk. We grabbed a kilogram of freshly picked strawberries from some old uzbek ladies selling them at the side of the road, then telephoned Zhenya, our biking contact in Tashkent (courtesy of Max) and waited for him to come and lead us thru the streets of Tashkent. Zhenya had a big garage at his place where we could store the 5 extra bikes and had arranged an apartment for us 5 minutes away.
We caught up with Max at Zhenya’s. Max had arrived 24 hours earlier and had managed to find a metal worker to manufacture an all new rear sprocket which he fitted while we queued to jam the 5 bikes (plus Max’s, plus Zhenya’s 2 bikes) into Zhenya’s garage before taxiing back to the apartment Zhenya had teed up.
Russia and the FSU is great like that. If you really need a part (like a sprocket) they can just make one within 24 hours, almost anywhere.