The sweat. Our garments were now sponges more than clothes, preventing puddles beneath our worn out shoes and tired feet. The three of us were the embodiment of rank. The fact that none of us could tell if we stank meant we most probably did.
Mini sand-tornadoes are frequently blowing around and the huge trucks from the quarry nearby leave the air thick with enormous clouds of dust. But there’s a chaihana to save us. Inside is quite a homely relief from the turmoil elsewhere.
It’s family run, and lived. The girls are waitressing and fetching water from the well. The little boys are cutting and peeling vegetables next to the door. Everyone is quite cheery and everyone has a job except the toddler, who wobbles around the heat gurgling. We’re in the sheltered terrace adjoined to the main building, which might be described as “cosy” if the temperature were more acceptable. It has those flower-patterned pillows and long seats that double as beds. The wall to the outside is made of loose bamboo and straw and decorated with colourful fake bouquets. It’s a wonder where they got the bamboo from. A tiny wind is coming through the slats but isn’t nearly enough to make any difference. Ten flies buzz around us; the same as anywhere else. They land on the stale bread and on our arms and faces drinking our sweat. It’s no use swatting them, they always return to a different area of skin, and moving your arms only makes you hotter at a time when you’re already on the brink. That’s something you slowly realise after a fortnight in a desert.
Most of these types have a similar layout and menu but each with its own distinct character. A fridge is usually tucked in a corner packed with water, Coca Cola and ice-cream. The toilet is a single hole in the ground in a hut, and unless you need a number two, it’s safer to just pee on the desert. It should go without saying that there’s no air con even though it’s 45°C. In the sun it’s impossible to cycle now. Actually it’s impossible to just be.
Despite all the negatives, we somehow find comfort in these otherwise terrible places. In any modern city they would go out of business in days. Paradoxically, it’s the horrible location that makes it nice. A faucet here is a luxury; and there isn’t one. This little place is a sanctuary for truckers and others driving the long, sweltering, lifeless roads, and providing a lifeline for this family in such an inhospitable environment. For it is inhospitable. Nothing grows here: I assume the veg is brought from some distant market every now and then. We are sure glad that someone is here to feed us. And I think we are more than happy that it’s none of us.
Now back into irrigated land, there is greenery around to break up the yellow. Farmers toil away, there is more traffic, and there are some shops, though probably not the type you would recognise. Each is like an open garage filled with its own tell-tale stock: this one various pieces of iron, this one floral dresses, this one tyres—only tyres. People trying to look busy. More people trying to sell their goods on the roadside. Melons is a favourite. A typical Uzbek desert town. We found a place to shelter, one of the very few marked on our maps.
It would be—like all other days—our resting place for a few hours from the midday heat, so we always tried to make sure it was a good one. But it was a dark and dingy place. The large, fancy restaurant theme contemplated outside was very misleading. Inside it was mainly empty except for a small room. There were only 4 tables and huge fake-leather sofas. This is apparently it. It felt like it was a nightclub going out of business so they decided to start cooking lunch.
It was theoretically a place we all should have enjoyed. There was electricity so we could recharge our phones. Air conditioning. Faucets. Flushing toilets. There was even sketchy wifi. But the staff played dance music extremely loudly upon our arrival and we couldn’t talk without shouting. The food was equally disappointing. In my journal I wrote “floating meatball surrounded by water.” I don’t normally eat meat but in such places it’s very difficult to do otherwise. (It’s not impossible, but cycling across a desert on only stale bread and tomatoes is exponentially more challenging). Two days later, we were all sick. One of us had diarrhoea for the next 50 days. (Also challenging.)
Cafés in rural Uzbekistan—known locally as ‘chaihanas‘, literally ‘tea-houses’—are a big part of Uzbek culture and the experience of cycling across the country. They are saviours in times of desperate need for water and food in a land so vast and empty. Without them it would be impossible to cross the desert by bicycle.
But choose carefully. Otherwise you might be using the hole in the ground more often than you’d like.