It was a Saturday. Which had absolutely no significance whatsoever. And it was August, which was significant because everything was pretty damn hot. Though it wasn’t the heat that kept us awake but the wind. None of us had pegged out our tents properly because when we went to sleep the air was still and calm. Then sometime around 3am it began.
In the desert the wind can often surge to a gale without warning. We were camped in a dip and surrounded by ominous dunes, from which all the sand was gleefully finding its way down onto us. Though we were far from disaster, it was a pretty joyless start to the day. Sand in your ears. Sand in your bags. All over your stuff and inside your camera. Sand in your “coffee”. A little beach had formed inside my tent. Actually the whole experience is something similar to the worst day at the beach ever. Except there’s no water. Anywhere. And it’s cloudy. And there’s a storm.
When the sun eventually climbed high enough it announced a murky pale yellow, almost fully obscured by clouds of airborne sand. As a few bursts of lightning flashed nearby, I couldn’t stop looking at Ian’s legs poking out his tent. Not that his legs are particularly appealing, but usually they are doing something by this hour and not motionless. It really wasn’t the type of morning to be lying around with your tent door open. Perhaps he’s dead. I did genuinely think that. Thankfully he wasn’t. But he was sick. Like really sick. He couldn’t continue. Food poisoning he said. Went six times in the night he said. Had to go back.
After a terribly slow morning—a zombie pack-up—we all dragged our bicycles back over sinking sand dunes to the nearby road, stood there, squinting in the wind, spitting sand, as ready for the day as we’ll ever be. Nick and I had to say our goodbyes to Ian as he turned back, heading for the nearest something. We didn’t know when we’d see him again.
There was nothing for it but to carry on. Fortunately the wind was now at our backs, and even though we weren’t feeling particularly strong, we reached quite some distance. Which was good because we were dismally low on food, for every day on the road was wistfully low on shops. We found only once bread in 80km which materialised itself as a flavoured frisbee. It was so stale you couldn’t bite it. Only lick it.
The weather significantly improved and turned into the usual day, full of heat and heat, just with that constant and fierce tailwind. Then came three chaihanas one kilometre after the other, all selling the same thing: fish. Fish in the desert? My stomach was turning. Should we go in? We’d been eating the same food as Ian for the last three weeks, so the outlook wasn’t good. My stomach felt like a bubble factory. But everything had already been decided by some men at a table outside. We were eating fish. Fish and vodka.
We sat and immediately efforts were made to accommodate us and stop napkins blowing off. My stomach obliged me to get out of the vodka. Nick on the other hand began downing the shots along with the men, which were always ceremoniously hailed with a clinking of glasses, cheers of laughter and unintelligible mumbles of another tongue. I admire Nick for his seamless ability to have banter with just about anybody. I tend to find these drunk social interactions rather awkward. Unless I’m wrecked. The apex of the meal was when the loudest, chunkiest man—a steadfast drunk—impulsively grabbed the fish’s head from the middle of the table, inserted all of it into his mouth—it just fit—and bitterly crunched down onto its skull, including the eyes and whatever else, filling the gaps in conversation with crackles of grinding bones. After a long minute the beast spat what was left onto his palms and washed them with tea. Nobody cared. Everything was completely normal.
It was about 2pm now, and Nick was drunk. He gave his last pound coin away, one of those new ones, which I’ve only seen two. He’d cycled with it all the way from England. The man he gave it to was amazed how one coin could equal more than ten grand in his currency. I’ve never seen a coin in Uzbekistan, so worthless they must be.
The next place we happened by also only sold fish and stale bread. We were so done we just sat for half an hour, containing our desires for yet more fish. A Spanish tour group turned up, the only other tourists we’d seen in days, weeks maybe. Their experience of being driven around in a minibus was unsurprisingly quite different to our own. They had spent most of the time peering through a window and consequently hadn’t interacted with many locals. But they had posh food, namely bananas, and gave us two. Sharing bananas in a desert is like sharing treasure.
We fell asleep, as per our policy of doing nothing in the afternoon to avoid the sun. And when we woke up, some people had left gifts on our table, including bread which was almost not stale! Magic.
As the road had been resurfaced, we continued cycling into the night to make the most of the wind. Both of us also had the feeling we might be sick the following day, so it was good to get some miles in.
Pitching the tents was difficult though. In the dark it was tricky to find any hard sand and we had to tie various tent ropes to bottles and bury them deep. I even tied one half of my tent to my bicycle to stop it blowing away. A spider no less than the size of a standard mug-bottom supervised the situation.
It was a Sunday. Which had absolutely no significance whatsoever. And it was August, which was significant because everything was pretty damn hot. I hardly slept because my tent had been flapping loudly all night. Then sometime around 3am it began.
Neither of us, however, knew the magnitude of our predicament. This wasn’t something that would just ruin our day, or indeed the next few days. It would ruin our lives. Just kidding.
It did ruin about a month of our lives though.
The road was now especially tedious. A linear grey dual-carriageway cutting right through the desert. Very flat, and sandy. It was slow riding, boring; not even a camel. The desert was finally taking its toll on us. We were to join everything else that had been eroded in this inhospitable environment. Few rest stops, no shade. The food poisoning was sapping our energy and crushing our spirits. Even when we got food the portions looked too big and most unappetising. We hadn’t slept well or for long in days, and we’d been cycling about 100km per day for the last ten. At least when there were seven of us, there would always be at least one of us looking on the bright side (Tim). These two sickly boys had almost nothing left in the way of positivity. And our progress was always hampered by the frequent urgent need to go to the toilet. Further complicated by a definitive lack of bushes to hide behind
It was on this day in particular, in exhaustion and delirium, that I noted the substance of crossing a vast plain of emptiness on a bicycle. A tiny dot moving purely on its own power for 1,500km across largely nothing. And how it actually wasn’t that difficult. It’s surprisingly easy for dots on bicycles to cover distance given some discipline and time. On the whole, it’s not like we didn’t enjoy ourselves either. The things that happened thus far were out of this world, or at least they were out of our worlds before we had encountered them. The expanse of desert, for how few things are actually there, carries a wealth of immaterial phenomena. Encompassing hardship, kindness, and a different kind of society. The way kids on bicycles smile at you and are curious about your life. The way a random person stopped what they were doing to offer food as a gift. The way a poor woman refused payment, in spite of what we would call poverty. And just how understanding was everybody, almost without exception, especially with our lack of a common language. This was, after all, “a Muslim country” they would say. Which had so little bearing on the deeper cultures I found there that it barely came to mind. Here I witnessed a strength of community practically unrivalled in Europe. Life’s simple affairs of going shopping or eating are broadly similar as anywhere else (even if the quality is not). There are cute restaurants and cafés. Housing blocks. Places of worship. People drive cars and some ride bicycles. Women walk the streets with men. It’s safe. It’s pleasant. And in so many ways, beautiful.
It was a Monday. Which was significant because today we were finally getting to Bukhara and out of the goddamn desert and getting a hotel. And it was going to be cheaper than at the weekend.
Just 100km left to go. And after the first five our bodies told us we’d done eighty.
The headwind howled through an unknown part of my bicycle, sharpened by the silence around it. Every crunch of a stone seemed to echo. A carabiner clinked away into infinity. Sand was chewing up the chain. Pushing the pedals involved overcoming mountainous walls of energy each time, each turn. It was a battle against the wind in the weakest of bodies. Occasionally a huge truck would overtake us, cutting through the gale and giving us a break for nearly three seconds. Conversely, when one passed the other way, combined with the wind, we were brought almost to a standstill.
At 8:30 it was already hot. As we approach the outskirts of Bukhara the road became busier and full of potholes. Now that we’re severely outnumbered, the drivers care little about giving us space, and some even honk us—even honk other drivers—off the road; so we are forced to cycle in the dirt.
The heat, the exhaustion, the headwind, the road, the traffic, the sand. Seemingly all the elements combined in order that—in every possible sense—it was both metaphorically and literally the shittiest day ever. We had reached the crest of an ineffable wave of shit. I fear if we had to cycle just one more day, we would not have made it.
As we neared Bukhara, we had nothing left. I took comfort in that I wasn’t alone in this suffering. Somebody out there was feeling just as miserable as me, if not worse. Something Nick had said in jest whilst racing up a hill a few days prior was sticking in my head. “This is where champions are made.”
I reminded myself that there was a world of things worse than what I was doing. (Though admittedly, that list did become much smaller as the day went on.) I would still rather be cycling. And it would be worth it. The bad times make you stronger. They make the good times seem much more vivid. The greys fill the colourful with vibrancy—which is probably why when Brits go on holiday, everywhere seems lovely. Ultimately, no one can tell you never to give up better than the voice inside your own head.
And later rather than sooner, with as much antipathy as one can have towards one’s own insides, we passed the signpost