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From April to September 2004, read our travellers' reports each week

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July 2004

June 2004

May 2004

April 2004

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A tender moment in Samarkand

Children play in front of the famous blue-domed monuments of Samarkand


 July 21

Rendezvous in Samarkand

I am writing to you from Samarkand. The very name has always set me to dreaming, although I don't know why exactly. This legendary stopping-off place on the Silk Road is now one of the major cities in Uzbekistan. So, naturally, not everything is the stud that dreams are made of... And yet, the place is littered with historical monuments that bear witness to the sheer splendour of the old capital of the Kingdom of Tamerlan. The blue-tiled domes of the mosques, the ceramics decorating the mausoleums… Everything here is magnificent!

We spent our first night in Samarkand with an absolutely lovely family. The Turks exiled from Samarkand, who I met in Russia, had given me some addresses to look up. Our unsuspecting hosts certainly got a bit of a shock when their apartment was invaded by a couple of French guys sent here by a friend that they hadn't seen since they were children! "He lives in Azerbaijan?" they asked.

- No, in Russia, somewhere between Rostov-sur-le-Don and Volgograd
- Does he have any children?
- Yes, two sons and maybe a daughter. In any case, he has a moustache. And his little brother has put on quite a bit of weight…

Another reference back to the start of my journey, the mother of the strapping fellow who we have come to see is a Crimean Tatar! Her grandfather was exiled to Uzbekistan. Her two children now live in her apartment and only her daughter works. However, she says that there is no way that she would think of returning to the Crimea (as my Tatar hosts back there had done), she feels that this is her home now. Although she is the widow of a Tajik man (Samarkand is mostly Tajik), and even though her children speak Tajik and Uzbek, at home, they live a more or less Russian lifestyle. No Uzbek TV, and even among the family they speak Russian, etc.

Thus, the evening that we spent together, recalling different parts of my trip, was very pleasant. The Uzbeks are possibly the warmest people that I have met up till now. You only have to sit down somewhere, anywhere, for someone to come up to you and ask you where you are from and what you are doing there. There is never any malicious intent behind this, it is just an excuse to chat. As we pass through their wonderful irrigated land, they call "hello!" - encouraging us on our way, or inviting us into their homes… It is absolutely fabulous!

Tomorrow, we'll take to the road again for the last leg of the journey, to Tashkent. Our bikes are looking really cool as we have fitted them with flashing electronic hooters, and I have put lots of stars and beads on the spokes of my wheels! So, we are really blending in with the locals now. And yes, no one ever said that poverty and frivolity didn't go together. Thank goodness!

One of the little restaurants where we take a break sometimes

In the desert, under the sun of july


 July 19

On the Silk Route

Tashkent, the end of the road, is a little less than 600 kilometres from here. Odessa seems a long, long way away… It feels like the end of the journey is nigh and I realise how incredibly lucky I am to have travelled over Europe and into Asia simply by the power of my own two legs, with the time to savour even the most minor change of scenery or culture… What, if anything, does the Ukraine, with its beautiful Orthodox churches, have in common with Boukhara, from where I am writing this, with its mosques that date back several centuries? Perhaps the fact that these religious buildings are never very full, that this summer's Russian hits still resound in my ears from time to time and that people understand the Russian language even here?
But that's about all. Sometimes, certain kilometres take you further than others. Since crossing the border into Kazakhstan, I have cycled practically exclusively through desert, as if to demonstrate the gulf that separates Slavic Europe from Central Asia.

And so, for the last four days, we have crossed through the desert, deep in the heart of Uzbekistan. The July sun makes this physically very difficult, even though we avoid travelling between midday and 4 p.m., we take a break in the little restaurants we come across here and there all over the desert. By stopping at different places along the Silk Route, we have probably followed the same paths as traders at the beginning of the last millennium. After Khiva, we are now in Boukhara, and soon, we'll reach Samarkand.

In all these towns, there are lots of medersas, mosques, mausoleums and, therefore, lots of tourists.
As for the local population, here in Boukhara (as in Samarkand), the people are originally Tadjik. Neighbouring Tadjikistan isn't exactly happy about the fact that it lost these most prestigious cities after the Soviets carved up the region back in 1924.

The local Tadjiks use a dialect that has very little in common with the language spoken in the "motherland". While not terribly well thought of there, here they have to deal with a rather insidious form of rivalry with the native Uzbeks. In spite of this, they are becoming more and more assimilated with the Uzbeks and many even describe themselves as Uzbek, and have Uzbekistan registered as their ethnic origin on their passports.

This is one contradiction that I can't quite understand. The authorities undoubtedly encourage them to do that. It should be said that the only real difference is the language spoken. Their religion, clothes (the women wear multicoloured dresses) and customs are the same.

The women are not exactly avant-garde. One 20-year old Tadjik woman explained to us that women are expected to obey their husbands or parents. Hers are very strict and there is no way she is allowed out on her own after 7 p.m., let alone go clubbing (the only women who go to clubs are, she said, Russian). She has never been to Samarkand or Khiva: "I can't go without my parents and they never have time to take me. When I get married, perhaps I'll go with my husband." Although still single, she expects to get married next year.

However, being a woman is not all gloom and doom. Our young friend has already had one boyfriend and has rejected proposals from several of her friends at university. And don't forget, women here don't wear the veil, they work and have a voice…

Train or no train, we all admire the tutu-seller's tutus

Train or no train, we eat just as well as back home

What's left from Aral sea


  July 6th

Uzbekistan – not the world's most popular tourist destination…
At last, Seb is here with me, and he is pretty excited at the thought of spending four days crossing the desert. So I put him a taxi and sent him to Mouniak in a bid to get him to view the joys of life as relative, as I have been doing ever since passing through this town and since something quite different, not to mention difficult, passed right through me, and my digestive system, not to be too graphic about it. The state I'm in may be connected to the fish shared in the shade of a lone weeping willow tree that stood amid the irrigation channels of the Amou-Daria. We were in a former kolkhoz that had been turned into a little restaurant where truckers can stop, very cheaply, for the night. It wasn't long before my companion at the table (well… on the ground actually, seeing as you eat sitting on the floor) suggested putting me up for the night at his house, with his wife and two children. It would be no problem, since he was "a wealthy man". No sooner had I accepted his invitation than I learned he had been in prison, 4 years earlier, having spent 15 years behind bars. As for any obvious signs of wealth, I quickly put this into perspective: in the house, there were no more tables and chairs than in the restaurant. However, you may admire the particularly attractive shelving, bearing a few pieces of kitchen china, that lines the walls of the empty rooms.

However, the next morning, I realised what he really meant by an outward sign of wealth, when he told me that he "had to go home", meaning to his first wife. And yes, polygamy is rare in Uzbekistan, but being able to afford to run two households is proof of prosperity. Thus, I found myself alone with the second wife, who had remained silent up till that point. And then she started to talk to me. She is 30 and he is 45. She doesn't love him and says she ended up here thanks to the local Mafia. I take my leave of her, powerless to help and with my heart rent in two.

Uzbekistan is, undeniably, another world. It is, nonetheless, possible to travel round the country and not meet another tourist, thus sparing oneself the sheer misery of such encounters. Between the four or five large touristy towns in the area, the many travellers frequently meet and tell each other all about their latest finds and exchange travel tips. Practical everyone we meet has been travelling for several months.

To prove the point, in Khiva, a magnificent stopping place along the Silk Road, I bumped into the Dutch cyclists I met before in Kazakhstan. They had decided to cycle across the desert that I crossed by train. One had given up. The other had broken the frame of his bike! I had obviously made the right choice to spare myself such an ordeal!