Thank you Esmeralda


Country: Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan
From Turkmenabat to Bukhara
Days on the bicycle:3
Kilometers cycled: 152
Average Kilometers per day: 50,66
Total Kilometers cycled till Bukhara: 6832
Total days travelled till Bukhara:654
Lesson learned: Corny soap operas convert grumpy soldiers in laughing friends
Most wonderful miracle: Seven nice old men
Laughed about: The man with five wives
Food we ate: A lot of Melons
Greatest obstacle: Headwinds and bumpy roads

Just after sunrise we arrived to Turkmenabat, the last big Turkmen town before the border with Uzbekistan. The six hours of good sleep had helped Roberto to recover enough to cycle a bit. We got on our bikes and immediately were surprised by the quantity of Turkmen cyclists in and around the town.

We enjoyed the few kilometers that we could cycle in Turkmenistan

We enjoyed the few kilometers that we could cycle in Turkmenistan

Robbed by an old lady

It was a 40-kilometer’s ride from the train station to the border. Roberto felt far better and we finally jumped on our saddles. The desert wind was hard but we enjoyed the ride. Just in front of the border a woman stopped her car and offered us to change our money with her. We bargained a little and changed a couple of Turkmen Manats and a few Iranian Rials into Uzbek Soms. Changing in a bank is far more expensive than in the Uzbek black market. Since changing money at the black market is highly illegal (but so much cheaper) we always have to double-check if there are any police men around. Fortunately in the desert street towards the border there was nobody but the three of us and maybe some camels.

Just by the border. An evil lady interrupted our photo session to "steal" our Manats and Rials.

Just by the border. An evil lady interrupted our photo session to “steal” our Manats and Rials.

After the exchange the lady ran back to her car and gave us a big loaf of bread. Had we changed for such a horrible exchange rate that she felt guilty now or have we just been so sympatric people who looked hungry on their bikes? As we found out later the Lady nearly robbed us.

She had given us the bank exchange rate. We spent a couple of days complaining about the ridiculously high prices for water and food before we found out about our bad exchange rate.

We met a German Ralley team in the border. Their car is their guest book

We met a German Ralley team in the border. Their car is their guest book

Important Russian words – lesson one

On the Turkmen side of the border we filled out a couple of forms, got yelled at for leaning the dirty bikes against a wall and passed with the exit stamp. After a few meters of no-man’s-land the Uzbek border welcomed us with an iron fence and a tiny but strong soldier. He skeptically inspected us and our bikes, before he stared into Roberto’s eyes, put on a grumpy face and asked “Atkuda?”

This border was the 13th on our way east. Every single time Roberto gets horribly nervous. There are not many Mexicans travelling in Asia and Roberto’s passport tends to get double-checked, partly for curiosity how a Mexican passport looks like, partly for not knowing what to do with it.

The grumpy soldier kept staring at Roberto. What did “atkuda” mean? Our experience crossing borders made him improvise an answer. Usually the first question on borders is “Where are you from?”


“Mexico and Germany” he answered as natural as possible just waiting for the soldier’s confused face and various phone calls asking his colleagues what he should do with a Mexican. Suddenly the soldier’s grumpy face turned into a smile. In no time the iron fence was open and he welcomed us with both arms. “Mexico!” he burst out and for a moment I thought he would give Roberto a hug like to his lost son. “Esmeralda!”

Now the soldier and Roberto both grinned from ear to ear, started listing Mexican names and laughed together like old friends. They left me pretty confused. The soldier personally guided us through the gate towards the first officer. On the way Roberto explained to me that Esmeralda was a Mexican soap opera about love, affairs, family dramas and fraud. As a young Uzbek in Tashkent explained to us later Esmeralda had been dubbed to Russian and was very popular in 2005. Every night at 8 pm nobody dared to step away from the T.V. Children, parents, grandparents, men and women – everybody watched Esmeralda.



Welcome to O’zbekiston

We went through a couple of passport checks, a temperature check on the forehead (fortunately Roberto felt better already and had normal temperature), filled some forms and got our stamps. That easy. O’zbekiston, as it is written in Uzbek, welcomed us. Not even 20 years ago the alphabet has been changed from Cyrillic to Latin letters. Somehow most U’s and A’s were now written like O’s, even though they did not sound like O’s. The next town Bukhara (Buxoro in Uzbek) was said to be 97 kilometers away and we could really use a shower soon.

Chose a Central Asian neighbor country's capital - they are all nearby

Chose a Central Asian neighbor country’s capital – they are all nearby

Multilingual jokes

We got back on our bikes to discover that the notorious Turkmen headwind blows equally strong in Uzbekistan. Slowly we cycled forward. To our left the desert, to our right a muddy river and in front of us the endlessly straight two-lane street with hardly any traffic on. After an hour we spotted a group of men having a picnic in the shade of the only big tree. “Come, come”, they beckoned us over. The seven men offered us melon and we – starving since noon – ate far too much of it. Our communication consisted of some Turkish, English, Russian and Uzbek words and worked out surprisingly well. The men were brothers and friends and loved to make fun of each other. One of them pointed on another equally old man and said: “This very old man is our father. And that one”, he pointed on another “has five wives and 25 children!” The last man laughed so hard that his chewing tobacco fell out of his mouth. “He can’t even handle the one wife he has”, another man responded while he drank the last bit of tea from his saucer. We showed them the pictures of our family and home countries and they showed us a new card game that I failed to understand.

Street sign  to Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent

97 kilometers? That sounds easy. Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent are all on our route

The perfect welcome

Roberto and I looked at each other. After nearly one year on the road we knew each other well enough to know exactly what the other was thinking: What a wonderful welcome to Uzbekistan!

After a short nap we bade goodbye to our wonderful hosts and continued facing the strong headwind and the bumpy road. It was warm, but not as hot as in the Iranian desert, since the headwind cooled the air down. The desert slowly converted into cotton fields and we knew that the next village could not be far.

Nightly shelter

We shared the road with few trucks, less cars, many donkey carts and even more local cyclists. Pedestrians shouted “Salam” and “Atkuda?”, little boys reached out their hands to give us a high five and teenagers cycled on our sides overtaking us, slowing down and overtaking us again.

When sunset came closer we searched for a place to pitch the tent. Two young sisters who pulled a cart full of hay befriended us and took us to their family’s new home. It was still under construction but just perfect for us to sleep in. The sisters left us alone while they herded the cows and we prepared ourselves for the night. When they finished their work the sisters brought all their other siblings, aunts, parents and brothers-in-law. Elmira, the oldest of the siblings brought her English booklet and asked me about my favorite color, if I was a vivid or quiet person and if I had a pet.

Zarina, Gülruh, little Ozodbek, Roberto, Elmira and I

Zarina, Gülruh, little Ozodbek, Roberto, Elmira and I

By the following morning we waved goodbye to the girls who went to school and mounted our bikes again. The wind grew stronger and stronger and we poked along the road. The pavement was somewhere between old as dirt and non-existing. We drove in slalom to avoid the biggest potholes and found out after some hard bumps that cycling in the other’s wind shadow was impossible under these circumstances.

Cotton everywhere

Cotton everywhere

Encounters in the Silk Road

On flat roads we average between 15 and 18 kilometers in an hour but due to wind and street conditions we did not even reach 10.

We were happy for any good reason to stop and have a break. One of these reasons were Pierre and Laure from France who cycled on recumbent bikes. They went west and had the wind in their backs. We gave them some tips on Iranian money, taroof and the general confusion over there and they recommended us a guesthouse in Bukhara. Thanks to Pierre and Laure we got informed that tourists have to register every 72 hours while travelling in Uzbekistan. Hotels automatically register their guests and self-registration at the police station costs about 20 €.

Ken from Canada

Ken from Canada

We decided to keep cycling, camp another night close to Bukhara and then arrive early by the following day. Just a few hours later we ran into another cyclist: Ken from Canada. We chatted about the street conditions, about the friends we had in common and about Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Ken had a little hurry to get to the border in time and we continued cycling at snail’s pace.

So now we are Turks

At night we found a cozy space at the edge of a field. I walked over to the farm house to ask if it was okay if we stayed there for a night. As Uzbek is a Turkic language I hoped to be understood asking with my few words of Turkish and the picture book. I wasn’t. The woman frowned at me, called her husband telling him that there were some weird Turkish people who ask for something. Fortunately the husband understood. We camped in the terrace and just when we finished cooking our dinner the family invited us for soup, tea and vodka. We tried some small talk but failed again.

Parking lot for CO2 friendly vehicles only

Few kilometers were between us and the first bigger town Bukhara and we arrived before noon. Roberto’s stomach pain came back so we rushed towards the hostel. Was this a hostel or a hospital? Some 50 % of the guests suffered from stomach problems, others caught a cold or some other illnesses. It did not take long until it got me as well.

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  1. Hector says:

    So what does “atkuda” mean?

  2. Pingback: So many bike paths! Cycling Washington State from Vancouver to Portland - Tasting Travels | Tasting the cultures of the world by bike

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