Inter-continental cyclist Edward Shoote explains the appeal of riding a bike in some of the world's most forbidding environments. And why you'd probably love it too.
It was an atmospheric twilight in central Uzbekistan; the orange glow was slowly fading into the dust-filled air, and the encroaching darkness added mystery to the towering roadside skeleton trees in my rural surroundings. I was well into my cycle tour to China and every pedal stroke was getting me closer.
I was carefully avoiding cars and potholes while I cycled up the wrong side of a roughly surfaced Uzbek dual carriageway. I was eagerly searching for a peaceful spot to wild camp, but the fields were all filled with cotton bushes or creeping melon plants; there was nowhere for a tent. It wasn't particularly peaceful, either. Every kilometre there was a wedding hall with the sound of outrageously happy Turkic music blaring out.
Outside one hall I stopped, hoping for some advice about a place to sleep. I leant my bike on a wall and approached a group of guests, but before I knew it my world was suddenly a blur. I had been swept up in a sea of young men, most of whom were happy on life, while a few stank of vodka. I was the eye of the storm, stuck inside this whirlwind of excitement about the lycra-clad foreigner. Away from the mêlée I could see elegantly dressed women dancing in traditional dresses, alive with bright colours and sparkling silver trims – the dancing reminding me of a scene from a Bollywood movie.
Then I saw the banquet tables loaded with a feast of delicacies, like honey to a bee for a starving cyclist like me. But I had ridden 200km since this morning and I didn’t have the energy to attend another Uzbek wedding so I was looking for my exit. A group of older men whom, rather understandably, thought my lycra outfit to be inappropriate wedding attire, helped form an exit path between the sea of excited bodies. So after just two enforced celebratory toasts, I was pleased to be back with my bike, to resume my search for a place to rest. It was now getting even more desperate, I needed somewhere to sleep and soon!
As most cycle tourers riding through this part of the world will know, being a token wedding guest is just one unforgettable experience that you encounter on the road. Travelling by bike is undoubtedly the best key with which to unlock these doors of cultural interaction that enrich and inspire us all.
After four months in the saddle, I had seen so many amazing sights and I had had so many amazing interactions. It is these unique and unforgettable experiences that make cycle touring such a beautiful experience. It is also true that travelling by bike is a 'Ying and Yang' experience, a roller coaster of ups and downs. The days can be tough and lonely, however over time I found that the low points were becoming more easily mitigated, and I was buoyed on by the overwhelming happiness of the freedom of living simply and simply living on my bike. I sang songs when it rained, I learned to enjoy the spontaneity of the unknown, and I relished the interactions that stopping for a puncture brought on.
It is hard to fully relax when you feel so isolated and vulnerable, but the driver of that slowing-down car on a lonely road will normally just want a selfie with you, not your phone. By losing this fear and living purely in the moment, gone were the stresses or worry of life, and a state of calm had developed that Lord Buddha would have appreciated.
I left the busy road and detoured into a peaceful-looking traditional village, with hay drying outside people’s homes and the tied up cows back from the fields. A cotton-filled tractor and trailer rumbled past, adding to the white snow in the gutter that had already fallen out. Three men with friendly yet weather-worn faces were sitting and chatting outside a small shop. They all wore the standard Uzbek flat-topped Muslim hats and spoke no English.
I approached them and used the universal sign language for needing somewhere to sleep – I was getting pretty good at Russian sign language because it can lead to sketchy vodka sessions if misunderstood! My query was quickly understood and the response was yet again positive. Within minutes I am following a lady with keys to a random room filled with blankets and cushions and my bike is carried in too. This is fantastic I’m thinking – almost too good to be true – where’s the catch?
The catch was that the door was padlocked from the outside! A while ago such a prison cell would have freaked me out, but many weeks of receiving generous hospitality from strangers taught me that it was certainly for my own safety, there was no hidden agenda, no scam or trickery. OK, you are probably wondering how I answered the call of nature during the night. Well, I used a cut down water bottle and found an opening window!
I think this experience sums up why I love travelling by bike. If I turned up by car or motor bike the reaction would be directing me to a hotel or nearby town. Arriving on a bicycle you receive respect and that always leads to fantastic hospitality. It’s not all one-sided; there is much interest in where you have come from, and some basic and and broken Russian explains what your home is like. That usually helps to break barriers, and is often enough reward for your hosts.
Inter-continental travel by bicycle is growing in popularity, and it is easy to see why. The physical challenge is rewarding, and the experiences and unpredictable adventures it facilitates leave a lasting impression. After cycling from France to Asian Turkey in 2013 and England to China/Kazakhstan border in 2014, where’s that map? – I have next year’s cycle tour to plan!
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