Day 14 Saturday, August 12. Osh to Margilan. 104km, with 152m of climbing.
It rained this morning! Though modest and brief, it was cooling and soothing. It was the first rain blazing skies had deigned to deliver since I left home nearly three weeks ago.
We paused under our hotel’s front canopy, bikes in hand, to savour it. Heck, we had all the time in the world to roll the 7km down the road to cross the border from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan.
When we did get there, it was semi-organised chaos. A cacophony of people, cars and trucks. Emotions seemed to run the range from stoic to fuming, fuelled by anxiety running from second guessing (I’m sure I don’t need a visa?) to heart-wrenching emotion (when will I ever see my family again?)
We cyclists proceeded, one by one but as a group, through the exit from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan, thanks to TDA, our cycle tour company, hiring local tourist facilitators to accompany us through every country on our journey. I didn’t clock-watch but I reckon it took at least an hour and a half.
Because photos are strictly banned, the one below, is of some of us pausing for the last of our group to exit the Uzbek controls. I hope it conveys a sense of a mob of people standing or milling around waiting for the border process to end – or begin if you’re heading into Kyrgyzstan.
Most of our support crew fared far worse. It took nine hours for them and two of our vans to cross the border. And even that was after numerous phone calls by one of our local tour people to his border official friends to expedite the crossing.
Knowing such a delay was likely, three crew members in our third van with food, water, cooking equipment, chairs, awnings and other necessities for road-side lunches and campground dinners had crossed the border the day before. While we knew we would eat and replenish water bottles along the way, we also knew a very leisurely pace would still get us 100km down the road to our campground well before our tents and other belongings would arrive.
That best explains why I ended up leading our little peloton down the super smooth highway from the border. Our clever route finders at TDA also have a sense of humour, though. Some 5km down the road we turned sharp left off the highway into a little neighbourhood lane alongside an irrigation canal to begin our 85km or so rural ride to lunch and ultimately to our campground.
Our lunch stop was luxurious, thanks to a local cotton farmer who saw our crew set up beside the road and insisted instead they used his family pergola (I’m guessing at the term) across the road in one of his fields. And one of his teenage sons stayed to tell us about the family farm in good English he’s only been learning for a couple of years.
As pleasant as the lunch and ride was, even as the temperature rose slowly to the mid 30s again, the highlight of the day was our long and gregarious afternoon tea (or Coke, depending on your choice of fuel) stop in a lively small town about 25km from our campground. We’d already decided Uzbeks are generally jollier and more out-going than their reserved Kyrgyz cousins. The multi-generation family running this little oasis were even more so.
Post-tea, the last hour and a half of riding flew past and we rolled into our campsite – the soccer pitch of a local school – just before 3pm. It was pleasant sitting around in the shade chatting for three hours or so before dinner. But we could do none of our usual tasks – putting up tents, washing, changing clothes etc – until after dinner at 6.30pm when our two other vans finally arrived.
As excellent as our crew’s campground dinner was as usual, I discovered I’d missed the opportunity of a lifetime when Celeste sent me a WhatsApp message the following morning. She had discovered that one of the best places to eat in Margilan, a town renowned for its silk factories, is the O’ram restaurant.
I’ll have to savour all that in my imagination. With great respect for the town and country, I can’t imagine ever having the privilege of returning.