Fear or loving in Uzbekistan
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
By the time my plane touched down in Bukhara, fearful voices had infested my head.”Are you crazy? They hate us there,” a friend had commented, knowing little or nothing about the country I was about to visit.Others were less optimistic.
“If I were you,” an overly-macho Nevadan had suggested, “I would strap an AK-47 to your handlebars before you go!”
But after my first day had passed, and I’d finished building my bike within the courtyard of a small family guesthouse, I began to ponder just who it was that I’d need to employ a submachine gun against.
Was it the Uzbek baby I’d held in my arms, whose trusting eyes momentarily were fixed upon mine?
Or perhaps the family’s grandmother, whose aging hands shook graciously while she poured bottomless cups of Uzbek tea.
Or maybe it was Mershad, the family toddler who couldn’t resist the urge to ring the shiny new bell I’d recently attached to my bike.
When all this ridiculousness finally reached a pinnacle within my mind, I was reminded of something author Edward Said wrote in his book “Orientalism.” It stated, “The (Muslim) world is depicted as a place of terrorists and fanatics. Instead of expanding, the West’s comprehension of the (Muslim) world is contracting.”
Just as I’d concluded that America’s fear of Islam had now surpassed that of Communism during the McCarthy era, I began to wonder if it might grow bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Britney Spears during her final trimester of pregnancy.
That’s when a voice called out from beneath the shade of a nearby hemp plant.
“Are you ready, man?” my new German co-rider, Christoph Fladung, inquired after he’d put the finishing tweak to his fully loaded recumbent bicycle.
“Dude,” I replied, “I have never been so ready in my life!”
Turning from the main streets to the highway outside of Bukhara, we took our place among Uzbek trucks, taxis, and boxish Russian Ladas – all of which chugged along the sticky, black tarmac.
As we rolled into the deceptive green of southern Uzbekistan’s furnace-like landscape, our wheels seemed to touch off something just short of revolution.
For within moments, Uzbeks exploded from households and businesses, calling friends and relatives to get a look at the two new strangers who had entered their country on touring bicycles.
Children squealed from driveways and dashed out of fields, all of them bubbling with unbridled excitement.
Whenever we stopped, people gathered. The two of us had become a four-wheeled spectacle.
“Ahhh-Coo-Dahh? (Where are you from?),” they endlessly shouted, to which Christoph endlessly replied “Germania.”
All the while, I remained silent.
That was until we reached the first of 10 check points, where a serious-looking army official stepped up and flashed a mouth full of gold teeth.
“Where are you from?” he asked me directly.
“Tahoe,” I answered in a moment of creative honesty. This brought a long furrow to his brow.
“California,” I let slip.
“America!” he announced, and the other’s eyes began to swirl.
“Las Vegas good!” he said with a hearty thumbs up.
“Welcome!” the other finished, then lifted his hand and waved us on through.
That afternoon, hunger forced us into a small village searching for something – anything – good to eat. Disappointingly, one store proved a dismal copy of the next. Their dusty shelves were scantily stocked with the same tasteless biscuits, expired canned goods, warm eggs, and jars of brownish-looking tomato sauce.
Restaurants were worse.
When restaurant owners invited us in their kitchens, the scene was always the same: Unwashed pans complementing grease-smudged cutting boards, where warming piles of meat danced with hundreds, if not thousands of glistening flies. Each time we sat down, and the waiter asked what it was going to be, I nearly always replied, “bread.”
If there were any consolation to this, it was the prices. Accommodations, (during the rare nights we weren’t invited into local homes), $6. Meals cost $2. Best yet, were the honeydew and watermelons, delicious and plentiful, that set the over-charged bicycle tourist back about 70 cents.
But if Uzbekistan could be described as anything, it would be that of a curtain, behind which you’d find some of the hardiest travelers on Earth.
Once swept by Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, and Marco Polo, Uzbekistan of late attracted a new breed of adventure traveler; their varying paths traversing the planet like golden strands around a great ball of string.
In Bukhara we met Wan Othong, arguably the first Thai woman to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle. In the last four years, Wan and her husband, Mou, had pedaled 30,000 miles around the globe.
In Samarkand, we bumped into Austrians Martin Novtny and Ursula Wunder, who’d just finished driving their Toyota Land Cruiser on a 16-month odyssey that included campouts in Quetta, Pakistan, and Kashmir, India, as well as Kabul, Afghanistan.
Then there was Igor Brezovar, a Slovenian living in Prague who’d flagged us to the side of the road near Juma. He was riding an obscenely over-loaded BMW touring motorcycle and wearing a T-shirt that read, “It’s better to die on the road than to stay at home watching TV waiting for death.”
In the last decade, the floor installer had motored through 123 countries, and was en route to Japan, via Kazahkstan and Eastern Russia.
That night, over rounds of Uzbek beer, Igor told tales of his encounters with Turkmen police, Ethiopian bandits, and the actor and adventure-motorcyclist Ewan MacGregor.
Near the end of the evening he summarized some of the less talked-about effects of world travel.
“You two will have a very hard time finding a mate after you return home from this journey.”
“What do you mean?” Christoph queried.
“I mean, you are now gathering a wider view of the world. You will need to find the same. It will be impossible for you to stay satisfied with someone whose main concern in life is the color of their fingernail polish.”
I carried his words and our other encounters nearly 400 miles across Uzbekistan. After two grueling 90-mile days, we pulled into the hauntingly Russian city of Tashkent.
It was there my perspective on fear would come full circle.
We were in the midst of a conversation with a young Russian woman when she confided that she longed to travel to America. But then, in a moment of pause, she admitted that she was fearful. She had heard that it was “dangerous.”
I replied, “Yes, there are dangerous places in America, but the most dangerous place,” I said pointing to my head, “is often here within your mind.”
July 1-14, 2006
Bukhara, Navai, Kattaquorghan, Samarkand, Yangiyer, Tashkent.
Mileage log: 9,655-10,034
Elevation: 2,800-3,700 ft.
“I must not fear. Fear is a mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past; only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert
“Because so many people said it was impossible.” – Robert Jefferson, after riding his bicycle 6,000 miles from London to Uzbekistan in 1898
“Wherever one treads in Uzbekistan, one follows in the footprints of the the greatest travelers in history.” – Calum McLeod, The Golden Road to Samarkand.
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