When we left our friend Vero in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, our plan was to sample  one of the countries that have earned central Asia such a good reputation . Our experiences with local population had  everywhere been excellent but difficulties  with the  heat and sickness  had overshadowed the latter  stage of our trip.

Back in the desert

The road from the Tajik capital to the border looks more like the terrain of a cross country run than anything else. It is rough on our machines and the dust churned up by heavy traffic inflames  our eyes. After the Uzbek border checkpoint  we come to a decent road leading west into Turkmenistan, some 600km away as the crow flies. The first significant event: after 2 weeks of enforced waiting due to visa problems, full summer is here. In this hot, dry climate, it is frankly trying. It feels as if we have  returned to  the Australian outback where we were a few months ago. We avoid cycling in the  hottest part of the day, but at  9am, the temperature is already 35°C. At midday, it goes up to  42°C in the shade.

A mountain barrier lies across our path and the climb to the 1500m summit is r gruelling. At noon, a group of women invite us to rest in their home. We see that they have already prepared some food. Ever cautious, Morgan asks one of them how much it will cost.  The woman does not understand at first and gives him a look as if to say: “What are talking about?”  and goes on to serve us an excellent meal of rice, salad, yogurt and fruits. She makes it clear that we have nothing to pay and are her guests. Lots of people here try to invite us for tea or food. If we accept all their offers, we will never leave! Uzbekistan seems to be one big family and the hospitable atmosphere is a big morale boost in our onward struggle.

Dogged with sickness

Brian does his best to to smile in the Uzkbek désert

Ever since Dushanbe Siphay has  been ill and now Brian has a  fever. Worse still, he needs to empty his bowels about ten times a day and is starting to be worryingly dehydrated. No medicine seems to have the slightest effect. No one talks much. The climb is a relentless grind.

Brian : « Each  time things take a turn for the worse I lock myself in silence and try to think positive thoughts. I realise this makes  atmosphere  gloomy but I am fully occupied trying  to control my intestines. My friends will forgive me. Furthermore, the road plays tricks on the eye, keeping the pass ever farther away behind yet another descent, which means yet another climb, all this on a road that has deteriorated into a perilous cart track with lorries hurling covering muck in our faces. At noon, after the fourth toilet stop of the morning, the heat is incandescent and I am clearly dehydrated. I am extremely thirsty but not hungry at all, yet I have eaten nothing all day  except a morsel of bread for breakfast. Only my mind keeps me going. Finally reaching the top of this damnable pass, I throw myself at a freshwater spring  like a dying man. Then I freewheel down the other side, refusing to make any effort whatsoever to pedal.  I rage and curse at the road as one final  huge  climb comes into view, as if for all the world it had a perfect right  to be there… This  has been one of  the worst days  of the entire trip »

The next morning, Brian’s condition is no better. Nor is Siphay’s; he has nausea. After spending the night in a sort of roadside bus stop, we cycle 50km on empty stomachs to the next city before the day’s  heat reaches its climax. Morgan tries to keep our spirist up by talking,  but it is useless.

In Qarshi, we lose  half a day trying to report to the police as tourists are supposed to  only to discover that the rule does nor apply to cyclists … We also try without  success to get some dollars… Psychologically, the team is really not fit. Choosing where to eat has become a touchy issue and a cause of tension… After a light meal and a nap, we decide to hitchhike to Bokhara, 160km away.

This is when Morgan decided to go ahead independently. We agreed to meet at the Turkmenistan border, 300km away, in two days’ time.

An Uzbek hospital, a singular experience

We reach Bokhara after a truck ride with two very friendly drivers. They drop us on the road leading to  Turkmenistan. Brian is at the end of his tether  and takes a room in a hotel for 10$.  He really needs to rest and take a proper shower; he is in a very bad state. The next day he is still no better, so we go to a hospital for tests, since  our medicines are useless.

Brian takes up the story:   “We were brought here by a well meaning guy but with a rather a heavy handed way of helping: in his impulsiveness he takes us to the hospital’s maternity wing… All we can do is listen to him explaining things in Russian and stay silent. After this preliminary  stage, I manage to  speak to someone who has a few words of English.  I explain what has happened. I am taken to the emergency area but I can’t  understand a word of what the doctors are saying. They seem to be more interested in my passport number and the hotel where I am staying than in my health. Of course they speak only Russian… I am taken to a room. A nurse comes in with three  injection syringes  and a drip-feed. I wonder to myself “NOW what are they going to do?” . I call out to Siphay for help; I need him to be there in case they give me the wrong medicine. Eventually they do the usual tests  and don’t find anything wrong with my blood.   I am given a drip to rehydrate me, which makes me feel better.  During the  four  hours spent in the  hospital, I  must have shown my passport to maybe to 20 different people, seen i seven or eight doctors, as well as having a laugh with the delightful nurses, and not paid a cent.  Finally a word and a nod to indicate that everything is normal. Brilliant..”

Brian on his hospital bed

After leaving the hospital our plan is to catch a truck  to the border,  as the doctors have recommended diet and rest. We have to be there tomorrow morning to meet Morgan. That should be feasible.

Come and stay with us

Four hours on, we are once more cycling in sweltering heat. We have no choice. We have already spent the four hours trying to get a lift, but in vain. The long distance trucks  are sealed and the others are only travelling five kilometres. Brian’s condition is fast deteriorating   and after 45 kilometres we have to stop. Siphay is feeling better now. Like a vampire in search of blood, Brian makes for the water tap at a  village gas station.

Siphay : “Tomorrow, we will have to set off with the first ray of sunlight to cover the rest of the distance inside Uzbekistan. When I look at Bridou, I am scared as his health is no better. He dehydrates  faster than he can drink! An invitation for the  night would be  a great help and would provide  a safe place for the ‘’palatka’’ (tent). It would also give us access to an unlimited supply  drinking water. Organising this  could be a lengthy business which  I wish we could be spared so as to give Brian a chance to recuperate.  As we enter the village I tell myself we must be extra friendly with the inhabitants to bring us luck. Bingo! With Brian looking like a circus freak, the first  two ladies to  speak to us unhesitatingly offer a helping hand. They insist that they will take care of the invalid. Then when we are supposed to be following them they disappear in the village with their tiny car.  Most of the villagers greet us, many signalling  us to stop. Convinced that our guardian angels are looking out for us, we press  on for another ten  kilometres. I tell  the pedalling zombie that we must stop soon  or we will  overshoot the mark. But Brian is past all decision-making! »

Then, suddenly (in French):

-       Hello my friends! Hello! Come to my house -  we’ve got fruit, bread, meat, and  plenty, plenty!

-       – Er… how come  you speak French?

-       I learnt it at  university. Come and spend the night at home ! My name is Alicher.

-       Ok. We are Siphay and Brian. With pleasure! We will follow you!

And so, ten minutes later we find ourselves  sitting on rugs where we  wait while   a feast for a king is served by Alicher’s  wife, mother and sister. Brian does his best to fight  to stay awake but is soon fast asleep, worn out as he is. Meanwhile Siphay talks at length with all the family.

Siphay explains: “Alicher shows us his visitors’ book. Since 2007, Swiss, Irish and French travelling groups have stayed here, all leaving warm messages of thanks. A man creating a great sense of hospitality as the image of his country. He clearly enjoys talking about his life and we equally enjoy listening to him. Then, he shows us a huge world map and asks us: ‘Show me the route you took to reach my country.” Alicher is highly cultivated; he knows his geography and blinks his eyes knowingly as I indicate various remote  parts of the world. After twenty minutes, I realise that some of our excursions  such as the 700 kilometre voyage  by houseboat down the Yukon river seem to him sheer  madness. Shyly I bring out my computer  to show him our pictures and we spend more long minutes dreaming together… I tell myself that I would like to give him a plane ticket to France enable him to discover the world inhabited by  his guests. During the course of our conversation, I learn that a Swiss diplomat has already invited him but he refused to leave his country… Alicher is happy at home, with  his comfort and his habits.

Here we go again, only better

We arrive at 9am at the border where Morgan has been waiting for us since the previous evening. At long last, Brian is feeling better! Off we go once more on new adventures together in Turkmenistan which we have to cross in record time, a journey of about 1500km in five days . By bicycle, this is impossible so we will try to catch a train to  Turkmenbachy at  the  western extreme of the country on the coast of the Caspian Sea.   where a boat about which we have no information is supposed to take us back into  Europe  at Azerbaijan. It looks epic!

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