As me and Jack rolled at the border post between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, we quickly realized how hospitable the locals of the Fergana Valley were. The officers at the border crossing were extremely friendly. Crossing the border went smoothly but took about 2 and half hours. The formalities of filling paper forms – twice as we made a mistake in one of the section – was easy going but time consuming. The search of firearms and/or drugs and/or explosive devices was fruitless. Touring cyclists would carry those on a push bike, of course. They were quite inquisitive of my bike computer, wowing at my stove, being impressed with Jack’s sleeping bag and trying to understand why the hell we’re cycling in 40 degree heat. Once satisfied with what they’ve seen, we waited for our exit stamp and for the doors to open.
Once on the other side, it took 10 minutes for us to get surrounded by a bunch of friendly kids. Questions were coming from all directions: “Where are you from?”, “Where are you going?”, “Are you married?”, “How many kids do you have?”, “What is the cost of your bicycle?”. We barely answered a question that another was hitting us. Our Russian and Uzbek not being sharp, we regularly took guesses at understanding and answering. Hands were touching our bags, handle bar, bike computer. They were extremely curious. It was intoxicating. We loved it! For the last 2 months in Kyrgyzstan cars zipped by us without much of a worry now we were overtaking donkey carts operated by 12 years old kids. Cars slowing down to our pace trying to have a conversation with us, sometimes extending their arm out of the window to give us an apple or a peach while we’re focusing on the road trying not to hit one of the many potholes, hit a high bump or going around stopped cars or motorbikes. Cars, buses and trucks coming in the opposite direction momentarily shifted their focus towards the 2 cyclists, slowing down, beeping their horn and yelling trying to get our attention for a simple hello or a hand wave from us.
Stopping at bazaars became a thrilling experience. By the time we purchased a bottle of water or exchange money there would be a crowd gathered around us. Once we were arrested by police after the crowd had grown to an uncontrollable level, blocking the road and generating traffic.
On many occasions we were invited for a dinner of shashliks, traditional skewered meat, generally lamb or beef. People wanted to either have a conversation with us or simply making sure we were well looked after. While sitting on a traditional Uzbek platform under the shade, enjoying shashliks or lagman (traditional noodles) with tea, friendly locals came to us with a large smile asking where we were from, which direction we were going and making sure everything was fine. On several occasions, we were stopped and handed huge melons weighing up to 5 kilos! One morning while coffee water was on the boil, we were greeted by a shy farmer who looked at us without saying much. Few minutes after he left, his wife came by with freshly made yoghurt and bread! Best brekky ever!
After a day on the saddle, we found a nice camping spot at the edge of a sunflower field. As we sat down and relaxed before pitching our tents, the owner of the field, Tulik, came to greet us. Anywhere in a western world, we would have been told to piss off, probably shot at. Not in Uzbekistan. With a large smile and a friendly manner, Tulik invited us to spend the night at his place. We accepted his offer and followed him to his rustic house in a small village. We were shown around, Tulik proudly showing us his 10 cows, the outdoor toilet and his lovely garden while walking on millions of sun-dried sunflower seeds covering most of the outdoor floor. After a quick clean up, we were invited in the living area where we sat on an elevated platform. Taking over the whole place was the mouth-watering smell coming from the adjacent kitchen where his wife Nafisa was preparing dinner. We were offered the best meal ever; a dimlama (beef or lamb stew with vegetable, onions and potatoes) along with pickled tomatoes, eggplants and chillies, bread and tea followed by a few shots of valuable vodka. We flicked through my photo album and after many laughs, we were showed our bedroom; a large room in an adjacent building. Then we were asked if we were interested to go to a wedding ceremony the following morning which we happily accepted. We woke up at 6AM and got dressed as good as we could. We were driven to a nearby house where the men from the whole community were sitting (about 100 of them), music blasting from the speakers at a volume that could be heard from space. We could barely hear each other while eating our oshi nahor or morning plov, the national dish made of rice, cubed lamb and some veggies. After the meal we went back the Tulik’s place and waved goodbye to our guests, thanked them for this unforgettable hospitality and experience and took off.
Hospitality is an important custom throughout Uzbekistan. It’s amazing how people in this part of the world take care of each other and looks after strangers as if they were family. Locals view hospitality as a social standard and a sign of prosperity. Sure, Islam rewards Muslims who are hospitable towards strangers but I believe Uzbek’s hospitality comes from their good heart. They’ve acquainted themselves with travellers over centuries when the Silk Road brought travellers in a much needed rest from the harsh conditions. This hospitality gene has been transferred from generation to generation offering today’s travellers a surreal experience.