Never in my life have I tasted such an incredibly crisp, dripping watermelon slice. The smiling Uzbek market vendor guaranteed it and he definitely delivered. We have cycled down from the coolness of the thinner mountain air into the fertile Fergana valley area of Uzbekistan. Not only have temperatures pushed up to 35 C, but faces have rounded and softened, colourful fresh produce has reappeared, and gone are the smashed vodka bottles and piles of rubbish.
Every country we enter has had surprises to reveal but Uzbekistan has my eyebrows at a permanent raised arch. Once past the first ever bicycle pannier search where the official finally cracked a smile on recommendation of my current Kobo read On the Trail of Ghengis Khan, we discovered a whole new world. Homes are more modern and often include green vegetated courtyards. Cities stretch on and on blending into one another. Horns are honking incessantly. Even songbirds and several storks have surfaced again.
Most surprising has been the shouts, laughter, whistles and invitations. People here are over-the-top extreme hosts. Come for dinner. Stay at my house. Questions questions. How old are you? (Ooooooh! No really?! Malatsy!) Three teachers brought us to their school and a small sea of crisp black and white uniforms followed us back to our bikes shoving their notebooks in our hands to get autographs. Who knew dirty cyclists from Canada could have a fame alert?!
Years ago I climbed Kilimanjaro with this photograph of my mother tucked in my pack. Now it sits tattered in a pannier. Watching. Comforting. Sometimes I cannot help but wonder how it is that Sybirak families survived the ordeal. No doubt the incredible generous spirit of the Uzbeks was a lift. On the Naryn River yesterday I marvelled at the earthy straw and mud brick housing. When my mother’s family had typhus in Jakobad the owner moved them into the barns to prevent infection of her own son. No doubt those walls they looked at from their delirious state looked just like these.
We are now pointed towards Tashkent where Bonnie will fly back to Canada. Given that Lee and I are Canadian, we require guides in Turkmenistan and Iran. Sadly we have to drop Turkmenistan to be able to afford even a shortened stay in Iran. The good news is we have arrangements to get to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Iran (Bandar e Anzali or Pahlevi as it was known).
There is a definite feel of loss in ending our journey soon but it seems fitting somehow. The last boat across the Caspian Sea that brought the Sybiracy to freedom was in September 1942. Here we are September seventy three years later. I can only imagine the desperate hope and strength that they mustered to survive. How heartbreaking it must have been to watch those that didn’t make it. (Only about 115,000 out of the original million+ deportees made it on these ships).
As we roll over mountains and spin along the cracked pavement I think of our families. Our losses. Our hearts. Our lucky breaks. Meanwhile, Tashkent here we come.