Here a Stan, there a Stan

Central Asia is like nothing I could have imagined, and even now, in the capital of Uzbekistan, I still shake my head to make sense of it all.

Cycling through Iran was without a doubt one of the most incredible experiences of my life. From west to east, past villages and deserts, mountains and forests, every lie I’d been told about the country lay shattered on the road behind me.

Mike on Bike posing with soldier in Tehran as part of bicycle tour of Iran.

Enjoying Tehran

Iranians are not slaves to the Ayatollah. They are not terrorists. I saw no women wailing in the streets, no gangs burning American flags. Nobody locked me away or tore out my toenails.

Instead I was invited into homes, doted on and fed until I could barely move. I was showered with gifts – everything from jewelry to a bike tire. Old men kissed my forehead and said I traveled with God.

I was there for a month and no one, not a single person I met, wanted anything but peace with the west.

That’s the truth, the real picture.

But what we’re spoon-fed is something else entirely, something twisted and ugly. Our ideas come in high definition, in 3D and surround sound, but the message is always the same. All we know of Iran is fear and intolerance.

That is the real danger in this world.

The hazards in Turkmenistan seem small by comparison. At the border, the military guards jeered at me, pulled on my beard and dug through my pockets for money or cigarettes. All I could do was grit my teeth.

Camels in desert as seen on bicycle tour of Turkmenistan.

Thankfully, my time inside the country was altogether different. Soldiers at the many highway checkpoints were scarcely older than boys, but they were professional and kind.

The stamps in my passport were usually more interesting than me, and after a few minutes I was always free to move along.

It seems like a lot of hassle, and maybe it was. But I desperately wanted to meet average folks in Turkmenistan, to experience their way of life, if only for a short time.

I wasn’t disappointed. People stopped their vehicles at the roadside just to shake my hand. One man rummaged in his backseat and plopped a newborn baby in my arms for a photo.

Schoolgirls waved and then dashed away squealing. Boys produced impossibly worn soccer balls and pointed at my bicycle pump excitedly.

Children posing with bicycle near village of Farab in Turkmenistan.

More great kids in Turkmenistan

I so cherished my time in Turkmenistan that I nearly overstayed my five-day visa. After prying myself from a wonderful mob of kids in Türkmenabat, I raced to the now-closed border and had to beg the guard to let me through.

He stamped my exit papers and tipped his hat. In less than five minutes I was across the border and biking in Uzbekistan.

And this is where the trip nearly ended.

I sat in a field one night, eating dinner after pedaling 180 km through endless rows of cotton. I was exhausted and noticed too late a group of teenagers staring at me from the highway.

Three walked towards me. One shouted, inches from my face, enraged in a language I don’t understand. The other two began wheeling my bicycle away. When I tried to stop them, the first boy pulled a knife – my knife – that had been sitting on the ground beside my dinner.

I was more angry than scared, and even that didn’t carry much weight in my frustration. I swore and started across the field, back to the highway to get help.

People on the road just shrugged and turned away from me. I walked back to my camping spot very much alone. My bicycle and two of my panniers were gone, just as I knew they would be.

I packed the grubby, sad gear that remained and dragged it to the nearest farm house. I knocked on the door and managed to persuade the sleepy-eyed owner to call the police.

Among travelers, stories about the Uzbek militsiya are legendary. At best they are supposed to be indifferent, at worst greedy and corrupt. But there was nothing else to be done, so I silently awaited their arrival, my stomach in knots.

Mike on Bike at police station in Yangiol, near Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Looking rough at the police station

I was afraid of something I didn’t understand, and I was wrong.

Within the hour a half-dozen officers were slogging through a dirt field in search of my bike. They shone flashlights on tire tracks and found a long trail of gear abandoned by the thieves.

The police neatly stacked my equipment in a car trunk and drove me to their station. There we slowly bridged the divide between English and Uzbek.

I explained that I was a tourist traveling by bicycle, and its two wheels carried everything I owned.

The mood changed. A high-ranking officer arrived and everyone told me not to worry. Everything would be okay.

After a long wait a suspect was hauled in. The field had been dark and I said I couldn’t be sure the contrite youth standing before me was one of the thieves. But I thought he was.

The police led the kid into a room for questioning. There was shouting. At one point an officer brought in a gas mask, another a rubber strap. I don’t know what happened behind that door, and I don’t want to know.

At 4 o’clock in the morning, my bicycle and bags were brought into the station. I gave the nearest officer a koala hug and tried to explain, with teary eyes, how much that stupid hunk of steel means to me.

The thieves were lined up. I walked past them as I left, but I didn’t look up. I don’t want to remember their faces.

Mike on Bike with Shukarov family near Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Safe and sound with my hosts

I doubt they will ever forget mine.

I spent the rest of the night at a sergeant’s home.  His wife served us a pre-dawn meal, and in the morning his kids grinned as they poured me cup after cup of coffee. The officer even gave me a new set of clothes – a frumpy tribute to Neil Diamond’s denim days, but comfortable all the same.

Later, at the police station, I was given a free lunch. Then another. An officer was sent to the pharmacy to replace the medicine I’d lost. And when it was finally time to leave, the cops stuffed my bike into a car and delivered me to the door of a hotel in Tashkent.

There I slept for nearly two straight days. Now I feel stronger, much wiser, and I’m ready to continue down the road.

I have a 30-day visa for Kazakhstan. After I get my Chinese stamp this evening I won’t need to visit another embassy for a long time.

I’m glad. These past months have been very intense. Sometimes I long for my favorite faces and the old days back home. With six beers and a full moon we’d bike to the rail bridge and never see a shadow.  It was simple and silly and nobody tried to make sense of it.

That’s why I loved it.


16 responses to “Here a Stan, there a Stan

  1. So glad you are safe, Mike. I cried today thinking of you and your adventure…Not sadness, just emotion; emotion your journey accounts evoke in me. Je me souviens, je me souviens.

  2. Holy crap Mike! Thank God you are ok, and that they were even able to get your bike and gear back. Please take care, ok? Love Lis

  3. reading this one mostly I said holy shit! and then reading Marc and Shawn’s comments I too have tears. be safe buddy.

  4. “I was surrounded by a language
    In which I could say only hello
    And thank you very much
    But you spoke so I could understand
    And I drew a treasure map on your hand

    The map led to an island
    In a sea of store-bought dreams
    Where soulless singers sang
    Over beats built by machines

    And lovely girls were hovering
    Above my head like gulls
    With their long slender necks
    And their delicate skulls

    And the traffic was hissing by
    And I was homesick
    And I was high”

    — A. DiFranco

  5. Reading this a bit late, but commenting nonetheless. I’m glad you’re finding good people in the world, Mike, and sharing with us their existence.

    Stay safe.

  6. Hi Mike.
    How are you? everything is ok?
    Where are you? away from the internet!
    I missed you so much.

    take care.

  7. Hi there, I am a teacher from Major School, “Saskatchewant”. A colleague of mine shared this article of you with me, and I shared it with my grade 7/8 class. We are intrigued and amazed at where you have all been, what you have seen and accomplished. I hope you find peace in your continued journey, we will sontinue to follow your blog. There was an awesome class discussion on stero-typing that you addressed in a postive way in the article. Thank yo foryour humour and good luck!!!


  8. Hello Sir,

    I came acroos your site via the Travelling Two link. I have to say I read a lot of tourists saying similar things about Iran: that we in the West are fed to and do believe their people bad/terrorists/haters of the West etc. As I have never been to Canada I wonder are these misconceptions truly propagated/held there? I am from England and everybody I know is well aware that it is the government and their various branches that are ‘the enemy’ so to speak, rather than the Iranian (and other foreign nations’) people for whom there is great sympathy.

    I truly am astonished if ‘Joe public’ in Canada believe such things. Is this the standard line in your media? Sorry it’s a bit off topic.

    Best, J

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