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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.