“I get knocked down, but I get up again.
You’re never going to keep me down.”
Ugh! I reach into the daypack draped across my chest, and rummage around for my MP3 player. It has slipped somewhere between one of my water bottles and the ripped baggie with toilet paper, hand sanitizer and sunscreen. I fumble over the fast-forward button and skip through a half dozen songs.
“Not now,” I say in my head. I can’t scratch out the words beyond my scorched throat, and no one would hear them anyway.
Chumbawamba’s Tubthumbing is a “get me moving” song. It has gotten me through running training days and races and many hours of walking under an unforgiving sun. But, today, I can’t handle the cheerleading rah-rah.
I need a dose of common sense and sanity. These endless kilometers of Uzbekistan’s desert are melting me physically, emotionally and mentally. I just want to get out of here—not just out of the dry, desolate stretch between Boysun and Qarshi, but out of this entire country. I have never wanted to leave a place more than I want to leave Uzbekistan.
I am collapsing under the weight of water. I’m obsessed with the nearly six liters of water I now haul, the water I must ration over a course of a day, and the water we don’t have and won’t have until we reach the next little town at least 10 kilometers, or three hours walking, away.
I’m maxed out on what I can carry. The extra two, two-and-a-half liters I’ve added to my normal amount has pushed my total pack weight to more than 20 kilos, more than a third of my body weight. My shoulders, back, hips and ankles are sore and tired, barely able to react to what I keep dropping on them. I’m getting blood blisters on my both of my feet. I curse us for not having a cart in a place where we need it the most. How stupid we are for being here in July.
The temperature in distant Bukhara, about 12 walking days away, has climbed to above 40 degrees Celsius. I can’t get a cell signal to check the weather where I’m standing, but I’m convinced that the steaming blacktop has inched the thermometer closer to 50. I sweat profusely and then stop sweating altogether. I’m losing more salt than I can replace. I’m dizzy with dehydration and am convinced I’m somewhere between heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I add a tea bag and homemade electrolytes (a mix of salt, sugar and cinnamon) to a water bottle. I take a couple magnesium pills; I cluck my tongue at the missed opportunity to buy salt pills at the last town’s pharmacy. The cramps in my legs flutter in waves and sometimes double me over in pain, halting my slow progress through the middle of nowhere.
Lluís is about 700 meters ahead of me. We walk together sometimes, but our paces are naturally different. There are parts of the day where we walk alone. The loneliness swallows me.
§§ “Atkuda???” Velik????” come the nonsensical questions shouted enthusiastically from a passerby sticking his head out of a car window. “Where are you from??? Where’s your bicycle???”
There are seven questions Uzbeks from every corner of the country seem to have simultaneously on their minds when they encounter foreigners. They frequently ask them in Russian, their universal language, and we have learned to rattle off quick answers when we are hit with the chain of must-know identifying markers: Where are we from? Bicycle? Walking? What is your name? How old are you? Are you married (or, more often with a finger pointed ahead to Lluís, is that your husband)? Do you have kids?
Every once in a while we get logical questions related to what we are doing: Do you have a map? Where are you walking to? How many kilometers do you walk every day?
Sometimes, people want to know more about where we live: Do you have pictures of Barcelona? Oh, Catalonia, Barcelona—Futbol Club Barcelona, Messi? What money do you have in Barcelona—euros, yes? What do you eat in Barcelona, do you have potatoes, watermelons and tomatoes?
The last handful of inquiries typically shower us when we are sitting down, not when we are curved downwards like sunflowers strapped with seeds, an image I sometimes like to think fits us, too.
“Atkuda???” I hear again. I’ve stopped screaming answers into the wind many months ago. It’s a total waste of my energy. Instead, I flick my hand off my pack’s thumb hook and wave. It’s all I can do to acknowledge the roadside support I know people are wishing us.
The car pulls into the shoulder behind me, and the curious passenger jumps out with his mobile phone in hand, dashing breathlessly towards me. “Atkuda? Photo?”
Ugh again! Not only do I have to stop to talk to him in the shadeless heat of late morning, I also have to pretend to be happy to do this, and take a photo with him. Shoot me now.
“Sue? Vode? Do you have water??” I desperately spit out. If people want me to speak, they must help moisten my vocal cords. Self preservation is the only thing on my mind. No water means I crawl back into turtle mode, keep my head down and trudge forward, pretending I don’t understand anything they are saying.
The guy, wearing Ray Ban knockoffs and a white button down, reaches into the car and someone from the back seat passes him a water bottle. I don’t know if it is bottled water or water filled from a garden hose, but it’s cold, and it’s delicious. I take a long sip. If it gives me the runs in an hour, I’ll deal with that problem then and pray there will be a patch of bushes further on that I can squat behind.
“Rahmat. Thank you. I live in Catalonia. Yes, you can take a photo, but I have to keep walking. My bag is very heavy and it is very hot.” I mutter, squeaking out a tiny, fake smile. I want to be nice, but I can’t linger. These “ask the walker” pit stops happen several dozen times a day, and it’s exhausting living in the constant repeat of useless conversation.
He stands next to me readying himself for selfie pose. We both give a thumbs up. The thumbs up is more for me than for him. Nothing is all right, but I want to believe it will be. I want it to be like it was a month ago in Tajikistan, tough but amazing, where I walked in awe and wonder and not drained by a pounding anxiety and an unquenchable thirst . He shows me the photo. The glare is too bright and I see nothing. I humor him with another thumbs up and a “Yashi, OK.” We shake hands, the driver honks the horn.
There’s little else to do except to keep going. There’s nowhere to stop. There’s no water, no food, no shade, no people. There’s yellow everywhere I look, with a ribbon of asphalt stringing hope towards an eventual something. “Maybe there’s a gas station around the curve. Maybe there will be an abandoned house where we can nap for a couple of hours over the hill. Oh! Could that patch of green out there be an oasis with an orchard? God, please let there be something!” It’s my only wish.
Heat-induced hallucinations turn into anger, overwhelm and self-defeat. “This is too much. I can’t do it.” I hunch over, letting my arms hang loose near my knees. I shift the weight of my pack, and compel more steps. It’s getting harder to follow a straight line. I turn up the volume on my MP3 player.
“And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
Let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.”
Sing it Paul. This Beatles song has traveled with me everywhere. I sang it with other backpackers in Greece. I ran through San Francisco’s chilly fog with it in my head. I laid on a beach in Croatia letting it help me make sense of my life. I’ve fallen asleep to it on a 19-hour bus ride in India. In Uzbekistan, it brings tears to my eyes.
“There will be an answer, let it be.
Let it be, let it be. Yeah
There will be an answer, let it be.”
I’m fighting back my weakness. It’s a pathetic, will-less fight. Whatever water my body has left gushes down my face. I lick the corners of lips trying to recoup liquid.
“Jenn, you are really stupid if in the middle of a desert you waste salt and water on crying.” I scold myself for falling apart. “You might as well get yourself off the road right now and call it quits if this is what you’re going to do.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I should do. I don’t have to do this walk this way, torturing myself and damaging my body in extreme heat.” Another inner voice challenges the first. “I could just stop. I could hitchhike or take a taxi to Qarshi, and recover for a few days. I don’t have to be a slave to a route we created and could easily recreate. I can reinvent my way forward. I can stop. I can change course. I choose to be here, and I can choose not to be here.”
I stay looped in the thought of giving up this leg, of completely quitting Uzbekistan. The idea of being in this country prejudiced me months ago, and it is one of the few places I have dreaded walking in during our estimated 14,000 kilometer hike across Asia and Europe.
My anti-Uzbek bias started in January in Thailand. We went to talk with the Uzbek consul in Bangkok about the visa process and the possibility of getting approved for 60 days, double the standard 30-day stay.
“Why would you want to spend 60 days in my country? There’s nothing to do there. You visit Bukhara, Khiva, Samarkand and Tashkent, but there’s not much else to see,” the consul shrugged, dismissing our informal request, not even entertaining our proposal.
“We are traveling for a while, and want to spend as much time as possible in every country we are visiting. We want to spend time with Uzbek people, and learn more about Uzbek culture and history,” Lluís said, not mentioning that we intend to walk about 500-600 kilometers there and that it would be easier if we had more than a month to achieve that.
“Well, we’ll have to do an interview, and I’ll need more details about where you are going and who you will be staying with if you want to stay longer,” the consul continued.
We dumped our idealistic plan of an extended visa as alarms flashed in our seasoned backpacker memories. The less people know what we are doing, the better we tend to fare. In police states, like Burma and Uzbekistan, being seen as silly, dirty, smelly, non-threatening walkers who can’t even afford a shared taxi or a bus ticket is the look we’re going for. But there’s no need to announce our intention and draw unnecessary attention beyond what we already get hiking on roads.
My dislike for Uzbekistan simmered throughout the spring, boiling up with every cyclist we met. Nearly all of them had police-related horror stories. We could count on one hand the ones who breezed through without an issue. We should expect police checkpoints everywhere, and it could take hours to cross the borders in and out, many said. The police will look at all of your photos on every single device, memory card or USB you have, and delete anything they find objectionable or with religious or pornographic context. I thought of the dozens of photos of temples and Buddhas I had from Thailand and Burma, and the piles of photos of old churches in Europe tucked in digital folders I never clean. I shivered at the thought of them being erased by a thick-headed guy in a uniform.
The cyclists tales unraveled from there. They told us about how the border patrol will go through every item in our backpacks, and how some police seem to have a perverse interest in women’s panties. We heard about a visitor who was arrested for six days for carrying medicine with codeine in it (medicine he bought legally in Europe) and had to pay a huge fine in addition to sitting in jail. The creepiest part, for me, was hearing how women were randomly stripped searched.
And, we sulked listening to potential problems stemming from collecting enough registration slips, and the headaches we would face if we didn’t have enough nights checked into tourist-sanctioned hotels. The rule of thumb on the cyclist circuit is that you need a hotel slip every third night; walking to places with hotels was becoming a major challenge for us—the distances were just too long for us to make it to towns with hotels every three nights. A couple walkers (yes, walkers!) we met in Tajikistan told us the police were okay with the handful of slips they had on exit, and understood that walking brings with it less-normal sleeping conditions. We crossed our fingers and toes for similar luck.
Just in case, I created white lies we would have to tell police if they asked too many questions, and how our best defense might be to play dumb. ” Oh, really?? You need that slip? Lluís, do you have that piece of paper??” I practiced reciting these idiocies in the most sugary sweet female voice I could muster up, and pictured myself yanking out smelly socks and phone cables in the search for an imaginary handwritten card we didn’t have.
I reminded myself of something my father told me, something my grandfather used to say, “Don’t complain, don’t explain.” I latched onto the second part of the phrase, ignoring the first bit completely poo-pooing the complaining part, which I translated to “venting.” I mentally tweaked my strategy for insisting that Lluís would be in the room with me if I was subjected to imposed nakedness. I hid in the crooks of my sleeping bag, sewing kit and my blister-prevention pack good luck charms bearing religious symbols—Buddha’s face, praying hands, a little cross, Hindu beads–that friends and family had given me.
I turned off and deleted mobile phone apps linking to iCloud and Dropbox, where all of my life’s memories could be digitally scrutinized and eliminated on a whim, and I left only about 50 photos on my phone. I am pretty sure as a result of this, most of my dear Pamir photos were lost because of inadequate wifi in Tajikistan and an inability to do a thorough backup before crossing borders. I will forever hate Uzbekistan if that turns out to be the case.
The daily weight of dealing with these archaic control systems tips me over. While we we were constantly surprised by how little friction we actually encountered and the smooth passage we had through roadside checkpoints, the constant sense of not knowing what will happen when we stand in front of a policeman is a pressure I can’t get used to. I felt the same way in Burma. There, besides dealing with dizzying heat, we struggled every night to find a safe place to sleep, because sleeping anywhere but in tourists-approved hotels was prohibited.
Burma, Uzbekistan. Totally different places on the map but stirring up the same feelings of disdain, discomfort and disappointment as we deal with legacy laws we must meander through and find a way to live with for a few unpleasant weeks.
“The consul was right. Who the hell wants to spend 60 days in this country? I barely can get through six days here.” I again check out of Uzbekistan, something that happens about 10 times a day as the sun peaks and fries my motivation.
I find Lluís hiding in a sliver of shade behind the concrete barricade at the road’s shoulder. He warns me not to sit too close to the brown and yellow spider clinging to a web shimmering in fierce sunlight. He’s a big fellow, and in any other moment I would shriek at his size. In this moment, all I can do is slump next to Lluís and sip hot water that tastes like melted plastic.
“I’m done. I’m going to Qarshi and will meet you there.” I tell him. I stop short of saying that I will go straight to Bukhara, my designated walking end point in Uzbekistan. I want to think that I will regain strength and continue. I’m not sure how, though. Our pace of doing 28-30 kilometers a day with this heat and an increasing lack of sleep (sacrificed so we can cover more miles in cooler hours of the day and impossible to catch up on during the afternoon when people hover around us and shade is a fleeting feature) feels beyond my limit.
“I can’t keep killing myself like this so we can make kilometers and beat a visa. I have my whole life to make kilometers, and don’t need to rush for a stamp in a passport,” I add, insinuating once again that this walk is becoming something very different than I expected.
The question of what we each expect from this walk has caused the beginnings of a rift between us these last few months, and we started confronting it in Burma, the country that broke me into pieces.
Generally, we are locking horns about what our trip really means: Is it about putting one foot in front of another to reach the faraway end goal of Barcelona? What kind of change of life will this trip usher in for each of us, and how will deal with these anticipated changes as the walk unfolds? How do we balance the pressure to cross a set distance in a short period of time dictated by a visa with the need to stop, rest, explore, share and connect with each unique region we pass? Each question comes with a different interpretation.
Practical, goal-oriented and head-strong Lluís, whose life mantra is never give up, believes our mission is to walk as many kilometers as possible between Bangkok and Barcelona, closing as many as gaps as we can on the route we invented. When we only have 30-day visas, he pushes himself (and, by default, me) harder to cover the prescribed distance.
I’m an ideas girl with a spiritual side (not a religious leaning, but rather a less rooted “going wherever my spirit leads me” tendency), and have no shortage of equally head-strong thoughts about the higher calling we’re meant to follow as we track steps. I don’t think “our work” is only to walk something like 14,000 kilometers and be done with it. I believe that walking is the vehicle we chose—and choose every day– to slow down the kind of backpacking we have long done, connect to the Earth, appreciate people, give back to communities we pass through and experience life in a more intimate way. Lluís likes the sounds of this, too, but, for him, these are things that fit in later after we checked off kilometers and beat visa restrictions.
Truth is, lately, I could care less if we actually reach Barcelona. The more we walk, the more I think we did ourselves a great injustice by bookending our start and finish points. It made sense years ago when we first began fantasizing about this trip to have a clear intention of what we hoped to accomplished–we will go to Barcelona by foot. Seven months on the road and that feels artificial, superficial. It’s so much more than walking home and finding goodness in others. Many hours under a hot sun has me thinking it’s more about walking to the home of our hearts, and uncovering the heaps of goodness Lluís and I carry inside us and are meant to share with others.
I know my last emotionally jumbled statement stabs Lluís. He feels like the bad guy in the movie, the guy holding the whip that makes us plow ahead in uncomfortable situations, and he is sensitive to the bitterness I can’t hide in the face of defeat. I don’t mean to hurt him but I can’t help it. Many days I don’t understand what we’re doing. I can’t figure out why we must adapt to bad decisions instead of making new, smarter and healthier choices. I also no longer can tell where the lines of persistence, resistance and irrationality blur, and what character quality we lash ourselves with.
Walking in the desert in July without enough water and with nothing on the horizon should make us seriously reconsider our options. There is no wisdom in this, there is nothing courageous in pushing through stupidity, and sheer willpower appears to be putting me on precarious ground healthwise. I’ll have to be okay with quitting, even if I’m not.
We’re both disappointed that I have to get off the road, but it’s the Plan B we talked about before. We choose to walk on roads for several reasons. We are not survivalists, and we need to have towns and people within in a day’s walk because we need water and food. We walk on roads because they are shorter distances through countries than unmarked trails, and, if an emergency happens, it’s easier to flag down help. Hopping in a car to Qarshi, about 50 kilometers away, will be a cinch later in the day after lunch when traffic picks up and people move in less-hot temperatures. Until then, we’ll keep going, stopping when needed to regroup.
“Don’t be afraid to be weak.
Don’t be too proud to be strong.
Just look into your heart, my friend.
That will be the return to yourself,
The return to innocence.”
Enigma’s soft song gives me an escape hatch. Its tribal melody and soothing words comfort me. It hugs me with confidence.
“Don’t care what people say.
Just follow your own way.
Don’t give up and use the chance
To return to innocence.”
I smile. I love the word innocence as much as I love the word imagine, a word tattooed to my foot in Thai script. Part of this trip is to re-examine the world with innocent eyes, and to let go of a collective fear burying humanity. The fear of others, the fear of the unknown and the fear of what could be is crippling the global population. These are not my fears, and I won’t let those false fears crush me.
I will be present. I am innocent. I create my own happiness, and my own luck. I’m a wayfinder. I am a gift to the world, and the world is a gift to me, every single bit of it – the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the easy parts and the hard parts. I feel the mental and emotional gears shift as the sun drops lower. I talk myself out of thirst. I let music heal me and quench something else I crave
“She was everything I dreamed she’d be.
Sweet surrender, what a night.”
Ah, that college song–December 1963 by the Four Seasons.
“I felt a rush like a rolling bolt of thunder,
Spinning my head around and taking my body under.
Oh, what a night!”
In a heartbeat, I see myself in a bar in 1993, drinking cheap beer and dancing with my friends. I’m a young woman ready to step into the world, unsure about nearly everything but pretty sure I would land on my feet somewhere.
And, here’s where I landed—in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan. A place I desperately want to leave. A place that depletes me. A place that, in spite of myself, has been good to me, so far.
We have avoided major issues with police. We have walked and camped under dark skies pinned with stars, and pondered life’s important questions in the shadow of the Milky Way. People have brought us into their home, fed us and let us sleep among them. They have offered us freshly baked bread, whole watermelons and slices of sweet, just-picked melons. They’ve loaded our bags with apples and tomatoes, and cheered us on with car honks, thumbs ups and waves from doorways. They’ve insisted that we take their money in case we need a taxi or to buy more water in the next rest area. They have stopped their cars and treated us like rock stars, wanting to know where we’re from and mark some of our craziness in their photo milestones.
Uzbekistan—I don’t know how to judge you. You have scarred me as much as you have tested me. You’ve fed me, and cheered me on. You’ve made me sick with stress, and you’ve made me doubt myself.
But, you will not beat me. The weight of water is temporary. My spirit will endure after this month ends. I may not be certain about the road ahead, but I am not afraid. Hah, I’ll prove it to you! I will land somewhere else. You’ll see, and you’ll be sorry to see me leave! Take that, Uzbekistan!
I stop watching my feet kick stones and look up. I should do that more often–look ahead. I see Lluís talking to a cyclist a couple hundred meters up the road.
The folks on wheels are our brothers and sisters in this journey. They are our direct feed to what’s happening beyond our horizon. We try to talk with as many cyclists as we can, and always take time to admire their tenacity and love of life.
Like many on wheels heading eastbound, Daniel says something we know to be true. “As tough as it is and as hot as it is, I’m glad I’m here, wherever here is. I’m far from home, and I’m here.” He spreads his arms out, embracing the empty, dusty hills circling us. We have a similar version to that, “Every day traveling is better than a day in an office.”
“And, I’ve been looking at the stars for a long, long time.
I’ve been putting out fires all my life.
Everybody wants a flame, but they don’t want to get burnt.
And today is our turn.
Days like these lead to
Nights like this lead to
Love like ours.
You light the spark in my bonfire heart.
People like us we don’t need that much.
Just someone that starts…starts the spark in our bonfire hearts.”
The James Blunt tune comes up when I put the headphone back in my left ear; my right ear is for listening to life around me.
My bonfire heart. My nomadic soul. My sure-footed Capricorn. Be true to that. Walk on.
The sun tumbles down the sky, and Lluís waits for me to catch up.
“So, I’ve changed my mind. I will walk on to Qarshi, and I’ll finish in Bukhara as planned,” I tell him. “We’ll have to adjust the mileage and build in shorter walking days or find some other way to rest and deal with this heat. But, I want to finish this leg walking, and we’ll finish ahead of the visa’s end date. The faster we get done with the walking part, the faster we can enjoy the ‘real’ parts of the country. Hopefully, too, we’ll have enough time to meet Paul.”
I started replenishing my body with the promise of downtime and the extra days we’ll have to visit the old Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, things worth seeing during what will likely be our only visit here. There is also a good chance we will meet one of our own, long distance walker and National Geographic writer Paul Salopek. His Out of Eden walk takes him through Uzbekistan the same time we’re here. The possibility of a face-to-face with him becomes the carrot on the stick I dangle in front of this desert nothingness.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Lluís says, surprised always by how I flip-flop my choices. I know I slow him down, but I know, too, that he would rather walk with me than without me.
We reach the next tiny spot on the map. There is a store with a refrigerator. I grab a bottle of water that must have just been pulled from the freezer. It’s mostly ice, but some liquid jiggles at the bottom. I suck whatever drips out. I close my eyes and let the cold water slide slowly around my mouth and down my throat. It only takes a few drops to remind me how precious it.
For a couple of seconds, all of the weight I carry falls away. I live only for this moment.
Postscript: I finished walking the approximate 520-kilometer stretch called Uzbekistan in Bukhara, an important city along ancient trading routes and a significant place in Islamic historic and culture. It wasn’t easy, but I found something inside to manage the ups and downs in a slightly better way.
Like in Burma when we finished in Bagan, a special site for Buddhists, stopping in Bukhara felt like the right place for me to connect our walk to the bigger world around us and the collective history and future we share. Lluís logged an extra 80 kilometers to Olot (sometimes written Alat), closing a small gap on our map by inching closer to Turkmenistan, a country we have no expectations to visit because of its absurdly limiting 5-day transit visa we may or may not be granted.
We toured Uzbekistan’s reconstructed jewels in Bukhara and Samarkand, which I’ll briefly write about in another post. We avoided ALL the police issues mentioned previously, and left Uzbekistan with our jaws dropped at how easy our exit went. It took us about 20 minutes to get stamped out of the country, and longer to get stamped into Kazakhstan, our transit country back to Kyrgyzstan.
And, fortuitously, we managed serendipidity. We made it to the walled old city of Khiva, another special place in history, and spent a few hours sharing stories with Paul Salopek.
Meeting Paul, someone we have been following the last three years as he walks the world retracing human migration routes, was one of my highlights of our journey to date. It seemed appropriate that we would cross paths on an ancient road that has linked people for centuries—by camel, by horse, by donkey, by wagon, by automobile, by truck…and, yes, by foot.
“Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya. Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya. Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya.”
I search my playlist for the Hindu mantra invoking Vishnu and Krishna, sung to a simple guitar rhythm. It means, “I salute to the divine, which is the light of all beings.”
I hope the light of all beings we have met and have yet to meet helps keeps us weightless.
§§ Note: All foreign words are phonetic interpretations. The lack of Internet connectivity sometimes prevent us from adequately proofreading and spellchecking.