An Uzbek School and a Rack with a Story

As I said in Uzbekistan one village would begin exactly where the previous one finished and along the road there are a lot of cultivated fields. This made wild camping quite hard, so I would often ask to people were to put the tent, something that would usually lead to an invitation for dinner and the permission to pitch the tent in the garden, but more often a bed inside the house was directly offered. These dinners transformed themselves quite soon in social events with all the neighbors participating at them, the constant problem being the language, my knowledge of Russian matching the English knowledge of the people I usually met.

Close to Dehqanabad, I was getting ready to a usual Uzbek evening: tent pitched in a garden close to a house after having asked permission, invitation for plov with arak coming as a special bonus and misunderstanding due to the language. But I was quite soon given a phone and at the other end I heard someone welcoming me to their village in a good English and then saying he would have arrived in a few minutes. Plov was eaten (and arak was drunk) speaking English with Sherali, an English teacher in a  school close to Dehqanabad, “not a village, but a middle-sized town with some facilities and infrastructures”, as I was often reminded. At the end of the dinner I was said that a few children were coming to speak with me for a sort of improvised English mini-lesson; I wished I could have received this information earlier, I would have drunk less arak to try to conserve some lucidity. After the first questions children stopped to speak English and the reciprocal understanding was based on Sherali’s translation, with some curious adults sometimes interrupting and posing a question themselves. Before going to sleep we agreed that I would have visited Sherali’s school the following morning.

Finding the school was easy, helped by the flux of children directed there, some wearing a uniform – a more traditional Uzbek dress for girls, a Western shirt for boys – others not. The first thing I visited was the office of the director, a man with golden teeth, a traditional Uzbek hat and a white shirt with short sleeves, who, as I entered his office, putted his hands on the table and never stopped smiling, asking something about myself and my trip and writing down on his agenda my name and nationality. Then Sherali, who was still translating, told me it was my turn to ask questions and to feel free to ask whatever I wanted. The director, still smiling and with his hands on the table, seemed like a diligent student anxious to make a good impression; I felt somehow unprepared and asked some usual questions, learning that the school has 400 students and 50 teachers, the most interesting thing being his answer to the question about the difficulties he faces as a director of a fairly big school (I’m not sure how Sherali translated it, we could communicate, but his English was still basic): “We do not have many problems, this is not a village and we even have drinking water” (when I asked to fill my bottles I was said I could have done it at the bazar). Then I was allowed to visit the school, but not to take any pictures. The visit of the school actually consisted in the visit of its two computer labs: the new one, not yet active, with new and shiny small notebook bought thanks to a loan from a local bank – “Tell me Francesco, do you have computer labs like this in your school in Italy or, maybe, there are some school in small villages that still do not have them?”- and the old one, with big and older computer, which somehow reminded me of the computer we had in my high school. This was the active lab, there was a class inside and all the children dutifully stand as soon as I entered the room; some of the children asked me questions, others were wandering around the room and others were just going in and out of the room with the teacher not minding too much either about my presence or children randomly entering the class. Here finished my tour of the school and, while leaving it, children were still entering the school without any hurry, despite the fact that the lessons were already started a good 30 minutes earlier. Sherali said it was bazaar day (???) and we went to visit it together. It was a typical Central Asian bazaar, with food and other more general goods for sale, a lot of colours, not as chaotic as I expected (bazaars I’ve seen in Sicily are more chaotic) and obviously smaller than the bazaars I’ve seen in Bukhara or Samarkand. I was anyway quite happy to visit it. Sometimes Sherali stopped close to a child working at a stand, whispered something to him in English to  him- usually ‘Where are you from?’- and this child would repeat it to me loudly. These were some students that once per week were missing school to help their family in the bazaar, something that seemed to be completely normal, also Sherali’s nephew was helping his brother in a stand. It was time to ride again, we said goodbye to each other, but before he insisted on writing down on a paper some basic Uzbek sentences with the relative English translation: “I need food/water” or “Where is the nearest hospital?” (he chose this one, adding “Just in case, I hope you don’t need it”).

A positive aspect of the fact I’m trying to cycle the whole way, without taking any motorized mean, unless the bike breaks, is that, even in stretches that are apparently boring, pleasant surprises always happen (for some negative aspects you can read how little I enjoyed Turkmenistan). That’s why, back in January, I entered Istanbul on my bike despite the horrible traffic. And along the road leading me to Istanbul I met Raz, an English girl who was finishing her one year long walk from the UK to Istanbul and, after a few months break in Istanbul, she is on the road again, but using a different mean of transport: she is now cycling East and we might even meet again in Central Asia. After this short meeting on the road, we met again one afternoon in Istanbul, together with a French couple, who, after having walked from France to Istanbul, was ready to fly to India and a French cyclist, Guillaume, who was waiting in Istanbul for winter to finish before keeping going East. It was a nice afternoon, spent chatting about our experiences in East Europe and about our future plans, but I didn’t hear from them anymore, if not for some occasional e-mails with Raz.

And while slowly pedalling after having said goodbye to Sherali, with the images of the bazar and the school still in my mind, I have been reached by another cyclist with a heavily loaded bike: it was Guillaume who, I found out later, had followed a route very similar to mine and had even heard about me from the bike mechanic that helped me in Tabas, in the Iranian desert. We started to pedal together, both laughing at the coincidence of meeting again here, in Uzbekistan, five months after our first encounter in Istanbul. And now, more than one month after our second meeting, we are both in Osh, having travelled together in Tajikistan, but we will be soon saying goodbye to each other, having different travel plans: he goes North to Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia (which he is planning to cross by horse) to finally enter China around November; I’m planning to go East towards China, but before I stop in Kyrgyzstan for a couple of months, resting and waiting for summer to finish (by the way Guillaume takes much better photos than me, you can find them here  on his blog).

Last days of cycling in Uzbekistan were slightly less monotonous, with more mountains and less cultivated fields and we went even slower than usual, Guillaume’s visa for Tajikistan not being valid yet. The weather was still warm, we enjoyed endless lunch breaks, and, after six months alone on the bike, I enjoyed sharing a beer and a meal with someone else while camping under an almost full moon.

Denau was the last town before the border, we arrived there in the early afternoon and it didn’t take a long time before understanding that our short time there would have been quite special: soon a huge and friendly crowd gathered around us, every time we stopped we were surrounded by much more people than usual and our visit to the bazar was welcomed by a big ola from the vendors. We also met an English-speaking boy who helped us to orient into town and we spent some time chatting with him before keeping going as we had some minor works to do on the bikes, the most important being trying to fix Guillaume’s back rack that had broken the day before. Guillaume doesn’t have the rack most cyclists use – the very solid and very expensive Tubus steel rack -, but a normal aluminum rack, that keeps breaking and he keeps repairing it; he even brings with him a spare rack, aware of the fragility of his own one. He needed two pieces of pure steel, to weld them together and to finally make a hole into them with a drill. The steel seller didn’t have a welding machine and the welder didn’t have a drill so we wandered around until we found everything we needed, still attracting the curiosity of many people. We finally found someone owning a drill and, as a ‘form of payment’, he asked us to pose for a picture together with the bike and his children; he later showed us a similar picture he had taken with other cyclists perfectly conserved in a nice frame. It might be not the best rack ever (even though with the new reinforcements it looks quite solid and it didn’t break in the badly paved road of Tajikistan), but it is definitely a rack with a story, as most of the objects that we, long-term cyclists, have, objects that keep to partially break and that we dutifully tape or glue back together.

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At the end of the improvised English lesson.  I don’t know how they manage to call all their children in so little time.

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The hall of the school. This was the only pictures I could take inside. Every poster on the wall is an article of the Uzbek constitution if I understood things correctly.

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The bazaar in Dehqanabad.

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In Denau.

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The bazaar in Denau.

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Me and Guillaume

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Guillaume entertaining some children. He was a circus teacher before leaving.

Other nice mountains in the South of Uzbekistan, close to Baysun.
Other nice mountains in the South of Uzbekistan, close to Baysun.
Curious people in Denau
Curious people in Denau

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