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Uzbekistuck: Marooned on the Silk Road During a Pandemic

Within a day of their first COVID-19 case, Uzbekistan slammed borders shut with no chance for travelers to get out. More than a week later, hope for a flight emerges, but will we take it?

The sun sets and the last light drains out of the desert. Jackals yip around us before falling silent, the only noise the sound of our camping stove heating up dinner. It’s our first night camping in the Uzbek desert. Over a year has passed since we cycled out of our driveway in the south of France. Each day of cycling, despite the challenges, has brought us closer to here: Central Asia, Uzbekistan, and The Silk Road.

We’ve planned to stay in Central Asia until mid-September, exploring Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan until the winter snows push us south to Pakistan and India.

Only that’s not going to happen.

Eating noodles at a truck stop, the TV catches my eye. President Macron is speaking, but the audio and headlines are in Russian. “Corona” seems to be every fifth word. The waiter sees me watching and holds up his arms up in an X. I reassure him that it’s been a long time since we’ve been anywhere near France.

Three hundred and fifty kilometers later, in the sparkling city of Samarkand, we connect to Wi-Fi for the first time in four days. A rush of information spills onto my phone. Notably: Uzbekistan has announced its first case of COVID-19.

We visit Samarkand as planned. In the cool halls of the Registan, the heat of the ancient city, we lose ourselves to the decadence of the mosaics. Cherry trees are in full bloom and the bazaars overflow with radishes and spring lettuces. The pretty picture isn’t spotless; at the Registan, the shopkeepers are already mourning the lost tourism. In the bazaar, people recognize we’re foreign, and mumble “coronavirus” to us as we pass.

Over breakfast at the hostel, the owner tells us a local official forced her to sign a proclamation that she will not accept any new foreign guests until further notice. This rule means that if we want to continue cycling as planned, it may be difficult to find a hotel in the next city.

Uzbekistan announces retroactively the closing of its borders, land, and air. A friend of ours calls the French embassy, who tell us to come to Tashkent immediately. There is a charter flight being organized to get Europeans back to Europe.

What would our favorite adventurers do in this situation? Would mountaineer and explorer Mike Horn rush home on the first flight back? Would the trekker Emile Brager find a way to make the best of it? We begin to weigh our options.

I try to convince myself that we can enjoy ourselves at the hostel for a few weeks until things calm down. But it isn’t so simple. The owner paces around the kitchen, wiping down everything guests touch with a bottle of hand sanitizer. Online, rumors are swirling. Around lunch, we make a snap decision. We’ll hire a taxi to drive to Tashkent. At least then we’ll be moving forward.

In Tashkent, we find a host for the night. The next day we’re seeking distraction, and walk uptown to visit Inesse, the Russian poet I’d arranged to interview back when things were normal. We immediately hit it off, chatting about the role of women during the Soviet period and now. Within just a few minutes of our visit, she invites us to stay in the guest room until the situation blows over.

The next day, at Inesse’s front gate, we chat and unload our bikes. Over coffee and cakes, we discuss the projects we can collaborate on during this period. What better way to spend confinement than with a poet?

The phone rings and Inesse disappears for 10 minutes.

“Well, that was strange.” She gathers her purse and puts on her shoes. “It was the neighborhood guard, who asked me if I had foreigners at my home. They insisted I come to the station.” She goes alone, and a half-hour later comes back furious. It seems that due to the state of emergency, foreigners can no longer stay with private individuals. A neighbor saw us arrive, our bikes loaded with baggage and called the neighborhood guard. They gave Inesse two choices: either ask us to leave, or all three of us will be sent to quarantine. Inesse pitches a fit about lack of personal liberty but I understand this as a sign: things are not going to get any easier for foreigners.

Time to move again. We find ourselves in a hostel authorized to accept guests near the airport. There we meet five other long-term cyclists. Upon hearing their stories, I’m convinced now isn’t the time to be traveling the world by bicycle.

By midday the next day, the seven of us have scoured all of Tashkent’s bicycle shops to collect cardboard boxes the right size to ship back our bikes. Time to wait.

A few days later, lounging around the hostel, phones ding simultaneously.

“Dear Fellow Citizens,” begins the email sent by the French embassy. “Uzbek authorities have confirmed that there will be a charter flight for Europeans to Munich tomorrow night. Tickets will be sold at the Uzbek Airways office tomorrow morning.”

After a long wait at the ticket office, we return to the hostel with reservations for a flight that night, at double the normal price. We tell the sullen hostel owner we are leaving and begin organizing an airport transfer for us and our luggage.

Around 4 p.m., another email slides in: as soon as the ticket sales desks were closed at the airline office, the authorities announced the flight would be delayed for two to three days. But there is a bright side! We can move to a 4-star hotel down the road and stay there for free until the flight left.

I look at the cyclists around me, unsure of how to process this surprise. Still, one lesson you learn when cycling the world is not to spit in the face of good luck.

The hotel concierge understandably does a double-take when we arrive, but happily unlocks a luggage room for the boxes and within an hour we are in a room bigger than the average Parisian apartment. If this is where I’ll be staying until the flight takes off, they can delay it as long as they want!

As promised, two days later we receive an email explaining the final details of the flight. Most worrying are the two lines at the bottom notifying us that passengers will not be permitted more than one checked bag.

Straight away we contact the French embassy, who suggests we ship the bikes. They’re proud to report they’ve already been in contact with DHL; we can ship the bikes for €415, each. Or approximately €100 less than our plane ticket home. Four of us make the decision to leave our bikes with a trusted friend in Tashkent. For us, this is the ultimate motivation to return and continue our journey as soon as borders open. Our bikes are our partners.

In the taxi to our friend’s house, we see the evolution of the security measures in the city: tanks have completely closed off the major entry points. Wearing a mask is obligatory in public, and our taxi driver tells us that people will only be allowed to go to the store on certain days.

The airport terminal feels surreal. After ten days of waiting, I felt like we would never leave. “It isn’t over until it’s over,” Quentin repeats to me. But, it’s over, or at least on pause. I file onto the airplane, into my seat. The stewardesses are garbed in hazmat gear, goggles, gloves, and masks. We take off. Food service starts.

I tell myself that our Silk Road dreams won’t be squashed by COVID-19. But watching the flight progress on the tiny screen, my stomach sinks lower and lower. More than a year of travel to get this far, and now it’s like we’ve pressed the reverse button.

We fly west over the Caspian Sea, west over the Black Sea, west into Europe.

Today, as we enter our second week of isolation, I can confirm it is certainly not the same Europe as when we left.