I’d been in Bukhara about a week, living on a dusty, rooftop mattress. The nights were crisp but not too cold, and completely absent of the whining siren of an errant mosquito. The rising sun would open my eyes – how it should be, I’d say. Mornings, I’d grab my bicycle and amble outside for a short pedal; those Bukhara alleys, narrow and ancient, are magic in the morning. I’d pass many locals transporting bread to a neighbor or business, who were usually on a bicycle as well.
After a week, it was time to go. My Uzbek visa was set to expire, and Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway was calling my name. Back on the road again.
That morning, the air was hot, dry, and perhaps oppressive, but I never seem to mind. I like pedaling. I like pedaling fast. I like blasting music at high volume, singing aloud, pointing playfully at a passing villager, and pedaling to my heart’s content and adrenaline’s expiration. Weather is rarely a limiting factor. However, that day was hot, as I sped through yet more Uzbek desert, and at some point, the body just shuts down. Adrenaline only lasts for so long.
By 5:30pm, having already cycled more than 150 kilometers, I’d had enough. The sky goes black around 9:00pm – I had plenty more daylight to go – but I just couldn’t pedal anymore. I needed sleep. Perhaps it was wrong to push so hard after a week away from the bike. At that moment, I was exhausted, alone and homeless, on a lonesome Uzbek desert road. I needed sleep, and I needed help.
To the right, I spotted a small, brown, earth-toned building. These things are made from straw and mud, I believe. From a distance, I judged it to be a chaihana – a central Asian teahouse. Historically, chaihanas had been very good to me: I’d slept in many, and eaten in more. I turned off the road and toward the building, excited for a place to sit.
I got closer, and realized that this was not a teahouse, but someone’s home. The owner, a farmer, was sitting at a plastic table, and motioned for me to approach. He removed a knife, cut and served some green melon, and poured me a glass of water. “Eat, eat,” he motioned, “then go inside and take a nap. You look like you need it.”
Gratefully, and with few words, I obliged. I really did need it.
Two hours later, as the sun was finally setting, I emerged. The farmer sat right where I left him, in a plastic blue chair with a knife in his hand, cutting green melon and enjoying the air.
“Sleep well?” he gestured.
I had. Still, I was visibly tired, which the farmer readily noticed. “Please,” he motioned, “stay the night and rest well. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Gracious, and with a polite meekness in my tone, I asked if he had hot water, which I hoped to use to make some Ramen noodles. When cycling, I always carry two packets as spare.
“Hungry?” he motioned. “Would you like me to bring you food instead?”
I get these offers frequently, and rarely refuse. I think it best to simply accept this unrelenting, unfettered kindness, with which the solo traveler is continuously faced, instead of playing “hard to get.” People want to help you: let them. Then, with the opportunity to help out others yourself, you do it – you pass the favor forward. This is best for the world.
Smiling, I nod “yes” to my host, who darts quickly behind the house, through his carefully manicured fields, and into the country hills.
Minutes later, he returns with the biggest plate of plov I’d ever seen. This thing could have fed a family of four. It was massive, and a tangible metaphor for his general kindness.
Exhausted and drained, I set out to topple this mighty, plovian empire, as the farmer returned to his chair. The night was crisp but not too cold – just like those starry, silent, rooftop nights among the mystic of Bukhara. Earlier, I needed a bed, and with eerie immediacy, a stranger reached out and gave me this bed. Earlier, I needed energy, and with eerie convenience, this same stranger provided me with all the water, melon, and plov I could ever ingest. I was no longer alone on a weary desert road. Now, as the sun set gently on the day’s adventure and uncertainty, pensively crafting that of tomorrow, I had a roof over my head and a friend at my side. The moon began to shine softly on the man’s farm. It was the perfect cycle touring night.
I set out on this journey by myself. However, as the solo traveler knows well, I’m never alone. The more you “put yourself out there,” the more the world pushes back. A friend once stressed the importance of putting good faith in strangers. For me, cycling Central Asia, with some of the highest mountains and vastest expanses this world can offer, was an experimental manifestation of her words.
I cycled solo for almost 5 months, and rarely was I ever alone. Even more rarely did I go hungry.
Many thanks to our unknown farmer as well: that was the best plate of plov I’d ever had.