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The Comm'on Life project

Author and Photos by: Elena Chernishova (Comm’on life)

The Comm'on Life project started on 8th August in Labastide Saint-Pierre, a small village 40km north of Toulouse, in the south of France. The purpose of the project is to journey from France to Vladivostok via the Himalayas and then to return to the starting point across Russia, following the Trans-Siberian railway.
It was always intended to be more than just a bike trip; we wanted it to serve some useful purpose. So we decided to photograph the historical monuments along our route to help ICOMOS publicize its work protecting cultural heritage.

From France, our route led us through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and we are now in Uzbekistan. On 20th November, we launched ourselves into Central Asia, via the far western border of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: only two countries but we were already captivated - by the diversity, landscape, cultural heritage and, above all, the welcoming attitude.

We imagined Kazakhstan as an immense green steppe but instead of green, we found ourselves first in a yellow desert north of the Caspian Sea, then in the midst of a deep cold winter. The temperature was down to -30 centigrade in the Aral port. The phantoms of the sea stood proudly in the now endless beach. The snow created a kind of Arctic landscape, with rusty boats for penguins. The Aral Sea has been a popular subject these past years. Walking in the port and feeling the space left by the sea leaves one with a strange feeling of bitterness. However, the city is still alive. A new school has been built just front of the port, and the children believe that in two years they will be swimming in their sea once again (thanks to a dike being built between the north and south Aral Sea). Everybody is invited!
Our route continued south-east along the railway, in the direction of Chimkent. The cold had not emptied the steppes. First camels, then cows, and finally sheep indicated nearby villages. We were equipped to sleep in temperatures of -20, but numerous chaikhana opened their doors to us, or the locals honored us by welcoming us into their homes. It is rare to eat the national dish besbarmak within a family. They prefer to cook some kind of plov or typical soup for their guest, accompanied by bursak and bread. To be invited into a family and to share our experiences with them is always a pleasure. We show them pictures of Europe, and they explain their lives to us. The Kazakhs like their country and are proud of its achievement since independence. They believe in their future, especially one built on the petrol industry, and dream of having a western quality of life by the year 2030.

We then went to Uzbekistan, where we planned to cycle in a loop around the country. Uzbekistan is an open book where you can read the history by visiting such grandiose place as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. From the magical light of Chah-i-Zinda to the calm atmosphere of the old Bukhara streets, Uzbekistan offers a great spectacle.
More than in Kazakhstan, we were amazed by the kindness of the Uzbeks. Even if we wanted to put up our tent somewhere, we were invariably 'kidnapped' by a family for the night. It is their tradition to welcome travelers, and sharing that little time with them is still a good memory. Everybody is familiar with Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, but the Kyzylkum desert is full of treasures. The Kyzylkum is not really red, as its name suggests (red sands), and as a desert, it is quite empty: a few little bushes, a few 'cats of the desert' and an immense emptiness. However, on penetrating further, we discovered an area rich in culture and people. Several 'cathedrals' of the desert, the Qualas, still stand proudly in the sand. They were built sometime in the 2nd century BC. Research on them is limited and they are not well known. But they are worth the visit! Walking on the middle of the old walls takes you back two thousand years. Captivated by the desert, we continued to penetrate deeper, leaving the asphalt and going on the sand. A bit silly with a bike, but challenging. Twenty kilometers in two days. We were slower than a snail. Our reward was a small village cut off from the world. No electricity, no drinkable water, and fifteen families. The people were happy nonetheless, and there was no talk of leaving. The desert is empty, but there are surprises hidden in it.

After this time in Uzbekistan, the Comm'on Life team will follow its route to Kyrgystan, and the Xinjiang. Central Asia will remain in our memory as a great area where the history and the people formed a wonderful mosaic. We then leave Central Asia to cycle the Himalayas before continuing our dream to reach Vladivostok(You can follow our adventure on  www.common-life.org ).

Discovery Central Asia #20

Discovery Central Asia supplement #20/2007

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