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The Great Central Asia Bicycle Trip: Part Three, Making Coffee for the Uzbeks

Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley spent three months cycling through central Asia as part of an 18-month bike trip. Here is part three of five, selling coffee in an Uzbek bazaar.

See part one, part two, part four, and part five.

More faces pressed in around us, so tight we couldn’t see outside the walls they created around us. They were old faces and young faces, smiling and stern faces. But all were inquisitive. They were curious as to what two Americans were doing setting up shop with a fuel bottle and camp stove in Samarkand’s Siyab Bazaar. They drew in a breath as Chris flicked the lighter.

Nothing happened.

Oh no, we thought. It wasn’t the first time our stove had malfunctioned, and meant that there was a blockage in the lines somewhere. As Chris started stripping the stove apart, Morgan assured the Uzbek crowd that they would get their Café Americanos as soon as it was fixed. But we worried we wouldn’t get it working—the stove had been acting up at camp all week. It would be such a disappointment after we’d planned this mini-adventure for over a week.

The idea to sell coffee in an Uzbek bazaar was among a list of ‘mini-adventures’ we’d brainstormed for our Central Asia bicycle crossing (along with sleeping in a mosque and playing backgammon with some old dudes). Over 17 months of travel, we’d developed the practice of assigning ourselves these escapades because it makes us interact with locals, gets us off our butts when we’re lazy, and teaches us something new—plus, it would provide great blog fodder. Above all, they’re fun. The adventures are a remedy to boredom, when searching for street food stands and exploring tourist sights no longer holds our interest.

The produce section of Samarkand's biggest bazaar.

The produce section of Samarkand’s biggest bazaar.

By the time we had cycled to Samarkand, we’d kind of had it with mosques, madrassas, and mausoleums. We’d explored the great walled fortress of Khiva, the minarets and mosaics of Bokhara, the Registan and Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand. They are impressive sights to behold, testaments to the splendor of Central Asia’s Khanates and the Silk Road. But the cities’ old centers can feel like a stroll through a museum. In Khiva and Bokhara, few Uzbeks still live among their well-preserved monuments, while most vendors cater to tourists with soft-serve ice cream cones and made-in-China souvenirs. Plus there are the admission prices. As stingy bicycle tourists, we were too cheap to pay entrance to each of the sights, but managed to sneak into a number of them by pretending to be part of large European tour groups.

In a cyclists’ quest to traverse Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s fertile valleys feel like the eye of a hurricane. Squeezed between the desolation of the Kazakh Steppe, and the grandeur of Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, the Silk Road cities are almost uncomfortably comfortable—even boring. A search for a campsite becomes a search for the best bed and breakfast, where bike tourists share the morning spreads with 60-year-old couples discussing the day’s organized tour. In the evenings, restaurants close at 10 pm, and the relatively small contingent of backpackers salvage some nightlife with beer on tap at the chaikhanas, or tea houses, where much of the time is spent resisting the advances of drunk Uzbeks trying to force rounds of vodka shots.

But there was one place in each of the cities that we couldn’t get enough of: the bazaar. They were wild with energy and colors and smells, and to us they seemed exotic. That’s why we were drawn to it for our coffee mini-adventure.

The bazaar in Samarkand was vast. There were metal awnings splayed down the side of a hill that could have covered a football field each, shading long rows of concrete counters, carefully marked into one-square-meter spots. There were sections for dried fruits and nuts, for bread, for fruits and vegetables, for meat. People bustled everywhere, turning their shoulders in the aisles to squeeze past each other with laden shopping bags, dodging produce and fried snack vendors on the ground who had not rented a spot on the counters. The air was thick with catcalls and spice.

We wandered the bazaar for a while, looking for an open space near a water tap with good foot traffic.  The sweet spot turned out to be in the crockery section, next to a fountain of playing children. We slipped behind the concrete counter, ignored the quizzical looks of other vendors, and started moving fast to set up our coffee shop. Neither of us knew how long our business would last; we figured we’d get kicked out eventually, and we were concerned that we might get fined.

The moment the two of us started working, we attracted attention. Morgan put up a hand written sign that said Café Americano, 200 sum, written in Cyrillic and Latin letters, and a crowd started gathering.  By the time the stove was assembled and our materials were carefully arranged on the counter, ready for business, the crowd was almost a mob, pressing in from all directions, standing on the counter on either side, pushing against us from behind.

It was in this carnival atmosphere of expectation that our camping stove jammed. Chris went to work on the instrument like a marine on his rifle.  He stripped and cleaned the fuel line, disassembled the burner, and tested the valve.  Morgan shrugged, said “problem” to the crowd, which is a more universal word than “hello.” Most of the crowd looked on in rapt fascination. Those that didn’t played with our stuff. Kids toyed with our lighter and ran away with it. A woman took our sign; we couldn’t tell who. People picked up and turned the coffee bags in their hands, despite Morgan’s admonishments.  Just when things were starting to look a little out of hand, Chris had the stove reassembled, aided by some arm that had stuck out of the crowd and given him a needle to clean the nozzle. The kid that ran away with our lighter returned it. And the woman reappeared with our sign.  To our amusement, she’d crossed out 200 sum and written 500 sum (about 20 cents).

Then the din died down in expectation as Chris nudged the fuel valve. The gas leaked into the stove.  Chris flicked the lighter. Six inches of yellow flame burst out, and the crowd actually clapped. Chris took a bow as Morgan grandly showed him off as on a stage.

The crowd goes wild as Chris finally gets the stove to work.

The crowd goes wild as Chris finally gets the stove to work.

The show that followed ranks among the most anti-climactic in history. Forty or so people jostled for a better view of Americans boiling water. They had their money in their hands, waiting for a cup of this fabled Café Americano. But the show wasn’t over yet.  Before they could taste it, they had to stand through act II, water seeps through coffee filter.  Nobody has a good idea of how long it takes to make drip coffee until they do it with 40 people watching them. It seemed interminable. We only had two filters, and at two or three minutes a cup it would have taken us all day to serve the waiting throng of clients.

We’d sold three cups and were filtering another two when the authorities showed up. The guy who ran the bazaar was keen to exercise his power. He crossed his arms and yelled NO! many times and kept pointing his thumb behind his shoulder. Two policemen were behind him, keeping their distance and looking amused. The crowd grew sober; the fun was over, but they stayed to watch the conflict.  We tried to finish filtering the last two cups of coffee, but the angry bazaar man yelled NO! again, and ripped our sign into six pieces and threw it at us.  So we started cleaning up, disassembling our equipment and storing it. It wasn’t fast enough for him. He grabbed our sugar and our fuel bottle and walked away.  We protested but he kept walking.  Morgan vaulted the counter, ran after him, and grabbed the fuel bottle out of his hand. Then we got out of there before anyone could write us a citation.

A few minutes later, in a park underneath a madrassa, we broke down laughing and couldn’t stop hi-fiving each other. We’d thrown some excitement into the bed and breakfast phase of the central Asia crossing.  We’d certainly have something to smile about until entered the next phase, the high passes of the Pamir Mountains.

Next: Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway.

Previous: the punishing Karakum Desert.

Read more about Chris and Morgan at Postulate One.