Vodka, football and free peaches

I can’t remember the last time I ate luncheon sausage, because I guess luncheon sausage by nature isn’t memorable.

That all changed after we politely forced down giant chunks of luncheon in a stranger’s house while Man City played Tottenham on a tiny TV in the background.

Our Uzbek host helpfully served coffee, Pepsi and vodka to wash it down.

Gus (this almost certainly isn’t how it’s spelt) invited us into his home when we stopped on the side of the road about two hours out of Samarkand. We explained we’d already eaten, but that was dismissed with the flap of a hand.

He led us down a dirt driveway, past maize and cows tied to trees, into a small dining hut detached from the main house.

Gus gestured at the table and mats for us to sit, and before we knew it he’d cut up the disturbingly pink sausage with its signature white chunks and placed it on the table alongside a plate of sweets and a bottle of vodka.

He also sent his son across the road to buy eggs, a loaf of bread and two bottles of Pepsi.

Already full of dried apricots and roadside fresh bread, we helplessly watched the food arrive as Gus boiled water for coffee.

He poured the vodka into ceramic teacups, we toasted each other and he advised that it must be drunk in one gulp or two.

At 10.50am with 20 kilometres under our belts and another 60 ahead, I had no desire to be gulping vodka. 

But in the spirit of being a gracious guest and under the earnest gaze of crinkled brown eyes, I chugged it back.


Gus poured Pepsi and offered it to me as a chaser, then poured us coffee.

There was some broken chatting as Jack and I wrestled with the terrible data connection for Google Translate’s assistance with words like “farmer” and “house”.

And then the vodka was being poured again.

I protested, miming falling off a bicycle but Gus mimed sleeping and pointed at the floor, presumably meaning we could just crash at his place.

We shook our heads apologetically but Gus was insistent on giving us one for the road.

So I poured a second teacup of vodka down my gullet, a delighted Gus clapping at my distinctly pained expression.

We found the word for “generous” and showed him, and he immediately shook his head, holding his hands to heart and then aloft.

With a firm handshake and Gus signaling that we must return, we pushed off down the road, slightly wobblier than before.


This was the first of hundreds of interactions that would come to characterise our experience of Tajikistan.

Every second car that passes shouts and waves a greeting.

Every child we pass excitedly yells “hello!” with the more daring following it up with a “where you from!”

Even the border guards smiled through the glass, asking if we like “Tajikistan’s face” and a surly customs officer asked how many in our family and how far we were cycling.

This official-level friendliness could be attributed to a crackdown on corruption in recent years and a push for more tourism in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but regardless, it felt authentic.

We were riding through a small village in Tajikistan when a girl washing clothes in the roadside drain yelled out.

“Can I practise my English with you?”

In clear, precise English she told us she was Maria. She also spoke Russian, Tajik, Uzbek and a little Turkish and her dream was to work as an interpreter in the US.

She asked me how many languages I spoke and I told her the shameful answer.

She graciously told me my English was very good.

Maria pictured in centre, with her two sisters.

Maria pictured in centre, with her two sisters.

Cycling through a vast river valley edged by enormous brown hills contoured like a Dali painting, we heard a shout from the peach orchard next to the road.

Two boys were sitting on a bed with piles of peaches at their feet.

They filled a big bag for us and when we asked how much, they wouldn’t let us pay.


On the last hill before our campsite a lorry tooted a greeting and I didn’t have the energy for another smile and wave.

I haven’t smiled and waved so much in my life.

We’ve learnt the art of the high five from a heavily laden bike, and how to spot the wind-up that precedes an overly-eager high five - one that’ll send you wobbling.

In just one day we experienced so much kindness and warmth.

I pondered how unfair it is that much of the world is fearful of Tajikistan and its neighbours.

And I wondered how my jaw is going to cope with two more months of nonstop smiling.

Thankfully there are thousands of metres of vertical climb ahead to keep the grins in check.