Escape from Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan feels different to the other Central Asian countries we’ve ridden through. It’s surprisingly better off, evident in the size of the houses, the types of cars and the quality of the (main) road surface. The clothes people wear and the music we hear are more western influenced; we’re much more likely to see girls in jeans and sloganned t-shirts than in long colourful dresses. But there’s also a different attitude. There have been far fewer offers of help or even curious questions about what we’re doing and where we’re going. The 4 year old boy sticking his middle finger up when we first got here was amusing but wouldn’t have happened in Tajikistan. Many people just seem a little stand-offish. Added to the series of unfortunate events from the past few days we’re ready to get going to our next destination.

Ala Too Square, Bishkek

After a night at the Sakura Guest House in Bishkek we move into the AT House. This is a cyclist’s refuge run by Nathan and Angie who understand exactly what the needs of the two wheeled traveller are. Their garden is laid out to accommodate as many tents as can be squeezed in. There’s a well stocked workshop for bike fettling, a warm shower inside, a cold one outside and an open kitchen for cooking.

Angie and Nathan

Bishkek is a popular crossroads for cyclists traveling north, south, east and west as it’s the home of several embassies. Visa applications can be made to help with onward travels to China, Russia, all central Asian countries and Iran (for the lucky ones).

The AT House contains several other cyclists who are sat waiting for the tedious beurocratic wheels to turn in their frustratingly slow way, stranded at the mercy of a Consul who considers their application to visit his home country to be the height of inconvenience. Amongst them are Reece and Virgil who are pleased to see us arrive by bike having last seen us leave by bus. We all raise a celebratory glass or two over dinner.

AT House decorations

But the following night things get a bit more serious. We hear some popping sounds a few hundred metres from the house that then become louder and more abrupt. We all joke that it sounds like gunfire but then there’s a large explosion and a plume of black smoke climbs into the air. It definitely is gunfire now and then there’s another explosion before it all quietens down again. There are no sirens which seems odd but when Angie and a few others go out to investigate they report that the roads have been cordoned off and there are plenty of police and military vehicles about.

It takes until the following morning before we find any news online. It seems there were some ISIS suspects staying 300m down the road and they were planning an attack on the upcoming Eid festival in the city centre to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The Kyrgyz special forces had found out and preempted the attack with extreme force. Never a dull moment in this country.wpid-1100946-01.jpeg

A few days after this a tip off from a neighbour about the fact that there are several foreigners staying with Angie and Nathan, many with suspicious appearances, prompts a visit from the police to find out what it’s all about. We’re all asked to show our passports which is fine until they get to Will. His passport is in Dublin awaiting a Russian Visa and all he has to show where he’s from is a crumpled photo copy with a picture of him when we was 18. The police raise a few eye brows as they inspect this proof of id and compare it to the shaggy bearded individual in front of them that is now a prime suspect. He’s marched off to the police station for more questioning, finger prints are taken and he’s given a warning not to leave Bishkek until he has his passport back. As if there was much choice!

Will’s home town has a history of poetry so here’s a few lines to mark his lucky escape from deportation:

Irish Will had a very big beard
Bishkek police thought he looked rather weird
With a city in crisis
They thought he was ISIS
But he wasn’t the terrorist they feared

Bishkek crew: Will, Rory, Matthew, Reece, Nicky, Marcus, Kirsty

Like everyone else, our main task in Bishkek (other than avoiding terrorist attacks) is to apply for a Visa. The most popular route from here is to head east into China then down into South East Asia. We’re plotting something a bit different so plan to head further south to take in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar/Burma. The two overland routes to get down there are either via the legendary Karakorum Highway through China and Pakistan or via Tibet and straight into Nepal. Visa and security issues make the former difficult (we’d have to send our passports to London and get a bus or police escort for large parts of Pakistan). The latter is impossible without being part of a formal, organised and tightly controlled tour. Annoyingly both options were much easier as independent travelers several years ago but such is the ever changing way of the world.

Tandems for hire. Maybe this is where our bike would have ended up.
Tandems for hire. Maybe this is where our bike would have ended up.

So we’ve chosen to fly from Bishkek to Delhi. It’s a shame to have to break the overland journey but we feel the benefits from experiencing this colourful and crazy part of the world will outweigh any moral satisfaction we would have felt from avoiding plane journeys at all costs. We make an appointment for the Indian embassy and then have a few days to sort out our other task.

cAT House

As we’ve come to expect, receiving parcels in foreign countries is seldom straightforward. When I go to claim a package from DHL that my Mum has sent from the UK they tell me it’s being held by customs due to its declared value being over a certain limit. I’m required to go to the airport, 25km away and prove that I’m a cyclist who needs these bike parts and am not going to try and sell them on. A shared taxi ride later and I find myself stood in front of a window where a bored looking man glances at the paperwork for our parcel then glances back at me before giving the thumbs up. That was customs cleared in a few seconds without a single word spoken between us.

Now DHL have to process the paperwork which, despite my protests, can’t be done until after the weekend. A few som passed in a handshake would have no doubt helped the situation but I’m short on cash so I return empty handed and settle for waiting.

Cloth merchant, Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Four days after applying for our appointment we get to visit the Indian embassy. No one checks our appointment date and we arrive late but get let in anyway so it looks like the appointment was totally unnecessary. We’re told we can only get a 1 month, single entry visa which is disappointing and a lot less time than we would have got at just about any other Indian embassy. For some reason this one is more stingy. To make matters worse, as British citizens we pay nearly 3 times as much as passport holders from other countries, a tit for tat gesture as Indian residents pay a fortune for UK Visas. With a lot of persuading we manage to get them to at least consider giving us 2 months. All this takes time and as we don’t have enough cash to pay there and then and not enough time to get to an ATM before the embassy closes so we have to return the next day.

Sharing visa issues

Meanwhile the parcel still hasn’t been cleared from customs. DHL tell me it should be at their office today but I go there twice and it it’s still sat at the airport depot.

The following day is much more successful. Back at the Indian embassy, armed with a large wodge of cash we again plead for a more generous Visa. We explain that our plans include ducking in and out of India 3 times to visit neighbouring countries and that because we’re traveling by bike we need more time. The man behind the counter goes to speak to the man upstairs and together they come down and tell us they’ll push for a 3 month, triple entry visa for us. It should be ready by the following Monday too which is half the time we expected it to take to process. As always, if you don’t ask you don’t get!

As there’s been no word from ‘Delivering Hopelessly Late’ I call them and get summoned to their office to claim the parcel at long last. But they still don’t want to give it up without a fight and slap a bill for storage charges on the desk. Storage time that includes the several days that I’ve been desperate to take it from them but haven’t been allowed! I tell them I’m happy to pay but first I’ll deduct my accommodation costs incurred while waiting along with the transport costs paid to run around the city and to the airport. They don’t see the funny side.

Al Atoo Square

I then suggest we go halves just to settle this and after the desk clerk speaks to his manager who speaks to his director we shake on the deal. Only 325 som each (~£3.25) but it’s the principal of the thing that matters.

Keep Britain tidy, by sending all the Morrisons plastic bags to Kyrgystan

So what to do with several more days in Bishkek that we’ve now been ‘gifted’ while we wait for the Visa? We’ve already tried the aqua park, visited the state museum (which would be far more interesting if we could read Kyrgyz or Russian), shopped in bike shops, shopped in the huge Osh Bazaar and I’ve had a hair cut and beard trim. The only thing for it is to get out of Bishkek and visit Issyk Kul.

Flour merchant, Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan’s number one attraction is a vast lake sat 150km east of the capital and 1000m higher. At 200km x 30km Issyk Kul is the second largest alpine lake in the world and just about everyone we met told us we had to see it.

Regan  rides the bomb, ceiling mural in the state museum, Bishkek
A ponderous early morning train ride takes us to Balykchy, a surprisingly ugly town on the western shore of the lake. It takes 5 hours to cover the 150km leaving lots of time to catch up on sleep. It’s also only 70 som (70p) each so represents remarkable value for money.

The slow train to Issyk Kul

With us are Irish Will and Korean Kim who we’d met at different points in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and who ended up riding a lot of the Pamir Highway together. They overtook us while we were without bike in Kara Balta. Also with us are Matthew, a German-Australian and his friend Tim, who had been persuaded to act as a bike kit mule and flown in especially to deliver some spare parts (much more sensible than posting). Matthew is a dab hand with a Go Pro camera so his videos are well worth viewing.

Stand by me

At Balykchy our happy band of campers cram into a taxi and hurtle round the lake to a popular destination on the South shore of Issyk Kul. Here we find a salt lake to float in, a mud lake to wallow in then camp by the main lake for more swimming and a round of Kumis with the family that look after the beach.

Wallowing cyclists

Cyclists camp site, Issyk Kul

The array of cyclist’s tan lines on show amongst our group is astonishing and we all proudly display them like a badge of honour.

The slow train delivers us back to Bishkek late the next day leaving us two more days to fill before our flight to Delhi. Just enough time to write some words for the blog, fit the new parts to the bike (working gears again, hurray!) and eat lots more fresh water melon.

It’s probably wise to replace a chain that contains 7 quick links

We also pay a visit to Dale and Beth who had provided their address for the parcel to be sent to, even though it never got as far as their house. They had been very kind fielding numerous phone calls from DHL before we arrived in Bishkek. We’d been put in touch via some friends of my cousin so it was a very tenuous connection but very valuable to us and we were keen to show our gratitude in person. They’ve lived in Kyrgyzstan long enough to know about all the various scams and unnecessary complications and give an insight into how it can be a fascinating but frustrating place to live.

The state museum

Visa deployment centre

The day before we’re due to fly we make a final visit to the Indian embassy to retrieve out passports. When they hand them to us we nervously open them to find a 3 month, multiple entry visa neatly attached inside each one. This produces two big grins as we leave the embassy. Just what we needed!

It’s our turn to send a parcel now as a few things have become redundant and our winter quilt has been replaced by the summer one so needs to go home. We eventually find the main post office and get directed to the Cargo department. In front of a huge map of the world sits a sewing machine and a very busy lady who is grabbing parcels, weighing them and handing over forms. Our parcel quickly enters this process and we have five different forms to fill in. The role of the sewing machine then becomes apparent when she expertly crafts a linen bag for our box to be slotted into. This is then sewn up and sealed with hot wax like an ancient manuscript. Whether the parcel makes it back to the UK is anyone’s guess but the care and attention shown here is impressive so it’s a good start [edit: it took a week with no issues and at half the price of DHL].

The parcel office/sewing room

Wax sealing

Then we’re ready to leave central Asia after nearly three months in countries ending in ‘Stan. Each one has proved interesting and unique in their own way but always with some common connections through the food, language, vodka and the ladas. As an area of the world that is often overlooked and is constantly changing we can’t recommend it highly enough.

At Bishkek airport early the next morning we push the bike into the departure lounge, remove the pedals, turn the bars and cocoon it in polythene and gaffa tape. The panniers go into stripey shopping bags and we join the queue to check in with the usual curious looks at our unusual luggage.

Packed and ready to fly

At the desk we’re first told to re wrap the bike using the cling film machine as it may damage the plane. We point out that a few sheets of cling film is unlikely to be better than thick polythene which they reluctantly accept is probably true. They try to weigh the bike by standing it precariously 2.5m tall on its back wheel on the scales. Next they claim we have to pay $150 excess, which is nonsense. A screen shot of their own cycle policy (Air Pegasus) that I had saved on my phone soon reduces this to $40 which again they reluctantly accept.

The first rule of flying with a tandem is to not tell the airline you’re bringing a tandem. Likely as not they won’t know how to deal with the problem so will solve it by saying no you can’t take it. However if you’re there at the check in desk with the bike wrapped and ready to go then it’s much harder for them to turn you away.

The bike disappears through a door and we walk through to airside to wait for the plane. The fate of the rest of the journey now lies with the airport ‘chuckers’ at both ends of our flight. Will it make it to Delhi and will it still resemble a working bicycle? The answer would be at the end of a four hour flight.

Good bye Kyrgyzstan




Sary Tash to Bishkek

Anyone remember The Adventure Fairy? Well in Kyrgyzstan she was back with a vengeance.

Trading a ride on a donkey…

….for a ride on the back of a tandem

After a half day and a full night sleeping in Sary Tash Kirsty feels much better and I’ve got a tiny bit more energy so we decide to continue. After so many days at high altitude and several nights camping above 4000m our blood would probably ring alarm bells in a UCI doping test. As a result Kirsty feels strong going into the morning’s climb which is good because I’m running on half power.

Sary Tash with Pamirs looming behind

It’s a laborious plod in 1st gear to the top, 500m above Sary Tash, then we roll down a couple of km only to have to climb once again to the second summit which sits at a comparatively normal 3600m.

Over the moon to have made it to the top, only it isn’t quite the top

This time the road drops away below us around a ladder of hair pins that appear to be built on the side of a landslide. Despite the drag brake being set to ‘cruise’ we still manage to zoom past the heavy trucks that crawl down the hill.

An impressive engineering feat

Then the wiggles straighten out to take us alongside a small river in a gorge full of yurts and caravans. We meet 2 French riders coming the other way who tell us that the road ahead will be ‘Paradise for you’ so we look forward to more freewheeling fun. The direction they’re going doesn’t look like such an enticing prospect but they’ve already been climbing for 3 days from Osh so are well warmed up. We meet a dutchman, 3 Koreans and an Australian later in the day. This is a very popular cycling route.

Typical Kyrgyz view

The gorge opens up into a wider valley. On top of the hills directly ahead sits a black cloud like a mortar board but we can see that not far beyond the sun is still shining. By pedalling hard we nip through the brief rain shower and emerge back into the dry and can ease off again. It’s great when the weather is so clearly defined and visible. Passing through a small town the children run out and ask us to take their photo and to high five them. This has happened a lot during our time in Central Asia and they love to see their image on the back of our cameras. Another cyclist we met carried a polaroid camera so could give them a copy which is really nice idea. Sometimes they come a bit too close and need a yell to avoid a nasty tandem/child collision.

Akbosaga

There’s only a short climb in the afternoon that requires much effort, other than that gravity does the work for us, which is fine by me. We decide on an early finish and find a nice secluded spot by the river.

Worn out by all the descending

Which is where we stay the next day after my body goes on strike in the morning. It’s an effort just to rush to the nearest bush and then down to the river. But it’s a chance to clean the bike and bags which were still filthy from the Kyzl Art Pass out of Tajikistan. Then rest, eat, read and dodge the thunder showers that roll around the hills and occasionally pass overhead. This is the first time the tent has stayed in one wild camp spot for more than one night.

We’re back on the road the next day primarily because I’m too impatient to wait another day though I do feel a bit better. Thankfully the road continues downward and 30km passes in less than an hour and with barely a pedal stroke. A four year old boy spots us and instead of the usual cry of Hello! we get a middle finger salute and are told to F off! Who knows where he learnt that but it’s not the kind of greeting we had expected.

Solitary yurt

Then I slam on the brakes as there’s a puppy in the road. At first we think it’s been hit but it doesn’t appear hurt, it just can’t stand up properly. I carry it to a nearby bus stop and whenever it gets up it walks a couple of steps then falls over. A local man comes to take a look and suggests it may be drunk, which is certainly what it looks like.

Kirsty stays to keep an eye on the poor thing for a while but it’s hard to know what we can do to help. In the end she carefully lifts it up and over a small wall, here it can stumble around without the risk of falling back into the road so it seems safer. We can only hope that it either gets better, someone comes to look after it or it sobers up.

The hillsides are so colourful with green meadows laced with reds, yellows, blues, browns from flowers, yurts and animals. It’s so refreshing after the sepia tones of the high Pamir plateau that starved us of variety.

We’re following the River Gulcha and enjoying watching it gather momentum and increase in volume. The road takes us into the town named after the river where we stop for lunch in a small park and I entertain some children with a rendition of ‘Wish You Were Here’. The guitar they lend me isn’t a 12 string so it’s hard to do the song justice but I think they get the idea. No tips though.

How I wish, how I wish he would stop

The downhill ends at Gulcha and is replaced by a climb up another high pass which is not an appealing prospect in my weakened condition. We pull over and set up camp instead and I load up with imodium, rehydration salts and listen to Pink Floyd in the hope it’ll be the cure.

The sanitorium

It’s not, so we vote for another recuperation day. It’s going to take a while to get to Osh at this rate!

We have great views, a nice little river and some friendly children for company who let us help them catch fish. It’s not a bad place to be ill. There are more thunder storms and sunshine while we watch a skilful horseman herding his cows up to a different pasture. Almost everything seems to be done from the saddle of a horse round here.

Frantic fishing

Catch of the day

It seems Richard Ashcroft was wrong as the drugs do work. The next day I feel so much better and can finally begin making use of our high altitude training. We climb up the long pass with renewed vigour and after tackling some 12% gradients and a few hairpins we arrive at the top which seems to be a yurt city.

Caravan home

We see horses being milked for the first time. The milk will then be carefully bottled and fermented to produce the popular drink Kumis. Stalls line the road selling this stuff in old coke bottles and its hugely popular but its not the refreshing drink we’re after at the moment so we pass them by, for now.

Horse milking

Ahead lies Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city. It’s 50km away and 1500m below us so this distance passes in just over an hour. It’s a wonderful yet subtle descent and we feel like we have a motor on the bike traveling at that speed on what looks like an almost flat gradient.

As we get lower the temperature gets higher and the housing more dense. This is the first proper town since Khorog, 3 weeks ago and it feels like we’re entering a proper city with actual super markets, bars and restaurants.

Osh town houses

We find several other cyclists in the Bayana Guest House including Tim and Carina (www.boo2east.com) and later Paul and Greet who we had met back in Dushanbe. For the last few days I’ve been craving burgers, pizzas and milkshakes so we all go out to gorge ourselves in a nearby fast food restaurant. Normally we’d stay well away from this kind of place and eat local dishes but gosh it tastes good after some fairly bland food over the last couple of weeks.

A rest day in Osh is mostly spent eating 60p burgers, 30p water melons, 10p ice creams. I’ve got some weight to put on after being sick and I’m committed to doing it as quickly as possible. If I’m not in front of a plate of food I make sure I have a Snicker’s in my hand.

There’s a huge outdoor pool which is perfect for cooling off so we head there in the afternoon and find months of cycling have not helped our arm muscles, even Kirsty ‘dolphin’ McGaul finds a lap of the pool an effort. But the main activity seems to be diving rather than swimming so before the assembled crowd I introduce the locals to the fine art of performing the running bomb.

Osh Lido

The next day, after a wide eyed visit to the supermarket (so much choice!) we leave Osh with bulging paniers and ride out into the heat.

Harking back to the past in Osh

Although our bodies are on the mend the bike is now misbehaving. The middle chain ring is coming to the end of its life so we have to now use either the big ring or granny ring. Either a big heavy gear at a very low cadence or a small, super spinny gear, both of which are uncomfortable.

The road rises and falls over rolling hills and follows a convoluted route. There are fingers of Uzbek territory stretching across from the west which we have to skirt round adding a considerable distance. Our frustration is added to by the terrible drivers. They have absolutely no appreciation for how much space we need and often pass so close that we could reach across and take the phone out of the drivers hand. Driving licences are simply bought which removes the inconvenience of learning to drive and passing a test.

Grains of every variety

The hills are sunburnt and orange, there’s a risk we’ll start going the same way. After Jalalabad we find a shallow reservoir that offers the perfect camp spot and enjoy a refreshing dip to cool off. We manage to end the next day next to another reservoir too, this time camping on an island.

Andrijan reservoir

Mountains of massive water melons

The road then follows a steep sided valley with the river Nurak captured in a series of bright green reservoirs lying at the bottom. At the end of each one there is a large dam which we have to climb up and round, often including a short but dark tunnel. All of Kyrgyzstan’s power comes from hydroelectric plants like this one. We, on the other hand, have no power as our dynamo hub has packed up meaning no front light and making the tunnels more exciting.

Following the River Naryn

This is a hard road that ramps up at 12% then drops down just as steeply, often with a sharp bend at the bottom making it tricky to carry much momentum into the next climb. The problematic gear box means we have to stamp on the pedals in the biggest chain ring then quickly change to the smallest chain ring when the hill steepens up again.

Just before Karakul we pull in, hot and bothered, to buy a round of cold drinks and ice cream each at a small shop. Followed by a round of cold drinks and ice cream, which is enough to power is up the last long climb of the day.

Emergency ice cream stop

Like it’s Tajik namesake, Karakul has a lake but this one is much smaller and much warmer. It’s a popular place with most of the town enjoying an evening swim and kids daring each other to jump off the 10m high diving board. We eat melon and shashlik kebab, chat to some Russians visiting on holiday then pitch for another lakeside camp site.

Karakul swimming lake

A bigger lake awaits us on the other side of a long climb back up to 1500m. Once up and over this hill we begin following the shore of Toktogul reservoir. It’s an annoying road that prefers to head for the hills rather than stick to the water line. All the time the lake is far below us with no obvious route down and as such no chance to cool off. Instead we find some shade in a chaihana and the owner shows us shrapnel wounds that he says he picked up when fighting in Afghanistan, presumably during soviet times.

Skirting round Tortogul Reservoir

The hard climbing and inappropriate gears are causing Kirsty’s back to complain in a very painful way. We also manage to break the chain, which is now on its last legs along with most of the drive train. We need a short day to recover and regroup and have visions of lazing under a tree by a sandy beach alongside the lake.

Uch Terek

8km down a rough road beyond the town of Toktogul and we arrive at our ‘beach’. It’s a barren, pebble strewn shoreline that drops down 1m to the water. There’s no shade and only a dusty patch of ground well away from the lake itself to pitch our tent. It’ll have to do though as Kirsty needs some hydrotherapy.

The rough road to ‘the beach’

Tortogul reservoir

Tortogul reservoir

From Toktogul we have the longest continuous climb of the trip so far, rising 2000m over the course of 65km. Despite still feeling sore, Kirsty decides to get back on the bike the next day and we bounce our way back up to the main road and begin gaining altitude. Almost immediately the trees close in around us and we have a freezing cold river full of melt water to dip our feet into at lunch time. It’s a nice steady gradient that would be a perfect middle chain ring spin, if only we had one that worked.

 A grassy, shady spot alongside the river is too good to pass so we stop early to help Kirsty’s back recover some more. As we’re putting up the tent we’re approached by a man in a straw hat who calls out ‘She’s not pedaling on the back?’ in a Leeds accent. Reece (http://worldwidecycle.blogspot.in/?m=1) left Baku 2 weeks after us and has been trying to to catch us since he landed in Kazachstan. He’s been riding with Virgile, a laidback Frenchman who’s been on the road for 4 years and we invite them both to camp with us. The rest of the climb can be tackled together in the morning.

Reece and Virgile

It’s great to have some company and we all chat away to take our minds off the task in hand. Up and up we go.

Virgile stops for a snap

We’re offered Kurut outside a yurt while we stop for lunch. These are dried yogurt balls that have the consistency of chalk, smell like strong cheese that’s been left in the sun and taste like sour, salty yogurt. Not a pleasant snack but like the Kumis they are incredibly popular. I nibble a corner then pocket the rest for disposal when we’re out of sight.

Making Kurut yoghurt balls

Yurt dwelling family

Up and up we go some more. By mid afternoon we’re beginning to wonder if this hill actually has a summit. Maybe we’re in an Escher drawing? But we persevere and finally the road levels off and we’re at the top. Windproofs are pulled on and down we go on the other side.

speedy descent after the long climb

We’re now dropping onto a massive, yurt filled plateau ringed by a ridge of high mountain peaks. We have to cross this then climb out again on the other side. That second climb can wait until tomorrow though so once we’ve found the only decent shop for 100km in any direction we set up our little tented village behind a stripey canvas building. The wind whips across the wide open space so the shelter from the building is very handy.

An evening amongst the yurts

Reece and Virgile cooking up

The second climb out of the plateau is a tough slog. We winch up 1000m in 15km, this time the smallest gear is the only one we need. The hill ends with a tunnel that chops the top of the mountain off for us but we’re still up at 3600m now. I dig out my head torch for this one as it’s 2.5km long and lined with pot holes. Many cyclists hitch a lift at this point as it’s notoriously unpleasant inside but we choose to ride it. And we survive with only mild carbon monoxide poisoning.

The final pass before Bishkek

The tunnel of certain death

On the other side a glorious view awaits us. The road drops down steeply but smoothly through several hair pins and diving through short tunnels. It begs to be ridden fast and I wish I was on my race bike instead of the cumbersome tandem.

This looks like fun

Down and down we go. After the steep section we enter a narrower gorge that seems to be channelling a strong wind back up the hill. We have to pedal hard when we should be freewheeling. As if we haven’t done enough work already to get here!

We catch up with Reece and Virgile who have been waiting for us in a chaihana then go in search for a place to camp.

Over the last 11 months we’ve become pretty good at spotting nice places to spend the night. We also thought we had a good feeling for when somewhere was safe or not. Rounding a corner we look down on a pleasant patch of ground alongside a river and not far from a yurt and a long tent. This looks ideal.

We have to pass through a barrier to get there and have a chat with the yurt owner who tells us it’s no problem for us to use the patch of ground we had our eye on. We even get given a bottle of Kumis by someone staying in the tent.

The rest of the evening is spent trying the Kumis then trying to get the taste out of our mouths. Imagine drinking sour, fizzy, alcoholic milk and you have some idea of what its like. We watch the yurt owner sat alongside one of his mares, squeezing out a fresh batch of milk for the next batch of unsuspecting cycle tourists.

The unmistakable taste of Fermented Mares Milk 2015

In the morning I sleepily crawl out of the tent and wonder up to the makeshift toilet nearby. I have a vague feeling that something isn’t right which grows into a strong feeling of panic when I return to the tent and realise the bike has gone.

Something seems to be missing

It has to be some kind of prank so I rush round the immediate area looking in bushes and behind trees. I walk along the river bank to see if it’s caught on some rocks. But there’s no sign.

Reece, Virgile and Kirsty join in the search with Reece grabbing his own bike to ride further up the valley. Neither his nor Virgile’s bike have been moved. We also have all our kit as it was safely inside the tent so it’s just the tandem that has gone. On the track near the turn off from the road I find one of my gloves and also the distinctive tracks from our tyres which is when it becomes clear that the bike has been taken away. The adventure fairy is really having fun now.

Reece finds nothing up the valley so then tries searching up the road in the direction the tracks seem to be going in. There’s nothing up there except a toll booth and police checkpoint with some unhelpful guards.

At a loss for what else to do we decide we need to get to the main police station, but that is 20km away and moving our kit without a bike is extremely difficult. Luckily a car stops when we stick out a thumb and takes us up to the police check point. From here the guards flag down a bus which takes us all the way to Kara Balta police station.

We arrive with our pile of paniers and begin trying to explain the situation. The first police man seems friendly but wants us to give him cash for petrol so we can drive back to the scene of the crime. Before we have a chance to say ‘nyet dengi’ (no money) his superior arrives and takes us up to his office.

Detective Iscanda is short on height but high on seriousness. He’s keen to hear our story so he can help. He speaks basic English, enough to understand us as long as we speak slowly and carefully. This is a huge relief as most of the other officers only seemed to speak Kyrgyz and Russian. After we’ve described the series of events from the previous evening through to arriving at the police station we bundle into a police car. Kirsty, me, Iscanda, two other officers and a PA in a car with 5 seats makes for a crampt and uncomfortable journey.

Kyrgyz flag and Kyrgyz serpent fighter

Back at the camp site, the yurt owner is interrogated for half an hour but appears to know nothing about the bike. We point out the tyre tracks to the officers then drive up to the toll booth to ask them to look through their CCTV footage. It’s going to take a while so we’re driven back to the police station and told the toll booth security will call if they spot anything suspicious.

Lengthy statements are written and signed by me but not Kirsty (she doesn’t get asked much despite being joint owner of the bike). A translator is then called who asks me if I will want to prosecute the thief. If we do it could take months so he suggests we say that the bike is missing rather than stolen to make things simpler and to avoid us having to return to Kyrgyzstan to testify.

After all this we’re free to go. Detective Iscanda suggests we plan to stay in Kara Balta for a week while they make some investigations and try to find the bike. We check into a grubby hotel across the road and sit down in stunned silence. What now?

Kara Balta appropriately means black axe and is described to us by one local as ‘the worst town in Kyrgyzstan’. The glory days when it was the main uranium processing centre for the soviet union are over. It’s not somewhere we’d have chosen to spend a week.

Hammer and Sickle in Kara Balta

So many things go through our heads: What are the chances of seeing the bike again? What can the thieves do with such an unusual bike? Do we end the trip here? Do we fly home and buy another tandem? Do we try and buy two solo bikes? It’s a sleepless night not helped by music, dogs and traffic outside our window.

In the morning we have a plan. Firstly we pay Detective Iscanda 1000 som (£10) to allow him to place adverts on TV, radio and in the local magazine. Then we find a cobbler to sew up the splits in our rear panniers. It won’t help us find the bike but we might as well get it done while we have the time. Next we find a printer who prints a poster I’ve made with a description of the bike and saying that there’s a reward for anyone who finds it. 150 copies should be a good start. After that we move to another hotel which happens to be a bunk room above a football stadium. It’s less than half the price of the previous hotel at£1 each per night, more comfortable and quieter. A marshrutker (minibus) takes us back to Sosnovka, the nearest town to where the bike was stolen, and we spend a long, hot afternoon putting up the posters and chatting to everyone we meet about the stolen bike. Most people are genuinely sympathetic, some are nonplussed while others actually laugh at us which does little for our tempers. We were hoping for a lynch mob to help search the town and flush out the thief but it doesn’t look like things work that way in Kyrgyzstan.

Kara Balta Olympic Stadium (and international hotel)

Back at the hotel we flop down on our bunk beds and now the waiting game starts.

Have you seen this bicycle? Cash waiting.

It’s horrible being so helpless so we try to keep busy. In the morning we walk to the bazaar for breakfast supplies and get stopped by some people who mention our ‘velociped’. It’s far from being a tourist town and so we stick out like a sore thumb as being ‘not from round here’. One of the stall holders gives Kirsty a sympathetic hug when she realises we’re the ones with the stolen bike. It seems the word has already begun spreading thanks to the adverts and our posters.

Tiny chicks for sale in the Kara Balta Bazaar

I also email the national press and some TV and radio stations in the capital, Bishkek just in case they can help. One of them comes back and tells me that they want to run the story and that we should record a short video, which we do and email it across. They also say they have contacts with the Minister of the Interior so will ask for his help. This all sounds very useful.

Then we have the best dinner for a long time. The food is OK being a regional dish of horse meat on pasta with some circular fatty slices that make us wonder which part of the horse they came from (and get left on the plate). But what makes it special is the phone call from Detective Iscanda to tell us to come to the station in one hour as they have found our bike!

We try to contain our excitement and relief until we actually see our trusty steed but sure enough, as we stand outside the police station an hour later a black Mercedes pulls in with our bike hanging out of the back! It’s precariously dangling from the boot, held in by bailer twine with the front wheel 50mm off the ground but at first glance seems to be intact.

The elite crime fighting team of the Kara Balta police

Once we extract it we get a proper look. The chain has broken but all the pieces are still there. The pouches that sit on the top tubes have been moved around and some items are missing. Kirsty’s windproof jacket, some anti mosquito spray, a small set of Allen keys, a compass and most annoyingly my LVIS cycling cap have all gone. But we have the bike so it doesn’t really matter. We’ve been through so much with that machine over the past few months so it’s like being reunited with a close friend.

Friends reunited

2 hours of form filling and statements about the quality of the police work that led them to discover the bike then follows. I have to declare that there will be no charges brought against anyone, we are very happy with the way the case has been dealt with and that as far as we’re concerned no further action is required. Case closed.

I ask how the bike was found and the initial story is that a 20 year old ‘boy’ saw our posters and went to look for it so he could claim the reward. I ask if we could meet this local hero so after a short discussion a man is brought in and introduced as the one who found the bike. He’s about 40 and clearly one of the policemen who we’d seen earlier. ‘Where’s my reward?’ he asks so I hand over the small amount of money in our purse, 1200 som (£12) and he seems happy enough. It’s enough for he and the rest of the officers to have a few drinks if nothing else. We’ll never know what the actual story was that led them to the bike. A quick Google search revealed blogs from a couple of other cyclists who’d had their bikes taken on the same stretch of road which could be coincidence or a sign it’s an organised scam, but again we’ll never know.

There are none of the bribery and corruption laws that protect us in the UK here. In fact bribery and corruption seem to be part of the law. A student wanting to join the police academy will have to pay several thousand dollars. They’ll then pay for decent grades before deciding which job they’d like and paying again for the relevant position. Traffic police pay dearly as they can then exploit speeding motorists who may not even have a genuine licence so have the potential for high earnings.

The same police Mercedes that brought us the bike ferries us back to the hotel with me sat in the boot to stop the front wheel hitting the ground. Good job the police are on our side for this highly illegal journey!

This boot isn’t big enough for the both of us

So at long last we can ride into Bishkek. With illness, injury, malfunctioning gears, a malfunctioning dynamo and a stolen bike the adventure fairy has pulled out all the stops over the last two weeks. Surely nothing more can happen to us in this country?




Khorog to Sary Tash – The Pamir Highway

Before we left England a common question was “Which bit of the trip are you most looking forward to?”. It’ll be interesting if our answers are the same as “Which bit of the trip did you most enjoy?” when this is all over. Picking a single one is almost impossible but featuring high on the list was always The Pamir Highway and indeed this particular road has in no small part shaped our route so far.

Sometimes referred to as “The roof of the world” the Pamir mountains peak at over 7000m in places. Picking its way through these enormous hills is the second highest international highway in the world, the majority of which being over 3500m and with several passes at over 4000m. Even in June it can get quite chilly at that height so we were keen not to arrive much earlier. As such, the big loop up into Scandinavia at the beginning of the trip was included, as well as our winter sojourn in Greece to make sure we rode up into this rarified atmosphere in the summer. As it turned out these additional parts to the journey were much more than just time killers and have made the whole trip even more fulfilling.

There was certainly a weight of expectation as well as a hint of apprehension for this next stretch.

Water melon season has started!

June 16th 2015

Out of Khorog we leave the murky brown waters of the River Panj and now have the much more pleasant, blue-green River Gunt for company. Unsurprisingly the road climbs up and up. Khorog sits at just over 2100m so we have some altitude to gain over the next few days.

The river Gunt

Soon we’re coaxed from a bus stop picnic lunch into a nearby family home by a kind old gentleman in a trilby. Over chai and heavily buttered bread we chat to his young daughter who wears a Union Jack bandana and tells us she loves living in Khorog. At 10 years old she can speak Tajik, Pamiri, Russian and English and is understandably surprised that we only have a quarter of her language skills. There are several different languages and dialects within the Pamir region, each as different to one another as Geordie is from English and equally incomprehensible to the uninitiated. A Dushanbe resident would find it extremely difficult understanding a Pamiri speaking their local tongue.

The home feels surprisingly European with a sofa for the guests (the family stay on the floor) and through an open door we spot a fitted kitchen. All very different to the sparse central Asian houses we’ve visited before.

Meeting a friendly Tajik family after Khorog

With our extended lunch over we climb back on the bike with a wave and continue climbing steadily upward through tunnels to protect us from landslides and decorated with Soviet Union motives, then along the busy, green valley floor. The mountain peaks on either side are streaked with snow and most are now over 5000m high.

Camping at 2500m

Gaining 1000m over 100km makes for a very pleasant gradient the next day. More significantly we’ve passed 3000m above sea level which is where most people begin to feel the effects of altitude. A short walk off the road to investigate a rickety bridge leaves us heavy legged and out of breath climbing back up the bank.

Snap?

We spend the night acclimatising at a height of 3500m at an old Russian sanitorium in Jelondi. Built around some natural hot springs and still popular with the locals as well as travellers passing through for soothing aching limbs, the dark, wood panelled corridors and unusual location are reminiscent of The Shining.

Heeeeere’s Johnny!

Floating in the warm waters is wonderfully relaxing despite sharing the bathhouse with several naked Tajiks (separate baths for men and women; leave your clothes at the door).

Jelondi Sanatorium

We both sleep reasonably well, only waking once or twice to take some big breaths but I can feel my heartrate is higher than normal and the run to the breakfast table is harder than normal. The main task for the day is to cross the Koitezek Pass, over 700m above us and we begin the climb cautiously on a nice smooth road, not too steep. The surface and kind gradient last until the final 400m of ascent when we round a corner and are faced with a triple whammy of difficulty. The road ramps up to 10-12% and degrades to a loose mess of rocks and gravel. On top of that we pass through the 4000m above sea level point meaning the extra power required to get up the slope has to be provided with only 12.5% of effective oxygen with each lungful of air, compared to the generous 20.9% we’d have if we were at sea level. Hopefully we made a few more haemoglobin overnight to help us cope.

It’s a struggle in no uncertain terms. Lots more gasping, a few stops and several calls for “Power! Power!” to accelerate us up and over the largest obstacles and eventually we reach the very unassuming summit. The road just flattens off and it’s only our Garmin that confirms we’re at the top, 4271m above sea level. We both feel dizzy and wobbly-legged, a bit like the feeling after a couple of morning ChaChas.

Koitezek pass. 4271m

A short respite of tarmac across the top doesn’t last so there’s no rewarding smooth descent, just more horrible, loose rocks and another few mm taken off the brake pads through overuse. It’s not until we’ve crawled back up to 4100m on a second, even harder, looser, steeper climb after lunch that we find a consistent stretch of blacktop.

Grin and bear it on the gravel and rocks

A lone truck on the long road

This brings us round to one of the most wonderful views of the journey so far. Down below us lies the Alichur Pamir, flanked by the Northern and Southern Alichur Ranges, each over 5500m. The plateau between them contains two lakes surrounded by salt encrusted marsh land. The colour of the water changes from green to blue to black as the evening light recedes.

The Alichur Pamir

We camp near the edge of Lake Sasykkul and spend a considerable amount of time marvelling at our surroundings and how fortunate we are to be right there, right now. This is what we came for. This is why dozens of cyclists ride this road each year and thousands of others dream about it.

Lake Sassykul

The briefest of brief swims in the freezing lake raises my high altitude swimming challenge score to 3820m even if it only lasted 3820ms.

Sassykul Lake: 3820m above sea level, 8.23 degC, duration of swim 3820 milliseconds.

In the morning the pond next to our tent is covered with 5mm of ice and we’re glad we still have our winter quilt for warmth.

A routine check of the rack bolts on the bike reveals that all the bumping around the day before has taken its toll and there’s an ominous crack around one of the mounts on the fork. It’s been a hard couple of weeks for our trusty steed. Could this be terminal?

 

Cracked front pannier mount. Not a good thing to see on the forks in the morning.

A scratch of the head and a rummage through the ‘In Case Of Emergencies’ section of the spare parts bag brings out some jubilee clips and the ever faithful zip ties. Belts and braces are attached to the fork leg and we reorganise the kit so there is less weight in the pannier that hangs off that side of the fork. Our hope is that the road will stay relatively smooth until Murghab to minimise any more rack wobbling. Murghab looks big enough to be able to support a welder who can repair the crack but is over 100km away.

A long way to the nearest branch of Halfords

However 10km down the road we gingerly roll into Alichur, as remote a place as any we’ve come across; Over 200km from Khorog and still 100km to Murghab, the two nearest towns of any reasonable size in the Pamirs. Rough, sandy roads lead between the single story clay houses, several of which lie derelict. A westerly wind whips up the dust around the goats and kids roaming the streets. You wouldn’t come here on holiday, unless you’re a cyclist.

Alichur mud house

A town like this needs to be as self sufficient as possible, particularly with winter temperatures sometimes plummeting to -50 degC. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that someone here must be good at fixing things.

A barn with a picture of a welder on it gives us the visual clue to point to when we go to look for a mechanic. The small group that has gathered around us understands what we need and we begin our tour of sheds of Alichur.

Cracked fork! Need welder!

The first is locked and the owner nowhere to be seen. The second has a welder but no fuel for the generator. A boy is then tasked with leading us across to the other side of town, we’re handed a fresh loaf on the way. This time we have more success. In a yard filled with machinery in various states of disrepair we find a man that looks like he has the skills to save our day.

Alichur Playstation.

Lots of broken junk

Sure enough, after pointing out the crack and making my best ARC welding impression he nods and gets straight to work. I won’t admit to being an expert in welding technique but the crack is now covered in molten metal which is good enough for me.

Rack fixing

With the bike reassembled we pay double the asking price of 10 somani (£1) and are invited in for chai and mutton followed by a look at his prize possession: the head of a Marco Polo sheep. We’ve seen lots of statues of these rare and illusive animals but coming face to glass-eyed face with this stuffed beast makes us realise how magnificent they must be in the flesh. Apparently this one was killed by a wolf but we’re also told that Europeans, Americans and Russians pay huge sums to be taken on hunting trips by the locals, despite the animals being protected by law.

Marco Polo Sheep statue

Marco Polo Sheep trophy

The westerly wind picks us up along with the dust and with renewed confidence in our equipment we’re blown out of Alichur back into the huge expanse of the plateau. With a subtle downhill gradient, a smooth road, no other traffic, blue skies overhead and jaw-dropping scenery this is about as good as sitting on a bicycle gets. Even an irritating Christina Aquilera ear worm can’t spoil the moment.

Camping at just over 4000m

Morning walk up a mountain

A convoy of Chinese trucks

By the following evening we’re in Murghab, a town built as a military outpost by the Russians that has somehow survived long after the soldiers left. Or at least the Russian ones. There are still some Tajik guards on the way into the town that insist on writing our names and passport numbers into their all important Big Exercise Book. The amount spent across central Asia on exercise books and employing men to write names into them must be staggering.

Stopping for fried fish in a yurt

Passing 16,050km or 10,000 miles

Approach to Murghab

Murghab has a statue of Lenin, a tent that sells Yak milk ice cream and a bazaar built out of shipping containers. It feels every bit the frontier town that it effectively is and everything and everyone seems to have taken a pounding from the weather and the altitude. There are shells of cars, half buried in sand, stacks of yak dung left to dry so it can be burned for fuel and the only supply of water is from wells dotted around the town.

Murghab

Murghab bazaar

Lenin still looks after Murghab

It’s also largely a Kyrgyz community so unofficially uses the Kyrgyz time zone and plenty of the men wear traditional ak-kalkap hats.

A traditional Kyrgyz Ak-Kalpak hat. Probably not CE certified for use on a motorbike.

We check into the excellent guest house Mansur Tulfabek and enjoy a warm shower, heated by a yak dung stove of course. Power for the town is provided by a hydro electric station but each year there has been less snow, less water running from the mountains and less money for maintenance so the supply is unreliable to say the least. Each night a different street takes its turn to have mains power with the rest of the town humming to the sound of generators.

Murghab bazaar, made from old containers

The repair on the fork has cracked again and this time there’s another, smaller crack on the other side. There follows a nervous hour with another mechanic who operates on the street outside his house wielding a welder, grinding wheel and very heavy lump hammer. This time I encourage him to go overboard with the welder and also ask him to produce a curved metal bar that I can attach to both front racks and stop them wobbling from side to side. The end result is ugly, substantial and adds about 1kg to the bike but could well be the solution that allows us to keep going as it’s very sturdy. Negotiations on price start at $100, then down to $20 and we eventually agree on 70 somani (£7).

More welding, hammering and grinding

Welding with function over form

New improved front racks

We’re aware that if we’re not careful we’ll be dropping out of the mountains all too soon. To have come this far and to then not spend the time to have a good look would be a shame so after Murghab we plan a small diversion and turn left off the main highway.

A left turn off the highway, just after Murghab

A house with a very impressive rockery in the back garden

20km along a very rough track that takes us up through a broad valley devoid of any visible life brings us up to a small tented village nestled on a lush green meadow with a pretty meandering stream running across it.

There are four yurt houses and several small brick buildings, used for storage. A few pens are dotted around and one or two young animals are tethered but most of the flocks and herds are out on the mountainside grazing. This is an isolated summer home for a tiny nomadic community.

As we approach a few children come out along with their mother and we’re invited in for chai. It’s cosy and colourful inside. On the stove a big kettle is already simmering and we’re soon sipping black tea accompanied by bread with clotted yaks cream. We wish we had jam to make it a tasty cream tea. The children look at us inquisitively, then after some whispered discussion one of them asks “whatiz your name?”. The school in Murghab has taught them a small amount of English but at the moment they are on their summer holidays.   Another family invites us to spend the night in their yurt but we decide to pitch the tent further up the valley so as not to intrude too much.

It’s fascinating watching the rest of the afternoon unfold as the animals begin returning home. First one of the herds of yaks arrive, seemingly of their own accord and they know exactly where to stop for the night. Some boys on bikes bring in a half dozen horses and some cows. Next a huge flock of sheep and goats sweep down from a different hillside and are parked in one of the pens. Finally the last herd of yaks, 30 or more, saunter past our tent with just one of the older men needed to usher them along.

Yaks

Grazing horses, high up the valley

…till the yaks come home

yak herder

During the evening we manage a walk up the hillside towards the snow line but don’t quite make it to the white stuff.

Evening stroll

Following the stream up the valley

However overnight the snow comes to us with a light dusting on the tent.

Overnight snow in the yurt village

There appear to be several large dogs running round the village but on closer inspection we see that they’re actually yak calves. They are incredibly agile and gambol like new born lambs, leaping back and forth over the stream, all with their tails stuck up like the aerial on a dodgem. Even the adult animals can move quickly when they need to which is unexpected. Providing wool for clothing, dung for fuel and milk, meat for food and strength for carrying loads these shaggy creatures are extremely valuable.

Baby Yak on the run

 The horrible bumpy track back to the main road is now marginally easier being slightly downhill but also in the knowledge that the effort was well worthwhile.

We’ve passed the turning to China now so there’s even less traffic, maybe 4 or 5 vehicles a day. All of them are packed full of people and have overloaded roof racks as transport is rare so has to be well utilised.

We get caught in a hail storm and shelter under a rocky overhang for some lunch while a shepherd and his son just turn their backs to the wind and pull their hats down hard.

After a day of changing colours the view is now becoming monochrome, red rocks and red dusty sand. If NASA faked the images from the Mars Rover then they probably did it here. We camp at 4277m and have to carry our bags off the road one by one, stopping for a few big breaths every 20m. Walking with low oxygen seems much harder than cycling but then we’re used to being out of breath on the bike.

Marsscape

Camping at 4200m

Oats are impossible to find so we’re on rice pudding for breakfast. A tasty alternative.

The highest hill of the Pamir Highway awaits us the next day, the Ak-Baital pass. After a pleasant, steady start, the hill steepens up slightly in front of us and of course becomes unpaved. It’s incredible that someone lives up here but we’re glad they do as we can stop at some houses and buy bread. They think it’s incredible that two people are riding one bike.

If you lived at 4400m you’d look like this too

It’s not that steep but we now only have 11.5% effective oxygen so we’re spinning the granny ring. Our lungs are working harder than our legs.

Looking back at the Ak Baital pass

After a final, steeper gravel hairpin forces us to push a few metres we jump back on and ride to the top. We’re now 4655m above sea level and its likely that we’re the highest tandem in the world at that precise moment.

No need to ride over the pass as the sign is at the bottom

That gradient may be exaggerated…

Summit of Ak Baital Pass.

It’s a great feeling that’s short lived as the descent is another slalom effort dodging boulders and deep gravel. This levels out onto a 15km stretch of corrugated washboard that threatens to shake every bolt on the bike loose, as well as our teeth. It’s like riding the cobbles of Paris Roubaix on a pneumatic drill.

What goes up must come down

 

Horrible corrugated road. Fantastic desolate view.

A Land Rover comes into view and pulls over next to us. Three Poles climb out armed with coffee, sandwiches and a bottle of Johnny Walker. Just what we need as energy and enthusiasm are running low and it’s not warm. It’s an unlikely meeting and we share a wonderful moment together by the side of this extraordinary road.

Stopping for whisky with our new Polish friends

The road eventually improves and drops down into a bleak grey valley with huge imposing walls of rock.

Goat crossing

We’ve been following a large barbed wire fence for a while now that was put up by the Chinese to mark what they see as the border, even though the actual border is 10-20km away. It’s an impressive construction but doesn’t seem to be observed or protected as there are dozens of holes and at one point an open gate.

I’m in China! Sort of.

Karakul is the largest lake in Tajikistan, formed by a meteorite impact and with a name that means black lake which is odd because it’s actually green.

Karakul

Masked shepherd near Karakul

We pull into a home stay in the village with the same name. As with the other Pamir villages, the houses are built from rough bricks, hand made on site and then rendered to cover up all the irregularities. In Karakul there is no mains power at all so our hosts have a small solar panel and try not to depend on it. Torches, candles, and a yak dung stove are much more reliable.

Tilda Han Home Stay, Karakul

For some reason there are dozens of huge empty oil tanks dotted around the streets, in amongst piles of rubble, sometimes with a stray dog keeping watch. This place makes Murghab seem like a busy metropolis.

Karakul Village

In the morning we’re shown to the village ‘shop’. A grumpy old women hobbles out of her house and leads us to her garden shed which displays a couple of packs of noodles, a pair of shoes and a few tins of condensed milk. We decide our supplies of creamy shoe noodle soup will be adequate for the next couple of days so leave with nothing, making the women even more grumpy. We do however collect water from the well then get on our way.

Karakul well

There’s a light snow flurry and a blanket of clouds sits on the mountains behind the lake which deprives us of the classic Karakul view of big mountains reflected in the green water which is a shame.

Karakul

We have the 4232m Uy Buloq pass to get over next which starts steadily then kicks like a donkey three times before the top requiring some brute force and stubbornness to reach the top. Then we drop down into nowhere.

Uy Buloq Pass

Suddenly we feel incredibly small. The road and the Chinese border fence are almost lost in the jumble of rocks and boulders on either side. The clouds are still hanging low but we glimpse the hulking outline of Trapez Peak towering us, over 6000m high. The wind is blowing hard against us and there’s snow in the air again so we make use of the only shelter available beneath a small bridge for lunch and pull on our down jackets.

Moonscape

Looking back at the Chinese border fence

Once we emerge to find the situation hasn’t improved so the jackets stay on and predictably the road surface deteriorates to the hated corrugated wash board. We battle on one pedal stroke at a time, then the rough road begins to climb for the final pass before the border.

We’re relieved when we get to the rusty barrier near the top, held closed with what looks like a coat hanger. There’s not a single person to be seen even when we call out Hello! Salem! Zdravstvuj! and honk the horn. We decide to get out of the cold and wait in the warm guards office where a big pot of mutton soup is on the boil but resist tucking in. Still no-one comes.

Very tempted to fill in the big exercise book myself.

20 minutes later we decide to get going so grab the bike and push it past the gate, at which point two men emerge, wiping sleep from their eyes, from a building that looked abandoned and point us further up the road. Behind a half built garage there’s a Portacabin surrounded by mud which serves as the border control point. A man in camoflage gear takes our passports and we feel the warmth from the open fire as he disappears inside the office with a firm ‘Nyet’ when I try to follow him. We have to wait in the cold it seems.

The passports come back with the necessary exit stamp and our names have been added to yet another big exercise book. We still have 100m of climbing before the actual border line and then 10km of descent before the Krygyz entry point. It’s gone 5 o’clock, the snow is getting heavier and the road conditions are getting a lot worse.

Marco Polo sheep to mark the actual border at the top of the Kyzl Art Pass

Once over the top of the 4336m Kyzl Art Pass we’re faced with a slippery, muddy, boulder strewn excuse for a road. Trying to control over 200kg of tandem crew and kit on two rubber contact points barely bigger than a matchbox takes some precision braking, careful weight distribution and some extraordinary faith from Kirsty that I can keep us upright. A blizzard in the face only adds to the challenge.

We make slow progress but part way down a farm emerges out of the gloom with a farmer and his kids beckoning us in. We don’t need to be asked twice and quickly park the bike and make for the cosy living room. Inside there are 4 children, a small baby in a cot, 2 sets of parents and a grandmother. We take on the role of kids entertainment for the next couple of hours while we defrost. They’re fascinated by their strange house guests.

Snow blind with snow beard

The cosy living room is also the cosy kitchen, cosy dining room and by the end of the evening is converted into the cosy bedroom for all of us. One room to heat means less fuel needed although there is a good size fuel production facility outside in the form of a herd of yaks.

Yak farm in no mans land between Tajik and Kyrgyz borders

It’s been Ramadan for most of our time in the Pamirs but we haven’t really been affected much. However here the Grandmother is observing it so out of respect we all wait until the sun has set before dinner is served: a simple soup with bread followed by chai and with the chai being used to swill out the soup bowls. Another man pops in and wolfs down a bowl of soup, offers us a lift to Osh (thanks but no thanks) then gets going again.

After dinner the floor is covered with mattresses and bedding and then sleeping bodies but the light stays on all night so that the baby can be fed.

At 3am we’re woken by the grandmother having her breakfast, then the baby having hers. The rest of us wait until 9am before eating, including a bowl of yak butter tea which is as appetising as it sounds, then we settle the bill and continue our descent. It was a wonderful refuge in no mans land and once again we’re left wondering about the severity of living so high on the mountain and so far from any other houses.

The farm kids

Kirsty had been feeling grotty the day before which was not helped by the weather and climbing. Today I seem to be suffering too. Luckily the weather has improved so we can now see where we’re going and the road seems a touch drier.

The Kyzl Art pass. Not tandem friendly.

We pick our way down and down until the road levels out but there’s still a few km before we actually get to the Kyrgyz border. We must have spent 18 hours in no mans land and hope that the border guards don’t notice that our exit stamp was from the day before.

Relieved to be at the bottom of the Kyzl Art pass.

Of course they don’t, and we’re quickly through the basic control point and another stamp is added to the pages of our now very busy passports. We ride on and the mountains give way to wide, flat, grassy fields dotted with yurts, herds of horses and kids on donkeys. As much a stereotypical view of Kyrgyzstan as we could wish to expect. Another row of mountains sits in front of us but before we get to them we arrive in Sary Tash feeling exhausted, unwell and in need of rest so we check into a guest house and write off the rest of the day in favour of sleep.

Entering Kyrgyzstan

Looking over Sary Tash back to the Pamirs

Although officially the ‘Pamir Highway’ ends in Osh it feels like we have finished the hardest bit. Did it meet our expectations? After thinking about something for so long and waiting and longing for it to happen it’s always a bit strange when it’s over. In this case there is still so much for us to look forward to for the rest of the trip but even so having finished this section it’s hard not to feel a sense of completion. It was a difficult, beautiful, remote, frustrating, fascinating, humbling road that we feel privileged to have been able to ride. Will it be the best road though? Ask us again when we’re in Christchurch.

The best road in the world?




Dushanbe to Khorog

The blog has become very much neglected over the last few months but it’s not from lack of anything to write about (shesnottypingontheback)! The big Catch Up starts here with our exit from the capital of Tajikistan and heading towards the Pamir region, a stretch that seems a long time ago now.

Mobile Haystack

The trouble with writing this so far after the event is that a lot can change in both our memories of what happened but also, as with any country in Central Asia, the political situation can turn very quickly. True to form, last week a snap decision by President Rakhmon to sack his deputy defence minister caused violence in Dushanbe that was completely at odds with the city that we saw. We hope that Vero and Igor, our hosts while we were there were unaffected.

Tajikistan, engage low gear now

June 5th 2015
Riding out of Dushanbe we leave behind the big flash cars, elaborate monuments and expensive houses and delve back into the more genuine Tajikistan countryside. After doing so little for four days it feels good to be turning the legs again and getting some blood pumping through our bodies. It’s hot and humid so we stop for a rest in the shade before beginning a big climb to end the day. A woman emerges from a nearby house with a bowl of cherries for us to try which gives us just the energy we need to get at least part way up the hill before pulling over into an orchard for the night.

Homeward bound

We finish off the ascent in the morning with the top of the mountain truncated for us by a 4.5km long tunnel that spits us back out into the sunlight and straight into a huge descent to Nurak. The turquoise reservoir sits to our left and the view of it improves as we climb back up to a ridge that overlooks the water.

Smooth roads and steady climbing

Nurak reservoir

Lunch of bean soup with pig skin floating in it is brightened up when a wedding party pulls into the layby where we’re sat. Music is turned up loud and the dancing begins. Before long I’m dragged over to join in, much to the amusement of the rest of the guests. The ‘happy’ couple however are stony faced and can’t even raise a smile. Kidnap weddings still take place in this part of the world and by the looks of it both the bride and groom are there against their will.

The happiest day of their lives

It’s another scorching hot day which gets warmer once we drop back down a 10km long descent. Melon season has finally arrived and I celebrate by buying a honey dew and eating the whole thing (Kirsty was offered a slice but declined) before diving into an irrigation channel with some local children to cool off.

We like this sign. A lot.

Pool party

While resting in the shade again a man arrives on a bike in a crisp white shirt and a blue baseball cap set at a jaunty angle. This is the English teacher for the village. He has 300 children to look after in various classes and of various ages which makes for a tough task. After practising his language skills on us he invites us to his family’s house for dinner. Only it turns out to be the house of one of his friends and once we’re there he leaves instructions for us to be fed before saying goodbye and leaving. It’s a bit awkward but they seem happy to oblige and bring out platefulls of bread, sweets and bowls of soup. I begin to regret carrying an entire melon in my stomach from earlier.

The coolest teacher in town

Our generous and enforced hosts

We’re keen to not outstay our welcome given we’d been forced upon our kind hosts so decline their offer to stay and push on for another 10km before hiding the tent in some long grass. As we move east it seems to be getting darker earlier and earlier.

Early sunsets in the East

The road takes us across plains and then over rolling hills onto a ridge scattered with beehives then we drop down again into the heat. The mercury has risen to 45 degrees today so we’re desperate for shade by the early afternoon.

These two stopped to watch us emerge from our tent in the morning

All day we’ve seen various wedding cars tooting past with huge bows attached to the bonnets and cheering guests in the convoy behind. While we lounge under some trees for lunch some curious children come to investigate from a garden filled with dancing and music. Shortly after eyeing us up they return with sweets, plums and water. What can we give them in return other than stale bread and raw pasta? It’s so touching to be on the receiving end of all this generosity but at the same time frustrating not to be able to repay it in some way.

Dutch bikers. Covering 5000km in 5 weeks so a bit quicker than us.

Spinning on to the busy town of Kulob Kirsty ducks into a phone shop to buy credit while I stumble across a cobbler who has just the skills and tools we need. One of our rear panniers has come apart at the seems which is no problem for the cobbler who fixes it in no time. Trades like this seem so rare in Europe with so much being disposed instead of fixed.

He can fix panniers as well as shoes

After Kulob there’s a large ridge of hills to get up and over. Part 1 is tackled that evening with the bulk of it being taken on the following morning. It’s a stinker of a hill, getting steeper and rougher as we go up. We’re under prepared and soon run out of water so we stop two cars and beg for water then round a corner to find a bee keeper and his wife who invite us into their tent. It”s blissfully cool inside and they feed us fried potatoes and chai while we admire their pet pheasant. The bee keeper pulls out his phone to show us a video of the bird’s husband performing it’s duties. It’s a trained fighter and from the looks of the video is usually the one to beat.

Cooling off in a tent with a fighting pheasant

The bee keeper’s suit appeared to have some flaws

We avoid getting stung by the swarms surrounding the mans hives then continue up the rough climb to find a water spout gushing icy cool water to fill our bottles. Even more refreshing are the slices of water melon that passengers of a passing car hand to us.

Nothing more refreshing than a water melon

The climb finally tops out at 1900m and we look forward to a rewarding descent.

Looking back down towards the winding climb

The top of the climb

But we don’t get one. The road passes through a small town then drops steeply down on an unsurfaced track lined with loose gravel, cobbles and sand. Our progress down is almost as torturously slow as our progress up from the other side.

Brakes on, bumps galore. Hold onto your hats/helmets!

Gingerly nudging the bike down the hill making full use of all three brakes we have to stop frequently to steady the nerves and allow me to unfold my white knuckles. Which gives us the chance to look around and realise that the gorge we’re plunging into consists of vast slabs of red rocks. It’s brutal but beautiful.

Red rock gorge

Rough road, rewarding views

We’re not the only ones that the road is punishing. Large Chinese trucks are inching their way up with more than a few casualties along the way. Every km or so a vehicle lies with it’s guts spread across the side of the road and a greasy driver sweating over a spanner or hammer trying to get it working again. The trucks that are still rolling kick up a cloud of dust that fill our eyes, noses, mouths and ears and I have to stop until the route ahead becomes visible.

Sandy slalom

Bovine slalom

But when the dust settles after the last corner the sight in front of us is breath taking. In the valley below is the River Panj, an angry torrent that forms the border for this part of Tajikistan. Beyond it are enormous mountains with pastures and woodland on the lower slopes and reaching up through bare, grey rock to craggy, snow capped peaks. This is our first view of Afghanistan.

Our first view of the Panj Valley

Dropping down to the Panj valley. Donkeys are a much more sensible form of transport for this road.

The rocky road seems to continue once we drop off the hill so the next few days could well be tough on the backsides. Despite a warning that the police might not like it, we camp next to the river. In the distance a fierce thunder storm is raging with lightning forking down into the valley but it’s far enough away not to be of concern while we prepare dinner.

At 2am the storm arrives above our tent. Heavy rain pelts the canvas and we’re lit up every three seconds from the bright light of the lightening with the sound of thunder a constant, deafening rumble. The Hilleberg stands up to the assault with ease but its a nerve wracking half hour before it all subsides again.

Storm battered camp site

With relief the storm soaked track turns into a beautifully paved road after the next 10km. We wind along the Panj valley with Afghanistan never more than a stones throw away.

Border crossing. They wouldn’t let us cross.

Looking across to the mud hut villages and tented encampments, linked together by donkey tracks barely wide enough for a motorbike, let alone a four wheeled vehicle it seems like a world from another century. The men wear long tunics and the women are often completely covered. There are no power cables but we see the occasional satellite dish so presumably there are a few generators.

Afghan village perched high on the cliff

Afghan village on a rare flat space of land

On our side of the river some considerable time and money has been spent on the road, providing us with a smooth strip of black top that weaves up and over rock outcrops and around the huge, steep cliffs. It’s a true delight to ride and quickly steps into the top 10 of roads ridden so far.

Whooosh!

Sometimes you just have to stop, look up and admire

Sometimes you have to stop for lunch

Although it’s hard to stop when the riding is this good, we spot the ideal camp spot tucked under some trees by a riverside beach so decide to pull over early. We’re quickly joined by two Russian motorbikers and then the more unwelcome border guards arrive. We’re asked to move on as we’re too close to this sensitive border. The threat, they say, is from Afghans trying to swim or row across in the night. Looking at the strength of the river this seems an unlikely scenario for even the most determined Afghan so we argue that we only want to stay for one night.

Sometimes you just have to stop

The Russians help our case by being more persuasive with the guards in a language they understand and eventually they concede and leave us be.

Shortly after they return and present us with a fish! We’ve already eaten so put it to one side at which point it starts flapping about. I rush down to the river with it and gently lower it into the water. It shows it’s gratitude at being released by rolling one fin into the air then fully onto it’s back to reveal it’s white belly before quietly drifting off down stream. It’s not quite the reenactment of the final scene from Free Willy that we hoped for.

The (live?) fishy gift

The feared attack overnight never happens but this border is genuinely a risky place to be. However a lot of the movements are carefully controlled. One statistic we were given showed that as much as 30% of Tajikistan’s GDP comes from payments to facilitate drug trafficking through the country, from Afghanistan up towards Russia. 80% of the worlds opium is grown in Afghanistan with a large proportion finding its way across the River Panj. This explains the number of large European cars being driven around Dushanbe and the apparent wealth on display. It seems the government have taken the stance of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Thanks to a Motor Biker from Colorado who took this and then told us we were awesome.

The tarmac ends the following afternoon with a short, stony climb and a sickening crunch from the back of the bike. It was only a matter of time before it happened but the rear derailleur has broken, throwing itself into the wheel, bending the mech hanger and spewing it’s jockey wheels into the dust.

I walk away from the bike and have a quiet moment of contemplation.

For the non technically minded, it’s not meant to look like this.

It was inevitable because of a freak accident that happened in Uzbekistan last month. While in Nukus my helmet was balanced on a front pannier and during a short ride around the corner it fell off and went under the rear wheel. By sheer unlucky chance the strap also wrapped itself around the rear derailleur causing it to bend and crack. So we were left with a slightly squashed helmet and a damaged derailleur that could be reassembled but was severely weakened. Annoying and avoidable.

Back to the road in Tajikistan and we have a few issues to fix. Two boys come to see what the fuss is about and hand us some water. The mech hanger is part of the steel frame which is a deliberate design feature as it means it’s bendable unlike a replaceable aluminium one. I just need something to bend it with so Kirsty digs out our picture book and shows the boys a drawing of a hammer. They nod excitedly and run off, returning quickly with the desired tool. I begin hitting the bike against a rock but the rock keeps slipping and cracking. One of the boys disappears again and comes back with a metal block. Much better for hammering against and before long the hanger is pointing in the right direction again.

Precision bodging

Next up is the derailleur itself. It’s in a bad way but it should be possible to assemble it as a simple chain tensioner and ride the bike as a single speed so I give it a go. It works! We return the tools to the boys with a hearty thanks and a few sweets then gingerly set off again, pedaling with great care. It lasts 1km before the derailleur becomes another tangled mess. This time it’s terminal.

Our friendly little helpers

There’s a 20km walk ahead of us into the next town of Kalaikhum so we begin trudging. We’ve barely covered 1km when out of a cloud of dust a Land Cruiser appears and it pulls over at the sight of our upturned thumbs. Unusually there’s nothing in the back and nothing on the roof so we split the bike and it gets lashed onto the car. Half an hour later we’re in Kalaikhum enjoying lunch with some French and Dutch motor cyclists.

Broken bike, welcome ride with an Agha Khan Foundation worker.

It’s a tiny town so the chances of finding a new derailleur seem just as small. Our hopes are unreasonably high however as Kirsty had read a blog from another cyclist who was faced with the exact same dilemma almost exactly a year ago. His derailleur had also returned itself to its constituent parts but he managed to find a new one in this very town.

Some inquiries at various shops provides the information we need. “Look for the bearded man with a kiosk across the street”. We find the kiosk, that appears to be selling a random assortment of tools, gadgets and pirated music. All of a sudden the bearded man appears and I show him a picture of what we need. He nods knowingly and reaches into a box of delights on the lower shelf. He turns round and is his hand is the shiniest and most welcome bicycle part I’ve ever set eyes on. A bar of gold would be less valuable to us right now and our pockets are as deep as they need to be. He demands 25 somani for this trip saving object (£2.50).

The man with the beard consults the precious goods being sold by the man with the beard.

It’s shiny and roughly the right shape. Let’s go!

Much of the talk in Dushanbe was to debate whether to go ‘north or south’. There are two routes into Kalaikhum for cyclists to choose from: north is shorter, rougher, more remote. We took the South route which is 100km longer but arrived a day before those who went north thanks to the quality of the roads so think we made the right choice.

Apart from the excellent ‘bike shop’, the best thing about Kalaikhum is that the supermarket sells Nutella. With this vital supply on board we take to the road again the next day. Hoards of school girls crowd round us to practice their English before we leave.

A gaggle of school girls (or prisoners)

Ahead lies over 200km of mostly unpaved, potholed, rough road which will be the toughest test of the tandem so far. We’re going into it with a front rack welded by a Kazakh bus mechanic, a front wheel built by someone who had never built a wheel before (me), a pannier sewn together by a Tajik cobbler and a rear derailleur that cost less than an inner tube.

“Make sure your bike is in perfect working order before attempting this road”

Straight away the rear derailleur proves to be worth every penny we paid, delivering 4 out of the 27 gears that we should have at our disposal. Any steep, hard climbs, of which there are many, result in a crunching of chain against cassette. Sometimes we’d limp up, sometimes we’d have to push and sometimes the chain would break and we’d nearly fall off. By Khorog there are 5 emergency ‘quick links’ holding the chain together.

“Try not to crash”, instructed Kirsty

But we keep moving forward regardless. The greener valley in the stretch before Kalaikhum turns more sparse afterwards with any flat and vegetated areas being occupied by a village, like an oasis amongst the sheer rock. Unusually, although we’re following it upstream, the river broadens out into a flat plain before Rushan.

The river valley opened out.

On the other side of the river, Afghan road builders are busy blasting a new road out of the rock. While enjoying tea in one village we’re warned to keep our bike behind a building in case it gets damaged from flying rocks caused by the explosions. They show us smashed windows in the school house even though it’s set a long way back from the river. The other side really is a stones throw away, provided the stone is launched with dynamite.

Afghan roadworkers preparing the rock with dynamite

Several years of hard work to create a lifeline between the villagers. Always at risk from more landslides.

It takes 3.5 days to reach Khorog with every pedal stroke a test of riders and machine. Along the way we sleep on a tea bed outside the house of a group of women whose husbands are busy tending herds high on the mountains. We find a mulberry orchard is a good place for a tent and provides a tasty porridge topping. An old lady and her grand children spend 2 hours watching us set up camp and cook while they eat raw rhubarb.

Tea bed bed

View from the tent, night before Khorog

At one point an 8 year old darts out of a lake and stands in the road demanding Denghi (money) wearing nothing but his birthday suit. I swerve to avoid him at which point he snatches a drinks bottle, snapping the securing bungy in the process. I stop and sprint after the naked Dick Turpin roaring with rage. The boy is terrified and abandons the bottle. He then returns with with a wobbling lower lip offering a 10 somani note from the sock he’s clutching. It’s then that I realise that chasing a naked Tajik boy whike shouting until he cries must be the moment in my life that I am least proud of. We decline the offering and shamefully ride off.

Goat herders who joined us for breakfast in the mulberry orchard

We pass at least a dozen pictures of the president welcoming us into Khorog and we’re very glad to see him. This is the regional capital for the Pamir region and gateway to the Pamir Highway. We check into the Pamir Lodge, a favourite for cyclists and motor bikers high above the town.

Khorog

The shiny rear derailleur may have been less than perfect but I suspect a fully laden touring tandem on a steep, rough track may have been beyond the design criteria laid out for it when it was assembled in its factory in China. The main thing is it got us here and that’s worth 25 somani in anyone’s money.

Cows cooling off just outside Khorog

The next day our Irish friend Will arrives having braved the north route and with tales of boulder fields, river crossings and flooded roads. This is why it was christened ‘The Adventure Route’ by Hannah and Emese who we’d met, still shell shocked from the experience, in Dushanbe.

Will is a man who likes to be prepared and when he’s not fighting off Chaihana ladies he’s busy researching his route and getting ready for what the road might throw at him. Knowing he has some difficult terrain to come he had taken the precaution to pack a spare rear derailleur yet hearing of our predicament he very graciously offers to lend us this precious device. Tears well in our eyes at yet another generous act. We offer the shiny China special in return and pray he doesn’t have to use it.

This deserves an ode to Will in the traditional style of his home town:

There was a young man called Will
Who was prepared for every hill
With a broken rear mech
We had to shout ‘feck’
But Will’s spare parts fit the bill

Stocking up in the Bazaar, feasting at the first Indian restaurant we’ve seen for months and giving the bike a thorough overhaul occupy most of the next day then we’re ready to head for the hills again.

North or south are again the options. South is the Wakhan corridor that continues to follow the Panj along the border. It promises spectacular views of the Hindu Kush mountains, untouched village communities and some of the worst roads ever to carry a bicycle. And carrying is a distinct likelihood as there are long stretches of sand which is the worst enemy of a tandem. North is the M41, the Pamir Highway itself. Mostly paved, also with stunning views and altogether more tandem friendly. We turn the bars north and leave Wakhan for another day on other bikes.

Terraces in Afghanistan




Samarkand to Dushanbe

Kirsty was always very proud of her attendance record at her former place of work. In the 14 years she was there the number of days off that she took due to sickness could be counted on one hand. One of those was partly my fault after taking her to a sea food restaurant where she ate a dodgy oyster. We’ve managed to stay fit and healthy for most of the journey so far with just the occasional sniffle to deal with but there’s a certain amount of inevitability to getting sick when travelling for a long time.

Leaving Samarkand we’re both feeling good as we pick our way through some small residential streets on gravel roads and emerge on the main highway that leads to Tashkent. Riding a few km north we arrive at our destination for the morning: the Samarkand Rowing Canal.

Samarkand Rowing Canal

We’d always planned to try and do some rowing during the trip if we got the chance. So when I found out there was an international rowing lake in Samarkand I got in touch with Savara at the Rowing and Canoe Federation of Uzbekistan to see if we could go for a paddle. She was incredibly helpful and organised for us to meet the national team coach  and borrow a boat.

Bike and boats

We roll up to the boat house and get warmly greeted by Manucher. It’s much like any rowing lake with just over 2000m of water, a small grandstand compete with Olympic rings symbol (don’t tell the IOC), and timing booths every 500m. But there are a few things that make it different from Eton Dorney and Holme Pierrepoint in England. In the distance a huge range of white, jagged mountains fills the horizon. Cows graze around the 500m marker and a team of workers are cutting the grass on the bank by hand using sickles.

Manucher, Uzbek national team coach

Manucher shows us our boat and blades painted in the Uzbek national colours and we quickly take to the water. Also in common with most rowing lakes there’s a strong cross wind which makes the paddling a little trickier. But it’s lovely to be out on the water for the first time in 3 years. In fact the last time we were in a double scull I ended up proposing to Kirsty.

He’s not paddling on the back

Cows grazing at the 500m mark

After a trip to the end of the lake and back and a few racing ‘bursts’ we’re glad to have stayed upright and dry so decide to cut our losses and head back to dry land.

Some of the Uzbek national squad. And me.

After thanking Manucher and a photo with some of the national squad we’re back on the bike and pedaling again but we’ll be on the look out for more rowing lakes.

At this point Kirsty admits to be running at about 80%. Perhaps the efforts in the boat took more out of us than we realised? It’s hot and hilly which doesn’t help so we stop for chai and shade mid afternoon and spot a lake in a few km that would make for a good early camp spot.

In the end we settle for a small river instead of the lake and soon gather a gang of interested children who watch closely while we put up the tent and I carry out some running repairs. Meanwhile the shallow river is busy with cars being driven into it for their weekly car wash.

A critical audience

At the car wash

In the morning we’re both under par with grumbling tummies. There’s a 1000m climb ahead of us which we tackle slowly, all the time watching for suitable bushes to hide behind, just in case.

The only way is up

A lengthy lunch at a Chaihana is needed along with a snooze. The great thing about the tea beds is that as well as being a place to drink tea, they are also a bed. In most chaihanas there is someone asleep on one. We’ve also found people sleeping behind the counter in a few shops too.

Stopping for a breather

The hill continues steeply up and we’re ready to stop long before we actually find a patch of flat ground near the top. The one benefit of having to dash out of the tent in the middle of the night is that I get a great view of the milky way overhead.

View from the top

We finish the climb in the morning and are rewarded with views opening right out to the mountainous Tajik border. This is a new face to Uzbekistan with huge green hills, woods and meadows. Down we go for several bumpy km relieved not to have to exert much energy other than to squeeze the brakes.

The Uzbek version of the village people suffer from Dyslexia

The only way is down

The temperature is now 41 degrees so we stop for ice cream as soon as we spot a sign with a range of tempting frozen delights on it, only to find the ice cream machine is broken. The disappointment is palpable.

They love their mini vans

Pushing on into Shahrisabz the heat isn’t so noticeable while we’re moving. The faster we go, the cooler the breeze.

We were warned by an Aussie in Samarkand that Shahrisabz promised a lot but delivered very little. He was right. There are plenty of ancient buildings of interest but the whole town seems to be a building site surrounded by clouds of dust. I’m sure it’ll all look lovely when it’s finished with some grand landscaping showing off the mosques and monuments but for now a visit to the bazaar for fresh fruit and a swift departure is the order of the day.

Shahrisabz

Another lengthy lunch stop in the shade of a tree and then a last stint in the cooler, late afternoon brings us to a small gulley where we set up camp. During the evening we watch various groups of animals being led down to the stream for a drink. Even the horses can’t resist as it’s been a hot day for everyone.

Curious shepherd

We try to get away early to get some riding done before the day heats up. Already there is a busy market in full swing a few hundred metres from our tent. Sheep with enormously fat bottoms overhanging their back legs are being loaded into ladas and mini vans and onto the back of motorbikes. The bigger the bottom the better as it provides more fat for the Lagman/plov/manti/samsa. These animals are the J-Los of the ovine world.

They love big butts…

We pass wheat fields and groups of waving, whistling workers. There’s almost a constant barrage of ‘Atkhuda?’, Russian for ‘Where are you from?’ from everyone we meet. After telling them we’re from ‘Anglia’ they seem satisfied and wander off.

‘Atkuda?’

The road rises and falls and rises some more. The temperature also rises to 42 degrees and it’s a very dry heat leaving our tongues as dry as Gandhi’s flip flop.

The now routine and necessary afternoon stop finds us next to a stream under a tree. Some children creep out and after the inevitable ‘Atkuda?’ practice their English on us which mostly involves listing types of fruit. We mime the type of fruit in response to show that we understand, much to their amusement.

Is it a banana?

One of the parents then invites us in and we’re fed a type of delicious milky cheese with tomatoes and sent away with fresh bread.

A steady climb ends the day and we’re joined by a friendly dog who enjoys the view down into a valley with us. He’s happy to finish off some stale bread that we’d been carrying for a few days. Presumably this doesn’t count as throwing it away?

The climb continues through a small dusty village with a police check point on the far side. We’ve passed several of these all through Uzbekistan and have always just been waved straight through without stopping. This time though we’re told in no uncertain terms to stop and present our passports.

We’re given the all clear then it’s brakes off, into the big ring for the rewarding descent. It’s a rocky, red landscape with a few patches of green tucked into the sharp ridge lines. There are huge slabs lent against each other like a collapsed set of dominos.

At the bottom the cliffs close in on us, the road gets rough and we arrive at another police checkpoint. There’s lots of whistling and friendly, perhaps even frantic, waving as we ride on through past the queue of parked cars. They really do seem pleased to see us here.

I stop a couple of hundred metres further down the road to take a photo of an interesting junction and a few seconds later a car skids to a halt alongside. A policeman jumps out and demands to see our passports. We’re then made to ride back up to the checkpoint so they can write our name in what looks like a large school exercise book. I suppose this gives the impression of the authorities knowing where people are throughout the country. There is also a registration system that asks you to collect a stamped receipt for each night a visitor is in country. Fine if you stay in hotels every night but difficult if your accommodation is a tent. We have four receipts for over 3 weeks in the country which causes a lot of shaking of heads and looks of puzzlement. We shrug our shoulders and indicate that that’s all we have, knowing from other people’s experience that this rule is rarely enforced, if ever. Reluctantly they let us go.

So back to that interesting junction we roll. Turning right would take us onto the road to Mazar-I-Sharif and onwards to Kabul. An interesting prospect if it wasn’t for the fact that we don’t have a Afghan visas. Or a pair of kevlar vests. We turn left instead to continue on towards the safety of Tajikistan.

Turn right for Afghanistan

Or left for Tajikistan

After lunch we endure another very long, hot climb with a bumpy decent on the other side so again no reward for our efforts as I’m hard on the brakes all the way down. While pootling through Baysun an Irish voice calls out to us and another cycle tourist pulls alongside. “You must be Marcus and Kirsty!”. Our reputation precedes us as this is Will who had been riding with Rob and Josh up until a few days ago and had obviously been tipped off that we were on the road ahead of him. He’s staying the night here but we want to go a bit further so we agree to try and meet the next day and ride to the border together.

We’d both been feeling much better for the last few days but the following morning I wake with stomach pains. It eases off once we start riding though so hopefully just a short lived bug from a dodgy ice cream, or the water from a hose or the unmarked bottle of water i’d drunk.

A 7.5 pence ice cream

We have a 15km head start on Will and enjoy dropping down into a wonderful valley with a stream cutting deep into the valley floor. There’s a timeless view of a shepherd in a traditional long coat tending to his flock of lardy sheep. Then it’s up and up before a smooth long descent along a ridge with rolling brown hills on either side. It’s nice to be able to let the bike go for once as the road surface is very good.

It looked like we were arriving into a flat plain but after stopping for juice and biscuits and to soak our heads under a cold tap we find its actual very lumpy. A series of short, sharp climbs with just as steep a drop on the other side, sometimes rough and unsurfaced get us working up a sweat. It’s over 40 degrees again.

Lunch with our feet in a stream is a refreshing relief and I’m about to lie down in it when a small snake pokes it’s head above the water, takes one look at us and then disappears. Time to get moving again. But not before a few passersby have given us bread and biscuits.

We don’t get far as we’re distracted by some plum trees and stop to pick some. At the same time a car pulls up to us and a man we recognised as one of the bread and biscuit donors climbs out with his 14 year old daughter. She explains that she is at the top of her English class and wants to practice. She also wants an English pen friend so we hand her our email address but we’re still waiting to hear from her.

Will finally catches us as we’re pulled over once more to receive an offer of chai. The tiny roadside stall sells an eclectic mix of goods ranging from individual cigarettes, to bars of soap, noodles and fizzy drinks.

The two bikes move quickly into Denow where we pick up supplies then navigate our way straight out again. The stomach cramps have returned and Will admits he’s not 100% either so we begin the search for somewhere to hide the tents.

Big yellow wasp

The options are very sparse as it’s all quite built up but we settle for some rough ground next to a derelict building. Not very salubrious as it also seems to be the village tip but desperate cycle tourists can’t be too picky. We’re all a bit despondent as it’s not the memorable last night in Uzbekistan we’d hoped for.

But before we can pitch the ‘palatcas’ we’re saved from a night on the dump by our neighbours from across the road. It appears to be some sort of oil processing depot and they proudly show us their laboratory and bottling shed. Will has a reasonable grasp of Russian having studied it for a few months before starting the trip (putting us to shame) so he’s able to convey our respective stories as well as our needs.

The owner is a Mr Choiyny who happens to be in Germany at the moment so we’re offered his cosy room for the night. In case we’re in any doubt that he won’t mind a phone is presented with Mr Choiyny on the other end. In a combination of German and Russian Will is given the message that we are more than welcome and that his staff will look after us.

A feast was laid out for us

A table is brought out followed by several courses of delicious food. Both Will and I have perked up again so manage to gratefully tuck in. It’s a lovely, restful evening and just what we needed to recuperate before the last stint to the border thanks to Mr Choiyny and his staff.

Dinner at the oil depot with Will

Things are not quite as pleasant in the morning though. Will had decided to pitch his tent on the hard standing and we find him lying on a piece of carpet outside it looking very much worse for wear. He’d had a rough night with an upset stomach and is in no fit state to ride that day. We explain to the oil staff that he needs to sleep and ask if he can stay but to our surprise the answer is “no, clear off”. It’s a compete turnaround after the generosity of the night before. We can only assume that this is due to a fear of being caught by the authorities. It’s actually forbidden for tourists to be given accommodation unless in a licenced hotel or guest house. This is one of the reasons they have the registration process. The nights in Pamela’s and Moyrags homes and also the night here at the oil terminal are actually illegal.

Saying goodbye to/being kicked out by the oil workers

Despite this we’d hoped that Will could have been concealed for one day but instead we have to help him pack and are told there’s a guest house in the next town, just 2 or 3 km away.

4.5 km later we arrive having towed Will as best we can. We’re immediately told there is no guest house which comes as a blow. Our next move is to ask at the nearest Chaihana for some sleeping space and after some discussion with the proprietress a door is opened in a small shed and Will is installed on the mattress inside. We stock him up with water and crisps and he insists we carry on without him. All being well we’ll see him again in Dushanbe the day after.

The run up to the border takes us closer to the huge mountains we’d started seeing since leaving Samarkand. We stop to pick wild cherries by the road side and then again to let a huge heard of horses come galloping along the road.

Cherry picking

Horse hearding

Horse herding

We’ve now ridden the entire length of Uzbekistan and it’s been quite a journey full of colourful characters, spontaneous generosity, interesting history and wonderful landscapes. But mostly desert.

Standing in the customs office we’re a bit nervous as we don’t have the declaration form that was supposed to have been given to us on entry (we managed to skip that on the way in from Kazakhstan). Their main concern is movement of foreign currency so we declare that we have $25 and there doesn’t seem to be a problem. However they then start a search of our panniers diving deeper and deeper into the murky depths, opening tins and rummaging through our medical kit. When the customs officer reaches the oily tools and spares section she rapidly loses interest and tells us to repack as we’re free to go. But not before a quick body check. For the second time in my life I’m told I have ‘very strong legs’ after a squeeze by a customs officer. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or disturbed.

At the passport control there’s more shaking of heads at our lack of hotel registration slips but we get the ink on the page and push off in the direction of the Tajik border control. Luckily the $200 concealed about Kristy’s person was not found.

Up a hill (we’d better get used to this) we quickly meet the Tajik guards, fill in a form with no apparent purpose and have our temperatures taken as a cursory health check. Given the all clear we’re released into Country #29: Tajikistan.

The smooth processing at the border is followed by a smooth road all the way into Dushanbe, the capital and also the Tajik word for Monday. This must cause some confusion.
-When are you going to Dushanbe?
-Dushanbe.
-Yes but when.
-Oh, I’m going to Dushanbe on Dushanbe.
-??

Another Warmshowers legend is waiting for us in the form of Véro. There can’t be a single cyclist travelling through Tajikistan who doesn’t pitch their tent in her garden and when we arrive there are another 8 people staying from Hungary, Belgium, Germany, America, France and Taunton. Véro moved here from France 2 years ago to work for the EU and has since opened her house as a peaceful refuge in the middle of a busy city.

We need a few days to compose ourselves for the next leg of the trip as it’s going to be a tough one. For the flattest part of the Kyzyl Kym desert we climbed just 1,200m over the course of 1,200km. Up ahead we have the Pamir highway with 20,000m to climb over a 1,200km distance and some very high altitude passes.

It’s not as if I’m in a hurry to go anywhere anyway as my stomach is still complaining about something I put into it. Everyone in the house who has arrived from Uzbekistan has had similar troubles so it seems like a standard parting gift.

Vero and her guests

We have a couple of tasks to do while we stay in the city, the most important of which is to apply for a permit to enter the Badakshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) that encompasses the Pamirs. We’d had a fright in Khiva when we’d been told by some other cyclists that permits were no longer being issued. Apparently the pesky Taliban had been trying to ruin things for everyone by coming too close to the Afghan/Tajik border so the Tajik government didn’t want tourists going that way. Luckily they’ve now been pushed south so it’s deemed safe again and permits are available again. It takes a day and 20 somani (£2) to sort out the vital slip of paper to allow us to get into the mountains.

On one evening we’re invited to join a party at the home of some Americans. They are US Special Forces celebrating a changing of the guard as one group leaves and another arrives to take over. We get an interesting insight into their work training Tajik soldiers (all highly classified) but quickly the party degenerates into a cross between American Pie and Team America with a highly realistic wrestling match towards the end. Their work over here has been slightly tarnished with the recent defection of the Tajik head of police to ISIS, taking with him a lot of the training and information given to him by the US Special Forces. Let’s hope the new lot have more luck.

Will did arrive the day after us after a harrowing experience in the Chaihana. In the traditions of his home town here’s a Limerick to tell the story:

There was a young man called Will
Who while cycling felt really quite ill
At a tea house he rested
And his composure was tested
When he was offered much more than the bill.

He was even more glad to reach the safety of Véro’s garden than most.

After four days in the tranquil surroundings of Véro’s garden (apart from the screeching peacocks from the adjacent presidential palace and Véros talkative, whistling parrot) I’m feeling 90% well which is enough for me to want to get going.

It would have been easy to stay longer (the record is one month) but on a sunny Friday afternoon everything returns to it’s rightful place in our panniers and we head out onto the road again. Hopefully we won’t have too many more off-days to detract from our attendance record.




Nukus to Samarkand

It’s compulsory for any blog about a journey to Samarkand to include this poem, so here it is:

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

By James Elroy Flecker. Full version here.

From Nukus we have the unfamiliar experience of riding up and down some low hills along with the familiar view of sand dunes. It’s another section of road that is in the process of being upgraded but the new part is mostly finished so we drag the bike over to it and have the smooth tarmac to ourselves.

Leaving Karalpaqstan region

After 50km we turn right and find the water that should be in the Aral sea. Again the scenery changes from drab beige to lush green thanks to a network of drainage channels, sluices, pumps and irrigation systems.  The fields are full of colour but not from the crops. The women in central Asia wear fantastically vivid floral and pattered dresses and head scarves, even when working amongst the neat rows of cotton and vegetables.

A floating bridge

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Most of the work is done by hand but for heavy duty jobs there is usually a 3 wheeled tractor on hand to do the donkey work. Actually no, the donkeys have to do the donkey work. At night the familiar sound of dogs barking is accompanied by the sound of rusty gates blowing in the wind which in fact are donkeys complaining about their terrible hard day of labour.wpid-wp-1434355131992.jpg

Hand pump hair wash

In one village we’re beckoned over to join a family for chai and fresh bread, curious to see where we’re from and how our bike works. Bread is held with a great degree of reverence here and most houses have a clay tajin oven for cooking several disk shaped loaves each day. Guests are offered bread on arrival and it’s sacrilege to throw any away. We’ve been given stale loaves by passing cars a few times so feeding hungry cycle tourists is clearly a good way to get rid of unwanted bread.

Mobile bread delivery. His back sat was full of loaves!

But with this family we get to see the whole process of bread going into the oven, coming out again and being eaten and it tastes much better fresh.

Preparing the dough

 

Cooking in the tajin

Fesh and tasty

After two days we arrive at Ichan Kala, the old town of Khiva. At 10m high and nearly as thick, the huge imposing walls make it look like a huge fortress.

Huge city Walls of Ichan Kala, Khiva

Khiva from the top of a minaret

Like a film set

Inside are a maze of alleyways and narrow, car-free roads. Around every corner are tiled medrassas, mausoleums, minarets and mosques. Most decorated with exquisite blue and turquoise tiles. It’s like stepping onto the set of an Indianan Jones film. The authenticity is added to by the fact that most of the visitors are Uzbek rather than Western tourists so there are colourful dresses and sequins everywhere. The men just wear jeans and t-shirts.

Djuma Mosque

Most mouths are full of gold

Traditional dancing in Khiva

Mausoleum of Sayid Alauddin
Mausoleum of Sayid Alauddin

!00 year old LVIS shepherd's coat
!00 year old LVIS shepherd’s coat

We spend the night at the excellent Guest House Alibek with a great spread for breakfast and we can just see the Kalta Minor Minaret peeking over the walls. An ambitious Khan ordered a minaret to be built that was tall enough that he could see Bukhara (400km away) from the top. He died part way through it’s construction so it was abandoned and never reached it’s 75m intended height, but is impressive none the less.

Kalta Minor Minaret

Kalta Minor Minaret

After haggling in the Bazaar and changing some money we’re set to go again. The money in Uzbekistan is fairly ridiculous. The official exchange rate is set at 2500 som to the US dollar but the black market rate is usually much better. We manage to get 4000 – 4500 som per dollar from men with holdalls full of cash hanging around bazaars and taxi ranks. The most common note is 1000 som so $50 returns a stack of 200 or so notes. We have to make a lot of room in our panniers for our new found ‘wealth’ and always feel a bit self conscious pulling out 2″ of notes just to pay for lunch.

Lots of cash with very little value (1000 som = 15p)
Lots of cash with very little value (1000 som = 15p)

Back on the road the local cyclists love to race us on their single speeds, and usually win, even with a passenger on the back who genuinely isn’t pedalling. One cyclist pulls alongside us in a broad rimmed hat and an even broader grin with some kind of spraying machine strapped to the pannier rack.

Dog on the move

Moyrag and sprayer

He pulls up outside his house and darts inside to return with the inevitable disk of bread, then asks if we’d like to stay.

Inside we pass a tiny galley kitchen with the only available water being a tap in the street. The main room has a raised platform where the low table sits on a patchwork of rugs. Our new friend, Moyrag, sits with us while his wife, Sonia begins preparing food and fetching drinks. There’s still a huge amount of inequality in Uzbekistan and we feel a bit uncomfortable by the way she is ordered around while Moyrag does nothing. We’re also joined by his 81 year old mother who, with years of sitting on floors is remarkably supple and is much more comfortable in the lotus position than we are.

The bread is fresh, the beer strong and the conversation is mostly about how many children we should have. Moyrag suggests 10 and wants us to call him when the first one is born. Family is hugely important here so the fact that we don’t have any children is something they just can’t understand.

A neighbour arrives and practices the Uzbek tradition of guest poaching by inviting us back to his house where of course another full spread is laid out in front of us accompanied by vodka. This house is much smarter with decorated walls and an inside staircase. We learn that the neighbour’s job is in IT which seems to be better paid then Moyrag’s mobile spraying service.

Now with very full bellies we stagger back to our original hosts to enjoy a bit of dancing before it’s time for bed. I’m given a mattress in the living room while Kirsty is offered Moyrag’s mum’s bed. She has to argue for quite a while that she doesn’t want to make an 81 year old sleep on the floor and they eventually give in. Both of us have a restless night thanks to the tiny occupants of the bedding. They’re riddled with bed bugs.

Sonia is up early to sweep the paths all around the house, to tend to the chickens and to prepare breakfast. Moyrag surfaces late just as the chai is ready and we all have breakfast together then it’s time to say our thanks and hit the road once again. We promise to call in on our second lap of the world.

Moyrag and family

More orderly cotton fields lead us up to a wide, shallow canal which is the last open water that we’ll see for a few days. Emerald green birds that look like large kingfishers swoop over the water and a couple of fishermen are casting their nets. It’s a rough, sandy track for 20km before we pop out onto the main dual carriageway and have the pleasant feeling of a smooth surface under the tyres and the wind on our backs.

Rickety bridge (we didn’t take the bike over this)

We’re back in the desert but it looks different to the earlier sections. The sand is a reddish orange, there are larger shrubs and there are bigger dunes and more hills. Riding along one ridge we can see down into Turkmenistan.

Looking over to Turmenistan

Lizards scatter from the hard shoulder ranging in size from 4cm up to 30cm and come in a range of colour combinations. In a bizarre incident while we stop at a roadside stall to buy water a truck pulls in and a man in the back holds up a lizard that must be half a metre long. How he caught it and what he plans to do with it we’ll never know.

An unfortunate and large lizzard

It’s also getting hotter with the temperature nudging 37 degC. Cold drinks and ice creams at the chaihanas never tasted so good. While we lounge in the shade swallows dart in and out of the door and seem to be making nests in the ceiling of every building we stop at. They’ve got plenty to feed on as there are annoying black flies everywhere too.

Chaihana stop

Nesting swallows in the roof of a Chaihana

The handy tail wind blows us to our longest day yet of 145km and another night camping in the desert. It’s amazing how much life there is in the sand with dozens of types of ants, beetles, bees and spiders. Most are small and harmless but one morning Kirsty goes to put her glove on and something moves inside it then drops to the floor. It’s a huge camel spider, about the size of my hand and it scurries up the bike to hide behind a pannier. They hate sunlight which seems an odd characteristic for an animal that lives in the desert. After much prodding with a stick the spider is extracted but it chases our shadow and climbs back onboard. Eventually I manage to throw it clear and we can continue without the unwanted hitchhiker.

Friendly desert beetle

Camel spider trying to hitch a ride
Camel spider trying to hitch a ride

4 days after leaving Khiva we arrive at our next Silk Road town: Bukhara. This is a popular traveler’s destination so we meet several back packers, other cyclists and a family from France travelling to Malasia by camper van with 3 small children. The conversation between the different types of traveller is quite different with the back packers talking about buses, trains and hostels. The cyclists are more interested in road conditions, severity of the hills and weird encounters with the locals.

In the 13th century Genghis Khan came to Bukhara and ordered the whole place to be levelled. But he was so taken by the Kalyan Minaret that he let it be spared. This is definitely a good thing for us as it’s an impressive structure amongst some more wonderful Medrassas and Mosques on a larger scale than Khiva. It’s not so good for the local criminals who were thrown from the top, earning the minaret the nickname of the tower of death. Amazingly this gruesome punnishment was still taking place up until the 1920s.

Kalyan Minaret
Kalyan Minaret

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Char Minor

Friday prayers

Samanid mausoleum (C9-10) – also saved from Ghengis Khan as it was burried under sand.

It’s hot work wondering around the town so the following afternoon we head back out on the road and up to a huge reservoir for a refreshing swim, about 40km north of Buchara.

There are a row of cafes alongside the lake so we roll down to one to take a closer look. We’re greeted by four men in their underpants who invite us to join them for a drink. Luckily the state of undress is optional so we’re not expected to strip off, at least not until we’re ready to swim. The water is cool but not cold and feels great after the hot days of riding from Khiva. The sun begins to set and we climb out to find the cafe owner offering us fresh fish and a bed for the night in the adjacent building. Just what we needed.

Evening swim

On the other side of the reservoir are some real life, proper hills. I can’t remember the last time we saw some of those. We have the road to ourselves for the morning and, apart from a tiny village where we can buy some lunch, we get our last dose of proper desert silence.

Finally some hills emerged out of the flat desert

After climbing a ridge and dropping into the town of Navoi we seek out the Bazaar to buy some fresh fruit. Uzbekistan is famous for its fruit but we’re just too early for the popular melon season. Instead we gorge ourselves on sweet cherries, plums and small strawberries. Two bus drivers insist on buying us a drink and also nearly insist on taking me to a barber to have my beard cut off but I manage to persuade them to let me keep it. Only the oldest men have beards so they think I should be clean shaven.

Chaihana Lady

In most towns we’ve been mobbed whenever we stop with people asking for photos, selfies and in one Chaihana I had to pose with someone’s baby. It’s highly amusing watching people curiously eyeing up the bike too. After working out how the two sets of cranks turn together they will then usually squeeze the tyres (a thumbs up for being rock solid), look very puzzled at our clip in pedals and finally no-one can resist giving the horn a squeeze. Whenever we leave the bike we can guarantee to hear a toot from the horn within 3 minutes of walking away.

Everyone loves looking at our map

How does it work?

The wind is strong and favourable for the rest of the day so we make good progress. Just as it gets to camp site spotting time we find ourselves rapidly approaching two other cyclist. It’s Peré and Kim who we had met in Bukhara the day before. After a bit more riding we find a spot for three tents alongside a building site with a very friendly foreman who is happy for us to stay. We enjoy a tasty meal of Korean curry provided by Kim, Spanish sausage from Peré and a nice cup of British tea prepared by me and Kirsty.

Korean Kim

Moonlight (and headtorch) dinner with Kim and Pere

Then we’re on the final stretch of the golden road to Samarkand. I had imagined long camel trains, busy road side markets, and all surrounding routes converging on the huge ancient buildings of the city rising up on the horizon.

In reality there was very little that could be called golden about the road, or even silver bronze or tin.

The tail wind has subsided and with it the quality of the road surface has degraded to a cracked and pot holed bone jarrer. To add to the effort needed to keep the bike rolling, there is a slight uphill gradient. Then a storm blows in, soaking us for the first time in several weeks and we have to shelter under a tree during the worst of it.

Samarkand is the third largest city in Uzbekistan and at times was the most important town on the Silk Route. We ride through modern, rain soaked suburbs until we finally turn up a slight incline and pull over to take our first glimpse of one of the most impressive set of buildings in Central Asia: The Registan.

Marcus and Kirsty ride to The Registan
Marcus and Kirsty ride to The Registan

Three enormous medrassas arranged around a large courtyard, each of them ornately decorated with hundreds of thousands of tiles and complete with tall minarets and corrugated, turquoise domes. Although the sky is grey with rain clouds and we’re cold and damp it’s a sight worth riding 15,000km to see and a moment we’ll always remember.

The Registan

The Registan

A local youth group turned up and started drumming away. We were tolkd it was an old fashioned version of a flash mob.

Registan Ceiling
Registan Ceiling

Registan Ceiling
Registan Ceiling

We’re tucked up in bed by the time Peré and Kim arrive at the Hotel Abdu. The tandem friendly roads meant that we’d spun along a bit faster so we’d agreed to meet up again at the end of the day. Unfortunately they’d got caught in the storm and sheltered in a cafe to wait for it to pass, then got lost trying to find the hotel. We’re all glad to have a couple of nights to rest, recuperate and dry out.

As Buckhara was to Khiva, Samarkand is a step up again in terms of scale and magnificence. The mausoleum for the emperor Timur who built a lot of the ancient city is a suitably vast and ornate domed structure with a gate house nearly as tall as the main building itself. The mosque dedicated to his wife Bibi Khanym is one of the largest in Central Asia.

Gur-e Amir Mausoleum

Gur-e Amir Mausoleum

We have to ignore the fact that most of what we are seeing has been restored, renovated and rebuilt several times so very little is original. We also have to swallow hard when we find that tourist prices for the entry fees are a full 17.5 times higher than the local price ($4 instead of 20c).

Shah-i-Zinda necropolis

Shah-i-Zinda necropolis

Shah-i-Zinda necropolis

Shah-i-Zinda necropolis

From here we have five days until our Tajik visa kicks in and a convoluted, 400km route to get to the border as the crossing right next to Samarkand has been closed for a few years now. As far as I’m aware there’s no poem about this section but we’re hoping that the road out of Samarkand is more golden than the road in.

Meeting our first fellow tandem tourers, Alesandro and Stephanie from Italy

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A future Khan

Finest quality Uzbek carpets. Could be a good addtition to the tent.
Finest quality Uzbek carpets. Could be a good addtition to the tent.




Aktau to Nukus

To our left the view is 90% sky with the ground so flat you could set a spirit level on it. There’s nothing but sand and small shrubs stretching out to the horizon. Looking to the right it’s a mirror image. Up ahead the tarmac is arrow straight but there’s supposed to be a slight bend to look forward to in 260km time. Another day in the Kyzyl Kum desert.

The road is long, with barely a windling turn.

Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world but also one of the most sparsely populated. There are 18 million inhabitants spread over 2.7 million square kilometres. Or to put that into context, it’s roughly the equivalent of the population of Beijing spread over an area larger than western Europe. This means there’s space. Lots and lots of space. We’ve heard of cyclists riding to a state of near madness trying to cross the entire Kazach Steppe so we’re glad to have just 550km to cover, it would be very different to anything we’d ridden so far.

Stoker auditions in Aktau

The first 2 days have some variety as there are physical features to ride up and over. We pass at least one town or village each day and the sight of nodding donkeys and swaying camels are initially something exotic to look at.

Nodding donkey

Swaying camels

On our 2nd night we camp on a ridge overlooking the vast expanse of Steppe opening out as far as our eyes can focus. It reminds me of the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. It was a view I fully expected to be underwhelmed by but in reality the sheer scale of the place is hard to take in. It looks like a huge painting and it’s truly magnificent. A train that must be 500m long crawls across the plain and looks no more significant than a line of ants on a garden path.

The vast Kazach Steppe

 As we continue, a short, stiff climb takes us up onto a new plateau which is where we say goodbye to the contours.

 

We’ve actually arrived at one of the best times of year to be here. In the winter it can be as cold as -30 degC and in the height of summer its normal to be in the mid 40s. For most of our ride the temperature stays at 25 to 30 which is quite pleasant, we even get a bit of light rain one night. We still end each day with increasingly impressive tan lines and with a salty tide mark on our clothes like a sweaty turin shroud.

 

kite flying

The number of towns along the 550km stretch can be counted on one hand so keeping a good stock of food and water becomes even more important than usual. Lidl haven’t expanded their empire out to here quite yet but there are Chaihanas (tea houses) spaced at 50-100km intervals. These small refuges for travellers on the road provide useful supplies, hot meals and huge pots of milky tea. It’s usually served on a low table while we lounge inelegantly alongside on the kharpura mattresses. They vary in form from a converted shipping container to extensions to peoples houses. There’s usually nothing to advertise their purpose until you walk through the door and see a menu and counter.

Container Chaihana

Tea time in the chaihana

We’d been told that the food in central Asia wouldn’t be very exciting but we’ve found a great variety of dishes. There’s Lagman which is a noodle based dish either in soup or fried and usually with fatty mutton stirred in. Mante are fat dumplings, not unlike Georgian Kinkale, filled with spicy mutton. Plov is a good hearty meal being a big pile of rice with mutton on top. For a smaller snack a Samsa is very tasty which is a type of samosa in varying shape and size, stuffed with mutton. This menu is repeated at each Chaihana and it never gets easier picking what to go for.

Kirsty has found some very informative blogs by fellow cyclists who have traveled this route and have detailed exactly where the chaihanas are. This takes a lot of the guess work out of how much water to carry so even for the longest stretches we never actually carry more than 7-8 litres in total.

Upping the water carrying capacity.

Some of these blogs are from a few years ago and tell of the struggle of some long stretches with terrible unpaved surfaces. Since then there have been extensive improvement works and for most of the route we have lovely smooth tarmac and feel quite smug about it. But the works are on going and the smiles soon disappear when we have to endure some bumpy bits too although for a maximum of 20-30km at a time. In fact we get to ride everything from mud tracks, compacted gravel, concrete slabs and nice fresh tarmac. At one point too fresh which results in an hour gaining an intimate knowledge of the tread pattern of our tyres while we pick out wet, sticky tar before it sets.

rough village roads

Ahhh, fresh tarmac

Arrrgghh fresh tar!

Rain and sand create a gloop that clogs up bikes in barely a few metres. After an overnight shower camping near a cemetery 200m from the road we appear to be stuck. Fortunately the local grave digger arrives on a motorbike and is able to ferry our kit back to the road. This coincides with Josh and Rob catching us up having left Aktau the day after us. They get treated to the unusual spectacle of a motorbike and side car loaded with our panniers charging out of the desert being chased by Kirsty on foot and with me dragging the bike behind them. It looks like a robbery! Once bike, bag and riders are all reunited we thank the grave digger who returns to his duties and form a compact peloton with Rob and Josh into Beyneu, the last town before the next border.

The grave digger

Rob and Josh

Riding with Rob and Josh into Beyneu

The 90km of road from Beyneu to the Uzbekistan border has good bits and bad bits, but on the most part it’s truly awful. All rules of the road are abandoned with cars, trucks and bikes weaving from one side to the other to try and find the smoothest line. When there are no smooth lines vehicles just drive alongside the road and so the rows of tracks get wider and wider. It takes total concentration to thread the bike through the maze of holes, bumps and ruts with the occasional yelp from Kirsty who holds on like a rodeo rider.

The road from Beynu to the border

The road from Beynu to the border

The last shop in Kazachstan

 

The border crossing goes worrying smoothly. When we arrive the place feels like a refugee camp with queues of cars filled with sleeping passengers, most of them loaded up with an entire household’s worth of furniture. Some people traveling on foot are held in a high fenced pen. After clearing the Kazach side we get directed down a barbed wire lined alley at the end of which an Uzbek guard nods to a room where we can get our passports checked and then we seem to be free to go, so we do. There’s none of the expected thorough bag search and lengthy customs forms to fill out. We can only hope this doesn’t cause a problem when we try and leave.

A certain Joseph Stalin was tasked with implementing the soviet ‘divide and rule’ strategy in Central Asia to create countries where before there were mostly just different ethnic groups. Taking this quite literally he drew a very straight line in the sand at this point with one side being called Kazakhstan and the other Uzbekistan. I suspect no one was going to argue over who had which part of the wide open nothingness.

Distance to Samarkand.

As such not much changes in terms of the view and we have the prospect of another 300km of desert to ride. The language has only subtle differences too. ‘Rakhmet’ becomes ‘Rakhmat’ for thank you. Chai becomes Choi and Yok for no becomes a much more satisfying Yuk. Russian is still the 2nd language for most of the older generation so we use the odd ‘Ruskie’ word here and there while anyone under 30 will have learned English which makes things easier.

These Russians had exactly the same bike as us. Amazing!

After a cosy night with some taxi drivers just after the border who offered us chai, then plov then vodka then some floor space to sleep on with an awkward cuddle in the night for me and an unwelcome foot massage for Kirsty, we’re back on the desert road.

Our welcoming commitee into Uzbekistan

Soon we find more work in progress than work complete with rocks, ruts and plenty of mud which makes for slow and hard going on the tandem. Amazingly this is a major transport link with Europe and for days trucks trundle past from Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Turkey no doubt enjoying the unsurfaced road as much as we are.

Filthy conditions

 

Trucks from all over Europe battling along the terrible road

For the worst sections we’re actually quicker than the trucks and we get a friendly toot of the horn as we bounce past. Thankfully the road improves and we cover the next 300km in 2 and a half days with the wind blowing a different direction each day. We just get some music playing and get through a few games of eye spy. Something beginning with S? Sand? Yes.

Katherine on her way back to England from Melbourne. Travelling ultra light.

Sharing lunch with some Turkish truck drivers from their mobile ‘canteen’

After 1 particularily hard 130km day ,The Bon Voyage cafe offers us a sofa to sleep on to save getting the tent up. We wake at 5am to find 20 or so lorry drivers have crept in and are sleeping all around us on every available surface.

Then we reach a river and like a switch the view turns green. Fields, houses, mud huts, trees, animals, people, cars, bikes, buses, donkeys. We’re in Kunqorot and have found civilisation again. We’re also in the autonomous region of Karalpaqstan (a minor ‘Stan to add to the list) and a couple of days later arrive in its capital, Nukus.

Workers in the field

 Ranking highly in the list of environmental disasters caused by the soviet union, not far behind Chernobyl, is the Aral Sea. In 1960 the three main rivers that fed one of the largest lakes in the world were dammed so that the water could be used for agricultural purposes. Ever since the sea has been shrinking at an alarming rate and it’s now 1/10th the size, leaving behind a salty desert and a devastated fishing community. We decided to arrange a trip to the sea side, while it’s still there.

Rereshing fruit soda (not beer)

Nukus Bazaar

After booking a driver for the next day we go in search of a camp site. Pamela finds us eyeing up a field and puts on a fine bull mime to indicate that it’s not a good place for us to stay. Instead she leads us back along a dirt track to her village, all the way proudly telling her neighbours that we’re “Tourists, Anglia!”. Soon a crowd has formed and we all gather for photos and her nephew Amil translates the many questions as he’s studying English at college.

Inside the house is sparse with little more than a few patterned rugs on the floor and a low table in the main room that we all sit round for dinner. The only other item in the room is a 40″ flat screen TV.  We drink tea, eat soup, bread, jam, vegetable paste then Amir asks if we’d like to meet the rest of his family. It’s hard to say no so we go on a walk to his mum’s house then across to the next village where his grandparents and sister’s family live. Here we have to politely nibble a complete second meal. There is a wonderful custom of holding your hands out at the end of the meal while a prayer is said and then everyone brings their hands down over their faces as if stroking a beard. In my case I actually do stroke my beard. It’s something we see being carried out numerous times as we ride through the country.

Eventually we’re returned to Pamela’s house, much to her relief as she was worried her guests had been poached. We settle down under the stars on the tea bench outside and wake to the sound of the cows being milked alongside us.

Not far to go for fresh milk in the morning

We say our goodbyes and thanks with hands on hearts as a sign of sincerity. The first impressions set by the Uzbek consul in Baku were unfounded as we’ve found nothing but generosity and kindness here and leave with some unique memories.

When we booked the Aral Sea trip we knew it would involve several hundred kilometres of very rough roads across the former sea bed and up onto the old coast line. We expected a 4×4 vehicle fully equipped for the ardours of the journey with sand ladders, snorkel kit and raised suspension. What we got was a Daewoo saloon with a spade in the back.

We also got Aylim who more than made up for his lack of equipment by brining his heaviest right foot and a complete lack of fear. What followed were two very exciting yet very terrifying days with Aylim displaying a level of courage never before seen outside the world rally circuit. He had a total disregard for maintaining the integrity of the car and little interest in the lives of it’s occupants. If things looked tricky, as they invariably did, he’d use good old fashioned momentum to get us through it.

Testing the road ahead. Of course the car made it through easily.

We pay a sobering visit to Moynaq, formerly a prosperous fishing port and beach resort. Now the sea is over 200km away so the fishing boats lie rusting in the desert and the canning factory is long since closed. Somehow there is still a community living there but it’s reducing in size every year so could one day be a ghost town.

Moynaq, formerly on sea

Ship graveyard, Moynaq

Map showing the Aral Sea in it’s former glory

This is what’s left.

While hurtling down across the sea bed we find that inevitably there are a queue of people waiting to profit from the disaster. Numerous drilling rigs have been sunk to tap into the newly revealed gas fields which is much easier without the inconvenience of several metres of water in the way.

Driving across the sea bed

Without a proper road we’re in real wilderness and it’s a relief when we reach the high cliffs on the other side that used to form the coast line. Up on the cliff top we follow some twisty tracks for a couple of hours more then the Aral Sea finally comes into view. We drop down a very steep gulley and run in for a dip.

Cliffs formed by the waves of the sea, when it was there

finally we see the sea

As well as being 10% of it’s former size it’s also 10 times as saline so nothing lives in the water and swimmers float like a cork.

An evening float in the Aral Sea

We spend the night half way up the cliffs and while watching the night sky come alive Aylim puts on one of his favourite CDs. Hits from the 90s. It’s an unusal experience sipping vodka with nobody near us for 100km in any direction while listening to Snap, Vanilla Ice and Scatman John.

That’s what the shovel was for

Camping on the fomer shore of the Aral Sea

Starry, Starry night

The trusty Daewoo gets us back to Nukus the next day, via a garage to get the exhaust welded back to together. When we pull to a halt back at the bike we expect the car to disintegrate in a reenactment of the final scene in the Blue Brothers.

The finest rally driver in Uzbekistan

But this is made of stronger stuff, in fact it’s made right here in Uzbekistan. General Motors have a huge manufacturing plant in Asaka that the government have a 75% share of. To help support the local industry they have levied a 200% tax on imported vehicles which makes them prohibitively expensive for most people. As such there are just 5 different models of car on the road which either wear a Chevrolet or Daewoo badge. The most popular is a nippy little micro van that comes in any colour as long as it’s white and can fit at least a dozen people inside, with a few sheep. Of course the prices are fixed so the cars cost more than in any of the surrounding countries that they are exported to and are released in limited numbers to increase demand. Another good idea borrowed from the Soviet Union.

We’re glad to get back to the relative safety of the bike. The route now takes us towards some of the famous historical cities of the Silk Route, following in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Ghengis Khan. We’re not quite finished with the desert though and have a few more days of monotonous views to look forward to before we escape to the mountains. I spy with my little eye something beginning with S. Sun? Yes.

Desert wildlife

camel crossing

Desert wildlife

Dobin stew




Escape from Baku

There was a rumour that the restrictions on visas for UK citizens visiting Iran was only temporary and would be lifted once the much publicised nuclear talks had been completed. Sadly it looks like this isn’t the case, or at least nothing has changed yet so our Plan A route to Central Asia is well and truly closed.wpid-wp-1430153792278.jpg

Plan B was to take a boat from Baku to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. Often referred to as the North Korea of Central Asia due to its former dictator’s unusual behaviour (he changed the names of some of the months to include his family’s names, a book of his famous sayings is compulsory reading for all citizens, there is even a gold statue of him in Ashgabat that revolves to always face the sun). But Turkmenistan is the 7th least visited country in the world, not helped by yet more restrictive visa conditions. As with Iran, to obtain a tourist visa we’d need to be on an expensive guided tour. The alternative is a 5 day transit visa but with 900km to cover and a boat crossing that could use up 2-3 of these days it would be hard to cover this distance by bike so we reluctantly rule this route out.

Fruit and Veg market

So our Central Asia plan C is to catch a boat across the World’s biggest lake, the Caspian Sea, up to Kazakhstan (no visa needed for a 2 week stay) then ride down into Uzbekistan through vast amounts of desert.

Baku is a city of fountains

On an extremely windy day, for which Baku is well known, we struggle against 70kph gusts up to the Uzbek embassy and meet  with a very grumpy Consul. He reluctantly takes our completed forms and tells us he’ll be in touch within 8-10 days once the visas are ready. Longer than we expected but we hope he’s exaggerating. The embassy is on an unassuming residential street and on our way out we bump into an exasperated motor cyclist who has spent the last hour trying to find it and point him in the right direction.

Uzbekistan embassy, Baku

The next day we find the Tajikistan embassy as this is our destination after Uzbekistan. Here the reception couldn’t be more different with a very friendly and helpful Consul who tells us we should be able to collect these Visas within 4 days. The price is less than half that of the Uzbek visa at $35 instead of $75 and we can apply for up to 45 days compared to only 30 days for Uzbekistan. As a representative of their country and first point of contact for many foreign travelers it’s the Tajik who leaves the much better impression.

Tajikistan embassy, Baku

So with a few days to spare we have the whole of Baku to explore. It’s a city of 4 million people and has seen rapid growth after oil began being extracted just off the coast, bringing with it lots of foreign investment and plenty of cash for the government.

There aren’t many soviet era buildings left in Baku

This wealth is very evident with huge and elaborate buildings crowding the skyline, impressive museums, a shiny marble promenade along the seaside and some of the cleanest streets we’ve seen for quite some months (although most of Azerbaijan was largely litter free too which makes for a refreshing change).

Heydar Aliyev museum

Heydar Aliyev museum

Carpet museum

Parliament building

The old and the new

The streets are crammed with vast 4x4s, at least 2 stories high and always fresh from the car wash. Barely reaching their bumpers are a few remaining Ladas but everyone is brought together by a shared love of using their horns. Continuously.

Big wheels in Baku

Behind the glitz and glamour there are still a few slum areas but their days are clearly numbered. This summer Baku will host the first ever European Games and the government is keen to present a prosperous image of Azerbaijan. Bulldozers are parked ready to level some of the inner city areas. All routes from the airport and to the venues have been smartened up with new facades on the buildings and walls around the parts they don’t want visitors to see. An entirely new fleet of buses is primed and ready (brand new London Taxis were bought when Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest). There are also rumours of street dogs being ‘disposed of’.

A less scenic view of Baku

The overall impression is of a strange and false city that bears very little resemblance to the rest of the country that we have seen. It’s also no surprise that Baku aspires to be referred to in the same breath as the mother of all mega-wealthy oil cities: Dubai.

The flame towers by night

Justin and Jess are great hosts and keep us busy when not visiting embassies by inviting us to their local Hash House Harriers event. The Harriers are a global organisation and refer to themselves as a drinking club with a running problem. There are factions all over the world catering for many ex-pats as well as a few locals who enjoy a bit of running and a lot of drinking. For our first outing we opt for a walk rather than a run followed up by much raucous singing, fun and frivolities that are the trademark of the club. Later in the week I get to pull on a pair of running shoes for the first time in 9 months and discover that absence makes the heart grow fonder by thoroughly enjoying stretching my legs with a couple of the ‘Hashers. Then more liquid refreshments and next day discovering that absence also makes the legs grow stiffer after such a long break from running.

Hash House Harriers

We’ll certainly look up more HHH clubs in some of the cities further along our route as it’s a great way to meet some new people as well as guaranteeing a great night out. I may even get to go for another run.

The Hash has provided Justin and Jess with plenty of friends including some high volume and great value Americans, Steve and Kathleen who invite us all round for dinner and some Southern style catering (hot, brown and plenty of it). They also introduce us to Gafar, a native Azeri who proves to be a very useful contact.

Just too early for the tour d’Azerbaijan

Gafar is also a keen cyclist and suggests that, as we have a spare day, we go for a ride up one of his favourite climbs. He provides a bike and brings his chauffeur driven support van to get us to and from the climb that passes through the Candy Cane Mountains north of Baku.

Support crew bus

Having the driver, Emin unload the bike, inflate the tyres and check everything is ready is quite a novel experience. Everything feels twitchy, light and unstable compared to the mighty tandem and it takes a while to stop wobbling all over the road. But I’ve been goaded by Justin to give this climb some welly as there is a record to try and break so I give it my best shot.

Candy cane mountains

We fire up the 1000m hill that is consistently steep and weave up hairpins through acres of trees. The last 12000km of ‘training’ seem to have paid off and it feels good to be riding without the panniers. The record falls by just 1 second but it’s enough to take the King of the Mountains title. I can only imagine how much faster I would have been with Kirsty providing her power on the back too. We celebrate with a fine meal in Gafar’s penthouse suite cooked by his maid. Gafar is a very useful person to know.

Marcus and Gaffar at the base of the climb

Up we go

On the 8th day after applying, a call to the Uzbek Embassy results in the reply we are waiting for, our visas are ready. We had already collected our Tajik Visas 3 days before and paid in cash there and then. Nice and simple. The procedure for the Uzbek Visa requires a visit to a bank in the centre of town to pay directly into their account, then taking the receipt to the embassy before they then relinquish the much coveted visa.

On the metro they have a different jingle to announce each station

Now we are ready to set sail across the Caspian. This is not a passenger ferry route but there are cargo ships that have a limited number of bunks that tend to be used by Mongol Rally drivers, intrepid backpackers and of course the occasional cycle tourist. The boats do not follow any kind of timetable as their departures are dictated by the volume of cargo that needs to be moved, the weather and the whim of the port authorities. So to find out if and when the boat might leave you need to call, or better still visit, the port ticket office and ask if there is a boat leaving that day and if so if there is room on it for two people and one bike.

As part of a $70 million development this was the world’s largest flagpole. It held the record for just 5 months then someone in Saudi Arabia built a bigger one.

Justin sets one of his logistics experts on the task of arranging this for us as it requires an Azeri speaker but his first candidate tells him that we should go via Tbilisi as this is the best route. That person has since been sacked. The second logistics expert has more luck and after speaking to the ticket office learns that there is no boat today.

On the second day of asking there is also no boat but there may be one the next day.

On the third day Kirsty and I ride down to the ticket office ourselves. It’s not easy to find being 8km East of the city, down an unlikely rough track and behind an unmarked grey door near the main security gates for the port. We sit and wait for it to open at 10am, which comes and goes. At 11am a head appears at the window and tells us to wait for an hour. At 12pm the door opens and they tell us the boat will sail today at 6pm, not from Baku but from Alat which is 70km south of the city. We hurriedly handover the $110 ticket price, grab the tickets and pedal back to Justin and Jess’ flat to collect our bags.

To find the ticket office, ride 8km east from Baku centre and look for this sign on the right hand side

The ticket office is behind this grey door at the end of the track. They may or may not let you in.

Details of the ticket prices. Cabin and food included for $110.

We had anticipated that it might be a bit of a rush so have Gafar’s driver and van on standby to drive us down to Alat. Gafar is a very useful person to know.

Jess and Maya

Maya

Baku has become a meeting point for cycle tourists travelling across the world and forms a watershed for those heading into Iran (just about everyone) and those heading across to Kazakhstan (Brits, Candadians and Americans). It was no surprise then that we had met two other cyclists at the Tajik Embassy in the form of Rob (allthewayfromstockholm.com) and Josh (joshcunninghamcycling.co.uk) from London. As they were on a similar schedule to us we had agreed to keep in touch with regards the boat. They had also managed to buy their tickets so we all piled into Gafar’s van and headed down to Alat to board the boat.

Alat will one day be Baku’s main port but for now it is a huge building site with a single jetty and a border control office and nothing much else around it for several km. The border guard doesn’t pay us much interest and it’s clear that not much is going to happen for a while so we set ourselves up on the tarmac and wait. With the time I manage to get a swim in the Caspian sea as it looks much cleaner here than back in Baku.

Obligatory Caspian sea swim

After waiting 2 hours, at 6pm we’re let through onto the boat and I’m the only one to be asked about the registration with immigration control. This is supposed to be mandatory and requires all visitors to the country to register within 10 days of arriving via their chosen accommodation. It clearly serves no purpose other than to allow border guards to hand out a hefty 300 menat (about $300) fine to those who fail to do it. Luckily Gafar had sorted Kirsty and my registrations out for us via one of his hotels. Gafar is an extremely useful person to know.

Boarding the Shadag

Our ticket price includes a cabin that we all share and then we have free run of the boat so can explore just about everywhere including the bridge, engine room and climbing the radio tower.

When I grow up I want to be a ship driver

Supper is served at 7:30, again meals are included, then at 9:30 they begin loading the cargo. A lengthy train is slowly wheeled onto the boat which takes about an hour of to-ing and fro-ing before all the carriages are fully on board. Meanwhile we find the volley ball court, midships complete with a ball on a wire to prevent it from going over board. Josh wins 5-0.

Apparently we eventually slipped away from Azerbaijan at 2am but I was fast asleep by then.

Loading the trains onto the boat

In the morning when I woke up I thought we were still still in port because it was so incredibly smooth. Looking out the window the water is like a mirror, broken only by the ripples from our bow wave.

Just before sunrise on the Caspian sea

We all scramble out of our bunks before sunrise for what is promised to be something very special. The best vantage point is found to be the top of the radio mast which we take turns to shin up and snap dozens of photos of the glorious blaze of colour as the sun rises out of the sea. The spectacle in the sky being mirrored perfectly in the still calm sea. We’ve seen plenty of sunrises and sunsets on the trip but this is one that will be hard to beat.

In the crows nest

View from the mast

A sunrise to remember

The cook is surprised to see us so early and breaks with decorum by allowing us to have breakfast before the captain.

A city of oil platforms in the middle of the Caspian Sea

I’d set aside various tasks to keep me occupied during the 30hr crossing the first of which is to service the rear hub on the bike. That’s the only thing that gets done in the end though.

After reassembling the bike again I go and inspect the train and wonder what the cargo is. It turns out to be two Georgian men who are escorting several wagons of frozen chicken, and when that spot me looking up at their carriage they invite me in. It’s about 10:30 so they’re tucking into a late breakfast which, being Georgian, includes bread, cheese and 80% proof Chacha. Also being Georgian means that they insist that I join them and offer a toast to my good health.

A few toasts later and I’m sent to round up the others to join in the fun. I’m a little unstable but manage to climb back up to the main deck where I find Kirsty and Josh and tell them to follow me to the train. They look bemused by my big grin.

The chacha gets poured again, more heartfelt toasts are raised, some home made wine is produced. Rob is finally found and is made to catch up and before long there’s a good old fashioned singsong of Beetles hits.

Enjoying a Georgian breakfast

We’re all back in bed by about 6pm and next thing we know it’s 7am and Kazakhstan is fast approaching in front of us. Despite the crossing being so smooth I’m looking a tad green so I can only imagine the vibrations from the engine and the smell of diesel fuel have caused me to feel unwell.

Cabin fever

Arriving in Aktau

We dock in Aktau at 9am but have to wait for the border guards to come on board before we can leave. I’m just happy to stay horizontal on my bunk for as long as possible. At 10am we’re told to clear off after an armed guard has had a cursory look in the top of our bags and decided he doesn’t want to rifle through cycling kit so gives us the all clear. We’re officially in Kazakhstan at long last!

And so begin our travels in central Asia with a few days in the 300,000 square km of Kyzyl Kum desert to kick things off. The map of the region looks like it’s had tipex spilt on it, there are few roads and most of them end abruptly at a huge white void. We’ve loaded up with plenty of food, have our 10 litre water bag sloshing around on the back of the bike and some new hats to keep the sun off.

Things are about to get hot and sandy.

The motley crew of the Shadag land in Kazakhstan