We have just landed in Aktau, Kazakhstan. Food on the Professor was predictably basic: packed biscuits and plastic sausages. They actually had a crew member in the galley whose sole purpose on the crossing was to boil these plastic sausages. This earned him the title of “chef”. That moment I began wondering just how far our food standards might nosedive now we are getting more remote. So I thought I’d finally let you in on a mission we’ve been undertaking for the last couple of months: Operation Get Fat For Christmas.
As we approach the more difficult sections of our expedition, both Lobby and I are resigned to the fact that our culinary tour of the world will be put on hold, at least until after crossing the Chinese border. That doesn’t mean we’re not looking forward to food in Central Asia – but due to our remoteness during long stretches of desert and mountains we are likely to have very limited choice, or be entirely self-catering again. We have one thousand kilometres of mountains ahead of us, preceded by two thousand kilometres of desert. It will certainly be cold (the bar is set at -2C where we land in Aktau, Kazakhstan) and some sections could be very grim. We will be cycling along some of the most remote and poorly maintained roads in the world – our satellite phone will shortly be put to use to check in as there are long intervals with no settlements or mobile network coverage at all. We have also started carrying emergency rations: 30 packs of noodles, 30 chocolate bars along with 7 litres of drinking water each. When we do cross villages we will look forward to fortifying mystery-meat broths and the national dish, rice-based “plov”. We can only reminisce to ourselves about the Belgian waffles, German wursts and Turkish kebabs that we enjoyed all those months ago. From now on, it’s dried noodles and chocolate bars, on repeat.
We have been preparing for this moment however. Even as we stuffed our faces full of French cheeses across Europe we were shocked to find out that as a team of three we’d lost 20kg in two months. Wow, we thought, cycling is actually real exercise. Knowing what was ahead, Lobby and I instigated Operation Get Fat For Christmas upon arrival in Turkey. The name should be reasonably self-explanatory: we aimed to gorge our now skinny frames with as much greasy fatty sugary goodness as we could find in Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan before things got more serious across the Caspian Sea. We are aiming to spend a somewhat subdued Christmas somewhere in the mountains of Tajikistan, and it would be a shame if it was our last. Get Fat For Christmas is predominantly a numbers game: calories gained here are calories in hand for the mountains, where we cannot hope to fully replace the energy we will burn. An extra layer of body fat insulation might also help keep our bodies that little bit warmer in the freezing winter temperatures. Otherwise we run the significant risk of arriving at the Chinese border as emaciated wrecks! So like hamsters preparing for winter we mounted an eating offensive of unprecedented scale in order to reinflate our trim waistlines.
Nothing was spared. Starting in Turkey, we attacked combinations of meat, rice and bread with reckless abandon. Sometimes we threw in a Turkish pizza too, which are about as long as your arm. The Turks provide you with bread baskets at each meal, about as big as the biggest biscuit tin you can imagine. We regularly got through two or three of these, which caused quite a stir (that is about two loaves each as a side dish). We drank coke daily throughout Turkey, usually in big two litre bottles. But by far the most enjoyable weight gainer was the Turkish baklava: we bought daily kilos of the stuff and ate our way through box after box, soaking our beards in the sugary syrup. We would order a box, finish it in minutes, and order a second for the road. Some of the reactions we got from the sweet shop owners were absolutely priceless. I’m still not sure if they were impressed or disgusted but the popping eyeball look became a familiar one.
Georgia was next, the country of Greco-Roman wrestling and fierce front row rugby players. Surely they would have what it took to build a waistline. We were not to be disappointed: our time in Georgia was divided between being invited to eat large amounts of fatty meat and drink homemade wine and vodka shots. Both excellent for our mission. Add to that a national dish, khatchapuri (cheese-bread), which frankly needs a health warning sticker with each serving, and we were well on our way to making our Sainsbury’s dietary pie chart an unbroken solid red circle. The amount of melted butter and oil we drank in Georgia makes me wonder how we managed it up those mountain climbs without our arteries calling a timeout.
Azerbaijan followed on strongly from Georgia, redefining how much meat it was possible to put onto a kebab stick. Azerbaijan was where we completed the no-tent challenge, managing to be hosted for every night of our ride into Baku: the amount of food produced by each of our hosts that week for dinner and breakfast was quite astonishing. An empty plate produced another full one until our stomachs hurt from overreating. Remember this moment, I thought to myself, remember this when we are facing our 15th instant noodle night in a row in the mountains. My enduring highlight of the Operation in Georgia was in the town of Sheki, when Lobby ordered the soup special only to find out it mostly consisted of floating pieces of mutton fat. Without a moment’s hesitation he popped one into his mouth, chewed hard, swallowed the slimy thing and grimaced. “It could be worse,” he said simply, popping the next one into his mouth. Unfortunately the other special he’d unknowingly ordered was cow liver wrapped in its own fat. All in the name of the Operation!
So as we disembark in Central Asia we are carrying a significantly larger reserve than we did upon arrival in Istanbul only two months ago. All it took was some targeted, motivational eating: if it would turn greaseproof paper see-through, we should be having more of it. As for losing our nice handful of insulation, this will actually be much easier. Forty-five days in the wintry Pamir Mountains will see to that.