Into Afghanistan – 16th Dec

Welcome to Afghanistan

Welcome to Afghanistan

The midday sun beat down on the little iron bridge leading to an unknown land. A heat haze shimmered, masking the soldiers opposite. Below, ice floated down the river. Above, snow capped mountains flanked the border on both sides. The heavy thud of boots signified the commander’s arrival, a three star general, with the evidence shimmering on his epaulette. “Are you sure you want to go to Afghanistan?” It sounded more like a warning than a question. We nodded. The rubber stamp slammed down on our passports. And so on 10 December we began our walk across the rickety bridge, each footstep ringing out loud and clear. It was the longest walk of our lives, like something from a film, as if part of a prisoner exchange, except no one was coming from their side. Half way across we turned our heads. Nerves and worries combined in a vicious concoction, but there was no going back now. We continued. AK47s greeted us, leading us to their border post. Ushered into a side room we were faced with the commander, in traditional dress and Afghan cap, sat, crossed legged, on throw pillows. “Why do you come to my country?” More aggressive than pure small talk. Our nervous answer about the culture and people seemed to please him and we were beckoned to sit and drink tea with him. An offer we could not refuse! With a Tajik as the Farsi-Russian translator we discussed our proposed route much to the commander’s surprise. “Tourists don’t come here,” he told us, “if they do it’s by 4×4!” He went on to reassure us that there was no Taliban presence in the area, but that on bicycles we should be more seriously worried about the wolves. Hopefully we wouldn’t get eaten, he joked, as we left – not overly reassuring! This was it, we were in Afghanistan.

02 Afgh

Snow caps looming

Snow caps looming

Our first few kilometres in the country gave us an unappetising taste of the road to come. Our route through Afghanistan along the Panj river is an old donkey trail that has been turned into a semi-functional road with help from the World Bank and Germany. The path, for it cannot really be called a road, is a sandy track that winds its way up and down the hills next to the river. The inclines we faced, both up and down, were steeper than anything we’d yet come across. Even cycling along the flat was pretty much impossible due to the deep sand. Pushing the bikes up the steep ascents and attempting to hold onto them down the even steeper descents was a nightmare. Cars were having to be pushed up the hills too, so we were in good company. Freezing cold streams crossing our path, ice sheets and rubble only added to the obstacles in our way. Teetering on the edge of thin ice that we could hear splintering beneath us we edged across these hazards. If there were people around, they would often run to help us out, wading through in wellies, saving the day, and more importantly our feet from freezing! Cycling more than 20km per day was a challenge that we often failed. More demoralising was seeing the flat tarmac road opposite us on the Tajikistan side: what was meant to be two easy days on the Tajik side turned into five very tough days on the Afghan side. We had chosen this road, however, and we certainly hadn’t come to Afghanistan for its roads.

Even those 5km were abysmal! 11 Dec 14

Even those 5km were abysmal!

Sand trap

Sand trap

A helping hand on the icerink

A helping hand on the icerink

Not far to push now!

Not far to push now!

A more suitable mode of transport

A more suitable mode of transport

It was the kindness and hospitality of local people that shone through more than anything else during our stay in the country. A people who are too often viewed negatively in the West due to the Taliban, they opened their doors to us and looked after us spectacularly. Everywhere we passed we were presented with tea and bread, and warmly welcomed as guests in their country. In the evenings we were invited in to stay the night, given large plates of rice and had blankets piled upon us to keep us warm. On our first night in Afghanistan Nick was suffering from bad food poisoning. We struggled to the only house within sight and upon entering Nick promptly collapsed in a heap. Our host wrapped him in blankets and looked after the both of us. He slept by our sides rather than with his family and even accompanied Nick outside in the night to the loo off the cliff to protect him from the wolves in his vulnerable state.

Feeling a little worse for wear

Feeling a little worse for wear

Back on his feet, 12 Dec 14

Back on his feet

As we dragged our bikes through sand and mud we got less of the Tajik whistling and shouts of “hello!”, but instead met with stares and stunned silence. Men would greet us in response as we passed, women would often look away. Inquisitive children drew near while others ran and hid. If we wanted to take photos we asked first – men would agree, but women covered their faces and turned away. It was clear that very few foreigners took this road. Villages were few and far between, often just a couple of mud houses with tin roofs. Furnishings were simple, a few padded mats to sit on, which doubled as mattresses and blankets. Electricity was almost non-existent, occasionally a single light bulb dimly lit the main room. Bread, rice and tea seemed to be about the extent of the diet, which they shared with us generously as guests. Invariably there would be a gun leaning against the wall or on a windowsill, so at first we opted to introduce ourselves as Swiss, the global neutrals. But after lots of sign language questions about where Switzerland was, we soon reverted to being tea-loving Brits, which was viewed much more positively. Before departing in the mornings, we paid our way slightly awkwardly in American dollars, which was accompanied with a lot of bowing and big smiles on both sides.

12 Afgh

13 Afgh

14 Afgh

Don’t ride in Afghanistan at night we had told ourselves from the start. Wolves, the abundance of guns in people’s houses and in passing cars, the sub-zero temperatures and awful road conditions were enough to reinforce this idea. So there we were, no house or building in sight, the sun setting behind the tall mountains, an unknown number of kilometres to go that day. $#&@! As usual, it was too difficult to cycle so we pushed our bikes, both of us on the inside, bikes on the outside. Before the last light of day had faded we prepared the deodorant can and lighter – the anti-wolf flamethrower, and the stick, petrol and rag – the anti-wolf flaming stick. And the knives of course. We plodded on, ears pricked and on full alert – a very tiring state of mind. Any sound, any noise attracted our attention. Head torches were on as well as bike lights to warn any armed man that we weren’t sneaking around. This route is apparently one of the biggest drug highways in the world, moving the stuff into Tajikistan before it ends up in Europe. We didn’t want to be misidentified as either traffickers or law enforcers! With no electricity in most houses how would we find a place to stay in the dark we wondered? We certainly couldn’t walk all night… Then there it was, a singular light away from the road. We ditched the bikes and set off towards the light, sliding over ice, climbing between trees and jumping streams. Eventually we made it and found the owner, a quick flash of the torches revealing he was unarmed – a huge relief. Fortunately the kindest man we could have hoped for. He invited us in and gave us food and a room. We call him ‘the Miller’ because he had made a small water-driven mill to grind grain (a man came in the morning with a bag of USAid wheat to grind). He also made use of the stream to produce electricity – the light we had seen from the road. In the morning he was wading in the stream when we woke up, smashing the ice from the night before to keep his mill clear. He was always smiling and cheerful, despite the terribly cold job he was doing. He waved us on our way after breakfast. We couldn’t thank him enough for being our light in the dark.

15 Afgh - the miller

The Miller (centre)

16 Afghanistan

In Ishkashim, the largest settlement we passed through, our arrival was no less subtle. The whole town seemed to know about us within the hour. We were invited into the border guard’s house for dinner, where he warned us not to go further into Afghanistan as Taliban were present only a hundred kilometres down the road. We made our way into the town centre as we were guided through the streets by a young man, through the bazaar, to a place to stay the night. The bustling activity in the marketplace ground to a halt as we pushed our bikes between loaded stalls. Men smiled, women stared and children ran away – a fitting end to our time in Afghanistan. In the morning we would cross the bridge back into Tajikistan. The adventure was over, we were physically exhausted but extremely happy to have managed what few other people have done before. The Afghanistan we saw was a far cry from the Afghanistan of the evening news back home. We are indebted to the local people for their kindness, generosity and help. Without them our journey would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Laurence

Border guard had the best house on the river, 13 Dec 14

Border guard had the best house on the river

Ishkashim bazaar, 15 Dec 14

Ishkashim bazaar

How many afghani to the dollar?

How many afghani to the dollar?

19 Afgh

Coming to market, 15 Dec 14

Coming to market

Police patrol, 15 Dec 14

Police patrol

22 Afgh

Farewell Afghanistan, 15 Dec 14

Farewell Afghanistan

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The Tricky Stuff Begins: to Khorog, 6th Dec

From Dushanbe to Khorog (middle dot)

From Dushanbe to Khorog (middle dot)

Before setting off on our month-long expedition across the Pamirs we spent a few days in Dushanbe to restock supplies and plan our route, staying with a French cycling legend called Veronique. Her home became our refuge in which to recover from the Uzbek desert: in just a few days we were transformed from physical wrecks, to semi-functional guests, to being expedition ready, all the while meeting the Who’s Who of expats in Dushanbe! We owe both her and her eight year old son Gabriel a huge debt of gratitude, Gabriel for not letting us lose our sense of humour while we waded through hours of Tajik officialdom. By complete coincidence (December not being Dushanbe’s peak cycling season), a Japanese cyclist called Jimbo was also staying at Veronique’s. He had clocked 74,000km (and counting!) in five years’ solo cycling through Africa, Europe and India and aimed to continue for another eight years into the Americas – a true legend!

Laurence and Jimbo, Dushanbe, 21 Nov 14

With Jimbo, enjoying an upgrade on lagman

The city itself, dubiously called The Big Dushe by expats, is set against spectacular mountains and is apparently becoming a hiking destination. However, knowing what lay before us we chose not to partake on this occasion. It is the small capital of the poorest and smallest country in Central Asia: by the way traffic wardens stopped and fined every other car down the main street, the Tajik police force was the most blatantly corrupt we’d seen so far. The Chinese had a huge presence in the city, mostly evidenced in road construction. Every new rubbish bin, bus stop and bollard had Chinese writing on it alongside the Tajik. The capital was also home to a large number of international aid organisations: big white jeeps with darkened glass, protruding satellite phone aerials and shiny emblazoned logos whizzed alongside local traffic, which in contrast was patched together higgledy-piggledy to remain roadworthy. It is very improbable that Tajikistan could function as a country without the massive amounts of foreign aid that keeps it afloat, and their presence was very evident in Dushanbe. We spent our time there enjoying a series of 12 hour sleeps and eating food which wasn’t warmed-up plov or lagman (a huge personal highlight). Once the police agreed to give us the onward travel permits we needed, we were ready to take on the Pamirs – or as ready as we were ever going to get.

Starting out from Dushanbe, 27 Nov 14

And so off to the mountains

We had been told confidently not to expect snow before our first rest stop in Khorog, the capital of the Pamir region, in ten days’ time. (For background about our planned route to China, see our Welcome blog). So it was with rising apprehension that we rode out of Dushanbe on 27 November as the heavens opened, rain turning to snow, to heavy snow, to a complete whiteout. This was an opportunity for us to learn the important difference between waterproof and water-resistant (our gloves are in the second category), and an opportunity for passing cars and donkey carts to voice loudly just how crazy they thought we were as they overtook us on our first section of steep uphill. Our reward at the top was a newly-built Chinese tunnel through which we glided nervously downhill for four kilometres. Momentarily out of the snow, instead we now faced the real danger of being knocked sideways by overtaking lorries, their angry horns reminding us that bicycles were at the bottom of the tunnel food chain. Amazingly the first part of our route across the Pamirs is still the main trucking route into China, and although the lorries thinned out later on, our first few days out of Dushanbe were very much a game of how many oncoming lorries you could dodge, minus the European luxuries of headlights, tarmac or road rules. So it wasn’t a very happy start! Luckily at this early point we were still in the heart of Tajik civilisation, so had a cheap hotel to regroup in and a heater to dry our soaked gloves on.

Snowy weather

Day One begins with a flurry

Better places to be, 27 Nov 14

Better places you could be

Brake repairs, Nurek, 27 Nov 14

Necessary repairs after a rough first day

Our next target was to join up with the Panj river, which forms the Tajik border with Afghanistan, and then follow the river valley upstream all the way into Khorog. To do this we had to divert south 150km off the main route, as the northern route was already closed due to snow. Slightly unfortunately, this meant we had another Tajik mountain in the way. I was beginning to see how we could clock up the totally improbable ascent figure of 11,000m before Khorog, and also why cyclists called the Pamirs ‘the pinnacle’. We had barely begun and were already taking on our second big mountain climb! Over the next ten days we climbed an average of more than 1,000m per day on roads of degrading quality. The Approach really should be renamed The Endless Climb because that’s what it felt like at times. On this particular mountain we spiralled slowly upwards past two tank bases, one Tajik and one Russian (presumably for backup), legs spinning wildly in our bikes’ lowest gears but still only managing 6kph. We were then gifted with heavy fog around the snow line.

Laurence on a tough climb towards Khirmanjo, 30 Nov 14

A tough climb

Laurence in heavy fog, 30 Nov 14

Towards the top (we think!)

This was actually great news, as it meant that we had absolutely no idea where the summit was. If I’d had known just how much higher we needed to climb beyond the snow line I would have chucked the towel in at the tank bases! Instead visibility was reduced to hand-in-front-of-face distance so we danced in very slow motion around the oncoming trucks, navigating by the sound of their engines: their low invisible rumble was pretty eerie in our second whiteout. Our speed further reduced as the incline became more brutal and I began to wonder if we shouldn’t dismount and push. After what felt like years we reached a military checkpoint and the road – now dirt track – flattened out. We’d made it! Initially serious military protocol was quickly replaced by broad grins, high-fives and plenty of photos to celebrate our successful ascent. These guys were legends! My particular favourite was a bloke who emerged in tracksuit bottoms and sandals with a khaki military coat on top and rifle slung over the shoulder. Definitely rocking the casual soldier look, perhaps worrying so close to Afghanistan and on one of the biggest drug highways in the world!! We naturally gave them our namecard, and they gave us bread and sweets to eat for our descent. I stopped short at asking to play with their guns. That was probably one tiptoe too far over the do’s and don’t’s at military checkpoints.

With a relaxed border guard, 30 Nov 14

Trackies and flip flops, the relaxed border guard

Namecards for our latest fans, 30 Nov 14

Namecards for our newest Tajik fans

After summiting we stopped in the first village we’d seen all day to have lunch, and as if by magic when we emerged the fog had disappeared, replaced by an amazing panorama of snowcapped mountains on either side of the road. This was more like it! I still held onto the German idea that the downhill on the other side would be smooth and paved, down which we could zoom in a couple of hours. In hindsight I really ought to abandon these kinds of ideas, since their likelihood these days is approaching zero and when realisation hits it does nothing for morale. Instead we followed a pebbly muddy road at a ridiculous angle with our brakes on full, but stayed cheerful because we could now actually see the trucks coming at us – and they were having a very bad time of it, which was grimly satisfying. We stopped a few times to talk to the drivers, invariably from Xinjiang, which was where we were heading. Our first Chinese truckers!!! This was far more exciting for us than it sounds at home. For nearly ten thousand kilometres we had been following traffic with number plates from all kinds of places, and these were the first we’d seen from our eventual destination: China. It also made an unbelievable difference finally to be able to communicate properly, rather than using rusty Russian and sign language. The Chinese shared the common Tajik view that we were nuts and would properly perish in our attempt to reach their fatherland, something we hear so often now that the words have lost a lot of their punch. As we dipped into the valley with a setting sun behind us the view only got more impressive, and tiny Afghan villages grew bigger on the other side of the river. We had reached the valley.

Our first Chinese numberplate, 29 Nov 14

The first Chinese number plate of the expedition

Lorries throw up plenty of dust on the road, 30 Nov 14

Novelty wearing off as dust is once again kicked up

The modern Silk Road, 1 Dec 14

The modern Silk Road

The brown mudline of our descent, 30 Nov 14

The brown mud of our descent line

For the next week we followed a road which clung very improbably to the side of a cliff, rising above the Panj river in the valley and falling again to meet it below snowy mountains. To our left was Tajikistan, in the middle was the swirling turquoise of the Panj, and to our right – sometimes only a stone’s throw away – was Afghanistan. There was no border fence, very few patrols, and about one circling military helicopter per day. The Afghan road which ran parallel was even worse than ours, a goat’s trail which fell away into the river in several places, and along which many motorbikes got stuck in the mud. During the day we passed shepherds with their big flocks of sheep or mountain goats, wood-collectors who would gently be adding twigs to string to the back of their donkeys, and horsemen who seemed happy to gallop cheerfully around on the hills without much obvious purpose. Once in a while an eagle would circle majestically overhead, framed beautifully against the snowy peaks. As we passed through little villages on the Tajik side, we would get the ubiquitous offer of cay and a chat, and the kids would run after our bikes shouting and waving as we set off again.

Kid racing Lobby, 1 Dec 14

Tajik kid racing Lobby

Laurence looking across the border to an Afghan village, 3 Dec 14

An Afghan village metres away

Passing very close to Afghan villages on the other side of the river – which were mostly mud huts – we would hear loud whistles, exchange waves, and often had laughing Afghan kids sprinting along the riverbank trying to keep up with our bikes. No tea offers though. We had been told by patrols that the Afghan border was landmined (very unlikely) so crossing it for a cuppa seemed like one hazard too much, even for us tea-loving Englishmen.

By the Panj river, 1 Dec 14

By the Panj River

Cycling towards the white caps, Dec 2014

Epic road

Laurence in the Panj River valley, Dec 2014

The Panj River valley

Once or twice we were stopped by groups of Tajik soldiers who asked to search our cameras, which of course had hundreds of pictures of the Panj and Afghanistan. This did not fly very well with them, and we were reminded sternly that this was a border area and that no photos were allowed. I attempted to reason that pretty much any picture we took would include the border, unless I aimed the camera directly at the Tajik cliff to my left, and demonstrated. This wouldn’t be a great picture, I said, and he eventually nodded in agreement. The soldiers then usually hung around awkwardly, presumably expecting a bribe, and when this clearly wasn’t coming they waved us off and wished us well. Lobby became very quick at pocketing the GoPro when we saw patrols from far off, to avoid these lengthy theatrics.

Military patrol in the mountains, Dec 2014

Military patrol in the mountains

Generally the villages were frequent enough that we were able to spend the night in a cayhana’s private room, and avoid having to camp in the freezing temperatures overnight. The cayhanas varied hugely in quality: from being provided with electricity, heater and duvets to essentially trucker dumps whose standard was near rock-bottom. Once we were forced to stay in a depressing hole which called itself a hotel in a valley where some Chinese were repairing a bridge. The old bridge across which we pushed our bikes had big gaps in it, so we could see straight down into the river below. Building a new one before the old one collapsed seemed like a race against time, hence the sensible idea to employ the Chinese. The only building for miles was a rat-infested quad around a disused swimming pool, whose rooms were left untouched after each unlikely occupant: stale bread, teapots and cigarette butts littered the stained mattresses. No electricity, lights, windows, heaters, locks. I think the management (well, the one bearded bloke forced to stay there over winter) was quite taken aback when we chose the room without bed frames, stacked the mattresses against the cracked wall and set up camp on the floor! Otherwise, when we timed our approach to a village around sunset, we were invited by Tajik families to eat and sleep at their homes, which always turned out to be extremely memorable evenings. By now most families only keep one central room heated, in which everyone eats, drinks and sleeps.  They would always apologise very sweetly for the coldness of the annex room we were usually given to sleep in. The lady of the household would be determined to make up for the relative coldness of the room by burying us in mountains of thick duvets and quilts, so we ended up far too hot at night!

Cheap hotel in civilisation, Dangara, 28 Nov 14

Cheap hotel in civilisation

Pamir hospitality in Khirmanjo, 30 Nov 14

Pamir hospitality

Buried in quilts, 2 Dec 14

Buried in duvets

Nearly every day of that week we got up before the sun rose at around 6am, since days were getting very short in winter. The cold wasn’t yet a massive issue (thanks to the Endless Climbs and a relatively low altitude), so we made the most of morning daylight when we could. The riding was by no means as intense in length as it had been in the Uzbek desert, but because our speeds were kept as low as our expectations for a good meal at the end of the day (read ‘very low’, now even our standard lagman was a rarity), progress was slow. We each took a tumble along the rocky path which usually had a layer of ice on it overnight, ending up in a 1-1 draw as we entered Khorog. But our speeds were so tame that these were more embarrassing than painful! Similar to our experience in Uzbekistan, no one seemed to have the slightest clue about distances between villages. People literally plucked numbers out of the air, many of them off by at least 30km. Understandable if you are on a German autobahn but odd, you might think, for people who herded sheep and collected wood by foot in the mountains all day. Anyway it was only a matter of time before the combination of early sunsets and distance-plucking had us riding in the dark. Not fun on roads which in places were on par in quality with the Demolition Derby in Kazakhstan.

Start of a morning session, 5 Dec 14

Start of a morning session

Laurence pushing by the Panj, Dec 2014

Moments after Lobby’s first fall

Laurence appreciating the track turning into sand

Lobby appreciates the track disappearing into the sand

An evening session begins, 2 Dec 14

Our evening session begins

On this particular occasion, we had been assured that a cayhana was around the corner when it turned out to be 15km away, and more crucially, shut down for winter. We found ourselves shattered after two hours of bumpy night riding through eerie woods and with nowhere now to spend the night. It was quickly getting below freezing again. I got off my bike and walked up to the nearest house with my torch to plead for shelter, which was a little way back from the road. There was a light on upstairs but it was otherwise entirely blacked out. Tired after a long day I stumbled to what looked like the front door, only to find it padlocked from the outside. Odd. I called out and heard no reply, though thought I could pick out the sound of a girl screaming from the inside of the house. It was very faint and I was absolutely exhausted, so I dismissed the sound as my brain playing tricks on me. Instead I walked round the back, now completely invisible from the road, and found a second door. Also padlocked from the outside. Then I heard the scream again, much louder and coming from the front of the house – it sounded urgent. I ran round and shone my torch up at the lit window. What we both saw was enough to send us pedalling off on our bicycles as quickly as our tired legs could manage. A dark shape of a girl now stood deathly silent at the window, her face a shadow silhouetted in the upstairs light. It was like a scene from a horror film. Lobby quickly shone his torch straight at her, and she retreated back into the room. Then the screaming started again. With shivers crawling down our spines we saddled up and bolted into the darkness without looking back, adrenalin pumping through us as if the girl was giving chase. Less than a kilometre further on I ran up to a second house and was greeted by a family having dinner. They looked at me curiously as I tried to describe our Ring Girl experience down the road, still looking stricken and gasping for air after our sprint. Fortunately the father invited us in, despite what must have looked to them like a very strange scene. We ate with the family and then slept in a private room – the father even suggested we sleep with the light on in case we were afraid of the dark. Our image of brave British explorers shattered to pieces!

Our host Davlat at breakfast, 3 Dec 14

Our rescuer Davlat at breakfast

Our last day into Khorog, a rapid nine days after leaving The Big Dushe, was marked with drama and marred by huge disappointment for me. The day began with beating sunshine and clear blue skies, a cold calm morning which became one of our best. We had a big push to do on our last day, 90km to cycle to give us a much-needed extra rest day in the Pamir capital. Fortunately the road suddenly dramatically improved to something approaching below-average tarmac, so we managed to knock off all but 30km by late lunch, a huge achievement for a track we would usually crawl along. Clearly things were going well, too well. My bike had started making an odd clicking sound just before lunch, so I decided to investigate what might be wrong, with our extra time in hand. Unloading the bags and turning the bike upside down, a seemingly innocuous click turned into a cyclist’s worst nightmare. The rim on my back wheel had cracked and twisted out of shape. The click was the sound of the rim knocking against my brake pads at each revolution.

Laurence on the road towards Khorog, 5 Dec 14

A bright dawn

Epic road, 5 Dec 14

Epic road continues

Rim breakages are one of the most critical technical problems a touring bike can develop. They compromise the whole integrity of the wheel, which would normally be taking the combined weight of bags and rider – which for me is about 150kg! You can’t twist them back into shape or superglue them. If they crack they need to be replaced. Only two places were likely to sell bike rims within about a 2000km radius: Dushanbe and Kashgar. With a rising sense of helplessness it began to dawn on me that I would have to hitch my way back to the Tajik capital, along the dirt tracks we had cycled during the last ten days. Breaking my rim was the most serious bicycle issue we had been dealt all expedition, and it had happened right at the foot of our most challenging section.

Discovering the split rim, 30 kms from Khorog, 5 Dec 14

The moment of realisation

So after such an amazing week, our ride into Khorog, which signalled the end of our first Pamiri leg, was a particularly subdued moment for the expedition. We dragged ourselves in after dark having spent a long time over lunch jerry-rigging my bike to make it cyclable. This had involved unclipping my back brakes to allow my wheel to turn (making downhill even more exciting) and unloading everything we could off the back of my bike. Even with these adjustments the rent in my back wheel got audibly worse and I wondered at times if I wouldn’t need to hitch the last 10km into Khorog. The hero of the hour without a doubt was Lobby, who without a moment’s hesitation stacked up the back of his bike to a crazy angle with my kit, and carried my rucksack on his back all the way into Khorog. He carried so many bags up the final hills that it looked like he was ready to resettle permanently in the Pamirs!!

The man of the hour, 5 Dec 14

Man of the moment

So a new challenge awaits us at the end of our first Pamiri leg. I will leave Lobby to rest up and take my rim back to Dushanbe at sunrise tomorrow on whatever transport is available. This delay will only make the mountains colder, if we are ever going to reach them. Wish us luck!

Nick

Hitching a ride back to the capital again! 6 Dec 14

Hitching a ride back to the capital!

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Welcome to the Pamirs – 24th Nov

We are finally through and beyond the Kyzyl Kum desert. If it’s felt like you’ve been reading about our desert crossings for a while, I can safely say that cycling them will have felt longer. 1600km ended up being about 120 hours on the saddle within two weeks, grim stats which are made to look more bearable thanks to a quick final passage out of Uzbekistan. Completing this challenge was a big physical thrill, but it was also an amazing feeling to ride into the oasis towns of Khiva and Bukhara having retraced the steps of so many Silk Road caravans before us – and probably sharing their feelings of exhausted elation. We are now resting up in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe preparing ourselves for the next challenge of the expedition, which will surely eclipse any hardship we ever felt in Uzbekistan. Desert has been replaced by mountains. These stand between us and the Chinese border, and will need to be crossed if we are going to make it to Hong Kong.

The mountain range we plan to cross is called the Pamir. This was the setting of the Great Game in the 19th century, the world’s first cold war between Great Britain and the Russian empire, as each country tried to carve out spheres of influence in Central Asia. British-led expeditions expanded north from India and the Russians moved south from the motherland, meeting awkwardly in the middle above Afghanistan: in the Pamirs. It was high in these snowy mountains that the British played a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with the Russians, and through them that they eventually succeeded in marching on Lhasa, Tibet in 1904. There are some spy stories from that era which are little known – epic is an understatement.

One of the routes which the British and the Russians mapped out in the 19th century has since become the Pamir Highway, linking Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan to China across dizzyingly high mountain passes. It is the second highest highway in the world (after the Karakorum Highway just to the south), the ‘roof of the world’ which joins up with the Tibetan plateau further east. The Chinese have built more direct roads to their border so haven’t yet bothered paving the Pamir Highway: much of it therefore remains dirt track, subject to rock slides in the summer and avalanches in the winter which can effectively close it for weeks. Because of the area’s remoteness, the lifestyle of the Pamiri people who live up there hasn’t changed much in a century. For us there will be no food nor water available for days on end and we will be relying on a satellite phone to check in with people back home when we can. The Highway plateau is at a height of 3500m and the mountain passes we have to cross climb up beyond 4000m. Here lack of oxygen and altitude sickness will both be new challenges. Being so high and surrounded by mountains, the weather can be very harsh too: water freezes overnight in July and powerful winds can literally knock you over. To top things off nicely, the British Embassy officially discourages travel in the region, partly due to the difficulty of staging would-be rescue missions if people get lost in the snow.

Most people who choose to visit the Pamirs do it from the inside of a comfortable 4WD, but there are still a number of die-hard cyclists who attempt to cross into China via the Pamir Highway during the summer months. Despite the challenging conditions, it is not hard to see the attraction: these 1500km of mountain road have been dubbed the adventure cycling ‘holy grail’ – the pinnacle of proper preparation and physical fitness – and the stunning views of the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountain ranges that you get on the plateau make the strenuous climbs well worth it.

We are going to attempt to cross the Pamirs during winter. By the time you read this blog we will already be up there. Not quite the conventional holiday period, but unfortunately we weren’t given much choice! Our expedition timings decided things for us: leaving London in July meant reaching the Tajik mountains in December, unless we wanted to wait out the winter somewhere more sunny and sensible. Both Tajiks and Uzbeks who asked us about our onward journey reacted in mixed ways when we told them where we were headed. The general consensus is that we’re crazy foreigners and have got the seasons horribly wrong. Otherwise reactions have ranged from polite incredulity (“you must be joking”) and being laughed off, to serious concern (“you will certainly die”). One Tajik man sat us down to list the reasons why he thought we wouldn’t emerge alive, from wolf attacks, to freezing to death, to Taliban raids.

It is true that wolves are quite regularly spotted up on the plateau, a great safari opportunity for summertime tourists from their 4WD but perhaps more of an issue for us on our exposed bicycles. In winter, finding food in the snow is difficult. So we have followed advice in Dushanbe and bought large knives (probably more comforting than useful) and also have a big pointed stick, the end of which we can set alight with a cloth soaked in petrol if we find trouble. Wolves are apparently only a serious concern if we find a pack of them, or if we are jumped by a hungry few at night. The Tajik man was certainly right about the cold: overnight temperatures up there are currently ranging from -30C on a good day to -40C on a grim one, at which point you can get frostbite reasonably quickly. The cold along with the potential fierce winds will be our two biggest challenges, having now had plenty of headwind experience crossing the Kyzyl Kum (that part wasn’t fun). As for the Taliban, they are quite low on our list of things to worry about. Our route runs along the Afghan border for some distance, which is heavily garrisoned as it’s the main drugs conduit into Europe. The military probably aren’t there to stop the drugs, but rather to control their passage for a fee. There have been Taliban raids on border posts on the Afghan side, but the Taliban have not yet once crossed the river to the Tajik side. If they do we have our trusted pointed stick as previously mentioned.

Our route outline 

From Dushanbe to Khorog, Murghab and Kashgar

The Pamir Highway from Dushanbe to Khorog, Murghab and Kashgar

Here is a very brief outline of our route. It should take us about a month to reach the Chinese border from Dushanbe, a route which can be split very basically into three legs of increasing difficulty:

Dushanbe to Khorog – The Approach: 10 days, 600km

The Pamir Highway doesn’t technically close for winter, but there is enough snow on parts of it to make some sections impassable. By the time we arrived in Dushanbe it had already snowed heavily on the first leg of the Highway, the road now covered with about a foot of the stuff which effectively unofficially closed it. The road won’t be passable again until spring, but luckily there is another route which dips further south and remains open all winter: this is the one we’ll be taking.

This first section out of Dushanbe – The Approach – will be the most straightforward compared to the next two. The road is paved half of the way, there is still some traffic and there are villages to sleep in too. We will be below 2000m altitude until Khorog (2070m), so snow should not be a problem yet. What will make it difficult is the total ascent: we will start climbing straight out of the Tajik capital and do a series of ups and downs over small passes to get to Khorog, the capital and gateway of the Pamirs. Our southern route follows the Panj River along the border with Afghanistan until joining up with the Highway again a few days before Khorog. Although this is the main trucking route into China, the road is apparently narrow and rocky. In total we will pedal 11,000 vertical metres in about 10 days – to put it into perspective, Mount Everest is just under 9,000 metres high.

Khorog to Murghab: 10 days, 450km

Having cycled the Highway for a short stretch we then divert south from Khorog to the Wakhan Valley, where tarmac definitively stops to be replaced by bumpy dirt road. We will continue to follow the Panj River which contours the Afghan border before taking on our first serious mountain pass (4344m) where we will climb up to rejoin the Highway plateau. Here civilisation disappears to be replaced by heavy snow and wind until Murghab, which lies at 3630m. This will be the toughest test of the whole expedition for our bikes, as well as for our warm kit. Taliban watch followed by wolf watch – an excellent 10 days.

Murghab to Kashgar: 5-10 days, 550km

The hardest section of the Highway. To reach Kashgar we will have to strike north from Murghab towards Kyrgyzstan by crossing the Akbaital Pass at 4655m. There will be no settlements at all anymore except for a few abandoned huts, as the conditions in winter are too harsh for anyone to choose to stay up there. We will descend briefly from the pass before climbing another one (4336m) into Kyrgyzstan where the climate will get wetter and more unfriendly. We have no idea of when we’ll have a long enough weather window to then dash east for the Chinese border. It is possible to be delayed for days by blizzards in Sary Tash, the Kyrgyz outpost where we hope to spend Christmas (but not New Year!!). The likelihood is that we’ll be pushing the bikes at this stage as there will be too much snow on the ground to cycle.

Once through the Chinese border it is not possible to cycle all the way to Kashgar, because apparently the Chinese border guards view cyclists as a security threat. I don’t know what they’ll make of us two in winter then! Around this border is where most drugs cross into China from Afghanistan, so police there apparently lack a sense of humour. Our passports will be confiscated and we will probably be bundled into a lorry to be driven a long downhill stretch most of the way. After over 20,000m of total ascent it seems a bit cruel to be denied the epic freewheel down the other side. But by that stage we may be too tired to care.

So that’s what’s coming up! As always, thank you very much for your continuing support as we get towards the deep end of our expedition! It really is a huge morale boost as we take on these endless snowy mountain climbs and is a large part of what keeps us pedalling. If you’re thinking about making a Christmas donation to Prostate Cancer UK and supporting us up the Pamirs, please follow this link. Thanks again from both of us in wintry Tajikistan! X

Nick

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Out of Uzbekistan – 21st Nov

 

Leaving Bukhara for the Tajikistan border and the capital Dushanbe

Leaving Bukhara for the Tajikistan border and the capital Dushanbe

Having spent a very enjoyable couple of days in Bukhara, we were back on our bikes at sunrise again on 15 November for our third and final Uzbek leg: out of Uzbekistan and into Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. This was going to be our longest crossing – about 600km – but it was much easier to get pumped up for it. We knew we’d have a proper rest stop in Dushanbe at the end of it, and more importantly, we knew that after a couple of days we would finally be out of the Kyzyl Kum desert and into the mountains separating Uzbekistan from Tajikistan. This thought was enough to send us racing away on our saddles across the nearly brand-new road connecting Bukhara to the south of Uzbekistan, and towards Afghanistan. Here we encountered our first Iranian truckers, a very likeable bunch who had presumably come through the route barred to us across Turkmenistan. It was fun to see a new nationality join our modern Silk Road, and reminded us that we had rejoined the main trunk road east which leads to China. Very soon we will have crossed the length of Uzbekistan by bicycle, completing a challenge which had looked so totally impossible on the approach from Kazakhstan. I can tell you, this was a very good feeling – enough to make the last two hundred kilometres of desert slip past like a victory lap.

Back in the desert, 15 Nov 14

Back in the desert

Only 100 kms of desert left!

Only 100 kms of desert left!

The wind gods who had tried their best to thwart our passage now conceded defeat, overwhelmed by our good mood, and let us through without so much as a breeze. In fact they even had a word with the sun god, who gave us clear blue skies and a blazing sun as we approached the mountains: suddenly we were down to only fleeces, then thermals, then shorts and T-shirts – in the middle of November. Amazing! This couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to the grim section we’d pedalled from the Kazakh border, and buoyed our spirits even higher. We flew up the mountain, peaking at 1500m, and down the other side on clean tarmac built by the Chinese.

You wouldn't do this on a bad day - 16 Nov 14

You wouldn’t do this on a bad day

Excited to be repping again!

Excited to be repping again!

Before the climb we had stopped off at the intersection town of Guzar, where the road splits between continuing to Afghanistan and turning left to Tajikistan. There we caused quite a scene at the morning market when a bloke emerged from his stall brandishing a full vodka bottle, and demanding we finish it together in the name of friendship. It would have been very rude to refuse, though it was still 9 in the morning. A crowd quickly gathered to watch us see off the bottle with our host, everyone extremely impressed at tales of our journey so far. By now it usually just takes a flick of the odometer to our total mileage (at this point hovering around the 8,000km mark) to provoke a gasp, a big double thumbs-up and the offer of a tea stop with a congratulatory slap on the back. Conversation then somehow moved on to whether we were married, and when the group found out that we weren’t – it was odd not to be married for an Uzbek man of our age – there was an excited chatter about who we should be introduced to from the market. I pictured having to tell extended family that I had eloped with a girl from Guzar in southern Uzbekistan. There was a nice ring to it, but this suggestion signalled it was time to get going, we thought. In style reminiscent of the Georgian cowherder, our bloke passed out and was then carried off by his wife. We were left to zigzag up the mountain feeling extremely merry ourselves! Just before the top we stopped again to drink vodka with a couple of guys on the side of the road, one of them declaring that he would slaughter a lamb in our honour if we chose to stay the night at his place. His timing was a bit unfortunate: on most other days we would have gratefully accepted his offer, but this day we had seen a lamb getting hallaled over lunch, which had plucked a few of our more delicate heartstrings. The deliberately slow way in which it had been done was enough to put you off meat for a while – I’ll leave that one to your imagination.

Causing a scene in Guzar, 17 Nov 14

Causing a scene in Guzar

One bottle down by 9.30am

One bottle down by 9.30am

More friends and more roadside vodka, 17 Nov 14

More friends and more roadside vodka

As we continued south beyond the desert the people began to change. The Uzbek men – who had been so totally against our beards from the outset – began to sport little tufts of goatee, the older men growing longer white variations which made them look very wise. More and more people wore long robes, usually purple, a single piece of insulated material like a dressing gown which extended to the knees. Desert had been turning into mountains behind them, and the combination of robe, goatee (often with staff) and moonscape gave everything a Star Wars look!! Many older men claimed they were from Afghanistan and the difference in ethnicity was striking. Starting from Istanbul our touring bikes had commanded the centre of attention pretty much wherever we’d gone, and here was no different – except the way people got your attention in southern Uzbekistan was by shrill whistling, from a high pitch down to a low one. Often we would hear these whistles and not see the whistlers until we were well past them, little dots waving frantically at us amongst the fields.

The wave-whistle combo, 18 Nov 14

The wave-whistle combo

The desert look

The desert look

Beard was apparently 8 years in the making, 17 Nov 14

Beard was apparently 8 years in the making

Obi Wan

Obi Wan?

Star Wars? 18 Nov 14

Star Wars?

Definitely Star Wars, 18 Nov 14

Definitely Star Wars

Having had plenty of time to think on the saddle recently, we reckoned we hit the halfway mark of the expedition – Day 132 since Buckingham Palace – at around the middle of this section. The mountain climb was a glorious way of celebrating it, under a hot sun and with a panorama of snowcaps around us. We were even lucky enough to be hosted that evening by an Uzbek couple whose door we’d knocked on at sunset to ask for directions. The wife had a daughter our age and was delighted to be able to show off Uzbek food and hospitality to two young foreigners. The husband was a school headmaster and therefore one of the few people who understood that he needed to speak Russian slowly to be understood. We had a great evening talking about our journey from Europe (assumed to be a big country at this stage) and the dangers we would apparently face in Tajikistan. We were told that Tajiks were all thieves and liars, and advised to buy a gun as soon as we could so we could fend them off at the border. Little love for your eastern neighbour again then…

A good Halfway Day

A good Halfway Day

Racing each other up the mountain, 18 Nov 14

Racing each other up the mountain

Uzbek starter, 16 Nov 14

Uzbek starter

This was a very memorable evening and we were once again struck by the unbelievable kindness and hospitality of complete strangers – certainly a recurring theme for our expedition. It is amazing how readily people have eaten and drunk with us, or invited us into their home having only met us for a matter of minutes. It was also an amazing night’s sleep. This sounds like a mundane detail, but it was a huge contrast with the little rest we got when we overnighted in teahouses. This had made all three passages in Uzbekistan more challenging, as we would be on the bikes all day and then usually wake up feeling like we hadn’t slept. The previous evening, for instance, I had been practically dragged out the door in my sleeping bag by an aggressive Uzbek who thought I was part of the teahouse’s serving staff. Despite the place clearly being dark and closed, he took it upon himself to find a bloke (me) and tell him exactly how many samosas he wanted cooked, at 4am. I told him exactly where he should put his samosas and he stormed off, but that didn’t help me get back to sleep.

Before our night-time visitor

Before our night-time visitor

The morning after our Halfway Day – about 160km from the border town with Tajikistan – we woke up to a full breakfast spread, including warm cow’s milk from the next door stable. It turned out that we would need all the energy we could get. By lunchtime we had finished what was left of the climb and were happily freewheeling down the other side, just as the sun dipped behind us in the afternoon. As we crossed yet another military checkpoint we realised we were in trouble: we needed to register that evening and the soldier on duty gleefully informed us there were no hotels at all until the border.

The way to travel

The way to travel

18 Nov 14

A sweet descent

According to Uzbek law tourists are obliged to register every three days whilst in the country. Registration can only happen at hotels and not at police checkpoints despite the frankly ridiculous number of these along the route. The penalty for not registering is an equally ridiculous fine at the border, to the tune of several thousand US dollars. Many tourists have been caught out and raged about it online. Presumably this fine would ‘go away’ if enough cash was presented between handshakes to the right people, but owing to our time constraints to reach Dushanbe this wasn’t an option we were prepared to risk. Bribing our way through a border on a bad day could be an excellent opportunity to visit the inside of an Uzbek prison for about a week, which would render our hard desert sprint entirely pointless. We needed to register, and register that evening.

Tiredness sets in knowing what's ahead

Tiredness sets in knowing what’s ahead

I suppose it was quite fitting that we completed the last 60km of our Uzbekistan dash by the light of our headtorches then. We were firmly in the Green Zone, which made night riding much more taxing than in the desert: we pedalled single-file along roads which suddenly disintegrated completely, getting blinded by full-beam headlights and intermittently chased by wild dogs. This was not fun. Zigzagging around on a potholed road to evade a hound which is snapping at your heels while also being blinded by oncoming trucks (aka death) is not fun at all. We took rest and chocolate stops every 15km to stay sane, which extended our nocturnal ride time to 5 hours. By the time we arrived at midnight we had been on the saddles for 14 hours straight. We had crossed 1600km of desert in 14 days’ riding, redefining our physical limits right when they needed stretching – because the next stage of our expedition was to cross the Pamir mountain range.

Classic pothole appearance just before sunset, 18 Nov 14

Classic pothole appearance just before sunset

Five more hours to go, 18 Nov 14

Five more hours to go

The ride into Dushanbe was very straightforward, on brand-new tarmac again built by the Chinese. All part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to rejuvenate the old Silk Road with a $50 billion investment in Central Asian road-building. We did, of course, have to wait a bit at the Uzbek-Tajik border: there was a power cut which meant the border guards’ computers couldn’t be switched on. We sat on the benches in no-man’s land as policemen took it in turns to play with our bikes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen grown men so excited at the mechanics of a bicycle bell. Three hours later we were allowed through (despite the power remaining off), walked our bikes over to Tajikistan and gleefully got our entry stamps, which signalled the end of our Uzbekistan adventure. It had been tough but extremely rewarding. The Tajik customs officials were on their lunch break, so we ducked underneath the barrier and carried on walking. Nobody called us back – so we mounted up, hit the road and were in Dushanbe by nightfall.

Nick

Arrival in Dushanbe, 20 Nov 14

Arrival in the Tajik capital

Resting up for the Pamirs

Resting up for the Pamirs

 

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Desert Days Part Two: Khiva to Bukhara – 13th Nov

Connecting these dots through the Kyzyl Kum desert

Connecting these dots through the Kyzyl Kum desert

Riding out of the walled city of Khiva on the morning of 10 November was an amazing feeling –  though an equally daunting one at the same time. Our crossing of the first section of the Kyzyl Kum desert to the oasis of Khiva had taken a lot out of us physically, and after just a few pedal turns from the city walls I could feel my legs beginning to complain. This doesn’t normally happen straight after a rest day – our legs normally give us a couple of hundred kilometres before reminding the brain they would rather be stretched out somewhere else. Enough to alarm us both, because we knew roughly what lay ahead: we had about one day’s worth of riding before reaching the end of the ‘Green Zone’ – where towns, shops and people could be found regularly – and the start of the ‘Red Zone’, the 400km stretch of perfectly abandoned desert until Bukhara. Of course the names we gave these are great for adding drama, but the name ‘Kyzyl Kum’ actually means ‘Red Desert’ so that’s where it started. If our first stage from the border to Khiva was anything to go by, we wanted to get through the Red Zone as quickly as possible. Lobby’s blog goes into the details of the many difficulties we faced. To stay on track for our Dushanbe arrival we now had 4 days in which to cover slightly over 450km southeast, so we left the safety of Khiva praying for good roads and favourable winds.

Bike shop leaving Khiva, 10 Nov 14

Bike shop leaving Khiva

Just as we made our way through Khiva’s morning market we spotted a man selling bike parts, so finally bought a set of pliers from him to complete our bike repair kit. It turns out our timing was something of a miracle, as little over 30km into our route my front pannier decided to snap in two places. Impossible to repair without pliers, and the nearest garage was 50km away. We were still in the Green Zone, but this was Uzbekistan after all! Once again the roads had been awful so the constant jolting must have been too much for my rack. Cue a lengthy stop, plenty of excited (though utterly useless) onlookers, and a pot of cay as we figured out a workaround with one of the two spare clamps we had. And off again.

A mid-morning repair stop, 10 Nov 14

A mid-morning repair stop

One of the only signs, 10 Nov 14

One of the only signs

But this was not to be our day. We’ve worked out after our first desert crossing that you get some days like this, when things determinedly don’t work out for you despite starting off as prepared as you can be and in the best of moods: only minutes after my front pannier snapped, Lobby’s went the same way. Another lengthy stop, our second of two spare clamps now used on the repair job. Slightly worrying not to have any spare clamps left in the space of a couple of hours! Since London we’d cycled for 120 days or so and hardly had any pannier problems, and now two in one day?! Today the odds were definitely not in our favour. Therefore we stopped early, still well into the Green Zone, as everyone knows bad things happen in threes – we weren’t about to tempt fate and get hit by a truck so early into our second desert crossing.

We woke up before dawn on Day Two and were on our bikes to watch the sun creep over the horizon. The guesthouse we’d stayed in had refused to register us and the owner was banging on our door as the alarm went off – perhaps he thought the police would raid? Getting licensed to accept foreigners is an extra cost for hotels in Uzbekistan, so they usually try to overcharge you and risk the police fine instead – except this time we had bargained the owner down to (nearly) a local rate. He’d clearly got cold feet during the night and wanted us out of there as soon as possible – fine by us, we had a desert to cross! So by mid-morning we had cycled beyond the last run-down shacks of the last town before the desert, and by lunchtime we were back in the Red Zone.

Back where we belong, 11 Nov 14

Back where we belong

One of our better days, 12 Nov 14

One of our better days

The Kyzyl Kum desert is a beautiful place: rising sand dunes on dirty steppe, and this section quite up and down compared to the first leg to Khiva, which meant we could see even further into the empty distance. But I think it is beautiful in the same way that flying over a mountain range in a helicopter would be beautiful. If you hiked over the mountains instead there would definitely be a point when you thought, “Yep this mountain is great but I’d rather be flying over it.” I think by the beginning of Day Four – our third sunrise from the saddles in a row – I had reached this point. We had been cycling from dawn until beyond dusk for three days straight in an attempt to cover too much mileage in too little daylight, and knees, undercarriages and brains were beginning to cry out for rest. There was nothing much to stop for in the desert, except to eat our biscuits and stale bread or go to the loo – though we did stop on Remembrance Day for two minutes’ silence staring out into the wasteland, which was pretty epic. Time off the saddle usually means a later finish time in the evening. If there was a headwind (as there was on several occasions), our speed dropped to the extent that it became physically impossible to finish the daily mileage before dark. We would cycle in the hope of a slight bend in the road which would change the wind’s tack from being fully in our faces. We saw these bends literally tens of kilometres ahead of us (over an hour’s cycling with a headwind) and got ridiculously overexcited as we approached them, often to be disappointed by the limited effect they had on our speed as we took them. We had been sleeping in the few teahouses we’d come across, usually truck stops after military checkpoints with quite a rough crowd. They liked a good drink which we sometimes shared with them (and a good prostitute we found out later, which we didn’t). Quite hard to get to sleep over the noise, and these places were open during all hours. Day Four – just 100km from Bukhara and the Green Zone again – was where I nearly reached breaking point. It also turned out to be the hardest day of our passage.

Desert headwind, visible from Lobby's billowing jacket, 11 Nov 14

Desert headwind, visible from Lobby’s billowing jacket

Tumbleweed in the Kyzyl Kum, 11 Nov 14

Tumbleweed in the Kyzyl Kum

Desert sunset, 11 Nov 14

Desert sunset

Another desert sunset, 12 Nov 14

And another

Sunset riding before it gets grim, 11 Nov 14

Sunset riding before it gets grim

A place to spend the night, 12 Nov 14

A place to spend the night in the desert

We had woken up at dawn from a bad night’s sleep in a truck stop, which claimed it was a restaurant. The TV outside our little room had been blaring all night, and now and again rats scuttled in the space above our low ceiling, which had made sleeping difficult. Immediately there was a confrontation over breakfast with the ‘restaurant’ manager on night duty, who demanded we pay for our stay. This would have been fair enough except that the day duty manager had insisted we could stay for free the previous evening if we ate dinner and breakfast there, so a heated argument in Russian started our day off brightly. As we argued both Lobby and I knew we were losing precious daylight riding time, which only aggravated us further. We settled for an expensive breakfast and the bloke seemed satisfied.

As we left it became very obvious very quickly that the day would be a grim one, as Lobby’s bike was practically catapulted down by the wind. What should have been a straightforward 100km into Bukhara became a single-file crawl – each of us taking turns riding in front to break the wind for the other. We still only managed about 6 kmh, which is the speed of a very slow jog. To compound our frustrations the road was the best we had seen in the desert, which we could have zoomed along were we not being continually smashed across the face by Mother Nature. After a miserable four hours we had covered 30km, which meant our ‘easy’ day would end up being over 12 hours on the saddle. I decided I needed a bit of Daft Punk to see me out of this dark place, so stopped to plug in headphones only to find these had shredded inside my pannier. Not to worry, I thought, grabbing my spare pair with a sort of manic calmness. Now the iPod decided it had had enough, dying in my hands at the crucial moment because of the cold. This was the spark that was needed to send me over the edge, and I screamed unrepeatable words at the wind, chucking my dead pair of headphones high into the desert. The wind of course swallowed all of my drama, and the tiny thud of my headphones landing in the Kyzyl Kum was far from satisfactory as a stress reliever. Shortly afterwards I came the closest I’d ever come to a proper collision when a big petrol tanker thought it would play chicken with my mirror from behind. Unsurprisingly the tanker won and my mirror went spinning off my handlebars, the lorry’s massive wheels only inches from my very exposed thigh. It made a deafeningly long sound with its horn, as if I had no right to be on the road at all let alone tucked into the hard shoulder praying for my life. This adrenalin rush made the next hour go faster though, as I went through in my head all the gory details of just exactly what I’d do to the driver if he made the mistake of stopping, as his lorry became a speck in the distance.

Riding single file in headwinds, 13 Nov 14

The start of Day Four – single file in strong wind

We’re still not sure if the desert people of Uzbekistan are looking to scam the very occasional people who pass through or if they’re just quite simple when it comes to numbers. We think it’s probably a combination of the two. My personal favourite was encountering a lady at lunchtime on Day Four who was determined to make 8 plus 2 equal 13. We didn’t usually find cafés for lunch in the desert, so finding her place was a huge morale boost as it meant we must be approaching the Green Zone (held in my head on par with the Holy Grail at this point). At first it was all quite funny, as calculators were produced and numbers counted very obviously on fingers. It quickly became tiresome in our fragile mental state though. The husband was summoned and to our surprise joined our side, berating his wife (who was holding her own!) about her inability to do simple addition. I began having visions of bludgeoning this obstinate lady with a heavy maths book until her entire body disappeared below the sand – I’d been doing a lot ‘imagining’ recently, and can quite easily see how people lose their minds in the desert. Anyway she finally got the numbers to add up, wasting another half hour of our daylight but in the process earning herself a victory jig from two bearded bikers she must have assumed had completely lost the plot by now.

Astonishing knife and fork sign, 12 Nov 14

Rare enough to deserve a photo

Sand angel in the desert, 12 Nov 14

On the brink

This was the turn of the tide for Day Four and suddenly the wind gods were on our side. Well, just not so painfully set against us anyway! Clearly karma for not beating the lady into the sand. We were not racing by any means, but if we kept pedalling we would make Bukhara within the day. Within the day!! The prospect of finally stopping drugged our brains with excitement, giving our whole bodies a massive lift just when we needed it. We willed our legs onwards as the roads worsened on the approach to the oasis, and the sun set behind us for the fourth day in a row. Now it was a question of not snapping our front racks on these bumpy cracked roads as the light faded. We limped into Bukhara by the light of our torches, nearly getting hit by a second truck which thought indicators were a fashion statement. Sleep has never felt so good. 1000km of Kyzyl Kum down!

On the outskirts of Bukhara, 13 Nov 14

Desert chiller on the outskirts of Bukhara

Bukhara was another amazing Silk Road city to explore gently on our day off. More sprawling than the walled city of Khiva, the new and old city seemed to mesh together as we wandered through it. The historic centre is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the quantity of museums and beautiful buildings to be found there, some of which date from thousands of years ago. Well worth the couple of days we spent there off the saddle! It being off-season we had the place to ourselves too – by our second day all the locals recognised us as the bearded bikers who spoke bad Russian. The dream. X

Nick

Nick in Bukhara, 15 Nov 14

We made it!!

Our Bukhara caravanserai, 14 Nov 14

Staying in a caravanserai in Bukhara

Bukhara new and old, 14 Nov 14

Bukhara new and old

Bukhara, 14 Nov 14

Strolling

Bukhara, 14 Nov 14

Towards the old town

Castle wall, Bukhara, 14 Nov 14

The Ark, the khan’s pad

Central madrassah, Bukhara, 14 Nov 14

Central madrassah

Tricks in front of 9th century mausoleum, Bukhara, 14 Nov 14

Tricks in front of 9th century mausoleum

Kalyan minaret, Bukhara, 14 Nov 14

Kalyan minaret

Good backdrop for a wedding photo, 14 Nov 14

Good backdrop for a wedding photo

 

 

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Desert Days Part One: Getting to Khiva – 9th Nov

01 route to Khiva map

Our route through the Kyzyl Kum desert to Khiva

We’ve now entered our second Stan of the trip – Uzbekistan. Due to not getting visas for Iran or Turkmenistan we were forced north to Kazakhstan and  to enter Uzbekistan at its most north westerly point. We will be leaving Uzbekistan from its most south easterly point to Tajikistan, meaning that over the next fortnight we will crossing the entire length of the country, including the full expanse of the 1600km long Kyzyl Kum desert. But with a vast area of 300,000km² it is still only Asia’s third largest desert! One place behind is the Taklamaklan, which awaits us in China. Our Uzbekistan section was to be broken into three parts: the border to Khiva (an ancient Silk Road town), Khiva to Bukhara (another Silk Road town) and Bukhara to Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

As we bade farewell to the Uzbek border guards on 3 November they called after us. “Som? (the local currency) Black market!” Pointing in the direction of some people loitering between the queue of trucks and some shacks. Money and the black market was to feature prominently in our journey across Uzbekistan. We approached the shady looking characters and asked for a rate, oblivious of what it should be. We handed over our dollar and they literally ran away. We looked around for police. Were we about to be arrested? We pedalled off quickly but nothing came of it. As we grew wiser we were able to haggle for better and better rates. Rates apparently fluctuated daily, or so people said, was this true or a scam? We didn’t really understand how black market rates worked so we kept hunting until we got the rate we wanted. In one town, after dark, we were led to a rather dodgy looking collection of apartment blocks to find the only man who exchanged money. Don’t mention ‘dollars’ we were warned as we approached. One crisp American note could be exchanged for four or five wads of grubby notes bundled up with string. No one in Uzbekistan has a wallet, you couldn’t fit more than a pound or so in one! Instead locals wrap wads in elastic bands and hand over tens of notes to pay for lunch! Counting out such crazy amounts causes fits of laughter from locals as we slowly leaf through the notes one after another. It takes almost as much time to count out the money for us as it takes to eat the meal! To double check the amount the patron flicks effortlessly through the stack as we stare wide eyed at his dexterity.

You get a lot for your dollar

You get a lot for your dollar

Delayed by the drugs check at the border the day was starting to get very cold. We made it 20km into Uzbekistan, stumbling across our first Central Asian cayhana, as the snow started to fall. Snow in a desert? Yes! And by the morning you could be forgiven for thinking that we were in the Antarctic desert, but for the camels, which took the place of penguins. Upon entering the cayhana we were greeted by two giggly Uzbek girls. They said we could eat and sleep, and that it was a long way to the next settlement. They weren’t wrong!

Having a rough time

Having a rough time

What had been a barren yellow-brown landscape the day before had overnight had a pristine white carpet rolled over it. The scene didn’t look any less barren, but the snow added a little fun and excitement. That childish appreciation of snow, a magical, Christmas time substance, great for games and play, soon wore off as we realised we had to cycle through it. Building a snowman is great when you know you have a warm house to go back to, but when you don’t know where the next building might be, how far your next hot meal is away, then snow is a lot less fun! The road was slow going, we were barely able to get above 10km an hour. The Uzbek roads were a huge improvement on the Kazakh dirt tracks, but the number of cars coming towards us covered to the windows in mud suggested tarmac wasn’t just around the corner! There was nowhere to stop on this road, so we didn’t. We had lunch on the saddle, bread and biscuits crammed into our coat pockets, all the while pedalling, trying to avoid the potholes, gaps in the road and huge ridges formed by truck after truck taking the same line, carving the equivalent of train tracks into the road. By dark we had still seen nothing. There had been cars of course, but apart from that there was literally only desert vegetation, a train track and pylons for a 360° view. In such circumstances it feels very much as if you are not moving at all. Only the rotation of the wheels and the wind on your face reminds you of your motion. You see the pylons disappearing into the horizon, stretching endlessly. A desert is an odd place, not somewhere I’d want to spend too much time, especially alone.

The white carpet

The white carpet

Still barren ...

Still barren …

The road merges into the sands!

The road merges into the sands!

We arrived at the first of many police checkpoints to come. Locally they are called ‘YPX’. They are located on the road at the border of every province as well as at many other points along the roads. There are lots of them! We are still unsure what the purpose of these checkpoints is as they arbitrarily stop cars, letting others go without checks. Usually, but not always, we are pulled over, passports flicked through, but generally nothing more. Very occasionally our details are written down, and on one occasion we had to open a pannier each and explain the contents, followed by another thorough first aid check. Often it seems the police are more interested in our story than checking us, leading to long delays as we recount our tale. Our beards are a huge talking point. Firstly, Uzbeks really do not like beards (apparently they like clean faces and feel beards are linked with terrorists). Secondly, the police think we don’t look enough like our passport photos. In Uzbekistan a man can be ordered to go home and shave by a police officer – it’s a big issue! We joke that the beards are to protect us from the cold and so far have got away with it. They often point at the water bottles questioning the contents, flick the bell and turn the front torch on. They are friendly enough but are unable to register us, despite being police, so not overly useful to us. In Uzbekistan foreigners must register in a hotel every three days or risk being heavily fined upon leaving the country. This causes cyclists to have to go great distances in those three days to cross large stretches of desert in time for the next registration!

Yet another YPX

Yet another YPX

On this occasion the police informed us there was a hotel in 6km where we could stay – good news! We arrived to find Mongol Rally stickers covering the front door of the roadside inn. Everyone passing through had to stop here, we knew there was nowhere else for 100km either direction. We’d cycled 145km on our first full day in Uzbekistan. We were absolutely exhausted. We knew it wasn’t going to get easier as we still had a lot of desert to go and not many days in which to get to Khiva, our first destination.

A dot in the desert

A dot in the desert

We awoke to light drizzle. Better than snow? Maybe. However, as soon as we left the shelter of the solitary building the drizzle turned to heavy rain. Rain turned to snow, and combined with very strong headwinds we gritted our teeth and cycled slowly towards Khiva. With four days to go we hoped the weather would change its tune and help us along! When it’s sunny and the road is good the kilometres fly by. In snowy, blustery conditions, however, the kilometre markers at the roadside take an age to appear. Each kilometre seemingly further than the last. When those markers are counting down from well over 1000, reminding you how far the desert stretches, it feels as if they are gently mocking you, laughing at your misery.

Only another 1000 kms of desert!

Only another 1000 kms of desert!

In the desert there is no protection from the elements. We needed no shade from the absent sun. Instead we needed shelter from the battering winds and the driving rain. A solitary parked truck gave us the moments of respite we craved before continuing our battle against Mother Nature. The only thing keeping us going was the knowledge that there was something called a silo in maybe 50km, even though we had no idea what this silo might be. This was how it was in the Uzbek desert. We would be given a rough distance to the next sort of shelter by a caring motorist. Many kind people offered us lifts, but we had to politely decline, no matter how grim the circumstances were. The weather and road conditions came in swings and roundabouts. Just as we thought we couldn’t go on the sun might burn away the black clouds, or the road would miraculously become tarmac. Just as the bad didn’t last forever, neither did the good! But there was enough good to mean the distances were manageable, although we did have to ride deep into the dark hours.

Nightfall ... again!

Nightfall … again!

The horizon in the desert always seems far away, never really getting any closer. It’s even worse when it’s lights on the horizon at night. Cycling in the dark is not a hobby I wish to continue after this expedition. It’s fairly slow and extremely tiring, both physically and mentally draining. What would be easy riding in the light becomes an act of huge concentration as you focus on the spotlight of road in front of you. A light in the desert night suggests the end of the day, warmth, food and a bed. But that light takes an age to approach, seemingly endlessly distant. Our relentlessness was finally rewarded as the speck of light transformed into an American Diner, right in the middle of the desert. It served local food rather than burgers but it did have Wi-Fi, very expensive hotel rooms with pool and sauna, and a cute kid, the owner’s son, who became our number one fan for the day, trying on our hats, helmets, sun glasses and gloves.

Cool kid

Cool kid

After another day of almost 150km we arrived in Nukus, a border town with Turkmenistan, our original planned entry point into Uzbekistan. We just wanted to eat and sleep before setting off early again the next day. A quiet meal of lagman (noodles) or plov (rice) was just what we needed. The first restaurant we entered had a DJ poster by the door. As we went in we could feel the bass vibrating though the whole place. Moving further inside pounding techno music greeted us. Four men stood on a tiny dance floor moving awkwardly to the heavy beat. Two men sat eating their meal to one side, unable to talk for the noise. We felt it best to move on. The next place we tried had a similar set up, this time the music – What does the fox say? Club remix – blared out from upstairs. The restaurant underneath reverberated. They served every kind of beef imaginable – British, American, Japanese, Canadian. All at London prices. Did they serve local food? “Here? No sir! This is not that kind of place.” was very much the feeling of how the waiter replied. We moved on. Microwaved somsas and a pot of tea in a corner shop was the best we could find. At least it was quiet!

More desert. If you go to the satellite view on google maps of northwestern Uzbekistan you will see what it’s like! If it looks barren and tough on your monitor, imagine cycling through it! Up until this point we’d still seen pretty much no sign posts in Uzbekistan. Any signposts that there were had no distances. No one really knew how far anything was. A restaurant in 10km could mean 3km or 30km. This was a theme for our desert crossings: Uzbek estimates at distances are often wild guesses! As we got closer to Turkmenistan we passed through army checkpoints. We were deep into Karakalpakstan, a region of Uzbekistan that desires independence but doesn’t really have the means to go ahead with it. Military presence seemed more obvious and the checkpoints more stern. As we looked for somewhere to stay a drunk man latched onto us, or more specifically Nick. He offered for us to stay at his place. The persistent “I love you Nick” and his general clinginess were enough for us to decline. It wasn’t so easy to get that message across and he was adamant he would not go home without us. Fortunately, perfectly timed, our guardian angel, Koshiva, an English teacher appeared on the scene. We were invited to her house and treated as most distinguished guests. Hot food, beds and tea with milk were hugely welcome and it was fantastic to meet an English speaker who could answer all our questions about Uzbekistan. Interestingly, students now learn English as the second language over Russian – British English as the country is very anti-America. In the morning we were treated to a sumptuous breakfast and headed out into heavy mist.

A hearty breakfast with our hosts, 8 Nov 14

A hearty breakfast with our hosts

A misty morning

A misty morning

Eager to see just a little bit of Turkmenistan we found a road on the map that led to the border but didn’t seem to be a crossing. We rode down the lane off the main road to find an abandoned Uzbekistan border post, windows smashed, door missing and no barrier. In front facing Uzbekistan was a Turkmen guard tower. A pretend soldier was propped against the railings. As we left Uzbekistan into no man’s land, Turkmen guards came out of the tower room rifles in hand. We stopped where we were. One came down and Nick went to have a chat. I turned the GoPro on – never miss an opportunity! Nick asked if we could cross the border, take a photo and come back. The soldier radioed the guard tower past the border. After much deliberation we were denied access, understandably,  and we continued on our way. Turkmenistan eluding us once again. Just by the border we were invited in to a restaurant, which turned out to be a wedding banquet restaurant, for lunch. We explained that we couldn’t stay for the evening wedding. But we took lots of photos with the family working there, standing where the bride and groom would that evening, flashing neon lights, fake flowers and LED curtains providing the backdrop to the photos.

The location for your big day? 8 Nov 14

The location for your big day

As the sun set, on our final stretch into Khiva the great stone walls of the old town appeared in front of us, marking the end of our first leg in Uzbekistan. “We’ve cycled here from London!” we kept repeating. Following the ancient Silk Road, it seemed apt to be staying in one of the old towns, just as the caravans would have done all those years ago. A walled town filled with madrassahs, mosques and minarets, it was a beautiful location and a historic treasure.

Sunset in Khiva, 8 Nov 14

Made it!!

On our much deserved rest day we explored the market, climbed the minarets and scrambled on the city walls. A huge event was taking place in the main square. We assumed a wedding, but found out that it was National Youth Day and students from all over Uzbekistan were gathered here in Khiva. National television was there to cover the event and were quick to ask us for an interview. We couldn’t decline an opportunity for publicity! We did have to pass when we were asked to dance the extremely technical national dance, leaving it instead to the nimble and much more skilful local girls.

With the TV crew and our translator

With the TV crew and our translator

Bukhara is our next destination, another oasis town, the other side of yet more desert. Stay tuned for Nick’s Desert Days Part Two!

Laurence

Khiva market hustle and bustle

Khiva market hustle and bustle

Khiva, 9 Nov 14

Khiva

Kalta Minor minaret, 8 Nov 14

Kalta Minor minaret

Khiva old town, 9 Nov 14

Khiva old town

Khiva old town, 9 Nov 14

Khiva old town

Police presence in the old town, Khiva, 9 Nov 14

Police presence in the old town

 

 

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Getting to know the Stans – 5th Nov

Before we write too much more about what turned into a gruelling desert crossing of Uzbekistan, I wanted to share a few geography lessons I’ve got to grips with along the way. Central Asia is slowly becoming an adventure tourist destination, but because of its relative inaccessibility (a combination of lengthy Soviet visa processes, poor infrastructure, endless deserts and mountains) it has a long way to go before rivalling tourist numbers in the Alps. Not much is known about the region back home – ‘the Stans’ is the name that sticks, a deliberately mysterious name for the group of Central Asian countries which few people can list let alone spell. That blurry underdeveloped ‘middle bit’ east of Europe, west of China and just north of the war zones which often appear on TV. Before I started this expedition I would have had serious trouble placing Uzbekistan on a map, let alone planning a cycling route through it. So if, like me, you struggle to distinguish your Tajikistan from your Kyrgyzstan, this blog may be for you. All this is still very basic knowledge as we’ve only been here a number of weeks – I’m sure there are volumes of worthy books to get through about Central Asia for the keen reader. But I hope it demystifies things very simplistically!

A quick overview first. ‘The Stans’ are a motley collection of ex-Soviet republics which became independent when the USSR collapsed after 1991. Their more ancient history is extremely complicated, marked by near-constant conflict. The harsh climate meant that few cities were established, the population instead remaining more nomadic. They bred horses and developed into some of the most hardcore and fearsome fighters in the world. Central geographical placement along trade routes meant a huge amount of infighting. Big and small khanates emerged, expanded, reformed and were taken over many times in gruesome style. Once in a while big empire-hunters, the likes of the Huns, the Persians, the Ottomans and the Mongols swept through and ‘conquered’ the region on their way to Europe or the Middle East, though what was ‘conquered’ was largely desert and empty space. But controlling this region made rulers extremely powerful, as they then controlled access to Europe, India and China. These access routes were key for trade and formed part of the Silk Road, which was actually many little roads connecting the East with the West. With plenty of different nationalities and caravans passing through the region it is easy to see how Central Asia is described (in quite a corny way) as a ‘cultural crossroads’. Some people reckon this constant flow of people through the Stans has reinforced divisions within them, and ensured that clan links are kept very strong.

Stans map

The Stans are a group of 5 countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Sometimes included as a sixth is Afghanistan, which shares many similarities with Tajikistan – though not as popular with tourists yet. Pakistan is not included because it is presumably geographically associated with India (‘Hindustan’) in the Indian subcontinent. Four of the five countries are Turkic-speaking nations, which means they speak a language very similar to Turkish. The only one that is not is Tajikistan, whose people are historically much closer to Afghanistan and Persia. All are Muslim countries, though compared with Turkey’s extreme conservatism they so far seem pretty liberal: women don’t all wear headscarves, mosques are quite discreet and we’ve had plenty of invites to drink vodka by the side of the road!!

A typical Central Asian mosque

A typical Central Asian mosque

Keen for a drink

Keen for a drink

Food in Central Asia – as far as we’ve seen – is not very exciting. ‘Plov’, a rice-based dish with a scattering of grated carrots and dry meat, is the national dish in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan is pretty fond of it too. Apparently the difference lies in the colouring of the carrots: Uzbek carrots are orange but Tajik carrots are green. I’m not joking. For two countries which  grow none of their own rice, this seems perhaps a silly idea for a national dish. The other staple is ‘lagman’, essentially soup noodles, which do the job as far as cycling calories are concerned but could be vastly improved for taste. A lagman is produced in minutes as there are communal vats of the stuff with mystery meat floaters ready to be reheated and served up. Similar meats get stuffed into the ‘somsas’, samosas which just need a burst in the microwave to complement any meal. By no means a culinary dream, but enough to keep you going. The fun is in the location: cayhanas (teahouses) are everywhere, serving up the necessary, which people eat cross-legged from low tables on the floor.

A plov hybrid

A plov hybrid

Lagman lunch

Lagman lunch

Nice place for a tea

Nice place for a tea

Kazakhstan

The biggest and most obvious Stan to start with is Kazakhstan, much more well-known in the West for all the wrong reasons because of Borat’s ‘Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’. Perhaps ironically given Kazakhstan’s portrayal in the film, it is by far the richest Stan, owing its wealth to vast oil reserves. In fact there was a movement domestically to change the name Kazakhstan to Kazakhia, to break away from the image of underdevelopment associated with being a ‘Stan’. The country is vast – ninth largest in the world and bigger than Western Europe – but largely uninhabited as much of the land is arid steppe. Historically a large proportion of the population has been nomadic, breeding horses and fearsome riders in the steppe next to Russia. Think very similar to the Mongolian horsemen of Genghis Khan. Northern sections of Kazakhstan are perhaps also looming as future targets for Russian annexation, as there are many ethnic Russians there. Seems silly to write now, but check this space again in five years time… 

What you might think of at the mention of Kazakhstan

What you might think of at the mention of Kazakhstan

Harsh desert in Kazakhstan

Harsh desert in Kazakhstan

Again to break Baron-Cohen’s image, Kazakhs are very Asian-looking (and not eastern European). The climate is not friendly in most of the country, which gives Kazakhs a hardened don’t-mess-with-me look. I found myself wondering who would win in a fight between a Kazakh and a Tibetan – both extremely tough people. We were surprised to find smoking banned indoors and jaywalking a finable offence in Aktau, having just come from Azerbaijan where laissez faire is a polite way of putting it. Drivers stopped and waited at zebra crossings, something we were both sure the French can learn from. And as for development, President Nazarbayev recently launched ‘Kazakhstan 2050’, a campaign to bring the country into the world’s top 30 economies by 2050. We were told that as part of the plan there were huge incentives to have children, as Kazakhstan’s population is only 18 million. So a bit more forward-thinking than Borat would have us believe anyway!

During our short stay in Aktau I managed to commit two grave cultural errors, actually both at the same time. Many people in Kazakhstan believe that whistling indoors brings very bad luck, especially financially. It is also extremely impolite to step over a person’s legs when getting up from the table because it implies they are a corpse, therefore condemning them to an early demise. So in one action I financially ruined and insulted our host in Aktau. Luckily she took it well. Some don’t. 

Difficult to get out of a Central Asian table

Difficult to get out of a Central Asian table

Apparently Kazakhstan has nothing against its neighbour Uzbekistan on an official level, though many people raised their eyebrows at us when we described our onward journey. One girl at Halloween actually choked on her drink when we told her. She warned us very seriously that we were probably not going to make it out alive as Uzbeks were ‘dirty, bad people’. Good neighbourly love then.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is right in the thick of it, bordered by all the other four Stans plus Afghanistan to the south. It is actually doubly-landlocked, which means all the countries around it are also landlocked. What’s more, none of the rivers in Uzbekistan lead to the sea – the main water source runs down from the mountains through Tajikistan first, and that’s a major reason these two don’t get along at all (both Presidents actually came to blows once). It is perhaps unsurprising given all this that most of Uzbekistan is desert, namely the vast Kyzyl Kum desert which we crossed in a period of about two weeks.

Kyzyl Kum desert, 10 Nov 14

Kyzyl Kum desert

The Uzbek population is half the size of the UK’s, which makes Uzbekistan the most populous Stan. Historically people have been sedentary farmers trying to grow cotton out of the little arable land that exists around the desert, something which became increasingly hard after the Aral Sea (fourth biggest sea in the world, in northwest Uzbekistan) was essentially left to drain away by the Russians. This has been called one of the biggest ecological disasters of the modern world – and until now we hadn’t even heard of it! Natural gas is becoming a thing, and cars run on pretty much anything they can find: methane, propane, LPG you name it. The gas piping throughout Uzbekistan is mostly overground and reminds you of a children’s Lego or Duplex experiment, all the joiny bits connected slightly haphazardly and propped up on breezeblocks. Small accidents are presumably disastrous. It’s pretty common to be greeted by the smell of leaking gas as we approach a rare Uzbek town in the desert.

Gas everywhere

Gas everywhere

Gas piping over the main road

Gas piping over the main road

Uzbekistan’s geographical position and its harsh desert climate means that it has mainly been a through-country for travellers, a large and very important connecting block along the Silk Road. This is where big caranvanserai, mosques and madrassahs were built in the oases of the desert, a halfway stop on the journey to or from China. Independent khanates were established in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, each controlling large parts of Uzbekistan and building very beautiful cities out of nothing thanks to trade money. The infighting between these khanates is staggering and far too complicated to try and explain here. Before the Soviet Union takeover both Bukhara and Samarkand were Tajik, so the fact they were granted to Uzbekistan after the USSR’s dissolution is another stumbling block for Uzbek-Tajik relations. The concept of Uzbekistan as a country is relatively new, and there are autonomous regions within the country (namely Karakalpakstan in the northwest) which would rather be independent. Though most other Uzbeks reckon these regions would have little chance of economic survival on their own, so are nothing to worry about. A good conversation starter with our Scottish dilemma.

The Khan's pad in Khiva

The Khan’s pad in Khiva

View over Khiva

View over Khiva

The central madrassah, Bukhara

The central madrassah, Bukhara

Uzbek man on the Silk Road

Uzbek man on the Silk Road

The government rules with something of an iron fist and has been criticised by the West for many human rights abuses. Perhaps the region has always been used to having authoritarian rulers, thinking back to the time of the khanates. There is a big police presence everywhere, most obvious to cyclists in the routine (and utterly pointless) checkpoints where police stop you, flick slowly through your passport and sometimes sniff more of your medicines. But this level of state control is not nearly as bad as Turkmenistan… 

Typical Uzbek checkpoint

Typical Uzbek checkpoint

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is the most closed of all the Stans, which is a shame for tourists as it also contains some important cities along the old Silk Road. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, President Niyazov emerged as leader and replaced socialism with his brand of nationalism, and a very strong cult of personality. We are talking huge statues and buildings in his honour, frequent political purges and arbitrary policy reshuffles. His cult of personality has been compared to Kim Il Sung’s in North Korea. In 1999 he declared himself ‘President for Life’ (pretty handy), but then died in 2006, so the then-vice president is now in charge. 

Stans map

That map again

The regime has been heavily criticised by the West for serious human rights abuses so in return doesn’t look kindly towards Western tourists, instead maintaining a close relationship with China (no surprises there!). Turkmenistan only issues transit visas of a maximum length of five days, so for cyclists this means to cross the country from Iran into Uzbekistan involves near-constant pedalling for five days across awful roads. We were incredibly frustrated by Turkmen officialdom in both Istanbul and Baku (as you can read from Lobby’s earlier blog!) which denied us the chance of taking on this five-day challenge due to miscommunication between consulates. One consulate accused the other of lying – you get the picture.

The main man in Ashgabat

The main man in Ashgabat

More positively, Turkmenistan is a relatively rich country for Central Asia as it exports one single commodity: natural gas. It has the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world. There is actually a huge burning gas crater pretty much in the centre of the country called ‘The Door to Hell’. Soviet engineers lit it in 1971 in an attempt to burn it off, and it has been burning ever since. Nice one. The government has granted its people free electricity, water and gas provision until 2030 – just don’t protest about extending this provision or try to leave the country, or you’ll spend the rest of your days in prison.

The Door to Hell, Turkmenistan

The Door to Hell, Turkmenistan

Tajikistan

Tajikistan is the poorest of the Stans and has certainly not benefitted from the break-up of the USSR. An extremely mountainous country whose people are still very clan-based, it was plunged into bloody civil war for five years pretty much as soon as the Soviet glue became unstuck. During its days as part of the Russian empire it relied almost entirely on imports for energy and food, and is only now getting back on its feet thanks to foreign aid and huge Chinese investment in construction and road-building. 70% of Tajikistan’s 8 million people live on less than $2 per day, and the government recently doubled the legal minimum wage to $4 – per month! Nowadays the annual national budget is less than the size of a Hollywood film production. About half the GNP is reckoned to be linked to the drugs trade thanks to a very long (1300km) and porous border with Afghanistan. It has a while to go yet before it can run itself without significant foreign assistance.

Incoming from Afghanistan

Incoming from Afghanistan

Tajikistan is home to the Pamir mountain range, sitting just above the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan. In fact over half of Tajikistan is at over 3000m altitude! This area shares a long border with Afghanistan, which although it is landmined and militarily garrisoned still lets many drugs through. In October the Taliban took control of a border post in this area on the Afghan side, killing or taking hostage all the policemen there. The Taliban have never ventured beyond the Tajik border, but things are precarious to put it nicely.

The Great Game - Afghanistan between Russia and Britain

The Great Game – Afghanistan between Russia and Britain

This is the area we will be cycling through, mostly along the Pamir Highway which links Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to China. The route is usually attempted in summer (where overnight temperatures can still dip to -15C) and has been called the holy grail of adventure cycling. Crossing it in winter will certainly be a unique challenge.

Pamir Mountains - all this fun to come

Pamir Mountains – all this fun to come

Kyrgyzstan

The last Stan on our route is Kyrgyzstan, though we will only cross through it very briefly on our way out of Tajikistan and into Western China. The country is also home to some impressive mountain ranges along the Silk Road and some stunning lakes. Unfortunately relatively recently it has been rocked with protests about corruption, the president imposing a state of emergency in 2010, locking up all opposition leaders before resigning and fleeing to Kazakhstan. Many people believed that Russia was behind the protests though classically they deny any involvement. Clan-clashes which followed suggested the country could be heading for civil war, but so far the government has managed to keep an uneasy peace. 

Issyk Lake in Kyrgyzstan

Issyk Lake in Kyrgyzstan

So there it is, a whirlwind tour of the Stans to shed some light on this blurry central region of the world! I’m sure it’s completely unsatisfactory for anyone with more than an inkling about the region, but for those who don’t have any (like us!) perhaps it helps a bit. The themes which emerge along the way are definitely underdevelopment (the stereotype), particularly since the breakup of the USSR; harsh climates and hard people; and unfortunately corruption and conflict. The ideal region to explore by bicycle. Stay tuned.

Well done on reaching the bottom! Love from the Stans X

Nick

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Great Country Kazakhstan – 3rd Nov

Red dot marks our location: Aktau, Kazakhstan

Red dot marks our location: Aktau, Kazakhstan

Apparently the Professor made an early morning arrival at the Kazakh port of Aktau, but as we woke up at midday in our cabin we had neither been chucked off the freight ferry nor were we on our way back to Baku. It turns out that Aktau harbour only has one loading bay, which becomes an issue if you want to unload your ship and someone else has nicked the only parking space. Aktau, then, clearly not a hub of commercial shipping. However never to be downhearted we danced away the waiting time on the Professor’s decks, until we were pulled up in front of a serious-looking Kazakh customs officer who had boarded and was (presumably) doing a drugs check. Being questioned by our first Kazakh reminded us that the Kazakh people are, in fact, in no way similar to what Borat would have us believe. Our military officer was tall and clean-shaven, with rifle, snow-khaki uniform and Russian fur hat, facially far more Asian looking than Sasha Baron-Cohen’s moustachioed dark skinned creations. Also perhaps unsurprisingly, as we moved through Kazakhstan no Borats nor Bilos jumped out from behind bushes at us, nor was there rampant antisemitism and women were allowed to travel on the inside of buses. So in that respect it’s a bit unfortunate that Kazakhstan is linked so automatically for so many of us to Borat – a show which is also so unfortunately hilarious! Many Kazakhs we asked knew about it and were understandably pissed off at the ridiculous way Kazakhstan has been portrayed to the Western world. You’ve got to feel for them really.

Morning on the Professor

Morning on the Professor

Big on gas piping in Aktau

Big on gas piping in Aktau

Teatime in Kazakhstan

Teatime in Kazakhstan

Having now spent nearly a whole extra day waiting to unload we were relieved to breeze through customs finally, wave goodbye to the Professor and test our wheels for the first time in Central Asia. Fortunately we had a host in Aktau as it was already getting dark, lovely Lyazzat who must have one of the best jobs in the world. Working one month on, one month off, she is a Russian-English translator for an oil company based near Aktau. When she worked she had a Scottish boss with a real sense of humour; otherwise she was travelling. Ideal. She showed us a fantastic time in the otherwise faceless Soviet town of Aktau, taking us out to celebrate Halloween with her mates at a bar with a live Kyrgyz band. The bouncer initially didn’t let us in, based rather dubiously on us not wearing smart enough shoes. We pointed out that we had cycled from London to spend Halloween at their bar, and then spotted from the door some dressed-up children running around barefoot on the dancefloor (it was that type of place). He conceded to that last point. We were let in and over the course of the evening took part in an all-Russian Halloween trivia (didn’t go well), played pin-the-organ on Lobby (a Halloween classic) and sang with the band to what we assumed at the time to be rapturous applause.

A strong performance

A strong performance

Making new friends

Making new friends

Soviet concrete in Aktau

Soviet concrete in Aktau

Time was ticking though. After a good night’s frivolities we got down to the more serious issue of route planning, which was essentially an estimation game of how far we could cycle daily across the deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan without collapsing from exhaustion. Not being able to cycle through Turkmenistan adds very significant mileage to our journey (see the map below!), significant because we have no extra time to do the extra distance in. A whole domino-effect of visa constraints meant we needed to be in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, by the 21st November. We were facing the unenviable task of crossing 1600km of Uzbek desert in 15 days (the yellow line) rather than the planned 500km in the same time frame after a dash through Turkmenistan (the blue line). All this on Central Asian roads, not widely renowned for their quality. To add an extra level of impossibility, to get to the starting point we would need to cross 500km of Kazakh desert (the red line) a stage with roads so awful that it has been nicknamed “The Bicycle Demolition Derby” by the crazy cyclists who attempt it. We were fortunate to be in touch with a friend who had attempted that stage last year, when Kazakhstan only issued 5 day transit visas. Running out of time he ended up having to hitch. His only advice: “Don’t do it. Hire a hovercraft or a helicopter instead. Just don’t do it. Hellish.” The clincher was meeting a Spanish cyclist in Aktau who was travelling the other direction to us, from China back to Spain. He had taken the train across the Demolition Derby. He looked over our dates and distances carefully, compared them with what he had just cycled, then declared that what we were thinking of attempting was impossible. We would be left with one week to cycle 1600km across the desert, he reminded us rather grimly. Even doing that distance in two weeks would be very, very tough. “Eh, you crazy British!! Two weeks. That is the minimum.” When a Spaniard gives you such succinct advice, you have to follow it.

Aktau, on the edge of the desert

Aktau, on the edge of the desert

Our route options to Dushanbe: red, the Demolition Derby; yellow, death in the desert; blue, the conventional route.

Our route options to Dushanbe: red, the Demolition Derby; yellow, death in the desert; blue, the conventional route.

Enjoying a last meal before the desert

Enjoying a last meal before the desert

So we took the train north from Aktau to Beyneu, a small town 90km from the Uzbek border, covering a week’s worth of destructive cycling overnight. We disembarked in a tiny oasis town in the middle of nothingness just before dawn, having not had much sleep. It was spitting with rain, so we regrouped and napped on the tables of the only teahouse in town. Plastic sausages for breakfast made me very glad we had planned the Operation! We spotted our first camels of the expedition just as we joined the road out of town into the Kazakh desert, the sheer excitement of which possibly sent our tired brains over the edge.

Who doesn't enjoy a plastic sausage of a morning?

Who doesn’t enjoy a plastic sausage of a morning?

The end of the road

The end of the road

A huge highlight

A huge highlight

We had 90km of desert to cross before the Uzbek border, which formed the last section of the Bicycle Demolition Derby – as foolish Europeans we thought this distance could be done in a day. We were entirely misguided. The road out of Aktau essentially disintegrated into the sand, leaving deep fissures and potholes the size of minibuses, which had started to fill with water as the rain intensified. The rain also churned up the sand into mud, which stuck to our wheels and bicycle chains – the occasional cars splattered this mud across our trousers and shoes as they overtook us at a slow jogging pace. Our feet quickly turned numb from the drenching, as temperatures stayed nicely below freezing all day. A few kilometres in we were given respite from the mud-slinging as cars chose to chance it offroad, cutting a zigzagging path across the sand. When traffic chooses to avoid the road you’ve got to start asking questions. These cracked pieces from hell had no right to call themselves road. There were no signs of any use, and so nothing to judge distance except our odometers, until they gradually stopped working as they clogged with mud too. Hellish.

Offroading it

Offroading it

Useful signage

Useful signage

Camels crossing the road

Camels crossing the road

By nightfall we had cycled a miserable 50km without stopping except to wipe the mud down from our bicycles. The only traffic stupid enough to follow this route were Russian convoy trucks and heavily-laden Uzbek family cars (was Aktau a tourist destination?!). The rain had intensified and worse still, Lobby’s front pannier rack had cracked due to it being excessively jolted around. It really wasn’t looking good. Miraculously we spotted a group of muddy houses on the horizon so we limped towards them, a wretched gathering of half a dozen grey buildings which called itself a village. The smell of gas greeted us from a leaking pipe as we approached. Who in their right mind would want to live here, I thought. Some quick negotiating and we were given a spare room in someone’s shack. Who in their right mind would want to cycle here, they probably thought.

Necessary bike repairs on Day One

Necessary bike repairs on Day One

Welcome to Camp Miserable

Welcome to Camp Miserable

Determined not to be thwarted so early by our first Central Asian challenge, we set the alarm for dawn. However when dawn came, I discovered that Lobby was immovable. I mean Lobby is not much of a morning person, but this was something different – groaning and clutching his belly, all a bit worrying really. So we slept on to give Lobby some recovery time and then struck out for the last 40km to the Uzbek border. Both of us now on anti-diarrhoea pills, as the desert is an unforgivingly barren place if you need the bathroom! Similarly slow, painful progress until the border, as our planned dash across Uzbekistan became more and more unlikely with each jarring bump. 1600km in this?! It was Day Two and we weren’t even at the starting line yet! Morale sunk very low very quickly and remained low until the border, some six hours later.

Spot the cyclist

Spot the cyclist

A very ironic sign approaching the border

A very ironic sign approaching the border

A long queue of dirty trucks was the first sign of the approaching Uzbek border. Then a fence, in what seemed like a randomly-drawn line across the desert. As we drew close and worked our way to the front (exploiting our vehicle/pedestrian ambiguity to the full) we were greeted by a trumpeting of horns from the stationary traffic, waves and shouts of encouragement coming from all sides as we inched our way out of Kazakhstan. Apparently cars were routinely held at the border for two to three days: these drivers had each overtaken us over the past two days, and were now cheering us on instead of covering us in mud! We returned most of their smiles, except those whom I remembered had gone out of their way to wallpaper us in desert (mostly Russians). They got a very satisfied two-finger salute. A cute Kazakh border lady practically chatted us up as we were given our exit stamps, asking all sorts of questions about our trip and giggling at our poor Russian, which eventually prompted her more serious (male) supervisor to take over the process! She looked crestfallen. We were wished the best of luck and given firm military handshakes as we left Kazakhstan.

On our way out of Kazakhstan

On our way out of Kazakhstan

Not a fun place to wait for three days

Not a fun place to wait for three days

The Uzbek border entry couldn’t have been more different: we were immediately directed to the pedestrian queue, which felt a bit like a scene from Titanic, when the third-class passengers are kept trapped behind the grate by the crew as the ship is sinking. People pushed and shouted until getting arbitrarily chosen by a soldier on a raised platform at the front, which meant they could squeeze through the gates to the next queue. It was now very cold, and not knowing when the border would close there was a real sense of Titanic urgency. Our turn eventually came, as it began to snow gently. Endless forms and questions and a full bag search, the highlight of which was a soldier with decent English sniffing most of the contents of our first aid bag as he went through it. Asked light-heartedly whether they had dogs which might be better for the job, the man pointed outside and replied completely deadpan, “We have dogs also.” And continued sniffing. Getting the giggles at this point would have delayed us several more hours, so it was hard to know where to look!

We were finally given the all-clear (despite our bikes escaping the search – plenty of places to smuggle drugs through on those) and two soldiers swung open a grey Soviet door to let us into Uzbekistan. We now had one day less than planned to cross Uzbekistan. Having crossed 90km in two days, we were about to tackle 1600km in fourteen. We were both suffering from bad stomach cramps and firmly on anti-diarrhoea pills. Lobby’s pannier had just broken for a second time in two days. And it had begun to snow in the desert. It is safe to say that the difficulty rating of this expedition had just taken a leap. X

Nick

The road ahead

The road ahead

 

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Operation Get Fat For Christmas – 1st Nov

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.

"How many instant noodles did you say??"

“How many instant noodles did you say??”

Rations

Rations

Reminiscing our time in Europe

Reminiscing our time in Europe

Too big to carry from Istanbul

Too big to carry from Istanbul

Plov, staple of Central Asia

Plov, staple of Central Asia

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.

A summer of gluttony

A summer of gluttony

First sight of snowcaps

First sight of snowcaps in Azerbaijan

All this fun to come

All this fun to come

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.

The dream

The dream

Buying carbs in Turkey

Buying carbs in Turkey

Turkish pizza by the Black Sea

Turkish pizza by the Black Sea

Ideal for the Operation

Ideal for the Operation

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.

Georgian national dish, khatchapuri

Georgian national dish, khatchapuri

Carb heavy diet

Carb heavy diet

Meat stuffed in pastry, deep fried. Excellent.

Meat stuffed in pastry, deep fried. Excellent.

Petrol on the left, wine to the right

Petrol on the left, wine to the right

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!

Host during the no-tent challenge

Host during the no-tent challenge

Breakfast - ideal amounts of butter ...

Breakfast – ideal amounts of butter …

... followed by Azeri wedding banquet

… followed by Azeri wedding banquet

All this meat

All this meat

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.

Nick

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Professor Gül – 30th Oct

We are sitting on a cargo ship bound for Kazakhstan. I don’t think I can fully convey my feelings of relief this evening at being onboard this small ship somewhere in the Caspian Sea. As much as we enjoyed the eccentricity of Baku, by the end of our short stay I had developed serious cabin fever: it was our longest rest stop since Istanbul back in September, and the route from embassies to ferry terminals to deportation meetings had become well-trodden and tiresome. As Lobby’s blog has pointed out, after two disastrous admin days in the capital there was nothing more I wanted to do than cycle hard off into the distance. Except that we couldn’t: we’d reached our most easterly point, blocked off by Iran to the south and Russia to the north. Even if we made it as far as the border we would then still be stopped and detained thanks to our Balakan Bastard. The situation was far from ideal.

But yesterday (The Day Everything Came Right), on our fourth visit to the ferry terminal a bored lady behind the grey Soviet door agreed to sell us two tickets aboard the Professor Gül to Aktau, Kazakhstan. She insisted on trying to speak English but then got many of her tenses wrong, which complicated the purchasing process! In fact this meant we still weren’t sure if the ship was there or not when we handed our money over (“Professor left at 10pm this evening,” she repeated at 4pm), but we reasoned that if she was prepared to sell tickets to us then we were going to buy them. After all, this was the first ferry to Kazakhstan for which we’d been allowed to buy tickets in our week in the capital, and we weren’t about to let the opportunity pass because of a language technicality. Knowing our luck in Baku it actually came as little surprise when she told us the ferry port had moved just three weeks ago. It was now 75km out of town. Quick sums. We didn’t have enough time to make it by bicycle before the Professor left (if it was even there). My brain screamed expletives at this bored lady counting our dollars. Damned if we were going to sit around in Baku for the next Professor while our Central Asian visas timed out, we hired a removal van and got there in style. Yes we did. Azeri dance beats pumping out of the stereo system. A lot of the week’s stress evaporated on that road! A relatively straightforward deportation from Azerbaijan and by 3 o’clock in the morning we had a cabin to ourselves, with bikes safely lashed to some fencing in the cargo hold. Some videos of our last moments in Azerbaijan here.

Worth a head banging?

The grey Soviet door of reckoning

Another wandering Azeri waiting for ferry news

Another wandering Azeri waiting for ferry news

Many blogs moan about this particular ferry crossing, mostly because of safety and hygiene standards. Granted, one of the fleet sank not so long ago (the Merkuriy-2 in 2002) and the Professor could do with door handles which don’t come off so easily in your hand. Our cabin is supposedly en-suite but the showerhead is better used to sing into than to wash with. Nevertheless we are on a boat with a bed, going the right way. What’s more we are two of only six passengers onboard – a Georgian (who has already offered us shots), an Azeri, a Kazakh and two Uzbeks – so we’ve been given free rein to roam the decks. Apparently there are thirty crew onboard but we have seen only Sylvia the cleaning lady and the captain on the bridge when we went to check our course. My sailing experience amounts to a few dinghy outings aged 12 so I’m not sure if I was much help. The captain liked a good chat though. He told me our crossing would take any time from 20 to 45 hours depending on a few things I didn’t understand in Russian, and showed me his wonderfully useless searchlight for spotting a man overboard, which is stuck facing the sky. All hatches are left open which is perfect for a good snoop around: the galley, the kitchens, the engine room (lots of pistons and gauges, best not to touch), the hold… You name it, all deserted.

A bed on a boat, what more could you ask for

A bed on a boat, what more could you ask for

Identifying the best way off the Prof

Identifying the best way off the Prof

The alleged extensive crew list

The alleged extensive crew list

Plotting our course on the bridge

Plotting our course on the bridge

Door probably should be shut in that case

Alleged restricted access

Deserted top deck

Deserted top deck

Inspecting the engine room

Inspecting the engine room

Another deserted workshop

Another deserted workshop

So like young children finally with time to play, we ascended masts, rolled down hatches, climbed into lifeboats and ran around on the upper decks. On one of our explorations we did spot a crew member, who seeing us skipping along with broad grins on our faces probably thought it wise to keep his distance. The Professor was our dormitory and our playground to see out the end of October.

Having a good explore

Having a good explore

Running around on top deck

Running around on top deck

King of the castle, king of the castle

King of the castle, king of the castle!!

More chilled than Dover to Calais

More chilled than Dover to Calais

I imagine real cruises must be a lot like this, except ours had the advantage of being able to explore everywhere onboard undisturbed; there was also no neighbour to follow you round with accounts of his previous cruises and experiences in this relatively confined space. We wandered up onto the top deck a few moments ago, taking care to walk in from the edge in case the railings went the way of our door handles (which would be awkward knowing now that our searchlight is pointing the way it is). The stars are the best I’ve ever seen them, meshing a tapestry across the sky with the Milky Way highlighted in the middle – I suppose we are 200km or so from land and the nearest light pollution. Like all luxury cruises there has been a lot of sleeping involved, a solid twelve hours on departure and naps throughout the day to prepare for our next cycling stretch. We will get up to watch the sunrise tomorrow and focus our minds back on the job at hand after a week off.

Sunrise from top deck

Sunrise from top deck

Me and the Professor at a windy sunrise

Me and the Professor at a windy sunrise

Our next major landmark is the Kazakh-Uzbek border in the Kyzyl Kum desert. There we will assess how to make up the extra mileage we have been given by being diverted north, to allow our visa dates still to work. The road until that point, like the Turkmenistan Dash, is meant to be one of the worst in the world.

Stay tuned. X

Nick

Aktau ahead, 30 Oct 14

In sight of Kazakhstan

Great Country!

Great Country awaits!

 

 

 

 

 

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