Rolling again!

New day, new city, new country. After far too much resting up in Uzbekistan (10 riding days out of 29 in the country!), I am back on the road again, and am now in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. I set off from Tashkent last week, spending three days riding to Qo’qon, before getting a taxi back to Tashkent. My stuff had turned up, so I collected that, watched the rugby, stayed in the best bed I’ve slept in for months (flashpackers visiting Tashkent, check out the Poytaht Hotel), then got a taxi back to Qo’qon the next day.

Some fun on the way out riding up the Qamchik pass. Took me a fair while to get to the top, then when I got there I was stopped by 4 Army guys. They started hassling me about photos – apparently you’re not supposed to take photos anywhere on the whole pass. I thought it was just around the checkpoints and tunnels. I’d taken a photo looking back down, and they found that on my camera. So what do they do? Take another photo of me with the camera of course! One soldier wanted to buy the camera, and was getting a bit annoyed when I wouldn’t sell at any price, until someone else told him to back off, and I was sent on my way. The tunnels are no big deal to ride through there, the longer one – 1100m – is reasonably lit. Then rolled downhill until I found a nice abandoned building to sleep in. Too close to the road, a bit noisy though.

Interesting trip back in the car. Two railway workers were sharing the car, and after a round of introductions, passing around the photos and phrasebooks, we stopped at one of the roadside stalls. I thought for water, but no…shortly three cups were fashioned by cutting the bottoms off some 1L PET bottles, and beer was handed around. 8:25 in the morning, I’d had no breakfast, here have a cup of beer. Hmmm…at least the driver wasn’t drinking, probably just as well considering the excessive speeds on the way to Tashkent.

Bit of a miscommunication with someone else, and ended up needing to get a last-minute place in Tashkent. Stayed in the most upmarket place I’ve stayed in for a long time. The previous three nights I’d slept in a ditch, an abandoned building, and a flea-pit with cockroaches included at no extra cost. So when I slid into those clean smooth white high thread-count sheets, under cool air-conditioned air – I went out like a light, slept for 10 hours. The best breakfast of the tour was included the next day, and I made the most of it, eating maybe 5 courses. The Central Asian Youth Chess Championships was on at the time, with many of the contestants also staying there – I’m glad to see that miserable attempts at facial hair are common across 16 year old boys all around the world!

Back to Qo’qon to pick up the bike the next day, this time travelling with a mother and daughter. On finding out I was of a similar age to the daughter, and single, the mother got that glint in her eye – but not to be I’m afraid, gold teeth just don’t cut it for me. Later that night I stopped at a chaikhana to eat, and in hope of a place to stay. Fantastic place, and I met the whole family. Everyone came over for a chat, the boys, mum, dad, the cooks, everybody. Again, on finding out I was single, I was offered the choice of the girls to marry. Unfortunately they were just a little young – perhaps 16, not my scene. They offered me a place to sleep before I even asked – I was given a traditional Uzbek table, with an enclosure around it, and a water channel running below it. Very cool. So to any cyclists out there, the chaikhana on the left at the end of the woods after Boz, a little after the 322 kilometer marker on the road to Andijan, that’s the place to go.

That left me with around 75km to the border this morning, all fairly uneventful. For some reason the Uzbek customs officer didn’t like me though, and X-rayed all my panniers, and wanted to count all my $US. I had declared exactly what I had, but for some reason he wanted to count it. Had to get it out of various stashes around the place. A pain, and I can’t think for the life of me why they would want to count my money when I’m leaving the country. Oh and for any other travellers wondering, there were no questions about hotel registration slips. Just as well, since mine obviously don’t all add up.

Kyrgyzstan customs were very pleasant though, just short wait to write down my details, stamp my passport, and say “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan.” That’s more like the sort of treatment visitors should be getting. Looking forward to far fewer police around too…

A day or two here in Osh, then I may be offline for a couple of weeks, depending on how quickly I head up to Bishkek. No real hurry there.

Melting in Tashkent

Check out this forecast, and you’ll see what I mean about melting. Temperatures around 40°C for the next two weeks, no rain, no cloud, nothing. Just hot hot hot. Obviously if you’re reading this some time in the future, that forecast may well be for 3 feet of snow, but trust me right now it’s all heat.

I tried walking around the other morning at 10:00, but it was already too hot to do anything. Instead I headed for the coolness of the Metro, to find one of the many parks around Tashkent. There really is an incredible amount of greenery around this city, probably as much as I have seen in a city anywhere in the world. So I sat next to a fountain, reading a Dostoevsky book I picked up the other day. There are huge armies of women that maintain many of the parks, and I watched some of them at work. To deal with small weeds growing up between the paving stones, they dig them out by hand – but they have about 20 miles of paving stones to deal with. Very slow, but I guess it employs more people, and may be better for the environment than dumping a load of Roundup on the paths.

The reason I’m still here is that although I’ve finally gotten all my visas, I’m still waiting for my spare parts to arrive. With this heat, I wouldn’t be doing much riding anyway, but I would like to get up into the mountains. It ended up taking 5 days to get all my visas together, with varying degrees of ease. Chinese was straightforward – took in passport Monday morning, collected Wednesday morning for $60. Asked for 90 days, but only got 60 – so I think best to ask for longer than you want. Should be able to extend this later though. Kyrgyzstan visa was easy – all done within 30 mins, $55 for one month.

Kazakhstan was more of a hassle though – all the online resources I could find say that NZ passport holders no longer require an LOI. But when I got there they said I needed an invitation, and they were giving the same story to as Japanese couple. I’m sick of the LOI tax, so asked about transit. They’ve given me a 5 day transit visa, luckily valid for one month, not exact fixed dates ala Turkmenistan. No idea how I’m going to cover the distance I need to in 5 days, but I’ll work something out, may even be able to extend the visa a little. We’ll see. Originally I was told to return the next day to pick up my Kazakh visa, but on returning I waited an hour before being told “come back tomorrow.” OK, back again…good thing the Metro here is good…and I get my passport back, $20 for a 5 day transit visa.

And yes, from the above you can see that I am now going to go via Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, a detour from my original plan. I’ll put up another post about this in future, explaining why. Tajikistan can wait, maybe in future I’ll put together a loop involving the Karakorum and Pamir Highways.

Random thoughts on Uzbekistan:

  • Could someone please explain the pencilled-on monobrow to me? Women the world over spend thousands carefully shaping their eyebrows, with the monobrow being seen as a cardinal sin – yet here if you can’t grow your own monobrow, you just pencil one on
  • Police on the Metro – how do they decide who to stop? After many journeys on the Metro, unmolested, unlike most other tourists, I was stopped for the first time. The difference this time was that I was dressed in some new clothes brought locally – n.b. these are modern clothes that Russians would wear, not Uzbek clothing, and was with a Russian local. But I’m not sure they policeman could read. He looked at my passport, then I had to find the visa for him, then he asked if I’d been there since 2006, as he couldn’t seem to read the dates. Not quite following the Russian, I just said yes, he said “OK, no problem.” I retrieved my passport and went on my way. At least he didn’t ask for money, like the diplomatic police at the Kazakhstan embassy. Apparently the Kazakh police are much smarter, and when they want money, they demand it, and it’s difficult to get out of it. Here it’s easy to plead ignorance.
  • Related to the above, it’s been interesting to see just how many people think I’m Russian, and local – people keep asking me for directions. I need to learn how to say “Do I look like a local to you?” in Russian. I could just tell them to F— Off, and then they’ll be sure that I’m Russian.
  • Racism. Wow. You would think that with modern communications, international media, etc., locals would be used to seeing people with different coloured skin. But no, any black people walking around (and there are very, very few), will have to deal with people staring, pointing, and saying “nigger, nigger.” Locals (at least the Russian locals) really cannot deal with Africans or Asians. Quite interesting, different to the much more cosmopolitan cities of Western Europe, etc. Not that racism is non-existent there, but it tends to be beneath the surface.

I think I’ve found a local pub that will be showing the rugby today, and at a more convenient time than that for my New Zealand-based readers. It seems to be an expat bar, so I’m expecting high prices, well above what locals could afford, but it will be worth it if I can watch rugby, and flip over occasionally to the yachting – let’s hope things go better there than last time!

Go north, young man

This was how the conversation was going with Alex, a Hungarian I met in Bukhara. And so I am going north, via Kazakhstan to China, rather than via Tajikistan. I will miss out Kashgar, but I will see Urumqi.

“I’m 56 years old. I’m no longer scared of anything. I’ve seen enough. Death? No, I’m not scared of that. War, murder, hate, I’ve seen enough of it all. I look into your eyes and I don’t think you’re scared of anything either”

Now this is somewhat disturbing to me. It could be that I’m well on my way to developing the Thousand Yard Stare. If I can find an Internet Cafe that will let me upload some photos, I’ll try and upload the picture I took when I came out of the desert in Turkmenistan, after covering far too much distance without a break.

But different people seem to see different things in my eyes, or so they tell me. I’ve had people say they know I will make it home OK, they “can see it in my eyes.” I’ve also had women describe them as “magnetic.” Hmmm, all a bit much.

But enough of that, for Alex was a very interesting man. We had a long, wide-ranging geopolitical discussion, covering many topics. He currently lives in Almaty, and he strongly recommended that I visit Almaty (“Go north, young man”). I had been thinking for a while that I didn’t feel like going through Tajikistan, and I had recently met three other cyclists all going via Almaty. So I decided, why not? One of the nice things about what I’m doing is being able to change my plans, to take a 1,000km detour if I feel like it.

So I’m going to spend quite a bit more time in Kyrgyzstan, making my way from Osh to Bishkek, and then looping around Issyk-Kul. Hopefully the bit higher elevation will lower the temperatures a little, and from what I’ve seen, it should be all grass-covered valleys, washing in melted-glacier streams, and sleeping in felt yurts with nomad families. Or something like that. I hear there’s also some good bars in Bishkek too…

When I loop back to Bishkek, I’ll go up to Almaty, and then across to Korgas on the Chinese border. North of the Tien Shan range, and along to Urumqi, before coming south a little to rejoin my original planned route east. Of course, things could always change again, but probably not too much for the next month – visas are a pain.

And there’s a SUPERMARKET!

Oh dear. Things are all getting a bit bad when you get genuinely excited at seeing a supermarket. I didn’t really need much, but I wanted to go in and push a trolley around gleaming white air-conditioned aisles, marvelling at the ridiculous levels of choice available. I ended up spending $20 (i.e. quite a lot), on some things I didn’t even really need. But it was just a bit too much for me, seeing all those varieties of shower gel. It was more or less a Western supermarket, and most of my readers would not even blink at it, but when you haven’t seen one since Erzurum, quite a few weeks ago, it’s quite a novelty. It’s quite close to where I’m staying, and I think I shall visit again.

I am now in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a city of two million people, with wide tree-lined streets, all feeling very modern, even with a metro system. After being down in Samarkand, I was back to feeling very good on the bike – I was going to take 3 days to here, but in spite of a headwind I made 145km on the first day out, and then the wind was gone yesterday, so I set a new personal best, racking up 195km to get to Tashkent. 25-30km longer than I’ve ever covered in one day. I considered riding around for another 5km, to make 200km, but I’m not that much of a dork. A 200km day can wait until China.

For those cyclists coming this way, and wondering about the road from Samarkand to Tashkent, where it crosses through Kazakhstan, just follow the M39. Shortly before the border is a police checkpoint, and some blocks across the M39. The police will tell you to turn down the road towards Gulistan, then go north from there. My map shows that road as very small, but it’s a brand new 35km dual carriageway to Gulistan. From there the road is a bit rough for the next 50km or so, before improving for the last part to Tashkent. The detour adds around 50km to the trip. Damn Stalin and his gerrymandering.

So I was struggling with a headwind, when I saw two cyclists sitting by the road. Two nice Swiss guys, who I stopped at chatted to for a couple of hours. They had given up after 10km, and were sitting under the trees, smoking, drinking vodka, and reading. A pleasant couple of hours, and a nice diversion from what could have been a tough day. Could have been tough, but then later that day I grabbed the back of the truck for a haul up the hill, then as I rolled down the other side, “Wherever I May Roam” came on the MP3 player, the scenery was fantastic, and all was good with the world. Thought of all my friends, probably sitting at work staring at the clock, waiting for 5:00 so they could go to the pub – and I knew I was right where I wanted to be.

But it is not without challenges – I was waiting for a kebab last night, when there was a delay as the guy making the kebabs had to stop to wrap a fresh strip of bandage around his colleague’s thumb, which was spurting blood. Even more blood started coming through the bandage, as he went back to work making kebabs. No washing of hands or anything. I looked around, thought about it a bit (this is a sign of how far I’ve come, I needed to think about it), and walked away. Found an amazingly clean Turkish fast food restaurant, two dinners for around $5. And didn’t get sick, so that’s good – the stomach seems settled right now.

I’ll be here for a few days, sorting out Chinese, Kyrgyz and Kazakh visas. I may also get some bicycle spares delivered to here, which might take a few more days. But it seems a nice enough place to kill some time, wandering around those aisles with my trolley…what? You have a choice of toothpaste? And more than two sorts of noodles?…all this decision-making will tax my brain a bit.

Relax/Relapse in Samarkand

Grrrr. I’m starting to get a bit annoyed with this now – had either a relapse (or a fresh dose from something dodgy eaten at the bazaar) of the stomach problems I had last week, and ended up spending another day in bed. This means I didn’t leave Samarkand today as planned, but it doesn’t matter, as I’ll still get there by Sunday, and the embassies aren’t open until Monday.

Besides, the place I am staying at is fantastic – cheapish, clean enough, includes decent breakfast, and dinner for an extra $1. Best part is the shady courtyard, perfect for sitting and relaxing during the late afternoon, when it’s just too hot to go and do anything else. Bahodir’s B&B; is the name – must be in the Lonely Planet, as there’s a bunch of other traveller-types there. It’s been very strange to have decent conversations, not in pidgin English. Good up to date information from people coming the other direction too. But a bit odd, since it’s probably more tourists than I’ve seen since Istanbul.

People say that Samarkand is not all that interesting, and that you should spend more time in Bukhara. Probably Bukhara is worthy or more attention, but there’s still more than enough to do here to keep you occupied for several days, especially moving at my slow pace. Lord Curzon called The Registan “The most noble public square in the world,” and he’s possibly right – although Esfahan does come close. However I do have to note that the sound and light show is exceedingly boring. Still, if you don’t sit on the seats it costs nothing, and is only a couple of minutes walk from where we were staying. But we still ended up leaving early. Apparently it kept going for ages after we left, switching to a Russian version.

Two days of riding from Bukhara to Samarkand was livened up by riding with Robert, a Belgian cyclist on his way to Beijing. His Russian frankly embarrassed me, but it did make it easier for us to ask to sleep at a chaikhana (tea house) for a few hours after lunch, and then later for another chaikhana to find us a shed to sleep in out the back. This got me to thinking – imagine going to a cafe in Auckland, having lunch, and then asking if you could sleep on the tables for a few hours afterwards. If you weren’t laughed out of the place, you would be thrown out. Yet here that’s absolutely no problem at all. Even when we wanted to stop the night, they could have just told us to go to the hotel next door, but finding a free place to stay proved no problem. Even got free tea and fresh apricots.

Going to muck around a bit this afternoon, get some fresh supplies, perhaps pick up a broad-brimmed hat, do a little bike maintenance, then relax in the courtyard. Heading to Tashkent tomorrow, think it will take me three days, unless the wind is majorly in my favour. Apparently there is a bit of a climb, but nothing major. The wind has been a bit problematic recently though, tending to swing about during the day, often seeming to match the turn the road has taken. Temperatures are still high, but bearable. Plenty of mid-afternoon rest required though – the midday sun is for mad dogs and Englishmen.

Shattered, just shattered

10 days in a row, and over 1,000km, across hot dry deserts, in temperatures over 35 is apparently my limit. I’m just absolutely shattered, feeling worse than I ever have before, barely capable of any speech, let alone coherent thought. I’m rolling into Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and it’s a beautiful city, but I’m just completely beyond taking it in, unable to think or concentrate. The last bottle of Gazly Su I had in Turkmenabat has upset my digestion big time, and I haven’t eaten anything all day, and I’ve just been too long on the bike without a rest. What am I doing to myself?

I woke up in Merv, feeling like crap. Normally when you wake up like that, you should have a rest. Instead, I decided to do the obvious thing, and ride for 160km across the desert. Hey, why not? Long hot dry riding, long way between any sort of towns, and even then they were just a few dusty houses. I get water, and move on, seeking camp in the desert.

And so, when I woke up the next morning, feeling even worse, and barely functioning, I was very slow at loading up the bike. Doing my last task of rolling up the tent, I just about have it done, when a sand-coloured scorpion comes running out from under the tent, and shocks me into life. Yikes! And then I couldn’t see where it went, as it is well-camouflaged. Finally I see it move, a couple of metres away, so I relax a bit, get the tent finished, and move off. I try not to think about A) the thinness of my tent floor, and how easily it could have pierced it, or B) that I was too lazy to put on any footwear when I got up and went to the toilet first thing that morning. Must be more careful.

Limp into Turkmenabat, luckily not too far, only 80km. Outskirts of town go on for ages, and it seems to be market days – TVs, fridges, live sheep, all sorts being loaded onto vehicles. Find a massive ripoff hotel, but I’m just too tired to argue, and settle for it. Then the bitch doesn’t like my $50 note, since it’s got a tiny rip. If you travel in this part of the world, make sure your US dollar notes are in immaculate condition, no marks at all.

Last day, takes forever to get to the border, then finally get through and into Uzbekistan. Wasn’t going to push all the way to Bukhara, but there weren’t really any decent campsites, and I was in a bad way, and really wanted a nice bed. Limped along, and finally, near dark, made it to Bukhara, and found Sasha and Sons which is just outstanding, the best place I’ve stayed in. Fantastic fitout, modern bathroom, clean soft proper bed…I almost shed a tear when I turned on the TV to find BBC World, the first time I can recall watching English language TV in months.

Just perfect, just what I needed, and I spent most of a day in bed, recovering. Starting to come right now, going to move to a cheaper homestay tonight, maybe stay here a few more days, maybe push on along the Golden Road to Samarqand – will see how I feel.