Monday, June 22, 2009
Uzbekistan has one major problem. The food is just horrendous. My body just wont accept it. Nothing is staying down. Crossing the relativity ok Kyzylkum desert directly after the difficult Karakum has just shook me up a lot. And now I just cannot get decent food. Every town in Ireland has a Chinese, an Indian and possibly an Italian restaurant. In Dublin you will find everything from American fast food outlets to Argentinean steak houses, Mongolian, French, Moroccan, Thai.... The list goes on and I'm making myself hungry. But I've never come across a Uzbekistan restaurant. The reason is simple. Dogs back home would turn their nose away from this dirt. Apart from 3 days of wonderful food at a home stay in Bukhara, most of my food is coming from truckstops, or choyhonas as they are known here. Most tourists who come to Uzbekistan probably visit a city, hop on a bus for 6 hours and then visit another city and so on. But for most cyclists, a 6 hour bus run is at least 3 days on a bike. Of the 11 cyclists I have met in Uzbekistan, 7 have complained of different degrees of food poisoning. (And the other 4 aren't long here). My diet has consisted mainly of fat, onions, grizzle, liver, weeds, chickpeas, bones, bread and tea. The filthy dirty and diluted fuel in Turkmenistan put an end to my stove so I'm cooking by campfire. This was ok in the desert but in these more populated area, the fire draws the attention of everyone. In the evenings its nice to have a little time to yourself,plus I sleep better when people don't know where I camp before it gets dark.But its not just a stomach ache I'm getting. Visa complications are causing a headache too. My next planned country is Kyrgyzstan but there is a lot of conflicting information both online and from fellow travellers about the Fergana valley. This is the border region between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and there's seems to have been some kind of unrest in this region and apparently the border is presently closed to foreigners. If this remains the case, then I will be forced north through Kazakhstan. That means another visa and I will have to retreat from the cooler mountains and back down towards the Muyunkum desert. All things considered Uzbekistan is proving quite hard.....
The road to Samarkand would be more accurately described as 'pot-holed' rather than 'golden', but it is a gentle increase in altitude. Never has an uphill run been more welcome. An increase in altitude is a decrease in temperature. So 'may the road rise to meet me' and may it rise high.Uzbekistan has been a difficult leg of the trip, but for all its faults, its architecture is just mind-blowing. Really, really just breath-taking. Its been a bit of an architectural famine since Istanbul so Uzbekistan has been a very welcome architectural wonderland. Khiva followed by Bukhara and now Samarkand has been a collection of some of the greatest sights of GCR. These blue tiled mosques have it all from their massive size to intricate detail. Centuries old and leaning in directions depended upon previous earthquakes. Even the Kolan Minaret in Bukhara stopped Jenghiz Khan in his tracks. "Hang on lads; Lets leave this one standing, but we'll burn everything else." But of all the sights, the Registan, in central Samarkand has been the single greatest.A great little guesthouse in Samarkand was recommended to me. And the welcome sight of touring bicycles parked everywhere ensured I was to have plenty of good company and reliable advice on the road heading east. The good news is there is one land border open to foreigners between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This means I stay in the mountains. It means I don't have to worry about a Kazak visa, and best of all, I'll never get to experience the Muyunkum desert. This is all great, great news.I had the company of Bea and Maxime from France for the road out of Samarkand. We are presently just 400KMs from Afghanistan but this is not our route. We plan to travel 350KMs north east to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
Tashkent was levelled my an earthquake in 1966, and so the city has none of the great beauty of Samarkand or Bukhara. Instead it has a multitude of examples of Soviet architecture. I'm presently staying in a block of flats in the city centre. I spent all day yesterday outside the Kyrgyzstan embassy and I was told to come back Monday. Its probably the greatest example of professional incompetence I've come across in Central Asia. And they used to have a great reputation for a quick friendly service. There's nothing of interest (for me) in Tashkent. I just want to get my visa and get out of this high rise block full of screaming children and return to the cooler mountains. At least the food is okay and at 6 euro for bed, breakfast and dinner, the budget is remaining stable. The weekend was spent repairing things. At this stage almost everything is on the repair list. And Tashkents' markets are full of life at the weekend so its enjoyable to wander around aimlessly with the camera in hand. The photos above are from the spice market, cheese market, vegetable and rice market. And so hopefully tomorrow I get my Kyrgyzstan visa and we will make tracks further east.
A guy walks into a bank in Tashkent and asks the bank teller; 'Does the ATM outside work?'' Yes the ATM works'. He goes back outside and discovers that the ATM is not working. It has 'insufficent funds'. He goes back in to the bank to tell the bank offical that the ATM does not work. The offical replys, 'The ATM works. Theres just no money in it'. And thats the way things work over here.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
If it was easy it wouldn't be worth doing and it wouln't be worth building this blog and besides you don't expect cycling across a desert in the last week of May to be easy. It was 5 days that I am glad are behind me. The thermometer hit 44`C in the mid afternoon of the second day. I'm thankful the wind was generally behind us. Luckily there were a few tea houses scattered along the route. I was drinking about 8 litres of fluids a day. Its hard to describe it all. The Karakum is as real as a desert can be with rolling sand dunes, wandering camels and stifling heat. Although the most common animal we saw was hardy goats, we got to see snakes and lizards. I was amazed at how they stand their ground and put on an aggressive show towards us. And it was just hilarious to watch the dung beetles as they frantically run around, rolling lumps of camel dung in front of themselves. There is a great thrill when you catch sight of that first camel, but after a while they become as common as sheep in the curragh. Turkmenistan is adventure travel and the Karakum is certainly adventure. We learned from the locals that they have seen a few cyclists crossing the desert down through the years. I found it hard to relax until about day 3 into the desert. I found I was constantly counting and recounting our water and food supplies. The fear of running out of supplies just plagued my mind. It wasn't till we got more than half way through it that I realised that we were more likely to succeed than to fail and then I enjoyed it all so much more. We had long days of carrying a lot of stuff. I left Ashgabat with 3 litres of water in me and another 11 on the bike. This along with the weight of the food puts a great strain on both the bikes and the cyclists. Our longest day was 159KMs. Thats the longest distance I've covered since leaving Ireland. Turkmenistan was definitely the most difficult country to get into when it came to visas. The max visa I could get was 5 days unless I had a guide and this is how I came to find Vitaly, a former professional cyclist with the Soviet Union. He is now Vice President of the cycling federation of Turkmenistan and it has always been a wish of his to attempt to cross the Karakum by bicycle. Vitaly was excellent as a guide and good company too. One of the best moments was when he caught sight of a train coming along the rail track running parallel to the road. A station was approaching and he raced on to met the train. It must have been the thoughts of that drinks trolley being pushed through the carriages that gave him such acceleration. The passengers looked out completely bewildered at the sight of two salt encrusted cyclists laughing hysterically with bottles of beer in hand. The tour ended in the town of Konye Urgench. Although the 13th century Mongol leader, Jenghiz Khan, did his best to level this city (and everything else in Central Asia) there are still some fantastic monuments here, including Central Asia's highest minaret. Of the 550KMs we pedalled to cross the Karakum, there wasn't one easy kilometre but there is a great sense of achievement and relief its now behind me. The fact that no matter what Mother Nature throws at me, I'm heading east till I arrive from the west. I left Ireland in mid November to make the mountains in eastern Turkey just as the snows were melting and the roads were opening. Then it was a case of racing across the Iran before the summer furnace started in the Karakum. We made it. I'm delighted. Everyday is an adventure. Everyday throws up obstacles. And we have a few coming our way, but the next big obstacle is facing into China as the winter approaches. I'm more than one third of my way around the world and now its time to work on the next big obstacle. China is 130 times the size of Ireland. That should prove to be a big obstacle.
Today I found an internet cafe and so after a bit of breakfast, I decided to check into my hotel for another night and spend the day in front of the computer, spending off emails and updating the blog. But I got chatting to Martin from Norway. Martin's plan for the day was to take a bus north to see the ships in the desert at Moynaq and he invited me along for the 500km round trip. Plan B sounded way better than plan A. Its amazing as it is depressing to see the environment disaster of the depleted Aral Sea. Where there was once a great mass of water and a thriving fishing industry of 600 ships,there is now nothing. You walk out on to the pier and its just desert for as far as you can see. All that is left is just sea-shells and this rusting fishing fleet.
In Nukus I met with Sebastian and Annette from Germany. They had driven their campervan this far and Annette was keen to make use of her bicycle which was tied to the back of the van. And so for the next 3 days I had company as we made our way south towards Khiva. It was great and Sebastian would drive on 30KMs, boil the kettle and wait for us. For the first tme of this bike ride it was like having a support vehicle. Good food, soft comfortable seating and great company. This was almost becoming a holiday.
Khiva was an incredible town. A walled city with that complete Central Asian, silk road feel. It was like a living museum, almost stepping back in time, minarets and blue-tiled mosques scattered everywhere. It was like stepping into an Indiana Jones film set and although there were tourists,- the 2 coach parties that I saw didn't justify the amazing city of Khiva. After Khiva it has just been a case of riding the 500KMs along the edge of the Kyzylkum desert to the next major city of Bukhara. Its a long flat featureless run and its almost 5 days of riding into the horizon, barely a bend in the road or a hill to climb. Truckstops are scattered every 20KMs or so and the same conversations are repeated over and over again. Apart from the very basics of saying hello, thank you and ordering food, I have no ability to carry on a conversation. But this doesn't stop the people from asking loads of questions (without using any sign language) and being completely confused because I don't understand them.
Some question is asked. I respond with "Ireland". another question. "Mark" I say and point at myself. "Blab? Blab? Blab?"- "Tashkent, I go to Tashkent", I reply. And so on. I think I answer all their questions. Just not necessarily in the order they ask them. A conversation rarely goes on more than 5 minutes without someone asking how much money do I have or how much is the bike worth. I generally respond with "Fierce mild out".
The silk road is not a single route but rather a complex network of paths that were used to transport goods between the 2nd BC and the 13th century. It stretches from Istanbul to Xi'an, China and camels were the trucks of this era. A one-way trip generally took about 200 days and along with silk, the main goods going west were porcelain, tea, spices, gems and perfumes. Goods going west were gold, silver, wines, horses and wool. I'm now about halfway across the silk road in the city of Bukhara. Its very similar to Khiva with randomly scattered architectural wonders. I've found a homestay here and I'm going to stay 3 nights before continuing on. This town has presently got a good team of cyclists. Theres Bea and Maxime from France whom I briefly met in Istanbul and theres Krista and Dan from England who are hoping to attempt Tibet. I would love to give Tibet a shot but I haven't heard of a cyclist getting through Tibet in about 2 years. Very strict police, rabid dogs and the fact that the altitude rarely drops below 4000M makes this an almost impossible challenge. The temperatures are rising daily here. Its 11.30am and already the air temperature is 36`C but tomorrow its back on the bike, back on the silk road and back heading east.